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Mar 6 2012

An Immigrant Purim Spiel

By at 1:00 pm

R2D2 from Star WarsMy first Purim, I was 7 years old and newly arrived in the United States from the Soviet Union. I still barely spoke English, and was the only Russian-speaker in the  second grade of my San Francisco Jewish Day School. (There was one more boy who spoke Russian, but he was in the fourth grade and, well, way too cool to speak to me.)

Somehow, I managed to understand that costumes would be required. And somehow I had also convinced myself that the kind of homemade costume my mother wanted to send me in–the kind that she’d made back in Odessa: Little Red Riding Hood, the Snow Queen, Ethnic Ukrainian with a garland of flowers in my hair–simply would not do.

I may not have had the English words to describe what I wanted, but I knew what I wanted anyway: one of those plastic things they sold at the store, garish and disposable and look, it came with a mask, too! Just like I’d seen the “real” American children wearing on Halloween. (The holiday my grandmother described as, “the one where they go door to door begging.”)

Since it wasn’t Halloween, costume selection was minimal. But, we did manage to find a few (probably leftovers) at a local Five & Dime. I decided I wanted the one of R2D2. (Let the record show that, at this time, I had neither seen nor heard of “Star Wars.” The only thing relevant I even vaguely knew was that girls named Leah were suddenly adding the title Princess to their name, as if it were a birthright.)

The costume cost, if I remember correctly, $4.99.

Which was definitely about $4.99 more than we had to spare at the time.

We’d been in America for only a few months. My father was working three jobs (a day job, a night job, and a weekend job–something I accepted as completely normal. Years later, I’d watch “In Living Color’s” hard-working Caribbean family sketches–“How many jobs you have?”–and utterly fail to get the joke). My mother, who spoke barely any English, was still trying to acclimatize herself to a new country and a new culture.

Fortunately (or not), money works the same wherever you go. And she knew we didn’t have enough to blow needlessly on a (retrospectively crappy) costume.

We left the store.

I’d like to say that I was mature and composed about it, but, the truth is, I honestly don’t remember anything beyond the crushing disappointment and the conviction that, without R2D2, I would never, ever, ever fit in.

The next thing I remember is the five-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk.

I don’t know who saw it first, my mother or me. All I remember was us looking at it, looking at each other, and then my mother turning right around, marching back into the store and buying me the costume.

It would be nice to end this Purim spiel with my proclaiming at the last minute that a store-bought costume wasn’t necessary after all (I didn’t), or, at least, that having one helped me make new friends and feel more comfortable with my classmates (it didn’t–apparently, robot costumes were for boys, didn’t I know anything?)

At the very least I should be able to say that I learned a valuable lesson and that, faced with the same set of circumstances around my own children, I feel confident I would do the same thing.

Except I can’t even claim that.

My husband and I are much better off, proportionately, than my parents were in 1978. But, I am still terrified of going into debt (see, I told you I knew I’d never be a “real” American). As a result, I watch every penny like a… like a… well, there’s a cliché turned offensive verb here that I won’t use. But, it’d fit.

I honestly don’t know if I would spend money–even found money, even Obviously God Is Sending You a Message, You Idiot money–on something I didn’t feel my kids (or I) really, really needed. And a plastic costume just doesn’t meet that criteria. Buying something “because it makes you happy” doesn’t quite compute with me.

Which is a problem, I’m told. And I am trying to work on it.

Maybe this Purim will be my year.


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