April 29, 2013
I always knew my first child would be given a name that began with an L. My grandfather, Lenard (he had the "o" legally removed to avoid being called Leo), was an enormous presence in my young life. I knew he was very old, and would likely not live to meet my children. It hadn't really occurred to me that if I had a child, I would likely have a partner with his own dead people.
Ashkenazi Jews (those of Eastern European descent) typically name their children after dead relatives, while Sephardic Jews (those of Spanish or Middle Eastern decent) often name after living relatives. My husband and I are both Ashkenazi, and both have extremely Yiddish Jewish names — when we're called up to the Torah it often takes the gabbai several tries to get our names right. Unlike in some traditions, where you might have to give the child the whole name of a relative in order to honor them, in the Jewish tradition preserving the first letter (or sometimes just the meaning) suffices. You don't have to name your kid Hildegarde after your aunt if you'd prefer Hailey.
Unfortunately, I hate almost all names beginning with L (not your name that begins with an L, I swear. Just all the other ones). I remember going on one of my frequent walks to downtown Princeton with my grandfather — we'll say I was twelve, give or take a few years — having recently gone through my parent's old baby name book. "Could we maybe pick some names together that would be in your honor but don't begin with an L?" I suggested morbidly. "What's wrong with Lenard?" he asked. "WHAT'S WRONG WITH LENARD?" You were born in 1917. Lenard is a fine name for someone born in 1917. My child will be born much later. "Lenard is a fine name," he said, ending the conversation. I dropped it, as lacking a partner or puberty, it didn't seem to be that pressing of an issue.
In college, I had a conversation with a good friend about how I disliked L names, and would try to remember my grandfather in other ways. That night, my rationalist, agnostic grandfather came to me in a dream: he took me out to dinner at my favorite restaurant, and told me I had to buck up and pick an L name. He suggested Leor.
Later, I got married, and had more name-related dreams. "What are you waiting for? If you wait any longer, someone else important will die, and I won't get a child named after me," my grandfather, deceased, said, suggesting that I get moving. The night after that dream, my grandfather's girlfriend called me and told me she'd been feeling his presence. My grandfather was an extreme rationalist, who if told people were wandering around sensing his spirit and pondering what he'd said in their dreams, would have thought they were quite silly. But there we were — and maybe, there he was too.
After I got pregnant, my husband and I began many, many, many discussions of what we should name our child. My husband's relatives tended towards the already-named-after and the still-living, whereas I had droves of beloved relatives that no one was named after. We discussed L and M names for hours, as we were also interested in naming after my Aunt Myra and his Aunt May. We bought a book of obscure Ashkenazi Jewish names and poured over it until we started to think Lemuel might be reasonable. We settled on a girl's name relatively quickly, but the number of living people in our families with L names made choosing one for a boy rather challenging. We picked a few frontrunners and decided we'd meet the baby first and, if he was a boy, see if he seemed like a Leo, a Leonard, a Lev, or, given that he was slated to be born sometime during Sukkot, more like a Lulav.
During the three weeks I spent in early labor (apparently this can happen—who knew?), my husband's uncle and g-dfather, Walter, went into the hospital, and then into hospice.
Throughout my pregnancy I had been picturing my fetus as being held by my grandfather, my Aunt Myra, and my husband's Aunt May. I had imagined them whispering him or her secrets. A shadow version of Uncle Walt entered this vision he grew sicker, and I pictured Aunt Myra and Aunt May preparing to hand the fetus over and wait for, G-d willing, our next child. I imagined the fetus holding out against the weeks of contractions — desperate to be named after Uncle Walt, and equally desperate not to be named Lezlin.
After our baby boy was born it was clear he was neither a Leonard or a Leo. We hadn't planned on telling anyone the name until the bris anyway, but we genuinely didn't know the name as we waited to see whether Uncle Walt would still be alive at the time of the circumcision. To ourselves we called him Lev (Yiddish for "lion"), to see how it suited him. In front of my parents, we called him Laertes, in the hopes that they'd be so relieved by whatever else we chose that we'd get minimal flack.
Uncle Walt passed away the day before the bris. My husband emailed Uncle Walt's children and said he knew just the person to name after him. The next day our son was named William Lev as his secular name and Laibl Zev as his Jewish name. We didn't have enough time to figure out something that didn't rhyme, which is a bit unfortunate. My mother was so thrilled we didn't name him Leonard or Laertes she didn't seem to mind that her father was no longer getting top billing. She had spent my whole pregnancy worrying to her friends that we were going to give our child a rare or weird first name, and we gave him one of the most typical male names around.
William's Jewish name means Lion Wolf, and he scoots around the house, chasing after his lion and wolf stuffed animals, as we tell him about his namesakes. We hope that he will be as wonderful, hardworking, brilliant, family-oriented, and dedicated as Uncle Walt and my grandfather. I told my husband that if we're blessed to become pregnant again, I don't want to start discussing names until the day before the bris or simchat bat — perhaps we'll make that an added superstition that we throw into the barrel of Jewish pregnancy customs.