It is not an easy thing for an Orthodox Jewish girl to be saddled with the name of a gentile temptress responsible for destroying a famous Jewish hero. When Delilah’s father filled in her name in the Hebrew Academy day school application form, the rabbi/administrator assumed it was a mistake, a feeble attempt on the part of some clueless, nonreligious Jew to find a Hebrew equivalent for Delia, or Dorothy. “You are aware, Mr. Goldgrab, that in the Bible, Delilah seduced Samson and is considered a wicked whore by our sages?” he pointed out as gently as he could.
“Well now, you don’t say?” Delilah’s father drawled, his six-foot two-inch frame towering over the little man, who nervously clutched his skullcap. “Just so happens it was my mother’s name.”
Our first meeting with Delilah was in second grade out on the punch ball fields of the Hebrew Academy of Cedar Heights on Long Island. Punch ball was a Jewish girl’s baseball without the bat. You just made the hardest fist you could and wham! – started to run. When you hit that ball, you took out all your anger, all your angst, all your frustration. You ran and ran and ran and ran, hoping you’d hit it hard enough so that no one could catch it or you, and send you back to first base –or worse- throw you out of the game altogether.
The privilege of hitting the punchball was not to be taken for granted. Each recess, teams were picked anew by captains, who were, by mutual agreement, the prettiest and richest girls in the class. Everyone who wanted to play lined up and just waited for the magic summons. And as in life, some girls—like rich, snobby Hadassah Mittelman—were always the captains, and some girls, like me, were never asked to play. Never.
We knew who we were and finally slipped away. But there were others- like Delilah- that sometimes made it in. Girls like her always had it the hardest. To almost make it was a far crueler fate that to be permanently relieved of hope.
The world was a simple place back then, neatly divided between those of us who got the little blue admission cards in the mail at the start of each new term because our parents had paid the full tuition; and those who got them at the last minute, only after much parental groveling and pleading had pried them from the tightfisted grip of the merciless rabbi/administrator in charge. It was a world divided between those who had cashmere sweaters and indulgent fathers who dropped them off at school in their big cars because they lived in even more upscale neighborhoods further out on the Island and those who shivered in scratchy wool on public buses coming from the opposite direction.
Delilah took the bus, but she also had a cashmere sweater, the most glorious color pink, that seemed to float around her shoulders like angel hair. Rumor had it that her mother had actually knitted it for her, from scratch; a rumor which cruelly denied her the status conferred by ownership.
This was no doubt true. Mrs. Goldgrab was a woman of scary heaviness, with bad skin and glasses with rhinestone frames that made her eyes contract into hard, river stones. She worked full-time in some low-level office job that computers have permanently wiped off the employment map, and in her spare time was a seething cauldron of unfulfilled social ambitions, thwarted at every turn by impassable roadblocks. One of the largest was her husband: a tall, lanky man with a shocking Texas accent who worked as a mechanic in a local car repair shop. If anyone ever ran into him in his uniform and mentioned it, Delilah was mortified. Over the years, she adopted the same attitude towards him as her mother: he was something she had to put up with, but he wasn’t an asset.
From the beginning, Mrs. Goldgrab had plans for Delilah. Big plans. She wanted her to be popular with the right girls. To be invited to their birthday parties. She hoped to be able to drop her off at Tudor mansions in Woodmere, and be casually invited in for coffee, where she would chit chat with the mothers who wore pearls and Anne Taylor suits even on weekends, women who existed—along with the longed-for invitations only in her lower middle-class imagination. Even Hadassah’s mother wore jeans on weekends. And no one wanted to chit chat with Mrs. Goldgrab, not even her husband.
We always envied Delilah that sweater—to this day. Except that now we understand that it had meant nothing to her. What she had wanted was a store-bought sweater, the kind that Hadassah Mittelman wore. In fact, she wanted to be Hadassah Mittelman, the Rabbi’s beautiful daughter who lived in a house which had a full suit of armor standing in her hallway, guarding the grand staircase upstairs to her designer bedroom, with its ruffled canopy bed. She didn’t want to visit that house. She wanted to move in. Maybe we all did in those days. The difference was, that Delilah never got over it.
So before you judge her for the horrible things she did, please try to remember this: all Delilah Goldgrab Levi ever really wanted was to be included when they called out the names of those who were allowed to play.