A version of this essay was originally published by Kveller on August 4, 2016.
I’d known what I’d call my future daughter since I was a teenager.
But things got tricky with my son. I hoped to parcel out his Russian-American-Jewish heritage into one word, ensuring it’s pronounceable by Russian relatives without making him a laughingstock of his American peers.
My husband and I spent months brainstorming. The fridge door had the picks of the week, and debates went on. (“Can you say Ezekiel in between vodka shots?” “Isn’t Jim where people work out?”) And which non-living relative should be honored, according to the Ashkenazi tradition?
We first turned to the Old Testament. Unfortunately, when spoken in Russian, traditional Biblical names sounded foreign and uncomfortable to me. They conjured up images of Russian grandfathers and ancestor portraits I grew up seeing on the walls, not those of a child. In the Soviet Union, particularly after Stalin’s ascent, many Jews assimilated for fear of being passed over for a promotion or college acceptance, of being beaten, of having the Star of David and expletives scrawled on their doorways. Many changed their names. Baruch became Boris; Moses went by Michael; Esther turned into Irina, like my late grandmother.
We then considered Anglophone names with Slavic parallels, practically a bicultural guarantee. You can kick it in the sandbox with your American buddies as “Johnny” and then turn into “Ivan” to eat borscht with your Russian aunt. However, those wouldn’t jive with the baby’s Jewish heritage. Peters and Ivans are typically blond and blue-eyed, harking back to peasants in flowy shirts straight out of a Tolstoy novel.
Then there’s the cultural zeitgeist to consider. For example, after China applied to host the Olympics in the nineties, more than 4,000 Chinese babies were named “Olympic Games.” And this year’s presidential elections are giving a boost to Hillaries, Bills, Chelseas, Donalds and Melanias for babies born in 2016.
We also followed the unwritten naming guidelines. Don’t name your child after your ex, for instance, or after your partner’s beach fling in college, even if didn’t “really” count. After a classmate who shot spitwads at you or anyone evil from Game of Thrones. After a disease, even if it sounds French and exotic if spelled differently. And if The Simpsons taught us anything, be mindful of first and last name combinations, like Hugh Jass or Anita Bath.
Weeks went by and with so many options, our baby-to-be remained nameless.
“You’ll know when you see the child,” people say.
He was born, and we didn’t know then either.
There he was, our big-eyed, curly-haired little boy, and all we could come up with was “Baby” to gain permission to be released from the hospital.
The lady at the birth certificate office gave a Friday naming deadline. “Or you’ll have to deal with the state,” she said. “And that will take a long time.”
A name can shape character. Go too traditional, and my son will spend his life spelling it out for people. Ignore his roots, and he loses a link to half of his ancestors.
In my mind’s eye, I saw him older, wearing an oversized backpack with a peanut butter jelly sandwich inside. His sneakers would flash neon colors as he’d run across a baseball field, with American parents cheering and understanding the rules of the game. He’d cross the threshold of immigrant reality to the impenetrable other side, a side where I was a foreigner, a side where he’d become an American boy in TV commercials, drinking orange juice and playing with Transformers, a distant image on the screen.
A name seemed so important then.
Half an hour before the birth certificate office’s deadline, we settled on a combination of a first and middle name. My husband sped off to file the paperwork, while I watched the baby sleep, wishing there was more time to decide. Did I choose wisely?
Then it occurred to me that the baby’s own parents and ancestors wandered across cities, countries, and continents, reinventing themselves while seeking a better life. Someday he, too, would voyage off to discover himself,.
But he’d always be my little boy—and no given name, no language could change this.
I took out a pen and wrote his name for the first time. Andrew Isaac. Andrew, Andrey, Andryusha—to help him navigate all his cultural identities in a world where, I hoped in the grand scheme of things, his name wouldn’t really matter.