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Choosing Your Child's Name: Finding a Way to Honor the Traditions of Both of Your Families

"A good name is preferable to great riches." Proverbs 22:1

Choosing a name for your child is a very significant way to pass on a family legacy. Your child's name creates an enduring connection to his or her heritage. For interfaith couples who have chosen one religious identity for their children, it is particularly important to consider choosing a name for your child that will honor the family and family traditions of the parent/grandparents of the other faith.

Names have always been very important in family traditions. If you look at the earliest biblical families you will notice that the Bible often specifies which parent bestows the child's name, and generally specifies the meaning of the name. For example, in Genesis, Chapter 21, Verses 1-8, although Abraham actually bestows the name Isaac to their son, it is Sarah who chooses the name which means laughter (yitzhak, in Hebrew). Sarah says in 21:6 "God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me."

Since biblical times names have often expressed a personality trait or a key value or have represented an object or characteristic in nature. Most often, names are given to honor cherished family members or other people deeply respected by a family.

In Jewish tradition, Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews often perpetuate the memory of someone who has died, while Sephardic Jews, those originating from Spain and Northern Africa, customarily honor living relatives through the name passed on to a child. The custom of giving Jewish children two names, one secular and one Hebrew, began in Europe around the 13th century. This custom has been widely accepted and is very common today. Interestingly, Jews did not use last names until the 18th century, when many European countries passed laws which forced Jews to take family last names. Before that time, the individual's first name was used in conjunction with "the son or daughter of" their father and/or mother's first name. Here, an example would be: Isaac, son of Sarah and Abraham. When names are used in Jewish religious ceremonies, only the individuals first name in conjunction with son or daughter of their parents are used. An example in Hebrew would be: Yitzhak bar Sarah v' Abraham.

In other religions, naming traditions may derive from the national and ethnic backgrounds of each parent. Some families pass down their heritage through current or former last names adapted as first or middle names for children. These parents often want to pass on the first name of a beloved family member, frequently a living parent or grandparent. In the case of boys, "Jr" or "II" may be added as part of the given name. Interestingly, this custom is somewhat similar to the "son of" Jewish custom referred to above.

What advice might I give to an interfaith couple who wanted to honor family legacies in their choice of a family name? I once worked with an interfaith couple where the male partner, raised in a closely knit and deeply religious Catholic family, was willing to raise his future children within his partner's Jewish faith, but he wanted to name his child after his father, John, who had recently died of cancer. This man's name was also John and, if he had a son, he wanted to name that child John III. John's Jewish partner came from an Eastern European tradition where a newborn is named after a beloved deceased relative. Ironically, this was exactly what her Catholic partner wanted to do, to name the child after his father. However, she felt naming a child "III" was not a Jewish thing to do. I strongly encouraged her not only to listen to her partner's need to honor his father's memory by passing on of his name but also to remember that he was willing to give her the enormous gift of raising a future child within Judaism. What this Catholic man was asking for was very important in his family's tradition and I strongly encouraged his Jewish partner to understand John's needs to carry on the tradition of his family through the giving of this name.

In conclusion, it is important for couples to recognize that names, even nicknames, are loaded with meaning. Understanding the meaning behind one's family names can provide insights into each other's faith and family traditions. A significant way to recognize the heritage of a partner whose faith tradition is not chosen for a child's identity is to select a name that honors that partner's family customs and heritage.

"Every person has three names: one parents give them, one others call them, and one they acquire themselves." (Ecclesiates Rabbah VII 1:3)

If you and your partner have never talked about the meaning of family names, here are some questions to begin to explore this topic together:

*Who named you?

*Why were you given your name?

*If you were named after someone, share what you know about that person (or use this as an opportunity to learn more about her/him!).  

*Where and when was your namesake born?

*What special qualities did they possess that you would like to develop within yourself?

*What is the origin and meaning behind your last name?

*What are the "connections" you feel to your family heritage that are linked to your name?

*What nicknames have you had?

*How did they originate?

*How have you felt about these nicknames at various times in your life?

*Lastly, what are your favorite girls and boys names? Why do you particularly like these names? What names do you think about passing on to your future children? Why?

Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. 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.
Dr. Paula Brody

Dr. Paula Brody, Ed.D., LICSW, is director of Outreach Programs and Training for the Northeast Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement), where she develops and coordinates a wide range of programs and services to welcome interfaith families into Reform congregations.

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