The role of Judaism in my family was a tricky thing.
My sisters and I were all raised in the Jewish tradition, even though my mother never called herself Jewish. Judaism is matrilineal. Still, I always found it curious, given that her beloved father was Jewish and her mother— for whom she had only disdain — was Scottish and not a Jew, that she chose to identify as Anglican. In her jewellery box, she kept a cross that read, “In case of emergency, contact an Episcopal priest.” She never wore it, out of deference to Elliot [Blair’s father] and our family, but I always knew it was there.
Even though my mother herself didn’t identify as Jewish, it was important to her that I did. I was her chosen one. This became my first big role: to perform Jewishness. Over the years, it became a strange interweaving, where she would pit me against myself, telling me that I needed to be Jewish, telling me that I could never truly be.
My mother never socialised with any Jewish people. As a kid, I used to think she believed they were beneath her. As my sister Katie would say, “She would’ve hidden a Jew, but she doesn’t want to be friends with one.” But now, in hindsight, I suspect she felt as if she didn’t truly belong.
Growing up, we never had a Christmas tree. We celebrated Chanukah and fasted on Yom Kippur. Even my mother fasted. She was always respectful of our Jewish rituals. Her disdain ran somewhere beneath the surface, never outwardly visible. The Holocaust was at the front of her mind at all times. She referred to it often, citing the atrocity of Sophie’s Choice and anchoring me firmly in the mindset of “do not forget.”
My parents sent their three younger daughters to Hillel Day School, partly out of respect for Elliot, but mostly out of convenience. We could take the bus to Hillel, which meant my mother wouldn’t have to drive us to school every morning. (Never mind that the bus ride took an hour and a half, because we were the first to get on.) It was a fully immersive Jewish education—Talmud study, prayer every morning, minyan, a congregation of students engaging in daily Hebrew instruction. I remember feeling grateful to have had this education. Still, my mother made it clear that in her view Hillel was not the be-all and end-all.
Once we were part of the Hillel community, we pretended to be good Jews. We played the part well. We overcompensated. We opposite-of-Anne-Franked. Our family went above and beyond in our Jewish calling. We stopped eating ham at home, in case one of our more observant friends came over and wanted to stay for dinner. My mother kept two sets of dishes, which she liked to brag about.
“I keep two sets of dishes!” she would say to shopkeepers, who nodded politely. “One for milk and one for meat.” The truth was, we didn’t really keep the plates separate, so none of them were kosher. Thank God we never hosted an Orthodox person in our home, so these lies didn’t actually harm anyone.
In my journals I wrestled with whether I believed in God. I wanted to believe; I loved the idea of God. “Dear Book,” I wrote, ending each searching entry with “The End” in case I died before the next one, then crossing it out every time I sat down to write. At school, the fear of God was put into me, as well as the idea that we the Jews were his chosen people. I knew, given the usual metric of Judaism passing down through the matrilineal line, I wasn’t really a Jew. But at school, no one could know this. We needed to keep it a secret.
I officially became a Jew when I was in second grade. My mother asked if I wanted to convert, because Katie had wanted to when she was the same age, and batmitzvah time was approaching. “Selma, do you want to be Jewish, too?” She sat at the table after a dinner our new housekeeper made, smoking and drinking a glass of wine, dabbing her red lips.
I said that I did.
My conversion took place during the time I wore an eye patch. In first grade at Hillel we were all given an eye test, and mine came back saying I needed glasses. So we went to the eye doctor Leonard Lerner (coincidentally, the father of the kids who screamed about the mean Beitner baby). It was here I discovered I had a severe lazy eye. “We must take care of this right away!” he said. I was told I’d need to wear an eye patch for exactly two years. “We must trick the brain!” he said. A speech I came to imitate. Whenever anyone asked why I wore an eye patch, I would repeat, “We must trick the brain!” Emphasis on “trick.”
We bought patches from the drugstore, black fabric with a little point in the center like the dart of a dress. They were a bit Gaultier, like Madonna’s cone bra. The patch was sweaty in the summer, with a smell like a wet Band-Aid. It pushed my face down into an even meaner scowl — a mean baby pirate. I knew I wasn’t pretty with my eye patch on, but my mother was supportive. She would draw on my patches, to make them cuter. I followed the doctor’s words like the gospel. I never removed the eye patch.
The conversion process is immersion in a mikveh, a bath from which you emerge from holy water reborn as a Jew. Mine was lined with salmon-colored tiles, like something you’d find in a hospital bathroom. Before entering the mikveh, you are instructed to remove everything from your person — clothes, earrings, even traces of nail polish. But I refused to take off my eye patch. Dr Lerner had been clear. I must never, ever remove it.
“You know, you’re not really Jewish if you keep that on,” said the woman at the synagogue who was presiding over us girls, gesturing to my eye patch. But the rabbi (coincidentally, the senior rabbi at Hillel) let it slide and gave me my conversion papers. For many years afterward, Katie would tease, “You didn’t remove the eye patch, so you aren’t really a Jew.” To which I would say, “Shut up.”
The day we removed the patch, my vision was perfect. Twenty- twenty.
“Yehi or!” I yelled. Let there be light. Everyone laughed.
Three days later, my vision went back to the way it had been. The brain was not tricked. It will always choose the easiest way, and the easiest way in this case was to turn that eye off. To this day, if I put one hand over my good eye, I cannot see.
I still have a patch. I put it on every once in a while, thinking maybe I’ll trick the brain. But the brain and I both know better.
The first time I got drunk it was a revelation.
I always liked Passover. Every year, as my family and I celebrated the exodus of the Jews, I actually felt that hope of next year in Jerusalem, as we sang in the Haggadah. I dunked my parsley in the salt water and tasted the pain of our tears. I loaded my matzah with horseradish. And as I took small sips of the small glasses of Manischewitz I was allowed throughout the seder, I felt warm, at one with my ancestors. A light flooded through me, filling me up with the warmth of God. (As a little kid, I loved God. Huge fan.)
But the year I was seven, when we basically had Manischewitz on tap and no one at the table was paying attention to my consumption level, I put it together. In that moment in the dining room, with the plagues and the frogs and the hail and the locusts, there came an epiphany. I realised, as I kept refilling my glass, the feeling was not God but fermentation.
That was heartbreaking to me, because it was like finding out Santa Claus wasn’t real, if I’d cared about Santa Claus. It was also very convenient that I made this discovery at the table, where there was a glass of wine already in front of me. I thought, “Well, this is a huge disappointment, but since it turns out I can get the warmth of the Lord from a bottle, thank God there’s one right here.”
Because I wasn’t very much of a planner, nor an in-the-moment critical thinker, I got drunk that night. Very drunk. The kind of drunk that would make most people never drink again. I rolled around the living room floor, then clung to my cousin Matt’s leg, weeping and begging him not to leave me. I was out of control. Eventually, I was put in Katie’s bigger bed with her, where I slept next to her all night long (a clear sign that I was gone if ever there was one). In the morning, I woke up and didn’t remember how I’d gotten there.
So, now I knew. The relief I sought could be found in an inexpensive, sticky-sweet bottle — or any bottle. It wasn’t spiritual; it was scientific. I didn’t go back to it right away, but I knew it was there.
A few months later, there was this fly in the house that wouldn’t leave me alone. It buzzed around and around the living room before landing on the cream carpet right next to the bookshelf. I squatted near the fly, attempting to swat it, but there was no need. It was already dead. That’s when I saw it — an old paperback, wedged between S. E. Hinton’s Outsiders and Judy Blume’s Forever. I pulled it out and looked at the cover, intrigued. Sarah T: Portrait of a Teen-Age Alcoholic. The book’s pages were well-worn and stained, indicating it must have made the rounds with my sisters.
The book was about a sad misfit girl who turns to alcohol as a coping mechanism. I opened it up and started reading. With that bleak, dead fly as my witness, I read the book from cover to cover. What an adventure! As my eyes scanned the pages, I thought, “This is how I’m going to be okay.” I was gloomy and sensitive, haunted by a nagging sense of loss I’d felt since the day I was born. Here was a girl who felt the same loneliness I did and for a few sparkly scenes found her fun in vodka-spiked watermelon. What was I waiting for? The answer to my pain was right here.
Of course, it was intended as a cautionary tale—a chaotic, prob- lematic story, with an awful, tragic ending of a dead horse on a road. But I sidestepped the consequences and saw it as a how-to guide. I held the slim novel in my hands, knowing exactly what came next. As I slid the book back into its place on the shelf, I said, “I’m gonna do this.” I made a promise to myself: I would be the best alcoholic a girl could possibly be.
‘Mean Baby’ is published this week by Little, Brown (£18.99)