The aim of this exercise is to think about the question of birth name, the factors that go into choosing a birth name and the role of that name in developing a child’s future identity.

  • The students should come to the activity having researched their first names. This research should include discussing with their parents the factors that influenced the choice of their vernacular names, the meaning and associations of that name, and the factors influencing the choice of their Jewish (Hebrew) name (if they have one).
  • In small groups of three or four, the members of the group should discuss what they know about their vernacular names and list the factors that influenced the choice of those names. If their vernacular and Jewish names are the same, then they should discuss these and the possible reasons for their being the same, adding these reasons to the list of factors.
  • Bring the groups together and share the lists the students have made, in order to create one large list. Each factor on this should be examined to see how many people in the group had at least one of their names chosen for that reason.
  • The students should now examine the story of Moses and the naming of Gershom (Shemot 2: 21-22). Why do they think that Moses gave his son this name? What does his choice say about Moses? What effect would a name like that have had on Gershom? Would the group members wish to have been called such a name?
    The students should now discuss the question of having separate vernacular and Jewish names. Why are people given two kinds of names? What does it mean when parents give a child a vernacular name that is the same as their Hebrew one? What do these choices say about the way in which parents want their children to develop their identity within the wider society? Do the members of the group think it a good or a bad idea to have different Jewish (Hebrew) and vernacular names? Would they choose to do that for their children? Why?
  • In their original small groups, the students should talk about whether they do or do not like the names they have been given, and what they think of the reasons for their parent’s choice. Those that have conspicuously Jewish/Hebrew names (i.e. names that are uncommon and therefore noticeable in the outside world) should comment on how they feel about this ‘cultural strategy’ of their parents. Those with noticeably non-Jewish names should comment on their feelings regarding the ‘cultural strategy’ of their parents.
  • Finally, the group should be given the following piece by Franz Rosenzweig.

    Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was a great Jewish thinker who came from an assimilated German Jewish family. In his mid-twenties he was at the point of converting to Christianity when an experience of an Orthodox Yom Kippur brought him back to a meaningful relationship with Judaism. As a result of this, he devoted his life to Jewish thought and education within the largely assimilated Jewish community of Germany. In this piece he reflects, from the viewpoint of his Jewish identity, on the name that his assimilated family had bestowed on him.

    One thing is certain. I have no real feeling about my first name. I can only guess why this is. It seems to me that it may be because my parents gave it to me without any particular feeling simply because they liked it…It is as though my parents had seen it in a window of a shop, walked inside and bought it. It has nothing traditional about it, no memory, no history, not even an anecdote…it was simply a passing fancy. A family name, a saint’s name, a hero’s name, a poetic name, a symbolic name – all these are good: they have grown naturally and not been bought ready-made. One should be named after somebody or something. Or else a name is really only empty breath.

  • What is Rosenzweig saying? What do the group members think of his opinion? Should names connect us to something larger and contribute to our cultural identity, or should a name be only…a name?






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10 Dec 2006 / 19 Kislev 5767 0