The Foreigner’s Guide to Israeli Names

The Foreigner’s Guide to Israeli Names

American high-tech is so full of immigrants that a foreign sounding name doesn?t generally spark much curiosity other than perhaps over the name?s country of origin. That?s because most personal names in English lost their original meaning long ago and have been displaced over the centuries by more whimsical nicknames like Rick, Larry or Betty. As a result, Americans don?t typically question what?s behind someone?s name in a foreign language like Hindi or Hebrew, where meaning and origin can be both intriguing and delightful.

As an immigrant with a compulsive need for the literal translation of every Hebrew word, I am still discovering and pondering Israeli names more than twenty years after my arrival in the country. Part of the challenge lies in the prevalence of nicknames in Israeli culture and the challenge of discerning between those that sound like nonsense names (e.g. Shuki) and those that are nonsense names (e.g. Chiko). It?s taken me a long time to appreciate the diversity and creativity of Israeli names, because while meaning may not tell you anything about someone?s personality or background, the folksy, familiar and endearing nicknames are reflective of a close-knit and unpretentious culture.

Modern Hebrew Names

Given names in Israel are an extreme mix of ancient and modern. They are either 2,500 years old and found in the Bible or they are modern Hebrew words related to nature and geography, or local flora and fauna. Popular modern Israeli names have a distinctive hippy appeal including Spring (Aviv) and Autumn (Stav), but surprisingly not Summer, perhaps due to the oppressive summer heat in Israel. Dawn (Shahar), Horizon (Ofek), Wild (Bar) and Lightening (Barak) are quite popular, as are arborous names like Oak (Alon), Tree (Ilan), Cedar (Erez), Pine (Oren) and Palm (Dekel or Tomer). Naming daughters after flowers is not uniquely Israeli but we have plenty of those as well. Despite our parched parcel of land, there is an abundance of ?aquatic? names such as Dew (Tal), Storm (Saar), Wave (Gal), Spring (Mayyan), Dew-water (Meital), Brook (Peleg), Stream (Yuval) and Ripple (Adva). Incidentally, the non-Israeli actress Mayim Bialik?s first name means ?water? in Hebrew, which baffles Israelis, because no one names their kid water in such a dry country.

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When translated literally, modern Israeli names can be a source of amusement for the newcomer. I have twice backed a successful entrepreneurial team whose names translate as ?Deer and Fawn? (Eyal and Ofer). Homage to animal wildlife is plentiful in Israel, which is why there are executives in our companies whose names mean Wolf (Ze?ev), Lion (Arieh), Young Lion (Kfir), Bear (Dov), Deer (Zvi), Sparrow (Dror) and my all-time favorite, Puppy (Gur). Sure, Americans have their Teddy (e.g. Roosevelt) and an occasional Wolf (e.g. Blitzer), but get a group of these Israelis together and you have yourself a startup petting zoo.

Then you have the tough, militaristic sounding names such as Aluf (general), Amir/Eitan (powerful), Oz (courage), Magen (shield) and even Lahav (blade). The name Uzi sounds shamefully violent compared to Shalom (an older, but still common name), but the sub-machine gun of gangster notoriety is actually named for its inventor, Uziel Gal, not the other way around.

Adding some confusion to Israeli name spotting is the fact that many modern Hebrew names have become unisex or gender neutral. I?m pretty sure this is a 21st century challenge unique to Israel and am fully aware of American gender-neutral names like Pat, Jesse, Alex and Chris, but those are mostly nicknames. For Israelis under the age of ~25 with the name Yuval, Amit, Tal, Bar, Shai and dozens of others, gender identification through names is no longer possible. There are also feminine versions of more ?traditionally? male names, such as Alona, Ilana, Aviva and even Moshit, but this practice is not particularly unique to Jewish-Israeli culture.

Modern Israeli family names stem from new immigrants voluntarily jettisoning their diaspora names in favor of something with a local flair. This deliberate Hebraization of Jewish last names has led to further confusion, as many of these modern names often serve as both given and family names. This occasionally gives rise to confusion of whether Barak Alon is the same person as Alon Barak. It?s become so bad that call centers sometimes ask for Fisher Adam. I suppose this happens in the U.S. as well with the common practice of adopting the mother?s maiden name as a child?s first name (e.g. Hunter Thompson). But then Israel also has people with the same first name and last name, like the CEO of Israel?s Innovation Authority, Aharon Aharon.

Biblical Nicknames

Alongside short, hip, modern Israeli names, multi-syllabic Israeli biblical names like Yeshayahu or Mattitiyahu can seem a tad old fashioned. As a result, Israelis have taken to using modern-sounding nicknames that catapult biblical names from three millennia ago into the 21st century. A lot of it simply involves adding the diminutive ?i? or ?y? to an abbreviated version of a name. Hence, Benjamin is Benny/Benji, Gabriel is Gabi, Samuel is Sammy and Raphael is Rafi.

Other nicknames stray further from the original. If you meet Yaki, Dudi and Assi, it would not be the beginning of an inappropriate joke because all three are popular Israeli nicknames for Yaakov (Jacob), David and Assaf, respectively. And Gigi is from Gershon (Gregory) or Giora, Hezi is from Yehezkial (Ezekial) and Pini is from Pinhas (Phinehas). You would be forgiven for thinking all Israeli names end in an ?i? or a ?y?, but those that do are almost always nicknames. Such nicknames are more common than the long-established Yiddish formula for creating a hypocorism (that?s a pet name), which would be to add ?le or ?ik to the end, as in Moshik (Moshe) or Moshele, and occasionally ?ka, as in Zvika (Zvi). But if you are truly loved by friends and colleagues you may have such a classic nickname conferred upon you.

In case it?s not clear, Israelis have a genuine fondness for endearing and sometimes silly sounding nicknames, some of which all but erase the biblical source from memory. In fact, some Israeli nicknames are so prevalent that the original name is unrecognizable if not forgotten. When I tried to uncover the real names of people affectionately called Mooly, Mooki, Momo and Yaya, most Israelis give serious pause to consider the origin and some gave a shrug. That?s often because the nicknames are given soon after birth and may even enter the birth certificate (but I can?t be sure). These chummy nicknames then stick throughout one?s life and career, such that if you are called something in kindergarten there is a high likelihood it will stick with you through military service, university and into your career, whether it be as a rock star (e.g. Muki), an executive (e.g. ?Mooly? Eden), a general (e.g. ?Chiko? Tamir) or a politician (e.g. ?Bogi? Ayalon or ?Bougi? Herzog).

On the face of it, this is not unlike the American and English nicknames for Richard (Rick/Dick), Henry (Harry/Hank), John (Jack/Jay), William (Bill), Lawrence (Larry), Charles (Chuck), Francis (Frank), James (Jim) and Robert (Bob). Or for women?s names such as Margaret (Peggy), Elizabeth (Lizzy), Cassandra (Sandy), Catherine (Cathy), Samantha (Sam), etc. But true equivalence to Israeli naming practices would make every Richard a Ricky, every William a Billy, every Thomas a Tommy and every Amanda a Mandy. That is not always the case for American children and often changes for Americans when one enters adulthood and builds a career, but not so in Israel.

PEETA AND HOOMOOS (Pita and Hummus)

For too long, transliteration from Hebrew to English has been a genuine free-for-all, spanning everything from road signs to menus, and this also extends to personal names. For Americans, a slightly different spelling of a name can denote personality and individualism. In Israel, it?s because the other spelling is just wrong.

When Israeli school children begin to learn English around the age of 8, they are tasked with the crucial decision of choosing the English spelling of their Hebrew name. For some names there is an established standard or at least not much flexibility (Yoav or David), but for other names the options are truly endless. First there is the interchangeable ?i? and ?e,? because when Israelis see either letter the sound that emerges is identical. Hence, Ido/Edo/Eido, Ilan/Elan and Itay/Etay are the same exact names. The same issue also applies to the letters ?i? and ?y? at the end of a name. So Itay/Etay may be Itai/Etai. Roni and Rony are also the same name, as are Beni and Benny. More challenging is how to use Latin letters to make Hebrew guttural sounds like ?ch,? tz,? ?oo? and ?a?a.? In Israel, Chen is not a name of Asian descent, but pronounced similar to the ?ch? in Chanukah. Kids nicknamed Tzachi or Tzipi have a particularly hard time when touring the US.

Sometimes it is not what is most accurate, but which variant looks best or avoids awkwardness. Chagi is really pronounced Huggi, but that doesn?t look great if you?ve ever had to buy diapers. Uzi should be Oozi, but that also doesn?t look great to American eyes. It should have been a sure giveaway in the crazy story of Oozi Cats, who is unrelated to Israel-born Safra Catz, the President of Oracle, who has a first name that is really only a family name in Israel.

As more Israelis make their mark in American culture, from Gal Gadot to Rahm Emanuel, and Yuval Noah Harari to Omri Casspi, the names and their meanings will become more familiar to the English speaker. In truth, I don?t dwell on the meaning of people?s names until I see a visiting American stumbling on a pronunciation or I encounter a name I?ve never heard before, which more often than not is the name of a rare flower or obscure person from the Bible. For me it?s a chance to learn more about the Hebrew language and an innovative, friendly culture that continues to impress me every day.


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