Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Name Game

I'm not sure when it happened but sometime between 1960 when I was ONE of maybe THREE Shiras in the entire United States of America and five seconds ago, my foreign, undesirable name became popular, beautiful and even ubiquitous in some places, for instance, Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Next to the invention of the Internet, the transformation of my name from weird to wonderful is one of the marvels of the modern world.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, no one could relate to the name Shira. It was often misheard as Sheila or Shari or Sherry or Sharon or, heaven forbid, Shirley.

If Shirley Temple was all the rage in the thirties, it was the very last name a child of the sixties wanted to have.

But it wasn't that I had an embarrassingly old world name with Yiddish overtones; after all, I wasn't a Faigy or Raizey or Pesha or Bluma or Berel.

I may not have had a Grandma name but I did have a Hebrew name and during my childhood years, Hebrew names were hardly in vogue. Case in point: I was the only student with a Hebrew name in my grade at the North Shore Hebrew Academy. Note the ironic fact that the word "Hebrew" appears in the school's name. Instead of evoking the strong, suntanned denizens of the modern State of Israel, Hebrew names at that time belonged to the Bible, a faraway place with deserts and camels and Arabs and no television, mythical like Atlantis.

Shira was the sound of social isolation, the name of the rabbi's daughter, forever branded as different from all the other kids. Shira was the name of someone who could never be effortlessly natural or normal or native -- a visitor, an interloper, an outsider, an alien. It didn't help that I looked Israeli to everyone or "Mediterranean" which was likely the pre-PC way of saying Israeli.

That was long ago and far away, in the pre-ethnic, pre-alternative, pre-diversity era. That was before Black is Beautiful caught traction in my little neck of Great Neck (which I doubt it actually ever did) or "Free to Be You and Me" was the score that every liberated child was singing or "Our Bodies Ourselves" taught women to look at their hoo-hahs with a handheld mirror.

As if teleported by De Lorean or hot tub, I have arrived in a future where Shira has been normalized. Suddenly there are scores of little girls who happily answer to Shira. There are little blond Shiras and brunette Shiras and redheaded Shiras. There are journalists and authors with the name Shira. There is a famous judge with the name Shira. There are sexy and serious Shiras. There is a popular prayer group in Israel that begins with Shira. And most thrillingly for me, the Hebrew word "Ashira" was heard loud, proud and set to music during the exodus scene in "Prince of Egypt."

It took half a century but suddenly Shira is part of the American -- or perhaps just the New York City -- soundscape. It is a name whose meaning is known and not just by other Hebrew speakers. Last week, the young black cashier at Fairway looked at my receipt and proudly informed me that she knew that my name meant song...and that her best friend was named Shira. Last year, a friend sent me a link to a porn site from Australia where a young Indian girl named Sheera can be seen doing lesbianish things.

And then, there is She-Ra, Princess of Power, my leggy, blond superhero alter-ego.

Half a century ago, I was an uncomfortable pioneer of the name Shira.

Now, I am a veteran of the name, proud and relieved to be a big old Shira-fish in the not-so-small pond of other smaller and younger Shiras.

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