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GIVEN NAMES, JUDAISM, AND JEWISH HISTORY
The Late Professor G. L. Esterson
Judaism has many different aspects -- aspects of religion, culture, peoplehood, and nationhood, among others. The religious aspect was the first to be created, and the others grew out of the religion and Jewish history. These features appeal differently to the various personality traits that all Jews have. Accordingly, these varying aspects of Judaism and traits of Jews have combined over the centuries to create different groupings within Judaism and competing approaches to Judaism by various Jewish groups.
When they became the Chosen People, the Jews were described to Moshe by G-d as "stiff-necked", and this basic trait has made them an argumentative people with many opinions about nearly everything -- internally combative and divisive as a People -- but at the same time it glued them together and unified their self image.
This two-sided self image and view of Judaism by Jews has generated a trial-and-error approach to defining their basic religion, and the other aspects of Judaism which have branched off in time from the basic religion. In their search for the best way to behave in any given situation, Jews found that the persecution to which they were subjected and their trial-and-error approach always made them sensitive to the extremes of possible final consequences. Thus, different groups of Jews adopted different extreme positions and these positions were fought over vigorously until, over time, the People made a final decision.
The two-sided trait is also reflected in how Jews went about choosing the given names which identify each person. For a Jew, his Hebrew given name is the noun, and his surname is the given name's adjective -- the given name is the essence of the person -- it is that important. Not only does a Jew feel that the given name characterizes the person who possesses it, he feels that when he/she gives a newborn son or daughter their given name, that offspring's basic personality and traits are being defined, and in a sense, his entire approach to life is mapped out for him in advance.
This document uses the above concepts to describe how Jews have always chosen their given names within the frameworks of their Covenant with G-d, how their two-sided trait has colored their approach to their Judaism, and how these two have been modified by history and contacts with other nations. The document describes the adversities of the Jews in their homeland and in the Diaspora, and how Jewish given names developed from the earliest times right up to the time period studied in the Given Names Data Base Project -- the 19th century. (1)
A new, major factor which influenced Jewish history and given names choices was the development of Yiddish about 1,000 years ago; a history and description of Yiddish are presented here, relating this language to its impact on Eastern European Jews and their given names. Finally, the status of Jewish given names in the 19th century is described. Most Jewish genealogists are deeply involved in researching their ancestors in this period, 1795-1925.
This Given Names Data Bases Project is described in the first document of this set of documentation, Description of the Given Names Data Bases. That document discusses how searchable data bases have been set up for Jewish given names in fifteen 19th-century European regions, and how links are made in each record to the new given names adopted in ten Foreign countries to which European Jews immigrated. These data bases of linked given names will allow Jewish genealogists to seek Jewish names other than those they know of, and which an ancestor may have used in Europe, as well as vernacular names he may have adopted in his new country of immigration. Plans are also underway to integrate these data bases with others in which given names appear.
The first document details the conceptualization process, the design, the resulting data bases, and the ramifications of the data base tool and its use in Jewish genealogical research, while this document provides the background against which the Given Names Data Base Project was conceived, designed, and carried out.