My niece gave birth to a son three weeks ago, her ninth child. That would make more than two dozen great-grandchildren for my father.
He was privileged to live to see the first 20 of them.
He loved them all, obviously, even though the closest ones lived 2,000 kilometers from his home near San Francisco. The farthest — my grandkids — lived 12,000 kilometers away.
While he didn’t get to see the great-grandkids all that much, he did talk on the phone to those of speaking age and visited the locales where they lived once or twice a year.
Each time a grandchild was born, he would marvel at the Jewish miracle of it all, always recalling my late mother, a Holocaust survivor, and saying with emotion in his voice: “The Nazis didn’t win.”
My Dad told me of his custom of mentioning the names of each of his descendants — and their spouses — when he put on tefilin and davened every morning.
In the beginning, it was relatively easy. He could handle the names of his two kids, their spouses and seven grandchildren — especially when they had familiar names like Cindy and Herb, Mike and Susie, Josh, Danny and Jessica. But when the grandkids got married, and he had to remember their spouses’ names, and then they started having kids of their own, it all became a bit more unwieldy.
For instance, one of my daughters-in-law is named Hodaya. That name was not in my dad’s wheelhouse; he butchered the pronunciation. So we agreed he should call her Hodi. By the way, she didn’t have a much easier time with his name, Irwin, calling him in her heavy Israeli accent “Ear-wean” on a good day, or “Ur-ving” on a bad one.
Another daughter-in-law goes by the name of Tehila. From the get-go, at my suggestion, my father called her what I always call her, Tea Leaves, or sometimes the less formal Leaves. As in, “Hi son, how’s Leaves?” It just made her name much more manageable.
Just before my dad died a year-and-a-half ago, he pulled out of his wallet a worn, wrinkled piece of paper he carried with him at all times with all the names he had to remember each morning when he prayed.
My sister’s kids — all yeshivish, and my kids — all Israeli, did not make his job any easier. My dad was American born and bred, so the Hebrew and Yiddish names given to the fruit of his loins did not naturally roll off his tongue or embed themselves easily in his memory.
He remembered one great-grandson named Moshe Aharon by calling him Moshe Arens. Moshe Aharon he had difficulty remembering; Moshe Arens was a name that was part of his world.
Had my father had 20 great-grandkids with names like Bob, Betsy, Jimmy and Jane, it would have been one thing; it would have been easy for him. But he had to remember Yisrael Meir and Asher Yitzhak; Gittel Rochel and Tzipi Bracha. Not one but — in many cases — two foreign-sounding names for each child.
And those were the easy ones, the ones who lived in America.
Then there were the ones who lived in Israel: my grandkids and another niece’s children. There he had a Yosef Shalom and a Rivka Tzipora on my niece’s side, and a Be’eri and Kerem on mine.
Mercifully, my second son, Skippy, who has three sons of his own, only gives one name to each kid.
But oh what names! Groovy Israeli names without any connection to my father’s reality.
It took a while over a poor connection in a long-distance call for my father to realize that the name of my son’s second son was not that of a girl, Karen, but Kerem.
“Who calls a boy Karen?” he asked, after Kerem was named.
“It’s Kerem, dad,” I corrected him. “Karen, with an ‘m’ at the end. It means vineyard.”
“Who names their kid Vineyard?” he asked. “If they were dead-set on the vineyard theme, they should have called him Kedem, after the grape juice.”
I had that conversation in mind a few months ago when my daughter gave birth to her second daughter, and called her Ziv. Ziv Yehudit, in fact.
My dad was not alive for that birth, but I knew how that post-naming conversation would have gone.
“Mazal tov, Pa,” I said in my mind. “Your great-granddaughter now has a name.”
“What is it?” he would reply excitedly over a crackling phone line.
“Steve!” he’d reply. “Steve? What the hell kind of name is that for a girl? You’ve got Karen for a boy and Steve for a girl. What’s the matter with you guys over there?”
“No, dad, Ziv. Z-i-v. It means splendor in Hebrew.”
Nice, he’d concede, and then wonder out loud why she couldn’t have been given a normal name.
“Yeh, like Irwin,” I’d respond. And then we’d both laugh.
When Skippy’s wife gave birth to a boy last year on my dad’s birthday, I knew some family members expected him to be named for my dad, who had died just a few months earlier. My dad’s Hebrew name was Yaakov Yitzhak. But I know my son, his wife and the names they like. I had little expectations of Yaakov Yitzhak: too ordinary, too regular.
And I was right. They named their boy Adi.
I again had this imaginary conversation with my father.
“Mazel tov, Pa,” I said. “Your new great-grandson has a name: Adi.”
“What is it?” he’d ask, thinking he didn’t hear me right. “Eddie — like Eddie Fisher, Eddie Munster?”
“No, dad, Adi. Like Adi. It means Irwin in Yiddish.”
“Really?” he’d say excitedly.
“No, dad,” I’d reply. “I’m just kidding.”
“I know, son,” he’d say. “You don’t think I know that? But if their next kid is a girl, maybe suggest the name Irwina.”
But we won’t have to. My niece and nephew called their new son Yaakov Yitzhak. Or, as my sister told us on the family WhatsApp group, “Irwin in Hebrew.”
At last, a double Hebrew name, for one of my father’s great-grandkids, that he could easily remember.
Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post.