by Mara Benjamin

A Bitter Blow

My name usually evokes comment. “Mara? How is that spelled?” often I am asked what my name means or what language it is. “In Tibetan Buddhism, ‘Mara’ is an evil Goddess. In Arabic it means ‘women’ and is a derogatory term used by Berbers. In Hebrew it comes from the root for bitter and means ‘bitter woman.'” The last definition almost always provokes a response, “Bitter woman? Really?” “Yep,” I say with pride.

A popular theory holds that a person’s name may influence the development of that person’s character. The first time I heard this idea I wondered what my father could possibly have been thinking when he gave me such a depressing name. I asked and he told me the story:

I was named after a local candy shop’s bittersweet chocolate. My father claims that when he looked up the name “Mara” in the Hebrew Baby Name Book, it was defined as “Bittersweet.” “Perfect,” he thought, “my daughter and my favorite confection will share a name.” My grandmother Ruth read to me from the Book of Ruth one night, telling me that my name was in this important biblical story. My name conies up when Naomi says in grief, “Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Lord has dealt bitterly with me.”

It wasn’t until I visited Jerusalem as a delegate to the first World Union of Jewish Students Kol Isha Conference, that I gained a different understanding of what Naomi meant. We acted out the story of Ruth, and I, taking the part of Naomi, suddenly had a revelation: she took the name “Mara” not out of self-pity, but out of strength. The name of bitterness showed the world that God may have dealt her a bitter blow, but she was not going to crumble under it.

Who Are We?

The articles in this special section:

Making up our Shared Name

by Rabbi Zeise Wild Wolf

Jew by Choice, Name by Choice

by Kiera Aviya Koester

I Love My Name

by Troim Katz-Blacker Handler

A Bitter Blow

by Mara Benjamin

Wacky Macky

by Maxine Silverman

The Wisdom of Change

by Sophia Batsheva Rosenberg

The Pronunciation of My Name

by Rachel S. Havrelock

A Name in the Closet

by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz

Feminist Son, Angry Mom

by Ann Klaff Lontein

The Power of Name

by Esther Gerstenfeld Radick

Out of the Flames

by Phyllis Pacheco

A Dad’s Choice

by Seena Candy Sweet

Wave of Emotion

by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner

Each of Us Has a Name

poetry by Zelda