The Other Ilana Wolpert

When I learned to Google my name in middle school, I became obsessed with a cantor in Ohio who dressed like Fran Fine.

The following is an excerpt from Notes from the Bathroom Line: Humor, Art, and Low-Grade Panic from 150 of the Funniest Women in Comedy, a collection of humor pieces edited by Amy Solomon.

I am obsessed with Ilana Wolpert.

Not in the navel-gazing, narcissistic type of way (at least, not that I’d admit publicly). What I mean is this: Of all the millions of people in the world, there are only two Ilana Wolperts. There’s me and then there’s her. Shall we rewind?

In middle school, I loved Google. I loved that I could search any string of keywords — like “Franklin Delano Roosevelt affair” or “Charlemagne Carolingian Renaissance” (these were, as you can imagine, very cool topics of conversation among my fellow seventh graders) — and go down rabbit holes of information.  My second-favorite Google search, beyond executive leaders’ adulterous schemes and lesser-known cultural revolutions, was my own name.

My friends, to my delight, loved the game I invented of Googling our names–there were lots of Danielle Grossmans and Caroline Epsteins to learn about, and even a couple of Ava Tannenbaums. It was thrilling to get lost on the internet trails of these other women with our same names, screaming when one particularly traumatizing rabbit hole led us to a wildly explicit porn site. We’d imagine where our lives would take us, if they’d run parallel to our name twins or diverge altogether. But each time we tried me, “Ilana Wolpert” produced only one result: an info page for a cantor at a synagogue near Cleveland, Ohio. There wasn’t even a photo, just a short blurb. The other Ilana Wolpert didn’t have a Facebook profile. She was, as my friends proclaimed, booooring, and they abandoned the game, moving on to IM whoever’s crush was online at the moment.

Undeterred, I continued to google my name frequently, hoping that something interesting would appear online. I personally hadn’t done anything of note yet, except show up to middle school five days a week every week–which, honestly, was a major accomplishment in itself. But still, every day I checked Google. Would my certificate of achievement in seventh-grade English be recognized on the school’s website? Would I be immortalized on the search engine today? Maybe one day I, too, would be implicated in a presidential affair or be a key player in a cultural revival of the arts! (I haven’t been yet, but maybe by the time this is published? Insert that quote about shooting for the moon, landing among the stars, etc., etc.)

I graduated from middle school without anything googleable to my name and shuffled into high school, my friends chirping “It’s going to be just like The O.C.!” in my ear. I was the perfect well-rounded student. I was always tired. I spent a lot of Friday nights studying and rereading Harry Potter and wondering if The O.C. was the most accurate depiction of high school. My friends traded our former past time of googling our names for homecoming after-parties and group hangs at houses where the parents were mysteriously absent. Every day I still googled my name, and every day, it was still the cantor in Ohio. It was silly, but when you’re a teenager everything feels important, because nothing has happened to you yet. Finally, one day, the google search results started to yield images for Ilana Wolpert. The other one, of course.

Ilana Wolpert was definitely in her fifties, maybe her sixties. Her hair looked perpetually wet in every photo, and the feathered, permed bangs were straight out of the 1980s. Her clothing choices seemed like she had somehow raided the closets of Miss Frizzle and Fran Fine. She matched her lip liner to her T-shirts but not to her lipstick. She needed a complete software update into the twenty-first century. I could snark on her all I wanted, but the fact remained–in 2009, one Ilana Wolpert had made it onto Google, and the other had not.

In 2009, the other Ilana Wolpert still didn’t have a Facebook page, so I figured out the names of her kids and found their Facebook pages, their contributions to their college newspapers, their academic achievements. I watched YouTube videos of her leading the congregation in the V’ahavta. I read reviews she had written about CDs of Hebrew songs. I couldn’t stop. I was addicted to knowing everything there was to know about this woman who had my name but was not me. Did people confuse the capital “i” in her name for a lowercase “L” and call her “luh-lana,” too? Did she have anxiety also? (Probably — we were both Jews, after all).

Time passed. My high school paper learned how to digitize our weekly issues. A website started keeping records of every person’s times for track and cross country. The compulsion to google my name every day felt less and less urgent, until the ritual naturally phased itself out of my daily routine. The other Ilana Wolpert moved from Cleveland to work at a new synagogue in Washington, D.C. I won scholarship awards and wrote glowing reviews of the animated movies no one on the newspaper staff wanted to see. We both got older, our lives changed, and so did our search engine results. Eventually, when you googled “Ilana Wolpert,” it would alternate: her, her, then me, her, her some more, me again, her.  I breathed a sigh of relief, seeing my objectively embarrassing eight-hundred-meter race time broadcast online. At least people would remember me. At least there was a record that I was a person in the world. At least I wasn’t a ghost.

One Sunday morning near the end of high school, I got a call from my grandparents. They had gone to their friends’ granddaughter’s bat mitzvah outside D.C. the previous night. “And Ilana, you’ll never guess the name of the cantor,” they yelled into the phone. I already knew.

“So we marched right up to Cantor Ilana Wolpert,” said my grandmother, “and we told her we were Sheila and Ira Wolpert and our granddaughter was named Ilana Wolpert, too! And you know what she said?”

“What did she say?” I asked dutifully.

“She said, ‘The cross-country runner in Florida?’”

My jaw dropped. My grandmother continued, “And then she turned very red. It was very strange. She knew exactly who you were!”

Had the other Ilana Wolpert read my review of Coraline? Was she proud of me for breaking my personal record in the 5K? Did she wonder about me as often as I wondered about her?

“Now, how did she know that?!” my grandfather hollered down the receiver. I had to hold the phone away from my ear. “How do you think she knew all about you?!”

I grinned. “I think she’s been googling herself.” Maybe I wasn’t a ghost after all.

Ilana Wolpert

Ilana Wolpert (she/her) is a TV writer living in Los Angeles. Most recently, she wrote for Disney+'s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. She's originally from Florida, but please don't hold it against her.

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