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Ruth’s unhappy home life only gets worse after Sam runs away. She’s expected to do more at the store to make up for her brother’s absence. She’s also becoming a teenager, and starts to want nice clothes and attention from boys. Unfortunately Tateh is very cheap, although he will spend money on himself, and he won’t pay for trendy clothing when they can get hand-me downs for free. Ruth’s other attempts to integrate into the social scene at her school are all failures; she loves dancing and has long legs, but because she is Jewish her classmates refuse to be her partner in gym class, and complain so much that she’s forced to drop out of the school musical.
Ruth’s interest in boys initially comes from her desire to have someone love and desire her. At home she receives abuse and no real affection from her father, and limited attention from her mother, and at school she’s ostracized because of her Judaism. She has no hobbies, and is unable to participate in extracurricular activities, again because of her religion. This leaves her with romance as her only potential distraction from her everyday life.
Ruth meets her first boyfriend, Peter, in her father’s shop. They flirt whenever he comes in to buy something, and eventually he invites her to go on a walk. Ruth initially speculates that because Tateh hated black people, and black men in particular, she rebelled by dating a black man, but she also knows that Peter is more than his race. He’s kind to her, and Ruth is drawn to his kindness and nonjudgmental nature (which is something she likes about black people generally: that they don’t judge her for being Jewish, and accept her as she is).
Ruth’s interest in Peter is seemingly mostly due to his kindness and her loneliness, but potentially also because of her desire to rebel against her father. He hated black people, and Ruth spends her life in romantic relationships exclusively with black men. However, this could also be due to her sense that unlike white men, who bullied her throughout her childhood, black men were accepting of her and her Jewish heritage.
Falling in love changes Ruth’s life. In addition to loving Peter, she feels loved for the first time. She isn’t worried about people finding out about her relationship, although Peter’s friends are clearly afraid of her—they know the Ku Klux Klan and the regular townspeople would kill Peter if they found out his was dating a white girl. Seeing how Peter’s friends respond to her makes Ruth a little nervous about her relationship, but it falls apart when she becomes pregnant at fifteen. She’s devastated, and knows that she cannot ask anyone for help.
Just like her son, who aches because he doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere, Ruth finally begins to feel happy when she feels desired and loved by Peter. Unfortunately, she is initially clueless about the danger of their interracial relationship. To her it’s a fun, secret romance, but for Peter their relationship could literally lead to his death, as the KKK was known to murder black men who they believed were involved with white women.
In the South, Ruth and her family are technically white and “number one,” even though they’re Jewish, which elevates them socially above the black residents of Suffolk. However, Ruth only feels “number one” with Peter. She tries to convince Peter to elope, but he refuses, worried that he’ll be killed. Ruth had believed Peter had all the answers, but when he tells her “If white folks find out you’re pregnant by me, I will surely hang” she realizes there’s no easy way out and begins to panic. Luckily, Ruth’s mother finds one of Ruth’s bracelets in the alley behind the family store where Ruth and Peter would meet and talk. Somehow Mameh pieces together that Ruth and Peter are dating, and that Ruth is pregnant, and suggests she go to New York city to see her grandmother.
Ruth’s Judaism has prevented her from experiencing many of the privileges of her whiteness. Because of her religious identity she’s been a second-class citizen all her life, and it’s only with Peter that she begins to feel important and special. Although she begins to understand how taboo and dangerous their relationship is, she naïvely believes that if the people of Suffolk can see how in love they are, they’ll accept them. She’s wrong, unfortunately, and it will be three decades before interracial marriages are even legalized in her state (thanks to the case of Loving vs. Virginia in 1967). Although Ruth is not close to her family, her mother’s attention and help likely save Ruth and Peter’s lives, as Mameh’s intervention allows Ruth to get an abortion and keep her relationship with Peter a secret.