Thursday, January 14, 2021

Which Story Is True?

My mother (in back) and
me, Stacy, and Mark, 1964

Today is January 14, 2021, which on the Hebrew calendar is 1 Shevat 5781.  My mother died January 2, 1995, also 1 Shevat and therefore the date of her yahrzeit, the commemoration of her death.  The Hebrew calendar is a solar-lunar one, and the dates don't line up year to year with the Christian calendar.  So the fact that I write regularly about my mother on her yahrzeit means that the date I write about her changes from year to year.

When I was young, but not too young, my mother told me how she had decided on the names for my brother, my sister, and myself.  I'm the oldest, and she said I was named for her grandfathers, Joyne and Moishe.  So my name is Janice Marie, using the initials, a common practice among American Jews.  Probably because she wasn't an observant Jew, she did not also give me Hebrew names (hers being Mushe Ruchel, for her grandmothers, Mushe Zelda and Ruchel Dwojre).

My sister, the youngest of us three children, is Stacy Ann.  I was told that Stacy was for my mother's grandmother, Sarah, again using the initial.  Sarah died the year before Stacy was born, so that fits well.  Her middle name was for my paternal grandmother, Anna.  Ann is pretty much the same name as Anna and would seem to be in conflict with the Ashkenazi tradition of not naming after a living ancestor, but, again, my mother wasn't observant, so maybe this didn't bother her very much.

The name of my brother, the middle child, is much more entertaining, however.  Mommy told me that my father wanted him to be Bertram Lynn Sellers III (my father being Junior and my grandfather Senior).  My mother didn't want to do that, this time invoking the prohibition against naming for a living ancestor, plus the very practical consideration of what my brother would be called.  My father had gone through the early part of his life being called Sonny (although he insisted it was Sunny, for his "sunny disposition") and ended up going by his middle name as an adult.  What to call the third male with the same name?

My mother came up with what she considered a better choice, Marc Anthony Sellers.  Either because of the historical nature of the name (I was told it took my father three times through to pass history in high school) or another reason, my father objected to that idea.  After some back and forth, my mother suggested Mark Russell Sellers, which my father decided was okay.  What my mother didn't tell him was that Russell was the name of an old boyfriend!  But that's what my brother was named, and it has worked out well enough.


Some time after my mother had passed away, I was driving her mother — my grandmother — to a family event, and my grandmother related an entirely different story about the origins of our names.

According to Bubbie (grandmother in Yiddish), the story my mother told her was that our first names were for deceased ancestors, in the Jewish tradition, and our middle names were after saints, because my father was raised Catholic.

If that were true, I am Janice for Joyne (the same), my brother is Mark for Moishe (no problem), and my sister is Stacy for Sarah (again the same).  So far, so good, right?

Under this interpretation, my Marie would be for Mary, mother of Jesus.  Okay, that works.

There are at lease a few Saint Ann(e)s to account for my sister's middle name.  Check.

But who would Saint Russell be?  Not that it's an infallible source, but Wikipedia doesn't have any listings for a Saint Russell.  Lots and lots of other saints are included, which make for an extensive listing, if not an exhaustive one.  Why no Russell?

And why different stories for different people in the first place?  Let's consider the situations.

I no longer remember the circumstances when my mother told me my version of the story, but I was young when I first became interested in family history, so I might have asked my mother about our names when I was in my early teens or even before that.  I wasn't particularly interested in Judaism, so I see no advantage to the explanation my mother gave me.

But I can think of two reasons that the version my grandmother repeated to me might have been preferred in a conversation between my mother and her mother.

The first reason that came to mind is that my grandmother might not have liked the idea that her grandson was named after an old boyfriend of my mother.   It's also possible that my mother was concerned that at some point Bubbie might repeat the information and my father would learn about it.

Second, and more important, is the Ashkenazi tradition (minhag) of not naming after living ancestors.  Saying that Stacy's middle name was for a saint, not an ancestor (who was most decidedly alive), could have allayed any discomfort Bubbie might have had with the name.

And that makes a lot of sense.  When Stacy named her son after my mother's brother, Bubbie was indeed quite upset, even though my sister pointed out that she had spelled the name differently.  Many years later, when Bubbie was getting older, she declared to the family that she would like the next female child to be born to be named after her, even if she was still alive at the time.  Stacy did that, and her youngest child has Lillyan as a middle name.  But Bubbie then was upset that Stacy did that while Bubbie was alive.  Yes, even though Bubbie had made the declaration.

Based on other things I have been told, neither one of the names should have mattered anyway, because supposedly the Ashkenazi tradition is important for the Hebrew names, not the secular names.  But I know from my own experience that Bubbie was very unhappy with both names.

It seems to me that the story my mother told me is likely the accurate one, and the one she told her mother was trying to obscure some information my grandmother probably would not have liked.  So now that's my story, and I'm sticking to it!


  1. Love this naming story... I've been ruminating as to the thinking behind why my parents named me as they did. So many things I wish I'd asked my parents...

    1. Thank you! But don't beat yourself up too badly about what you didn't ask. I was lucky enough to have asked lots of questions before my parents died, and I still come up with ones I didn't think of.

  2. Good story... When I was growing up in the "Old Country" I decided that a Turkish name would be more appropriate so I adopted the translation of my real name: Iskender Aslanova. Iskender = Alex, Aslan = Lion, Ova = Valley. Ergo: Alex Loewenthal.
    There was no pressure to "assimilate" in secular Turkey in the early fifties, but my elder cousins born in the forties were given either Turkish names (Sedat, Meral, Siret) or utterly alien, Christian names (Irvin, Ingrid).
    My unofficial adoption of Iskender Aslanova was more of a nationalist pride instilled in elementary school.
    The only thing that remains in my heart and brain is a passion for names (family names, especially) and their origins, migrations, specialty, etc. Oh, one more thing: Iskender Aslanove is my pseudonym at LinkedIN... Some things are too good to abandon.

    1. Thanks for the interesting story about your alter ego. Nothing to do with your name, but if Aslan is "lion" in Turkish, why did C. S. Lewis give his lion a Turkish name? And just for fun, lion in Hindi is Singh. Don't know how to say valley, though.

  3. What a great story about your names. I agree your mother's version is likely the one. No one in my family were named for family members--my mother just picked names she liked. Maybe that was because she was named after her two grandmothers.

    1. I have a little of that also. When I asked my mother where she came up with the name Janice (because I grew up not knowing any other Janices and always being called Janet), she said she had heard it somewhere and liked it. I always wondered if that were true, because she generally had a very good memory. :) But the part about the initial J I think is right.

  4. I love how you worked a lot of Jewish naming traditions into this post.

  5. I love hearing about name origins! I am named Sara after a soap opera character "Sara Lane" but dad pointed out it was also his favorite grandma's name. My mom then gave me the middle name of Nell after HER favorite grandma. My aunt was happy it was a Jewish name. I've always liked it.

    1. Ah, from "The Edge of Night"? So you were named after two grandmothers like my mother was. That's pretty cool. And it is indeed a classic Jewish name. You're a winner all the way around.

    2. You are the first person to know the soap's name! And thank you!

    3. I am a font of (mostly) useless knowledge! But that does come in handy for genealogy. And you are very welcome.


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