Understanding My Roots

by Ronni Miller (Sarasota, FL) 

“Flexibility is Jewish survival…the rabbis may inveigh against assimilation, but it’s why we’ve survived for six thousand years.  We assimilate, but we still keep our pride of identity. And we keep our holy books.”  from Inventing Memory by Erica Jong

Why is my favorite word.  What is a close second.  Why is it important for me to know when I became aware of my Jewishness? What were the important circumstances that caused this to happen? And why have I chosen to adhere to my roots?

I run the tape of my memory backward to find answers and see a winter morning when my father escorted me, a seven year old, up a flight of dark stairs above a restaurant to a shul (a new word for me) in Irvington, New Jersey. The room was filled with children. There was a strong odor of chicken. Waiting for us was a man dressed in black.  

I was resistant to this new adventure. My mother had told me “it will be good for you” (a phrase already suspect since she had told me raw eggs in a glass of milk, and boiled rice with sugar floating in a bowl of milk, were also good for me). I sighed the sigh of one knowing the routine. Try it. If you don’t like it, we’ll find something else.

I was the first-born child of Jewish artistic and intellectual parents who dressed me in pinafores to play in sandboxes and watched over me as a china ornament. Other Jewish kids were something else.  Boys my age were all bigger and fatter, and the girls had ringlets and bows in their hair. (My straight hair never took to the curling irons that my mother tried endlessly to work.)  I didn’t want to know the boys, especially when their spitballs hit my cheeks, or the girls, whose giggles greeted my tears. The man dressed in black kept his back turned to us while he wrote strange symbols on the blackboard.

I preferred the company of my new boyfriend, the son of the minister who lived across the street in a little house next to the church.  Every morning we walked to first grade together. He told me that I was the prettiest angel in the Christmas pageant that we had performed before our winter vacation. I had begged long and hard to appear in the show, and I was very proud of my paper wings, which had disappeared from my bedroom the day after the show ended. 

I didn’t say so, but I suspected that this Sunday school shul idea had something to do with him, the Christmas pageant, and my performance of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” My pouting and my tears ended the Sunday school project but also curtailed my friendship with the minister’s son. Once again I stayed home for my Jewish education, and learned to light the candles on Friday night, sip out of a glass for the Kiddush prayer, and say a prayer over the store bought challah. I accepted my loss of a friendship.

As a shy, quiet child I preferred reading to playing king of the mountain and was left to my own devices after secular school, only to endure my mother’s question when she would occasionally look up from her own book: “So, why don’t you go outside and play with the other kids?” She was less likely to bother me if I was engrossed in The Bible In Pictures, an adult book that I found on my parents library shelves. It had a big, purple cover and was filled with black and white original drawings by the artist Gustave Dore.

The black and white print of “The Creation Of Light” on the first pages, with rays of light shooting out of black, gray clouds, appealed to my sense of mystery.  The lines on the adjacent page– “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and empty…”– were words that also piqued my curiosity.  It was the pictures and the words, not anything religious, which appealed to my imagination in the same way that I could imagine being transported to other countries like Switzerland where I could play with Heidi and Peter. Books were far more reliable friends than kids playing in the schoolyard at recess or on the sidewalk by our apartment house. They ignored me while I hung on the sidelines and observed their actions.

Alone, I was free to imagine. I could pretend to be a famous writer and adventurer. I could imagine a ride on the bus alone, while in real life I sat next to Daddy when we traveled to his office on Saturday.  I could imagine my walk to the library alone, while in real life I held onto my Mother’s hand when we went together after school. Dependency gave me the freedom to wonder about the people who weren’t Jewish and why we weren’t supposed to talk about being Jewish when we were in their company, which seemed to be the majority of people in my school, apartment house, and neighborhood.

When we moved to the suburbs of South Orange, several miles away, again I heard the mantra– It will be good for you — voiced by my parents.  What were they talking about, I wondered, as I played alone or read a book in my own room, a preteen feeling like an outcast?

But then I was delivered to another Jewish class at a new temple that was housed in a mansion. It was a September afternoon, two months after I had been whisked away from our brick apartment house with its cacophony of buses and cars, and plopped into a completely different setting of quiet, tree-lined streets and wide lawns the size of parks where cars barely passed by. 

Chauffeured by my mother, who picked me up in my father’s Buick from my fifth grade class, I was deposited at the door of a castle, or so the mansion looked to me. I walked alone inside and found a room filled with other preteens sitting on chairs that included a protrusion for a desk. I slipped into a chair in the back row.  A woman stood in front of the blackboard and faced us.  On the board behind her were written the words: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, If I am only for myself, who am I?  If not now, when? Hillel”

I was mesmerized by the words on the board. This was exactly how I felt as the girl who had just shorn her braids and spoke with a voice barely heard. The teacher spent the rest of the term drawing me out so that I learned Hebrew letters, those same symbols I had seen on the blackboard in an earlier classroom, and I learned faster than any of my peers.  The romance of another language, the chance to learn about philosophers like Hillel and to hear stories about mystics in the Kaballah, a favorite topic of the rabbi, piqued my curiosity about Jewishness. It was a far different Jewishness than the one I found at my grandfather’s Seder table, where only Hebrew was spoken and he read for what seemed like hours from the Haggadah. 

Red shoes and a mixer brought out again the mantra–It’ll be good for you.  My mother’s argument was that I needed to meet Jewish boys and girls my age, which was somehow tangled with an unknown future and the possibility of marriage. The red shoes had a square, sturdy heel. They were an attempt at compromise since I wanted Capezio’s, the light pastels with a spool-like heel that I had heard the girls talking about at school. I never wanted to go to the mixer, even though my mother told me it would be an opportunity to mix into my new neighborhood and it could set me on the right path to my future. The only thing good about the mixer that I could see was that it was to be held at the temple in one of the ballrooms of the old mansion, a place that to me held a mystery of bygone years with possible magical powers.  Maybe it would have the energy to transform me into a princess instead of the ugly duckling that I was sure I was, and just maybe there might be a prince.

Wearing stockings for the first time—and pulling at a thread causing a run—was how I entered the room. The boys were dressed in blazers and long pants, and the girls wore colorful, adult looking dresses with Capezio shoes. I stood there in my clunkers, although they were red not brown like my school oxfords, and wore a plaid first-day-of-school dress.

We sat on the floor in a circle to play the first of the mixer games.  Each girl had to put one shoe in the center of the circle, and the boys, one by one, had to find the shoe and its owner. The last shoe of twenty was a red one with a flat heel, not a spool one, and I’m not sure who was more embarrassed—the last boy or me, the last girl.   For the rest of my schooling in that community, I thought of myself as the one-who-stuck-out. Only a handful of Jewish girlfriends, far from the popular clique, saved me from total social annihilation.

Subliminal messages to stay within the tribe followed me into middle school and high school. I only accepted dates with Jewish boys.  Although our tribe was again the minority in the community, I knew my future mission was to marry a Jewish husband after I graduated from college. Listening to our reform rabbi talk about the Kaballah still intrigued me, as did all things magical. Yet being a nonconformist, I wasn’t interested in joining Jewish youth groups. The males I read about weren’t Jewish as they swept through life on battlefields in Europe, safaris in Africa, and farms in Salinas Valley. I wondered about those blond and blue-eyed men who lived outside my world of dark hair and bony noses. 

Yet, I clung to my Jewishness internally as I wandered more into the secular world of theater in New York on Saturdays and into the local town newsroom, never feeling I had quite hidden my heritage enough. In fact, offered the opportunity by my mother one morning to have a “nose job,” the popular cosmetic change in my high school years that would transform Semitic looking girls into pug-nosed peers and make them more popular to boys, I thought about it and announced the next morning that I would take my chances in life as I was, bony nose and all.

I actually heard two messages with that offer. One was to mask at least the visual aspects of being Jewish, and the other was to accept the state of prejudice against Jews.  At the time I was sure of my answer to remain as I had been born and see what would happen in my life. I remember using those words to explain my refusal. I’ve never regretted my decision.

Ronni Miller, author of Dance With The Elephants: Free Your Creativity And Write and Cocoon To Butterfly: A Metamorphosis of Personal Growth Through Expressive Writing, among other published books, is an award winning fiction author and founder and director of Write It Out®, a motivational and expressive writing program for individuals of all ages since 1992.  She teaches and lectures in the US, facilitates writing retreats in Tuscany and Cape Cod, and writes about her Jewish roots, feelings, memories and experiences in published books, short stories, essays, poems and plays for children and adults. In her private practice as a Book Midwife, she helps people birth their books. See www.writeitout.com for more information.

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