What Is Up With the Idea of “Real” and “Fake” Names?

“What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

And yet, if you meet Rose, and you call her by any other name, you will be lucky if your nose can smell anything at all after, let alone sweet.

Names are our personal labels. How you use them reflects how you relate to the person in front of you. A nickname can be endearing or offensive. Refusing to use someone’s name is like refusing to acknowledge them. This is always offensive.

It is also a power trip.

I have had a number of Jewish types tell me that my name “isn’t real.” I don’t even understand this concept. Just read the birth of the shvatim. Did their mothers consult the Iron Age Book of Baby Names? Check the back of the Shulchan Aruch?

What about all the names found in Tanach and Talmud? Is Tzurishaddai a real name? What about Tzuriel, or Tzurya? Is Antignos a “real” name? It doesn’t sound very Jewish; it probably shouldn’t be. And yet, Saadia is a Jewish name, right? Even Alexander, somehow.

In what era was the Big Book of Jewish Baby Name sealed forever?

In one of my seminary interviews, the rabbi doing the interviewing informed me that my name wasn’t real. I told him to take it up with my Yerushalmi great grandmother. That shut him up. A contemporary rabbi can say anything he wants to a teenage girl at a seminary interview, but nobody is allowed to cast aspersions on the holy Yerushalmis of yore.

Later, as I travelled around Israel, my name was a source of consternation and fascination for many of my hosts. Was it real? What did it mean? My confusion was as genuine as theirs. It’s what I’m called. What did they mean?

Finally, one of my hosts pulled out a Shulchan Aruch, or something, that has the Jewish Book of Baby Names in the back for purposes of divorce documents or something, and informed me that my name was Real. This was an enormous relief to me. Not that I was remotely concerned about the authenticity of my name. But this made it so much easier to silence the naysayers. Now, when people asked “Is that a real name?” I could confidently state that it was in the Big Book of Jewish Baby Names.

Anyway, when it came to seminary interviewers denying one’s name, I got off easy. I wasn’t the only one to have this experience, and others had it much worse. I’m told of one young lady who was also informed that her name “wasn’t real.” And since it wasn’t a real name, the rabbi was unwilling to pronounce the “ya” ending, because he was afraid of taking God’s name in vain.

So for the rest of the interview, with an entirely straight face, he addressed her as “Orca.”

But I know that her name (Orya) is legit, just based on her reaction. Instead of making like a killer whale and eating the rabbi alive, she was a light unto the nations, and comported herself with politeness and decorum for the duration of the interview.


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What Is Up With the Idea of “Real” and “Fake” Names?

3 thoughts on “What Is Up With the Idea of “Real” and “Fake” Names?

  1. RK says:

    This happened to me in high school – my name is Rella, but my mom wanted me to have a legal hebrew name so it says Ariella on my birth certificate. I have never, ever gone by Ariella. I had a BY teacher refuse to call me Rella and even made fun of my name in front of the class on the first day.


  2. Yid says:

    My friend Nechoma went to public school. She was told that she would have to change her name to Norma. Her father went ballistic, Nechoma having been the name of his mother who who was murdered in the Holocaust. He went to the teacher and raised hell.
    But this stuff happened in Israel all the time two people with traditional Yiddish Ashkenazi names. Sheyna became Yaffa, Toybe became Yona, Gitl became Tovah, etc.


    1. Esther Bernstein says:

      How ironic, then, that yeshivish schools where many girls have Yiddish names are now doing the same thing to girls with Hebrew-sounding names.

      Liked by 1 person

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