We learn in the teaching of Rabbi Shimon in Pirkei Abot, Ethics of the Fathers that “There are three crowns – the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.”
B’nai B’rith helps the world remember names every year as we observe Yom Hashoah. We bring the program “Unto Every Person There is a Name” to communities. The namesake poem by Zelda, begins with these words. “Unto every person there is a name bestowed on him by God and given to him by his parents.” This program demands that, when we speak about the Holocaust and the loss of “six million Jews,” we see each victim as more than a number. They had jobs and families. They had names that identified them. We remember them by reading the names of the victims aloud. These names have been collected and maintained as a memorial to them in the archives at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem. There is a continuing search to collect the names via the Pages of Testimony campaign.
Every year on Sept. 11th, the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of the attack on the World Trade Center are read aloud. Since the pandemic began in March, the media and some of the governors around the country are taking the time to remember by name a sampling of those who have died during this pandemic. The purpose, we know, is to ensure we do not forget that these were individuals with families, that they were loved and not just part of a sum we recall when we reference these events.
Parents spend a great deal of time choosing a name for a new baby. It will be the main source of their child’s identity. My family’s tradition was to choose a name that honored a deceased family member. The Sephardic community uses a name to honor a beloved living person.
What is your Hebrew name? It’s an interesting question to ask someone if you want to know more about their family’s tradition and someone special in their family.
I remember feeling that there was a good deal to consider when I had the chance to select a first name for my children. Everyone around me had a recommendation or opinion to share. One suggested saying a first name and your last name together out loud to see how it’d sound when it is being yelled in a public space. Another said to think about how a more creative name could be used by other children when teasing your child. Some cautioned not to pick something so common, for there could be two or three of the same name in a single school class.. I decided to use a “y” in my children’s name, not necessarily thinking about how it would need custom personalization and would never be found when looking at gift or tourist shop trinkets.
Political opponents have recently been heard mocking the pronunciation of a candidate’s name. Is it racist or childish? It’s both. It’s not appropriate behavior for anyone, let alone an adult.
I chose a name for my daughter that is now being used as a way to call out horrible behavior by horrible women. To be called “a Karen” is extremely insulting. It implies a woman is rude and intolerant of those around her. Even though I named my daughter “Caryn” with a “c,” the principle remains: I do not want my daughter’s name to be associated with such horrible things.
I recently read a book by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. entitled, “Finding Oprah’s Roots Finding Your Own,” which offered meaningful insight into the African American experience in the search for their ancestry. While other ethnic groups have a name to search official records, this community has been denied that identity because slaves were denied names. Any record of their existence was as property, listed by age and gender under their owner’s name. First names were what they may have called themselves, but there was no written acknowledgement of their existence by name in what could be available as research documents.
Gates goes into detail about the choice of surname when they were freed, stressing the difficulty they experience when they want to find out about their ancestry through typical genealogical research. Gates shares that it was not until the U.S. census of 1870, which was the first census that African Americans were listed with two names, first and last.
I have been fortunate to have found a wonderful husband with a terrific last name. I have the honor of my first name used in a popular song, thank you, Beach Boys. This has also gotten me to think about a song called the “Name Game,” by Shirley Ellis, a song that celebrated rhyming words with a first name.
What’s in a name? Plenty.
Rhonda Love is the Vice President of Programming for B'nai B'rith International. She is Director of the Center of Community Action and Center of Jewish Identity. She served as the Program Director of the former District One of B'nai B'rith. In 2002 she received recognition by B'nai B'rith with the Julius Bisno Professional Excellence Award. Rhonda has served on the B'nai B'rith International staff for 41 years. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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