Sunday, May 28, 2006

Another Hebrew Celebrity Baby Name

And, lo, she has come to pass, the most celebrated of celebrity babies: Shiloh Nouvel Pitt-Jolie.

Angelina Jolie gave birth to Shiloh, a girl, Saturday night in Namibia, a statement from Brad Pitt's publicist said.

And, once again, the meaning of the word to actual Jews has completely escaped the media:

Shiloh is a name of Hebrew origin meaning, "His gift," per It also associated with an 1862 Civil War battle, and a Neil Diamond song about a desperately lonely childhood. (Diamond's imaginary friend, however, spelled his name "Shilo.")

Just weeks ago, most media outlets failed to do enough research, at least at first, to find out that while Suri Cruise's first name may technically be a diminutive for "princess" in Hebrew, no one uses the word that way anymore. The modern Hebrew word for princess is niseecha, and "Suri" is considered an Old-World Yiddishized nickname for girls named Sarah. I should know.

So, here's a head's up for all the celebrity watchers back in the US: I have been an Orthodox Jew for all of my 33 years, and have what most would consider a very strong Jewish educational background, and I have never, ever, heard the word "Shiloh" used in connection with "His gift," though it may be that that is the literal translation of the word. (I don't claim to be an expert in the Hebrew language, by far.)

Rather, the first, knee-jerk response, by most "engaged" Jews, to the word "Shiloh" is "Oh, yeah, the place where the Tabernacle resided for hundreds of years."

# Joshua set up the tent of meeting at Shiloh in the early days of the Conquest (Josh 18:1). It continued as the center of worship during the period of the Judges (Judg 18:31). By the time of Eli and his sons, the tent of Joshua’s day had been replaced by a more permanent structure, a kind of "temple" (Hebrew hekal), with a door and doorposts (1 Sam 1:9).

# It was to Shiloh that Hannah, the mother of Samuel, came to worship and to pray for a child. God answered her prayer and some three years later, she brought her son to Shiloh to give him to God. Here he grew up in the conflicting environment of Israel’s worship and the avarice and immorality of Eli’s sons.

# The ark resided at Shiloh. When Israel had lost the first battle with the Philistines at Aphek on the International Coastal Highway, they sent messengers to take the ark down the Wadi Shiloh to Ebenezer, near Aphek. They believed that this "presence of God" would ensure victory. They were defeated, however, by an enemy invigorated by fear of being annihilated by the powerful God of Israel, whom they assumed was in "the box." Israel lost the ark to the Philistines, who took it to three of their cities before returning it to Israel at Beth-shemesh (1 Samuel 4).

# Apparently the Philistines destroyed Shiloh because the ark was not returned there and Shiloh was never again regarded as a center of worship (Ps 78:60).

It is so frustrating when people discussing a matter related to religion don't know their Bible.

OK, here's an almost unrelated story I'm inspired to share.

At Barnard, I was required to take a course called "First-Year Seminar." It was a well-intentioned requirement, to make sure that all first-year students (they aren't called "FreshMEN" at Barnard College) have at least one seminar-style class, in which up to 12 students sit around a table with a professor and discuss Great Thoughts.

I was placed in a seminar called The Modern Idea of Freedom. I resented that I'd been placed in this class when I could have been taking something more immediately interesting to me. Now I would find the class fascinating. But then, I couldn't care less and hardly did any of the readings (and I got a B+ anyway).

The class was permanently shot for me during a discussion of William Godwin's Caleb Williams. I had not read the book. I had no idea what connection this book might have to The Modern Idea of Freedom. But when the class started talking about why Godwin chose to name the main character "Caleb," with references to famous Calebs of the world, I raised my hand and asked the professor, a member of the Spanish department, "I'm curious to know what your thoughts are about the connection of this character to the Biblical Caleb."

The professor looked at me blankly, and said "There's a character named Caleb in the Bible? Tell us about it."

So I patiently explained that Caleb was, along with Joshua, one of the two "spies" sent by Moses from the desert to scope out the land of Canaan before the Jews would enter it. The other 10 gave a scathing report, leading to the Jews' wandering in the desert for 40 years; but Caleb and Joshua tried to pursuade the people that Canaan was worth going to.

Now, having never read the book to this day, I still don't know whether Caleb Williams has anything in common with Caleb-from-the-Bible, though any self-respecting English major should be able to make up something.

But, really, a Barnard professor teaching Caleb Williams who didn't know that there was a Caleb in the Bible? Sheesh.

I knew this man knows a LOT more Spanish than I do, but after that . . . I just couldn't bring myself to respect him or the course.

It's too bad. We were assigned some great literature in that class. Maybe it's time for me to find that 14-year-old copy of Caleb Williams and see for myself what the Bible connection is.

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