Growing Up Jewish in Christian Suburbia

Novelist Returns to Her Life as an Outcast in the 1960s

Going Back To Mass: For her new novel, “Is This Tomorrow,” Caroline Leavitt revisits her childhood in a Christian suburb of Waltham.
Jeff Tamarkin
Going Back To Mass: For her new novel, “Is This Tomorrow,” Caroline Leavitt revisits her childhood in a Christian suburb of Waltham.

By Caroline Leavitt

Published May 28, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.

By the time I was 5, I was already an outcast. It was the early 1960s, and I was part of the only Jewish family in a decidedly Christian suburb of Waltham, Mass. Brandeis University, the only thing Jewish about Waltham, was 20 minutes away.

We had moved to Waltham because we couldn’t stay in my grandmother’s cramped Quincy apartment any longer. My father insisted that the suburbs were paradise, the part of the American Dream he yearned for. And truthfully, we couldn’t afford Belmont or Lexington, where the realtor assured my parents that “our kind of people lived.” My parents knew he meant Jews.

The first day we moved in, I thought I had been abandoned in the desert. My older sister wouldn’t hang out with me, so I stayed out on the front lawn, looking for other kids to play with.

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A girl my age ran by and shouted at me, “You killed Christ!” Stunned, I stepped back, confused both by her anger and what she had said. As far as I knew, I hadn’t killed anyone, not even an ant.

But the real pain didn’t start until grade school. The first thing we had to do every morning was fold our hands and say the Lord’s Prayer. I had no idea what the prayer was, but I yearned to fit in, so I moved my lips and mumbled.

I was a bookworm who aced every test — until third grade, when my teacher handed out a pop quiz about Jesus and the Apostles. Everyone else was scratching out answers, finishing the test jubilantly. I guessed at the multiple choice and wrote in “Jesus” or “Apostle” for every question, hoping I’d get at least some right. At the end of the day, the teacher handed me a paper with a big, glaring F. “Your mother has to sign it, ” she said sternly.

My hands were trembling when I handed the test to my mother. I saw her face flame, and I waited for her to scold me. “We’re going to that school,” she said, and she took both the test and my hand and stormed into the principal’s office. She refused to sit down, and planted the test on the principal’s desk.

“How can you grade a Jewish child on Christian subjects?” she demanded. The principal sighed heavily. He took the test and scribbled out the grade. “It won’t count,” he said, and then, just as my mother was about to shake his hand, he added, “I understand you people are sensitive.” My mother withdrew her hand.



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