We call our Italian Jewish baby “Pizza Bagel”. Choosing his real name was more difficult. – Kveller
As a Jewish woman married to an Italian (who is now Jewish by choice), I never thought we would have cultural clashes. After all, as the saying goes, Italians are just Jews with better food. Our families are both loud and opinionated, our mothers commonly blame themselves, and whether it’s pasta or bagels, we appreciate a good carb.
We marveled at the beauty and history of Israel on Birthright and ate our weight in pasta in Florence on our honeymoon. Our olive skin, distinctive noses, and black hair meant that at the San Gennaro Festival and at the B’nai Abraham we could pass for Italians or Jews any day. For many years we bathed in the duality of a Jewish Italian love. And then we got pregnant.
Like many young couples, seeing that blue positive line for the first time filled us with happiness, joy and nervousness. But it also presented a whole new set of problems. Questions started coming up soon after the oohing and aahing stopped during the ultrasound. Are we going to have our daughter baptized or let her “live in her sin”? Can I give him the name of a relative I love who is still living? What happens when she tells her cousins that Santa Claus doesn’t exist? But none of these issues would prove as controversial or difficult as naming our little pizza bagel.
The first name was easy. Like most 30-somethings in a committed relationship, I had a list on my notes app of the names I’ve heard and liked. We went through the list together and came to an agreement fairly quickly, settling on a traditional, old-fashioned name of French origin. “And his last name?” I asked my husband. “What about it?” He has answered.
My surname is supremely and unmistakably Jewish. There is no more Jew than Bernstein. My husband’s surname, on the other hand, might as well be Buddafoco. It reads like a “Sopranos” character. My husband argued that our daughter should use her last name because “that’s what people do”. (Hello, patriarchy!) I really struggled with that reasoning, in part because I never changed my last name. In retrospect, I should have anticipated this fight because we had a similar one before we got married.
I didn’t take my husband’s last name because I felt I had accomplished so much under my “maiden” name. I graduated with my undergraduate degree, was accepted into an elite national service program, started my career, and completed my master’s — all as a Bernstein. Changing my name was also like hiding my Judaism, of which I am so proud. If I had taken my husband’s name, when people scanned a list, they would think I was Italian. Therefore, it made sense to me that my daughter would be a representation of both her Italian and Jewish heritage, in flesh and in name.
So I did what we Jews do best: I talked. What if Bernstein was his middle name? No. We want her to be a strong and direct feminist. With you as a mother, she always will be. Well, Judaism is a matrilineal religion, so she’s basically a Bernstein anyway. You reach. We were at an impasse.
For weeks, I associated our daughter’s name with Bernstein. Mainly to annoy my husband, but also to try to get him used to the idea. This made him even more hostile. The dam broke one day while we were enrolling my unborn child at our local Jewish day school. When filling out the forms, I wrote down his first name and reluctantly my husband’s last name. I had a visceral reaction. Seeing his Italian surname on forms with a large Star of David at the top didn’t seem bad to me, but it was incomplete. By only giving my daughter her name, I was telling half the story. I felt like I was erasing or denying his Jewish identity. I left school with a heavy heart, having submitted the form with only his father’s last name.
That night we took him out. I wish I could tell you that we kindly acknowledged and validated each other’s feelings and came to a compromise. But, hey, we’re Italian Jews, so we argued loudly and fiercely on our sides. We shouted and gesticulated. We were exhausted, frustrated and dug. According to my husband, there was “no halfway point between Staten Island and Jerusalem”. But our people both thrived in Brooklyn, I argued. There must be a solution.
Enter: the hyphen. I had done some research (an intense Google search) on double-barreled or hyphenated surnames. I learned that this practice began in the 15th century and continues in many families today. In many Latin traditions, for example, families take the surname of both mother and father. In German tradition, this is sometimes called a “covenant name”. My husband didn’t hate the idea right away, but he didn’t love it either. What about standardized tests? Our bagel pizza will have to shade in so many bubbles, he argued. What if she gets married? Will his name stay forever? It will be her decision when she regains her full identity and can make that choice rationally and maturely, I replied. And, hey, before kindergarten, she’ll be VERY familiar with all the letters of the alphabet. After hours of fierce debate, he conceded and we quivered over it, a moment that conjured up images of Reb Teva giving his blessing and permission in partnership with the level promise of an Italian crowd.
Our little pizza bagel was born in 2019. We filled out the birth certificate with his hyphenated last name and didn’t look back. On Friday nights she says the Motzi and nibbles on challah, and on Sundays she sips macaroni with house sauce and meatballs. Our toddler exclaims “l’chaim” and “salud” with equal fervor. She dances the hora and can belt “Luna Mezzo Mare” with the best of them. Our daughter is Jewish and Italian, and her name is too.