Monday, January 11, 2010

Who’s on first

From the very moment of this blog’s inception when Our Shiputzim transitioned into a full-blown slice-of-life blog, the editorial board declared that one of its primary objectives would be assisting and providing useful information for new olim.

Thus, the entire writing staff has made every effort to introduce and explain many of the quirks, foibles, and idiosyncrasies of Israeli life.

But, unfortunately, there’s at least one issue where you’re on your own.

Because, 11½ years after our aliyah, I’ve yet to figure out which is the most acceptable way to record a list of names.

You see, here in Israel, all of the following forms are used interchangeably and with equal frequency:

  • <Lastname>, <Firstname> (i.e., with a comma)
  • <Lastname> <Firstname> (i.e., without a comma)
  • <Firstname> <Lastname>

In fact, sometimes, more than one form is used on the very. same. list.

Also, many Israelis have last names like Avraham, Yaakov, and Aharon, and many Israeli first names could easily pass as last names. (This guy famously represents one of the most egregious examples of this phenomenon.)

And to add to the confusion, many Israeli men rarely use their first names at all. (“Hi, my name is Cohen.”) Everyone – often including their own wives! – calls them by their last names.

So what should you do when you’re confronted by an ambiguous name, and you’re not sure which part is the person’s first name?

Well, when in doubt and when all else fails, I suggest that you go with the tried and true.

You know, something helpful like, “Hey, you…”



Hat tip: This post was inspired by a question Ilana-Davita asked in the comment section of one of Batya's posts.


  1. Oh, I deal with this all the time with the doctors I work with! Many of them have two first names. I figure at worst I will be calling them "Dr. (or Prof.) First name" which is sort of like our kids calling their teachers "Rav First name", a friendly kind of "we're on a friendly first name basis but with a touch of respect."
    Of course many Israelis have two identical names-as in Chaim Chaim, Zecharia Zecharia etc. You can't go wrong there!

  2. In France too, people will either often say their last name before their first name. But you can usualyy identify which is which.

  3. The kita aleph class list can be the worst case since you don't yet know the kids.... and the teacher is inconsistent in formatting. My current 2nd grader has in his class, amongst others(first name last name)... and i'm know there are more confusing ones(but i don't remember the last names of all the kids)
    - Elon Menahem
    - Shaked Elon
    - Liav Pinhas
    - Inon Tal


  4. Ilana-Davita - "But you can usually identify which is which."
    Unfortunately, that is very much NOT the case here... :-)

    Shoshana - Great examples! And that brings up yet another issue - namely, that many names are used for both boys and girls. For instance, I'm guessing that Shaked is a girl, and the other 3 are boys. But I realize that I shouldn't jump to any conclusions...

  5. And what about when I was subbing in the ulpana (girls hs) and a girl with the name "Batya" insisted that I mispronounced it!! I also taught a class of olim from Ethiopia, of the generation which was/is encouraged to keep their old names. It would take me half the lesson to try to read them when taking attendance, even though I wrote them out in English letters with accent marks.

  6. Shaked is a boy in this case - which ads to the confusion. And there is a Tal in the class as well (boy).

    My favorite was in gan for my older son where they had 'Gal ha-bat' and 'Gal ha-ben' along with 'Tal ha-bat' and 'Tal ha-ben'. And yes, they really referred to the kids that way all the time in conversation.


  7. Batya - It must have been nearly impossible to distinguish the first names from the last names...

    Shoshana - My daughter had "Noam ha'bat" and "Noam ha'ben" in her gan. Of course, there was also a No'a, just to keep things interesting...

  8. its a good thing shiri isn't his first name

  9. Lion of Zion - But "Shiri" could be short for "Shir" - rather than "Shirah". Now, as it so happens, every Shir I know is a girl, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that there are male Shirs out there as well. (See my and Shoshana's comments above about unisex Israeli names, like Tal, Gal, and Noam.)


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