Giving Voice To Syosset Sisterhood

Cara Mentzel (Photo by S. Starr)

Growing up in the shadow of a celebrity sibling isn’t easy. Cara Mentzel has first-hand experience dealing with this kind of thing as the younger sibling of Tony Award-winning entertainer Idina Menzel. The former made her publishing debut last year with Voice Lesson: A [Syosset] Sisters Story. In it, she details the bond, the similarities and differences the sisters share. Cara expresses how she learned how to live her own life and come to terms with speaking in her own voice, which includes using the original spelling of the family surname Mentzel.

A homecoming for the Syosset native, Cara Mentzel recently took the stage at the Long Island High School for the Arts to share anecdotes about growing up on Long Island alongside the older sister she knew as Dee. What started out as a proposal for a tell-all memoir from a publisher to Idina Menzel, wound up being a treatise on sisterhood, with the singer enlisting her younger sister to be the author. Initiated prior to Idina’s break-out via the 2012 animated film Frozen, this project took Cara five years to complete. And while there were certain challenges that came with delving into the past, the author came away fulfilled from writing this book.

“We thought the idea of exploring sisterhood in a really honest way would be great and the fact that there was this added component of stardom made it fun,” Mentzel said.

Sisters Idina (left) and Cara snuggling on their mom’s couch, Thanksgiving 1998.

“My sister and I agreed that we couldn’t be painting the both of us as being perfect people and that was OK. I had freedom to be honest,” Mentzel explained. “But figuring out what’s true and figuring out how to be honest, especially something personal and highly subjective and there are other people that are out there alive who may have experienced it very differently, is hard. There’s getting at your truth and balancing that with figuring out ‘the truth.’ The best part was diving into some of these stories, even the heartbreaking ones. Or even some of the fun stuff.”

Three years her sister’s junior, the 43-year-old author had a bittersweet experience growing up in Syosset. Happy memories abound throughout a childhood that found her attending Baylis Elementary, Harry B. Thompson and eventually, Syosset High School.

“I always got along with teachers and camp counselors better than I got along with my peers,” she said. “Some of them were just weird, dorky people—but I liked them a lot anyway. I tend to like the weird people the best.”

The arts, particularly choir and chorus, loomed large for both sisters. But the economic disparity of a Nassau County suburb was an oftentimes tricky emotional hurdle to traverse for a teenage girl growing up in Syosset in the 1980s.

“I think that I found that there are things about Syosset and Woodbury that are very distinctly different than other places. But there are also things that I found were the same wherever you go. That was part of it. I think that money was always tricky for us and my family because we had friends who had million-dollar homes and we lived in a townhouse and my dad was a pajama salesman,” Mentzel recalled. “That was always tricky—feeling like I wasn’t wearing the right brand name. I have a lot of fond memories too. I was vice president of the high school [student council] my senior year and I remember feeling like I had finally, somehow, made peace with how to be [myself] in Syosset. I had close relationships with certain people. I didn’t tend to go out with large groups of people or cliques at all. I feel like I had figured out school and that I was able to be kind in that environment and that felt really good.”

After high school, Mentzel eventually attended the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she graduated magna cum laude with her bachelor’s degree in psychology and later returned for her teaching certificate and master’s degree in elementary education with an emphasis in child literacy. Currently calling Colorado home, she is a literacy interventionist, working with kids in kindergarten through third grade. Students who are struggling readers get Mentzel’s attention as she tries to help figure out what they need to be able to read and write at grade level.

It’s a rewarding life Mentzel has carved out for herself and while the idea of writing a book was intimidating, she’s proud of the end result. Thought of returning to Long Island for this event was a bit anxiety-inducing, but Mentzel was excited to have it held at the Long Island High School for the Arts.

“I just heard that Judd Apatow escaped Syosset. I felt a little bit like that. I struggled with it. It was a love/hate relationship because I had a really hard time getting comfortable in my own skin there and Colorado was much friendlier in terms of figuring out who I was. There was just this expectation that I had a really hard time shaking off and I wanted to get away from that,” she said. “I love it here in Colorado and I do feel much more comfortable in my own skin.”

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