According to the Social Security Administration, the top five most popular names for boys born in 2008 were from Jewish Scripture: Jacob, Michael, Ethan, Joshua, and Daniel. The administration’s list of the top 100 names for girls includes such vintage American Jewish immigrant names as Sophie, Abigail, Hannah, Ella, Natalie, Lily, Lillian, Evelyn, and Rachel. And if you throw a bulkie roll in any Schechter Day School cafeteria, you’ll hit a Shoshana, a Sadie, a Nathan, an Ari, or a Ben. My friend Judith calls such old-timey monikers “nose-hair names”; my friend Lynn calls them “Yahrzeit wall names.” (When I was newly pregnant and sitting in shul, I kept zoning out, staring at the names on the plaques around me: ooh, how about Rose? Iris? Harry? Isaiah?)
Some Hebrew names that are still uncommon in the larger culture are gaining traction in the Jewish community. For example, “Matan,” which means gift, has cropped up more and more. One mother of a Matan says, “My theory is that because more people are having children later, after struggles with infertility or as single parents or in same-sex relationships, having a child easily isn’t a given. So, a name which actually means ‘gift’ is going to have special resonance.” But most of us secular Jews tend to fall back on snooze-inducing, overly common names. Only the Orthodox community seems to regularly pop out a wide variety of Yiddish and obscure names derived from religious texts. Come on, other Jews! Start combing through Jewish texts and cultural history to come up with some snazzier stuff! Here’s a head start—as well as a list of some names we don’t want so much to promulgate.
JEWISH NAMES WORTH REVIVING:
- Akiba – hero!
- Ammiel – one of the 12 spies Moses sent to Canaan
- Amos – after the Hebrew prophet, and writer Oz
- Barak – hero general and early feminist who aided Deborah in the book of Judges. Also Hebrew for “lightning.” And so oddly presidential! A winner!
- Bernard – for jurist Berenson. And calling a little boy “Bernie” is adorable.
- Emile – after pioneering sociologist Durkheim
- Felix – after the composer Mendelssohn, whose family converted to Christianity, but who retained a sense of Jewish identity
- Gaddiel – a scout sent to Canaan
- Hosea – Emo prophet who moaned a lot, Top Chef winner Rosenberg
- Leonard – after Bernstein, and how cute a nickname is “Lenny?” (Also: Nice for Law & Order fans.)
- Levi – for the tribe of Israel or the denim manufacturer, not the Palin-impregnator
- Micah – Biblical prophet
- Moe – for Berg, a Major League catcher and 1923 magna cum laude Princeton grad who spoke Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit. (One teammate said, “He can speak seven languages, but he can’t hit in any of them.”) After his baseball career, he became a spy for the United States.
- Moses – duh
- Philo – aka Philo of Alexandria, Hellenistic Jewish philosopher
- Sandy (Koufax) – baseball legend
- Shadrach, Mishach, Abednego – three friends of Daniel (of lion’s den fame), figures in seminal Beastie Boys liturgy
- Theodor – after Zionist Herzl
- Tola – a son of Issachar in the book of Genesis, one of the 70 people who went to Egypt with Jacob, and also one of the judges of Israel
- Walter – after literary critic Benjamin and hangdog actor Matthau
- Adiella – Hebrew for “God’s adornment”
- Ahinoam – Saul’s wife (literally “pleasant”)
- Betty – for groundbreaking feminist Friedan
- Frida – for artist Kahlo, who affiliated herself with Judaism even if she wasn’t technically Jewish
- Golda – for Meir (I already know a few baby Goldies, but hey, there’s room for more!)
- Henrietta – for Zionist Szold
- Hepzibah – wife of king Hezekiah, Hebrew for “my desire is within her” – Hep would be a pretty punk-rock nickname!
- Ida – for Macy’s co-owner and Titanic victim Straus (her husband Isidor, who helped found the Educational Alliance in New York City, also has a name worth reviving)
- Mehitabel – wife of Haddad, king of Edom, and also star of undeservedly forgotten Archy and Mehitabel comic strip – her nickname could be Bella
- Noa – common Israeli girl’s name (for what it’s worth, I wanted to name one of my daughters Noa or Orly, another common Israeli name, but my husband insisted those were names for a boy and an airport)
- Sarai – Sarah’s original name
- Zillah – mother of ironworker Tubal-cain and Naamah in the book of Genesis
JEWISH NAMES THAT AREN’T:
- Abner – Comic book hick, bad guy in the book of Samuel
- Absalom – Bad son, murderous brother, associated with heavily allegoric Faulkner title
- Aspatha, Parshandatha, Poratha – Haman’s sons, whose names sound like Indian appetizers
- Bugsy – Siegel, jumpy gangster
- Bukki – leader of the tribe of Dan in the book of Numbers, sounds like bukkake, a form of porn
- Buz – Avram’s nephew in the book of Genesis. Pronounced “booze.”
- Guni – a son of Naphtali in Genesis, another of the 70 people who went to Egypt with Jacob. In English, reminiscent of classic 80s Sean Astin and Josh Brolin pre-teen adventure film.
- Jeezer – son of Gilead in the book of Numbers
- Mahershalalhashbaz – Isaiah 8:1, 8:3. The child of Isaiah and “the prophetess.”
- Mash and Uz – son of Aram mentioned in the book of Genesis; in English they sound like symptoms of a skin disease
- Mushi – descendent of the house Levi in Exodus. Sounds like tasty Chinese take-out.
- Methuseleh – because other children would call him “Meth”
- Muppim (or Shuphim) – eighth son of Benjamin in Genesis. Sounds like a friend of Ernie and Bert.
- Nimrod – Canaanite name inexplicably common in modern-day Israel. We can let them keep it, since it means a doofus in American slang.
- Onan – famous Biblical masturbator. My husband informs me that there is a generator company called Cummins Onan. Someone there must have a good sense of humor.
- Phallu – son of Reuben in Genesis, another person who went to Egypt with Jacob, also sounds like a Freudian symbol
- Putiel – father of Eleazar’s wife in the book of Exodus, and according to Rashi, another name for Jethro. Hebrew for “God is my fatness.” Nickname would be Poot, slang for a fart.
- Roman – for Polanski and for the bad prophet on HBO’s Big Love
- Sabbatai – for false messiah Zvi
- Shelumiel – character in Parshat Naso, possible origin of the word “schlemiel”
- Susi – descendant of Manasseh in the book of Numbers. Reminiscent of Johnny Cash hit.
- Zaphnathpaaneah – Joseph’s Egyptian name in the book of Genesis
- Atara – popular Israeli name, sounds like Atari, acceptable for hardcore gamer parents
- Ayn – for snarly objectivist Rand
- Diklah – modern Israeli name, sounds schmuck-ish
- Gomer – wife of Hosea in the book of the same name, prostitute, unfortunate associations with Jim Nabors
- Keren-happuch – literally “horn of the face-paint” or “cosmetic-box,” is the name of Job’s third daughter, and though she was born after his life turned around, who wants to be associated with Job?
- Lo-ruhamah – literally “Unloved” or “Pitied” – a daughter of Hosea. Hosea was seriously a happy guy.
- Puah – Heroic midwife in the Passover story. When I said her name to my seven-year-old, she burst into sniggers. Exactly.
Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.