Wannabe Yeshiva Girl
By Sydney Brenner
Thirty six dollars. The number branded itself in my brain. A slow, burn that formed along my synapses and stung my heart—my mother called it guilt, Jewish guilt. Thirty six. That’s how many dollars I stuffed into the front zipper of my backpack after I stole Amanda Pendel’s money. The envelope lay gently, face down in the aisle of my second grade classroom. I hardly noticed it, I was busy scribbling in a messy print a list of the people in my family. The top of the page in my notebook read: Mommy, Daddy, Lucas, Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle B, Aunt J etc., until I had scrawled nearly eighteen names. The eighteen names were for the eighteen gifts I planned to buy at the school’s “Holiday Boutique.” For a moment, I weighed out how these eighteen gifts could be bought with the crumpled sixteen dollars my mother pulled out of her purse that morning and handed to me as I clumsily ran to catch the bus. A mere eighty nine cents per person. As I counted on my fingers, it became apparent that this budget was insufficient.
The envelope of money continued to rest on the dirty, tile floor—a horizontal tile. The floor was comprised of perpendicular, horizontal and vertical tiles along with a few outliers that didn’t quite match the same shade of brown. It was decided during the various free time periods throughout the week that the vertical tiles were a safe zone to step on but the horizontal ones were lava. This game continued for the first few months until the teacher warned the class of asbestos—a word I continually forgot the meaning of and often confused with espresso. Still I was careful to avoid the “lava,” as I stepped out of my chair, picked up the envelope and snuck back into my area. The envelope was sealed and written in a neat cursive (most likely by her mother) across the front it said: Amanda Pendel. The handwritten name surprised me. It would have been easy if it was Ben Fisher’s. I didn’t like him very much and he seemed irrelevant a majority of the time. But Amanda was different, she was my friend. Yet with some uneasiness I snuck the envelope into my navy backpack and awaited our class’s turn to attend the “Holiday Boutique.”
I crossed fourteen names off my list of family members. Between “glass” figurines and cheap holiday themed book marks, I had managed to buy fourteen gifts. I handed the cashier Amanda’s crisp twenty dollar bill and my more worn in Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington. The four needed presents imprinted in my mind. Four more. Four more. Four more. I took several more laps around the boutique, the plastic bag holding my purchases swung on my wrist as I walked. Whatever items caught my eye, I slyly slipped into my bag—the bouncy ball, the key chain, the mugs. I wasn’t stealing, at least that’s what I thought when I walked out of the boutique: I was finding.
I found a lot that day. I found out that Amanda’s mother had called mine. The door to her bedroom was cracked slightly, a sliver of light seeped through as I listened to their conversation. Amanda’s mother sounded concerned and small sobs trickled out of the phone. My mother offered comforting words as she held the phone within the crux of her neck and folded clean laundry. She paced from the bed, to the dresser, to the closet and back to the bed, as I fidgeted with some fuzz caught in the shag carpet of the hallway. After several minutes, she hung up the phone and walked out of the room, an empty hamper in her hands.
“Do you know who I was just talking to?” She asked, her eyes meeting mine as I attempted to crawl away.
“It was Amanda’s mother. You know the craziest thing? She said someone stole Amanda’s money for the boutique today. Amanda found a ripped open envelope in the classroom garbage can. Do you know anything about it?”
I could feel my face getting hot like when the teacher makes us read a story out loud and I hadn’t had enough time to make sure I could pronounce all of the words.
“I don’t know… the teacher might’ve said something to us, but nobody knows where her money went,” I answered nervously.
“What a pity,” she said, making her way down the stairs with the hamper.
I scrambled back into my room, shutting the door behind me quickly before any of the tears could noticeably fall. With the lights still off, I knelt awkwardly beside my bed, my knees straining against the floor. Staring at my palms, I began alternating between several configurations: clamped hands and intertwining fingers. After several moments, I finally decided on cocking my elbows out and having my palms press against each other. It was what I had seen in movies. Stained glass windows stood behind the character. The character knelt down. Palms pressed together. Praying.
At seven, we joined the Reform synagogue. We didn’t do many Jewish things but we went a few times per year. We had previously spent our Rosh Hashanahs and Yom Kippurs in Stony Brook University’s poorly lit sanctuary. During the summers between pre school and first grade, I attended the day camp offered at the university and often snuck into the sanctuary, remembering the room from my time spent there during the school year. In this new space though, the room was filled with empty words, words I mouthed, letting little air escape my lips. And we said G-d. And we crowned him king, called him sovereign and creator. The wooden pews held backwards books that said G-d. And my eyes scanned the words but I rarely read. It wasn’t until I was kneeling in my bedroom that I pictured this imaginary friend, that I believed in something greater.
“You know what I did, don’t you?” I whispered out loud, looking down at my chest shamefully and then up at the ceiling.
No response. I know He was listening. I knew it when the emotions surged through my body. My throat was dry and I gritted my teeth, trying to stop any tears.
“I won’t do it again, I swear. The lying and the finding…stealing. I won’t do it again. Just please don’t let Mommy or Daddy find out. Promise me.”