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Recently, I was chatting with a friend who’s getting married this summer. When talking about the upcoming nuptials, I asked this friend what I thought was a straightforward yes or no question: would she be adopting her future spouse’s last name?
Her answer surprised me. She told me that she would indeed be taking her fiancé’s last name, but then legally changing her middle name to her maiden name – removing her current middle name entirely from the equation. I had never considered the possibility of legally ditching my middle name – Esther – before, despite having always had some uneasiness about it.
My discomfort with the name began when I first learned the story of Purim. At first glance, the character of Esther seemed to contradict everything that I valued – even at a young age. Esther relied solely on her physical beauty to get ahead. She was Mordechai’s errand girl who essentially needed to be coaxed by him into saving the Jewish people. And, worst of all, Esther was so embarrassed by her Jewish identity that she hid it from her husband, not even once revealing to him her authentic Hebrew name of Hadassah. Couldn’t my parents have named me after Vashti – the strong-willed feminist who gave up palatial life to put an end to her objectification?
In an effort to reconcile this large discordance between myself and my namesake, I turned to classical Jewish texts. And, as it turns out, our sages have quite a different take on Esther than I do. Today, seeing that purim is just around the corner and that it is international women’s day, I thought I might share some of the lessons I gleaned from investigating this rare Jewish heroine that apply directly to my work at the Atlantic Jewish Council.
One lesson highlighted in Esther’s character is the importance of discretion and confidentiality. In fact, the Hebrew root of the name Esther is “lesatir” – which literally means to hide. Esther had a keen sense of which information she should share and which she shouldn’t. She knew that revealing her Jewish identity to Ahashverosh meant certain death, so she went by her Persian name and, our sages tell us, kept the laws of the Torah in secret – even arranging for a different hand-maiden every Shabbat as to ensure that her unusual practices remained unnoticed.
As the Executive Director of the AJC, I often find myself in situations where I have access to privileged information – everything ranging from the size of donations from incredibly generous community members to the amount of financial aid we give to families in our community struggling to gain access to Jewish experiences, or, sometimes, just struggling to make ends meet. In working with this information, I do my best to follow Esther’s lead, using the utmost levels of confidentiality and discretion. After all, I’ve only lived in Atlantic Canada for 7 months so far, but it is not lost on me how quickly information can spread in a tight-knit Jewish community like ours!
Another lesson I learned from Esther is the importance of creating a thoughtful strategy: when faced with the urgent need of protecting the Jewish people, Esther does not go running to her husband with no plan – she takes 3 full days to both emotionally and spiritually prepare as well as strategize for her encounter with Ahashverosh.
From the moment I stepped foot in Atlantic Canada, I’ve been bursting with ideas of new initiatives for the Atlantic Canadian Jewish community. I want to take all of the amazing Jewish initiatives I’ve seen and heard about in the communities I’ve lived in – like Boston and Toronto – as well as all of those I’ve heard about from my amazing and inspiring colleagues across North America.
However, I’m also acutely aware of two things: 1) this Jewish community is unique, unlike any other in North America, and 2) both our time and resources at the AJC are limited. So, following in Esther’s footsteps, instead of running every program under the sun, I’ve spent as much time as I can listening. Listening to colleagues, board members, volunteers, biennial participants, and frankly, anyone willing to grab a cup of coffee with or pick up my phone calls. And, I am excited to report that we are very close to settling on the right strategic plan, or what we’re calling AJC’s “2020 Vision”, that will help thoughtfully guide us through the next three years and beyond.
Our sages’ interpretation of Esther’s character certainly helped to quell some of those longstanding uncertainties I’ve had about my middle name. Although, in truth, there is really only one person in my life who calls me Esther – my best friend and paternal 91-year-old grandmother Zelda Rosenfeld. She does this because I was not named after the infamous Queen Esther of Persia, I was named after Esther Nissenbaum of Lublin, bubbie’s first best friend and younger sister, who was murdered at the age of 12 at Majdanek. While I never had a chance to meet Esther, through my bubbie, I know she lived her short life as the type of leader I aim to be for the AJC – a kind, strong-willed girl devoted to her family, her friends, and her Jewish community.
So, if I ever find myself in the same position as my friend, I may choose to take my future spouse’s last name, or hyphenate our last names, or keep my own, but one thing is for certain – I’ll always be Naomi Esther.
Happy International Women’s Day & Chag Sameach!