I would fit in on Broadway. I mean, not as a Chassidic woman in my current incarnation, but in another life that’s where I would fit in. Especially if I could wear tap shoes and especially if I could sing, which I can’t. But I want to. I want to sing.
I used to love karaoke. The first time I went to a karaoke bar was with my coworkers from this dismal financial printing house where I worked as a proofreader. They were a very, very effeminate man and a sort-of punk rock woman who proofread on the overnight shift. In the way that alternative girls in the ‘90’s secretly loved Hanson, she was enthusiastic about karaoke despite showing up in a black cape.
I had never done karaoke before but it’s not like I couldn’t perform. I mean…I’m a ham…well now maybe an OU certified parve soy ham. I was totally not afraid of getting up on stage and singing, but the effeminate man seemed to think that I was because I was fairly quiet at work and I had never done karaoke before. He gave me so much encouragement, so many, “You’ll do fine!”s that I think he was genuinely surprised when I climbed up on the stage, took the mic, and belted out Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” while dancing in my flared jeans and red cowboy boots like a total karaoke regular.
When I came back to our table he looked at me proudly, like he was proud to be with me at the karaoke bar, and he said so tenderly and gently, “That was exactly what every karaoke singer should do.” I clinked my beer with his and told him I couldn’t wait to hear him sing “Margaritaville.”
If I could sing on Broadway, I would. Religion stops me from pursuing my dream, of course, because I am not allowed to sing in front of men, but there is another reason why I cannot sing on Broadway. That reason is: I have a horrible singing voice. What do you do when you have a horrible singing voice but you love to sing? I’ll tell you what you do: You have a baby. It worked for my parents and it will work for me.
My parents sang to us and around the house and in the car, and their voices always seemed fine to me. As a child, you don’t really know to judge your parents’ singing voices. They could carry a tune and had a rotating score of show tunes, lullabyes, and anthemns from operettas. They had no shame. What I didn’t know was the difference between public and private singing. I didn’t know that at home they could sing, but nowhere else. I didn’t know that my parents have terrible singing voices.
When my dad was in elementary school, the glee club director wouldn’t let him into glee club because his voice was so bad. He and two other Jewish kids weren’t allowed and had to sit in some kind of desultory study hall during chorus class. Was it his voice or that Jews weren’t allowed into glee club? This was the 1950’s in WASPY New England, and there were actual “No Jews Allowed” signs in business’ windows. We’ll never know because by now the glee club director is dead.
My dad is more notorious in this story because he sings louder and more enthusiastically than my mom does. Every Pesach was a contest of the loudest most operatic Dayeynu. It was like Luciano Pavoratti swallowed some sand and turned into a Yid, drank a bottle of wine and decided to perform. My parents are light drinkers, but Pesach was the one time of year when my dad could get wasted and then his true personality would come out. My dad’s true personality is an opera singer. By day he fights zoning restrictions as a real estate lawyer; but by night he lives for opera. Get him liquored up and he bellows out show tunes and old jazz standards in his “I wish I were an opera singer” voice. I inherited his voice.
My singing voice sounds great in a crowd. When I’m drowned out by other nicer voices, I can even harmonize. But taking a solo under circumstances where any seriousness is required, no I better not. I was at this sort of neo-chassidic retreat when I was in college and we all were standing in a circle vibing out singing this long niggun of questionable origin. Everybody took a turn improvising a solo. The solos were very spiritual sounding. They were in minor keys and involved bending notes. I was not sure what I would do when it came to my turn to take a solo. I waited until I was the last person left and then I thought of something: I howled like a wolf. And then I barked like a dog. And then I howled like a dog. And then I yipped like a coyote. And then everyone laughed, and I was the funny one, and I got away with not having to vamp vocally in a Lydian mode pretending to be Neshama Carlebach.
I do want to say that once I spontaneously sang in public and it got me free prescription drugs. I was in a Duane Reade in Manhattan trying to fill a prescription, and my health insurance card failed. It took a crap. I don’t know what happened but it suddenly went up in flames according to the pharmacy tech who I was dealing with. She told me kindly that my insurance would not cover the meds, and my instant response was to sing hair-band-power-ballad-style “I want to smack my insurance company.” Very amused, she said, “Let me see what I can do.” And she proceeded to apply some kind of discount to the bottle of pills that brought the retail price down to eight dollars. I paid my $8 and thanked her profusely, and I have no doubt that she went home that night and told her husband, “You know, instead of yelling at me, this crazy white lady sang.”
And then I had a child. From the time he was in my uterus and the size of a pear, I sang to my baby. I made up songs to niggunim and pop songs that were all about how much I loved the fetus inside me. I even wrote down some of the better songs so that my husband could sing them too. As soon as I got my baby home from the hospital, the real singing began. I started writing jingles – like advertising jingles – about my son. One is a calypso tune inspired by the steel drum band that practices in the garage on Empire Boulevard. I also created a barbershop quartet kind of jingle that employs only the words “Mister Bubba Kurtz.” It even has a bridge. If I could sing it on Broadway, somebody would call out from the wings, “Take it to the bridge!”
And then I would take it to the bridge.
Singing to my baby all the time, reflexively, brings me to the topic at hand, which is when you don’t fit in. I thought I was doing a good job at fitting in to Crown Heights until I became a mom. Motherhood has made it impossible to hide who I am. I leave my house and suddenly I’m aware that I don’t fit in.
Like everyone who is crunchy, I wear my baby more often than I take him out in the stroller. I’ve worn him since birth. I happen to think that babywearing is the best invention since the mallet. It’s so easy. You just pop the baby in the carrier and off you go, free to walk up and down flights of stairs, to easily push a grocery cart, to get on and off of crowded subway cars. But for example, one day I was wearing my baby in the wrap, which is long piece of fabric that you fold and tie to make a baby carrier. I saw this mom with her baby in a carrier on the street and I smiled at her like hey we’re both babywearing mamas, and then she looked at me like, “Who the f—- are you and why are you smiling at me.”
Part of why people give me weird looks is because when my baby is in the carrier, we talk to each other. He says “b aba baba ba” and I say back to him “bababababa.” I do this because it is how babies develop language skills according to my speech pathologist husband. I also do it because what is better and more fun than looking at your baby’s face and having a conversation in babble? We talk and I give him kisses and I smell the dried saliva on his cheeks, and at least by my standards of parenting, it’s a healthy and happy thing to do.
I’ve noticed some looks from other women. I’ll be walking down the sidewalk with my baby in the carrier, having a conversation with him, completely happy, and I’ll pass another frum Jewish lady and she’ll look at me like I have a foot growing out of my neck. Inevitably she’s looking dour but chic, pushing a stroller with a glazed looking kid in it. She is not talking to her baby. She thinks it’s weird that in public I talk to my baby. The frequency of looks I get from other Jewish women has led me to this one question: Where are all the fun moms?
A friend of mine, who by anyone’s standards has always fit into Lubavitch society better than I do, confided in me. She said, “I feel like a freak. I’m always playing with my kids and going crazy with them, and the other moms at my daughter’s school are so blah. I feel like this crazy lady.” My response was, predictably: “You’re a great mom, and their kids are going to end up in rehab.”
But now I am in her position, and even though I rationally can say to myself, “It doesn’t matter what other people think,” having people, multiple people every day, look at me like I’m carrying a severed head on a stick instead of a baby is disconcerting.
Do you know why I love babies? I love babies because babies are fun. The entire job of a baby is to play. Do you realize how awesome that is, that a small child’s only job in life is to play? According to reliable neuroscientists and psychologists, two things make a baby develop in a healthy, normal way: Love from his mother, and playing. Since I would like my child to grow up to be emotionally, physically, and intellectually normal, which by the way does not in any way mean fitting in, because of that I play with my baby a lot.
I do not want my kid to grow up thinking that fitting in is his number one priority in life. Because here is where fitting in will get you: You’ll get through school with a moderate amount of trauma. Then you’ll get married to someone who also fits in. And then you’ll buy an iPhone.
The $600 wonder phone is this marker of fitting in. There are people who put themselves into thousands of dollars of credit card debt so that they can have an iPhone. That’s where fitting in will get you in life: Into debt!
Have you ever considered why the iPhone costs so much? And why every launch of a new incarnation of it, the iPhone costs even more? It’s not because its hardware or software or casing are worth upwards of $650. It’s because making the iPhone so expensive gives it value. It’s not radically more functional or technologically advanced than a $200 Windows phone, which itself is marked up by the umpteenth percent. Did you know that the iPhone costs Apple between $167 and $200 to make? Apple is making at least $400 on every phone they sell. And don’t be so naïve as to think that they only mark it up so much because of greed. There is definitely a team of marketing people who have decided what price will make the phone look valuable.
But we buy iPhones because we “have to have a good phone”. But we consider to be “good” has a lot to do with what other people consider to be good. And when everybody has an iPhone (or a $2000 sheitel, or a $1200 baby carriage), we assume that they have those things because those things are good. But…we need all those “good” things because we need to fit in. Nobody wants to be the guy with the janky old phone. Where, though, beyond debt, does an iPhone actually take you? I’ll tell you where it won’t take you: Onto Broadway.