Sects and the City, Part 1
I look upon [my] life as an adventure, full of danger and romance, and every privation as an amusing addition to my diary … what I’m experiencing [now] is a good beginning to an interesting life, and that’s the reason—the only reason—why I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments.
– Anne Frank, 1944
When I first read Anne Frank’s diary, I was not yet thirteen years old. I remember the book-report I wrote, and the cover-art I created with all its burning hearts and swastikas. I hole-punched the pages and bow-tied them together with bright green yarn. My Hebrew school teacher never graded nor returned my project. I think it stood in a glass case in our synagogue with a few other works of juvenile art—a Lincoln Log menorah, maybe a hand-painted mezuzah or two—but I can’t be sure. I took so much Dramamine back then, to stomach those long, Sunday car trips to Temple Emanuel, that even my memory is a bit motion-sick.
What I do recall is camping out in my home, in a cedar closet beneath the basement staircase, trying to simulate Anne’s persecution. I made three visits to the site before going into hiding: First I delivered the provisions; next, my homework and a flashlight; and, finally, my cat. I think I lasted about one hour, and that probably included one trip to the bathroom and another to the refrigerator. Out of respect for Anne, though, I tried to be quiet and think about how lucky I was to be alive and well-fed and Jewish and American and in school with all my friends. But soon my imagination/claustrophobia took over, and I found myself fantasizing about Prince Charming, or at least Shaun Cassidy, coming to my brave rescue.
I am not a religious person, and I do not believe in God. If asked about my beliefs, I find myself uttering the same words I used to address the congregation at my own bat mitzvah: “Being Jewish is about family and history and matzoh ball soup.” Mine is a typical, American-bred brand of Judaism that involves two Holy Days off from work in September, a Passover seder come April, and a schmear of weddings, funerals, and other ark-opening activities per calendar year. I am the shameful result of my ancestors’ suffering. I am Zionism’s greatest foe.
I am also a thirty-year-old female looking for love in New York City, which means that being Jewish is something that I am, even if I’d never choose to call it out in a personals ad, and even though I’ve never placed, or responded to, a personals ad in my entire life. And there are many others like me out there—SJFs who don’t go shopping for brand-name religious labels; SJMs seeking a soulmate, race/relig. unimpnt. (but pls. send foto!!!)—and we’re either too Jewish or too not-Jewish, too white-bred or too ethnic, too Billy Joel or too Beastie Boy. How, then, are we ever supposed to find kismet when kinship keeps getting in our way?
I wish I knew.
Religious affiliation is about as important to me as blood type is to a shark, and my appetite for new flesh is far from being satisfied. So I keep on swimming, hoping, bobbing for a bite out of the juicy Big Apple in which I live. Sometimes, I get lucky: a guy with a like-minded attitude about religion and politics and music comes along, and I am buoyed for a while, sated. But more often than not I’m going about the daily business of urban life—working overtime, going out overmuch, being cautious and caustic, dreaming up creative ways to be, and feel, connected…all the while trying to see that forest and those trees, reaching out for the one ripe apple among the rest in the rotten bunch.
Things have changed a lot since Anne Frank was holed up in her Secret Annex, stealing brief glimpses of the outside world from a broken window pane in the attic, wondering when the war against her people—my people—would end, and literally dying to have a boyfriend. She knew that there were more important, more miserable conditions beyond the confines of her own barren heart. “I know my (romantic) ideals seem absurd and impractical,” she wrote at age fifteen. “Still, I’m sentimental, I know. I’m despondent and foolish, I know that too. Oh, help me!”
Our circumstances were vastly different, but as a teenager I identified with Anne’s oppression and longing all the same. I too believed that I lived in a cruel, anti-Semitic world; and I was convinced that my being Jewish automatically disqualified me from ever falling in love.
Maybe it was the long, bumped slope beneath my brow. Or my frizzy hair that I tied up in tight, silk scarves every night, praying it would be straight by morning. It could have been my thirteen-letter last name, or the absent father to whom it was attributed. All of these things—these disgraceful, non-Aryan characteristics that kept me in the girls’ bathroom during recess to ward off the guerilla Darwinism of the schoolyard—contributed to a nascent preoccupation with my Jewishness. Indeed, it seemed as conspicuous to the male species as Hester Prynne’s A, or Anne’s six-pointed star safety-pinned to the lapel of her winter coat.
Why did I attribute all the angst of adolescence to my being Jewish? My feminist mother certainly has her reasons, as do a host of psychologists, anthropologists, rabbis, and plastic surgeons around the globe. This shame—this textbook Jewish paranoia—has shadowed me all the way into adulthood. It still amazes me when a man tells me that I am beautiful, and even then I bite my tongue to keep myself from convincing him otherwise. For the young Jewish Girl of my past brews inside of me, begging for attention; she’s in hiding on the dark side of the mirror, looking back at me with beady, berating eyes, reminding me that I will never appear, or be perceived, as “normal.”
She also encourages me to fall back on my Jewishness as an excuse for my romantic dissatisfaction. And I, in turn, continue to rack up enough evidence to support her theories.
I’ll call him David.
We all know this David, this creative-guy-behind-the-suit who walks the walk but falls flat on his face once the curtain’s down. He’s also Jewish, which raises the self-loathing bar to dangerous, seratonin-strained levels. David develops a movie-watching, dog-walking, let’s-go-jeans-shopping relationship with me, the “one who really understands [him],” only to reserve his romantic interest for a girl we’ll call Blake Cheever. This Blake is, to be expected, something out of a Brett Easton Ellis novel, replete with trust fund, magazine job, and a propensity to speak in quiet, question-marked sentences? So she became the girlfriend, I remained the friend, and weeks later—after they broke up—I couldn’t help but ask David: Why did you want to be “just friends” with me? “I don’t have just friends,” he told me. “I have real friends.” In other words, I am real. I am familiar. I am family. I am Esther, Rachel, Aunt Sylvia, Cousin Meredith, the red-haired roommate on Will & Grace.
I am a Jewish Girl.
Of course, for every David there’s an Amir, who could never take me seriously because his family spoke Farsi at the kosher Sabbath table while mine swore in Yiddish when the pepperoni pizza was delivered cold. And for every Amir there’s a James, whose Irish Catholic mother cared enough for me to attend a baby shower for her first grandchild, but refused to have me over for Easter dinner because I killed Christ.
There are lessons to be learned, to be sure. I’ve been kicked to the curb enough times to know that religion matters in a relationship, even when it doesn’t to an individual. While I still have not come to any great conclusions about Modern Romance, what I am apt to do is tell my stories—just like Anne did. She may never have experienced a “happily ever after,” but I still hope for that ending. Until then, I shall study my words like scripture, and pray for the day when I can grasp their meaning.
Elizabeth Frankenberger wrote a musical about Anne Frank when she was in elementary school in Andover, Mass. She is now a NYC-based SJF whose work recently appeared in Before and After: Stories from New York.