1. How to live with people who have political perspectives and religious beliefs that make you feel distant and helpless, that distort the space between your body and theirs: Hold your breath at the dinner table and concentrate on the lyrics to your favorite song until the noise around you dissolves. Push your teeth under your fingernail and chew off the edge, chew until the anger churning through you stops warming your cheeks and filling your eyes, blurring everything you are told and everything you believe in. Spend every night somewhere else: At friends’ houses, at boyfriends’ houses, wandering through the neighborhood until your house is asleep. Find your baby pictures and study the faces: Your face, your mother’s face, her hands wrapped around your tiny body. Notice the resemblances: My mother and I have the same hair. The differences: She covers hers with a wig. When you finally find yourself alone in a bed, swaddle your body in blankets until you’ve built a home in your house and try to fall asleep.
2. How to love the people who have political perspectives and religious beliefs that make you feel distant and helpless, that distort the space between your body and theirs: When they speak to you, about you, don’t argue. Let the anger web between your fingers and your toes, and when you can finally get away, remind yourself that webbed fingers and toes do not affect your ability to walk, run, or swim. It’s only something you notice every time you examine your body, every time you examine the ways your anger has settled—the crooks it has found to inhabit. When you feel your identity slipping away, when you finally argue, try not to be afraid of the new distance it creates between the space your body stands in and the spaces inhabited by those you love. When you can spread your fingers wide apart and see how the face of your father looks like the face of a stranger, gently ask how much you weighed when you were born. Remind him of the things you can agree on: That he carried you out of the hospital and you weighed eight pounds and four ounces, much heavier than your older brother. Try not to sound desperate. Evade all conclusions. Try not to make lists.
3. I told a friend I was writing a piece on staying dedicated to your beliefs while staying dedicated to the people you love, and whose beliefs you disagree with almost entirely. I was going home for winter break and my parents asked me to respect the household, wear skirts, keep Shabbat, and be an example for my siblings. I grew up Chassidic, and when I left, I left most of it behind: The laws, the customs, and friends. I left it all, except for my family. And they know how I live my life—or at least that I live my life differently than theirs. They know that I don’t pray in the mornings or keep kosher or keep away from boys. But when I’m home, when I exist in the context of their home, they want me to wear skirts, and keep Shabbat, watch my language, hold back any critical perspectives, and bite my tongue until it bleeds.
She wanted to know why my family’s views mattered so much. She wanted to know what wearing a skirt or wearing pants had to do with my beliefs, with theirs. I didn’t know how to explain the ways religious views make the air thick, or make people lie behind rituals. How the skirt I put on over my pants is the skirt that keeps me in the kitchen, the skirt that made it harder for me to go to college. “It’s easy,” she said, “just wear the skirt for a week and then it’s over. Put up with a few upsetting comments for one week. And then you can go back to where you live, go back to your life.” I didn’t know how to respond. Most of the time, I don’t know what to think.
4. The first thing my mother says to me when I arrive home is “Put on a skirt.” I tell her I don’t have any. Not exactly true. I just don’t want to wear a skirt, which is as good as not having any. She stares at me, and I look away. We both stand there, wary of acknowledging all the things we want each other to be, thickening the air between us. The moment is a moment that is happening this week, right now, but it could have been happening last year or the year before that or every morning of most of our lives.
5. I thought I was balancing it: The two worlds I lived in. My family, the house choked with people I love. The family I created outside my house, the friends that felt like family, the boyfriend I could see forever with. My parents weren’t asking me to fake. They were asking me to respect. We loved each other, so we made it work. And then they found out about the boy I was dating, that he wasn’t Jewish. We stood on opposing sides of the kitchen counter and I suddenly realized that I was looking at the rest of my life. That compromising wasn’t an option anymore. My pants, my major in college, my radical politics, they could work around. But a non-Jewish boyfriend would end everything—there would be a cutting off. They would still love me, I know that. But I am not hopeful that they would ever meet him, invite him over, ask about him, or acknowledge him. There are choices I don’t want to ever have to make. We haven’t spoken about him since.
6. Tips for breathing steadily when you realize you hate the political perspectives and religious beliefs of the people you love: Remind yourself to breathe. It is easy to forget the obvious things, things that are remarkably regular, even during sleep. Take long walks to ease the pain that throbs in your lower legs, the strain that spreads through your body when you try and straddle both worlds. Remember the time your father told you he was proud of you, and you smiled at the other end of the phone. Ball up all the love you feel and insist that it stay complicated because you can’t imagine your life without the people who raised you. Remember that there are no real tips. Writing “you” instead of “I” is an old trick that makes it easier to feel.
7. I spent more time talking about the piece than I spent writing it. Something to do with the fact that I was home, and the immediacy of it all prevented me from saying anything about it. Something to do with the warmth that coursed through my body when my family clustered around the Shabbos table, how much I loved us all together, talking about farts like we always used to. I told my sister about the piece and she said it sounded like I don’t love being with the family. “That’s why I’m writing in the first place,” I tried to explain, “because I do love you.”
8. How to avoid your chest collapsing during arguments with your parents: Ignore the invalidation. My father asks how it could possibly be difficult, growing up as a woman in our traditional community. At first it feels as though there is no right response. Insist on your experience. Insist on your feelings, on their weight. Spread out your palms like surrender, because they have palms, too, and we meet by clasping palms. The softest and most vulnerable parts of our hands, which are the first to gather sweat. Once a friend asked me about my parents. “What are your parents like?” Not like yours, I thought. Not like yours, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. “I love my parents,” I told her, “but I can’t ask anyone else to.” Everybody’s parents are different, and mine were with me the first time I left home. They came with me to my new city, and told me I would do well. They helped me move my couch to my second-floor apartment, and hung mezuzahs on every threshold. Thin silver scrolls on my doorposts, watching over me, making sure I am safe. ♦