Curricular materials

This page features materials that can be used for teaching to any age group about Jewish names around the world. These materials can be incorporated into broader lessons on Jewish cultural diversity. This page will be expanded in the coming years. If you'd like to suggest materials or volunteer for this project, please contact us.

Even Hadassah had a Starbucks name: Esther

Purim for Juhuri (Judeo-Tat) Speakers:

Some people claim that Jews of the Eastern Caucasus are descendants of Esther and Mordechai. Whether this is true or not, Purim traditions seem to be deeply rooted in the culture of this community. Names related to this holiday used to be popular among community members. Along with the traditional names Istir (Esther), Hǝdǝso (Hadassah), and Mǝrdǝxǝj (Mordechai), two additional feminine names were used: Istirǝmǝlkǝ (Esther ha-Malka) and Purim itself! The holiday has a different name in Juhuri: Homunui or Homunu (perhaps derived from Haman). And the delicious halva-like sweet prepared especially for this holiday is called hǝdisǝ or hǝsido (doesn’t it sound like Hadassah?) Şorǝ Homunui gǝrdo! Happy Purim!

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Pinchas: What do Nḥaysí, Pilxaz, and Pincie have in common? They’re all forms of the biblical Hebrew name פנחס Pinchas (Phineas), the grandson of Aaron. Nḥaysí is Libyan Judeo-Arabic, Pilxaz is Judeo-Georgian, and Pincie is Jewish Polish. 

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The noble origins of Yenta: The Yiddish women’s names Yenta and Yentl come from Gentil and Gentile (meaning noble, beautiful), names used by French- and Italian-speaking Jews in the Middle Ages. In Jewish English today, yenta generally refers to a gossipy woman or matchmaker - an association influenced by the character Yenta, played by Molly Picon, in the 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof.

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Yiddish Pseudonyms: Many women writers began publishing across the Yiddish diaspora in the early 1900s. They gained such popularity that some male authors published under female pseudonyms. After his poetry was rejected from the newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Voice of Labor), Jacob Glatstein submitted work under the pen name Klara Blum. The poems were then published and praised by the paper’s editor.

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From Nancy to Noa: Top 10 girls’ names among Jewish respondents to the Survey of American Jewish Personal Names by decade of birth.

* indicates that the name is also in the US Top 10 for that decade.

[Includes a chart ranking names in the 1950s, 1980s, and 2010s.]

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阿無羅漢 - אברהם - Abraham: Although there was not a significant tradition of Judeo-Chinese writing, the Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, wrote inscriptions and manuscripts in Chinese, sometimes interwoven with Hebrew. In a few cases, Chinese words, especially names, were written in Hebrew letters, such as גן שה zhāng shì (Miss Zhang) in a 17th-century Memorial Book. In other cases, Hebrew names were written in Chinese letters, such as 阿無羅漢    ā-wú-luó-hàn for אברהם (Abraham) in a 16th-century inscription.

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Top 10 boys’ names among Jewish respondents to the Survey of American Jewish Personal Names by decade of birth. * indicates that the name is also in the US Top 10 for that decade.

[Includes a chart ranking names in the 1950s, 1980s, and 2010s.]

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Ester, Anna, and 'Abdallah: In many times and places, Jews have drawn baby names from a mix of sources. We can observe distinctly Jewish Biblical (Hebrew) names, local versions of Biblical names, and local non-Biblical names in common usage at the same time. Some examples:

• 10th-century Cairo: Ephraim, Miriam (Biblical Hebrew), Da’ud, Rebekah (local variants of Biblical), ‘Abdallah, Jamila (local non-Jewish: Arabic) 

• 13th-century England: Jechiel, Zippora (Biblical Hebrew), Elias, Anna (local variants of Biblical), Peter, Joie (local non-Jewish: English, French) 

• 16th-century Rome: Aron, Ester (Biblical Hebrew), Giuseppe, Rebecca (local variants of Biblical), Angelo, Allegrezza (local non-Jewish: Italian)

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Name Changing for Healing: In Jewish communities around the world, a gravely ill child would sometimes be given a new or additional name, often one that indicated life, old age, healing, or the child being (ritually) sold or abandoned. The reasoning is that the forces of illness would come looking for a specific person and turn away empty-handed if the name had been switched. Some examples of disease-fooling names in various languages:

Juhuri: Munosh (will [you] live), Ofdym ([I] found), Shende (thrown away). Ladino/Judeo-Romance:

Mercado (sold), Vidal (life), Vita (life), Vivant (alive). Yiddish: Alte (old woman), Alter (old man), Bobe (grandmother), Zeyde (grandfather). Hebrew (multiple communities): Haya (living), Hayim (life), Nissim (miracles), Raphael (God healed).

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Divine inspiration: Many names used by Jews (and others), both ancient and modern, are theophoric, meaning they reference God. Some examples:

Boys: Azriel (my help is God), Daniel (God is my judge)

Eliav (my God is father), Elior (God is my light), Gabriel (strength of God), Uriel (God is my light).

Girls: Ariella (lioness of God), Batya (daughter of God), Danya (judgment of God), Elisheva (God is my oath), Galia (wave of God), Talia (dew of God).

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Onomastic wordplay: Coded Jewish names: Historically, some Jews have used names popular in their surrounding society and interpreted them as similar-sounding Hebrew words. For example, the Yiddish name Shneyer/Shneur comes from the Spanish/French senior, meaning “elder, master,” but Jews interpreted it as Hebrew shnei or – two light[s]. This practice continues among American Jews today: Aiden: Irish for little fire, interpreted as Eden. Amalya: international, interpreted as work of God. Eliana: Greek, interpreted as my God answered. Evan: Welsh version of John, interpreted as rock. Liam: Irish version of William, interpreted as my people. Lila: Persian for lilac tree, interpreted as night. Maya: international, interpreted as water.

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Names that Roar: Names meaning “lion” have circulated among Jews for centuries, in part because of symbolic associations with the tribe of Judah. These might have originally been local names, but they were often coded as Jewish. Some examples:

Ancient Rome: Leo, 10th century Mainz: Juda ben Meir, a.k.a.Leontin, 11th-12th centuries Byzantine Empire: Leo, Leon, 15th century Portugal: Juda Abravanel, a.k.a. Leo Ebreo, 16th century Florence: Juda, a.k.a. Leone, 16th century Hungary: Arszlan (Turkish), 18th century Istanbul: Aslan, 21st century America: Leo.