Snapshots of Fidelity
A reflection on the holidays through the lens of a split family interfaith home
I sit in near darkness, the only light coming from a sheer purple cloth covering me. In one hand I hold a piece of paper I’ve creased by rubbing the corners between my fingers (a habit that has destroyed documents for years of my life), and in the other I hold a handful of glitter from a vial labeled “fairy dust” on a two-dollar necklace I had bought all by myself. My mother didn’t say glitter was part of the ritual, but I thought it would make my appearance more impressive.
At this point, I know four things about how the evening is supposed to go. One, I am supposed to wait until they call for the new sun and then I will say my speech. Two, the only reason I’m not watching The Powerpuff Girls with my older brother and sister is because I’m the youngest and the only one who could still fit inside the cauldron. Three, by participating in the Winter Solstice I get first pick of the presents and the treats on the dessert table. Four? I’d already eaten three slices of my first pick without anyone noticing and my body did not approve, especially when the smells of incense and skunk waft their way through the air.
Three days and one stomachache later, I’m hundreds of miles away with my father, and we spend a week in an apartment with two rooms and traffic roaring behind the front door. We light candles and paint dreidels and my to-be stepmother starts reading us Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the very first time.
After we finish the book, we are swept back to the country and my stepfather scatters hay on the table and tells us it represents the manger Christ was born in. I worry about the tea lights scattered on the table tipping over.
As I try to fall asleep that night, I catch myself wondering why there’s a Santa for Christmas but parents give you presents at Hanukkah and there’s nothing but a long night for Winter Solstice. I brush the thought off until the next morning, when one of the gifts in my stocking is a pair of scissors with the Dollar Store logo emblazoned on the side.
“Santa’s had a hard year,” my mom tells me when I ask.
My father takes us to the temple during one of our weekends with him, not because he’s particularly religious, but because my grandparents are visiting and they are. Born in Greece and Turkey and having spent most of their youth in Israel, they’ve resided in New York City since 1968, the year after the Six-Day war. It’s difficult to understand what they say to me, with a thick accent revealing more of a life than I’ve had the chance to live so far.
I’m told that Muslim people are bad, but my stepmother explains later that they aren’t, not really.
I decide that no one’s beliefs are bad, even if grown ups say that they are.
When my new friend at my new school invites me over for a Saturday sleepover, I’m excited to meet her horses and spend a night talking with someone instead of listening to a TV roaring in the background. When her family joins hands and prays at dinner, I bow my head for as long as they do, then smile and nod at their questions.
The next morning when they bring me with them to church, I ignore the sermon speaking about the unfaithful Jews at the cross. There is a chocolate fountain and I am consumed with curiosity why there’s chocolate when the old man in the front is talking about death. In reality, I am more consumed with the desire for chocolate than I am with curiosity.
When my friend tells me I am going to hell and she wants to save me, I am uncomfortable. It is only when my other and best friend laughs at the idea that I refuse to let the girl pour holy water over my head. I tell her it won’t work, since it’s already raining and I don’t think heaven water and earth water should combine like that.
When she tells me later in the year that she’ll put a good word in with god for me when I’m in hell, I thank her and walk away. I wonder why she gets a free pass to bliss while everyone at my school thinks I am doomed. Instead of asking, I find the bible in my public school library and try to understand why I’m responsible for someone’s death.
Two boys who ride my bus pick up the habit of watching South Park, and ask me about the Jew gold they know I have. Thanks to holes in the road and grabbing hands, my locket is pulled off and the boys are surprised to find inside is a piece of moss. I don’t tell them why, even though they start calling me moss girl after that.
Later in the year, they tell me they will give me five dollars for a vial of Jew tears. I take the vial, walk into the bathroom, and fill it with water from the faucet. At home, I crinkle the five dollars in my pocket while my mother tells me that I can never tell people about her coven.
“If they knew that, they’d burn you at the stake,” she jokes. I think she jokes.
Like my older brother and sister, instead of having a Bat Mitzvah, my father takes me on a trip with him. We go to Vancouver, Canada. After a weekend wandering the hilly streets, I wonder what about this makes me more Jewish than before. I only recently learned that I’m probably half-Jewish—while my mother had converted when she married my father, the phrase “Moses can fuck himself” during the Great Easter/Passover debate of 1995 probably indicated de-conversion.
On Yom Kippur this year, I learn I’m supposed to fast and apologize for my mistakes. I make it about halfway through the day before anyone notices I haven’t eaten. When they do, someone congratulates me for trying to diet and I am given a stick of celery. I throw it away because I hate celery.
A girl on my bus tells me magic is real, and the fire in her eyes and constellations scattered across her cheeks makes me think she might be true. She lives half a mile away from me, which is like a next-door neighbor in the country, and I wake up early every morning to walk to her bus stop and listen to her version of the world. To me, kissing her feels like a sermon; her hands on my face are holy.
We hold hands on the bus ride and detach at school, a clandestine connection made only for private moments. I say we are just friends who kiss and explain to myself in journal entries that “I’m not a lesbo,” but I don’t anticipate how much it will hurt when she skips onto the bus late one day and tells me she had given a boy a blowjob in the locker room. The fire in her eyes smolder into coals as she describes a moment I do not wish to hear, and the idol I had built of her in my mind begins crumbling.
There is a community meeting at a local church about our town, and for once, my family attends. When a woman warns that they have to promote Christian values or the heathens and pot-smokers will infiltrate their homes, my stepfather thunders that he’d rather live with the pot-smokers.
I decide move to my father’s house for high school, and my mother tells me I am abandoning my younger siblings.
“It’s a shame you don’t love him enough to stay,” she says, cradling my newborn brother in the doorway of my shared bedroom. My older sister flies into a rage, and they scream at each other, and my baby brother screams at the air, and I continue packing, putting one book after another into a duffel bag. On my bookshelf is a copy of the bible, and I walk past the fight to ask my stepfather if he wants it, and he shakes his head. His variant on Christianity seems to be Christmas, Easter, and computer programming.
For the first time, I try praying. I ask God to give me cancer instead of someone else, because obviously they didn’t deserve it and having me out of the way might make everyone’s life easier. While in the past I had recited the blessings for Hanukkah, this time I try speaking in English. It’s refreshing to know what I’m actually saying.While “Baruch atah adonai” has a dignified ring to it, starting off with “Hi God, it’s me” seems more personalized, less like a form letter you’d receive in the mail.
In my rehearsed speech to God, I include the names of all of the deities I can remember off the top of my head. While Demeter makes the list, Jesus is added on haphazardly at the end, like a postcard—give my regards to your son.
I lie under the stars with my best friend, and we talk about emptiness and the meaning in the spaces in between the stars. Neither of us mentions the long sleeved shirt the other is wearing. It’s easier to pretend that the night was cold than to let the stars shine on ugly secrets neither of us care to show.
We agree that God is a myth but spirituality is a reality; the soft light of the stars lulls us to sleep as we whisper of the Pleiades.
When I come out, a classmate tells me I am going to hell. I laugh and respond that I know—but hell is where the good musicians are.
Or at least, I do in my head. I’m much more clever in my imagination, thinking up comebacks and witticisms that never see the light of day. In reality, I blush and mumble that it’s their opinion and stumble away, careening down a crowded hallway and counting my breaths.
In college, two different people tell me that Jewish people aren’t bullied in America anymore. I wonder which America they live in.
Natalia, my younger sister by 11 years, does not know what either Pagan or Wiccan means. My mother and I make eye contact as Natalia describes the bible study class she goes to and how no one really likes the one girl in her class who doesn’t go and instead stays in their social studies class.
“She doesn’t know?” I ask my mom when she comes inside, and she shrugs. Amidst Natalia’s clamoring requests to find out what she doesn’t know, I look at our living room, the crystals on the mantelpiece, the stained-glass covered goat skull hanging over our fireplace with a Santa hat covering the horns, the half-decorated Christmas tree, the menorah nestled in a box with newspaper and broken ornaments.
“It didn’t seem important,” my mom says as she tucks her box of cigarettes (or joints, I’m never sure any more) into her pocket. “Besides, it would have just made things complicated for her at school.”
I find out free trips to Israel are offered to Jewish young adults and I apply. Four months later I sit under a desert sky with more stars than I’ve ever seen and fifty of my peers surround me, silently struck at the thought of culture and religion and history being wrapped into one moment of silence. We look up at the sky as it looks back down, with no opinion or judgment, only a celestial certainty in the perfection of the moment.
I choose to be bat mitzvahed, and everyone tells me afterwards that my speech was the most inspirational they’d heard. I don’t tell them I stayed up the night before writing it out again and again, wanting to sound like a TED talk, wanting to sound like a real Jew, not Jew-ish. Later, one of the soldiers on our trip tells me I should stay in Israel, with my people. Eight drinks in, I respond that I don’t have one people, that I’m pulled in all directions like tangled yarn.
She laughs and asks, “Aren’t we all?”