On a recent episode of a Jewish podcast I listen to, the youngest of the three hosts proudly announced her new nephew’s Hebrew name: Mendel. She said that the baby was being named for his grandfather, Milton, so they chose a Hebrew name to match. This is a regular tradition after all; to match a non-Hebrew name of a past relative with a phonetically similar one from Torah and text. There’s only one problem: Mendel isn’t a Hebrew name.
Let the record show I am not hating on the Mendels of the world. I happen to really like the name Mendel, but it is a German and Yiddish name, not Hebrew. As a Jewish onomatologist (one who studies proper names), it’s my duty to burst some bubbles.
“Mendel” comes from the High German spoken in the Medieval era. This we know. Sources on its non-Jewish origins vary however, with some believing it to come from the name “Mann”. These days there are very few gentile Mendels, the most famous of course being the Czech-German botanist and friar Gregor Mendel.
The name Mendel took on a life of its own in the Ashkenazi world for one very specific reason: it was a perfect kinnui. As opposed to the shem ha-kodesh we Jewish people receive upon our eighth day of life, the kinnui is a secular name for the wider world. Yiddish became a useful bridge and created new European forms of Hebrew names. Elazar became Lazar, Mordechai became Motl, and Menachem became Mendel. In the Sefardi world this occurred too, Baruch Spinoza’s Ladino name was Benedito.
Originally kinnui were simply nicknames, but as the Jewish experience in Diaspora changed over time and assimilation became another of many other struggles for our ancestors, the kinnui became a defensive barrier to help integrate into the society in which Jewish people lived. As Hebrew became spoken less and less, kinnui became standard practice.
Even Yiddish would prove ineffective, however. In the face of Western xenophobia many Yiddish speakers changed their names upon reaching German and French cities and British, Canadian, and American shores. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Milton for which the podcast host’s nephew was being named was originally a Mendel!
Names hold weight in our culture, but their origins have become murky over time. Too few Jewish people know Yiddish beyond hack jokes. Even fewer know what Ladino is at all. And yet both those languages gave us a breadth of names that we have made our own in Diaspora. They are a part of our history, but they are also reminders of the sacrifices made to fit in or survive European, Middle Eastern, and American racism.
Many of my Hebrew students do not know their Hebrew names off hand. I was shocked. I went by Shai in Hebrew class for the first 15 years of my life. Although my Hebrew name is not on my birth certificate, I answer to it when it is said aloud. My English name isn’t even a kinnui, otherwise I might be a Shea or a Shaun, but my shem ha-kodesh is an intrinsic part of me. That’s what makes it so holy. The fact that young Jewish children hear their Hebrew names for the first time when they arrive at the bimah for their B’nei Mitzvot is cause for alarm.
Mendel is not a Hebrew name. Unfortunately for fans, neither are Golda or Yankel, and I mean no disrespect to the deceased who undoubtedly inspired these names. I say, however, celebrate the lives of our ancestors and those who came before us by showing the progress we have made.
Go into text. Understand the origins of biblical and Hebrew names. Celebrate openly those who came before us who were not afforded such a luxury and may have even died protecting the culture we inherited from them. Let’s pass on a more intelligent and dignified sense of who we are to our children, especially in the face of rising hate due to the rise of American and European neo-fascism, digital misinformation, and venomous hatred that has continued to stew the world over.
Despite threats, we are in a renaissance for Jewish culture. L’dor va-dor, let us set an example for the new generation who will join us in the effort to survive and thrive by giving them the first tool to celebrate the journey that brought us here and that they too will embark on:
Gregory Uzelac is a writer, satirist, and visual artist based in Brooklyn, NY. His work is on Instagram and Twitter at @greguzelac.