I was born and raised the way most young children bearing the brunt of the last name Steinberg are — Jewish. My hometown had two designated streets for lower-income families further in the north end while the remaining geography was generously peppered with Goldbergs and Cohens, doctors and lawyers, yoga studios and frozen yogurt cafes.
While anyone will say that it’s not the same Great Neck they grew up in, the town I spent my youth in is better known as The West Egg, Long Island’s Gold Coast — where the fictitious Jay Gatsby lived and subsequently threw his lavish parties. Recognized as, “the epitome of Nouveau Riche gaudiness,” the mansions of Great Neck are ostentatious with iron-wrought gates and gold-clad entry doors.
I grew up constantly serving the local elite in one way or another. I cleaned their plates, washed their cutlery, walked their dogs, babysat their toddlers, served their lunch, folded their clothing, brewed their coffee, and poured their cocktails. The distinct honor of singing “Happy Birthday” to plastic-faced ladies dripping in diamonds, seating flirtatious daddy-types and darkening my rouge lipstick at my female boss’s insistence was uniquely reserved just for me.
Still, it was no accident that my family wound up there. My mother, an NYC school teacher of 26 years, valued education above everything else. Ranking among the top ten in the nation, the public schools were exceptional. So while all of my peers were handed keys to brand new BMW’s for their 16th birthday, I was working weeknights until 10 pm to scrap together spending money for the weekends just to keep up with them. For a long time, I couldn’t understand why we were raised amongst families who seemed to have everything when covering the rent and groceries was a weekly struggle. That disconnect didn’t go away, and I never seemed to find my place.
I was raised by a single mother who wanted to give the world to my sister and me. We grew up in a red-brick apartment across from the train station, adjacent to the power plant and directly behind the post office. Most nights, the train rushing past the tracks would lull me to sleep. A ride into Manhattan was a three-minute walk from home, town was just beyond that, and my best friend grew up in the apartment right across the courtyard. I would never have admitted it then, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.
There was a small gated garden next to our apartment building where my mom would pose me and my sister for photographs. There’s this one photograph of Kate and me on a warm day, where the novelty-sized artificial sunflower scrunchie holding up her ponytail, and the bright orange sunflower on my dress mimic the flowers in bloom just behind us. The deep green farm animal print below the orange flower on my dress blends right into the flower beds behind us, and mainly we just look like we were meant to live amongst the flowers. Like we belonged.
Between the ages of seven through ten, I attended Hebrew Day Camp and learned to stealthily lip-sync through prayer as I struggled to comprehend the act of vocal Hebrew Davening. My grandparents on either side raised their respective offspring to observe the High Holidays, be present at Friday night Shabbat dinner and eat Lo Mein on Christmas Day. Neither one of my parents was exceptionally religious, while they were happy together at least. Growing up, religion appeared more as a tentative, partially-educational babysitter for me than anything else. Hebrew School became an after-school program I’d attend until my mother returned from work, and at age nine, I denounced religion altogether.
Since her divorce from my father, my mother took to spirituality in that she started warding off the evil by placing colored, smooth-sanded rocks under my pillow and throughout my room while I slept. For the most part, the Steinbergs’ took their religion with a side of kosher salt. We never let it cloud our judgment or dictate our morals — though we were culturally immersed in it, it never consumed us. While the Steinbergs’ allegiance to Judaism often wavered, religion was never as compelling as when we’d been stricken with grief, with helplessness.
I got my first bearings on religion when my father’s father passed away. Religion only began to make sense to me when it was married to grief; a crutch for the soul. When my parents got divorced, my dad rented his first apartment directly across the street from his old one. Kate and I would walk our Border Collie German Shepard mix, Dakota, to his place and wait for him in the perpetually autumn-themed lobby. The corners of the orange and red-leafed wallpaper curled at the edges and the bowl of acorns and pinecones on the wooden coffee table was permanently blanketed in a thin layer of dust. My father buzzed us in some Monday night and we stood in the lobby, assessing the faux foliage with Dakota at our feet. He approached us with dragging footsteps and glassy eyes.
“Grandpa passed away today.” He wrapped us tightly in his arms. The death itself didn’t upset me nearly as much as witnessing my father’s reaction to it. His tears soaked my face as he pulled me in closer, and for the first time in my life, I’d witnessed a grown man — my father, no less — cry. For the preceding month, he wore black from head to toe, a yarmulke atop his thick, jet-black head of hair and a differently colored carnation in his breast pocket each day. He began frequenting Temple Beth-El and kept a soft-covered prayer book at his bedside. The only Grandpa I ever knew was the pained one, the short-tempered one; the one ridden with lung cancer who yelled at me for climbing on motel chairs and bouncing on his lap. My mother assured me he was a person before the cancer dictated his life, too. His remains were shipped from the sunshine state and we took a boat out on the Atlantic to scatter his ashes into the blue. My grandmother held bouquets and tore petals from roses — kissing each one before casting it ashore. This was the first time I realized grief manifested itself in floral arrangements.
When Passover came that April, my father was relying on an oversized plastic honey bear filled with coins for most of his finances. Still, he insisted on having a Seder (a feast marking the beginning of Passover) at his place. Usually, Kate and I would have dinner with my mother before walking across the street to his place since his one-bedroom apartment left no room for anything even closely resembling a dining room table. My Aunt Barbara and Uncle Jesse on my mother’s side always turned their Passover Seders into a night of theatrics — throwing stuffed animal frogs and locusts at us during the retelling of the ten plagues of Egypt. He had big shoes to fill. More important than the four questions and the reading from the Haggadah was the accuracy of the Seder plate. The plate is often made of fine ceramic, beautifully painted with six built-in pockets designed for holding the various symbolically significant foods. The Traditional foods consist of Maror (bitter herbs) symbolizing the bitterness of the enslaved people, Charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts, and cinnamon) used to represent the mortar the Hebrew slaves built the pyramids with, a hard-boiled egg, some more herbs dipped in saltwater and last but not least, the lamb (or goat) shank bone. At my father’s insistence, we brought Dakota over and gathered together in the hallway just outside his bathroom at the fold-out table he’d recently acquired at a nearby rummage sale. Dakota lay beside the table and my father unveiled the Seder plate, a messy plastic tray with silver acrylic stars of David smudged on. I’d given it to him earlier that month as a gift after I’d hand painted it during art class in Hebrew School one day. Kate pointed out a slight alteration in the traditional presentation of symbolic foods. My father shrugged his shoulders in an act of deplorable shame and said, “My shift ran over at the restaurant last night so I couldn’t make it to the butcher in time — we’re using Dakota’s milk bone instead — a bone is a bone, right?”
When I decided in the fourth grade that I no longer wanted to attend Hebrew School, my mother brought me two flights downstairs to my Pop-Pop’s apartment. Her father observed the High Holidays and always believed in the importance of having a connection with God. I never got to know my grandmother Lin on my mother’s side, though I was named after her. She was aggressive and abusive, and fiery. But, my mother would say, she lit up every room she entered; she was always the life of the party. Like us, Pop-Pop kept a mezuzah (a parchment scroll with a Torah portion written on it) affixed to the doorframe of his place. Now and again I’d watch him stand at his doorway, kiss the tips of his fingers and place them to the body of the scroll, eyes closed. Pop-Pop’s apartment was always too warm, drenched in pale pastels covering the walls. It often smelled of soup, held dozens of hand-written books and letters, and contained mementos from lives past. Before he became Pop-Pop. He sat in the same beige La-Z-Boy chair every day and hung Kate’s drawings and my kid-cursive worksheets from brightly colored alphabet block letter magnets on his refrigerator. In his kitchen, he had a designated Judaica drawer filled with Yahrzeit memorial candles, Passover Haggadahs, yarmulkes, and menorahs. She had taken me there to make sure it was alright with him that I renounced my religiosity at such an early age. The Steinbergs’ deeply regarded Pop-Pop’s opinions. I sat by his side and told him how disappointed I’d been with my experience in Hebrew School thus far. He asked if I’d want to receive my Bat mitzvah and I replied that though the accompanying party would sure be nice, reciting my Torah portion just wouldn’t be honest to my beliefs. I had never heard Pop-Pop voice a single ounce of negativity in all my years with him. He was a soft-spoken, highly thoughtful, perceptive man who always supported his family in whatever ways he could. The kind of man who would go penniless for the sake of others. He looked up at my mother who anxiously awaited his final response. “She knows what she wants,” he said. “And truth be told, I’m proud of her either way.”
After Kate graduated from college, she moved to Chicago with her long-term boyfriend. She often clung tight to Judaism when she felt distant, disconnected. She loved Hebrew School and continued on until High School, holding tight to religion on High Holidays. She’d pick up Matzah from the supermarket just to have it in the house. She’d light a Yahrzeit candle and watch America’s Next Top Model. Like this, she sustained her faith. Once when she was still in school, our cousin Steve picked her up and brought her to his house in Massachusetts during Passover to recreate the togetherness of it all. When she couldn’t share the holidays with us, she would call my mother and me, and tell us how she’d found delicious vegetarian recipes for matzah ball soup, potato latkes, and matzo brei. Despite our declining sense of Judaism, the three of us would always get together to cook one or two traditional dishes for Passover. It was, above all else, an ingrained sense of bonding we’d never let go of. I imagined Kate molding matzah balls in her percussion-calloused hands, standing over someone else’s stove, stirring a simmering pot of vegetable broth 700 miles away in the suburbs of Chicago. I thought of her mincing carrots and celery, blaming her watery eyes on chopped onions, slowly mixing the soup with a flat wooden spoon. “It’s delicious,” she’d say. “It’s just not like it used to be.”
When my father was able to secure his new job as a pharmaceutical representative for more than six months, he celebrated by leasing a new apartment in the Dolphin Green complex, overlooking the water. The apartment was bigger than the one before, but more space meant more vacancy. He slowly began acquiring used furniture from garage sales and sidewalk curbs, trying desperately to fill the void. To make a home, of sorts. The walls were crumbling spackle and the refrigerator buzzed. He considered replacing the light fixtures, but he spent his extra cash on wooden bunk beds for Kate and me. Our bedroom was a set of bunk beds in the kitchen, and we spent Monday and Tuesday nights, and every other weekend there.
Each night around 11 pm, I’d wake to find him splayed across his tattered black couch nursing a quart of Breyer’s cookies and cream ice cream, alone. He’d sit in the dark, with the television turned down low — watching whatever the tin foil-wrapped bunny ears had in store for him. Staticky late-night reruns of Seinfeld, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond. I would lie awake, watching the light from the TV illuminating his emptiness —clutching my stuffed animal Lamby —thankful that I had someone to hold.
My father replaced his emptiness with a congregational membership to the Orthodox Chabad. Prior to this decision, he’d never been to an Orthodox temple a day in his life. He told us it would mean the world to him if we came to services, so we obliged. The inside of the synagogue was pale white with a lace-covered wooden divider separating the women and men. I couldn’t comprehend why I wasn’t allowed to sit with my dad, so I sat in silence keeping a steady gaze on my father’s profile from across the room. I watched him bow his head in repetitions, eyes closed. I watched him hug a blue prayer book the way I’d held on to Lamby.
With each passing year, I began to follow the Steinbergs’ religion a little less. My father remarried and moved to a townhouse — he was stable enough to find a Reform synagogue. When he would ask Kate and me to go to services with them, a simple, “you know I don’t want to,” would do. Granted it would be met by his disappointment, it sufficed nonetheless. Getting older meant growing more disenchanted by religion, by its teachings. For a while, religion was not necessary — the Steinbergs’ had filled their voids, at least for the time being.
When I was fourteen I became obsessed with the notion of being thin. A sophomore girl at my school had brought me under her wing and taken it upon herself to teach me everything she knew about eating disorders. We’d do it together. It was our fun little project, she’d say. We would meet up in the main hallway during our lunch period and waltz out the front doors, past the security guard, walking miles to her house. When we arrived there, we’d dump out the contents of our backpacks and fill them with necessary items before heading to the nearby playground. It was always the same: glossy bubblegum pink binders, fashion magazines, one jar of Nutella, diet coke and cigarettes. We would sit cross-legged on the jungle gym where the slide met the monkey bars — juggling cigarette puffs, spoonfuls of Nutella, and magazine cut-outs. The rules were simple, fill your Thinspiration binder with phrases and images that make you want to be the smallest you can be.
When we’d return to her house, she gave me tips and pointers on ways of being thin that had never let her down. Though she dabbled in bulimia, she suggested I take the reins with binging and purging since anorexia was more her forte, anyway. Copying your friends is just bad etiquette, everyone knows that. She listed foods and teas she consumed to feel fuller faster and I jotted each one down, filling my binder with instructional prayer. She taught me which tools to use if I hadn’t yet perfected the motion of joining together my pointer and middle finger, and aggressively jabbing and scratching at my uvula. Once I became more experienced, I’d be more comfortable using my fingers, but in the meantime, I could yield just as great a purge with pens, pencils, and toothbrushes.
I grew more and more attached to my routine, prompted by the phrases and pictures in my binder. I would sit in my room chewing on carrot sticks, drinking green tea and reading “Bones define who we really are — let them show,” “The difference between want and need is self-control,” and of course, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” It wasn’t exactly difficult to maintain my binder, as a simple “Thinspiration” Google search left me sifting through hundreds of pro-anorexia, pro-bulimia websites with tips, beautiful bony girls and dozens of Thininspirational quotations. I had scribbled all over my notebooks and journals, “Quod Me Nutrit, Me Destruit.” I thought it was the most beautiful phrase I’d ever heard — what nourishes me, destroys me.
I hadn’t yet mastered the art of silent purging, so there were few places I felt comfortable enough to act upon it. My mentor’s house was always a safe haven since her father spent all his time at his retail shop in the city, and her mother managed to turn shopping into a full-time occupation. I’d learned to time my purges with my mom’s work and sleep schedule so as to not run into conflict back at home. I brought my binder with me to the bathroom and began my routine. Our toilet seat had a cream-colored soft pleather cushion on it, which was lovely to rest my head on after I became too entrenched in a fog of vomit to lift my head. I would use my weapon of choice — pen, toothbrush, fingers — and jam it further and further down my throat in rhythmic motions until whatever I’d just binged on came up. The act was always violent, a self-torture I felt compelled to inflict. My sinuses burned and my eyes swelled with tears — I always half worried I wouldn’t make it out of the bathroom alive. As blood began to rush to my head and the feeling of pins and needles consumed my body, I began to pray. Please let me make it through this one time, I’ll never do it again — just this once. I bowed my head and repeated my pleads in soft whispers — please let me be thin, please let me make it. I’d found myself dyed-in-the-wool religious, praying unmistakably to anyone who could hear my helplessness, my desperation. I pleaded with someone, or something — some God I’d never known before. Instinctually, I did so every time.
When my mother walked in on me purging that Friday night after I’d returned from the Citizen Cope concert, face caked in a glaze of saliva and black and white cookie remnants, she fell to the tile floor crying. I’d forgotten to lock the door in my urgency to get rid of the cookie that I just had to have back at Penn Station. She awoke to gagging sounds and opened the door to find a toilet filled with black bile, and my head rested on the toilet seat. She flushed the toilet, took a warm wet rag to my face and sat on the bathroom floor holding me. The next morning, I was dragged to a treatment center.
While I was away, my mother tried desperately to understand the root causes of my sickness. She frequented the self-help section of Barnes and Noble and purchased books written by mothers whose daughters had chosen the same religion. I imagined her choking back tears, leaning up against the bookshelves, reading excerpts from the sleeves of hardcovers, blaming herself and repeating ‘my poor baby.’ She visited me in the hospital nearly every day and I’d beg her to take me home, but she knew better than that. One afternoon we were sitting together on my cot while my roommate was in group therapy. My mom’s eyes widened and she placed her arms around me. “I’ve been in temple every day since you left, Lindsey.” I pictured her walking through the synagogue doors all alone, taking a seat and bowing her head, praying in repetitions, tears streaming down her face. “It’s the only thing that gets me through while you’re away. I’m so lost without you.” She reached into her bag and placed a deep blue velvet pouch in the palm of her hand. “This is for you. For us. For protection.” She slid bracelet after bracelet with differently colored beads onto my wrists. One had an evil eye motif, one a Star of David motif, one a small Buddha head. I looked up at her, tears welling up. She held my hands. “Hey,” she said, her face consumed by melancholy. “Whatever works, right?”
Mitch and I dated briefly during my senior year of High School. We bided our time between walks along the Long Beach jetties and watching Netflix documentaries until sunrise. He would play Lover’s Waltz by A.A. Bondy, and sing along, saying it reminded him of me. “Will you marry me/Don’t you wanna spin/Will you run with me/Until the ground folds us within.” When I broke things off with him, he harshly followed It with a counterblow of a text message that read, “I pity any guy who ever dates you in the future, Lindsey Steinberg.” It wasn’t long before he moved past his aggression, and we remained close. He moved on, found a few more shallow relationships, and I fell in love with his best friend, next month we’ll be together two years.
When Mitch was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, there was no doubt in any of our minds he’d kick its ass — he was a fighter. I put my fear of hospitals aside for my friend and became well acquainted with the various routes to the cancer ward at the Stonybrook hospital. Two flights up, followed by two sharp rights. We’d bring him cranberry bliss bars and sit at his bedside, all of us, talking about what we’d do once this whole bullshit phase of his life came to an end. California was his dream. One day, we’d say. One day soon. Anxiety came in waves for us as we watched him, pallid-skinned and frail. Like clockwork, someone among us would periodically utter, “fuck cancer.” I thought about the dimensions of the room and how, with the divider pulled back, we could all be there, holding on with him together. We didn’t have to divide our group and visit Mitch in shifts, and his nurses welcomed us like ushers, making room for each one of us. I remembered that most synagogues were constructed with moveable walls so that on the holiest day of the year –the Day of Atonement — all of the part-time, cyclical faithful’s and secular Jews could stand together and atone. In Judaism, it is believed that the soul is the guiding life force in the body, and by manifesting our discomfort physically through fasting on the Day of Atonement, we bring about a soul discomfort. For one day of the year, we are urged to feel pain and suffering, so that we may understand the true nature of others in pain. As I stood amongst my closest friends; everyone’s bodies touching one another, hands interlocked, I thought — this is prayer. This is religion.
Mitch’s aunt was a 90-pound granola-loving Reiki master. She would come in to find us all jammed in Mitch’s hospital room, trying desperately to keep him smiling, alert. Mitch waited until she was in the room to ask his favorite nurse if hypothetically tripping on mushrooms while undergoing chemotherapy would be ill-advised. She looked around at all of us semi-circled around him, smiled and said, “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad idea.” He followed her response up with a hand-held, half-conscious marriage proposal. “If only I wasn’t already married!” Mitch’s eyes closed as he let out a deep sigh. “I’ll tell you one thing though,” she promised. “If I ever have a baby boy, I’m naming him after you.”
Mitch’s aunt practiced Reiki healing on him and introduced juice cleanses, and dairy-free diets meant to promote well-being. She’d bring dozens of Naked juice drinks into his hospital room and stay with him, teaching him guided meditations and silent prayer. She drove in from New York City to perform crystal healing and deep tissue massages on his permanently-pained body. She believed in the life force energy flowing throughout his body, believed she could sustain it.
His mother left crosses made from palms on every surface that reminded her of Mitch. They hung from each room in his home, each coffee table, each dresser, each wall. She tacked crosses to his hospital room dividers and brought smaller, sturdier ones to leave at his bedside. She kept soft-cover bible verses in their kitchen and hard-cover verses in their living room. I watched the two women that loved Mitch more than life itself plead with their higher power to keep him healthy, keep him whole.
Mitch took his last breath in his own room, crosses made from palms above his head. His wake was open-casket and cogent proof that one’s tackiness in life can be carried on after they’ve passed. Mitch was draped in rosary beads, wearing his Germany soccer team jersey and god-awful striped neon highlighter Supreme shorts. He had his brand new pair of sneakers on his feet, worn for the first time, and an Islander jersey over his legs. Nick and James slipped notes into the casket. Paul sealed his note with a worry doll. We’d all gotten together and spent the days before his wake constructing photo collages of our best memories, reminiscing, and sobbing in waves. He was surrounded by collages and dozens of floral arrangements. Just to his left, a larger-than-life Nike sneaker crafted from hundreds of woven red and white roses stood tall. Only you, I thought. If only he had been alive to see it. Mitch somehow managed to turn even the most morbid of subject matter into one big joke, with the goofiest laugh you’ve ever heard. I remembered being woken up to a text from Mitch a few weeks earlier saying, “How many people with cancer does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Before I could respond, Mitch sent another text, “12. 1 to do it and 11 to say, that’s so inspiring!” Only you. I walked up to the casket and stared down at Mitch, I hadn’t seen that much color in his face in nearly two years. He looked good, he looked happy. Like at any moment he’d be ready to wake up, stretch his legs and crack jokes all the way out of that funeral home. Though no one in their right mind would hand him the keys, Mitch was a notoriously terrible driver. When Mitch wanted to leave, Mitch wanted to leave. “Fuck this place,” he’d say — arms crossed, leaning against the double doors. “You guys ready or what?”
I didn’t last long before I ran to the front entrance, in need of a change of scene. I saw my friends in scattered groups, like disaster-struck islands strewn throughout the paved lot. Everyone stood chain-smoking and drying their eyes, recounting their last encounters with our beloved Mitch. I tried speaking, but nothing came out. We crowded the parking lot, sharing half-smiles with acquaintances, old friends. A small black Nissan pulled in and parked to my right. A man and his wife opened their doors and slammed them shut. The two stood up and began walking towards the funeral home. I wiped my eyes dry with my sleeve and met the couple with my gaze. It was Mitch’s favorite nurse who shared with me a grieving smile, her hands rested on her pregnant belly.