Vered by Any Other Name

Yael's mother has a confession: Yael is now 10 years old and her grandfather in London still cannot pronounce her name.

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Children in a Tel Aviv preschool.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yael's mother has a confession: Yael is now 10 years old and her grandfather in London still cannot pronounce her name. "He has got better over the years, but it still comes out like 'Yale,' as in the university," says N., who immigrated to Israel from the United Kingdom 23 years ago.

N., who is married to a former New Yorker, says that when selecting their children's names, they did not worry about how they would sound abroad. "Giving your child a name suited to the country he lives in is much more important," she says.

Former Londoner Abigail Levy-Gurwitz, the mother of nearly two-year-old Jamie, sees things differently. "My husband is Israeli, but he grew up abroad and it was very important to both of us to have a name that would travel well, rather than something typically Israeli. A lot of the Israeli names you'd think would be relatively simple for people abroad are, in fact, very difficult. My husband's called Lior and a lot of people just couldn't get that."

The factors that native English-speakers consider when selecting names for their Israeli-born offspring are almost as varied as the names they come up with. A favorite topic among Anglo immigrants, the subject arouses strong opinions and leaves plenty of scope for complications.

With an eye on avoiding potential difficulties, one of the first things Joanna Maissel did each time she gave birth was to call up her native-Israeli friends and hear their reactions to the name that she and her husband were considering for their newborn.

"We wanted to check the name we'd chosen was acceptable in Israeli society, that it didn't have negative connotations," says the Modi'in resident and mother of three, who - like her husband - is originally from the U.K. "We didn't want to accidentally call our child something like 'Yoram,'" she added, referring to the once-popular Israeli name that now has connotations of a geek or nerd.

For Maissel, the decision to call her children thoroughly Israeli names - Carmi, Noam and Yasmin - was an obvious one, reflecting her desire for her children to integrate fully with other Israeli kids.

'A lot of flak'

Benjy Maor, a native of Los Angeles and father of Sagi, Eden and Tamar, says he recalls getting "a lot of flak" from his family abroad when he and his Australian-born wife chose Hebrew names for their three children and did not name them after relatives.

"We decided to go the real Israeli route," he says, adding that how the names sounded outside of Israel was not a consideration at all. "I was one of those die-hard Zionist types who only spoke Hebrew in their first year here," he says by way of explanation.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Sophie Walsh of Bar-Ilan University, who has studied the psychological aspects of immigration, the names that immigrants choose for their children can be viewed as a reflection of the extent to which they feel a connection to the different cultures in their life. "Immigrants are juggling between at least two different cultures, the culture they come from and the Israeli culture that they are now living within," she says.

"A very Israeli name that someone in an English-speaking country won't know or can't pronounce or spell could be a choice to identify with Israeli culture at the expense of the culture they grew up with. A name that is very foreign and not at all Israeli may express ambivalence toward becoming part of the new Israeli culture. A name that is accessible to both cultures may express a multifaceted sense of belonging."

This last choice allows for what Walsh describes as a "healthy sense of continuity." She adds: "It's not just about wanting a certain type of name. It also takes time to learn the cultural map - to realize that Israelis today are calling their children Alma and not Rachela."

Prof. Haya Itzhaky, director of Bar-Ilan's School of Social Work, offers another interpretation: She says the decision to give children a name from one's native culture and not from the dominant local culture can also be viewed as an expression of confidence.

Moreover, the acceptance of such names is a sign of maturity for Israeli culture, which has moved on from its exclusive preference for Israeli names in the first decades after the establishment of the state. She points to Russian immigrants who Hebraized their names on arriving here, but later changed them back to their original Russian names as another example. "We are now a more pluralistic society," she says.

Apparently so. Former Londoner Jeremy Coleman, who is married to former New Yorker Pamela Becker, says that his oldest two children - 5-year-old Zoe and 3-year-old Leo, both born here - experience few problems despite their un-Israeli names. "She sometimes gets called 'Zoy-ee' or even 'Zo-he' and Leo sometimes gets mistaken for Lior, but generally people greet the names with interest," he says.

"I know that in a sense the foreign names label the kids as different, but I think that's a good thing. It makes them more unique. My kids are proud of who they are and where their parents are from. We went for names we thought would work both here and abroad - for our families and for them if they want to spend time abroad," says Coleman, of Ramat Aviv Gimmel.

Michal Wachstock, mother of 3-year-old twins Zack and Kira, seems a little less serene about her decision. "We don't regret giving them English names in Israel, but we understand it can cause some difficulty," she says.

Having grown up in Los Angeles with the name 'Michal,' she knows some of the issues firsthand. "It was a pain when people couldn't pronounce my name, but it was part of my identity and I'm sure it will be part of their identity, the fact that they have American roots."

For her third child, Wachstock took a different route, partly motivated by a Russian colleague who named his son Matvey. "I thought, how you possibly name your child that in Israel - and then I suddenly realized that's what I'd done. That's when I decided to go with a more Israeli name for Nadav."

Wachstock adds that all three children have what she refers to "Jewish names," Hebrew names that will be used in religious ceremonies.

Avoiding certain letters

The desire to avoid names with the Hebrew letters reish (which Anglos traditionally struggle with) and the guttural khet, was expressed by several of the parents interviewed by Anglo File this week, but it is not the case across the board.

Former South African and Ra'anana resident Nola Moss has three grown children: Keren, Orli and Yair. "I became aware of the problem, but I can't say I ever felt embarrassed by it," she says. "Maybe sometimes the kids mimicked me, but if it was really an issue I wouldn't have gone for it three times." She points out that her mother has far more difficulties with her Israeli son-in-law's name, Eyal.

Over in Beit Shemesh, British-born Janet Zwebner feels similarly content with her 19-year-old son's name, Chovav, which begins with khet. "It took a long time for my family abroad to get the name right, but that didn't really bother me. We were very conscious about giving them Israeli names to make things easier for them."

Part of her motivation, she admits, may have come from coping with the name Janet in Israel: "People can't spell or say it and it's a pain to write it with a chupchik [an apostrophe to denote the 'J' sound, which does not exist in Hebrew.]"

But Ilene Greenberg, originally from Nashville, Tennessee, offers evidence that many kids will simply cope with whatever cards they are dealt. She gave birth to her first son, Calev, just a year after arriving in Israel; they added the letter yud to the Hebrew spelling of the name, which some view as very old-fashioned. This was an attempt to differentiate it from kelev, the Hebrew word for dog, and to make it closer to the relative, Leib, he was named after.

"We didn't consult and when we announced it at the brit mila - you know how it is in this country, nobody holds back saying what they think - we were told it would be a burden. But it didn't bother us as we had many reasons for choosing this name.

"Calev handles it just fine. Originally he hated being called kelev, but now he makes a joke out of it - and barks - and when he was in the fourth grade, he himself took out the yud so it would be spelled like it is in the Torah."

This article originally appeared on April 26, 2010.