This post is about Kveller’s recent live storytelling event, “What’s the Matter?” To learn more and watch video from the event, click here.
I walked in to the small dark theater at the 14th St Y in Manhattan a few days before Thanksgiving and found myself surrounded by women wearing stylish dresses or skinny jeans and boots. I looked down at the sweater my grandmother gave me when I was still in college and my circa-2008 boot-cut jeans (I keep meaning to buy a new pair, but then, you know, a little girl is up all night puking or I forgot to prep the Hanukkah craft for her preschool class or maybe I just looked at my thighs and decided today wasn’t the day to go jeans shopping) and once again I felt like an outsider.
Of course, I thought to myself. How appropriate. After all, I was there to participate in a reading about Jewish motherhood, an aspect of my identity that is both central to who I am and yet continually confusing and somewhat elusive. Nonetheless, I had agreed to read an essay about the legacy of patrilineal descent that I am passing along to my daughters.
Needless to say, I was pretty ambivalent about it.
One the one hand, I don’t like really like talking about this stuff. I guess I’m tired of being reminded (or reminding myself) that I am an outsider, even if the whole point of the conversation is to remind me that I’m not an outsider at all.
And yet I feel compelled to talk about all of the messy, hard stuff that goes along with claiming one’s place in the Jewish community. I feel compelled because every time I share my story, the whole situation takes up just a little less real estate in my brain, and because I hope it helps someone else who is dealing with the same challenges in the same way that others have helped me.
Perhaps that’s why I prefer blog posts and readings in front of strangers; they are both situations that provide just enough distance between my audience and me to avoid the awkward moments that have become all too familiar.
So there I was in that small dark theater, feeling ambivalent and nervous and insecure when a giant image of a naked woman with the darkest nipples I have ever seen appeared on the wall behind the small, dark stage.
“Oh shit,” I thought. “What have I done? I’m not urban or chic or an artist or a poet or any kind of performer. I’m just an ambivalent academic from the suburbs with thighs that touch in the middle and a penchant for over-sharing. I definitely don’t belong here.”
All I could think of was Mike Meyers in “So, I Married an Ax Murderer.”
Woman! Whoa-MAN. Whoooooaaahhhh-MAN.
I cracked a joke about it.
No one laughed.
In that moment, I wanted to run away. Maybe there was something about the naked woman up on the wall that reminded me of my own vulnerability and my relentless need to share my story, even when it leaves me feeling exposed and confused. Or maybe I just hate it when no one laughs at my jokes.
But I had nowhere to go and my name was on the program and so I sat down and took a deep breath and listened.
What I heard was truly amazing. The details of each story were different, but there was a common thread in many of them: the ongoing tension between our desire to find our own unique paths through Jewish motherhood and our profound need and wish for connection–with our ever-changing selves, our children, our history, our tradition, and even our own mothers–in a world that seems to throw up barriers at every turn.
Or maybe we’re the ones throwing up the barriers.
Either way, there were no clear answers. There is no one right way to finally stop worrying or teach our children about the Holocaust or say goodbye to a beloved parent or overcome the intense fear that somehow we are going to totally screw up this whole parenting gig or make sense of infertility or help our synagogue community accept a changing gender identity.
But when Jordana said that she cried in the shower sometimes because parenting can be so damn scary, and when Adina said she didn’t feel courageous at all despite what her father said, and when I laughed through my tears as Tamara reminded us that it doesn’t really matter what we do because it’s all our fault anyway, I suddenly remembered the standing-on-one-leg truth of Jewish motherhood, and perhaps of motherhood in general:
We are all struggling. There are no answers. There is only connection.
The rest is commentary.
And so I stood up on that small dark stage, and once again I told my story to a crowd of strangers I could barely see beyond the stage lights. And while I didn’t find any answers, I was reminded once again of why I keep forcing myself into these awkward, vulnerable situations. Without them, I slip so easily into the delusion that I am alone in my confusion, and that every other mother has it all figured out.
Whatever it is.