English 202B: Writing About the Self
The Effect of Anti-Semitism and Immigration on Jewish Naming Traditions
Appendix A: Glossary
Appendix B: Interview Informed Consent Forms
University of Mary Washington
Named after the Dead
I grew up Jewish, in a Jewish household, celebrated all the Jewish holidays, with a Hebrew name, and went religiously (pun intended) to synagogue and Hebrew school. But my Hebrew name, Sarah Ilana, was always secondary, even in Jewish spaces, to my primary name, Lauren. It was only said during ultra-religious events, like my bat mitzvah and confirmation. All I knew about the traditions of baby naming in Judaism was from my mother; I knew who I was named after, and she told me that Jews named people after the dead as a way to honor them and that it was bad luck to name babies after the living, because then the living person would die. This constituted the extent of my knowledge on the subject, so I was determined to not only figure out if this information was true or not, but also to see what else I could uncover about Jewish naming in general.
What I found was that the tradition my mother had told me about was specifically an Ashkenazi (see Appendix A for a Glossary of Terms) one. When the Jewish people were forced out of ancient Palestine/Israel by first the Babylonians, and then the Romans, they settled in every corner of the known world. My mother’s mother’s side settled in North Africa, but the side I researched for this project was my mother’s father’s side, who settled in Eastern Europe. Jews in this area were grouped by the term Ashkenazi, while Jews that settled in the Mediterranean region were called Sephardic. Sephardic Jews had their own traditions about naming. In fact, they considered it good luck to name children after living ancestors as a way to honor them and pass on knowledge (Novak). Ashkenazi Jews had a different take, which is the traditions passed down through my family, that my mother told me about. Ashkenazi Jews also happened to make up a majority of Jewish immigrants to America at the turn of the last century, which means they now make up the majority of Jews in America. Therefore, their naming traditions have become the most prominent in many Jewish communities. In my research, I developed the theory that by living in primarily Jewish spaces like shtetls and ghettos in the Old World, names were usually in Hebrew, or in my family’s case, Yiddish, as there was no need to hide their Judaism. But the discrimination they encountered from goyim in the Old World forced many of them to move to America in search of a better life for them and their families. Once in largely Christian America, they didn’t want their children to face the same discrimination and hatred they had faced, so they tried to assimilate as much as possible by giving children Anglicized names and not teaching them Hebrew or Yiddish. European Jews emigrated to America to escape discrimination and were so desperate to assimilate for their family’s protection that they created a system of dual naming, with Jewish children receiving one primary secular name and a secondary Hebrew
Lowicz, Poland – Before
My mother’s father’s family is from the town of Lowicz, in what is now Poland. Lowicz has a rich history of Judaism, supporting a large population of Jews until the Holocaust and being a trading hub for Jewish merchants. Records of Jews in this area date back to 1136 (Shaiak). Originally, Jews were not even allowed to settle in the town, only being allowed into the city limits on fair and market days. Many Jews became artisans, and their participation in these fairs helped the Lowicz fairs to become the staple of town life they still are today (Shaiak). Slowly, over the centuries, the restrictions wore away and they were allowed to build a Jewish quarter within city limits. Eventually they even won the right to establish a community, a cemetery, and eventually a synagogue (Shaiak). This synagogue was the pride and joy of the community (Figures 1 and 2).
However, there was a great amount of anti-Semitism aimed at the Jewish people of Lowicz. There was always the threat of expulsions, as the Jews were allowed to live there under the goodwill of whoever was the current ruler, and that privilege could be revoked at any time on a whim. The Jewish community was also periodically targeted by the Catholic clergy and even the pope, with Pope Paul IV even ordering the forced conversion of Lowicz Jews (Shaiak). Because Poland, and particularly Lowicz, was predominantly Catholic, many Poles viewed the Jewish people as a whole with animosity. This uncertain situation continued for centuries, with the Jewish people also facing blatant discrimination and vandalism from the Polish people (Shaiak).
In the more modern era, when Poland was split up between Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1795, Lowicz fell under the autonomy of the Russian Tsar (Jewish Life in Poland). Life under the Russians didn’t change Jewish life in Poland very much until the 1880’s. This is when pogroms under Tsar Alexander III, a very aggressive leader, began. These pogroms were raids, massacres and terrorism of Jewish settlements, with the murder of Jewish woman and children and conscription of the men to the front lines of the Tsar’s army (Jewish Life in Poland). After Tsar Alexander III died, his son Nicholas II became Tsar. During his reign, pogroms continued and intensified with the Russian army seeking to grow their ranks with Jewish men to fight their many wars (Jewish Life in Poland). It was during this time period that my direct ancestors, my great grandparents Sarah and Benjamin, emigrated to the United States. However, the rest of my family stayed behind in Lowicz, as Jewish people continued to persevere and flourish despite repeated attacks by the Russian Cossacks and Polish people, and on the eve of WWII, Lowicz had a thriving urban center and Jewish community, which had their own paper, many prominent figures in various fields, and even a Jewish Public Library (Shaiak). The community was tight knit and proud of its heritage; records survive of my great grandparents’ baby naming being proclaimed in front of everyone (Figures 3 and 4).
In the Ashkenazi tradition, children are named after dead relative to honor their lives and hopefully emulate those persons best traits, so that no one ever really dies; as long as their memory and legacy live on, so do they (Novak). This is an example of the religious and spiritual beliefs that guided the Jewish community in Lowicz and would instill a deep sense of cultural and religious heritage in my great grandparents, even after they moved to the United States.
While my family lived in a city and was partially protected from the brutality of the pogrom attacks, they still lived in the Jewish quarter and that meant everyone in the town knew they were Jewish. This means they encountered many acts of hate, discrimination, and oppression on a daily basis (Shaiak). Jews were forced to live in the Jewish Quarter in efforts to separate them from the main population; my family lived there until the outbreak of World War II.
Lowicz, Poland – After
Records show that some members of my extended family survived the Holocaust (Figure 5); but for the most part, the Jewish population of Lowicz was decimated.
Before World War II, there were around 4,500 Jews in Lowicz. Even before the Nazis invaded, Poles had started looting and vandalizing Jewish establishments. When the Germans occupied the town in 1939, they rounded all the Jewish men living in Lowicz up and tortured them in the synagogue for two days (Brustin-Bernstien). Shortly after, they completely burned down the Great Synagogue, which had been a symbol of Jewish community (Shaiak). Then they forced them into the Lowicz Ghetto (Figure 6) in 1940, along with about 3,500 Jews from the countryside of Lodz, which surrounded Lowicz (Brustin-Bernstein). During this period of confinement and occupation, the Nazis forced them to engage in slave labor to divert the Bzura River. They shoveled the banks away from the city, preventing it from flooding, while many of them were dying of disease and starvation (Gawenda). The Nazis worked them to death before they ever got to the camps. The Jewish prisoners were forced to pave the roads near the new river route with the gravestones of their ancestors (Tcharnezai-Shaiak). Jewish history in Lowicz was completely decimated.
In 1941, the Lowicz Ghetto was liquidated when everyone in it was forced to the Warsaw Ghetto; out of the thousands of Jews who had originally lived in Lowicz, only 300 remained to be transferred to Warsaw (Shaiak). In 1942, those who were still alive in the Warsaw Ghetto were transferred to Treblinka concentration camp (Figure 7).
Treblinka was a work and extermination camp, second only to Auschwitz in the amount of people murdered within its gates (Berenbaum). The only Jews in Lowicz now are ghosts.
This was the cruel and violent fate of many of my family. This was the fate my great grandparents were escaping when they emigrated to the United States through Ellis Island in 1912 to escape the escalating pogroms; my great grandfather Benjamin was 20, my great grandmother Sarah was 18. They married a year later in 1913, and moved from New York City to Waltham, Massachusetts to start a family.
New England, USA
All seven of Benjamin and Sarah’s children were born in Massachusetts: Herman, Lillian, Harris, Ruth, Gertrude, Leon, and Miriam. Of those seven, the only name that sounds even vaguely Jewish is Miriam. My great grandparents had given them Western European sounding names, in an effort to ease their transition into American society. But my great grandparents also gave them secondary Hebrew names; Herman was Chaim (חיים , this means life in Hebrew), Lillian was Rebecca, or Rivka (one of the Jewish matriarchs, רבקה), Harris was Hertz ( הרץ), Ruth was Raiza (ראיזה), Gertrude was Goldie or Golda (גולדי), Leon was Aryeh Leib (אריה לייב), and Miriam was Mariyam (מרים).
However, first names weren’t the only thing that was changed to help the family acclimate to American society. My family’s ancestral name was Grynbum (with variations like Greenbum, Greenbaum, and Grynbym, depending on who was writing). In my research, I found no less than seven different ways my great-great grandfathers name had been spelled (Figure 8). When my great grandfather Benjamin was naturalized, he asked that the judge change his name to Greene as well (Greene). I had thought that our last names were changed by officials at Ellis Island because they couldn’t pronounce them, but it turns out that Jewish immigrants actually changed their family names themselves (Fermaglich). This was a widespread phenomenon among Jewish immigrant families, as changing their name helped them become more American and subsequently shielded them from the harm of anti-Semitism (Fermaglich). In my own family tree, many immigrants changed their last names from Eastern European sounding names to more Anglican ones. Grabsky was changed to Grey, Mullavitch to Miller, and so on (Greene).
When the children of these immigrants grew up and had kids of their own, they continued the naming tradition of assimilation started by their parents. This generation also grew up during the Holocaust, where the trauma of their ancestors and relatives due to their existence as Jewish people was fresh in their minds. There was also a large number of Nazi sympathizers in America, creating an atmosphere of unease among many American Jewish communities about openly practicing their religion in the supposed land of the free (Sarna). My Papa Lee, or Leon, was the second to last child and last son of his family. He married my grandma Lenore in 1957, and they had my uncles Howard and Bob in 1961 and 1962, respectively.
When talking with my grandfather, even he admits their names were heavily Anglicized and not very Jewish names, but they both had separate Hebrew names; Ruvein for Robert and Herz, a family name being passed down, for Howard (Greene). My mom came along nearly a decade later, in 1969. All of their names are thoroughly Anglicized; my mom’s name Elizabeth Jennifer sounds as typically American as possible. In fact, when looking at the list of top baby names for girls from 1969, Jennifer is #10 and Elizabeth is #13 (Bologna). This shows how the pressure to assimilate for safety reasons were impacting the new names being chosen. My grandparents chose Elizabeth because they thought it could be turned into many different nicknames, so their daughter could choose what she was called. My mom eventually settled on Liz (Greene). But the fact that it was a very white and Anglican name probably didn’t escape their notice. Her Hebrew name, Yehudit Yona (יהודית יונה), literally translates to woman of the doves, but they only chose the name because her mother wanted a better name than Yentl (Westendorf). Yentl is a traditional and old-fashioned Yiddish name that was common among Polish Jewish, and apparently one of my mother’s aunts told my grandmother it was a “god-awful name” (Westendorf). So, they settled on Yehudit Yona. This also followed one of the rules of Ashkenazi baby naming, as J’s in English often translate to Y sounds in Hebrew. Therefore, we seen Jennifer having the same syllabic sound as Yehudit, which is a tradition in Ashkenazi baby naming (Jewish Naming Practices).
So, even though my mother was raised in an observant Jewish household, went to a Jewish day school for many years, and was bat mitzvah’d, she had still been given a primary name that was very Anglicized. This name still had Jewish undertones in the choices, by being semi-based on a Hebrew name, but appeared outwardly Americanized (Westendorf). One can look at the hate groups that have operated in America, like the Klu Klux Klan, and understand why these precautions were taken. In the late 1950’s, there was a surge of attacks on synagogues in the South by white nationalists (Fattal). In 1960, there was an attack on Temple Beth-Israel in Alabama, where the attacker threw a bomb into the synagogue and then shot fleeing worshippers when the bomb failed to detonate (Fattal). These attacks undercut the idea in many American Jews’ heads that America was a land free from the types of persecution they had faced in the Old World and made many Jews more hesitant about outwardly showing their heritage (Fattal). This cemented in American Jewry the tradition of giving your children separate names for the public secular sphere and the private Jewish one; it was a way to hide your identity from people who might hurt you because of it.
Bel Air, Maryland, US
When my mother married my father in 1997, and had me in 1999, these issues were not on the forefront of her mind when choosing my name. Instead, they actually blended secular names with Jewish tradition by naming me Lauren. My father and his entire family are Christian, and my mother did not want to leave half of our heritage out of me and my brother’s names, either secular or Hebrew. So, she chose names for us that reflect the new reality of intermarriage among Jews and goyim in America (Westendorf). Although Lauren is a name that has roots in the Greek word for Victory, it is also a name that starts with L. Over time, Jewish immigrants in America, specifically Ashkenazim, developed new naming traditions that blended cultural practices to allow them to have secular names with dual meanings steeped in Jewish history. This was necessary in America to preserve Jewish cultural and religious heritage while simultaneously appearing outwardly as a typical Anglican American for safety. One of these new blended practices was choosing a secular name that had a similar syllabic or alliterative pattern (Jewish Naming Practices). My name is an example of this new practice, and how it was also blended with the older Ashkenazim tradition of naming children after deceased family members as a way to honor them and keep their memory alive (Novak). Both of my grandmothers died before I was born; both of their names, Lenore and Lucille, started with L. My name Lauren reflects the Jewish idea of alliteration and similar sounds, while also paying homage to the lives of both of my late grandmothers, another Ashkenazi Jewish tradition (Westendorf). But, if you did not know this whole backstory, you would hear my name and not assume anything about my religion; it is a very common name among girls in America, and off the top of my head I know of at least five Laurens who are not Jewish. I don’t think my parents did this on purpose; they obviously chose my name with great meaning and respect (Westendorf). But Jewish Americans have been so immersed in mainstream American culture that giving a Jewish child a white American name with a secondary Hebrew name is just what is done. Almost all of my Jewish friends that I went to Hebrew school with had a primary, Anglican sounding name, with a secondary Jewish name for religious ceremonies. This further allowed us to exist fully in American society while also being able to hide. It’s also an easier burden for the child to carry, as they don’t have to deal with people not being able to pronounce their name or being ostracized because of it, which was obviously the point in the first place. But what does this say about Jewish peoples place in American society if we still feel the need to assimilate and hide such an integral part of ourselves?
Figure 11: My parents and baby me at my naming ceremony
My Hebrew name, Sarah Ilana (שרה אילנה), is largely based on honoring loved ones who have passed.
Sarah was my great grandmother, who immigrated here at 18 and raised seven children singlehandedly. She also threatened to poison my great grandfather anytime he was rude to her, and then they would start cursing at each other in multiple languages (Westendorf). I really admire that about her, but I guess my mother wanted me to emulate some of her other traits, like the strength and fortitude it took to raise seven children through the Great Depression and World War II.
Figure 10: My baby naming certificate.
Ilana was my mom’s best friend throughout childhood. She also had cystic fibrosis and was told she wouldn’t live past 10. When she was 11, she was told she wouldn’t live past 20. Even though she was constantly in and out of the hospitals for treatment and always seemed to be coughing, she didn’t let her disease stop her. She went to college, got married, and had a child, all things the doctors told her she would never be able to do. When she died at 29, she had lived her life to the fullest, in spite of what anyone said about her. Honoring
her bravery and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds is something I hope to emulate in my life.
Figure 12: My secular name and Hebrew name in my Grandmothers journal
Figure 13: My brother’s secular name and Hebrew name in our Grandmother’s journal.
My brother’s name is equally as rooted in traditional Jewish naming customs while also including my father’s family and heritage. His first name is Thomas, which was the name of one of my father’s cousins who had passed. Thomas also was rooted in Aramaic, where it meant twin, and when my mother was pregnant with him she thought it was twins, because he was so large. He is also a Gemini, and that star signs symbol is the twins Castor and Pollux (Westendorf). His middle name, Benjamin, is in honor of my great grandfather Benjamin, who supported his family through his tailoring business during periods of strife like the Great Depression and World War II, and he was always sharp as a tack, even though he didn’t trust anyone (Westendorf).
My brother’s Hebrew name is Yonathan David, which directly translates in English to Jonathan David, but there is no J sound in the Hebrew alphabet. My parents had a very close friend named Jonathan from college who passed away unexpectedly; they named Thomas after him to keep his memory alive (Westendorf). My brothers Hebrew middle name, David, draws from my father’s side of the family. Another cousin of my fathers, David, had been killed suddenly, and by naming my brother after him they again drew on the idea of emulating and honoring the dead, even though the dead in this case were not necessarily Jewish.
This shows how the naming traditions have evolved over time with the Jewish people and will continue to evolve as we grow. My parents are from different religions but chose to raise their children as Jewish. They both made sure to incorporate both sides of the family in both our Hebrew and secular names, to show us that we are more than just one thing. We are Jewish people, but we are also the descendants of my father, a Christian. This could also be seen as a subtle way to subvert assimilating completely; by combining secular names with Jewish tradition, those Jewish tradition live on in the names of children. Therefore, Jews imbued the very thing that became secularized for protection with their own unique Jewish twist, allowing the tradition of honoring your ancestors to continue, even if it isn’t in Hebrew.
Named for Connections
This is a new chapter in Jewish history, because for centuries we were not allowed to marry outside the religion (Jewish Life in Poland). As the Jewish people grow, we incorporate more and more different kinds of people into our life, and our naming practices have evolved to include their heritage and history as well. By honoring the lives of goyim in the naming of Jewish children, the Jewish community is evolving once again as taboos and laws against marrying outside the faith lessen (Zollman). A century ago, my mother would have been ostracized from her family for marrying my father; now, we all sit down at the seder together. The growing amount of intermarriage by Jews and Goyim will hopefully lead to better relations between Jewish and Goyim sectors of communities and allow familiarity to grow between people of different backgrounds, creating a more inclusive and peaceful world for all.
Figure 14: Memorial to the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting
This vision is important as anti-Semitic sentiment continues to grow in the country. On October 27, 2018, the worst attack on the Jewish people in American history occurred in Pittsburgh, when a shooter opened fire on worshippers at the L’Simcha Congregation during Saturday morning services, a time usually for reflection and gratitude for life, and killed eleven innocent people (Selk, Craig, Boburg, & Ba Tran) (Figure 14). This tragedy only underscored many entrenched Jewish beliefs; that to stay safe in America, we had to hide part of who we are. The notion of dual names always comes back to this topic; to protect ourselves, we developed a system where we could pass as everyday Americans, and not be victimized because our names sounded Jewish. But again, what does this say about American society as a whole, and about the Jewish peoples place in it, that we need to hide part of ourselves from the world in order to stay safe and free of persecution?
The Jewish people have been wrestling with this question, albeit in other countries, for centuries; where is the balance between assimilating for safety reasons and holding on to your cultural and religious heritage and history? This is why naming traditions are so important; they help us remember our history and our people, which are both cornerstones of Jewish culture. By keeping a part of our name traditionally Jewish, we remember our roots; we do not allow ourselves to forget where we come from, or the ancestors who came before us. My Jewish names inspire me to do better, to live the life my ancestors never got to experience, and to never take that for granted. But the climate of hate and fear that many Jewish people have had to deal with have made it unsafe to have an outright Jewish name, so they adapted their naming techniques to outwardly seem as “normal” as possible by American standards. To shield their children from the horrors they had faced in Europe, many Jewish emigrants to America adopted secular names to call their children in public, to lessen the probability that they would be attacked for sounding Jewish. These secular names were eventually blended with traditional Jewish naming techniques as a subtle resistance against assimilation and to include new Jewish marriage norms. Therefore, the use of these names in the face of ancient hatred of Jewish existence is an act of resistance that I hope makes those who came before me proud.
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