I had changed my name, changed my place, and rediscovered my true self
Photo: Esther Tscholkowsky
Ichose the name Beth for you, my father once told me. Elizabeth was out of the question. Beth was perfect: short and sweet.
For his American daughter with a golden future before her, my father didn’t want a name with any heavy associations or allusions to the past; just a pretty name with a nice sound.
But he conceded on one thing: He gave me the middle name Esther in memory of my great-grandmother, the mother of my Grandma Mina.
Grandma Mina had a different view of my middle name; to her it was a connection to the past. “Remember you are a Jew, and be proud of it,” she repeatedly told me throughout my childhood. It took years before I was able to hear and understand that message.
Mina’s brother, my great Uncle Phil in Florida, had inherited a pair of special earrings from his mother. The earrings, which were beautiful rubies surrounded by clusters of diamonds, held even more significance since my great-grandfather had been the jeweler who created them. Uncle Phil converted the earrings to a ring and engraved the inside with the words “Mutter April 1944,” a reference to the year he’d taken leave of his beloved mother.
He hoped to pass it along to his own child, but he remained childless, so he determined to give the ring to the first child named in Esther’s memory. My middle name, apparently, did not qualify, and so Uncle Phil kept the ring.
Decades later, long after I had discovered my heritage, established a faithful Torah home and family in Jerusalem, and grown comfortable answering to the name Esther, I received a letter from my uncle.
Your nice letter was received and needless to say it was a most pleasant surprise. I did hear some time ago that you had taken your Hebrew name of my dear mother and from past history almost ancient by this time; you surely have heard of my mad search for one of my nephews or nieces to name a child after her. Which all goes to prove that if one lives long enough, good will prevail, and Esther is back in our family. I am sure that Mother is happy!
Do you recall that the last time I talked with you it was at your grandma’s funeral. At that time you tried to convince me that you were named Esther with Beth in front, which meant House of Esther. You got a kick out of my interpretation when I told you the Chinese named their restaurants House of Chan, House of Noy etc. Again may I reiterate that I am very happy and delighted of your decision to use your name and I feel very good about it.
Incidentally, I have a ring, which I had prepared for the child whose name would be Esther, engraved accordingly. The diamond in the center (surrounded by small rubies set in a cluster) was one of two that Mother wore as earrings. I will see that you receive the said ring as soon as I can find the proper way of mailing it.
All the best,
your Great-Uncle Phillip
A few months later, I was summoned to the post office. Two large policemen from the Israeli Post Office confronted me at the counter with a plain white envelope with my name written in an old man’s shaky handwriting. I tore it open with trembling hands in front of their accusing eyes. Inside glowed the promised diamond ring, sitting all alone without a wrapping. I handed them my passport, and they stamped it with the force of a final blow of a hammer. I had finally received the famous ring inscribed Mutter April 1944.
I had finally taken on her name, Esther, which my grandmother Mina had always insisted was my real Jewish name. I was living in the holy city of Jerusalem now. I had changed my name, changed my place, and rediscovered my true self.
(Originally featured in A Gift Passed Along: Special Supplement, Pesach 5780)
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