The Last Days of Dogtown

When I was a moody, misunderstood high school freshman in Denver, one of the juniors I knew from my public school chorus talked me into going to a MoVFTY event in exotic Omaha. MoVFTY, the Missouri Valley Federation of Temple Youth, was the Midwest branch of the Reform Movement’s youth program.

Ralph told me not to worry about the fact that I wasn’t really friends with anyone in my own temple youth group. He said that regional events were where I would meet people who would change my life: teachers and rabbis and kids who were as smart and creative and funny as me. He flattered me shamelessly and proceeded to sell the plan to my mother, who signed the permission forms.

One event was all it took. I stayed up all night talking with a universe of new best friends.

I wrote, directed and acted in little plays on weighty themes. I learned to play the guitar and became a song leader. I helped lead creative services.

It was in NFTY that I learned the Sh ‘ma and heard Birkat Hamazon sung for the first time, and had my first experience of sleep-away camp, where I connected nature and Judaism. I also fell in love with hunky Jewish boys—sometimes twice in a single weekend.

Before my youth group experience, Jewishness had meant the Holocaust, plus a sense of pride bound up with a vague burden of obligation, and little else. NFTY provided me with models of girls as leaders—board members and event chairs and presidents—who were cool, competent and comfortable in their Jewish skins. It also connected my Jewish soul with my American identity—and joy.

Anita Diamant is the author (most recently) of The Last Days of Dogtown (Scribner, 2005), a novel, and (most famously) of The Red Tent. She has written six nonfiction guides to Jewish practice, starting with The New Jewish Wedding, and is president of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in Boston.

Esme Raji Codell

In her autobiographical book about her school days in Chicago, Codell talks about her dismay with Hebrew School after she is the one who, smartly and secretly, finds the afikomen at a communal seder:

Throughout the evening, I saw the heads of boys in the rows of guests disappear, and then reappear some minutes later, their mouths twisted with disappointment. I was at first very pleased with myself for acting so quickly, but then a worry made its way into my mind. Did or did not the rabbi say that the boy who took the afikomen could have anything? Would it matter that a giri had taken it? Were giris not supposed to want prizes? Had I behaved in an unladylike way? If it wasn’t meant for a giri, was it like stealing? Would the rabbis be angry? Would I be punished? Should I put it back? I watched as another boy’s head reappeared, and felt myself harden. No, i decided, I won’t put it back. It wasn’t fair to offer anything in the world just to boys, and I would tell them so. Better, I would show them so. I looked at the clock, i was feeling exhausted from all the worry.

Finally, when I thought the evening would never end, the last song was sung. The old rabbi stood up and the room grew quiet. “And now,” he said, “I will check under my chair to see if any boy was brave enough, clever enough, to steal the afikomen.” He looked under his chair. “It’s gone!” he exclaimed. Everyone moaned and applauded. I felt myself start to quake.