Reading “Portnoy’s Complaint” at a Jewish Community Center

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Never heard of Portnoy’s Complaint ? Neither had I, until someone lent it to me. The yellow cover made me think of a pizza place owner’s mid-life crisis convertible, and “Philip Roth” emblazoned on the side was the deal-breaker. From then on, every time I looked at it I would think of highly literate, banana-eating apes, our humble ancestors, sporting sideburns and fedora hats with du vraie fierté.

And so came my first day temping as a receptionist at the JCC. The staff is really welcoming, but I have to say “Shalom” every time I pick up the phone. What is this ? It’s like I’m in some hippie commune as a receptionist, but instead of saying “Namaste,” I say “Shalom”. These Jewish people are friendly but distant, like kind aliens from Cuba.

Some are Sephardic, some are Ashkenaz, but all of them have one thing in common : they love matzah balls. One lady even walked in with a pair dangling from her ears. It’s like an epidemic, it’s everywhere. Unfortunately, it can’t be cured. If that rank, stuffy lobby smelled of anything other than these doughy Jewish treats, I would be disappointed. I mean, come on. This is a place where Jews come together to do the things they do best : raise money, cook, and schmooze for hours.

I knew when I walked across the parking lot that this would be different from New Delhi. The women were dropping phrases like Bermuda and botox, not bananas and breast milk. Gone were the days when I would eat red curry paste from the jar and stare at a blob suckling large brown breasts every three hours. The glory of showing a grown woman how to make a frittata has long since faded from my memory.

Instead, I face the Jewish community at large with a smile on my face and a nicotene patch on my arm. I give children pretzels and scan basketball schedules, appeasing North Shore mothers experiencing severe lox withdrawal syndrome. Like Moses, I part the sea of doubt with my good deeds and compassionate will. Unlike Moses, I eat pork and use contraception.

Turns out that life as a Jewish reject isn’t all myrrh and frankincense.

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