College life was just what I had hoped it would be: an adventure. Going to classes was secondary to all the other things going on. Weekends were spent in the Village hanging out with other college students, going to record stores, thrift shops, bead stores, coffee houses and clubs.
Len and I continued to date, but he was living in Queens and it was not an easy commute to Staten Island. Classes and campus life were pulling my interests away. Len’s world now revolved around work and a demanding new career. His office was on Park Avenue. He was putting in fifty to sixty hours of work a week and striving hard to be at the top of his game. (As it turned out, he was also turning into a workaholic.)
My world was the opposite. I could sleep in, go to classes when I wanted, and waste lots of time hanging out with friends or going into the city to explore it.
We were moving in different directions and it was putting stress on our relationship. Our schedules and new paths pulled us apart, not allowing us to spend much time together anymore.
One Saturday night in late October my dormmate Victoria asked me to go to the Village with her. We got dressed up in our coolest outfits. I had on tight red hip-hugger pants with a wide tapestry belt and the hottest trendy new shirt called a see-through blouse. Mine was a floral print on sheer material and had two important pockets which were carefully placed in the front to conceal the fact that you were not wearing a bra!
It was the time of the women’s liberation movement, and it was all the rage to show solidarity and your independence from male-skewed fashion dictates by going braless! In fact, bra-burning gatherings were happening all over college campuses. Women were finding unique ways to unite themselves and band together to raise consciousness about equal pay, sexual harassment, abortion rights, and self-determination issues. It was exciting to be a woman and find your voice and join other sisters in the movement. Not wearing a bra showed your rebellion against the chauvinistic culture and that you were in charge of what looked beautiful.
It was the beginning of women learning to love themselves and their bodies just as they were and to stop adopting roles and appearances that diminished them. It was when women wanted equality with men on all levels. Abortion was a huge issue back then. Many of my friends had close calls with scary backroom procedures and suffered the consequences. If the war, civil rights issues and the women’s movement didn’t galvanize you to protest or to think out of the box, you had no pulse!
During a rash of crazy-minded campus pranks, a few friends and I decided to put up a “Women’s Lib” banner and stretch it over the main entryway of Wagner College to greet Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, a highly regarded African American feminist who was coming to lecture at Wagner. We thought Shirley would like this! Two friends and I made the banner out of a bedsheet and painted “Women’s Lib” on it along with a clenched fist. We also added “Down with pigs and the establishment!” for good measure.
To accentuate our statement, I contributed an old elaborate strapless bra that symbolized white male domination, the perfect item to hang by a rope near the banner. We had to crawl through a basement window to break into the building. The whole time we were laughing our heads off. I think we were a little high on something too! We were able to get to the third floor where the windows opened over the main entry archway and hang the banner dangling the bra down. Unfortunately, someone saw it and it was taken down before Shirley came. But somebody did snap a picture of it for the school paper, and we were fifteen-second heroes!
Anyway, Victoria and I got all spiffed up to head to the Village that warm Saturday night in October. We took the ferry over and then the subway. We stopped by Washington Square where musicians played guitars, flutes and drums nonstop, singing protest songs, getting everyone worked up and passing pot around freely. It was an ongoing street party all the time. Later Victoria and I walked over to the record shops, which always seemed to be in the basement of buildings. Crazy-looking characters walked up and down MacDougal Street. Everyone either wanted to look like Janis Joplin, with big floppy hats, peasant blouses and hundreds of bracelets on their arms, or like Jimmy Hendrix, with a wild Afro, extreme bell bottoms and psychedelic shirts, or like Bob Dylan, with chaotic hair, skintight jeans and sunglasses day or night.
We met some friends of Victoria’s by accident that night on Bleecker Street. They were two nice guys who were law students at Brooklyn College. We paired up with them and had a great time hanging out at a funky coffeehouse, listening to poetry readings and playing a weird game where you had to stare someone in the eyes and not blink to “get their essence, man!” It was meant to be some kind of head game if you were on the right drug. The only problem was if you were straight, like me, it just made you laugh uncontrollably.
The four of us drank too much, got bored with the street scene, and ended up going back to the guys’ apartment in Brooklyn for the night. I remember feeling completely free: like I was flying high with no fear. I had no thought of consequences. I felt invincible. Len was sort of out of the picture, but in the back of my head I could hear a voice say, “Good girls don’t do this sort of thing.”
Part of me wondered: should I say yes or no to this racy invitation to spend the night with a guy I hardly knew? Victoria was there with me so I felt safe, but it was a turning point for me. Part of me said I was doing nothing wrong. But another part of me felt conflicted because I wasn’t clear about Len yet. And another part of me, I found out, didn’t know how to say no at all!
When morning came, I quietly left the apartment before dawn, my hair a giant gnarled mess, my shirt inside out. I just wanted to get away fast and undetected and get back to the dorm. I felt like a guilty remorseful mess!
I made my way back and tried to make sense of what I had done. My head was screaming: “Good girls don’t do what you just did!” All I could think of was that if I ended things with Len I would feel better, less guilty.
One early Monday morning I decided to surprise Len and meet him at work before he took the elevator up to his office on the 32nd floor. I am not sure how I did this, but I found Len coming in that morning during rush hour with hundreds of other men, all in suits. They spilled through the tall glass doors at 345 Park Avenue like robotic ants! Somehow in this sea of morning chaos I saw Len come in. I grabbed him before he got to the elevator and pulled him aside. I told him I needed to take a break from our relationship, just like that. The drama of it was kind of an emotional high for me. It made me feel like I finally had some control and could stop the nagging voice in my head telling me “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy.” It was like being Garth in Wayne’s World having a self-esteem meltdown! My one-night stand was a real dilemma for me. It made me want to be alone, to swear off dating for a while. It made me wonder why I couldn’t, didn’t, just say no? Life was getting complicated.
Poor Len, he was blindsided by me. It was a pretty immature stunt on my part. I didn’t want to hurt him but that is exactly what I did, like trying not to spill water out of a full bucket, then splat, it’s too late, because it has a momentum all its own.
The guy from Brooklyn kept calling my dorm and leaving messages, but I wouldn’t talk to him. Len called a few times. We spoke, but I didn’t want to meet with him and tried to keep myself busy with school and classwork. I needed a break from life!
Four weeks later, in late November, Len surprised me and showed up at my dorm unannounced. He said he wanted to talk about something. We took a walk around campus without much discussion and then sat on a bench overlooking the city in the distance. It was dusk and the dark silhouettes and shimmering lights of skyscrapers cut the pale blue and orange streaked sky. Len pulled me close to him and said that he loved me. He wanted to get an apartment in Staten Island so he could be closer to me. He said he would like to get married in the future, but for now he wanted to make sure things were right between us and hoped I would want to move in with him.
I was shocked by his proposal. I knew we had loved each other, but we had also been distancing from each other. Now he was an accountant and I was a student, and the gulf between us was wider than ever. Before I was willing to be his student and follow him, but now I had a life of my own which differed greatly from his. I was independent-minded, wanted my own equality in the relationship, and wanted to hold to my liberal politics. But...I was also feeling vulnerable and a little afraid of navigating the world alone. My one-night stand had taught me that much. A relationship offered comfort and protection, and that was as appealing to me now as freedom.
So I decided to move in with him, but first I wanted to be honest about everything. Oh yes, I had to confess my misdeed. Being an ex-Catholic offered no shelter from guilt embedded in me by the nuns. If Len still wanted me as his partner, I wanted to be sure I was at least pure of heart like the Virgin Mary. Yikes! Love, sex, lust, guilt, loyalty, religion, reason and good intentions were all twisted up inside of me like a basket of tangled rosary beads! Who was I? I was not capable of saying no to that guy in Brooklyn, but I was equally unable to lie about it to Len. “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!”— a prayer I was taught to say as a kid in school while beating my chest repeatedly kept looping in my head. It translates: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” Forced to say it enough times, even Saddam Hussein would feel guilty! I had no choice but to tell Len.
Thank God Len was Jewish! He didn’t seem to experience guilt like I did…or remorse for that matter, but that comes later on. When I told him about my “indiscretion” he was cool. It wasn’t a big deal to him. I guess he wasn’t expecting me to be the Virgin Mary after all. I was now willing to start again with him.
Within a week, Len moved into a one-bedroom furnished apartment near the ferry in St. George. It had old beaten-up Danish Modern furniture and a very uncomfortable couch with dirty lopsided cushions. The kitchen was tiny. It was galley-sized with a Pepto-Bismol-pink half-pint refrigerator that sat under the counter. The sink was nasty pink, too. The stove had one burner and an oven just big enough for one TV dinner to fit into it, but the place was our little nest. The Laundromat was around the corner, so was a Chinese restaurant. And our neighbors were hippies. What more could you want?
Moving in with Len made everything between us more real and intense. My friends at school were annoyed with me for spending so much time out of the dorm. They thought I was nuts for becoming so serious with Len. I just blanked out their objections and we drifted apart from each other.
I met Len’s parents who lived in Bayside, Queens. Len and I would go there for Sabbath dinner once a month. They were kind people, but I think they wondered why Len was dating an eighteen-year-old and someone who was not Jewish. (Sometimes I thought about this as well and briefly wondered if I was his parental rebellion.)
Sam and Lil hid their disapproval well and were never outwardly rude to me. But in Len’s family there were no shikses, gentile women. I was the first! That was a huge deal back then. It got me thinking that maybe I should get serious again about converting to Judaism. That way we could be one big happy family! I have always been a glass-half-full person.
I used the Yellow Pages to find a Reform temple on Staten Island. I had learned my lesson: never go to an Orthodox rabbi again! I cold-called the rabbi. His name was Rabbi Cohen. I made an appointment with him and we had a nice talk. He easily agreed to help me convert! He said nothing about “bad Jews” and that I might end up being one. I started classes with him in early December.
I remember telling my parents what I was planning. I was visiting my brother’s house in Westchester, not far from New York City, on a weekend break from school in November. My parents were visiting my brother from Rochester, too. I was sitting at my brother’s kitchen table working on making a love-bead necklace when I casually said to my parents, “Guess what?” as I kept my eyes glued to my beads. “I’ve decided to become a Jew. I am going to convert.”
I felt my sister-in-law Joyce dart a look at me across the table with wide glazed eyes like a Disney chipmunk’s. “Oh boy,” she muttered under her breath and slumped back in her chair waiting for the fireworks to start. My father looked startled, sat up abruptly and started to wag his finger at me and say God knows what when I headed him in another direction.
“Remember, Dad, you said it didn’t matter what religion I was, just that I have one. So I’ve decided to become Jewish.”
I said nothing about Len, moving in with him, or any future plans we had together.
My father fumbled for words, then sputtered out in exasperation, “Daisy Dugan, are you sure about this?”
My mother was stunned and just said, “Dale Ann!”
I kept my eyes on my beading, acting all sure of myself. “It’s what I want to do, guys. I’ve really thought about this.”
That was kind of it. My declaration sucked the air out of the room in one fell swoop and nobody knew what to say. We ate dinner in an awkward silence.
On New Year’s Eve 1969, Len took the next step. He surprised me with dinner at our favorite French restaurant on West 58th Street. Afterwards we went to see the ballet The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. It was such a beautiful performance with a spectacular Christmas tree that grew right out of the stage floor! It was one of those perfect nights in the city when you felt privileged to be part of it all. The air was filled with the smoke of roasting chestnuts from street vendors; glittering holiday lights hung from trees and store windows. The Empire State Building had red and green lights illuminating its top floors. People were laughing, going to parties, and celebrating on the street corners.
We took the subway, then the ferry, home. Len surprised me with champagne, and at the stroke of midnight he asked me to marry him. He had bought me a beautiful opal and diamond ring. I was still just eighteen. I was way too young to understand the commitment I was about to make, so I said, “Yes!”
In just a few short months, I went from college-student rebel, one-night-stander and shikse to a bride-to-be who would soon be Jewish, too!
Len and I were in love back then. We liked being around each other, and understood each other and wanted to share everything together. “Easy cheesy,” I thought. “How hard could it be?” What do you want from an eighteen-year-old? I thought as long as I was honest, loving and responsible, all would be well. It was my mantra.
The classes to convert to Judaism were going well. Rabbi Cohen was a very nice man. We would meet at his office at night and spend two hours twice a week talking about the Torah, Jewish culture, keeping a Kosher house, and celebrating the Sabbath and high holidays. There were books that I had to read and he had me take a few tests. I enjoyed all of it and felt like I had found my spiritual calling, until I found out near the end of my studies that there was a glitch.
In my Jewish study classes, there was one other student, a guy. His name was Rob. The first thing I wondered about when I saw him was whether Rob would have to be circumcised. I shuddered to think of it. I was too shy to ask the question. But the topic did come up and the rabbi said Rob did not have to be circumcised. They had special prayers to take care of that situation.
“Okay,” I thought, “Phew, that’s a relief.” If they had prayers for circumcision, I should be home free. But then the rabbi told me that I would be required to have a mikvah! A mikvah?? The rabbi said it’s what women have to do to convert.
I had no idea what he was talking about and just let it slide, not wanting to know more. But that didn’t stop the rabbi. He then told me, in front of Rob, that it was a ritual bath done mostly by Orthodox Jewish women, symbolizing a purification process after they had had their periods. After the bath, the women could then have sex again with their husbands because now they would be considered “clean.”
WHAT?? I am considered UNCLEAN?? What type of archaic, chauvinistic ritual is this?? I was supposed to “cleanse” myself for whom? For God? God knows I’m clean. I need to take a bath to prove I am okay??? How gross!
This was bad news. It put me into a tailspin. It sounded humiliating, mortifying, barbaric! I said nothing, though. I just sat in the room and looked cool as could be, not wanting to let on in front of two men that this was wrong! Stuffing my anger started to make my face red and my head spin. My ears started thumping and all I wanted to do was scream: “No way! No way! I am not doing that!”
I was just trying to remain cool and not embarrass myself.
“Don’t say anything, Dale, that you will regret!” Whose voice was that?
Then I learned, as if things weren’t bad enough, that I would have to be dunked under water in front of the rabbi to complete the ritual. Shit, this sounded intolerable! “I quit!!” I said in my mind. All I could think of was an old Little Rascals film I saw as a kid where Spanky and Buckwheat spy on a bunch of Holy Rollers being baptized in the river. Buckwheat sees the people being pushed backwards in the water and flap.ping their arms for it to stop and says to Spanky, “Let’s get out of here, man. I ain’t no fish!” as he pops his eyes wide.
I guess I never imagined that converting would require of me something so fundamentally appalling. I spent weeks having nightmares about it. I had no idea how I would be able to pull this off. It went against every grain of my body, but I still wanted to be Jewish. I wanted family. I wanted Len’s parents to accept me. In the end, I was just a kid looking for parental love and acceptance and I saw them as my last hope.
Len saw my struggle. He said coolly, “Don’t do it if the mikvah feels so wrong.”
But then what? We don’t get married? My in-laws don’t accept me? I would be condemned to be a shikse the rest of my life.
I force-fed myself the bitter pill of doing the mikvah. It was purely my decision. I felt I needed to be Jewish to be accepted by my new family. The day for the conversion arrived. It was now March 1970. Len came with me. It was happening at an Orthodox mikvah in Brooklyn on Avenue U. Len and I arrived and stood in front of a beaten up old wooden door that sat flat with the street.
We knocked and a woman with a bad fitting wig, yellow teeth and frumpy clothes answered the door. She let us in and led us to a room where Rabbi Cohen sat waiting for us. He greeted us with a hug and a smile. He knew that I was a nervous wreck. We sat down in the shabby little room and waited for the rabbi who was going to officially convert me to arrive.
Rabbi Solomon finally came into the room, hunched over by age and using a cane. His long veiny hands were trembling and his nose was dripping. He had on a black fur-banded fedora and an ancient-looking black suit with a worn-out white shirt. He spoke only Hebrew. My rabbi interpreted what he said to me. Rabbi Solomon was supposed to ask me ten questions. I had already been prepped to know the answers. I got them all correct, even the trick question, which was: “What is the holiest day of the year?” The answer was: “The Sabbath.”
When I got that answer right, the old rabbi cracked a little smile and suddenly I felt okay.
Then came the hard part. I was given instructions to go to the mikvah, to get myself ready and wait for the rabbi. I swallowed hard. I still didn’t want to do this part. I had to trick my brain, get it to think of something else in order to do this.
I walked down the stairs into a brightly lit tiled basement. I could smell chlorine in the air. The same woman who met us at the front door met me at the door of the mikvah. With a thick Yiddish accent, she told me to come into the dressing room and take off my clothes. I went numb. I had already passed the threshold of no return though. She turned her head and held out a pale blue sheet that she gestured to me to wrap myself up in. Okay, I did that. Then she walked over to a door, opened it, and led me into the mikvah bath, a small square pool with stairs going into it. Above the pool was a platform and another door. She told me to walk into the pool with the sheet around me, and once the rabbi came in and said a prayer I would then submerge myself in the water.
It was better than her dunking me into the pool backwards. “Okay,” I thought, “I can do this.”
Both rabbis came in; I was told to dunk, and I did. Okay, it wasn’t a big deal after all. I got dressed, dried my hair and went upstairs. I remember feeling very, very clean! Clean inside and out, like after swimming for hours and then taking a shower. As I was marveling at this feeling, Rabbi Solomon greeted me when I walked into the room. “Mazel tov!” he said, as he cupped both my hands in his and kissed my forehead!
Len and I drove back to Staten Island over the Verrazano Bridge and celebrated this momentous event at home. As we were getting the food ready in our little kitchen, I wondered: did we need to keep a Kosher home now? Keep meat dishes separate from dairy dishes? Should we join a temple? Go to weekly services? Were we now going to eat Kosher, too?
As I asked these questions out loud, Len just looked at me incredulously and said, “No way!”
“Really?” I had thought I was converting so Len and I could practice together and I would be an accepted part of his family.
I was wrong. Len seemed pleased that I had converted, but my converting seemed to have little relevance to him religiously. In fact, he had no desire whatsoever to be a practicing Jew. He didn’t tell me that before. But now he made it clear he had no desire to keep a Kosher home like his mother did, or go to temple. The only thing he wanted to do was own a menorah for Hanukkah and go to his parents’ house for Passover.
Geez, what did I miss? I had thought I was converting so Len and I could practice together and I would be an accepted part of his family. I remembered what the Orthodox rabbi had blurted out at me back in Rochester: “We don’t need anymore bad Jews.”
What he said made sense to me now. Just because you are born a Jew doesn’t mean you are a practicing Jew or a good Jew!
The wind got taken out of my sails. I didn’t press Len about it. I was still a Jew. I could practice on my own and my new family would accept me. Our children would still be Jewish since it is the mother who passes this down through the bloodline.
This was a lot to digest, which is probably why I never felt eighteen! In the years to come I would point to this time as my arrested development!
Len and I got married on June 14, 1970, the day after my nineteenth birthday. We were married by a rabbi in Rochester at an interfaith chapel at the university. It was sunny and warm. It seemed like an omen. My young life felt complete. We had a traditional Jewish wedding. We were married under a chuppah, and Len broke the customary glass with his foot. All the families seemed happy.
I heard just recently, though, from my sister-in-law that her mom, Martha, who had been at the wedding and is now 101, remembers that my grandmother had been very upset that I had converted to Judaism. I had been so self-absorbed at the time that I have no memory of that, but it’s probably true.
My oldest son, Joel, recently told me he always thought his father and I had to get married because his birth certificate said he was born in July 1970! I told him his birth certificate had the wrong date on it. I can’t blame him for not believing me. The only proof I have that I wasn’t pregnant are my wedding pictures, which show me with a waistline, not nine months pregnant!
The one thing I do remember clearly from my wedding day is feeling scared, feeling like I was being backed into something and that it was too late to escape it.
As I walked to the car in my wedding gown to be driven to the chapel, I thought, “Oh well, I can always get a divorce!”
Once I thought that, I was good to go!
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