I am named after an aunt I never met. In my version of Jewish family, you don’t name babies after living people. Only after those who have passed. This is not true in all Jewish families. It depends on where you come from and your “tribe’s” traditions in the matter. When I was born in 1947, there was a serious shortage of dead relatives after which to name me. Of course, there’s no law requiring you name your kid after a dead relative, but it certainly is the more popular path for naming.

You don’t have to pick the whole name. You can just pick your favorite part of the name. Like, maybe the middle. Or the second middle. Or an Americanized version of the primary name — or what people who didn’t speak English thought the Americanized version might be. It accounts for the far-too-many boys named Isadore (for Itzchak or Isaac). Lacking a deep knowledge of English-language roots, baby’s name could be similar to the original Hebrew or Yiddish name by simply matching the first letter or syllable … a method resulting in some pretty bizarre names Jewish boys and girls spent a lifetime trying to lose. It’s too complicated to explain.

Even your Jewish friends can be reduced to tears of laughter. Most of us have Jewish names that we try to never mention. Anywhere. Ever. For any reason.


My mother and her sisters. 1953. Queens, New York.

The only dead relative lurking about my family at the time of my birth was my grandmother’s cousin (or was it aunt?). Her name was Malka. Which means Queen in both Hebrew and Yiddish, so don’t start dissing me. The problem is that this is not a name that has an elegant North American “ring” to it.

My mother didn’t like it either and decided to name me “Mara” instead.

Mara is the Hebrew “root” word from which comes Mary, Marilyn, Maria and all the other “Mar” names. But Mara has music in it. I wouldn’t have minded it. I liked its tone in my ear.

It means “bitter.” If you don’t believe me, look it up.

The moment she told her the tribe I would be named Mara, the family leapt into the fray. “You can’t name her Mara. That means bitter! Who’d want a girl named bitter?” Mom was quite the individual, but there was only so much family pressure a woman could handle. They wore her down. Thus came Marilyn, which apparently was a great name for 1947. It remained a pretty hot name for a few more decades too.

On the other hand, Malka? Not a hit. Anywhere. Still stuck with it as my Jewish name. You don’t get to choose these things and anyone out there with one of those names they wish they didn’t have knows what I mean. I never liked my name. I still don’t like it. I don’t even know why I don’t like it. It isn’t mellow. Doesn’t have music. It’s just a name.

As a kid, I figured if I found a name I liked better, they might bestow it on me.

Me: “Mom, I’d like to be Linda. It means pretty.”

Mom: “No.”

Me: “Mom, could you call me Delores? It sound so romantic.”

Mom: “No.”

And so it went until I went to Israel where some fool told me I should use my Jewish name. I glared him down and stayed Marilyn. I could live with Marilyn, but Malka? Really? I knew two other North American ladies named Marilyn. All of us refused to change our names. Malka not only wasn’t a lovely name, it carried the whiff of “cleaning drudge.” I don’t know why. It just did.

So now, here I am. Seventy odd years later and I’m still Marilyn. Still fundamentally bitter. It doesn’t seem as bad as it did back in The Day. Whenever that was.

Categories: Family, Humor, Judaism, Mother and motherhood, Personal

Tags: , , , , ,

24 replies

  1. I always thought that babies were not named after living relatives so that the Angel of Death would not get all mixed-up when he came for the older relative. That’s why my mother felt confident enough to name me after her father, who had passed away three months before I was born. She’d always wanted to name her first born after her beloved father, but may have had second thoughts had he still been alive. I love this story and, even though I was only 10 or so when I first heard it, it made me feel it was my right of passage into adulthood.


  2. My husband Howard is named after his dead aunt Helen. 🙂


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  4. It’s an interesting subject I think , the origins of different names. I find some of the names that young people today, especially celebrities, give their children really peculiar.


  5. Family name traditions are very odd. Jewish ones must be especially so. Mara does have a nice ring to it and I think Marilyn is a nice name too. Malka, not so much. How does it work? Are both your Jewish and American names legal names or is Marilyn what you go by while the other is what’s on passports etc?

    In my mother’s family girls were named after relatives who were often still living so there was a confusing number of people with the same name at family get togethers. I think it is why mum was determined that her children would not be named after relations and would have unusual names. I was born in an era of Susan’s, Mary’s and Debbie’s so Vanda really stood out and still does. I have never personally met someone with the same name as me. Naomi seems a much more common name today than it was 60 years ago but then it is a biblical name so I guess it’s better known. I’m just grateful mum didn’t go with her original idea which was Bramble. On the other hand if she had I might be fiercely proud of it today because I’m stubborn like that.


    • In the U.S. today, Jewish names are “unofficial” except in whatever synagogue you were “named” or circumcised. There it is written in stone, but most of us don’t know what synagogue it was because in my family, we visited a synagogue three times: once to name the two girls and thirdly to circumcise my big brother. Actually, that was probably done at home, but he also got a Bar Mitzvah so that has to count. Also, I think MAYBE we went to services for the year before his Bar Mitzvah because my mother might have been an atheist, but she also suffered from Jewish Guilt and figured we needed to “catch up” on years of never ever celebrating any Jewish holiday for any reason.

      Ironically, I got to celebrate a lot of them because one of my best friends was schlepped to synagogue frequently. It turned out her mother was having a VERY hot affair with the Rabbi — they were caught “in the act” in his study on Wednesday afternoon Who goes to Temple on Wednesday afternoon? But still, they could have locked the door.

      That was the beginning of my personal skepticism about religion. I didn’t know Rabbis did that sort of thing. At least he wasn’t caught with an underage boy. We have to be grateful for small favors.

      So my brother (Matthew) was “Mertcha Avrom (Avrom is Abram, the one that preceded Abraham). No one is sure what “Mertcha” means. It was Yiddish, not Hebrew and no one speaks Yiddish anymore.”

      The CH is a guttural. My sister Ann was “Chia” which means “life. When Jews celebrate, they say “l’Chiam” which means “to living” since “life” is rarely used as a singular — except as a name.

      Since there were no available dead relatives that year, Mom got to pick something she liked. My mother’s name was “Rivka” which is Rebecca. She hated the name (it was like Malka — the name cleaning ladies always seemed to have) and spent her life as Dora then changed it (legally) to Dorothy. I think it was a “Wizard of Oz” thing. My father refused to reveal his Jewish name. Ever. He died at 92 and never told anyone. It must have been a doozy.

      In Israel, names are like in the U.S. and run in waves between animals, trees, rocks, and biblical heroes. Owen’s Jewish name was “Geedone” which is Gideon (warrior) in English, but his regular American name name was Owen Garry because he had Jewish AND non-Jewish godparents. Yes, Garry is his Christian (Lutheran) godfather and life is full of complexities. He was, as his father says, “dipped and clipped.”

      When we went to Israel, he meant to change his name since Gideon is a perfectly good name, but he wound up remaining Oren, which means “pine tree” and tree names were all the rage. W is not a letter that Hebrew speakers can easily pronounce, so it slipped into “r.” There isn’t even a letter for W.

      Now names are back to biblical — Sara (Princess), Hannah, Devorah (Deborah), as well as the ever-popular David (Da-veed). Barak (lightning), Gabby from Gavriel (Gabriel), Zev (Wolf), Ari (lion, so Ariel is Lion of God), and anything else that has some version of “god” in it — which is “el” in Hebrew making Emmanuel “our God.” There are MANY more.

      So now you’ve gotten a lot more answer than you intended. There’s always a story in there somewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I like your name, but if you wanted to go by Mara, you could do that! Would Garry go for that, do you think…calling you Mara?


  7. Can you imagine some poor kid trying to learn how to spell his name ” Itzchak “?


    • It’s means laughter in Hebrew. Because his father laughed when God told him he and his 90-year-old wife were going to have a baby. It’s not hard to pronounce in Hebrew, but anyone, everyone calls Itchaks “Itsy.” Nicknames are big.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Well, you know, about the same time that name was picked for you, Norma Jeane decided that “Marilyn” was the perfect name for her, and the rest was history 😉


  9. Malka has the same meaning in Urdu and Hindi. Guess same root.



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