What’s in a name?

Israeli-Americans have no identifiable external characteristics. Remove the accent for those of us who were born in Israel, remove a clearly distinguishable name of Jewish or Israeli origin, and you may no longer be asked inevitable questions like, “What does your name mean? Where does it come from?”

But alongside this perceived nuisance, there’s a special opportunity. When you need to explain your name, you have the chance to tell your story. Your family’s story. And every time you do this, you reinforce your identity.

When my own children were born in the US, my husband and I — who were born in Israel — deliberated over the right names. We rejected any name that, though understood well in Hebrew, would have a strange meaning in English — like Dror, which sounds too much like “drawer.” We also decided against conventional Western names that sound different when pronounced with an Israeli accent, like Jonathan (pronounced Yonatan in Hebrew). We searched for names that are easy to pronounce, that are young, that don’t have baggage, and that blend in with the society and culture in which we live. We named our children Mylee and Liv.

Years later, I often think to myself that, knowing what we know now, my husband and I would have chosen our children’s names differently. At the very least, I would have asked myself: What’s in a name? What story does this name tell? How might this name shape my child’s identity for the better?

Take, for instance, the biblical names Ephraim and Menashe — the sons of Yosef (Joseph). When Jewish families gather around the Shabbat table on Friday evenings, some parents bless their sons, praying “may you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” If you’re familiar with the Bible, you might ask yourself: why are these names chosen for the Shabbat blessing from among all the prominent biblical figures? Why not more well-known names like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Moses?

As it turns out, Ephraim and Menashe were the only two grandchildren of Jacob who were born in the Jewish Diaspora — in Egypt — rather than in the Land of Israel (at the time, Canaan). Their parents could have chosen less traditional names for them, and this would have helped them better integrate into Egyptian society.

I want to believe that the sons of Joseph would have grown up to be men connected to their Jewish roots and heritage no matter what their names were. Yet, can it be that a name helps you preserve your identity? That it signals who you are, from a distance? That it summons different exchanges and conversations in life?

Fast forward from biblical times to the present. Raising a Jewish child in the Diaspora comes with a vast array of identity-related challenges for parents. We want our children to remain connected to their Jewish and Israeli roots. There is no magic bullet to solve these challenges. Yet, a name always stays with you. It is always a factor in your identity, consciously or subconsciously.

At the Israeli-American Council (IAC), the names of our organization’s programs tell a story. They encompass our mission, our educational vision, and our communal aspirations. They represent the source of each program, its trajectory, and what it aims to achieve. These names do not necessarily roll easily off the tongue. It may take more than one attempt to pronounce them well. They may sound foreign to the non-Israeli ear.

But these program names — “IAC Shishi Israeli,” “IAC Gvanim,” “IAC Mishelanu,” “IAC Eitanim,” “IAC Keshet,” and more — invite exploration. They allow us to tell the story of the IAC community, every day.

These Hebrew names help us preserve our identity, but they also allow us to extend a living bridge between Israeli-Americans and American Jews, between Israel and America.

So, what’s in a name? It could be the essence of your greater purpose in this country and in this world.

About the Author
Aya I. Shechter is the Senior National Operations Director of the Israeli-American Council, which is headquartered in Los Angeles. She has spent the last ten years in executive and leadership positions in the Jewish-American non-profit world and specifically within the Israeli-American community.