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Parsing the Language of Names

February 11, 2010 By:
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Norman Gross, who came up with the 12-month-old's name, which honors his late wife, Fern.

"Hailey and Hunter and Rachel and Ryan, Tessa and Tyler and Britney and Brian, Sarah and Samuel and Jordyn and James, these are a few of those favorite ... "

Names. Everyone's got one, like a badge of honor doled out at home or in the hospital, and stuck right on you until the day a marker bears that out forever.

But what actually goes into the naming of a child? And what does the Jewish tradition say in this regard? In these modern times -- with a globally connected world, and the recent release of statistics from the 2009 local Jewish population study that marks an intermarriage rate that's never been higher and a birthrate that's never been lower -- are names truly an ethnic identifier?

Absolutely, declares Rabbi Robert Layman, 77, who studies etymology and for 20 years wrote a column for the Jewish Exponent called "Speaking of Names" -- interestingly enough, under his Hebrew name, Haim Reuveni. "What determines the choice of a name is basically the depth of one's connection to his or her Jewish background."

Many forces mesh into finding a name, says Layman, explaining that Ashkenazim tend to memorialize babies after a deceased relative, while Sephardim often honor an older living family member.

Some parents give their offspring modern Israeli names to show a connection to the Jewish state, regardless of their religious practice. Some pick trendy monikers not seen as typically Jewish, then give the infant another traditional Hebrew or Yiddish name. Some select biblical names because they simply sound familiar. Some couples have no one to venerate, and wind up weeding through books until something "speaks" to them.

What Layman, who now works part-time as financial secretary for the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, did over the years was offer advice to these parents, guiding them in their choices.

"In the Diaspora," he explains, "Jews were isolated from the rest of society and only known by Hebrew names. But as the barriers broke down, everyone had to have a surname. A lot depended on local officials. Sometimes, derogatory surnames were given; sometimes, they were changed by bribes. Some were based on physical characteristics, like complexion -- Schwartz ('dark'), Weiss ('white'). Eventually, Jews started adopting secular names for the outside world."

Here in the United States, continues the rabbi, "as part of the acculturation of Jewish families, immigrants wanted to be Americanized as quickly as possible, so they gave their children American names. You couldn't send a child to school named Yitzhak. You needed a name that could be pronounced," even if, at home, children were still called by their Jewish names.

The Essence Behind Them 
Today, Hebrew names are primarily used for religious occasions -- for the bris, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the wedding and ketubah, when reciting an aliyah, as part of the prayer for the sick, and for death and burial purposes.

The rabbi -- whose own first name was the No. 1 male name of the 1930s, according towww.socialsecurity.gov , and who was born among a sea of Irvings and Harolds, Shirleys, Carols and Barbaras -- notes that in Judaic tradition, each name has an essence. And it's that connection he has helped try to configure time and again.

What of Jewish children not given a Hebrew or Yiddish name to go along with their given name?

That, says the father of two and grandfather of four (whose names, tellingly, are Elisheva, Ilan, Aliza and Eytan), "reflects a high degree of assimilation or apathy, even when it's not a mixed marriage."

Of the 218 children whose birth announcements were printed in the Exponent in 2009, some 118 -- 54 percent -- were given specifically designated Hebrew/Yiddish names. The most popular first names for boys that year, according to the paper, were Zachary and Ethan; for girls, they were variations of Sophie/ Sophia and Julia/ Juliet/Juliana.

Nationally, in 2008, according to parents.com , the most popular boy names were, in order, Jacob, Michael, Ethan, Joshua and Daniel -- all Hebrew-based. For girls, the Hebrew-derived Isabella, Abigail and Elizabeth made the top 10.

Anecdotally, the names published last year in the Exponent ran the gamut -- from Lennon Jolie Spektor and Kaspar Klemens Lang to Chaya Bayla Miller and Avraham Yosef Shalom Silverman. Several off-the-beaten path first names included (for boys) Avery, Pacey, Beckett and Xavier, and (for girls) Frankie, Saylor, Delaney and Saige.

One of the more original names came from the process of elimination. Jillian Bernstein wanted to name her daughter after her mother, Fern Gross, who died of cancer at age 54. But "F" can be tough; though eventually, Jillian's father, Norman Gross, discovered "Farryn."

"He just started putting an 'F' in front of every name he could think of," and when he got to Karen, she says, it worked, with a couple of preferred letter changes.

Later, Jillian, 30, and her husband, Brad Bernstein, 33, learned that Farryn, who just turned 1, is actually an Old English name that means "adventurous."

"Everybody asks: 'Where does it come from? Is it a family name?' " says Jillian, who grew up in Langhorne, but now lives in Rockville, Md. "The fact that my dad came up with it makes it more special."

For Michael Halpern, 32, who grew up in Yardley but now lives in Fairfax, Va., his second son's name is derived from a combination of two family names.

Lane Patrick Halpern, 19 months, is linked to four generations of Lanes: Mike's great-grandmother's last name, his uncle's middle name and Mike's own middle name. Patrick comes from multiple members of his 32-year-old wife, Carrie's, Irish-Catholic family.

While Mike notes that he has a Hebrew name (Moshe), Lane and his brother, 31/2-year-old Jackson, do not.

"We really didn't give it that much thought," he relays. "We're a multifaith family, and we value our traditions. We intend to strike that balance between who they are -- a mix of both faiths."

Cheri Cutler of Center City says that she had a list of 20 names she was considering for her son, but her husband, Dean Weisgold, 46, "negated 19 of them."

So Jacob it was.

Cheri, 42, acknowledges that it has become very popular, and she originally thought to honor her brother Dale, who died at the age of 25, but instead went with her husband's preference. The baby's middle name, Scott, honors Cheri's late father, Sol Cutler.

"Dean had a very strong sense of identity as a child, and wanted to reflect something more traditional and biblical, and I didn't have that," she says. "My other brother's name is Christopher, so you can see where I'm coming from!"

When asked if he had entertained an unusual or trendier name for his now 15-month-old, Dean quips: "No way. I have a Jewish identity and wanted my child to have one, too. It wouldn't feel right."

On the flip side, Eric Brodsky, 35, of Old Bridge, N.J., formerly of Wynnefield Heights and Havertown, says that about the same time he found out he was having a daughter, he happened to get in touch with an old friend via Facebook. Her name: Bryn.

He says he always liked the sound of that, and that his wife, Elaine, 32, liked it too. They chose Riley for a middle name, after Elaine's great-aunt Rae Goldberg.

"We wanted something not common, rare, not old-fashioned. It seemed like a perfect combination," says Eric.

The 91/2-month-old does have a Hebrew name, Leah Rifka, which Eric says was suggested by his wife's family rabbi.

Speaking of names, was Rabbi Layman ever stumped by one?

"Zuama," he replies without a moment's hesitation. "I couldn't find it in any of my sources. I even wrote an addendum to a column, asking for help."

To this day, he says, the explanation remains elusive.

And then, of course, a different type of situation arises. What if certain Hebrew names don't translate so gracefully into English? Do parents realize, for example, that Leah means "weary," Rachel is defined as "ewe or sheep," and Amos correlates to "burdened"?

Layman says that you have to look past that -- sometimes, all the way back to the beginning. While there are many superficial reasons for doling out a name, more often than not, the opposite holds true. A name represents an effective link to the generations that came beforehand.

"Remember," he notes, "these names are honored by hallowed tradition."

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