Meet the Parents
by Matthue Roth

I was shimmering drunk. I was coming from Shabbos dinner at a stranger’s house, and afraid like I always am of opening up, of showing too much of myself to well-meaning but inexorably straight-laced people who were being kind to me—the kind of people who volunteered at the end of Friday night services when the rabbi asks that, if anyone has extra seats at their Shabbos dinner table to please let him know. I’m not the sort of person most of these people want crashing their family meals.

I’m in the Pico-Robertson district of Los Angeles, five blocks east of Beverly Hills. I’m unkempt. I’ve been living on a couch for a month. I don’t even own a suit. But these Jews, these Orthodox Jews, take me in anyway.

They meet me after services, introduced by the rabbi with me standing next to him like I’m helpless, like I need a translator, either that or a wheelchair. They look peaceable and innocent. The husband with a clean-shaven baby face, a paunch rolling out over his belt, covered by a white short-sleeve button-down shirt. He looks pregnant, but it’s a cute sort of pregnant. You know he will be the type of father to pull his own weight with chores and never ignore the kids. The wife has a young face, a pretty face, even though they’re both my parents’ age. She wears a glorious, monolithic pillowcase of a dress, loud purple and yellow paisley, a matching head scarf.

They nod politely when I say I’m a professional poet and they inquire politely how I became Orthodox, because they can tell from the way I look that I sure as sugar didn’t grow up this way. I tell them I just sold a book, and the title sounds like a joke, “Never Mind the Goldbergs” I say, but they recognize the name of the publisher. This gives me a momentary legitimacy—I’m not a bum, I’m really not, I just don’t know many people and the place where I’m staying doesn’t have a kosher kitchen—but how impressed can these people be? I mean, this is Hollywood. Their congregation president has won Emmys. The fact that I wrote a novel about punk-rock Orthodox Jews and somebody actually published it doesn’t make me famous. It makes me one-time lucky, a loser who’s just been asked to prom. Only now, I’m a loser in a tux.

So I drink.

Shabbos dinner, when we feel obliged to talk about the Torah, alcohol gets pulled out of the liquor cabinet and passed around. It makes the pretense of God go down easier. We say l’chaim, which we say means “to life” but really means “to lives,” as a way of wishing each other good health, when really we’re hoping that the drink doesn’t kill us, that we will behave with some amount of honor once it goes to our heads or, failing that, that we won’t remember what went down. What is it about us, a normally tight-assed and mind-your-own-business people, that so inclines us to feeding each other and getting each other trashed? Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of this hospitality toward strangers. Or perhaps it’s just we fear alcoholism, and this is a way to avoid drinking alone.

Poking at my food. One more occupational hazard about being a freelance Shabbos-meal crasher: You never know what you’re going to get. And if you’re a vegetarian and you don’t warn people ahead of time, your plate may end up looking like mine: covered half with potatoes and half string beans. I didn’t mind—beggars can’t be choosers and all that, and also, I am a major potato fan—but your hosts will inevitably watch you, feeling bad they didn’t think about this earlier, and asking either themselves or you what they could possibly defrost that would make you a little less hungry.

I sit there looking restless, squeezed next to the candle tray and poking at my food. The husband is talking about the Torah portion that week. It is Vayera, right at the beginning of the Torah, where Hagar left her infant son Ishmael to fend for himself in the desert. There is a meaning, some G-dly point that he is talking toward, but I can’t quiet my mind enough to get there with him. Tiny plastic tokens, black and orange, dangle from candlesticks. They had legs. They are spiders. I flick one of them with my finger.

The table gives a general sort of laugh. That couple and their two sons, white-shirted and black-pantsed, and the family of guests, are all smirking at me. It hadn’t even made a sound.

“You’ve found out our little secret,” says the husband, dropping out of his Torah talk without missing a beat. “It’s Shabbat erev Halloween. We tend to go, uh, a little overboard.”

“Spooky Shabbos,” the smaller of the boys explains to me.

Everybody laughs generously.

The wife pulls herself up in her seat, stiff-lipped. “Are you insinuating that I only hang spiders from my candlesticks on Halloween?” she demands, not unkindly.

“I’ll be right back,” I say.

I wander through the dining room and walk the length of their place. It was as big as a house but it tried to be a mansion, with oversized couches crammed into every room. All I remember is that every piece of furniture and shelf was beige. There were chandeliers that shone rainbows and should have pulverized the rest of the room in color, but didn’t. It was like the beige won.

I stand alone in the living room like a burglar, feeling even more stiflingly awkward than usual. Even when there’s no one watching me. I look at their family pictures. Jealous of the size of their house in the pictures. Jealous of its size in real life. The boys with perfect skin, the girls in their tight but long-sleeved sweaters and big boobs. Jealous especially of the father and his sons all wearing yarmulkes, which just doesn’t seem right in my head. How could they all be religious? I felt like it was always supposed to swing one way or the other. Either the parents don’t know anything or the kids don’t care. I wished for an Orthodox family.

My eyes zoom in on the daughter. She is the oldest, you could tell: shorter than the boys, but more comfortable in her body, I know her. Her name is Rebecca. She lives in New York, in Washington Heights; she went to Shabbos meals at my friend Alej’s house. She wears glasses and had long thick hair as curly and bright as a Hasidic rabbi’s sidelocks. She is out-of-my-league beautiful.

Never stand a chance with her. Not that I ever did. In Alej’s Modern Orthodox circle, there was a fierce stigma against people who hadn’t grown up that way. You could fake it, learn to talk the right way and wear your yarmulke at just the right angle, laugh and look offended at all the correct moments. But it was like learning to speak another language. Sooner or later, your native accent would come poking through.

And now that I knew her parents, and that they liked me, I knew that I would never stand a chance with her.

Standing in that living room I felt more lost and pathetic than I had in a while. I was going to live like this forever, a stranger at synagogue, drifting through the houses of kindly strangers. Even if I was rich, or famous—even if my book became a bestseller, and a movie, and it caused half the Jewish population of the continental United States to question why they were living an empty meaningless existence and become Orthodox, I would still be the same person. I would always be the kid who showed up at her parents’ for Shabbos dinner at random. It wasn’t a money thing. It wasn’t even a power thing. It was just being that kid, the one who doesn’t fit into the established schematic of normative Jewish life. I was a charity case. No matter what I did to change that, to these people, I would always be a charity case.

I returned to the dinner table and took my seat. They were just starting to hand out the prayerbooks, singing the song that comes before the prayer after meals. It was the polite way to ask you to leave. It was the holy way.

Matthue Roth is the author of Losers, a novel about Russian Jewish immigrant geeks who take over the world. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a secret diary at www.matthue.com.

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  • Mary Ruth

    This is something I definitely want to continue reading. Until it’s over, and then some.

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  • barry hicks

    Matthue, I must say I do love your writing. 🙂 Can’t wait to read this one!

  • Enjoyed the humor and the realistically-rendered experience of being an outsider at a super-chummy Orthodox event in NYC. Love the gems here: “I’m helpless, like I need a translator, either that or a wheelchair,” “Spooky Shabbos” and cute pregnant husband. Look forward to checking out more of your work!