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 March 1947, there was a shortage of dead female relatives after which to name me. 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 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 which we have spent a lifetime trying to lose. It’s too complicated to explain and anyway, the original is like the proverbial bad penny: it just keeps turning up.
Even your Jewish friends can be reduced to tears of laughter. Many of us have Jewish names that we try to never mention. Anywhere. Ever. For any reason.
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.
Me: Mom, maybe you could call me Delores? It’s really romantic.
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, just about to turn seventy-five — and still Marilyn. The root may be bitter, but somehow it doesn’t seem as bad as it did back in The Day, whatever that means.