It’s a completely reasonable question, though generally people have been asking it a little shyly: “Why did you want to write a book about Jews and obscenity?” The implicit question, I think, is “I know you’re Jewish—are you also some kind of perv?”
I don’t quite accept the terms of that second, implied question—I’m sex-positive, and don’t cotton to the stigmatizing of responsible, thoughtful people who are into, say, polyamory or BDSM—and I’m also quite sure that the last thing I’d do if I did have some outlandish and/or shameful sexual tastes would be to announce them in the Q&A after an book event at a JCC or synagogue. Or here.
But the real explanation as to why I wrote Unclean Lips is simpler: I discovered the works of Philip Roth as a teenager, loved them, eventually read all of them, imitated them, and then went to get a PhD in English with the intention of writing about them. When I got to grad school, my advisor, hearing that I’m Canadian, recommended that I read Adele Wiseman’s 1974 novel Crackpot, which turned out to be the brutally frank story of an obese Jewish prostitute in Winnipeg.
As I kept reading, I found myself asking, “Why are so many of these great writers so obsessed with both Jewishness and sex?” And, wondering about that, I decided to read up on the history of the representation of sex in American literature in general. In books like Edward De Grazia’s magisterial Girls Lean Back Everywhere and Walter Kendrick’s brilliant The Secret Museum, I quickly came across cases including Rosen v. US (1896), Roth v. US (1957), Ginsberg v. NY (1968), and Cohen v. California (1971). And, naturally, I wondered about all those names, which were more or less identical with the names of the kids who had gone to Jewish Day School with me.
Who were these people, and why did they keep ending up on the wrong side of the law of obscenity? Were there any connections between these legal defendants named Roth, Ginsberg, and Cohen, and the literary writers named Roth, Ginsberg, and Cohen whose works I had been reading? It was hard to tell. The historians, literary scholars, and lawyers who wrote about obscenity in American culture, like De Grazia and Kendrick, didn’t say much about who the namesakes of those cases were.
I wanted to know more. That’s what got me started on the reading and research that led me to write Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture.
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A sixteen-year-old boy, driving drunk, killed four people. His attorneys cited “affluenza” as the cause of his recklessness and recommended treatment, not confinement. Affluenza is the term used to describe youngsters who are out of control as a result of wealthy indulgent parents who set no limits or consequences.
The judge sentenced him to ten years’ probation and treatment for his alcoholism. Her decision has attracted a lot of attention. The victim’s families are outraged, demanding justice. Would a poor or minority teen have escaped incarceration? Was justice bought? Is punishment justice? Is justice subjecting everyone equally to the harshest punishment?
My experience with youngsters afflicted with affluenza shapes my opinion that this is an enlightened judge and a reasonable sentence. Good treatment and community service can teach this young man responsibility and remorse, allowing him to redeem himself through a life of service to others. Incarceration, revenge and punishment would merely reinforce his sense of entitlement and victimization, the cause of his irresponsible actions.
Enlightened consequences to criminal and irresponsible actions should be equally applied, regardless of wealth or the best defense attorneys. This to me, is more just than subjecting everyone to a system of punitive confinement that is equally ineffective. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
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Until I moved to India, I’d never viewed being Jewish as something unusual. I grew up in an upper middle class Boston suburb, where Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were public school holidays for the entire district. The cafeterias in middle school and high school served matzoh all week long every Passover. We grew up thinking that Hanukkah was just as big of a deal as Christmas.
After college, in New York City, my husband and I synagogue-hopped with friends during the High Holy Days and ate kosher Chinese with his Orthodox cousins in Queens. We were as easily, transparently Jewish as we were young and ambitious and naive about the world. We took our religion, and the community that came with it, for granted. We didn’t know any better. We had never been “other.” I couldn’t even imagine what that felt like…until “other” became the very essence of my relationship with the world around me.
In India, we were seen as different the minute we stepped off the airplane. Hyderabad hadn’t yet experienced the influx of Westerners so many other Indian cities had. Seventy percent Muslim, the city had wanted to secede and become part of Pakistan (look on a map and you’ll see why such a wish was impossible). We were not only white; we were Jewish in a predominantly Muslim city. I saw women in burkas and felt even more like an outsider than I had just being an American in India.
But no one we met knew what “Jewish” was. As white people, we were automatically categorized as Christian. My driver, Venkat, with limited education and English skills but endless enthusiasm for learning about Western culture, simply could not wrap his head around the fact that Jay and I went to temple to observe our faith. The only temples he knew were Hindu; the only white people he knew went to church.
During the holidays, strangers would stop us on the street and shout “Happy Merry Christmas, Sir and Ma’am!” We received dozens of Christmas cards and gifts from friends and colleagues. It was clear our new community wanted to celebrate with us, but most attempts we made to explain “Jewish” and “Hanukkah” were met with confusion. We were Western, therefore we must celebrate Christmas. End of story. In the end, we stopped trying to swim upstream and graciously accepted our Merry Christmas wishes and bouquets of daisies dyed red and green.
It wasn’t until we traveled to Kerala and visited the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi that I realized how deep and intrinsic Judaism was to my identity—and how much I’d missed feeling connected to my faith. Located in “Jew Town,” the orthodox Paradesi synagogue is one of only a handful of functioning synagogues in all of India and one of the only ones with a minyan. No rabbi is present, but their services are led by community elders.
Setting foot in that synagogue, in the middle of India, I felt home in a way I still can’t quite describe. Even though we were still so firmly and obviously in India, a sense of home washed over me like warm, calming rain. I looked at the Hebrew letters with eyes that had grown accustomed to Sanskrit and Hindi and felt connected again to a part of me I’d been ignoring since we left the United States. Being Jewish wasn’t just about what I believed, but an intrinsic part of who I was.
It was truly amazing how this religion I’d often neglected, had taken for granted or passed over in favor of working and playing and being young in New York, had suddenly grounded me in faith and familiarity right in the middle of a country I’d been struggling for months to find my place in. India, so foreign and beautiful and confusing, was also—at least for that moment, in that tiny, ancient white synagogue in Kerala’s Jew Town—a place that felt like home.
Thirty years ago I was drawn to a classified ad in the LA Times looking for a Social Worker with an MSW to visit Jewish convicts in county jails, state and federal penitentiaries – the perfect position for a nice Jewish girl addicted to bad boys.
I “fell in love” with the process of transformation and became addicted to redemption. It has become a parallel process – becoming whole within myself as I experienced the extreme dichotomies as the “bad boys and girls” in jail.
I found a teaching in Judaism that defined my mission:
A great Rabbi’s disciples asked him how he could so readily understand the problems of gamblers and thieves and other troubled men and women who came from the darker places of life. The rabbi explained:
“When they come I listen hard to them. I look deep into their eyes and I discover that their weaknesses are reflections of my own. It is not that I have done what they have done but I sense within me their lusts, desires, weaknesses, temptation. I find in them, myself… Once there was a man who came to me with confessions of his transgressions and though I listened attentively I could find nothing whatsoever that I had in common with him. There was nothing of his sins that were in me. Then I knew the truth: I must be hiding something within myself of which I was not fully conscious.”
I, too, alternated between extremes. I victimized myself, imprisoned in a repetitive cycle of saving the world or destroying myself. I started and abandoned projects, ideas, Gurus and relationships. I was fat or thin, grandiose or self-pitying, in love or in bed.
My spiritual awakening was my conscious decision to hear the call to mission as Divinely ordained. My challenge was to sustain the ordained. I have done that for 30 years, one day at a time. In 1985 I wrote to the Federal Emergency Management Act (under the auspices of Gateways Hospital) for a one-time grant to buy an old house in downtown Los Angeles for men and women coming out of prison who were otherwise homeless. I called it Beit T’Shuvah – the House of Return and Redemption. Today it is a thriving faith-based recovery community for people addicted to substances, dangerous behavior and all the rest of us recovering from the human condition of brokenness. From my point of view – you are either in recovery or denial.
My professional training and experience taught me to diagnose and pathologize the necessary existential angst of the search for wholeness and meaning. We medicate essential suffering with pills or the distractions of quick fixes.
My search for wholeness, answering the question, which is the real me and how do I get rid of the other one? was answered by the Jewish wisdom tradition. Judaism teaches that humans are created with opposing inclinations – yetzer tov and yetzer hara. The “AHA!” moment was the belief that both are from God. The Good Inclination is Good, and the Evil Inclination is VERY Good. The key to wholeness is action. Action is the ignition switch – one sacred action at a time, no matter what you feel.
My first sacred action was making my bed as an antidote to existential despair – what’s the point? why bother? Sacred living is choosing life, one action at a time – choosing to bless and not to curse life. What I have learned in the last 30 years is that everything that matters requires maintenance – your health, your appearance, your environment, your relationships, and your thoughts and feelings.
I wrote a book and called it Sacred Housekeeping. It is a spiritual memoir, my search for wholeness. It carries the message that we are all BROKEN by Divine design and need to recover our wholeness. Peak moments and epiphanies evaporate quickly. Holiness is found in tackling the mess, clutter, and imperfections of life. That is Sacred Housekeeping.
I was sitting on the couch in my tiny apartment, trying to decide between takeout Thai and takeout sushi for dinner, when my husband walked in with a strange, glazed look in his eyes and announced we were moving to India.
India, the country.
We were newlyweds. I was finishing my graduate degree and dreamily planning a future that involved a writing career, a couple of kids, and a brownstone in Brooklyn, not necessarily in that order. My life was defined by the categories I fit into: a writer, a newlywed, a city girl. Being a housewife in a foreign country ten thousand miles from home was not supposed to be one of them.
Still, I’d promised to love and trust and follow my husband to the ends of the earth. I got my diploma, quit my job, and stepped onto an airplane with my eyes wide shut, naive and ill-prepared for the journey I was about to take.
Everything I did in my new role as an expat housewife was wrong. My attempts to fit into my new culture were awkward and half-hearted. I spent too much money on groceries ($20 dollars for an expired jar of Ragu pasta sauce), let the laundry pile up, stared sullenly into space at my husband’s work dinners instead of being the charming, sunny corporate wife I thought I’d be. Without my job and my city to define me, I became nobody, a parasitic hanger-on in a very foreign world. The new categories I’d imagined for myself—housewife, jet-setter—turned out to not fit so well. And without those labels to define me, I lost myself.
Except “lost” isn’t the right word. India taught me a lesson about identity that was equal parts painful, profound, and life-changing: I hadn’t really known myself at all. I was so busy painting a picture of who I thought I was supposed to be, a set of perfect labels to live up to, that I never learned to look in the mirror and see who that person actually was.
When I set myself free from all those labels—even the ones I loved, like writer and daughter and wife—I began to understand the bigger picture. I learned to blur the lines between those black-and-white boxes I’d spent much of my life believing I needed to fit into.
With so much debate about “leaning in,” and the insurmountable tasks of finding balance and having it all that have become part of today’s conversation, I look back on the lessons I learned in India, and I am grateful. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to choose one of the different worlds you actually float between.
Fitting snugly into the “housewife” box or the “expat” box didn’t happen for me. And, later on, the “mother” box and the “writer” box didn’t turn out to be perfect fits either, though I’d spent my whole life dreaming they would be. Those roles are largely defined by what we make of them, not what the fine print reads on the official descriptions. Sense of self comes from the choices we make and the things we do. When I stopped fighting against all the things I wasn’t, and the things India wasn’t, and learned to celebrate the things we were, I became whole again.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to choose between being a writer and a housewife, or to give up loving New York City in order to love Hyderabad, too. A little bit mango, a little Big Apple, a little bit “write”” and a little bit “maker of awesome turkey lasagna”: the real me was a collection of the pieces I’d chosen to be.
As a part-time working mom, I struggle to justify my choices and balance my priorities, but the essential first step is to know and remain true to myself. I still consider myself a part-time housewife, even though I never did learn to roast a chicken or iron my husband’s shirts. I have a career—not identical to the one I’d have if I dedicated all my resources to working, but one that makes me feel successful and fulfilled. I am a mother—not the same one I’d be if I dedicated all my resources to parenting, but still a mother I’m proud to have become.
Getting on that plane to India and becoming an accidental housewife changed my life forever, and in more ways than one. I learned lessons about expectations, and sacrifice, and perspective. But losing myself in India, and then finding myself again, was the best part of my journey. My path toward self-discovery remains fluid and perpetual, but my choices aren’t black or white anymore. Now when I look in the mirror, I can see the small parts as they come together to make up my whole.
In my last blog post, I recounted the background of Yiddish linguist Dovid Katz, who has been reporting on troubling manifestations of neo-fascism in Lithuania today. In my talk with him via Skype from Vilnius, I began to better grasp that the key to the understanding of the Shoah in Lithuania lay in the year-long Soviet occupation that preceded it, in 1940-41.
Essentially the genocide of Lithuania’s Jews was powered by an explosion of nationalist anti-Semitism that fatally conflated all Jews with the hated communists. The killing began as soon as the Soviets withdrew, when hundreds of brutal pogroms broke out. Lithuanian militia units, wearing white armbands, also started to round up and massacre the Jews, to enact anti-Jewish edicts on behalf of the new Lithuanian authority that quickly took control. As Timonthy Snyder, history professor at Yale, put it, in a 2012 New York Review of Books article, “A provisional Lithuanian government, composed of the Lithuanian extreme right, introduced its own anti-Semitic legislation and carried out its own policies of murdering Jews, explaining to Lithuanians that Bolshevik rule had been the fault of local Jews, and that destroying them would restore Lithuanian authority.”
The Nazis were popularly welcomed as rescuers, often with flowers; within weeks they had dissolved the Lithuanian’s provisional government and taken full control. Under German authority, Lithuanian volunteers continued to carry out the genocide. The Germans were so impressed with the enthusiasm of their Lithuanian killers that they used some of them to murder Jews in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.
It must be said there were also hundreds of heroic individual Lithuanians who risked their lives to save Jews; but in general, Lithuania was about as bad a place as it could possibly get for a Jew in the latter half of 1941.
Since the accusation that “the Jews” sided with the Soviet occupiers in 1940 and somehow deserved their fate still surfaces when wading into the historical literature, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Lithuanian Jews were in fact not communists, and that they too suffered, even disproportionately so, under the Soviets. In any case, if Soviet crimes were the real issue, than those individual Lithuanian citizens who collaborated in them, Jewish or otherwise, could have been arrested for trial by the provisional government. But that was obviously not the intent – the dispossession and elimination of an entire ethnic minority, long viewed with suspicion, clearly was, with probably a quarter of the victims being children.
What Katz has drawn my attention to, is how post-communist Lithuanian governments have not only failed to seriously prosecute their own war criminals, but have in some cases heaped honours on the very men responsible for the slaughter. Their names grace streets and parks and monuments; these days the white armbanders are often lionized as fighters for Lithuanian independence. In mid-2012 the then-government even flew the remains of the provisional government’s leader – a rabid anti-Semite whose signature helped lay the groundwork for the genocide – back to Lithuania, to give him a state funeral, complete with honour guard and archbishop in tow.
The reason behind this, as Katz sees it, is the nation’s need for symbols of resistance, especially to the Russians. The fact these so-called heroes who fought for independence also have hands dripping with innocent Jewish blood is an inconvenience that needs to be glossed over.
On the website he edits, Katz has steadily documented this move to whitewash the ugly side of the country’s past. “I regard this work to be sacred,” he said. “I believe, maybe naively, not as a Don Quixote, but in a very serious way that . . . these guys should not get away with rewriting history without opposition.”
For me, the influence of history is often an uncomfortable one. It brings the burden of old hatreds, of an upwelling of profound sadness. But for Katz, history is a kind of life force for which he is the conduit. His father was a Yiddish poet. At fifty-six now, he has spent his life working to keep the Yiddish language alive. In a way this new task of what he calls defending history, is the same process: he is speaking up for those who have no mouths, for the heaped skulls buried in the silent forests. Don’t let them forget what happened to us. Doing what he can to make sure there is a place in the record for the ghosts of the murderers to have their say, no matter how tiny and breathless their faint cries may be now to our distant living ears.
I first came across the writings of Dovid Katz while researching what happened to my relatives in Lithuania in the summer of 1941. Though my novel The Lion Seeker is set in South Africa, it tells the story of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania, still bound to that blood-soaked land during the horrors of that time. I had learned the details of how, following the withdrawal of Stalin’s forces, Lithuanians had turned on their Jewish neighbours in an orgy of mass murder that began weeks before the Germans took control, then continued under Nazi direction till over ninety-five percent of the country’s ancient Jewish community was wiped out, mostly in a matter of months. In grainy black-and-white I saw the Lithuanian death squads with their white armbands; on Katz’s website I saw the same white armbands but in full colour, the photos recent and sadly real.
Katz is an American linguist who taught at Oxford. In 1999 he took a position at the University of Vilnius and began to travel all over the region, interviewing the last surviving Yiddish speakers. Ten years later he became aware of a change, something troubling in the young democracy. Fascists were again marching through the centre of the Lithuanian capital. It started with skinheads chanting the old cries of death to the Jews, but became larger and more diverse with each passing year. Sitting members of parliament and ordinary middle-class citizens have joined these parades, conferring authenticity. Other groups are routinely banned from marching, Katz says, but the neo-fascists always seem to get a permit, and have received police protection and centre stage for Lithuania’s independence day celebration. Above all, Katz says he’s seen little opposition, no popular outcry against these marches, even as they have spread to other cities.
When I talked with Katz earlier this year – an animated, amusing presence through the videolink from Vilnius, with a Rasputin-like beard and a persisting Brooklyn melody to his accent – he began by insisting that today’s Lithuania is not an intrinsically anti-Semitic society. “After living here happily all these years I don’t regard the Lithuanian people as anti-Semitic. The majority of people here, and especially the younger generation, are open-minded, non-prejudiced, interested in a better life, in travelling.”
Rather, he sees the burgeoning ultra-nationalism as the result of how Lithuanian institutions are dealing with their history, or failing to. In Lithuania, unlike in, say, Germany, there has been little honest soul searching and public scrutiny of the unusually extensive role that Lithuanians themselves played in the genocide of the 200,000-plus Jewish Lithuanians.
Lithuania was proportionately the worst country for the Jews during the Holocaust, with the lowest percentage of survivors out of any country with a large Jewish community. It was a high-speed genocide carried out in the open, mostly. People - children and infants, women – were shot en masse and dumped into pits. Lithuanian volunteers did almost all the killing, Lithuanians rounded up the Jews, who were usually killed not far from their homes. A Lithuanian term zydsaudys or “Jew shooters” still endures, testament to how commonly well-known the activity was. The Jews “screamed like geese,” as they were shot, said one participant, Jonas Pukas, who died in New Zealand in 1994. Survivor testimonies, like those in the recently-published Kuniuchowsky archives, detail how the perpetrators included Lithuanians from all strata of society such as the clergy and intellectuals. The writings of various historians (like Timothy Snyder, Alfred Senn, Alfonsus Eidintas, Solomonas Atamukas, Milan Chersonski), all helped to outline for me how widespread Lithuanian collaboration with, and approval for, the genocide was. Part of my research into my late grandmother’s village also included watching video clips of witness testimony from elderly Lithuanians, and this too, for me, was confirmation on a micro level of what had happened more generally.
In short, if there was a polar opposite to Denmark (where virtually every Jew was saved by their fellow citizens), then Lithuania unfortunately stands out as prime candidate for that shameful distinction.
In part two of my discussion with Katz, we delve a little more into the reasons behind this.
This year Jewish Americans will participate in an extraordinary Hanukkah celebration—they will light the first menorah candle on the evening before Thanksgiving. This has never happened before, but we came very close to it in 1888. Then, the first Hanukkah light and Thanksgiving occurred on the same day. That year, the national Jewish newspaper, the American Hebrew, dedicated its November 30 issue to the “twofold feasts.” The issue was as much “a tribute to the historic significance of Chanuka” as to “the traditions entwined about Thanksgiving Day.” The editors hoped readers would find the newspaper to be “a stimulus to the joyousness and gladness upon the observance of both.” In previous years they had described Hanukkah as a festival to thank God for the Maccabean victory, and, seeing both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as occasions for giving thanks to God, they easily encouraged American Jews to enthusiastically celebrate both events.
But most of the time, as we know, Hanukkah occurs at a time closer to Christmas. Most years, the American Hebrew’s Hanukkah message urged its readers not to join their fellow Americans in the national festivities because it was the celebration of Jesus’ birth that enchanted their gentile neighbors. Instead, that newspaper echoed the December messages of most other Jewish publications. Jewish newspapers, synagogue bulletins, women’s and men’s club letters, rabbinical sermons, and the urgings of educators and self-styled community leaders alike urged America’s Jews to make their Hanukkah celebrations as festive as possible.
Again and again, in the years since that early American Hebrew message, American Jews wove Hanukkah’s story into their own contemporary lives in ways that reflected their changing circumstances. Those retellings kept Hanukkah’s meaning alive and relevant. They turned the simple holiday rite into an event which, like other well-loved Jewish festivals, drew families together in their own homes where they could tailor the celebration to fit their own tastes in food and décor, and to reflect their own ideas about the holiday’s significance. They could indulge their children, and be joyous.
Will we ever celebrate Hanukkah and Thanksgiving together this way again? Almost. In 2070 Thanksgiving will fall on November 27th and Hanukkah will begin the following day. In 2165, we will light the first Hanukkah candle on November 28—Thanksgiving Day. But for Hanukkah’s first light to occur the evening before Thanksgiving, as it does this year, is truly an anomaly we won’t see again.
The reissuing of my novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Red Love, as an e-book this month is a joyful moment for me. When the book came out, the Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, a month before she died, wrote that “This is a novel that represents life and is true to history, combining imagination with the documentary record, written with bite and black humor, tempered by compassion for the betrayed sacrifices, the lives lost.” Elie Wiesel wrote that my book has “fascinating events and amazing perception.”
I remember as a small boy in Queens how the sky seemed to darken for me when I heard of the Rosenbergs’ execution. It was an event I could not get out of my memory. Soon I would be drawn to the American Communist Party. I felt a kinship for these well-read, cultured and passionate souls who yearned for a kinder, more compassionate world. As I learned more about Stalin’s crimes and anti-Semitism, it was inconceivable to me that these people who I so admired, who had so much humanity and love for their fellow man, revered a system that even Nikita Khrushchev admitted in 1956 was bathed in the blood of tens of millions of people. The USSR allied itself with Hitler during the Hitler-Stalin pact, murdered millions in the Gulag, destroyed Jewish life in the Soviet Union and murdered the major writers and artists who comprised the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Yet I came to understand that for these American true believers, the Soviet Union had once symbolized paradise, where there were no such things as anti-Semitism, economic exploitation, poverty and racism. The contradiction between the sincere goodness of the people I met in the Communist Party and the justifications they presented for a totalitarian regime became for me a personal and professional puzzle to resolve. Continue reading
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (or “JDS” as it was fondly known), the school my three brothers and I all attended from grades 6-12, had no football team and no swim team. Neither my brothers nor I cared about football; the absence of a swim team, however, we found frustrating. We couldn’t understand why JDS couldn’t rent pool-time from the JCC across the street. Fortunately, all of us were deep into our summer-league swim team, probably our collective favorite athletic venture of the year. We grew up in Northern Virginia, home of the illustrious Northern Virginia Swim League (NVSL), one of the largest public swimming leagues in the country. With over 100 neighborhood recreation centers fielding teams in 18 divisions, the NVSL presides over a 6-week competitive swimming season every summer, from mid-June through the end of July. The B-meets, which did not count for league standing and thus were markedly less competitive and more fun, were all on Monday nights. The A-meets, which did count, were on Saturday mornings.
Our first years in swimming, my brothers and I only did B-meets; my parents insisted that we attend synagogue on Saturday mornings. We were the only Jews on the team—my parents’ home is in the heart of the St. James Parish, featuring a large community church within a well-connected and active Northern Virginia Diocese—and our absence to the A-meets caused some raised eyebrows. I’m not sure I’d have had the impetus to question my parents’ edict alone, but Haskell, my middle brother, got feisty. He was by far the best swimmer of the four of us, and the coaches wanted him especially for Saturday meets; they knew he’d bring in points. One of them pulled us both aside. “Maybe you guys could have a talk with your parents?” they asked pointedly.
Haskell and I begged our Mom, who was the main stickler on the subject. Eventually we struck a compromise; as long as Mom didn’t have to serve as a timer or work the concession stand at Saturday meets (no problem, because they needed timers and concession workers on Mondays as well), and as long as we attended Saturday services with minimal complaining in the weekends before and after swim season, then we could attend meets during those six Saturdays. I’m sure, looking back, that it was a difficult compromise for Mom to make; I believe she understood that not only did we love swimming, but we yearned to be a part of our neighborhood community in Falls Church, VA, as well as our school community in Rockville, MD.
The memories of those summer swim meets are some of my happiest: I remember heading off to the pool just after sunrise with my brothers, having been too nervous to eat more than a granola bar for breakfast. The team would warm up together, each of us jittery in anticipation of our races. Then, when it was time to race, I remember the initial shock of diving into the cold pool again, sprinting as fast as I possibly could (NVSL races are never more than 100 meters), then anxiously slapping the edge of the pool and looking up to see how well I’d finished. Sometimes, that would result in tears; other times, in elation.
But there was a longer-lasting lesson in our summer swim team experience, which I don’t think even my mother foresaw. Many of our school friends, I realized, did not have friendships outside of the Jewish community. My brothers and I did, though—from swim team. Despite the initial hurdle of the Saturday meets, our mostly Catholic swim team friends, who all lived nearby, never made us feel any outsider status. I remember one Saturday night in particular, when I was set to drive a bunch of kids from swim team around in our family van—I believe we were going to make a series of “hits” in team’s yearly game of Super Soaker “assassination.” Mom had told us we couldn’t leave until after Havdalah. And so, when three stars were out, my brothers and I emerged from our house to find several team-members on our lawn, patiently waiting for us to fulfill our religious obligations so that we could all drive off into the Virginia twilight together.