November 15, 2001
"You're such an L.A. Jew," a Jewish friend in Chicago remarked recently in what turned out to be an unexpectedly expensive phone call. After all, her casual comment catapulted me straight to a comfy couch in a darkened Santa Monica shrink's office and cost me $100 bucks.
It's not that her statement was untrue: Yes, I'm from Los Angeles, and yes, I'm Jewish ("but not religious"). It's just that, having spent most of my 30-odd years trying mightily to distance myself from my both hometown and my religion, being called "L.A." and "Jewish" in the span of a single sentence filled me with shpilkes.
My shrink (who's Jewish, natch) might explain my reaction with a single word: meshugunah. Also true. But the fact is, growing up Jewish in Los Angeles has influenced me in a rather peculiar way.
For me, Los Angeles and Judaism have always been as inextricably linked as bagels and lox. Mine was a Los Angeles of Goldmans, Weinsteins and Schwartzes; of Nate 'N Al's, Cantor's and the Beverlywood Bakery; of blue-and-white Chanukah decorations flanking Santa's sleigh on Wilshire Boulevard; of Passover instead of Easter vacation (and matzah served in the cafeteria).
I went to a public elementary school, where the one tall, blonde, blue-eyed, ski- slope-nosed Protestant girl who celebrated Christmas was considered exotic -- and exotic is precisely what I aspired to be. For reasons that even the aforementioned shrink can't fathom, I came out of the womb with 10 tiny fingers and toes, and one humongous need to be different.
Thus began my lifelong paradox: In order to distinguish myself from my wavy brown-haired Jewish girlfriends, I tried to look like a shiksa (i.e., the stereotypical L.A. straight-haired blonde). At the same time, I disdained L.A. bimbohood and became a super-brainy intellectual (i.e., the stereotypical Jewish girl).
It was a classic Catch-22: rebel against one, you become the other.
In order to get around this, I arrived at my ivy-covered college campus deciding to become a tie-dyed flower child in a sea of East Coast preppies. My birthplace: California, man. My religion: agnostic. This worked for about a week, until, looking at a study list in the dining hall, I spontaneously shouted, "Oy gevalt!" when I saw that my first-choice class -- "Introduction to Buddhist Thought 101" -- was full.
"Oy ga-what?" WASPy Victoria from Greenwich, Conn., asked.
"It's a Yiddish expression," I said, quickly adding, "I'm Jewish, but only culturally."
"Oh," she clucked, chin held high in the air. She never sat at my dining-hall table again.
At that moment, what began as a bizarre need to create a separate identity turned into garden-variety self-consciousness -- no stranger to Jews for the past 3,000 years. But, by the time I went on a book tour last year for my memoir, "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self," external self-consciousness had morphed into something deeper and more insidious: internal self-doubt. When reporters asked how Judaism had affected my attitudes toward women's roles in our culture, I'd reply with puzzled looks, as if to say, "Who am I to speak about Judaism?" I even told one reporter: "That Yom Kippur chapter in my book? I don't even fast past lunch."
Was I really Jewish, anyway? I privately wondered. I simply peppered my speech with Yiddish and hung out with Jewish artists and intellectuals. Could that alone qualify me as being Jewish?
In essence, that's what my Chicago friend was questioning by calling me an "L.A. Jew." I had just told her that as a child I'd gone to a Jewish sleep-away camp -- not, like her, singing Hebrew songs on Shabbat in the searing desert of Camp Ramah, but sharing cheeseburgers with boys high above the picturesque beaches of Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.
"That's not Jewish sleep-away camp," my friend said with a laugh. "That's hanging out in Goldie Hawn's backyard."
"Well, Goldie Hawn's Jewish, isn't she?" I shot back.
And then it came: "You're such an L.A. Jew." To her, L.A. Jews are Hollywoodesque Jews -- all surface, no substance. I was an expert on Jewish pop-culture trivia, but clueless when it came to the Talmud. At Camp Hess Kramer, I lived in cabins named Sarah and Rachel because I liked their names, but I'd never actually read the Bible. At Passover Seders, I'd rig the haggaddot so that the leader, unaware, would skip 20 pages in one fell swoop. Did this lack of rigor make me less of a Jew? It reminded me of the way our parents told tales of trudging through tornadoes to get to school with 20 pounds of books on their backs while we, with brand-new bicycles and hand-me-down cars, had no idea what it was like being a real student. Feeling like I'd just been called a fake Jew, suddenly, for the first time in my life, I longed to be considered Jewish. Or maybe not so suddenly. The truth is, I'd been feeling like a gefilte fish out of water for quite some time.
They say that if you love someone, you should set them free, and perhaps the same can be said about your hometown and your religion. I'd mocked Los Angeles mercilessly until I left it. Then I missed it terribly. In the same way, maybe I had to mentally check out of Judaism only to come back to it -- on my own terms.
But like a newly recovering 12-stepper, I have my occasional slip-ups.
Last week, for instance, my childhood friend Sharon Mishler came over. I had just written an article for Mademoiselle in which I rounded up the girls from my 8-year-old birthday party picture and recreated the photo with us as adults. Sharon commented that this is probably the only all-Jewish-girl photo ever to run in a high-profile glossy women's magazine, whose pages are normally graced with Scandinavian models named Anka and whose readers are lithe, fair-haired, high cheekboned shiksas who actually have a shot at looking like said models.
"Can you really tell that we're all Jewish?" I asked Sharon, pointing to the caption and the fact that Julie Glazer now goes by her married name, Julie Payne. And then there's Lisa Shaw, who has become Lisa Whitman.
"Anything that ends in 'man' is ambiguous," Sharon asserted.
"But Jolette Lazner's blonde now," I added hopefully. "And so's Shereen Jaffe."
Before I could mention that more than one girl in the photo had had a nose job (yet another practice indigenous to both my hometown and my religion), Sharon gave me a withering look, the same one she'd shoot me as a kid when I'd been acting like a dope. Then it occurred to me: I say, "Oy gevalt" and utter such L.A.-isms as, "Oh, totally!" and no matter how many mind games I play, the fact is, I am an L.A. Jew -- and have been, all along. But now, instead of feeling homogenized or self-conscious or like an imposter, I'm slowly gaining a sense of kinship toward my roots.
"Oy vey!" I said to Sharon, as I conjured the image of Mademoiselle's readers flipping through pages of Ankas and Britneys and Christinas, only to turn to a huge blowup photo of 10 grinning L.A. Jews. The notion made me smile with pride. "I can just see the furrowed brows on their high cheekboned punims now!"