Claudia was a secret. I couldn’t let my parents know that she was my girlfriend. I wasn’t allowed to date non-Jewish girls, a.k.a. shiksas.
“After what happened with David,” Dad said, “We think it’s best if you only dated Jewish girls.”
My brother David had dated a shiksa. Her name was Tina. She had long straight hair, a little button nose, and smooth fair skin. She was petite. She was delicious.
David brought her to the house and hung out with her in his bedroom in the basement, the Stones and Hendrix blaring from his RCA stereo while the two of them did God knows what. God knew, but my parents didn’t, and that drove them crazy.
David and Tina’s high school romance lasted almost all of senior year before Tina decided to move on. David took the break-up hard. Losing Tina messed him up so badly, he had to go to Israel to live on a kibbutz for six months. It was an expensive lesson for my parents. Keep your nice Jewish boys away from the shiksas.
I resented being judged by my older brother’s actions. I felt I deserved a chance to make my own decisions and my own mistakes. If that meant getting my heart broken by a shiksa, then so be it.
Besides, the whole date-within-your-kind thing made me feel like I was a purebred dog. Was my only purpose in life to mate with a Jewish girl so that I might sire pureblood Jewish children? Were my parents worried that if I went sniffing around the shiksas, I might end up fathering a litter of interdenominational mutt kids?
Besides, I had known every Jewish girl within dating age since birth. Chattanooga had a decent sized Jewish community, enough of the chosen people to support three synagogues (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) and a Jewish Community Center, but there weren’t that many of us and we tended to stick together.
We lived on the same cul de sacs. We joined the same Jewish social clubs. I attended the same nursery school, Hebrew school, and Sunday School as every other Jewish kid my age. Dating a local Jewish girl would be like kissing your first cousin. It would have been like committing incest.
Claudia was Southern Baptist. Her parents knew she was dating a Jewish boy and though they weren’t happy about it and preferred she didn’t bring me over to meet them, they didn’t tell her she was going to hell or suggest she try to save me.
Claudia and I started dating when I was fourteen. We didn’t live in the same part of town, so we met once a week at Eastgate Mall. We were mallrats before the term existed. The first time I met her, I thought to myself, that girl looks like an Afghan Hound, but in a good way. She was tall and thin with straight auburn hair that covered the sides of her long face. She had sleepy eyes that never seemed to open completely and her thin nose stuck out from between her sheets of hair.
Claudia thought my Jewfro was exotic. Most of the Jewish girls I knew had the same poodlelike curls, so mine were nothing special to them.
I felt like I could talk about anything with Claudia. The Jewish girls weren’t interested in talking to me at all, because they also viewed me as immediate family. Having someone to talk to you was great, except that Claudia had a tendency to try and sound more knowledgeable than she actually was.
One Saturday at the mall, I told everybody that I had just been to my cousin’s bris, the circumcision ceremony.
“I had a bris,” Claudia said.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Positive,” she said. “When I was little, I had a bris.”
“Well, it must have been the worst bris any Mohel has ever performed,” I said.
My friends were rolling with laughter at this point, so I whispered in Claudia’s ear what a bris was. Her sleepy eyes woke up and her cheeks turned red.
Only once did I make the mistake of going on a date with a Chattanooga Jewish girl. A Jewish friend of mine needed a guy to go with his girlfriend’s best friend on a double date. It was one of the rare times my parents saw me go out with a girl. It was so proper, four nice Jewish kids out on a Saturday night.
After dinner at Shakey’s Pizza, we drove up to Missionary Ridge to a small park that overlooked downtown. In the center of the park was a Civil War monument flanked by old cannons. You can’t swing a cat in Chattanooga without hitting a Civil War monument. My friend and his girlfriend quickly disappeared behind a tall granite column engraved with the names of Confederate battalions. My date and I were left alone, sitting on a stone bench, counting the city lights.
My date’s name was Rona. She was my age. She was a slow-witted pudgy girl who used too much hairspray. She once confessed to the other girls in our Sunday school class that she shaved her pubic hair. She was curious what it would feel like, so she just did it. This was decades before shaving pubic hair became fashionable, so Rona was a true pioneer. The other girls immediately told everybody what Rona had done and from then on she was known as “the girl with the bald pussy.”
Since we had some time to kill until the other couple was done making out, I figured Rona and I might as well make out, too. She had colossal breasts, so I tried to cop a feel, but she was wearing a really tight bra with a complicated set of hooks. It was more of a wrestling match than a make-out session. After a while, we got bored with each other and went back to watching the city lights.
The next day, after Sunday school, my sister gave me a detailed account of my date. Rona had told all the girls about Saturday night’s activities and had spared no details of what did and did not go on between us.
“Rona told us how you tried to feel her tits,” my sister said.
Apparently, I was right about Rona’s bra being more of a barrier than most women’s undergarments, because she added that there was no way I would have been able to get past her “industrial strength bra.”
“The way Rona described the scene really cracked us up,” my sister said. “Marsha and Jill wondered if maybe you have some sort of breast obsession. Do you?”
Yes, I preferred the shiksas. They were never going to tell my sister what we had done the night before. Still, I felt cheated. I missed out on a normal dating life. I was never able to go on a real date with Claudia where I borrowed the car to take her to a movie and picked her up at her house and said hello to her dad. The secrecy may have added thrills, but it also added resentment. Why did my parents have to be so rigid?
I never asked my parents why they didn’t want me to date shiksas, because I already knew the answer. All parents want their children to date their own kind, but Jewish parents had an extra reason why it was essential that Jewish boys procreated only with Jewish girls. That reason was the Holocaust.
The Holocaust made my parents more paranoid about the survival of the Jews. They were young adults living in America during World War II. The Holocaust happened to Eastern European Jews during their lifetime. If the systematic murder of six million Jewish men, women and children didn’t make you xenophobic, then nothing would.
At Sunday school, my classmates and I were shown Holocaust films. We bore witness to the piles of dead bodies, the emaciated prisoners, and the lamps made from human skin, all in grainy black and white that made it even more grim, like home movies from hell.
Over the years, we were shown the Holocaust films many times. There was no age limit; you didn’t have to be this tall to see the human devastation. Instead, we were required to watch the horror again and again so that we would never forget. Our elders wanted the images to be tattooed on our brains.
The repeated exposure desensitized us. Oh look, here’s the part where the bodies go down the slide and into the pit. Whoop! There’s the oven with the human residue caked on the side. Yuk!
I didn’t think about the burden the six million Jews slaughtered during the Holocaust placed on my life. I didn’t feel that I was supposed to be living for them. I thought of the films as a warning. Don’t trust the Gentiles. At any moment, they’ll turn on you.
Intellectually, I understood that assimilation and intermarriage were real threats to Jews and Jewish culture. I understood my parents’ desire for us to live in a self-imposed American shtetl.
Emotionally, I wanted a girlfriend and I didn’t see that happening with any of the Jewish girls I grew up with in Chattanooga. I wanted it both ways. I wanted to be a Jew without the having to worry about our survival.
Claudia wanted to be my girlfriend. A girl wanted me. I could think of nothing more simple and amazing. I was always going to be a Jew, but when I was with my girlfriend, I wasn’t anything more than her boyfriend.
I wished my parents could have understood that. I wished Claudia didn’t have to be a secret. I was proud that she was my girlfriend. I wanted to show her off to everybody, even my Sunday school class, even the Holocaust survivors.
Claudia refused to surrender her virginity to me until we were seventeen and then we did our best to make up for lost time. Our birth control method of choice was the rhythm method. I have to wonder if this method has ever worked, because it certainly didn’t work for us.
We each told our parents a story about where we’d be over the weekend and took a bus to Atlanta. We didn’t decide to have the abortion because of our differences in religion. We did it because neither of us was ready to have a baby.
I paid for the abortion in cash. I thought we’d done a damn good job keeping it quiet. The only thing that changed for us was that we started using condoms.
On my eighteenth birthday, Dad caught me having sex with Claudia in Mom’s car. How this happened is a long story unto itself. Dad waited until he had a chance to speak to me alone. He told me he knew I was dating her. He knew about the abortion. He knew everything. Apparently, Dad had been keeping secrets of his own.
“It’s okay for you to have your fun with this girl,” Dad said. “But you have to be more discreet.”
“If you already know,” I said, “then can I stop hiding? Can I finally be normal and date Claudia openly?”
“No,” he said. “I’d rather you kept it a secret. But don’t worry. If there’s a break in the family, your mother will survive.”
That one sentence with its insistence that the charade continue and the old cliché that dating a shiksa would kill your mother, was crushing, but not in the way Dad intended. I wasn’t ashamed. I was disappointed in my father. The smugness in his voice as he said that one sentence didn’t help. He had dismissed my relationship with Claudia as if it was nothing more than sexual recreation. Until then, I considered him to be a more understanding person. I was devastated to find out how wrong I was about him.
Fine, I thought, just fine. We’ll do it his way. I will keep Claudia a secret. But if she was a secret, then all my future relationships would be a secret, whether I dated a shiksa or a Jewish girl.
For many years, I stopped talking to my parents about anything personal in my life. As far as they knew, I never dated and had no friends. Occasionally, my mother asked me if I was seeing anyone and I always changed the subject. Dad never asked. Plenty of things happened during those years, but I couldn’t tell them about it. I was a secret.
Mickey Dubrow’s work has appeared in Creative Loafing, The Atlanta Jewish Times, and Atlanta Intown. As a writer and producer for television, he is the recipient of several broadcast writing awards, including a 2011 Telly Silver Award and a 2007 Promax Silver Award. He blogs at mickeydubrow.blogspot.com. Mickey lives in Atlanta with his wife.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I thought repeatedly watching Holocaust documentaries as a child had immunized me against their horror. Instead, I found that I felt the pain deeper and carried a certain amount of resentment toward my local Jewish community for overexposing me at such a young age. The films were shown from first grade on.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best cure for writer’s block is to lower your standards. I follow that advice and it works every time. It frees me to take chances I otherwise wouldn’t take.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut; and The Moon of Skulls by Robert E. Howard.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I have a home office in what was, before our renovation, the master bedroom. I have a large industrial desk and on the corner of the desk is a cat bed. One of our three cats is always napping in the bed as I write.