As a kid I longed to be called Jackie. I would have settled for Jenny, Amy or Michelle. Anything was better than the old lady’s name I was saddled with, “Esther.”
It wasn’t the moniker of a cute little girl with pigtails, a chin dimple and shiny red shoes. To be fair, I possessed none of these divine attributes, but only because my name was Esther. Dislike of my name was intensified by its rarity. The 1980 list of popular girls names ranked Esther as 298th, suffering the indignity of being less popular than Chastity (295) and Irene (292).
My relationship with Esther eased in my late teens. Having an unusual name became an asset like pot smoking parents or a strange scar. However, it was only when I moved to New York, started work in TV production and met my first Jewish friends that the name Esther became desirable. Without exception, a Jew’s first reaction upon hearing my name was, “Ahhh the beautiful Queen Esther.” My ego twinkled.
I loved the association with “Queen Esther,” revered for saving her people by currying favor with the Ancient Persian King Ahasuerus. The King ditched his evil Prime Minister Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews of Persia after he fell in love with Esther and she revealed herself as a Jew.
One Monday in March my Jewish friend Ruth and I were having a beer in my local Brooklyn bar. Ruth, a striking, raven headed TV producer, made it her business to be anywhere she believed J-datable men would be. Except the synagogue.
“Have you ever been to a Purim party? She said, scrolling down her phone to look for an address.
“What’s Purim?” I asked.
“It’s the festival to celebrate Queen Esther,” she said, “First the rabbi reads from the Book of Esther. Afterwards Jews go mental. Like a Jewish Mardi Gras mixed with Halloween.”
“But I am not Jewish.” I said.
“The Chabad rabbis won’t care,” she said, “You’ve got the right name.”
The North Williamsburg Chabad had long tweaked my curiosity. On the corner of Bedford Avenue and North 5th Street was a three-story brick building, home to a coffee shop, a record store and a clothing boutique. Perched on top of this hipster paradise was the Chabad and I often peeped up at third floor window while walking past. On summer nights, when the windows were open, the room was filled with sweaty guys in white shirts and ringlets chanting loudly and stamping their feet.
As we approached the Chabad door, I felt a rush of panic. There was a guy asking people questions before letting them in.
“Just say you’re Jewish,” whispered Ruth.
“I thought it didn’t matter.” I said.
“It probably doesn’t. But let’s not ruin a good night by risking it.”
In the past, I had got into enough gay clubs by pretending to like KD Lang so maybe I could ace a Jewish identity. The mental checklist started strong; Rosh Hashanah was the New Year holiday, Yom Kippur was about making amends. My brain cells started to fizzle as I tried to remember the name of the holiday without yeast.
“Good evening ladies,” said a bearded guy with metal rimmed spectacles and a yamaka “Can I ask if you are Jewish?”
“Yes we are,” said Ruth robustly, “I am Ruth and this is Esther.”
“Ahh the beautiful Queen Esther,” he smiled, “Happy Purim. Go, get so drunk you cannot tell the difference between, “cursed be Haman,” and “blessed be Mordecai.”
“Who is Mordecai?” I asked Ruth as we slogged up the stairs.
“Esther’s uncle. Or cousin,” she said, “He’s one of the good guys.”
I felt a buzz of anticipation as we walked down a dingy, badly lit corridor and into the unknown.
We stepped into the shabby, rectangular room with huge windows and wooden floors heaving with sweaty revelers. While older guys had pretty much stuck to the black pants, white shirts and yamakas, the space was full of firemen, fairies, Egyptian mummies, flower power hippies, a Bob Marley and a Batman. Arms and legs were flailing wildly to a live jazz band and jerking drumbeat.
“Why is everyone in fancy dress?” I asked.
“Cause it’s fun,” Ruth laughed, “It’s something to do with the Queen Esther story cause the non Jews dressed as Jews to avoid the massacre.”
“Not as Batman,” I said.
On a long table near the wall was a white plastic barrel from which people were pouring clear drinks. Assuming it was water, I paid no attention until Batman motioned me over and handed me two plastic cups. Each of them had at least three inches of what turned out to be neat vodka. After a couple of hefty measures Ruth danced off with a hipster-looking Moses and I was left standing on the edge of the dance floor wondering if anyone knew I wasn’t a Jew.
“Where is your chusband?” asked a middle aged Orthodox looking guy with twinkly eyes, inviting me to dance.
“He’s at home, looking after the kids,” I improvised as I span around feeling the cozy tingle of vodka and the exhilaration of deception.
“This is not a good marriage,” he said, pointing his finger at me.
“It’s good for me,” I said.
“You youngsters,” he laughed as continued to waggle his pinky.
Whenever I told anyone my name (which was everyone), the news was greeted with shrieks of delight and bear hugs.
“Every Jew is family here,” yelled Amos, the bearded guy from the door, as we danced in a circle of people, waving our arms and clomping our feet on the timber boards. The drumming got more intense. We wrapped our arms around each others shoulders and a chant started.
“All Jews together. All Jews together, All Jews together, All Jews together” we shouted as we jumped up and down, locked together with our heads touching. It was surreal and weird and I loved it. I belonged with these people.
Eventually by 2am the party wound down.
“You must come back next week,” said Amos, “We have a Shabbat dinner every Friday. You will be very welcome.”
“Awesome,” I gushed, “I will see you on Friday,” as I hugged him goodbye.
As I tripped back down Bedford Avenue intoxicated by the randomness of life and vodka, I knew despite my chutzpah, the Chabat would never welcome me again. True if I had lied once I could deceive again but without the protection of the “Beautiful Queen Esther,” I feared I would become unstuck. My Jewishness was a one-night deal.