Emma and Jacob: Baby Names and Our Jewish Roots

By Rabbi Jill Maderer

What do you think of the current trends for baby names, and in particular, Jewish baby names?  My passion for Jewish community naturally leads me to wonder: Why do so many new and recent babies (and we are blessed with lots of them at RS!) have the same names as my grandparents and great-grandparents?  Are new parents in my generation simply influenced by a character on the popular television show, “Friends,” who named her daughter, Emma?  Perhaps.  Or maybe there’s more to it.  Much of my generation is characterized by a challenge to create true connections with friends and neighbors.  We don’t necessarily live near where we grew up, and we are likely to hold several jobs throughout our careers and live in several different neighborhoods, if not cities, throughout our adult lives.  Our communities, our routines, even our identities, are in flux.  Sometimes, the complicated opportunities of modern life are exciting, but sometimes they are unsettling.  Many of us yearn to feel grounded, and to be a part of a greater, consistent whole.

Then comes baby.  The first way we provide the next generation with identity and with roots is with the name we bestow.  I wonder whether the many Saul’s, Caleb’s, Max’s, Hannah’s and Ella’s are our way of connecting with our roots and our community.  In a complicated world, does the name Jacob help to remind us who we are?

In Ashkenazi (the Eastern/Central European Jewish customs common in mainstream American Jewish life) tradition, parents name their children for a deceased relative whose memory and qualities they would like to honor.  (Many Sephardic communities, coming from Spain and other areas, name babies for a living relative).  Because parents have not always liked the actual name of the person they wanted to honor, they have often chosen a name that shares just the first letter in common.  Sixty years ago, when a baby boy was named for his great-grandfather Max, he was given the name Michael.  Now, perhaps we are more comfortable in America and are in less need of “American” names.  Meanwhile, we might feel further from our Jewish roots and more in need of a reminder of our heritage.  So, the babies named for Michael, are named Max. 

So, what would Moses do?  As with every tradition, Jewish life evolves in every generation.  Biblical figures, such as Moses, were named for their relationship with God or for a particular experience.  Their names had no connection to those who came before them.  Our Jewish tradition to name children after a relative is rooted in 6th century BCE Egyptian Israelite life and was probably an idea borrowed from their non-Israelite neighbors.  Today, many name for deceased relatives.  Some parents, instead, select modern Hebrew names, that express a love for nature or a value they cherish.  As for the next generation, there is no predicting what the most common Jewish customs will be. 

What we do know is, in this particular moment of Jewish life, among the trends, we see baby names of the early 20th century.  My theory (who knows whether it’s correct?) is that my generation is reaching back.  As we seek to create community, our imaginations are captivated by our great-grandparents who sought to build lives that were Jewish and American.  And as we try to lay down some roots ourselves, we love the name Emma because we are inspired by the previous generations who met this country with the words of Emma Lazurus.  Or, perhaps, we are just fans of the television show, “Friends”?  What do you think?

For a thorough listing of Hebrew names and their meanings see the book The Complete Dictionary of Hebrew and English Names, Alfred Kolatch or hebrewbabynames.com.