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What's in a Name?

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I was intermarried for thirty years, until my wife converted to Judaism in October 2004. Both of our children, now twenty-six and twenty-two, have strong Jewish identities, but from the way we marked their births, it might not have looked like that would be the likely result.

When Emily was born, my wife and I had agreed that she would be Jewish, but I don't think it even occurred to me to give her a Hebrew name. At that time, I don't think that naming ceremonies were at all common for girls, but even if they were, it didn't occur to me to have one for her. I vividly remember calling my parents to tell of the arrival of their first grandchild--they were thrilled, and immediately came to see her in the hospital. I knew it was a Jewish tradition to name a child after a deceased relative, and we hadn't done that, and I thought that my parents were disappointed when I told them that her middle name was going to be her mother's (very English-sounding) maiden name. But they, very wisely I think, didn't push the subject of giving her a Hebrew name. Although they very much wanted her to be Jewish, they must have been aware, consciously or not, that it wasn't a good time to push.

At some point that I can't remember exactly, I think when she was three or four, Emily did get a Hebrew name. We were at a fair of some sort at the Children's Museum in Boston, and one of the activities was getting your name written in calligraphied Hebrew letters. Emily said her English name, and the attendant looked in a book and found that that name meant "industrious," and looked in another book and found that the Hebrew name that means "industrious" is "Tirzah," so that became her Hebrew name.

When my son was born, I remember thinking that his Hebrew name would be the same as his English name, Adam. This time my wife and I had decided to use a middle name that started with the same letter as the name of my father's mother, so we at least followed that tradition. But although I knew that it was traditional for a boy to have a brit, a ceremonial circumcision, it didn't occur to me do so for Adam, and my parents didn't raise the issue. He was circumcised by an Arabic-looking doctor while I watched from behind a thick glass window. I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable, and saying a silent prayer that this would be a sign that he was a Jew.

By the time Emily started school, my wife and I knew that we wanted her to have a Jewish education, and she started a Sunday program, first at a local university, and then at our Reform synagogue. Nothing in particular happened at that time, or caused any major change in my or my wife's thinking, as far as I can recall. We had always agreed that Emily would be Jewish, and getting to school age presented a clear point at which we would put that decision into effect. Fortunately, we didn't have any disagreement on the issue; my wife thought it was important for our children to have a religion and didn't propose any religion other than Judaism.

By the time Emily was about ten, and Adam was six, we had become active in our Reform synagogue. The kids had started religious school, and the question had come up whether they had Hebrew names. We were also looking ahead to Emily's Bat Mitzvah, for which she would need a Hebrew name. We decided that we should formalize our impromptu choices of "Tirzah" and "Adam," so our rabbi came to our house and we had a private naming ceremony, complete with an official certificate.

I'm glad my children eventually got Hebrew names, but looking back, I don't think I would have done anything differently. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me now, it must not have seemed right to me to want such a ceremony when they were born. It may have to do with the dynamics of my relationship with my wife and her family--maybe I felt that pushing the children's religious identity from the moment of birth might be counter-productive, leading to negative feelings from them. Maybe I unconsciously felt that we needed to learn to trust each other as parents together for a while before addressing the religious identity issue. My feeling that a naming ceremony isn't essential to making a person a Jew, and doesn't have the significance of a baptism, probably played a role as well.

In any event, I don't feel that my children missed out on anything essential by not having a naming ceremony when they were born--which after all is more for the family and friends than it is for the baby. In fact, for us, I think it was better that the official naming came much later, when the kids could be aware of what was happening, and they were already clearly on the road of their Jewish education. I do think that naming ceremonies are very nice, and if intermarried parents can agree to have one, they're a great way to mark the start of a Jewish life. But my own experience shows that for some intermarried families, having a naming ceremony isn't that important, and not having one does not indicate that the children will not be raised as Jews. There are many different pathways that can lead to that result.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." 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.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Edmund Case

Edmund Case, the founder of InterfaithFamily and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An Handbook (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001), frequently writes on intermarriage issues. Recent pieces include "Can the Jewish Community Encourage In-marriage AND Welcome Interfaith Families?," from a presentation at the November 2010 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America; "The Missing 'Mazel Tov'," an August 2010 op-ed in The Forward; and "Chelsea Clinton's Interfaith Marriage: What Comes Next?," an August 2010 blog post on The Huffington Post.

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