It must not be inferred that because my husband and I have these discussions our domestic life is one long dialectic on the differences between Jews and Gentiles. Our arguments are comparatively rare, because they are not prohibited by false feelings of tact, and, like fruits that are not forbidden, they hold no more than casual allure. We argue when we feel impelled to do so, when we read or hear something that touches the vital nerve of the Jewish-Gentile problem. The rest of the time we lead the even-toned lives of two people who are happily married and deeply in love.
Since I am writing about Ben as a Jew, I should describe one of his traits—his pride in his non-Jewish appearance, mannerisms, and surname. His father changed the unpronounceable last name to something more Anglicized. People have known Ben casually for two or three years without discovering he was Jewish. It pleases him that he looks and acts like other people. His friends are preponderantly Gentile, not for reasons of expediency, but because, he says, 'We modern Jews ought to work out of our narrow, clannish ways and become more at one with the rest of the world. The Ghetto no longer exists in the physical world, but it still walls in the minds of too many of our older people.'
It is only when Ben is surrounded by his family that he lapses into Jewish ways, and then, no doubt, because of his early Jewish training. The family are extremely clannish. Every Sunday and holiday they gather in the home of this or that member. Vacations, too, instead of being spent in the mountains or at the shore, getting away from relations, are spent visiting one another. They over whelm me with kindness, urge me to enter more fully into the family life. This goes against the grain for several reasons. In the first place, my own family relations have always been more or less casual, and I lack entirely the clannish instinct. Moreover, deny it as I will, seek to overcome it though I try, there is something a little 'alien' in the atmosphere for me where so many orthodox members of Israel are gathered together, even though they are my husband's kin and blood. Separately I am fond of them; individually I welcome them to my home; but in a large group of them I feel like a fish out of water.
I can never quite put my finger on the reason for this. It is not the fact that Yiddish words like meshuge and zimmis and chassah fall plentifully into the conversation. It is not the continuous babel of voices—many of my friends chatter more, Nor is it the Jewish intensity of outlook which lacks what we call broad-mindedness, because I know other people who are not broad-minded.
I think—if I can express it—it is the fact that they make no concession to me as a Gentile. They pass that fact over as if it did not exist. They go about their Jewish ways, tales of their Jewish problems, and consider me aloof if I do not enter whole-heartedly into all this and become as one of them. Out of courtesy I try to do as they do when I am among them, but their not reaching out to meet me halfway becomes a strain after a while. The result has been that I cut down my visits to a minimum; and in fairness I pare down my husband's visits to my own family to the same minimum. This is the one compromise my husband and I have reached by tacit understanding rather than by open discussion. You can discuss abstract problems, no matter how delicate; but, when it comes to anything as concrete as the family, the fewer the spoken words, the wiser, as any married couple knows.
The moment Ben is away from his family, his Jewishness drops away from him like a cloak. Not that his non-Jewishness then becomes another cloak. It is, I think, far more his real attitude than the other than the other, which is a relic of his childhood; for Ben is one of those who feel themselves first Americans, then Jews.
For all that, however, before our baby was horn Ben announced one day that if it were a boy he would like to have it brought up as a Jew. If it were a girl, then I could 'stuff it full of Christian beliefs.' And he did not mean this unkindly.
‘But, Ben,’ I asked, ‘why if it is a boy, do you want to make him race-conscious? You do not believe actively in the religion, and you say that most of the Jewish traditions are as unrelated to modern life as those of the ancient Christians.'
'Well—er,' he fumbled, 'well, I was born a Jew, and I went to Hebrew school, and—er—well, I want him to be like me.’
But it eventually turned out that his real wish was to please his mother. What that man wouldn’t do to please his mother! Of all sons, surely the Jews are the best and the most loyal. But when I pointed out to Ben that it was I, the baby’s mother, who would have the upbringing of the child, that what the child learns at its mother’s knee sinks in far deeper than what would be superimposed at Hebrew school, and that I, who am not versed in Judaism, could hardly be expected to teach it to the child—then he gave up on the idea.
It is a curious thing that the most pronounced agnostics or atheists nevertheless want their children to grow up believing in ‘something.’ And that was the way with Ben.
'Ben,' I said, 'you don't believe in anything. I believe in the teachings of Christ as well as in the teachings of the Old Testament. You have admitted that His teachings sound beautiful, even if you do not believe He ever lived. Then, since I believe in Him so strongly, let me teach to the child His precepts without the formulas of any religion. Let me also teach him the beauty of the Psalms of David, the wisdom of Solomon, the inspired sayings of Elijah and Samuel and Isiah. I shall teach him that Solomon and David and Jesus are all of the same illustrious race as his father, that to belong to that race is something to be proud of—when that feeling does not become overemphasized.’
Ben beamed. ‘Yes, that’s it. That’s about right.’ And so it has been with our little Joseph.
When one of my husband-hunting girl friends asks me, ‘Do the Jews make good husbands?’ I think of Ben, respecter of women, generous to a fault, kind to every creature, open-minded, witty, sober of habit but gay of manner, imaginative and ambitious, and say with all my heart, ‘The best in the world!’