I grew up in the 1960s in La Crescenta, an idyllic, isolated suburb set in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. We walked to our spanking new elementary school among olive groves, with a view of the often snow covered mountains before us. Our houses were mirror images of one another, built on the same floor plan. But La Crescenta did not, as my Orthodox Jewish grandmother would say, "know from" cultural diversity, and my two brothers and I were among a small handful of Jewish children. There were no African Americans, no Asians and a few Latinos. To be any religion but Protestant was seen as exotic. As a child growing up, it seemed to me that our school had a zero tolerance policy for ... tolerance, and I belonged to some missing tribe.
Lunchtime was an example of the lockstep we were supposed to fall into: everyone ate nearly the same thing, in unison, every lunch period, in areas designated by grade and policed by upper grade monitors drunk on their own power. No one was allowed to talk in louder than a whisper over lunch. At school, we ate in a hush of silence, side by side, but not touching, like little Puritans. That kind of quiet made me feel like someone had died.
As to what we ate, the Tyranny of the Sandwich prevailed. The acceptable sandwich was made on white bread -- rye would have been considered foreign, pumpernickel subversive -- with only a few allowable fillings: baloney (preferred) with yellow mustard, tuna salad, peanut butter and jelly, meat loaf or roast beef. Anything else and you might be the child of a Russian Commie spy, or weird in some way that the other kids might not have been able to put their fingers on but knew when they saw it. I was weird in a million ways they could put their fingers on -- neurotic, vigilant, unathletic, with a vocabulary infected by my father's hypochondria and leftist politics.
But my day-to-day differences were heightened when Passover came. Passover meant that for a solid week, my brothers and I had to bring to school sandwiches made with matzo. Sitting on the bench beside my classmates, I tried to act nonchalant but when they saw my fare, dry and brittle, unaccommodating to any mouth, pathetically inferior to a real sandwich, they had to ask.
"What's that?" they said, pointing.
Simple curiosity? Their queries might have begun that way but my recoil and obvious shame at all the differences my sandwich stood in for, told them immediately that they'd found a soft spot of vulnerability.
"Why are you eating that?" they said. How could I begin to explain the why. It reminded me of the four questions we asked at the seder, beginning with, Why is this night different from all other nights? How could I even begin to explain my complicated relationship to matzo? It wasn't like grandma's chicken soup, after all, it was a food of affliction. But it was our affliction, and so also bound up with family and ritual and belonging. It also represented not only a hardship but a quest for freedom, although eating it now seemed to carry the threat of a whole new level of oppression. Even then, I recognized the irony: the same food that I grew up with and identified with comfort at home, had the potential to make me feel ostracized in the world of La Crescenta outside our home. When what makes you feel good and safe at home becomes what makes you feel bad and persecuted in the culture at large, it causes mixed feelings about the self and one's own culture.
There was no explaining all this to my classmates. They already associated Passover with the Last Supper when we Jews killed their Lord. If they hadn't made the connection, the last thing I wanted to do was to bring it up and remind them of that.
"They're just crackers," I said.
My classmates looked skeptical. These didn't look like any crackers they'd ever seen. Obviously I was hiding something, or else why would anyone choose to eat a sandwich made on crackers? I didn't have the moxie to convince them that eating roast beef on dry, falling-apart, stick-in-your-throat crackers was the latest trend. Anyway, they were having none of it, they knew rebellion when they saw it, they knew nonconformity, and nonconformity was a dirty word in the La Crescenta of 1960. They made a yuck sound and pulled away, thrusting me back into the shtetl while they resided in the New World, robust and full of vigor from eating all that baloney and white bread.
My brothers in junior high and high school did not always have it so easy: a matzo sandwich could trigger name calling: Dirty Jew, Kike, Christ Killer or even a beating.
In La Crescenta, as in much of small town suburbia in the 1960s, we were taught to define everything in terms of us and them. We were supposed to be loyal to our school vs. the nearly identical school a few blocks away. We depicted ourselves in polar oppositions: boys vs. girls; winners vs. losers; smart vs. dumb; weak vs. strong; popular kids and outcasts; normal and different.
That Passover day in 1960, the world broke down into sandwich eaters and weirdos, and in my classmates' eyes, there was no doubt to which category I belonged.
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