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The religious ties that bind

Alison Berkley

I ran into a friend the other day and was asking her how her 80-year-old mother-in-law was doing. So my friend says, “She’s fine, I guess. She called us the other day to wish us a happy New Year.”And I’m like, “Oh, no! Has she gone senile?” And my friend says, “You of all people should know it’s rush-sush-shauna.”And I’m thinking the only thing marked on my calendar are the days I did and didn’t work out so far this week.So I guess there are like, some big Jewish holidays going on. I know this because all of a sudden I’m meeting all kinds of Jewish people in Aspen who are way into the whole being Jewish thing. So I’ve gone from a Jew pretending to be a WASP (think: martini in one hand, crab cake in the other) to a Jew pretending I never pretended to be a WASP (focus on the food and try not to order more than one drink). I feel like one of Dr. Suess’ Sneeches who can’t decide if I want a star on my belly or not.I grew up in one of these Puritan New England towns that ends in “bury” where there are churches on every street corner with big white steeples that scream “Heaven is that way, ya stupid Jew!” All my friends had freckles and upturned noses and straight blond hair and big, huge Christmas trees and colorful Easter baskets filled with candy. No Santa, no Bunny? The Jewish thing seemed like a raw deal. The tooth fairy just wasn’t cuttin’ it.To make matters worse, there were only two other Jewish girls in my class, Wendy Levine and Kim Goldstein. Every year they had to do their song and dance for the whole class about dreidels and Hanukkah and Hebrew this-and-that while I sunk low in my chair, eyeballs darting back and forth to see if anyone was suspicious. I decided at an early age I would be a religious independent, as if choosing your religion were as simple as checking that little box when you register to vote. It’s not like I wanted to be Christian, either. The whole bloody-dead-guy-on-the-cross thing really freaked me out.My mother’s explanation of our heritage was clear-cut and had nothing to do with holidays. “Hitler wouldn’t have cared that you have blond hair and blue eyes,” she’d say in this stern, haunting voice. “You just don’t forget that, sweetie pie.” And I’m thinking that sounds like something I should forget immediately, or at least before I go to bed and have horrible nightmares. When I started getting wasted with all my Irish friends when I was like 12 years old, my parents decided to send me off to a fancy-pants private school in West Hartford.A wealthy suburb, West Hartford was as segregated as Alabama way back when. All the Jewish kids belonged to Tumble Brook Country Club, and all the WASP kids went to Hartford Golf Club. Because I lived in a smaller, more remote town, my parents had nothing to do with country clubs, so my brother and I were relegated to spend our summers at the public swimming pool and winters at the skating rink.The only thing you needed to get in was the plastic tag with a membership number we attached to our clothes with a safety pin. There was no posh dining room or carpeted locker rooms. The floors were covered in black rubber and the only food you could get was the greasy food they served at the snack bar. Let’s just say your background, income and religious affiliation were not required to get in. I think it cost us like $200 a year for a family membership.At 16, I worked as a waitress at Cliffside, one of the smaller Jewish country clubs near my hometown. My job not only entailed serving food to the club’s regular members, but serving it “just so.” Mrs. Goldfarb wanted her pita “toasted dark” even though I explained to her that when you put it through the toaster twice, it caught on fire.Day after day she complained that her pita was “not toasted dark enough” until I finally brought it out on the plate smoking, small flames just starting to fizzle out. She got my meaning, and I got fired. The whole experience plummeted me right back into wanting to be independent again.Once I came West, those cultural/religious lines seemed to dissolve and it was more of a cowboys-and-Indians-type situation. When I moved to Steamboat and asked someone where the nearest temple was, they looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Fort Collins.”And in California, all my friends were half this and half that and the only time anyone got religious was right before they went in for plastic surgery. Since moving to Aspen I’ve met more Jewish people here than I’ve ever known outside of my extended family in New York. Even stranger, the people I’ve met here are a lot like my family. They’re the kind of people who get Woody Allen and Howard Stern and Larry David, and frankly, get me.But that leaves me feeling uneasy. Does that mean I’ll end up segregating myself in some way that I tried to avoid my whole life? Why do I feel a strong bond with these people who I don’t even know? Or does it mean that I’m growing up and becoming who I really am instead of someone I think I want to be?Then I look at myself with my pink Louis Vuitton bag and my Prada shoes and Seven jeans, still glowing from my facial at the Aspen Club, toned from almost a year working out at Jean Robert’s Gym (this shameless plug goes to you, Bernadette!) and I realize – at least I’ve got the American Princess part totally wired.The princess was invited to her first-ever yum-kipper celebration this Saturday night and is very excited. E-mail the AP at alison@berkleymedia.com


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