Thursday, January 27, 2011

Convert Questions: How to Choose a Hebrew Name

Choosing a Hebrew name can be the hardest part of your official conversion process. After all, you have to live with it for only the rest of your LIFE. Some people make it their everyday name. Or even adopt it as their legal first or middle name. And some people never use them ever again except for when a legal Jewish name is required (calling to the Torah, wedding, child naming, divorce, etc).

The most common advice for picking a Hebrew name:
  • A Hebrew equivalent of your English name (which probably doesn't exist)
  • A Hebrew name that starts with the same letter as your English name
  • A Hebrew name with the same meaning as your English name
Personally, I think those are boring. I really hate the letter suggestion because how meaningless is that connection? Yet it seems to be the most commonly given advice.

So here's my suggestion: look up Jewish baby names (there are oodles of websites of baby names, as well as Jewish-specific books in the stores) and make a list of all the names that speak to you, either through their sound or meaning. You don't have to take a Biblical name, though that is very common among converts. Let that list marinate for a while. For that reason, I recommend making the list early in your process and adding new names as you go. Others, particularly those working with you during your conversion, will recommend names. I suggest adding them to your list, even if you don't like them at first. After all, they should know you well and maybe have some insight into a name that will fit you.

Review the list periodically. Roll the names around in your mouth. Feel free to try one out as an everyday name for a few days.

Run the list of names past someone else pretty early in the list-making process. I was so attached to a name for almost 2 years. But when I told my rabbi at the time, he advised me that it's a "H" v. "CH" away from being the word "disease." And that in modern Hebrew, it's the word for cancer.

When you know you're getting close to the end of your conversion process, take that list back out and see which names still resonate with you.

It's a very personal process, and we all approach it in a slightly different way. You and only you can choose the right name. Don't let someone (even a rabbi) push you into taking a name you don't want. A push is probably well-meaning because they just know the right name for you. It's been known to happen in all movements (and anecdotes suggest this is more common in the liberal movements), and it usually results in some pretty negative feelings after the fact.

Don't be worried if you're surprised by the name you eventually choose! I was!

Happy name hunting!

31 comments:

  1. A good suggestion for those who DO want a biblical name(and transliteration) is to use the Artscroll Tanakh's list of names in the back. Keep in mind that some may be names of, say, amelek, egyptians, or other people we don't necessarily want to name ourselves after. However, it really helps to find names you don't necessarily remember as being Tanakh-based. I'd also suggest reading the Hebrew directly rather than the transliteration, even if you struggle with Hebrew. Some of their transliterations are wonky(you want to be Yocheved, not Johebed).

    I picked mine based on my English middle name(sarah), as my (born Jewish -- long story for those who aren't Chavi!) mother picked sarah for me and really wanted to name me sarah, and leah, which was my maternal grandmother's name. So I became Leah Sarah. My English name is Lily Sarah, but honestly? It's just a coincidence that it corresponds. I would have picked Leah Sarah regardless.

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  2. My husband is a convert, and when he was converting, the Rabbi would not let him keep his first name of Michael, even though it has an obvious Hebrew equivalent. He didn't even want him keeping the M as a first letter anywhere. I believe that the rationale had something to do with needing to make a complete break with the past.

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    1. That sounds a little extreme. I have never heard of that happening, though I can imagine circumstances in which it might be advised, for example if the person had been given that name as a priest in Catholicism. It would then have very strong reminders for the convert of his previous existence. But otherwise, I might think that having a Hebrew name from birth is a sign that this person was meant to be Jewish from the start!

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  3. I picked mine to honor my grandfather who was like a father to me. He liked to garden, and his name began with a G. Everytime it is used it makes me think of him :)

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  4. I picked my name after my favorite flower, a Lily (Shoshana). It also happens to start with the first letter of my given name so that worked well too!

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  5. Hahahhaa...I forgot the most important part! Run the name past someone else pretty early. I was SO attached to a name for almost 2 years, then when I told my rabbi at the time, he advised me that it's a H v. CH away from being the word "disease." And that the word is the name of cancer in modern Hebrew.

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  6. ok so I keep getting asked by people when I'm going to pick my hebrew name? as if I was already supposed to have thought of that. Which to me begs the question... when can/do/are you supposed to use your hebrew name?

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  7. E, I think I'll expand that into a post...thank you! To give you quick answers, no name choice is final until the beit din, and really, not until the mikvah. However, if you're sure, you can start using it whenever you want!

    And it only HAS to be used for Jewish legal documents and being called to the Torah.

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  8. I look fwd to that post! :)

    (for some reason I entered "e" instead of "Elle" in my last comment...)

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  9. Elle, your post is scheduled for Tuesday!

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  10. Thank you to this thread for helping me make my mind up about Hebrew Name v2.0 and new secular name!

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  11. Thank you, Kayla! Your name wouldn't happen to be the Yiddish word for vessel, would it? (I've only seen it spelled Keila.) That is a name I love! Congratulations on discovering your true name!

    From a writer's perspective, was there something here in particular that you found helpful?

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  12. My tutor suggested I think of a new Hebrew name now.

    Ok so... my real world lifelong name was.. Kayleigh Noele

    Noele, obv, aint gonna fly in Jewville. I haven't liked it in many many years anyway. Kayleigh is pronounced the way my tutor and most Ashkenazi Jews here would say vessel.

    In my first Hebrew name I chose Dinah Kayla. Kayla is very similar to Kayleigh and in Yiddish means "who is like g-d". Dinah was for personal reasons.

    For my Ortho conversion I've been encourged to choose something different from the Reform. For a long time before conversion and Hebrew names entered my world, I considered changing my middle name to Lily, after my legendary Great Grandmother who is stlll kicking at 100+ years old.

    I've been looking at being 'Something Kayla' or 'Kayla Something' as Kayla has become an everyday name now. I had been toying between Kayla Shoshana or Kayla Rachel... From this thread I found out that Shoshana means Lily - so that seems to make sense!!

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  13. Since my name is already Dena I am going to choose a middle name to go with it. So far, I don't even have a list of potentials.

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  14. My mother and father chose my Hebrew name... my first name is Emi, my middle name is Netali. The Hebrew equivalent of Netali is "N'talia," and for my first name, they chose "Ashira" which means something about singing, and songs. That makes me Ashira N'talia, which admittedly is a bit of a mouthful :)

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    1. That is beautiful! Ashira means "I will sing" - very profound. I once met a Jewish woman named Natalie, not a convert, and it sort of threw me at first because in every baby name book I've seen (and as you've probably been told), it's supposed to mean "xmas child" or something similar. But in Hebrew, Nata Li would be something like given to me, or established or planted for me.

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  15. I haven't started asking about names yet but does my name have to be strictly Hebrew or can I use a Yiddish name?

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  16. I'm strongly considering beginning the conversion process in about a year, and I was thinking either ARIN CHAYA- if I'm right, it means "Enlightened Life", which seems significant to the way that I discovered Judaism, or ELIANA TOVA- my name Leanne is a variant of Liana which is a variant of Eliana, meaning "My G-d has answered", and TOVA meaning "good", of course...What do you think of them?

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    1. Both sound very nice! I'd check with a few people to make sure Arin is actually a name in use. I've never heard it before, and people will get confused with Aaron. (Reminds me of the name I originally liked, which turned out to be too close to the word for "disease"!) Eliana Tova is a very traditional name. I think it's interesting that you chose something very unusual and something else very traditional :) Personally, I lean toward unusual names, but that's me. I understand why converts often want very traditional names.

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    2. Kochava - Could you suggest or maybe put together a list of unusual female names? I've had lots of people suggesting very traditional names, but like you, I lean towards unusual.

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  17. Thanks...It's strange because I found out about the name 'ARIN' in Hebrew name book which I purchased on my Amazon Kindle and it said it meant, "enlightened", but when I googled it, it was more or less non-existent...However, when I did find something on the name, it came up as a name variation of AARON- but still a boy's name- which most definitely doesn't mean "enlightened", but instead means "exalted" or "mountain of strength"...After saying 'ELIANA TOVA' over and over again many times, I think I prefer that name combination. :)

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  18. How about asking G-d for your name. I told a friend that, and she told me later, her Rabbi told her the same thing.

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  19. Letme add: If your conversion is soul felt, then G-d will give you a Hebrew name. If you are converting just for marriage, then that is not a true conversion. Every Gentile who is coming to Judaism, because his/her soul is driving him in that direction, has a Hebrew name. Many Jewish souls are lost in the nations, so he/she should pray to G-d for his/her Hebrew name. He will give it to you. It may not be anything you have thought of, but G-d knows your name. Trust me on this.

    -Sivan

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    1. This was my experience. I will be taking the name Miriam. I had not really considered it, but I believe G-d has given the name to me.

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  20. All religion is severe Delusional MENTAL ILLNESS! A delusion that there is an imaginary MALE Deity who judges and punishes and rewards us for proper or improper behavior is insane! The bible is a collection of silly myths written by frightened men who had NO understanding of even the basic science that an grade school child of today has, who didn't even know of lands outside their little middle east location.
    Humans cannot deal with their animal instincts and SEX, so they make up rules to cope with them and call this Religion. Humans are the only creature that can contemplate their death. They fear death and cannot cope with the thought of it. Religion is a COPING mechanism that allows humans to get through the day without the panic that they are just like any other primate on the Earth, except that they know they will DIE and their powerful sexual and violent behavior has to be tamed and controlled or they cannot function as a society.
    Humans wrote the Torah, Bible, Koran and other holy books.
    How can GOD have gender? ..always referred to as a MAN--HE, HIM, HIS, KING etc.? Why would god who created the sun, the earth, and formed man out of dust --need a human woman Mary to create a son? Why would god allow the torture of his son to forgive bad actions of people thousands of years later? Belief in this silly fantasy/fable is a delusion and total insanity!
    Where was god during--Hiroshima Bomb, the holocaust? The WTC attack? On vacation? What did god do on the seventh day of rest, take a nap, lie in bed in Heaven, read the newspaper, watch football, have sex with his goddess wife? why would an almighty powerful god need to rest?
    Why would a deity want a week old baby to suffer excruciating pain from a scalpel cutting his penis for religious circumcision?

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  21. is there any reason for someone approaching their conversion to keep their name they will chose to themselves until after the gerus happens?

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  22. My name is Rachael, so I think I want to use the original Hebrew version. However, I want to add another name to it, as a sign of starting something new. Is that likely to be ok? Is having two first names relatively common?

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    1. I would say that two names is actually the standard. Three names is also not uncommon. I think keeping your name and adding a second one is a great idea! It really reflects the continuity while expressing the change!

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  23. Thankfully my name translate perfectly, I am Faith Elizabeth so it would be Emunah Elisheva :)

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  24. Thankfully my name translates perfectly, I am Faith Elizabeth and it would be Emunah Elisheva :)

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  25. Is there a limit to how many you can choose? My great grandmother's name is Naomi Ruth and my grandmother's name is Joan. I would like to honor both of them by incorporating two of their names with a third name that I choose to represent my personality. I've only reason briefly in a book that people sometimes have 3 names, but I can't find any more info on it. Is it okay or frowned upon?

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