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Israel: Where everybody knows your name (sort of)


There's good news and bad news when it comes to names if you're making aliyah.

The first and very best news of all -- Because Hebrew is a phonetic language, Israelis are utterly awesome at pronouncing obscure last names.  Take mine, for example: MacLeod.

In English, we've gotten every possible pronunciation, from "Mak-Lewd" to "Mick-Clod" and everything in between.  It's actually MA-CLOUD.  That's it.  Very simple, actually.  Some Canadians get it, albeit tentatively, but usually only those of Scottish descent and those close to them.  Outside of Canada, generally much less so.

Except in Israel -- where the name is simply מקלאוד and absolutely everybody pronounces it right on the first try.

Because all the consonants are laid out right there in order, and because all the vowels are naturally pronounced with an "a" sound, except the final ו which defaults to an "o" sound, it almost always comes out sounding just right: mAklAOd.

Occasionally, Israelis will second-guess themselves and on the second attempt, switch the final O to a U, mAklAUd, at which point, I reassure them that they got it right the first try.

So yeah, that's the terrific news.  Even if your name is very long and weird, like שניצלברגר or קצנאלנבוגן, it really doesn't seem to faze them around these parts.


(Full disclosure – this beautiful mirrored front-door name sign was actually made for us on Aliexpress in China.  And it only cost $15!  Here’s the link if you want oneSmile )

Here’s the not-so-good news:  when it comes to first names, forget about it.  They're totally open to English first names, so if your name is Tiffany or Jeff, that’s wonderful.  (Not so good if it’s Ellen or Allen or Helen, since all those names sound alike when Israelis pronounce them!)

But if you have a Hebrew name, Israelis will pronounce it any way they like -- and believe they are absolutely correct to do so.

Researching this post, I was poking around on Facebook and found one comment from a man named Liron, who said "The thing about Aliyah is that Israelis can pronounce my name better than I can."  (They also consistently got his last name, Koplinsky, correct, because the spelling is so clear and phonetic)

Another person commented that she's been "gently" corrected on the pronunciation of her son's name -- Aryeh.

If you've pronounced your name a certain way your whole life, do Israelis have the right to change the pronunciation, even if it is essentially a Hebrew name?  Certainly, they believe they do.  After all, it’s Hebrew, right?

This happened with both of our kids when we moved here.  I thought we were pronouncing Naomi correctly (NA-omi), but it turns out Israelis say it very  differently (more like neh-o-MEE).  So that's her name now, at least in Hebrew.  Same with Gavriel, though in that case, I already knew my emphasis was more Yiddish than Hebrew (GAV-reel) and whose Israeli name is more like gav-ree-EL. 

Fortunately, Elisheva’s name is both common and correct the way I’ve always said it (more or less).  And I don’t want to know what they’d do with Yerachmiel.  In Bnei Brak, it would get Yiddishized, but on the streets of Tel Aviv?  Hmm…

Unfortunately for me, it turns out these teeny tiny differences in syllable emphasis are very, very important in Hebrew.  I thought for a while Israelis were just being deliberately obtuse, which may be partially true.  But I have come to believe that Israelis genuinely cannot hear words properly unless they're pronounced with the correct syllable emphasis. 

In English, if you emphasize the wrong syllable (the wrong syl-LAB-ble, say), we'll still understand what you're saying.  An Israeli will not.  Which means that we have to fix our pronunciation even of the names we gave our own children, or risk not being understood at all.

There are other name changes as well, like what Israelis do with my name – which is refuse to believe it really is my name or, for that matter, a name at all.

My name is Tzivia, which comes from Melachim 2, perek 12:  the name of King Yehoash's mother is given as צִבְיָה -- with a dot under the tzaddik, making it tzivee-a.  I spell it with two yuds, ציביה, because otherwise, Israelis will mistake it for another name, צביה, or tzvee-a, a female deer (to be fair, as a noun, this is also found in the Tanach, in Shir Hashirim perek 4).  Two different names. 

The name Tzivia was popular in Europe and was my great-grandmother's name on my mother's side.  Tzvia is kind of popular in modern Israel, so it's much more familiar to Israelis.  Which is why they will insist on changing it a) even if they see it written a different way, and b) even if I pronounce it for them.  They are so, SO certain they're right that they refuse to take my word for it.  To be honest, most Israelis hear “Sylvia” when I say it, even when I repeat it several times.  Like I said, they’re pretty open to foreign names… and totally hostile to “weird” Hebrew names.

Mercifully for all of us, my husband's name, Akiva, has a very universal pronunciation, exactly the way it looks on paper: a-KEE-va.  Though his middle name, Natan, confuses Israelis in the way that all non-chareidi Israelis are confused by all middle names.  “But which one is your name?” is a common question if you have a middle name (and I have three, which perplexes them even more).

The weird Israeli arrogance around names can actually have serious consequences, as happened earlier this year when pro-BDS Irish mayor Mac Donncha was supposed to be banned from entering Israel but was accidentally allowed in because the border authorities spelled his name wrong.  (Some articles report that they listed the Irish word for "Lord Mayor," Ardmheára, as his first name.  But this would still represent the arrogance of Israelis who don't think they have to check their translations -- something I encounter quite a lot these days!)

I've heard my whole life that we don't pronounce the name of Hashem out of respect.  But what if the real reason is that chazal, in their wisdom, knew Israelis would mess it up somehow?  Or... alternatively... that they’d pronounce it so much better than the rest of us that Hashem wouldn't listen to anyone else?

Ahhh, well… whatever the answer, keeping your sense of humour when you make aliyah is definitely the NAME of the game!

Hebrew letter tiles photo © Zeev Barkan (which he could probably pronounce way better than I could!) via Flickr

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Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


  1. It annoys me to no end that Israelis, usually delivery and service phone people, don't know enough Tanach to read שילה correctly as Shiloh. They say Shilah. Don't they know any Bible?

  2. Ha! My name is Michla, which is Yiddish for Michal. When I was in Israel, I was constantly being corrected by Israelis that my name was in fact, Michal. I may change it to Michal once we make aliyah, be’H!


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