WANTING TO BE WHO WE'RE NOT
 

Creative Nonfiction by Queer Writers
Edited by Jim Tushinski and Jim Van Buskirk
Now available from Harrington Park Press

 
 
 

MISHMUMKEN: FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT CHOOSE (excerpt)

by Rosebud Ben-Oni

     Hebrew—like Arabic and Spanish and so many other languages—is gendered. My first Hebrew teacher, Ziva—a middle-aged Israeli woman who did not believe in God and was transplanted to San Antonio, Texas, by a teaching agency—pulled me aside from the other nine-year-old students and told me about the existence of zahar (masculine) and nekivah (feminine). Up until that point, the class was only learning the letters in block and cursive form. We knew few words, most of them swear words actually in Yiddish and the others being improper conjugations of verbs that we meant as derogatory commands towards another—with the exception of myself.
     No one ever spoke to me that way and rare is the sight of children self-conscious around another child, for not only was I the only girl in my Hebrew school class of twelve, I also lived in a different neighborhood and went to a different elementary school where I was the only one of three Jewish students. My friends there did not understand why my parents punished me so: after regular school, I had to attend Hebrew school from four to six in the afternoon and our Day of Worship was on Friday nights and early Saturday mornings.
     At my elementary school, I was an oddity though I dressed like everyone else and wanted to be a point guard in pro basketball, which everyone thought was incredibly hilarious until I started to knock back consecutive three-pointers. I wasn't the shortest kid in the class, but I was the skinniest and my third-grade homeroom teacher always took the liberty of shouting out my weight to the class when we had our biannual check-ups. We would line up in front of a scale and she would shake her head and tell the nurse, "I think her people have to fast every Friday."


     Her people. More amusing than her misguided conception of Shabbat—which was actually a weekly celebration known for large amounts of food—was the fact that more than once, someone said to me, "You don't look like a Jew," and once this someone was a teacher of mine. I was twelve at the time, and preparing for my Bat Mitzvah after school, although sometimes I hid sheets of the Torah blessings behind Tuck Everlasting. At home, my father had me reading through Steinbeck's landmarks. He was religious and critical of religion at the same time so that I grew up in a very secular household.
     "How does a Jew look?" I asked my teacher when she made the comment.
     "You know...Jewish," she said. As luck would have it, she taught Language Arts, which my father thought was more funny than perilous for my education. Indeed, I learned that sometimes people can't say what they mean because it's impolite and sometimes because they lack articulation.

Postscript: For those of you who have read the entire piece, we received this sad postscript from Rosebud about the fate of "Amina," the Palestinian woman with whom Rosebud had an affair:

"After a brief trip to Lebanon and Israel this winter, I went to look for 'Amina.' We did not part on good terms and hadn't spoken for 3 years. After a much frustrating search, it seems that after I left Jerusalem, she married but had an affair with another woman. Her father found out and what amounts to a honor killing is merely spoken in her neighborhood as a "runaway" though everyone knows the truth. I can do nothing and I cannot tell you how aggravating this is. Here in New York the semester is just beginning, and I am hearing female students complain of bikini pressures on Spring Break and the need for a new Chloe bag. In Jerusalem, modern Arab women too talk hours on their cellphones and read Madame Bovary in the original, but they really aren't free. And it wasn't until now that I realize: neither are we."