Overview - Naming Conventions
Surnames, or family names, are a relatively recent custom of giving names to differentiate one person from another. Initially, there were five patterns used for baby names. Here, we are concentrating on those used by our Jewish ancestors in Europe. Other cultures used other conventions.
- Patronymic – Originates from the given name of the father or a patrilineal ancestor (i.e., Jacobson, Isaacson, Ben Gurion).
- Matronymic – Based upon the given name of the mother or a female ancestor, or an especially well-known or powerful woman.
- Toponymic – Describes where you live or were born, your place of work, or what land you own.
- Occupational Status – Describes your occupation or rank.
- Nicknames – Could be many things, such as a trait or common tool that you use to name a child.
- Specific to our Jewish Heritage – Variations of the above naming conventions are common among Jews across the world.
Ashkenazi Naming Customs
Among Ashkenazim – Jews of Central and Eastern European origin – the custom is to name the child after someone, usually a family member, who has recently died. In most cases, this is a grandparent or great-grandparent. The usual explanation for this practice is that the parents hope that in receiving the name of an admired family member, the child will emulate, in his or her life, the virtues of the deceased namesake. To a certain extent, too, it is believed that the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his or her name. Indeed, learning about the people for whom they are named is an excellent way for children to identify with the history of their Jewish families and, by extension, with the history of the whole Jewish people. Some parents even add these personal explanations to the birth ceremonies for their children.
Sephardic Naming Customs
Sephardim – Jews of Iberian or Middle-Eastern origin – usually name their children after a grandparent, either living or dead. Many Sephardic grandparents look forward to being honored with grandchildren who bear their own names while they are still alive to see it. Sephardim are also much more precise about naming a boy after a man and a girl after a woman than are most Ashkenazim. In Sephardic families this procedure often has the effect of strengthening transgenerational ties between grandfathers and grandsons, and between grandmothers and granddaughters.
German-speaking Jews, for the most part, did not attempt to make any connection between the Hebrew and German names given a child. Thus, a boy might well be named, for example, Avraham Franz (the latter an especially popular name because of German-speaking Jews’ affection and respect for the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Josef – an advocate of equal rights for Jews).
Torah Naming Practices
Both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews sometimes pick a name from the Torah portion that corresponds with the infant’s birth, or by the literal meaning of a moniker if it embodies a noble or aspirational quality.
American Jews, most of whom are descended from Ashkenazic immigrants, have generally followed the East European custom of making some connection between the two names given a child at birth, but often the link is a phonic one rather than one based on meaning. Thus, if American Jewish parents name their child Sarah after a grandmother of that name, they are usually only interested in an English name beginning with “S.” So ”Sarah,” whose English name (if she lived in America) was likely to have been something like Sadie, now has a granddaughter named after her with a name something like Samantha. In fact, this practice is so widespread that American Jewish parents may actually ask what the Hebrew equivalent for a name like Sadie is – and are surprised to learn that there is no real equivalent, only a phonic similarity to a number of Hebrew names that begin with the Hebrew letter "sin."
Current Trends in Jewish Names
Currently in the United States, biblical names enjoy great popularity. Many American Jews are giving their children Hebrew baby names that have English equivalents. Thus, a child might be given the name Ya’akov after his grandfather and be called Jacob in English – though that namesake might also have been named Ya’akov in Hebrew but have been called something like Jerome in English. Then too, the new Jewish self-awareness occasioned by the successful revival of the Hebrew language in the State of Israel has led to the growing popularity of new Israeli name – Ari or llana, for instance – not only for Israeli children, but also for American Jewish children.
Considering the importance of a name to the overall identity and ideals of a child, many Jews think that Jewish parents should select names for their children that will strengthen ties to family and reinforce the historical continuity of the Jewish people.