What’s in a Name? For One, My Family’s Jewish Roots!

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What’s in a name?

The Torah answers this question long before Shakespeare asks it . . . According to Jewish mystical wisdom, a person’s name contains within it an allusion to his or her life’s purpose.

My name, Esther Malka, has a great deal of meaning to me because it tells me about myself and who I am trying to be inI wanted a Hebrew name, too this life. It also has a lot of personal meaning because of the amazing Divine Providence in how I got my name.

First, a little history.

I was born into a seemingly typical middle-class American Protestant family in the Midwest, in Moline, Ill. Until I was 12, I had never met a Jew. And then G‑dsent a Jewish family to my town, with a daughter my age. Lena became my best friend.

Although Lena’s family wasn’t observant, she knew a lot about Jewish culture and customs, which I hungrily absorbed. I was inexplicably drawn to her people. And she was very happy to teach me about them.

One day, walking home together from school, she mentioned the topic of “Jewish names.” I was fascinated. She explained to me how many common English names are really derived from Hebrew names found in the Jewish Bible. She said, for instance, that Moses is “Moshe,” David is “Dovid,” Rebecca is “Rivka,” and that when a Jewish child is born, it’s customary to give the baby a Hebrew name. Her name was Leah.

I was amazed. I wanted a Hebrew name, too. Since my name was Emily (I was named after my maternal great-grandmother, whose French name was “Emilie”), I asked what Hebrew name corresponded to this. But she told me the name had no Hebrew equivalent.

“But,” she added, “some people are given a Hebrew name that starts with the same letter as their English name. For instance, Esther starts with ‘E,’ so you could be Esther.”

I liked this idea very much. As a child, I had been given an illustrated book of Bible stories, which had a beautiful picture of Queen Esther at a banquet, pointing an accusing finger at Haman (who had plotted to have all the Jews annihilated on the 13th day of Adar. Esther revealed this to the king at the banquet, thus saving her people).

I was very impressed by Esther’s courage, and her ability to stand up and save her people. I was happy to consider sharing her name.

Little did I know, this name would become part of my destiny for the rest of my life.

After years of learning whatever I could from Lena, including teaching myself how to read Hebrew from her alef-bet books, I was off to college. There, I discovered Chabad on campus and went to the home of the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary (Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin) for Shabbat, where I learned about kashrut and other Jewish concepts. I was “hooked.”

But . . . I wasn’t Jewish. So now that I had discovered authentic Torah Judaism and wanted to pursue it, shouldn’t I have inquired about conversion?

To answer this, I have to backtrack in my story. My friend (who was misinformed) had told me that in her Conservative shul, if someone converted, people who were more traditional wouldn’t accept this as a valid conversion. “If you convert, you’ll never be accepted as a real Jew,” she told me.

Now I was in a quandary. I wanted to learn more about Torah Judaism, but not having a clue how to proceed—and not wanting to end up as a convert who wasn’t accepted as a real Jew—I kept my identity “under wraps” for the time being. I would learn, discover and grow, and G‑d would show me the answer.

I ended up going to Crown Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that serves as the center of Chabad-Lubavitch. There I found myself with a group of girls who boarded together and attended Bais Rivkah Seminary. The girls were a bit stymied in their attempt to “size me up.” Even though I was dressed modestly and stated that I was observant, I knew next to nothing. Was I Jewish? They were too polite to ask, but apparently decidedHis hidden orchestrations were revealed to me that if I had a Hebrew name then I must be.

I’d always liked the name Esther, so from that day on, I became Esther. I was 19. The girls showed me on the calendar how every 19 years, the dates of the Hebrew calendar and English calendar coincide. I was easily able to find the coinciding Hebrew date that I was born; it was the second day of Passover. Later, I learned that this was the day Esther pointed her finger at Haman. It was the day she saved her people!

In Crown Heights, I decided that I wanted to try to “pay G‑d back” (if that’s even possible) for all He had done for me by dedicating my life to fulfilling His mitzvahs.

But what about my non-Jewish status?

G‑d, with His all-knowing wisdom, took care of that for me. He sent me a friend who had just converted to Judaism, who not only assured me that by converting I would be accepted as a bona fide Jew, as “kosher” as any other, but also related to me the correct process by which she joined the Jewish people so that I could learn what I must do.

After more study, soon came the happy day when I myself stood before an Orthodox beit din (Jewish court) in my conversion ceremony and formally returned to the Jewish people (and my loving Father in heaven who orchestrated all these amazing twists and turns).

Now, after 44 years, during which G‑d has truly blessed me with a beautiful Jewish family of my own, I thank G‑d for that day when His hidden orchestrations were revealed to me. In fact, my name, “Esther,” comes from the Hebrew root word hester, which means “hidden.” In the book of Esther, G‑d’s name isn’t mentioned, as though the events seemingly “happen by themselves.”

And what about my second name, “Malka,” which I was given at the time of my conversion since it fits well with “Esther”? What did I learn about its significance?

Besides being the Hebrew word for “queen,” I was told that the concept of malchut, “royalty,” is the concept of “bringing the Light of G‑d into this material world.” That sounds like a worthy mission!

I thought after 44 years of living as a Jew that I knew all there was to know about my name. But was I in for a surprise! The story was not over. As I write in History Revealed: Discovering My Jewish Roots, I recently discovered, through even more Divine orchestrations, that my family has a Judeo-Spanish heritage!

I even discovered my great-grandmother Emilie’s family name listed among names of Catalonian Jews who were forcibly converted in the massacres of 1391. And her great-grandmother’s family name, Roman, was listed among those killed during the Inquisition.

Yet another surprise emerged. When I entered my great-grandmother’s name, Emilie Pellissier, into a genealogy database, I discovered she had an additional name, Eulalia, which I had never known about. All the other data was correct; this was definitely my great-grandmother, but she had another, secret name.

I discovered, upon researching this name, that it was a Catalan name from hundreds of years ago. Why was this name still being passed down in the family among all the typical French first names? This remained a mystery . . . until I met Gloria Mound, an expert in tracing Judeo-Spanish names.

When I mentioned my great-grandmother’s previously unknown (to me) name, she replied, “Eulalia? Her name was Eulalia?But what about my non-Jewish status? Now, that’s very telling! Because I lived for three years in the Balearic Islands [Mallorca] and the descendants of the Anusim (crypto-Jews) there would tell me that among their families, it was a custom to give the name Eulalia as meaning ‘Esther HaMalka.’ ”

I almost fell off my chair.

Gloria went on to explain that the Anusim revered Queen Esther as their role model as a secret Jew in the King’s palace, but they couldn’t give the name Esther Malka because that would expose their identity as Jews to the Inquisition. So they used Eulalia instead!

Everything I had known or felt came rushing over me in that instant. The facts seemed clear: I was named for this great-grandmother Eulalia, who was really an Esther Malka, the very name I chose through Divine Providence. All my years living my life as Esther Malka, my having been born on the day Queen Esther saved her people—all of this flashed before my eyes in a rushing wave that was overwhelming, but at the same time, supremely exhilarating.

I now knew, without a doubt, that our family had finally come home.

Written in memory of Gloria Mound a"h.

Esther Margaretten, Chabads