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The first generation of American Jews generally had Biblical names. My parents were named Nathan and Esther. They were named by their parents who came from Eastern Europe and were steeped in orthodox Jewish religion and culture. Eager to assimilate and help their children avoid anti-Semitism, the Nathans and Esthers of the New World, as well as the Samuels and the Ruths, the Solomons and the Miriams, tended to give their children names that had no Old Testament associations: Irving, Morris, Bernard; Goldie, Molly, Florence. Of course, these names soon came to be thought of as usually Jewish.
By tradition, Jewish children are named to memorialize a deceased ancestor, though never with a Jr. or a number after the name. Usually, an identical initial will suffice. In fact, it often works backwards with parents selecting a name and then searching for an ancestor to honor. That is apparently how it worked with me. My Hebrew name is Yehudah (also spelled Judah), and I do not recall whose memory I am supposed to enshrine. May whoever it is forgive me.
My parents named me Jerome, probably not knowing or caring that Jerome was Greek and a Catholic saint, the man who translated the Bible into Vulgate Latin. (His name was actually Hieronymus, from which Jerome is derived. It sounds better in Greek.)
Or, they might have been inspired by Jerome Avenue, a major thoroughfare two blocks from where we lived. Either way, I never liked the name, though not because of its saintly connection or for its street association. Somehow, the name sounded to me too formal and at the same time weightless. From an early age, I used the name's diminutive, Jerry, which I was not fond of either. It did not sound serious at all, perhaps because the only famous Jerry was Jerry Lewis. (Later, Ben and Jerry, the ice-cream makers, gave the name some weight, but only to the extent that ice cream was taken seriously. And Jerry Garcia, but by the time The Grateful Dead became renowned it was too late. Anyway, Ben and Jerry named an ice cream flavor Cherry Garcia, emphasizing for me the frivolousness of the name.)
Salinger's first name is Jerome, but you see what he did with it.
Well, there was also Jerry Falwell whose first name apparently never was Jerome. The only respected artist I could think of whose first name was Jerome was Kern, the composer of Show Boat. He was named after Jerome Park which, like Jerome Avenue, was dedicated to a nineteenth century character whose last name was Jerome. He built a race track, long gone, in The Bronx.
I thought of changing my name. Joshua sounded better to me, or Steven, but I did not want to hurt my parents' feelings. My middle name, which I never used, is Stanley, and I thought of J. Stanley Richard, but that carried a little too much dignity, although the arrangement did not hurt F. Scott Fitzgerald. His first name was Francis, named for Francis Scott Key, a distant cousin. Perhaps he gave up Francis because of its androgynous character, though the female version is spelled a little differently.
I used Jerry Richard for my first book, an anthology I edited called The Good Life, but when I started seriously free-lancing, I changed to Jerome. Many people revert from a nickname to a birth name in middle age. Chip goes back to Charles; Sandy to Sandra. The birth name sounds more dignified, even as reverting to it signals a farewell to youth. I was still not fond of Jerome, but it sounded more authorial than Jerry.
Of course, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton stuck with their nicknames. Does the familiarity of Bill rather than William win votes? Gore was not helped by people calling him Al, but George W. Bush was widely regarded as the candidate most people would prefer to invite to their barbecue. Even so, Al got more votes. Would Hoover have beaten Franklin Delano Roosevelt if he had campaigned as Herb Hoover?
There was an English author named Jerome K. Jerome, whose first name was pronounced, I believe, as Jeremy, the extra syllable giving the name a bit more weight. He is best remembered for a comic novel titled Three Men In a Boat.
Does one's name determine one's destiny? The Romans had a saying: "A good name is a good omen." I looked up Jerome on a website run by a Canadian organization called the Kabalarians (offering "a broad perspective of life through a harmony of Eastern philosophy and Western science and practicality.") It said: "Although the name Jerome creates an interest in the deeper aspects of life, we emphasize that it frustrates you through a scattered and emotional nature." All right. That's probably why I felt compelled to look it up. It also said that "at times you can be extremely happy, expressive, full of fun, and good-natured; yet at other times you find congenial association impossible, being controlled by self-pity, moods, and depression." Sometimes I'm happy, sometimes I'm sad? Not exactly a revelation.
A few years ago, friends returning from Paris brought me a poster headed JEROME RICHARD. It turns out there is a Frenchman by that name, an artist, and he was exhibiting at the Galerie Brigitte Schehade. He is also the son of the great French actress and beauty Jeanne Moreau, which probably explains why the desk clerk at a small hotel on the west bank asked me how my mother was. When I set up a website after my novel, The Kiss of the Prison Dancer, was published, I discovered, with great irritation, that he had already captured In fact, he seemed to be squatting on it, as it is nearly blank and proclaims only its minimalism. I had to label my site
Google Jerome Richard and you turn up several people by that name, including the artist and an accomplished French accordion player. The name must sound more distinguished in French.
In English, it still sounds stiff to me, but it is too late to change, so I will go on, pushing my name before me.