What’s My Name? by
(35 Stories)

Prompted By What's in a Name

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My birth certificate name is “Jonathan David”, relatively common among English-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, and prevalent among sons in my father’s ancestral line, anecdotally descending from a 19th century Vilnian rabbi of blessed memory named, via transliteration, Nosson Dovid.

My birth certificate name is "Jonathan David", relatively common among English-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, and prevalent among sons in my father's ancestral line, anecdotally descending from a 19th century Vilnian rabbi of blessed memory, named, via transliteration, Nosson Dovid.

But the Rabbi at our suburban Conservative congregation made a big tzimmes about my name at the time I began Hebrew School.  He claimed that the Hebrew name given me at birth — נתן (sounds like Nosson) — correlated to the English forename of Nathan, and not to my English forename of Jonathan, which he argued correlates to ג’ונתן  (Nosson with an extra syllable, so it sounds like Yonaton).

To get kosher, the Rabbi urged a name change.  My father, standing on the precedent of multiple Jonathan Davids named after the Vilnian rabbi, demurred. If you’re not Jewish, kindly skip to the next paragraph, as the remainder of this paragraph tells an old and not wholly flattering joke that Jews tell among themselves:  two Jews, two shuls.  Maybe three.

Based on my Old Testament readings from yesteryear, there was a Jonathan, who was the son of King Saul, and there was a Nathan, who was a prophet/advisor at the time of King David.  Jonathan, the rightful heir to his father’s throne, but not a warrior, was usurped from his kingship by his close “friend” David.  Nathan, wearing his prophet/advisor mantle, reprimanded David for sending Uriah the Hittite to fight in the front lines of battle where he was not unexpectedly slain, whilst David stayed home and committed adultery with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. There is tension in the name combination of Jonathan and David. And Nathan makes three.

I like the name Nathan, and some of the names that branch from it, like Nat, Nate, and Nathaniel. I’ve encountered a few Nathaniels.  Notably Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, among other things, was one of the founding members of the short-lived Brook Farm experimental utopian community (1841-1847), which was situated within two miles of my home in Brookline, MA, and which gets a shout out in American history texts because of the restive spiritualism that it exemplified, and because it was such a flop (utopia is a hard nut to crack, interpersonally and financially).

I visited the Brook Farm site, made a pilgrimage to it, made a slight detour on my way back from the Home Depot, a few years back. There was nothing to see. No visible remains. In effect, an unmarked grave.  By way of exclamation point, the site is now a cemetery.

I could have lived with Nathan, turning a blind eye to the name’s famous association with hot dogs, and the gluttonous, stomach-turning masochism of an annual hot dog eating competition.

I have lived comfortably enough with Jonathan, often truncated to Jon and affectionated to Jonny.  Wikipedia, my assimilation sourcebook for Jewish heritage, avers that Jonathan means “God has given” in Hebrew, whereas Nathan means “gift of God.”  There is a difference, but it might take a Sanhedrin of Rabbis to illuminate the difference (spoiler speculation: Jonathan is a completed gift, whereas Nathan is…an expectation).

I have not yet resolved the conflict between Jonathan and David.  Although, in my old age (age old) quest for harmony, call it restive spirituality, I can see how the two standing alone are oppositional, but when conjoined are complementary, forming a whole greater than its parts.


Profile photo of jonathancanter jonathancanter
Here is what I said about myself on the back page of my 2020 humor/drama/politico novel "The Debutante (and the Bomb Factory)" (edited here, for clarity):

"Jonathan Canter Is a retIred attorney; widower; devoted father and grandfather (sounds like my obit); lifelong resident of Greater Boston; graduate of Harvard College (where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon); fan of waves and wolves; sporadic writer of dry and sometimes dark humor (see "Lucky Leonardo" (Sourcebooks, 2004), funny to the edge of tears); gamesman (see "A Crapshooter’s Companion"(2019), existential thriller and life manual); and part-time student of various ephemeral things."

The Deb and Lucky are available on Amazon. The Crapshooter is available by request to the author in exchange for a dinner invitation.

Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    This is so interesting, Jon/Nat. I quite enjoyed all the Biblical and Old World references (I know some, but had forgotten most). My first born is David; my brother’s is Jonathan (called Yoni). We liked the fact that they were close friends in the Bible and, though our sons grew up in different cities and don’t get to see one another often, are actually good friends (and are 9 months apart in age). My brother is a rabbi (a professor of more than 40 years at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati), so perhaps he could resolve things.

  2. Suzy says:

    Jon, you never fail to crack me up! Only you could turn a discussion of your name into something so funny! I love your “Old Testament readings from yesteryear,” “kindly skip to the next paragraph,” the “pilgrimage” that was a slight detour coming back from Home Depot, and especially Wikipedia as your “assimilation sourcebook for Jewish heritage.” Thanks for a great story!

    P.S. I have always heard the “two Jews” joke as “two Jews, three opinions” rather than shuls, but I like yours too.

    P.P.S. My rabbi says that we mustn’t refer to our Bible as the Old Testament, because that suggests that we accept as equally valid something called the New Testament, which of course we don’t.

    • Suzy,
      I don’t wholly buy the taboo against adoption of the Christian appellation for the Jewish Bible. I understand it comes from the same predilection to use BCE in lieu of BC, but it feels defensive and testy, and head-in-the-sand regarding 2000 years of settled (if ignominious) history. I’m more comfortable with a Jewish posture of working positively within the strictures of the Christian hegemony (with a goal of reducing the attraction/satisfaction of a pogrom). I am an assimilationist. Or have been. I may be revisiting my point of view.
      Regarding your appreciation of my jokes, and humor, I beam with pride.

  3. Marian says:

    Great take on all three names, Jon, and I can understand your father standing his ground on the basis of the name’s heritage in your family. As far as the joke, I’ve heard it as shuls, but there are three because each set of Jews wouldn’t be caught dead in the other’s.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    The part that cracked me up was the description of the cemetery as an exclamation point—love your writing (!) Just had dinner with cousin Nathan last night—new appreciation of the name now. Though I doubt it came from any deep dive into the rabbinical sources as his mother was a devoted pantheistic (renamed herself “Panthea” in fact).

    • Khati,
      Cousin Nathan’s mother (I presume your aunt?) renamed herself Panthea. She sounds like a trip. How did she express her pantheism? Was she a solo pantheist or a member of a tribe? Did it rub off on Nathan, or did he become a tax accountant with a minor in golf? Do escapes from the norm have sustained roots in your family forest?
      But more importantly (!) I am very pleased that you like my story (!) and that you got a kick out of the cemetery scene (!!).

      • Khati Hendry says:

        Yes, my aunt. She was a botonist who migrated to Alaska, lived off the grid with three kids, also changed her last name to “Redwood”. Not part of a tribe. Okay, maybe a little unstable. Was adopted but really my grandfathers love child, and we finally sorted out her mother just after Panthea died. Devoted to nature, ashes will be scattered at mountain lake next month. Nathan is a wonderful person wise beyond years but definitely on the grid.

  5. Thanx for this clever tale of your naming Jonathan David! I loved the rabbi campaigning for a name change to fit what he thought his Talmudic imperative, and glad your father resisted.

    When our son Noah started Hebrew school he told the rabbi his Hebrew name was Naftali, which had been my husband’s father’s
    name. The rabbi protested saying Noah was a wonderful Hebrew name and we should consider that, but we refused!

  6. John Shutkin says:

    As a non-observant Jew my whole life, I have been generally aware of the various issues with names, including the need to have a Hebrew name, but never understood them, let alone followed them. And my parents were similarly non-observant (and probably ignorant), so they could not be any help to me either. So thanks much very much for this late and very informative lesson relating to your own naming.

    At some point years ago, I had heard that “John” meant “gift of God,” but I am sure they your variation on that translation is the correct one. I just figured that invoking both “gift” and “God” with regard to my name sounded pretty good and wasn’t worried about the nuances.

    And I agree that Nathan is an excellent name. I even have a cousin with that first name but, for reasons I have never asked him about, he formally calls himself N. Richard and goes by Richard informally. Go figure

    For myself, I always thought that “Jack” sounded cool, probably due to JFK and Kerouac, but I never tried to be called that. For the record, my step-grandchildren call me “JoJo,” which sounds to me like a clown and, thus, well suits me.

    • John, as you no doubt know, the “h” in your name moves your nominal connection from the Jewish Bible to the Christian Bible, w John being one of 12 Apostles of Jesus, and also (as I understand it, although they didn’t teach this in Hebrew School) one of 4 Gospel authors. While not unprecedented, it is unusual to be a Jewish John (as opposed to a Jewish Jonathan, w Jon as the short version of Jonathan; and recognizing that there are many non-Jewish Johnathans and Jonathans). And these days, the Jewish name rules that I grew up with tend to be less rules than artifacts.

  7. John Shutkin says:

    You say I “no doubt know” and, sadly, I don’t know. So I much appreciate your enlightenment of me here on my own name. So thanks.

    I assure you I have not consciously moved to the Christian Bible. And I sure see plenty of ostensible Christians these days espousing hatred’s that I doubt are .in their Bible.

  8. Reading this essay is the closest I’ve come in some months to studying the mishnah. And for that, I thank you!

    • In another life I might have thrived compiling Mishnah (I suppose the modern equivalent might be an op ed column in the NYT, focused on the number of angels who can dance on a pin, assuming that is an OT reference and not from a heretical sect that gained traction during the dissolution of the Roman Empire, and embraced in a big time conversion by Constantine to give legitimacy of the state). But flattered I am by by the comparison, in fact kvelling. If there are Big League Mishnah contributors, sitting atop several rungs of minor league Mishnahs, down to the Cape Cod Summer League of Mishnah, then I might play for a small backwater Cape town, like Trout Mouth, or Flywater. May good Rabbinical commentary carry you to virtue and harmony.

  9. Thanks for the Bible lesson. I had always thought that Jonathan and David were great pals, but I appreciate that Biblical texts often reveal the flaws and weaknesses of human nature.
    My husband Lenny had a Hebrew name experience. He was named in honor of his great-grandfather Lazar, but when he entered Hebrew school, the teacher wanted the students to be called by their Hebrew names. The teacher embarrassed Lenny by saying that Lazar was a Yiddish name and the children should address him as “Eliezer”. We had the same experience with my daughter Mindy. She was named in honor of Lazar’s daughter, Minka. And like Lenny’s experience, the teacher insisted that Minka was a Yiddish name and she should go home and find out her Hebrew name. I then consulted a popular book at the time (I believe it was the “Jewish Almanac”) that listed Jewish names. The name “Minka” was listed. I told the teacher to please call my daughter, “Minka.” (I wonder if it is significant that both teachers were Israeli, and perhaps had a bias against Yiddish…….)

    • Yes, hostility to the Yiddish (and the perceived weakness in the culture it represented in the face of insane Nazis is a big thing among the post war Hebrew Israelis, and filtered into the diaspora). I don’t have much of a dog in the fight, except I can’t shake sentimental attachments to my grandmother’s speaking voice, which was also her cooking voice.
      As to Jonathan and David, I would not choose David as my best friend.

    • Interesting about the hostility to Yiddish.
      I remember when my father Arthur died we were asked for his Hebrew name by our synagogue for their Yahrzeit records.

      I said we always knew his Hebrew name to be Alta. No way, I was told, that’s not Hebrew, it’s Yiddish.
      But we insisted and Alta it is!

  10. Risa Nye says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed both your post and the enlightening and lively comments. This whole megillah reminded me of when my Jewish grandmother decided to alter my baby daughter’s middle name on the certificate for the tree (I’m sure you know what I mean here) to be planted in her name: she changed it from goyisha Marie to Miriam!

  11. Laurie Levy says:

    When we named our son Jonathan, my grandfather protested that it was not a Jewish name. We told him it was in the bible, but he insisted it was not!

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