August 24, 2010
This month over at my fiction column here at TNB, I decided to have my focus for August be about Jewish authors in the name of the upcoming High Holy Days. I had a stack of books I thought I’d go through but found, of course, that list was a bit too ambitious. I find myself trying to do too many things, always saying yes, never saying no to anyone or anything. My therapist is always telling me that I’m like a pretzel, always ready to twist myself into any shape necessary to accommodate others. While I’ll always disagree that I’m not that flexible, I know she’s almost always right. That’s the trouble when one person knows you better than you know yourself. I hate being a foregone conclusion, so this was my attempt to prove my therapist wrong by setting some limits and reviewing books I’d already made time to read. If they happened to be Jewish authors, well then, so be it. (Tod Goldberg, you know you’d be at the top of my list of authors to pimp out if you weren’t already so good at it yourself, just sayin’.)
I finished reading a book of poems by a Canadian poet named Renee Norman titled “Backhand Through the Mother” and I decided I was kind of loving this work and at first, I wasn’t really sure why. I thought about this collection all afternoon one day and came to the conclusion that this work carried meaning for me partially because it was written by a Jewish mother about a myriad of things from parenting, Jewish holidays, dealing with life in your 50s to eating disorders and caring for an elderly parent. But I also was drawn to this work because the voice was one that seemed so familiar to me. I felt a bit sad, actually as I read through this book. I was sitting by the pool, coughing and hacking and reading aloud these poems to my roommate, trying to feel better about being sick by forcing myself into the outdoors and whatsmore, making her to listen to my hoarse voice while reading poetry about mothers, (Jewish mothers no less), as I laughed and got teary while turning the pages. Granted, some of the teariness was due to the fact that I couldn’t stop the convulsions from coughing and my eyes were watering uncontrollably and I had to stop reading to blow my nose several times but . . . my point is, I felt sad as I read through this collection and I knew why shortly after I’d finished.
I’m at the beginning of my life as a Jewish convert and was quickly reminded of how I’m lacking the one thing all natural-born Jews have . . . a Jewish Mother. Yes, I have a mother and a fantastic one, too. However, my protestant mother was curious to know if I got my most recent tattoo at “the Seder” after I attended a Passover Seder at the rabbi’s house with several other very impressive Jewish lesbian women. Granted, my tattoo was in Hebrew, but last I checked, they don’t initiate Jews into the fold by having a Rabbi hammer out a tattoo on their converts. I quickly realized I’d need a surrogate Jewish mother to help me find my way, if for no other reason than to get familiar with Jewish tradition and living a Jewish life. I’m not fond of stereotypes, really, I’m not. But, one thing I know for sure is my protestant mother won’t be able to show me how to make latkes nor will she pepper her dialogue with Yiddish and tell me stories of growing up Jewish. I do go to a temple here in Los Angeles and it’s an amazing one, replete with lesbian women and gay men, an incredible German cantor and an extremely bright Rabbi whose partner is also a convert but I already have someone I know who gets me and would be perfect in the role.
I’m sure someone there would probably be delighted to hook me up with a surrogate bubbe who could show me all I ever wanted to know about cooking, Hebrew, tradition and such but I’ve come to the slow realization that the solution to my problem has been right n front of me for the past two years. Unbeknownst to me, my would-be surrogate Jewish mother would already be sitting across the room from me twice a week and fits the bill almost perfectly. For starters, she’s known me for two years and some change, which makes her overqualified to be an authority on all things in my life and then some. She’s got enough personal information on me to blackmail me for the rest of my life, she’s a huge foodie, which all good Jewish mothers are (she’s been known to cook recipes of and frequent restaurants of chefs like Shawn McClain and Jose Andres and anyone who actually cooks recipes from Food and Wine magazine already wins my vote.) Who wouldn’t want a Jewish mother that can cook things that don’t involve noodle kugel or brisket? She worries about me and the choices I make (or don’t make) and although I pay her to help me work through my stuff (okay my insurance actually writes the checks, but I digress) she does manage to squeeze in worrying about me in addition to the unconditional love and worry she offers her own kids and husband. Since she’s my neighbor (I know, I know, see , it’s kismet) I’m often privy to the real woman behind the PhD as we frequently end up at the nail salon at the same time and occasionally she lets her real opinion(s) slip in conversation when I’m divulging large amounts of gossip about issues I currently have (the list is long people!) She reminds me fairly regularly that I need to take better care of myself, put myself first, etc, even if it’s in a critically sugary sweet way. Every so often she jokingly reminds me of my faults and pushes me to address my own bullshit. I think sometimes she really disagrees with me, but in a silent way that tells me she disapproves without disapproving. To me, it’s about what she doesn’t say as much as what she does say that reaffirms my hunch that she’d be the perfect surrogate Jewish mother to this shiksa-turned-Jew-in-training. It’s the smile she gives while biting her tongue when it comes time to really let loose with her opinion that reminds me, at the end of the day I’m her patient and not her daughter. If the four walls I reside in each week were that of a house and not an office, I’m sure the words coming from her would take on an entirely different tone and could quite possibly have a very different effect on me.
Why it’s the quiet judgment she’ll never admit to, the genuine love of gab and her stylish designer shoes that reaffirm my sixth sense about these things. I do declare I’ve found the perfect Jewish mother! Now if we could extend therapy hours into some Jewish cooking time or you know, familial storytelling time, we’d really be making progress. I suppose I really couldn’t have picked a more perfect figure if I’d hired United Healthcare to suss out someone myself ( oh wait . . . ) If I’d wandered into her world a Jew from another mother, I just might have had a chance for her to think me worthy of taking under her wing and teaching me all the things I’ve yet to learn. I’m sure she’d probably still worry that I’m fucking up my life or making less than desirable choices but at least I’d have the Jew part down pat and there wouldn’t be all these unethical dilemmas surrounding the situation. It’s just my inherent need for constant approval that leaves me wanting this woman to take her worry and love of good food and turn it into something I’d be privy to on a regular basis for . . . well, the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I made my bed the day I set foot in her office as her patient instead of a temple somewhere. I could have befriended her daughter and adopted my therapist as the Jewish mother I so desperately need now as I transition into this new place in my life.
I have to remind myself while many a strange astrologer have linked my therapist and I together in past lives as Israeli family members, former Greek goddesses and the like; I know she exists solely in this life, in this reality as my therapist. For now, I like to think of her as my not-mother, my faux Jewish mother, whom I see for those 60 minutes (okay, it’s supposed to be 45 or 50, but I finagle ten or fifteen more when I can) twice a week. For me, this epiphany feels like a loss . . . being so close yet, so far away from the one thing I need and want. And I understand the dynamic of the situation I’m in, but it doesn’t mean I’ll quit pushing the limits, just to spite therapeutic confines. I know she does all she can for me whether it’s from a few feet away or just around the corner. And you know, I’d even go so far as to say that she goes above and beyond for me, probably more than she should, even if she’ll never come right out and say it. I know all of it is really ‘Backhand through the Mother’ but I’ll take what I can get. I don’t have to like it but for now, it’s fine with me.