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In Name Only

The 21 percent of people who don’t like their first names


Arthur Brooks, until recently the head of the American Enterprise Institute, a leading Washington, D.C., conservative think tank, is a very interesting fellow. He spent a decade playing the French horn with a symphony orchestra, but is far better known as a social scientist and a writer on themes like happiness and giving.

He’s also, by his own admission, among the 21 percent of people who don’t like their first names. He writes that ever since he was a child, he has cringed a bit whenever he hears someone say his name. “One of my earliest memories,” he wrote two years ago, “is of a lady in a department store asking me my name and bursting out laughing when I said, ‘Arthur.’ Before you judge that lady, let’s acknowledge that it is actually pretty amusing to meet a little kid with an old man’s name…. One thing I constantly hear from people I meet for the first time is, ‘I imagined you as being much older.’ I don’t take this as flattery, because at 54, I’m really not that young. What they are saying is that they imagined someone about 100 years old.”

(This isn’t something to which, for the most part, people with Jewish names can relate. Unless, of course, your name is Alter, which actually means “old one.” One can’t be faulted for suppressing a chuckle at a bris when he hears “…v’yikarei shemo b’Yisrael Alter” as the eight-day-old infant wails.)

Citing Social Security Administration records, Mr. Brooks notes that Arthur “maxed out in popularity back in the ’90s. That is, the 1890s. It has fallen like a rock in popularity since then. I was named after my grandfather, and even he complained that his name made him sound old. Currently, ‘Arthur’ doesn’t even crack the top 200 boys’ names.” And so, he writes, “I once heard that to have an aversion to a name is a condition called nomomisia. I suppose you would say I suffer from autonomomisia. Yes, I am an autonomomisist.”

My own first name has had a reverse trajectory to Mr. Brooks’s. Back in the 1890s, I don’t know that anyone had the name, save maybe for a stray Yiddel in Teiman or parts thereabout. By the time I received it, it wasn’t any more popular. Then, at some point, “Eytan” became all the rage in certain Orthodox circles, and the proliferation of all these more recent Eytan-come-latelies probably gives some people the mistaken impression that I’m younger than I am.

The name has a long, distinguished pedigree stretching back to the progenitor of our nation, Avraham Avinu, known as Ayson HaEzrachi (Bava Basra 15a; see Tosafos there, c.v. V’al, regarding Yaakov Avinu), and was later borne by several other illustrious people mentioned in Nach, including Yehudah’s grandson and Dovid Hamelech’s cymbal-player. Why was Avraham called so?

Here’s a possible approach: “Ayson” is an adjective, usually translated as “strong,” but there are other words for “strong,” too, and since the Holy Tongue contains no exact synonyms, it must have its own slightly variant meaning. Regarding “Ayson,” there are sources (see Peirush haMishnayos l’haRambam, Sotah 45b) that it means “kadmon,” which translates as something ancient, that always was. Thus, the particular sense of strength that is “Ayson” connotes that which is perennial, something enduring and recurrent.


Avraham Avinu was the Ivri who stood on one side of the river with the entire world arrayed against him, but despite being a spiritual revolutionary, he was no progressive. He sought to retrieve the mesorah that Adam Harishon had begun but that had gotten lost and distorted along the way. The revolution he sparked had the goal of returning mankind to its original state when all knew that Hashem was the Adon HaOlam.

As Rav Meir Soloveitchik adduces from many sources, the way of the Avos was to conduct themselves precisely as their fathers had before, even in seemingly inconsequential matters. Rabbeinu Bechaye writes that Yitzchak Avinu chose not even to change the names of the wells he dug from those given them by his father, Avraham, when originally digging those same wells; how much more so, he says, regarding their actual views and values.

This, Reb Meir taught, is why the Rema repeatedly states regarding various halachos, “This is how we conduct ourselves” and “One should not diverge from this.” And so too do Chazal enjoin all Jews to be forever asking themselves, “When will my actions at least touch those of my forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov?”

Rav Shlomo Wolbe writes that the Mirrer mashgiach, Reb Yerucham Levovitz, imbued the yeshivah with a spirit of what he called ah fartzeitegen oyfen, in the ways of times past, of long-ago eras in Jewish history. He cultivated within the yeshivah an atmosphere that was purposefully out-of-date, which he believed brought it in consonance with authentic Jewish values and understandings.

When boys from chassidishe homes came to learn in Mir, said Rav Wolbe, they traded in their levush for the more modern-looking clothing worn by litvisher bochurim. Despite this, as one chassidishe bochur told Rav Michel Feinstein, they didn’t feel as though they had modernized or compromised at all. To the contrary, upon their arrival in Mir, they felt as though they had traveled 300 years back in time. That was the spirit that pervaded the yeshivah, which mattered much more than the externals.

I’m happy to identify as a pre-modern throwback, uninterested in what’s cutting edge, cool, and next-generation. And consequently, I’m very happy too to carry a name reflecting that that’s a very Jewish way of thinking.

But I wouldn’t mind, of course, if “Eytan” was a little less “in.”

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 857. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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