Let's meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why?
My first reaction is to say I don’t want to meet by another name. I’m not trying to become someone else. I’m trying to become more uniquely me and part of who I am is the name I’ve had since birth- Susan. I’ve had alternate forms of my name. My mother called me ‘Susan Gay’ (especially when she wanted to show either her irritation at something I was doing or her extreme approval), one of my best friends in high school called me ‘George’ (I called her ‘Dave’. These were both base on our last names and made a lot of sense because in an all-girls’ school it was easy to yell out ‘George’ and only have one person look up, while calling out ‘Susan’ might apply to a group of people), and my godmother called me ‘Sue’ (for some reason I’ve never understood nuns and ex-nuns tend to do that with my name). I’ve been called by lots of appellations- Professor, Reverend, Doctor, and mother. But I’ve always stayed Susan throughout it all.
When I thought a little longer, though, I realize that I’ve been given one other name that I’ve come to accept as my own and that fits me, though I’m not sure I can explain exactly why. It’s the name Ishah Ezer. It was given to me one year by my students at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. One of the things I’d learned the first year I started teaching at Sing Sing was that inside a prison, men have two names—the legal name (the one that appears on my roster) and their prison name (the name they’ll answer to in class). As I learned the names of my students-- names like Cipher and WooWoo – it was usually impossible to match them with the legal names on my attendance roster. For about 90% of my class, those names had no connection with each other and I wasn’t sure how they originated, though once in a while a student would share a story about the origin of his name.
One year I was teaching Introduction to the Old Testament to a group of thirty men who were part of the New York Theological Seminary certificate program. We were doing Genesis 1-3 and I explained to the class the meaning of the Hebrew words a’dam (human), ish (man), and ishah (woman). We practiced the formula from Genesis 2 that ish + ishah = a’dam. As we practiced, someone made the point that they were each an ish and that I was the only ishah in the building and that, to practice their Hebrew, they’d call me ishah for the rest of the class. A little later in the same lesson that the woman was an ezer c’nego for the man, a phrase that means a partner, a helper. A student in the class pointed out that that’s what I was for them, a helper helping them transform their lives by partnering with them in education. ‘Ishah ezer’ he said,’ that’s you.’ The name stuck and for years afterward I’d be walking the Sing Sing school building and hear someone call out ‘Hi Ishah’ and know in my deepest being that, just as I’m ‘Susan’ in most settings, in a few I’m also ‘Ishah.’