I told him it was a double mitzvah to screw on Shabbat. SportsCenter on mute, music theory textbooks open in our laps. His pencil suspended above the fill-in-the-scale exercise. The Oklahoma goy and his new, exotic Jewish girlfriend. I relished the role.
“What’s a mitzvah?” he asked.
“A good deed.” There are 613 them, I wanted to tell him. Real Jews probably memorized a good number of them. I knew only the few that carried shock value, mitzvahs whispered across bunks at Camp Sabra, before the boys sneaked over from their cabins. It was a double mitzvah to have sex during Shabbat, but only with another Jew, after marriage, to get pregnant with Jewish babies. But those were irrelevant details for my purposes.
“When is Shabbat?”
I paused to build suspense. “Every Friday night.”
His blue eyes were as large as bagels.
In college I had a thing for Southern boys who loved Jesus Christ. I had grown up with sarcasm, lox, Holocaust documentary screenings at the Kansas City JCC. My family ate ethnic food, had relatives in Germany and Israel. I wore black. In short, we were New Yorkers in exile. I was cultured; these boys were not. They didn’t know what hummus was. They could name the starting lineup of the Saints or the Texans, and they knew where Bama football was ranked in comparison to LSU, but they couldn’t tell a Picasso from a Monet, a cello from a standup bass.
I realize that statements like these make me sound like a snob, but you try explaining to a 21-year-old man that your very much alive and American music theory professor, John Joyce, is not in fact the man who wrote “Dubliners.” Or that argyle, for the 1,000th time, is not a fabric used to make a sock; it’s a pattern. The triangles with the lines through them, yes. No, not plaid — that’s the squares.
What was it about these boys that drew me to them? Their height, for one. I had never been around boys so tall. I started at 6 feet 1 inch and moved gradually up the ladder, into hard-to-capture-both-of-our-heads-in-a-photograph territory. And their complete and utter lack of neuroses. I’ll admit it, I liked the accents, too. The getting ditched in their dorm rooms on Sunday mornings while they furiously buttoned their shirts and stuffed their long legs into wrinkled khakis for church. I would remain tangled in unwashed college boy sheets, promising to meet them in the dining hall in an hour for that unkosher, heart-clogging breakfast of biscuits and gravy, eggs and bacon.
The summer after graduation, I broadened my scope. But I still tended to date boys raised in other faiths — even if they weren’t religious themselves. Boys that looked nothing like my father or the boys I had grown up with at synagogue. In short, I was a Philip Roth character dating her way through the world of faiths and unfamiliar American landscapes.
There is no well-known male equivalent for the Yiddish term shiksa, which refers to a hot, non-Jewish (and usually blond) girl whose non-Jewishness makes her especially attractive to the Jewish male. I have explained the definition of this term to several friends — blond, blue-eyed girls who, upon accompanying me to a youth group dance or Hillel Purim party, got hit on so frequently that they asked me what the deal was. I don’t hold this against Jewish boys at all, the desire to date someone who not only does not remind them in any way of their mother, but whose very existence often irks the mother in question. In fact, I get it too well. Sure, I could have gone for a blond atheist from St. Louis or a friend from the symphony who celebrated Christmas and Easter and maybe even played a team sport in high school. Instead, I went straight to the opposite end of the spectrum.
When I moved to New York from New Orleans for graduate school, my Jewish grandmother expressed her relief that I would finally find a Jew. I told her I was sticking with the Hindu I had been dating for more than half a year.
“How is it that there are over a million Jewish men there and you can’t find even one?” she asked. “I don’t think you’re looking hard enough.”
“I’m not looking at all.”
There was a darker side to my quest, something beyond the Wonder Bread toast with my grits, and the evenings wasted watching lanky boyfriends lose intramural basketball games. But that was a motive I wouldn’t figure out until years after I fell for my first male shiksa.
The Catholic I
Tony Broussard was the epitome of the Southern boy. The South Louisiana bayou crept into his speech, his vowels ebbing like a floodwater tide. He was from Houma. The lunch ladies and dorm janitors were “sir” and “ma’am” and “Miss (insert first name here),” and he was “baby” and “sugar” and “honey.” His coffee was sweet with chicory, his sweaters pastel and fitted. He had never met a Jew before coming to Tulane. This was the very beginning of freshman year, when he lived one floor above me in Wall Residential College. My roommate, a melodramatic mess who dropped out at the end of the year, had met him at summer orientation and gave me the okay.
Tony bought a hideous T-shirt from Urban Outfitters that read “I love Jewish girls.” He wore it to pick me up from Yom Kippur services at Hillel. On our first date he drove me in his pickup to an Italian place on Magazine Street and told me, over ravioli and cheap red wine, how to skin a rabbit. Step by step. I felt nothing romantic for him at all, just a general burst of excitement that I had finally discovered somewhere that I was considered attractive by at least one male. In high school I was one of many painfully shy, average-looking nerds. In Jewish youth groups I was passed over in favor of the girls who straightened their hair and stole their parents’ Russian vodka from poorly locked liquor cabinets, the Ilanas and Tahlias who smoked weed and knew how to apply eyeliner. But Tony, my first-ever boyfriend, claimed to find my enormous, dorky glasses and elflike stature endearing, the cello strapped to my back artsy and my preference for reading over binge-drinking cute, if a bit lame.
One night, after too many whiskey-cokes, he let it slip that he didn’t believe in premarital sex. He made “jokes” about how my ancestors killed his savior. He kept wearing that damn Jewish girls shirt. In November he almost flunked Intro to Business, which he blubbered to me while I demanded that he stop crying and pull himself together. I played the words over and over in my head — “I don’t think this is working anymore” — but I just couldn’t do it. What if I made him cry? So I waited, like any mature, adult freshman, until winter break, when I could do it over the phone. But he beat me to it. The day after Christmas he told me he sensed that something about us seemed off — maybe when we got back to campus in January, we could just be friends. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and told him that was a great idea.
The Catholic II
Paul Dughi (Italian pronunciation abandoned somewhere between the Old Country and Oklahoma) had Confederate General facial hair, and not in an ironic way. Irony and sarcasm flew right over his head, and his words retained an audible Oklahoma drawl. He called me a snob because I said Dallas had no soul; country music was tacky; guys shouldn’t wear a basketball jersey on a date, not even a “lucky” Kevin Durant one. He was gangly and towered over me by almost a foot and a half. He had never heard of any of my current literary idols, couldn’t differentiate between a dress and a skirt (“Think of it like overalls versus jeans”), and was a devout Catholic. He knew every single player on every single NBA team, and aspired to be a high school history teacher and basketball coach. I had never met someone like him, so goofy and so truly nice, a guy who didn’t make any attempt to be cool or to do what everyone else did. Unlike most of the guys on our floor freshman year, he didn’t rush a frat. And he wasn’t like the guys I met in my creative writing and English classes, with the regulation Ray Bans and bad postmodern poetry.
We had been friends since the beginning of our freshman year, when all the residents of our dorm got back from the Hurricane Gustav evacuation and convened on the porch with guitars, banjos and stories of our recent eight-day exile. I thought he was cute, but he was a clown who drank too much, the one who entertained our group of friends with antics like leaving people funny ransom notes on their laptops during midterm studying, leaning over the balcony after a Mexican-themed frat party to hit every floor’s porch with vomit, and then waking up the next morning at 6 to clean up the mess himself with a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle of cleaner so that Miss Helene, the dorm maid, wouldn’t have to.
The fall of sophomore year, Paul and I spent time together under the guise of studying for Music Theory 101, a class so easy that it required no studying, especially for two musicians. Our first date was a Hornets game the weekend before Thanksgiving. I borrowed his Chris Paul jersey that drooped past my knees, and we waited for the streetcar downtown, in the relentless autumn rain, holding hands. Our first kiss was in his dorm room, on his bed with his unmade sheets and piles of books and dirty clothes, maps of Oklahoma and Middle Earth hanging above our heads. It was virtually impossible to kiss standing up, unless I stood on some sort of box.
We spent homework-free nights walking down the St. Charles Avenue streetcar tracks to Riverbend, where the city ends at the Mississippi River levee. On the first of these walks he told me about his dad’s cancer diagnosis, his dad telling him he needed to be strong for his brother and sister, his mom bursting into tears. We strayed all the way to Napoleon Avenue, not realizing how far we’d gone until we saw Touro Synagogue lit up from below, dome white against the pinkish sky. We climbed to the top of the Tulane parking garage and watched the skyline. The city is so flat that from uptown, where we were, you could see all the way downtown — the Superdome lit up in Tulane blue and green; the changing lights of the old Hotel Le Cirque on Lee Circle; the shadow of Charity Hospital, abandoned since Hurricane Katrina. Airplanes flickering through the purple clouds. The dull throb of a bass line somewhere below on Claiborne Avenue. His kiss like a tenor sax exhale.
Paul was weirdly fascinated by Judaism, expressing his desire to go to the Chabad House for Sabbath dinner, a desire to which I finally caved. His only exposure to Judaism pre-Tulane had been a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and a brief middle school lesson on the Holocaust. At the Chabad House he ogled the rabbi’s beard and asked me if he was the only goy there. (He was.) He took Introduction to Judaism freshman year, and Jewish-American Literature with me junior year. I got a kick out of answering his questions and taking him with me to Passover Seders and Purim parties.
Once, sophomore year, when we were lounging around in his room, doing homework in front of an NCAA game, he confessed to me that he would convert to Judaism if it made me happy. I told him not to say that. I wanted him to stick with his Catholicism, wanted one of us to have this blind faith. I don’t know why this was comforting, really, except that it felt like we were kind of covered if one of us believed in anything. Plus, his faith wasn’t the kind my family and I made fun of, the tornado survivors standing in the rubble of their neighbor’s destroyed house and saying into the camera that they were blessed, that God had saved them, leaving the obvious unanswered, the dead neighbor. Paul’s faith was different — he didn’t believe that God selectively saved people from natural disasters, or that gay men and lesbians caused Katrina or that getting an abortion was damnable. He was like me, only he believed in God, and in Jesus.
“Don’t be silly,” I said. You have your own religion. It’s important to you.”
“But really, if I weren’t Catholic, I would convert,” he said.
He was the first guy I ever loved, and he insisted that I was his first love, too. We spent all of our time together, began developing some of each other’s mannerisms. He started apologizing excessively and using smiley faces in text messages, and I started checking Big 12 basketball scores on my phone during conversations. While it had used to freak me out when he talked about “the future” — which included some amalgamation of moving in together after graduation into either a Lower Garden District shotgun or a bohemian New York studio, traveling the world, and eventually having a bunch of kids who would surpass me in height by the time they started elementary school — now it made me feel like I wanted nothing else.
Junior year I visited him for New Year’s. He picked me up in the dinky Oklahoma City airport, and we drove into Norman, where we sneaked into the University of Oklahoma art museum. I identified the Degas pastel and a tiny Monet oil, but Paul wasn’t listening. Since it was Christmas break, there were no other students there, and he pulled me into a dark corner of the ancient Greek vase room and kissed me.
“I’m going to ask you to marry me after we graduate, you know,” he said, a huge grin spilled across his face.
I kissed him back. “I know.”
And it made sense that I would want that. I was closer to him than any other human being, ever, with maybe the exception of my sister. Every now and then the thought would creep into my mind that maybe he wasn’t the guy for me. He didn’t like coming to the poetry readings and concerts I made time for on the weekends, and he still didn’t know how to use a washing machine. Once in a while, smushed in the back of a car with friends on my way to see the Soul Rebels, I would imagine myself wasting away Saturday afternoons in front of SportsCenter in suburban Fort Worth, corralling a brood of Amazonian kids into an SUV for soccer practice, teaching community college English, and loving my St. Whatever’s Teacher of the Year husband but wondering what it would have been like to end up with someone else — not a Jew necessarily, but a guy who wore natural fabrics and knew who Proust was.
That visit, the one where he mentioned marriage, was also the one where I ate Christmas ham for the first time, to the amusement of his parents. The Dughis found me charmingly exotic, asking me which of “my holidays” the homemade macaroons I brought them were for. Paul and I took long walks in the desolate exurban cold until we knew it was past his parents’ bedtime so that they wouldn’t hear us skulking around in the dark, or Paul slipping into the bedroom where I was sleeping. We watched the comically small ball drop in downtown Oklahoma City, got drunk with his friends, drove out to Stillwater to peek through the fence of the newly built T. Boone Pickens Stadium. It was a massive, ugly, concrete structure rising out of the red dirt, and Paul gazed at it lovingly, Oklahoma State’s new football stadium. He had been waiting for that team, “his” team, to win the Bowl Championship Series since he was a kid. He, meaning we, watched every single game. I tried very hard to care, but I couldn’t make myself.
“Isn’t it amazing?” he asked, enraptured.
Fall of senior year I told him I wanted to leave New Orleans after graduation. I loved the city, but I was restless. I was set on applying to grad school. But he wanted to stay; he talked about moving into a house uptown and exploring more of the city. But I had already explored the city. While he and his friends got hammered and watched Saints games on campus, my friends and I caught concerts on Frenchmen Street, or biked to the Faubourg Marigny and to the Treme.
It was a chore getting Paul to come with us to Frenchmen, where he would fall asleep during the midnight show at Snug Harbor and then announce that he was meeting up with friends on Bourbon instead. His music taste was crappy, and he binge drank too much. At the Tulane Homecoming game, he blacked out during the first half. This was getting old. At half-time I caught a ride home with my friend Marissa, leaving him passed out underneath a row of seats in the Superdome.
But I still loved him. In some ways, I loved him even more as we fought and made up. I finally knew that we could argue and then get over it, talk anything through and then wander down St. Charles at 2 a.m., or watch three episodes of “The Office” and fall asleep curled into each other. So I caved about New Orleans. I stopped seeking out magazine and copywriting jobs and perusing the New York section of craigslist. If we stayed here an extra year, I could still write and get my grad school applications done. Some of Paul’s friends whom I couldn’t stand were leaving the city after graduation. Maybe I could finally get him to come with me to concerts, or those open gallery nights at the Ogden Museum of Art.
Our plans to stay in New Orleans together had shifted two weeks before graduation, when Paul got off the waiting list for a Catholic teaching program. He was assigned to teach in Alabama. He assured me that he would visit every other weekend — it could barely be called long-distance, since it was only two and a half hours away. I would visit on the other weekends, as I was applying to secretarial jobs and would have weekends free. He printed out a map of the route, a little heart drawn over New Orleans and Mobile, and I tacked it to my bulletin board.
So while I moved into a one-bedroom on Henry Clay Avenue and secured a job at a law firm downtown, he started training for summer teaching. We met in Kansas City, for Fourth of July weekend. Sure, his visit was a little off, but I attributed that to us both starting new chapters, figuring out long distance.
Less than two weeks later, he dumped me over the phone. He mentioned the fact that his Catholicism was more important to him now than it had been before, and it was weird that I would never share that with him. I pleaded with him to give this more time, more thought, he could believe in blood libel for all I cared, just don’t do this. He mumbled something about how he had to get up early in the morning to student teach, and hung up. I heard nothing from him for weeks, until he stopped by New Orleans to visit his friends. We met for lunch, where I picked at a slice of pizza and kept myself from begging him to take me back. It took me well over a year to get over him. For far too long, my stomach sank when a photo of him popped up on my Facebook feed — a group shot of him and his teacher buddies posing outside their school; party pictures from lame-looking Mobile bars; a picture of him proposing to his girlfriend, a fellow Catholic schoolteacher in his program.
I had sworn off Catholics, so Manish Rangarajan seemed perfect. Sure, he wasn’t Christian, or gangly, but unlike Paul and Tony, he was smart. And sarcastic. He was hot, average height with big, defined arm muscles, and legs toned from running down the St. Charles Avenue streetcar tracks. When I met him, at a birthday party for a mutual friend, he was finishing up a master’s in neuroscience and had just been accepted to medical school. He fit my Southern requirement, jokingly referring to himself as “double Southern,” as he was raised in New Orleans but born midway through his parents’ journey to the United States from South India. He had even been a high school athlete, a football player, despite the fact that his math and science charter school hadn’t exactly won state titles.
But whereas the Dughis had found my Judaism endearing and interesting, the Rangarajans were not so intrigued. They didn’t care so much about my religion as much as they cared about my race, which was, according to them, the wrong one. Thus, Manish hid our relationship from them for six months. He broke it to them only after I told him that I refused to fly down for his medical school White Coat Ceremony to attend as a “friend.” (Not that that mattered: I sat next to his parents, months later, at the ceremony and watched his mother draw a checkmark on the program next to the name of every South Indian girl who crossed the stage.)
“It’s not personal,” he said, “but they’re not going to like you. So why introduce you to them? I love you, that’s what matters. Who cares what they think?”
“Me,” I said. “I do. I care.”
I had never been hated by a boy’s parents. In fact, parents tended to like me. I was polite, I could pick out a decent bottle of wine. I was starting graduate school at Columbia in the fall, beginning to write my grandmother’s Holocaust story. What was not to like? But the Rangarajans had their own idea of manners. And they didn’t drink. And they really preferred that Manish date a fellow medical school student. They did not prefer that she be Indian — they required it.
“Fine,” he finally said, “if you want to go to dinner there, we’ll do it.”
His parents lived a 20-minute drive from New Orleans, in the suburbs. Manish was not very close to them. They were very traditional and very religious, which Manish had trouble reconciling. He didn’t believe in any of it anymore, he made it clear to me, and he couldn’t stand pretending that he did. One of the most frequent arguments he had with them was his refusal to attend temple. He didn’t consider himself Hindu anymore, hadn’t for a long time, and didn’t want to go there and pretend. Sometimes I coaxed him into meeting his mother there on a Sunday morning or to help set up for a festival, under the pretense that it was important to her and how did it hurt him to just go and string up a bunch of lights if it made her that happy. He would kiss me and tell me maybe I was right, and come back smelling of incense and grumbling about how his mother had tried to set him up with another friend’s daughter.
The night we went to his parents’ house for dinner, I had Manish okay my outfit, a conservative sundress and wedges, and we drove in his pickup onto I-10. He was visibly nervous — twitchy and fidgety — and I tried to calm him down by kissing him as he drove. This did not help as much as it usually did. We pulled up in front of his house, a beige split-level with a wine-colored minivan parked in the driveway.
“Well, here we go,” he said.
“Come on,” I said, smiling. “It’ll be fine.”
Dr. Rangarajan met us at the door. I went in to hug her, but she pulled away and shook my hand instead. I towered over her, this tiny, unsmiling woman in a sari and apron. I somehow missed the memo to take off my shoes, and so when I went in to shake hands with Mr. Rangarajan, I met him at eye level. He was smiling, though, at least.
The entire house smelled amazing, that smell of curry and incense that Manish brought home on his clothes and beard whenever he came back from his parents’ house, bearing goat biryani and ranting about his mother. There was a shrine set up in the corner of the living room, a tapestry of a god, and figurines of other gods arranged beneath it. Unburned incense sat on a wooden tray. Gold plastic trophies were clustered together on high shelves, Manish and his brother Ajay’s childhood achievements on prominent display. Mr. Rangarajan and Ajay sank into giant armchairs, and Dr. Rangarajan disappeared into the kitchen. Manish walked out to the garage. He came back with a beer. Dr. Rangarajan threw up her hands and hissed something in Tamil.
“My son, he is a drunk,” Mr. Rangarajan said. “I hope you don’t drink.”
“Dad, it’s one beer,” Manish said.
“I hope you don’t think you’re driving home!” Dr. Rangarajan said. “Sophie will drive. Sophie, can you drive?”
“I’m fine,” Manish said.
“Sit down,” Dr. Rangarajan said to me, motioning to the couch.
I did, and she sat in a chair directly across from me. “So, Sophie,” she said, “Manish tells me that you are about to start graduate school at Columbia.”
“Yes,” I said, nodding.
“For your master’s degree.”
“Why not go for your Ph.D.? Then you could find a job.”
“Mom!” said Manish, who had seated himself next to me, with a chaste half of a cushion between us.
“You will go on to get your Ph.D. next?” she continued.
“Actually,” I said, “it’s a terminal degree. Master of Fine Arts.”
“I don’t know of that one.”
“It’s for writing,” Manish explained. “She’s going to be a writer.”
“I’m going to check on the chicken,” his mother said.
I wished Manish had grabbed me a beer, too. He shot me a look: I told you so.
“A writer, you say?” Mr. Rangarajan asked.
“I hope so,” I said.
“Who are your favorite writers?”
He was so short that his feet, like mine, didn’t reach the floor, but dangled halfway to the carpet.
“I really like Mark Twain,” I said. “As for contemporary writers, I guess, Zadie Smith, Nathan Englander.”
“You read any Shakespeare?”
“Of course,” I answered.
“He is a master.”
Manish rolled his eyes. Mr. Rangarajan quizzed me on Shakespeare quotes. I liked him, his smile, his eyes that crinkled in the corners like Manish’s. Seeing that I was in good hands, Manish wandered into the kitchen to ask his mother how much longer until dinner.
“Who are your favorite writers?” I asked.
He paused, then said: “My very favorite writer in English is Leon Uris. You heard of him?”
I nodded. I had read “Trinity” for an Irish-American history class in college and had found it dull, overwritten and far too long.
“My favorite book in English is ‘Exodus,’ he continued. “Have you read it?”
This piqued my interest. “No, but I know what it’s about.”
“It’s about that part of World War II where the Germans killed all the Jews,” he said. “A very sad story. There are many movies and books on the subject. You know about it?”
Manish darted back in from the kitchen. “Dad, I told you, Sophie knows all about the Holocaust,” he said. “She writes about it. Her grandmother is a survivor, remember?”
“Whoa, your grandma is a survivor?” Ajay asked, looking up from his phone for the first time since I arrived.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Was she in Auschwitz?”
“Then you should know of the book,” Mr. Rangarajan said. “It’s the saddest of all the Holocaust books.”
“How is that?” I asked.
“So many of the characters end up dead,” he said. “In some of the other books, not so much. Like ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ Not as sad, because she survives.”
It went very quiet. Then Ajay burst into laughter.
“Dad!” he squealed. “Anne doesn’t survive! She dies! In one of the camps. Come on!”
Mr. Rangarajan looked flustered. “How was I supposed to know that?” he sputtered. “That’s not in the book!”
I avoided looking at either Ajay or Manish; I knew that if I did I would burst out laughing, too. As if on cue, Dr. Rangarajan came in and announced that dinner was ready. “I assume you can’t handle spicy, so don’t worry, I made yours mild,” she said as we sat down. “And if you need a fork, here is one for you.”
Everyone else dug into the butter chicken and saag paneer using hands, soaking up sauce expertly with torn squares of naan. I was the only one with a fork. Manish had tried to teach me to eat with my hands once at my apartment, exasperatedly telling me to stop getting up to wash my hands. But sitting there like an idiot with my fork, I wished I could do it like the rest of them. Afterward, we accepted our foil-wrapped leftovers and said our goodbyes. His parents followed us out to the truck to make sure that I was the one behind the wheel. They couldn’t see that my foot didn’t reach the brake.
As we pulled out of the driveway, Manish breathed a sigh of relief.
“That was horrible,” he said.
“No, it wasn’t,” I began.
“Okay, fine. You’re right. Your mother is f—king terrifying, and I’m sorry, but your dad should know by now what an epilogue is.”
As for our own epilogue, we broke up the following spring. He is now dating another dark-haired, petite Member of the Tribe. I hope she fares better with Dr. Rangarajan.
The one time I hooked up with a Jew, I received a call a week later from my mother, who had heard through the Jewish grapevine that I had a thing with Adam Goldberg. She had heard it from Mrs. Bernstein (whose son, mine and Adam’s friend, had been in the apartment at the time of the hook-up), who was going around telling “the story” and how “she knew it all along.” Were we dating? Or just “hanging out,” as my mom put it? There have been few boy-related events in my life more traumatizing than hearing from my mother that my sex life was being discussed 1,000 miles away.
The first time Adam professed his feelings for me was at the Brooklyn Eastern Parkway 2 train stop. I had finally extracted myself from a party I had accompanied him to somewhere in Prospect Heights. It was past 1 a.m., and I knew it was going to take forever to get back to my apartment in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. The party was a farewell celebration for one of his college friends. The apartment was bare, almost no furniture left, two of the bedrooms already locked. I thought that she, a waitress with an asymmetrical haircut and a sheer crop top made of lace, was moving away from New York, but what had really happened was that she and her roommates had been evicted, and this was their last hurrah. A few guests were drawing on the walls. Adam was sipping whiskey, a lot of it.
“Hey, Adam,” I said, grabbing his sleeve, “I think I’m going to head out.”
“Already?” he asked.
“Yeah, I have to teach in the morning, and I have a long subway ride ahead of me.”
“Why don’t you just crash with me?” he said. “I’ll wake you up early. You have to be at school at 10, right?”
He had offered this arrangement several times, usually when we went out in Brooklyn, somewhere between the dollar pizza and the subway ride home, and I always declined. He lived in a Brooklyn neighborhood that he always assured me was a quick walk from wherever it was we were. After familiarizing myself with Google Maps, I realized that he was usually wrong. I fell asleep on him on the train, and he nudged me awake at 110th. It was almost 4 by the time we got back to my apartment and collapsed on opposite ends of my bed. He kept all his clothes on as he pulled up the covers, and I changed into frumpy sweatpants and an old T-shirt in my bathroom. A completely platonic crashing. This can work, I thought.
We spent most Friday and Saturday nights out with his friends in either Brooklyn or the East Village. We had been friends since we were 2, when we co-starred in our preschool’s production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” He was Doc and I was Happy (bumped up from Happy’s understudy when the first-choice Happy came down with the chicken pox). We drifted apart in elementary school, only getting close again when he moved down to New Orleans after we both graduated from college. Then, the same month, we both moved to New York. He was my best friend in the city, and introduced me to all his friends: quirky, smart liberal arts college kids who wore thrift store clothes and lived in Bed-Stuy and Alphabet City. I had noticed less-than-platonic vibes coming from him, but I shrugged them off. After all, he knew I was dating Manish. And I wasn’t attracted to Adam, I reminded myself.
After I broke up with Manish the night before I was supposed to fly down to spend Mardi Gras with him, Adam and I caught a documentary at the IFC Center and then wandered to a bar in the West Village, where we somehow ended up kissing. A month later, I went home with him after a night out in the East Village. This was partly because the trains were down and it would have taken me two hours to get home, and partly because I wanted to see what would happen. In the cab on the way home, I leaned into him.
“I’ll crash on your couch,” I said.
His dark eyes flashed in the light from Atlantic Avenue, and my stomach dipped in a way I hadn’t expected. It seemed so natural to kiss him, I thought, as he had me pinned against the back of his bedroom door, which we’d stumbled over to in a blur from the cab. He was short, and if I stood on my tiptoes, he didn’t even need to bend down. He had a more-than-decent library on his cinder block and plywood bookshelves, and we had the exact same sense of humor. The next morning I woke up in his Ikea bunk bed, head pounding.
I did find him attractive, and we definitely had a connection, but there was something expected and mundane about falling for him. We were so alike, a dynamic I was utterly unused to. Would he get bored with me after a while? He wouldn’t fall under the spell of my Jew-as-exotic spiel. He was even more Jewish than I was — Jewish on both sides.
I did know how great it would be, how convenient, if I did have feelings for him: We lived in the same place, and there was the whole being-able-to-kiss-while-standing-up thing. I kept telling myself it was good we had so much in common. I still don’t know why it never clicked for me, except for the fact that, obviously, you cannot control who you have feelings for.
When we met up platonically for dinner or drinks, I kept trying to picture myself dating him and falling for him, but I never felt that spark I’d felt with Paul. Whether I wouldn’t let myself see it or it really wasn’t there, I knew I wasn’t going to let it work. But he kept trying to ask me out. I kept telling him that I wanted to stay friends. He was exasperated and confused, he said. So was I. But I couldn’t do it. Then, one night at the end of June, we were walking across the Williamsburg Bridge. Halfway across, he pulled me against the cables and kissed me. On the other side, he gave me an ultimatum: We would date, or he couldn’t see me anymore. The rest of the walk was very awkward.
The Mormon, the Atheist and the End
I am still processing the weirdness of falling for a Mormon, which occurred that same summer. Matthew Smith was the extreme — a stretch, even for me. The ultimate male shiksa. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall and blond, a consultant, the books on his bookshelf mostly his roommate’s, he admitted, except for the Bible, “The Book of Mormon” and his Yale yearbook, which was his favorite of the three to peruse. I met him in May when I flew out to Colorado to visit my best friend from college, who was teaching high school English. Matthew was a close friend of hers, a teacher at the same school. She told me, with a wink, that Matthew was excited for me to visit. She failed to mention that she harbored romantic feelings for Matthew and had for a long time.
I pursued Matthew anyway, and it worked. I messed up my best friendship for two nights with Matthew on a couch, where we stayed up all night and told each other everything, between bouts of kissing. That summer he moved to California to start the consulting job, and we kept in constant touch, planned a visit for me to fly out there. I knew it was wrong, and that it was making my friend more than mildly uncomfortable, but I was blinded by the fact that this hot, smart guy liked me.
Labor Day weekend, I met him, suitcase in hand, at his office, after a full day of travel from New York. I was expecting him to tell me he wanted to date me, no matter the circumstances. Although the weekend was a good time for the most part, that was not the outcome. Reality hit: He lived all the way across the country, we didn’t know each other that well, and I had really messed up things with my friend. It didn’t help that he confessed to me about not being totally over an ex who had dumped him a full year before, as well as the fact that he was seeing other girls, and why was that a surprise? In the end, I told him I didn’t want to do a weird limbo thing, said goodbye and started to patch up things with my friend.
That weekend however, he told me about how, although he had left the church for the most part, religion was still important to him. He cringed at my Jesus jokes, ones that even Paul had found funny. He went through the whole religious crisis in college, he said, but I wasn’t sure it was over. And this wasn’t Catholicism, with its candles, wine and guilt that reminded me of Judaism. No, this was something completely foreign. When I started dating Paul, I joked with my friends about how I was rereading Dante’s “Inferno” in preparation. A couple weeks before visiting Matthew, I read Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven.” That was a mistake. I knew that that book was about Mormon fundamentalists as opposed to the regular ones, but it scared me all the same. Was I allowed to ask Matthew if he really believed in the thing with the angel? If he had ever worn sacred underwear? Freshman year he had still been signed up to go on a mission trip, and he didn’t have a single sip of alcohol or coffee until his sophomore year.
Even with his loss of faith, this was more male shiksa than I could handle.
We took a car service home from his office and sat on his bed while he rifled through the Yale yearbook, pointing out all the girls he had had a crush on but never had the nerve to talk to. Quickly, I noticed a pattern. For the most part, the girls he was pointing to had dark, curly hair above their pearls and black sweaters, and Jewish last names. This made my stomach turn. Of course Matthew could be labeled as a male shiksa — not a type, exactly, but a broad category of boys I knew I leaned toward. But I didn’t want to be anyone’s type.
“You realize that most of these girls are Jewish, right?” I said.
“Ha ha, really?” he asked. “How can you tell?”
And so I explained, just as I had to Tony and Paul and Manish and a bunch of other pizza dates and let’s-grab-a-drink boys that didn’t stick, about how a certain last name, a tiny silver Star of David dangling from a chain and, yes, even sometimes particular features could mean that someone might be Jewish. And as I launched into this spiel, I remembered how much I liked giving it, explaining my people to a blond Mormon from Utah, as if I were lecturing my Christmas sweater-clad classmates in elementary school about the joys of Hanukkah.
I was finally able to admit to myself that this was the deeper impetus behind the search for the male shiksa, something beyond a thrill from a spaghetti and iceberg salad dinner at Tulane University’s Catholic center, or being told that I was the subject of a boy’s monthly confession — not learning about their religions and cultures, but getting to talk even more about mine, a topic that probably would have bored the likes of Adam, who already knew that a prayer book had to be opened backward and that you couldn’t find a decent bagel west of the Hudson.
While I told myself that these boys were the novelties, I was in fact positioning myself as such: I wanted to be unique to a boyfriend, someone new and different and original. But it wasn’t just that. Not only was I novel and new, but I could also talk about my novel and new identity, Jewishness, to no end. They never tired of the Yiddish phrases and the learning to write their names in Hebrew, of the Sabbath dinner trips to Chabad and Hillel, the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” binges and my famous challah French toast breakfasts. I was not Alexander Portnoy, but his inverse — I wanted not to break into these boys’ goyische worlds, but to tell them more about my Jewish one.
I was worried that Jewish boys would find all that tiresome. I would have to stand alone, depend on something other than my Jewishness. And I didn’t know how to do that. Even with the secular boys I liked in college, I could pull the Jewish card. I worried I wasn’t funny or smart or pretty enough to wow one of them without being able to fall back on my tried-and-true plans of dazzling by calling cream cheese a schmear, or sharing a chapter of my grandmother’s Holocaust story. It was safer to stick with the male shiksas — boys who defined themselves by another religious identity but were more fascinated by my own.
None of the guys I’ve dated since Matthew has been Jewish. One of them, a guy who grew up with an atheist, foreign father and a born again American mother, let it slip over brunch that he had a thing for how Hasidic women dressed. He was not Southern or religious, but he was tall and gangly, goofy and sweet. He lived in Bed-Stuy, near South Williamsburg, and half his neighbors were not just Jewish, but Hasidic, too. This added a new dimension — these people wouldn’t even consider me a Jew.
“They’re so sexy,” he said into his coffee. “The long skirts and the wigs.”
Instead of telling him that that was a weird, fetishizing thing to say, I launched into the rules of Hasidic culture, swishing my long wool skirt around my legs as I did so.
“Maybe we could go into South Williamsburg and get bagels sometime?” he asked. “I feel weird going by myself, but you could be my in. Maybe Saturday morning?”
“Of course,” I told him. “But we can’t go on a Saturday. It’s Shabbat — everything will be closed.”
And so it continues.
Sophia Marie Unterman is an MFA candidate and creative writing instructor at Columbia University.