Family & Education

The names to keep kids tribal

How to pick names that will make sure your kids feel Jewish? Josh Howie has the answer


Many years ago I made a promise to you, the Jewish people. No, not the one about forgiving any drivers with peyot who cut me off in Stamford Hill. Long since broken. I’m talking about the promise made during my Jerusalem Yeshiva brainwashing, as the head honcho rabbi lectured our intake of young secular Jews. “You are the next link in a chain that goes back hundreds of generations. Those who came before suffered and strived so that you could be here, DON’T break the chain!” And under the accumulated guilt trip of multiple millennia of ancestors I vowed, ‘I shall not be the one to break the chain head honcho rabbi!’

Later, after getting kicked out, possibly something to do with my continual references to the head honcho rabbi, it’s the one thing that stuck. The yarmulkes might’ve been consigned to the sock drawer, the tzitzit to the loft, and pre-COVID I’d be shaking women’s hands all over the place, but in this matter my resolve remained rock solid. Sure, my link in the chain has a few stress points, but my kids, they’d be hardened steel. Resistant to the bolt cutters of intermarriage, New Age spiritual fashions, and the Egg and Sausage McMuffin.

So that’s what this optimistically hoping to be long-running column’s about, the trials and errors in forging the next generation of Jews. How, in this modern era, can I hypocritically deal with my own failings, by best passing the burden onto them? To give them no choice in the matter. To affix upon their destinies a mezuzah. To not have to use google to look up how to spell mezuzah. Or find out what one is. And that inaugural step, before the bris, bar mitzvah, and bristen (thanks again google), is the choosing of the name. You get the name right, you’re consigning them to lifetime membership. My wife and I have made some links now, and when I tell you their names it should prove our utter commitment to the tribe.

Firstborn, we’ve got Mordechai, ancient Hebrew for “Please pick on me.” I know I know, overcompensating much?

But when in doubt, go biblical. Even in the childhood years of my most tenuous connection to Judaism, it was my namesake that gave me a lifeline. And Mordechai, well he’s the most Jewy sounding bloke in the Torah (Google it). It also had the added bonus that one of my favourite writers is Mordecai Richler. We use the more traditional spelling though, so that for the rest of our son’s life, every time he meets someone new he’s going to have to explain it’s not pronounced like “ch”, it’s ‘hggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.’ He’s a lock in.

The problem was, when we moved to Crouch End it became particularly tough to out-pretentious people. We’d been spoilt with a taste of the exotic and we wanted more. Blessed with news of another child I returned to the scriptures, but this time nothing stood out, nothing was individual enough, bar Barsheba. Even bar Barblacksheep (sorry!). So instead we detoured to the path of Jewish North Americana, and connected with the name Art.

No, not the receding Jewfro of Garfunkel, but rather the reluctant heartthrob of his day, Artie Shaw. And Artie says Larry Sanders. It says mid-century New York. It says Jew.

Thus, by the time of our final blessing, the theme became a pattern; Jewish entertainers of the 20th century. And Woody was begat. I’d have sneaked in our modern Patriarch earlier, but my wife nixed it. Fortunately she was suffering from sleep deprivation, so a compromise of Woodrow on the birth certificate placated her, and I let her go back to sleep.

But then, we got a final, final blessing. A girl. And there were so many talented Jews to pick from the other side of the aisle. Hedy Lamar? Brains and beauty, but Hedy Howie? Yeah that’s not going to work out well. Goldie? Too confusing a combination of ditz, grandmother, and Drum and Bass. Winona? Too Stranger Thingsy. When you have a daughter, you want someone strong, someone who won’t be messed with, someone who could beat up an entire army by themselves. You want Wonder Woman. You want …Bette Midler.

And there we have it…wait, what’s that? A final, final, final, blessing? Seriously, this better be the last blessing. Another boy. But now I’m running on empty, surely all the best names are gone?

I mean, there was this one idea I had. An actor from one of my favourite films, The Producers. But it’s too hardcore. Takes it too far. And going for the birth certificate I was worried, I’d heard they could flag any names deemed inappropriate.

The registrar paused after I wrote out the name for her to spell. She looked up, quizzically. “Zero?”

I paused. “Yeah…it’s Jewish.”

“Uh-hu, okay. And this is the middle name?”

“Yup, Zion.”

Just to be safe.

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