Context: The informant, a 19-year-old female college student, was sharing different folk beliefs that are shared by members of her religious community. She was describing how the traditions carried out by Ashkenazi Jews have impacted her life and continue to do so, today. The following is an excerpt of our conversation, in which the informant describes a tradition involving the naming of children that varies radically between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.
Informant: The two main types of Jews, I guess, are Sephardic Jews, who are of Spanish descent so they were kicked out during like the Christian Crusades, and then there are Ashkenazi Jews, who are more traditionally what you think of when you think of what a Jewish person looks like. Sephardic people have blue eyes and they’re tan — they’re Spanish. But like I’m Ashkenazi, and they’re like Polish, Russian, and Eastern European. There’s a ton of different traditions that distinguish the different types of Jewish people. So, Ashkenazi Jews believe that it is bad luck to name somebody after somebody who is living. So, like my sister’s name is Jamie and my grandfather’s name is Jaime. So, they thought they were naming her after him when she was born and they were like, “You can’t do that. It’s bad luck.” I guess it’s because you’re like keeping the memory of someone who is still alive. I don’t totally know why it’s bad luck. So basically, Ashkenazi people don’t name people after the living because they believe it’s bad luck, but in very religious Sephardic cultures, it is tradition and grandparents expect to have their grandchildren named after them. So like, if you have a Grandma Rose, she’ll be pissed if her granddaughter isn’t named after her. So, the names mean a lot and they get carried down through the living.
Informant’s relationship to the item: The informant, who was raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish parent, was taught that naming a baby after a relative who is alive is bad luck. This superstition clearly had an impact on the informant because it almost resulted in her sister, Jamie, being named a different name, so she would not be named after their grandfather, Jaime. The informant is also very fascinated by the cultural differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, despite both groups studying the same source material.
Interpretation: The radically different cultural practices and superstitions that define Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities demonstrate the distinction between institutional religious beliefs and folk religious beliefs. Another example of this distinction is the Catholic superstition that one’s mouth will fill with the blood of Christ when they bite the host during the sacrament of Eucharist — a belief that is not found in the bible. Both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jew study the same source material: the Torah. However, the Torah does not state anything about the practice of naming children, so both superstitions have clearly developed over time within the distinct cultural groups and schools of thought. The superstition also shows that names and family lineages hold a lot of significance across cultures. However, different folk groups will define this significance in radically different ways. While Ashkenazi Jews believe that naming a child after a living relative serves as a bad omen because it appears as if you are predicting or waiting for that relative’s passing, Sephardic Jews expect children to be named after living relatives as a sign of honor and respect.