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What's in a (Jewish) Name?

What's in a (Jewish) Name?

Babys arm on hospital blankets wearing a blue hospital ID bracelet around its wrist

A few weekends ago, I listened to an NPR interview with Robert Lee IV, an ancestor of Robert E. Lee, who felt the righteous anger directed at white nationalists defending his legacy as the general of the Confederate Army. Listening to this 24-year-old man – a peaceful Christian minister – I thought of the backstory to my own children’s names.

In the Jewish tradition, both of my sons were named for deceased and beloved relatives. From the moment I first found out I was pregnant, I decided my baby would be named for my Grandma Belle; thus, we named our son Ben. By choosing a traditional name – one that was, in my mind, also beautiful and meaningful – I felt I was bucking the new trend among many younger parents, who expressed determination to choose completely unique and original names.

I liked the name’s simple and solid sound, how close it was to my grandmother’s name. At the time of my son’s birth 19 years ago, it was 34th in popularity on the list of baby names. My son never had a classmate or friend who shared his name in Brooklyn, where he was the only Jewish child in his public school, and one of only a handful of white students in a school of 700. It wasn’t until he was in a bar mitzvah class with three other Bens that I realized the name’s popularity in the Jewish community!

It was Ben’s last name, though, that received the most attention, because his father and I decided to follow the matrilineal tradition. Matrilineality is the tracing of descent through the female line – but it’s uncommon in the U.S., at least in families with a mother and father.

The primary reason for choosing to give my children my surname was, on the surface, feminist in nature, but the underlying legacies of anti-Semitism and racism played a major part.

My grandfather David Hocky had been born Hockenberg, an Americanized version of the Lithuanian Gockenberg (“h” is not in the Cyrillic alphabet, as I discovered on a visit to the Gockenberg homestead in a tiny riverside town outside of Vilna). As a young man and father of four, he shortened it to Hocky, already his nickname. It was a seemingly more American name.

We (his descendants) assume he wanted, in part, to erase the Semitic sound of his original surname, or at least to avoid the anti-Semitism he faced by having such a Jewish name. All of his children, in turn, had their surnames officially changed to Hocky, although his three daughters later changed their names again after getting married; only my father remaining a Hocky.

Why would I want to give my children a name that is simply a truncated and poorly spelled version of its original? Because my father also had only one son – my brother – to carry on the family name, I wanted to expand the number of Hockys in the world (although I once briefly considered changing my name back to the original Hockenberg).

There’s another reason we chose my surname for my children.

Their father, who converted to Judaism before they were born, has a last name that is quite common – especially in the African-American community, as a result of slaveholders who bore the name. (There were plenty of Jewish slaveholders, but as I descend from more recent Jewish immigrants, there were none in our family.)

My family chose the possible downsides of burdening our son with an Americanized name that would continually be misspelled (plus the confusion of having his mother’s surname and hearing his father incorrectly referred to as “Mr. Hocky”) over a name – like many other common surnames – that epitomized a legacy we longed to eradicate. 

In his interview with NPR, Robert Lee IV talks about hearing from a woman whose family was once owned by his, and having to reconcile that history and his family’s legacy of slavery and racism. “I know deep down that in some small way,” he says, “if this is making a difference, using Robert Lee – my name, Robert Lee IV – as someone who can say that this is wrong, then it's worth every ounce of strength I have. It's worth my life. It's worth my dignity. It's worth everything I've got to redeem this situation.” 

Our family went a different route, rejecting one name’s legacy of slavery for another’s possible intimation of anti-Semitism. Doing so was a small, quiet act of brit olam, our vision for a world filled with justice and compassion.

I am happy to say that 19 years later, Ben Hocky – whose first name means “son of the right side,” representing strength and virtue – embodies the best of his grandmother, his Jewish origins, and the pluralistic world that he embraces with a wisdom and sensitivity beyond his years.

Joan Hocky works at the Union for Reform Judaism. She is a writer with a background in community development, the arts, and education, with a focus on increasing opportunities and resources for underserved and marginalized communities and an expertise in relationship-building and problem solving with diverse stakeholders. When not at work at the URJ, she raises children, vegetables, provocative ideas, and dreams about having more time to write, including on her blog, Grace and Dirt.

Joan Hocky
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