Real Israel: No, Noa, Noam, names

Real Israel No, Noa, No

twins 248.88 (photo credit: )
twins 248.88
(photo credit: )
In "Lekol ish yesh shem" - "Every person has a name" - poetess Zelda notes that everyone has a name given by God, by parents, by behavior and by circumstances. In the "circumstances" category, you might include fashions. According to data released last month by the Central Bureau of Statistics ahead of Universal Children's Day, the most popular name for Israeli babies born in 2008 was Noam, given to 1,970 boys and 515 girls. Some 156,900 babies were born in Israel that year. For Jewish Israeli boys, the other most popular names were Itai (1,267), Ori/Uri (1,213), Daniel (957), Yehonatan (910), David (887) and Ido (816). For Jewish Israeli girls, the names topping the list were Noa (1,819), Shira (1,685), Yael (975), Tamar (915), Maya (898) and Talia (766). One-quarter of Muslim Israeli boys in 2008 were given names derived from the name of the prophet Muhammad, including Muhammad, Ahmed and Mahmoud. The list gives only partial indication of the trends, admits the CBS spokeswoman. Names, it seems, are fraught with meaning. Prof. Aaron Demsky, from Bar-Ilan University's Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and the director of the Project for the Study of Jewish Names, suggests that anyone who wants to study local name patterns should visit a few kindergartens from different sectors, the haredi, national religious and secular communities, each of which has its own characteristics. Even within the different sectors there are differences, says Demsky, perhaps the biggest name in his field (academically called onomastics). The growth of the Bratslaver movement, for instance, has given birth to numerous Nahmans named after Rabbi Nahman, notes Demsky. "Certain traditional names have become associated with particular hassidic groups, such as Shneur Zalman, Menahem Mendel and Haya Musha with the Chabad movement and Yoel(ish) with the Satmar Hassidim," he adds. In 2009, there was a growth in children named after the Chabad emissaries Rivka and Gavriel Holtzberg, murdered in the Mumbai terror attack a year ago. The national religious tend to preserve the link with previous generations and call their offspring after grandparents (although sometimes modernizing the name) and the religious also make the most out of giving their kids both first and middle names, often opting for one which is a link to a relative and the second to reflect a fashion or event. That is apparently the story behind the growing number of Gilads, named after kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. The secular tend to choose names that are simple and pronounceable, often an object, which explains the waves of names like Yam (sea) and Agam (lake), for example. "They are not Jewish in the sense of having a literary or religious connotation. Many of these parents want their children to feel comfortable in the outside world," says Demsky. "Names are just about the best indicator we have of sociological values and norms throughout the Jewish Diaspora and into the modern era," he explains. "The last decade and a half has seen families trying to express their children's individuality with names like Nofar and Ilai, for example, only to discover in five years that there are another 10 children in the kindergarten with the same name." Demsky also notes that many names are now unisex. "This reflects the idea of equality," he says. "But interestingly enough it is only in one direction, girls take boys' names but you still don't have 'A boy named Sue,'" he quips, quoting the Johnny Cash hit of the late 1960s. Among the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi - "which are becoming more blurred," Demsky points out - are the practice of Ashkenazim to name after dead relatives while Sephardim name for the living, and the way that a name like Simha (happiness) is used by Sephardi women but Ashkenazi men. Real Israel took a look at the Noa/Noam phenomenon and found it reflected the full spectrum of factors that Demsky notes, and then some. You name it and somebody has thought of it. One mother named her daughter Noa in the early 1980s - an age where kids played with real friends, outdoors - for an utterly Middle Eastern reason: "We considered the name Na'ama, but I thought it would sound too long when I needed to shout it out of the window - Na'ama-a-a-a - so we settled for Noa instead." An acquaintance put a lot of thought into the name of her daughter, born in early 1995, in the difficult period following the Rabin assassination. "My father used to say we needed a computer program to come up with a name. We wanted something that started with the letter nun, had a meaning, was biblical and couldn't be unisex, so we settled on Noa, which has the meaning of movement and is one Zelophehad's five daughters in the Bible." Unfortunately for them, this Noa is one of six in her year at a nonreligious Jerusalem school. "I think everyone else named after Rabin's granddaughter Noa Ben-Artzi, after seeing her eulogy," says the mother. One Noa of the 2000s was named by her nonreligious parents "because we liked the sound. We had no idea it was even in the Bible." Another was named after her grandmother: "She was called Ahinoam but like the singer Ahinoam Nini, whom we both like, we realized that this is almost unpronounceable to foreigners so we opted for Noa [which is how the highly successful performer is known abroad]." Of the Noams, one older boy from a religious household was given the name "because it is biblical and we just liked it," while a nonreligious girl was called Noam "because it has a nice sound, a meaning [pleasantness] and the sort of trait that we thought would suit a girl," literally a good name. A few of the Israeli Noas, however, found that despite their parents' best intentions, to English-speakers the name is most identified with the biblical character of Noah. This is unmistakably pronounced with a hard "het" in Hebrew and utterly unfeminine - although it might be a matter of time. After all, even the prophet Elisha would probably have failed to predict that his name would be given to a growing number of modern Israeli girls. Some of the factors behind the choice of names given by Jewish families differ from those which lie behind the choice of Christian names, such as Hebrew gematria, for example, and other traditional beliefs. While there is a wealth of literature on Jewish names, there are far fewer female names in the Bible than male ones, notes Demsky, which requires more creativity. "The rabbis emphasized the principle of what is termed in Aramaic shema garim, that is that one's name has a formative influence on one's behavior and perhaps on that of one's descendants," he notes. And we all recognize the importance of preserving your good name, whatever it is.