View Message

Subject: Re: Jewish naming customs
Author: Domhnall   (guest,
Date: September 7, 2004 at 3:57:27 PM
Reply to: Re: Jewish naming customs by Miss Claire
Here is a really good Jerusalem Post article about Israeli naming practices. Really good.

Call Me Adiella
by Dina Shiloh
Jerusalem Post
Sunday, May 11, 1997 / 5 Iyyar 5757

For thousands of years Jews managed with just about 150 biblical first names, but these days the sky's the limit.

When Judith Djemal gave birth to her third daughter she couldn't think of a name. "The first two, Talia and Yael, were hard to choose as well, but with this one, I really didn't know what to call her. People kept suggesting names, but nothing sounded right," she says, sitting in the playroom of her children, surrounded by toys and stuffed animals.

So Djemal made up a name for her daughter: Adiella.

"I'd heard of the name Adiel for a boy, so we just added the ending for a girl. We wanted something unusual and different - but with a Jewish meaning. Adiella means 'jewel of God,' " she explains. Though Djemal says she has since seen "Adiella" in a book of Israeli names, she has never heard of another child with this name in Israel.

Adiella, now two, carries on stuffing a toy panda into a box, unaware she has a "special" name.

The search for something different and new is characteristic of Israeli parents, says Prof. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a psychologist at Haifa University.

He has researched Israeli Jewish names for almost 20 years, using the comprehensive data of the Interior Ministry.

"Among Israelis, the desire to change and innovate in naming practices can't be explained on the basis of novelty-seeking alone," he says. "They are making an important cultural statement in their move away from traditional names, such as Sara, Rahel and Esther for girls, and Moshe and Avraham for boys."

Beit-Hallahmi traces Israelis' desire to find new names all the way back to the first Zionists who settled in Palestine. For thousands of years, Jews named their children after figures in the Bible, but only those who were religious and virtuous. Out of 1,400 names in the Old Testament, they used only 150. For boys these included the Patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Jacob's children; a few prophets; and some of the kings. The judges were mostly excluded. Girls were named after virtuous biblical women, like Deborah and Sarah.

To these were added Diaspora names, usually Yiddish ones, such as Zelig and Bayla. Sephardi Jews also used the same 150 biblical names, with a few additions taken from their surrounding cultures. Occasionally, Jewish children were given secular names as well as Jewish ones.

In the Diaspora the "double name" tradition has remained to this day, reflecting a kind of dual identity, Beit-Hallahmi says. Many Jewish children today are given a Jewish name they do not use at all. "My Hebrew name is Reuven, but everyone uses my English name," says Richard Miron, a journalist originally from England. "I don't think any of my friends are aware that I have another name."

But for the hundreds of years in the Diaspora until the Emancipation, the real name, the one used by family and friends, was always the Jewish name. For Jews who wanted to leave the Jewish community and assimilate into the surrounding culture, using a secular name was a must. But if you wanted to stay within the Jewish community, your choice of names was more limited. "Diaspora Jews had very clear rules, kept for hundreds of years," Beit-Hallahmi says.

"They used the limited, traditional, pool of names. There are many references in the Talmud about not using the names of sinners, so they knew which names were acceptable and which were not. And they kept names in the family by naming babies after deceased relatives." All that changed when Zionism became a powerful political force in the late 19th century. Zionists wanted to rebel against Diaspora culture in every way. By renaming themselves with modern Hebrew names, they were making the strongest statement possible about their beliefs. As Zionist Jews arrived in Palestine to work the land, they cast off their old identities and with them, their old names.

David Gruen, who arrived in Palestine in 1905, changed his name to David Ben-Gurion. The name, which means "son of a lion cub," was taken from the Talmud, where Nakdimon Ben-Gurion is described as a member of a noble, wealthy family of the Second Temple period.

Other Diaspora Jews who changed their names and became important leaders include Levi Shkolnik - Levi Eshkol (Israel's third prime minister); and Izhak Shimshelevich - Izhak Ben-Zvi (the second president).

The Zionists still wanted their names to come from the Bible, but they deliberately chose "unconventional" biblical names as an act of defiance. Traditional names were tainted with the Diaspora. The new Zionists looked for names that were tied to a glorious Jewish past, particularly a glorious military past.

"The name Bar-Kochba is a good example of this," Beit-Hallahmi says. "He was a leader of the last Jewish revolt against the Romans. But he was denounced by talmudic sages, so Diaspora Jews never used his name. The development of Zionism returned the name Bar-Kochba to the national pantheon."

The names of Yohanan and Giora, other Jews who rebelled against the Romans, were similarly reclaimed. Boaz, who tilled the earth, was a popular "new" name for those early settlers. Amnon, who raped his sister in the Bible, was reintroduced.

With their Hebrew names, the early Zionists hoped to make their dreams of a Jewish state more accessible and real.

The early Zionists didn't stop at first names. Diaspora Jews, whose last names were often Yiddish, German, Polish, Arabic or Russian - not specifically Jewish or Hebrew names - were changed as well. The pioneer spirit in Palestine was expressed by adopting geographical regions as last names. Names like Sharon, Shomroni, Galili, Golani and Shiloh started to appear in the 1920s.

Zionists also chose last names that emphasized the quality of strength, including Even (stone), Sela (rock), Gazit (rock), Shaham (granite), Peled (steel), Tamir (tall) and Amir (treetop). Tamir and Amir became first names too.

The emphasis on names was so great that in 1948, Ben-Gurion, as prime minister, ruled that no official representative of the state and no senior military officer could keep a Diaspora name. When the IDF was officially formed, in June 1948, all officers were told to adopt Hebrew names. Most did.

During the first five years of the state, new immigrants enthusiastically embraced new Israeli names. An incredible number of names were changed in the first year of the state: 17,000 changes are recorded.

And the children of the new state were named not only after characters who had been reclaimed from the Bible, but with brand new, made-up, names. Ben-Gurion named his own children with both: Amos, from the Old Testament but never used by Diaspora Jews; Geula, a new name meaning deliverance; and Renana, another new name meaning joy.

Some enthusiastic Zionists named their children after Zionist leaders: Herzl, Balfour and even Arlosor (after Arlosoroff). Giving a baby two first names was avoided, as it was seen to be a religious tradition. In many new Zionist names, there was a deliberate tendency to choose "bad" names from the Bible. Names such as Avshalom, the rebellious son, which had been avoided by Jews for 2,000 years, made their first reappearance with the earliest Zionist settlers in Palestine.

Yoram was another name Jews avoided because two Old Testament kings with that name both "did evil in the sight of the Lord." Writer Yoram Kaniuk says it was the national poet, Haim Nahman Bialik, who suggested to his parents that they call their son Yoram. It was a name that had not been in use for thousands of years.

"Bialik was my sandek; he was a very good friend of my grandfather and my mother," Kaniuk explains.

"He deliberately chose Yoram, the name of this 'bad' king, because he wanted me to be a fighter, strong. My mother was flabbergasted at first, but she accepted the name."

Bialik hoped the name Yoram would symbolize the "new Jew": defiant, strong, irreligious. But Kaniuk says the name now has a meaning completely different from the one Bialik intended.

"Yoram became a very popular name among middle-class Ashkenazi Israelis. When these children grew up and became officers in the army, and managers, the people who worked under them started to call them 'Yoram' in a derogatory way. It originally meant someone who is nice, well-educated, quiet, but it became a kind of insult. It's ironic because this is the opposite of what Bialik wanted for the name 'Yoram.' "

During the 1940s, a movement known as the Canaanites sprang up. These Zionists Jews, like others before them, wanted to reject Diaspora Jewish tradition completely. But they went a step further: their ideology was devoted to developing a new identity which they called "Hebrew" rather than Jewish. It emphasized the ties of the Jewish settlers to the Middle East and to ancient pre-Israelite traditions. Giving themselves and their children ancient names was an important part of their philosophy. The founder of the movement, Uriel Halperin, changed his last name to Shelah, and named his children Hamman ("child of the sun"), Pura, Saharan ("moonchild") and Canaan. These names may not be very popular today, but the Canaanite movement's influence is still palpable.

"It's in the area of names that the Canaanite movement has won its greatest victory," Beit-Hallahmi says.

"Most Israelis have become 'Canaanites' without realizing it. Some of the most popular names in Israel, such as Anat and Nevo, are names of Canaanite gods. Names such as Osnat, Hagar and Nimrod are Old Testament names that are attached to non-Jewish, pagan traditions. These names were never used by Jews until they came into fashion in Israel in the 1950s. "Adam, the best-known name in the Old Testament, was never used by Jews because it represents a non-Jewish person. But in Israel it became common as a boys' name."

Girls' names, like Tamar and Dina - who were raped, and therefore considered unacceptable by Diaspora Jews - were also brought back to use by Israelis.

By the 1960s, parents were once again ready for something new. Israelis were moving away from a collective expression of their national aspirations into individual expression. Names like Geula were ignored. Instead, a whole generation was named - not after the early Zionist settlers, or after Canaanites - with entirely new names that looked to nature for their inspiration. Names such as Alon (oak), Shaked (almond), Oren (pine), Vered (rose), Mor (myrrh), Gal (ocean wave) and Iris were tremendously popular.

These names are still in vogue, but Beit-Hallahmi detects another trend in the past two decades.

"Israelis are giving their children bilingual names, such as Ben, Ron, Shirley, Guy, Tom. This expresses a wish that the future may include a sojourn overseas.

"Of course, in reality it's perfectly acceptable for a child in New York to have a distinctly foreign name, to be called Chang if he has Chinese parents and Yinnon if he has Israeli parents. The US is open to multicultural names."

Kaniuk sees the fashion for bilingual first names as a part of the Americanization of Israel.

"We used to call a k'tzitza [meat patty] a k'tzitza; now everybody calls it a hamburger. People are not as connected to the Hebrew language as they used to be. And people are less interested in the Bible. Our generation - which was brought up in the youth movements, in the Palmah - we read the Bible. Now the Bible is less influential, and people are less connected to its language."

As Israelis became less interested in having specifically biblical or Israeli names, the pace of altering last names slowed down.

"The first years of the state were characterized by exuberant optimism about the newness and uniqueness of everything in Israel, and there was a great deal of excitement about every expression of Jewish sovereignty, including changing your name," Beit-Hallahmi says.

"The events of recent years have brought about more pessimism. So there is less pressure on new immigrants to shed their non-Israeli last names." Natan Sharansky, who changed his first name but not his last, is a case in point.

There is, of course, one group that hasn't changed its naming in the past 200 years. Haredim are still using the same 150 names always used by Jews.When Susan Freed, who has six sons, had to choose their names, it wasn't difficult at all.

"We name children after someone in the family who has passed away, or we choose the name because of the season or the day he was born. We don't choose names from the Bible which have bad connotations. We only name children after people who have good characteristics," she explains. "Eliyahu David was born on Motza'ei Shabbat, so that's why he is Eliyahu. There is a tradition that the Messiah will arrive on Motzei Shabbat accompanied by Eliyahu the Prophet. Rafael was born in the month of Refua (Iyar), so that was easy. Haim is named after my grandfather.

"Binyamin Simcha is named after my father-in-law, who was called Binyamin, and Simcha, because the brit was during Succot - a happy time. Asher is named after my great-grandfather. And Moshe Avraham is named after an uncle. I think he really takes after him, which is interesting."

Among haredim, girls' names like Esther, Sara, Rahel, Miriam, Rivka and Dvora have not changed in centuries. But because of the enormous changes in names among modern Orthodox and secular Israelis, it's possible to analyze Israelis by their names alone.

"A person called Orly will be no older than 40, most likely of Sephardic origin, and probably not from a religious family," Beit-Hallahmi speculates.

"A man called Oren or Alon is probably no older than 37, because this name appeared only after 1960. The same goes for Keren for girls." The frantic search for new names among Israelis reflects a crisis of identity, Beit-Hallahmi says.

"There is a stampede to get away from the past. Even Anat and Yoram are now considered ancient names. People want originality at any cost." Is the desire for new names part of the "post-Zionist" world we live in now?

Beit-Hallahmi chuckles.

"You can call it that, but really it's an expression of the instability we live in here. The question of whether we want to be Jewish, how and why - these issues have not been resolved. Post-Zionism is a name for the crisis Israelis find themselves in: We don't know where we are going, and we don't know where we want to go. And that is reflected in the names we choose."

 Post a Response

Messages in this thread: