Commentary Magazine


To Be a Jew
A Discovery

“I Have a most curious feeling,” I began.

“Please!” The little man held up a thin, imperious hand. “I have feelings all the time. My heart palpitates, I have pains in my chest, I think I’m going crazy. Do I bother my friends with my feelings?” He spoke with an angry rapidity.

“I didn’t say symptoms, I said feeling,” I contradicted, exaggerating the plural of one and the singular of the other.

“So. All right. Some people have symptoms, you have feelings. Maybe you’re too fine for symptoms, it would make you a human being like everybody else. . . .” His large, full-lipped mouth parted in a smile in which his crooked teeth showed yellow and black in the dimly lit hotel room.

I wanted to say something, but “Please!” his hand interrupted again. “I’ve known you—how many years?—since high school, and chased you pretty steady, maybe even got a good run for my money too. I’ve been two-timed, first by a husband, then by lovers—“how can a man stand so much?” The grin broke his homely face into proportions of high comedy. I looked at him helplessly as he continued talking away.

“Now you’re leaving Dudley after ten years. Good! And you’re not serious about someone else—it doesn’t look like it anyway,” he added, suspiciously. “So . . .” he took a quick, shallow, rasping breath and plunged along with his doomed suit, “. . . after all the men and all the women—I haven’t been hanging around doin’ nothin’ exactly for fifteen years—it’s fifteen years since . . .” (Milton was vulgar). “Now that maybe you’re not so interested in sex any more”—he looked at me carefully, and I burst out laughing. He looked hurt, but he took my hand, and I allowed it to rest limply (maybe I wasn’t?) in his warm, damp, fervent one. “. . . I thought maybe we could finally get together again,” he concluded.

What a euphemistic expression: “to get together”; yet, in a sense, more literal than the Biblical “to know.” The coy attitude toward sex. Neither the word nor the concept had existed in any discernible way during all my eighteen years in my parents’ apartment.

Milton was all right. I sighed. Certainly I wouldn’t have to call the desk clerk. He was an old, good friend, except for his lack of emancipation from the Bronx. The youth an adolescent girl will sleep with if she’s determined to repudiate the mores of the Bronx! Most of the boys are also seventeen and eighteen, and in that brief interim before they repudiate their rebellion and return to the drug stores and dental offices of their fathers—homely, scrawny, inexperienced as lovers—they are almost invariably intelligent, sometimes brilliant or gifted or amusing, except when they’re in earnest, when they’re fearfully dull. I looked at Milton apathetically.

I couldn’t remember him as a lover, thank goodness! He was almost inexcusably homely.

“But now you have feelings,” he murmured reproachfully, clinging to my embarrassed hand. “Yesterday, your heart palpitated. It is nothing, I tell you. Emotional strain like the doctor says, see another doctor, go, go to a heart clinic if you want to be sure. But don’t tell me. Fifteen years is it? . . .”

“Thirteen or fourteen only!” I protested mildly. I could hear myself lapsing into the argumentative manner and disagreeable sing-song of the Bronx.

“And you want to exchange other men for hypochondria! Nothing doing! I thought you didn’t like the Bronx. That’s what they do there. Middle-aging Jewish women. . . .”

“My God! I’m in my early thirties—that’s not middle-aged,” I flared. Before he could answer I waved him quiet. No one that I could remember had called me, to my face, a Jew—of any age. Now Milton, not only to imply that I was fast approaching middle age, but a Jewish middle age, at that! I saw the ponderous bosoms and the heavy swollen ankles.

_____________

 

I hadn’t tried to dissimulate. In the environment, largely Gentile, of my husband’s ancestral home, to which I had removed myself, people who were Jewish or who knew Jews, generally cautiously, uncertainly, as though an error would have been fatal, identified me; the others didn’t. For them, the possibility never entered their minds. My father-in-law, a rich manufacturer and banker, was president of the Country Club, a notoriously anti-Semitic social group which I was invited to join—so few anti-Semites recognize a Jew when—they see one—and politely declined. They were the sort of people—square, upper-middle class, and for us not only ideological enemies—for Dudley and I were both radicals and he could no more contemplate joining the Club than he could think of inviting his own father for a cup of tea in what to the old man appeared as an inexcusably impoverished, even depraved setting—that, quite apart from the Jewish question, we would have had nothing in common with under any circumstances.

We don’t golf and we don’t need the Club pool; we swim in a creek on our property, or in a neighbor’s quarry pool, and although we drink, we’re not alcoholics; this virtually exhausts what constitutes the good fellowship at the Club. Except for tennis and horses. We don’t play tennis any more, we have a donkey and goats, but no horses, and whatever relations we entered into with other people, however casual, could not possibly have been gratified by anyone at the Club. Oh yes, and we weren’t Republicans. In the local upstate New York mind, Democrats, Jews, and Communists—and Communists include all eccentrics—formed the three sides of the Devil’s Triangle.

So my being Jewish never came up. I was suspect on too many other scores. Neither did I languish with any longing for my homeland in the Bronx, having as little in common with my own parents as I had with my husband’s.

We loved the country, but periodically we craved the stimulation, largely Jewish, of the city. We used to see Milton, Who was in the trade union movement, a couple of times a year, and other friends, usually partially successful practitioners of the arts, about as frequently. For Dudley, perpetually provincial, I believe they all had an exotic flavor, for New York always remained a foreign city to him. I too had had my foreign attractions, but before Dudley, largely; among the confraternity of my boy friends, acquired and relinquished in an uneven but relatively rapid and continually accelerating succession, there numbered an East Indian, volatile and pathologically jealous, a blond, superbly constructed German clam-digger, a Greek sociology scholar, a relatively decadent, unwholesomely pure Anglo-Saxon playboy, and then Dudley—Panamanian, English, Huguenot, but representing for me—perhaps it was only a question of status, for his immediate family included a Panamanian president, an ambassador, a recent governor of Connecticut—more than any of the others: the Gentile; the Man Who—although he had no desire to—Belonged.

Our crossed patterns came up only during our numerous arguments when I burned and he froze:

“Your capacity for rage is dismaying”—Dudley.

“Your incapacity for any passion maddens me”—me.

But the origins of our differences never arose, in themselves, as an issue. That’s why my feeling, so intangible but so profound, that I was trying now to describe to Milton, was so baffling.

_____________

 

“It’s not a sick feeling. Actually I’ve had an experience.”

“An experience . . . so . . .” Milton was on the alert.

“A very small experience, but a very deep feeling,” I began. I was beginning to tell stories circumlocutionally, like the old Jews, I thought. I wanted to stretch out luxuriously. It was so warm at the hotel, so comfortable after the harsh country winter. I didn’t, I shouldn’t, feel happy—(“You shouldn’t use should,” Dudley used to say; “it sets up impossible standards for yourself and everyone else”). Anyway, I didn’t feel happy, but peaceful, even though I was here with my young daughter, in a rather dinky couple of hotel rooms, on borrowed money, making plans to dissolve my marriage. Dudley and I were still in love but we just didn’t like each other any more. Our differences were aesthetic and economic.

But I mustn’t stretch, I mustn’t look voluptuous, or even moderately attractive—I scowled. I mustn’t set Milton off, and how little he required to build on. I couldn’t, even deploring the marble-like virtues of my about-to-be-recent husband, sail into the turbulent, unreciprocated passion of someone that, at the risk of seeming vain or absurd, I had evolved beyond so many years ago. But he was here, and although it was pleasant just sitting quietly, I wanted to communicate my experience, so curious and moving, earlier today.

Gently I removed: my hand, and shifting my weight as gracelessly as possible on the small, deep red divan, I began again. This time more forthrightly.

“There’s a cleaning woman comes in here every day. Middle-aged. That is,” I added severely, but smiling, “in her late fifties. And I’ve been enormously attracted to her.” I paused momentarily, as Milton, having heaved a sigh of relief, but recalling that one of the rivals to his distant pursuit of me had been a young girl—we were both perhaps eighteen—tensed his thin body, and moved forward expectantly into his slouch.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I swore irritably, for his look and anxious gesture had been apparent. “What I mean is that I had an ineffable feeling of identity with her, something out of my past. She speaks with a heavy foreign accent—but I couldn’t—and day after day, in the two weeks I’ve been here I speculated on it—identify what it was. It bears unmistakable resemblances to the speech of my parents—they’re both Polish Jews—but even more it suggests the speech of other Jews, my grandfather’s, who has a more atypically foreign accent. Their speech is perhaps thicker, more guttural, and from it are absent those specifically Jewish mannerisms, both semantic and mechanical. While it was her speech that impressed me most” (I noticed with relief that Milton looked less amorous and more interested) “and her eyes second—they were luminous and quite expressive, not dark, but with that depth that one associates with certain Jewish eyes.” I stopped. Milton has such eyes; I don’t find them attractive in men, although they are often very arresting in women. “Soulful I believe they call them. Or bedroom eyes.” The soul and the body, satisfactory in both domains, they find them. “But her body, her body although medium-sized was so strong and capable-looking, so hard, sturdy, so worked and lived in, tough, no sign of any delicacy, and her face, too, was firm, uncomplicated, except for the eyes, an open face one associates with peasants in the field—she even, despite her obviously urban pallor, created an incomprehensible impression of having the wind, sun, rain part of her heritage—that I decided almost at once that she wasn’t Jewish.”

“Now!” Milton indignantly objected to the stereotype. But he objected with his small, thin, intellectual’s body, his large, unwholesome-looking eyes in his large, curly-haired head, his Second Avenue clothes. . . .

“Anyway,” I insisted, riding roughshod over his objection, “I decided almost immediately that she wasn’t Jewish, although I didn’t know exactly what to go on except instinct. My instinct is exceptional. . . .”

Milton smiled, ruefully, possibly remembering my talent at suspecting which had been the FBI people in the radical party to which we had belonged in our late teens and early twenties. I could identify Communists, Socialists, the police in plainclothes, Trotskyites—anarchists still eluded me—with fairly impressive success.

“But what was she? And to what was I responding1? Partly, and I’m ashamed to say this, it was her prodigious efficiency—she cleaned the two rooms thoroughly in something under a half hour—and she was very kind to Thérèse, had a dozen grandchildren herself she told me—and she didn’t seem to be doing anything out of a desire for a tip—”

“Listen! You tip too much and too often. I notice that!” Milton interrupted proprietorily, peremptorily, and irrelevantly.

I hadn’t borrowed any money from him, so I replied airily, “Lorraine Cummings says, ‘Some people are heavy tippers and some people aren’t, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ It’s like having long or short legs,” I added. I didn’t believe that, but I returned to my story, to stave off any further discussion. “Anyway, I didn’t tip her often—I’ve noticed that I tip people a lot in direct proportion to not liking them; there’s an element of pity, but also of irritability. I tip them to make them go away, and stop fawning on me.”

Milton shook his head, marveling at my unnecessary complexity. “Many times I’ve asked, why isn’t she like everyone else?”

I smiled sympathetically. A question right out of my mother’s book. Who did he have in mind? His sister, or mine?

“Everyone else is too good for her?”

I shook my head protestingly.

“Year after year I have to be in love with a crazy mixed-up kid. Why? I ask myself. Am I maybe a little bit crazy too?” He re-secured my hand.

“You should have settled down with Marjorie Morningstar; soon you’ll be able to afford that house in Scarsdale.”

That phony!” Milton glared. (It’s curious how men repudiating the radical movement—What was there left to affirm anyway?—still fancied themselves intransigent.) I wanted to add, “Anyway, these mixed marriages don’t work,” but caught myself up in incredulous surprise, for I was thinking of Milton and me, not of Dudley.

_____________

 

How thoroughly I had repudiated being a Jew, so that some men although they had repudiated it too—after all Milton was an atheist, very much in the secular world, cultivated in the European tradition—how was he more a Jew than I? Was it merely that he had never been a young girl attractive to Gentile men? But among his affairs I’m certain there figured non-Jewish girls. Obviously, some men could only appear hopelessly alien to me. But why? I wondered how much was aesthetic. The Jewish men I’d been intimate with didn’t look Jewish—Milton was—and that was so long ago—the solitary exception; they were tall, strong, at least strong-looking, small-nosed, and fairly unharassed. Living out of town for so many years I had come to associate the neurotic New York face, only partially reflecting the Jewish “type,” with Jews as such. I sighed.

“So?” Milton queried. “About your cleaning lady? You think I’ve got all night for cleaning women?” he smirked.

Oh, God, won’t the phone ring? I don’t know how to extricate myself from this. But I continued.

“This morning I gave her a dollar. Or rather, seized by my intense feelings of rapport—I couldn’t bear to sully these with money—embarrassing for me that it’s less difficult to allow her to make my bed and clean my tub than to confront her with that vulgar definition of our dissimilar status—”

“A sociologist too,” Milton interrupted. “Look, so you wanted to give her a dollar, but you couldn’t touch the money. So you don’t come from the Jews who were moneychangers. You descend from a pure line of neurotics. You can’t touch money. So?”

“You’re confusing things. Giving it the wrong emphasis. I have to tell it straight. It’s so slight, so tenuous, you’ll miss the essence. . . . I gave the dollar to Thérèse to give the woman. . . .”

Milton couldn’t resist, “You made it kosher. Like asking a Negro to turn on the lights in the synagogue. . . . Thérèse is half goy anyway.”

I flushed. I hadn’t heard the word for ten years. (My mother had said, perplexed but not prohibitive for once, perhaps somewhat resigned, “What could I expect? You want to marry a goy . . . all right . . . you’ll marry him anyway.”) But I went on; it might be fairly hopeless trying to communicate something this oblique to Milton, but I was committed to the attempt.

“No, it’s that a child—its innocence—can take the curse off almost anything, even money, even degrading relations. . . . Thérèse dropped the bill, retrieved it, gave it to the woman. . . .”

“What are you making such a production about?” Milton asked impatiently.

“It wasn’t the money, it was what it unleashed. The cleaning woman dropped her mop and came over to where I sat braiding Thérèse’s hair. Mrs. . . . you don’t know . . .’ she began, and in a few moments I had all her sorry story; she sketched in her background with rapid, melancholy strokes: she came from the Old Country in 1929; she’d had a ‘no-good’ husband; when she emigrated she left her five young daughters—the last an infant—with her sister, and from here, paid regularly for their upkeep and gradually accumulated enough money—always doing this work, housework, when she was fortunate enough to find it during the long depression—to bring her children here, one by one. There was only the youngest left, and she was coming soon.

“‘But where, where are you from?’ I had asked her early in her recitation.

“‘Poland,’ she answered, surprised that I didn’t know. Poland! And at the word ‘Poland’ I felt my guts constrict. A wave of confused feelings burst over me violently as she talked on and on, expecting my sympathy, pleading, her hand lightly on my arm, for our continued rapport. But my grandmother had been incinerated in that country, uncles, aunts, cousins I had never seen . . . whom had I given a dollar to? I cringed under the most excruciating guilt as I listened to her guileless tale. The word ‘Pole’ had been synonymous with ‘pogrom,’ with hatred and fear in my mother’s vocabulary. The only Pole I had ever known was a little girl named Olga in third grade with whom I had had my only physical fight. We had pummeled each other on the school playground with a violence and inseparability that still astounds me. I can no longer remember the issue and I can scarcely remember the face of my most beloved friend during all those early childhood years as vividly as I recall the white, hate-seared face of Olga. But it was small wonder I hadn’t identified the cleaning woman’s speech. Olga had no accent I could recall; although we must have exchanged words before we had come to blows (‘dirty Polack, dirty Polack’) I could remember none. And I had, to my knowledge, not known another Pole . . . ever . . . until now. . . .”

_____________

 

Milton listened silently. His eyes were closed but his face was unrelaxed. “What really was strange” (if only I could communicate this, but I couldn’t quite articulate it for myself) “was my feeling when she said ‘Poland,’ an almost biological feeling. I don’t know how else to explain it: my glands were involved. It was so deep, so irrational—the only thing I can think of that suggests its intensity was my equally overwhelming emotion revolving around my compulsion to have a child. That, like this, had nothing to do with any intellectual process. Actually, it was antithetical to it. I felt I was a Jew—and, consequently, the Pole—this poor old Polish woman—was the mortal enemy. In some inchoate way I thought of (he concentration camps, the gas chambers. . . .”

“Those were the Germans, not the Poles,” Milton countered softly.

“I know, but the Pole in my mind is the archetype of the persecutor of the Jew . . . and here she was!” I cried, filled with self-mockery, mimicking the tones in Which I read the final exciting passage of “The Three Bears” to Thérèse. Now I could laugh at myself a little, but uncertainly. My deep and inchoate feeling persisted vividly.

Milton Shook his head.

“But almost instantly I recognized the absurdity of my feeling . . . or maybe, the feeling so imprecise and tenuous couldn’t endure, for certainly this kindly, conscientious, appallingly exploited woman could not be my enemy, or the enemy of my race. . . .” I mused.

‘Your race?” Milton echoed. “So even you—you escape for a while—like a light Negro ‘passing’ on a Southern bus, or in a restaurant—but it catches you. And not that one gets caught from the outside. . . .”

“You’re right,” I interrupted softly. “That’s the way the German Jews were caught. . . not by the outside. . . .”

“True; many of them had passed over into the Gentile world completely . . . but it catches you from the inside . . .” he gently pounded his chicken-breasted chest. “You don’t want to pass. You find you want to belong.”

He clasped my hand again.

“I don’t know,” I began hastily, meaning to imply that I didn’t want to belong to him, in any case.

_____________

 

There was a solemn pause. And I was foreseeing a difficult interlude, from which I couldn’t imagine quite how I would extricate myself, when die telephone rang. “Hi, doll, can I come over tomorrow eve and take you and Tess out to dinner?”

John Phelps. Divorced. Very charming. A school friend of Dudley’s who lives on a small income derived from his ex-wife, very rich and forever fond of him. It was impossible not to be. Gay, breezy, affectionate.

“I’d love it.”

I repressed my relief, but could not avoid perceiving Milton’s questioning, suspicious, penetrating glare.

“Six do? Early enough for the kid?”

“Six is fine. What’ve you been doing?”

“Nothing much. Beginning my memoirs: ‘Confessions of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant Male.’”

I laughed. It was a funny epilogue to the anecdote I’d just told Milton.

“But really—it’s fairly typical I suppose—confessions are all the vogue, you know; I’ll make a mint! It’ll be the story of a persecuted minority—me!”

I laughed again.

“No. But really! It suddenly occurred to me: I don’t know anyone but Negroes and Jews.”

It was true. John, having come from the Midwest a dozen years ago, was hopelessly addicted to What he thought of as an intellectual’s demi-monde: New York, literature, and jazz. His only friends were Jews and Negroes.

“Six, then?”

“Right—”

“Say, as an afterthought, can I come over tonight? I’m downtown—on Jane Street, and I’ve got a bottle. On my way home.”

“I’ve got a friend over; I’m sorry.” I was.

Milton tensed, then relaxed.

“Six then tomorrow.”

“Fine. See you,” and I hung up, studiously avoiding Milton’s worried look as I returned to the sofa.

Just when I had thought it possible that I might belong somewhere after all. Of what had this morning’s incident tried to inform me?

I looked apologetically at Milton. And I thought of John. He was such good fun. And besides, he knows what it is to be persecuted. I smiled, and Milton answered it tentatively.

Persecuted, for what? For not belonging, perhaps only for his sense of not belonging—a Gentile, white alien among Jews and Negroes, the people of his choice. However, the persecution was powerless, existing only in John’s head; no one wished to exclude him. On the contrary, he was as popular as a Negro in the Communist party in the 30’s, and not altogether for dissimilar reasons: he cast an unorthodox stamp of approval on an in-group that was painfully aware—to the extent of evolving a new language (Negro jive, or Jewish-intellectual-jargon)—of its repudiation of that society within whose blatantly hostile borders it had constructed its arbitrary ghetto.

_____________

 

But what of my exclusion—was it too strong to speak of my self-exile?—from the society of Jews, from their scholars and merchants alike. My cleaning woman had hurled me into their midst with that terrible word “Poland!” but John’s cry, “I, too, am lonely but belong nowhere,” had reverberated between the carefree words of his telephone talk, so that the “Poland” I had carried in my blood had cooled to an endurable temperature, and now the apathy, a not uncomfortable apathy of the homeless, again flowed smoothly and cruelly through my veins.

I would spend tomorrow evening with John. That much I could decide. But what of tonight? I regarded covertly Milton’s expectant form at the far end of the sofa and saw that the simple matter of my self-awareness had only just begun. It was not tonight, and not Milton, but it was who I was, and where I was, in distinction to who I wished to be, or desired to become, and where, in Whose Universe I chose to exist. Altogether apart from my unreasonably intense feelings about the Bronx—and one could substitute, I knew, Brooklyn, Manhattan, or Queens—for it was not a matter of architecture or geography, nor even of social organization, neither of pool rooms, nor of marriage bureaus, that disconcerted and dismayed me so, but that great, insuperable, quite obviously insurmountable accident of the blood that confronted my longing and sense of futility, my unfulfillment everywhere.

So tonight—would it have been otherwise without the interruption of the telephone reminding me that not only Jews are thrust from their heritage?—so, tonight—yet, if one could repudiate one’s family, why not one’s race? both factors existing irrespective of free will—but, tonight, and for all the nights next week, next year, and forever, I would, disengage myself as I might try, be faced with certain insoluble problems—my involuntary disenchantment with Milton or his counterpart, for one—problems whose existence I had been tardy at recognizing, but which confronted me finally, ruthlessly, with undiminished vigor in their presentation, problems—that small matter of self-recognition, for another—that I had watched my old compatriots grow up to reckon with, one by one, but which I had somehow, miraculously, I had thought, escaped. How mistaken could one be about one’s self? I darted a pleading, questioning smile upon Milton’s wistful, forsaken face.

_____________

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