Most Orthodox Jewish children are given both a Hebrew name and an English name. Typically it is the same name, with one being the Hebrew or English equivalent of the other—Jacob is Yaakov, Joseph is Yoseph—with occasional alterations (my English name is Michael Jacob, my Hebrew name is a reversal, Yaakov Meir). But, sometimes, parents decide to have some fun with it.
If, like me, you’ve gone through the customary rite of passage that is the year in yeshiva or seminary after high school, you’ve probably heard this one—the story of a crazy couple by the name of Berkowitz in Gush Etzion who were so gung-ho Zionist that they gave their kids bizarre, ridiculous English names so that they would never be able to move back to the United States.
Just how ridiculous?
One son’s first name is “Just,” so he’s “Just Berkowitz.” Another child’s middle name is “Danger” so he can actually say, “Danger is my middle name.” And finally, one son is named Berkowitz James Berkowitz in a not-so-subtle James Bond homage. The strategy worked: none of the children ever left Israel.
I’ve heard this story so many times that I decided I needed to verify it. I called a friend who spent a few years in Yeshivat Har Etzion and asked him to put me in touch with the family. He agreed and passed along their email addresses; the next day I received a response from the patriarch of the family, Michael Berkowitz (a generic name if there ever was). He apologized for his slow response and explained that he had just thrown one of his daughters a wedding two days before. He said that, contrary to yeshiva world lore, the name choices didn’t have anything to do with Zionism or not having his kids move back to the states; one of his children spent a year and a half living there.
Here is the handy chart he sent me with all of their names:
“The English names are my way of saying, ‘Hey, they’re going to go by their Hebrew names so why not have some fun?’” Berkowitz explained via email. “I didn’t have to convince Debra—she had just given birth and was in no shape to stop me.”
The first four names were Berkowitz’s own inventions, while the fifth was part of a contest—“Name that Berkowitz”—he ran among English speakers in Yeshivat Har Etzion, where he was studying at the time.
He initially wanted to do without an English first name for the couple’s fifth child, envisioning the following scenario at airport customs:
“What’s your name?
Your full name.
No, that’s my brother.”
Berkowitz said the response from his children, at least, has been positive. “The girls may be a little miffed that their names aren’t as funny as the boys,” he said.
He asked me to make sure to mention that while his wife may not have taken part in crafting their children’s English names, she has some accomplishments of her own, including volunteering at local schools and hosting hundreds of yeshiva boys at their home throughout the years. Recently, she donated one of her kidneys to a stranger.
Strange names or not, they don’t sound like a bad family to belong to.
Michael Orbach is a writer living in New York.