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.