I don’t understand how the name Irving became adopted so widely by Jews.
There aren’t any young Irvs running around nowadays, but the “old fashioned” Jews born between 1900 and 1920 seem to often be named Irving, Sidney, Ira, Sheldon or Morton.
How did these names become “Jewish” names? There is nothing Jewish in their origin; if anything, they are Anglo-Saxon, except for Ira (I don’t know what the origin of that one is.)
I understand that Jews often wanted to change their names to sound “less Jewish.” But often the Iras, Sidneys and Irvings have totally Jewish last names, so it couldn’t have been for that reason. Why specifically these names?
I’d guess that it’s because they were named for people named Issac or Isaiah or another “I” name. I have an “I” name because I was named for a man named with an "I’ at the beginning, even though I am female, it was transliterated for a woman. It is a cultural thing for Ashkenazi (eastern european) Jews to name for dead ancestors.
Two common Jewish names are Isaac and Solomon. When adopting non-Jewish names, it was desired to maintain the same initial letter; it was also desired to select names that were associated with upper-class English society. Hence, a lot of Irvings, Sidneys, Stanleys and the like (the Asimovs tried to convince their son to change his name, but Isaac wasn’t having it - but his brother (who was born in the States) was named Stanley).
The explanation I have heard is that these were common “American” names around the peak of European Jewish immigration to the U.S. Jews gave those names to their children so they would fit in, and later they became known as Jewish name. Ira’s popularity peaked in the 1880s and Sidney and Irving were both at the peak of their popularity in the 1910s. I think that fits into that explanation.
To get to the main question, I think assimilation into local culture via children’s names is a long-standing phenomenon among many groups. Many minorities, including Jews, give their children traditional names, but use local names for daily address. The reason some names got associated with Jews is probably because the names were declining in popularity, but the parents didn’t know that; re-use of names accounts for the continued association.
And no, Jews in America don’t have “totally Jewish last names”; some do, but many have names from the countries they settled in before coming here (lots of German and Russian names) or English translations of a Hebrew or adopted name. The adopted names are often stereotypically Jewish because they were assigned by local authorities who obviously wouldn’t give a good German name to a Jew, after all…
No, I don’t think that people who were running from Pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe really gave that kind of stuff a thought.
My Uncle Harry was the eldest of 6 and was born in the old country. His Hebrew name was Herschel. (may he rest in peace). The boys were Bill and Morris, and the girls were Eva, Sarah (Sallie) and Heddy (Mae).
My grandfathers were Soloman and Pinchas. When they came here to Brooklyn, they went by Sam and Philip, just to make it easier in everyday life, but not to sound like they were “royalty”, I can assure you.
Just thought I’d share that I had three great-aunts named Sylvia. To keep them straight, my grandparents always referred to them in tandem with their husbands’ names, so there was Harry-Sylvia, Joe-Sylvia, and Morry-Sylvia (spoken all in one breath).
My first name is Irving. My middle name is Stanley. But my Hebrew name is Aaron. (I was born in 1937.) I have known two Irvings who were not Jewish, and, I’m sure, there are many others. Stanley is not known to be a “Jewish name.” It is important to know that the Jews you know by the name of Irving, Ira, etc. have different Hebrew names.
As AshenLady said, Ashkenazi Jews name their children after deceased ancestors. (My mother was born in Minsk.) I was named for my maternal grandfather, who was an orthodox rabbi in Russia.
Here’s what happened using a common “Jewish” name, Irving:
In the early twentieth century, a lot of American Jewish parents decide that it would be a good idea not to give their children obviously Jewish names. They instead chose a name that they think is typical of non-Jews. They often have an alternate (probably Hebrew) name for the child that can be used for certain Jewish rituals and that the child can change his (or her) name to if as an adult he (or she) really wants an obviously Jewish name. Since many Jewish male babies had an alternate Hebrew name of Isaac, it became common to give the name Irving to them on their birth certificate, since this preserved the initial at least.
Now Irving was never before that time thought of as a Jewish name. It’s clearly a standard English name, if not a particularly common one. But the effect of so many Jewish babies getting the name Irving is that it now becomes common to assume that any child named Irving is probably Jewish. Because of this, American non-Jewish parents decide that they shouldn’t name their baby Irving since people might assume that he is Jewish. By the mid-twentieth century, there were almost no non-Jewish children named Irving anymore.
So Jewish parents decide that they shouldn’t name their children Irving either since everyone will know that he’s Jewish. Irving almost completely disappears as a first name for children. Jewish parents have assimilated enough by the late twentieth century that they tend to chose the same sorts of first names as everybody else (or, at least, as all other middle-class to upper-middle-class white people) in the U.S. A few Jewish parents go back to giving children names like Isaac that are clearly Hebrew.
Most completely unobservant Jews balk at naming their child after a disciple of Christ! A (Jewish) friend of mine went by “Mark” and I was like, “really?” and he said, “actually it’s Marcus.” Similarly you might encounter a person named “Jon” but it turns out to be short for Jonathan. Saul is a common, if old-fashioned, Jewish name, but Paul is not generally used by Jewish people at all in America.
Another twist is that Jewish people, at least of Ashkenazi descent, won’t name a child after anyone who is still alive. So names have a “skip-a-generation” tendency and are prone to trendiness, since the universe of living relations tends to exclude a lot.
BTW, in terms of little-old-man names, Max and Oscar are back in a big way. I know three Max’s under 5 years old.
I have known tons of Jewish Pauls, Matthews and Marks with a K, as well as Johns with an H. But I have no idea if their parents were truly religious. I’d say at least 50% of the people you meet in America who identify as “Jewish” are not really very religious. They basically had Bar-Mitzvahs where they forced themselves to memorize some Torah reading they didn’t really understand, and the real event was an orgy of gift-giving and partying, after which they never spent another second reading Hebrew or contemplating any religious matters.