Gay and Jewish

By Rossi, AKA Chef Rossi

When we were toddlers, my mother taught my sister, brother and me a prayer to say every night before we went to sleep. It was modeled after the Pledge of Allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the Torah and to the Jewish people. I promise to live a nice Jewish life and to marry a nice Jewish boy.”  My brother’s prayer ended with “girl.” Seriously, that was the prayer.

It was so ingrained in me that I said it every night without thinking about the words. It became part of my DNA, brush my teeth, recite my bedtime mantra. At age 6, I had yet to meet a Jewish boy I could fathom marrying, nice or not. I rather liked the idea of marrying my first grade teacher, Mrs. Mahon, but my mother said that was silly. 

The shul (synagogue) we went to was Orthodox, so the men and women sat separately. The rabbis and everyone else going to the podium were men. It was never a woman. I didn’t mind. It was easier to sneak out as a girl, because so little was expected of you. I’d say I had to go the bathroom and run around the back yard looking for trouble to get into. I always found some. 

When I was 7, my father was honored by being called to the bema to read a few lines from the Torah. I sat next to my mother, who was kvelling, so proud she could feel it in her kishkas. I leaned over and whispered to my mom, “Why can’t you be up there? You read Hebrew, too!” 

“Slovah. The men are in charge in shul. The women are in charge at home.” 

It wasn’t flying with me. “I want to go to a shul that lets the women get up there, too.” 

“Shhhh. I’m pretending I didn’t hear that.” 

As I got older, my budding feminism was usurped by practicality. I was 14 and realized that while my brother was held captive at shul, I was free to hide behind the bushes and smoke cigarettes. The other teen girls caught on and joined me. “They’ve got prayer. We’ve got Marlboro!” I kissed my first girl when I was 15. I’d kissed loads of boys by then. Some had been relatively pleasant experiences, some about as enjoyable as a root canal, but none had elicited the passion of my first gay kiss. I was smitten. 

I ran into my sister Yaya’s bedroom and announced, “I think I might be gay!” 

“Why do you think that?” she asked taping magazine cut outs of the “Bay City Rollers” on her wall. 

“I have no interest in having sex with guys. I only want them to take me out and pay for everything.” 

Yaya laughed, “You’re not gay! You’re a Jewish American princess like me!” 

The paying-for-things waned pretty fast, especially when Moishe Silverman asked for a “golden shower.” “A what?!”

My parents sensed something was different about me. My sister obsessed about cute boys in teen magazines. I obsessed about “The Bionic Woman.” 

“Would it kill you? To find a nice Jewish boy?” my mother screamed.  

“The last Jewish boy you pushed on me was Moishe Silverman!? Is that the kind of Jewish gold you want for me?” 

“Gold shmold! You need a doctor, lawyer or accountant!” 

The more my parents pushed, the more pink I put in my hair and the more safety pins went into my leather jacket. They wanted a mensch. They got a mosh pit. Being a bisexual rocker chick suited my image, but still, there were all those pesky penises to contend with. At first I thought, “Maybe I just don’t like nice Jewish boys.”Then I thought, “Maybe I just don’t like any kind of nice boys.” While that part is true, the not-nice bikers and rockers I dated still left me feeling like the only one locked out of the candy store. Where was my Almond Joy? 

I didn’t come out as gay until I was 18. I needed a few more years of horrible dates with men and fantastic dates with women to set myself straight, or rather gay. But I did come out with a vengeance, hooting and hollering everywhere from Fire Island to New York City’s gay pride parade. 

One night when I was 19, I crawled in next to my gorgeous Dominican girlfriend Carlita (got my Almond Joy at long last) and started to whisper my nighttime mantra. When I got to “and I promise to marry a nice Jewish boy,” I stopped. “What am I doing?” I said a bit too loudly, waking Carlita. “What’s wrong honey?” she asked. “I’m gay and Jewish! That’s what’s wrong!” “Go back to sleep. You know you can’t eat spicy food.” “Exactly!” 

It wasn’t enough to date women, I wanted to get as far away from nice Jewish boys as I could get. Carlita and I lasted two years. My Grenadian girlfriend Ally and I lasted three. Then I met a six-foot-two German Amazon named Heidi. Heidi ate steak tartar for breakfast and went to dinner dressed like a dominatrix. She seemed to be as far from a nice Jewish boy as I could get. But one morning while I sipped my coffee watching her devour a bowl of raw beef, I thought, I want white fish salad on a bagel! Who am I hurting here? The day Heidi asked for Russian dressing on her pastrami sandwich was the day, I knew our days were numbered. Pastrami and mustard are the law. I’m pretty sure it’s written in the Bible somewhere. 

I met Shoshanna while she was on line at a Jewish deli. “Chopped liver on rye with mustard and sliced red onion, two half sour pickles on the side, please.” I was overcome with nostalgia. All the Almond Joys and steak tartars in the world couldn’t measure up to one perfect chopped liver sandwich. Shoshanna and I stayed together for almost five years wrapped in the comfort of matzo balls and gefilte fish. We parted friends. She still brings the gefilte fish and horseradish on Passover. People come together for a reason. My reason was probably to find out that working so hard to fight against my mother’s mantra was forcing me to miss what we all want … home. 

I’ve been with Lydia for ten years now. She’s an Italian Catholic (non-practicing). She loves matzo balls, haggling with fruit vendors and going to our shul, which has a female rabbi, for the high holidays. Nobody since my mother has kvelled for me like Lydia.  She’s not a nice Jewish boy, but she is nice. I don’t have a nighttime mantra anymore. I always fall asleep while Lydia watches Steven Colbert. But if I did, it might go like this. “I pledge allegiance to being true to who I am. I promise to live my life that just so happens to be Jewish and to marry whomever I want, so long as she doesn’t put Russian dressing on her pastrami.”  

L’Shanah Tovah Everyone! A sweet, healthy, happy, peaceful New Year. Corona, you are not invited to the new year!

Think NYC is Dead? You Don’t Know This City’s Lifeblood

By Leah S. Abrams

She is anything but dead, this glorious city of ours. If you think life here is all about the hustle-bustle of tourists cluttering up Times Square with their toddlers of all things and selfie-sticks, the all-night bars and clubs, the overpriced Broadway ticket, you’re missing what is at the core of all of that. The energy doesn’t come from that; all that is fueled by the pulse that is the city and its true inhabitants themselves. If your soul belongs here, there are gifts to be found in this time of shutdown.

We are an enclave for musicians who have never stopped giving us live concerts – from rooftops, distanced and masked throughout every park, pumped out of speakers propped in apartment windows, even from their living rooms and broadcast via this crazy technology that lets you view while sunning on your fire escape. The musicians are my essential workers – these artists who, more than any other group of people, drew me to this place my grandmother said her father never could stop feeling was home even long after he’d settled our family in Boston.

Theatres may be on six months closed, but storytelling has exploded on multiple platforms. For folks like me, the recent outpouring of podcasts (which are, let’s face it, just the modernized version of the radio shows my dad grew up on and handed down to me via cassettes released in my youth) is like a little piece of heaven. There are nights when I’ve listened to three or four short plays over dinner.

From my couch, I’ve seen Madhuri Shakar’s “In Love and Warcraft” cleverly adapted for Zoom, a new Deb Margolin piece that played as though we were right there in her living room, and a reading of Amina Henry’s “Burn” that I both could not believe was featuring actors all in their own homes and was one of the most complex and powerful stories I’ve seen this year.

One arts medium is returning indoors as art museums and galleries open to limited, masked crowds, patiently waiting in socially distanced lines for entry and happily succumbing to temperature checks and contract tracing lists upon entry.

A city of artists and service workers does not so easily succumb, no matter how hard and long you beat at her.

My caterer-writer-performer friend who has weathered her business through the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis? She’s reinvented again, of course and, throughout these many months when there were no events at all, managed to feed her community of employees and neighbors. My corner caterers, theater people in their previous lives? They shifted gears to partner with a local non-profit to instead make and serve that delicious food for our neighbors in need. We are a plucky, adaptive bunch, we artists.

Most of us New Yorkers are walkers by nature. Exploring more neighborhoods on foot, rather than always swishing by underground en route to some destination or other, is a sensory overload. For those of us who swoon over the architecture of old, every stroll brings a new find. We live in the NYC not of my childhood, but of the era where parks and paths and green space and trees were prioritized; we should be taking this time, more than ever, to revel in that, to every day be actively grateful it exists and determined to preserve and expand it, especially for those communities still lacking vital access to the physical and mental health benefits it bestows.

If you thought NYC was your town and you’ve fled, proclaiming our island now devoid of all the things that made it so special, good riddance to you. For the song-makers, writers, actors, dancers, grocery clerks, pharmacists, laundresses, nurses, and so many more who remain, thank you for ensuring our great story relentlessly persists: you are this city’s life and I feel our heart pounding, our blood thick and flowing like the rivers that frame us.

There’s no place like home

By Jennifer Dean

I was seven and a half years old when my parents separated.  Separated, not divorced, because of course divorce is the legal end but inevitably there first comes a separation, and in my parents’ case, it was the separation of an ocean.  My mother moved me back to her parent’s house in Bromley Kent, England – several thousand miles away from my father who was left in a cheap stucco house in the suburbs of Northern California.  I remember the evening before we left – sitting in the living room in front of our small television watching “The Wizard of Oz” with my father.  Nothing was said.  My mother told me we were going to visit her family for a bit.  Once we arrived in their very English home with my grandfather, Poppy and my Uncle Ken, she told me I was going to go to school for a bit since the summers in England are shorter than the summers in the States.  I remember thinking, “why do I have to go back to school just because everyone here is still going to school?”  I soon figured out that we weren’t going home.  We were there to stay.  I don’t ever recall my mother telling me – I just deduced it as would most seven year old detectives once they were stuck in a class and their mother was heading out for job interviews and such.  It would be several months before my ruby red slippers would bring me home again … because … “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”

I start mid-term at Burnt Ash Elementary school to study.  I have Hello Kitty stuff which makes me extremely popular on the playground – for a short time anyway – until I open my mouth and my funny accent makes them not want to talk to me.  I’ve got to get rid of that quick.  I can sound like they sound no big deal.  Unfortunately they still don’t want to be my friend.  My teacher reminds me of the Wicked Witch of the East.  She looks like Maggie Smith in the “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” with flaming red hair and the cold features of an English schoolmarm.  I am nervous and awkward in my new surroundings, feeling completely like a fish out of water.  We are told in no uncertain terms not to use an eraser – EVER!  We are being taught penmanship and, even though we are to use pencils, our mistakes should remain evident.  I make one.  I look around me.  I have to fix this.  I can’t be seen as the inadequate American.  I use my own saliva to get rid of the lead and rewrite the letter.  Mrs. Smith sees me out of the corner of her eye and asks me to the front of the class.  I’m trembling.  I feel the blood rushing to my face….. she knows.  “Listen class,” she tweets with her proper upper crust English accent “our new student has been vulgar enough to use bodily secretions to mask her mistakes.  You shall not do the same.”  I want to crawl into a hole and stay there.  Unfortunately it is not yet time for me to go home to America so I simply have to continue down the yellow brick road.

Poppy takes me to school in the morning in his car that smells of petrol (he runs a trucking company), only he starts driving before I am fully in the seat.  “Poppy wait!”  The next two characters I come upon are a pair of twin girls in the changing room for gym class.  There is ice on the ground outside but we must still change into our shorts.  The girls corner me.  They are HUGE!  They come from the secondary school.  I don’t know how they ended up in the locker room at the same time as me.  I don’t know why I am there alone.  But they did and I am – and I can only hope that I get to run away when the bell rings.  Somehow I manage to escape the monster twins and head outside to run laps.  What a relief!

Coming from California I have never seen a storm before.  It sounds like the sky is very angry.  It is booming and throwing electrical currents through dark grey clouds.  My Mummy is out at her new job and I turn to Poppy to ask if she is coming home or if she will get taken away by the storm.  After all, that is what happened to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Poppy assures me she will be home soon enough. I don’t know that I believe him because Dorothy had to go through a lot before she got home.  Uncle Ken and Poppy start teasing me about the English runner who has won some race.  According to them he is the best runner in the world – proving of course that no one can run faster than the English – certainly not the Yanks.  Of course I point out how do you know he is the fastest runner in the world?  He hasn’t raced everyone.  He hasn’t raced my Dad.  Maybe my Dad is faster than him.  That doesn’t stop Uncle Ken and Poppy from bringing it up.  It makes them laugh that I get so riled up.

My Mum made it home – without the ruby slippers – maybe I will too.  I am going there for a visit to see my Dad.  I always wondered if Dorothy went back to Oz after she got back to Kansas.  I mean it would be sad if she just left and never got to go back.  At the airport the woman who works for the airplane assures my Mum that I will be just fine on the plane by myself. I feel quite grown up.  My Mum keeps telling me I have to eat something on the plane but she knows I won’t.  She gives me a bag of grapes for the trip.  They are the only things I can eat because the smell of the airline food makes me nauseous and I end up throwing it up anyway, so what’s the point?  I try to be asleep whenever they serve food so I don’t have to smell it and they don’t ask me if I want any.  Of course, they end up waking me up anyway.  

When we land I have to go pick up my luggage.  It’s really warm in the airport but I don’t want to take off my English winter coat because then I have to carry it and will probably lose it.  So I just leave it on.  The luggage is going round and round on the conveyer belt.  I’m looking at it and don’t quite know what to do because it’s as big as I am so I can’t really get it off.  I guess I’m not that much of a grown up.  It has wheels so as long as I get it to the ground I’ll be fine… I’m just not quite sure how to do that.  Luckily there’s a nice couple from the plane who were sitting near me and ask me if that’s my bag and would I like help getting it off the continually circling metal contraption.  I quickly respond “oh yes please”.  I must have had quite a perplexed and distraught look on my face so they knew I needed help.  Once it is on the ground I am able to wheel it to the customs area.  I see my Dad looking down on me through the glass windows from the flight above – just outside of customs.  I wave.  He waves back.  

A few months after that trip my Mom moved us back to California.  I didn’t need a Wizard – just a brave Mother.  Of course, when I got back I had a funny English accent which all the kids teased me about.  The one slight I recall is “you sound like a frog”.  I’m not quite sure why but I quickly adapted back to my original way of speaking.  Hello Kitty wasn’t going to make me any friends in California.  It is true that there’s no place like home.  I am sure I would eventually have made England my home, but without my Dad it wouldn’t have been the same.