This is the fourth part of our ongoing series on Adolescence. Enjoy.
Part One (Rebecca Wiener)
Part Two (John Gruen)
Part Three (Tess Lynch)
Curse of the Three-Named Boy
by Jessica Grose
The pop cultural lexicon is overflowing with examples of Jewish men who love Shiksas. Most recently there’s pudgy-yet-endearing stoner Seth Rogen salivating over the gilded goddess Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up. But there’s also schlumpy Woody Allen worshipping at the altar of a lithe, blonde, pastrami-on-white-bread-with-mayo-ordering Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. There’s Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy jerking off into refrigerated liver and then purging himself to his shrink about his sexually beloved though intellectually inferior WASP girlfriend, The Monkey.
As a Jewish adolescent developing a penchant for upturned noses, I had no female fictional characters with conflicted relationships to their religion or their deli meats to identify with.
I guess there’s Barbra Streisand lusting after Robert Redford’s Hubbell Gardner in The Way We Were, but her character was always that kind of Jew. The loud, pinko, big-schnozzed Jew who refused to assimilate, even when she married her Protestant Adonis. Her character, Katie, knew exactly who she was and even though she was attracted to Hubble’s differences, ultimately she needed to remain true to her politically charged Heeb-y core.
Which is something, especially as a teenager, I never wanted to do. The first time I remember wanting to distance myself from being Jewish was in the fifth grade. I grew up in a tiny Westchester community that at the time, was predominately Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Catholic. Somehow it became the cool thing to spend Friday nights with the Presbyterian Church youth group watching movies in the airy church rec room, replete with blue and green Tiffany windows and haphazardly placed folding chairs.
I was allowed to attend even though I wasn’t a church member, and I remember piling into my best friend’s mother’s Plymouth minivan with the rest of our friends and driving the half-mile down to the church. There was no proselytizing or hymn singing or myrrh burning — all I can remember doing is watching Logan’s Run and one of the Ernest movies and playing indoor volleyball.
Regardless of the activities involved, I still felt unmistakably other. Since I was only ten I probably wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on my Jewishness as the reason for my alienation. I probably would have said that I felt out of place because I sucked at volleyball.
“Canary” — Liz Phair (mp3)
“I’m Not a Player” — Big Pun (mp3)
Once I was in middle school, I could better articulate my feelings of separation from the norm. As is the wont of most adolescents, my reasoning was entirely superficial. I definitely didn’t adhere the physical ideal at Irvington Middle School. I was not blonde, and my nose turned in the wrong direction. All the crushworthy boys had Aryan attributes as well. Leonardo DiCaprio’s non-threatening, fine-featured moue was the attractiveness gold standard.
As a result, all my early loves were card-carrying Episcopalians. The all-American look was one I began to prize not only in love objects, but also in myself.
I started haranguing my mother for a nose job at age thirteen, requests which were repeatedly ignored. “Your nose fits your face. And it’s not even big!”
And it’s true: my nose is not Jew sized, merely Jew-shaped. My mother would try to convince me of my nasal attractiveness, but I was undeterred. Deep down I wanted to look like my best friend, whose Dutch ancestry blessed her with a tiny honker and long, flaxen hair.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t talk about the other reasons for my WASP loving that were interconnected with my teenage superficiality. Liking non-Jews was an easy and non-life-threatening way to rebel. Sure I drank a bit in high school, but I was a straight A, all-honors class kind of girl, and snorting crystal meth off a barroom floor or having sex with townies was way too scary for me. By refusing to even consider other Jews as suitors, I was tacitly rejecting my parents’ happy, Heeb-y marriage.
In later high school, I had one physical defense in my favor that trumped my dark hair and weird, bulgy eyes: boobs. My bustiness kept me from being completely ignored by the opposite sex, but I was way too nerdy and high-strung to have an actual boyfriend. If only I looked like my best friend, I thought, the guys would come running. Needless to say, she didn’t have a boyfriend back then either because she was just as smart and anxious as I was.
I made out with a lot of boys, though, and sometimes there was more.
Most memorably, there was a regrettable summer evening fling with one of the three-named boys the summer before my senior year. The three-named boys: a cabal of extremely preppy and popular boys two years ahead of me in high school who had three interchangeable old money first names like Wyatt Garret Tyler or Thomas Scott Arnold.
We were at a kegger at my friend Stacey’s house. My three-named conquest was on summer break after his freshman year at some expensive private New England college for mediocre students. I was so surprised and thrilled that this WASP bastion was even talking to me, much less hitting on me, that when he suggested that we go out to his car to “get a CD” I followed without a second thought.
“Why Can’t I” — Liz Phair (mp3)
An indeterminate amount of time later, I was lying topless on a stranger’s lawn a block away from Stacey’s with this three-named boy hovering over me, trying to convince me to have sex with him. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted: in my addled seventeen-year-old mind, having sex with this dim though well-liked Episcopalian would have meant that I was finally acceptable. I wasn’t some hooked-nose interloper who didn’t even deserve a second look.
Then again, I knew enough to realize that the acceptance would only be in my head. We’d never be an actual couple since he was too dumb and I was too dorky to have a real relationship. To my credit, I demurred, and we put our clothes back on and stumbled back to the party, pretending like nothing had happened.
Jessica Grose writes and lives in Brooklyn. She realized a long time ago that writing about her vagina was easy and semi-lucrative.
Jess on Jonathan Franzen.
Jess on the Hip Hop Project.
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
Will on Gertrude Stein.
Cornfield in Michigan.