I had my future baby names picked out by the time I was 9 years old. I’d have a girl and a boy, and would name them Molly and Harry, after my maternal grandparents. To me, these were perfectly adorable and easy-to-pronounce names that would honor my grandparents. Of course, this plan didn’t take into account my future husband or his wishes, and definitely didn’t take into account what life had in store for us.
Fast forward to my 30s. The part about having two children would come true (with lots of hard work, but that’s another story), but the part about the names wouldn’t.
My dreams of baby Molly and Harry—named after my grandparents—were washed away when my mother-in-law died one year before our daughter was born, and my father died one year before our son was born. I never thought I’d be naming our children after our parents rather than our grandparents. Yet here I was, forced to delve into the reasoning, traditions, and complexities behind naming children after their ancestors in the Jewish faith: Why do we name our kids after their ancestors? Is it truly to honor them? Or is it really for ourselves, to be reminded of those we lost? What’s the difference between naming for those who are alive, and those who are gone? What are the differences in naming after ancestors who identified as Sephardic and those who were Ashkenazi—and what if they were both?
Growing up, my name was Jamie Rae Betesh. While my first name was uber-common for the 1980s-’90s, my last name wasn’t. So I’d constantly get asked, “What are you?” My father was from Israel, and my mother’s from America. People knew I was “something else” immediately. My name made them ask. Once I left home in Brooklyn for college in western Massachusetts, I completely stood out. And while at first I didn’t enjoy the constant curiosity about my heritage, eventually I came to appreciate the fact that I was different, and had an international background. My embarrassment of feeling different turned into pride, and I’d learn to enjoy telling people who and where I’m from.
My husband’s name is Elan Carter. Elan’s mother was from Israel, while his father was from America. His first name begs the question of “What are you?” right away, while his last name doesn’t. When we got married and I became Jamie Carter, I felt like I lost my identity. With my new, American-sounding name, I fit in too much. No one asked me what I was or where I came from anymore.
I started thinking that when we had kids, I’d want their names to reflect more about who and where they’re from. I wanted them to really know about their background, and having a name that reflects it might remind them and instill some pride.
A couple of years into our marriage, we were faced with the reality and honor of naming our children for our parents. It wasn’t an easy road to get to the names we landed on. We agreed that we wanted names that honor our parents, but wouldn’t use their actual names, as that might feel like a painful reminder that they’re gone. However, we interpreted our task of naming our children for our parents differently. He wanted our daughter’s name to reflect the meaning of his mother’s name, while I wanted a name that sounded similar to my father’s, but not too similar. I wanted names that would evoke “What does that mean?” and “Where did you come from?” I wanted them to proudly tell the stories of their namesakes.
My mother-in-law’s name was Shoshana. So naturally, I assumed we’d be naming our daughter something that began with an S. I thought of Sarah, Samara, and Simone. I went down a rabbit hole of names that begin with S when my husband announced he’d like to name our daughter Rose.
“What?” I asked, truly confused.
“Shoshana means rose in Hebrew,” he said, “and I want her name to have the same meaning as my mom’s.” Sure, Rose was a perfectly nice name. It’s even making a comeback. But was it our daughter’s name? Would Rose Carter beg the “What are you” questions? No, it wouldn’t. So I set out on a journey to find an acceptable replacement.
Once our beautiful little girl was born, we grappled with what to do. “What about Raisa?” I said to my husband just hours before we were about to leave the hospital. “It means rose in Yiddish.”
His eyes lit up. My mother-in-law spoke Yiddish, as did my grandmother, who we were also naming our daughter for; Raisa’s middle name is Mae for my grandmother Molly. Raisa Mae was a far stretch from the names I had always envisioned. We often have to clarify and correct others when they attempt to say our daughter’s name, but we take pride in explaining the meaning of her name, and savor the chance to tell them about the women she’s named for.
And then just two years later, we were back in a familiar place. We had a beautiful baby boy who we were determined to name after my father, Shaul. The problem was, my father was Sephardic, and Sephardic Jews usually name children after parents who are still living. On his side of our family, there are only two names, Shaul and Moshe, and they rotate like a revolving door: Shaul ben Moshe, Moshe ben Shaul, etc. I knew that if I ever had a boy, my father would want me to name the baby for him. But now that he was no longer with us, would my father still want that? After weeks of contemplating, we ultimately decided that he would want that. It had been our family’s tradition to use the actual name of the person you’re honoring, but I couldn’t imagine saying my father’s name multiple times a day; it would be too sad. And so we set out to find a different name.
We thought of Sam, Simon, and Steph. We strongly considered the name Sage, because our son would be named after my father, who was a true sage in our family. But my father was a man of tradition, and was strongly connected to his Sephardic culture and Jewish faith. So I could hear him yelling at me that Sage wasn’t a Jewish name. Eventually we chose Shai as the name for our son. Shai means gift in Hebrew, and sounds similar to Shaul, but not eerily similar.
And for Shai’s middle name, I could have chosen Harry (the English name my grandpa went by, and the one my heart had always been set on). Instead I chose Hersh, the Yiddish version, and the one his family used to call him. And Hersh was the Yiddish name for my husband’s maternal grandfather as well, so it was meant to be.
So here we are—with children who have old, unpopular, Jewish names. I’m not talking about Ida, Henry, or Pearl, which are perfectly adorable names. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that these old names are making a comeback, and I’m even happier about the trend of new parents naming for their ancestors.
But I’m talking about Raisa Mae and Shai Hersh. Names that aren’t in circulation these days. In 2019, the year I gave birth to our daughter, there were 12 children born with the name Raisa in the U.S., according to the Social Security Administration. And while Shai is a better known name than Raisa, it isn’t in the top 1,000 names for any year of birth in the U.S. in the last 50 years.
Our children might be the only Raisa and Shai in their classes, and they certainly won’t be able to buy those premade keychains with their names on them. The jokes that they may encounter as they grow up run through my mind: Hershey, Shy, and Raisin. Most people can’t pronounce my children’s names, but I’ve come to realize that I actually like it that way. Their names automatically drum up a “Huh?” “How do you spell that?” “What does that mean?” and “Where does that come from?” What I hope people ask is: “Who are they named after?”
We wanted our children’s names to reflect the cultures and families they come from. And when anyone asks, “What does your name mean?” they’ll tell the stories of their namesakes. Their names will remind them that they’re Jewish. That their grandparents and great-grandparents spoke Yiddish and Hebrew and Arabic. And that we’re not like everyone else.
Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.