I was pretty anxious as a kid. My inner dialogue was a running list of questions like: Is this outfit cool enough to wear to Jacob’s bar mitzvah? Will watermelons really grow in my stomach if I eat watermelon seeds? No amount of anxiety, however, equated to how I felt after being asked the one question that shook my whole nervous system: “What’s your middle name?”
I was given my middle name in honor of my grandma, an Iranian refugee who fled Iran as anti-Semitic sentiment increased during the Iranian Revolution. In the late ‘70s, the King of Iran was overthrown by a new regime who threatened religious persecution of the Jews and barred them from leaving the country. It was no longer safe for Jews to practice Judaism freely, and the majority of the Jewish population had no choice but to slowly smuggle themselves and their families out of the country, leaving their homes and possessions behind.
A mother of four, my grandma escaped to Los Angeles with her family and became an American citizen. Simply put, she’s a total badass, and I inherited her name as my middle name, which is something I should have been proud of, if not for The Incredibles.
Let me explain.
The year was 2004. I was 8, so naturally, life was good. Then came The Incredibles, Pixar’s instant classic about the Parrs, a family of superheroes solving crime in red tights. The movie is not only known for the family’s heroic ventures, but for their suit designer, Edna Mode. Inspired by Jewish fashion designer Edith Head, Edna is a small yet intimidating character who charms you with her British-adjacent accent and large, black, circular glasses.
My generation’s response to Edna’s quirky accent, charmingly condescending demeanor, and funny haircut was translated into ridicule, and I found myself telling less and less people about my middle name in fear of hearing another impression of how she says her name: “EDNA. MODE.” And if my friends told someone my middle name was Edna? I considered it a crime worthy of capital punishment, which of course at the time meant the silent treatment.
My perception of the name Edna was based on trauma and it wasn’t until I got older that I changed that perception from shame to pride. It happened during one of my many millennial-esque identity crises, when I asked myself “WHO AM I?” as I listened to a wellness podcast while eating an overpriced acai bowl. I decided to embark on my own pursuit of self-exploration with the intention to learn more about the depths of my middle name.
I first turned to my greatest confidant, the place I go to when I’m experiencing a simple stomach ache and end up diagnosing myself with a disease: Google. A simple Google search taught me that the Hebrew translation for Edna is rejuvenation, pleasure, and delight. Cool, but I thought it was also best to consult with another source of truth as well, a rabbi, who then explained that the name Edna stems from the word “Eden,” as in the Garden of Eden, a mythical space that we know as the ultimate utopia. Although humankind has lost access to Gan Eden, the Torah actually offers us direction on improving our dystopian space in order to create a reality that’s closest to utopia.
I realized that I was currently living my grandma’s version of Eden, a life where I wear my Judaism proudly on my sleeve, and decided that I’d never let anyone, fictional or real, make me feel otherwise again.
When I was 8, I made a choice to associate my middle name with a fictional character and not with its biblical meaning or my grandma’s pursuit of religious freedom. Nowadays, we all have a similar choice. We can either choose to dissasociate ourselves from our Jewish identities and stay silent on issues regarding anti-Semitism, or embrace what makes us unique and advocate for the betterment of our community. I choose the latter.
Edna Mode is unapologetically herself and inspires the people around her to be their most incredible, much like my grandma who risked her life so her family can thrive in a country where religious freedom is a founding principle. Now, as our current political winds blow, it’s more crucial than ever to be proud of our Jewish identities, just as my grandma did when all odds were against her. So go ahead, ask me about my middle name — I’d love to tell you its incredible story.
Header image design by Grace Yagel.