Religion: or God and Florence

by Ivy Berchuck

Religion: or God and Florence

I hated Florence. She was everything I despaired of in myself. I was chubby, but she was fat. My hair was too curly, hers was frizzy. She bit her nails, I chewed the skin around the cuticles; but worst of all, she was the only other fifth grade girl to go to Hebrew School. I tried to keep a low profile about this, but Florence would call across the schoolyard during recess, “Itah, do you want to walk to Hebrew school together? Itah was my Yiddish name. She knew what my American name was, but she never understood that Itah was something to be uttered only behind closed doors.

“You go to Hebrew School?” the girls asked incredulously. ”What do you do that for?” To the girls, the reason for a religious education was to prepare for the bar mitzvah when you were thirteen … and only boys were bar mitzvahed. There was no way to explain to them that my parents, somewhat observant, felt that anything their boy could do, their girl could do as well. I would have preferred a less controversial way of demonstrating the principle, but I accepted the plan that I would study prayer and language and then go through the ceremony and have a bat mitzvah, a daughter of the covenant..

For most people this was unheard of in the late 1940’s, even though today an over the top celebration for a girl can be equal to any party thrown for a boy. I wanted to keep it a secret because it was so strange and hard to explain and anyway, I wasn’t sure if I really believed enough in God

I did like the study of the language, the Bible and the prayers. I could participate in the Shabbat service with my father and grandfather and I wallowed in their pride. I felt connected to the people in the synagogue and put the God thing in back of my mind.

The biggest problem was it left me no time in the afternoons to hang out with girlfriends, and it pushed me in the direction of Florence. The more Florence liked me, the worse I felt. She hooked arms with me as we walked to our lessons, and I hoped that no one in the schoolyard saw us. She was studying as hard as I was, but her parents had told her it was a sin for a girl to have a Bat Mitzvah so she was excused from the class when we learned the prayers required to conduct the service. Then I became the only girl there but it didn’t feel special … I could sense the boys smirking.

The year that my group reached the age for the ceremony, we were required to participate in every Saturday bar mitzvah service. The boy’s guests were there too, including the popular girls in the class who just stared at me knowing I wasn’t invited and would certainly not be at the party that followed. One said, “Oh I guess you can walk home with your friend Florence.” It was beyond humiliation. Now Florence had acne and anytime a pimple emerged on my forehead I would cry and see myself becoming a clone of my nemesis. She had persisted in calling me Itah through the years so I made up my mind I had to change the name. I wanted to get away from Yiddish anyway. Hebrew seemed to look to the future, not to the Holocaust past. I looked up plant names in the Hebrew-English dictionary and sure enough, ivy had a Hebrew word for it, Irit … I loved it and told my parents and the rabbi that I wanted my name changed…Florence now stopped calling me by any name, because changing your name was guess what? … another sin.

The girls in school were intrigued and asked if I was inviting friends to my bat mitzvah. I began to feel more comfortable with them. They were invited and they did come.

My dress was no longer from the chubby department and my voice rang out. My speech was about strong women in the bible and the power that girls should have in religion and in the world. I looked out at my friends and was happy that Florence was sitting with them. I was even happier that I would never have to be with her again.

A few years ago I saw her in the street when I was visiting my mother. She was still dumpy, but her hair was coifed and her suit was stylish. ”Itah, Itah” she exclaimed, throwing her arms around me. ”Do you remember what fun we had walking to Hebrew School?”

Ivy Berchuck: I have been writing short memoirs on and off all my life. Thanks to Carmen and Leyla’s writing class at IRP it is now a more consistent effort bringing me unusual pleasure and self-awareness. I now seem to be remembering more than I am forgetting