Solomon Schechter School of Queens was the type of yeshiva where religion, excruciating humiliation and romance were often intimately intertwined. As a recent Russian immigrant, I never managed to fit in, and like many 11-year-olds with only one friend, I found the average school day filled with dangerous social booby traps and large pockets of loneliness. That is, until my first date with The Holy Gnu.
The Holy Gnu was a freckled, rosy-cheeked Russian immigrant who came to school each day in a different plaid shirt, buttoned up to the bottom of his Adam’s apple. He could always be counted on to scream out the most ill-timed and obscure answers in Bible classes, usually referencing the kings’ sexual exploits. He was much-needed comic relief in a classroom led by teachers who combed through Talmudic law with the precision of medieval scribes. He couldn’t be missed in a crowd — his voice was always discernible over the din as his skinny frame weaved through the halls between Chumash and English classes. Even though The Gnu did not acknowledge the fact that we both came from the Soviet Union or that most of the 6th grade class did not voluntarily communicate with either of us, I secretly cherished our connection.
While I dealt with rejection by retreating into the world of imagination, The Gnu wisely accepted the title of “nerd” and raised it to an exalted status — he ordained himself head of a small nation. The pint-sized Gnu managed to fuse Church and State, demanding complete subservience from his subjects. If loyal, each subject would receive a title, such as Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar, during a Kabbalah-style ritual that culminated in a contract making the covenant binding and legal. I would only ever gather glimpses of rolled-up scrolls passed back and forth, a flourish of signatures, and communication in an unintelligible patois. However, what emerged was a Holy Gnuish Empire that rivaled the Hebrew Bible in its regular output of decrees and harsh reprimand for duties unfulfilled.
The 1980s TV show The Great Space Coaster may have been a possible inspiration for His Holy Gnuishness. (This popular children’s show showcased a hairy, green puppet named Gary Gnu, whose catchphrase was, “No g-news is good g-news with Gary Gnu!”) In any case, at the time I had little exposure to contemporary pop culture and was thus convinced that The Gnu was unique and deserved the respect of a Solomon.
Every year, our school held an all-important Valentine’s Day School Dance. When the annual dance arrived, I was prepared to have no date. Many had already picked their dates, in frantic passing of crumpled notes, during private conversations on the playground, via gifts of Valentine’s heart candy with messages like “Lover Boy” or “Dream Girl.” I pretended there was nothing in the air and twisted the drawstrings of my navy blue skirt nervously.
At their lunchroom table, the members of The Holy Gnuish Empire were in hushed counsel. Even the popular kids, who treated the colorful personages who made up the Empire with a contempt masking uneasiness, glanced over at the bobbed heads in vague curiosity. Rumors began to spread that The Holy Gnu had picked his date for the dance after hours of anguished deliberation.
The next day, after class ended and my best (and only) friend and I were deep in conversation, The Holy Gnu walked in the room. We were startled. The Gnu never walked without an entourage. We exchanged glances and my friend reverently backed away. I was left alone with The Gnu. He cleared his throat, his hand resting on the desk recently vacated by Cantor Schnitzer. “Would you go with The Holy Gnu to the dance?” he asked. Speechless, I nodded, realizing that for the first time I was experiencing the feeling of being the Chosen One, not in my fantasies, but tangibly, with witnesses. Respectful of the honor being paid me, I waited in silence until The Gnu left the room to rejoin his subjects.
There were many things to consider before the dance that weekend. At home, I played all my records — I had only three: Madonna, Abba and the Beatles — to guess which song we would be dancing to together so I could do some impromptu choreography. I also sat down at my desk trying to calculate the extent of my future power as The Holy Gnu’s consort. Would I be able to create my own laws? If so, would my best friend become an official member of the Empire as my second-in-command? Would I be able to banish? Appoint? Promote? Execute? Wear a tiara? Dictate foreign policy (in dealings with the popular crowd or the Israelis in our class)? Would I need to meet with Caesar weekly for long-term planning or do some traveling around the school with Genghis Khan to make sure everything was running smoothly? Finally the Bible classes were beginning to make sense, as I could now identify with various queens — Esther, for instance — in their attempts to wield influence with a royal husband in favor of the Jewish people.
The night of the dance, I put on an outfit I considered worthy of my future rank — a black turtleneck and red, plaid skirt. Accompanied by my friend, we arrived at the dance and surveyed the room. Madonna’s “Holiday” was playing in the dimly lit gym/synagogue. The prayer books were piled on a table and pushed against the wall. There was an air of reckless gaiety as sixth graders attempted awkward socializing in the room usually reserved for morning prayers or dodge-ball. Casually, I sauntered over to the beverage table and ordered a Coke from Cantor Schnitzer, trying out my new, regal voice of authority: “A Coke, please, Cantor.”
My friend and I went over to the wall, leaning on the table with the prayer books. Two couples were dancing, but the rest of the gym consisted of tight-knit groups of girls and boys laughing and jumping to the music. The three girls next to us at the wall looked over and reluctantly said, “Hi,” continuing to discuss last weekend’s bar mitzvah, which I hadn’t been invited to. Normally I would have gripped the cup tightly at the thought of not being invited to yet another bar mitzvah, but this time I sipped my soda calmly and even said “Hi” in return.
Two hours went by and the members of The Holy Gnuish Empire were keeping to themselves in the opposite corner. The Gnu stood in the middle of the circle, gesturing wildly and throwing occasional glances my way. I tried to look indifferent and tapped my foot to the music. I allowed Cantor Schnitzer to pour me three more Cokes. I languidly flipped through Genesis. At last, Marc Antony strolled over and solemnly announced, “The Holy Gnu would like to dance with you now.” I followed Antony to the court and presented myself to The Gnu. With his subjects around him, he suddenly looked very small and fragile, in desperate need of protection. His hair had a careful part on the right side, and his plaid shirt looked neater than usual tucked into his gray corduroy pants. “Hey,” he said. Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” began to blare over the loudspeakers.
The Holy Gnu led me out in the middle of the dance floor and I felt all eyes on me. As he undulated spastically, I swayed as planned days before, allowing my skirt to billow attractively. Under the influence of four Cokes and Michael Jackson in the background, it seemed to me that his energetic dance was a way of telling me that he understood my struggles and was trying to overcome the same fears I was. The room began to spin and The Holy Gnu, the popular kids, the Israelis, the Empire and my friend by the wall near the prayer books all congealed into a single dark mass. Forgetting my careful choreography, I started moving faster — hopping, sliding, twisting — imitating his frenzied movements. “Too high to get over. Too low to get under,” Michael Jackson belted as The Gnu and I danced in perfect, uncoordinated rhythm. “You’re stuck in the middle…” For a single moment we really were king and queen, eyes locked in silent communion.