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Chosen and Humbled
I knew at a young age that I loved being the center of attention, singing and dancing and making my family laugh and lifting their spirits—that way I could avoid having to talk to them almost completely. They were hairy and smelled like herring, garlic, and onions, and shrieked at one another in loud, shrill tones.
But they were a great audience, and to me that pretty much made up for the fact that I had to be around them all the time. I never really bonded with them, or with anyone on earth, really, until I had children of my own, who now wish I would just shut up and leave them alone. But I can’t, not now, not after all I have been through.
Almost everyone in my family was musical and played an instrument and sang and loved to show off, so I was no stranger to it. During my brilliant and audacious performances, my family constantly remarked that they thought I sang like Shirley Temple, only way better and a lot more adorably, and that my dancing made hers look contrived and boring. I humbly accepted their assessments and believed them to be true.
After all, my own grandmother, Mary Bitnam, had left her town of Aborniki, Lithuania, to move to the United States after being accepted at the Salt Lake City Conservatory of Music, so she knew something about the arts! She played the mandolin and other stringed instruments and sang soprano. She performed at weddings and bar mitzvahs until she married her husband, Ben Davis, whose father was Utah’s only kosher butcher.
She encouraged me to sing and dance and tell jokes every Friday night, Shabbat, in the windowsill of her living room after everyone had gorged on her brisket. She also talked about God all the time, and the importance of being honest and obedient to Him, so I figured that she was honest with me about my singing and dancing talents.
My family would laugh and clap, adoring everything that came out of my mouth and every move I made—every twirl, every note, every word I said. I was the first grandchild, niece, and daughter in my extended family, and therefore I was spoiled rotten until I became dissociative and narcissistic enough to imagine myself to be “special” as well as “chosen.”
It did not occur to me at a young age that empty flattery is actually quite toxic and would one day be my complete downfall.
Each Friday night, I persisted in writing, producing, as well as directing my all-time favorite performer (myself) in one show-stopping number after another. During my more than one-hour-long act, I did not consider it a proper performance unless I had laughed, danced, sung, and cried. “Sarah Bernhardt” was what my audience of family members proudly called me.
As the first granddaughter in a Jewish-American, first-generation, post-Holocaust Utah family typically does, I looked to show business as a way to move up the socioeconomic ladder and climb all the way out of Salt Lake City. Utah was a pretty weird place, and nowhere was weirder than my own family’s apartment building, which housed survivors from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen who moved to the States after being sponsored by my grandparents and who were also part of my audience every Friday evening.
I once asked Mrs. Rose, one of my grandmother’s tenants, what the numbers tattooed on her arm were for, and she told me that it was her phone number. My grandmother and Mrs. Rose would watch the Eichmann trial on television, and while they watched, I was told to stay out of the living room. I kept asking why I couldn’t join them until one day, being a nosy and headstrong little girl, I barged in and saw the most graphic and disturbing images of bodies starved and heaped upon others, and from that point on I greatly feared human beings.
My grandmother tried to explain that I should always be “proud” of being hated for being a Jew. And I became so “proud” of being Jewish that I made it my mission to straighten God out by detailing what I felt were Her shortcomings in the many one-on-one conversations I had with Her in the mirror. If I hadn’t had the refuge of my showbiz fantasies and my conversations with God to occupy me, who knows what more damage I could have done to myself and to others.
When I was between the ages of three and six, I always got the message from my family that I was the most talented star ever. Fueled by their praise that I was better and more talented than Ms. Shirley Temple herself, whom I watched on TV and idolized, I copied her every move, pressing my fingers into my cheeks in an attempt to create dimples and constantly begging my mom to curl my hair into ringlets. But after I lost all the adorable baby part of my baby fat and only had the fat part left, they all gleefully and fickly moved on to encouraging the show business aspirations of my younger, lighter, and perkier cousin, Debbie Aaron.
I became a has-been at age six. My family started to tell me then that if I really wanted to be a singer and dancer on old “Broad Way” someday, I needed to lose some weight. That really depressed me and made me eat more. Instead of just losing twenty pounds and solving my problems forever, I got fatter and fatter, and retreated deeper and deeper into my fantasies of stardom. The more I did so, the worse my neurosis grew. I knew that I was the most important person on earth, and yet it seemed that I was now alone in that knowledge. Was it possible that everyone around me failed to see the superhuman being who walked in their midst? Of course, they were all God’s chosen, too, but I was not just chosen, I was also special! I couldn’t be the only one to recognize the fact that I held the keys to the universe and had total control of all things in it, could I? Didn’t that make me crazy?
I asked God, “Doesn’t this just mean I am crazy, if no one believes that I am Your One True Messenger here on earth?”
And God spoke to me, like She always did, and She thus spaketh: “Fuck them, my child, if they cannot take a joke!”
I said, “But it’s not a joke to me, Lord. I have vowed to do Your bidding and be Your servant in order to glorify myself so that I can then give You the credit at the awards shows! When all I want to do is to glorify Thy name and do Thy bidding, why hast Thou made that so damn hard for me? Shouldn’t being the Messiah of mankind mean anything to people?”
“Fuck them, Roseanne, if they can’t take a joke. Thus I have spoken and thus I am that I am. See ya!” Bored, God vanished, and left me there talking to myself again, trying to figure out how to fix the entire world alone.
I fantasized that I would one day graciously accept the deafening applause of my peers and the various awards they would practically force on me. From the stage and before all the cameras, I would humbly admonish the adoring crowd to quiet down just enough to hear me clearly gasp out my gratitude to God for allowing really dumb people like them the rare good taste to recognize a genius such as me. Eventually, all the accolades would become tedious, I reckoned, but ever the giver, I would bear up and go along with the program in order to inspire others to know that God might someday love them, too, if they would only love me enough.
Soon after I turned six, my mother and father moved us away from Bubbe Mary and closer to Mormon culture. I loved Mormon culture because there is a lot of singing and dancing in it. Happy songs not in minor keys! It was great at first. I still longed to sing and dance, despite the fact that my audience had moved on, so I signed up for lessons at Dorleen’s Dance Studio. After I had taken only four classes, my parents told me they could not afford to pay the dollar a week for those lessons that I really wanted and prayed for every night.
During one dancing lesson, my friend’s big brothers stood on the sidewalk outside, looking through the huge glass window, as they laughed and screamed, “Look at Tubby Roseanne dancing!” Humiliated, I told my parents, and my mom asked Dorleen to please put up a curtain to keep the boys from doing that to me, and she did.
But soon after, having thought things through clearly in her Mormon woman way, Dorleen told my parents she didn’t want me to continue taking lessons from her, as I caused a “ruckus.” My mom told me this when I was in my fifties, long after I had wasted all that time blaming my parents for being so cheap.
After Dorleen decided I was too much of a distraction, I would stand outside her studio at four o’clock each Wednesday with the boys, and peer through the curtainless window at my very tiny and slim neighborhood friends, as they shuffle-ball-changed their thin asses back and forth over the boards. My friend’s brother told me that it was no fun to watch the girls if I wasn’t in there anymore. He said he liked to laugh at the fat jiggling on my legs. So the boys stopped coming around, and when it was just me watching through the window, Dorleen put the curtain back up.
I vowed that they would one day envy me after I became a huge star, which I would do no matter what it took to get there—no matter what asshole I had to marry, and despite the fact that I could not scare up one dollar a week with all the talent I had. The talent of two Shirley Temples! I knew it was up to me to blaze a new trail for females like myself, the fat wallflowers who were emotionally bruised by the indifference of others. I pitied those who could not see how great I was. I would show them.
Because my mother wanted to assimilate more than anything else, she began to take me to church with our Mormon neighbors around this same time. My mother spoke in the Mormon church about how, at age two, I had fallen on my face and contracted Bell’s palsy. Mom would talk about how she summoned the Mormon priests to pray for me, and how they “healed” my face by laying their hands on me. She would finish her talks by saying she wanted to become a Mormon and planned to do so one day soon. Then she would play the piano.
The Mormons loved her talks and they loved me. I sensed my imminent reinvention. I began to sing and dance and talk about being healed in front of another appreciative audience of people whom I couldn’t stand to be around when I was not performing. But what the hell, it was stage time, and I have to admit that I loved the fact that they all seemed to talk to God all the time, too.
The main thing we young Utah Mormon girls cared about back then was the Lord, and the Lord’s policies. Near the top of the Lord’s policies was that the state of Utah was to be kept stone-cold sober, and therefore all decent Mormons were to vote NO on Proposition 3: to allow alcoholic beverages to be bought in bars. The news on television told us repeatedly that the prophet of our church wanted us all to vote against that proposition. He said that if the gentiles (the Jews) had their way, our neighborhoods would become overrun with prostitutes and criminals.
In addition to obeying the Lord’s wishes, we young girls busied our minds with the homemaking arts so that we one day could trap a man and get him to do exactly as we wanted. The intense programming about finding a husband and having babies grossed me out terribly, but I knew I had to act like it was the greatest thing going because if I didn’t I would have even less to talk about with these girls I was stuck being around. They all loved to sing and dance, too, and once a year, each little Mormon church would put on its own “road show,” a wonderfully fun little hour and a half of performing all over the city in other Mormon churches.
My mother tried like hell to fit in with the dominant culture, like Jewish people have done for years and have still never done right! She played the piano for the road shows and tried to insist that I be a part of them, too. I tried to fit in with the Mormon girls but always failed in the end. I think they felt sorry for me, not being able to cut it in the boy-meets-girl love story that they were all living, what with the being fat, dark, and having no ass thing, and mostly thinking of myself as too “special” to be subservient to men. I remember how excited everyone was when we finally got Barbie dolls, which everyone really wanted because then they could start dating in their minds, which led to planning weddings, which led to having babies, the most fun of all dolls.
Had I not started talking to God at a really young age I would have been incredibly lonely. And because God was my best and only friend, I felt protective of Her. I was able to clearly see for myself that people did not really mind their godly p’s and q’s. They said God could see everything we thought and did, but then they would do a whole bunch of things they knew God didn’t want them to do and then lie about doing them, as if God couldn’t see through that bullshit!
They thought they could hide from God and from people who saw them hiding from God, as if they were invisible—like ghouls, I thought—as if God couldn’t see for Herself what hypocritical assholes they were. For me, who actually knew God and talked to Her personally every single day of my life, this was just further proof that I was different as well as special and chosen.
I always asked other kids if they talked to God, too, so that I could figure out just how different, special, and chosen I indeed was. They always said that they talked to God to ask Him to give them stuff or to forgive them for things they were caught doing. Nobody conversed with God to figure out how to save the world with Her (His) help like I did.
When I asked if God answered when they talked to Her (Him) no two answers were ever the same. This is where it started getting weird. Some of them said, “Well, He will in the fullness of time,” and some said, “He’s tellin’ me not to worry about getting even with my grandpa, ’cause the Lord punishes sinners and they go straight to hell for all eternity.” Or “What are you talkin’ about? You mean, like tellin’ me to vote against liquor by the drink or somethin’?”
“Oh, just forget it,” I would finally say, confirming that I was different and chosen and special, just as I had suspected.
My mother would have joined the church in a second if not for her mother and my father. Although my father was basically a socialist and an atheist, he still insisted that we remain Jewish. My dad would always say he didn’t believe in God, that God was just a concept that weak people needed. When asked if the Jews were weak people, he would always say the same thing: “The Jews survived Hitler, so no, they are not weak.”
He refused to let us have Christmas, either. He told me the reason we didn’t celebrate was because “Santa is an anti-Semite.” I prayed to God that Santa would bring me a Barbie doll even though I was a Jew. One Christmas, the entire community of our Mormon neighbors brought us bags and bags of toys and food, and a Christmas wreath, so that we could be “embraced” and “included” at that special time of the year. I loved it because I got a Barbie doll! I immediately made her into a spy who parachutes behind enemy lines to save the Jews in Germany. I did this by dropping her out of the windows with a piece of cloth tied around her neck.
When playing Barbie dolls with the other Mormon girls, I would get so bored with the inevitable dating and wedding-planning story lines that were the subject of every playdate that I would say, “Why don’t we play a game where Barbie parachutes behind enemy lines to save the Jews?” The Mormon girls would try to be nice while ignoring me and say, “You have to be Ken.” I hated being Ken, because all Ken could ever say was, “When will we be having our wonderful wedding, Barbie dear?” I tried to give Ken some balls by having him say, “Barbie, why don’t you and I parachute behind enemy lines and save some Jews from the Nazis before our wedding?” But the Mormon girls would just ignore Ken, and emasculate him by telling me to shut up. There was really nothing for Ken or for me to do or say after that, and I would just go back home to my Torah and my books about the Holocaust and the Nazis. Or I would walk back to my grandmother’s apartment (about two miles away), and we would play gin rummy and talk about God and the Bible.
When we girls played “house” in the neighborhood, I liked to play the part of the mother; if we played “school,” I wanted to be the teacher; if we played “hospital,” I wanted to be the nurse. I never wanted to be the daughter, the student, or the patient. Those parts were so boring. You didn’t get to really boss people around, and I loved to do that because I knew I had all the answers—and if I didn’t, well, my buddy God sure did, and I could get them out of Her as needed.
Everyone said I was too bossy and they didn’t like to play with me. Their fat, nosy moms would tell mine that I needed to “get along” better with others. So, of course, my mom would make me crawl across the street and beg to play “paper dolls” or “babies” with the other little girls. Playing the daughter was the only role I was allowed after I had been banished for bossiness and had to beg my way back into their circle. Whichever girl was taking a turn playing the mother would always hold the baby doll and say: “Idn’t our baybee just beootieful? She’s thee most beootieful baby in the whole wide world, idn’t she?”
And then I would have to chime in, “Oh yes, she is just the most beautiful baby there is.” I would play along at first, until everything was going smoothly, and then I had to screw it all up by asking, “Mother, could I ask you a question?”
The mother would correct me by saying, “You mean ‘Mother, may I ask you a question?’”
I would reply, “Yes, sorry, Mother. May I ask you a question?”
“Yes, Sister” (what all mothers call their daughters in Utah), “you may.”
“Mother, do we believe in God?”
“Of course we do! God is the Lord and the Lord hath made us this beootieful baybee daughter right here. Now let’s dress her up for church. She needs to have her nice warm bath and get on her pretty dress, don’t you, honeybaby?”
I would try to sneak in another question: “Mother, does our Heavenly Father talk to us?”
She would then put the lid on the conversation: “Will you please fix a bath for your little sister, and no talking, please?” I would have to go over and pretend to fill up the sink with water. That was so not fun. I would just have to stand there and go “SHHHHHHHHISHHHHH” and pantomime running my hands through it.
Out of all the available futures that I was encouraged to try (teacher, nurse, or housewife), I liked being a housewife the best. I never personally knew any teachers or nurses, but I did know housewives, and I loved that they sat around all day talking. But that, of course, left me with a large existentialist problem: How the heck was I going to get a guy to like me enough to support me for the rest of my life, and adore me enough to build a suburban Taj Mahal for me to live in, when all they did was push me down and call me a fat slob? I was not beautiful, obedient, or thin, as rich men require. Therein lay, and still lies, the veritable rub. As my boyfriend, Johnny, says, “Doll, you’re destined for poor guys, because even if you got a rich guy, you’d have to do what he told you to do, when he wanted you to do it, at least part of the time, and trust me, that IS NOT FOR YOU!” He’s so right, of course; I realize that now. Having more money than the guy is the way to go for the gal on the go!
I was so lonely looking for peers as a kid, not being able to talk about talking to God with anyone but God Herself. She was the only one who got my sense of humor. I asked her why She had dumped me on a planet with all of these human beings? I knew I was not one of them; rather I was immortal, a goddess myself, and why oh why was I surrounded by idiots?
She said, “Because it’s important to Me that you learn to read books! I have hidden great stuff in them for you to find out about Me! Every time you find another of My messages to you in a book, I will come to you and we will discuss it.” In the oldest of our holy books, She is called “the Sabbath Queen,” “the Shekkinah,” “the Bride of God,” and yet, I was greatly disturbed that this fact was known by almost no Jew. She Herself told me that I would one day write about Her, and set the record straight!
In order to make sure that we kept up with our Hebrew and Judaic lessons even though we had moved far away from her, Bubbe Mary took it upon herself to invite us over for hotcakes before going to Sunday school at Congregation Montefiore. I did enjoy talking to the Jews about God in Cheder class every Sunday morning, and then talking to Mormons about Her at their church on Sunday afternoon. But I never met other people in either religion who conversed with God like I did.
After Bubbe got her grandchildren back into the Jewish fold, Mama decided to teach my Sunday school class at synagogue in order to be able to afford to send me there. The Mormons charged 10 percent off the top to go to their church, so Mama figured the Jews were offering the better bargain, I guess. Mama was not quite the center of attention at synagogue as she had been in the Mormon church, but the first thing she did as Sunday school teacher was to write and direct a musical for Purim. It was the story of Esther, and Mama allowed me to play the part of King Ahasuerus, who saved the Jewish people. It was the singular happiest time in my childhood. It was good to be the king, although I knew that it would have been much better to be the queen. The king gets to make the final edicts, but only after his wife tells him what to say, as we all know. Anyway, I killed, and had there been an Oscar for youthful performances in a Sunday school play, I would have won it.
Of course, I could never keep my mouth shut or stay out of trouble even then, due to my Tourette’s syndrome. I asked the rabbi why we Jews didn’t accept Jesus as our savior, and that pretty much put a damper on the whole back-to-synagogue experience. The rabbi did not even want to hear the word Jesus, and freaked out, calling my mother in to ask her where I heard such things. (Sometime in the early ’70s, things changed, and a Jewish kid could safely mention the guy’s name around a rabbi and receive an almost intelligent answer in response.)
Then I asked my Mormon bishop if I could ask him some questions about the Book of Mormon, which, of course, I had read cover to cover more than once. I said, “So, the Native Americans are the new Jews then?” And he told me, “Those were the old Jews of the Old Testament. The saints are now the new Jews, and Salt Lake City is the city of Zion. And here in Zion, all of you ‘Jews’ are ‘gentiles.’” I remember thinking, I am a Jew and a gentile, therefore I am chosen, special, different, and saved!
I knew that none of the people around me knew God as well as I did. They pretended to believe, which I knew was just another way of lying. I knew that God talked to me and I answered Her, and that She listened to me and answered me back—not in my mind, like a lot of crazies, but right there in front of me in the mirror. She told me that would be the way we would communicate for a while, and it was kosher for me to see myself in Her, as I was made in Her image anyway. She would say to me, “Roseanne, let’s Me and you figure out a way to help this world be a better place.”
Looking back, I cannot believe how brazen I was as a young girl to actually reply, “Your books tell children to pray, and that You will answer their prayers. But many do pray and you don’t answer their prayers. Now, how can You tell children that You hear their prayers, when You are not lifting a finger to stop the bad things?”
God answered, “I do not have fingers, Roseanne. I am an idea in people’s heads only! You guys have the power to make good things happen. You must tell kids out there that they have four fingers to help them get things done, and one thumb to help the four fingers do it. None of my other animals were given that special tool—use it!”
I fell asleep thinking about the good that one person can do. The Lord was my shepherd, and I did not fear death, because I had the magic words. Not the ones every other child I knew said at bedtime—“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” (ghouls!), but these magic words instead: “Good night, God/Mother.”
It was She who came up with the idea that I would become a storyteller in my old age. I discussed with Her for decades what that story would say, how we would tell it.
© 2011 Full Moon & High Tide Productions, Inc.