Royal Jewish name
Jewish names speak to our very essence.
As the world celebrates with William and Kate over the birth of their baby boy, speculation over what they will name their son is over. They chose George Alexander Louis. But you can call him His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge for short.
A name is one of the first gifts new parents bestow on their children. Names convey powerful symbolism about our hopes and dreams for our kids. Modern researchers have even found that names can correspond to our life choices and circumstances, indicating how easy it will be for kids to be seen as competent and successful. Our names, it turns out, can determine whether we’re more likely to be called back for job interviews, or researched to see whether we have a criminal record.
What we name our kids—within limits—can actually affect their futures, shaping the way the world perceives them, and molding their opportunities.
For Jews, names have an extra layer of meaning.
In Jewish tradition, names are central to who we are. They signify something about the bearer; names can even bestow certain characteristics. Among Ashkenazi Jews, babies are often named after a relative who has passed way. Among Sephardi Jews, it is common to name children after living relatives. In all cases, parents hope implicitly to bestow certain characteristics in the namesake on their children, and to create a bond between them.
Jewish names speak to our very essence; they are a way to identify our innermost, Jewish selves.
Four thousand years ago, when the Jews were slaves in Egypt, they abandoned many our traditions. They ate the foods of the Egyptians, celebrated the festivals of the Egyptians, and embraced the art and music of the Egyptians.
Yet somehow, we remained worthy of God’s remembrance; God still recognized us as his special people. How? Because, Jewish tradition says, the Jewish people kept three key traditions: (1) We continued to dress as Jews. (2) We still were careful in our speech, clinging to our mother tongue of Hebrew and refusing to say anything that would get our fellow Jewish slaves in trouble with our evil taskmasters. (3) And we kept our Jewish names.
Amongst many Jews today, Jewish names have fallen into disuse. Many of my friends have common English names, and I find myself surprised when I learn their Jewish names in religious contexts. I myself go by Yvette instead of my Jewish name Yitta. (And after writing this article I’m considering making the big switch!)
We blend in with the wider Western society – sometimes at a cost of neglecting a central aspect of ourselves. How many of us maintain the three key factors of Jewish identity as our ancestors in Egypt? Few of us dress differently anymore. Not all of us speak Hebrew.
And so, for many of us, possessing a special Jewish name is one of our strongest links with our Jewish heritage.
As Kate and William’s choice of name worthy of their royal baby makes headline news, this is an opportune time to think about the meaning of one’s Jewish name and how it links us with Jewish history, names deserving of royalty.
And if you were never given a Jewish name, now is a good time to consider adopting one.
If you were named after someone, ask your parents about the relatives for whom you are named. Hear new stories about your namesake and learn more about his/her life. If you have children, tell them who they are named for, and why.
Ask questions. Make this connection real. Understand that a Jewish name has a deeper meaning than simply something to answer to.
Yvette Alt Miller earned her B.A. at Harvard University. She completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Jewish Studies at Oxford University, and has a Ph.D. In International Relations from the London School of Economics. She lives with her family in Chicago, and has lectured internationally on Jewish topics.