Let me guess: Esther was your grandmother’s name.
I’m right, aren’t I? I had a hunch. When your name is Esther, like mine is, you’re constantly hearing about people’s bubbes.
“Oh, your name is Esther!” they say. “What a beautiful name. That was my grandma’s name!”
That’s great. Really, it is. I’m sure your grandma was lovely. Mine was, and guess what? Her name was Esther, too. But it does not bode well for your social life when you show up on your first day of middle school with the same name as half your classmates’ grandma. I was extremely mockable as a kid, and my geriatric name was the icing on the bullying cake.
For years I dreaded the first day of school. My parents named me Esther, but they never called me by that name, so I spent entire school years getting kids used to one name, Daci — which was weird, but at least didn’t conjure up images of grandma. (Why Daci, you ask? Long story short: Hadassah is my Hebrew name, and Daci is short for that — though why it’s spelled that way not even my parents could explain.)
When summer came around I disappeared to camp, learned about the trendy new lip gloss that was sure to make me popular, and vowed to return to school a new unmockable person. It would have worked, I swear, but there was one problem. My new teachers didn’t know about my nickname. My heart raced as they called roll and inched closer down the alphabet to my name, revealing my secret.
“Esther?” they would say tentatively, confused by a name that wasn’t Katie or Lauren.
“I actually go by Daci,” I would mumble. And just like that, I was weird again, new lip gloss and all.
And then there was that whole Book of Esther/Purim thing. Every spring, the days grew longer, the flowers bloomed, and I declined to attend a Purim celebration. Even so, someone — usually my dad — would wish me a happy Purim and ask if I was dressing up like Queen Esther. “Remember when you were little?” he would insist. “You dressed up like Queen Esther every year for Purim!”
Dressing up like a beautiful queen is cute when you’re tiny, but gets sadder as it becomes apparent that you aren’t, in fact, beautiful.
Then in 2004 Madonna adopted the name Esther, and my life changed. I was a college sophomore, and suddenly Esther was associated less with Depends adult diapers and more with cone bras. “I wanted to attach myself to the energy of a different name,” Madonna said at the time.
Ah yes, the elusive “Esther” energy. She must have been referring to the thrill of being chased around the playground by the popular girls as they mockingly screamed, “ESTHER! ESTHER!”
In my Livejournal (#lol), I wrote, “Who changes their name TO Esther? I’ve been trying to change mine FROM Esther foreverrrr[sic].”
The news cycle was a bit more leisurely back in 2004, so for a full week I reaped the benefits of Madonna’s identity crisis.
“My name is Esther!” I would tell guys in bars. “Just like Madonna!”
Soon, Madonna again reinvented herself into something new, and Esther faded back into obscurity. But my own confidence grew, and my name turned into less of an embarrassment and more of a conversation starter. It wasn’t until recently, in some kind of quarter-life epiphany, that I realized something: Esther is more than just the name of a million grandmas. And in the Purim story, she was more than just a Queen who won a beauty contest — she was actually a certified, sneaky badass. She puts aside her fears, tells the men in her life, “Not today, motherfucker,” and saves the Jews! Were she alive today, she would probably have a “Nevertheless, she persisted” tattoo, a copy of Bad Feminist, and a Women’s March sign that says, “I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit.” She definitely would have worn black to the Golden Globes.
As a young Esther, I was so scared of being perceived as — gasp — “weird” that I missed the significance and power behind my unusual name. I should have used it to propel me, to encourage myself to stand for something. Hindsight, as we all know, is a bitch.
These days, I barely think about my name. When I order coffee, the barista glances at my credit card and writes “Esther” on my cup. My heart doesn’t race as I wait for him to say it out loud. It just is: My hair is brown, my eyes are green, my name is Esther.
And every spring, Purim comes around and I get a nice reminder: Esther was a badass. You can be, too.