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Names: Jewish, Hebrew and English

In choosing names for their children, my parents were guided by the following: a Jewish name in memory of a deceased relative and an English name that they liked.  My Jewish name (Yitzchak Chayim) and my brother Everett’s, Avraham Meir, are Hebrew, and my sisters’ names, Shayna Zelda and Masha Leah, are Yiddish (respectively, Jessica and Marissa).  Our parents used our English names exclusively, and only at our Jewish day school were our Jewish names used.  Being called upon during Judaic studies classes, however, did not cause us to really embrace our Hebrew names, and so we all grew up identifying solely with our English names.

Sarah and I wanted our children to identify with both their Jewish and English names.  We felt that the best way for them to do so was to go Biblical.  Ideally, we wanted the Biblical name to also be in memory of a deceased relative, but after our first two children Nathan and Rebecca (named after my grandparents), we had to go pretty far for Ruth (a great aunt of Sarah’s whom she never knew).  With Ezra and Elie (Eliyahu), we gave up trying to find a family namesake and went with a Biblical name that we liked.

Our system of naming initially hit a snag.  Nathan is named after my paternal grandfather, and since Nathan is also a Biblical figure (pronounced Natan in Hebrew), we thought that our firstborn would be Nathan/Natan.  The only problem is that my grandfather Nathan was named in Hebrew after a completely different biblical figure: Naftali.  Since we liked the name Nathan more than Naftali, and since we wanted our children to identify both with their Hebrew and English names, we went with Nathan/Natan — much to the displeasure of my father who wanted us to duplicate the name mismatch of my grandfather.

When we made aliyah, our naming system worked beautifully for four of our five children — there was no disconnect between how they had been called in America and how they were called in Israel.  Their English names just shifted to the Hebrew version: Nathan/Natan, Ruthie/Ruti, and with Ezra and Elie there was no shift at all.  The only catch was Rebecca.  In the United States, Rebecca is a fairly cool name, but when it moves to Hebrew we are not talking about a mere shift, but a seismic change to Rivka.  Rivkas in Israel are mainly octogenarian and up.  The next generation (mine) already prefers the diminutive, such as Riki.

And as far as my daughter’s generation, well, unless you go into an ultra-Orthodox community, you will find it almost impossible to track down a native-born Rivka.  We know of another Rebecca, a girl my daughter’s age (the family is from California), who insists on being addressed as “Rebecca” in Hebrew (even though Israelis have trouble with that first syllable), and she will correct you if you refer to her as Rivka.  God bless our Rebecca who, though she is wont to berate us for saddling her with an incredibly “square” name, is Rivka in Hebrew even for the announcers at her professional basketball games.  Indeed, the crowd seems thrilled to chant “Rivka, Rivka.”  I keep telling her: just want until you’re a grandma; then you’ll thank us that you have a proper name.  Those cool, hip Israeli names (mainly taken from nature) will seem strange on septuagenarians; e.g., Gal (Wave), Stav (Autumn), Tal (Dew), and Bar (Wild).  Those names, by the way, are typically considered unisex, and Israel is filled with hundreds of boys and girls sharing the same names.

You would think that young national-religious parents would be more sensible in choosing names for their children, especially for their boys’ names.  After all, it is one thing to name your son Shachaf, Almog or Maayan, but it is another to be called up to the Torah as Seagull, Coral or Well-Spring.  You might think this, but you would be wrong.  The key for grandparents is to remember to do what our friend did for the last trimester of her daughter’s pregnancy; she kept practicing over and over saying the following words: “That’s a lovely name.”  Hopefully, my turn for saying this will come soon.

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