Because, if you know me, you know that when I read a book, I want everyone else to read it, because I’m a giving person like that. So, here it is, random parts of the book I’m currently reading, Devil in the Details. It’s a hilarious little memoir that Tori picked up while we were in Barnes and Noble the other day with the comment, “This reminds me of you.” The cover is candy-coated chocolates lined up by color in freakishly perfect lines.
And the book.
Well, the book is about an obsessive compulsive (really truly) religious fanatic. Her religious preference happens to be Jewish, which I didn’t know until I had read the first few pages of the book. I don’t know what it is with me and Jewish memoirs (or, really, half-Jewish memoirs. The authors of Girl Meets God and Devil in the Details were both results of Christian mothers and Jewish fathers, making them, technically, not Jewish. Both, however, underwent official conversion, details of which can be found below). Elyssa likes to think that I am “seekritly” Jewish. So, there’s one theory. I just like to think that I am keenly interested in the Jewish faith, and that maybe, God has a plan for me involving Judaism. Not necessarily me becoming Jewish, since that’s, well, impossible, but perhaps learning a lot more about it, and somehow using it in my career (as an English teacher?). Okay, really, I have no idea, but Jews are amazing, and some of the wittiest people I know. So, here you are, your very own selection of witty Jewishness, from Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood.
…THE next step in the conversion was the most unsettling. I would have to go to the mikvah, the ritual bath. I was not looking forward to it. Despite my washing compulsions, I didn’t particularly enjoy bathing, and I certainly didn’t relish the thought of doing it in front of an audience. A witness would have to be present to verify that I did it properly.
The awkwardness of the situation, I hoped, would be mitigated by the luxury of it. The nearest mikvah was in San Francisco, a big city, and this conjured images of glamour for me. I figured the mikvah would be like a spa treatment, only slightly more spiritual. I would have a wrap and a massage, and then, when the spirit moved me, I’d take a dip in my gold Gottex one-piece
In reality it went more like this: there was a vigorous pre-immersion hosing-down followed by a naked inspection from the mikvah attendant that was so thorough it resembled a girl-on-girl reenactment of Midnight Express. Then, still naked, I flopped around in a lukewarm Jacuzzi in front of people politely averting their eyes.
It was a very complicated process. Nothing can come between the body and the mikvah water—not nail polish, lint, dirt, stray hairs, or dental plaque—and the mikvah attendant was there to ensure I was perfectly clean and bare. This was my own personal nightmare. The last thing a thirteen-year-old girl wants is to have her naked body examined by a matter-of-fact Russian babushka. It’s just such an awkward time. I was so modest that I couldn’t even try on belts in the Loehmann’s shared dressing room. An inch-by-inch going-over was torture. It seemed to last forever. She investigated between my toes and under my nails, under my arms and in my navel. I had to lift up my hair and present my neck. I had to open my mouth and stick out my tongue. I was just about to bend over for the cavity search I figured was next when she pronounced me clean enough and pointed me toward the water.
Now all I had to do was immerse myself three times while a witness ensured that I did it properly. This was handled with as much discretion and sensitivity as possible, but still, no amount of discretion can undo the fact that you’re being evaluated while bobbing around naked, like a clumsy Olympic synchronized swimmier who’s lost both her suit and the rest of her team. I wanted to die.
Well, at least I wasn’t a boy. The conversion for boys requires a scalpel. Even if you’re already circumcised, you still have to whip it out in front of the rabbi for a ritual bloodletting. And you have to go through the mikvah deal, too.
So I got off relatively easy. And now it was almost done. I was almost Jewish. All that was left were a few formalities, like choosing a Jewish name. Though I’d spent the last year obsession over the minute details, I gave almost no thought to this one, opting for the name I’d randomly been assigned in Hebrew class six years earlier: Zeva. I liked it because it sounded exotic and chic and reminded me of Zena jeans, which were popular at the time. I later learned it was an unfortunate choice, the Israeli equivalent of Gertrude. It’s also an exact homonym of the Hebrew term for genital discharge. An unfortunate choice.
IN December of 1974, the local newspaper ran a picture of my family trying to stuff a Christmas tree into our Volkswagen Beetle. There’s my father, a Norman Rockwell with figure with furrowed brow, pipe, and Coke-bottle glasses, struggling mightily with the tree while my mother and my sister and I, little Chers in ponchos and pigtails, look on with mild alarm. It was intended as a cute lifestyle photo, but as far as our family was concerned it was hard news. It was the first and last time we actually paid for a tree.
We weren’t cheap so much as lazy. When you wait until December 24, no one’s going to charge you for the crisp, teetering remains. Sometimes the lot let us have the tree for free. Other times we were given one by a school or a business already closed for the holiday. Usually we pulled a prematurely discarded tree off a neighbor’s trash pile. One year we struck out entirely and had to decorate a houseplant instead, its tiny pathetic branches bending with the weight of a few tin ornaments. “A Christmas fern.” My mother sighed. “It’s the saddest, silliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s a Christmas twee.”
I’m not sure why we bothered with a tree at all. Decorating the tree was always an exercise in dysfunction, the occasion of our biggest annual family fight. My mother got annoyed because no one was doing enough to help; my sister and I sulked because my mother was yelling at us; and my father tried to look busy with some ancillary activity, mixing eggnog or adjusting the hi-fi to maximize the sound quality of the holiday sound track. We plowed through the job sullen and mute, shooting one another hostile looks as we piled on crocheted snowflakes, glitter-encrusted sugarplums, garish blinking lights, and a flurry of tinsel icicles. Being a family that refuses to throw anything away, we had hundreds of ornaments, half of them bent or broken but all of them still in play. We kept on decking until the tree was tarted up like a North Florida stripper. At that point we crowned the sagging mass with a fraying straw star: ta da, it was done. My mother stepped back to admire our work, swirling a glass of eggnog nearly brown with bourbon. “Well, that looks craptacular,” she announced. “Happy Birthday, J.C.”
It was always a disaster, a fire hazard, an eyesore. Even the family pets were moved to register on their displeasure. The dog peed on it; the cat ate the needles. A tree doesn’t belong in a house. More specifically, it didn’t belong in our house. It was a violation of the promise the rabbi had extracted from my parents when he married them. Ours was to be a Jewish home, with Jewish kids: no crucifixes, no crèches, a mezuzah on every doorpost, giant Stars of David clanging around all our necks. We would fly an Israeli flag from the front porch and on Sunday mornings we would gather, strong and tan from planting trees with our Zionist youth group, to toast our heritage as herring juice ran down our chins.
It was my father who broke the bargain and brought home the first tree when my sister and I were still babies. My mother was spending Christmas three thousand miles away from the rest of her family, with a husband who had work Christmas Day and two children who were, likely as not, condemned to hell because she hadn’t been permitted to baptize us. A tree was the least he could do. From there it all followed: the manger scene, the Advent calendar, the stuffed Santa, the silver angels, the red and green wooden block letters my sister always rearranged to spell S-A-T-A-N. A dinky menorah languished off to the side.
“The best of both worlds,” family friends told us, clucking approvingly. “What lucky girls you are.” But what did they know? Their families’ biggest holiday dilemma was whipped or mashed; ours was only begotten son or false messiah. December is the hardest time of the year for an interfaith family. Oh sure, it sounds great: Maccabees and magi! Candles and carols! Festive meals and, best of all, the presents, double presents, eight days of Hanukkah plus Christmas, making nine glorious days of greed. But my friends’ good-natured jealousy was sadly misplaced. The extra presents always turned out to be crap excavated from the bottom of my mother’s purse, Kleenex packets and breath mints and ballpoint pens bearing Realtors’ names. It’s hard to sustain the holiday spirit of magic and miracles when you’re staring down a stocking stuffed with disposable razors and key chains. The interfaith feast that followed didn’t make things any better. Latkes with ranch dressing and spiral-cut ham may be someone’s idea of a dream dinner, but it sure wasn’t mine.
MY friends were confused by the whole High Holiday production, but they understood one thing: I got to stay home from school, and this was to be envied. Every fall my classmates pelted me with questions about conversion. “What if you’ve already been circumcised?” they asked. “Are you good to go?”
I answered their questions politely, but inside I scoffed at their ignorance. They had no idea. My days off were hard-won in annual pitched battles with my parents. The outcome was always the same: I was permitted Yom Kippur and one day of Rosh Hashana, but I was nuts if I thought I was getting off for Sukkot. “Suck what?” my family asked. “You made that one up.”