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The Kibbitznik: Childhood memories

Alyssa Goldstein
April 13, 2011
by Alyssa Goldstein As I mentioned in my intro post, I grew up in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn. Most of my friends on my block when I was in elementary school were ultra-Orthodox Jews. I was a little bit older than most of them, so even when I felt like a huge loser at school, I could always count on my popularity on the block. We played kickball all the time and made my dad pitch to us for hours on end (whether or not it was OK to play kickball on Shabbat was a huge topic of contention). We climbed trees, drew elaborate chalk murals on the sidewalks, and generally ran around having abundant amounts of fun. I would do my homework in about 30 seconds so I could run outside, and I would stay outside for as long as possible. I knew that my playmates were Jews, and I was a Jew, but that they were very different sorts of Jews than I was. I didn’t wear skirts or dresses. I didn’t have to worry about carrying things on Shabbat. (My friends often found creative ways around this. For instance, Racheleah claimed that you could carry things as long as you didn’t move your hands on the object.) I didn’t have to worry about whether what I ate was kosher. On the rare occasions when my friends would cautiously sneak up to our apartment and my parents offered them a snack, they would hold intense, whispered conferences about whether the food was sufficiently kosher. In the end, they always decided that it was. Sometimes, our different sorts of Judaism led to conflict between us. Not only was I a secular Jew, but my parents were intermarried and my mother was non-Jewish. Sometimes, one of the kids on the block would say that I wasn’t really Jewish. When this happened, I could retort with a quick, “Who made you the boss of Judaism?” They were all younger, after alI. But once, I tried to follow my friends into Fagi’s house, where they were all running up to play. I was stopped at the door by Fagi’s mother, who told me I could not enter because I was not Jewish. I didn’t try to enter any of my friends’ houses after that. Most of the time, though, my friends and their parents were accepting of us. My best friend of all, Chani, lived next door, and her parents would always greet me and my parents warmly, and still do to this day. When our car got broken into one day, the parents of my friend Miriam lent us their vacuum cleaner to clean up the broken glass. When Miriam (a flamboyant, redheaded girl with a huge Brooklyn accent) heard that my mother wasn’t Jewish, she insisted on sitting her down and teaching her prayers in Hebrew. I still see my old friends from time to time when I’m back in my neighborhood. We chat about school and our summer plans. I feel regret sometimes knowing that we can never be close in that way that only little kids can be, playing kickball in the yard until it got too dark to see the ball. I first noticed this during the disengagement from Gaza, when I was fifteen, and noticed all my old friends wearing orange (the color of the pro-settler movement). Last summer, I was catching up with Chani over the fence between our backyards. I couldn’t tell her that I had a Palestinian boyfriend now, that I was going to Ramallah to see him. I told her instead that I’d be in Israel for the whole three weeks. I hoped desperately that nothing political would come up. I don’t mean to presume that Chani is automatically right-wing or intolerant because she’s Orthodox and had lived in Israel herself. (I’m sometimes the target of similar assumptions — that’s a post for another time). But I knew there was a chance that she would react coldly or angrily if I told her the truth, and I didn’t want to take that chance. Better to hold on to childhood memories.