Tag Archives: inheritance

The Second Name

Main piece: We have the tradition of naming our children after loved ones who have died. If however, the person who is deceased died at a young age, we give the baby a second name of an old person. We want the baby to have better luck and live longer; live a long life.

Background: My informant is a seventy-nine year old Ashkenazi Jewish woman living in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also my grandmother. She describes herself as a follower of “bubbe-meise” (Yiddish), translated to “grandmother’s fable”, or a more serious version of old wive’s tales that are often accompanied by superstitions.

Context: My informant and I were discussing Jewish cultural traditions, when she asked me if I could remember where I got my name. I told her that it was after my great-aunt (her sister-in-law), who died fairly young (she was fifty-nine) of breast cancer. My informant then asked me if I remembered where I got my middle name. I told her it was after her (the informant’s) grandmother, who lived well into her nineties (she was around ninety-seven when she passed). My informant then explained this cultural practice to me. My informant’s eldest son’s name followed this tradition as well. 

Analysis: It is a custom of Ashkenazi culture to name children after deceased loved ones, as both a way of honoring them and carrying their memories on  (this is not true for all Jewish people; Sephardic Jews name their children after living relatives, while Ashkenazi Jews do not). However, with loved ones who unfortunately did not live long or happy lives there is a fear that the children will also be cursed with a similar fate. However, by adding on a second name of someone who did have, as my informant puts it, “better luck”, the parents can honor their loved one while cancelling out any bad luck or misfortune that may accompany the name. Additionally, the source of the name is usually someone the parents want their child to emulate, or whose virtues the deceased namesake could hopefully pass on. There is also a belief that the soul of the deceased loved one lives on in the child who carries their name. The fear then comes from the idea that the child will not only inherit the virtues of their namesake, but the misfortunes as well. By tagging on a second name of someone who had a happier or longer life, the parents then believe that the souls of the two namesakes will both bequeath their virtues, and not their misfortunes.

You Can’t Give Away a Dead Person’s Shoes

Main piece: When someone dies, after the mourning period is over and it’s appropriate to give the clothes away that can still be worn, and you can give them to whoever you want – the recipient can take everything. Not the shoes. You don’t wear a dead person’s shoes. 

Background: My informant is a seventy-nine year old Jewish woman living in Baltimore, Maryland. She describes herself as a follower of “bubbe-meises” (Yiddish), translated to “grandmother’s fables”, or a more serious version of old wive’s tales that are often accompanied by superstitions. 

Context: A previous informant was discussing a traditional Jewish practice of washing your hands after a funeral. A discussion ensued about Jewish funeral rites and traditions, and my informant mentioned this one. My informant learned that from her mother, and takes the practice incredibly seriously, though it is not a situation she personally has faced. However, she does recall her mother refusing to offer her father’s shoes to family friends after his passing. 

Analysis: My informant had no idea why this practice existed, nor is there any talmudic or religious reason connected to or behind this. It is possible that unlike shirts or pants, shoes cannot be washed, and so the person who used to inhabit them can never fully be removed from the shoes. It’s also possible that, pre-industrialization, a person only owned one pair of shoes, and therefore had a higher sentimental value/significance to the person. The shoes would also be tailor made for that individual, so it is possible that the family just couldn’t give away the person’s shoes, because they wouldn’t fit anybody else. 

The Kohen Joke

Main piece: Man goes to his Rabbi and tells him there’s something he’s always wanted to be. Rabbi says, “What’s that?” He says, “I want to be a Kohen.” Rabbi says, “You want to be a Kohen? I can’t make you a Kohen. Why do you want to be a Kohen?” He says “I’ve always wanted to be a Kohen,” and he offers any kind of contribution that the Rabbi wants. He says “The shul needs a new roof. I’ll buy a new roof.” Rabbi says, “Now that’s interesting”. The Rabbi thinks about it and says, “Well let me see if I can work something out”. So Rabbi calls him a few days later, and says “I think I found a way to do it, and I think I found a way to make you a Kohen. We’ll have a ceremony in the shul, and I’ll say the bruchas, and I’ll bless you and you’ll be a Kohen.” So they go through all of this, and the man buys them a new roof for the shul. And everyone’s happy. A few months later, the Rabbi says “Tell me. Something’s been bothering me. Why all these years you wanted to be a Kohen so badly?” He says, “Well my grandfather was a Kohen, and my father was a Kohen, so I wanted to be a Kohen too!”

Background: My informant is an eighty-eight year old Jewish man from Baltimore, Maryland, and a Kohen himself. 

Context: The Kohanim are one of the twelve tribes of Israel, who historically took on the position of high priests, as they are said to be descendants of Aaron. Kohanim in modern Jewish settings today still perform blessings over the congregation. Tribal identity within the Jewish faith is established through the patrilineal line – my informant’s grandfather and father were both Kohanim, so my informant is as well. Shul is a yiddish term for synagogue, or place of worship, and bruchas are another word for blessings. 

After telling me the story about pidyon habens, my informant said “Well, I know a joke about Kohens too!” He doesn’t remember where he heard the joke the first time, but he thinks it was a friend who made him laugh.

Analysis: The joke here is that you can’t make anyone a Kohen – it’s a position only earned through birth, and the man who wanted to be a Kohen couldn’t be made one because he was a Kohen all along. It’s both silly because the man made a stupid mistake, but also it reinforces the status quo – that in terms of tribal identity within the Jewish faith, you can’t move up or down in the hierarchy, and become a high priest. Kohanim are believed to be descendants of Aaron, who was Moses’s brother, so it’s an impressive and weighty heritage and tradition. Kohen have privileges and opportunities to bless the congregation when other members do not. People could interpret the Rabbi’s willingness to make the man a Kohen for a new roof as sacrilegious or folly, and are scared because the status quo has been disrupted by a holy man who should know better. However, at the end people laugh out of relief because the man was always a Kohen, and the shul still got a new roof. 

Offer Children to Aunts for Inheritance

M: Me, I: Informant

I: another interesting fact children because they had so many children because the life expectancy was shorter, if you wanted your child to inherit a home or do better and you have so many other, they would often gift a child to like an aunt or uncle who had a home so your {insert name} was raised by {insert name}

M: Oh so he was a ‘gifted’ child

I: Yeah, I don’t know if ‘gifted’ is the word, but he was turned over to {insert name} to raise even though his own mom and dad were right down the street. Kind of like an heir for her.

M: Gotcha, now does he, so he was raised by his aunt or the child is raised by the aunt or whoever they are turned over to, so that he can inherit. Um… what does that do to the relationship between the kid and the parents. Are they just the equivalent of an aunt to him?

I: Um.. no he knew

M: or those are still his parents?

I: he knows who his parents are, but he is raised by somebody, I guess it just kind of like common in the mountains you know. Not like in the city area, but like more in the rural areas

M: Rural Peruvian traditions. I’ve never heard of that one

Context: My informant was born in Peru and immigrated to the US as a child. Her parents grew up in a very poor, rural town in Peru. Practically all her family was from Peru. An important thing to note is that big families with lots of children were common because of the high infant And child mortality rate.

Analysis: Out of all my collections, this one definitely shocked me the most. This is probably due to the fact that this custom is so starkly different from anything in the US. Given how many children families would have oftentimes the younger siblings weren’t going to inherit anything. Thus, parents would ‘gift- more like offer-’ a child to a ’spinster’ aunt, uncle, or relative who does have property to raise so that they could inherit something. The child still knew who their parents were and knew their situation, but I think what startled me the most was how casually this was talked about and how I knew people who were ‘offered’ and never knew. I was really interested to find out the dynamics of the parent, child, relative relationship, however that wasn’t truly the focus so I’ll have to investigate some more at a later date. This was a custom only in the rural, mountainous parts of Peru, which tended to be less well off, financially speaking. This just shows the stark contrast between US culture and Peru’s rural culture, as much of the value of ‘parenthood’ in the US comes from raising and growing close to the children, whereas in rural Peru the focus was more on providing for them. However, I don’t think this would function in the US because of how difficult it would be having to deal with the legality of making the custom work in the US. This ultimately would prevent it from being spread and widely accepted in the United States. This custom, as many others, will only work in a particular, given environment.

Heddens vs. Heddings


A woman in Sacramento, California recalls an old family legend about the origins of their last name. According to her, her great grandpa and his brother had a huge fight over their inheritance after their parents died. The farm was left to be split amongst the two of them. The conflict didn’t arise from property or money, but rather from who got to keep the mule. The dispute over the mule was so heated that my source’s great grandfather left his brother forever and changed his last name from Hedding to Hedden.


My interview with my source, A, went as follows:

ME: So you mentioned that you have an interesting legend about how your name came into–like came to be.

A: Yes, when I was a little girl, my father used to tell me the funniest story about his grandpa and his brother. Apparently when their parents passed away, they were left their property, they lived on a farm. The money and land were divided but when it came to who gets the mule, my great grandfather and his brother could not agree. At the time their last name was Hedding. Well my great grandfather eventually gave in and let his brother, my great uncle, have the mule. Now I never actually met this great uncle because my great uncle because my great grandfather was so angry that he left the place, changed his last name to Hedden, and started a new family.

ME: Did they ever talk to each other again?

A: Never again.


I really wish my source had some living relatives who I could ask more about this legend. I think the whole concept of a dispute restructuring an entire family (especially over something as simple as a mule) is incredibly interesting. My source did, however, show me some genealogical records that show that the last name did, in fact, change from Hedding to Hedden at that point in the family tree. Whether this was the reason for the change is up for debate.