Religion was the great divide in my household. My father had been a Yeshiva boy; my mother couldn’t crack lobster claws fast enough. How they wound up married, how they’ve stayed married, is anyone’s guess. Their arguments, like all wars (and theirs was ongoing) stemmed from this fundamental difference in belief. My father’s rigidity often won out against my mother’s heathenism. I was the resentful knot in their theological tug of war.
Every time I got into trouble my father threatened to send me to day school.
By 8th grade, I was in trouble all the time.
Three weeks after my bat mitzvah the police would knock at my door. My beloved books were Go Ask Alice and And I Don’t Want to Live This Life. Although the movie Heathers would not be released for another six months, I was already spinning in a torrent of Queen bees and Wannabes: volatile, rotten, afraid.
When I got suspended from Hebrew School (really, who gets suspended from Hebrew School?) my mother kept it from my father. This was an act of grace. My father was an ace Torah reader. His study and my bedroom connected by a thin wall, the nasally cadence of his weekly parshot lulled me to sleep throughout childhood, and yet I couldn’t learn my own portion. He made me a tape. I snapped it into my Walkman, played to slammed doors, fits.
Forget about introspection and womanly bullshit. I’d had maybe one period. If religion was a fist of contradictions shoved down my throat, my bat mitzvah was no different. The ceremony was traditional. It was Sukkot, so everything took extra long. In her speech, my mother quoted The Byrds who’d cribbed from Ecclesiastes: “To every thing a season, a purpose.” I hadn’t a clue what she meant. Guests threw jellied candy at my head, and afterward, during Kiddush there were too many bees and not enough Manischevitz to quell my angst-ridden fury: pink dress, itchy stockings, cold salmon. No photos or fire, no music, no dancing, no friends.
At night was my secular party. Unlike the benign, spirited celebrations of bunkmates from summer camp – affairs of thick socks and effusive candle lighting – parties in my town were an excuse to hook up and get wasted. As one of the youngest in my class, by the time my bat mitzvah rolled around, everyone was jaded to boot. After all, we attended public school. Kamikazes, we’d done. Seven Minutes in the Coat Closet, so last year. The DJ played the Grateful Dead instead of the Electric Slide and people got stoned in the bathroom. Supposedly, my best male friend did it with my best female friend right in the parking lot. I cried into my army green bubble skirt. On my bat mitzvah! There was no end to the injustice.
Months later, my parents agreed: we should have a photograph. I zipped up the dress, shoulder pads and flowers, I took a blow dryer to my hair. We went to a studio where a man arranged us stiffly, instructing us in gestures of affection. Hollow-eyed, I looked out in the distance, blinking into the umbrellas of lights, as if searching for a way to recast it.
Never would I have pictured: today my children attend day school. Recently, my nine-year-old was called up to the Torah. He could decode the Hebrew on his own, but my dad sent him a recording anyway, for good measure. It took him all of a week to learn his part. And when he sang, the music of my father poured out of him.
Sara Lippmann's debut collection DOLL PALACE has been long-listed for the 2015 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. She is the recipient of a 2012 fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, Wigleaf, Slice magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland and elsewhere. She co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a longstanding reading series in New York's East Village. For more, visit saralippmann.com.