Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What's in a (Jewish) Name

"Like the pine trees linin' the windin' road
I've got a name, I've got a name
Like the singin' bird and the croakin' toad
I've got a name, I've got a name"
- Jim Croce, "I've Got A Name"

In the Jewish culture and religion, names have significance, import, consequence. Juliet may not have though much of them, but for Jews, names are a key part of our identity.

Jewish names have evolved quite a bit throughout history. I always wonder what made certain names go in and out of fashion. For example, why is it that in the time of the Mishnah and Gemara, not one sage is named for Abraham, Moses, Aaron, David, or Solomon? Yet a just a few hundred years later, all those Biblical names had become prevalent, as they still are, of course, to this day.

And speaking of Talmudic appellations, did you know that the sages referred to as Rav, Rabbah, Rava, and Rabina were all actually named "Abba"? All their well-known titles are just variations on abbreviations for "Rabbi Abba".

And the famous Abaye's real name was actually "Nachmeni". An orphan, he was raised by his teacher Rabbah, whose father's name was also Nachmeni. Out of filial respect, Rabbah would not use his father's name for his young ward, so he called him "Abaye", which means, in Aramaic, "little father". If they had spoken Yiddish in those days, we'd all be talking about the famous disputes of Rava and "Tattaleh".

A couple of generations ago, it was practically unheard of for American Jews to go by their Jewish names in public. Even the frummest of the frum had English names, though some of those names were practically as identifiably Jewish as the original Hebrew or Yiddish ones. My dad used to joke that American Jews were taken by surprise in 1948, when the Jewish state was named "Israel" instead of "Irving". Indeed, Irving is one of those "American" first names that were pretty much exclusively used by Jews. Other examples off the top of my yarmulke: Seymour, Morris, Isadore, Sol, Ida. I'm sure there's lots of others - can you add to the list?

Later on, the emphasis shifted from "Americanizing" Hebrew names, to Hebraicizing Yiddish ones. In my own family, "Gittel" became Tova (both meaning "good"), "Craindle" became Atara (both meaning "crown"). My parents sometimes wondered whether the ancestors in question would truly feel that their names were being thus perpetuated. But you can't stop progress and evolution, and Jewish names are no exception.

And of course we all have stories about our own names; and our kids'. In my family, as it happens, all three of us are primarily called by our middle Hebrew names. It wasn't our custom or anything, just the way it worked out. And so, the blogger you know as Elie is called to the Torah as "Ben Tziyon Eliezer" - but since infancy, I've been Elie pretty much everywhere else.

Do you have interesting stories about Jewish names in your own families? Please feel free to share.


At 5/3/07, 9:27 AM, Blogger socialworker/frustrated mom said...

They say you have ruach hakodesh when naming a child, I totally feel that way. My daughter has 2 names after 2 diff. bubbies on 2 sides and the names could not fit her more it's kind of freaky and nice.

At 5/3/07, 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you know, my Dad is named Seymour and always goes by that "classic" American Jewish name. Or by his nickname "Si" (rhymes with Pi). My husband's name is Sheldon, another American Jewish name. Are there any non-Jewish Sheldons? Here in Texas, people find his name puzzling. His Hebrew-Yiddish name is Yisroel.

In my family, we all had two sets of names -- one English (American) and one either Hebrew or Yiddish or both. The latter was generally a family name, the name of a great-grandparent or other relative who had passed away.

At 5/3/07, 9:05 PM, Blogger torontopearl said...

My father's father was Majer (pronounced Mayer)Yitzchok. He was niftar when my father was 6 1/2 years old. My father's baby sister was born 3 months after her father's death. She was named for her father, and it was spelled Marjem. (pronounced Mariyam)

My daughter's middle English and Hebrew name is spelled Meriam,(I could've spelled it like the dictionary, too!) after my father's sister Marjem who died during the war at age 15. The Hebrew is written like Miriam, but when my daughter uses both Hebrew names of hers, she has to use the "nikudot" for her second name, otherwise it's assumed to be Miriam.

As for my name, my parents still used Old World spelling on my birth certificate and other official documentation; therefore, I am Pearl Chaja __________. (my classmates always made fun of me, not being familiar with that spelling of Chaya.)

My mother had an uncle whose first name was Adolf. The moment Hitler came into power, my great-uncle thereafter only went by his Hebrew name, Avraham. I think he even changed his name officially to the Hebrew version.

At 5/3/07, 9:31 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Thanks for the comments, all!

SWFM, you had a bubbie named "Poochie"? :-)

Miriam, I was thinking about your dad when I listed "Seymour". I think you're probably right about Sheldon. And here's another Jewish-English name I thought of: Hyman.

Pearl, interesting about the "Chaja" and "Marjem" in your mishpoche. In our town there's a wealthy family that dedicated a couple of school / shul batei midrash for the wife's father, who was called "Shaya" but spelled it "Shaje". Lots of people go around pronouncing the name on the building "SHA-jee".

And my mom also had/has (embarrassed to say I don't know if he's still around!) a cousin "Adolf", who lived in Canada! Could it be the same guy?

At 5/3/07, 10:18 PM, Blogger torontopearl said...

Elie, I got nicknames from that Chaja: Pearlietta Cha-Cha was the best, but the most common was that people pronounced it as it was written: Cha-ja. (no "Y" sound anywhere in the pronunciation and sometimes no "ch" as in the guttural use)
As for my great-uncle, Adolf moved from Poland to Switzerland to Toronto in the early fifties. The last name was Muller. (my grandfather's brother) Any relation?

At 5/3/07, 10:22 PM, Blogger Elie said...

Nope, this one's last name was Kelman. Guess there were at least two different Jewish-Canadian Adolfs out there - who'da thunk it!

At 5/3/07, 10:55 PM, Blogger torontopearl said...

Elie, I can just imagine a scene in a shtetl of yore:

Two men, one a local, another just passing through, meet and start talking about this and that and "der goldene medina". One man says to the other: (thick Jewish accent) "I have an uncle in Canada. His foist name is Adolf."
The second man exclaims: "I have a cousin in Canada. His foist name is Adolf."
The two men embrace: "We're MISHPOCHE!"

But I guess you and I aren't...although I am familiar with Kelman families who live in Toronto. (Rabbi Kelman sr. and jr., frum, etc., etc., etc.) And remember, I do know someone in Toronto that you know: Aziza family. (my youngest son is in class with their youngest, their daughter)

At 5/6/07, 5:40 PM, Blogger TherapyDoc said...

My zaideh, Z"L, was given the zchut of naming me my Yiddish name Zissa Leah (wish it was so) but my father, who perhaps KNEW that I had 50% of his DNA, chose to call me by a name he'd heard on the radio in a country western song. What's a girl to do with that?! It's not been easy.

At 5/8/07, 1:34 AM, Blogger Hila said...

Very interesting topic, indeed. As a ger (in the process) I don't have parents or grandparents or anyone to name me. I go by Hila because my dear friend from Israel, Keren, said that I should have it as my Hebrew name because it means "halo" like an angel's halo--and that it fits me not only because my "real" name starts with an H, but also I am very blonde much like the gold of the halo of an angel, and that also my personality is very sweet. I'd say she was just sweet-talking me but I don't know what that would have gotten her ;-)

This past Shabbos I was having a chat with some friends and somehow my Hebrew name came up. All the rest of my friends said, no no we should give you a different name. So now the new rabbi and everyone is all about finding me a Hebrew name. When my conversion is complete, I am not sure whether I want to take the traditional ____ bat Avraham Avienu v' Sarah Imenu. It's not that I don't want to be known as a convert/ger/ Jew-by-choice, but because I think I would feel a deeper connection if I could have "adoptive" Jewish parents. Maybe the rabbi and my tutor. Just a thought.

Sorry to have rambled!

At 11/9/15, 10:44 PM, Blogger LindaJoy said...

Well, there are two non-Jewish Sheldons in our family. My son, Adam, has an Uncle Sheldon, and his grandparents are Sheldon and.....buhdumdummmmm Ruth! How unusual is that?


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