Call Me Kalman

Exploring the roots of a Hebrew name.

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Kalman: Yiddish or Hebrew?


But back to Kalman. Was it possible that my parents chose to give me a Yiddish, rather than Hebrew, name as a statement of some sort? Remember, I was born two years after the radicalizing events of 1967. Could Mom and Dad have been making some kind of secularist, or even anti-Zionist, move? Why have they been telling me all these years that Kalman was "Hebrew"? And was the lack of a Hebrew name meant that I was not, you know, really a Jew? 

So I asked my dad (via email), Kalman: Yiddish or Hebrew?

"It sure is Yiddish," he wrote. When he was a kid, back in the1940s, in Brooklyn, Yiddish names were the rule. "There were no Hebrew names." As he recalls--and he was very quick to say that he couldn't vouch for the accuracy of his memories--these names were tributes to the dead relatives after whom he and his friends were named. Since they were people from the Old Country, it made sense to go with the Yiddish style. When it came time for him to name his children, he kept the tradition going, and in fact, seems to have followed the formula that Katz laid out in Words on Fire.

"You were named after my Uncle Harry's mother (something with a K--didn't know her name exactly), because no one was named after her, and I wanted to use my favorite uncle's mother's name." My dad added that "Mesha is Moshe in the Litvak vocabulary, and we are Litvaks." Litvaks! Who knew? I certainly didn’t, and no one bothered to tell me this until I was, um, 39 years old.

What else, I now wonder, don't I know?

Very good question.

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Ken Gordon

Ken Gordon is the editor of JBooks.com. His personal website is Kdgordon.com.