My maternal grandfather was born in Cincinnati on Feb. 22, 1893, so his name was George Washington Rosenthal. You can probably figure out when his cousin, Benjamin Franklin Rosenthal, was born.
George’s father, Henry, was also born in Cincinnati. His father, who left Germany in 1857, was Samuel. His wife’s name was Fannie, and the 11 Rosenthal children gathered to celebrate their parents’ 50th anniversary in 1910.
Grandfather George loved his name, so his son also became George. And Uncle George’s son, Henry (the third in our family), named his son George. But I’m also named after my maternal grandmother, Marion; my middle name is – yes – Marion. This was also the name of the street in Cincinnati where both my mother and her father had grown up.
Presumably, Ellen, the eldest Rosenthal grandchild, who lived in Cincinnati, could not say or remember “Grandpa” and “Grandma.” And of course none of the Rosenthals knew a word of Yiddish, so she dubbed them Boy and Pal, which George and Marion thought were cute. The result was that these names endured. Yes, at 30 years of age, I still called my grandfather Boy.
My elder twin, Theodore Sidney, is named after both our paternal grandparents, Isadore and Sadie. Through genealogical research undertaken about 25 years ago, I discovered that Isadore, following his emigration from Romania, Americanized his name. It had been Israel.
Needless to say, neither of my parents was acquainted with or accepted the Jewish custom of naming children after deceased relatives. Indeed, my younger sister’s middle name, Gene, was derived from our father’s, Eugene.
In 1983, when Betsey and I were preparing for our wedding at her family’s temple in Andover, Massachusetts, Rabbi Harry Roth asked for my Hebrew name. When I explained that my Jewish education had never required such a name, he invited me to select one. Having been born in 1948 and having been inspired by a recent visit, I chose Yisrael. This was long before I learned about my grandfather’s rejection of that very name!
I believe that for most of my life I’ve been intrigued by names. Perhaps one reason occurred in grade school, when there were two boys in my class named Richard Kaplan. So one became known as “Fat Richard,” the other as “Thin.”
Having always been known as George, perhaps I was also intrigued by such boys’ nicknames as Bobby, Chucky, Johnny and Randy. In fact, my twin, Theodore, originally known as Teddy and then Ted, eventually became Theo. Dad’s nickname was Bud, and anybody who called him Buddy was not a true friend.
By age 10, Teddy and I belonged to a boys’ youth organization, based on the study of Indian lore, known as Woodcraft Rangers. We learned various Indian words, ceremonies and prayers, and I can still proudly recite a few. Indeed, Philip Roth used several in his 2010 novel, “Nemesis,” which was set in a Jewish summer camp.
Our mother, Madeline (derived from Magdalen), was named after her departed maternal grandmother, who had died at 30 years old. My mother remained a Woodcraft leader for fully 50 years! She became not only the organization’s first woman president of the board, but also its first Jew. She also received Woodcraft’s highest honor, an Indian name – which, of course, nobody could pronounce or remember.
Perhaps in junior high school, having become a devotee of Dickens, I became further intrigued by names. Indeed, on the first day of algebra class, when our teacher introduced himself, he remarked, “I’m not that John Steinbeck.”
When I taught art history, I had a fine student named Maven. But an important turning point occurred in Providence in 2007, when I met RISD Prof. Mike Fink’s former student Julie Summersquash. I then decided to keep a list of amazing names, most from newspaper articles. Soon Betsey also became intrigued by this project, and we have now acquired more than 3,000 astonishing names.
We have also established some guidelines. For instance, we do not include victims of murder or other violence. And because they tend to form their own subgroup, we also avoid names of professional athletes – and, for authenticity’s sake, we’re generally reluctant to include entertainers. Once when Betsey and I were in a hotel elevator in Los Angeles, we happened to meet Snoop Dogg, and I called him “Mr. Dogg.” He insisted on “Snoop,” and then agreed to pose for some photos with Betsey.
So, from the beginning letters of the alphabet, here is an almost random sample of our findings over the past 16 years: Michael Angelo, John Badman IV, Krystall Ball, Cindi Canary, Drynx Cohen, Fillmere Crank, Creflo Dollar, Richard Formica, Foster Foster and Kepler Funk.
Ready for a few more? Check out these, from the end of the alphabet: Elwyn Tinklenberg, Butch Trucks, Taylor Twellman, Edward Upward, Weston Wamp, K. Craig Wildfang, Wellford Wilms, Holly Wood, Boris Worm and Dindy Yokel.
Perhaps inevitably, this search for remarkable names brings us back to our own children and Jewish tradition. Our older child, known as Molly, is actually Martha Rose. She was named after my mother, Madeline, who was still living when Molly was born,and her maternal great-grandmother, Rose, as well as the Rosenthals.
Our son, Michael Edward, was named after my grandfather, Isadore, whose middle name was Michael, and my great-uncle, Rabbi Edgar Magnin, who was married to Evelyn Rosenthal.
By the way, both our kids received Hebrew names at naming ceremonies at Temple Beth-El. Molly’s is Bracha, and Michael’s is Mikha’el. And both our grandkids, though they live in Brooklyn, New York, also received Hebrew names at Beth-El.
Perhaps there’s one more appropriate story related to our family’s names. Grandfather Isadore was an engraver, and he made initial rings for his three sons and seven grandsons. Dad’s was stolen during an armed attack when he and Mom vacationed in Colombia, but Theo and I still proudly and lovingly wear our own.
GEORGE M. GOODWIN, of Providence, is the editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.