Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"A Frum Story" - 2011 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry

2011 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry

                                      A Frum Story

                                                                                     By C. S. 

Since I wasn't allowed to date until I graduated from college, a rule that I often broke, I started relying on the internet to get myself potential dates.  On one occasion, several years ago, while George W was still president, my Craigslist ad read: Eccentric Asian femme, attractive, short at 5'3", 24, spiritually inclined, NYU grad with magna cum laude honors, seeks tall attractive male under 30 with a functioning cerebral cortex. Many responded but Jerry's reply riled me: "28, 5'10", confident and cute – You use all these fancy words to sound smart. Are you?" He was handsome – short brown hair, baby soft skin, glasses and a self-assured smirk on his face. Not only was he attractive but discerning and gutsy too. He had seen through my intellectual fa├žade and touched one of my insecurities. 

           Our first date was casual. He picked me up from my mother's house in Bay Ridge where I still lived.   He was in semi-formal attire but his white shirt was unbuttoned and disheveled. He said he just came from a friend's engagement party in Midwood. We drove in his black Maxima to the Tea Lounge in Park Slope. Ordering a pot of tiger chai, we let the night melt while we talked, laughed and checked each other out. He was taken by my appearance and I explained that my father is Chinese and my mother is Filipino. He looked at me again and said,
           "That explains why you're so exotic-looking."
We continued our banter and everything felt so right. He even made a joke saying,
          "Jerry Berry and Cherry, nothing can go wrong now!" I blushed.
          At one point towards the end of the evening he said, almost to himself, "You are so
special. It would be so easy to fall for you." It didn't sound like just another line from any other guy. He drove me back and I invited him in, warning him that my mom might be home. Most men that I had dated run at the thought of meeting my mother because it meant that it was
serious, like, marriage-serious.  "That's fine,” he replied, “I'd like to meet the mommy," which delighted me. 

            There, before me, was a young eligible bachelor, ready to enter the lion’s den, ready to say hello to an intimate part of my life no man (or boy) dared venture into even the supposed “serious” ones.  Dumbfounded but hopeful, I wished a thousand wishes – my mind racing towards the fulfillment of dreams.  I was nearing 25, close to ancient by Asian standards, and felt that I was ready to settle down. My past consisted of a bad string of so-called relationships with commitment-phobic men.  Besides, my hormones screamed, "We want him now!" and all these made me feel that Jerry might be someone I should consider as a permanent partner. I decided that I was in love; that "I"- feelings, mind and soul combined, was singular in the desire to merge with Jerry Berry.
            Inside the house, in the living room, my mom sat watching TV. Jerry was so polite,
engaging in small talk.  My mother interviewed him asking him questions like,
            "Have you eaten yet?"
            "What do you do for a living?"
            "Do you live far from here?"
            It was late and he left after partially satisfying my mother's curiosity. He shook my hand
goodbye, lingering on the handshake.  He almost fell off the stoop because he kept looking back
at me with a glazed look and a goofy smile on his face. It was adorable.
           "Isn't he Jewish?" my mother asked as soon as he was out of sight. Surprised, it didn't occur to me that he was.  Relieved that he was even more attractive in person, I liked him instantly and thought that I lucked out.  He might be "the one”.  “I don’t know,” I replied.  I really didn’t.
             He didn't wear a yarmulke, something I thought only religious Jews would wear, which
should give an accurate barometer about how much I knew about the Hebraic descendants. He was clean-shaven and his hair didn’t have the curly fringes that I associated with Jewish men I saw around Borough Park.  I didn't think that his belonging to one of the Thirteen Tribes was so exclusive or that my being non-Jewish would be a problem. I asked him to confirm in an e-mail whether he was Jewish or not as my mother suspected and he said yes. In fact, he said, he's Modern Orthodox. I didn't know what that meant but before I could, I received an e-mail from him a few days later saying that he could really fall in love with me but that it would never work because we were from two different worlds. I was confused. Why wouldn't it work? I was falling in love and wasn't he falling for me too?

            I was enthralled that someone I was into seemed so spiritual and so rooted to tradition. I didn’t realize until meeting Jerry that I was looking for faith to anchor myself into.  He was steeped in it.  It made him even more desirable that he couldn't let what I took to be our love blossom because of his religious convictions. I respected authentic spirituality since I've been on a search for God myself. I'd been raised in a Christian household from the Philippines all the way into my teens when the family moved to Brooklyn.   The transition eventually broke my parents’ marriage.   Everything ended in divorce, doubt and disbelief.  My broken home was a UFC octagon of no-holds barred verbal fights regarding money and, mostly, religion though money was really the culprit.  My father, siblings and I hated going to Iglesia Ni Cristo (Church of Christ), my mother's church – a Protestant offshoot that began in the Philippines in 1914 where evangelical missions were encouraged, interfaith dating discouraged, weekly attendance taken, church members were told who to vote for, prayers gave rise to crocodile tears and Catholic bashing was rampant.  I clung to the idea that there must be something to connect me more to God than the dogma my mother's religion espoused. I was always interested in the diversity of faiths outside my mom's church and studied other theologies. The third time I spent time with Jerry making out in his vehicle, I felt weird electrical currents in my spine and I felt a time-release of pleasure throughout my body. I wondered what this could be and realized that perhaps this was my kundalini rising. What was it about Jerry that made me feel that way?

           The idea of falling in love, according to mystics like Rumi and Khalil Gibran, was the closest I could get to that sincere God-realized state – the Shakti seeking Shiva, the snake-like energy at the base of the spine that connects man to the God-consciousness state written about in the Vedic texts. Was it because Jerry's faith that my chakras came alive? Was he the catalyst?  I was in a world of discovery and if Jerry felt so strongly about it, I thought maybe I should look into conversion to make our relationship feasible and expand my spirituality. He didn't think that this was a good idea if it was just about him but he was fascinated at my experience.
           "I wonder at your experience but converting has to be sincerely from your heart," he said.  "Don't do this because of me," he added.  I couldn’t decide whether it was for me or whether it was for him or whether it was for us.  

           I read more about Judaism. I talked to him about it. For the next several weeks, we
dispensed with eating out since he was keeping kosher – something I did not completely
understand – and instead met for drives around town. We talked often on the phone. I'd
research and he'd call me sometime at two in the morning, and we'd talk about my new
discoveries and I would ask him things like,
            "So does your sister really wear a wig?"
            "You betcha she does and it's a five-thousand dollar one too from European hair; not
Indian hair," he said.
         I found out that it was custom to give a secular and a Hebrew name to Jewish kids
especially but not exclusively for the more Orthodox folks. I asked Jerry what was his real
name since he gave his name as Jerry Berry. He said it wasn't important. This bothered me a
great deal but I let it slide. I never found out his real name. It was becoming increasingly
difficult to progress deeper into a relationship with him.

         I couldn't understand the presence of Halachic law that pervaded Jerry's life. How could
he not eat pasta I made but he would kiss me? Wouldn't my mouth be more offensive than my
food? I thought perhaps I just didn't understand the complexity of the religion and I needed
something related to an experience I was more familiar with: devotion.
          Kaballah study seemed to fit the bill. When Jerry found out that I started taking these
"mystical" classes with Rabbi Fund in a West Village shul, he was not happy. In his eyes, it was
a sacrilege for someone not married, not male and not over forty and definitely someone not of the flock to be studying these dangerous materials. I had to assure him that nothing transcendental was being discussed. It was purely academic with text study and sanitized rhetoric about the Chasidic movement and the return of the Divine Spark to the En Sof. Jerry was relieved but still skeptical. He didn't know what to make of me.

           Jerry and I had fooled around in his car several times but had not actually engaged in the
full-blown mating dance. One afternoon, he e-mailed me and said that he had to come clean and
that there was already someone else. His logic was that if we didn't do anything physical now,
we would regret it later. In shock, I cried for one hour. What did it matter to me? God forsook
me again first with the spiritual emptiness in my home and now this. My love expressed was not
God, it was lust. I messaged him back saying I agreed. 

            Because he was carried away and did not use protection, he feared that I was, in his words, “ovulating”.  I don't know how he did it but the very next day, very close to sundown Friday, he procured the morning after pill and told me to take it. I did obediently. He called me a second time exactly twelve hours later to make sure I took the second pill. He was relieved more than I was to know that the pills were working. I bled so much afterwards that it almost seemed like I lost a part of myself in the blood my body was forced to release.  I was in so much pain and my body reacted negatively to the pills.  I hadn't heard from him in three days and on that last day in reply to my unanswered calls and messages, he officially ended our relationship with an e-mail, writing: "I wish it didn't end like this." In a way, it's poetic, full of irony and appropriate since our doomed relationship started with electronic mail.

             Challenged, I looked into the faith more after Jerry was long gone though that also
involved relationships with other Orthodox men who were in varying degrees of religiosity, one
was a former Ramallah settler who hated Arabs so much he called them “pigs” and another man was an outcast from his frum background. I often think of Jerry, my journey of almost-conversion and my search for God – well, it was a search for meaning – that took me to my crazy adventure in the first place. In the end, I still couldn't give up Jesus or reconcile myself to an institution that went literally by the Book.






"Paradise A Memory " By Denise DiFulco - 2011 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry

                                              2011 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry


                                                     Paradise A Memory

                                                             By Denise DiFulco

Everywhere you look there are bouquets of light. Bursts of red, yellow, green and blue 360 degrees around. You and your best friend are sitting in lawn chairs, Coke cans in hand, Mets on the radio, taking it all in. It’s the best show in the world, best seats in the house. Or on the house. Because that’s where you are, on the roof of his parents’ place in Canarsie, watching the night sky fade behind neon showers.
            It’s July 4th, 1988. And as you sit there watching the horizon bloom into full color, you’re not thinking a year ahead, let alone five or ten or twenty. You’re not thinking that in less than a decade your friend’s parents will move out to Long Island, like most everyone else from the neighborhood, and that the neat little yard out front will become overgrown with weeds and trash. You’re not thinking that terrorists will have taken their first crack at toppling the Twin Towers, and that you’ll spend a frantic day wondering if your uncle, who was working at a construction site downtown, made it out alive. You’re certainly not thinking that the current U.S. attorney, that Giuliani guy who brought down the Five Families, will become mayor and ban fireworks for good so that no one will ever score a ticket to this spectacular show again.
            No. At this moment you’ve got your eyes to the sky, thinking how beautiful your city looks lit up in a Technicolor dream. At this moment, it seems bigger and better than anything your dad could have imagined back when he was a kid living in Flatbush, playing stickball in dirt lots and following the Dodgers like religion. Hearing him tell it, Brooklyn never was better. But times change. Brooklyn isn’t what it was for your dad. Just like it won’t be what it was for you.
            But you don’t know that yet.
            Instead you roll your eyes every time he mourns the old days—his Golden Days—when a kid could walk the streets at night and a subway ride cost only a nickel. You cringe when he complains about the graffiti that now seems to have crept onto the city buses. It’s an ominous sign, he says. What was once confined to Manhattan and the Bronx is infiltrating your good neighborhood. You don’t tell him it is your friends, the kids from your good neighborhood who are tagging up the B78 with their Sharpie markers and etching the Plexiglas windows with X-ACTO knives.
            It is you, the child, who is protecting the adult. Because from the time you are very little, you watch your parents’ world fade like an old photograph. When you are seven, you go shopping with your mother once a week on Avenue N in Old Mill Basin, stopping first at the vegetable store, then the fish market, then the pork store. You slide your feet along sawdust and hay scattered on the floors of the little shops, marvel at the old cash registers with their mother-of-pearl buttons, press your nose against the freshly rolled pepperoni stacked just at your height. Sometimes your mom takes you into the men’s barbershop across the street for a haircut even though you are a girl. You cry and protest loudly, yet Tony succeeds in making you laugh by playing peek-a-boo with a cape. He puts a booster across the chair arms, and you climb up like it’s the jungle gym at the park. A few snips straight across your bangs, and the ordeal is over. Eyes red and cheeks still wet with tears, you wait by the front counter eagerly while your mom pays. Tony pretends not to know why you’re standing there, and after a few moments of intentionally, though playfully making you suffer, he pulls out a box of lollipops.
            You, as always, take one that is striped green, white and orange.
            Ironically, when a supermarket opens on Ralph Avenue less than a mile away, the little shops close in the order your mother used to visit. First the vegetable store, then the fish store. The pork store, miraculously, hangs on. You think it’s because of the way the strapping butchers in their bloodstained aprons flirt heavily and openly with the housewives coming to market. Even your mother puts on lipstick and checks her hair before she walks through the door.
            But so much else, so much of the Brooklyn your parents remember has long disappeared. When your dad takes you to Coney Island—the one and only time—it is dirty and desolate. You ride the creaky old Cyclone, and as the car is cranked up the lift chain you count how many trestle joints have separated. There are that many. The visit lasts only a half hour. And as you’re leaving, you notice some guys dancing on cardboard boxes they’ve sliced open and laid flat on the sidewalk into a makeshift dance floor. They’re waving their arms and spinning on their heads in time to a thumping bass that blares from a radio the size of a small car. “C’mon,” your dad says, nudging you. “We’re going to get mugged. You’ve got to keep moving.” And still you stand there, mesmerized.
            No, this is no longer his Brooklyn.
            This, you realize, is yours.
            You soon learn those moves are called breaking and the music is hip hop. The radio is called a boom box, and before long those clunky, behemoths will appear on the shoulders of young men walking just about everywhere. It’s part of the whole graffiti culture. Kids come to school with notebooks filled not with their homework assignments, but with their graffiti tags and illustrations, master plans to bomb handball walls and subway cars in the dark of the night. It’s beautiful, you think. You sketch out your own alphabet. Play around with different tags. Only once, after school in a forgotten hallway, do you dare to put yours on a wall.
            Instead you wear your hair big, peg your pants, embrace neon. You learn to pop and wave and shuffle. You watch as the other kids continue to carve up bus windows. At least one a day whips out a stack of “Hello, My Name Is” stickers and slaps their tag on every solid surface around the neighborhood. Even you cringe when you notice they’re now bombing garage doors of people’s homes.
            But you will defend that neighborhood to anyone. You will defend Brooklyn to anyone. Even though every September when you return to school, more of your friends are missing. They don’t always tell you they are leaving, but you can guess where they’ve gone: Long Island, Staten Island, New Jersey, Florida.
            Many of them miss the Mets winning the World Series in 1986. Your neighborhood is 12 miles by highway from Shea Stadium, but at the moment of the last out, when Jesse Orosco hurls his glove into the air and falls to his knees, it’s like you’re in the stands. The whole borough is delirious in a collective ovation. The streets around your house are filled with hundreds of people shouting, honking horns, shooting fireworks. Guys are driving by in their Camaros streaming toilet paper out the windows. It’s a scene that is being repeated all over the borough. All over the city. And all you can think is, Where else in the world?
            You have the same thought sitting on your best friend’s roof watching all manner of pyrotechnics, hundreds at a time, explode in every direction.
            Where else in the world?
            And not too long after that, it’s time to find out. You go away to a private college in upstate New York, where the big hair, the pegged jeans and the hip-hop music just don’t play. You want to be back with your people. You want to come home. But you don’t. Instead you stay. You straighten your hair, wear plaid flannel shirts and listen to Seattle rock bands. You lose your accent. One morning, while waiting for class to begin, you spot a headline on page A1 of The New York Times: “Boy, 15, Is Fatally Stabbed at School in Brooklyn.” Upon reading the first sentence of the story, you scream so loud as to alarm your classmates.
            It happened at your high school. In your good neighborhood.
            Your Brooklyn, too, has begun to fade.
            The 1993 World Trade Center bombers will see to that. Mayor Giuliani and his clean up of New York will see to that. Everyone who has moved away, all the family-owned shops that have closed—that will seal it.
            After college, you’ll leave to see more of the world. Though you swear up and down you’ll return, you’ll never come home to stay. And deep inside, you’ll hate yourself for it. You’ll hate knowing this isn’t your Brooklyn anymore. It will belong to someone else. Not only because time did its dirty work, not only because the city succumbed to its inevitable life cycle, but mostly because you gave it away.
            One day years later you’ll drive down Avenue N with your own kids in a car with New Jersey plates, pointing out where the vegetable store and the fish store used to be. You’ll laugh out loud realizing the pork store has expanded. But the barber shop? Where is it? Those guys were so old even when you were little.
            And then you’ll spot it, a block down from where it used to be, the old twirling pole set outside a new storefront.
            You’ll loop around three times before finding a parking space like your mother so often did, and you’ll walk inside. The new place will be different, but the faces the same: Tony, Frank, Rosario. The moment you walk in, Tony will recognize you and welcome you with a huge smile.
            He’ll ask about your dad and talk about how he used to come in as a boy with his own father. “You remember my grandfather?” you’ll say. “Of course. He was sucha gooda man.” And that will lead into a conversation about the original neighborhood fifty years earlier, before they built all the houses and the stores. Back when the roads weren’t even paved. And you’ll try hard the whole time to hide how emotional you’ve become. Suddenly you’ll feel like you’re five, again. Ten. Thirteen.
            And then it will really hit you: You’ll return to this moment on the rooftop, soda can sweating in hand, the smell of gunpowder and smoke heavy in the air. And you’ll know how your dad felt. You’ll taste it in your mouth.
            You’ll excuse yourself to leave, promising to visit, again. It won’t be so long the next time. And as you turn to walk out the door, you’ll realize Tony has called your kids back. He is pulling out a box from under the cash register and offering it to them.
            They’ll dig inside, remembering to say “thank you,” and run toward you waving their loot.
            They are holding lollipops.
            Green, white and orange as ever.