After a fall from grace as queen bee, I found solace in Torah and ska

Sometimes I think that an amalgamation of ska music and Judaism saved my life. Not to be overly dramatic. But looking back at the events surrounding and leading up to my bat mitzvah, now 15 years later, I can’t help but point to those two parts of my life as rescuing me from junior high hell.

Flipping through old photos of my younger self standing on the bimah in purple crushed velvet and non-clear braces, then seeing daily status updates on Facebook from people who knew me when — it’s all serving some sort of nostalgia panic button, like maybe I need to look back on life with better clarity. Call it wistful melancholy, self-exploration or a jumble of both: your basic quarter-life crisis. You see, I turn 28 this month (and I plan to live to 112).

I was a late bloomer when it came to Judaism. Sure, I celebrated holidays with family, and tried to bask in my “otherness” in a town deeply ensconced in the Christian suburban lifestyle. But I didn’t go to Hebrew school until sixth grade, and by then I had a lot of catching up to do.

So we went in full force. The family joined the synagogue. I began attending Hebrew school twice a week. I got a hip young Hebrew tutor who translated Green Day songs to help me learn, along with a sweet, elderly tutor on other days to coddle my fragile psyche — after all, I was the “other” at my secular-with-Christian-undertones school and brand new to my progressive-yet-unfamiliar synagogue.

During this same period of epic Hebrew study, like two prepubescent freight trains roaring at full speed, I also was racing against the popularity clock. We talk about “mean girls” these days in high school, but I experienced the extreme polarity of popularity (as I’d imagine many girls did) much earlier — in late elementary school, early junior high.

As a popular queen-bee type, I picked on other students, I mouthed off to teachers, I was constantly giggling with my gaggle of precocious, early-blooming girlfriends, taping pop songs off the radio and dancing provocatively before I knew how inappropriate it was.

But here’s where it splits. No matter how much I fought the tides of adulthood, I wasn’t an early bloomer like those other girls. I was different, the other. They were fresh-faced, flaxen-haired Christian girls with body confidence and new boyfriends.

I loomed tall and discomfited, with an interest in books and a growing engagement with the Jewish community. It was bound for disaster. Only I didn’t see it coming. The day I got the note in my locker, stating rather impolitely that my friends and the rest of the school would no longer be calling me, I cried all the way home.

There was no specific, spectacular incident, as far as I can tell. It was just time for this charade, of me being a part of the greater “them,” to be done.

I retreated into myself, eating sad vegetarian sandwiches in the gym room bathroom stall, generally keeping my mouth shut and my head down for what felt like entire days. My only solace, the only place where I felt confident, was Hebrew school.

There I had lively discussions, friends who knew about a whole world outside of my petty junior high politics. My peers there talked about global politics, and what it meant to be a modern Jew. They introduced me to, among many other things, the ecstatic experience of upbeat ska music — the Specials, the Skatalites, the Selector — and through the lens of noncommercial, non-pop-radio music, I saw a life outside of the sameness of popularity. I saw it was acceptable, even preferred, to be different.

After years of intense study, through the crushing loss and eventual gathering of friendships, I stood before my congregation and sang from the Torah, no longer meek, but definitely still “other.” And I liked it that way.

Emily Savage
can be reached at [email protected]