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The Second Coming of Sheldon Leonard?
America is taking Jewish names to heart.
Will Jews do the same?
by David Holzel
Sheldon Leonard  

The first person I’d heard of named Max, who wasn’t a rotund, cigar-chomping, bald-headed Jewish septuagenarian, was Max Brooks. My mother had just read about Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft’s newborn, and she thought the name they had given the little guy was a hoot.

“Max Brooks! Max Brooks!” she repeated as she crossed the living room. I don’t know what amused her more, that weird consonance in the first name and last, like

two sounds hitting a wall, or that Brooks and Bancroft had given their son the name of a rotund, cigar-chomping, bald-headed Jewish septuagenarian.

Max Brooks!”


There have been so many babies named Max since then that I feel like Jeremiah, calling out in the wilderness to nobody in particular, that Max is no name to give a baby. As for Max Brooks, he’s now in his late 30s, an actor and writer.


My mom was on to something. She always disliked her name, Rose, as if  the flower lent its beauty to the name, which otherwise was rather short, brutish and hard. She was born at a time when girls were routinely named Rose, and boys were regularly named Murray. Their immigrant parents gave them those names, no doubt thinking they sounded American and, so, harmonious. Passing through Yiddish eardrums, the sound of Ethel might have inspired visions of beauty. Maybe Hymie had a musicality that can no longer be heard, let alone appreciated.


But my mother’s amusement at the idea of Max Brooks impressed on me that we had survived the worst of American Jewish baby naming and were living in more enlightened times. But Max Brooks turned out to be no anomaly.  From its height in 1910, when it was the 105th most popular name, according to Babynamesworld.com, Max had dropped to 382nd place by 1970, two years before the birth of Brooks fils. It then began an improbable resurgence, up, up, up to 160th place in 2006 – more popular even than Stephen (165), Jeffrey (180), and Gregory (208).


These numbers refer to the entire American baby-naming cohort. But history shows that Jews are about average when it comes to naming our progeny, and I see no reason we should return to the dark ages. I therefore propose banning the most egregious of the old American Jewish names. That henceforth, no male child shall be named Sheldon, Leonard, Morty, Sherwin, Maurice, Milton, Marvin, Melvin, Murray, Herman, Hymie, Alvin, Irving, Walter, Norman or Harvey.

Further, no girl child shall be burdened for a lifetime with the name Myra, Myrna, Ethel, Blanche, Bessie, Tessie, Gloria, Edna, Ida, Florence, Norma or Mildred.


It’s too late to do anything about Max. But unless these others are locked away, they could easily slip back into mainstream popularity.


Sheldon and Leonard  

Mainstream popularity is an opiate against better judgment. Years ago, adults cooed when my sister Deborah, then a little girl, told them her name. “Oh! Just like Debbie Reynolds.”  Well, no.


So you can understand my anxiety over the names of the main characters in the otherwise wonderful comedy series, “Big Bang Theory.”

Sheldon and Leonard.

How big a threat are these two? On the one hand, Sheldon and Leonard are portrayed as geeks, untouchables practically, so the chance of their

names riding a crest of popularity is slim. On the other hand, the characters also are brilliant physicists and largely sympathetic, particularly Leonard, played by Johnny Galecki.

On the other, other hand, the characters are not Jewish. Jim Parsons plays Sheldon, whose personality hovers near the Asperger’s continuum, as a gentile Mr. Spock.

On the other, other, other hand, Sheldon and Leonard were named in memory of one of the toughest, manliest, most successful Jews in Hollywood, the actor and producer Sheldon Leonard, who was born Sheldon Leonard Bershad.

Does television have the power make the geeky sexy, and so pollinate a new generation of

Sheldons and Leonards?  Will Jews join in, making Sheldon the new Brandon (#19 in 1990) and Leonard the new Justin (#9 in 1990)?


Oddly, the larger population seems to be meeting the Jews halfway. Five of the 10 most popular boys’ names in 2007 were Hebrew and biblical in origin:  Jacob (#1), Michael (#2), Joshua (#3), Ethan (#4) and Daniel (#6).


(The others are Christopher, #7; Andrew, #8; Anthony, #9; and William, #10. Matthew, at  number 5, technically is Hebrew – think of Matityahu of Chanukah fame. But who doesn’t hear Matthew and think New Testament?)

Girls aren’t nearly so well represented by Hebrew names. The gentile-sounding Abigail was #6 and Hannah was #8. The rest of the list is filled out by the Madisons, Olivias and Samanthas.

Yet there is something timeless about a Hebrew name that neither Myrna nor Madison can capture. Hebrew names are unprocessed, unappropriated. And they tap into the deep mysteries that shroud their ancient sources. A Hebrew name is not just a memorial to a grandparent or other relative, it is a communication from an ancient voice to the child who possesses that name, a call from a mentor who lives on in a many-thousand-year tradition.

Not all biblical names are beautiful – Metushelach, Zerubavel, Yehoyakim, Nepheg and Onan come to mind. And not all beautiful Hebrew names are biblical.  Among them are  the names of the flora and fauna of Israel.

There are also a number of Hebrew names that sound surprisingly American: Keren, Dana, Dani, Sharon, Shirli, Rina, Dina and Ta’am. They’ve found favor with Israelis, but not with a group of Israeli rabbis who oppose them because they say they sound un-Jewish. A few years ago, these rabbis published a list,  informing parents which names are auspicious and which names to avoid giving their children.


"Henceforth, no male child shall be named Sheldon, Leonard, Morty, Sherwin, Maurice, Milton, Marvin, Melvin, Murray, Herman, Hymie, Alvin, Irving, Walter, Norman or Harvey."

“Uttering the name Ariel is problematic because it could beckon an angel namesake instead, drawing down his wrath,” an AP article quoted the rabbis saying. “Omri, the name of an evil biblical king, should be taboo because of the highly negative connotation.


“The rabbis said they compiled the list in response to a flood of requests from parents concerned they may accidentally give their children names that could shame them for life,” the article continued.


The rabbis are likely to have great influence on their communities. So if they start advising parents to name their children Sheldon or Leonard, there's trouble ahead. And as for Max Brooks, he now has a son.


Copyright © 2008 by David Holzel
Thanks to Stav for the translation from Hebrew.



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