Names are cultural as the personal is political for marginalized groups.
I’ve had these numbers sitting around for a while, since I noticed Nazis on Twitter calling me “Shlomo” as an insult, and was just spurred to write them up by a fascinating Twitter thread from someone who goes by Benjamin (בנימן טבלוב). He writes in response to criticism of Jews who change their names from their “real” European names to Hebrew names, specifically Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose father changed the family name from Mileikowsky after they moved from Europe to Palestine in 1920. (Netanyahu is terrible in every way, that’s not the point.)
Benjamin explained that the Jews of northern and eastern Europe historically practiced patronymic naming exclusively, naming children after their fathers, as in: Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. (The most famous contemporary patronymic society is Iceland, although they sometimes use matronyms now, too.) It was only with the bureaucratization of modern citizenship in eighteenth and nineteenth century Austria, Prussia, Russia, France, and Bavaria, that Jews were forced to take permanent surnames, and these were often not of their choosing, based things like on places, occupations, or even insults. Besides being generally dehumanizing, this system of Jewish surnames also eventually made it easy to round Jews up for the Holocaust (see the Kaplan and Bernays’ The Language of Names, and this paper, for some history). An exception, incidentally, is the use of the priestly honorific terms Cohen and Levy, which were already in place (e.g., Philip, son of Marshall the Cohen) and then became permanent surnames. I assume Israeli politicians aren’t ditching the name Cohen for something more Hebrew sounding.
So when Jews went to Palestine, they often took new Hebrew names; but when they came to America they took more English names, and then gave their kids mainstream American names. The history of coercive naming in Europe makes it easier to see why this might not have been so objectionable to the Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century. Kaplan and Bernays quote an immigrant to New York who said, “Nothing good ever came to us while we bore them [old names]; possibly we’ll have more luck with the new names.” (My grandmother was born Tzivya (צִבְיָה), which became Cywja when she boarded a ship from Poland in 1921, and then eventually Sylvia.)
Jewish names today
Today it’s probably safe to say most Jewish children in the U.S. don’t have Jewish first names per se (although they sometimes have a Hebrew name they use just for religious occasions). Here I look at the trends for seven Jewish boys’ names I found on various naming websites: Shlomo, Chaim, Eliezer, Mordechai, Moshe, Yosef, and Zev. These were the most popular ones I could think of (feel free to suggest others).
First a little data on Yiddish and Hebrew in America. This is all from the Decennial Census and then, after 2000, the American Community Survey, which asked about “mother tongue” (language spoken at home as a child) from 1910 to 1970 (except 1950), and language spoken at home after that. The Census doesn’t ask about religion.
Yiddish was the language spoken by the big wave of Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century. Hebrew is the primary official language of Israel, and the religious language of Judaism. This shows the percentage of people in the U.S. who spoke Yiddish or Hebrew from 1910 to 2017.* The peak in 1930 is 1.1 percent, during the immigration boom. The 1970 peak reflects the only year “mother tongue” was asked of non-immigrants as well as immigrants. By 1980 only one-in-500 Americans spoke Yiddish or Hebrew at home.
The second thing about Yiddish and Hebrew is children. There are a declining number of old immigrants speaking Yiddish, and no new immigrants speaking Yiddish. So most people speaking Yiddish as their language today are probably the descendants of those immigrants, orthodox Jews participating in ethnic revival or preservation. The same goes for people speaking Hebrew at home, except by now some of these could be immigrants from Israel and their children. (By 2000 Hebrew speakers outnumbered those speaking Yiddish.) Here’s the percentage of Yiddish and Hebrew speakers that were under 18 for the same years.
It was low in 1930, when they were mostly working-age immigrants, and then in 1960 when their kids were grown. The percentage under age 18 increased after 1960, and now 40 percent of Yiddish speakers are children (which is not the case for Hebrew). And, this is key: the proportion of all U.S. children speaking Yiddish at home has more than doubled since 1980, from 5 to 11 per 10,000. If these numbers are to be believed.
The sample numbers here are small, but the ACS sample is also picking up about 150 Yiddish or Hebrew speaking women per year having babies, which implies that population is having about 10,000 babies per year, or about 26 out of every 10,000 babies born in the country.
So, who’s naming their sons Shlomo, Chaim, Eliezer, Mordechai, Moshe, Yosef, and Zev? Now switching to the Social Security names database, I find that these names together accounted for 1,943 boys born in 2017 (that’s 9.9 out of every 10,000 US boys born). What’s interesting is that none of these boys’ names reached the threshold for reporting in the database — five children — until 1942. This is remarkable given that Yiddish was in decline by then. And they’ve all been growing more common since that time. So all those Yiddish immigrants in 1920 weren’t naming their sons Moshe, or at least not legally, but now a growing (though small) proportion of their descendants are.
I can’t tell if Yiddish or Hebrew speakers are giving their sons these names. But there must be some connection between the rise of these names and the increase in the proportion of children speaking Yiddish at home. It might not be same people teaching their kids Yiddish, but they may be part of the same (highly localized) revival.
I’ve put the Social Security names data, and my SAS code for extracting name trends, on the Open Science Framework here.
* An earlier version had much higher prevalence of Yiddish and Hebrew before 1980 because I was accidentally just showing the percentages among immigrants.