Names in the News
A human interest story in a recent issue of The Jewish Weekly sparked my interest. The paper reported that Jews today are choosing biblical names for their children. Sarah, the mother of all biblical names, is once again in vogue. In the article, Sarah Netanyahu is right to be proud of her beautiful name. Sarah was also the name of my dear mother, a saintly woman. I always knew that I would name a daughter after her. After all, Jews believe that children should be named for deceased relatives, especially when the relative was a person of special virtues. But, in my case, the naming of my child was marred by sad experiences.
I grew up in Poland, a country known for its anti-Semitic excesses. I was born and raised at the time when it was neither fashionable nor wise to have a Jewish name. Being too Jewish was a shame. At the beginning of every school year during my short childhood, the teacher would ask the children to give the first names of their parents. What an embarrassment it was to me to have parents named "Sarah" and "Israel."
They were fine, intelligent people, but their names were too Jewish. Each year, when I pronounced these names, I heard jokes, ugly remarks and laughter from my gentile classmates. My mother once told me that she had wanted to name me Miriam, after her mother. The kind woman who was in charge of registry of new names persuaded my mother to name me Irene instead, because Miriam was too Jewish, I never told my mother, but I was forever grateful to that woman. I promised myself that I would not give my children Jewish names.
Years later, I gave birth to a baby boy in America. I was still very new in this country. After experiencing the first wave of joy at seeing the beautiful, healthy infant, after counting his fingers and toes, I faced a dilemma. I knew that my husband would want to follow the Jewish custom and name his son after his father, Benjamin. But I thought the name was too Jewish. In Poland, all Benjamins were Jewish. I assumed the same was true in America. I was too new in this country to know about the great Benjamin Franklin.
On my third day in the hospital, I still had not resolved my dilemma. The kind Italian woman who shared my room had no difficulty naming her firstborn. She had arrived at the hospital with a small statue of St. Joseph, and she named her son Joseph. She suggested I name my baby Bertrand. " 'B' for Benjamin, and Randy he will be for his American friends," she explained. Two years later, when my daughter was born, we named her Sharone. Although the spelling was unusual, the name was not too Jewish. I wanted desperately to spare my children the shame that I had experienced.
Years later, when my daughter gave birth to a son, she did not hesitate to name him Jacob, even though it sounds so Jewish. The story in The Jewish Weekly confirms that young Jewish people today are free of prejudices and proud of their heritage. Another story, about the origins of Madeline Albright, has made the headlines recently. As I follow that controversy, I wonder: was her designated name Miriam, a beautiful name that befits a princess?
Last year my son legally changed his first name from Bertrand to Benjamin.
March 10, 2002