Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Moniker Business

My birth name is Gary, as only my family and friends from the past know. It was a common name among 1950s boys, just as Kyle or Evan are white-bread names today. There were always four or five Garys in my classes. There were lots of Garys moving into lookalike suburban homes of families escaping the cold, crowded boroughs of New York to warmer climes in Florida and Southern California.

In Jewish tradition, I was named to honor my maternal grandfather, Harry, a Russian man I never knew. My middle name, Marc, pays homage to my father's father, Max. I never knew Max, either. When the Rabbi gave me my Hebrew names--to reflect my place in the order of things--I was called Getzel Mendel ben Gedalya, the last name being that of my father's first Hebrew name. I am Getzel Mendel, son of Gedalya.

In Hebrew school, they called me Getzel the Pretzel (see french fry post below). In high school, some of the more witty fellahs called me Buster (as in Buster Hyman), or Gary Cherry. Is sarcasm the misshapen expression of love? (Rilke says, "The child bent becomes the bender, inflicts on others what he once went through.")

I came by the nickname Gabby after living the better part of a year in Israel. I worked on a kibbutz (a socialist labor colony) on the Sea of Galilee. At the time, you went to an office in Tel Aviv and selected the flavor of kibbutz where you hoped to volunteer. The offices organized the available colonies by religious and political orientation. You could choose an orthodox kibbutz with a right-wing, Zionist stance, a middle of the road kibbutz with a liberal stance--or any number of combinations. There was even a kibbutz comprised entirely of American emigres, but who wanted to go abroad only to live with the people you were trying to escape?

I had landed in Tel Aviv and spent December with my distant cousin Ronit (changed from Robin) who had settled in Israel years before. She had married an Israeli--a tough, no nonsense kind of fellow--and was completing an internship as a nurse in the downtown Tel Aviv hospital. Her roommate was a Moroccan Jew with black skin and kinky hair. When they completed their training, she was sent to the town of Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanese border. The town is the site of many a rocket attack and a horrific massacre led by the PLO. It was considered a "sponge town" in that it was to absorb the hatred and violence that rained down from the Lebanese mountains above while maintaining an Israeli presence. It seemed like blatant racism to me that Morrocans were assigned there, while my cousin and other Ashkenazim (European Jews) enjoyed cosmopolitan life in central Israel.

I had seen Kiryat Shmona on a bus trip north of the Galilee. The apartment houses had "safe rooms"--cinder block vaults where the families could run and lock the doors behind them should terrorists invade their building.

I was awestruck by the Galilee, with its dry brown hills and plush, irrigated fields beside the sparkling blue sea. Minarets in Tiberias and Safed were whited gems along the shore. After I had returned to Tel Aviv, Ronit said it was time to go; she advised me to check out the kibbutz office on Frishman Street.

I found an opening at Ginosar, a large kibbutz north of Tiberias, set on the shore of the Galilee just steps from where Christ had lived. Busloads of Christians emptied out nearby and people were baptised. Ginosar had hundreds of families settled on it, had a diverse economy based on crops (cotton, bananas, grapefruit), fishing (harvesting tons of St. Peter's Fish from the Galilee), a dairy, an electronics assembly plant, and a tourist hotel. Its most famous resident, Yigal Allon, was a Zionist pioneer and former Prime Minister, settling there in the early 1940s. I loved the idea of being on the sea which stretched out from the safety of the shore to the looming Golan Heights. I paid the small fee for health insurance, signed a few forms, and went directly to the Eged station to catch a northbound bus for Tiberias. Soldiers stacked their rifles in the aisle as we passed through the coastal plains and the foothills east of Haifa.

The bus dropped me off on the highway, right at the kibbutz. The farm was surrounded by barbed wire and a guarded gate and, after seeing bombings in the city and taking cover in shelters during terrorist threats, I came to feel comfortable when I returned from traveling and that gate slammed down behind me.

When you first arrived at Ginosar, you were assigned to a hut on the shore of the sea, given a roommate, a work assignment, and ushered to the laundry room where you were issued work clothes, bedding, and towels. You could put your name on your clothes, if you liked the fit and wanted them returned after cleaning. But you had to write an your name on the laundry tag. The Sabra who worked the counter looked at my tag. "Gary?" she said, "What kind of name is that?" She was right. In Japan, my name, phonetically, meant "diarrhea". "Your name in Israel," the clerk said, "Will be Gabi." (She prouncounced it "gah-bee").

It was odd having friends (among Israelis and kibbutz volunteers) with names that suggested they had stepped from pages of the Old Testament. There was Solomon and Samson, and Ester and Ruth. You could pick a name that used your original initial, so I became Gabby. In this country, Gabby is a woman's name, and I constantly receive junk mail addressed to "Ms." Or, I am miscalled "Gabe", which is rankling.

In the third month of my stay on the kibbutz, I went to work after a sleepless night and buried a machete in my knee. I was in the field, chopping down banana trees. Once the fruit is harvested, you chop the tree down to a foot or less and it regrows, producing its precious fruit. The plant is like bamboo, largely a conduit for fresh water from the Galilee and, once chopped, it sends new shoots toward the sun. My knee, on the other hand, did no such thing.

The stoic kibbutz nurse tried to stem the bleeding and told me to put a bandage on it and get back to work. This is no nation for slackers and whiners. But I needed stitches, so she backtracked, handed me bus fare to an American hospital in Tiberias. That afternoon, I came home on crutches.

For several weeks I could barely walk at all. A friend returned from a day trip to Tel Aviv with an armload of classical literature. It seemed like the first time in my life that fiction made sense to me. I thrilled in Graham Green's novels and Doris Lessing's stories. I wept at Chekhov, of all things. The sentences in Hemingway's narratives of the two-hearted river wrapped themselves around me.

After I was able to walk again, the kibbutz assigned me to a seat in the electronics factory, where I pressed two red buttons simultaneously to spot-weld switches. The machine buttons were separated so as to require two hands to initiate the weld. Apparently workers fried their free hands using the previous model. It was a far cry from the banana fields and fresh air and mud fights with my fellows. But, more than anything else--more than the evening dance parties at the field-house, the sunny days bobbing in the fishing boats on that brilliant sea, or the endless dininghall arguments over world politics with my fellow volunteers--I thought of digging out another book from the collection my benefactor had brought back from Tel Aviv.

In the spring, I left on a ship bound for the Isle of Rhodes. Less than a year after that, I enrolled in the creative writing program at Santa Cruz. I kept my floppy green kibbutz hat (click picture for detail), which I wore until it deteriorated, my memories, the scar on my left knee, and my kibbutz name. It's my writer's name. It's the name on the label of my birthday suit. It's the name that fits the shape that will remain after all the stars have died.

Aside from the folks at the department of motor vehicles, the IRS, and members of my family, no one gets to call me Gary.


tangobaby said...

This might be my favorite post so far, Gabby. It's so richly detailed and the way your story flows from one part to the next...masterful.

ps. I automatically associate the name Gabby with Gabby Hayes but that is in NO way a reflection on you but merely a side affect of my adoration of old movies and the fact that I often live in the past. ;-)

Gabby said...

Of course. Most people my age remember that geezer. I still have most of my teeth, however. But the legendary Hayes has some qualities--loyalty, kindness, and a wicked belly laugh--that I truly admire!

Barbara(aka Layla) said...

This was interesting! I have always liked the name Gary but Gabby of course is more unique.

I found you via Blogness on the Edge...

I'll be back to read more. Where exactly is Grass Valley? I know I've heard of it, it must be up north. I live in SoCal.

Brent said...

Wonderful story. Says so much about you. Nice to know origins. Whatever associations I had for the name "Gabby" have been replaced since I met you :)

dutchbaby said...

I always enjoy learning how people are named and yours is a most interesting story, Gabby. Names are so meaningful and they do have an influence. I have a Chinese name, a western name, and now a blogger name. I wrote how my blogger name came about here:

I also enjoyed learning how you came to be a writer.