Tribal Recognition

This essay appeared in JEW-ISH: True Stories of Love, Latkes and L’Chaim, from READ 650.

One Saturday some years ago, while visiting Toronto with my husband and mother-in-law, I saw a group of Orthodox Jews, two bearded men and roughly 12 boys of various ages, about a block away. They were dressed identically in white shirts and black pants, yarmulkes and payes, but no hats. As they approached, the patriarch looked from my Cuban husband to my Cuban mother-in-law, and then said to me, “Good Shabbes.”

I nodded cordially. People outside the tribe often ask me if I’m Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Indian, but Jews always know otherwise. 

“Shabbat Shalom,” the patriarch insisted, and I nodded again. It took me a block and a half to realize that he’d been waiting for me to say “Shabbat Shalom” back to him, and that I had been rude. I should say that what passes for a Sabbath statement among my lapsed Jewish relatives is more akin to, “Would you like some more Mu Shu Pork?” My parents, grandchildren of Jewish immigrants from all over Eastern Europe, have always kept in touch with Jewish culture, ideas, history and politics. They avoid Jewish observance almost… religiously. I do the same. 

My mother-in-law was impressed that Jews could identify each other at such a distance. But I’ve seen her son play “Spot the Cuban” in the swirling chaos of Penn Station at rush hour, and he can pinpoint which decade the Cuban came to the US. He’s always right; we know this because he goes right up to the Cuban to verify his intuition. Kind of like saying “Shabbat Shalom,” but everyone is so gregarious, it’s astonishing that anyone makes their trains on time. 

Does some kind of vestigial recognition of cave affiliation survive in contemporary humans? We’d just seen a thoughtful exhibit on Darwin at the Royal Ontario Museum, and I wondered: in this time of ideological separatism and tribal carnage, are human beings a single species anymore? And what about the Jews? Jews may be few and far between, numerically, but we are hardly together in our minority. Was the patriarch saying, “Go ahead, marry a shvartze. You should still celebrate the Sabbath.” 

My fellow Jews were clearly not going to the Darwin exhibit. A pity: the patriarch might have noted that in evolutionary terms, he had won. He’d been fruitful and multiplied, in the way of good Jews and successful species. At that time, in my secular corner, with zero offspring, we were looking at extinction. 

My husband and I have since become parents to one energetic, charming child that we’re raising Juban. Once, my then 6-year-old froze in his tracks as we crossed paths with two Hassidic men at Newark Airport. “Are they magicians?!” he asked with excitement. I realized that I’ve neglected his Jewish education. I want to give him the strong dose of secular Judaism that I had growing up in a Reformed Jewish home in New York City, a very Jewish metropolis. Can this be done in a suburb of intermarriages, without setting foot in a synagogue, I wonder?

The train of thought that started in Toronto is still on my mind all these years later. Are the Jews a single species with wide variations —Judaeus pius antiquus and Judaea femina libera, for example —or are we now two different species, Judaeus exactus canadiensis and PostJudaea scriptora obstinata? If we’re to survive, our species must adapt. But if there are any Jews around in a few centuries, it won’t be because of adaptors like me. I now realize that being recognizably Jewish to everyone —not just to other Jews— can be a dangerous thing, and a lonely one. Perhaps the patriarch’s gesture was one of inclusion and adaptation, not ownership and disapproval. I probably should have taken a page from my extroverted Cuban husband, and stopped to chat for a while.

What’s in a name?

Epitaph in the columbarium niche of Aristarchus, freedman, a nomenclator. From Johns Hopkins Archeological Museum.

Epitaph in the columbarium niche of Aristarchus, freedman, a nomenclator. From the Johns Hopkins Archeological Museum.

One of the biggest barriers to entry into ancient Rome — both reading about it, and writing about it — has to be the very complicated naming conventions. In a status-obsessed society like ancient Rome, a name functioned like an identity card. One’s social status was immediately apparent in the structure of the name itself. The triple-barreled name we are familiar with — Gaius Julius Caesar, for example — was the privilege of Roman citizens only. Slaves were permitted just one name.

Another problem: everyone was named after his or her father. This tradition goes on to the point of absurdity: when Marcus had a son, he was also Marcus. When Marcus had a daughter, she was Marcia. If he had two daughters, they would be called Marcia the Elder and Marcia the Younger. There were surprisingly few first names (praenomen) for the upper classes, who recycled the names of previous generations. In the darkest moments of my research, it seemed that everyone was named Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.

And there weren’t enough family names (nomen) to go around. Hence the need for a third name, the cognomen, to distinguish one branch of the family from another. The cognomen was often given to a child by his parents, or by general consensus from the community. The name could be descriptive of someone’s appearance, occupation or origin. Marcus Tullius Cicero, for example — Cicero means “chickpea.” Perhaps this branch of the family farmed chickpeas, or perhaps the original patriarch had a wart at the end of his nose that looked like a chickpea; by the time Cicero was practicing law, the original meaning of the chickpea had been forgotten. Cicero’s good friend and Grecophile Titus Pomponius Atticus gave himself his cognomen, Atticus (“Man of Attica,”) after the Greek region where Athens is located.

These third names are often descriptive, amusing or uncomplimentary: Brutus (Stupid), Dentatus (Toothy), Bibulus (Drunkard), Cincinattus (Curly Haired). Does the Sicilian Mafia nickname custom (Vinny “the Chin” Gigante) spring from this ancient Roman tradition? Sometimes the general community would give a man a third name to recognize a military victory, i.e. when Nero Claudius Drusus was nicknamed Germanicus (Victor over the Germans), or a particular virtue, such as Pompey Magnus (the Great). Eventually, these third names became hereditary.

Slaves were given names by their owners. Sometimes, they were named after their geographical origin; many slaves were called Delos, for example, a major slave trading port in Greece. However, most of the funerary inscriptions that we know of come from imperial times, when few slaves were being imported, and the epitaphs of slaves show that even in imperial times, they were still carrying Greek names. “One theory holds that the Greek names emphasize the slave’s outsider status,” writes Christopher Francese, author of Ancient Rome in So Many Words. “These foreign, non-Roman names reinforce the social isolation and marginality of the slave in Roman society. Perhaps, but we need to keep in mind that Greece had also long been known to the Romans as the land of luxury, home of high culture, fine consumer goods, art, tapestries, food, and the good life in general. It was pleasing somehow to see this soft, luxurious stuff as non-Italian, an imported self-indulgence.”


Hermes, god of trade, athletes, travel and communication.

Some slaves were named after Greek gods. Hermes — the god of trade, athletes, travel and messenger with wings on his sandals — was a popular name. What a cruel irony for someone whose power was so limited! When a slave was freed, he took on his master’s name. So, hypothetically, if Hermes the slave were freed by his master, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, his name would be Gnaeus Domitius Hermes, written in documents G. Domitius l. Hermes, the “l” standing for “libertus,” freedman. The freedman’s children would add their own, probably Roman names, to their father’s new name, omitting the Greek slave name, the better to erase their history of slavery. Thus, the child of this hypothetical freedman would be Gnaeus Domitius Marcus. If a woman freed a slave, he would take on her father’s first and second name, plus his slave name. Freedwomen took the feminine form of their master’s (or mistress’s) second name plus their slave name.

If all this is confusing, remember that the ancient Romans didn’t have thousands of entertainment choices to distract them, and that everyone’s life depended on treating powerful people with the proper deference. An aristocrat out for a walk would have had heralds who cleared the road and announced his name as he and his entourage entered a public space. A slave called a nomenclator would stand behind the host at a banquet, and whisper the names of the guests to him as they arrived, so that the host could greet everyone properly, according to their status.

Because I wanted everything in my epistolary novel Quid Pro Quo to be historically correct, I originally insisted on using my characters’ full names. It would have been a tremendous faux pas to refer to an ancient Roman noble by just his first name, especially in correspondence. However, I soon saw that my early readers were getting bogged down in the names, no doubt because there wasn’t a nomenclator to identify the characters. So after the first mention of a character in the book, I referred to him or her by the name the character was known by informally. I did include a lengthy Dramatis Personae in the beginning of the book, to help people keep track. One hopes that the reader dives directly into the book, and doesn’t get discouraged by all the names up front.

Originally, I had a Maximus, a Marius, a Marcia and a Maxima in one family. I changed Marcia’s name to Patricia, even though she would have been a Marcia, named after her father, Marcus Cluvius Rufus. Her brother, also named Marcus Cluvius Rufus, was a real person, an historian, magistrate, and an eyewitness who played a small role in the events surrounding the assassination of Caligula. His work was cited by later historians, Publius Cornelius Tacitus and Flavius Josephus. Marcus Cluvius Rufus existed; his sisters are my own invention. Therefore, I changed their names to Patricia the Elder and Patricia the Younger, and have to assume the reader will be grateful to have one fewer “M” name to keep track of in the Trebellius family. I still think of them as Marcia the Elder and Marcia the Younger, but never mind.

Method and Motivation: the moral of the story



As a thinking person, I really do dislike being manipulated by stories. It’s one of my main beefs against Disney. As a mother on stage at bedtime, however, I frequently find myself violating all my own higher standards of storytelling. Like many parents, I am exhausted, impatient and creatively challenged at bedtime, so if I do take the time to create a story, I fling myself onto that moral like a life raft. It just comes out of me, and I am appalled at myself.

I created a whole series of tales featuring Shasta, a young pony with a knack for getting into trouble. The jewel in the crown of this franchise was “Baby Pony Shas and the Unexpected Ring of Fire,” which tells how Baby Pony Shas was playing in the living room one morning when his mother was on the phone, for work, in the kitchen. Suddenly, the intoxicating smell of wood smoke beckoned him and, despite his mother’s warning to stay inside and to not –under any circumstances!– open the door or leave the house, Baby Pony Shas found himself doing just that, and following the lovely smell down streets lined with beautiful trees turning amazing shades of orange, yellow and red, to Mountainside Park, where there was a bonfire going, which felt really nice in the cool October air, and then suddenly, suddenly! Baby Pony Shas was surrounded by a ring of flames leaping ten feet high!

I will not insult you by giving you the moral of that story. (But it ends with Baby Pony Shas safely at home, deeply penitent.) As a writer, as a reader, I have nothing but disdain for manipulation and formulas. But as a parent, I need all the help I can get. What about you? Do you tell your own stories with morals, or gravitate to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf ” at bedtime?


Advice for writers


Image from Pixabay.










“If you are a creative worker, remember that time spent in finding an independent technique is seldom wasted. We are accustomed to think of the success of a man like Joseph Conrad, a Pole, in writing the English language, or of the work of an electrical genius like Steinmetz, as savoring of the miraculous. To have had to work out their problems alone — what a tremendous obstacle to overcome! On the contrary; the necessity for independent action was one of the conditions of their success, and to see and admit this is in no way to detract from the worth of their accomplishment.”

— Dorothea Brande, Wake Up and Live!

Wake Up and Live! is an impatient, dyspeptic self-help guide from 1936 on how to overcome the fear of failure. You can skip right past Brande’s descriptions of the many different kinds of failure, and get right to the how to overcome it part. In a nutshell, her slogan is, “Act as if it were impossible to fail.” This is good advice for any enterprise, writing especially.

Good advice can sometimes come from not such great sources: Brande, who also wrote the perennially popular  Becoming a Writer, has recently been outed for elitism, anti-Modernism, anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies. Read this fascinating piece by cultural historian Joanna Scutts about how successful self-help authors, like Brande, Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie, “worked to convince readers that they could take power into their own hands, which were not tied by economic circumstances or political realities. That the genre experienced a boom during the politically turbulent 1930s was not a coincidence, but rather a consequence, of that turbulence.” 

And then act as if it were impossible to fail.

From 21st century comedy to ancient historical bloodletting

The excavations were empty on the sweltering afternoon in July my husband and I visited Herculaneum. Just a stray dog, a bride and groom posing for photos in front of arches, a caretaker of the ruins, and us.

Herculaneum, photo courtesy of

Herculaneum, photo courtesy of

Archeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, has written that because of the position of the two towns in relation to the volcano Vesuvius, “[t]he freak chance that Pompeii was blanketed in ash and pumice pebbles, while Herculaneum was covered in the fine, hot dust of pyroclastic surges and flows, resulted in the extensive preservation at Herculaneum of organic material —principally wood, but also foodstuffs, papyrus and cloth.” He adds that the depth of volcanic material that covered Herculaneum was three or four times greater than that of Pompeii, thus preserving some buildings several storeys above street level. Some buildings are so well-preserved, in fact, you might forget you are in an excavation.

Did I mention it was hot? At 5:30, the heat was pulsating off the 2,000-year-old paving stones as I crossed from a fully-intact ancient apartment block to some shade in front of a bakery on the other side of the street. I suddenly had the feeling that I was living there.

I don’t believe in past lives

I don’t mean that I had a memory of a past life in ancient Rome —I don’t believe in past lives. I mean that I felt like I was living in Herculaneum now, on my way from my apartment to the bakery, naturally seeking shade as I walked down the street. It was an odd feeling, and I dismissed it.

But a few days later, in the basement of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome, I was hit with another odd sensation. The epigraphic gallery is a long space lined with tombstones and echoing with the voices of bored teenagers. The epitaphs were helpfully translated from Latin into English: “For the souls departed. May trickery and fraud stay away from this funerary monument,” and “I wish that the earth does not weigh heavily upon your remains.” I was struck by the names (Crustuminius!) the pompous language (“employed as the keeper of the storerooms of the Green Faction”), the colorful variety of professions (“Domitia, maker and seller of scented oils”) and the sad accounting of time (“H, who lived 32 years, 5 months, 21 days, his brother Heres saw to the making of this tomb”). As I passed from one tombstone to the next, the voices in the gallery got louder, and it felt like the ancient people represented were jockeying for my interest, calling out, “Hey: Pay attention to me! This was my life.”

The Epigraphic gallery at the Palazzo dei Conservatoreii, Rome. Photo courtesy of Chris Oler, via Pinterest

The Epigraphic gallery at the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome. Photo courtesy of Chris Oler, via Pinterest


A story begins to brew

I returned home with a story brewing, a story about power, status and expectations; it was ancient Rome, so of course there were two feuding brothers. For some reason, I knew that the story had to be told in documents that I would create —letters, invitations, menus, petitions to the Emperor, etc. I have no idea why I was so sure about that, but there is so much self-doubt when writing a novel, if you have absolute certainty about anything, you have to just run with it. I had written three novels of contemporary comic fiction. This leap into ancient historical bloodletting was daring and new, and for a while I sped along, soaking up facts in books, museums and papyri, enthralled by the mysteries of ancient life.

I’ve always been fascinated and repulsed by ancient Rome in equal measure. The Romans were arrogant, brutal, greedy, ostentatious and corrupt. Roman citizens were protected by the rule of law, but those in power routinely disregarded the law with impunity. The Roman aristocracy was ferociously proud of its independence, yet permitted itself to be stripped of all authority by a series of dictators and emperors. Roman engineering was legendarily meticulous, yet the Roman legions demolished the works of others with wanton disrespect. The society was drenched in status anxiety; even among slaves there was a class hierarchy. Ancient Roman culture spanned the heights of rationality and the depths of cruelty. I was riveted.

Rome was not built in a day

Then, like Wiley Coyote, who continues to run in mid-air, crashing only once he notices that he has left the cliff, I saw the gulf between me and everything I didn’t know, panicked, and dropped straight down. The combination of new genre, new format and the imperative of historical accuracy weighed heavily on me. I told myself: Whatever you don’t know, you’ll learn. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and look: it took hundreds of years to destroy! 

On the other hand, enough already: I have been finishing this book for far too long. I am pleased to FINALLY announce that the book that began as an odd feeling in front of a bakery in Herculaneum (I won’t say how many years ago) is now fully cooked. I’ll be taking it out into the world shortly. Stay tuned.