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March 22, 2014

GENEALOGY: Jews often named after relatives, but not exactly

TERRE HAUTE — Two weeks ago I wrote about Jewish surnames, and today’s column will discuss Jewish given names.

“Ashkenazic” is the term that describes descendants of Jews who settled in Germany, Poland, Russia and other parts of eastern Europe. Their traditional language is Yiddish. Before World War II, they made up 92 percent of Jews worldwide — about 16.7 million. After the war this number was decreased by more than six million: those who were killed in the Holocaust.

A traditional naming pattern of the Ashkenazic Jews is to name their children after a deceased relative, especially one who has recently died. This is done to pay homage to the person and keep his or her memory and name alive. In the Ashkenazic folk tradition, it is bad luck to name a baby after a living person.

To be named after a deceased relative does not mean, however, that the name has to be an exact duplicate of the deceased person’s name. The name could be one that has a component of the deceased person’s name, such as the same first initial, or could be a modernized version or translation of the name. This makes it difficult for the genealogist to see the connection.

Some examples: A grandchild named Grace could be named for her grandmother Goldie, using only the first initial of the name to honor her grandmother. A boy could be named Frank, after his father’s cousin, Franz, keeping the meaning of the name but updating it to a more modern form. A nephew could be named Andrew, an English translation of his Hungarian uncle’s name, András. A great-granddaughter could be named Ada, the nickname for Adelaide, her great-grandmother.

In doing research on a Jewish family, the genealogist will sometimes run across cousins who were born close to each other in time with the same first name. This usually indicates that they were named after the same relative, a person who may have died not too long before they were born. It is very rare for a Jewish family to name a child after the father, mother or any living relative. There are very few Jewish “Juniors” to be found, and the ones that do exist were named in recent years and not in the past.

The Sephardic Jews — those who historically settled in Spain, Portugal and Italy — do not share the Ashkenazic tradition of naming a child after a deceased relative; they will, and do, name children after living relatives.

Jews have a Hebrew name, which is used in prayer and religious rituals, appears on the marriage contract and sometimes appears on the tombstone. In Israel the Hebrew name is usually the name the person goes by in both secular and religious life. But historically, most Jews were dispersed throughout the world, and commonly had a secular name that reflected the country or society in which they lived, plus a Hebrew name that was used within the Jewish community and for religious rituals and ceremonies. The Hebrew name is usually followed by the father’s or mother’s name, and follows the form of “Benjamin ben (son of) Jacob,” or “Rachel bat (daughter of) Sarah.”

Sources for Hebrew names can be admired biblical persons; character traits, such as Chana (“gracious/merciful”) or Eitan (“strong”); names deriving from nature, such as Maya (“water”) or Barak (“lightning”); and parental aspirations for the child, such as Adiel (“adorned by God”) or Edna (“delight/


The meaning of Hebrew names for girls can be viewed at, and a list of Hebrew names for boys can be seen at

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