Thursday, September 09, 2010

Happy New Year - A Tale of Rosh Hashanah

"I don't wear dresses," my mother says.

It's true. I think back and I can't remember a single time I have ever seen her in a dress or skirt. She wears velor track suits, sleek sweat pants and puffy sweat shirts over them. I try to remember my uncle's wedding two years ago and what she wore to that and it was pants because that was in Millpond and no one there cares if you wear pants in a church. My stepfather hadn't gone to the ceremony because he is Jewish and won't set foot in a church, but later he met us at the reception.

"Why do you have to wear a dress?" I ask.

I am almost twelve. My mother has just gotten custody of me and I've moved to be with her in New York where I've just started seventh grade at a new school. It is a holiday I've never heard of, can't spell and can't pronounce, but it's the Jewish new year, which is ridiculous to me because it's September. How can it be New Years if it's September?

We're going to celebrate it. I choose to say we're going to temple. They call it "shul" or "synagogue" but temple is the word with which I am most familiar, so I'm calling it that. I can spell temple. I can say it, but why are we going anyway and when they tell me it lasts all day I begin to panic. Why would you need to go to church or temple or whatever they call it for New Years? Why does it last so long? Back in Millpond I went to church every Sunday and it was only an hour, even on Christmas and Easter and then you got the rest of the day free to have fun.

"You have to wear a dress because that's how Jewish people are. They're religious and women wear dresses to temple," my mother says, but I can tell she's not happy by the way she immediately lights up another cigarette when her first one burns down.

I don't care about wearing a dress. I have plenty, though I'm outgrowing most of them. My mother has no dresses so we have to go to Bradlees and get her a long skirt and some panty hose. She keeps asking me if she looks fat in them and I tell her she doesn't and then she wonders if her perm is wearing out and if she should get a new one or just do the hot rollers.

School is closed for two days for the Jewish holidays in New York. As I get up and put on my dress I think about how everyone I left back in Millpond is in homeroom now and I wonder, had I stayed, what homeroom I would have been in this year. But I live in New York now and I don't have to go to school. I'm going to be Jewish now, which makes me wonder, do I still get to watch the ball drop on December 31st or is this it for me now?

We have to pick up my father's best friend Howie on the way. He's going to services with us. They call it "services." At my old church we had a service. For Jewish people it's plural. Howie sits with me in the back of the Buick and he stinks. He has the worst garlic breath I've ever smelled. He smells like our refrigerator when I forget to wrap the Hebrew National salami tightly enough. I sit there and breathe through my mouth like I do whenever I pass the school cafeteria so I don't have to smell it.  My mother cracks the windows and asks Howie what in the hell he ate.

"Nothing, just a little Turkish salad and eggs this morning. No big deal," he answers.

My parents smoke and smoke up in the front seat so the Buick smells like garlic and cigarettes by the time we get to the temple. Since we're late we can't find a parking spot and drive around the lot several times before my father pulls up on some grass under a tree.

"I can't go in. I'm sick," my mother says.

My heart begins to race. My mother is sick. What's wrong with her?

"With what?" my father asks.

She shakes her head and closes her eyes, making a hand gesture that seems to shoo him away.

"What is wrong with you?" he repeats.

"I'm sick. Just go in and I'll come in in a little while."

Then she turns around and tries to get me to go in too, but I'm scared so I refuse and say I'll wait for her.

When they're gone, she opens up the passenger door and throws up on the ground. I plug my ears and sing "La La La" so I can't hear it and all I can hear is my heart beating hard.

"What's wrong with you?" I ask, frantically.

"Calm down. I just got car sick from smelling Howie's fucking breath. It's disgusting."

"You're not sick?"

"I'll be fine."

She finds napkins in the glove compartment and throws them on the throw up, then lights another cigarette, smokes it and goes rummaging through her pocketbook for gum, which she doesn't find. We don't talk at all until she tells me to come on, we have to go inside.

The temple is big and modern and looks nothing like a church I've seen except that it has pews and an altar. There's no choir or organ or stained glass. I don't see any flowers and the decor reminds me of the Brady Bunch house. We just stand outside of the big room, peering in, trying to see where my father and Howie are seated but there are hundreds of people, some standing, some sitting, many rocking back and forth. Last year in my school in Millpond there was a retarded boy who would sit and rock all day and they remind me of him. This is less organized than church. There is no music. Nothing makes sense. An old lady walks by, looks at my mother and pats the top of her own head, on which she's bobby-pinned a triangle of lace. The woman points to a basket containing discs of thin, cheap lace and my mother, confused takes one, folds it in half and pins it to her own head and then, for good measure, does the same thing to me before we go inside and shuffle into a pew near the back next to strangers.

I scan the room and see some familiar faces of kids from school. I've passed them in the hallways but don't know them. I haven't made any friends at my new school yet. The kids say I talk funny. I went to the guidance counselor every day for a week until she referred me to the school psychologist Dr. Katz, who I see once a week instead of gym class, which is a pretty good deal. Dr. Katz is here too, so I try not to make eye contact with him. I don't want him to see me.

The one thing I notice is that none of the other girls, little, teenage, in between like me, are wearing the lace on their heads. It's only the moms. People are looking at me funny, but I don't know what to do. I don't want to embarrass my mother by taking it off, so I leave it. Every so often I touch the top of my head to feel it there. My mother chews the inside of her mouth, twisting her lip to one side to do it. Her leg jumps violently and she never stops looking for my father and Howie. I know she needs a cigarette.

Finally there is some kind of a break and everyone files out. We find the men and my mother says she is very sick and needs to go home immediately even though the services aren't over for the day yet, so Howie drives us home in our car, then drives back.

At home, the first thing she does is rip off the skirt and the panty- hose and then we watch the Young and the Restless and make sandwiches of salami, cheese and tomatoes on Lenders onion bagels, which we run under the broiler. All day we watch TV on my mother's bed because on TV it's not some strange holiday. It's just like any other day. The soaps, then the talk shows, then the news.

The New Year lasts for two days. No one tells me why, but this is fine with me because that means school is still closed. We don't go to services and my mother, who has run the pair of panty-hose to shreds so that she has to stuff them back in the plastic egg and throw them in the trash, does not put the skirt back on.

It is the first time we've visited my father's parents since I've lived in New York. Will they be my new grandparents, like he is my new father I wonder? I feel like I shouldn't embarrass him or my mother, like I need to impress his parents so they don't think I was another bad decision. I wear a dress. This time, I don't pin anything to my head.

They live all the way in Floral Park, which doesn't look like it sounds. They live in a huge high rise, in a small apartment on the first floor and have so many pictures on the walls that you can barely see the paint and most of the pictures are of religious people, like them, all wearing hats, bending and praying, people mid-rock. Everything in the house is written in another language and the letters aren't even the same. They aren't even read left to right like ours and they're all speaking in Hebrew when we come in and their apartment is like how I'm already failing pre-algebra because I can't find x or understand the concept of negative numbers.

They aren't rude, but it feels like they ignore my mother and me. My father's sister is there and I don't have to wonder if she is my new aunt because she makes it clear that she has no interest in that. I have heard the words skiksa and goyim and know what they mean. I wonder if she calls us this when we aren't there. She doesn't even look at my mother. She is wearing a long skirt and so is my grandmother. Is she my grandmother or is she just my father's mother?

We sit at a long table covered in a white cloth and on top of that a plastic sheet. Tall silver candelabras grow up from the center like trees. There is wine and a plate of red apples beside a crystal jar of pollen colored honey and it's pretty. We do this too in a way. It reminds me of Thanksgiving when my other grandparents put the leaf in the table, cover it with their own white cloth and fall decorations. There is chicken soup and raisin bread dipped in the honey, which I love. We cut up the apples and dip those in the honey too to have a sweet year to come. I eat a lot because I want my year to be sweet. I want to make friends. I want a boy to like me and this will take a lot of honey.

Then they start singing in their language and banging the rhythm on the table. They all know the words but my mother and I don't so again I am left feeling nervous and confused. I begin to understand the concept of negative numbers. It is a feeling; the feeling of being less than nothing of not having a place until I remember that we sing songs too. We have Christmas carols that we too have memorized and these people wouldn't know any of them just like I don't know their songs. We sing songs too. All people like to sing to celebrate and this makes me feel a little better. I begin to nod my head and to tap lightly on the table too. I have more honey and begin to find my place.

I start with the easy things first. I add honey, then the word for honey, apples and raisin bread. I add a new rhythm to my life which I tap out on the table shyly at first, then louder with each passing year. I add in more words and the words become full sentences one day. I can sing entire songs by heart which choke me up the same way as certain Christmas carols. In time I love them the same. I add in all the people with their hats and their rocking prayers. The other becomes familiar. As I grow older I learn the recipes and the stories behind the recipes. I add a whole new family. I am no longer less than nothing. I am much more than zero and I was never a bad decision. There is a place for me at the table each September, because they have added me too and in all our lives there is room for new traditions and ideas and ways of seeing and celebrating. There is abundance. The apples roll from the plate. The honey runs onto the tablecloth. I laugh with my aunt and joke with my cousins. My grandparents embrace me. It is ok that my mother wears pants.

They are no longer my "new" family. They are just my family and I am theirs.

Happy New Year and may it be very, very sweet for all of you.


jennifer said...

dont get me wrong here - you write plenty enough. But I still cant help but want more. Happy you are still writing and that somehow I found your site.

Joy said...

totally teary and choked up here. That was amazing. Thank you so much for sharing it.

Jessica said...

Beautiful! Maybe someday I will tell you about how my stepmother's mother (my Baptist Gramma) took in my boyfriend (now second husband, a former Fundamentalist Christian)and his beautiful boys with one simple gesture. Thank you.

kerry said...

Awwww! I love this! You are definitely not less than zero, and I'm glad you found your place and "family" really is family.

Happy new year to you! May it be sweet.

LegalMist said...

That was beautiful. Thank you, and Happy New Year to you, too. :)

Melanie said...

That is the most heart-warming story I've ever read in my entire life. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I think this is my favorite post you have ever written.

jmm said...

Floral Park! I grew up there. I'm guessing your grandparents are from the Queens side if they lived in a highrise apt.

Vic said...

That was beautiful. I cried.
Thank you.

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