Celebrities are known for bestowing unconventional names on their offspring, from Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s daughter Apple, to singers Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz naming their son Bronx Mowgli. Jewish Israeli actress Natalie Portman gave birth to her first child last week, a son, with fiance Benjamin Millepied. After much speculation, the news broke that Portman named her child Alef, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Deborah Kolben, editor of the Jewish parenting website Kveller.com, was in on the hype, even hosting a contest to name Portman’s child on the site. Sadly the winner, Pierre Shlomo (incorporating Portman’s Jewish roots and her fiance’s French ones) wasn’t chosen by Portman. Kolben spoke to the Jewish Week about Alef, and the state of Jewish baby names today.
Q: Were you surprised at the announcement of “Alef”?
A: I think everybody was a little surprised. There were a lot of jokes about whether or not she’d keep going through the alphabet, get to Bet and Hey. It’s a funny name, everyone agrees, but we’re sort of used to those since Sacha Baron Cohen [a Jewish actor] named his daughter after a Hebrew month, Elula.
Do you think a lot of American Jews are looking to Israeli names today?
I’d say you see a lot of people who want to give their kids interesting and different names, they want their kids’ names to stand out and a lot of modern Israeli names seem a little different…I think it’s sometimes a little risky to make great assertions about these things based on what a celebrity does because celebrities seem to exist in their own world. Are parents going to start naming their kids Alef? Maybe. But I’m not sure we can really say the trend is that parents are giving their kids modern Israeli names.
Are the traditional Jewish names like Sarah, Rachel and Rebecca losing traction?
The Jewish world is so big so I don’t think those names will ever lose traction, there will always be people who give their kids those names. Maybe for the families who are looking for something a little bit different or a little bit more modern, but still want to give names that are a little bit Jewish, they go to old fashioned names like Max or Sol, or to modern Israeli names…When we started Kveller, we thought of our name bank on the site as a place people could come and get a Hebrew name for their child after choosing an English name. What we realized that what people wanted was a fuller bank of Jewish names, not just Hebrew names, and that a lot of people were also giving their kids a name that they were using as both their Hebrew name and their English name.
There is a long Jewish tradition of naming babies after relatives – Ashkenazis for those who have died and Sephardis for those who are living. With parents so intent on individual names, is that practice waning?
It doesn’t have to. [People] honor them by choosing a letter and then finding a name that fits that letter. Or people turn to middle names to honor grandparents…our daughter has a modern Israeli name, her name is Mika, and then her middle name is my grandmother’s name.