Marisa Zelfond of Wakefield and Amanda Campbell of Marblehead named their daughters in similar ways. Zelfond named her two-year-old daughter Myla Miriam after her maternal grandmother, which is reflected in her daughter’s first and middle name. “Her middle name is after my grandmother,” said Zelfond, the director of account management for an IT company. “I wanted [her first name] to be an M – there’s sort of an M tradition in my family, with my grandma being mostly known as Miriam, my mom is Marcy, and I’m Marisa … we thought Myla was really unique and different.”
Campbell, who teaches preschool at the JCC of the North Shore in Marblehead, also named her six-month old daughter Thea May after her grandmother. “Thea is a Greek name, and it has nothing to do with Judaism, and we just did it because I liked it, but her middle name is May, after my grandmother Marcia, who passed away,” said Campbell.
Like many other Jewish millennial parents, both Zelfond and Campbell chose offbeat names that expressed their personalities, but also honored their families and the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition of naming children after deceased relatives.
According to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, Jews have joined the rest of the country in giving their children increasingly diverse names in recent decades. “Creativity in first names today is much more acceptable in the United States than it was before,” said Sarna. “There’s much more diversity. Where you have intermarriages, conversions, you see it even more. For example, one can think of Jewish ‘Christines,’ which you certainly wouldn’t have seen in an earlier generation.”
Data shows that millennial parents are choosing increasingly unique names. Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University, analyzed the Social Security database in detail and found that in 2015, 72 percent of boys and 79 percent had a first name outside of the top 50 most popular.
“Growing up as an Amanda, everybody’s name was Amanda, so I don’t want her to grow up as Thea C., like I grew up as Amanda N.,” said Campbell, whose maiden name is Neilson. “I thought Thea was really elegant and pretty – it has nothing to do with anything.”
Karen Tal-Makhluf, of Marblehead, with three children aged six and under, estimates that roughly 50 percent of the Jewish children she meets have identifiably Jewish first names, which usually means the English version of names from the Old Testament. Tal-Makhluf and her husband, Joel Makhluf, were among the half who wanted to give their children Jewish names that honored relatives, though their son Ethan is the only one of their three children whose first name honors a relative (Tal-Makhluf’s father’s name was Avinoam, which, like Ethan, begins with an aleph.)
“We didn’t care so much if they were one-of-a-kind – we just wanted classic Jewish names, but we didn’t want it to be too old-fashioned,” said Tal-Makhluf, whose children are named Ethan, Daniella, and Ari. “We like the fact that they don’t have to change their names at all to understand that they’re Jewish. Anyone can see their names and figure out that there is some Jewish connection.”
Tal-Makhluf named her children according to another growing trend among American Jewish parents: turning to Israel for inspiration. Because she and her husband have strong family roots in Israel, they chose Israeli names that are also popular – and pronounceable – in the United States. According to data from the Social Security Administration, Israeli names like Maya and Asher were the 61st and 59th most popular names of 2017, a large jump from 2000, when they were respectively ranked 113th and 579th. Jamie Greenstein, an event planner from Swampscott, named her son Aharon, the Hebrew version of Aaron.
Campbell recounts coming across more young American children with Israeli names in her work as a preschool teacher. “Working at the JCC, and knowing a lot of kids from [the Epstein Hillel School], there’s a lot of Maayans that I know, there’s a lot of Talia’s, I know some Tamara’s,” said Campbell. “I have a family member whose name is Lisa who changed it to Yifat.”
Sarna credits a rise in Israeli names to a broader ethnic revival in America that encouraged different ethnicities to choose more unusual names that held special cultural significance. “I find, within Jewish day schools today, Israel having a huge impact – lots of new names were created in Israel, and Israelis came to America and brought those names, and Americans went to Israel,” he said. “Adina has become a very common name in recent years – it might’ve been someone’s Hebrew name, but it wouldn’t have been their English name.”
Jews in the Diaspora have traditionally carried both secular and Hebrew names, something millennial Jewish parents on the North Shore still honor. While secular first names tend to reflect the taste of the parents, Hebrew names are generally selected to honor deceased relatives, per an unwritten Ashkenazi tradition that has lasted for centuries. “Most often they’re naming after a beloved one in their family,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, who has presided over many naming ceremonies. “If they’re given a name that has its origins in Hebrew, which many are, then they would take that Hebrew name, but very often there’s no relation at all, so they’re free to pick a Hebrew name either in memory of someone, or because they like it.”
Campbell’s daughter’s Hebrew name is Simcha Yael: Simcha after her husband Robbie’s grandfather’s Hebrew name, and Yael after Campbell’s paternal grandfather, who was named Israel (in Hebrew, both names begin with the letter “yud,” and naming after the first letter is another common Ashkenazi practice.). Zelfond’s daughter’s Hebrew name is Miriam, after her grandmother. Greenstein’s son’s Hebrew name is Aharon Gedalia, after the Hebrew name of her grandfather.
English middle names are often commemorative as well. Like Hebrew names, they tend not to come up often in daily life, so parents feel freer to choose names that carry emotional weight, but wouldn’t necessarily be their top choice. Campbell’s daughter’s middle name is May to honor Campbell’s grandmother Marcia. Zelfond’s daughter’s middle name is Miriam, which also honors Zelfond’s grandmother Miriam. Greenstein’s son’s middle name is Gerald, after her grandfather. Tal-Makhluf named her first child Ethan Meir because Meir was traditionally the middle name of all firstborn sons, she named her daughter Daniella Aviyah because Aviyah was a name that her late father liked, and she named her youngest son Aryeh Dov after her paternal grandfather.
Even though millennial parents are branching out from the traditional stable of Jewish first names and incorporating names from Israel, the distant past, or the multicultural present, many have found ways to honor their Jewish heritage. “I like to have some kind of connection – not just a name that sounds nice,” said Tal-Makhluf. “I wanted my kids to feel a connection to their family and their people.”