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 whom I could be named. There’s no law requiring you to name your baby after a dead relative, but it is the most popular way to go.

I’m the dark-haired one in the front middle with rolled up jeans.

When you chose the American name which was (in theory) based on the Jewish name (it could be Hebrew or Yiddish), you didn’t need to use the whole name. You could pick your favorite part of the name. Its first letter or the middle syllable. Or a slightly Americanized version of what you thought the name-equivalent was, often what people who didn’t speak English well thought the Americanized version might be. This accounts for too many boys named Isadore to replace Itzchak which actually was the Old Testament’s Isaac. Lacking a 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 bizarre names which Jewish boys and girls spent a lifetime trying to lose. It’s complicated.

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

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

The only dead female relative lurking in my family when I was born was my grandmother’s cousin (or was it aunt?). Her name was Malka. Which means queen in Hebrew and Yiddish. The problem is that Malka is not a name with an elegant tone or texture. And there’s absolutely no way you can derive a nickname from it. Mal? Ka? My mother didn’t like it either and decided to name me “Mara” with Malka as my Jewish name. The name Marilyn is originally British and means “star of the sea.” Since I’m a Pisces, the fishiest zodiac sign, why not? Star of the Sea is a name Royal Caribbean will (I’m sure) eventually use for a cruise ship. They could just call the ship “Marilyn” which would puzzle travelers worldwide.

Mara is the Hebrew “root” word from which comes Mary, Marilyn, Maria and all the other “Mar” names. But Mara has music 🎵. I wouldn’t have minded it. I rather liked it, bitterness notwithstanding.

Mom in 1948

The moment mom told her sisters she planned to name me Mara, they leapt into the fray. “You can’t name her Mara. It means bitter! Who’d want a wife named bitter?”

Mom was quite the individualist, 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 in 1947. It remained a good name for a few more decades. Now, it’s a name that indicates you are a boomer. Young women are not named Marilyn, at least none I know of. If you are, I’m sorry.

On the other hand, Malka? What a clunker. I’m stuck with it as my Jewish name because children don’t get to choose these things. Anyone who has a name they wish they didn’t have, knows what I mean. I never liked my name. I still don’t like it, though I’m glad some of my other childhood name choices were shot down by my mother. I’m old enough to not care.

As a kid, I figured if I could find 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 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 at him and remained Marilyn. I could live with Marilyn, but Malka? Really? I knew two other North American ladies named Marilyn. We all refused to change our names. Malka not only wasn’t lovely, it carried a whiff of “cleaning drudge.” I don’t know why. It just did.

Still Marilyn after all these years

So now, here I am. Seventy-five and still Marilyn. Bitter is the root of my name and that’s okay. Maybe it wasn’t important after all.


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

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10 replies

  1. IMO it WAS important – important to you. It’s odd what expectant parents think up to saddle their progeny with. By the luck of God and good fortune, I missed being “Bambi” by a whisker. Thank God for Clark Gable and Gone with the Wind! So it might be worse. Bambi always sounded seedy to me – the name a hooker or a stripper might use.


    • I does sound like a hooker’s name or minimally, a stripper. Marilyn was a hot name in 1947. I never liked it, but as you say, it could have been a LOT worse. One of my poor cousins is named “Fern Roxanne.” Her mother was a romance novel reader. Oy.


  2. I like the name Marilyn, and loved the historical background of the name and the whole back story about naming


    • I have learned to live with it. I wanted something musical. Something that sounded sort of soothing. But I got Marilyn and over the years, some of my best friends have been other Marilyns. We console each other.

      The back story is more interesting. Jews are tribal, so when you ask a question like the one I asked our friend the rabbi: “Do Jews believe in reincarnation?” he answered me by saying: “Which Jew, where?”

      It turns out that there is absolutely no mention of an afterlife in Judaism. None. Basically, you can believe or not believe in something — or nothing. Religiously, it is entirely a personal choice. I think it might be the only major religion that has no opinion on an afterlife.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Marilyn is a nice name and it is a pity it is not used so much these days.


    • Names come back into style. When I gave Owen his name, Owen was a non-name. You only heard it when you were reading about British royalty and the whole Tudor crowd. Today, it’s one of the two most popular boys names in the U.S.

      I’m glad not so many people are naming their kids after inanimate objects (my son, “Tableleg”) or cities (“I’d like you to meet Detroit”), though I’m also glad we moved away from weathery names. All those poor girls named “Moonglow” or “Dewdrop.”

      It could be worse. It could be, “Chastity.”

      Liked by 1 person

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