Monday, November 13, 2017

ode to injesswebless

English class. 8th grade. I was thirteen years old.

And as per usual, whenever we were given an assignment, you’d find me back in the corner of the classroom, facing outside, uninterrupted. Ms. Swaiko, my teacher, often found it odd. My middle school teachers (and it continued all through high school) complained I talked too much in class; moving my seat never helped. However, I never thought Ms. Swaiko suspected a thing. I held myself in high regard, believing I was very skilled at appearing focused while effectively doing something else simultaneously. I’d quickly hide the paper, creating A-1 excuses such as: taking notes, doing homework ahead of time, or whatsoever.

Anyway, during one class, we had to do an outline for a project. Ms. Swaiko knew how much I loathed doing outlines, yet, that day I went on my merry way to my usual spot. Too puzzled, she decided to sneak up behind me, peeking over my shoulder, before tapping me on the shoulder.

I froze. Busted. My cover is blown. I’ve been discovered that I was secretly writing.

If you ever had Ms. Swaiko, you’d know her wrath if a student doesn’t do what she says. Also, if you knew me at thirteen, you’d know my wrath if I had to stay after school (right after school was the prime time of the day to grab a quick visit with the high school boys). It was like the capital punishment. Yet, I accepted my consequence and met with Ms. Swaiko to finish the outline; when I was done, she gave me a note to give my mother.

Ugh. Shit. As if staying after school wasn’t a punishment enough.

However, I delivered the letter to Mom that evening. She did a HUGE sigh and gave me her best what-did-you-do-this-time face before opening it. Just as I started to explain myself, Mom broke into a smile and nodded her head; after reading it, she handed me the note I hold dear to this day:

Sue --
You have a writer for a daughter
N. Swaiko

At thirteen, I never once regarded myself as a ... writer. To me, I simply wrote. I wrote because I wanted to. I wrote because I needed to. I wrote because it was something I loved doing. I wrote about everything that came to me: my tween privations, boy crushes, the Holocaust, being a child of divorce... that didn’t change when I, at seventeen, would find myself hiding in bathroom stalls during PE with my notebook and a pen in hand.

Remember the time I opened my hope chest?

Do you ever feel you were the most you when you’re younger? Because if anything, that’s me being the most me possible. These days, I feel I have to be watered down or ‘less intense’ version of myself- both when interacting and writing.

No more.

I have a lot to say. Oh you bet I do... yet I think it’s a good time to confess I’ve outgrown this blog, hence me being neglectful towards this. I’m relocating to Wordpress (which is still in the works).

Ah. New, fresh chapter.

So long!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

In the light of what's happening...

When I was seventeen years old, I wrote in my diary making a self-confirming statement: “I am a Jewish girl. I will always be one.” My mother would roll her eyes at me saying, “Oh my goodness. You’re so Jewish.” One of her favorite stories of my early-Jewhood would be when I was five years old, coming across a humongous Star of David necklace that only big and tall males would use, the one that probably would chain my five-year-old self on the floor if I put it on but I turned to my mother going, “I want it.” That was the beginning of that “Oh my goodness. You’re so Jewish” fixation. My father, on the other hand, would laugh at me and say, “So firm and determined. That must be the Italian in you.” Being Jewish and Italian, I grew up being reminded that I am of dual cultures and religious beliefs. Since so, I’ve been cultivated with being at ease that my mother is Jewish and my father is Italian, hence my last name, Baldi.

What I’d question would be whether Judaism is a faceless race? You can’t identify Jewish people by just looking at them. I, for one, don’t look Jewish yet, I’ve experienced feeling I was set apart from others and had the privilege to be ashamed of the religious conviction that I was born to. 

My Hebrew name is Rivka Shifra bas Shoshanna. If you are to Americanize the name: it will be Rebekah Sylvia of Susan. In the Judaism way of life, it is believed that the bond between mother and daughter is truly essential, and my mother’s name is Susan. In other words, I am of my mother’s, her offspring, her daughter. I remember the day when I was given the name vividly.

I was fourteen years old, just the day after my freshman year prom; I changed out of my prom dress to a long-sleeved black dress, tights, and flats. A deaf rabbi from Baltimore named Fred Friedman invited my family and I to his temple. As soon as I walked into that orthodox temple with my mother, brother, and stepfather led by Rabbi Friedman, I knew I was in for quite an educational experience. I also felt at home. I was nowhere near to being orthodox; still, these were my people. Women were separated from men by a wall that had blinded windows, and on our side, there were rows of bleachers for us to sit and peek through the blinds at men who was on the other side of the wall. Ranging from elders to little boys, the men walked around while praying; there were no bleachers on their side. They talked to each other, discussed prayers, blessings, and wisdom. Men shared their Torah, traded verses, and women didn’t need to pray. Jews believe women are already innately ‘blessed by God’ while the opposite gender must inquire for blessings by praying. So, along with other women, my mother and I watched in silence. We watched my stepfather, my brother, Rabbi Friedman, and the rest of the males at the temple pray together to officially sanctify me with a Hebrew name.

When we left at the end, they all waved their hands bidding me a farewell with saying, "Shalom, Rivka." It was a wonderful moment.

It wasn’t always wonderful. I, admittedly, was embarrassed to be Jewish when growing up. It wasn’t something common between me and my young peers. I’d boast that I celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah so that I’d be able to find a relation between me and others who aren’t Jewish. There were no other children I knew who were Jewish, and being a normal young girl wanting to feel belonged, I’d boast saying, “With Mommy, I get to light candles and receive gifts for eight nights in a row. Santa comes to Daddy’s with all those wonderful gifts.”

I was ridiculed and questioned because I was Jewish. I remember being bothered. I have faint memories of my divorced parents arguing over religious issues, I remember asking both of them about what they believed in, and they were always very honest. My preschool teacher once told my mother that I said Santa didn’t like Hanukkah. 

But there is one day I remember clearly. It was years after my confusion in preschool: it was on a Friday when I was in the seventh grade and the middle school staff at the Maryland School for the Deaf had a meeting so the students gathered at the auditorium playing a game with the principal’s supervision. The game we played was Let’s-Get-Know-Each other: the principal would point out a trait, an interest, background, physical appearance, et cetera and the students will stand up. In other words, we were taking a notice of each other’s similarities and differences. So, when the principal innocently said, “Who is Jewish?” I all of sudden felt my face flushing with humiliation when I saw that only two of us stood up. I found myself feeling an interferer once again, the feeling I have not felt for a long time. I did not stand up boldly and proudly.

However, that completely changed only the following year when I discovered Anne Frank in an eighth grade English classroom. I was thirteen years old. After that, I knew that if I was asked to stand up again, I’d have stood up boldly and proudly. I probably would have bolted up with pride, making a statement. From that point and on, I decided to self-educate myself about the Holocaust and what does it mean being Jewish? What does it mean to me?

By the time I was sixteen years old, my understanding and confidence had developed. Needless to say, my confidence was put to a test one day at the cafeteria during my junior year of high school. I was sitting on a table next to a group of boys who were my friends but one of them approached me, ensuring the fact that the others were watching, as well… and he purposely told me a joke about the Holocaust. A hurtful joke. My face didn’t lie, I was stricken with the cruelness and I could hear my younger self making a mental nudge, “Told you so. You’d never be normal because you’re Jewish.” Although the Aryan boy had apologized later on, it still stung. To this day, it still does. My senior year, I witnessed the irony of an African-American student, who have been teased himself because of the color of his skin, being expelled from the school for making a harsh ethnic joke to a much younger Jewish boy about his faith. 

I wasn’t exclusively comfortable with announcing that I was Jewish such as wearing jewelries or attires until college. Nowadays, it’s the contrary; I’ve discovered a love of assembling Star of David charms, I have quite a collection of t-shirts standing boldly and proudly that I’m a Jew, and I hope to study Hebrew. It is rather compelling about how the older I get, the more I am curious about Judaism. When I was growing up, I’d celebrate holidays such as Passover, Purim, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur but I’d take them for granted: the food, the gifts, the family-gatherings, the stories… they were such festivities to me. I’d feel culturally belonged. Yet, I’m beginning to feel how I can be so “Oh my goodness. You’re so Jewish” when I admit I am practically almost inattentive towards the true ambitions of being Jewish. Personally, it is simply logical to me if I understood the purpose of each holiday with depth so, when I practice them, I’d be Jewish, rather than ‘oh, it’s just because I’m culturally Jewish’.

Although it is true, I am only culturally Jewish, I still respect the belief so much… because can anyone really hold a faith they don’t wholeheartedly agree with? Anyone could value it, cherish it, and know that it is part of you… but, in my opinion, a belief is different when you give your full faith into it. I am not going to turn Judaism into a lifestyle but it is true that I feel mostly comfortable with being Jewish, it is the article of religion that I was born to, and I don’t plan on practicing otherwise. Judaism, to me, is a choice of belief that I was given to from my ancestors. I’d consider that a blessing. Since so, I’m sticking to my bona fide. Besides, I do feel this conviction to gain insight about ‘my people’. 

If you're in the contracting business in this country, you're suspect. If you're in the contracting business in New Jersey, you're indictable. If you're in the contracting business in New Jersey and are Italian, you're convicted. Raymond Donovan said it best. My paternal kin is Italian and hails from South Jersey with pride. Even though almost none of my family members live in New Jersey anymore but we definitely left a mark. Here is to that side of family that I belong to, they are loud, never so rich, and college seems far fetched. Oh, being Italian never was a problem.

In fact, I’d savor every drop. My family ‘are, were, is’ in the mafia so I’d prance around, going “I am what you’d call a Mafia Princess!” although there is nothing to be proud about. My grandfather, who my cousins and I call Pop Pop, would keep us updated about our Uncle Johnny who had to flee to Scotland due to a mafia trouble; there, he befell a kind of disease. Pop Pop told us that when he asked Uncle John about how he's holding up, he hinted him he's eating a lot of pasta. That was his way of telling us he's doing absolutely divine! But that would be all I know. The women coming from a mafia family must never know what their fathers, husbands, sons, or uncles do... the men fiercely protect their girls. They aren't all about money and murder. They are usually Mama's boys who's truly generous; I would know how much they love mint chocolate chip ice-cream after a really good dish of pasta. Not only that, but I would know how their sense of humor comes naturally and how charismatic they'd manage to be. That does sound like my Baldi clan. At the reunion in New Jersey years ago and at my father’s funeral, we gave each other gigantesque hugs, planting jumbo kisses on one and other and not one drop of ice-cream was left!

I was greatly duped that Santa was real. I sang Christmas songs, attended church considerably often, and I have wonderful Christmas Eve memories. I have a nontraditional attachment with Christmas, for it only has a sentimental value to me. The holiday is simply a reason for me to spend time with my father. Christmas isn’t part of my culture, but it is a part of my father’s and he’d truly make the Christmases of my childhood magical. 

My family is far from being prejudicial nor are we racists; we accept people of all kinds. My grandmother, a deaf Jewish woman accepted my father, who was a hard-of-hearing Protestant. My grandfather, a regular Catholic white man, didn’t give it a second thought when my father told him he is marrying a deaf Jewish girl. I was taught to be culturally sensitive, probably because both of my parents came from contradictory backgrounds and our house is a mixture of Deaf, hearing, and hard-of-hearing people. My brother’s best friend came from Africa and we consider him a part of us; my cousin found himself being interested in the same sex and he wasn’t loved any less. So, paradoxically, my earliest memory of color has no akin to my religion, or race, or culture, or disability but the color of my eyes.

It was during one summer when I was seven, and I was living on Featherwood Street. Summers were always the best on Featherwood Street. Since the houses in the neighborhood were formed in a circle, we the children would play outside on the cul-de-sac street until the sun was out of our sight, and sometimes we’d remain outside playing under the streetlights, catching fireflies. I’ve been living on the same street along with the same children for a long while and we all knew each other fairly well. It didn’t matter that our means of communication were unlike, or that I was a girl not a boy – we were blind to our differences, I could have an extra arm and nobody would have noticed. We were children, sunburned and oblivious to scraped knees, after all.

But, one day, our blond-haired-blue-eyed neighbor was having a birthday party for their also blond-haired-blue-eyed twins, a boy and a girl. The party being next door, I walked over by myself like I would during any day on any summer on Featherwood Street and sat on one of the beach chairs. It wasn’t five minutes before the boy, younger than me, came to me and stared into my eyes. He pointed to them and yelled, “No! You can’t be here!” It was beyond my understanding but on a reflex, I stood up and ran back to my house, deeply wounded. I vowed I’d never tell anyone what happened, although I couldn’t gather about what happened. I couldn’t even question it. When my mother asked me why was I back home so quickly, I came up with a fib. Just because I had brown eyes, I couldn’t at least be at a birthday party. 

I encountered the same occurrence shortly after I moved out from Featherwood Street. My fifth grade class did an experiment, and this time, I understood. When studying slavery and segregation, my fifth grade teacher decided to surprise us unexpectedly one day that the brown-eyed students will not be able to drink water from the fountain nor be able to go to the bathroom, I was appalled to see BLUE-EYES ONLY taped on the bathroom door. I remember protesting saying, “but wasn’t I able to go there whenever I wanted just yesterday?” We had to sit separately from blue-eyed students in class and during lunch. We couldn’t play outside during recess, and had to stand in the back of the line. It was no fun, and I was near tears at the end of the day, bursting out, “but it is not my fault that I was born with brown eyes!” I was literally thirsty and confused; I felt furious and unjustified, my freedom being snatched away.

In other words, I felt like a real human being. A point was being made. Next day, the blue-eyed students endured the segregation, and I was mortified to discover that I actually felt ‘powerful’ and grateful I wasn’t blue-eyed. Even though it was only for two days out of our already-ten years of existence and we knew it was just a diversion, and that life would return back to normal. Still, the learning experience brought an entire new stance for us, especially as fifth graders.

Self-awareness usually occur when you step out of your house, into schools, workplaces, or simply to go next door. Inside your own house, you are morphed into with what you are most comfortable with, and naturally, it is because it is the only thing you know. It is your home, where you can flop comfortably anywhere. A single person can be of many rooms, cultures with or without a face or a name. History of discrimination and accomplishment has revealed the best and the worse in every society there is; some we are proud about, some we aren’t. That is one thing we all have in common as human beings: we are diverse.