What’s in a name for an interfaith family?

written for the July PJ Library e-newsletter
My husband and I had many arguments  long discussions about what we would name our children. He wanted French names, all of which evoked the Apostles, and I wanted Hebrew names, which seemed too “foreign” to him. We compromised, as parents must, by selecting names from neither tradition for their first, most-used, name. We gave our older daughter a Hebrew middle name and our younger daughter a French middle name, and selected additional Hebrew names for both girls for ritual use. As an interfaith couple, we knew that our families would attach a lot of significance to our name choices, and I think we ended up making a very honest statement with our decision – our children are religiously Jewish, but ethnically, they are products of a rich blend of traditions.
I don’t think we fully satisfied anyone with our choice. My mother regrets (aloud) that we didn’t name  the girls after some of her  deceased relatives, a widespread Jewish tradition. I’m sure that my in-laws wish they could have attended a baptism in which their granddaughters received their “Christian” names. Fortunately, we soon realized that there were many more naming opportunities ahead that required no debate whatsoever – we  got to name ourselves!
Keith became Papa, in keeping with his French roots. I wanted Eema, the Hebrew name for mother. (Unfortunately this name didn’t quite take; instead, Ella insisted on mimicking her “mama”-bleating Fisher Price dollhouse.) Choosing a name was even more thrilling for our parents, as their long awaited first granddaughter entered the world. My mother chose “Bubbe,” the name she called her beloved grandmother in Boro Park, Brooklyn as a little girl. My father-in-law was dubbed “Pip,” an affectionate nickname for Pépé, also French. His wife is an all-American “Grandma.” By using these names, our children on each of our parents’ traditions, without requiring us to compromise the decisions we have made about our family’s religion.


Zoe and Bubbe

Zoe and Bubbe

When my husband and I decided to marry, and Keith chose not to convert, I felt that the only way we could raise our children as proud, confident Jews was to be completely forthright and unapologetic about our mixed-marriage. No, Papa doesn’t know Hebrew. Yes, I keep kosher. Yes, Grandma and Pip have a Christmas tree and no, Bubbe doesn’t go to work on Jewish holidays. Our mutli-lingual array of family names is one more way to keep this conversation going. When I read A Grandma Like Yours/A Grandpa Like Yours, which introduces children to a tallit-wearing sheep called Zayde, a shofar blowing llama, known as saba, and a matzah-baking porcupine Papa, my younger daughter, Zoe, immediately wanted know, “Why is there no Pip in the book?” When I pointed out to her that all of the grandparents in the book were Jewish, she immediately understood. “Well, what did you call your grandfather?” they asked. I took the opportunity to tell my children about Pop-pop, who arrived at Ellis Island as a boy, and we speculated together about what name my father might have chosen had he lived to become a grandfather.
Someday, I’d love to see a sequel to A Grandma Like Yours that reflects diverse families like ours. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your story. What do your children call you and your parents, and why?
(r) cmyk PJ Library logo with tagline and pieces
The PJ Library™ program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age seven. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations.  To learn more, go to

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posted June 23, 2009 at 9:55 pm

Your mom looks wonderful! We didn’t thrill everyone with the names we picked (although Celia’s middle name is Anne, so mom is happy). You’d be surprised how tough it is to find a name that is spanish and english friendly, and goes with Harman!
As for their names, My mom is grandma, dad is Papa (the spanish pronunciation- I don’t know how to add an accent!), Jeff’s mom is Omi (the diminutive of Oma, who was Jeff’s German grandmother) and his dad was Grandpa. Not particulary religiously diverse, we don’t know anyone else with an Omi and a Papa!

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posted June 24, 2009 at 7:00 am

My oldest calls me “Mama” which I think she picked up at daycare as a toddler; it does remind me of that irritating fisher price dollhouse and I never wanted to be called Mama. The middle one calls me Mommy and they both call my husband Daddy. Although, now that she’s attending a Jewish day school, the oldest sometimes calls me Ema.
In my family of origin, we called grandparents by their last name, eg Grandma and Grandpa Smith. But with all the death and divorce and remarriage, that didn’t make sense for us, so we call all the grandparents by their first names, as my husband’s family did, even (and this is REALLY hard for me) my grandparents. I always catch myself saying, for example, “You’re named after my Grandma Lastname” and having to backtrack and say I mean, “Grandma Alice.”

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posted June 24, 2009 at 11:32 am

I thought the name thing was going to be so much harder – but surprisingly, it worked out beautifully. We needed a name that wouldn’t sound foreign to either of us, and I really wanted a Hebrew name (also, one name for everyday and ritual use). There are actually a fair number of biblical names that are familiar to both Hebrew and English speakers, although most of them sound like a middle-aged man to my Israeli ears, like Samuel/Shmuel. In the end we chose a biblical name that is “classic” both in the US and Israel and pronounced virtually the same in either place. We both love it, even though we had to rule out a few of our “darlings.” And I feel it sent a powerful message to our families, with no one feeling excluded.
As for us, we are ema & daddy – we reinforce these by referring to the other this way no matter what language we are speaking.

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posted June 30, 2009 at 11:51 am

We are a Jewish/Unitarian Universalist family, an easier mix than with Christianity. My wife is an adopted child who is also connected with her birth mother as an adult. I adopted our daughter, who was born of my wife’s first marriage and our daughter is in touch with her birth father and his parents. So, we have a lot of adults to name! Our daughter is currently 8 and is being raised as a UU with “positive Jewish identification”. I will say she can sing the shabbat kiddush better than most of the bnai mitzvah kids I hear.
I am Daddy, my wife is Mommy.
My parents are Grandma Helen and Grandpa Joe.
My wife’s parents are Nana and Grandpa
My wife’s birth mother is Grandma Barbara.
My daughter also refers to her birth father as “Daddy”, which confuses me, especially when she refers to him when talking to me! Also, when she tells people she has two Daddys, they think we are a gay couple (not that there would be anything wrong with that…).
Her birth father’s parents are Grandma Pat and Pepere. He is the only one who specifically chose and wanted an ethnically-identified name.
We are in the process of adopting a second child who is 8 years old. It will be interesting to see what she thinks of all those names in addition to the people she has already had in her life.

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Frume Sarah

posted July 1, 2009 at 4:02 am

Even in a Jewish-Jewish marriage, naming can be a sticky wicket. I really wanted Hebrew names as their only names, but my husband wasn’t comfortable with that. He wanted “regular” names, but they didn’t sound ethnic enough for me. So we compromised with names that were popular during the Ellis Island generation!
As for the family, I’m Mommy, sometimes Ima, and (much to my annoyance) sometimes Mama. That last one came from the same damn FP toy.
My husband is Daddy though our daughter went through a HUGE Aba phase.
In my family, aunts are called “tante so-and-so” but that wasn’t the practice in my husband’s family. It still feels foreign to be called “Aunt FrumeSarah.”
My folks chose “Bubbe” and “Zayde” and my grandparents became “GGma” (diminutive of Great-Grandma) and “Papa” (which is what I called my gpa when I was little).
My in-laws go by “grandmom” and “pop” and my husband’s gma goes by “mom-mom.” These are all the names my husband used for his own grandparents when he was young.
Names carry so much weight, don’t they??

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phyllis sorof

posted July 2, 2009 at 2:02 pm

I loved your book about how names are chosen. My grandchilldren have a Vietamese as well as a Jewish heritage. Although they are being brought up Jewish, there are many elements in their home that integates their Asian as well as Jewish cultures. This is especially true with the foods they eat. It is a treat to go to their home and get a traditional Vietnamese dinner.
My grandson is aware he was named Sam after his paternal grandfather and my grandaughter Allison was named after her paternal great grandmother. I am called grandma and the other grandmother is called Wai. Obviously, it’s easy to distinguish who is who. The book led to interesting discussion about why certain names are chosen. In fact, all the books you send lead to interesting discussions. When appropriate, they are also brought to school for the teacher to read.

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posted July 15, 2009 at 1:52 pm

My favorite grandparent names are those that my best friend’s kids call their grandparents. Her husband’s mother’s first name is Dorothy so she goes by GrandDot and his father by Grandpa. It is a tradition in HER family to call grandmothers “Granny” so her mom went with that. Her dad didn’t want to play along so they teasingly called him “Grumpy” and he loved it so, all 4 grandchildren call her parents Granny and Grumpy! (By the way, two of those grandparents are Jewish and two are not but their names do not give it away.)
I have another friend who is a grandmother and wanted nothing to do with any name that would make her feel “old”. So, she went with her initials, MAK. The grandchildren walk around calling her Mack. It’s kind of funny but works for them.

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