Shiksa Goddess

Shiksa Goddess


I cannot tell a lie. I feel compelled to bite the bullet and publicly reveal that I've just discovered my own denominational truth. I am Episcopalian.

I should have guessed a long time ago, because my parents never mentioned it. In fact, they hid it. They sent me to primary school at the Yeshiva Flatbush. It never crossed my mind that I was deliberately being isolated. On our classroom walls were portraits of Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir in place of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. Our horror stories were not of being buried by Communists, but of being suffocated by nomad ham sandwiches.

We lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Flatbush. Our shopping strip included kosher butchers and Hymie's Highway Appetizers. For Sunday brunch, my mother produced bagels, belly lox, and cream cheese with scallions. Nobody told me that lox lived a double life as smoked salmon, or that herring could ever be kippered.

Even the Christmas holidays were a setup. Every year on Christmas Eve, we were on a jet to Miami Beach. There wasn't even a chance for us to watch the VUPIX Channel r i Yule log burning as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang "Silent Night." We celebrated the holidays front-row center at the Versailles Room, with Myron Cohen warming up our crowd for Sammy Davis, Jr. Even our African-Americans were Jewish!

Until now, I've had a happy life thinking of myself as a Jewish writer. I came to accept that when my work was described as being "too New York" it was really a euphemism for something else. I belonged to a temple, and on my opening nights, my mother invariably told friends that she'd be much happier if it was my wedding. In other words, I had a solid sense of self. I knew exactly who I was.

Then the bottom fell out. I was speaking at the Lion of Judah luncheon in Palm Beach recently when I noticed a woman in a Lilly Pulitzer dress, one strand of pearls, and fortyyear-old pink Pappagallo shoes leaning against the door. She stood out from the crowd because, instead of the omnipresent Barry Kieselstein-Cord purse with lizard clasp, she was carrying a battered lacrosse stick.

At the conclusion of my talk, she approached the podium. "I hope you don't mind my speaking to you, but I believe we are related," she said.

I looked at her dead-straight blond hair and smiled politely. "I doubt it."

"Your name translates to Waterston," she continued. "Harry Waterston, your great-uncle twice removed, was my mother's fourth husband. They were married for one month." She looked at me as if only a simpleton wouldn't make the immediate connection.

I did have a distant relative, Dr. Harry Wasserstein, but I never heard of him marrying anyone but Aunt Rivkah. According to my mother, even though Harry was an educated man, he never worked a day in his life, and Rivkah's life was miserable.

"I think you must be mistaken," I said, and tried to excuse myself.

"After he left my mother, Harry Waterston changed his name to Wasserstein because he wanted his son to go to an Ivy League college, and to Mount Sinai Medical School. Harry Jr. became an educated man, but he never worked a day in his life."

I was shvitzing. I mean sweating. "Our name actually translates to Waterstone," I said.

"That's irrelevant!" She was almost haughty. "Look at that actor on Law & Order-what's his name, Sam? He's a Hasid if I ever saw one."

She handed me the lacrosse stick while I made a mental note to find out what Sam Waterston was doing for the High Holy Days. "This was Harry's lacrosse stick, which he used the year he was expelled from Hotchkiss," she said. "He made me promise to give it to the first Wasserstein relative I met in Palm Beach. He said it was inevitable that one of you people would show up here!" She winked and left the room.

Good or bad news had always made me hungry. But for the first time in my life I needed a drink. Maybe she was onto something.

That week, I began eating chicken sandwiches with mayo on white bread, no crust, and getting full after two bites. For the first time in my life, I wrote in to the Mount Holyoke Quarterly: "Am looking to buy thirty-year-old Saab car and to apologize to all the Holyoke girls named Timothy and Kikky, whom I never spoke to. I now know you were very interesting people."

I began wearing faded cardigan sweaters and canceled all appointments for massages, pedicures, and exploratory liposuction. I gave up on my complicated relationship with a married Jewish Malaysian vibes player and learned to enjoy the company of a divorced asexual friend from Amherst who studies pharmaceutical stocks for J. P Morgan. I began running ten miles every morning and sculling down the Hudson nightly. My approval ratings with my friends have gone up fifteen points.

But I was still, as I used to say in Yiddish, "nit chin nit aher, " or, as I now say in the Queen's English, "neither here nor there."

That was when I decided to go on a listening tour of Fishers Island. I wanted to really hear the stories of my new Wasp ancestors, learn to make their cocktails, and wear their headbands. I want to live up to my true destiny and announce to the world how great it is to be goyisheh like me.

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Excerpted from Shiksa Goddess by Wendy Wasserstein. Copyright © 2002 by Wendy Wasserstein. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.