Every woman has a story. If there were more proper ladies in my life, they would say, “That’s personal. We don’t talk about that.”
Luckily, I was raised by strong women, not proper ladies. They never hid anything, sometimes to their own detriment, but in this case to their credit.
Because every woman had a story. It may not have happened to her, but she knows.
One of the first stories I heard about it was from my mother. There was a girl from high school. It was the 1950s and done in a back alley, hidden in the shadows. She was left to bleed out on her parents’ lawn. She died. Her family was never the same since that early morning they discovered her body.
Millions of women fled to back alleys and shady doctors during this time. My grandmother confessed to me over a cup of coffee in her kitchen that she was one of them. She was living in a two bedroom house with eight other people, including her two children; there was no room and no money for another mouth to feed. Birth control wasn’t readily available. In her world, risking it was the only option.
She didn’t know that I knew it wasn’t the first time she sought one. My mother told me that after my great aunt’s husband was killed during World War II, her mother didn’t want to bring a child into a world like that. His mother stopped her and my great aunt and told them to not give up hope, to have the child and name it after her son.
Her son’s name was Jack. My mother was Jacqueline.
At 17 in government class, researching it for a class project, I realized there was historical context. From American Indians to the pioneers heading west, it was downright common. In Eastern societies they even had special teas. This wasn’t a new phenomenon; it was a tale as old as humankind, and one that will never stop no matter where humans go.
After turning 20 I was diagnosed with premalignant cervical cancer. The doctor cuts off a piece of my cervix and I’m sent home to rest for several days with some pads and warnings of no heavy lifting, no operating machinery. The doctor says the procedure was “like that” major medical procedure, and takes just as much time to heal. One month to be precise. My mother is unusually gentle with me, driving me there and back, picking up a chicken pot pie from the market for me as I’m put to bed.
By the time I was 23 and the condom broke, I was in a hot and heavy relationship with my now-ex. When we weren’t having sex, he was echoing conservative radio hosts like the expert mimic he was, right down to the views on women’s autonomy. Driving to the Ralph’s on Cherry Avenue in his tan Toyota Corolla to get a Plan B, I can’t help to ask, “What happens if…?” I asked. He responds rapidly that I would get it because, “I can’t let my mother find out.” Apparently no belief is as strong as the threat of a domineering Jewish mother.
I’m 28, in a car and my friend is driving me home. Halfway home I realize he’s drunk, but he’s an angry drunk so asking him to stop might be more than I bargained for. He’s blabbering on about his ex-girlfriend who he just saw, a friend of mine who had a particularly traumatic family history. He starts screaming how she has had four and that “her uterus must be scraped clean.” He calls her a slut. Whore. Bitch. I’m too scared to say anything.
At 32 I’m sitting in a Thousand Oaks Planned Parenthood, trying to take care of my birth control because I needed a new IUD and didn’t have good enough insurance to go to a regular gynecologist. I’m looking out the window and I see a lone person carrying a sign, marching back and forth lazily, as if this an everyday occurrence. Not threatening to most eyes. But this place had been firebombed in the past. Not the first Planned Parenthood. Nor the last.
And wandering the internet, even as recent as an hour ago, I watch how men seem to know more about what to do with my body than I do. How born-agains with stars in their eyes talk about how “every child is precious” without solutions to the children who are here and unwanted. How people express their opinions and try to create legislation without understanding the facts, science and logic that come with that word.
And our stories as women linger in the darkness, silenced because it’s not proper. It’s not nice to talk about it. To say the word. That one little word that creates a firestorm wherever it lands.
I don’t even need to say it. You know it just by reading the stories above.
The proper ladies might have had one thing right: Our choices for our bodies are personal. They are choices we don’t make lightly. Those who understand know that it isn’t just a word or even a political landmine, but a major medical procedure that comes not only with a physical aftermath, but also an emotional one.
But I would also argue that, like my mother and grandmother did, we need to talk about it. Keeping it in the dark makes it invisible, intangible, unknown. And in order to have the full, complex conversation, it needs to be known. Every woman’s story. Every woman’s tale. Every woman’s fears and struggles. And the men must stay silent, forced to listen.
So grab a cup of coffee and sit with your sisters. Because for anyone who says, “We don’t talk about that,” my answer is, “We do now.”
It was already dark at 6:55 pm as Cigdem and I parked on Washington Way in Venice Beach.
“What are we doing again?” she asked me.
I showed her the website – the idea was to meet new people beyond physical appearances. We would be ushered into a dark room and then connect on a “spiritual, more emotional level.”
She gave me a look, blinking her eyes in a way so that I can read her thoughts immediately.
“We’re going to die,” I squeaked. We burst into laughter – we had both been on the dating scene for far too long.
For the past seven years I have been single in the greater Los Angeles area, experiencing very little luck when it came to romantic connections. Even though I had some short-term flings and relationships, but it was hard to actually settle down and find someone who was interested in committing to the long-term — at least with someone who shared my values.
I have no luck with OK Cupid anymore. Tinder is a horrible invention, and Bumble was like a full-time job that just stressed me out with its countdowns to how long this connection would be open for. Meanwhile, every Jewish dating site was filled with either guys I know, dated, or had zero interest in me. So when I saw this dark room idea on a Facebook advertisement, I met it with a “why not?” shrug.
Around 7:02, we entered the cold Venice night and approached the random address we were told to go to. I rang the digital doorbell on the rickety wooden door. “I don’t know,” Cigdem said skeptically, but soon enough the door opened.
We walked in to a beautifully lit hostel with a green lawn and romantic strings of lights above. There was statuesque lady with an elegant silver cross on her neck greeting us with plastic cups of wine. She escorted us inside the rustic wooden house and upstairs into the dark room. After my eyes adjusted, I could see we were at a long, elegant wood table in a room with a vaulted ceiling.
I began cracking jokes and singing “Whistling in the Dark” by They Might Be Giants before segueing into “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” A few minutes later the door opened, and other person walked in – this time a guy. The door was shut once again.
Even in the dark we started asking the standard “getting to know you” questions — “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “Where do you work?” We discussed the insane Los Angeles weather we had been having. It was the talk that comes with so much of dating it might as well be canned.
Eventually the door opened again and the lady who greeted us walked in; I could tell by her voice.
She did a brief introduction, explaining that this was a pilot program she was starting in Los Angeles. It is a great place to start, she said, since there are so many people here are from different backgrounds and cultures that are seeking real connection.
She outlined basic policies – no sexual assault (the fact that has to be said is utterly insane), no hogging the conversation, and PG-13 language only (well, I’m fucked).
After that, she said that with Valentine’s Day having just passed, she was trying to focus this presentation on love.
“So to start, what is love?” she asked
My answer was, singing, “Lady don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.”
“So it’s about pain?”
“Oh, no no, that’s a song.” I tried to head-bang to the right, a la “Night at the Roxbury,” before remembering I’m in darkness and no one can see what the hell I’m doing.
Instead I let my words turn serious and mentioned a parable, about a rabbi going to a young man and asking him why he was eating a fish. The young man responds, “Because I love fish.” And the rabbi said, “Oh, I see. You love the fish. You love the fish so much that you decided to kill it, cook it and eat it. Don’t tell me you love the fish. You love yourself. So much love is fish love.”
Cigdem and the guy each addressed the question their own way. Then the lady asked, “Okay, so what about arranged marriages? Is that love?”
We began answering, then she would add another question. Then another, and another, until questions fell away and it delved completely into conversation. The dark room had gone from just another dating gimmick to an actual serious discussion about the trappings of modern love and relationships.
As we dove in deeper, it felt like the questions came not from the moderator, but from inside myself. It was like the universe was checking in on my romantic escapades: “What have you learned? What has been special? What has been odd? What has been difficult? What worries you? What can you share before you move on into a different chapter?”
In that room, I brought over seven years of dating experience, along with the trappings of a bad marriage previous to that. Cigdem brought her own experiences, as did the guy we didn’t know. We also allowed our parents’ stories and our cultural backgrounds to enter that darkened room (which, as we later found out, each of us had a connection to Turkey), what they expected of us, and how they shaped our beliefs about family, love and marriage.
In the darkness we could get into issues that mattered, things that we cared about as people who were really looking for something more. With every dating app, speed dating and singles event that I had gone to, these were the conversations I wasn’t having, and needed to. And just maybe I wasn’t the only one.
“So back to your original question, I once read an article called ‘Love is Not Enough,’” I said to the moderator after about an hour or so. “It begins with talking about John Lennon and how he sang, ‘All You Need is Love,’ and then talking about all the terrible things he did in the course of his relationships. Then it talks about Trent Reznor, who wrote something along the lines of ‘Love is Dead,’ and over the years he has sacrificed his career and touring to help sustain his relationship and his family. Love isn’t enough; you have to have something else behind it.”
“It’s an action, not a noun,” the moderator said.
“You need more than just love,” the guy said.
The moderator said that it was finally time to turn on the lights. I covered my face as all of a sudden the bright lights flooded my eyes. Next to me was a good-looking guy, who was smiling at Cigdem and me with a big toothy grin. And I couldn’t stop smiling back; it felt like weights were lifted off my shoulders with just a single conversation.
Even after the evening was over, the conversation continued. We were able to talk more comfortably about our family histories and our parents, sitting outside under the cold Venice sky. We laughed, shared stories, exchanged information and parted, with Cigdem and I heading back to her car.
As we strapped in, she said, “I did not expect that.”
I never expected it either. I took a shot in the dark with the hopes of finding love, not realizing there was something in the room that I needed more and had forgotten over the years — deep, thoughtful conversations. And in that room, I found it.
Sure, the dark room didn’t have my true love in it. There was another hurdle to jump over, another step to be taken in this quest to find my partner, and that was okay. Ever step I have had to take in my dating life over the years was okay, because they were mine and teaching me along the way.
As I drove home from Cigdem’s house, I looked over at the empty passenger seat and smiled. Finding love, in so many ways, was not about the person who would be sitting there, but the person who I had become driving along this road. And I really liked that person a lot.
You can’t help but to feel heavy when the nurse at the doctor’s office asks you to step on the scale.
I always turn my back and ask the nurse to never tell me what it says. Shutting my eyes, I feel my breath moving through my body. The seconds are agonizing, wondering how much my clothes weigh and how they’re contributing to that evil number that supposedly defines who I am on this earth. I sit in the examination room, tapping my feet nervously, wondering if this guy is going to be like every other doctor who responds to every problem I bring up with, “Lose weight.”
Later that night, looking in the mirror, I check all the angles of me – there’s my father’s body type, big-boned and tall. My mother’s soft belly. The curls that define the Abrevaya side of my bloodline, with that streak of gray right at the front. There’s my grandmother’s smile. My Uncle Victor’s face shape. Even my Uncle Barry’s eye color is there; the light-toned rarities in our families filled with brown eyes.
My uncles were superficial men. Two are gone, and we barely had any relationship as adults. One is still alive, and the relationship is at an arm’s distance. Sometimes I wonder if they only have viewed me as heavy.
Living in Los Angeles is the thrill of my life. It’s magical residing in a place where people are ambitious and determined like me, expressing themselves and finding the freedom to be who they truly are. There are infinite conversations to be had all across the city with a wide variety of backgrounds. Not everyone is a struggling Hollywood stereotype, but they all believe in the spirit of this place, made up of dreamers from all over the world.
I live in a walkable neighborhood, so getting out is not a problem. There are bright Sunday mornings, carrying bags to buy groceries. Wednesday night walks to Busby’s East for The Moth. There are strolls around the art museum and tar pits. There’s drifting up to The Grove on random evenings… anywhere my feet can go, I’ll venture.
Yet sometimes, when picking up an acai bowl or a cup of coffee, I notice the eyes from strangers as I walk past. How dare I eat when I’m heavy?
After visiting the doctor, I realized that this was the age that my father started really developing hip and back problems. That wasn’t going to be me. Monday mornings transformed into boxing, weightlifting, and crunches. Wednesday mornings were for shoving a swim cap on my head and diving into the Culver City Plunge. Suddenly there was exercise that I liked; my body moved and felt good.
Yet when it’s time to get dressed at the pool, the ladies in the locker room raise their eyes. I’m heavy. What am I doing here?
I began eating healthier once I moved into my apartment; gone were the salty crackers, processed cookies, and ton of sugar. Here came whole grains again, chicken, fish, lots of vegetables and delicious spices. Cooking again feels great. And I don’t berate myself if I don’t stick to everything perfectly; sometimes the night is so rough it needs a pizza.
Yet no matter how nutritious my diet is, I look in the mirror, put on pants, slip on a bra. It’s still heavy. I can’t morph into what the world wants me to be.
Swiping across Tinder, OkCupid, Hinge… there have been no limits to the dating apps that have resided in my phone. When it was just sex, it was easy; every guy is curious about a girl who might be out of their comfort zone when it comes to body type. And hey, sex is fun, and there are no problems with it.
Most guys didn’t acknowledge me beyond the bedroom. Men have come and gone from my bed, but sex has lost meaning simply because I trained myself for it; if it meant anything beyond physical pleasure, my heart would break every time. After all, I was heavy; that didn’t make me girlfriend material.
It plagued my dating life. My camp boyfriend wanted me to lose his virginity to him after not seeing him for years, but once he saw me heavier he said I was too fat to have sex with. My first boyfriend was a bigger guy, but then he told me it might not work between us because his best friend was berating him to break up with me since I’m heavy. I would go out to dinner with my guy friends, then suddenly say they’d date me only if I were 20 pounds lighter. My ex-husband became my husband simply because he was the first guy to be proud to be out with me in public.
No matter how many times I am told I’m a “catch,” I don’t pursue guys. It doesn’t matter how many of my friends say he has a crush on me, it’s not possible that he’s interested in me. The sentiment is followed by the procrastination, laziness, complaining and whining about dating in general. Even the issue of dating itself becomes too heavy.
You get scared. Whenever I have an opinion online, the first comment I get often is that I’m fat. In posting a picture on social media, I question if my face is too big, if there’s a double chin, if my hips are too wide, if my body is just not good enough to even be featured there (even the above picture is an example). It’s seeps into the little and the large. There is no escape from heavy.
As you get older you fall into the comforts of life. You don’t want to go out and take as many risks; there is so much more to lose, and it’s a lot harder to recover when you do. And no matter how hard you try, you know your body will never fit the “healthy” stereotype. So why do you keep trying?
There are so many things that make life lighter. There’s the doctor who opened that door and spoke to me kindly. He decided not to go by the numbers on the scale to determine my health, but by running comprehensive tests that say, despite the number on the scale, my blood pressure is perfect, cholesterol fantastic, heart strong. Just stay active and eat healthy.
There’s school, work, friends don’t see the number on the scale, but rather see me. We embrace, laugh, and become family in lieu of the ones who view me simply as heavy. My intellect is viewed as a positive, my ambitions a gravitating force. The conversations and company make me feel a feather wandering joyfully in the wind.
My father remembers once being picked on regularly because of his weight and height, so he never mentions it. When he describes me, it’s as brave, smart, funny, caring, kind… anything else but heavy. Creativity is what he sees as beauty, the values that linger beyond the surface, moral standing and doing what’s right versus focusing on popularity. His attitude reminds me again and again of what really matters in the world.
And when I put my hands to the computer keys, remind myself of the words that I put in the digital atmosphere, the crayons I choose to scribble with, it feels like a second skin. No matter the medium — screenplay, blog, story — I feel at peace here. That’s when I surrender myself to the universe to speak truthfully, to share, to fill the air with something worthwhile. It’s the way to be more than just a body, but to be a true vessel for others, to inspire laughter, love, healing, and other intellectual curiosities. After all, I’m a body now; one day I won’t be.
They are all the things that remind me that I’m not just heavy. That I’m worth the space that I take up in this world.
It doesn’t always work; sometimes you fall away and forget your value beyond the superficial. You get courageous for a second, but then immediately retreat because there’s no way it will work. There is so much that frightens you, but then you have to remember the lightness you feel when you forget for just a minute and see into the mind and soul. There is so much potential beyond heavy. The very word becomes a limitation, when we should all live our lives beyond the definition of what our bodies are.
And then it’s time to take a deep breath and remember: I’m the way the universe has meant me to be. And heavy or not, that should be good enough.
There is a photograph that I keep on my dresser of my grandmother and me sitting at her tiny round kitchen table. The light is shining through the window, and we’re playing cards; I’m probably teaching her how to play Go Fish for the hundredth time. It’s a mundane moment; it’s not even a well-taken picture, as the exposure is too dark. However, it’s one of my favorites.
Nony’s kitchen was more beautiful than a sunset, warmer than a blanket, chaotic yet utterly peaceful. It cast a spell on you, and would never let go. Nothing horrible in the world could touch this place.
To this day, I joke that my Nony taught me that Sephardic women rule two rooms in the house, and one of them is the kitchen. (You can guess the other.) We have our little secrets of how we make things work and create magic seemingly out of nowhere. But just as my grandmother’s kitchen was her territory, my kitchen has become my own sacred space.
Today would have been her 101th birthday. I have spent it remembering Crescent Heights and its vintage yellow tile and little nooks, then Palm Drive with its laminate floors and wooden cabinets. But no matter where the kitchen was, she’d make it her own. And with every meal that found its way to the table, it also came with vital life lessons:
- Be prepared for anything and anyone walking through the door who might be hungry. Stock the freezer; you never know when your grandchildren might want squash frittada.
- Fine China is beautiful, but tiny cheap plastic pink bowls are just as good, if not better.
- Always add salt; it brings out the flavor in everything, even life itself.
- Tell all the jokes, no matter how blue. Tell them to the point where the more innocent members of the table need translation.
- Drink your coffee strong, and drink it slow to prolong the laughter. If you can’t drink it slow, at least add a biscocho so you have something to nibble on.
- Share traditions. Give the Mexican neighbor upstairs borekas, she’ll give you flan so your husband can eat it without his teeth.
- Take the time twist up the sides of your borekas. Traditional baking may be slow, but every minute of preparation is another bit of love in the world.
- No matter how small the kitchen, there’s always room at the table.
- The crispy part of the rice is always the best part that people go for; if someone gives that up for you, that’s true love.
- Even when there may be very little money in the bank, find a way to feed your neighbors. Never forget to welcome the stranger into your home.
- Always find an excuse to celebrate.
- Get your priorities straight. Even if there’s a diamond ring waiting on the other side of the door, never leave the fish frying on the stove to burn.
- You could be given expensive purses, but the best gift you could ever get is a five-pound bag of pre-washed spinach and a small package of cream cheese. If you are truly happy in your life, it doesn’t take much to make you happy.
- If a handyman comes, desperately try to feed him. If not, talk his ear off until he relents.
- Create a space where there is so much love you can’t tell who’s a friend and who’s a family member.
- It is actually possible in the same sentence to say that someone has put on weight and that they must be hungry, here, eat this.
- Communicate, share. Find a way to bridge the gap, even when there are languages spoken at the table you may not understand.
- Stand strong in your kitchen; this is your turf and your rules. If they’re not helping, feel free to kick them out. But if you love them, sneak a kiss before they go.
- Always add a little sweetness at the end (my grandmother would call this a “savor de boca”). If there are not at least two pints of ice cream in your freezer, this must be remedied immediately.
- There is no room for grudges with a bunch of delicious food in your face. Make room for forgiveness.
- Food, when crafted with love, is not just food.
- The table, and those surrounding it, are sacred. Treat them as such.
My grandmother has been gone for 13 years, and I long for her every day. Most of my adult life has been spent on efforts in bringing her kitchen back. Part of what I love is sharing what she taught me with my friends, all in the hopes that we can create what she had for the modern world.
I’m a different woman than my Nony, but it doesn’t matter; what matters is what she left behind, which is worth more than money. For 23 years she gave me so much that, in the quiet moments, I latch onto. And when I see her face reflecting at me in pictures, I know that no matter what is going on there will always be a way to make it okay.
And if all else fails, here’s another spoonful of sutlach.
Several months back, I visited my friend Jared after he broke his ankle. Between our tea drinking and strange anime watching on his bed, he said something that stuck in my soul: “2018 was the worst. If I could burn it, I would.”
Something about his words lingered in me long after I left him. I headed back to my apartment in Miracle Mile, thinking about them. What would I burn if I had the chance?
Walking into my room I shut the door, and it hit me in the leg.
It was a 15-pound gold frame with green matting and plexiglass, a wire weaved on the back so it could be hung on the wall as it was many years ago in a different apartment. Inside of it was a relic from my past: My ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract from when I had been married.
I had ideas for it. There were visions of new artwork transforming this heavy monstrosity into something better; not letting it be what bound me to an abuser and a past I wanted to forget, but the reminder of my transformation into something better.
“If I could burn it, I would.”
I kept it first out of necessity, as there were things in that marriage contract to protect me in case my ex would chain me to him. This specific ketubah contained a clause that would allow a civil divorce to act as my Jewish divorce, also known as a get, if my ex refused to grant me one (traditionally, the man has to grant the divorce to the woman in Judaism).
On a bright August day, wearing a Beatles shirt and long black skirt, I was granted my get, and this three-foot-tall beast of past art was tucked away in my parents’ house behind the guest bed. Five years later, when my dad was moving out of my childhood home, it was given back to me.
“Throw it away,” I said. “I don’t want it.”
“No, don’t,” I was told. “It’s so beautiful. And you don’t know when you might need it.” For what after five years of divorced life, I didn’t know.
When I moved to my Miracle Mile apartment I took it with me. Now it was tucked away behind the door to my bedroom to hit me in the leg. And after almost seven years of divorced life, I had to sit and wonder why.
Was I going to transform it into a new piece of art? No; there was no point in investing money into it, and I wasn’t terribly skilled at painting or drawing. Was I going to hang it on my wall? Definitely not. So why was I holding on to it?
“If I could burn it, I would.” And what was really stopping me?
I had pictured a bonfire at Dockweiler Beach in late December, a communal friend event to help everyone let go. There was little interest, as I wanted to do it around Christmas when everyone was flying out, so I cancelled it. It was selfish anyway.
My friend Cigdem, who I had performed storytelling with, texted me and asked me why. I told her about the marriage contract I had sought to burn by the ocean.
“Let’s just do something at my house then – just you, me and Jeanette,” she said. “I have a fireplace.”
In all the times I had visited Cigdem’s apartment, I never knew she had a fireplace. We had watched videos on yoga balls in her bedroom; sat out on the balcony nook full of colorful linens she created; drank Turkish coffee in little cups at her long table and cooked in her kitchen; filmed stories on her green tufted couch in the living rooms.
I never noticed the fireplace, tucked on the north wall, with the little switch to turn on the gas. Never thought to look — until we had something to burn in it.
Instead of a December beach bonfire, I bought two bottles of five-dollar wine at Trader Joe’s and Cigdem cooked a vegan dinner. Jeanette had brought a bunch of various items left by former roommates from years past and Uber driver items that hadn’t been claimed by the people who dropped them, ranging from an ultrasound picture to sets of keys.
But then the question came: “How do we do this?”
There were a million ideas in the air, of goddess circles, tarot and written things. Jeanette brought dried bay leaves to possibly provide some incense and some positive thoughts to what we were doing.
“Also, it’s the full moon at the height of its power at 9:48,” said Jeanette. “We should burn that at that time.” It took me a while to realize that when she said “that,” it meant my marriage contract.
The wine flowed, loosening our tongues. We began doing our own version of storytelling, bouncing off each other to create and imagine. It went on for an hour when at 9:12, Cigdem said it was time to begin. It was almost like we knew that the hour was at hand.
We sat at Cigdem’s circular coffee table near the fireplace on bright cushions. She pulled out her notebooks and pens, ripping pieces of paper out of a notebook.
“Let’s first write about what we want to let go of.”
We furiously scribbled, a cigarette dangling from Cigdem’s lips. I wrote different ideas and created slips of each one. I was letting go of so many things tonight: Of being the divorcee, of being afraid of not finding love and fear of the future, of not feeling comfortable in my own skin. I ended it with three words: “You are enough.”
We each took our time to read. It was communal, raw, empowering. It was like an initial cleanse, a preparation of the sacred task that each of us were about to do.
Jeanette picked a song from her phone to play – “Burn” from the Hamilton soundtrack, as she explained what she was burning. She was letting go of guilt and remorse as she cast three envelopes into the fire, brightening the flame to gold for a moment before the envelopes burned to ash.
Staring at the fire as the last one burned away, Cigdem touched my shoulder. “Reina, it’s time,” she said.
I picked my song – “Rise Up,” by Andra Day. As I held the ketubah in my hands, I remembered the wedding blessings I once said under the chuppah. There was a reference to the song “Od Yishama,” where it proclaims that the city of Jerusalem will ring once again with the joy of the bride and the groom; my beloved Jerusalem, which was painted on my marriage contract.
My thoughts lingered on the holy city of my people, the place that I dreamt about for years during my marriage, the place in my mind where I was trying to fly to but something always prevented me from taking off. How my ex made false promises to return me there. It took my divorce and own willpower to finally put me there, riding solo on buses, Bob Dylan blasting in my ears as the wind rushed through my hair. I was enough, and I would keep being enough.
I prayed furiously in Hebrew. I thanked God for taking me this far by my own hand, and meditated on a new marriage, a new chance at creating a loving home and family with someone. Praying that these years of waiting and discovering who I was before I got to be with someone else were worth it.
At first, I ripped slightly; in a Jewish divorce, they will tear the ketubah paper slightly, showing it cannot be mended. But that slight tear didn’t cause me pain. Rather, it brought me courage. “Bo’i chattan, bo’i chattan,” I said, ripping through the paper, ripping through his name, keeping mine intact.
As Andra Day ended, I switched the song. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt now sang their love to me, and their voices gave me strength.
“And when our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”
Tonight, I was letting go.
Each piece was thrown into the fire, the shock across my face as the flames turned from golden to bright blue. Another piece in – blue again, the flame becoming extra hot. I had never seen fire like that.
“There must be something in the paper,” Cigdem said.
There was something in the paper, a curse being released from its fibers, a weight being lifted with each piece that turned the fire blue. The music crescendoed. Tears filled my eyes. Watching his name burn, then finally, knowing that I was the last standing survivor, watching the signature of that once hopeful bride go into the flames.
After it was done, I was blasted backwards, tears rushing down my face. Cigdem and Jeanette ran to hold me as I saw the paper of what was once my marriage turn to black, then gray ash.
“If I could burn it, I would.” And I did.
Cigdem burned her item – a letter from her past – as she broke out various instruments. A colorful maraca, a clear tambourine, even a musical instrument made from a coconut. She then turned on her own song: “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” My tears became mixed with my laughter; we had been singing that song several weeks earlier on a wild night of exploring the city.
Through the rest of the evening, Jeanette, Cigdem and I sung and danced, writing on dried bay leaves our hopes and dreams for the new year and letting their prayers fill the air. And as we shared, there was a part of me that was still the girl at 29 running into the night in fear and uncertainty, amazed that this was the version of life that came from it. And I thought was finally — finally! — I could let go. Maybe now I would stop having to talk about it.
And yet it kept coming up in conversations, even weeks after that night. Why couldn’t I let go? Why was this happening? Why couldn’t I just be me, not just the divorcee?
Last night I told Jared what I had done to my marriage contract. He said it was amazing that I had that opportunity to let go, to burn something, to feel catharsis. Not everyone has that, he said.
But when he said it, I realized something about these past seven years. No matter how far I got from what had happened, it was still mine. Every trauma and tear, alongside every laugh and bit of love, was just another chapter of my story, another world I was a part of, before I came into this one. I could burn items, but I couldn’t burn my past; after all, hadn’t that made me into the determined woman I became after years of struggle? Hadn’t the decisions I had made brought me this minor form of eternal bliss?
And as I hugged him and his husband and drove away into the night, singing to the radio, I felt it in my bones. Freedom was mine. I felt good. And I let go.
There is a town just about an hour north of Los Angeles, called Thousand Oaks, California. One of those sleeper, outside-Los Angeles towns, the place where baby boomers settled with their children in the early 1990s.
The place where schools had good reputations and houses were large and cheap. Where suburban sprawl reigned and tract houses caressed the hillsides.
I wasn’t born there. But from the age of 10, my family lived in the house off of La Granada Drive.
Thousand Oaks wasn’t home, but it was the town I was raised in.
Today it became a heartbreaking refrain in a different song – the one about America and guns, of angry white men who are traumatized by modern society and can’t think of another way to live. It is the town on everyone’s lips, whispering anxiously. They don’t see me from this town; now when I so passionately declare my love for Los Angeles from every rooftop in the city. Yet this is where I came from.
The signs were always there for this day, too.
In high school there were the boys with the guns, who thought black trench coats were a joke. As my dark poems were reason to psychoanalyze me, they were the doe-eyed teenagers who would run into the open space preserves near my house, laughing as they shot rabbits for fun in the tall golden grass. One night hanging out with a friend, he tossed the long hair out of his eyes as he decided to show me his BB gun. Bright red plastic. It looked like a toy.
The highlight of Thousand Oaks life was Conejo Valley Days. They were the May days where people imagined themselves as renegade cowboys despite their white BMWs and bleached blonde hair. Rodeos, gun stands selling their wares, and parades would surround you as country music blasted from the speakers. The thrills of small town life echoed across the streets, their conservative leanings on full view as they kept yelling out their claim of being “America’s safest city.”
And, of course, there was Borderline. It is still probably the only dance club for miles, and if anyone wanted nightlife nearby, it was the only place to go.
Every kid I grew up with went there at one point or another. As teenagers, Borderline was the place you ended up at if you wanted to look cool. As you got older, you headed there for different-themed nights, not just country music. Blue tinged lights, honey-colored wood, pool tables, and a large dance floor for line dancing greeted you. You could meet anyone there, as my friend went one night and met the man who became her husband. It could be rented out, as another had her wedding reception there.
Restaurants and bars came and went in Thousand Oaks, a constant rotation of corporate America’s tastes. But Borderline always stayed, across from the Los Robles golf course, its large glass windows overlooking the 101 freeway at Moorpark Road as people merged to get onto highway 23.
The glass windows that people broke with chairs to get out as the shooter sprayed bullets.
Across social media, there are prayers. “Prayers for Thousand Oaks.” Pretty images and prayers. You’re sending prayers yet again instead of dealing with the issues at hand.
I don’t want your prayers. Like the angst-filled teen I was in this town, I want to fucking scream.
No matter how much my desired raged to escape my hometown, no matter how much I love Los Angeles, it was the place where my height grew taller. Where I learned to write. Went to school. Had my first crushes. Learned to drive. Recovered from divorce. Said goodbye to my mother on the laminate floors of Los Robles Hospital, where so many people today are saying goodbye to their own loved ones.
When it came time to move my dad, there was talk about keeping him in Thousand Oaks. In the wake of the election, I told my sister I didn’t feel comfortable with keeping my liberal, Jewish father in a place that was so proudly conservative. Worried about the rising extremism on the right, my exact words were, “It’s just not safe anymore.”
It’s not. But I don’t know where is.
Could I give you answers for my hometown about what will happen, what we should do? Of course not; it’s not where I live anymore. My community is elsewhere. For many of us who grew up there Thousand Oaks wasn’t home, but a place we had to survive to get to where we are now. Where our parents may still live, or might have disappeared from.
Yet no matter how we feel about it, Thousand Oaks is the place where our roots are, deep in the ground like the thousands of oak trees that still populate the town.
And somewhere inside the core of my being, I’m still the girl from Thousand Oaks. The girl who ate avocados and lemons from the backyard, lived in the house on La Granada with the yellow roses blooming outside, far away from everything. Who sat in her driveway in her high school crush’s El Camino, staring at his Oasis CD in the console, as he told her she was crazy.
Thousand Oaks was the place where I danced in the junior high auditorium and cried to Alanis Morrisette. Where the coyotes howled at the sounds of sirens and the roadrunners dashed alongside them. Where I walked through the hills and stared out, looking beyond my suburban town in the hopes for making my life bigger than it is. Where I became the woman that I am today, with all her shades of gray and contradictions.
And no matter where I call home in the world, I’m still from Thousand Oaks.
When it came to the Kavanaugh hearings, there were a million recollections rolling in my head: From my first kiss to the last guy who messaged me on Facebook asking me to… needless to say I had a lot of experiences, a lot of words. And yes, I suffered a PTSD attack from just hearing Brett Kavanaugh speak for five seconds, flashing back to my life with domestic violence.
But there was one scene that was the most powerful in my mind during this time. And it was from several weeks back at an old-school diner in the San Fernando Valley.
As the hearings continued I didn’t know why this particular scene plagued my mind: Of my friends and me goofing off at a table, eating burgers on a Saturday night when one of my guy friends joined us. It was great to see him; in fact, up until that night my only complaint about him was that he didn’t come out with us often enough, as I think he’s brilliant and absolutely love spending time with him.
The conversation had its usual laughter, twists and turns when all of a sudden it veered in a completely different direction: Namely the Jewish singles’ events that my girlfriends and I participate in.
It’s hard to date in Los Angeles, and over six years I have tried many ways to find the love of my life. The singles’ events are by far the most problematic because of the guys who attend. They often have no idea how to properly behave themselves, running from socially awkward to utterly inappropriate, thus making them difficult evenings at best.
Several weeks before the diner, one of my friends was talking to a guy at one of these events. When she told him she wasn’t interested in having children, he turned icy, looking at her pointe blank and saying, “Then what good are you as a woman?” She posted this incident on Facebook, and I expressed my support of her.
My friend at the diner didn’t see it this way.
“You guys are bringing down the whole organization from these posts,” he said. “[They’re] just trying their best. [They] can’t control who shows up.”
Normally I respond well to constructive criticism from my friends. That means listening, processing what they say, and going forward from there with them; my best friendships and relationships come from this understanding.
But I couldn’t in this case.
Dating has brought hilarity, but also hazards. There has been sexual assault and harassment; and yes, there was rape. There were also situations that were almost impossible to escape, one of which was located in the parking garage of this very organization he was talking about. After an event, I was cornered, groped, and not allowed to leave. I have been open about it, but never mentioning the name of the organization as to protect the leaders, who I greatly respect.
What happened in that garage showed me the power of hierarchies. My weakness and desperation for work at that time allowed for the cornering, which is so often how these stories go. When it was done, I realized this disparity removed my agency. After all, the guy’s parents were wealthy donors, and I had no money; why would they believe me?
For months I kept silent, only telling a few select friends. Some believed me, others didn’t; one guy even said he stopped being friends with the assaulter not because of the incident I described to him, but simply because the guy supported Donald Trump.
One of the people I told was a board member, who desperately wanted to report my assaulter. At first my answer was no; I would be cast out of the organization if I came forward. It was only when I found out there were other girls that I gave him the go-ahead, on the strict condition not to mention my name.
The rumor was he was talked to by the higher ups, but it didn’t matter; I still see him at events from time to time. And here I was, years later, being lectured in a diner regarding an organization where I was sexually harassed and assaulted.
Did the guy who was lecturing me know about this incident? Probably not; it’s not something I talk about regularly. Knowing who he is, he would probably have empathy towards me if I told him; in all my experiences with him he is kind, decent, and morally sound. But in attacking my friend who was disrespected by a man (even just in words), he also made a choice to disregard her experience, and even view it as an attack on the organization as opposed to on her.
In the #metoo movement, it has meant that the world has seen us and knows that numerous women have experienced sexual assault and harassment over the course of our lifetimes. Whether it’s through dating, a party, the workplace — the location doesn’t matter. What matter is in this hearing we were forced to watch as a government body disregarded testimony, claiming that Dr. Ford coming forward and speaking out was there simply to make trouble.
If experience has taught me anything, people like Kavanaugh will always exist. But for every Brett Kavanaugh there are hundreds of Lindsey Grahams and Mitch McConnells: They are the people who will defend their friends, and in turn the status quo, refusing to fight the misbehaviors of their peers. They can be deplorable sexists, but they can also be normal decent human beings who would say loudly that they believe Dr. Ford.
But this hearing isn’t a question of beliefs; it’s a question of actions.
We beg you, the men in our lives, to stand up not only against someone who is your political opponent, but who you also may agree with or even like. It means looking at your friends and not excusing their conduct. It means recognizing your own behavior and seeing how it disenfranchises women who are both scared and scarred. And it’s about taking that knowledge and creating a safe space with it.
It also means looking across the table and apologizing for your actions. If my guy friend were sitting across from me now, I’d probably apologize for this whole piece I just wrote. But I also hope that he would offer me an apology too, so together we can fight for a better world. After all, aren’t we always told that evil occurs when good men do nothing?
With the Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault in the news, particularly given that the accusation came from when she was 16, I couldn’t help but to go back to reflect on the #MeToo campaign when it started a year ago. When it began, I was in awe of my friends’ courage and determination to stop the cycle of sexual harassment and abuse with their stories.
But something struck me about my feed: The most common age that came up was 12.
On my 12th birthday, I got my very first stereo, complete with a brand new CD player. Excitedly, I took it into my Thousand Oaks bedroom, where it joined my bright pink flower sheets and stuffed animal tree and looked out to the lemons growing in the backyard. I was 12, about to leave elementary school behind for junior high, and couldn’t be more thrilled.
Shortly after I went to a sleepaway camp, where the city girls were already shaving their legs on the cabin floor and wearing sexy bras. I barely knew how to put on the training one my mother got me. One of the girls showed me how to do it while she wore an emerald green satin push-up bra.
They were sharing about having sex, wanting to have sex, even one girl claiming she started having sex a year and a half earlier; whether she was lying or not, I’ll never know. I knew I wasn’t ready for it. I was 12. Did they know we were 12?
When I was 12 I wore t-shirts with hearts across my chest and powder blue Guess jeans that my 5’7 body didn’t want to shrink out of. My fingertips sparkled with Wet and Wild blue nail polish, and I carried a red Jansport backpack with a leather bottom and scribbles in black Sharpie over the canvas.
As I would walk home from school, my backpack heavy with books, I heard the whistles from boys in cars as they were driving by. I knew what it meant, but was confused. Didn’t they know I was 12?
I got my very first access to America Online and its chatrooms, starting to chat with instant messenger. Older boys started asking not only for my a/s/l (age/sex/location) but also for my bra size and intimate details of my life. I liked the attention, but didn’t like the questions. Didn’t they know I was 12?
We had a school assembly, and I was wearing one of my heart shirts, with bright red sequins. I don’t remember why we had it, but there was an actor who was performing onstage, probably in his early 30s, and he chose me as a volunteer. We began acting out a scene, but suddenly he got very flirty. He put his arm around my shoulders, and tried to kiss me. I ran off the stage immediately, upset and embarrassed. The teachers did nothing. Didn’t they know I was 12?
Hanging around school one day, one girl volunteered to put makeup on me, as I didn’t do that yet. She slathered brown lipstick on my lips and lined my eyes in black. We had the final school dance of the year that night, and she insisted the older boys would love me. They did, wrapping their arms around me, trying to possess me when in truth I just wanted them to hold my hand and talk to me, get to know me. My body wasn’t mine. Didn’t they know that I was 12?
Right before I turned 13, there was a boy who wouldn’t stop following me around at Jewish day camp. I didn’t like him and told him to stop. He didn’t. Told him to get away from me when I was swimming; he was crowding me. It got so bad that when I swam away I ended up kicking him in the head. It was acknowledged simply as a crush by the staff, but I felt threatened every time I saw him. I wasn’t 13 yet; I was still 12, if only for another week. Didn’t they know?
Maybe it would get better. Maybe 13 would be better.
This was not knowing that 12 set the stage for even worse things. It was having the boys jump to try to kiss my cheeks even though I didn’t want them to, and not having anyone call them out for it. Being groped in the hallways of my junior high, and getting punished for it by the administration for screaming and running away when I saw him. That I knew at the time that trying to explain it to my mother would do nothing; she would always believe the adults in charge, not me.
In the years to come, I would be taught that my smarts were not worth as much as how I looked, dressed and behaved. That my value was in my ability to attract a guy and have him be my boyfriend. It led me to believe, as I did in later years, that the boys who were interested in me, and the world at large, were in charge of telling me when my body was ready to be sexual. Not me.
And I wasn’t ready.
I was a child. I still had my stuffed animal tree in my bedroom and my sheets were still bright pink. My stereo was covered in glow-in-the-dark stars, where I would play Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” on repeat, particularly the song “Mary Jane.” I’d hit track nine and would just cry and hope that somewhere in me I was still, as the song said, “The last great innocent.”
I was 12. And so were my friends.
I was one of the lucky ones; others experienced even worse at that age. I saw younger ages in #MeToo, the youngest detailing a sexual assault at three years old.
By 16, when Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser was assaulted, the system was already ingrained in us as girls. It was too late. And even though she was four years older, the truth was that she probably experienced the same emotions as I did at 12: No one would believe us. They’d never punish the guy, but instead they’d punish us. That this was what was expected of us as women.
I thought of all the instances where I was harassed or assaulted, both in my childhood and adult life, and they were too numerous to count. But I remembered that we were trained young to just accept it. At 12, I was taught through the actions of those around me that this would simply be a part of my life as a woman from this point on.
But therein lies the question: What if we didn’t have to go by this? What if we could raise our daughters and sons in a place where this wasn’t our world?
That’s why we threw up our hashtag: To know that we weren’t alone in our stories. We could be inclusive and share. And through each other’s heartbreak, we begin to heal.
But now we have to take the next steps. Knowing that almost every woman has a story like this is not enough. Realizing that some men do too isn’t enough either. And simply acknowledging it and moving on is the way to simply forget, and claim that sexual assault and harassment doesn’t happen. It did and it does. And we must remain vigilant and keep the energy of #metoo going.
I don’t want to forget. Because I was 12, and deserved better. So does everyone else who proclaimed their truth through this hashtag, and the women who are fighting the fight for us still. It’s time to create a safer world, one where hopefully girls will never have this happen to them, and where those who are the assaulters are held accountable.
In 2014, four years before we got the privilege to see Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette,” I was just a girl at a microphone on a Monday night.
It was at an open mic of all women in Tao Studio. This room was a warm and supporting place, filled with women sharing, women laughing, women cheering among the red walls. Above all, it was safe. Everyone in that room made me feel empowered, and I could explore my humor in the best ways possible.
I learned the basics of comedy there. You get about five minutes, give or take, depending on the venue. At one minute you get the light, so wrap it up. Speak slowly, as you’re dealing with a bunch of drunk people. Pay tribute to the house by buying something – a drink, a snack, etc. – and try to stay to the end and watch and support all the other comics (although most people don’t).
Here there were women of all races, shapes, sizes and sexualities. We also all had our own stories, not unlike Hannah Gadsby and “Nanette.” And each sense of humor was special and treated as such.
This women’s mic still occurs once a week (and I still love, even when I can’t make it out). But even in their mixed-gender mics, Tao has a code of ethics that rule over the studio and the people who come there; it makes this place one of a kind. When you left and went into “the real world,” there was a different set of rules.
Whereas I started in a room of all women, most of the venues for other open mics I went to were 75 percent straight white men. Their topics usually revolved around their penises, ranging from complaining about their penises in skinny jeans to seeing my boobs in a low-cut top and remarking how they would stick their penis between them. If they really wanted to appear edgy, they’d start telling rape jokes — something forbidden at Tao.
In the event there was a female comic, her appearance was often ballyhooed by the men. These women were often white, skinny and conventionally beautiful. They would often play into the same norm of hypersexuality, trying to be “one of the guys.” When I would talk to them during our shows together, the same story would come up: “My manager suggested that I try standup to diversify my portfolio as an actress.”
My jokes didn’t fit in here; sure, I talked about dating and sex, but I also joked about my mother’s breast cancer treatment, my family and leaving abuse. In comedy I sought to create and write, to tell funny stories, not necessarily to become an actor. The goal of standup was always to get to punchlines; that often meant sacrificing truths for the sake of the joke, glossing over the ugliness.
A fellow comedian committed suicide about five months into my fledgling standup career. I had known about his struggles with depression due to seeing his sets regularly. His death broke the hearts of everyone who knew him. But then, after a few weeks, I saw comedians joking casually about killing themselves. It was hard for me to continue after that; I ended up taking a hiatus.
I tried coming back several times. But although I could make people laugh onstage, there was something in me that couldn’t continue beyond those sputters. My comedy was skewing both political and personal, which isn’t often mainstream or appealing. It wasn’t the type that keeps bookers interested, and I certainly wasn’t pretty enough to get booked based on looks alone. There was no fulfillment in writing jokes simply for the sake of jokes. My heart needed to be in my jokes, and there wasn’t a place in for it in timed sets at drunken comedy clubs.
Instead of comedy, I decided to tackle storytelling; it seemed more of a fit for what I wanted to do as a written artist. It provided more challenges and a chance for something else that could help people feel not only laughter, but catharsis. I loved comedy, but I saw very few places at the table for someone like me.
Until Nanette came.
At first, 20 minutes in, I was getting bored. I stopped my Netflix and continued doing other things; after all, this was supposed to be comedy. John Mulaney, Ali Wong and other comedians had all graced my Netflix to deliver joke after joke, often loudly. This was a Tasmanian woman – not brash like Chris Rock, or beautiful like Iliza Schlesinger – who was just talking, and occasionally being funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny. More like, “Oh, that’s funny” statement funny.
Several weeks later, I was getting ready to do my storytelling show with KPCC. It was nerve-wracking, as my words were about to make me bare my soul. I was dressed, putting on my eye makeup meticulously. It was quiet, so I turned on the TV for some background noise, figuring maybe I should give Nanette another chance.
That’s when Hannah Gadsby lifted a mirror.
“I’m quitting comedy,” she said. And with those words, and all the precious words after, soared anger, heartbreak and rage at the status quo of what comedy had become. She was funny, but more importantly, she had a heart.
She rejected the idea that we had to suffer for our art. Threw away the conventions that we have to be driven to constant punchlines and feeding intoxicated hedonism, and if we weren’t we were doing it wrong. Objected to the idea of the comedic persona versus the real her – because the real Hannah is good enough, and it’s not worth destroying for the sake of making others laugh.
And I cried, because all I was thinking about the piece I wrote was not the fact that in a few hours’ time I would be emotionally naked. It was that the wish buried inside of me was that when I told stories that I would be as funny as I am during a normal conversation.
So many female comedians I know suffered the way Hannah did, rejected comedy the way she did. We left because we felt the pressure to push the envelope, to follow the status quo of the comedy clubs. There was no space for us to simply be and to share. Nanette not only gave us a battle cry, but an open space to explore and make our own that could be loved and accepted as a new art.
It’s time for comedy to come into the new era, and I hope to find the right people along the way to restructure it. Because we are all Nanette.
In late April, my friend David and I decided to break away from our Jewish community bubble, heading to the Pico-Union Project in downtown Los Angeles. We were invited to an interfaith Iftar-Shabbat that one of his Muslim friends was attending.
This place was LA’s Sinai Temple in the 1920s, and it showed in the building. The stained glass windows reminded me of the colors of my childhood, underneath the golden bricks of the Sephardic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard, the house my grandparents built. Bouncing around in the pews, the cantor’s voice soared, warm trilling music, a romantic dance of Spanish and Hebrew weaving through the room. My Nony’s kisses were accented with the praise of “Mashallah!” and the air lingered with scents of garlic, rosewater, cloves and strong, salty cheeses.
As David and I mingled, a large Pakistani Muslim man named Yaseen started talking to me. I introduced myself — Reina — Spanish for queen, named after my Nony, who was named for her grandmother and so on. Yaseen asked me about growing up Jewish. “Well, my family’s a bit different,” I said. “They’re Sephardic.”
Sephardic means that you are descended from Spanish Jews. My name dates back to the town of Cordoba, where we lived happily until 1492, before the Muslim Moors were overthrown, the Spanish Inquisition kicked us out and we migrated to the Ottoman Empire. But when I tell people I’m Sephardic, I usually get the same response: “But you’re so pale!”
It doesn’t matter that my great-grandfather Solomon was dark from working under the sun of the Port of Istanbul. Nor that my name can be traced back generations, or even that Cordoba is the same town that birthed Maimonides, possibly the greatest Jewish scholar who ever lived. I’m just pale.
Growing up, except for Maimonides, there were no Sephardic stories in my studies. If there were Jewish characters on television or in movies, they were an Ashkenazi stereotype from Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews are rare here — most stayed in their adopted countries or went to Israel, not facing the persecution that Ashkenazis did. Yet when Solomon, a Young Turk and anarchist, tried to kill an Ottoman Sultan but instead ended up with a bounty on his head, he, his wife and their babies headed to America, singing old cantares, eventually heading to Los Angeles.
There was no one like my family. We were warm, loving and absolutely in your face at all times. My family spoke Ladino, or a dialect of Spanish and Hebrew not unlike Yiddish. The kitchen was Nony’s kingdom, where the radio would play and she would swoon over Julio Iglesias, and her cooking was accompanied by concerns over our marriageability.
But oh, the magic of the Sephardic foods that came out of there — flaky cheese borekas, browned hard-boiled eggs, spinach and squash frittadas, silky rose-flavored rice pudding and Turkish coffee. This was a place of dancing, laughter, passion and strong conversations. From postwar refugees to the handyman, everyone was welcome at Nony’s table, and no matter how little she had, she always found a way to share. There was no shortage of love here.
With a small Sephardic community here, being Jewish here meant a degree of assimilation. My mother married an Ashkenazi Jew, who happily gave up gefilte fish for borekas. We went to a non-Sephardic temple. Occasionally we would eat deli food. However, my mother rejected Ashkenazi culture. She would often recount her childhood walking through Hancock Park with Solomon, where religious Ashkenazi Jews would single them out, saying they weren’t really Jewish due to his dark skin.
When I got to college, away from my doting family, the Jewish kids dismissed my Sephardic roots. My paleness was always questioned, and my father’s Ashkenazi background caused them to scoff at me. I didn’t fit in, often preferring my Muslim friends. We spoke lovingly of our similar foods and lamented our meddling grandmothers trying to marry us off. But I was still Jewish, and wanted a Jewish life.
My college rabbi insisted that marriage meant giving up my culture and adopting my Ashkenazi husband’s. There were a few attempts, including a smelly failure in making gefilte fish that caused the pot to stink for days. I tried to adapt, but putting it on felt like an ill-fitting coat. During my divorce, the rabbi decided I didn’t exist anymore. It was like waking up in a desert alone, where all I can hear is “But you’re so PALE!!!” A place where because I don’t look like their definition of my people, there’s no way I can be my people.
After I tell Yaseen that I’m Sephardic, his eyes widen. “Oh!” he said excitedly. “Do you speak Ladino?” The first thing he said wasn’t a comment on my paleness. It was an excited question, and a knowledgable one at that. He asked me about something that I had grown up around my whole life.
As we ate dinner to break the Ramadan fast, Yaseen came to speak at the podium. He talked about growing up a gay Muslim man to immigrant parents. He explained how he began to challenge his own identity and study Jewish-Muslim relations. One of the most special topics for him was the Ottoman Empire.
“After the Spanish Inquisition, 250,000 Jews were taken in by the Ottomans,” he said. “And we have one of their descendants sitting here.”
In his words, I traced steps taken over hundreds of years, the steps of my people from Cordoba to Turkey to America, to finally Los Angeles, my beautiful home. It was in this room, where my story was being acknowledged; that no matter what I looked like, I was accepted as one of my people.
Afterwards I hugged him tightly, but it wasn’t only me who embraced him. It was my mother, grandparents, great-grandparents. All my ancestors who kept our culture alive and gave it to me to protect; they danced in my blood, and gave me the love to share with others. And all I could think in that moment was of my Nony’s voice, simply whispering, “Mashallah.”