July 9, 1998
Reaching New Haights
By Teresa Strasser
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.
Reaching New Haights
The Synergy School was fine for me for a while.
We called our teachers "Rusty" and "Kathy," learned macramé and group poetry and signed "agreements" that we wouldn't "hurt each other's feelings." It was 1979. My mother was perming her hair into an afro, wearing her knee-high Frye boots and hoping her daughter's creativity wouldn't be squelched by "the system" and its public schools.
In fifth grade I rebelled, begging my mother for a school with desks and grades. We compromised on Brandeis Hillel Day School, a small but studious Jewish institution in San Francisco's Pacific Heights.
And that's how I ended up celebrating my bat mitzvah in a Haight Street coffee shop. But I'll get to that later.
In that funky old Synergy School -- now a Noe Valley laundromat -- we could do what we wanted (unless it involved littering or hurting someone's feelings).
One day, during a class loosely titled "math," I decided I was angry and frustrated at fractions. And like all feelings, that was OK at Synergy. I took the pink plastic triangles intended to teach abstract mathematical concepts and instead made a collage by affixing the teaching tools to a large piece of cardboard with Elmer's Glue.
"That's beautiful," said Rusty, stroking his red beard. "Let's share it with Kathy."
It was just this sort of thing that would never happen at Brandeis. While I didn't know cursive writing or basic geography, how I loved the sudden introduction of structure! Desks! Quizzes in which certain kinds of writing utensils were required! Homework! States and capitals!
Judaic studies and Hebrew classes appealed to this thirst for order. To my parents' surprise, I began bringing home my worn prayer book every Friday night for private Shabbat services with my teddy bear Gus, who had undergone a spiritual metamorphosis since my Synergy days.
While my classmates dreaded weekly prayers in Congregation Sherith Israel's small chapel next door to Brandeis, I loved them. You could learn the order of the songs, memorize the words and the melodies never changed.
My parents, who met on a picket line, had not been to synagogue in years and didn't know what to make of my newfound Jewishness.
"She says she wants to have a bat mitzvah," my mother whispered to my father over the phone. "No, I don't think you have to wear a suit. Maybe a turtleneck."
Perhaps it was my craving for rules to follow, or the diary of Anne Frank, or my brilliant English teacher who made me fall in love with Atticus in "To Kill a Mockingbird." I wanted to be part of this world. And that meant having a bat mitzvah. Who were my parents to oppress my religious freedom?
But I knew a Strasser party would look nothing like the catered affairs to which I had sometimes been invited, celebrated in the domed majesty of Sherith Israel.
It was either risk the humiliation of introducing my Brandeis friends to my parents and their bizarre coterie of lovable, but freaky associates, or skip the rite of passage entirely. I chose to risk it.
I fell asleep at night cringing at the vision of my father in his turtleneck and Nikes, my mother in a flowing batik dress, her long armpit hair blowing in the breeze. I could just see our neighbor Max the Beat Poet taking the occasion to slip in some of his improvised prose. Who knew what to expect when Sam, my agoraphobic uncle, came out of his apartment for the occasion? I was petrified.
On the upside, I never worried much about learning my Torah portion, the lengthy Hebrew recitation most Jewish pre-teens sweat over for months. Who had time? Leaving an organizational matter up to my mother -- who accumulated stacks of unanswered mail and bills like some people collected glass tchochkes -- was worrisome enough.
In her own hippie way, though, she actually kind of "got it together." She made two cakes, so that only half of the guests had to be subjected to that insidious substance known as carob. She decorated the coffee shop she owned, Sacred Grounds Café on Hayes and Cole in the Haight, so that it looked almost quaint.
Despite her derision for things pink, she hung salmon-colored streamers around the place, as per my wishes, and put out trays of both bagels and lox and sprout-laden veggie finger sandwiches. She wouldn't shave the armpit hair but agreed to wear a shirt with sleeves, as well as stockings and even low heels instead of Frye boots or sandals.
My classmates, most of whom had never been to the Haight, seemed to adjust to the smattering of crazy hippies and over-the-top-even-for-Jews insane relatives. They tried carob and sprouts. They ran through the kitchen and said, "Your mom owns this? Can you eat whatever you want? Cool."
In pictures of the party, the kids all have wide smiles, the food has been devoured, everyone looks happy. Even my mother, in her toned-down attire, has a nervous grin.
She didn't understand the ceremony or the prayers I led for the first time, but some deeply rooted, Jungian collective Jewish unconscious thing came out and made her eyes sprout tears in a proud Jewish mom kind of way. That was her daughter up there, wearing a pink and white frothy Gunne Sax dress and earnestly pronouncing words in a foreign language.
I was proud, too. I knew I could never be one of the perfectly polished Brandeis girls whose fathers picked them up from school in a Volvo, but I had fit myself into this new Jewish world in my own way.
Our Hebrew teacher told us a story about the disheveled man who didn't even know how to sing the Sh'ma, Judaism's most basic prayer, correctly. God liked him better than the learned and well-dressed man who didn't feel his prayers. I saw myself as the man in tatters.
After all, I couldn't entirely leave behind the Synergy School for Brandeis, in the same way that my mother was compelled to cry and serve bagels at my bat mitzvah.
In the Jewish tradition, I had passed from one stage of life to the other. It may sound like a bad voice-over from "The Wonder Years," but that day started a struggle for balance in my life that has been excruciating at times but invaluable ever since.
Growing up doesn't necessarily mean "passing through," rather holding on to what you really are. Poised uncomfortably between group poetry and states and capitals, lox and carob, hippie freedom and Judaism, was the person I started to recognize as me.
Read a previous week's column by Teresa Strasser: