My daughter’s birth four years ago was the culmination of an unconventional and improbable group project. Candy, a warm and wonderful surrogate, carried her to term and emerged energized after three hours of labor, during which Candy’s husband had provided emotional support from next to the delivery bed. In the waiting room sat my mother and Sarah, my dearest friend—and the egg donor. Sarah’s first call went to her husband, my fraternity brother and a willing participant in the battery of medical screenings required of donor’s partners. Through years of sterile sample cups, hormone injections, emotional strategizing, embryo transfers, sci-fi-like 3-D ultrasounds, and hope, all of us, each in his or her way, had been indispensable in bringing us to this moment.
But if the endeavor until that point had been a shared one, I was on my own for the next step: choosing a name for the baby. A friend once noted that naming a child is a parent’s first public act, and this foray into parenting without a partner and crafting something appropriately special felt daunting. As a single parent, I held unfettered dictator-like power and carried this awesome responsibility by myself.
Sources stressing a name’s importance piled on. A 2009 study linked boys with uncommon names and criminal activity, while Horoscopezen.com ominously cautions that “[y]our name is not only your calling card, it also may determine how your life will unfold.” Cyber-surfing yielded experts who exhorted parents to find a name that “denotes righteousness, for at times the name itself can be an influence for good or an influence for bad.” Heavy stuff, even if it were a team effort. But it wasn’t.
In truth, I wasn’t entirely alone. In addition to suggestions from friends and relatives, the Jewish tradition I’ve inherited provides a rich index of naming options from Aba to Zu-Li and guidance for selecting among them. Some admonitions, like avoiding something unpronounceable or the name of someone evil, were obvious, if new as formal rules. More familiar among Ashkenazi Jews is naming children after individuals who have passed away, which ostensibly links the two souls metaphysically and transmits attributes of the deceased. At minimum, it provides a catalyst for talking about those no longer with us and roots the newborn in family history.
I’d been a participant in this practice. Being named after Sophie, my father’s grandmother, and William, my mother’s grandfather, had prompted questions about the contours of their lives and stories of William’s generosity and peacemaking and Sophie’s warmth and baking talents. As people who knew both my grandfather Reuben and my niece and nephew who are named after him, my siblings and I welcomed the opportunity to relate stories of his membership in a Lower East Side gang, his night-shift job as a typesetter, his undergraduate matriculation at age 48, his gentle earnestness, and his smile. All this confirmed the tradition’s effectiveness and a rationale for incorporating it into decision-making.
My inclination was to name my daughter after my grandmother Lillian. After a less-than-enjoyable and brief stint as a French teacher, Grandma shifted gears, graduating from Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1943, starting a women and children’s health practice, and opening Montclair, New Jersey’s, first racially integrated doctor’s waiting room. Her house was cluttered with everything from mismatched skeins of colorful wool to towers of plastic yogurt containers resurrected as cups. She was protective, nurturing, and strict about us drinking a glass of milk at every meal. She loved purple and hated green. She laughed freely. She composted.
By the time I knew Grandma, she was old and comfortably so. Euphemisms like “elderly,” “mature,” or even “older,” which we grandchildren jokingly would invoke, elicited an admonishing glare. “ ‘Old’ isn’t a four-letter word,” she’d say. “If I’m not old now, when am I going to be old?” In a youth-obsessed culture, her security in her seniority (a circumlocution she abhorred) was remarkable.
The hitch: My grandmother was still alive, although she had steadily been losing her memory and personality. By 2011, when my daughter was born, Grandma was bluffing her end of conversations, and it was pretty iffy whether she recognized visitors. But even if much of the person I knew as Grandma was gone, physically she was still alive, and surprisingly strong at that.
I grew up believing that naming after the living was a no-no and invited the Evil Eye’s attention. While many other Jews have no similar reservations, one website proclaimed categorically that Ashkenazim “do not name their children after someone who is alive at the time.” Justifications vary: Some posit that it shortens the older person’s life or implies a wish for them to die, while others worry that the Angel of Death will mistakenly take the child at a young age in the adult’s stead. A medieval commentary reasons that speaking a living elder’s name, even when referring to someone else, is disrespectful, can be confusing, and should be avoided. If extraordinary circumstances warranted an exemption, guardians of heritage required asking the older namesake’s permission.
Hence my quandary. Wanting my daughter to know and, if the metaphysicians were correct, to assume aspects of Grandma’s personality compelled me to ensure that my grandmother’s legacy moved forward. My brother, my sister, and I weren’t anticipating additional children, making this the last chance to boost her visibility with a new generation. Given my grandmother’s state, I couldn’t meaningfully seek her approval, even though I could imagine Grandma offering it if asked. Using her name required defying tradition.
But in some ways, defying tradition seemed apt. As a single-father, gay-rabbi-headed household, my daughter and I are not a “traditional” family. We didn’t become a family in a traditional way. Grandma wasn’t a traditional person, either, as evidenced by her unusual professional trajectory and general willingness to ignore convention: She got married in a lavender dress, rode a bicycle to hospital rounds, and adored TV shows that weren’t intended to appeal to her demographic, like Knight Rider and The A-Team. I saw little logic in having this process, or my daughter’s name, constrained by “tradition” when the three of us defined ourselves in large part by flouting it.
We’d come to our iconoclastic ways honestly and familially. As Grandma’s mother Bella had taught her, an embrace of unorthodoxy in early 20th century Russia had been instrumental to survival. Bella’s father had arranged for her to marry a man she didn’t love, driving her in desperation to beg her grandfather, Zelig, to intercede. Moved by Bella’s pleas, Zelig gave her money earmarked for her dowry. These funds enabled her to purchase tickets to America for herself and her brother, who was dodging service in the tsar’s notoriously anti-Semitic army. Without that rebellious courage, Bella would never have left Europe, met my great-grandfather Abraham, or had Grandma. Defying tradition wasn’t just any family tradition; it was a successful one.
Our penchant for heresy reflects a widespread Jewish reality and the truth of the rabbinic aphorism that “the past has a vote, but not a veto.” In tracing the origins of instruction back to Mount Sinai, texts speak of the “chain of reception.” Generations have taken this not as a strangling constriction that immobilizes or disempowers, but as unbroken, mutual relationships that connect to predecessors and followers in time. It’s far rarer for precedents to fit a person perfectly than to chafe for one reason or another. Perhaps such idiosyncratic frictions explain why no link in this chain is a perfect replica of its neighbors on either side; each bears the imprint of the individual who forged it.
For me, trumping broader tradition with a family custom or personal approach was never capricious or cavalier. It wasn’t when I came out as gay, it wasn’t when I began journeying toward solo parenthood, and it wasn’t when I named my daughter. These decisions flowed from intentional reflections on consequences and required balancing my interests against those of others, deliberation on what I’d be renouncing and bequeathing, and a conscious choice to adopt tradition as it stood or reshape it into something similar, but different.
After much thought, I decided to use the “L” from Grandma’s given name of Lillian, but not “Lillian” itself. Yes, taking a first initial as a jumping off point is, in fact, the way many parents recall lost loved ones directly; for me, it was a technical compromise, the subtle distinction between taunting the Evil Eye and merely tempting it. In this way, tradition bent to guarantee that Grandma would be an ongoing part of our family’s conversations, but didn’t break completely.
Channeling Grandma’s sense of humor, I briefly considered some prospects that would have made her chuckle. Among my favorites: Lagina (rhymes with Regina—the woman’s name, not the capital of Saskatchewan but still); Latifah (a beautiful name, but one, like Madonna, that’s been pre-emptively and famously monopolized); and Lamia (“large shark” in Ancient Greek, an evil spirit who abducts and devours children).
Seriousness and self-restraint ultimately prevailed, and I named my daughter Liana, which memorializes Grandma’s ‘L’ and translates from Hebrew as “He has answered me.” The meaning seemed an appropriate recognition of the moment’s magnitude and my gratitude, even if the masculine representation of G-d isn’t ideal (the feminine “Lianta” sounded too much like an all-too-mispronounceable over-the-counter acid reflux medication). Perhaps the folk wisdom will hold, and Liana will take on Grandma’s characteristics, including her quirky self-confidence and empathetic kindness. I should be so lucky.
My grandmother died on March 1, 2012, when Liana was just shy of a year old. She had stopped eating weeks before and couldn’t stay awake long enough to speak, let alone remember who any of us were. I can’t envision a way in which she, with her independent streak and strong aversion to burdening others, would have liked to go less.
Because of her long season of slow fade, it’s difficult to remember her as she was before her decline; fresh images of a frail, lost woman have accumulated on the surface of my memory, covering over who she was for most of her life and forcing me to mentally mine my younger years for more vibrant recollections.
As an effort to spur recall, I’ve taken to sifting through photographs of Grandma dating back nearly a century. Among my favorites is a more recent one of her, my daughter, and me at Liana’s naming ceremony. We are a peculiar trio: a woman who practiced medicine from the height of WWII through the next 60 years; a gay rabbi embarking on adventures in single fatherhood; and an infant who had spent much of her existence in a cryogenic preservation vessel. If tradition were static and immune to progress, none of us would have existed, at least not in any recognizable way. For us and for so many others, who we are doesn’t mesh neatly with past practice, and this friction presses us to carefully weigh what we carry forward from the present. To the extent I forget, this picture reminds me that tradition stands open to everyone, eager to accept the beauty in our innovations and ready to embrace each person’s unique contributions.