The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah, p.1Nora Raleigh Baskin
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division
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Copyright © 2008 by Nora Raleigh Baskin
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
ALADDIN, ALADDIN MIX, and related logo are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows: Baskin, Nora Raleigh.
The truth about my Bat Mitzvah / Nora Raleigh Baskin.—1st ed.
Summary: After her beloved grandmother, Nana, dies, nonreligious twelve-year-old Caroline becomes curious about her mother’s Jewish ancestry.
1. Jews—United States—Juvenile fiction. [1. Jews—United States—
Fiction. 2. Identity—Fiction. 3. Prejudices—Fiction. 4. Grandmothers—
Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.B29233Tr 2008 [Fic]—dc22 2007001248
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FOR MY NANA
This story would never have been drawn from my thoughts and memories and heart if it were not for Alexandra Cooper, my editor at Simon & Schuster. She then went on to coax it, plead with it, and sometimes gently force it into shape. Thank you.
Many thanks, once again, to my agent, Nancy Gallt, who seems to believe in me, even and especially when I don’t.
And to Dal Lowenbein, who picks up the phone every time I call (up to ten times a day) to discuss a story idea, a character, and our children, our husbands, our dogs, or what I can possibly cook for dinner tonight. And she comes through every time.
And to all the people who have helped me with my own search for Jewish identity, Susan Cutler, Gail Abramowitz, Debbie Katchko, Charlene Monn, Annie and Batya Diamond, Stacy Kamisar, Anna Jo Dubow, Jill Becker, the Bi-Cultural Day School of Stamford, Connecticut, and of course, Rabbi Yehoshua and Freida Hecht.
AZ IKH VEL ZAYN VI ER, VER VET ZAYN VI IKH?
(IF I TRY TO BE LIKE HIM, WHO WILL BE LIKE ME?)
I was doing okay right up until I got to the doorway and saw her coffin. My grandmother’s body is inside there, I thought, and I couldn’t take another step into that room. I stopped short and my dad nearly bumped into me.
“Go on, Caroline,” he said to me quietly. “Just walk inside and sit down.”
Since we were the immediate family, we had been waiting in a special room. Everyone else, all my grandmother’s friends and, I suppose, lesser family members, were already sitting out there, in seats like pews. Sitting, talking quietly. Everyone looked sad or at least serious. While we—my mom and dad and my little brother, Sam, my grandfather, and some old lady who I had never seen before—had been ushered in here. In this fancy room with the heavy furniture, oriental rugs, thick drapes, and pitchers of water with lemon, like we were special somehow. In a weird way it was like a birthday party, when you get treated differently for really no reason at all except that you were born—an event you personally had nothing to do with.
And now it was time for the service to start.
“I can’t,” I told my dad. My feet wouldn’t move and I didn’t know why.
My mom was still sitting in a big overstuffed chair in the corner of the waiting room, still crying. She had been crying all morning and on and off since we found out three days ago. It was her mother, after all, my nana. Even Sam was unusually quiet. Maybe he was just uncomfortable in his suit and tie.
My dad bent down and whispered into my ear, “Caroline, she’s not really in there.”
“What?” I turned to him and for a second I thought this whole thing had been a big mistake. We were in the wrong funeral home, the wrong place altogether. My grandmother didn’t die. She wasn’t inside that big, long box.
“Not really,” my dad went on. “It’s not her. Not the real Nana, not the Nana you remember. Don’t be afraid. Just take the first step. I am right next to you.”
And suddenly I could.
My feet started moving, one in front of the other. I followed my grandfather, with my dad beside me, my brother and mom holding hands, and then that old lady. We all made our way down to the front row, right in front of the coffin.
I sat down.
Everything after that was a blur. People got up and spoke but I didn’t really listen to what they were saying. Especially not the rabbi who talked forever, even though he clearly had no idea who my grandmother was. Then he pronounced our names wrong. He mixed up my father and my uncle and he called me Carolyn instead of Caroline.
I looked over at my mom, who despised any kind of organized anything, religion in particular. She didn’t even catch my glance as she normally would when she found something was false or insincere—and we would both roll our eyes knowingly. Now she was just crying.
I looked straight ahead and tried to remain calm. But the coffin was only a few feet in front of me. So close, I imagined I could see my nana, lying on her back with her hands folded the way they show it in the movies. Only this wasn’t a movie and she really was in there, all closed up with a heavy wooden lid on top of her, so near to her face.
You know I can’t go anywhere, my nana would always say, until I put my face on. She meant her makeup. My nana wouldn’t leave her house without all her makeup on.
Then I started breathing really fast through my mouth and I felt dizzy. The tip of my nose was tingling. We would have to stand up soon. What if I fainted?
The thought of fainting made my heart beat really fast.
“Dad?” I whispered. My voice was shaking. Maybe I was going to throw up.
My dad took my hand in his and held it tightly.
“Remember, your nana’s really not in there,” he said again. “She’ll always be with you.” My dad took our two hands together and pressed them against my chest. “She’ll always be in here,” my dad said.
I put my other hand on top of his so he wouldn’t take his hand away, not yet; I wasn’t ready. I don’t know if I believed him or not, but in a way it didn’t matter. At least, I wasn’t going to faint. I let out a slow breath. Then suddenly I started to cry. I would never see my nana again, and there had been so many things I didn’t get to tell her.
Like how much I loved her.
I don’t think I really ever let her know.
No, She Can’t Be Related to Me
It seems like it shouldn’t be, that you shouldn’t get hungry when somebody dies,
“I’m seven years old,” he screamed.
My dad was upset that he didn’t have any clean shirts from the cleaner. And I was pretty much left to my own devices, until I came downstairs dressed in pants.
“You can’t wear that,” my mother said. Her eyes were all red and puffy. She looked awful.
“Why not?” I asked. They were dressy khaki capris and I had on a nice top. I had worn the exact same outfit when we went to my cousin’s graduation just a month ago.
“Because you can’t.”
I was going to argue but my dad gave me that look and I knew what it meant. So I went back upstairs and put on a long skirt and my platform sandals, which were pinching my feet. It was crowded here in my grandparents’ apartment, which was filled with mostly older people who now seemed to have come alive. They were chatting and even laughing. I guess it was easy to forget why we were here and Nana wasn’t. But not for me. Being in this apartment without her felt so wrong.
Even with all the mirrors draped in sheets. Even with the little cardboard boxes we were supposed to sit on, but nobody was. And even if it didn’t feel right, I was still really hungry.
It had been hard to get close to the table laid out with cold cuts, pickles, olives, bagels, rye bread, and all sorts of spreads. And soda—I never get to drink soda. But I finally had a plate of food and a little plastic cup of ginger ale, when the old lady who had been in the waiting room at the funeral home came over and introduced herself to me.
“I’m your great-aunt Gertrude,” the lady said. She held out her hand.
“My what?” I asked, and at the same time I found myself studying her face a little closer. An aunt? Of mine?
My grandfather suddenly stepped up.
“Caroline, this is my sister,” Poppy explained. “My older sister, Gert. We haven’t seen much of each other.” Then he turned as if speaking only to her. “Not in a while…too long a while,” he said.
I suppose it was possible I had relatives I didn’t know about, but something told me there was more here, something more than the usual Oh, it’s been ages.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. I gestured to the plate and cup filling both my hands as if she maybe hadn’t noticed them before, but I had a feeling she was the kind of lady who usually got her way. She was tall, especially for an old lady, and her face was kind of droopy and mean looking.
“I am very sorry about your grandmother,” she said, finally dropping her hand. “From what I hear, you two were very close.”
I lowered my eyes at the mention of my nana. Something seemed odd about this whole situation.
“I hope to see you again very soon,” my new aunt Gert said to me.
I was hoping not.
When everyone had left, it was just us: me and Mom and Dad, Sam and Poppy. Someone had been hired to clean everything up, so we had nothing to do but sit. For a long time no one said anything. Sam was about to fall asleep on my dad’s shoulder.
My poppy sighed. “Amy, do you want to look at her jewelry?” He was talking to my mother.
She looked up. “What did you say, Dad?”
“Mom’s jewelry,” my poppy said. “Would you like to see if there is anything you want. To take home with you tonight.”
“Oh no, Dad. Not now. I couldn’t,” my mother said.
I looked around. I could tell my grandfather needed to do something. He was a load-the-dishwasher, make-the-beds, go-to-work-at-the-same-time-every-day kind of guy. He wasn’t very good at sitting around.
“I’ll look,” I offered.
My mother lifted her eyes to me.
“Just look,” I said.
She nodded. She seemed too tired to move from her seat, but Poppy was already on his feet. I followed him into their bedroom. My grandparents had a giant bed. It was really two full-size beds pushed together with one headboard and one big bedspread over it. When I used to sleep between them I could feel the dip in the center, like lying in a cozy hammock. I would settle right into it and watch TV way later than my mother and father would ever let me at home.
My grandparents’ bedroom smelled of her perfume. Nana always smelled like it, and so did everything she ever gave me, every sweater, every stuffed animal. It was from Paris, she once told me. It is very expensive. Your poppy buys it for me once a year, every year since we were married.
“The good stuff is in the bank,” my grandfather told me. He sat down on the bed, taking my nana’s jewelry box and setting it on his lap. “But there are some things in here that were meant for you one day.”
“I don’t want anything, Poppy,” I said.
“I know you don’t, sweetheart, but there is one thing I’d like to give you now.”
My grandfather opened the top to reveal the two tiers of my nana’s jewelry box. It was cushioned in satiny fabric, with separate compartments and tiny drawers. I had seen her take out her different earrings and big beaded necklaces many times before. I was never very interested in anything. Nothing in there was really to my taste. I didn’t even have my ears pierced yet. My mother said I had to wait two more years, until I was fourteen, which seemed very unfair to me. I usually argued the point about once a month.
“Here,” my grandfather said. He pulled out a necklace from one of the long rectangular compartments.
At first, all I could see was the gold chain, hundreds of miniature circles linked together. Then I saw it was a Star of David, a Jewish star: two elongated triangles, interlocked, one a slightly darker shade of gold than the other.
“She wanted you to have this,” my poppy told me. “If you ever…you know.”
“If I ever what, Poppy?”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. It should be yours now.”
He held the necklace up in the air, waiting, and when I lifted my hand he let it curl down into my open palm.
“You don’t have to wear it,” my grandfather said. “But just have it.”
He pressed my fingers closed with one hand and brought his finger to his lips with the other. “Shhh. I don’t have anything for Sam right now. But I want you to have this. It will make me feel better.” He kissed my forehead.
“Okay,” I said. Then we both sat there, like we didn’t know what to do anymore. Like we were suddenly very tired.
I looked around the room, at her pillows, her framed needlepoint on the wall, her photographs on the dresser. I could feel the necklace inside my closed fist. There was her knitting bag, the needles poking out. Her shoeboxes stacked neatly in the closet. Nothing had changed. Her pocketbook was draped over the back of her vanity chair like she had put it there only moments before. It was as if my nana could walk into the bedroom any minute, or call me into the kitchen for the Chinese food we had ordered together.
Then I could, I would, tell her how much I loved the necklace.
It’s so beautiful, Nana. Thank you.
How Jewish Is Too Jewish?
I could tell my friend Rachel Miller anything. Even about what I heard in the car ride home when we finally left Poppy’s apartment, when my parents thought I was asleep, like Sam was. Like I was, until we hit a bump on the West Side Highway. Through my lowered lashes, I saw my mother turn around in her seat to see if I had woken. It was late and dark, and the lights from the oncoming traffic shone into our car, making a kaleidoscope behind my lowered eyelids. I didn’t even move my head. But I listened.
My mother went back to her conversation with my dad, in between crying. She was telling family secrets, and I wanted to hear them.
Rachel was my best friend, my best friend since nur
The teacher thought it was so funny, she insisted our moms meet each other. Our moms became best friends, and so did we. That was almost eight years ago, and we still use Carachel and Racholine for our screen names.
But lately, the last year or so, Rachel and I had stopped looking so much alike. To tell the truth, now I looked like Rachel’s big sister. For one thing, Rachel’s hair stayed golden blond, while mine was nearly totally dark brown now. And I had grown so much more; there was no hiding it, no amount of slouching. Sometimes, next to Rachel I felt like an elephant. But most times when I was with her, especially if we were alone, I’d forget. And we’d be like twins again, separated at birth.
We were both sitting on my bed, in my room. Rachel had come over first thing the next morning. She and her family had been at the funeral but they couldn’t stay for the eating part, the shiva in my grandparent’s apartment. Now I had so much to tell her.
“I heard them talking in the car,” I told Rachel. “My mother and father on the way home last night when they thought I was sleeping. I found out why I never met my new aunt Gert before.”
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