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Embarrassment

The day Miriam’s father, Noah Levine, showed up unexpectedly as a chaperone at a school dance she wanted to die. He wore his kippah, a little prayer cap, on his head and had his tzitzis, the special fringes some Jews wear, hanging out from under his shirt. She knew how weird he appeared to all her friends. She could see the guys snickering as he joined the other parents along the wall. They, at least looked normal. She wished she could fall through a hole and disappear.

“What’s your dad doing here?” asked Jessica, her best friend.

“He really looks a little out of place, even over with all the other parents,” added Ann, another good friend.

Before she could answer, her father spotted her and walked over. Everybody saw him. “You aren’t supposed to be here,” she blurted out.

“Bob Kaufman got sick at the last minute and asked me if I could take his place. Just ignore me. I’ll be with the other parents over by the refreshments,” he said. Miriam’s father appreciated that she didn’t like being seen with her parents. He tried to let her have her independence, within bounds. He briefly said hello to Ann and Jessica and slipped away.

Her father stayed out of sight the rest of the night, but as far as Miriam was concerned the damage had already been done. All the kids had seen him, had seen how.. how.. how different he was. He was an observant Jew. She could accept keeping kosher and attending synagogue regularly and missing things that other kids did on Friday night and Saturday–that was part of being Jewish. Being Jewish was okay, most of the time anyway. But when her father wore his yarmulke and his tzitzis in public and showed up at school, well, she could die of embarrassment.

The dance wasn’t the first time something like that happened. She remembered the time he picked her up early because she had a doctor’s appointment. Usually her mother did those kinds of things with her during the day because her father worked in an office downtown. But this time he showed up and walked right up and stood in the classroom doorway instead of picking her up at the school office downstairs. The moment he appeared with tzitzit hanging out and wearing his kippah some of the kids started laughing. Miriam, who was getting ready to go down to the school office to meet her mother, quickly grabbed the rest of her things and left. He was out in the hallway by now and as she rushed out of the room one boy he whispered: “Tell your father he has little Jew things hanging out. Maybe he should tuck in his shirt.”

Miriam stopped for a second and wanted to say something. Not only was it disrespectful of her father it seemed anti-Semitic too. Still, she couldn’t think of any smart comeback. Anyway, her father motioned to her from the hallway so she hurried out.

“Why didn’t you just go to the office? I would have met you there. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” said Miriam in an angry, scolding tone.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I went to the office and they looked at your schedule and told me where you were, so I went to get you. Your mother called me at the last minute because she was delayed,” he said, only somewhat apologetically.

They walked quickly down the hallway. Miriam wanted to get out of there before anyone else saw him, or worse yet saw her with him. “If we have to do this again, I’ll just meet you at the car, okay,” she snapped.

“No, that’s not okay. I will pick you up at the office if that is how it is supposed to be done. Frankly, I don’t see what’s wrong if I come up to your classroom.”

“Just forget it,” said Miriam, pushing through the doors leading outside. She knew it wasn’t her father’s fault. She loved her father, but sometimes he made things hard for her without even intending to. He just didn’t understand.

The morning after the dance, Miriam complained to her mother about her father chaperoning at the dance. “Did any of the kids stay away from you because he was there? Was there something that you would have done but didn’t because he was there?” her mother asked the next morning.

“Well, no. It’s nothing like that exactly. But, uh, but its embarrassing. Just look at him,” Miriam said, struggling to put into words exactly what she felt.

“I do look at him, and I think your father is quite handsome,” her mother replied.

“Not that. His clothes, the yarmulke, the tzitzit, and the hat, that stupid black hat. He doesn’t look like anybody else, not even other Jewish dads. It’s so embarrassing,” Miriam continued.

“Embarrassing? You don’t know what embarrassing is. In the Torah, Noah–the original Noah–became drunk after the flood, took off all his clothes, and passed out naked on the floor. Now that’s embarrassing! Your father is a Jew, an observant Jew,” said her mother. “How do you expect him to look?”

“I just wish he didn’t look so different, at least in public,” Miriam said quietly.

“You know what Noah’s oldest children did when they saw their father? They covered him up with a blanket so he wouldn’t embarrass himself. They knew what was right. They protected their father and respected him, and God blessed them for it.”

Miriam loved her father, but she couldn’t imagine how she could protect him. The original Noah’s kids had it easy. They just had to throw a blanket over their father. They didn’t have to deal with lots of other kids in school or say anything. Like when she wanted to say something to the boy when her father came to pick her up that day at school but she couldn’t think of anything to say. She knew, however, what the kids said about her father. They made fun of his Jewish appearance and clothing and mannerisms. Some kids didn’t want to carpool with her because they didn’t like riding with him. The nicer ones called him Mr. Rules and Regulations. A few called him the rules Nazis or the Gestapo. Other than glare at them, she didn’t know what to say so she said nothing. “Please, just don’t let him chaperone anymore school dances,” she asked. Her mother agreed; she understood.

Miriam loved her father and would love to defend him like Noah’s children did in the Torah, but she didn’t know how. And even she had to admit that he looked kind of silly compared to the other dads. They wore baseball caps outdoors but he wore black felt hat, a fedora, over his kippah. It looked like he stepped out of a movie or just got off a boat from the old country. And she was afraid of what her friends would say. And he was strict about rules. Sometimes she wished he were more flexible at least when it came to her friends. It was one thing to be strict with her in their house, but it was something else when she was off doing something with her friends.

She remembered the time she and some girlfriends were going to a dance at the Jewish Community Center, the JCC. None of the other parents were able to drive so her father agreed to drive. He was always willing to drive Miriam and her friends or pick them up. Some of her friends thought that was how he spied on what they were doing. Yes, he always wanted to know where she was going and what she was doing and who she was with, but it wasn’t spying. It was just being a parent, she thought.

For the JCC dance, he picked up Jessica and then Ann. When they arrived at Sarah Martin’s house, she came out wearing a really short skirt and a tight top with spaghetti straps and her belly button was showing. The moment she got into the car her father declared that he wouldn’t take her to the dance unless she put on something decent.

“But this is what I always wear to JCC dances, Mr. Levine,” Sarah protested.

“Do your parents know what you are wearing? Do they approve of this outfit?”

Sarah hesitated a moment and then said yes.

Mr. Levine put the car in park, turned off the ignition, and started to get out of the car. “I want to hear them tell me that directly.”

“Wait. They’re not home,” Sarah explained.

“Then we can call them on the phone,” Mr. Levine insisted.

“We can’t. I don’t know how to reach them.”

“Then I guess it is up to me, and I’m not driving to the dance until you put on something decent to wear in public.”

Miriam felt she should say something. Of course she wouldn’t dare wear an outfit like that in public. And she knew Ann and Jessica would not be allowed to go out wearing that kind of outfit, but she didn’t say anything. She even felt Sarah went a little too far and actually agreed with her father. Here was an opportunity to defend her him, she thought, but she sat there embarrassed and said nothing.

“I can wait here all evening or I can take you girls home right now,” said Mr. Levine.

Sarah went inside and changed. Miriam could easily guess what Sarah would say to the kids in school. Mr. Rules and Regulations, the rules Nazis, strikes again.

But that wasn’t nearly as bad as the time she invited Davida, a girl she didn’t know very well, to her house. They were playing on the computer and hitting various Internet sites for teens. They looked at a journal Miriam and some of her other friends kept on a website. Then Davida showed her another site where she kept a personal page.

Miriam and her brother each have computers at home in their bedrooms. Those computers, however, aren’t connected to the Internet. The only computer in the house connected to the Internet is in the family room so it isn’t exactly private. Davida’s personal page was titled Sucky Girls and named girls she didn’t like and described all the things she didn’t like about those girls. Miriam scrolled through the page. She didn’t know most of the girls. The few she did know she didn’t think were so bad. In fact, some of them were kids she liked.

“How can you say some of this stuff? It’s not even true,” Miriam asked.

“It’s just for fun. Everyone knows I’m just goofing on them. Don’t worry. Nobody takes it seriously. It’s just for fun,” Davida replied.

Miriam’s father had entered the room looking for a book on the shelves by the computer. Miriam and Davida had been so absorbed in the website they didn’t notice him at first. When they did notice him, he was reading Davida’s web page.

“You find writing hateful things like this fun?” Mr. Levine asked in his most sarcastic tone. Miriam braced for her father to launch into one of his Mr. Rules and Regulations lectures and she couldn’t really blame him. She found Davida’s web page pretty offensive too.

“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a personal web page. Nobody takes it seriously. Probably nobody even sees it,” said Davida.

“It’s on the Web. Millions of people can see it. What if those girls see it? Will they find it funny or will they be hurt? Would you like somebody to write these things about you?”

“I mean it’s just a stupid website. You don’t have to make such a big deal about it. It’s nothing,” argued Davida.

“I don’t think it is nothing, and I don’t believe you think it is nothing either. Have you proudly showed this to your parents?”

“My parents are divorced,” Davida replied.

“That doesn’t matter. You still must talk to at least one of them. Did you show it to either of them?”

“No, they wouldn’t be interested,” Davida mumbled.

“We’ll see,” said Mr. Levine, picking up his book and leaving the room.

Davida turned to Miriam. “Is your father always weird like this?”

“I guess so. He studies a lot of Torah and Talmud and believes the Second Temple was destroyed because people were hateful. So, he doesn’t like hateful things,” said Miriam.

“You mean he believes that old stuff? Do you?”

Miriam knew she should say yes, he believes it and she does too, sort of, but she didn’t.

That evening Miriam’s father told her that he called Davida’s home and talked with her mother about the website. She had no idea what Davida was doing with her website. “Do you know what that kind of personal, groundless hate talk leads to?” he asked Miriam.

“No, not really. To the destruction of the Temple, I guess,” answered Miriam.

“Yeah, well the Temple is already gone. I’m more concerned about the alienation and the violence and the suicide it could lead to today. It’s more than just goofing if it drives a child to deliberately take an overdose of pills or sneak a gun into school and start blowing away people. And those things do happen as you know.”

Miriam felt his disappointment in her although he didn’t criticize her explicitly. Instead, he gave her a hug and kiss. Even worse was her disappointment in herself. She knew Davida’s website was wrong, but she didn’t speak out, at least not very strongly.

Predictably, word got around school that Miriam’s father had told Davida’s mother about the website and she made her take it down. “Your father’s a real dork,” one girl said, walking by her. Miriam didn’t know what to say.

The school dance matter was pretty much forgotten by everyone over the next few weeks. Miriam, Ann, and Jessica spent a lot of time together. They were part of a loose circle of friends who played in the school orchestra and worked on the school newspaper. A few, including Miriam, played sports, mainly soccer or field hockey. Miriam’s parents generally approved of her choice of friends, and gave her some freedom to come and go. Of course, she had to have all her schoolwork finished before she went anywhere, and she had to tell them where she was going, who would be there, and when she would return.

Sometimes her mother or father called one of her friend’s parents just to check. Her parents, she and her friends agreed, were stricter than anyone else’s parents. Mr. and Mrs. Rules and Regulations. Still, they were always willing to give Miriam and her friends rides to places and pick them up. The rides probably were part of how her parents checked up on her, but she and her friends didn’t really mind most of the time. They needed the rides, and the other parents usually said they were too busy. One or the other of Miriam’s parents always made themselves available for chauffer duty.

Especially her father. Once her father even told her: “If you ever find yourself someplace and you need help–even someplace you know we don’t approve of–you can always call me or your mother, no matter what. It is more important that you be safe than whether we’d be angry.” She insisted she would never get herself into a situation like that. “But just in case you do, you can always call us,” he repeated.

Months later Miriam told her parents that she was going to meet Ann and Jessica and they were going to the house of another girl, Carol. Miriam didn’t know Carol very well, but Jessica’s parents were friends with Carol’s parents so the girls were friends. Miriam promised to be home by dinner. But when the four girls got together they decided to go to the nearby shopping mall.

Miriam didn’t want to go at first. She knew her parents didn’t like the idea of hanging out at the mall, and she hadn’t told her parents she was going there. “I have to buy a birthday present for my mom. Besides, we’ll still be back for you to get home by supper,” said Carol. Miriam was uncomfortable about it, but she went along. They walked to the nearby mall.

At the mall they went into music stores and listened to the latest releases. They forgot all about buying a birthday present. They bought some snacks. Then they checked out some of the newest clothing styles, but soon they got bored. They were thinking of leaving when they bumped into some older boys from school, mainly friends of Carol, who sometimes hung out with a faster sort of crowd. One of them had a car, and they were going to a party. They invited the girls. Miriam knew she shouldn’t go, but it did sound fun and exciting. And it was just the afternoon. What harm could it be? The boy had his mother’s van. They all piled in.

Miriam didn’t know the boy who was having the party although she had heard of him. He was a troublemaker at school. His parents were away for the day. It seemed like a million kids were crowded into the house when they arrived. At first it was fun. Kids were playing music on the stereo real loud. In another room a couple of kids turned on the big screen TV and were watching a loud music video.

Pretty soon, however, some kids found liquor in the house and a lot of kids began drinking it. Another found pills–prescription drugs–in the parents’ bedroom. Some kids started taking the pills and drinking liquor. Miriam, Ann, Jessica, and Carol were getting scared. Then some of the older boys started pushing liquor at them and threw their arms around them. The girls wanted to leave, even Carol, but they weren’t sure how to get home. It was way too far to walk.

They needed a ride, but the boys who brought them had no intention of leaving. They were drinking the liquor and taking pills too. In fact, Miriam decided she wouldn’t even get into the car if the boy drove. His eyes looked funny and he could barely stand up. Another boy kept trying to pull Jessica onto a sofa. “We have to call one of our parents for a ride,” Jessica said urgently. However, each girl was afraid to call her parents.

“They would kill me if they knew I was here,” said Ann. Jessica’s parents would be furious too. As they were trying to decide what to do, a few kids pushed past them holding up a boy.

“Get him to the bathroom fast,” one boy said.

But before they could get past the Miriam and the other girls, the boy being helped suddenly threw up. The stream of liquid hit the floor and splashed onto Carol’s sneakers and jeans. “Hey, watch out, you asshole,” she screamed. It really smelled.

“We gotta get out of here,” Jessica insisted. Then Miriam remembered what her dad once said about getting into bad situations. “I can call my dad. He’ll come for us,” she volunteered.

“Don’t do that. Your father is the rules Nazis. He’ll tell all our parents. Then we’ll be in trouble,” Carol argued even as she was trying to wipe clean her sneaker with an old Kleenex tissue.

“Then call your stupid parents,” said Miriam in exasperation and anger.

“I can’t do that. They’d kill me if they found out I was here,” Carol admitted.

“Then I’m calling my father. He’ll come and get us, and whatever he does, it won’t be as bad as staying here,” Miriam declared. The party was getting noisier and crazier by the minute. Some kids were getting very rough and breaking things. “You can stay here if you like, but I’m leaving now,” she announced. Miriam found a phone in the kitchen.

All four girls were standing on the street outside the house when her father pulled up. Ann, Jessica, and Carol had decided it was better to go with Miriam than stay at the party any longer. “What’s happening in there that you didn’t want me to come to the door?” he asked, suspiciously.

“Nothing much, just a lot of kids being obnoxious. What’s for supper?” asked Miriam, trying to change the subject.

Her father wouldn’t change the subject. Instead, he kept asking questions and he didn’t accept evasive answers. Before long the girls spilled all that was going on in the house–the liquor and the drugs and throwing up on Carol’s shoes and breaking things. He stopped the car. “I’m calling the police right now,” he said and pulled out his cell phone.

“You can’t!” shouted Carol in a panic. “You’ll get them in trouble. They’ll think we’re assholes for telling on them. You can’t. You’ll turn us all into outcasts, lepers, whores. They’ll think were the worst kind of bitches.”

Carol was right about what the kids would think of them, Miriam thought, but her father was right too. The party was way out of hand. She was scared. “No. Dad’s right. You know about mixing alcohol and drugs. They could get real sick. Someone could even die,” argued Miriam, jumping to her father’s defense. Jessica and Ann quietly agreed with her.

Acting on the call from Miriam’s father, the police quickly arrived at the party. More kids were throwing up. A couple of others had already passed out from the combination of liquor and drugs. Several were rushed to the hospital in ambulances. On the TV news that night, a doctor said several of the kids might have died if they hadn’t gotten help as fast as they did.

Miriam expected to be severely punished. She had gone off without telling her parents where she was, and she had done things she knew were wrong. She expected the worst when her father came into her room. “You called me when you were in a bad situation, so I don’t feel I can punish you. You already know what you did was wrong. I think you’ve learned a very good lesson. And, I’m thankful to God that nobody died.”

“I did learn a lesson, more than one,” whispered Miriam, contritely. She was also thinking about how she finally had stood up for her father in front of her friends, how she had defended his decision to call the police. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something, more than she had ever done before.

“But, there is still the problem of all the damage done to that family’s home. I have spoken on the phone with some of the other parents,” her father continued. “Although I believe you didn’t do the damage, you were there. We decided that all the kids will have to help pay for the damage and help clean up the house. That means you and Ann and Jessica and Carol too. Their parents concur.”

“I’ll use my babysitting money,” Miriam agreed. She had worked hard for that money and was planning to use it for a big trip with the synagogue youth group.

Her father gave her a kiss and a hug. As he was leaving her room, he paused: “Thank you for sticking up for me when I stopped to call the police. I appreciated your support. I know it is hard to tell on other kids, and your friends think I’m a creep. But we may have saved somebody’s life by not waiting until we got home to call.”

Miriam hugged him again: “I don’t think you’re a creep, and I don’t care if they do.” Then, remembering the story her mother told of the biblical Noah, “I guess I am Noah’s child in more ways than one. I love you.”