Last November, I posted about the formation of a Jewish Young Adult Writers’ Forum in the greater Boston area. Last night was the last official meeting of the first cohort, and the guest author was Jewschool’s own Danya Ruttenberg. (We have one more “unofficial” meeting coming up with Anita Diamant, but that’s more of a dinner discussion than formal workshop.)
The way the workshop has worked, each month our guest author sends out a writing assignment for the participants to complete in advance. Our workshop evening begins with dinner, which flows into our guest telling us a bit about her or his career. Next there’s some “in class” writing. Each evening culminates with participants paring up to share the work they did on the assignment, often reconsidering it in light of what’s happened during the first hour of the workshop.
Since you read Jewschool, I don’t have to tell you how wonderful Danya was as our guest leader. The assignment she sent us was this:
Pick a story from the Bible, or a midrash, or a myth or legend from anywhere (Greek mythology, say, or classic literature) whose themes have a particular resonance for you (eg the story of crossing the Red Sea as jumping into something scary and trusting it will work out), and write a story from your life with that myth/legend in mind.
I’ve included my response to this prompt below the cut. Maybe some of you out there in Jewschool-land will add yours, as well.
Incidentally, several of us in the first cohort are meeting in the near future to talk about what might be next for the Writers’ Forum. If you’re a young Jewish adult in the greater Boston area and interested in taking part in writing-related stuff, leave some comments about what you’d like to see and do.
Maybe I’m Esau
In many ways, Jacob and I were like brothers. Who other than brothers would continue to love each other despite the way we treated each other?
We had the most unlikely of friendships, struggling from the moment of conception. I still remember my first glimpse of his deceptively angelic visage, as I looked down from the second floor window of the West School, where our synagogue rented space for Hebrew School while our building was being remodeled. Peering through the window at the fair-headed boy in the parking lot, I was so taken with his smile I barely noticed the way he aggressively stomped on my lunchbox, shattering it into a hundred pieces. That was not the beginning of our friendship.
A few days later, my doorbell rang in the early evening. My mother opened the door to reveal a contrite Jacob standing with an imposing man whom I took to be his father. Here, Jacob said, as he stuck out his hand to push a red plastic Popeye lunchbox into my arms. I’m sorry I broke your lunchbox. That too was not the beginning of our friendship.
Beginnings are in the eyes of the beholders, though. What’s more interesting is the middle. I suspect a mother or two might have maneuvered the players into position, but however it happened, we became friends. And then we became brothers. He brought a dangerous excitement to my life, teaching me new curse words he learned at his private school, taking me into the woods to play with cigarette lighters and aerosol cans. I brought stability and good influence to his life, dragging him along with me to nerd camp, teaching him how to build and launch model rockets.
Our relationship always had undertones of competition. He might have looked like an angel, but I was the one who could actually pull off the act. Consequently, his mother loved having me around, perhaps hoping some of my earnestness might rub off on her son. I think he sensed the mutual admiration between his mother and me. To keep me in my place, he would tell me stories about adventures with his other friends, tantalizing glimpses into the fun he shared with Richie and Theo instead of me. The message was clear: too many slip-ups, and I could be replaced.
But the real beginning? The beginning of the end? That was on our trip to Florida during the spring of fifth grade. Jacob’s father decided to take Jacob and a friend on a week’s vacation to Red Sox spring training and Disney World. Of course, I didn’t know from Red Sox, but I knew a great time when I saw one. Jacob vacillated for weeks… would he take me, or would he take Richie? I’m sure he delighted in the agony he put me through, just as I’m sure he always knew he would take me.
But it was on that trip that the relationship irrevocably changed. Once you’ve traded your birthright for soup, you know you aren’t ever going back to before. But the trade-off here was bigger than soup, bigger possibly than a birthright. One night, after we were tucked into the queen bed we were sharing at the Day’s Inn in Kissimmee, Jacob’s dad went out for a walk. As we laid side by side under the covers, Jacob whispered in my ear. “I’m going to pretend you’re Rachel,” he said, referring to his girlfriend. “You can pretend I’m anyone you want.”
Before I knew what was happening, he wrapped his arms around my shoulders and pushed his body close to mine. “Who are you thinking of?” he asked.
I panicked. I was thinking of him and only him, but somehow I knew that wasn’t the right answer. My mind raced through acceptable substitutes and I thought of the biggest supermodel of the day. “Christie Brinkley,” I answered. He seemed satisfied, responding by pushing down his pajama bottoms and then quickly doing the same to mine.
His dad returned before too long and we stopped and pretended to be asleep. The next day, we pretended that nothing had happened, and we never really spoke of that night again. But I think he sensed, for the first time that night, the growing gulf between us. I had been a stand in; he had been the real thing.
Watching your brother grow apart from you must always hurt, but it hurt so much deeper knowing full well what I was losing. My longing for him gave him power, and he abused it at every turn. We were still inseparable, spending evenings, weekends, and summers doing together all that things that little boys do. But he knew he had the upper hand.
The end of the end, or at least the first of our endings, took place at summer camp two years later. We were just old enough to be viciously cruel to each other, as only adolescents can be. There were a series of fights and recriminations. We came to camp as friends but ended up on opposite sides of a line. Boys took sides, and by the afternoon of our final showdown, our entire bunk encircled us on the field, forming the ring for our epic match. We fought with the sharpest tools we had, our words. He put a name to our biggest secret, calling me out as less than a man. I revealed his most vulnerable points, mocking his therapy and suggesting he really was crazy. Maybe we were both right. We never bothered to discuss it, and he fled.
Years passed before we saw each other again. When fate brought our paths back together, we had both grown and matured. He had been kicked out of too many schools and was back at the public high school, sitting behind me in home room. By then, I knew who I was. I’d like to think he did too. We achieved an awkward peace, able to sit together and talk, but not really talk about anything. And although we coexisted, by then we had our own tribes surrounding us, so we never really became brothers again.
One evening, years later, when I was a freshman in college, I received a phone call from my mother. “Turn on the news,” she said. “It’s about Jacob.” The anchor was reporting that a college student had been found murdered in the woods outside Troy, NY. I didn’t know what to say. I soon heard rumors of a drug deal gone sour, but it didn’t matter. Although we hadn’t liked each other for years, I never stopped loving him. And whatever resolution our relationship achieved, we never really achieved closure.
Even today, so many years later, I have a hard time telling this story. Despite all the hard times he put me through, it feels disrespectful to make him the villain of the piece. I’m sure had he ever sat down and written our story, he would speak of breaking through the ordinary, subverting expectations, taking risks to fulfill a destiny he knew was greater than simply growing up. But I guess that’s why the world needs both Jacobs and Esaus.