Once, I was afraid I wouldn’t ever have a boyfriend. I was almost 12, kicked out of Yeshiva, transferred to a different private school and I was taking bat mitzvah lessons at a Reform synagogue in my neighborhood. In order to take lessons, I had to go to a Hebrew school after my regular day school. Most of the kids in my class went to public school during the day and none of them had ever been to a Yeshiva. I spoke and read Hebrew better than all of them. I wasn’t proud of that. In fact, I pretended not to know a lot because I wanted to fit in with what seemed to me a completely different kind of Jewish crowd. And so what does having a boyfriend have to do with any of this? I’ll tell you.
At 12, I was confused. The Orthodox Jewish boys I knew never looked at me because my family wasn’t religious and I wasn’t Jewish enough for them. The boys at my new day school (which wasn’t Jewish) looked at me like I was an alien. But, everyone at the Hebrew school I went to seemed weird like me. No one was religious, they liked listening to mainstream music and one boy wore his hair long past his shoulders and had a bright blue yarmulke. His name was Spencer and he kept a cassette tape of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning in his back pocket. He had a girlfriend named Rosie who he talked about constantly. His eyes were green and I was totally in love with him.
I remember that, as a 12-year-old girl, I would go home crying that I was fat and ugly, that no boy would ever look at me and that I would die alone. All of that was untrue, but, at 12, it was how I felt inside. I felt ugly, fat and never Jewish enough for anybody, not even for myself. If I knew anything it was Torah study and rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, I never thought those two worlds could ever collide. So, when I started bat mitzvah classes, I was sad that Spencer had a girlfriend but I was ecstatic that the possibility of someone like him existed. He was proof that there was some other kind of faith out there—and that faith involved the Hebrew alphabet and electric guitars.
At 12 I had also never kissed a boy. Once a week at the Hebrew school, I would have to meet with the cantor in a private classroom. He would ramble on about the different notes of the Torah, how I would have to sing four pages in Hebrew in front of one hundred people. Then he always asked me why I never studied. While he spoke, I thought about kissing boys. I never told him I already knew the notes of the Torah by heart. I didn’t let him know that the four pages I would recite in synagogue on the day of my bat mitzvah were already hidden in my memory like glue. I also left out the significant fact that my father played classical piano and asked me to sing show tunes on weekends for fun while he played on the Steinway in our living room. I told him nothing. I just sat there and got yelled at. I sat there and pretended I couldn’t read Hebrew.
Spencer sat next to me on Tuesdays in a class where we had to learn about psalms. We would talk about music, records and of course, his girlfriend Rosie. He would tell me how he always made out with her in the hallways at their school. I would stare at him and wonder what it felt like to be a Rosie. I pictured her like a 1980’s movie star crush, somewhere between Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club and Demi Moore in Saint Elmo’s Fire. Then one day, something happened.
A week before my bat mitzvah, the Hebrew school classes were winding down and coming to an end. One of our teachers told us that we could have a free day and go down to the gym to play ball or just hang out. Spencer decided that instead of going to the gym, we should walk around the upstairs of the synagogue that was attached to the school. The synagogue had an old ballroom that no one used. It was a landmark building and it needed a lot of repair at the time. There were 10 rooms that had been abandoned. Spencer and I hung back while our class went downstairs. Separately we both asked the teacher if we could go use the bathroom. When the coast was clear, we snuck up to the third floor of the synagogue. The ballroom door was unlocked and we walked in. Spencer knew where all the lights were because he had been attending the Hebrew school since he was a toddler. He knew every secret passageway and every hideout.
The ballroom looked like a creepy abandoned vaudeville theatre from another time. It felt like we had stepped into the past. There were chairs stacked up against the walls and the gold paint around the crystal chandeliers was cracking. Water was dripping somewhere and the floor was a rotting wood. There was also a small stage and we went to sit at the edge of it. I wasn’t sure why we were there, but it seemed cool to be 12 years old with the boy I liked in a secret ballroom. We talked for a long time about Metallica. I argued that AC/DC was a better band. He laughed and at some point he took off his yarmulke.
“I hate this thing,” he said. When I asked him why, he just shrugged, “It’s just not who I am.” I remembered that for a long time. What did he mean? Was it the way it made him look more Jewish than he really felt? Did he hate being Jewish? Did he not believe in G-d? Did he feel like me—like he would never be Jewish enough for our neighborhood? If I could go back in time, I would want to know the answer. But, that’s all he said, “It’s just not who I am.” Judaism was a part of him. It was a part of me. I liked that he could be Jewish and be unafraid to like things like heavy metal and rock. He could have faith in two things. So admitting that he hated his yarmulke saddened me a little.
Spencer was shorter than I was, which made it awkward when, on our way out of the ballroom, he wouldn’t let me open the door to leave. Instead he stood in front of it. When I laughed and tried to push him out of the way, he kissed me. It wasn’t a long kiss, but it was enough to make me turn red and start shaking. It was enough to make me wonder what had happened. His hair fell in his eyes and when he pushed it back, he put his yarmulke back on and opened the door. I was stunned into silence.
Once I was afraid I wouldn’t ever have a boyfriend. Once I was afraid that the way my family celebrated Jewish holidays wasn’t the “right” way. Once I feared I would never kiss a boy. Yet, my first kiss defied all of my fears. When a boy with long hair and green eyes takes off his yarmulke to kiss you in an abandoned ballroom of a synagogue, the universe opens with possibility. I like to think that I held onto that kiss and kept it in my back pocket for most of my life. Whenever I thought it impossible to have faith in two different things at the same time, I would remember Spencer and his Ride the Lightning cassette tape. I would think that, for a split second of my childhood, I became a Rosie.
Today I live in an apartment right next door to the synagogue where I had my first kiss. I have a 2-year-old daughter and a 5-week-old daughter. My household is a Jewish and Mexican-Catholic household. I celebrate the Jewish holidays in no particular “right way.” I celebrate them traditionally—the way my family has done for generations. We have Christmas trees and menorahs. We have Jewish stars and Virgin Marys. No one wears a yarmulke and no one cares. We know who we are.
I’m sure having two girls will bring its fair share of drama. When my daughters are teenagers and they question how Jewish or how Catholic they are, I can only hope that they meet a Spencer. I can only hope they delve into both of their faiths and what each faith has to offer. I can only hope they understand that what you believe is what you become, that a unique blend of religions is not something to be ashamed of but something to celebrate. Like life, nothing happens the way we wish it. If I have any advice for my daughters as they travel on their own journeys it is this: 1) No one should ever take off their yarmulke because they feel ashamed. 2) You are always Jewish enough. 3) Don’t let anyone else define your faith or religion and 4) If someone asks you to go with them to an abandoned ballroom, always say yes (as long as you feel comfortable with that person!).