Matronymic Metamorphosis

In the 12th century, Maimonides decreed that the mother would determine whether or not the child was halakhically Jewish. Before this point, the father was the determinant of Jewish identity; the fact that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were Jewish meant that their offspring were Jewish also.

Maimonides made his ruling about matrilineal descent for two very valid reasons. One, while fatherhood can be a matter of opinion, motherhood is a matter of fact. Two, if during a war women were raped, and some women conceived, then what to do with the issue if the old rules were followed? It was thus established that whether or not a child is Jewish depends on the mother. So why do children typically get their father’s name instead of the mother’s? It would seem, to be consistent, that if the Jewish mother determines whether or not the child is Jewish, the child should carry her name, both as a last name and as the “son of..,” or “daughter of…” formula when a Jew is called to the Torah or mentioned in any other liturgical context.

Our traditional Hebrew names are a perfect example of the male chauvinism of Judaism. For example, I am Yehiel Moshe ben Zindel; Zindel was my father’s Hebrew name. If I had been given my mother’s name, I would be Yehiel Moshe ben Sima. (This would suit me just fine. It would have annoyed the devil out of my father, but that’s not a good enough reason.)

Many names were forced on those Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement by the Czars, to be more consistent with the rest of their subjects, and those names often came from trades. There was Goldsmith, and Cantor, and names that began with Eisen—in Germany those who dealt with iron. Probably somewhere in my grandfather’s background there was someone in the distilled spirits business, hence the name Bronfman; bronfn means schnapps in Yiddish. Since my grandfather had been a tobacco farmer in the Kishenev region before he came to Canada, it seems the link between trades and names was no longer relevant. Though who knows? Perhaps that trade-based family name did lead my grandfather or lather into the schnapps business again.

The “Yehiel Moshe” came from my grandfather, and I got his name because I was my father’s first-born son, and my grandfather had died. My sisters got the names of their grandmothers. Since my maternal grandfather was still alive, my younger brother just got a name of his own. I like the custom of naming children after deceased relatives, as it keeps the name alive. Perhaps a compromise might be that in Hebrew children would receive their mother’s name, but in English that of their father. Thus when I would get an aliyah, I would be Yehiel Moshe ben Sima, and in English Edgar Bronfman. Sounds fair to me. 

Edgar M. Bronfman is Chairman of the International Board of governors of Hillel: Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.