What’s in a Name?

When it’s Aba vs. Papa, who “wins?” Homeshuling, the blog of author Amy Meltzer, had an interesting article this week titled “What’s in a name for an interfaith family?” that raises the issue of choosing names for newborn children of interfaith and intercultural families.

My husband and I had many arguments long discussions about what we would name our children. He wanted French names, all of which evoked the Apostles, and I wanted Hebrew names, which seemed too “foreign” to him. We compromised, as parents must, by selecting names from neither tradition for their first, most-used, name. We gave our older daughter a Hebrew middle name and our younger daughter a French middle name, and selected additional Hebrew names for both girls for ritual use. As an interfaith couple, we knew that our families would attach a lot of significance to our name choices, and I think we ended up making a very honest statement with our decision – our children are religiously Jewish, but ethnically, they are products of a rich blend of traditions.

The point that Meltzer raises is that often a name is not just a name, but a statement of identity, belonging, cultural loyalty, or even cultural rejection. For parents in intermarriages/interpartnerships trying to pick a name that they like, there can be added pressure, either external or internal, to display through their children the family’s cultural choices and priorities. A major element of this is often what a child’s name symbolizes to their grandparents, symbolism that with enough emotion can become wrapped in life-and-death rhetoric. At its most emotional, the naming of a child in accordance to family tradition is the moment when grandparents feel reassured that their heritage will live on through the generations, a sense of simulated immortality. The flip side is the fear that breaking the tradition creates the symbolic death of the family line. No pressure, right?

Of course, more often, these feelings are muted and expressed as annoyance, or mild dissatisfaction. Meltzer reports, “I don’t think we fully satisfied anyone with our choice. My mother regrets (aloud) that we didn’t name the girls after some of her deceased relatives, a widespread Jewish tradition. I’m sure that my in-laws wish they could have attended a baptism in which their granddaughters received their ‘Christian’ names.”

Naming a child, even when the parents were raised in the same culture, is a tricky project. Naming is an attempt to capture, in only a few words, the identity, personality, and history of a person, despite the fact that every person, regardless of their background, is a mosaic of influences and facets. In some ways, the naming process in intercultural families is not only an “interfaith” or “intercultural” issue. It highlights a transition that can be difficult for all sorts of families: The moment when people, by becoming parents, become a separate adult family unit, poised to choose which elements of their own upbringing they will try to recreate, and which they will diverge from. This is a moment that can take courage, and for that all parents deserve the respect and support of our community.

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