I got a phone call from my high school friend, Mikey, a year ago. We used to be very close, but as time and miles have grown between us, we rarely talk more than once every few years. He said, “Did you hear about J? She’s dying.”
In a high school with 1600 students, J was one of the six members of our “Jew Crew.” We grew up attending the same Reform synagogue, hanging out in the graffiti-decorated youth group lounge, bonding together over our differences from everyone else around us. We were Jewish, living in a small town where Christmas trees adorned every public school classroom. We were known on sight for the religion we practiced, rather than the people we were.
I grew up with J. She was a year older than me, a gorgeous blonde spitfire who sought out buttons to push. I was a chubby brunette with glasses, a bookworm by trade. I admired her from afar, knowing that I was perceived as too squeaky-clean to ever be cool enough to be her friend. J smoked cigarettes, binged and purged, brooded and screamed. She lived life at 120 miles per hour, determined to feel…everything. She had a vibrancy about her that was magnetic.
Our temple youth group drew us together. Against the odds, J and I became friends. We would link arms in the school hallway, sing Jewish tunes and maniacally shout Hebrew verses, pretending that we actually knew what we were talking about. We told each other secrets, laughed, and cried.
As a Hebrew School teacher, I see similar odd couplings amongst my students. Kids from four different school districts come together at synagogue twice a week to learn about their shared culture and history. Some of the kids know each other, but many of them are meeting for the first time. One of my students is homeschooled, smart as a whip, but socially awkward. When he failed to complete the midterm assignment, he skipped class for a whole month, embarrassed to show his face. When he finally returned, the other boys in the class shouted his name (think “NORM!” from Cheers) and embraced him in a true football pile-on. Witnessing this kinship sent shivers down my spine, as I recognized that they had formed a friendship built on heartier things. Perhaps one that would withstand the test of time, as mine had.
Mikey called. He said, “Did you hear about J? She’s dying.”
“Nah, I don’t think so,” I replied, absentmindedly rifling through my daughter’s schoolwork. I had seen the postings on Facebook, her friends asking for prayers. J was always dramatic. “I heard she’s in the hospital, but I don’t think it’s serious,” I said. “You know how she is.”
The next day it was confirmed. J had died. I couldn’t believe it. 34 years old, mother to three beautiful girls—and gone. Her sadness and intensity had proved to be too much for this world. At the funeral, her father spoke from the heart: “We poured love into J as much as we could—but J was a bucket that simply could not be filled up.”
Everyone from the Jew Crew left our hometown after high school, but we managed to get details about the funeral. Four of us attended. I took the day off from work and drove three hours down Route 88. I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes, collecting myself. It was surreal to see the faces of my friends after so many years. The rabbi’s son, who had broken my heart when he moved to Michigan during my freshman year; the earthy brunette who ran against me in the race for president of the youth group and was now pursuing her artistic dreams in Virginia; the cat-eyed beauty who had once been my very best friend, now a special education teacher, married with a son of her own.
We embraced, holding each other at arm’s length. Sweeping gazes down the lengths of our bodies, seeking out the subtle changes of hairstyle, hip breadth, and creasing smile lines, while delighting in that which had stayed the same. After the service, we went down to the archives of the synagogue and marveled over the old photographs. A 7-year-old me, clinging to my mom’s skirt during
. Snapshots of our youth group, goofing around on the front steps of the temple after raking up leaves on Mitzvah Day. Apple-picking. Building and decorating the sukkah.
Before we went back upstairs, I snagged a hand-knit turquoise and purple kippah for my son. A thrill of delight went through me as I imagined my little boy wearing something from the synagogue I grew up in.
The deepest friendships in my life grew from seedlings planted within the Jewish community. Camps and youth group retreats. Relationships founded on shared experiences, culture, and understanding. J had lived a life on the edge. In many ways, the things she expressed on the outside mirrored the feelings that brewed on my inside. We were different sides of the same coin, brought together by our connection with Judaism. It is one of the reasons I devote my Sundays to a class full of Jewish adolescent ruffians. In hopes that perhaps, together, we can create an atmosphere of understanding and community that lasts a lifetime.
I am proud of my Jew Crew, for coming back, for coming home. We came to say goodbye to J. To meet the sweet babies she had brought into the world. To weep, knowing that we had let too many years go by.