Sonia Kovitz asks whether there are life-affirming names
for women, just as "Chaim" is for men. These are called
"amuletic" names, which function as an "amulet" to
protect the wearer.
I had several experiences with amuletic names for women
in my family.
Gnesse" or "Gnesia" or "Nesha" can often be an amuletic
name, given when a young person is sick, to fool the
angel of death. It is a derivative of "Genana," which,
according to Rabbi Shmuel Gorr in his book, "Jewish
Personal Names," means "old woman." Thus, if a young
woman was sick, she might be renamed "Gnessa" or have
"Nesia" added to her name to fool the angel of death into
believing she was an old woman and thus not the one
he was seeking.
I had always believed my great-grandmother's name was
Haya Nesha; it said so on her papers and her tombstone.
Imagine my surprise when I found vital records that
referred to her as Fruma Feiga. She must have been ill
as a young woman and been transformed with a double
amuletic name -- Haya (Chaya) for "life" and "Nesha"
to fool the angel of death into believing she was an
My father's sister was known by her amuletic name Altke
(old woman) even though on her son's birth record she was
listed as Chasia. For a man, that would be Alter (old).
Names such as Leyb or Aryeh or Zeev that denote strong
animals such as a lion or a wolf can also be given as
amuletic names. Of course, many Chayas and Chaims and
Zeevs and Leybs were given those names at birth, and
named after an ancestor.
But the presence of an amuletic name can help explain a
discrepancy between two vital records, or between
written record and oral tradition.
San Francisco, CA, USA