I spent much of my childhood trailing after my neighbor, a bossy girl three years my senior with a slightly sadistic nature. If we were a little bit older and this was the 2000’s, not the 1970’s, I would have been referred to as ‘her bitch.’ As Rhonda’s bitch, my role consisted of the three ‘A’s—accompany, admire, allow. Accompany her wherever she wished; admire her style, her clothes, her friends; allow her to trick or force me into doing whatever she wanted. I was seven; she was ten. I was barely weaned off Sesame Street and she was in fourth grade. Of course I would do her bidding.
Rhonda and I lived in a primarily Jewish suburb of New York City. We were both brought up by Reform parents. Growing up Reform Jewish in my suburb was pretty much like this: we made an appearance at Temple on all the major holidays. Fridays, we had shabbat dinner, complete with candle lighting and challah. We were what they call ‘cultural Jews’. Our houses were filled with Jewish art and morals and talk of Israel. We didn’t keep pork in the house, but we were allowed to have bacon when we went out to breakfast.
Most importantly, everybody got nice big bar/bat mitzvahs with a reception at the new, hot event space, or, if your family was poor, you’d take over the back room of a restaurant (because your parents wanted to keep it ‘intimate’ was what you told everyone). The really sad cases had their receptions in the great hall at the temple. Matching blue and white plates and napkins, bagels and lox, maybe a couple balloons. The temple parties rarely had a dj, or a dance contest, or prizes. You mostly shook people’s hands and tried to be polite while the little kids ran in and out, and the grandmas went back for more whitefish.
A couple of miles down the road from our houses was a Hasidic neighborhood. These were the ultra-Observant Jews. Men wore black hats and long coats and the women wore wigs, and were covered by long skirts and dresses. This community was so strict and so fearful of outside influence that there was actually a gate at the street where the subdivision met the town’s main road. This gate was closed and locked from sundown on Fridays until sundown on Saturdays, and all on Jewish holidays and festivals. Thus the Hasids quite effectively alienated themselves from and created a palpable two-way hostility with the larger community.
There was a huge old tree that sat on a vacant lot that faced the main drag. It had sprawling, sturdy branches, and I never felt like one might break underneath me. There was one particularly wide and smooth branch that grew very close to the ground. It seemed like some thoughtful grown-up and planted it specifically so that we could use it as a bench—we barely had to push ourselves up to hop on. Rhonda and I spent many hours in this tree, watching the cars as they drove by. The town was still young, then, and even though we looked out over the main drag, sometimes long stretches of time would go by before we saw a single car. The Hasids often passed by on their way to their community up the road. They were easy to spot– their cars were older station wagons or grey sedans that seemed to drag their weight unevenly and too close to the ground.
One clear autumn day Rhonda and I were sitting on our branch, talking idly about velour sweaters and Olivia Newton John. A “Hassy Mobile” approached in the distance. Rhonda stuck her thumbs in her ears, waving her fingers back and forth like feathers next to her head. She stuck out her tounge and yelled ‘Hassy Hassy poo poo!” at the top of her lungs. “You do it too,” she said. I really hated being mean to people, but I knew that if I didn’t do it Rhonda would say she didn’t want to play with me anymore and she’d leave me alone with my mother and my dolls. So I stuck my thumbs in my ears and yelled at the family that was crammed in the car as it drove past. Rhonda laughed hysterically. She said, “Did you know that Hassies intentionally cause accidents so that they can get the insurance money? Like, they’ll even send their kids out to get their legs broken. They teach them how to do it, how to run out in the road but not get too hurt. I’ve seen them.” I nodded, wide-eyed. “And a few years ago? Some people got lost, and were driving through their neighborhood, and so the Hassies came out on their lawns and threw rocks at them. That was when they put up the gate, after that.” I was never completely sure if I should believe things that Rhonda told me, but she was older than me, so she was most likely telling the truth, I decided.
Another day, Rhonda and I were sitting on the tree, eating popsicles. Of course, Rhonda caught every melty drip before it left its sugary iceberg; she never once had juice dripping down her fingers or at the corners of her mouth. Lick, lick, lick she went, never missing a beat. I, of course, was the exact opposite. My popsicles never stayed cool evenly– there was always some piece that would fall off if I didn’t cram it in my mouth. I was forever chasing my popsicle before it melted away.
So there we sat, licking our popsicles, sweating lightly in the Indian summer heat. One of us was learning about the Holocaust in Hebrew School at the time. There’s a saying that goes something like: “If you forget the past, you are doomed to repeat it,” and Jews take that to the nth degree. In those days it seemed like we were always being shown grisly images of the piles of bones at the camps, the starving people looking out from behind barbed wire, the ovens where their bodies were burned.
Our conversation turned to Hitler, and how could someone be so evil and horrible. I was always taught to look at things from all sides, and to not judge people until I had tried to see things from their point of view. That seemed fair and made sense to me. So I said, “Well, what if he thought what he was doing was right? What if he really believed that and didn’t know any better? Can he really be ‘bad’ if he only saw things from his point of view?” I must have been like 9 at the time. In retrospect, this is kind of a Zen perspective, having compassion for other’s confusion and suffering, yadda yadda. To 12 year old Rhonda,whose parents were liberal but not hippies, my philosophical question was basically the equivalent of blasphemy. “WHAT??” she yelled. “Are you crazy?? I can’t believe you said that! Hitler was BAD, he was EVIL. Oh my God, I’m totally going to tell my mother you said that. I can’t believe you.” She threw her popsicle stick on the ground and started walking back to her house. I didn’t even try to keep up with her. I was too ashamed, and I knew I would start crying if she yelled at me again. When I got home and into my mother’s arms, I did in fact start crying. I told her what I had said and what Rhonda had said. My mother said “Oh, Tootsie, that’s a very grown-up way of looking at things. You’re smarter than Rhonda, that’s all. She doesn’t understand things the way you do. I’m very proud of you for seeing things from all points of view.” She wiped away my tears, made me change my shorts, and then she took me to the mall.