Reflections on a Jewish Baby-Naming
“A person has three names: one that he is called by his father and mother; one that people know him by, and one that he acquires for himself” (Midrash, Kohelet Rabba)
Words matter. Names are important. What we call ourselves and what others call us often impacts the way we view ourselves and the way we are seen in this world. With that as a belief, what a great privilege it was to recently be involved in a naming ceremony for my granddaughter. At this stage, the words “my” and “granddaughter” don’t yet naturally fall off my lips together. I am new at this.
Her name was not a secret before she was born, and yet, stringing her names together in a particular way, to create a unique first, middle, and last English name and a Hebrew name that would be attached to a living, breathing person didn’t quite seem real until her birth. At that moment, the words became powerful and the connections across time and space felt very meaningful.
Like many of their generation, her parents are not members of a synagogue, and like many other children, she will be raised celebrating a variety of holidays. In the spirit of Judaism in the age of millennials, neither of those things got in the way, and we planned an intimate naming on the porch of a summer house that my parents, her great grandparents, purchased almost 50 years ago.
Through surfing the internet (see "What to Expect at a Baby Naming"), we found that there were so many options available to us in a progressive Jewish naming ceremony that everyone’s needs could be easily met. We created a very brief ceremony that included wine, stories, jokes, and a few blessings. We talked about the meaning and origin of her names. We talked some about our wishes, hopes and dreams. As we stood on the porch, we also talked about the great-grandparents that she was named after and will never have the opportunity to know in person. To her, they will just be names and stories. For me, they are my parents. They are the ones who brought me home from the hospital, who gave me my name.
I had tears in my eyes as we finished our ceremony with Shehecheyanu. Wanting to hold on to the moment, possibly wanting to share the joyous moment with others, I began filming with my iPhone, because that’s what we all do these days. Midway through, I had an abrupt awareness that although it might be wonderful to show this video at her bat mitzvah, wedding, or some other meaningful moment, by filming it I was watching and not participating in this powerful blessing. I abruptly cut the video short and completed the blessing as a full participant. (Note to self: Beware of that tendency throughout her life. The moments will pass quickly, and it doesn’t really matter if I remember them. What matters is that I experience them.)
Within a few minutes, we were all back to the games and jigsaw puzzle we had been doing beforehand. Everything was the same and yet, it was different. As a family we had now created a new intentional link in our chain from the past to the future.
In the midst of wonderful family chaos, I stopped for a few semi-quiet moments and reflected a bit more about my parents and my grandparents, their hopes, their dreams, their lives. They were raised in a very different time and place. I wish they could have been here to experience this moment. I wanted them to witness and appreciate the complexity of the fabric of Jewish life today in the United States. My mother and I both had to fight to be “counted” in our Jewish community. Their great-granddaughter was born into a very different reality. The role of women has changed; the role of synagogues has changed; Jewish education is changing. The meaning that she will make of her world and the ways and place in which Judaism will matter in her life will be different than any of our experiences. We can’t yet even imagine what that will look like. I want them to know that, however that looks, she is already - and will continue to be - embraced in a loving circle of family with deep roots formed and strengthened by the ways in which each one of her ancestors lived their lives.
As her life progresses, she will be known by many names, some given by others and some chosen by her. For the moment, I am filled with joy, awe, respect, tenderness, and hope as I think about the names, and the meaning embedded in those names, that her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles bestowed upon her on the porch of a home filled with meaning.
How blessed I am to be here, to be living and breathing in this time, and in this space, as this precious child begins her journey and acquires her names.