Why Jewish Baby Names Are So Important
What’s in a name?
Roses by any other name would, as the bard would have it, smell as sweet. Because after all, a name cannot change a person’s inner essence and soul. Or can it?
These are the questions that keep you up late at night as you wonder what you will name your unborn child. “Do you have a name picked out?” is a question a pregnant woman hears at least 100 times over the course of the pregnancy. Friends’ children, unsolicited, happily suggest names they would use for a doll or a dog: “I like Daisy!”
A recent New York Times article characterized baby naming as something akin to developing a brand for a person. How you name someone determines how that person is perceived, the common thinking goes, and perhaps therefore some element of the person he or she is and will become. It also determines whether it is easy or hard to find a personalized license plate for your bike. I say this as someone who, in the early 1980s, had to special-order a personalized license plate for her bike. Even then, the name was scrunched up in an odd font, letters packed together like sardines. There were no personalized T-shirts at the ready for me in souvenir shops. I did not find this particularly traumatic. In fact, I liked it. I was never a “Name – Initial,” like “Heather L.” and “Heather E.” It took a brief stint at Camp Ramah for me to even meet another Jordana.
My siblings and I each had then-unusual names with Jewish roots, which to me implicitly signaled two things: We were unusual people, and we were Jewish people. Each of us still takes pride in both of those things. Our names were not chosen exclusively for how they looked on the page, or how they meshed with our last names. They were chosen as expressions of who we were, and who our parents hoped we would become.
When faced with the task of naming my first son with my first husband, he and I decided that the name we chose would similarly be an expression of pride in our heritage and pride in differentiating ourselves. It was also important that the name we chose be a tribute to relatives who were no longer with us. We took my grandfather’s Yiddish name — Velvel — and spun it on its head to its Hebrew equivalent: Zev. (Both mean “wolf.”) Similarly, we took the ‘R’ from my grandmother’s name and named Zev’s brother Rami.
People had strong reactions to the names. “What kind of a name is that?” they would ask regularly, followed by, “Is your husband Israeli?”
“No, we’re just both Jewish,” I’d answer, confounding the inquisitor. My real answer, had I felt comfortable enough to give it, would have been, “I never want my sons to be able to forget, even when they say their names, that they are Jews.”
The strongest reaction ever, though, was when a father asked Zev his name at a birthday party when he was 2 years old. “Zev,” my son responded. “Hmm,” the father replied. “How do you spell that?” “Z-E-V.” The father paused thoughtfully for a moment, then told my 2-year-old son, “Kid, you’re not gonna have any trouble getting laid with a name like that.” An unforeseen side benefit, perhaps, to ethnic pride?
Years later, I remarried and started on a new series of pregnancies with my new husband. Our first daughter was named Gabriella, as a tribute to my husband’s mother, Gilda. It was a name with Jewish roots, but it was a little more mainstream — as I discovered when I saw that there was a “Gabriella Z.” as well as my Gabriella in a Tot Shabbat Mommy and Me program. After much debate and a last-minute flip-flop, we named our second daughter Orli, which was apparently, in retrospect, a little too far off the “regular” reservation for my husband.
I say this because this time around, with our third daughter due in the fall, I note names on his list that are better suited for Greek gods than for Jewish children. I veto some of my husband’s choices, and he vetoes some of mine. “Why does it have to be an Israeli name?” he asks. “We aren’t Israeli.” True, I say, but we are Jewish. And I want a pretty name that exemplifies that Jewishness, and takes pride in it. Because that is who we are, and that is who we want our children to be.
Names are not only a way of keeping the dead alive and present, they are also a way of showing, in one quick flash of a word, who we think we are and who we want to become. Are we strivers, yearning to cast off the anchors of our heritage? Are we borrowers, taking names from other cultures or languages solely for aesthetic reasons, in order to sound different or exotic? Are we deliberate outliers, concocting strange spellings and odd references to show how different we are from anyone else?
Are we Jewish?
In short, if you have name ideas, I have a few months left, and I’m listening.
Jordana Horn is the former New York bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post and is a contributing editor to the parenting website Kveller.com.