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.