Nofar, So Good

The names that Western immigrants in Israel choose will depend on what community they identify with, says Prof. Aaron Demsky.

The names that Western immigrants in Israel choose will depend on what community they identify with, says Prof. Aaron Demsky, director of the project for the study of Jewish names in Bar-Ilan University's Department of Jewish History.

Demsky divides Israeli Jewish society into three main groups - secular, Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and national religious - and says that whether a name is perceived as sounding good depends to a large extent on the type of community to which the parents belong.

Secular parents, he says, generally give one name, usually something fashionable. In the last 15 years, monosyllabic names, such as Tal, Shir and Bar, have been especially popular. "These are often not gender-determined, they're pronounced easily, can be used abroad and they don't have much cultural or religious baggage," he says. He also mentions other names, such as Tom, Guy or Ben, which have an English echo.

These contrast with names in the Haredi community, which tends to opt for more traditional choices, often reflecting the rabbinic figures in specific groups. "Those with Chabad or Lubavitch influences might choose Menachem Mendel, Shneur Zalman or Chaya Mushka," says Demsky.

In the third group, the national-religious, many children are given two names: the first is fashionable, like Ori or Hadar, which often reflect a connection to the land of Israel or the reawakening of the people. The second name is generally of a commemorative nature, to honor a relative. "The first one is in common use and the second turns up at a bar or bat mitzvah or wedding," he says.

Demsky identifies two main periods of creativity for Jewish names - the biblical era and modern Israel. He views the latter as a society that is creative in language and in all aspects of trying to interpret Jewishness and Israeliness - including name-giving patterns.

To illustrate, Demsky cites the name Nofar, which means water lily. This non-traditional name came from the secular community, expressing a connection to nature or the land of Israel. "People are looking for new names, new forms, not part of a long tradition. I take that as a reflection of vitality."

Demsky says that because most Western immigrants move to Israel out of choice, this element of idealism is often expressed in the choice of names. Jews in America, he adds, tend to be about a generation behind the trends in Israel, so names like Ilan and Ilana are still being chosen there.

"Israel is the place where you have the creative spirit reflected in the names," he concludes. (Charlotte Hall?)