At Bethesda Jewish Congregation, the music in a name

Photo by Issie Resti

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, an educator and children’s book author, once had a high school student of West African-Muslim descent, just like her. She was the only one in the school who could pronounce the student’s name. His name was so melodic to her and she wished that others could understand the importance of pronouncing the student’s name properly.

“You could tell his family carefully laid his name out. I thought it was so beautiful, even music-like,” she told a group of youth from Bethesda Jewish Congregation, Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Maqaame Ibrahim, Idara-e-Jaferia and the Islamic Cultural Center of Potomac.

Thompkins-Bigelow, speaking on Zoom, said the incident was the inspiration for her picture book “Your Name is a Song.”

“Diminishing someone’s name is like diminishing their humanity. When we mock or disrespect someone’s name, we are basically saying it’s fine to dehumanize them,” she said.

The group was meeting for Bethesda Jewish Congregation’s youth education’s Mashehu M’yuchad (Something Special) activity.

“Your Name is a Song” follows a girl who is frustrated because her teachers and classmates mispronounce her name. Her mother takes her on a lyrical walk and teaches her about the musicality of African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names. Empowered, the girl returns to school the next day to share her knowledge with her class.

“Your Name is a Song” has become a favorite among music teachers, including Shoshanah Drake, a member of Bethesda Jewish Congregation’s education committee.

“When we were trying to come up with ideas of ways we could bring all the [religious] communities together, we thought something we have in common was names,” Drake said. “There’s so many rich traditions around names and we thought it would be a really nice place to find common ground and learn about each other’s faiths and traditions.”

The group played a name scavenger hunt ice breaker where they went around the room learning about one another’s names and their significance. Many of the attendees found that across cultures they shared similar practices, such as passing down names from generation to generation and naming children after pious people in religious texts.

The children created bags with their names written in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Drake said that such activities will help improve relations between communities.

“BJC is committed to interfaith relations,” Drake said. “We believe that finding our commonalities and celebrating our differences help make our children understand that we can be a world full of peace and work together, rather than against each other.”

The congregation’s school coordinator, Maran Gluckstein, organizes lessons for the youth each month, focusing on a different Jewish value. February’s value was friendship. Gluckstein said that the interfaith activity was “a good culminating event,” as knowing someone’s name is the easiest way to make a friend and show someone that you respect them.

She said she hopes that the activity will not only teach the children to respect one another’s names, but also to give them confidence to correct someone who mispronounces their name.

“We’re putting this on to help them learn to honor other people’s names, yes,” Gluckstein said. “But I also hope that they stand up for themselves as well and take pride in their own names.”

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