February 21, 2012

What's in a Name?

Future namesakes
Naming Baby X is proving... a little complicated.

When it comes to cultural differences, my husband and I do very well.  We don't have arguments that are fundamentally based on a world view and experience that are different from each other.  Rather, we talk things through and find our common ground.

But baby names?  This is a much trickier area.

You see, M is white.

And I?  Am not.

Our first two babies were much easier to name.
Jewish and "white" are just not the same thing.  I have no frame of reference for "white."  I have a lifetime of experiences of otherness, of being an anomaly among "white" people.  Of being a "token Jew," or of being told by the group of white people around me about every other Jew they've ever known.  Of having my OWN cultural identity and needs completely ignored and marginalized in the face of the culture of the majority... white American culture.  Of "white" people having no idea what on earth I'm talking about when I reference the same basic experiences that all Jewish people share.

I wrote about this extensively once upon a time, for the blog of a Muslim mother I used to correspond with online.  I'm not going to rehash all the same issues, but I'll refer you to a perfect example.

Baby names.

For M, a lot of the names I come up with are strange; they are names he is completely unfamiliar with.  Whereas I have actual people that I know (or have known) and can associate with names like these:

Aviva, Talia, Mara, Nava, Simcha, Zohara, Chani, Revital, Hadassah, Freyda, Noa...

Dov, Ari, Tzvitka, Chaniel, Naftali, Lev, Yona, Chaim, Misha, Eitan

This is what a Rifka looks like
I can see the wheels spinning sometimes in M's head when I suggest naming a girl "Noa."  His thoughts, although he has the sensitivity never to say such a thing, are along the lines of, "What kind of a weird name for a girl is THAT?"  Keep in mind, M has met a Noa.  She's a regular feature at my family's seders.

Whereas when he suggests a perfectly white-American name- like, Kaylee- my internal response is, "But that's so... white."

There are other baby naming traditions that don't carry between Jews and goyim.  For example, who you can and cannot name a baby after.

In Jewish culture, it's a pretty big insult to name a baby after a living relative.  You name babies for dead relatives, as an honorific and sort of in the hope of passing along some of the beloved departed's traits.  You don't see a lot of Jewish Juniors.  Of course, in M's culture, you name babies after living people all the time.  M's middle name is his own father's name.  Nothing unusual for him, for me it would be inviting the worst of all possible outcomes- replacing the father with the son.  I could never name a child for my husband.

My great-grandma- big Bubbe
This means that, what with both of us having pretty big families, a LOT of names of just plain off the table.

The tradition of passing along family names made coming up with SI and DD remarkably easy.  We had both lost loved ones throughout our lives, and nobody had yet been named for our departed grandmothers and family friends.

SI is named, first, for my great-grandmother.  She died when I was about fourteen, and she was one of my favorite people in the whole world.

SI's middle name comes from my mother's best friend, who was murdered by her boyfriend when I was a child.  I have no real memories of the woman, but my memories of my mother grieving will stay with me for my whole life.  As important to me as my great-grandmother was, I have no doubt that Irene was more important to my mother.  And as I have a lifelong best friend of my own, I know how utterly devastated I would be if I found out something so horrific had happened to her.  In honor of the woman who had been my mother's best friend for most of her life, we gave her name to our daughter.

DD is named for both my grandmother and M's grandmother.  They actually died within the same year, my grandmother from colon cancer and M's grandmother from pulmonary fibrosis.  They were both wonderful women who were much loved, and M and I each remember our grandmother well.  As an added bonus, it was M's grandma's idea to give all of her children the initials "DD," so naming DD... well... DD, was an added honorific to her.

My grandma
Right now, we're operating under the impression that Baby X is a girl.  If Baby X is a boy, it simplifies matters somewhat.  M and I have both lost a grandfather, so we have a few names to work with.  But as for girls' names?

The debate is endless.

I suggest Hadassah, he counters with Scarlett.  I suggest Aviva, he counters with Angela.  I suggest Naama, he says... what?

It is, without a doubt, his least favorite recurring conversation.  He would rather talk about life insurance, or scheduling his next prostate exam.  He hates having this conversation with me.  I, likewise, hate having it with him.  But I can't stop.  Not until we're absolutely sure we can agree on a name.  It's a compulsion I can't shake.

For the time being, we're agreed on something.  Tentatively.  I'm not going to give it away, but it does include an old name from each of our families.  One of M's great-great-aunts (or was it great-great-great grandmother?), and one of my great-great-aunts.

My mother's best friend
I'm not sure it's right, but I'm not sure ANY name is right.  SI and DD had their names presented to us.  I had hoped to have daughters to name after three of those four women since I was fifteen.  I had never considered that I might find myself in need of other girls' names... but I like Jewish names.  I like names that feel to me as though they are connected with my heritage, my history, my culture, and my identity.

M has said that, when we were first dating seriously, he had considered me "white."  Now, he says he knows better.

And we're still learning to get through these cultural differences.  While I'm learning to take things in stride that would be utterly bizarre to my Jewish community, M is learning to take things in stride that are completely foreign to him.

I am a very Americanized Jew.  I am not a terribly religious Jew.  I have blue eyes and pale skin, I speak English extremely well and barely any Hebrew, I cook meat and dairy together for my husband and I am a kosher-by-default vegetarian.  But I am still a Jew.  And, as far as I and my community is concerned, any child of mine will also be- essentially- Jewish.  At least, they will have the opportunity to identify as Jewish, the implications of which are something that almost nobody who isn't born to a Jewish family can fully understand.  They will have the option of being accepted by the community at large as being Jewish.

So if Baby X is a Chani, or a Dov, that won't raise many eyebrows with the Yelenas and Avramis.  But it will for the Lindsays and Williams... which is to say, for M's family.

Baby X, last we saw probably-her
And if Baby X is a Brian, or a Valerie, it won't cause a stir with the Dereks and the Beths.  But it will make the Renas and the Bentzis shake their heads with the understanding that I have abandoned my own community a little more- that I have stepped even farther away from my heritage.  And I confess, I'd be shaking my head with them.

I love M.  And I believe with 100% of my soul that these are not irreconcilable differences.

But holy cow...

Naming a baby is hard.


  1. Within any relationship, baby naming and finding a compromise sucks. J & I went through this with all three children, but our third was the worst. J wanted to name our child Thor, i.e. the Norse god of Thunder. I said hell no. He comprised and found Soren, which is the danish translation. After sitting on it for a few days I decided I loved it.

    We did go all out in battle gear over the middle name though. No clue wth my husband was smoking but he wanted (and I kid you not) "The Bear Fighter". I wanted James. We didn't have a decision until I was pushing and J finally yelled out "OK OK YOU CAN HAVE JAMES IM SORRY I PUT YOU THROUGH THIS (AGAIN)!"

    Good luck on the baby name war! And just think, it could always be worse. Your husband could be rooting for "the bear fighter" ;)

  2. @SRM You know what's funny? My favorite boy's name- Dov- means BEAR!

    Bear the Bear fighter...
    That would be quite the moniker. :)

    Also- Soren has been in the running for boys' names for a while too. :)

  3. I'm Jewish and Latina, so while I'm "technically" white when checking the "race" box, I've never felt "white". Before I was married, I wanted to name my children Guillermo, Alejandro, Sinai, or other names that reflected my heritage. Then I married a white man whose family has been in the US for 400 years. He has no other ethnicity or heritage, other than basically "southern American". His family names are Hobert, Hubert, and Herbert - definitely out. Naming our daughter was definitely a challenge. The only thing that sort of worked in our favor was that of the two grandmothers of mine that we named our daughter after (by choosing a name starting with "E" as both of their did), my Jewish grandmother had passed and my Latina one hadn't, thereby allowing us to respect both of their traditions. The name we chose isn't Jewish or Latina, but it's different and we love it. Good luck in your name hunt. (And tell M I know a girl named Noah, with no Jewish parents.)

  4. I love this! It's so true, on all accounts. My husband and I are both Jewish and we still have a very hard time agreeing on names. I love the names you list here, I'd use most of those names if it was all my choice...

    Just a note, Sephardi Jews do name their children after their parents. So Shmuel ben Shmuel is not uncommon (Samuel son of Samuel). Perhaps if you were Sephardi you wouldn't have as much difficulty. Then again, M seems to find your loved Jewish names funny anyway. ;-)

  5. My husband most identifies with the Italian portion of his "white mutt-ness" eventhough German is the technically dominant. Me, 100% Americanized Mexican so I had no attachment to all Latino names. But I had issue with his very Italian names. He was so attached to Carmine for a son. I couldn't - I still associate that with a mobster. He also likes Mackenzie for a girl. How would I explain Mackenzie to my mother who is named Eduvijes? I am not looking forward to this discussion whenever we create baby #2.

  6. If we have a hard time naming babies I can only imagine what goes on in the minds of celebrities. Honestly who names their babies Apple, Blanket, or Sage Moonblood.

  7. I would go with what pleases both of you and some sort of compromise between the two.

  8. Good luck. I'm sure with time you'll find the right name for both of you.

  9. Why not Jenna, Lisa, Lou?
    Why can't it be Peggy Sue?
    I really like Jennifer, but Angela's nice too!

    ...I suppose I'll keep it, and thank you!



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