Of Grief and Pain and Love and Loss

I miss my mother. 

Sometimes, when I tell friends about things from my childhood, they say things like “good riddance!” But they don’t have all my memories.

They don’t remember the long nights Mommy and I spent in the kitchen, staying up way past midnight while the rest of the family was fast asleep, talking and debating and excitedly sharing bits and pieces of stories from our days and things we read. There were times we heard my father’s disembodied voice wafting down from the upstairs railing, asking us to keep it down, and we would realize we had gotten so spirited that we forgot about the late hour.

Much of what I know about pedagogy comes from those discussions with my mother. She’s perhaps not the world’s best mother, but she is an excellent teacher. Her talents were wasted in Bais Yaakov. Of course, Rebetzin Kaplan thought her talents were wasted teaching American history when she could have been using her teaching skills in limudei kodesh, and my take on it is somewhat different… 

She would tell me about the goings-on at school, the discussions among teachers and principals, starting from when I was in high school. (Which, in retrospect, was highly inappropriate, for me to be hearing these things about the people who were supposed to have authority over me – like I said, an excellent teacher but not the world’s best mother.) We would discuss the pros and cons of each decision, the pedagogical underpinnings… Sometimes she would tell me about a student who was giving her trouble and what her plan was. 

When I started teaching eighth grade Language Arts after seminary, my mother bought me a book on teaching writing. She read it first and took notes in it, then I read it and added my notes, and then we discussed it all. (Seminary provided virtually no training, despite my having a teaching certificate from them.)

I miss that. 

Often over the past years, when I’ve been teaching college writing and literature, I’ve wanted to share with her something I did in class. Look, I wanted to say, I used that method we talked about, and here’s what happened! Every time I use the “jigsaw activity” – as I will tomorrow when I teach the Second Shepherds’ Play of the Nativity – I think of her and her explanations for why she used it.

To hear my mother tell the story of the deterioration of our intellectual and personal relationship, it’s all my fault. Here, in her own words, from a June 2014 email, sent while I was in Exeter, UK, on a course studying Arthurian legend:

As to your certainty that you are not ever going to make a decision different from the one you made over the last few months – does that mean I need to ask a rav if we should be sitting shiva for you now?  I don’t think such things are irrevocable, but they can become so.

So please don’t ask me not to hurt you when you initiated the actions that may totally change or delete our relationship. Do you think I enjoy contemplating what halacha might demand of me?

At the time, I believed that crap. I blamed myself for the change in our relationship. I berated myself for not being more open, I blamed myself when conversations at the shabbos table bothered me, for when I stayed away because everything I was expected to do when visiting Boro Park was dysphoric and upsetting.

I apparently had enough strength to write these words that I honestly don’t remember writing in response to her email after a few more hurtful emails had been exchanged, in which she asked if I really wanted a relationship that was devoid of meaning, which it would be (according to her) if we only discussed school and our daily lives:

I honestly did not think our conversations about school, yours and mine, were bland and meaningless. We were talking about things that are important to us. Why should that change? Why is that any less meaningful than philosophical conversations about every topic under the sun, usually completely unrelated to yiddishkeit? Its through these seemingly banal conversations that we exchange bits of ourselves with each other. The only difference now is that its no longer abstract and instead concrete and personal. That makes it harder, of course, but also much more meaningful and important. But only if its a conversation where you listen to me as much as I listen to you.

I no longer blame myself.

I was the one who chose to cut off all contact with my parents over three years ago.

And yet they are not blameless. 

True, I initiated the actions that demanded change of the relationship.

But at the time, I had no plan to “delete” the relationship, and reading her words was like a punch to the gut. 

Because when someone you love changes, the response is not “don’t ask me not to hurt you,” is it. The response should be “what can I do so that I keep you close, because I love you and I don’t want to hurt you.” 

Last year, I wrote a quick little poem. Thanks to Facebook Memories, I saw it today. 

I lost my mother when she lost her daughter,

when she thought she had to sit shiva for me.

But I don’t do shiva, I don’t do aveilus –

so how am I supposed to assuage my grief?


When I shared it last year, friends responded with answers. But this isn’t really a question in need of answers: it’s more of a statement – that I am in pain, that I am incredibly grateful not to have rituals that dictate when and how I can feel my grief, that I can feel with a depth of pain that allows me to recognize the tremendous hurt my mother caused me and yet still, at the very same time, acknowledge – I miss you, Mommy.

I know what we had is unrecoverable because neither of us is the same person we were then. But I grieve still.

Of Gossip and Defenses and Protection and Love

My well-loved copy of Anne of Green Gables

I always loved Anne of Green Gables as a kid. I read it over and over, imagining myself in all the magical places Anne imagined.

The last time I read it was when I was around 14 years old. My younger brother, who would have been 13 at the time, wanted something from me. He had (and probably still has) sociopathic tendencies.

Later in life, when we were both adults, he admitted to me – with pride – that he enjoys finding someone’s breaking point, their raw nerves, and needling them until they’re pushed past the breaking point. When he proudly admitted this to me, he was in the process of pushing my buttons, and I indeed lashed out after he needled me past my breaking point. I hit him on the shoulder when he pushed me to anger. In response, he kicked me in the stomach and sent me flying across the basement to crash into some cardboard boxes stacked against the wall. I was more stunned than hurt in that moment.

Back when we were teenagers, he grabbed my book, my beloved Anne of Green Gables, from my hands. He threatened to tear it up, page by page, if I did not do what he wanted. I stood my ground, sitting on the couch. He tore out one page, at which point I yelled. What happened next is vague, but I think my mother stopped it then and scolded him for ruining a book.

The page my brother tore out, taped back in by my other younger brother.
The edge of the book. The page wasn't set back in exactly evenly, and I could never bear to look at the book again.

I’m watching Anne with an E on Netflix now. I started watching it when it was first released, but the first episode was too dark and sad for me. Now I came across it again in my recommendations, and I decided to give it another shot. It is still dark and sad, but I feel dark and sad just now. The show is gorgeous and brilliantly made – true, it comes across as darker and more mature than the book, but it does great things by making obvious the abuse that Anne endured.

Image result for anne with an e

Watching Marilla Cuthbert standing up for Anne in Season 1, Episode 3 – when Anne sees Prissy Andrews, an older girl in school, getting intimate with the teacher and Diana tells everyone but Anne is blamed – reminded me viscerally of something that happened when I was about 8 years old.

It was summer, which meant that my family was in the bungalow colony in the Catskills. We had our permanent rental, 40R, the rear part of 40F. My father, as usual, spent the weeks working in the city and came up to join us on the weekends. My days were filled with daycamp up the dirt road, pooltime, and running free with friends.

During Bunk Day in daycamp. Each age group performed on the stage in the shul. The theme this year was "Super Snacks," and my bunk was "Pizza Wheels."
Crafts with friends at the picnic table near our bungalow.
During a break in daycamp schedule, my sister and her friend organized color-war for us.
At the pool.
Carefree days, getting ice-pops from the grocery store and putting it on our parents' tabs. As close as we could get to running wild.
Braid-trains with my sister and her friend. My younger brother peeks in from the side.

I became close friends with the girl my age from 40F. Let’s call her Michal. She had an overactive imagination – much like Anne – but she wasn’t as generous as Anne was. She told me fictions as if they were truths, and I swallowed them, wide-eyed and thirsty for more. She painted a picture of the mansion they used to have in Israel (her parents still spoke wit an Israeli accent), with balconies overlooking pools of purple water. I worshiped her.

My older sister was at a point in her life when she was condescending to everyone. She was a bored teenage far too early. Thankfully, she grew out of that. But I was caught in the effects of her derision many times. Back home in our bedroom in the city, she used to make me list all my classmates, and she would pronounce each one “cute” or “nebby.” My friends, of course, were all “nebby.”

One of the girls from 40F was her age, and she spent some time with her. Not in daycamp – they were too old for that. But my sister wasn’t friends with the girl her age – let’s call her Avigail – the way I was friends with Michal. They spent time together out of necessity. There was also one older sister in that family, who spent most of her time alone because most of the girls her age went to camp rather than coming to the bungalow colony with their families.

One time, late at night, my sister and I lay in bed and gossiped. Or, more accurately, my sister gossiped and I listened. In the course of her commentary on everyone and everything in the bungalow colony, she mentioned Avigail and called her “weird.” I protested, saying she seems normal to me, and lots of fun.

My sister dismissed that. “What do you know? You’re friends with Michal.”

“Michal’s nice,” I responded. “I like her. She’s not weird.”

“Of all the people in that family,” my sister pronounced, “Michal is the least weird. But that whole family is weird.”

To this day, I cannot understand why I did what I did the next day. I meant no malice, of that I’m sure. I think I told Michal what my sister had said because I disagreed so strongly with it. Also perhaps because I had been called weird my whole life, and while I didn’t quite wear it a badge of pride yet, I did dismiss it. I did not expect Michal to be hurt by my sister’s pronouncement, and I was right.

I told her, “My sister said your whole family is weird, but you’re the least weird.” She laughed, and told me more about the mansion with the balcony overlooking the pool of purple water.

But she told her mother about what my sister had said, and her mother didn’t laugh it off as Michal had done.

Dinnertime in the bungalow colony.

Later that evening, while my mother was serving dinner to all the children gathered around the kitchen table, Michal’s mother came up onto our porch and knocked on the screen door. Her eyes were red. She asked my mother to step outside with her. We kids got a little quiet, knowing something was wrong.

When Mommy came back inside, her eyes were red too.

“Dainy,” she said, “why would you say something like that? Why would you tell Michal your sister thinks her family is weird? Don’t you know that words have consequences? That’s rechilus.”

I was puzzled as to why my sister wasn’t being rebuked for saying that in the first place, and I was confused about the whole ordeal. I didn’t understand anything of what had happened. I had been innocent and trusting, and I had not realized that words could be so mean.

I’ve thought about this incident often as I grew up. Watching Marilla stand up to Prissy Andrews’s mother – apologize for the hurt caused but also defend Anne – made my heart ache with what I realized my mother should have done for me.

The Time Mommy Hugged Me

I can remember receiving only one hug from my mother in childhood and adolescence. She’s not big on physical displays of affection. She’s not big on verbal displays of affection, either. I didn’t know I was loved as a child. No – to say that, I would need to have had an expectation of love. But I didn’t know that I should expect to be loved, so I didn’t know to wonder whether or not my parents loved me.

My father did hug me fairly often. It was under precise circumstances – when he was feeling down and needed comfort. He never hugged the boys. The closest he came to showing physical affection to my brothers was holding their faces in his hands and crying and apologizing for hitting or kicking them earlier, while the boys stood stiffly, expressionless, waiting for Totty’s ritual of self-absolution to be over.

But Totty hugged the girls. Not my older sister, who made it clear early on that she would not stand for his hugs. But me – he hugged me, and I hugged him back – most of the time. The few times that I stiffened and said “not now,” he drew back, hurt, and said – seriously – “I can’t even get a hug from you? You care so little about me?” It never occurred to him to hug me when I was down – then he yelled at me for upsetting everyone else with my “ungeblusen” face.

But Mommy – the one time she hugged me, that was for me.

It was after Sophie Shabbos. The whole tenth grade had spent a shabbos together. We ate the Friday night seudah at a classmate’s home, and we slept in another classmate’s home. Shabbos day was spent in the school building, with singing and dancing and eating and fun. When shabbos was over, all the girls changed into costumes and the night was filled with performances. 

I felt hollow all shabbos long. I felt like I was on the outside looking in. I did not know why, but I felt – bad. I joined in the fun, and from the photos I have from that motzaei shabbos, I can’t tell that I felt anything other than adolescent joy. 

When I got home late on motzaei shabbos, I sat down on the couch, pulled a cushion onto my lap, bent over, and sobbed so hard I thought my throat was being shredded. 
My mother came downstairs – everyone else was in bed already – and asked me what’s wrong. She sat next to me on the couch, with her hands in her lap. Tears still streaming down my face, my face wet and my voice clogged, I sobbed into the cushion, “I don’t know! Everything is just – falling!”

And that’s when Mommy put her hand on my shoulder, and I half-turned, still leaning forward, to end up with my snotty face pressed against her shoulder, and she put her arms around me and rocked me and said “oy, shefela, oy, shefela.”

I remember thinking, even in that moment when I was overcome with inexplicable despair, how odd it was to feel her soft skin and to hear her heart beating beneath my ear.

Vidui 5780

On this Day of Atonement,
I ask forgiveness
for nothing.

I have been deceptive
smiling when I ached inside
pretending all was well and I felt joy
when I felt despair
when I felt depression
when I felt the world had gone mad.

I regret this.
But I do not ask your forgiveness.

I have been selfish
snatching joy for myself
wherever and however I could
in the face of despair
in the face of depression
in the face of a world gone mad.

I do not regret this.

I have been greedy
hoarding my joy
stockpiling moments of peace and serenity
for times of despair
for times of depression
for times when the world has gone mad.

I do not regret this.

I have been stubborn
insisting that joy can be found
despite overwhelming evidence
of despair
of depression
of a world gone mad.

I do not regret this.

I have caused others to be selfish, to be greedy, to be stubborn,
and I regret none of it
because we are coming soon
we selfish, greedy, stubborn hordes.

We claim joy for the world.
We claim peace
and beauty
and serenity
and we do not regret this.

(Review) Reasonable Doubts: Breaking the Kuzari, by the Second Son

A good friend of mine wrote a book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Below is my review:

The Second Son writes in wonderfully clear prose, leading the reader through complex arguments with ease. He engages with popular formulations of the Kuzari argument as they circulate in the frum world, as well as with three representative texts (R’ Yisroel Chait, R’ Lawrence Kelemen, and R’ Dovid Gottlieb). This allows the Second Son to break down the argument into minute premises, rather than trying to tackle a huge and complex argument that is usually expressed in a single sentence. His treatment of the Kuzari Argument is, therefore, meticulous, methodical, and rigorous.

The book draws on traditional Jewish texts like Tanach , Gemara, and meforshim, but it also dips into many academic fields: linguistics, mythology, history, logic, philosophy, archaeology… The language is a delightful mix of rigorous academic writing and yeshivishe twists of phrase!

The tone throughout the book is a joy to read. The Second Son addresses the reader directly, leading us through complex points of logic and providing examples and repetition at every step – reading this book felt like I was in a fascinating class, gorgeously structured for maximum comprehension.

If you’re a practicing or believing Orthodox Jew, if you’ve used the Kuzari Argument before to try to convince others of the truth of Orthodox Judaism, if you struggle with your own doubts about the truth of Orthodox Judaism, if you want to not think of your friends and relatives who went off the derech as evil or damaged – this book is for you.

If you were ever told to read Beyond a Reasonable Doubt or Reason to Believe or Permission to Receive when you expressed doubt in Orthodox Judaism – this is definitely the book for you!

Rosh Hashana 5780: When the #ItGetsBesser Starts Getting Besser

This year marks my 6th Rosh Hashana living on my own as a non-frum person. I’ve blogged in the past about the angst-ridden, sobs-filled, painful Rosh Hashanas in the past, replete with parental disappointment, existential crises, and heartache.

They say (the famous “they”) that the process of leaving ultra-Orthodox religion and community takes a long time. Friends I trust, friends who left in previous decades, have told me that it can take as long as 10 years or more to even begin to feel like you’re on an even keel. As usual, I tend to think that I can beat the odds… But I know they’re right.

Every year, on every milestone, I take stock of where I am now and where I was last year – and how far I’ve come emotionally along this crazy and unpredictable ride. Knowing how difficult the past few years have been around Yomim Tovim, I made plans with a friend to hang out on Rosh Hashana, to get drunk, to watch a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream he had been trying to get me to watch for ages…

The more I prepared for our evening, though, the more I got into creating a full-on Rosh Hashana seudah. Tuning in to my emotions every so often, I began to realize that I was actually happy. All those years when people told me “reclaim your heritage! Join a Reconstruction Temple! Go to a lesbian guitar minyan!” I bristled in resentment. I hated the suggestions, much as I appreciated the intentions. None of that was worth anything to me. I have no interest in joining new traditions that celebrate something I don’t believe in.

But, it turns out, I have a lot of interest in recreating the traditions that hold nostalgia for me, and I have a lot of interest in explaining all those traditions to a friend who cares about me, who has a bit of knowledge about Jewish stuff, and who knows exactly how to balance honoring the traditions and helping me make them my own.

One of the more important parts of this year’s Rosh Hashana was shopping in Boro Park, in all the shops I frequented when I lived there. And while I did have a moment of “oh dear lord, I am so glad I no longer live here,” when I stood on a street corner and watched the parade of women with baby bumps and 20-year-old girls pushing double carriages – after that brief moment, I just really, really enjoyed myself.

When I got there, walking to KRM, I encountered a young chasidish boy standing on the corner of 12th Avenue and 39th Street. He glanced up at me and quickly looked away, looking around in what I recognized as a little kid allowed to go out on his own but not allowed to cross the street without an adult. It’s a common occurrence in a neighborhood where everyone is “one of us” – kids are thought to be safe because it’s inconceivable that frum Jews would be threat, but cars are still threatening. I used to help little kids cross the street all the time – it only requires a brief nod to the kid when it’s safe to go, and sometimes – if the kid wants it – walking alongside the kid until they get to the other side of the street.

So now, although he didn’t seem to think of me as an option, I just asked, “Do you need to cross?” I considered asking in Yiddish, and then decided not to bagel so hard… He nodded, I waited for the walk signal and said “Okay, go,” and he took off running. I walked at a more leisurely pace behind him, filled with a sense of both belonging and strength.

At every stop along my nostalgia trek – from KRM Supermarket to Korn’s Bakery to a tiny grocery to Meal Mart – I basked in the release of bitterness and my newfound ability to be okay with the knowledge that I am seen as an outsider. Because I know my place here, and no one else needs to know anything else about me (and ironically, now I’m blasting that out to the interwebs, but it’s okay because there’s only like 20 people reading this blog anyway).

So the #ItGetsBesser is getting there, and I look forward to seeing what next year’s Rosh Hashana will bring and how much besser it will be!

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A Rosh Hashana Story from Boro Park

This isn’t a representative story. It’s not a story with a lesson, a moral, or even a theme. It’s just a story.


Rosh Hashana davening services begin at 9am and continue until 2pm, with a half-hour break, in most Boro Park shuls. Some go longer, until 4pm.

Men are in shul all day long. Women come and go, some taking turns watching each other’s kids so each woman can be in shul for a part of the davening significant to her – you take shacharis, I’ll take mussaf… After the break, the women’s sections fill up with women and carriages and little children and crying babies, as the kehillah prepares for tekias shofar. In some shuls, there’s a later blowing especially for women, designed to keep the crying kids at home, where they won’t disturb shofar blusen.

During the break, in my parents’ home, my mother and sisters and I would take the prepared foods from the fridge and put them on the blech to heat up for the afternoon meal. We cooked most things ahead of time, and the only thing we needed to do was make sure they didn’t burn when we reheated them.

Some families, especially the ones whose women didn’t go to shul for more than the obligatory shofar, cooked everything on Rosh Hashanah. Unlike shabbos, yom tov carries no prohibition against cooking.

On this particular Rosh Hashanah about six years ago, one of the neighbors was in the process of renovating their home. The shul where they davened went really long – davening wasn’t over until 5 or 6 most years. So when the gas company had to lay new lines and shut off the gas while they did it, Rosh Hashanah afternoon was perfect for them.

Thing is, it wasn’t great for everyone else whose shuls finished earlier…

Cue Zissel Grunbaum coming home from shul, ready to cook for her family of twelve, only to find that her stove would not light, that the gas was off until later that evening.

My siblings and I were sitting on the front porch, enjoying the nice weather and waiting until we were all ready to start the meal. We watched as Zissel marched out of her front gate, already yelling, wooden cooking spoon held high – marched right up to the men working in middle of the street and yelled at them, waving her spoon and gesticulating wildly up at them, her voice reverberating up and down the block, her threatening stance made no less terrifying by her short stature.

The men waved a work order at her – they had no idea what was happening, they were just fulfilling that day’s work orders. The client had specifically requested this time slot, they said.

Zissel responded with some Yiddish words I had never heard before. My brothers laughed delightedly at her foul-mouthed retort.

But the situation wasn’t really funny. My father had come out of the house by that point and made his way down to the altercation playing out in middle of the street.

Calmly, he asked Zissel to let him handle it. Pleasantly, he commiserated with the workers and asked if there’s any way they could possibly postpone the work and turn the gas back on.

After some negotiations and calling their foreman, the workers packed up their tools, got the gas turned back on, and left.

Hachana l’Rosh Hashana 5780

I let the memories wash over me –
they chill me and I shiver.
I want to live, I want to love
I want to swim life’s river –
but my mind is full of memories –
they drag me down like stones –
those memories, they hurt, they wound –
they won’t leave me alone.

Please, I beg, cleanse this brain of mine,
purify its thought so I may seek the world –
so that I may see its beauty
and its glory all unfurled.
And I listen to my pleas,
to my cries and shouts for aid.
And the memories, their hold on me –
they weaken and they fade.

And I live, I do, I live so loud –
I raise my voice and sing.
I live, I speak, I wait with eager joy
for the beauty life can bring.

Why Children’s Books Make Me Cry

CW: emotional abuse, intersex

I’ve been preparing for the fall 2019 semester this week. A few days ago, I wrote an introduction on Blackboard. I ask my students to introduce themselves by answering a few questions about themselves, and it’s only fair I do the same.

For my class on children’s literature, one of the questions I asked is: “What’s your favorite children’s book?”

The answer I gave:

One of my favorite children’s books (because you can’t make me choose just one!) is The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, published in 1996. It’s a middle grade novel about a girl who doesn’t fit in and is made fun of by her whole village. She in fact does not belong – she’s a changeling, switched for a human baby because she couldn’t do enough magic to please the Moorfolk (kind of like fairies). Turns out, her mother, one of the Moorfolk, slept with a human man, so Moql/Saaski (the girl) is half-human and half-Moorfolk. She makes a place for herself and learns to love herself and accept friendship from people who accept her for who she is. I love that message. I have a soft spot for books with outsider main characters who find their own way…

I almost wrote more. About how I felt like an outsider almost all my life, in so many ways – gender, religion, smarts, interests, hobbies. But then I decided it wasn’t entirely appropriate, and/or I didn’t want to spill my life onto the screen for my students to read.

I haven’t been able to read and enjoy books for quite some time. Years ago, I used to read at least one book a day, maybe even two or three if they were aimed at younger audiences. My shelves filled with Young Adult and Middle Grade books because I read them, and loved them, and returned to them over and over. But over the past few years, I’ve been struggling to concentrate on the page.

I could attribute it to the strain of reading for orals, writing my prospectus, trying to write my dissertation, rewriting a whole new prospectus, and getting to work on the new dissertation.

But that’s not the reason I couldn’t read.

It was because I was always crying on the inside, and the books I like best make me cry on the outside, and I knew that if I unleashed the tears, they would never stop.

Back when I was in my teens, from about 7th grade onward, I dreamed of being in the Bais Yaakov High School play. After my shower every night, I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and act out random scenes. They were always overly dramatic, and almost always tragic. Many of the scenes I made up on the spot involved a girl in an orphanage, usually Miriam from A Light for Greytowers. I spoke the lines I made up in a whisper, staring into my eyes in the mirror, until my eyes welled up with tears and the tears streamed down my cheeks. Then I would wipe my face with my towel and get on with drying myself off and getting dressed.

There are times now when I feel the tears stopped up, when I think “I really need to cry,” and I engage in similar exercises to gain the sweet release of tears. (It’s a coping mechanism, and not one without scientific validation.)

But the kind of crying I get from YA or MG books is special. It can reach deep inside me and twist my guts into knots, make me feel things I haven’t let myself feel for fear of the emotions taking over me.

I’ve been getting better at regulating my emotions (thanks, therapy and anxiety meds).

And over this past summer, I’ve had to read many many Middle Grade books as I prepared my syllabus for my class on children’s literature. I’ve enjoyed them, though I was reading them with a critical eye, an eye towards whether and how the books would fit my syllabus and be teachable. Now that my syllabus is finalized, my Blackboard site is set up, and my first-day PowerPoints and lectures are prepared, I’ve been relaxing with some of the books I got from the library, books that I knew I wouldn’t teach but wanted to keep an eye on anyway. I’m reading these purely for pleasure, for enjoyment. Maybe with an eye towards using them in future courses, but mostly just curling up with a good book.

And they are indeed making me cry again.

One of those books is Alex as Well, by Alyssa Brugman. According to the publisher’s website:

Alex is ready for things to change, in a big way. Everyone seems to think she’s a boy, but for Alex the whole boy/girl thing isn’t as simple as either/or, and when she decides girl is closer to the truth, no one knows how to react, least of all her parents. Undeterred, Alex begins to create a new identity for herself: ditching one school, enrolling in another, and throwing out most of her clothes. But the other Alex-the boy Alex-has a lot to say about that.

Heartbreaking and droll in equal measures, Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman is a brilliantly told story about being intersex, exploring gender and sexuality, navigating friendships, and finding a place to belong.

I’m not intersex, but I struggle with my gender identity. And there was a time in my teens when I worried that I might be intersex (I do have PCOS, which is why I had some symptoms that made me freak out).

But that’s not why I related so much to the book that at times it felt like someone was punching me in the chest.

It was because of Alex’s parents, because of the interludes where Alex’s mom posts to “motherhoodshared,” a parenting forum, about her troubles and anguish and how much Alex is hurting her, and how she’s a terrible mother, and how she wishes Alex would just be a good boy.

“Your choices make me a failure as a mother,” my mother said to me. “My purpose in life is to raise Yidden with yiras shamayim, children who do mitzvos and follow the Torah. My purpose in life is to raise children like that, and you – my child – are throwing that away. And that means I failed at life.”

It was because of lines like “And then I recall that some of the times he held me down, it might have been because I was having a bit of a tantrum. You are a shit, Alex says. And it’s not just Mum and Dad who think so. Those reports in the attic said you were a shit too.” Because of Alex’s Dad, who says, “You are now, and have always been, a hyperactive, self-obsessed little shit, and caring for you is exhausting.”

“You were always so dramatic,” my mother said to me. “How was I supposed to know when you were really upset and when you were just being melodramatic?” And I would wonder, maybe this is my fault. Maybe if I had been better-behaved. Maybe if I hadn’t always been “chin-in-the-chest” upset, maybe if I hadn’t been “ungebluzen,” maybe if I hadn’t been such a “slob,” maybe my mother and father would have loved me more?

It was because of Alex’s Dad who says “you still haven’t actually asked anything. You have guessed, and assumed, and accused,” about Alex’s intersex status and the reason for her double birth certificate, it’s because Alex then remembers “that first night – back at the beginning – when I said I felt like a girl and my mother had the big hysterical fit, he left. He just walked out,” and my hearts screams for this young teen who didn’t follow her parents’ unspoken rule about asking and that’s why she didn’t get any answers and instead got called a pervert.

Maybe if I had spoken more rationally, I think, maybe if I hadn’t gotten upset, maybe if I hadn’t sarcastically said “don’t worry, I haven’t been raped yet” when she expressed concern over my new mode of immodest dress, maybe I could have patched things over with my mother, I think. And then I remember to be kind to the crying child I was, despite being over 25 by that point.

It was because of “It’s abuse, isn’t it? I’m not being a pussy. But it’s not the sort of abuse I could go to the Department of Community Services about – my father wanting to wrestle with me or my mother insisting that I eat French toast,” and pages later a brief memory of Alex’s mother hitting her with the phone, and who even needs to go that far ahead when in the previous paragraph Alex remembers how she fought back and asked her father to stop, and cried because she didn’t want to wrestle.

“Could you stop” was a laughing refrain in my childhood home, a remnant from when my father was tickling my younger sibling and they weren’t enjoying it, and asked for it to stop, but my father was having fun so he didn’t. My throat closes up with the memory of how my father hugged me when he was sad, or when one of “the boys” was in trouble at school yet again, and I knew he was hugging me for his own comfort and I felt suffocated, but I went along with it because if I didn’t his eyes would get all hurt and he would accuse me of not loving him. And I remember how I watched my friends’ families with envy, wishing I had their homes, and then berating myself because a parent hugging a child is not abuse, is it.

It was because of what Alex thinks while she and her father pack up clothes for her mother in the hospital: “This is good – taking things of hers and packing them in a bag, as if I am taking memories and packing them in the back of my mind.”

The dream finally stopped. It used to happen once or twice a week: I would be visiting my parents for Shabbos or Yom Tov, and either something would happen or I would just feel horrible, and I would try to pack up my things and leave. But no matter that, in every iteration of the dream, I was trying to pack the same belongings I had come with into the same bag I had brought – the things would never fit inside. I would stuff them, and stuff them, further and further in, and they still kept overflowing. Each time, I wound up taking extra bags away from the house with me as I escaped into the air outside.

Last time it was different. Last time, just two weeks ago, and the dream has not happened since. This time, my dream-mother said something unforgivable, and I responded calmly, standing up for myself. Then I went upstairs to my bedroom, took a big suitcase from under the bed, and calmly packed up every single one of my belongings. Neatly, carefully, and they all fit into the suitcase. All my clothing, all my books, all my memorabilia – not a stitch of me was left on the shelves. And then I left, and that house does not get to contain me anymore.

It was because of “You know what it comes down to? Alex says to me. People who don’t want to lose their babies shouldn’t treat them like shit.”