At the very end of this week’s parasha, Vayiggash, is a fascinating verse:
47:27 Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.
A look at the Hebrew of this verse reveals the fact that the first verbal clause, “vayeishev Yisrael” is in the singular – Israel settled. The three remaining verbs in the sentence, “vayei-akhazu” “vayipru” and “vayirbu” are all in the plural-thus the translation “they” for the remaining verbal clauses.
Scholars and sages tell us this is quite deliberate, and their explanation makes sense. The pasuk (sentence) marks the point at which the concept of Israel as a people, a nation, firmly takes hold. Israel has become an eponym.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines an eponym as "one who gives, or is supposed to give, his name to a people, place, or institution."
Well-known eponyms include words like sandwich, Braille, Frisbee, and leotard. It’s funny that when you look up eponyms you rarely find the word Israel included in the list of famous eponyms. That strikes me as a bit odd. In fact, on the Wikipedia list of eponyms, there is the somewhat cryptic entry “Jacob-Israel.”
There is no doubt in my mind that the biblical Israel (Yisrael) is the eponym for the term “Israelites” and “Israel” in all their various meanings-a people, a faith, a nation, etc. Yet I believe the reason Israel is not generally seen as eponymic is because it has undergone a different sort of transformation from the particularistic name of the biblical Jacob. Israel has become a generic brand name.
What does it mean to become a generic brand name? Let’s start with the inherent contradiction in the term-after all, that’s such a Jewish way of looking at things. How can something be both a brand and generic at the same time? We don’t even have a good word in English to classify names like Kleenex, Xerox, Coke, Astro-Turf that have come to represent their entire product class. Household name doesn’t quite fit-that really describes a well-known product or service. There are also plenty of eponyms that fit into this class, but, because they are derived from a specific person’s name, they are, indeed, eponyms, and don’t fall into the un-named class of words. In some ways, Israel has become such a word.
In our modern society, becoming a generic brand name (or, for that matter, an eponym) can be positive or negative. The positive is that it demonstrates the success of a brand. Only an overwhelmingly successful product becomes a generic name for its product class. At the same time, the negative is that becoming a generic term can lead to less brand-name recognition and less sales. While I can’t yet think of a brand that became a generic term for its product class, but the original brand name product is no longer around while the rest of its product class remains, I am sure there are (or will be) examples. The negative impact of becoming a generic brand name isn’t clear cut – Coke, Xerox, Kleenex, and Astro-Turf are still around and still successful.
So what does it mean that “Israel” (and “Israelite”) has become a generic brand name? Well, for one thing, it means that people often have a hard time distinguishing what the word represents. Is it the nation Israel, the State of Israel, the people of the State of Israel, Jewish people in general?
Taking it in its broadest context, as referring to all of the Jewish people, i.e. “Israel” as we often refer to ourselves instead of as “The Jewish people” or “Jews,” we have a significant problem. How can one generic term represents such a diverse group of people?
While it’s great that we can all think of ourselves as “Israel” or “the Jewish people” the reality is different for those who are not Jews. True, while there aren’t many people who call us “Israel” or “Israelites” any more, we can think of the word “Jew” or “Jewish people” as successors to those names. Those words, as broad generic descriptors, are fraught with peril. They often become stereotypes. People outside the Jewish community often don’t see or know of the broad diversity of belief and praxis with the community. Yet this is not always the case with eponyms and generic names.
Let’s take an eponymic example. A sandwich is basically anything that is between two (or more) pieces of bread. We all pretty much understand that, within the broad category of sandwich, there are many different types and styles (and preferences.) On the other hand, there’s not much difference between one company’s version of Kleenex and another’s. The companies would have us believe there are great differences-in value, quality, etc. Yet, in the end, a Kleenex is a Kleenex, a tissue is a tissue. The same basic product design, same basic uses. Can the same be said about (Am) Israel or the Jews?
My answer to that is no. Even in ancient times, I think we can find evidence of a wide variance of belief and practice. Perhaps less varied than today, but still varied. So Israel really never has been truly generic. It has always come in a variety of flavors.
I say thank goodness for that. It allows us all to be Israel. Like Israel’s sons, we are all different. Differentiate them as you will, they were all still sons of Israel. All part of the same “brand.” (Even companies like Xerox diversify, so why not Israel?)
That is one counter, one secret to the problems of becoming a generic brand name. Continue working to make your own original brand name unique – by branching out, broadening your product line.
Psst. Hey. Wanna buy some Israel? We got something for everyone. (Of late I’ve read some articles and blog postings that decry how far we’ve gone to be diverse. I myself do believe there is some truth to the adage that is you try to be all things to all people, you end up being nothing. Yet I do not believe that Judaism has gone that far, that we have truly tried to be all things to all people. We still have our boundaries, our borders. I do believe that we need to keep exploring those liminal areas, and see how far we can push then edges. At the same time, we must not lose site of what is at the core. That is, I suppose, when we know we have gone too far-when you can’t see the core from where you are. Some claim this has already happened, but I do not believe this to be true. Our Jewish core, with all its faults and problems, is strong enough to withstand even more exploration to see how far we can journey without losing our connection to it.
One thing that distinguished the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-Israel is their understanding in the “portability” of G”d. G”d could be in many places. To quote a popular Jewish theology: “Where is G”d? Wherever you let G”d in.” With that kind of G”d, with that kind of core, how could we possibly exceed a distance limit? The core comes with us, as we travel along our way. We need only invite it along. We need only take it along with us – just like we do with our Kleenex.
There is one other aspect to all this I want to mention. It is the other end of things-the source where it all started. Jacob, also named Israel. Although Israel has become one with the community, we still know of Jacob-Israel the human being-fraught with imperfections as well as good qualities. So when we think of ourselves as the generic brand name or the eponym Israel, we should also remember that each of us is, in our own way, the original Israel. We shape our lives, we shape our faiths, we intersect with the lives of others, we become part of the community. Yet through it all we remain who we are at our own cores.
So let us celebrate our generic brand-ness. Let us celebrate our uniqueness. Let us celebrate being Israel. Both Israels.
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester