August 10, 2015 by Jaimie Gusman
I stumbled across a gorgeous poem by Rachel Mennies the other day, called “Poem: For Rose,” which speaks to the ritual of Jews naming their babies after the dead. Mennies calls the ritual “practical,” but for me it is a practice—a religious performance, repeated and carried out through time so that, according to the Talmud, the work of God continues to be “drawn down into this world through a person’s name.”
In the Jewish tradition, after the babies are born:
– boys are given their Hebrew names at their bris, which can be performed at the parents’ home with friends and family attending.
– girls are given their Hebrew name during a Torah reading, performed at the synagogue in front of the congregation.
Now that my husband and I are expecting our first child, and I am browsing baby name websites that feature the latest celebrity baby name trends by the minute, Mennies’s poem couldn’t be more appropriate to my life.
I’m constantly at odds with my cultural and religious identities and beliefs. For me, Jewish culture and religion are not one and the same.
What I mean is: I continue to observe secular Jewish cultural traditions, but I am an atheist. Challah without the prayer. Fasting without going to synagogue. Latkes, afikoman, breaking glass.
Ideally, I’d love to give my baby a name that reflects the Ashkenazi tradition of naming after the dead, but like a good secular Jew, I have many questions.
Jews typically name their children after the dead not only to commemorate God’s work, but also to memorialize their loved ones. As my great aunt mournfully said to me over the phone: the dead go on with the living.
This is an enormous weight for a child to carry. Do I want my child to be born with those stones?
There is the belief that a name symbolizes the character of that person, that a name can somehow dictate the kind of life that child will have. For example, babies aren’t typically named after those who died at a young age or had a particularly tragic death.
That isn’t the weight of stones. Death is planetary, weightless, a mysterious cord of stars.
I think about my grandfather, who had a difficult life. His mother left him when he was a young boy. His father was a chronic gambler who dragged him to clubs and pool halls filled with gangsters. He died of lung cancer, and his father died of diabetes in his 40’s. My sister bears his name.
My other grandfather was a hard man, a hardness that men from his era carried through an intense projection of masculinity: respect of and for men, providing for his family, hard work. Even after he retired, my grandfather continued to bag groceries at the local super market. He lived a long, good life, but eventually his slow-beating heart gave out.
My grandmother was a great dreamer: she read a lot, but spent her widowed years lonely and depressed. She died of a rare autoimmune disease that led to liver failure, but I think she ultimately died of letting in the sadness and never letting it go.
My great uncle was an intellectual, the only other academic in the family and my favorite person to talk to at family gatherings. He spoke eleven languages. He traveled around the world—loved music, food, wine, and his wife. As far as I know, he also suffered from a rare autoimmune disease. His death was untimely.
My great aunt Rose died of a heart attack in the backseat of her friend’s car on the road that runs through their retirement community. I still remember thinking of her as a great keeper of secrets. Red hair. Always smelled like vanilla. Her smile cut through a room.
Mennies writes, “Rose — one curling r //makes hundreds of us, Rachels, Rivkas, Renates, / Richards, Ronalds.”
I wonder who will be named for Rose.
I am half Ashkenazi and half Sephardic. Sephardic Jews name after the living – they believe it’s an honor. My husband’s mother’s name is Ann. My sister-and-brother-in-laws’ daughter is Annie. There is something beautiful about watching a name take over your body.
I was given the Hebrew name Judith Esther, after my great grandmother whose named was Esther Judith.
My sister is named after my grandfather who died of lung cancer. In Hebrew, Davida. When Mennies writes “…this slip of a woman /in a fading photograph keeps all our tongues /moving” I think about all the family members who haven’t been commemorated by the living.
I think of the dead as choices – “stern mantles of opportunity.”
When I go for my morning run, I jog through the cemetery. Looking. Also afraid to look. There are secret histories that are buried with the dead. Some things don’t belong to the living. Their headstones are only clues.
Each culture has its rituals. When my husband and I talk about baby names, he focuses on the middle name, which is usually the mother’s maiden name or some other family name. I never heard of this tradition until I found out his middle name, Youmans.
Emily Dickinson was a relative of my husband. We play around with that idea, of using Emily’s name. But this seems pretentious. Also, portentous. Also, Emily was mostly a recluse.
Are we all born with the weight of solitude?
Talking to my grandmother, an Orthodox Jew, the other day made me realize the difference between living on and living through. One is the name. The other is the life.
She disliked the name she gave my father. Fall in love with a name.
Dickinson wrote, on death:
It makes the parting tranquil
And keeps the soul serene,
That gentlemen so sprightly
Conduct the pleasing scene!
Elizabeth Bishop wrote, on life:
Shadows fall down; lights climb.
Clambering lights, oh children!
Adrienne Rich writes, on [the illusion of] Jewish solitude:
And I ask myself, have I thrown courage away?
have I traded off something I don’t name?
I am looking forward to Sunday. We’ll cut a blue or pink cake. We’ll open an envelope with sonogram pictures revealing the sex. We’ll find out if this baby is a Rivka or a Ronald.
Dear baby: you will be what you will be. You will be beautiful.
The other night I had a dream her name was Isabella Francis. We named her in the hospital, and the sun was shining through large windows, the same way it did in hospice after my grandmother had passed away. My grandmother’s name was Fay.
When I woke up, the blanket was between my knees and the dog was nudging his head against my stomach. I sat up in bed thinking who are you?
Aren’t we always asking?