Monday, January 26, 2009

What's In a Name?

What's in a name? As Shakespeare said: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Shakespeare, however, was not Jewish and he did not face the whole slew of naming minhagim that we have.

As a general rule, ashkenazim name after dead people and sefardim name after living people.

"Among Ashkenazim--that is, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin--the custom is to name the child after someone, usually a family member, who has recently died. In most cases this is a grandparent or great-grandparent. The usual explanation for this practice is that the parents hope that in receiving the name of an admired family member, the child will emulate in his or her life the virtues of the deceased namesake. To a certain extent, too, it is believed that the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his or her name. Indeed, learning about the persons for whom they are named is an excellent way for children to identify with the history of their own Jewish families and, by extension, with the history of the whole Jewish people. Some parents even add these personal explanations to the birth ceremonies for their children.

Sephardim--that is, Jews of Iberian or Middle-Eastern origin--usually name their children after a grandparent, either living or dead, and many Sphardic grandparents look forward to being honored with grandchildren who bear their own names while they are still alive to see it. Sephardim are also much more punctilious about naming a boy after a man and a girl after a woman than are most Ashkenazim. In Sephardic families this procedure often has the effect of strengthening transgenerational ties between grandfathers and grandsons, and between grandmothers and granddaughters."

While generally correct, there are many exceptions/changes to the above information that are in practice today. My research brought to light that there are about 150 names and variants of those names in total that are generally used by religious Ashkenazim--the more to the right you are, the more likely you will choose from only those names. Those names are found in Tanach for the most part.

In Israel, among both Ashkenazim and Sefardim, there is a trend today to give children names that come from things rather than from people, and to even just make up names whose sound is liked. (Chareidim excepted)

Add in that many Jews of European descent gave Yiddish names rather than exact Hebrew names. For instance, Faiga and Blima as names for girls and Alter for boys. This giving of Yiddish names sometimes resulted in some strange combinations and situations. I had an uncle whose name was Shaltiel Azig. Everyone of us called him Uncle Izig or Uncle Isaac. But what was his father's name? Yitzchak (fondly known as Itzik). So there we actually had Isaac the son of Yitzchak, not a regular Ashkenzic choice. And then there are names that come from outside completely, such as Alexander.

There are other minhagim that are associated with name giving as well. Some have the custom that the name for the first child "belongs" to the mother. Some will not give a name after someone who died young or died in tragic circumstances. Some will give only single names; others give multiple names. Some will not give a name that already appears in a first-order relative; others will have the same name appear all over the family.

What to name a child is the prerogative of the parents, but lots of other people will freely give you advice. Sometimes there are going to be family members who are not happy with a name choice. When our oldest daughter was born both my husband and I have the minhag that the name of the first child belongs to the mother. However, my in laws had only boys and so in their immediate family there were no names for my in laws' mothers, who were killed during the Holocaust. We decided to give our daughter's name after these grandmothers. However, both grandmothers had Yiddish names. Neither my husband or I wanted a Yiddish name for our child, so we translated those names into the Hebrew equivalents. Thus Zissel Perel became Naomi Penina. Was everyone happy? Surely you jest.

After my father in law was niftar there were a number of boys born. My FIL had two names. Neither of the children named for him actually carry both names; one has one of the names and another has the other name. Was everyone happy? Sigh.

And then there is what to do if the person you really want to give a name for is one sex and the child you have is another. Many a Melech is commemorated in a Malka, or as is the case with us, a Shlomo who became a Shlomit.

What brought this all to mind is that a friend's child is expecting a baby, not the first. WWIII is raging over what name this child is going to get. Having been in that position a time or two, I offer this advice. It is so not worth going to war over a baby's name. You see, you are going to expend all that time and energy deciding on just the perfect name for that child and then that child's friends and schoolmates are going to shorten it or change it or give a nickname and all the warfare will have been for nought. Many a Yaakov Yosef who is known as JJ, many a Miriam who goes by Mimi. And many an Eliezer who only answers to "Super E" or the like.


Anonymous said...

This was all really interesting! I knew about not naming after living people, but didn't that know Sephardim do it.

I wish my name (katie) wasn't so irish/goyish sounding....And not too sure if it even sounds appropriate/mature for an adult.

Anonymous said...

ahh, that's why my hubby and I follow the basic principle: "you birth them, you name them". Don't like the name? well, we can always remove grandparent visiting rights :)
So far it works well...

Anonymous said...

Just wondering if you had any insight into why there's a trend in Israel to name children after things. It seems like it opens the child to ridicule.

Also, when I was growing up almost all the kids I knew had English names. Even the rabbi's kids had English names. Now just about everyone I know who is Orthodox gives the kid just a Hebrew name. I can't figure that out either. Do you know why this is?

Ichabod Chrain

nmf #7 said...

I suspect that it became the fashion in Israel. (I assume you mean names like Irit or Shachar.)

ProfK- you inspired a post of mine- thank you.

miriamp said...

"that child's friends and schoolmates are going to shorten it or change it or give a nickname and all the warfare will have been for naught."

okay, my kids are young yet, but I'm still waiting for that one -- even the child I call by a nickname (Dassa for Hadassah) has insisted on being known by the whole thing in school. Actually, most of them want to use both names too, not just the first name, except my 3 year old, who recently stopped insisting her name was "Jelly" and is now insisting we call her by her middle name only.

ProfK said...

I can give you a guess if not a definitive answer as to why English names aren't given today. Back when my parents and I arrived in the US immigration authorities anglicized our names. Where that was difficult, a "real" English name was given, even if it had no relationship to the Hebrew name.

During this time period it was "being the same as everyone else" that was encouraged. Ethnic names were not in vogue nor encouraged. I went to school with children who were Japanese, Korean, Chinese, from many of the countries of Europe and the middle East and of African descent--every one of them had an "English" name.

Fast forward to a little while ago and suddenly ethnic was in. It was no longer a social liability to have an unpronounceable name or one that was not "standard American." I honestly think that is why so many frum people don't bother to give both an English and a Hebrew name any longer. The fear of being different is gone. Certainly today there is no reason for the English names. If we can elect a President whose first name is Barak then why shouldn't we just as easily be able to pronounce Shoshana or Yerachmiel.

Miss Teacher said...

Good points brought out here. I am constantly amazed and frustrated at the thought that people [grandparents] think they hold the right to name another's child.

A close relative of mine was named Kreindel. I dislike the name as well as it's hebrew equivalent - Atara. When she passed away I announced to my family that I will always love her and remember her but I won't name a daughter after her. After all, does the parent alone not hold the privilage of naming his/her child?

Anonymous said...

Don't assume it's only grandparents who don't agree on a name. My husband and I had that problem with two of our kids. It took almost the whole 9 months of pregnancy to find a name combination that we could both agree on. Also a yiddish-hebrew problem.