I had packed light; I brought a pair of jeans and a pair of cords, a dress for my high school reunion, a hooded sweatshirt, two pairs of shoes and an assortment of t-shirts. I put on my cords - later that evening I was meeting a friend for Friday night services at a temple on 9th Avenue, and I wanted to dress as appropriately as I could. I left Anne and Harold’s home with my suitcase and backpack full - they were leaving for the weekend, and I was relocating to Gabrielle’s. I took the #77 bus to the Smith & 9th Street station, where a group of construction workers were taking their lunch break on a concrete median in the middle of the train tracks; it looked like a photo shoot for a cigarette ad. I rode the G train to Clinton and Washington and rolled my suitcase seven blocks to Gabrielle’s store, it had never felt so heavy. Several plastic bags filled with gently used clothing and toys waited to be inventoried on the sidewalk outside the store, and the door was propped open. Gabrielle sat behind the counter in a humid stupor.
“It’s like the four seasons of New York or something,” I said to her as I deposited my bags behind the counter.
“Right?” she said, reading the computer screen in front of her. “Look at you,” she said, responding to the bright pink hue I’d taken on, and the copious amounts of perspiration on my forehead and under my arms, “you must be sweltering, is that all you have?” she asked, indicating my choice of clothing with a downward sweeping gesture of her hand.
“Yeah,” I said. A trickle of perspiration ran down my neck and traveled the length of my back, finally settling into the fabric of my underwear. “It was cold two days ago, I was freezing in my hoodie and wished I’d brought something heavier.” I eyed a display of maternity wear, and chose a black skirt that had an elastic panel in the front. “Maybe this will work,” I said. I tried it on in the bathroom next to a changing table and a handwritten sign reading “Please take poopy diapers with you”. It fit, and the pregnancy panel in the front of the skirt acted as tummy control, increasing my self-confidence.
“It’s cute,” Gabrielle said when I emerged. We walked across the street and bought a couple sandwiches from Choice Market, where I wavered over a decision to buy a cookie.
“Well, I am eating for two,” I joked.
“What?” Gabrielle said, her eyes wide.
“Relax Gab,” I said, “it’s just a skirt.”
“Oh, alright,” she said, “because I’d better be on the list of people you call when that happens!”
Sated and comfortable, I dropped off my luggage at Gabrielle’s co-op a few blocks from the store, and got back on the C train to meet Zach and his fiancée Patricia for shul. I’d connected with Zach at my high school reunion the previous weekend, and followed up on a promise to connect while I was in the city. When he suggested shul as a Friday night activity, I responded somewhat flippantly.
“It’s a really beautiful place,” he’d said’ “very open and progressive, very gay, lesbian and transgender friendly…”
“Okay,” I said, “but only if I get to sit in the transgender section so everyone can ask me who my doctor is.”
“Afterwards we have a tradition of going out for Chinese food,” Zach continued, unphased by my attempt at humor, “you’re welcome to join us for just Chinese food, or both Chinese and shul,” he paused, “or neither, it’s up to you.”
“All right,” I said, “but I have to tell you, in the interest of full disclosure I haven’t seen the inside a temple since I went to Len Schiff’s bar mitzvah in 1984.” Len’s bar mitzvah was the event of the season, all the teachers from I.S.88 were in attendance; Len’s mother was the universally adored home ec. teacher there, and she’d invited all her colleagues. Afterwards there was a reception at a restaurant called Terrace on the Park in Flushing Meadows, where we indulged in music, drinks and dancing. We got in two rounds of alcoholic drinks before the bartenders got wise and cut us off. I gave Len a top of the line calculator watch that I'd bought at a midtown Manhattan electronics store from a man in a yarmulke and love-locks, and we all left the reception with party favors - including a smooth flat rock that had several rows of smaller rocks glued to it. The smaller rocks had eyes painted on them, and over them a sign made of popsicle sticks read: “Rock Concert”. The words “Len’s Bar Mitvah” and the date were painted onto the bottom; I still have mine. I recently reconnected with Len, and the first thing I asked him was if he still had the watch.
“You know,” he said, humoring me, “I like to keep it for special occasions, and I didn’t want to take the risk of wearing it into Brooklyn tonight.”
The building located at the address Zach had given me was an Episcopalian church, but people kept walking through the doors - including a number of men wearing yarmulkes, and a sign on the right side of the building told me that this was the gathering place for Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. I never knew Zach as a practicing Jew, or any kind of a Jew really, so I was surprised to see him wearing a yarmulke himself as he loped towards me on 9th Avenue.
“You can participate in as much or as little as you want,” he said to me in preparation, “this is not your grandfather's shul.”
“It takes place inside an Episcopalian church, for starters,” I said.
“Yes, for starters…” he said. Inside we found two seats on the aisle. A red-haired woman seated directly in front of me turned around, extended her hand to me, and said:
“Shalom Shabbat, my name is Janice,”
“Shalom Shabbat,” I said, taking her hand, “I’m J.” The man seated to Zach’s right did the same. A podium stood in the center of the church, flanked by two flags on either side - the rainbow flag of gay pride and an American flag to the left, the Israeli flag and a second rainbow flag to the right. A bespectacled rabbi who looked like a fourteen year old boy, but was actually a woman, led the services accompanied by a guitar-wielding cantor in square glasses, dark curly hair, and a prayer shawl over his clothing. I had no idea what was being sung and couldn’t figure out how to follow along in the book that had been handed to me at the door, even in the phonetically spelled out English words printed alongside the Hebrew, but it was beautiful to listen to - the minor key melodies haunting the cavern of my middle ear. The man standing behind me had a beautiful voice, and it was making me a little misty to hear his devoted singing in such close proximity.
“How are you doing?” Zach whispered to me, possibly in response to my silence.
“Good,” I whispered back.
“Now we’re turning around” he said, and I turned, along with the congregation, and faced the back of the man who’s voice had been enveloping me. He kept his eyes closed as he sang, releasing the music within him.
When the singing was over, the rabbi spoke of a recent trip to Argentina, the plight of the Jews who lived there, and of late mayor of San Francisco, Harvey Milk.
It was dark by the time we left the building, and Patricia met us outside - she was running late and didn’t want to enter after services had already begun. We drove to Chinatown and ate oysters and pork at a restaurant called Mr. Tang, where Zach and Patricia are regulars. We discussed Judaism, and I explained my long and complicated history with the religion, which goes a little something like this: my maiden name is Cohen, I wasn’t raised religiously, and by most traditions I wouldn’t be considered Jewish because my mother isn’t. For most of my life people have not only assumed that I am Jewish, but have regarded me through that lens to explain certain behaviors - an appreciation for good pickles and matzoh ball soup for instance, and a tendency to avoid overt Christianity and the south. Over the years I’ve had various reactions to this, ranging from guilt that I don’t know more about Judaism, to anger that people would have the gall to assume anything about me based on my name. I once hung up on a teenaged boy who called me from a telemarketing phone bank to ask for my financial support of a Jewish organization, and I was irrevocably peeved when a former boss of mine asked, on Ash Wednesday, “so when is your holiday?” My high school chorus teacher was an African-American woman who taught us negro spirituals. Halfway through "I've been 'buked and I've been scorned" she looked up from her seat on the piano bench with a smirk on her face. She turned her attention back to playing the piano, and when she looked at me again was smiling broadly. Finally she stopped playing completely and burst out laughing.
"I'm sorry J," she said between breaths, "but you have never looked more Jewish to me than you do right now."
By the same token, it feels wrong to have my Jewishness ignored. The first winter I spent in Chicago I was surprised that the office buildings downtown don't display menorahs side by side with Christmas trees the way they do in New York, and was shocked when a coworker asked me if Cohen was a Catholic name.
Years ago I felt the need to learn more about “my” religion, and kept renewing the same book on Judaism from the Bezazian branch of the Chicago Public Library before finally returning it, unread. A Quaker friend of mine once gave me a menorah that had belonged to his deceased partner, and I asked a Jewish colleague to phonetically spell out the prayer that accompanies the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. For one holiday season I observed the candle lighting tradition, and now the menorah decorates the top of our television, less a religious item than a household decoration.
One letter less and my name would have been Chen - would people have expected me to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese and make Peking Duck on the weekends? The worst was when people told me that I looked Jewish - for those of you who’ve never met me, I look exactly like my Scotch-Irish shikse mother. How on earth can a person look Jewish anyway? I mean, I know what people were trying to get at - I wear glasses, I have curly hair that goes frizzy in the humidity, and I’m a little zaftig. Nonetheless, these indicators would amount to nothing if it weren’t for the name Cohen, and ever since I took my husband’s name nobody has assumed that there’s anything Semitic about me.
Now that I don’t carry the name Cohen, I feel a little nostalgic for it whenever I see it in print, and I enjoy being called Cohen by people who knew me before I was married. My husband's name is Palmer, which carries no such religious weight, although it should - the first Palmers made a pilgrimage to the holy land and returned with palm leaves as proof of their journey.
When we parted ways it was almost midnight. Zach and Patricia headed for Jersey, and I descended the subway stairs on Canal Street to wait for the A train. An interminable flat note emanated from the fluorescent lights overhead, and between that and the yellow cast spilling over everything they touched, I fell into a trance.