Survey of American Jewish Personal Names

By Sarah Bunin Benor and Alicia B. Chandler

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Executive summary

This report presents the results of a recent survey of American Jewish Personal Names, based on over 11,000 responses. The results offer quantitative data supporting the commonly held understanding that different types of American Jews select different types of names for their babies. Names were categorized according to their origin (Biblical and Modern Hebrew, Yiddish, and other languages), their popularity in American society, and bearers’ assumptions that someone with that name is Jewish. The analysis found that respondents’ and their children’s name categories correlate strongly with personal characteristics, such as decade of birth, religiosity, ancestry, and time spent in Israel. We also see correlations between various factors and naming after living or deceased honorees, using Jewish names for pets, and using a “Starbucks name,” an alternative first name used for some service encounters. Most Jews report having a Hebrew or other name for ritual purposes. Finally, Jewish and non-Jewish respondents rated 26 personal names, such as Eliana, Lila, Rebecca, Irving, Liam, and Rafi, on the likelihood that someone with that name is Jewish; these ratings also correlate with respondent characteristics and differ between Jews and non-Jews. The findings are discussed in historical context, demonstrating that American Jews are continuing centuries of naming traditions and adding new twists.

Highlights:

  • 70% of Jews in the sample have names in one of two categories: English versions of Biblical names, like Benjamin and Rebecca, or names not of Jewish origin, like Jennifer and Richard.

  • Over the decades, American Jews became more and more likely to give their children names of Jewish origin (English or Hebrew Biblical, Modern Hebrew, etc.), with a major uptick after the 1960s. 14% of Jews in the oldest age group have names of Jewish origin, compared to 63% in the youngest group. The top 10 names for Jewish girls and boys in each decade reflect these changes, such as Ellen and Robert in the 1950s, Rebecca and Joshua in the 1970s, and Noa and Ari in the 2010s.

  • Many factors influence parents’ decision to give their children distinctively Jewish names, including (ranked from strongest) time spent in Israel, child born after 1969, parent’s name being distinctively Jewish, a desire to give their child a unique name, synagogue attendance, Shabbat observance, intention to send their child to a Jewish school, female child, and Orthodox identity.

  • The Ashkenazi tradition of naming babies after deceased honorees holds strong among American Jews of diverse backgrounds. While Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews are more likely than Ashkenazi Jews to name their babies after living honorees, many name after deceased honorees or no honorees.

  • The vast majority of Jewish respondents have a Hebrew or Jewish ritual name, mostly different from their regular name. Since the 1960s Jews have become more likely to select identical ritual and regular baby names.

  • While some Jews have changed their first names for various reasons, hardly any have done so to make their names less Jewish. This contrasts with the common practice of changing family names in the mid-20th century.

  • Jews with distinctively Jewish names are much more likely to sometimes use a “Starbucks name” than Jews with names that are not distinctively Jewish. But some Jews with common American names take on a more Jewish name as their Starbucks name, and some have an “Aroma name” for service encounters in Israel.

  • A sizeable minority of Jewish pet owners give their pets Jewish names, including names of foods, biblical and historical figures, Jewish religious concepts, and Yiddish and Hebrew words.

  • Compared to non-Jews, Jews rated most names as more likely to be Jewish. Both groups rated Hebrew Biblical character names – Rivka, Chava, Elisheva, and Eliyahu – most likely to be Jewish. The names with the biggest discrepancies were Eliana, Lila, and Maya, which some Jews interpret as Hebrew.