Names are important in Judaism. Our names connect us to previous generations, to the Torah, to the Jewish people. Names are our hopes for our children and wishes for who we want them to become.
It used to be the case that all Jewish babies were given Jewish—either Hebrew or Yiddish—names. Ashkenazic Jews named their children after a family member who had died. Sephardic Jews named their children after a living grandparent. But children with Jewish names can no longer be taken for granted. Many of our children come from interfaith homes and don’t have Hebrew names. Other families aren’t very connected to Judaism or Hebrew names weren’t on their radar screens or weren’t important to them at the time their children were born.
Many teachers in Jewish schools want to use their students’ Hebrew names, but find that some students don’t have them. How can you handle this situation sensitively and respectfully? Here’s what some teachers do:
1. In Rabbi Moskowitz’ school the third grade studies life cycle. In November the class has a family program called ‘the Baby naming.’ As part of this program, in which families cycle through stations, students make a wimple (which they can use at their bar/bat mitzvah) that has their Hebrew name and Hebrew birthday. During the program they receive a Hebrew name if they don’t already have one. The rabbi runs this station and confers with the parents and the student to help select a name. At another station they look up their Hebrew birthday. At a third station they read their Hebrew name and fill in an “about me” booklet. The rabbi makes sure to check and record the Hebrew names for later computer input and as a permanent record.
2. At Linda Kirsch’s school many teachers use the students’ Hebrew names in class. If a child doesn’t have a Hebrew name, the parents are referred to the rabbi or cantor who helps them choose a Hebrew name based on: a) the meaning of the English name; b) the meaning of the name of the person for whom they were named—if they were named for someone. Each year at the Hanukkah family service there is a naming ceremony where parents may choose to have their children given a Hebrew name in the presence of the congregation.
3. Dorothy Glass sent some homework with the following statements:
My name is ________________
I was named that because _____________________________
[Then, there are boxes to check (2 options)]
☐ My Hebrew name is ____________________________________
I was named that because ________________________________
☐ I do not have a Hebrew name yet and we would like to talk to the Rabbi about choosing one. (Parents could choose for their children to formally receive their Hebrew names at a Friday evening service.)
4. As part of their life cycle study, Ira Wise’s school has a third grade naming ceremony. The school sends home a notice with a brief lesson on names. Parents are asked to complete a form with English and Hebrew names and a brief description about why the names were chosen, for whom they were named, etc. If students do not have a Hebrew name, parents are invited to call the rabbi to help them choose one. Using Kolatch’s name dictionary, they either choose a name in memory of a family member or use a translational equivalent of the English name. Some parents let their children choose their own names. After the names are chosen, there is a family education program that includes a segment for the parents on the meaning and significance of names, some art projects for parents and children to do together, followed by a ceremony in which students receive their names. The rabbi talks about the meaning of each name and connects it to the information and stories supplied by the parents. As part of the ceremony, Ira tells Rabbi Marc Gellman’s Naming the Animals story.
5. Parents frequently ask teachers for advice about choosing a Hebrew name. Members of our “5 Things advisory group” offer the following suggestions when considering what name to choose:
You may want to offer some suggestions, but invite the family to talk with the rabbi.
Suggest that families think about relatives and friends whose memory they would like to keep alive by passing on a name
Consider characteristics that are important to them—Biblical names or specific Hebrew words. For example: a student who loves music may want to choose Shira. A person who enjoys spring, flowers, planting may want to be Aviva
Work with the rabbi to develop an appropriate ceremony
Some teachers are concerned about students who have Yiddish names. There are teachers who suggest turning the Yiddish names into Hebrew ones. In many cases, families may not want to change those names. I have a Yiddish name and the name tells a story. My mother told me that I have the name of my great grandmothers’ sister. She didn’t come to this country and never had children. I was given her name to represent the children she didn’t have. So, I would never consider changing my Yiddish name to Hebrew.
Choosing and using Hebrew names is a much more complicated issue than I would have imagined. Let’s do it carefully and thoughtfully. In some cases names will be selected and assigned just for use in the classroom. But, what we really want to do is to help families choose meaningful names that will live with their kids for eternity and be used when they are called to the Torah, written on their ketubah, and, at the end of life—on their gravestones.
Good websites for choosing and translating Hebrew names. Or just go to ‘google’ and enter “Hebrew Names.” You’ll be amazed at what you find.
Thanks to: Mike Fixler, Linda Kirsch, Dorothy Glass, Ira Wise, Sharon Halper, Rabbi Susie Moskowitz, Iris Petroff, and Shira Raviv Schwartz.