A Rosenblum By Any Other Name
I’m almost eight months pregnant, so I’ve been thinking a lot about names lately. To decide this time, Joe and I had to resort to a coin toss (I won’t announce the result here or the baby’s sex, because it seems like bad luck), but last time I was pregnant we reached an accord fairly early on, selecting Arielle, Ellie for short.
We both liked the ’70s pop song, “Ariel,” even though the pot-smoking, free-loving title character might not be the best role model (the character is Jewish, however, and, like Joe, a vegetarian). I liked that the name was Hebrew; since she would have Joe’s French last name, I really wanted our daughter to have an identifiably Jewish first name.
To some, names may seem a superficial marker of Jewishness, yet perhaps because I grew up with an identity that was more ethnic than religious, they seem very important to me.
It never occurred to my secular parents to give me a Jewish name, and I often felt self-conscious when people asked me my Hebrew name. What would the rabbi say if I was ever called to the Torah? And did the lack of a Jewish name make me less Jewish? At different points I assigned myself one – for a while it was Leah and currently I use Michal – but since they were never officially codified, these names have always felt a little phony and impermanent.
In part because of my lack of a Hebrew name, I’ve clung to my unmistakably Jewish surname, Wiener, keeping it when I married even though as a child I always vowed I’d drop it at the first opportunity. Wiener is not the easiest name to live with: When strangers don’t misspell it, they mispronounce it (it’s wee, not why), and growing up I endured endless teasing about sausages and male genitalia.
Nonetheless, I’ve always liked that even though it is simply German for “from Vienna,”? in this country Wiener is considered a Jewish name. As a child in Pittsburgh I often felt on the fringes of the local Jewish community – my family didn’t belong to a synagogue, I never had a bat mitzvah and my stepfather was a WASP. But my last name (and my Ashkenazi physical traits) somehow reserved my membership spot in the Jewish world and meant that in ninth grade I snagged an invitation to join a Jewish youth group. (I declined, mostly because – according to the girl doing the inviting – her group’s main selling point was the ample opportunities it offered not for learning about Judaism, but for meeting Jewish boys.)
So when Joe and I married, I rejected his more melodic surname for myself, but decided not to impose Wiener on another generation. And I wonder what it will be like for my children to be raised Jewish – indeed, in many ways far more Jewish than I was raised – but not to have the Jewish last name or the undiluted Ashkenazi looks. My husband and daughter are not exactly Aryan-looking and their last name (which I’m withholding to maintain a modicum of privacy as I reveal our family’s intimate details!), while hardly Jewish isn’t glaringly goyishe. But, save for her Hebrew first name, no stranger will immediately pick out Ellie as Jewish.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Conversion, interracial adoption and growing numbers of intermarried households mean being Jewish is different than it once was and that we can no longer make the same superficial and predominantly ethnic assumptions we once could. There are Protestant Goldsteins nowadays and perhaps even some Jewish O’Sullivans. A good friend of mine who for professional reasons asked not to be identified in this column, has an Indian last name and a Hindu father, but reports that because she was raised Jewish she never felt anything but Jewish and was not bothered by having a different-sounding name.
“Jews are not a monolithic people,” she says, adding that “there are some advantages to not being a Goldberg.” On the other hand, my friend Amy Sara Clark has two Jewish parents but a WASPy name, and to compensate, she often wears Star of David pendants and for awhile even considered using her mother’s maiden name, Weinberg, as a middle name so that people would know she was Jewish.
The irony is that the children of intermarriage with the Jewish last names – and thus with Jewish fathers – are actually the ones who are not recognized as Jewish by the more traditional members of the community. Jewish law traditionally has determined identity based on matrilineal descent. While my daughter’s name doesn’t “sound Jewish,” even the fervently Orthodox don’t doubt the Jewishness of her soul.
When Ellie was 7 months old, we had a simchat bat, or Jewish naming ceremony for her. It was part of a rollicking, toddler-friendly, very musical Shabbat service led by a wonderful rabbi, who tragically died a year and a half later. I’d worried the event would seem too religious, but our extended family surprised me. My mother, aunt and grandmother impulsively volunteered to go up for their first aliyot ever. My father, who is generally about as comfortable in synagogue as he is in a dentist’s chair, cheerfully had an aliyah. Later, my husband’s sisters and brother all said the service was much better than the typical Mass and our 9-year-old nephew briefly talked about wanting to convert to Judaism.
For the final aliyah, Joe and I took Ellie up to the bima, where the rabbi and cantor blessed her, and we announced her full Hebrew name: Arielle Yohana. Nestled in her father’s arms, wrapped in a prayer shawl and admired by a community of Jewish and gentile friends and relatives, my baby daughter grinned with delight.
Julie Wiener is a copy editor and freelance writer. Her column on interfaith life appears the third week of the month. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.