Each summer we pack up the minivan and drive 400+ miles to Lakewood, New Jersey, where my parents and siblings live, for our annual visit. As the years roll by, I notice the tenor of the visits changing.
If I had to make up a typical Jewish American couple, I’d call them Bryan and Michelle. Or Julie. Or Lauren/Lori or some such form thereof. But if I had to think of your typical Orthodox couple, I’d call them Miriam and Moishy. Or Yaakov and Chanie.
From Mary to Lisa to Michelle and Jennifer, girls’ names in America have gone through their trends. What about Orthodox girls?
When I was a kid going to the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in the 80’s, there were 20 girls in my class. Three of them were named Estie – which is also my sister’s name. I have two sisters-in-law named Rivky. Chanies are everywhere.
As far as boys’ names, we seem to have tapped into the trends. Our son Moshe had a half-dozen boys with some form of the same name, and our son Avromi had about the same number with some form of his name (Avi included).
In the Modern Orthodox community, names are much more creative, such as Shai, Adir, and Tzahalah. But in the more black-hat world, the same old names are often chosen after grandparents and such. Yiddish names do seem to be going out of vogue, so grandparents’ names such as Baila, Faiga, and Zissel are becoming less common aside from the Chassidic and yeshivish (black-hat Haredi) communities. Parents might name their children these Yiddish names to honor loved ones, but, if they feel uncomfortable with them, will add another, more palatable name (sometimes the Hebrew form) and use that as the child’s main name. Some Yiddish names are considered even more old-fashioned and unpleasant than others (not listing them here for obvious reasons, haha) and if a grandparent carried that name, the parents might use a similar name or name with a similar meaning so as not to saddle their child – or themselves – with a social stigma.
Some kids love having common names, and others love having cool and interesting names. Either way, it seems to me that Orthodox trends in names change and move slower than in America in general. Then you also have Orthodox names that are cool in America (Ilana) but nerdy in Israel. Who knew? There are no studies that I know of, but I’d love to get some informal data here.
After crowdsourcing on Facebook I got some really interesting responses. Here’s one:
I was named after my mothers grandmother whose name was Hinda Necha. However, my mom couldn’t stomach the Yiddish version and we were living in Israel so I got Ayelet. Years later, I was in kindergarten in America and I hated my Israeli name. I asked my mom why she wouldn’t name me something “normal” like Gitty or Hindi! Growing up it was Esti and Leah and Chaya and Chani. Now it’s Ahuva and Aliza and Ariella and Yael and Meira and Tehila and Adina and Avigail and Leora. Some names that were nerdy in my day are cool now like Shayna and Kayla. Boys names tend to be pretty traditional still with lots of Dovid and Yosef and Aharon and Aryeh and Yaakov. But there’s also your Yonatan and Netanel and Ariel and Azriel.
What were the most common Orthodox names you knew of growing up? Which decade? What about now?
I know I’m about a bajillion years late to the Pew party, but sometimes you see stats in a new format and it just grabs you in a different way. Ya know? I saw this little chart in the OU (as in Orthodox Union) magazine. And I was like, huh? Let’s go through the categories one by one.
I know anecdotally that for many non-Orthodox Jews, identity as kids was all about the Holocaust. I get that. But Orthodox kids are far more likely to be children and grandchildren of European Jews than American ones, and therefore more directly affected by the Holocaust. So I wonder how this question was posed for the study. Was “remembering the Holocaust” measured only when expressed in societally-organized, institutional ways? For me, having survivor grandparents means I am cognizant of my transiency in the USA in a way that seeps into daily life, although my Jewish identity and schooling as a child wasn’t really about the Holocaust.
LEADING ETHICAL LIFE
Again, I’m not really sure what an “ethical life” is measured by. Volunteerism outside of the Jewish community? Not surfing the web at work? Returning the extra change at Nordstrom? Creating chessed organizations? In any event, the Modern Orthodox community leads the way here, at a whopping 90%. Reform does pretty well as compared to Conservative which is probably due to their emphasis on tikkun olam as a value and as a form of Jewish expression and observance.
How this overlaps and differs from the above, I’m not sure, but there wasn’t a huge disparity in the numbers – only 16 percentage points, which is the smallest range, aside from “having a sense of humor” (at 13 percentage points). Nevertheless, Reform performs best here, and I’m assuming we are talking about justice and equality on a communal, societal and global level (classic tikkun olam). In general, this category shows a pretty steady upward progression from Ultra-Orthodox to Reform, aside from a small dip at the Conservative station, but again, the differences are truly slight. My guess is that the more Orthodox you get, the more likely you are to perform these acts of tikkun olam specifically for Jews. I am not sure if that weighs in as heavily in this category.
BEING INTELLECTUALLY CURIOUS
Modern Orthodox wins this one, and this backs up a very interesting observation I’ve made over the years. The Modern Orthodox community definitely shows a strong bias toward classes and programs that focus on the intellectual, whereas “regular” Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox would be more likely to offer classes and programs that are motivational, spiritual, or emotional. In general, I think our community needs both, but I’ve noticed Modern Orthodox people attending spiritual/motivational programs that we’ve offered at our outreach center, as these themes are not as available in their community. I think some Modern Orthodox scholars consider a reliance on the spiritual or mystical to be backward or a sellout. In my opinion, we as a community are thirsting for these offerings, and need them badly to remain inspired in our faith. For the record, I don’t think it indicates that other kinds of Jews are NOT intellectually curious – frankly, I think it’s a human drive – but the focus on it in the Modern Orthodox community is unmistakable.
The 25% in the Ultra Orthodox gives me pause. What does this mean? Torah scholarship in these communities is the highest in all categories – even among women. Your average Ultra-Orthodox woman is far more likely than your average Conservative woman to know texts, to have learned rationales behind Jewish practices, and to be conversant in Hebrew. Does “intellectual curiosity” mean outside of Torah? Does it reflect interest as opposed to knowledge?
CARING ABOUT ISRAEL
If you’re talking about Zionism, of course the Modern Orthodox community is most likely to be Zionistic, to make aliyah, and to financially support the State of Israel. But if you’re talking about loving the Land of Israel for its holiness, visiting it, praying for it, and sending its kids to study there, the Ultra-Orthodox community is doing pretty darn well. In fact, JWRP, a Jewish women’s organization, subsidizes women to travel to Israel – but not if you’re Orthodox. Because research shows that Orthodox women are far more likely to travel to Israel on their own and thus do not have to be subsidized. This is true across the Orthodox spectrum.
SENSE OF HUMOR
Really? This category confused me. Why is it here? Whatevs. Seems we’re not all that funny in the final analysis. Apparently Seinfeld is an outlier. Although it makes sense that he has no denomination. It seems the less observant/religious you are, the more likely you are to be funny. Harrumph. I’m officially offended! Us Orthodox are hilarious. We make fun of ourselves all the time. Moving along.
BEING PART OF JEWISH COMMUNITY
No major surprises here, other than the slight rise within the Orthodox world from Ultra to Modern, with the greatest emphasis on this value existing in Modern Orthodoxy. I think this may have something to do with the social aspect of belonging that is of high importance within Modern Orthodoxy, hence spawning “social Orthodoxy.”
OBSERVING JEWISH LAW
Again, pretty predictable here, with a downward progression from Ultra-Orthodox to “no denomination.” See the second footnote where it says that 8 out of 10 Orthodox Jews say that observing the law is the essence of being Jewish. I imagine a Reform Jew might say tikkun olam?
EATING JEWISH FOODS
Really? But yes, I’ve learned that people really care about this in terms of identity. Ironically, what I have seen partially contradicts the above report. I’ve found that while “more Orthodox” people are more likely to have Jewish foods on a regular basis (mostly because of Shabbat), it is more important to Reform Jews as a form of identity and connection.
What do you agree/disagree with?
What would you say is the essence of Judaism for you?
One of the cool parts of being a
rich and famous blogger personality mostly unknown Orthodox girl who started a blog is that people contact me to promote their stuff on my blog. Some of it is absolutely not a fit for this blog (can you say Bible Revisionism? are people actually READING the blog before they send me stuff?) but some is just completely fun. Like when I get sent free books to read and review. Especially when they’re relevant, fresh, funny…and totally in synch with the blog.
Example: Let My RV Go, a new novel by Nicole Nathan.
The premise of the novel is two BT families, who, while trying to escape the cold Canadian weather as well as the pressures of organized Orthodox society, take two RVs down south to handle Passover their own way. Alo
ng their journey they examine different attitudes toward fitting in, standing out, dealing with what they actually believe, and rejection of their secular pasts. Rereading that, it sounds really heavy, but actually,
the light and funny tone makes the messages so much more palatable.
But what really stands out in this cute and interesting book is the honesty. Most books written for Orthodox audiences, which this is, judging by the publishing house chosen and language and references used, excise all mentions of pop culture and women in bikinis and being okay with not fitting in and wistful reminiscences of previous secular pasts – for good reason. If religious kids are going to read these things, we want them to encounter good examples and not be given ambivalent messages about religious life. But here it totally works, and it’s brave. And I like it.
At one point in the book, Pauline, the narrator, who just can’t seem to “fit in,” and is always trying to contain her curly red hair under some sort of head covering, sits in the laundry room of an RV park with her counterpart and foil, Julie. She observes:
Looking over at Julie, I wonder if she and I will ever be close friends. Julie is devoutly mouthing words written by King David some 2,800 years ago and I just can’t take it. How can she be so devout and focused all the time? How did she switch over to being religious so easily, so completely, without ever looking back? She never talks about her past, but I’ve heard stories from Mike. He once told us she used to be a dancer who leaped and twirled across North America and Europe performing raw emotion… and now, the only form of expression I can see are her lips mouthing the powerful, timeless words of King David.
I wonder if she misses her dancing days, her travels, her freedom. All these years, I’ve been afraid to ask because she may realize that I’m sinecure about my own beliefs….
This is a journey Pauline takes during the book, and at the end, says, “I’m pleased with myself for being so upfront about our incongruence. I’ve always been aware that I don’t fit into the traditional frum box, yet now I’m actually being open about it and I don’t feel embarrassed.”
The Berkowitzes and the Shapiros, the two families on this little RV getaway, represent the two ways BTs handle organized, contemporary frum culture. Way one: fit in at all costs, wear the garb, do as the frummies do, and you’ll be okay. Way two: be yourself, be the best Jew you know how to be, fit in enough that you’re kids aren’t dying, but don’t check your personality at the door. What’s cool about this book is that it doesn’t make the mistake of having these two families be stereotypes. They are real people. They and spouses are not always in the same place. They are miffed by the “religious” folks questioning their kosher status, but the book doesn’t make those religious folks bad guys. Julie, the “fit in” girl, hasn’t changed her name to Chaya Gitty. See?
Here’s why the author wrote the book, from her website:
…I am ba’alat teshuva, becoming observant some fifteen years ago. Turning my life inside out and my kitchen upside down was not easy. It was deeply satisfying and meaningful, but it was often hard work. As I entered the religious world, I became aware that Observant Jews are cautious of the secular world, while secular Jews often misunderstand the Orthodox. We all bring our own perceptions and misconceptions. This results in the creation of two thickly lined boxes containing us and them. Becoming religious, I also became aware of the enormous rift between the two worlds. What does a ba’al teshuvah do? Should he simply break out of his box by forgetting his past and then try to mold himself the new box? Or, should he carve his own space outside of the box? …In the novel, I wanted to explore this rift in a way that readers on both sides could see each other in an honest and light-hearted way. And hopefully, they would be able to understand each other better.
My only critique is they have four little kids who seem remarkably easy to handle… it almost made me wanna RV myself one day.
If you are a BT, what has been your struggle with fitting in/maintaining yourself?
And if you’re a prospective one, has the prospect seemed daunting?
When I used to teach tenth grade girls in our local Jewish day school, a not-uncommon question asked was, “Of course I know there is a God, but how do I know Judaism is the right religion? Just because I was born Jewish? So what?”
I have never, ever heard a non-Orthodox Jew ask this question.
A more common question in the non-Orthodox world is, “How do we really know there is a God in the world, who created this world and cares what we do?” Implicit in this question, and I’ve heard it expressed explicitly too, is “of course if I were to be religious it would be Judaism.” Non-Orthodox Jews typically do not wish for the religious observances of other religions. They KNOW they’re Jewish, they just don’t know where God fits in.
Orthodox Jews typically KNOW where God fits in. They’re just wondering: why Jewish?
Enter convert stories.
When speakers travel the circuit and tell their “personal journey stories” (why I became religious, why I converted to Judaism) I’ve noticed a similar dynamic. Convert stories are like gospel (oops) to Orthodox Jews. It basically confirms and supports what they wondered: why be Jewish? Because here is a person who was choosing a religion, and chose… Judaism. Without being born to it. Orthodox Jews LOVE convert stories. They are inspired and motivated in their born faith by hearing the struggles and journey of a person who chose religious Judaism of their own volition.
Non-Orthodox Jews, less so. They want to know things like: okay, I see why you left the religion of your youth, but why Judaism, specifically? Without trying to be rude, they want to know: was it circumstantial? If another religion would have found you at the crucial moment, would the conversion have been to that religion? If another religion comes along that resonates more, would you consider it?
A lot of converts are converting from one fundamental religious lifestyle to another. This unnerves non-Orthodox Jews. They can’t relate to the fundamentalism in the first place, so there’s barely any point of connection in the story. For a non-Orthodox Jew to become religious, a huge obstacle of faith-in-the-first place must be surmounted, and this particular type of convert doesn’t address it. Faith is in their bloodstream from their earliest memories. In fact, when I read blogs or books by religious members of other faiths, I feel a strong kinship and support.
It took a lot of thinking for me to figure out why convert-stories that left me feeling so inspired and moved, left my fellow non-Orthodox friends feeling somewhat flat and underwhelmed. So that’s my theory.
A while back, an online friend of mine, Allison Josephs (aka Jew in the City) posted the following video, entitled “Orthodox Jewish All Stars.” The tagline was: Are all Orthodox Jewish men rabbis? Are Orthodox Jewish women allowed to work? Find out from these Orthodox Jewish All Stars!
Hi everyone! I’m back. Kind of.
It’s been two full years since I started blogging. My first year was pretty much about “this is what my life is like, as an Orthodox woman, and here’s why I do the things I do. Welcome to my world. Are there any questions?” My second year was mostly about, “Here are the things I ponder and muse as an Orthodox woman. What do you think about that?” And here I approach my third year, and the following comes to mind:
THING THING What is that thing?
THING SING That thing can sing!
SONG LONG A long, long song.
Good-by, Thing. You sing too long.
Thanks, Dr. Seuss. Which has long been my mantra: stop before they’re tired of you.
But there’s more.
It seems that by putting myself out there as this happy, fulfilled, serene (most of the time) Orthodox woman, I have also set up a de facto “in defense of Orthodoxy” blog. And the greatest and most interesting irony of it all is that in many cases, the closer someone is to Orthodox Judaism, they more I feel that way on the blog – that my practice of my faith is on trial. Which has led to all kinds of incredible discussions on the blog: rich, deep, intelligent, caring, feeling discussions.
It has also led to me feeling wiped out.
At the risk of sounding petulant, I say this: I don’t WANT to defend religion so much here on OOTOB. So you might say, too bad. You set yourself up for this. Do you really think you are going to just emote or intellectualize about your life without tough questions? But truthfully, I don’t MIND tough questions. I like them. They’ve challenged me to find ever greater answers. The interesting part of this blog – and the fulfilling part, since it’s not all about what’s “interesting” – derives exactly from the friction here. But the exhaustion is not coming from there. It’s coming from the emotionality of it, sometimes, and the self-editing I find myself doing to avoid it. The emotionality that I and I alone (ridiculous, of course) am on the witness stand, defending Judaism with my formal education that ended 20 years ago (continuing education and being married to a rabbi notwithstanding). Questions that are simply curious do not exhaust me.
So I say this: I don’t have all the answers. Is that OK? Sometimes here on this blog, I will simply say “I don’t know” and it will be OK. And it will not be me conceding that therefore God does not exist, or does not care quite as much as I think He does, or that my practice of my faith is baseless, or any other host of issues we’ve covered here. It means that my inability to refute every challenge due to time constraints, my limited resources and brainpower, and my desire not to let this blog eclipse my life is in no way a blight on my faith or practice thereof.
I will still continue to publish comments that wipe me out, and they in no way signify my agreement or endorsement. I may alter the nature of my posts, but I might hate myself if I do 🙂 Who knows?
So I think I’ll continue on this crazy journey with a bit of self-protection. Let’s see what happens. Thanks for sticking with me.