The Genesis:3 Project
The descendants of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Rifat and Togarmah. Genesis 10:3
What name do you give to a newborn? No decision is of more consequence before the fact and less consequence after the fact.
The choice of a name bestows a legacy. For European Jews, who customarily gives names that honor the memory of a “beloved departed,” the baby is meant to keep their remembrance alive. For Mediterranean Jews, who customarily honor the living, the baby is meant to carry forward the namesake’s best qualities. Others choose historical figures (Thurgood, Jackie), aspirations (Faith, Hope), names they just like (Max!) and, of course, Biblical names…but not all of them.
Here is what most parents discover after the long conversations and delicate deliberations about the baby’s name: no matter what the intention behind bestowing a particular name, it won’t be more than a few days before the baby begins to make that name her or his own.
That’s true even in the book of Genesis, where no one can be accused of borrowing a name from an ancestor. Noah, whose name means “rest,” barely had a moment of it. Isaac, meaning “laugh,” didn’t seem to have much to laugh about. Dinah, from the word for “law,” never saw much justice.
But sometimes a name carries with it a certain legacy that any subsequent person will have to work hard to overcome. A story arc in the 1980’s series “Hill Street Blues” followed the short-lived career of a comedian named Vic Hitler. He was very defensive about his last name – his father, he said, put up with a lot of abuse to maintain it. His manager suggested he could overcome the aversion most people felt by honoring his father and changing his name to Vic Hitler, Jr.
Real-life comedian Albert Brooks changed his last name for professional reasons. His father was also a performer, having created a character called Parkyakarkas. But his real name was Harry Einstein. The expectations of a guy named Albert Einstein doing stand-up were likely both higher and lower than he probably preferred.
And then consider Jim Nabors. Now in his 80s, Nabors rocketed to fame playing a dimwitted gas station attendant on “The Andy Griffith Show.” He went on to star in his own series based on the same character who was named Gomer Pyle. If you read the verse from Genesis at the top of this column, you will notice that one of those original Genesis names is Gomer. As Gomer Pyle might say, “Gaaawww-lee.” Until last week (literally), I never heard of another real person named Gomer, but it is no less likely than Dinah, Isaac or Noah.
Yet I can’t imagine anyone choosing the name Gomer for an American child today. Though Jim Nabors had a long career as a comic actor, talented baritone and macadamia nut farmer (honest), the role he defined has probably ruined the name for as long as YouTube and Hulu exist.
Somewhere, sometime someone will reclaim the name. It has happened before. The Torah is not too kind to Ishmael and later Jewish legend makes things even worse. But many hundreds of years before Herman Melville used his name for the narrator of Moby Dick, a High Priest in the Second Temple was named Ishmael, and his namesake grandson defined the principles by which the Bible is interpreted. It is included in the introductory section of daily worship.
So to all of you who will have grandchildren and great-grandchildren named Gertrude and Elmer and Tzophenatpane’ah, remember to relinquish your expectations. They will make those names their own.
In last week’s column, I made light of my flirtation with vegetarianism and veganism. At least one reader – a committed vegan – found my words insulting, not at all the spirit I had hoped to convey. If I say the exchange between us was unpleasant, I would be telling the truth. But if I let the nature of the communication obscure the point, I would be overlooking the truth. So if you are someone whose culinary ethic eschews meat or anything part of animal life, my apologies for creating the impression that it is cause for sport. I may not embrace your decision, but I respect it.