The first time Lena Goldstein skipped out of after-school Hebrew lessons, she thought someone would tell on her, but to her great surprise, no one seemed to notice. She simply pedaled her new Schwinn Stingray to her favorite place to think.
A heavy wrought iron fence surrounded the entire cemetery. The gate was latched but never locked. Lena propped her bicycle against the tall cement pillar that held up a bronze angel, arms outstretched, wings spread wide. She walked past the caretaker’s building and zigzagged through the graveyard. Lena was fascinated by the detailed engravings on the monuments and was amazed that many people’s births and deaths dated all the way back to the early 1800s.
She plunked down next to a headstone under a cluster of pine trees. She looked at the words etched into the heavy granite: William “Anders” Anderson b. 1887 d. 1969. Loving father and grandfather. Eighty-two when he died. That’s how old her Zayde was right now. Lena was glad her grandpa was still alive. She loved the times when the two of them went to the lake and skipped stones, or when he took her to Dairy Queen and gave her the cherry from the top of his turtle sundae.
The strong crisp smell of pine needles made her think back to the first time she’d sat in this exact spot. It was after an argument with her parents. Lena had wanted to try out for the spring musical. She loved to sing more than anything.
“There’ll be plenty of time for school plays next year. You only have one bat mitzvah.” Her mother smiled and cupped Lena’s cheek.
Her parents had made such a big deal about her upcoming bat mitzvah ceremony and how she was growing into a young woman and how proud her grandparents would be when she became an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community. Lena didn’t see the point in learning an ancient language and trying to memorize the haftorah portion from the Bible when she had no clue what it meant.
“But…but, I’m practically the only Jewish kid in seventh grade. I’ll make new friends if I join drama club.”
“No, ifs, ands or buts,” Lena’s mother said.
“Everything will turn out fine, honey. You’ll see.” Her father pulled Lena in close and gave her a hug.
She had gone along with it at first, but when the drama teacher announced that Wilson Junior High would be putting on Lena’s all-time favorite musical, she made up her mind. She wouldn’t tell her parents about auditions and she wouldn’t tell her parents she had skipped Hebrew school to practice for the tryouts—more than once.
A scaly pinecone poked Lena’s thigh. She pulled it out from underneath her leg, tossed it away and headed home.
The next morning Lena’s mom asked her twice to clear the breakfast dishes. At school, she chewed on the end of her pencil, fidgeted with her braids and didn’t hear the teacher call on her in class. All she could think about was the play.
Lena never believed in lucky charms or superstitions. Not like her Bubbe, who would spit three times to ward off the evil eye or tug on her left ear whenever she sneezed. But today, she was hoping the stars would be in her favor. Lena clutched her comedy/tragedy charm bracelet. She wished for an ounce of good luck. She crossed her fingers behind her back. She hoped that she got the lead in The Wizard of Oz. When she blew on her mood ring and the color changed to nervous muddy brown, instead of joy and optimism blue, she decided it was best to leave things up to fate.
A sea of students flooded out of class after the final bell. Kids headed to intramural sports practice and band rehearsal. Cheerleaders bounced to the gymnasium in their colorful uniform skirts and saddle shoes.
“There she is. Lena!” Barb yelled.
“Hurry up! The cast list is gonna be posted any minute.” Tracy Jean chimed in from across the hall.
“We’ve been waiting forever,” Barb said. She slammed her locker and spun the combination lock.
“Mr. Bowman kept us late. Pop quiz,” Lena said. “See.” She waved a piece of paper with an A and the words Good Job circled in red at the top of the page.
“Brains and a beautiful voice. I’m jealous.” Barb twisted her blond ponytail.
“But my voice cracked during tryouts.” Lena bit her bottom lip.
“You could sing off key and still have the best chance at getting Dorothy,” Tracy Jean said. “C’mon, let’s find out.”
The girls hooked their arms together and started to sing. “Follow the yellow brick road, follow, follow, follow, follow…,” they giggled and headed toward the auditorium.
A bunch of kids were already crowded outside the stage door waiting for Ms. Breidenbach, the drama director. “Here she comes!”
Barb squeezed her eyes shut. “I can’t look.”
“I’ll be happy if I get any part. Even a munchkin. We represent the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild,” Tracy Jean sang in a squeaky high-pitched voice.
Ms. Breidenbach tacked up the list. “Congratulations to everyone who auditioned. Rehearsals start next week. Check the posted schedule.”
The Wizard of Oz Cast List
Dorothy: Lena Goldstein
Aunt Em: Tammy Bolgert
Uncle Harry: David Kurtz
The Wizard: Brent Byers
Glinda: Susan Brown
Wicked Witch: Patricia Greer
Tin Man: Barb Eglund
Scarecrow: Brian Johnson
Lion: George Ramirez
Munchkins: Maria Pepitone, Bill Porter, Krista Jorden, Bob Meyer, Tracy Jean Connors
“Whoa, Lena…you did it, you got Dorothy.” Tracy Jean said.
Lena stared at the list. “I can’t believe I got the lead. I’m shaking.”
“Congratulations to all of us!” Barb made robotic Tin Man motions with her arms and in a creaky voice said, “Oil can…Dorothy, I need oil.”
“Let’s go to the mall and celebrate. My mom can give us a ride.” Tracy Jean jumped up and down.
“Sounds like fun, but I better get going.” Lena bit the inside of her cheek. She shifted from one leg to the other. How would she tell her parents the truth?
Lena took the long way home from school. She imagined belting out Somewhere Over the Rainbow on opening night. The thought made her stomach flutter. But when she pictured herself standing on the bema in front of the entire congregation, she felt sick inside. “Mom and dad can’t force me to have a bat mitzvah. I should be able to decide for myself,” Lena grumbled under her breath.
She wheeled her bicycle to the far corner of the backyard. The tires formed a fresh rutty path along the edge of the flowerbed. She planted her forehead against the plum tree and pulled on a clump of hard purple fruit.
“Mom. Lena rode her bike on the grass!” Lena’s little brother Joey stood at the back door, his hand stuck deep inside a box of frosted flakes.
Lena’s mom let the screen door slam, hesitated on the stoop and pulled her cardigan tight. “I got a call from the rabbi telling me you haven’t been to Hebrew school in almost three weeks. What is going on?” She didn’t wait for Lena to answer. “Where have you been all this time?”
Lena lowered her eyes and twisted the handgrips on her bike. She swallowed hard. “I…HATE…BEING…JEWISH!” she screamed. Tree limbs quivered, squirrels scattered and the next-door neighbor’s old dachshund whimpered from behind the hedge. “You can’t make me have a bat mitzvah!” Lena choked out the words. Tears washed over her cheeks soaking the top of her Cats sweatshirt.
Lena’s mother crossed the lawn. “Honey, tell me what this is all about?”
“Why did we have to leave Milwaukee and move to such a small town?”
Lena’s dad walked outside. “What’s all the fuss?”
“She’s going all bonkers.” Joey stretched the corners of his mouth and stuck out his tongue.
I, I… got the lead in the play and I’m going to be in it, no matter what you say.” Lena looked down at the ground and kicked at the grass.
“What? You did? The lead?” Her mother said.
“Dorothy. In The Wizard of Oz,” she said without looking up.
“I thought we had this figured out months ago.” Lena’s mom put her hands on her hips. “We decided that there would be plenty of opportunities to be in plays. You’ve got four more years of school.”
“You decided, not me. Not everything has to revolve around being Jewish. I can’t back out now.”
Lena’s dad rubbed his chin. “We didn’t know you felt this way.” He walked toward Lena and offered her his outstretched hand.
She avoided his grasp. “Well, now you do.” Lena yanked her bike up by the handlebars, swung her leg over the banana seat and took off down the driveway.
“Oh, boy, is she ever in trouble,” Joey said.
Lena pedaled hard the four blocks to the cemetery. She let her bike fall against the fence, ran past the bronze angel and straight for the pine tree next to the Anderson grave.
“They’ll never understand.” Lena backed against the tree.
“Who won’t understand?”
Lena jumped. “Huh?”
An older boy stood on the other side of the pine tree. He wore a red and tan high school football jersey with the name Anders across the back in bold block letters.
“Oh…nothing. I didn’t know anyone was here.” She wiped her nose with the sleeve of her sweatshirt and turned to walk away.
“Are you okay?” Anders asked.
“Sure.” Lena sniffled.
“Did you know my granddad? I saw you here once, but you rode off on that cool bike of yours.”
“Uh, no. I like to sit here sometimes. The pine trees…the quiet.” Lena lowered her head. “My parents were hassling me about some stuff at home. It’s not important.”
“Families can be a real pain—right? I came to tell my granddad that I finally did it. Got my Eagle Scout.” He held out a shiny silver eagle medal hanging on a red, white and blue ribbon.
“Wow, neat,” Lena said. “Isn’t being an Eagle Scout a really huge deal?”
“It is in my family. They’re into scouting, big time. God—my parents were always on my case.” He tucked a loose lock of hair behind his ear. “You have to earn all sorts of merit badges. Can you imagine the guys on the team seeing me wear the sash, not to mention those nerdy knee socks?”
“That would be embarrassing.” Lena rolled her eyes.
“And the community service project right during JV football season.”
“You had to do a mitzvah?”
“What’s that?” Anders asked.
“Oh…mitzvah’s the Hebrew word for good deed.”
“Anders nodded his head. “Yeah, I guess I did. Are you Jewish?”
“Cool.” Anders put the medal on top of the headstone. “I did this for my granddad. He was an Eagle Scout and so was my dad.”
“You did both? Got your Eagle Scout and you’re on the football team?”
“Yep. It was hard, but I’m glad I did.”
Lena stooped down and picked up some pebbles. She set one next to the medal. “A Jewish custom to let others know you’ve come for a visit.” She handed him one of the small rocks. “Go ahead. Right here, like I did.”
“Okay.” He placed the stone next to hers.
Lena took Anders’ scout medal and handed it back to him. “Keep this. You might want to look at it sometimes. To remember your grandfather and all the memories you made.”
Anders held the medal tight between his fingers. “Thanks.” He smiled at her.
Lena ran her fingertips over the thick, scaly bark of the tree. “I gotta get going.”
“I need to talk something over with my parents.”
“Maybe I’ll see you around,” Anders said.
“Sure. See ya.” Lena dashed through the cemetery, grabbed her bike and pumped her pedals hard, all the way home.
Can you say Pulitzer? Susie, great job.
Well done, Susie! Congrats.
Beautifully written. Kept getting better an better.
Delightful story, Susie. Loved the writing!