Saturday, June 24, 2006

Assignment 1: The Name Story

I love baby names. I spend an inordinate amount of time on baby naming websites, reading name books, and participating in the naming polls of complete strangers. My fascination with names started during my pregnancy with our son. Even though I love the communal process of naming babies that occurs, when we named him, we didn’t ask anyone for advice or input. His name came to us pretty quickly, and with no hesitation. We wanted a name that honored family members, identified him with his ethnicity, and wouldn’t fade in the wash. He ended up named Big Fella One-Two. Big is my great grandfather. Fella is in honor of my partner’s grandmother. One is my last name, while Two is my partner’s last name. Bigfella does have a Hebrew name that we chose: Moshe or Moses. We wanted to give him a name that connected him with the man who led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, both to instill in him our commitment to social justice and to commemorate the enslavement and subordination that is part of his experience as a Black Jew in the US.

Ironically, the names we chose have little to do with either of our ethnicities, since our families both have a long history of assimilation. My parents, however, went through a similar process when they named me. My name: Dyke Girl One has a similar reason behind it, though it also ended up “whitewashed” by the nature of the decisions of previous generations.

One is my father’s last name, but it has not been the name of his paternal relatives for very long. When they arrived at Ellis Island, they were eager to shed the weight of Eastern European anti-Semitism. In 1906, when my great-grandfather, Big, became a naturalized citizen in Chicago, his last name was still OldName. By 1945, when he used his skills as a tailor to aid in the US war effort as a parachute mechanic, he was a One. Family lore is that when my grandfather and great-uncle enlisted in the Army, they were turned down because of their “Commie” last name. According to my father, the truth is that when they applied for medical school and law school, boys named OldName were subjected to the quotas of the 1940s that were designed to limit the number of Jews in higher education. When they changed their last names to the WASPiest thing they could think of, they were granted spots the following year.

My first name, Dyke, was carefully chosen to reflect the Jewish heritage my great-grandfather tried to obfuscate. Dyke is one of the matriarchs of the Old Testament, from her lineage, the nation of Israel was created. While the name with a different spelling is common in non-Jewish families, my parents chose to spell it D-y-k-e as an immediate signifier to others that I am, as Jewish women are described, a woman of valor.

My middle name is a family name. Girl is the name of my mother’s mother and my mother’s grandmother. Both of these strong, independent women were still alive when I was named. While Jewish tradition is to name children after deceased family members to make sure everyone has their own identity and spirit, my mother’s family is Protestant, so both the name and the naming pattern reflect my Christian background. In an interesting parallel to the Jewish tradition, my grandmother, known to this day to family members as “Little Girl” did tell my parents to use Girl as my middle name, because she wanted me to have my own name, rather than be relegated to the nickname “Baby Girl.”


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