Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Cantor Jessica (Fox) Epstein
ďMy name is Levitt too,Ē confides the short, gaudy great-aunt here for the Bartkowski bar mitzvah. ďMaybe weíre related!Ē I smile and try not to sneeze. Forget chemical warfare,
I need an IDF-issued gas mask for this reception. Isnít there an early warning system for sneak attacks of Youth Dew and Obsession?
ďIím a Levitt by marriage.Ē I offer, hoping to stem the inevitable onslaught of Jewish geography.
My counterattack is weak and she charges on. ďMy father and one of his brothers, I think it was Irving, changed it from two Ts to one Ö so it would seem more American.Ē
Nod politely because I donít really get it. Whatís the point? The name would still sound the same.
ďSo now one side of the family spells it with two Ts and the other side with one T. Isnít that right, Marty?Ē
I retreat behind the waitress carrying the mini-quiche.
A man suddenly catches my eye over the vegetable display and asks, "What should I call you? I mean, whatís your name?"
Iím half-listening. Iím busy trying to re-supply and get all the orange bell peppers before theyíre gone.
"Itís Jessica," I explain. "Jessica Epstein."
We shake hands and converse about his job as a photographer.
Heís a new member of the congregation.
I forget his name as soon as he tells me. This is bad. Thereís supposed to be some trick where you say a personís name three times so it gets stuck in your head. But how do you remember it for the first repetition? I get a diet coke and regroup.
Five minutes later he returns to find me nibbling some pita crisps. He is clearly troubled.
"Iím Catholic," he confesses. "See, my wife is Jewish and my daughter just started religious school last week and I donít want to sound stupid or anything, but what do I call you?
" Oh, now I see. "Call me Jessica when weíre with adults, or some place informal. Call me Cantor Epstein in front of the kids. Itís just easier that way."
"Ok," he says. "I just want to make sure Iím doing things right."
I smile. He looks relieved. I feel outflanked.
I sip seltzer and get the lay of the lobby. Itís mostly visitors, some members, and a few of my bar and bat mitzvah students. Iím moving on to the yellow peppers but the now nameless manís question lingers in my mind.
What should they call me?
I want the kids at the temple to call me Cantor Epstein. Itís a matter of personal boundaries.
Growing up, people calling themselves Father Mike or Rabbi Moshe gave me the creeps. They sounded like child molesters to me; men trying to establish false intimacy with children and at the same time impress parents with their ability to "connect" to the younger generation.
I dig deep and entrench my position.
Yup, I decide, these kids are going to call me Cantor Epstein and thatís that.
The next day during Sunday school, in the middle of first grade music, a little girl holds up an envelope. Sheís Asian, adopted by a Jewish mother and Catholic father. She is sweet and eager and small. I want to pick her up and hug her for no rational reason. She has wide black eyes, straight black hair and bangs that frame her face. Her smile makes my heart feel strange.
"What is it?", I ask.
"This is for you," she says as she hands me an 8 Ĺ by 11-inch envelope. In pink marker it says,
"To: Jessica, From: Rachel Curcio."
My heart stops. A sneak attack.
Thirty pairs of eyes watch me to see what I will do.
"Should I open it?", I ask
. "Yeah! Yeah!", they all cry.
This has happened before, sometimes kids draw pictures of me and I put them up on my fridge for a while. They always give me frizzy hair and make my head too big.
I open the envelope, inside are two pieces of college-lined notebook paper.
One says, "To Jessica" and is surrounded by Hebrew words. Some are upside down, some sideways, but they surround my name.
I canít breathe for a second.
These letters are perfect and beautiful.
Rachel must have copied, or traced, these words exactly from a prayer book because our students donít write Hebrew until third grade.
Where did she learn this? Was she a sofer, a Jewish scribe, in a past life?
I look at the words again
They spin around and encircle my name like a Kabbalistic mantra or an ancient amulet.
In the best Jewish tradition, she drew no images, she just used letters.
She wrote down traditional words of prayer:
adonai, the ineffable name of God.
Sheís six, and she wrote down my real name .... Jessica.