BITTER ROOTS

I am named after an aunt I never met. In my style 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. When I was born in 1947, there was a serious shortage of dead female 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 most 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. This method has resulted in some bizarre names for Jewish boys and girls and for which we have spent a lifetime attempting 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.”

Mara is the Hebrew “root” word from which comes Mary, Marilyn, Maria, Mireille and many other “M” names. Mara has some music to it. I would have liked it. It had a pleasant ring to my ear.

Mara means “bitter” in Hebrew.

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 just isn’t mellow. It’s a klutzy name.

As a kid, I figured if I found a name I liked better, my mother might let me use it.

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

Mom: No.

Me: Mom, could you call me Delores? It’s so romantic.

Mom: No.

So it went until I went to Israel where some fool told me I should use my Jewish name. I glared at him and stayed Marilyn. I could live with Marilyn, but Malka? Really? I knew two other North American ladies named Marilyn. We all had the same Jewish name. None of us changed our names. Malka did not convey elegance or charm in English or Hebrew.

So now, here I am. Seventy-four and still Marilyn. The root may be bitter, but it doesn’t seem as bad as it did back in The Day, whenever that means.



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

Tags: , , , , , ,

51 replies

  1. This is all good, and quite normal for most of you. I take pause here and speak for those of us who’s history only goes back to the auction block, that is “slavery”, where accurate records were seldom kept. While slavery in these United States, began 400yrs ago I can, as many like me, only trace my ancestry to my grandparents. At least those I was able to actually meet. Beyond that we know very little since we didn’t come from England, France, Spain or central Europe and were trade like live stock. Many of us have no idea what part of Africa, or what tribe we may have belonged to since mother language and religious practice was strictly forbidden. This makes up the root of what we’re fighting for, yet again. And again it is the ugly head of racism become front and center.

    Sorry for the RANT but I was on a roll.

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    • I have never traced my family past my grandparents. The entire family moved here in 1900 and completely lost touch with the rest of the family. Garry doesn’t have much history of his family, either.

      MOST of us didn’t come from England, France, Spain, or central Europe. We came from the outlying Jewish areas of Lithuania and Latvia. No one brought records and I don’t even know the name of the town where we started.

      That’s why I always used to get a real belly laugh out of Garry and I moving south. We are the perfectly hatable couple — a Jew, a Black guy — AND he worked on TV! Wow. They would nave REALLY loved us.

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  2. What an interesting thread. Names and how we get them are so fascinating. My own name was picked from a book mum was reading around the time I was born. She chose it because she didn’t want a common name. She certainly succeeded in that. I like my name and have never wanted to change it.
    Regarding middle names I was told that my grandmother was named after all the nurses who took care of her mother when she was born so she got Violet, Ivy, Thomasina, Marguerite. She went by Violet.

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  3. I like the name Marilyn, it is very pretty, just like a flower. My name is Roberta because my mom thought I was a boy and chose the name Robert. No-one in South Africa can pronounce Roberta so it evolved into Robbie. Now every email I get begins Dear Mr Cheadle…

    Liked by 1 person

    • My cousin’s name is Roberta although she devolved to Berta rather than Robbie and most of her life, she has been Dr. Goldberg which has the benefit of being neutral. I think my problem with Marilyn is that it’s a glamorous name and I’ve never been the least bit glamorous. It was a popular movie star name for many years until it got a bit dated. And of course, there was Marilyn Monroe and I used to say “Spell it like Marilyn Monroe.” Sometimes I assured people that I was her virtual clone.

      Girls names have gotten much more interesting during last dozen or so years. Now they name girls with boys names or city names or pieces of furniture or moon rocks. I guess I should be glad nobody decided to name me “Brooklyn.” Or worse, Detroit!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s a great celebratory tradition to embrace. Btw my friends the Freedman’s didn’t believe in middle names. The family had been Jewish but became Quakers to ensure their sons would not end up in Vietnam during the war. One son got tired of not being able to provide a middle name or initial. He I out the math symbol for “null set” on his SAT form. It did not work out well. Take care

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was named after a great grandmother I never met either and they were all Lutherans!

    Liked by 1 person

    • JT. I’m a Lutheran and Mom named me after her favorite actor, Gary Cooper. growing up, I wanted to be tall like my namesake. My Dad was 6′ 2″ so I thought I had a chance. No, not really. I topped off at 5′ 5 and a half. Gee Whiz!

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  6. Malka means queen in Urdu too. It’s used as a female name here though not very commonly

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    • I think it is, like Marilyn, an old-fashioned name. There’s nothing exactly wrong with it.

      What’s more interesting is that the root is the same in Urdu as Hebrew. There’s a Talmudic belief that Hinduism and Judaism were both founded by the same family — Abraham for Judaism and his brother (sorry, I keep forgetting his name) who was told to “go east.” There are a lot of parallels in the two religions. It’s why I find religion such a fascinating subject.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Religion is a fascinating study. And so are languages. I think the similarities are due to the common factor in both languages, that d Arabic. Urdu is composed of many languages, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hindi.

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        • I think there was one original language that broke into a few pieces. Arabic and Urdu stayed alive, but Hebrew disappeared as a spoken language for a very long time. It remained a written language — like ancient Greek — but when they had to reconstruct it, they borrowed words from a lot of related languages and not a few unrelated ones to make up the very long gap. Compared to Hebrew, Arabic is a huge language with millions of words compared to hundreds of thousands in Hebrew.

          Languages are fascinating and also, there’s a lot of history in languages. Because Israel was conquered by so many different groups, it also adopted pieces of each conquering group’s language, so there’s a lot of Latinate, Greek, and even English mixed in, as well as (obviously) Arabic in its various forms.

          Does Urdu also use root words to construct words that relate to each other?

          Liked by 2 people

          • It was the different invading forces in India that lead to the creating of Urdu, which is a Turkish world meaning Army. We have and extensive vocabulary and the words can be traced to different languages by their roots.

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            • I suspect that’s true of most language at this point. Especially countries which have been frequently invaded by people who speak various languages — or countries made up largely of immigrants. Of the many things I wanted to be and didn’t become, I wanted to study language. Not A language — just the study of how languages are constructed and how to find where words come from. I had a favorite teacher in high school that had a Ph.D. in it and I felt inspired. It turned out to be a rather rare subject, so I had to settle for reading books.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Reading can lead to research of the language too. I find it fascinating when I find Arabic words in Urdu or when I see Turkish words here. The meanings are sometimes slightly changed and at others just the same. When the British came to India, they took away a few words from Urdu/ Hindi and they’ve been part of English since. Over here the word “time” has replaced our Urdu word “waqt” as even illiterate people use that. It’s such an interesting study.

                Liked by 1 person

                • My favorite “it used to be Hebrew” word is “amok.” In English, it means wild and crazy but originally in Hebrew it means “deep and sometimes, meaningful.” Also, “copacetic” comes from the Hebrew express “ha kol b’tzedek” which mean “it’ll be okay. In English, it means “in excellent condition” or “Just great!”

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • That’s interesting. I do love to find the similar words in different languages. You’re be is cursory, and we have a similar sounding word in Urdu which means the same.

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      • I think Marilyn is a wonderful name. Just like you!

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  7. I’m smiling over here, Marilyn. Names are very personal I would have probably changed my name hundreds of times growing up, as my perception of myself (or maybe awareness of myself is more accurate) changed. I kinda grew into it though. I’m good with Thom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know people who actually have changed their names, but I was sure if I tried, it would offend absolutely EVERYONE in my family. Sometimes, you just have to cope with what you are given. Marilyn never felt like “my” name. I don’t know what it ought to have been, but that one never seemed to be “me.” (But why NOT? Who knows?)

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    • I think Thom is a very neat handle, TN.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Marilyn-Linda. Very thought-provoking post today. I am an adopted person. In the 50s when I was adopted the norm was for the adoptive parents to rename the child – not just the last name but also the first – never mind that maybe the child already knew their name by the time of adoption. We don’t rename dogs if they already know to come when called by their name. Anyway my new parents gave me a new name. And yet I somehow internally related to my original name for years. My friend Larry had a sister with my original name. And I remember when I was around seven asking my adoptive mom if I had had a different name. She said yes but wouldn’t tell me what it had been. I later learned when in my early 30s that it was indeed the same name as Larry’s sister. After my adoptive mother passed away, I legally changed my name back and reclaimed that part of my identity. It’s not too late for you to make a stand and change yours if you want. As a feminist act. It’s not very complicated and you’ve been through a name change with marriage, I think? Those folks who chose your name are probably long gone. You could keep Marilyn as a middle name to honor your parents. That’s what I did – I kept my adoptive name as a middle and restored my birth name as the first. Anyway great post. Best, Babsje

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought about it, but by now, all the work I’ve done and all the writing is in my original name. if I changed it, I would “detach” from all of that. AND I don’t have a previous name to return to. If I were 20 years younger, I very well might do it, but now? I don’t even HAVE middle name. I never got one. My brother had a middle name. My sister had a middle name. My mother had two middle names.

      Me? None.

      As for my last name, I quite like Armstrong. It’s so non-Jewish that it confuses everyone when they meet me. But my birth name (Friedman) was lost when I was 18 and I didn’t like it all that much anyway. It was, after all, my father’s name and my mother’s name got lost along the way too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Makes perfect sense! I hit a couple of speedbumps when I changed mine, in fact. One employer freaked out on me when I asked them to change payroll and my health insurance. This was 30 years ago so smooth sailing since but it was awkward for a bit. Keeping your status quo is very logical! But a lack of middle name? What were they thinking?? I have two now and let me tell you it isn’t easy. Every form out there wants first, middle name or middle initial, and last name. Never a place for two. Anyway I loved this post and tour reply.

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        • Thanks. We all come from different traditions and our individual stories are — at least to me — fascinating. I love finding out how different people celebrate their world. At this point, my family is such a conglomerate, we more or less celebrate everything.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Babsje is just very cute. I like it.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Are you in the first photo? If so, where? And which one in the second photo is your mother?

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  10. Marilyn is a lovely name. I don’t associate it with being Jewish. I know several Catholic Marilyn. I cried about my name as a child but grew to like it. I enjoy your post, Claudia

    Liked by 1 person

    • Claudia is good. It reminds me of correct grammar 🙂 I always wanted to be called Spike, but people laughed at me when I suggest it. Apparently I’m not the Spike sort of gal. But Claudia is a good one. Why didn’t I think of it?

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    • Marilyn had to cope with the Marilyn Monroe image during our college years. Side by side in sweaters, OMG — I picked the right Marilyn.

      Yes, Dear?

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