Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ben & Maria Choose Their Babies' Names

(The discussion of Benjamin and Maria Gratz's difficulties in choosing names for their sons began here.)

Like other ethnic groups, Jews had naming traditions which arose in different regions. Despite their northern European origins, the Gratz family, like many other Jewish families in the United States at that time, seems to have followed the southern European customs. Rebecca Gratz gave this explanation of one of the family's traditions for naming babies:

"It is not customary among pious Jews to name a child after a living parent -- it does not occur in Scriptures from whence we take our customs as well as laws...." Although this tradition permitted naming for most relatives, both living and dead, it forbade the name which Maria Gratz wanted for her child, Benjamin.

Beyond that, Benjamin Gratz probably wished to follow another of his family's naming traditions: the first son would be named for the paternal grandfather, living or dead. Jewish children were given two names, a Hebrew one for use in the synagogue and an "English" version, in sound or meaning. The more important of the two in naming was the Hebrew one, but since his children would be Episcopalians, Benjamin did not have the opportunity to bestow his father's Hebrew name, Yechiel. He therefore chose Michael, his father's English name.

"Michael," a very popular in the 21st century, was not so popular with Americans in the 1820's. The only group which favored the name were the Irish, which gave it ethnic and class connotations which Maria would have found unappealing. She and Ben must have finally agreed to add as a second name "Bernard," after Michael Gratz's older brother and business partner, and to call their son by that name.

And so Maria got her way finally with her oldest son Benjamin (although the family, which had called him Gratz before, continued to use that name) and Ben was able to honor his father and uncle by naming their second son Michael Bernard.

After their first two sons, the naming seems to have gone more easily. Their third son, Henry Howard, bore two names from Maria's family. Then came Hyman Cecil, with a first name in honor of Ben's brother Hyman and a second name from Maria's side. Cary Gist, the fifth son, was given both names from the maternal family. There is no recorded name for their sixth son who lived only four days.

(Rebecca's letter is from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)

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