This post was first published on December 9 2012 and revised and re-posted on June 29 2016.
Today is the first day of the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (with the day beginning at sunset yesterday, according to the Jewish calendar). It celebrates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC, and Hanukkah literally means “dedication” or “establishing”.
According to tradition, there was only a single container of ritual olive oil to use, enough for one day, yet miraculously the oil lasted for eight days – in the meantime they got some more oil ready. Because of this, Hanukkah traditions are to light candles each day in a menorah, a candelabra which which holds eight candles for each day of the festival (and an extra one to provide available light). It is also traditional to eat foods cooked in oil, such as doughnuts, and potato pancakes, called latkes.
The first Jews to arrive in Australia were convicts with at least 15 on the First Fleet, and by the early 19th century, immigration from Britain and Germany meant that organised communities could exist in Sydney and Melbourne. The first synagogue was built in Sydney in 1844, with others soon following in other metropolitan centres. The gold rush rush of the mid-19th century attracted more Jewish immigrants, and numbers were swelled by refugees from the 1890s pogroms of Russia and Poland.
During the 1930s, 8000 Jews took up the Australian government’s offer of a visa for “victims of oppression” so they could escape Nazi Germany, and after the Second World War there was further European immigration from displaced person’s camps. Since then, more immigrants have arrived from Egypt, Iraq, South Africa and the former Soviet Union. At the last census, more than 97 000 people identified themselves as Jewish, with 80% of them living in Sydney or Melbourne.
Australia is the only country in the world, besides Israel, whose founding members included Jews. This meant that Jewish people were treated as equal citizens from the beginning, and were free to contribute in and help develop our scientific, economic and cultural life.
One of the first theatres in Australia was founded by Barnett Levey, whose mansion Waverley gave its name to the suburb. The composer Isaac Nathan was the first well-known European musician to settle in Australia, and the first to attempt a serious study of Aboriginal music. Sir Isaac Isaacs was the first Australian-born Governor-General in 1931, and during World War I, Sir John Monash led Australian troops in Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Both Isaacs and Monash have Canberra suburbs named in their honour, and Monash’s face is on the $100 bill.
Meira is the feminine form of the Hebrew name Meir, meaning “(one who) illuminates”. Because Hanukkah is also known as The Festival of Lights, names that mean light, or which refer to light, clarity or brightness, are considered traditional choices for babies born during Hanukkah, or near that time.
The Israeli pronunciation of the name is something like meh-EER-ah, but it can be Anglicised to the simpler MEER-ah. If you wish to highlight this as a specifically Jewish name and don’t want it to be confused with other names, then I would go with the former pronunciation. However, if you prefer a name which blends in easily, then the second one would work very well.
The name is not a common one: last year there were 53 baby girls in the US named Meira, and in 2014 there were 5 babies given the name the name in the UK. Neither is it common in Israel for babies, being rather out of fashion.
But although Meira is not a stylish choice in Israel, it is right on trend in Australia, fitting in perfectly with Milla, Mila, Mira, Miranda and Almira, which are all rising in popularity. The name sounds similar to ones that are English, Latinate, Indian, Spanish, Arabic, Slavic, and Scandinavian, giving it a very multicultural feel.
Not only do we need light to exist, but in almost every culture light stands as a symbol for goodness, and most religions see it as a gift from, or an expression of, Divinity. As we get closer each day to the Summer Solstice, when the sun’s light reaches its peak, it’s easy to appreciate the blessings light brings us.
Names whose meanings and associations are connected to light nearly always seem beautiful, encouraging the bearer to let their own light shine the brighter.
Meira received an excellent approval rating of 87%, making it one of the highest-rated names of 2012. 35% of people thought the name was okay, and only one person hated it.