I grew up in Riverdale, New York, a very Jew­ish area with lots of syn­a­gogues and authen­tic kosher din­ers and bak­eries. There was nev­er a short­age of chal­lah bread or rain­bow cook­ies in our apart­ment, and I have a dis­tinct mem­o­ry of an ever-present jar of gefilte fish in the refrig­er­a­tor. But then we moved to South Flori­da, where my debut nov­el is set, in the sum­mer of 1996. I was nine.

Though South Flori­da is wide­ly known as a Jew­ish enclave, my new school was pre­dom­i­nant­ly Chris­t­ian, and big on cel­e­brat­ing the Chris­t­ian hol­i­days. In New York, being Jew­ish felt nor­mal and accept­ed. In Flori­da, my Jew­ish­ness was hav­ing to explain why I didn’t have a Christ­mas tree in my house; why I got eight presents on Hanukkah and lit a fun­ny-look­ing can­dle every night; why I did­n’t care about the East­er bun­ny; why I wore a weird star around my neck; why I couldn’t eat a cheese­burg­er with­out get­ting sick; why I did­n’t go to church, even for spe­cial occa­sions. I nev­er got to be proud of my Jew­ish­ness. I was nev­er able to be myself because so much time was spent apol­o­giz­ing or explain­ing, or sim­ply lean­ing into this oth­er, new way of life.

I remem­ber walk­ing around the mall dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son and see­ing the excite­ment sur­round­ing San­ta and the huge tree. Then, a lit­tle past the food court and right by the exit, there was a meno­rah. Although it was four feet tall, it drew no crowd, no atten­tion, no enthu­si­asm. It was enclosed in a lit­tle fence so you couldn’t even get close to it, and I recall the dif­fi­cul­ty the mall staff had with mak­ing sure each can­dle was lit on the appro­pri­ate day. Mean­while, in Santa’s vil­lage, as it was called, you could sit on Santa’s lap and have your pic­ture tak­en, and then you got a can­dy cane on your way out. You could hope that what you’d told San­ta you want­ed for Christ­mas would arrive under­neath your very own tree. But you couldn’t whis­per your hol­i­day wish to the lone­ly meno­rah. You couldn’t even take a pic­ture with it for posterity.

My grand­pa remar­ried a Holo­caust sur­vivor, and at Grand­par­ents’ Day in ele­men­tary school, some of the kids in my class made fun of the tat­too on her arm. What hap­pens if you call that num­ber? they joked. In high school, a boy told me I smelled Jew­ish, plug­ging his nose as he passed me in the hall. In col­lege, boys wouldn’t date me or my friends because we were in a Jew­ish soror­i­ty: our noses too big, our hair too curly, our voic­es too shrill for them to han­dle. In my adult life, a boyfriend called me the K” word in an argu­ment and nev­er apol­o­gized for it, let­ting the word fill the room and space between us.

I nev­er got to be proud of my Jew­ish­ness. I was nev­er able to be myself because so much time was spent apol­o­giz­ing or explain­ing, or sim­ply lean­ing into this oth­er, new way of life.

Judaism has per­me­at­ed all areas of my life, espe­cial­ly my writ­ing. The word Jew” appears only twice in my 272-page nov­el, The Brit­tanys; once in the sec­ond chap­ter and again in the ninth. Both times, the word is used by the nar­ra­tor to con­trast her­self to her best friend, who is Chris­t­ian. Yet Jew­ish-ness and the cul­tur­al aspects of Judaism fill its pages. This reflects my Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, which so often involved remain­ing qui­et­ly off to the side, being dif­fer­ent. The nar­ra­tor of The Brit­tanys is four­teen years old at the start of the nov­el, an age when one is often look­ing out­ward for a sense of belong­ing. She seeks accep­tance from her moth­er, her friends, and boys at school. She has trou­ble look­ing with­in and find­ing her­self — her true self — and being that.

When I was my book’s narrator’s age, I had been to Israel only once, for my brother’s bar mitz­vah, when I was eight years old (which I wrote about in my mem­oir The Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine). I spent most of the time squint­ing at the sun and ask­ing for choco­late ice cream bars from our hotel. When I was twen­ty-four, I took anoth­er, more mean­ing­ful trip to Israel with Birthright. The idea of Birthright is to make young Jews fall in love with the beau­ty and nature of Israel; to edu­cate them; to show them our roots and host them in the land of our peo­ple; to make them feel at home. Well, it worked. Birthright was one of the best trips of my life. I had just got­ten out of a ter­ri­ble rela­tion­ship and was grate­ful sim­ply to be out of the coun­try. I did­n’t know any­one on the trip, but by the end of the ten days, no mat­ter who I sat next to on bus rides or who I talked to over camp­fires or on our long, mean­der­ing hikes, I found friends. I felt warmth — not the desert heat in June, but the warmth of a peo­ple who under­stood and accept­ed me. There was no explain­ing, no dis­com­fort. I could just be myself.

When I turned twen­ty-five, I asked some friends and fam­i­ly to attend my mik­vah cer­e­mo­ny, a recom­mit­ment to Judaism. It was a promise to ded­i­cate my life to the Jew­ish tra­di­tions, to hon­or them in the truest way I could. There was no local mik­vah, so my rab­bi escort­ed our small group to the near­est, largest body of water — the ocean, where I said a prayer aloud and dipped myself in the sea. We cel­e­brat­ed after­ward with break­fast at 3G’s Din­er in Del­ray Beach — a Jew­ish deli, of course.

The nar­ra­tor of The Brit­tanys doesn’t bring up her reli­gion or spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, but her off-cen­tered­ness speaks vol­umes to my expe­ri­ence as a young, Jew­ish girl grow­ing up in the ear­ly aughts. She rides the line between the chaos of march­ing to the beat of her own drum and the order of fol­low­ing the foot­steps of her peers. While she straight­ens her hair to a crisp, she is also pray­ing to God to help her fig­ure it all out. But qui­et­ly — per­haps mak­ing this her best-kept secret.

In real life, I even­tu­al­ly found a way to wear my Jew­ish iden­ti­ty com­fort­ably, but the Brit­tany in my nov­el hadn’t quite got­ten there yet. I have faith that she will, though, maybe even with B’ezrat HaShem.

Brit­tany Ack­er­man’s debut essay col­lec­tion, The Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine, was the win­ner of Red Hen Press’s Non­fic­tion Award. She has a cre­ative writ­ing MFA from Flori­da Atlantic Uni­ver­si­ty, and has attend­ed the Writ­ing by Writ­ers Methow Val­ley Work­shop and the Mont Blanc Work­shop in Cha­monix, France, as well as a res­i­den­cy at the Well­stone Cen­ter in the Red­woods. The Brit­tanys is her first novel.