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Letter from Israel

The nature of names

Hi, Keshet — a rainbow arcs over Arad. (Lehava Netivot via PikiWiki — Israel)
Hi, Keshet — a rainbow arcs over Arad. (Lehava Netivot via PikiWiki — Israel)

Jewish tradition teaches us that names — Hebrew names, that is — have cosmic significance.

We are taught that “k’shmo ken hu” — name is indicative of character — and that the names parents choose for their children can influence them for good or bad. Kabbalists believe that changing your name can change your destiny. Modern studies reinforce the notion that our names impact our lives in school, in the workplace, and in our personal relationships.

At this time of year, when we pray that our names and the names of our loved ones will be inscribed in the heavenly book of life, I have been thinking about the difference between Hebrew names commonly used in the Israeli population and Hebrew names commonly used in the diaspora.

Generally speaking, diaspora Jews tend to choose biblical, mishnaic, or Yiddish names of ancestors. Biblical and mishnaic names always are in style in Israel as well. In fact, the names my parents chose in the 1950s for my brothers and me (Daniel, David, Jonathan, and Abigail) in the United States are top-10 names in Israel today.

Hi, Ma’ayan -- this wellspring emerges at the foot of Mount Hermon and goes to the Banias waterfall. (Yossi Ezra via the PikiWiki — Israel)
Hi, Ma’ayan — this wellspring emerges at the foot of Mount Hermon and goes to the Banias waterfall. (Yossi Ezra via the PikiWiki — Israel)

But with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox, Israeli Jews often favor names denoting natural phenomena, states of being, or values. My many Israeli cousins have children with creative names such as Herut (freedom), Kessem (magic), and Or-El (light of God).

Diaspora Jews do sometimes name a child after something from nature but even then there are subtle differences. For example, a girl named Aviva (the season of spring) in America would be Avivit in Israel, or more likely a boy named Aviv.

My reflection on names began with an exchange of emails I recently had with a publicist here in Israel named Forest Rain. She is an immigrant from Detroit.

I didn’t ask, but I figured her parents must have been hippies or Native Americans. In mainstream American culture, it is unusual to name children after elements of nature. How many people do you know named Rainbow, Lightning, Juniper Bush, Boulder, Valley, Oak, Prairie, Wellspring, or Wave?

In Israel, such names are extremely commonplace. If Forest Rain translated her name to Ya’ara Tal, no Israeli would think it exotic in the least. The words mentioned above translate to the everyday Hebrew names Keshet, Barak, Rotem, Sela, Guy, Alon, Bar, Ma’ayan, and Gal.

Another difference is that many modern Israeli names are unisex. You often cannot tell by name alone if someone is male or female. Tal, Gal, Sharon, Noam (pleasant), Shachar (Dawn), Inbar (amber), Inbal (bell), Neta (sapling), Ori (my light), Hadar (splendor), Amit (friend), and myriad other common names are used for either gender.

Hi, Yael — a Nubian ibex gazes out at the Ein Gedi nature reserve in Israel’s Judean desert. (YuvalR/Wikimedia Commons)
Hi, Yael — a Nubian ibex gazes out at the Ein Gedi nature reserve in Israel’s Judean desert. (YuvalR/Wikimedia Commons)

To be sure, there are areas of similarity in the Hebrew names chosen by Israelis and diaspora Jews. Thus, while not many Americans are named Gazelle or Deer (Tzvi or Eyal), Bear (Dov), Wolf (Ze’ev), Bee (Devorah), Ibex (Yael), or Sheep (Rachel), the Hebrew equivalents are run of the mill in Israel and elsewhere.

The same goes for names evoking a concept or state of mind. Joy, Hope, and Faith are normal names in English. But not Loved (Ahuva), Strong (Eitan), Beautiful (Yaffa, Nava), Life (Chaim), Delicate (Adina), and Liberty (Dror). In Hebrew, all of these are quite traditional names no matter where you live.

I can only conjecture that the emphasis on nature-related and concept names springs from the return to Zion (hence the names Ben-Zion, Bat-Zion, Shuva-Zion) and the equally astounding revival of Hebrew as a spoken language after 2,000 years.

The ability to experience the land with all our senses is a pleasure and privilege unknown to so many generations of Jews. To hike its hills and valleys, swim its rivers and seas, smell its wildflowers, plant and eat of its bounteous crops, watch its sunsets, and feel the vital drops of the first rains of autumn — reconnecting on the most primal level — is awesome stuff.

Hi, Barak — lightning snakes across the sky near Tel Aviv. (Ron Almog via Flickr)
Hi, Barak — lightning snakes across the sky near Tel Aviv. (Ron Almog via Flickr)

Raising Jewish children in the Jewish homeland is perhaps the pinnacle of that experience, so why not name those children in homage to the land and to the emotions it engenders, in its native tongue?

In the sixth of the seven blessings recited under the wedding canopy are found several Hebrew words expressing concepts often used as names — Simcha, Sasson, Gila, Rina, Ditza, Chedva (all denoting joy and happiness) as well as peace (Shalom) and friendship (Re’ut).

Whether your Hebrew name is traditional or modern, whether you live in Israel or America or anywhere else, may you be inscribed for a year filled with simcha, shalom, and re’ut.

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