My son made his first Jewish friend. His name is Dan, and he’s got dark curly hair and wears glasses.
He continued to talk about Dan for weeks afterward. “Dan hit a home run at recess, Dan is better than me at math, Dan brings peanut butter fudge for dessert.”
Dan became a symbol of everything that was amazing and wonderful in the world.
You would think I’d be happy about my son having a Jewish friend. After all, I didn’t even meet my first American Jew until I was well into high school. The only Jewish people I knew were the Israeli cousins who brought us Bamba and Krembo and taught me delicious Hebrew curses. They were magical and exotic and everything I aspired to be.
We were the only Jews in my little backwoods elementary school and I was convinced that that was the root of all my social issues. Other Jewish kids wouldn’t think I was weird for spending so much time reading, they’d get my strange sense of humor, they’d join in with me when I finally got the courage to belt out musicals during recess.
Being Jewish was obviously the thing that made me different from my peers. The thing that prevented me from making friends and finding dates.
So, I bid my time through the dark days of middle school and the cut-throat cliques of high school, because I knew that college was just around the corner.
College would be teeming with Jewish students. We’d get together and eat Bamba and swap Hebrew curses until the sun came up.
When I finally FINALLY got to college, I joined every Jewish organization I could find. Hillel and Chabad and Yachad became my regular Friday night gigs. I even went to a Jews for Jesus meeting (don’t tell my mom!).
And there were JEWS!! Lots and lots of Jews! Only none of them knew Hebrew and almost all of them had gone to summer camps together and none of them were half as enthusiastic about meeting me as I was about meeting them.
Over eagerness is not a very effective friend making strategy. It didn’t matter to the other students that I was Jewish (half Jewish, really, something I’d never even taken into account). I’d grown up on a farm, a far cry from the cultivated suburban childhoods most of them had shared, I shopped at thrift stores, and I’d never even been to a bar mitzvah.
What was wrong with me? These were supposed to be my people, the ones I’d been waiting for my whole life. The ones who were supposed to have been waiting for me too. So, why was I finding it so difficult to fit in?
I ended up making tons of friends in college. Most of them half-lings like myself. Half-Jewish, half-Korean, half-Whirling Dervish. That was the world I was comfortable in, the world I’m still comfortable in.
So when Charlie brought home Dan I was seized with panic. Was he expecting us to keep Kosher? Would his mom judge me for not sending Charlie to Hebrew school? Would they mind that my husband isn’t Jewish?
I spent a lot of time prepping Charlie for this play date. “Whatever you do, make sure not to mention that we went to your cousin’s Christening last month and PLEASE don’t ask for pepperoni on your pizza.”
Charlie waved me off like 10-year-old boys do so well. “Kids don’t care about that stuff, Mom.”
He was right, of course. But, still I was a wreck when Dan’s mom came to pick him up. Sure, the boys had had a great time together, but there’s no way she would let Dan come to my house again after I’d given in and ordered pepperoni on half the pizza. After she saw the chickens running free in our backyard and the huge mess inside.
Dan’s mom pulled up in a beaten up Chevy a half hour late. She was a flurry of apologies and nervous hair flips. This wasn’t like her, she was usually much more punctual, it’s just that there was this party at her daughter’s preschool and she was supposed to make cupcakes and she’d burned the first two batches and….
We ended up chatting for an hour while the kids continued their game in the backyard. We didn’t talk about Hebrew school or what our Bat Mitzvahs were like. She never even asked me if I went to Jewish camp.
Instead, we commiserated about how often we felt unprepared for all the demands of motherhood and how hard it could be to make real friends.
When they finally left an hour later, I was overflowing with happiness. After all these years, I’d been able to get past my own insecurities and make a real Jewish friend. I imagined the Shabbat dinners we’d prepare together, the burnt hamantaschen we’d serve at our Purim party.
I gave Charlie a huge hug. “I’m so glad that you and Dan have become such great friends. How about we invite him and his family over next Friday night? We could make challah. What do you think?”
Charlie shrugged his shoulders and ran into the house.
“Nah. He sucks at baseball.”