In this week’s parshah, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream, becomes his overseer and marries Osnat the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Then we read almost immediately:
And unto Yosef were born two sons before the year of famine came, whom Osnath the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, bore unto him.
And Yosef called the name of the first-born Menashe, for God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house.
I was going to write about the brotherly love embodied by Joseph’s two sons but then thought that it was more fitting to keep this topic for another Torah parshah, Vayechi.
Instead I have chosen to tell a real story about one young man who was my students for two years about fifteen years ago. Let us call him Paul, not his real name. However for the sake of this story I need to tell you that his family name sounds very much like Menashe, except with a French spelling.
I had not seen Paul for more than ten years and had no idea what he was up to until we met again through a common Jewish friend. We exchanged a few emails and then happened to take the same train going to Paris. We caught up with each other’s news. At one point in the conversation I mentioned that I had never realized he was Jewish. “Well, I’m not.” he said, “Only my father is Jewish but I din’t know that at the time either”.
Paul then proceeded to explain how one day, looking through some family papers, he had found a birth certificate with only Jewish names. He questioned his father about it and was told that the latter had Jewish parents who had wished to forget everything about being Jewish in the wake of the Holocaust, after they had lost so many family members.
At that time Paul was a university student and was about to go on a year long work experience, so he decided to find something in Israel, which he did. He got a job in a French cultural center in Tel Aviv, learnt some Hebrew in the process and started to enquire about Judaism.
Paul then moved to Canada for a couple of years where he joined a Jewish community. He told them about his status and was made to feel so welcome that he regularly went to services. Unfortunately he lost his job and had to go back to France. He now lives and works in Paris while trying to write a thesis about the Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv.
It seems weird to see that his family had consciously tried to fulfill the meaning of their surname “(for God has made me) forget all my toil and all my father’s house.” However, maybe because it was precisely a conscious action and not an act of God, Paul managed to reconnect with his Jewish roots.