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Episode 41: Coming of Age with Judy Blume (Transcript)

Episode 41: Coming of Age with Judy Blume

Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous, and this is Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. In this episode, we revisit the classic teen novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Nahanni: ...cause that's actually, that is what most people remember of the book, I think.

Shalvah Lazarus: "I must, I must increase my bust."

Judith Rosenbaum: Right. I remember all the words to it. It's like embarrassing, but that is.

Nahanni: There are more words to it?

Judith: Yeah, it was like "The bigger, the better. The tighter the sweater. The boys will look at us."

Nahanni: Oh my God.

Nahanni: Believe it or not, it’s been fifty years since Judy Blume’s best selling novel was first published. Like many millions of people around the world, Judith Rosenbaum and I both read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret when we were pre-teens. That was in the mid 1980s. And a few months ago, we read the book again, this time with our daughters.

Shalvah: Um, I'm Shalvah Lazarus, and I'm 12 years old.

Ma'ayan Rosenbaum: I'm Ma’ayan Rosenbaum, and I am 13 years old.

Nahanni: Ma’ayan and Shalvah are just a little older than Judy Blume’s title character, Margaret: not children anymore, but not quite adults yet either. Judy Blume wrote the book to normalize the experience of teenage girls: what it’s like to have your first period, your first bra, your first kiss... what it’s like to feel uncomfortable in your own body and confused about who you are. Margaret goes through the typical teen girl rites of passage, all while questioning her own spiritual beliefs and religious identity. She comes from an interfaith home, with one Jewish parent. Judith and I talked with Shalvah and Ma’ayan about how the book stands up: what feels relevant for them, and what feels dated.

[Theme Music fades]

Nahanni: So let's talk about some of the ways that you relate to Margaret, we’ll go to you first, Ma’ayan and then Shalvah.

Ma'ayan: I mean, she's just, even though this book was written at a very different time, she's still dealing with all of the basic teenage girl struggles that anybody has to go through, like wanting to wear a real bra and wanting to get your period and wanting to be just as developed as your friends.

Shalvah: Yeah. Also, I think she says somewhere in the book, um, that like, she's like in fifth grade, I never cried. And now I cry almost every day. What's happening to me? And I can really relate because just like so much to deal with when you get to middle school.

Nahanni: So getting back to something that you said before about how you could relate to Margaret, like wanting to get her period and wanting to wear a bra for the first time. How is it to, to read about that in a character, in a book? Like what does that do for you?

Ma'ayan: It makes it feel more acceptable. Because sometimes I wonder like, well, why do I want to get my period if it's really uncomfortable, or why do I want to wear a bra if they're like a pain in the butt? But reading that somebody else who's feeling the same way makes me feel sort of like almost less alone in a way.

Nahanni: Why do you think she wants to?

Ma'ayan: I think she just wants to feel more adult. I think every kid at this age wants to feel more adult. Does they want to feel mature and they want to feel like they have some sort of control over their, over their own lives. Like they will one day or 20, or 30, or 40. Yeah.

Shalvah: Um, I just think it's like nobody's trying to compete, but, it's just, it's competitive because every girl will get it at a different time at every girl develops at a different time. That makes it competitive because everything has to be competitive in middle school. There's all lot of like body talk coming from like a lot of friends and not just those with social media, like mostly all of them, like my friends all feel the need to constantly like criticize themselves or like pretend to be like dumb or fat or something, and then, and like it really, it's really disturbing and it's not just annoying. It's disturbing.

Ma'ayan: Right. I definitely feel like at this age, it's almost cool to be insecure because whether or not every girl really is feeling insecure and are just finally glad they can express it, it seems, because it's so age appropriate to feel bad about your body, it seems like that's like the new cool. And because it's so normal, you are somehow more developed if you feel bad about yourself. Hm.

Shalvah: Well, I think the like the struggle with wanting to be wanting to develop faster has always been very like personal, and like innocent, but also and also real. But I think there's more consciousness now about people's feelings about society. So I think that's also part of the struggle, knowing that you are a part of this whole like terrible system. And knowing that you are like, you want what you're supposed to want. And so not just like the feeling of desperate, like, um, desire, but also like sort of guilt in that you're conforming to society.

Ma'ayan: I mean, I agree with Shalvah that this is definitely a time when we're starting to focus much more on the way we look rather than the way we act or the way we treat other people. And I think that I personally, like, I pay a lot more attention to how other people look. I pay a lot more attention to how I look, and I'm sure that other girls that are are judging me the same way. And I think it honestly just creates a lot of pressure.

Nahanni: To add to the pressure Margaret feels, she’s new in town. She makes a friend, but she’s worried about impressing her.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I met a girl today. Her name’s Nancy. She expected me to be very grown up. I think she was disappointed. Don’t you think it’s time for me to start growing, God? If you could arrange it I’d be very glad. Thank you.

Nahanni: One of the ways Nancy expects Margaret to be grown up is by wearing a bra... so Margaret gets her first bra. She also joins Nancy’s secret club. All club members must keep an updated “Boy Book”: a ranked list of boys they like. Margaret doesn’t have enough boys on her list for the order to change regularly, so she adds some random names. I remember doing something similar with my friends as a young teenager... maybe I got the idea from this book! But Shalvah and Ma’ayan found it offensive.

Ma'ayan: I have definitely talked with my friends about boys we would date or boys who we find attractive, but we would never put it down on paper. That just seems so mean.

Shalvah: Yeah. I thought that the like dynamic between the girls and the boys was way different. I think there was not, there was a lot less respect there, and, I mean, it's not perfect now, but the way that when there were actually boy characters communicating with Margaret, it seemed like a very sort of off-balance relationship.

Nahanni: Are you remembering a specific time or two? Like at the party?

Shalvah: Yeah, like at the party when the like they're playing the closet game. It's like, it's definitely defined that Phillip Leroy is the one who's kissing Margaret. They're not kissing each other.

Ma'ayan: I totally agree. I think that reading the book, I was desperately hoping that was not how boys would treat me at this age. First of all, like when Margaret on her birthday, he pinches her and he's like, here's the pitch to grow an inch and you know where you need to grow. Like if a boy said that to me, I would like flip out. I, they would be in the principal's office. Like that's so not okay for anybody, but especially like a boy who she finds attractive to be commenting on her chest size. That's just extremely inappropriate. And it felt like all of the female characters in the book were just like, Oh, well it's okay. This is just how life is. And you know, boys are allowed to make comments about us and we're allowed to make lists about them. Like it's just how we operate.

Nahanni: Shalvah do you think that among your friends, boys and girls, that they would describe it more like they're kissing each other? Like nowadays?

Shalvah: Yeah. I mean, there are so many different ridiculous relationship norms. Like for example, the boy normally asks a girl out. But I would...

Nahanni: You mean now, sorry.

Shalvah: Yeah.

Nahanni: That's still happening.

Shalvah: Right.

Nahanni: I had another thought about the party. The boys first suggests a different game and the girls say absolutely not. Do you remember that part?

Ma'ayan: Yes.

Nahanni: The boys suggest everybody lines up in the dark, and then the boys like by feeling are gonna say which girl is which? And I think, is it Nancy who says absolutely not?

Ma'ayan: I think that when I first heard that the feeling I got is that Nancy didn't want to do that because she didn't want them feeling whether or not she was really flat. But the whole idea just seems disgusting to me. Like totally unconsensual and totally gross. Like, I mean, all of those party games are not great.

Nahanni: I don't know if those girls had the word consensual in their vocabulary like you do.

Shalvah: Probably not.

Nahanni: What, what do you think it does for you to have that in your vocabulary?

Shalvah: You feel more secure and in control of things. And also you have, like, you have another sort of, um, scale to judge interactions on.

Ma'ayan: I think having consent be a part of just any relationship and having it be a word that is definitely used a lot today, sort of just makes me feel like I have more power in a relationship because even though the norm is still for, I'm waiting for the boy, I like to ask me out and I don't like that, but that's, I mean, I think that's how everybody feels and I want the same experience that everybody else has. Um, even if it's not very… even if it's kind of coming from an antifeminist perspective. Um, and I don't pride myself on that, but it's just, it's still how I feel. I think that being able to say like, no, actually this was not consensual and I was not okay with that just makes me feel like I would have a lot more power in a relationship.

Nahanni: This is like a revelation to me. Like the idea of that girls are still waiting for boys to ask them out.

Judith: Yeah. I'm totally surprised by that too. I had no idea.

Ma'ayan: It makes it more romantic.

Nahanni: It makes it what?

Ma'ayan: it just makes it feel more romantic for the girl.

Nahanni: But, but where, but where does that idea come from? Why do, why is that more romantic?

Shalvah: That's, that's what society says. It's like, that's a perfect relationship. And so therefore that's romantic. There are things that like you can beat them or you can join them and with like society norms and sometimes I do just conform to them because it's just easier that way.

Nahanni: This was tough to hear. Our daughters identify as feminists! They have a more sophisticated understanding of power structures in relationships than I did at their age... and yet somehow they’ve still internalized the fairy tale version of romance: waiting for a prince to sweep you off your feet. But some things have changed...our daughters have genuine friendships with boys... something I’m not sure I had, and Margaret definitely didn't have.

Shalvah: Mmm. Okay. Well this might be helpful for the conversation. Sometimes me and like male friends get into arguments over whether it's harder to be a boy or a girl and it's, it seems like so much. So much more difficult to be a girl with all the like judgment and criticism and then like also physically painful burdens on life, like for example, getting your period once a month and having to wear a bra and like good clothes. But then on the other hand, the arguments that my friends make also seem valid. So maybe the boys are experiencing exactly the same thing as the girls. Like, "Oh my gosh, they get to be girls. It's so easy."

Ma'ayan: I will always stand firm in thinking that female lives are more difficult. But I think that it's definitely, boys are definitely experiencing a lot of the same struggles that we are. They just aren't allowed to talk about it.

Shalvah: That's where we get lucky that we're girls because we have a lot of safe spaces and we like talk to our friends about everything. Boys, it seems don't have as many opportunities to really talk about their feelings, and I think that's probably very difficult for them.

Nahanni: But it sounds like some of your friends who are boys are talking to you about those feelings.

Shalvah: Right. Yeah.

Nahanni: In addition to talking about boys, Margaret and her friends spend a lot of time thinking about when they’re going to get their period, and who’s going to get it first. As Shalvah said, everything seems to be a competition. Margaret is so desperate not to be last, that she actually prays about it.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Gretchen, my friend, got her period. I’m so jealous, God. I hate myself for being so jealous, but I am. I wish you’d help me just a little. Nancy’s sure she’s going to get it soon, too. And if I’m last I don’t know what I’ll do. Oh please God. I just want to be normal.

Nahanni: The desire to feel normal is... well, normal. And when Margaret finally gets her period at the end of the book, she’s ecstatic. Her mother starts to show her how to use a pad, but Margaret admits she’s already been practicing for months. And speaking of first period stories... Judith and I totally shared our own with the girls.

Nahanni: I remember getting my period and not telling my mom.

Shalvah: What?

Nahanni: Until the next month.

Ma'ayan: What?

Nahanni: Yeah. Don't, don't get any big ideas.

Ma'ayan: If I got my period, I think I’d want to tell the whole world.

Nahanni: But, but I, I think I just, I felt like that sense of I, this is like my private thing right now, and I didn't want a whole big thing like, Oh, look at what's happening to you. I just said, yeah. So I waited. She might've known anyway.

Judith: I got my period for the first time at my grandparents house and my mom basically invited the entire family. It was like over Passover or something, and my mom basically invited like the entire family into the bathroom, and I was horrified. I was like, get out. Like I called my mom in because I needed her to like get me a pad or whatever, and then she just like was so excited and she's like, Oh. And she's like telling everyone, and I'm sitting there, I was like, Oh my God.

Shalvah: Don’t do that.

Ma'ayan: Ima.

Judith: I have learned. I would never do that.

Nahanni: I would never do that either.

Judith: I’ll do something else horrible.

[Laughter]

Nahanni: Okay. So wait, here's the question. What is the reaction that you want from your mothers?

Ma'ayan: It's difficult because on the one hand... and this is how I'm feeling about most things with my mother and my life... on the one hand, I want her to be there. I want her to get me a pad and tell me about it, and be proud of me. Even at the same time, I kind of just want her to leave me alone.

Nahanni: The girls are so candid with us... maybe books like this are partly to thank for opening up intergenerational discussions. Over the past five decades, there have been many editions of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The first edition had a yellow cover and an illustration of a girl sitting on the edge of her bed looking pensive.

Judith: What do you think about the new cover? Do you want to describe the new one, Ma’ayan?

Ma'ayan: So the new one, I'm actually not such a fan of. It's like the screen of a device with two text messages coming from the sender saying, "Are you there God? It's me, Margaret." And then a gray bubble of the three dots that appear when someone is replying, but you do not know yet what they're saying.
So first of all, I think it takes away from the old-timey feeling of the book, but also it gave the insinuation that I always felt a little bit like in this book, God was almost like Margaret's imaginary friend. Not that God was like really a powerful being who is totally controlling her life. Whereas the new book cover suggests that God is like responding, and God and Margaret are having a real conversation.

Nahanni: Or that God is social media.

Shalvah: Right. I think, I think social media is the complete opposite of God because it's... It's instead of guidelines for life, it's sort of distractions from life.

Nahanni: Margaret has an intimate relationship with God, but is confused about her religious identity. Her father is Jewish and her mother is Christian. These days that's not at all rare, and not necessarily cause for an identity crisis. But Margaret doesn't know anyone else from a multi-faith family, and she just wants to fit in. Margaret’s Christian grandparents want her to be Christian, her Jewish grandmother asserts that she’s Jewish, and her parents say she can choose when she grows up. Leaving Margaret... stuck in the middle. In one scene, Margaret’s parents and grandparents argue about her lack of religious upbringing, right in front of her... so Margaret decides she's had enough.

The next morning I stayed in my room. I wouldn’t even go down for breakfast. I caught myself starting to say, Are you there God, but then I remembered that I wasn’t talking to him anymore. I wondered if he would strike me down. Well, if he wanted to, that was his business.

Nahanni: By the end of the book, Margaret is talking to God again, but she still hasn't made sense of her religious identity.

Ma'ayan: I definitely found that part of the look less relatable for me personally, just because I've always grown up Jewish and there've been very few times in my life when I've ever like even questioned my faith at all. Um, but I could definitely see Margaret's point of view. I think Judy Blume wrote the book in a way where we could really, even if we never experienced the same struggles ourselves, we could definitely relate to what she was going through.

Shalvah: Yeah. Um, I can't imagine being able to choose either one when you've always grown up, like, like with no religion, but you have two prominent options because those are the religions that your parents were. And I can't imagine choosing, choosing one of the like floating options and not the other, but I also like, I have definitely questioned my faith.

Ma'ayan: I think that that really makes sense for kids our age because I mean, we're questioning almost everything else in our lives. We're questioning our bodies and... sorry... our minds and how we're growing and how we're not growing. And I think it would only really makes sense... it would make life much harder... but would, would really make sense to also question your belief in God and question how you can look at your life through the religious lens in which you've always looked through your life and how it can still apply to a growing and changing person.

[Theme Music]

Nahanni: Those were our daughters Ma’ayan Rosenbaum and Shalvah Lazarus talking with Judith Rosenbaum and me about Judy Blume’s iconic teen novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which was published fifty years ago. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Sarah Ventre provided editing assistance. Our team also includes Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us. If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk?, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution.

In these unprecedented times, we all have stories to tell. If you’re looking for a way to record your story, download Story Aperture. That’s JWA's new mobile app that puts the power of story-collecting in your hands. Inside the app you’ll find suggestions for recording your own story, or conducting an interview, including some prompts specifically about this pandemic time. You can save stories in the app and upload directly to JWA's archives. Download from your app store, record, and share today!

Be safe, and have a happy Mother’s Day. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time.

[Theme Music fades]

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 41: Coming of Age with Judy Blume (Transcript)." (Viewed on November 26, 2020) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-41-coming-age-judy-blume/transcript>.

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