21 September 2008

Here's a Leib, there's a Leib!

The newest Carnival of Eastern European Genealogy is focusing on family first names, hosted by gen-blogger Steve Danko.

Here's a bit of history, humor, naming traditions and patterns to peruse.

Anyone named Leib Talalay is sure to be a cousin, no matter where he is today.

The main branch of our Talalay family was from Mogilev, Belarus from the 1700s and, from 1832, from a newly established agricultural colony down the road apiece (Vorotinschtina, adjacent to Zavarezhye, about 12 miles south-southwest from Mogilev).

Rabbi Leib Talalay was a Talmudic scholar, and the son of a rabbi, Mikhl Talalay, and likely many generations of rabbis before that. Leib was rather famous and this, combined with the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition of naming children after a deceased relative, meant that each of Leib's children named a son after him. And so on and so forth, down to the present day.

Leib's claim to fame - at least the one I've heard the most about - is that he studied the Talmud through three times. There is a Yiddish term for that, but I've forgotten it. Because of this achievement, he was awarded all the stale bread in the bakery every day. Considering the number of mouths Leib had to feed, this was a rather good deal for his family.

Whether I find an olden-days Leib Talalay in Chaussy or Gorki (near Mogilev), or more contemporary days in Novosibirsk, Siberia, Moscow or St. Petersburg - he's more than likely one of ours.

In the New World, of course, Leib's namesakes became generally known as Louis and in more contemporary terms, some Laurences as well. In some Jewish families, keeping only the same beginning letter is considered enough to maintain the tradition.

His father was Mikhl (Michael) and so - again according to naming traditions - there are a lot of Mikhl and Michael and a large number of Moshe (Moses) - this name back to a 1353 document discovered in the Lerida, Catalunya archives (kosher winemaker Mosse Talalya). From London to St. Petersburg to Napoli, we have Michael Talalays.

This Ashkenazi naming practice can be confusing as women are also named for deceased grandmothers or other female relatives. Thus nearly every Leib had a sister named Gita (for her grandmother).

However, it is not as confusing as a family tree I received for the Ben Tolila family who left Spain in 1492 and settled in North Africa, also a rabbinical family in Meknes, Fez and elsewhere. We believe that this family is possible related to our Talalay before the Expulsion.

In any case, naming traditions in Sephardic families are different from Ashkenazi. The highest form of honor is to name a newborn after its living grandmother or grandfather. I received numerous pages in which nearly every generation was named Samuel (Shemuel) for the men and Mercedes for the women. It was impossible to fathom, and I got a headache trying to separate the generations.

My great-grandfather Aron Peretz Talalay, who would become Aron Tollin soon after he landed in New York and then Newark, was also honored with children named after him. One cousin's middle name became Paris instead of Peretz, although the first name remained the same. Great-grandmother's brother Hatzkel and their father Tsalel had a large number of Charles named after them.

And what were we going to do with a name for our daughter when we had a Leah and a Chana to name after? We racked our brains and came up with an Italian version, Liana, combining Lia (Leah) and Ana (Chana). It was a great success and she never met another girl with her same name until many years later. It also worked for the Persian family who could pronounce this "new" and strange name. Of course, many called her Diana, but we worked through that one also.

In Miami, a nurse told us we couldn't take the baby home without a middle name and we hadn't thought of one. We did ask about the hospital sending her to college if we left her there without a middle name; they said no. We finally settled on Shayne (for Shaine/Sheine, Yiddish for beautiful). We figured Liana Shayne would look great on a theater marquee if she wanted to become an actress, a doctor or lawyer. We did realize that with the last name of Dardashti, her initials would be interesting - you figure it out. We said to ourselves, "Oh, that's just a passing fancy. No one will recognize those initials when she grows up." Yeah, right.

Throughout her school years, her classmates delighted in her name and initials and thought her parents were soooo cool and that we must have been hippies living in a commune. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Can you spell "square," boys and girls?

How many readers hate their own names or have children who hate their names for a variety of reasons? We were lucky; she loves her first name and her initials!

My grandmother's names evolved as well. Born in Mogilev as Chayeh Feige (Chaya for life, Feige for small bird), she became known as Bertie in her Newark school, and later more elegantly as Bertha. Her mother-in-law from Suchostow (Austro-Hungary, Galicia, Poland, Ukraine) was Rebeka Halpern Fink, known variously on the Bronx's Grand Concourse as Rebeki and rarely Becky. But her headstone in the Suchostower Benevolent Society plot reads Regina Fink.

The other side of the family is Persian, and this is where the strange names to Western ears really come into play. Standard Hebrew and Persian literary names of the old generations include Yaqub (Jacob), Israel, Moshi (Moses), Ebrahim (Abraham)Parviz, Atollah and Faramarz are connected to wives and daughters named Khorshid (sun), Tavuus (peacock), Nane-jan, Sabh-jan, Paridokht, Farangis, Heshmat and Azam.

French names began to take hold when the Alliance Israelite Francais school opened its doors. Boys took on typical French names as a sign of education. In some families, two children might have French names, the others Persian names. Today, in Los Angeles (Tehrangeles), the younger generations are more likely to be named Tiffany, Ashley and the like, while boys have the same names as their non-Persian classmates.

The entire time we lived in Teheran, I was called Shirley instead of Schelly. I gave up trying to correct everyone; it was just easier to accept it. Just this summer, I visited a Los Angeles cousin who learned for the first time that it was really Schelly. She was shocked when her kids said she'd been saying it wrong (forever!).

What's in a name?

In Jewish tradition, it represents generations of family history. Think about who that person was named after, and the person who carried it before? Go back generations and generations and you'll see the same names repeated. These patterns are very useful clues in researching old documents including the days before surnames were required.

However, there are always exceptions in families: my mother was named after a cigar and an actress (Muriel, although the Yiddish version was Mirrel) while a Canadian cousin was named after the family's beloved dog. Really.

Looking forward to hearing your "name" stories in comments.


  1. Anonymous3:16 AM

    Nearly 43 years ago I was born three weeks early and because of this, my parents had not yet thought of a name for me. The first draft of my birth certificate actually had the word "Baby" inserted where one would fill in the baby's first name.

    When I asked my mother while I didn't have a name on my first birth certificate, she simply said, "...nobody of major significance had died so we could not think of a name right away..."

  2. Anonymous4:09 PM

    I was named after the daughter of a very dear friend of my father. After my mother died, my father married the dear friend so I became "Little Eva" and she was known as "Big Eva" in the family. "Big Eva" married Warner whose brother Henry was also married to an Eva. So now we have "Warner's Eva" and "Henry's Eva" or "Big Eva", "Little Eva" and the "Other Eva". BTW - "Big Eva" is about 6 inches and weighs at least 100 pounds less.