Rabbi Imanuel Ravad tells of a classroom in a well-staffed Hebrew school that had a display of captioned pictures entitled ”Our Students and Their Pets.” Along the wall of the classroom were pictures of ordinary Jewish children, dressed as sloppily as current fashion demands, with their very well groomed dogs and cats. Under each picture was the name of the animal and its master. The name under one of the pictures identified the student as “Robert” and the name of his prized pet was “Reuven.”
The Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 32:5) teaches that one reason the Israelites survived bondage in Egypt and were redeemed with their culture in tact was that they still used their Hebrew names, even after two hundred and ten years of immersion in Egyptian culture.
The exemplar for the retention of Hebrew names is none other than Joseph. As the only prominent Jew in an alien society, and as viceroy of Egypt – second in power only to pharaoh – Joseph was given and appropriate Egyptian name: Tzophnat Pane’ah (Genesis 41:45). Nonetheless, he continued to call himself Joseph, as the Torah narrates in the continuation of the very same verse, “and Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.” It is as if to emphasize the fact that Pharaoh gave Joseph a name for official purposes, but that is not the name by which he will be known.
Over time and under foreign influence Jews have historically adopted new names. Even a cursory reading of the pages of the Talmud reveals many names borrowed from the Greek and Roman world, and later, the Sassanian. But this historical reality is merely a concession to circumstance rather than the affirmation of an ideal.
I recall with some sadness that in a prominent Jewish (and Hebrew-speaking) camp in California, the names “Abraham,” “Moses,” and “Samuel” belonged to the Spanish-speaking kitchen staff and maintenance crew rather than to the Jewish campers. Hebrew names still remain the surest way of preserving our legacy and connecting with Jewish history.