Say it soft and it’s almost like praying

After the thoroughly satisfying experience of seeing “District 9” (a very thoughtful and entertaining movie, assuming you’re not the sort of person who gets all squeamish at the sight of alien weaponry causing people to pop open like grapes and spatter into vivid little red globules of blood and viscera), my friend Cynthia and I had a drink afterward to discuss the film.

Our bartender was a very sweet and friendly young woman who was – from both appearance and accent – clearly of Eastern European origin. After we’d talked with her for a while, she asked us our names. We introduced ourselves, and returned the favor by asking her what her name was.

“Maria”, she replied. Then we asked her where she was from, and she said “Russia”, which made sense, given her appearance and accent. But the name Maria wasn’t the first one we would have guessed – I think we’d both been expecting something like Olga or Anya or Tatyana.

It turns out that Maria is a fairly common name in Russia, although neither Cynthia nor I were aware of this. I think we’d both been associating this name with Natalie Wood’s character in “West Side Story”. Which is ironic, because it turns out that Natalie Wood’s mother, a Russian immigrant, was named Maria Stepanova.

So we asked our friendly bartender how she came to have the name “Maria”. “It’s a Jewish name” was her answer. This threw us for a loop. In New York “Maria” is not known as a Jewish name. Yes, there are many Jews in New York whose families came from Russia, but neither of us had ever met one named Maria. In any case, it didn’t seem likely we were talking to one. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to judge people from appearance, but the combination of facial features and blonde hair did not cry out “Russian Jewish immigrant” to either of us.

“Are you Jewish?” I asked. “No,” she replied, in her charming accent. “But I have researched it. Maria, this is a Jewish name.”

“Really?” we both asked, intrigued.

“Yes,” she explained. “Maria. It is the name of mother of the God.”

“Ah,” we both replied, nodding our heads cheerfully, before quickly steering the conversation to other topics.

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