From the ages of 4-12, basically my elementary school life, I lived in a small town of about 16,000 people. At its height, I think that the Jewish population hit 8. Of which my family made up four. My happy childhood, which for the most part it was, came with a constant edge of feeling other.
Holidays were the worst. And it was this past Passover that got me remembering it. Every year through the week of Passover, I opened my Snoopy lunch box with dread. I would make a wish that my mother had forgotten to pack me a sandwich that day because I would rather have not eaten than pull out my matzo sandwich. Inevitably I would be asked “What’s that? Why are you eating giant crackers?” At my explanation–the cheatsheet guide to Passover–I’d be rewarded with a blank look and a “huh.” Or “Weird.”
Come December, my mother, a teacher at the school, would do presentations about Hanukkah. Man, did I wish she wouldn’t. She might as well have stuck a giant blinking sign of “different” on my back. For the most part, the comments I got weren’t cruel. Or maybe not what I understood as cruel. My Jewishness made me different, and different was not good. Not exotic. Just, well, weird. Not quite right.
For a brief time the Lord’s Prayer was instigated into the classroom. Every morning we had to bow our heads and say it. The first week or so that this happened, my friend Katie, a Jehovah’s Witness (I could write a whole other post on being friends with other “different” people) would leave the room. Every single pair of eyes would follow her. Then the teacher turned to me to ask “Do you need to leave too?” I would vehemently shake my head, trying to look, I don’t know, as Christian or Catholic as the rest of them? Give a casual shrug, like, “hey no prob, I can say this too and in the speaking of these words I am the same”. I remember asking my mother in those first days if I could actually say it. I doubt that my concept of God extended much beyond some giant man in the sky with a white beard, but if there was one thing I’d learned from my peoples’ histories, it was that he could be angered. I definitely did not want to do that. But with enormous relief, my mother said it was fine for me to say that prayer.
For all I was a voracious reader, watcher of TV, and moviegoer, I had noone with whom to identify. Sure, my family liked to show me Woody Allen and Neil Simon movies but trust me, there wasn’t a lot of shared experience between a neurotic male and a young girl. Jewish or not.
Occasionally, some well-meaning person would find a book specifically about a Jewish girl and give it to me. Honestly? I hated them. I didn’t want stories about being Jewish. I knew how to be Jewish. I had to live that reality. I wanted the Jewish Little Princess, the Jewish Narnia, the Jewish Anne of Green Gables. Where were the books where the adventure-going protagonist just happened to be Jewish, without the entire book being about that?
Then came the momentous day in 1990, when Beverly Hills 90210 aired. With a Jewish character! My excitement lasted about five minutes. What became immediately clear to me was that Andrea Zuckerman was smart, funny, and the perpetual best friend. Been there, done that. She didn’t get to be a “beauty” (quotes for Tori Spelling), didn’t get to be the object of desire. Was still marginalized.
What a let down.
Eventually, I became a screenwriter. My shorts and feature had Jewish characters. It wasn’t about them being Jewish, they just happened to be. When I became an author, more of the same continued. At least in my head. Sophie Bloom, protagonist of The Blooming Goddess Trilogy, is Jewish. But not in any genuine way. Not in a way that some other young girl could point to as a kick ass heroine who is not the perpetuated norm.
And that’s no longer enough for me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about diversity in YA. I look at my daughter, whose friends are every race, religion, some with two moms, some from sperm donors, and all of which is totally “normal” to her world. And yet, she still gets mad about the lack of kick ass girls going on adventures in all the books she reads.
I want my stories to reflect the wonderful diversity of her reality. I still want to write romantic comedies where characters just happen to be X. Where hopefully, their cultural heritage or religion or sexual orientation does inform who they are in a genuine way, but in the end, what trumps it all are their flaws when it comes to romance. Do I think that there should be stories about specific experiences? Absolutely. It is ludicrous to me that in this day and age, there is not more representation. More space for other voices. Hell, having all voices have equal weight so that diversity no longer needs to be a conversation, or a struggle, because it simply is the reality.
I am not the person to write stories about a specific experience – unless that experience is love. Then I’m your girl. I hope that with my new series, again, obviously a romantic comedy, but featuring recognizable diverse characters that a reader will pick up the books and say “Cool. A Jewish girl falling in love.” Or “Swoony gay love story? Awesome!” Or (another one close to my heart) “A hot plus size girl? I’m in!”
I don’t have it all figured out, even in my own head. I’m certainly no spokesperson. I just want to add my voice, based on my experiences and desires as a young person. Hopefully, it resonates with others.
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