Last weekend I ran the ING New York City Marathon, which was an amazing experience—essentially, a 26.2-mile long party celebrating running, community, and Gatorade. Running the marathon was a real “bucket-list” check-off for me, and the culmination (though certainly not the conclusion) of a love affair with running that began for me when I was 10 or 11, in the Jewish day school I attended in Northern Virginia.
Gesher Jewish Day School, where I was a student through 6th grade, was formerly housed in Agudas Achim Congregation (before it got a building of its own, the year after I graduated—I found it terribly unfair that the moment I was no longer a student there, Gesher suddenly had a swank new facility, including access to the local JCC’s swimming pool). Having to teach gym classes in what was, on Saturdays, the synagogue’s social hall, forced our P.E. teacher Mr. Slover to be creative. In an effort to get us motivated and excited about running as a sport in its own right (as opposed to a part of some other sport, like soccer or dodge-ball), he set up a competition called “The Big Cheese,” and put flyers for it all over the school. For my age group, the 6th graders, it involved running 18 laps around the social hall-cum-“gym”, on a “track” demarcated by carefully placed orange cones, in four minutes or less. The total distance was probably a third of a mile. If you achieved The Big Cheese, you got a prize—the nature of which Mr. Slover left intentionally mysterious, but promised would be “awesome.”
Each student had three tries to make it before a certain deadline. I remember that I failed the first two times, collapsing dramatically at lap 16 or 17 when Mr. Slover blew his whistle to signal “time’s up,” and in one case, crying in disappointment. I was all set to try again for my 3rd and final attempt (I had even been running laps around our courtyard on weekends, trying to improve my time) when the unthinkable happened—a blizzard struck the DC-area, and school was closed for an entire week.
After the initial elation at receiving another (unplanned) winter break, I realized with horror that my 3rdattempt at The Big Cheese would be cancelled along with school. There was no way I could make it by the deadline, now. I tried consoling myself with bitter thoughts that Mr. Slover’s prize was probably not that awesome, that The Big Cheese was a stupid competition anyway, and that getting a week off from school was the best thing that could ever happen.
When the snow melted and we returned to school, Mr. Slover showed yet again his gift for outside-the-box thinking, by unexpectedly pushing back the deadline for The Big Cheese. Third time was the charm, and come Wednesday (my next P.E. day after the return to school) I made my 18 laps in under four minutes, fair and square. I was overwhelmed by how incredible I felt—the satisfaction at having completed a race against the clock, beating my own time (and those of everyone who hadn’t taken The Big Cheese seriously) to achieve a goal. And, when Mr. Slover presented the prizes after morning minyan several days later—shiny copper medals on red, white, and blue ribbon (indeed, an “awesome” prize)—I knew I was hooked.
What followed was a middling career in middle and high school Track & Field, followed by the belated discovery (in senior year, three months before graduation) that long-distance running was “my thing,” and I should’ve been running Cross Country instead. Better late than never, I suppose. I took a break from running in college, then focused on swimming in my early 20s. I occasionally ran casually, for exercise or with friends. But nearly two decades after Mr. Slover and The Big Cheese, in 2011, I participated New York Road Runners’ “Israel Day 4-Miler” and was once again ensnared by that unbeatable thrill of competition against the clock.
That time, it stuck. I kept running, and I haven’t looked back since.
People would often underestimate me if they knew that my parents hadn’t taken good care of me, so I used to be covert about the six years my family was chronically homeless and the years I spent in placement with the Jewish Child Care Association. People assumed I couldn’t drive, or had never been to Fire Island or didn’t know French—that kind of thing. And I’d get touchy because people who grew up underprivileged tend to be thin-skinned.
Now I’ve written a childhood memoir, Scattered, so my story is out. And while most people give me a lot of credit for transcending such challenges, friend-of-my-youth Jacqueline Heagle is quick to give me perspective.
“You are a spoiled brat,” she reminds me.
Jacki thinks my experiences with my family roaming around public spaces like libraries, the Automat and Central Park, wandering around the United Nations and midtown Manhattan, having older brothers who went to college and told me stories, reflects a world of privilege. She quips that I’m showing off.
Jacki and I met at the Pleasantville Cottage School when we were 11. I was an emergency case, placed in the same 5th grade class with her on June 17th, 1967, two weeks before the end of school. A few months later she was sent to a group residence in Westchester, but we were reunited in a group residence for teenage girls in Rego Park, Queens, when we were 14. We lived together there for three years.
Jacki found it painful to read Scattered because it made her feel jealous. She grew up rarely leaving her Brooklyn neighborhood and apartment overlooking the noisy elevated subway line; her family was on welfare and the big treat was to get pizza when the check arrived. She has written eloquently about how she eagerly awaited being sent to “The School” and finally got to go when she was eight. Jacki felt that she was reborn when she arrived at Pleasantville. She remembers the first day she got there, how she climbed her first tree and ate her first fresh apple. She hardly ever went home or saw her parents after that.
The Jewish Child Care Association provided that safety net for Jacki, and for me. After Jacki left the residence, she was on her own, but still the JCCA helped her pay for college. And when she decided to leave college, they helped her pay for beauty school. She earned her living for decades as a hair stylist and raised her two sons with far more advantages than she had.
The Jewish Child Care Association didn’t get everything right. Corporal punishment was accepted, and there are stories I hear, and believe, of a few cottage parents sexually preying on children. But most of us feel that Pleasantville provided a feeling of safety and security for us.
So how do I feel about being exposed by the book I felt driven to write? Is the world made by colliding classes, power structures and degrees of respectability, or do I see it that way because of how I got here? It’s so confusing, my past, and where it has brought me. I’ve been trying to sort out the confusion for a long time. When a child is torn from her world, and forcibly placed in another, she is likely to learn fast to observe who’s got power, who doesn’t and how to manage in the new system. So I’ve spent a lot of time either being resentful of my disadvantages, or feeling guilty because of my privilege, and somehow both.
I think the extreme worlds of my childhood, between the U.N., the libraries and cheap hotels, a mother with grandiose notions but neglectful habits, gave me a unique ability to read society and the social world around me.
I have very distinct memories about growing up as part of what was then a very small Jewish community in Buffalo Grove, IL. Today my hometown has a big Jewish population, as does the rest of the North Shore. But at the time, there was only one other Jewish family on the block, and I don’t recall them being particularly invested in their Judaism. It was on the Attenbergs to represent.
Just what every child wants. To represent their religious differences.
I did get in a few fights in school. Kids threw around anti-Semitic slurs, not knowing necessarily what they meant. It was probably just something they picked up somewhere, as kids do. In third grade a girl called me a kike in gym class, and I challenged her to a fight after school. We met in the soccer field, surrounded by other children. I was chubbier than her, so I just sat on her and sort of slapped her around the head. I was eventually declared the winner. A few years ago she friended me on Facebook, and I declined.
The holiday season was the toughest, I think, because there so many differences between how we celebrated our holidays and everyone else celebrated theirs. I remember being banned from other houses as a younger child during the winter holiday season; I was the only one who didn’t believe in Santa Claus, and I was ruining everyone’s Christmas.
Still, in all of this, I developed a sense of pride in being a Jew. If we were different, weren’t we at least a little bit special?
When my parents first moved to Buffalo Grove, the population was small in general, and while there were plenty of Jews in say, my father’s hometown of Highland Park, about a half hour east of us, they just hadn’t found their way out to us yet.
I called my dad recently and asked him about it.
“There was one other Jewish family on the block, maybe?” I said.
“You have to remember that there were only six to eight thousand people in Buffalo Grove,” he said.
“It was very small,” I agreed.
“When you consider what percentage of the population is Jewish anyhow, you didn’t have a lot. And we were one of the first forty families in our synagogue – we joined in the second year of the synagogue. Everybody who was in the synagogue at that time was well aware of that particular problem in Buffalo Grove.”
I pictured a bunch of Jews in the 1970s gossiping about The Buffalo Grove Problem.
“By the way, Patton Drive has not changed,” he said. “There’s still only two or three Jewish families.”
I don’t know why I find that comforting, but I do.
Before I’d settled on acting or writing, my greatest aspiration was simply to “Be Anne Frank,” and when I was twelve, I auditioned for the title role in a community theater production of the Goodrich and Hackett play. I’m pretty sure I was one of the few, if not the only, Jew(s) to audition (in a town known for its Evangelical Christian college), and I thought I had it in the bag. All they had to do, I thought, was look at my last name and cast me immediately, to lend credibility to their production.
At callbacks, it was between me and one other Anne. I wore a plaid skirt and a pale sage cardigan with tiny rosebuds around the collar. I parted my dark hair on the side. While the other Anne smiled and laughed and generally behaved like she was at a food court in the mall, I delivered my lines with gravitas. I looked at the imaginary sky with longing. I was sarcastic, but never silly. I never let myself forget that Anne was a victim of the Holocaust, and it was my job on stage to honor that fact. More than anything, I felt I deserved to be Anne because I knew her so intimately after reading her diaries.
Shocker: the other Anne got cast. “But you look so much like her,” the director told me on the phone, as a consolation prize. “It was really tough.”
The only thing I could console myself with was the fantasy that after I died, God would rectify this injustice by allowing me to play the role in Heaven. (It’s funny that I imagined this and not, you know, actuallymeeting Anne there in the afterlife.)
One of the reasons I loved Francine Prose’s recent book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, is because it tells the fascinating and fraught history of the theatrical adaptation. Reading it fourteen years after that fateful audition was a revelation: it wasn’t my fault that I was wrong for the part of Anne. It was the play’s fault. The play reinvents Anne as some kind of Jewish Polyanna. Prose really hits the nail on the head when she compares the insightful diarist with her characterization:
On the page, she is brilliant; on the stage she’s a nitwit. In the book, she is the most gifted and sharp-sighted person in the annex; in the play, she’s the naïve baby whom the others indulge and protect. For all her talk about being treated like a child and not knowing who she was, Anne saw herself as an adult and the others as children. In the drama, those relations have been reversed.
Years after I first read her diary, Anne is still an inspiration to me. Prose’s book is an excellent account of her aspirations as a writer (Anne hoped her diaries would be published, and revised scrupulously), and I recommend it highly. I also can thank Prose for leading me to this twenty-one second video, the only video footage known to exist of Anne, in which we see the young diarist briefly from a window, flickering, alive.