I Was A Pre-Pubescent Messiah

Hear Irina Reyn read “I Was a Prepubescent Messiah” at the Believer, Beware release party on June 29, 2009.

A Pre-Pubescent MessiahWhen my family left the Soviet Union for the United States in 1981, my parents decided that I would not lead the same God-less existence they had led. Persecutions coupled with seventy years of communism created lots of Russian Jews like my parents. Their Russian passports had been marked “Jew,” right below their name and birth date, but they’d never had any education as to what that might really mean. They were silently proud of their Jewishness, but they were completely ignorant of rituals, prayers, Biblical stories. In America, when they went to synagogue on Yom Kippur, they held the prayer books in their hands carefully. But their eyes would stare vacantly at the text.

When we found ourselves in Queens, the first thing my parents did was send me to Hebrew day school to undertake the religious re-education of my entire family. With this rather monumental burden on my shoulders, I shuffled off to the conservative Solomon Schechter School of Queens.

My grandfather, as the only other member of my family who went to synagogue regularly, picked me up after school. Sometimes we would go to synagogue as soon as I got off the school bus. Upon walking out, I always asked him what he prayed for. For months he gave me mysterious looks, and said, “It is something about you, Irochka.”

One snowy December afternoon, after another round of pleading, he whispered, “I pray to God for you to live forever,” and winked.

“What did God say?” I asked.

“He says you will,” my grandfather said, pressing the tip of my nose with his finger.

My feelings of being an awkward bystander, out of sync in America, were finally validated. In Solomon Schechter, the day was divided evenly between English/general education and Hebrew/Bible sections. I was surrounded by American Jews and immigrants from Israel, all of whom seemed to negotiate their terrain with immeasurable confidence, but I felt neither American nor Jewish.

In school, we watched somber documentaries about the Maccabees, always moderated by Abba Eban, but I was memorizing vocabulary for English class. In Bible class, I read Hebrew without understanding the words, tracing the print with my fingers, right to left, reciting Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow” speech under my breath. I had realized that if I would never succeed in uniting the two parts of the day into a seamless whole, I would place my full concentration on the English side, to prevent a lifetime of wandering.

A deathly pale, raven-haired Mrs. Hacker, who eerily resembled the Russian witch Baba Yaga, taught us various portions of the Bible with a demonic somnolence. In her class, I wrote short stories, hidden beneath the Bible, until I felt “The Hacker’s” black eyes boring into me and heard her frustrated sigh at my deliberate neglect. When she scanned the classroom for responses to particularly knotty Talmudian puzzles, she would skip over me automatically. But I had stopped feeling the faint ache of regret in my stomach, because I knew I had plenty of time-actually, an eternity-to ponder the Talmud.

This secret made the taunts wafting from the back of the bus and theblack-inked scribblings of “Communist!” on my new blue notebook bearable. If I would never fully experience the unrestraint of American belonging, at least I could embrace my difference as mystical strength, the potential for a kind of universal knowledge.

Buy Believer, Beware, from which this essay is excerpted, today!

Buy Believer, Beware, from which this essay is excerpted, today!

A few months later, sitting in Rabbi Spiro’s class, I woke up from my daydreams. Rabbi Spiro was a thin, aging man whom everyone respected. He held our attention not only with his quiet certainty, but also with his inability to move his neck, something we felt was probably a sign of great piety. He was talking about the Messiah, about how Jews everywhere yearned for his arrival and the preparatory measures we should all be taking for his imminent appearance. The leader of my tormentors, a gangly red-headed boy named Eedo, asked the rabbi, “But how do we know when he is coming?”

Rabbi Spiro smiled, shifting his body to look at Eedo. “Why, Eedo, do you think the Messiah is ‘he?’ In fact, it could be anyone at all, girl or boy, someone still growing up, not knowing who they are, what they will do later, saving the Jewish people.” The rabbi paused, surveying the class with the eyes that rarely missed anything peripheral no matter which way his body was directed. “It could be one of you.”

Was it my imagination, or was he looking at me? Granted, it was always difficult to tell with Rabbi Spiro, but now I understood the link between his words and my grandfather’s promises of my immortality. I knew without a doubt that this was a sign to me, an indication of a definable, undeniable identity that was being revealed to me through this great man. Rabbi Spiro knew that I was the Messiah.

Well aware of how any messiah would be treated within the junior high school social hierarchy, I kept my mouth shut about my unique role in the world. That summer, my parents sent me to my relatives in San Diego, and in a half-hearted attempt to extend my religious upbringing to summer vacation, they enrolled me in Gan Israel camp. Apart from baking endless loaves of challah, and maniacally counting the few mitzvot, or good deeds, I had accomplished that year, I sang the official camp song every morning with the rest of the campers. “Gan Israel have no fear, Moshiach”-Messiah-“will be here this year!” I watched everyone singing, some drawing out the word Moshiach, others lingering on “this year.”

Naturally, I felt I should be exempt from these songs, and tried to explain the situation very obliquely to the camp director, making every effort to give nothing away.

“You see, there is… um… no need for ME, to sing. Well, it’s just that… YOU know, I may know a few things about the Moshiach… um, let’s just say, these songs are stupid, for ME.” She gazed at me blankly, shoved a cherry popsicle in my hand and ushered me back in line to sing. I understood, with a sigh, that life for the Moshiach would always be permeated with such misunderstandings and cold dismissals. Suddenly I wanted to be one of those joyous people, calling out to the Moshiach innocently and communally, instead of marking myself with the loneliness of eternal solitude.

I came home a little wiser and sadder. “What’s wrong?” my mother asked, between bites of a ham sandwich, as I somberly handed her my Gan Israel Menorah, made out of red candle wax.

“I dunno, I just don’t think I’m ever really going to belong, you know?”

“Well, you’ll never be born here, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “But, after a few more years, you’ll be a real American, you’ll see.”

I watched her carefully placing the crooked, beautiful red menorah in the middle of our window sill, and made a mental note to myself. The next time I will go to synagogue with my grandfather, I will make sure he asks God if, maybe, instead of the Moshiach, God can make me an American.

Hear Irina Reyn read “I Was a Prepubescent Messiah” at the Believer, Beware release party on June 29, 2009.

Originally published at Killing the Buddha on February 9, 2001.

Irina Reyn is a contributing editor for Killing the Buddha. She lives in Brooklyn.