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Rock of Ages

From the archives: Love among the menorahs

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Rock of Ages, illustration by Aaron Artessa

Illustration by Aaron Artessa

Every Hanukkah, the choir at my Jewish day school performed twice: once at the school’s annual Hanukkah Celebration, and then the next day at the neighborhood’s local public school, to bring a little Hanukkah spirit to “lost” Jewish kids who were inundated with Christmas marketing and knew nothing about the miracle of Hanukkah but were more than happy to tolerate our singing if it meant missing some class. Our choir was composed of about thirty girls and twelve boys from the sixth through eighth grades.

Fact: Most kids possessed of a functioning set of testicles did not join the choir.

* * *

But I did, for the same reason that boys and men have always done stupid things: because of a girl. There were eleven other boys in the choir, and while I never confirmed it, it’s a safe bet that they were all similarly motivated. Except for this kid named Aaron Berkowitz, who could sing in a high, prepubescent mezzo-soprano that brought tears to the eyes of anyone over sixty, and whom we made fun of mercilessly because, as a general rule, mezzo-sopranos fight like girls. Also my friend Joey Weitz, who years later, to no one’s great surprise, would be the first member of our grade to officially come out. Joey’s voice had already begun to change; it squeaked like Peter Brady when he sang, and he knew it. He had joined to be ironic. But I have to believe that the rest of the boys, like me, were in it for the girls. Where else but at choir practice could an acutely shy, libidinous kid like me stand shoulder to shoulder, swaying as one, with thirty of the better-looking girls in the school, joined with them, into a single musical orifice, united under our common objective of singing complicated Israeli songs in three-part harmony and not sucking? It was the closest I would come to sex for quite some time.

The girl was Tara Wahlberg. She was a year older, already in eighth grade, but she had a learning disability that put her in some of my seventh-grade classes. I thought it was cool that she had a learning disability, a sexy bit of damage, like a butterfly tattoo. When a woman is out of your league, she has to be damaged in some way for there to be any hope. Tara had short, messy blond hair that she was growing out from last year’s ill-advised pixie cut, intense brown eyes, and full, frowning lips that parted provocatively when she sang. Her voice was nothing special, was actually a little shrill, but she could carry a tune and she sang with no fear, and thus was awarded solos regularly. When she sang, I would watch the rushed expansions of her back ribs through her polo shirt as she took her breaths, and the soft, liquid flex of the calf muscles under her skin as she rocked ever so slightly from side to side. When you’re twelve years old, that’s really all it takes, some small, unarticulated aspect of beauty you can excavate like a secret and call your own. Tara had smooth, well-formed calves and those full, creased lips, and I was in love, and you don’t need any better proof than the fact that I was willing to stay after school every Tuesday to be subjected to the steady abuse of our fat, sweaty choir director, simply to be in the same room as Tara.

Our choir director was a fearsome Israeli of accomplished girth whose name I don’t dare write even today, but suffice it to say that it lent itself quite handily to the nickname “Cock-man,” which all the boys called him behind his sweat-stained back. His temperamental outbursts were rendered more sinister by his thick Sabra accent, and the sweaty patches of scalp seen through his thinning curly hair gleamed like polished marble under the stage lights. But there was no denying Cock-man’s talent, his ability to simultaneously sing all three parts of the harmony while banging on the piano keys and shouting at us that we were idiots (pronounced eed-yots). The guy could multitask. He smelled of sour chickpeas and body odor and was known, from time to time when he was particularly irked, to violently hurl the red banquet chairs we sat on across the room. These outbursts seemed to be reserved exclusively for the boys in the choir, and we were all a little terrified of Cock-man, but love made us bold and so we soldiered on.

Whenever the choir was slated to perform, we would be excused from classes for extra rehearsals. So Hanukkah, with two major performances, was a bonanza, two entire afternoons spent out of class, in the close confines of the music theater””just Tara, me, and forty other kids. And as we practiced the various numbers relating to the miracle of Hanukkah, I fantasized about my own miracle, a carefully crafted sequence of events that culminated in Tara’s kissing me with those soft, frowning lips for a very long time. Usually this involved terrorists of unknown origin and purpose taking over the school and me utilizing my advanced-green-belt karate skills to save her, resulting in said kiss. Other times it was as simple as finding her crying in the dark hall that, for reasons I’ve never understood, ran between the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms behind the stage. That was the make-out spot of choice in our school, or so I’d heard, and in my fantasy I found her there alone, crying about her broken family and her learning disability. I would comfort her, and she would put her head on my shoulder, and then she would turn her face up to mine and, sensing my hesitation, which would be cute and appealing to her, she would put her hands on the sides of my face and guide me in to her moist, parted lips for a prolonged kiss.

Fact: It takes some doing to hide an erection while standing upright in the bass section during choir practice.

* * *

It probably doesn’t speak well for my self-esteem that, even in my fantasies, I could only ever envision someone wanting to kiss me under extreme emotional duress, but I should tell you that there had been some precedent. We had performed at the school’s annual scholarship dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria a month earlier, and since we had a few hours to kill in an empty banquet room before we went on, the school had arranged for a projector and a screening of Superman: The Movie. Through a series of carefully executed maneuvers, I ended up sitting Indian style on the floor next to Tara, and when she shifted position her bare right knee rested easily in the crook of my thigh, just below the hip. We fit together perfectly, and even when my leg fell asleep I didn’t dare move, for fear that our contact would be lost, like a distant radio signal. And then, when Margot Kidder fell out of the helicopter, Tara gasped, and when she gasped, she grabbed my arm and squeezed it. Like it was hers to grab. Like she could grab it anytime she wanted because we were tight like that.

So you see, headway had, in fact, been made.

This year we would be singing two songs new to our repertoire. A mid-tempo, modern rendition of the traditional Hanukkah song “Maoz Tzur” (Rock of Ages), and a complex Hebrew song extracted from the liturgy called “Al Ha-Nissim (On the Miracles). The “Maoz Tzur” arrangement called for a duet with a male and female singer, and when Cock-man asked for a girl, about twenty hands flew up. After a few quick tryouts, Tara landed the job, and stepped confidently into the bend of the grand piano, the accepted spot for rehearsing soloists. Then Cock-man asked for a male soloist. The only volunteers were Aaron Berkowitz, who already had three solos in the performance, and Joey Weitz, whose eyes twinkled with glee at the thought of mangling the song in front of a full auditorium. Cock-man frowned at the room, clearly displeased with his choices, and I knew this was my chance. If I raised my hand, I was a shoe-in to sing with Tara. It would mean staying late for private rehearsals, and we would be linked, however briefly, as singing partners. But even though I secretly thought I was a pretty decent singer, the prospect of singing alone had always terrified me. Only after Joey Weitz had taken his place next to Tara by the piano did I feel my hand slowly, inconspicuously rise to shoulder height and then quickly fall, the ghost of a braver version of myself who would show up from time to time but never seemed inclined to stick around.

And so we all sat quietly while Joey and Tara learned their solos, Tara staring into space as she sang, Joey belting out his squeaky rasps on key with a comic earnestness no teacher would dare call him out on, and me hating myself for being a coward in matters of the heart.

* * *

On the first day of Hanukkah, all the members of the choir came to school wearing blue and white, the national colors of Israel and the standard uniform of every Jewish day school choir under the sun. White polo shirts and navy slacks for the boys, navy or denim skirts for the girls. Tara surprised me by wearing a formal white blouse, opened at the neck to showcase a wide expanse of porcelain skin and sheer enough that, in the right light, you could make out the tantalizing outline of her bra and the twin bulbs of her emerging breasts. That shirt was a revolution, was its own little Hanukkah miracle.

That day we performed before five hundred students and teachers during the school’s afternoon Hanukkah assembly, and halfway through Joey and Tara’s solo, Joey forgot the words. Rather than fall silent, he began to sing “La la la” along with the melody, grinning as the guffaws spread like a wave across the auditorium. Anyone else would have been embarrassed, but Joey just cranked up his faux earnestness a few notches, really projecting his scratchy, pubescent La’s to the cheap seats. Not so Tara, who was clearly mortified. Her body tensed up and her voice suddenly wavered as she turned a pleading eye toward Cock-man, who looked ready to stand up and hurl his grand piano at Joey.

The moment the curtain came down, Tara fled backstage to the girls’ bathroom, face red, eyes wet. I felt bad for her, but also undeniably aroused. In my dreams, those were the tears that led to our kiss. Tara Wahlberg crying in the girls’ bathroom was nothing less than foreplay. So as Cock-man stormed the stage like it was the beach at Normandy, screaming accented bloody murder at Joey Weitz, I slipped off the stage, and then into that inexplicable dark hallway that ran behind the auditorium connecting the two bathrooms.

And there she was, my lovely, damaged Tara in her miraculous shirt, standing against the wall, weeping. But what I had failed to account for in my fantasy is the way in which eighth-grade girls are drawn like moths to melodrama. There had to be at least five other girls standing in a circle around her, rubbing her back, handing her tissues, whispering irately to one another, or just kind of looking on, waiting for some unknowable feminine call to action. When I stepped into the hall from the boys’ bathroom, they all turned as one to look at me, and it felt like one of those movies where the white guy wanders into the black bar and the band stops playing and everyone just looks at him, wondering what fart in the cosmos has brought him to this unlikely place. These were eighth-grade girls and I was a seventh-grade boy, which made me something other than a legitimate human, so I wilted under their stares and crumbled into an insubstantial pile of sawdust.

Back on the stage, Cock-man was still screaming at Joey while the rest of the choir stood by, gleefully stupefied. “You don’t deserve solo you eed-yot! You don’t even deserve this choir!” Cock-man shouted at him.

“It was a mistake,” Joey said, admirably keeping his cool in the face of Cock-man’s whirling, sweat-soaked rage.

“I make a mistake and kick your head!” This was 1981, when a teacher could say something like that without making the evening news.

“I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“Get off my choir!” Cock-man screamed, the vein in his forehead writhing like a serpent.

“I’m not standing on it!”

“You get out, now!”

And thus was Joey Weitz kicked off the choir. Cock-man sat down on his sagging piano bench and pulled out the crumpled, yellowed handkerchief he’d been using for the last decade or so to wipe his prodigiously sweating brow. “Now,” he said, rubbing his temples with thick, sausage fingers, “who will sing with Tara?”

And only after I noticed everybody looking at me kind of funny did I fully understand that I had raised my hand, which just goes to show you what the right shirt on a woman will do.

* * *

Thus, my twelfth Hanukkah brought me a twofold miracle: my singing debut and proximity to Tara Wahlberg. Because, you see, I really did think I could sing. I sang in the shower, I sang in my bed, I sang pretty much anywhere I knew no one could hear me. I sang Billy Joel, Elton John, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen. I knew, with the unshakable conviction of a twelve-year-old, that, in a pinch, I could step in to front the Electric Light Orchestra or play Danny Zuko in Grease. I was destined to be a star. All I needed was the right venue to unleash my talent on the world.

Fact: Many contemporary male novelists really wanted to be rock stars. You will find that we are suspiciously well versed when it comes to rock music. We can rattle off detailed histories of our favorite bands and singers, quote an insane amount of lyrics by heart, discuss the chord structures, list the many times we’ve seen them in concert, and scribble a list of their essential albums with no forethought at all. Many of us play instruments. Read McInerney, read Ellis, read Hornby, read King, read Rushdie and countless others, and you’ll find enough failed rock stars to people a thousand reality shows. We spent a good deal of our childhoods picturing ourselves onstage in a sold-out arena, singing our heart out for twenty-five thousand screaming fans, or sitting for an interview dressed in funky, rock-star clothes, or going to bed every night in hotel suites with sexy, scantily clad groupies who were more than happy to give it up in the name of rock and roll.

Fact: Most of us turned out not to be any good, which is why I was invited to write this story and not to do some blow off Kate Moss’s naked ass.

* * *

Cock-man kept the choir through all of our afternoon classes to rehearse, and spent a good deal of time on the “Maoz Tzur,” so that Tara and I could work it out. It shouldn’t have been difficult for me, since my part was the same melody line I’d been singing with the group, but now, no longer able to disappear into the collective voice of the choir, my voice sounded thin and shaky to me, and singing out loud felt like the dream where you show up to school without your pants. Also, Tara’s part was in a minor key a few steps higher, and when she sang I was at risk of falling off the precarious perch of my own key. Standing there beside Tara, I was overwhelmed by a potent combination of stage fright and lust, and my chest quivered every time I opened my mouth.

When Cock-man dismissed the choir, he asked if Tara and I would stay behind to practice a little more. He was concerned with our timing, with the blending of our voices. He was concerned that I might suck.

“I can stay,” Tara said, looking hopefully at me. She didn’t know me well, probably didn’t know much more than my name and that I was a seventh grader who lived about a mile away from her, where the houses got bigger, but when she turned those big eyes on me, I would have sworn she knew everything there was to know about me. It was December, when night falls shortly after lunchtime, and staying late would mean walking the six long, uphill blocks to the city bus stop with Tara, alone in the dark, just the two of us, basking in the green-and-amber glow of the Christmas lights wrapped around trees and lining the roofs of houses throughout the neighborhood. We would no doubt get to talking, and she would see that I was a good guy, funny and sincere, quietly cool. Maybe our elbows would bump lightly as we walked, and we would shiver instinctively against each other for warmth. Maybe she would talk about how mortified she’d been when Joey ruined their solo, maybe even crying again at the recollection, and I would pull my glove off to tenderly brush away her tears with my fingers before they froze on her pale, freckled skin. After that, I’d never again be the insignificant seventh grader, just a part of the random human clutter of her day school experience. I’d be the guy she sang a solo with, who wiped her tears away and made her laugh on a cold December evening.

“I can stay,” I said.

Tara smiled, and inside me cymbals clashed as the marching band strutted triumphantly down Main Street.

And so we stayed, for an extra hour, and in the privacy of the empty stage my confidence grew. I sang along with more authority, easily staying on key, and every time Tara smiled her approval, I felt a warm tremor in my loins. During a break, when Cock-man left to make a call, I sat down at the piano and absently started to play “Heart and Soul,” and after a minute she sat down beside me to play the high part, doing a bluesy little improvisation on the black keys.

“You’re good,” she said, giggling as I changed tempo.

“So are you,” I said.

“I’m doing the easy part.”

Her thigh was pressed against mine on the piano bench, our shoulders brushing lightly as we played, and I could smell her scents, lavender, coconut, and wild cherry Bubble Yum. I kept waiting for her to get bored and stop, but she kept right on playing, matching my tempo changes, leaning against me when she giggled. When I jokingly started playing too fast for her, she grabbed my hands with her own and held them prisoner for a second or two, and our heads bumped lightly. I know now that that was the moment I should have kissed her, that that was my window, and it closed as quickly as it had opened, like so many more windows would open and close with other girls in the coming years. But back then, all I knew was that I didn’t want the moment to end, and for the twenty minutes or so that we were alone at that piano, Tara Wahlberg was mine, and mine alone. Then Cock-man came back to take us through it one more time, and we stopped abruptly, right in the middle, because everyone knows how to play “Heart and Soul,’ but no one really knows how to end it.

When we stepped outside it had started to snow, like in a Christmas movie, which meant our walk up to the bus stop would be slower and even more romantic, but then Cock-man pulled up in his battered, puke-green Nova and told us he would drive us home. The car stank of Cock-man’s imported body odor. Tara sat up front with him, and when he dropped her off, she called over her shoulder to me, “See you tomorrow,” and disappeared into the gathering snow, leaving me desolate and deflated in the back of the reeking Nova. Adding insult to injury, Cock-man made me sing my part for the duration of the drive.

The next afternoon, right after lunch, we boarded the school bus that would take us to P.S. 141. I thought that maybe I’d save a seat for Tara, but by the time I got on she was already sitting in the back with a group of eighth-grade girls, and even though I looked back there repeatedly on the short ride, we never made eye contact.

The auditorium at P.S. 141 was the real deal. It was at least three times the size of the one at our school, which was really just a gym with a stage when you got right down to it, and it had theater seats on an incline and a professional sound system. By the time we arrived, the place was already filled to noisy capacity with an endless array of long-haired kids in jeans and T-shirts, two wardrobe items expressly forbidden in our school’s dress code. Girls were sitting on boys’ laps, kids were chewing gum and being rowdy and running down the aisles, and up on that giant stage, in our blue-and-white outfits and with our private school sensibilities, it felt no different to us than playing a gig at Folsom Prison. I was instantly self-conscious about my blue day school yarmulke, my parochial education, and my pleated navy pants.

When the time came for me to step forward and join Tara at the solo mikes, about halfway through the show, I was on the verge of a minor nervous breakdown. As I looked out at the crowd, I could feel my left thigh shaking uncontrollably, the small network of muscles in my cheeks twitching nervously, and I imagined that every soul in that cavernous room could see it too. And then the choir fell silent and next to me Tara took a deep breath and opened her mouth.

I don’t remember very much after that. I don’t exactly recall singing, but I remember hearing my voice floating back across the auditorium at me from the overhead speaker, thin and hollow and much too flat, not at all how I heard it in my head. I wondered if something might be wrong with the sound system. Tara swayed delicately beside me, staring heavenward as she sang, and I remember feeling intimately connected to her. And the last thing I remember, after our solo was over, was watching Tara slip back into the alto section with nary a look back at me, to be swallowed up into the blue-and-white tapestry of the choir.

I never sang another solo after that. And I never again spent any time with Tara. The social currents of junior high school swept us out to sea on our separate, preordained tides, and while I always kept an eye out for her, and she always said hi to me at choir practice, that was pretty much it. She graduated at the end of the year, and I never saw her again. In the words of the immortal Bruce Springsteen: Love’s like that, sure it is.

* * *

Every year now, I still light the candles on Hanukkah, which makes me, if nothing else, a Jewish day school success story. And when I light them, I can’t help but think of Tara Wahlberg. I wonder what became of her, if she still lights Hanukkah candles wherever she is, and if, maybe, she remembers me when she does. The miracle of Hanukkah was that a paltry amount of oil in a darkened temple burned in the menorah for eight days. For me, twenty minutes of a winter night in an empty room of a darkened school, sharing a piano bench with a pretty girl, has lasted twenty-five years. There are miracles and there are miracles. Love’s like that, sure it is.

I still play a pretty mean “Heart and Soul,” by the way. And I still have yet to figure out how it ends.

This essay originally appeared in the anthology How to Spell Chanukah, edited by Emily Franklin and published by Algonquin Books.

Jonathan Tropper is the author of the novels How to Talk to a Widower, Everything Changes, The Book of Joe, and Plan B.

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Rock of Ages

From the archives: Love among the menorahs

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