The Beautiful Jewish Lessons of 'Are You There God? It's Me Margaret' – Kveller
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The Beautiful Jewish Lessons of ‘Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret’

The movie based on the iconic Judy Blume book reminds us that it's never too late for Jewish women to find themselves.

Rachel McAdams as Barbara Dimon and Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

via Dana Hawley

When I was a kid, I used to lie on the floor and pray to God.

Just like Margaret from “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret,” the 1970 Judy Blume coming-of-age book and film adaptation currently in theaters, I was raised without religion. Yes, I knew I was Jewish, unlike Margaret who, despite having a Jewish father, Herb, and doting Jewish grandmother, Sylvia, struggles to define herself as such. But I wasn’t taught to pray, and I didn’t go to synagogue, and my family never observed Shabbat or kept kosher — all in all, a fairly traditional experience for a secular Israeli girl.

Still, when I was 11, just like Margaret, I had endless conversations with God — or more accurately — endless bargaining sessions. Margaret asks God not to let New Jersey, where her family is moving to, be too awful; I would ask him to ease my family’s transition from Europe to Israel. Margaret asks God to make it all OK after she discovers her maternal grandparents’ rejection of her mother for marrying a Jewish man; I also asked him to alleviate the tensions in my family. And when, like Margaret, I found my adolescent body confounding, I would ask God for help with that, too.

But God never once seemed to answer me, and soon, I stopped praying.

The much-awaited “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” movie, which came out earlier this month, is transporting. Filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig (“Edge of Seventeen”) captures the little sensations of adolescence that don’t change over the years and take me back to those days on the floor and my hopeful conversations with a higher power.

Through the eyes of the excellent Abby Ryder Forston, who plays such an unforgettable Margaret, and her teen peers, we see so many of those recognizable tween milestones: the unwieldiness of putting on a first bra and a first pad (I too, like Margaret, dreamed of an actual brassiere when I had nothing to fill it with — and like Nancy Wheeler, I cried when I got my period); the way expectations make you lie and embellish things to fit in at an age where fitting in feels like such a high stakes concept; the thrill of a first kiss and the pains of our first experiences with misogyny and objectification; the awkwardness of learning about menstruation and puberty; the eeriness and thrill of dressing up in a changing, almost-but-not-yet adult body.

Fremon also captures the experience of moving from bustling New York City to a wonderfully painted New Jersey suburb of the 1970s. As someone who made the move from Brooklyn to Jersey just this year, the experience of Margaret’s parents Herb and Barbara getting their first car and their first lawnmower rang especially true. The sprinklers on the grass, the sun chairs, the chain grocery stores — and Judy Blume walking her dog in a sweet cameo — anchor the period film.

Yet among all of these universalities, there’s also so many Jewish details that this book — and movie — encapsulate so well.

Through Sylvia Simon, played in the movie by Kathy Bates, we get the comfort of a supportive Jewish grandparent. A lifelong New Yorker who calls New Jersey condo residents “schmucks,” Sylvia can be kvetchy and overbearing — but for Margaret, she’s also a kindred spirit, a sweet, funny, safe person in her life. She’s also a character that grows and evolves throughout the movie, going through her own coming-of-age moment when her child and grandchild leave her for the suburbs.

Bates absolutely channels Jewish grandma glamour in the movie, with her technicolor fashion and trinket-filled NYC apartment. She also has wonderfully funny conversations with her granddaughter, sharing about her Jewish faith and, perhaps too excitedly, anything else that Margaret asks her about.

There is a particularly moving synagogue scene, in which Sylvia takes Margaret to a service. It features a real-life rabbi leading the Saturday service and offers the audience a chance to see Sylvia’s love for her religion and her desire to share that love with her granddaughter.

At synagogue, Margaret enjoys the tunes, but she doesn’t find what she’s looking for: a feeling. It’s a sentiment echoed by Margaret’s father, played by real-life Jewish father Benny Safdie. “You know what got me off going to temple?” he asks his wife. “Going to temple,” he explains, lamenting the hard-to-understand Hebrew and the drawn-out services.

While Margaret’s father Herb rejects Judaism — or at least the experience of practicing it — he’s still a wonderfully well-drawn Jewish father figure, sweet and open with Margaret and a loving, passionate husband who wholeheartedly accepts and adores his wife — and who still makes small talk with the Christian parents who rejected her. And while Barbara (Rachel McAdams) still craves validation from her parents, watching her ultimately reject their anti-Jewish bigotry is admirable. Watching Sylvia throw that bigotry in their faces with her “l’chaims” and hijacking their attempts to get Margaret baptized is also pretty thrilling, even if it comes in one of the movie’s most complex and tense scenes.

At the heart of Blume’s books lies the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, fixing the world. They do that by being frank and honest with kids. Blume teaches children that knowledge — about God, about puberty, about sex — is power, but that knowledge is also a building block for compassion, kindness and connection with others. It’s an important reminder, especially now — when book bans have taken over school districts across the country and state laws are trying to deny our children access to queer and Black history — that hiding things from our kids never ends well for us or them.

Margaret goes through a journey with religion and puberty that arms her with lived experience and knowledge about both — and they allow her to make kinder, more compassionate decisions that are brave and don’t just go with the flow of middle school social hierarchy.

In “Are You There God?” Margaret’s parents choose to let her decide about religion by raising her without one. It’s a pain point for Margaret, who has to grow up without the religious holidays of her peers. Yet at the end of the day, Herb and Barbara are wise to a universal truth that many parents who raise their children in their faiths are not — and that is that our kids’ relationships with God is one that they get to figure out for themselves, and one that is always evolving.

My own relationship with Judaism is the same. I’m a Jewish mom in my 30s, and I still feel growing pains.

In fact, watching “Are You There God?” in a quiet, air-conditioned theater, in a two-hour respite from the pressures of my life as a working parent — I perhaps related most to Barbara Simon. Just like Barbara, I feel unmoored in a new world of suburban parenting committees and manicured lawns and homes. Watching her find who she needs to be in this new reality was affirming. Seeing her reject the idea of needing to be a perfect suburban mom in exchange for an authentic life as an art teacher was a reminder that as women, we can always find a way back to ourselves. In fact, for Blume herself, suburban motherhood was the beginning of her life as a creative person.

At the end of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” Margaret’s relationship with God is left as an open-ended question. And I’m reminded that mine is, too. I may not be currently on speaking terms with God, but I have found a connection with Judaism I never imagined as a child, and this year, I’m even considering joining a synagogue. Who knows, maybe I’ll find a feeling there; if not, at least a sense of community.

As the tales of Judy Blume remind me, for Jewish women, from the Margarets to the Sylvias, it’s never too late to come of age, and come into your own.

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