Choosing a Jewish Name
Mar 20th 2015

In her beautiful poem “each of us has a name”, the Hebrew poet known simply as Zelda writes: 

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

The poem continues, listing the many sources of the names that we acquire. Yet Zelda never mentions that, for some people, their name is self-chosen. One of the final tasks of someone in the process of conversion is to choose for herself or himself a Jewish name. 

Where to begin? Since a name is a signifier of what is important, a stand-in for one’s aspirations and newfound identity, the soon-to-be Jew often spends many weeks contemplating the appropriate nomenclature. Ultimately, hopefully, choosing a name or two that is kind to the ear and imbued with personal meaning is the first step to a new life. 

For parents of a newborn, picking a name may involve various considerations. Many babies are often named after relatives. Traditionally, for Ashkenazim, the relatives are deceased while for Sefaradim the relative is among the living. Some choose a similar sounding name to the relative, often keeping the first letter. This is especially common for a boy named after a woman or vice-versa. Others opt to find a Hebrew name with a meaning similar to that of relative’s name—whether English or Hebrew. A boy named after his great-grandmother Gertrude (from the German for strength) may be given the Hebrew name Amir, Avihayil, Eytan, Gibor or Guryon, all of which are connected with strength. There is rarely just one Hebrew equivalent of a given English name. Phonetics, meaning and popularity will be considerations in choosing an appropriate name. 

Those converting to Judaism generally do not have Jewish ancestors after whom to name themselves. I also discourage them from finding a Hebrew equivalent of their given English name as I believe that their new identity—as signified by their Hebrew name—should be independent of the identity they carried up to that point in their life. Rather, Jews by choice will often think about what in Judaism is most important to them and choose a name accordingly. 

Whether for yourself or your child, Rav Baruch and I are always happy to assist families in choosing the right name.

Debra and I thank the Congregation for the many kind wishes following the birth, brit and naming of our second son, Ezra Hillel Shalom. Feel free to ask me about his names at any time.