What’s in a name?


NEW YORK (JTA) — Getting pregnant was the easy part. Giving birth was simple, too, compared with the onerous task of choosing a name for my yet-to-be-born son.

Like many women, I had picked out my children’s names long before I even met the man I would marry. According to my plan I would have two children: Gabriel, a name I chose because nearly every Gabe I knew was attractive, and Neshama, which means “spirit” or “soul” in Hebrew, because I thought it was beautiful.

So far, things haven’t worked out as planned. My husband, Julian Voloj, immediately rejected Gabriel because he once knew one he didn’t like (though he did reluctantly admit that the evil Gabe was rather good-looking). Neshama was out because he disliked it; besides, we knew we were having a boy. Plus we are blessed that our parents and most of our grandparents are living, so the assorted permutations of their names I had long mulled over were, luckily, not under consideration.That left us more or less with a blank slate; filling it was much more difficult than I would have imagined.

When I began to think of names, instinct led me to the Bible. I lobbied strenuously for Abraham. (When I hear the name, I proudly think “first Jew” — turns out most people I know think “Lincoln.”)  I also pushed Solomon, Elijah and Isaiah like a drug-dealing character on an afterschool special.

Julian was very good at rejecting my ideas, saying he didn’t like them or that they were “too Jewish.” Throughout our months of discussions, the only name he proffered was Benjamin. A nice name, I agreed, and classic, too — but introduce me to any Benjamin over the age of 5 who isn’t known as Ben and I’ll name my next kid Jacob (that’s the most popular name for American boys for the past nine years, according to data from the Social Security Administration). 

I’m not a religious person, but something about the timelessness drew me to these ancient names. I liked how they would instill a sense of Jewish identity in my son — and that eventually he’d learn about the biblical figure for whom he was named — while still managing to bear a stamp of universality, too.

In navigating the roadblocks on my biblical route, I also turned toward what I called Jewish Grandpa names — names that weren’t historically Jewish but, during the past century, have become ethnically so — like Maximilian (my great-grandfather’s name, as it happens, but way too trendy today) and Avery (which has, like many great names before it, morphed into a girl’s name). My mom, with whom I vetted many potential names, gagged at how “old-fashioned” my selections were, but having grown up with a cadre of friends named Lisa, I knew a trendy name wasn’t a burden I’d put upon my child. 

I spoke about names at length with my friend Julie Black, a mom of two — Noah Benjamin, 4 1/2, and Simon Alexander, 2 — who lives in West Bloomfield, Mich. It turned out she and I had remarkably similar tastes in names. (If Julie and I were to have a love child tomorrow, we’d have no problem naming the kid. But ask us to go clothes or music shopping together and we may run into trouble.)

Julie isn’t particularly observant, and she couldn’t quite explain the driving force behind her sons’ names.

“To me, they sounded like good, strong names,” she said. “It was very important to me that it was a good name for a baby, a kid and an adult. If you had a good name, it would look good on your door in your corner office.”

There were cultural considerations, too. My husband was raised in Germany — his family still lives there — to Colombian Jewish parents, so it was important to us that the name we chose would work well in all our cultures.

My friend Jen Varbalow had a similar experience when she and her husband, who is Japanese, were brainstorming names for their daughter, Hana, now 3. (Her full amazing name? Hanamizuki Bess Varbalow-Komatsubara.)

“We thought out a million names,” said Jen, who lives near me in Woodside, N.Y. “That’s the one we kept coming back to. It’s a Jewish name; it’s also a Japanese name that means flower.”

Interestingly, Jen said she wasn’t particularly fond of the biblical Hannah, an infertile woman who prayed for a child.

“There were very strong women associated with the name,” she told me, singling out Hannah Senesh, the Holocaust-era resistance fighter, and Hannah Arendt, the philospher.

And that, said Anita Diamant, the author of numerous books, including “The New Jewish Baby Book,” is precisely the spirit of modern Jewish naming practices.

“Names are a way of connecting to the past, and that can mean many things,” Diamant said in a phone interview.  “If you name someone Rachel, you’re invoking the Bible, but you’re also invoking Rachels ever since.”

Names that work in multiple cultures, like Hannah, or seemingly incongruous names such as Penelope Goldberg or Chaim Fitzpatrick, are twofers, Diamant said.

“You embrace the variety and richness of your background — it’s important to acknowledge that,” she said. “Any name can be connected to the Jewish story.

“Names are a pretext for telling stories,” Diamant explained. “Kids love to hear the story of how they got named, who they got named for. A name is a gift you give a kid. The better the story attached to the name, the better the gift.”

Without warning, we were able to hand down a great naming story to our son. When I was five months pregnant, Julian and I took a “babymoon” to the Hawaiian island of Kauai. One afternoon while hiking in the hills, we were discussing potential names as we meandered along the trail.

I had just finished making a convincing argument for Isaiah — He was an important prophet! The Book of Isaiah features one of my favorite passages of the Bible! — and just as I thought my pitch was working, Julian fell uncharacteristically silent.

“What about Leon?” he suggested.

“Leon… ” I pondered. It was strong. It was simple. It was familiar, yet uncommon. (Everyone knows of a Leon; nobody actually knows one.) It worked well in many cultures, but there was something unmistakably Jewish Grandpa about it. It was perfect. “I like it.”

Just then, I felt a strange sensation in my belly, a flutter that was distinctly different from nerves or digestion. It was the first proof that my clothes were too tight because I was actually growing a life inside me and not just indulging in too many trips to Pinkberry — and I supposed it meant the baby liked the name, too.

Though there were some not-so-subtle objections from our family, Julian and I knew we had found our name. When our son was born at the end of last year, we named him Leon Isaac — Leon because we liked it, and Isaac for Julian’s grandfather’s Hebrew name. Leon’s Hebrew name is Alter Yitzchak, in honor of both of our maternal grandfathers.

Now that Leon is nearly a year old, I couldn’t imagine him being an Elijah or Abraham. Like the meaning of his name, Lion, he’s brave and curious (and, I might also mention, remarkably cute and happy). And though there were no Leons in our families, we feel the name connects him to a long lineage of men — Jewish and not — who proudly bore that strong, simple name. 

Ultimately, Diamant said, “One infuses one’s name with Jewishness by living a life that reflects on the values of Judaism. A good name is something you earn.”

Not that I’m biased or anything, but it seems that Leon is well on his way.

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