Miriam sets her suitcase on her twin bed and carefully begins to place her folded clothes inside, taking her time. Her pink bedspread and sheets are already packed up in a cardboard box across her room. She only has a few more hours left in this bedroom and she’s trying to savor the last moments she has in it. Miriam has conflicted feelings about moving. This has been her home for the past 14 years since she was born. When Miriam hears songs about California on the radio, she hears people sing about beaches, palm trees, and sun-kissed skin. And maybe some girls from her school are living the reality of those songs. The Catholic ones. The Protestant ones. But not the ones who go to synagogue on Saturdays instead of cheerleading or surfing practice. Not the ones whose parents own the only Kosher bakery in town. Not Miriam.
“Mom said our new house has a pool!” Aaron, Miriam’s little brother, shouts as he barges into Miriam’s room. His lizard, Otis, is balanced on Aaron’s shoulder. Otis’s golden eyes are glaring at Miriam from his perch.
“Ever heard of knocking?” Miriam yells at Aaron as she throws a balled-up sock at his head.
“Ouch!” Aaron says as he rubs the phantom pain on his brow. “I was just coming to tell you about the pool. That’s all!”
“I know about the pool, Aaron. Don’t you think mom already told me about it?” she lectures him, wanting to get him out of her room since she’s about to be stuck in their van with him for the next few hours.
“Geez, Louise,” Aaron whines as he kicks the balled-up sock back towards Miriam. “I’m just excited, that’s all.” He sulks out of the room, leaving the door wide open behind him. Miriam rolls her eyes and walks over to close the door. She can hear the movers downstairs loading all the boxes into the massive truck outside.
“Careful with the china cabinet!” her mom’s voice echoes up the stairway. Miriam softly closes her door and sits down on her bare mattress. She knows her parents are trying to make light of the situation by hyping up the pool in the new house. But how can they just act like this is all okay and normal?
Last month, someone vandalized her parent’s bakery. “SEND THEM BACK!” it had said. When Miriam had strolled up to the bakery after school, she found her dad scrubbing the graffiti off the front windows. “Send who back?” Miriam had asked him naively.
“Oh, must have just been some kids messing around,” her dad had told her. “Nothing to worry about honey,” he had said as he leaned over and kissed the top of her head. “Go on in and get a bagel or something to eat.”
Miriam didn’t think much of it again. But then a week later, Miriam’s whole neighborhood woke up to little baggies outside on their driveways filled with rocks and flyers that read, “Jews caused COVID.” Apparently, the baggies had been given out to all of the houses surrounding their synagogue, the only synagogue in their town. Miriam’s dad had called the police when he discovered the baggie. She overheard him telling the officer about the bakery being vandalized too.
“Our safety is being threatened,” her dad had said to the officer, as the policeman wrote down his statement. Miriam’s eyebrows had raised when she heard her dad say this.
“Almost packed?” Miriam’s mom opens her door and peeks inside. Miriam had packed up most of her room last week. She’s just finishing up the last few items.
“Yup,” Miriam says, trying to force out a smile to her mom. She stares as her mom walks over and sits on her bed.
“You doing ok, Mir?” her mom asks her, stretching out her arms for Miriam to fall into them. Miriam accepts her embrace and goes to rest on her mom’s lap, still not too big to be comforted by her.
“I’m just nervous about going somewhere new,” she admits as she picks at her fingernails. She doesn’t want to complain since she knows this was a difficult choice for her parents to make.
“I know, sweetie, but we can’t stay here,” her mom reveals, not going into anymore details. Miriam had overheard two women whispering last week at Shabbat that they had been getting bomb threats. She has also seen a handful of synagogues on the news that have had shootings. She understands why her parents want to take them somewhere safer.
“Is dad opening up a new bakery?” she asks her mom anxiously.
“Not a bakery. He and Uncle Sal bought a Kosher deli. You can eat pastrami every day if you want,” her mom chuckles as she squeezes Miriam tight. “Los Angles has a much more diverse community than here,” she explains as she fixes the brain in Miriam’s hair. “You won’t have to worry about being the only Jewish girl in school. Or being the only girl having a bat mitzvah.”
Miriam tries to imagine herself having Jewish friends. Sure, she has a couple friends at her synagogue. But they aren’t in her grade and don’t go to her high school. When she had invited some non-Jewish girls from her class to her bat mitzvah two years ago, they had giggled and looked at her like she had three heads. “It’s just like a birthday party…sorta,” Miriam had said, her face crimson red. She could hear their imaginary laughs as she recited prayers and readings in Hebrew. She could see their stares glaring at her brother and father’s yarmulkas. Feel their whispers as she was raised into the air during the Hora. “But I may just do a sleepover, I’m not sure yet,” she had said as she grabbed the invitations out of their hands and scurried into the bathroom. That afternoon after school, she had told her mom that she just wanted to keep her bat mitzvah small, no friends from school.
“Are you sure sweetie?” her mom had asked her. “You can invite as many people as you want. 100 if you want.”
“I just want to keep it small if that’s ok,” Miriam had lied. She didn’t want to tell her that she couldn’t face the embarrassment of the girls from school seeing this side of her. Seeing her be Jewish. She already felt left out enough.
“Whatever you want, it’s your day,” her mom has said. Miriam had felt guilty for some reason lying to her mom. Her cousin, Sarah, had had a huge Bat Mitzvah last year and her parent’s, Sal and Elaine, had seemed so proud of her.
Aaron opens Miriam’s bedroom door again, warily this time, and comes inside making sure Miriam isn’t holding another sock to throw at his head. Her mom unlatches one arm from Miriam and welcomes Aaron and Otis into her nook. As he nuzzles into them both, her mom kisses him on the head.
“We leave in about an hour, you two,” she says as she gives them one last squeeze. “So, make sure you have everything packed up from your rooms so the movers can get it all out.” Her mom’s squeeze presses out any last fear that Miriam has. She’s ready to go to a place where she fits in. A place where she’s not the only Jewish girl in school. As her mom and Aaron get up from her bed, Miriam turns towards her suitcase and zippers it up. She gets out the phone from her pocket and opens up her Spotify app: “California girls we're unforgettable, daisy dukes bikinis on top, sun-kissed skin so hot we'll melt your popsicle…” Maybe Miriam’s town in California has just been the wrong one. People wouldn’t be writing so many songs about a place unless there was something special about it. “You could travel the world, but nothing comes close to the golden coast…”