I was never a princess. In my favorite childhood photo I have short brown hair and a leather jacket covered in zippers – a gift I had begged my Grandfather to buy me–it was a Michael Jackson special. In that same photo, my brother has his hair combed neatly to one side and he sports a New York Mets jacket. As an adult looking at that photo I realize a few things. First of all, I spent most of my life thinking that my brother was the “cool one.” One look at that photograph and it’s clear it was the other way around. Also, I looked like a boy, and I liked that as I looked like a boy because it made me feel powerful. At the yeshiva I attended, looking like a boy was not an option, so on weekends, the leather jacket always made an appearance. I liked black not pink, sneakers not dress shoes and T-shirts, not dresses. So, when my 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Helen, dances around the living room in a tutu…I look up at the heavens and say, “very funny.”
Adrian and I signed Helen up at a Russian ballet school near Brighton Beach. It is the first group/semi school-like activity Helen has participated in. We are concerned for a few reasons. First, we are not Russian. Well, I am on my father’s side (my grandmother came from Ukraine in the early 1900s) but that’s as Russian as I get. I don’t even like borscht, one of Grandma Rosie’s favorite delicacies from “the motherland.” We are also nervous because we know that there is a large Russian-Jewish community in Brighton Beach, and we wonder how the community will react to our Jewish-American-Mexican-Catholic daughter. Also, will they even care? It’s a ballet class, not a religious circle. But, even so, it makes us think.
On the first Sunday of the month, I dress Helen in her leotard and tights. She dances around the living room shouting “Princess, princess!” I wear a Guns n’ Roses T-shirt and jeans. When we arrive at the ballet studio there are girls of all ages pirouetting through the halls. There are a few classes that day and Helen is in the 2-to-3-year-old class but she stares at a girl of about 10 who seems so disciplined and professional she is mesmerizing. This girl practices in the hallway until a Russian man dressed all in black comes out and summons her group.
I am fixated on something else.
Waiting to go into Helen’s class is a girl smaller than Helen waiting with her father. She has on a lavender leotard but her father wears a white shirt with an enormous gold chain that hangs down his neck. At the end of the chain is the unmistakable star of David, the six-pointed star that Jews wear.
My father never let us wear the Jewish star. He grew up in a generation of anti-Semitism and his best friend was a Holocaust survivor. My father was of the belief that we should be proud of our Judaism, but we shouldn’t be flashy about it.
Adrian’s family was similar with their Catholicism. Adrian never wore a cross and the only reason I knew he was Catholic when we were dating was that the first time I went to his apartment, he had a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe and a wooden cross hanging from her neck.
I wasn’t judging the man at the ballet studio. On the contrary, I liked how proud he was of being a Jew. He probably hadn’t thought twice about wearing his giant gold Star of David. So, why was I thinking about my own interfaith family? What was I so afraid of? Had my father given me a phobia of expressing my Jewishness? Was I passing that phobia down to my own daughter? Was everything mixed up? My daughter is a princess and I was a tomboy who never owned a Barbie. I was going crazy with these thoughts.
Helen’s teacher was a tall slim Russian woman who instructed the little ones to walk around on their tippy toes, then their heels. She had them jump with their hands on their waists like tiny ballerinas. She was strict and direct. Everyone was expected to participate and parents sat off to the side.
I sat next to the man with the colossal Jewish star necklace. He was a reminder of my fear that Helen won’t be accepted. He was a reminder that I should let go of that fear because it will only hinder her. We have an interfaith family and we are proud of that. He was a reminder of having pride and faith in one’s own faith, or in our case, faiths.
As the class ended the teacher handed out stickers to each of the children. On our way out the door, I turned to the man dripping with Jewish gold.
“I like your necklace,” I said.
“Oh, thanks!” he replied. “It’s my wife’s. She’s Jewish…I’m Catholic…”