For Rosh Hashanah, a friend was asked to speak about renewal at his shul. He’d seen FEED THE MONSTER and thought Rita’s story spoke to the theme (renewal of identity, of religious beliefs, of community). Here are my musings:
Rita’s story begins in the early 1960’s, a time when women’s roles were limited and prescribed. Possessed of an outsize personality and unconventional looks, she felt there was no place for her in such a conservative world. Her only solution was to run away from her quiet, stifling home and community, both of which were teeming with Jewishness. It’s no surprise that she equated her Jewish identity with conventionality and immobility; had she stayed in the community, there were few options for a happy, creative life. As she states early on, because she was obese, she would have been relegated to the role of caregiver for her parents and died a spinster.
Clearly, that was not Rita’s destiny. Her journey takes her far a field, provides her with many experiences, both good and bad, and ultimately brings her back to where she started. Rita’s renewal starts in an Irish bar where she battles her inner demons. She fights with herself. Should she sing? That’s what got her into trouble in the first place. The microphone symbolizes a lot of things for her: it’s her unrequited love—John, it’s her need to perform, it’s her one true love. She literally and figuratively needs to ‘lose this skin’ she’s ‘imprisoned in.’ She can’t stand herself and needs to shed the layers of misery she’s piled on over the years; she also can’t be fat anymore. By the end of the song, she’s consciously decided to cast off all her extra skin.
Back home in Brooklyn, she finds comfort in things she’d never considered. When she says yizkor for her father, she knows the words, even though she’s probably never recited them before. After so many years of going to shul, the words seeped in through osmosis, and they sustain her in mourning. While sitting shiva, Rita sees the kinder side of her community. They bring food, tell stories of her father, and even make her feel welcome. It’s during this very Jewish ritual that she turns a corner and finally understands who her parents were, so she can appreciate their quiet love for her.
She no longer feels like an outcast and even sees a place for herself in the community. Her choice in the end to stay in Brooklyn and teach music to yeshivah girls is her way of embracing Judaism, happily accepting her identity, in a way that makes sense for her. We don’t know if she becomes frum, but Rita is clearly a Jewess whose newest project celebrates God in the way she knows how. She rocks some Old Testament gospel. Loud!
As for me, I grew up in an Orthodox community. When we left Brooklyn, we left religion behind. Our lives became almost completely secular and we barely spoke of our previous life. On Long Island, none of my friends knew I had been religious. At college, I studied Religion; my junior year, I went to Oxford to study Judaism. It was all very academic. On Long Island being a Jew was de rigueur but at college in Ohio, there weren’t that many of us so I latched onto my Jewish identity and wore it on my sleeve. Since then, it has been a huge part of my persona.
You could say that I am fiercely, culturally Jewish. So although these days I am barely a ‘High Holidays Jew’ there is no one who does not know which box I check off for the census report.
Because of my Orthodox childhood, academic study of Judaism and secular adulthood, I wanted to write something about finding a way to be Jewish on one’s own terms. That’s Rita’s story. It’s my story too.