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Baby Name Accord: Somewhere Between Shlomo And Gustav

April 28, 2010

Originally published in j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California. Reprinted with permission.

Baby hands and feetIn my last column [for j. weekly] I expounded on the conundrum of picking a Jewish grandparent name. While this is nothing to sniff at, it pales in comparison to picking a name for the actual baby. After all, only one person needs to agree on a grandparent name--the grandparent. And it's not exactly a name they're going to use every day, on math tests and driver licenses and loan applications for all eternity.

Picking a baby's name is extraordinarily daunting--even more so than I could have ever imagined. Pick the wrong one, and you risk dooming your child to years of ridicule and expensive therapy.

I knew even before I got pregnant that if Dieter and I ever had a baby, choosing a name wouldn't be easy. Like many couples, we had occasionally discussed future baby names, and discovered pretty quickly that we disagreed on almost every one.

As an interfaith couple, we approached the topic from radically different angles. In my family, baby names are typically biblical or Hebrew in origin, and always honor deceased relatives. In Dieter's family, it's a no-rules, pick-what-speaks-to-you kind of deal.

After I got pregnant, the arguments began. Well, they weren't really arguments--more like increasingly tense discussions with no resolution.

For a few weeks, I imposed a moratorium on discussing the issue until we knew if we were having a boy or a girl. "There's no use in fighting twice as much as we have to," I rationalized.

At week 19, the doctor examining our latest ultrasound proclaimed herself "99 percent sure" we were having a boy.

We pored over baby name books and Web sites. The nice, Jewy names I came up with (Jacob, Michael) were too "common" for Dieter -- nothing, he insisted, on the current list of top 10, or even top 50 baby names. That ruled out almost everything biblical.

I, on the other hand, nixed all his suggestions that sounded like dead European composers.

When I asked Dieter to focus on names starting with E or J (after my late grandparents, Ethel and Jerome), he came up with Jan --yes, for a boy.

"In South Africa it's pronounced Yan!" he told me.

"And we live in America!" I retorted. "Where it's pronounced Jan!"

I was becoming desperate. If only Dieter were Jewish, I thought wistfully. Surely that would make us miraculously agree on Isaac or Nathaniel or Efraim.

Then one day, Dieter walked into the room and said, "What about [name]?"

I won't tell you what it was. But it was perfect. Short, sweet and Jewish, but mainstream enough that the average American can pronounce and spell it. And, most importantly, it has a special place in my family's history. It was this last fact that sealed the deal for me.

I felt incredibly accomplished. Here we, an interfaith couple, had successfully navigated the baby name minefield, despite our vastly different backgrounds and beliefs. Hooray for us!

I called my mother to tell her. "Good for you!" she said. "Now, maybe you can help out your cousins. They've been fighting over their new baby's name for weeks."

Really! I thought. Both my cousin and her husband are Jewish. Same family history, same expectations. Shouldn't it be easier for them?

As it turns out, interfaith couples don't have a monopoly on fighting over names. Coming from the same background might have narrowed the pool, but it was no guarantee of perfect synchronicity.

And maybe that's a lesson for us, as we enter the realm of parenthood. Following the same religion can help, but it's no panacea. Being an interfaith family won't be easy, but being a family never is--regardless of whether or not you go to shul together. Having the same core values, and an ability to compromise, is what will make this work.

Next time, though, I hope we have a girl. There seems to be no shortage of mellifluous girls' names to choose from, and in fact, I've picked out a perfect one.

When I told Dieter what it was, he sighed.

"It's nice," he admitted. "But that was the name of our dog … "

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish for "synagogue."

Rachel Leibold is a copy editor at j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California.

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