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