My love of the Oscar-nominated “Call Me by Your Name” may be a bit biased. The movie is set in a wonderful villa in the northern part of my home country, Italy, and the Director, Luca Guadagnino, is from my home town of Palermo. What was most exciting about the movie, though, went far beyond the bucolic setting, and the level of Italian nostalgia.
The story is about – don’t worry, no spoilers – two men who fall desperately in love during a summer in the ‘80s. Elio Perlman, a precocious half-Italian, half-American, Jew of only 17 years old, falls in love with Oliver, a 31-year-old Jewish graduate student from the States who travels to Italy to help his professor (Elio’s father) for the summer. I’ll keep silent about the rest – apart from highly recommending you see it.
Something about the movie has stayed with me for the few weeks since I watched it. In one of the main scenes, Oliver, looking intensely at Elio, tells him: “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine.” Oliver’s request may certainly sound weird: why would someone call somebody else by their own name?
After watching, I found myself thinking about the importance of names and nouns in general, and about the role that our names play in our lives. We all have at least one given name. Sometimes, our names are random, chosen because our parents love how they sound. Other times, we are named after specific people. In Italy, like in Judaism, it’s quite common to name a baby after a grandparent. Whether we like it or not, we are stuck with our given name for our entire life, and there is not a lot we can do about it…or maybe there is!
Every name has a meaning, a power within itself. If we truly grasp onto the name and make it our own, then our behavior may shift a little bit to better fit into our name. Even a nickname is something we are given, and accompanies us for parts of our life. Nicknames often depict some of our characteristics, and grow into us, or – sometimes – we may change a bit under the influence of our nicknames.
So, what is the meaning of calling someone else by your own name? To do that seems almost like giving that other person your personality, your story, yourself. That, in essence, is what the two protagonists of “Call Me By Your Name” were doing during the essential scene referenced earlier: they were giving themselves to one another without restriction, exchanging their own given names. Through this exchange, Oliver and Elio nullify the differences between themselves, give each other their entire selves, and transform two separate selves into one. As lovers, the most intimate thing that they can give one another that goes beyond their bodies is, in fact, their names.
The Hebrew word “davar” illuminates the relationship between names and objects. “Davar” means both thing and word, as if to underline the idea that there is no difference between a thing, and the word that defines it. The noun gives meaning to the thing, and the most direct way we relate to a thing is through its name – to the point where the two become indistinguishable. Think, for example, about how and why God named the first man. God named the first man Adam, because he was made from the earth, “adama.” This makes a connection between the creature and what it was made from – it’s essence. We quickly discover more about the power of calling something by a name when God gives Adam the responsibility of naming all of the animals which He had created.
As Genesis 2:20 relays, “And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.”
What happens, though, when we have to choose a name for ourselves? How do we choose it among thousands?
Converting to another religion is never an easy choice, and was something I thought about for several years before making the big step to convert to Judaism. When I started my conversion path in 2012, I never thought that one of the most challenging aspects of it would have been calling myself by a new name.
When my conversion Rabbi told me that I had to pick a Jewish name for myself, at first, I found that odd: my name was already a Jewish name. I was named Daniela after my Jewish paternal grandfather, (nonno Daniele – whom I had never met because he passed away when my father was a child) but my name has a very beautiful Jewish meaning: Dan-i-El, “God is my judge”. I’ve tried to make this name my own throughout my entire life. I interpreted it as a pearl of wisdom to follow every single day, to inspire me to not care so much about the judgements of others, because only “God is my judge”.
When I explained this to my Rabbi, he stated that I had to pick a new Jewish name because I was going to start a new life as a Jew. Yes, people would continue to call me by my given name, but I needed a new Jewish name to remind me of my path. Having expected such an answer, I went to our next meeting prepared and told the Rabbi that I had picked “Laila” as my Jewish name. I liked “Laila” because it means night in Hebrew and Arabic, and I love the sound of it. Smiling, the Rabbi told me: “You should pick a name that has a meaning for you, not just a word whose sound you like.”
By that point, I was frustrated. It isn’t easy to pick a name. We are so used to being “given” names that, when we have the opportunity to pick one, we feel the big responsibility of the choice. After spending several days thinking about what my new name should be, I finally understood that the way to go was to follow my parents’ example and to name myself after someone who had meaningful importance in my life. That’s how I decided on the name Orly.
During a formative year studying in Israel, I met two important women named Orly. The first “Orly” was my Hebrew teacher at the Hebrew University, whose teaching helped me fall in love with that wonderful language. The second was an Orthodox Italian student from the University dorm. We connected immediately, and, despite our different ways of being Jewish, I considered her an example of how to be a “good Jew.” And then, of course, the name Orly literally translated to “light for me.” I loved the idea of a light to “light up” my new path in life. And hey: the Rabbi was satisfied too!
I know why “Call My By Your Name”, and that specific scene, struck such a chord in my heart. It made me wonder about who, among the people in my life, I would call by my own name. To whom would I give my name’s power and strength?
And what about you? Who would you call by your name?
About the Author: Daniela is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you! She is a “retired philosopher” who works as an executive assistant and loves to write about Italian and Jewish events happening in DC. She was born and raised in Sicily (Italy) in an interfaith family and moved to D.C. with her husband after studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they met. They have a wonderful Siberian cat named Rambam! Daniela loves going to work while listening to Leonard Cohen’s songs and sometimes performs in a West African Dance group