Illustration: Woman at office by jsoto [CC0 Pixabay License] via Pixabay
"Esterle, did you know that a Kosher falafel place opened up two blocks from here?" she asked me with the utmost excitement in her voice.
"Do you know that I don’t care," I thought to myself as I rolled my eyes.
"Esterle, do you want to come with me to a shiur on lashon hara tonight?”
Why did she always call me by my Hebrew name? Why did she feel a need to constantly discuss Jewish things with me? What is lashon hara and how on earth did she know more about Judaism than me? She wasn’t even Jewish!
And why did her passion for Judaism bother me so much?
I was 25 years old and working for a Manhattan-based business when she introduced herself to me in the break room of our company. “Hi, I just started working here. My name is Brittany, but feel free to call me Britt,” she said.
“Welcome aboard, my name is Eilleen,” I said while refilling my water bottle.
“Wow, that’s a lovely chai necklace you are wearing!” Britt exclaimed as she widened her big, blue eyes.
“Thanks. I need to get back to my desk, but it was nice meeting you,” I replied as I screwed the cap back onto my water bottle.
“Wait, what’s your Hebrew name?” she asked me.
“Wow, I can’t remember the last time anyone asked me that. It’s Esther. You know, I love my Hebrew name, but I don’t think anyone has called me Esther since Hebrew school.”
Since Britt and I worked in separate departments, our offices were situated on opposite sides of the floor. But we somehow managed to run into each other almost every day. During our brief, yet constant encounters, Britt would always greet me with her endearing version of my Hebrew name, Esterle. She would break into a beautiful, huge smile and share with me something new about Judaism, all starting with “Esterle, do you know…"
"Esterle, do you know that there is a special blessing for when we see lightning during a storm? Isn’t that amazing!”
“Esterle, do you know that in Israel they have the Hebrew letter peh on the dreidels instead of a shin? Do you know why?”
“Esterle, do you know about the 613 mitzvot in Judaism?"
Britt’s “Esterle, do you know's” led me to my own questions, such as, why was this non-Jewish woman so into the Jewish thing? How did I become her go-to Jew at work? I wasn’t religious, so why didn’t she get the hint that I wasn’t interested in conversations about Judaism? I would always respond to her with one word answers like “Oh” or “Cool,” and then tell her that I didn’t have time to talk because I was busy. I was far more concerned with my social life than my Jewish life.
One day, as I entered the mail room at work, I noticed a beautifully wrapped present in my mailbox. My work mail only consisted of bills from the vendors, so I couldn’t wait to see what my gift was! I quickly removed the wrapping paper and saw a little note taped to a book about Jewish wisdom. The note read, “Esterle, enjoy this book! Love, Britt."
I brought the book back to my desk, thumbed through it for a minute and then decided it was time to gain a different type of wisdom and find out what the deal was with Britt and this “Jewish thing.” I ran over to her office with the book in my hand.
“Britt, I have a question. Are you converting to Judaism?”
She took a deep breath in and said, “I am thinking about it."
“Oh, so now I understand. I think that’s amazing, but I’m not religious, so I’m probably not the best person to discuss Jewish things with. Maybe you should give this book to someone else.”
“Esterle, do you remember when we first met, I asked you your Hebrew name? When you answered me, your face lit up as you told me how much you love your Hebrew name. I could feel your energy and saw your neshama at that moment. Since then, I can’t help but share with you all of the beautiful things I keep learning about this amazing religion. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate it!"
I don’t remember how I responded but I decided to keep the book for myself. Soon after that conversation, Britt found a new job and left the company. We didn’t stay in touch and I never read that book.
A year later, I began a Hebrew ulpan course at Aish NY, which led me to my first Shabbat dinner. Now, we all know what happens after our first Shabbat dinners (besides the weight gain) … invitations to classes, some shul attendance and of course, more Shabbat dinners! I began to learn more about Judaism and visited Israel for the first time. This led me to become a regular at Israeli events.
Another year went by and I had become even more affiliated with Judaism and everything Israel-related. After buying a bunch of hamsas at an Israeli fair, I couldn’t believe who I saw at the booth next to me …. It was Britt!
I was so excited to not only reconnect, but truly connect with her! I couldn’t wait to tell her about the Shabbat dinners I had been going to, how the words of Jewish wisdom inspired me, and that I finally learned the meaning of “lashon hara” (speaking derogatorily about people) and how I was becoming a pro at avoiding it.
“Britt!” I yelled out as I ran toward her.
“Esterle, it’s no longer Britt. I’m Tziporah Leah now!” she responded with that big smile that she always greeted me with at work.
“Tziporah Leah! Wow, you converted! Mazal tov!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.
“Todah! Do you want to come to me for Shabbat this week?”
Two days later, I headed to Tziporah Leah’s home for Shabbat. That evening, I found myself mesmerized by the same woman who used to annoy me with her enthusiastic attitude toward Judaism. She took in every moment of that Shabbat. Whether it was the way she held her hands over her eyes and davened by the Shabbat candles or her enthusiastic “Amens” after every blessing; I couldn’t help but be incredibly touched by Tziporah Leah’s genuine love for Judaism and her appreciation for being a Jew.
That motzei Shabbat, I went back to my studio apartment thinking about how envious I was of Tziporah Leah. I realized how immature I was when we first met each other at work. Back then, she wanted nothing more than to connect with her soon-to-be fellow Jew, but I was too busy chasing other dreams that did nothing for me.
The next morning, I thought a lot about Britt becoming Tziporah Leah. I saw an inspiring woman who wanted to deepen her connection to G-d and take pride in demonstrating it. I saw a woman who loved demonstrating her passion for Judaism in private and in public. And the woman I saw was Eilleen becoming Esterle.
Today, I am loving this Jewish thing. And when my non-religious friends have a Jewish-related question, guess who they come to… I'm their go-to Jew.
Eilleen worked as a writer/producer for Cable Television promotional copy in the US. She fulfilled her dream of making Aliyah years later. She uses her energetic, creative, fun and quirky style to be an advocate for Israel. This article is reprinted with the author's permission. Click here to read more of this writer's work in The Jerusalem Herald.