When my daughter-in-law, Skippy’s wife, was pregnant just a few short months ago, one tune kept going through my mind: Johnny Cash’s 1969 classic, “A Boy Named Sue.”
I loved that song for a number of reasons.
First of all because it told a great story about a deadbeat, absentee father who names his son “Sue” to make him tough. The name becomes the boy’s bane: “I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named ‘Sue.’”
The two meet coincidentally years later in a bar, they fight and almost kill each other, and then they reconcile. (Sometimes I would use that song to console myself about my own name, “I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named ‘Herbie.’”)
Second, I loved that song because it had what as a boy I thought were some of the greatest lines in songwriting history, lines that painted a picture, and did it with brio, with rhythm and rhyme.
For instance, describing the fight scene in the bar, Cash sings: “And we crashed through the wall and into the street/ Kicking and a-gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.”
Almost 50 years later, I still remember that line: “Kicking and a-gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.”
And third, I loved that song because it included a curse word. As a kid growing up in Denver, hearing a word bleeped out on the radio simply rocked my world. (We lived a rather sheltered existence out there in Colorado.)
But it wasn’t because of the cursing or the rhythmic sound of the lyrics that had that song playing constantly in my mind during my daughter-in-law’s pregnancy. No, it was because I genuinely feared that the story that song told could really play itself out on my yet unborn grandchild. I was worried that Skippy and his wife might give their child – destined, as I already knew, to be a boy – a girl’s name.
My son would surely not do this because, God forbid, he planned on deserting his son as a baby and wanted to give him a name that would make him steely tough, street-ready and able to face a hard, cruel world. Rather, I was worried that my son and his wife would give their son a girl’s name because, well, in modern Israel there is a tendency to give girls’ names to boys, and vice versa.
No, you won’t ever meet a boy named Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel or Leah, but you will meet one called Ma’ayan, Neta, Adi or Shahar – names that in the past have been primarily reserved for girls.
“Just give the boy a boy’s name,” I entreated my son and his wife.
“We’re not asking for much, your mother and I. We are not asking you to name him after anybody. We’re not asking you to stay away from naming him after a geographic region or body of water – like Golan or Kinneret or Yarden – though we never ever thought of naming you Kansas, Lake Erie or Monongahela. All we are asking is that you give him a regular boy’s name. How would you like if we had called you Sally?”
And then I asked him one other thing.
“It would be swell,” I said, “if he could have a name that your grandfather could pronounce. Perhaps something without a het
or an ayin
or double letters. Maybe stay away from Amihai or Hananel.”
Skippy raised an eyebrow as if to say, “We’ll name the kid whatever we want.” His wife, however, sweetly said “OK,” though it was clear she was merely pacifying me.
THUS IT was with sheer delight that at the young lad’s brit
– with the boy resting squarely on my knees, my eyes firmly shut and my head turned away as the mohel
performed his magic – that I heard the name of my descendant for the first time: “Barry.”
Wow, dodged a bullet with this one, I thought. Barry, like strawberry, blueberry, raspberry. Barry, like Barry Manilow, Barry Bonds, Chuck Berry. But who the hell is Barry? How did he come up with Barry?
“Not Barry,” the Skipster corrected me when I delicately asked those questions a few minutes later, “but Be’eri, from the word be’er
Be’er is the Hebrew word for well, as in a well of water. In other words, my son named his son, “My well.” This is going to be fun to explain to my dad, I thought, but better “my well” than “oh well.”
, Pa,” I said a few minutes later, talking to my father in California. “Your newest great-grandchild has a name: Be’eri. It’s from the Hebrew word for water well. It means ‘my well.’”
“Barry,” my dad repeated. “Well, at least it’s pronounceable. But who the hell is Barry? How did he come up with Barry?”
I started to explain the meaning of the Hebrew word, and how lovely it is to name your son after a water well, because a well holds water, and water is a metaphor for Torah.
When that failed to elicit the desired reaction, I repeated what my son explained at the post-circumcision meal: Be’eri was actually a biblical name, and the biblical Be’eri was the father of the Prophet Hosea.
“Ah, that’s great. Why didn’t he just name him after the father of Guy Lombardo,” my unimpressed father responded, referring to the legendary bandleader of the Big Band era who was born in Canada to immigrant parents from Italy.
“Pa,” I said respectfully, stalling for time as I looked up Guy Lombardo on Wikipedia. “You’re comparing the father of a prophet to the father of a bandleader? “Besides, you should be thankful he didn’t name him after Guy Lombardo’s father. Otherwise your newest great-grandson would not be called Be’eri, he’d be called Gaetano. Now try pronouncing that.”