MY wife and I read the recent Atlantic article, ‘I Married a Jew,’ with interest — but I am afraid without any sense of kinship for either Ben or Gertrude. They got under our skins — but what a difference that s makes! My wife was blunt enough to imply that Gertrude’s attitude is a bit on the side of what she calls ‘keeping a pet Jew.’ For myself, I feel a touch — just a touch — of what I call the ‘confessional Jew’ in Ben.
Perhaps the difference between us is not so much a matter of skins as of shirts. My wife and I know what hair shirts are, but, extremely doubtful of their comfort or utility, eschew them by mutual consent. Our agreement, unspoken, could well borrow something from Gertrude’s article: in the case of hair shirts ‘both cannot be right,’ since they must cover a ‘quarrel of the centuries,’ and also since, to make the metaphor really tough, ‘adjustments must be made on both sides’ — we wish to have nothing to do with hair shirts! Besides, why add another to the brown shirts, black shirts, and silver shirts? Or why get shirty at all? My wife and I are primarily interested in our skins — and what gets under them, like Ben and Gertrude!
I married a Gentile. I married a Gentile because with her I was happier and more at peace most of the time. Looking back upon fifteen years of marriage, I come to the conclusion that I am essentially a grateful, if perhaps simpleminded, person. How else could one account for the fact that with my Gentile wife (add complications of fatherhood, and so forth) I still am happy and at peace most of the time? My simplicity is something I am glad of, because I must have my simplicity of concept if I am to make anything of this world of declared peace and undeclared wars, or of rights which so often seem to be on the left!
I am a Jew, Russian-born, and South Russian at that — out of the orthodox merchant-Jewry of the Ukraine. The negative meaning of that background any of Mr. Pelley’s Silver Shirts could gleefully define without any help from Messrs. Hitler, Goebbels, et al. However, my nose is not shaped quite like an inverted six. My lips are less flabby than they should be according to the Nazi primer (as a matter of fact, my wife says that my lips thin too much when I am aroused — something I vehemently deny). I seldom gesture when I am speaking, though one of my professional tools is speech. In my lack of all these more notorious Hebraic (sic) characteristics I take no special pride.
I married a Gentile whose progenitors were among the first boatloads of English emigrants to reach this country. If it was not the very first boatload, that was only because of an ancestral trait, easily traceable in my wife: a chronic contempt for transportation schedules. With them the point simply is to get there. They did and do. They came, settled, bred, and fought wars (civil, on both sides, with equal impartiality and gusto), and rarely recall any of these things.
I had never lived with Gentiles before I met my wife, though I had lived among them. Perhaps it is typical of the arrogance of the Jew that I had expected to find living with a Gentile in a Gentile family not much different from living with Jews. I was not surprised, shocked, or disappointed in what I found.
I soon became acquainted with my new family. My father-in-law was handsome, intelligent, and always changing jobs. The usual reason was that he found his employers grasping and without ideals. He had a fascinating way of discouraging such antisocial behavior on the part of his boss. He would simply leave the job, go straight home, and get into bed. At first I did not know what behavior pattern he expected of his immediate family upon that action, or rather inaction; but, once told that Father was not feeling well, I was perfectly at home. My own mother had shown traces of hypochondria too.
My wife’s paternal grandfather, sixty years after the fact, was still fighting the Civil War, but no romantic dreamer he, as his family well knew. Commander of the G. A. R., he had set himself on a realistic crusade against predatory young hussies who were bent on ‘flamdoodling’ the boys of ’64 by snaring them into marriage. The old man interested me greatly — he reminded me so much of my own grandfather, who, in Russia, had been so devout that nothing could move him from his routine of Tuesday and Thursday fast days while his wife devoted herself to buying and selling heavy sacks of grain from the peasants.
My wife’s maternal grandfather was my pal. He fought the Civil War with me and I fought the World War with him. The war hilarity between us was nip and tuck until he told me about the time his company commander only upbraided him for aiding in the rape of a load of watermelons. Then I capitulated. What chance had my dozen bananas against his load of watermelons?
My mother-in-law was and is a saint — not alone because for overlong she cheerfully provided while her husband went to bed; but because she still vaguely feels that I should have been happier had I married a Jewess. Telling her that, for the time being, I am happier as I am does not entirely convince her. In a not too direct comparison she reminds me of the statement my mother made to me before my marriage: ‘Even after thirty years of mixed marriage I have known people to call it a mistake.’ Perhaps she is right; I have been married only fifteen years, and so cannot tell. But I am as sure as anyone can be.
But it is my wife that I married. And it is of our marriage that I must make a simplicity, as I must make simplicities of undeclared wars and rights that are on the left. It seems to me that I can make something of public, national, and international contradictions, because my not uncommon private experiences seem to even these out for me. For instance, anyone who has met my Gentile wife is impressed at once by her serenity and by the quiet wholeness of her logical self. These qualities, they feel, are the major, if not the sole reason, for whatever peace and happiness they find in our marriage. Perhaps they are right. I can only say that at times her very serenity is her undeclared war on my declared peace.
But I do understand it. I am not a serene person. A design of my character would be composed of light, doubtful harmonies. Often I regret this. But mostly I suspect I like myself that way. It may not be comforting, but it is comfortable. It is at this place that I find my declared peace in my wife’s undeclared war. Both of us are aware of it, see it, and go on.
My wife’s logic is as clear as her gaze. I have worn glasses since my twelfth year. My logic must compensate for my lack of good vision, and therefore the directness of her logic irritates me. I feel it is a sort of duress, a sort of insult. I feel it a duress because I’d rather come to my own conclusions. And it becomes an insult, because when I arrive at my conclusions my Gentile wife is waiting there for me. Thus in my marital affairs, as in international affairs, I can make sense of the right which so often seems to be on the left. However, my wife does occasionally say that, whereas simple ideas she finds easy to express, I certainly emerge with greater facility from beneath the profound ones. I do not affirm; I do not deny. That thought of hers, however, does comfort me.
This leads me to the fact that I am an average Jew. My kind is to be numbered neither among the Rothschilds nor among the Einsteins. Neither the compulsion toward economic arrogance nor that toward intellectual humility seems to be necessary or present in me. I have unpaid bills at the end of the month, my wife tells me, and I don’t remember my ideas long enough after I have expressed them to be either proud or humble concerning them. Neither does my wife. I am aware both of being a Jew and of being average; but I am sure I had little to do with either of these awarenesses. My life within my Jewish family before marriage provided me with the first; my family life since then has fortunately provided me with the second. I say ‘fortunately’ advisedly (this time not on the advice of my wife), because I should never have been comfortable with the first awareness if the second had not come along.
My wife here tells me to keep to the point. Well, it seems to me the point in a marriage is the place where husband and wife recognize each other as individuals. That point is difficult to define. It seems to me that when the point arrives my wife and I either grin for a moment at each other or refuse to look at each other for what seems to me to be a longer moment. But both moments pass. I don’t regret either of them. I am happy to have experienced both. I could be at peace with neither sustained.
For instance, my fourteen-year-old son, straight, tall, blue-eyed and blond, emerges between us just as we are discussing that most interesting credo of Hitler’s, Aryanism — to inquire into the important internal economic problem of achieving a pair of ice skates by selling subscriptions to a nationally known magazine. My wife and I smile. We advise, and then both my son and the moment are gone. For that latter fact I am glad. I would not sustain my faint uneasiness over my friends’ being approached to buy another subscription!
Or another time, in discussion between us on the relative value of passive resistance as opposed to determination (I am the passive resistor in my family and my wife the determiner), my tenyear-old, of still deeper blue eyes and more golden mop, is found to have satisfied a desire quite positively but without the hindrance of undue publicity. I may find such a phenomenon indicative of maternal chromosomes. Now I know, myself, that the indicator is not as simple as all that; but the opportunity to make my point, and my momentary irritation, have combined to make this moment a much longer one than is comfortable for me. I am glad that this moment passes, too.
Rereading this, I find myself prone to the judgment that a contented dullard wrote it. On the point of my being dull I see no quarrel. But contented I am not. Various things disturb me. For one thing, I do not feel like a Jew. I do not feel like a Jew of my own accord. It is others who make me feel for him in me. Jews and Gentiles alike do this to me. And so I suspect the authenticity of any Jew feelings I get, simply because my wife has never yet made me feel for the Jew in me.
I have a certain fairly close Jewish friend. Whenever I am with him I have an uneasy awareness of vulnerability. It is then that I usually ask myself, ‘Is this the Jew in me reacting in sympathy? ’ But I hear him uttering the most sophomoric kind of drivel; and then that awareness is extinguished because I hear my own voice, high and senseless and thin, like a fishwife’s.
On the other hand, a still closer Gentile friend steps so lightly about my Judaism that one would think it were on a sickbed. At such times my tongue feels for the temperature gauge and I am helpless and weak — because I cannot find anyone on the bed. I so much want to discover the fever-ridden thing that must be the Jew in me. My friend must have it to give it tender compassion.
When I am about to explain to my wife some particular of my reaction to my Jewish friend, a particular which I bring to a flourishing generality, and am about to say with Benét, ‘That’s the Jew of it, my Gentile friend,’ my wife, with her usual serenity and logic, will point out a particular reaction of my Gentile friend which by taste, smell, and sight is suspiciously, and therefore devastatingly, kosher. I am indeed on the horns of a dilemma.
We three — that is, the other Jew, my Gentile friend, and I — work for the same concern. Consequently we often face the concern’s problems together. My Gentile friend may be described as a prepossessing extrovert. (Must a Jew always express himself in Freudianisms?) My Jewish friend may be described as the opposite. Here they are facing the same problems. Tell me which is which from the following reactions. One smiles, he may even laugh aloud, after the first contemplative silence, and then with cold, deft reaction has passed the crisis. The other, pale and drawn, hesitates, teeters, and then takes the plunge as though someone had shoved him. Again and again it has annoyed me. My Jewish friend, who, I am certain, is emotionally unstable, is harder and colder than the proverbial glacial ice. My cold, deliberate Gentile friend, who, I assure you, under ordinary circumstances does not possess a nerve in his anatomy, jitters so easily and over so wide an area that I, the spectator, am suddenly and involuntarily drawn in.
I am merely mentioning my two friends because their marital lives constitute for me a check on my own. Both are ‘happily’ married to women of their separate religions. I am fairly certain that each of my friends would say as I do: they married and are married to their women because their women make them happy and give them peace most of the time.
Here the reader might ask, What is your check? My check is reduced to an investigation of differences between our states of peace and happiness; and that, in turn, reduces itself to this utter simplicity. The long moment of silence between my friends and their wives (the silence without the grin) is longer than that between my wife and me.
My friends love their wives. The Jewish wife of my Jewish friend gives the appearance of serenity as does my wife. But also she gives the appearance of a serenity induced by a long-drawn effort to reform her husband — an effort that failed, to which failure she has resigned herself. The Gentile wife of my Gentile friend is, as she appears, explosively restless. That is, my Gentile friend’s wife is also continuing a longdrawn effort to reform her husband; and to this my Gentile friend himself brings a serenity induced by a longdrawn and successful effort to resist! The efforts and the reforms both are lost causes.
My Jewish friend says my attitude is ’defeatist.’ And he is right. When it comes to reform efforts in my marriage, there is something in me that knows when it’s licked — something that likes to feel that way. Is that something in me Jewish? I don’t think so. My Gentile friend has it in him, but it seems necessary to his reason for being that he vehemently deny it.
And now to return to the Gentile I married. From any overt glimpses one might have of my two sons, they are simply a projection of my wife. My older son promises physically to be a super-Nordic. Excepting that he is an extraordinary swimmer and, as I have already mentioned, thinks perhaps ice skating would be fun, the athletic world, through his choice, might as well be Mars. My son is deeply, quietly immersed in the world which Nazi Aryans would say betrays his father. What a glorious betrayal, says that complete Nordic, his mother. It is not simply that, with his violin tucked under his chin, he is song encased in silence. His mother, at the piano glancing up at him, is tied by a silver thread and dragged deep into that ecstatic silence, something I have yet to see possible between two Nazi Nordics.
Our ten-year-old charges the room as he charges into it. He is our potential Aryan brute. Right now this is a world for him of flailing, rushing, blocking, and tackling. He bicycles, footballs, skates, baseballs, basketballs — and talks tough. But at the close of this past duck-hunting season he assured me he would be my companion next year for the following very Jewish reason: he wanted to see how the under side of a mallard’s wings shines when it is in flight!
My daughter, our youngest child, looks just like her father, poor dear, as a friend of ours said, but let’s hope she’ll outgrow it. She, I think, has the essence of all that is wisest and best in both backgrounds.
What may I conclude from all or any of this? That, looking backward or forward, this is an extraordinary game we play, in a world where one person marries a Jew — and I marry a Gentile.
For one thing, I conclude that this is a world of recurring patterns, each with something baffling in its design.
For certainly my parents, and the parents of the Gentile I married, wanted us to marry within the established routine of their religious lives. That wish was part of their protective love. But when I have said that we had to consider our love for each other, then all is said, in justice to our parents, our marriage, and these entities we call ourselves.
My wife and I may look back to dramatic circumstances preceding our marriage, too, surrounding the thought of it on the part of our relatives; but those circumstances are now faint and slightly humorous echoes. We had it all: entreaty, stubbornness, bitterness, and, ultimately, embraces. That whole drama, for my wife and me, was a shadow show called ‘Much Ado about Some Old Hair Shirts.’ That’s what it is to-day. We had and have our own ‘shows’ to put on.
‘We Don’t Like Hitler’ is one of them. But I imagine it will get increasingly smaller houses, that show, because everybody seems to be putting it on.
‘Let’s Discuss’ is another. And since we too (some of the time) do not believe it conducive to marital harmony to shroud things in a veil of silence, we go at acting this play hammer and tongs. I say ‘some of the time’ only because that ‘Let’s Discuss’ play often generates a monologue in place of which, I suspect, we would rather have a silence between us.
We discuss Jews and Gentiles, but my wife chooses never to do it in a tactful way — that way which implies that her poor darling husband still has the Jewish hypersensitivity towards all criticism of his race! My wife is right in her choice. That’s no race with me — it’s a slugging bout. Let my wife make her own rules and I’ll make mine.
When I say this or that about a Christian I can’t stomach, I mean it — at the time. And should my wife begin with ‘But, my dear’ (which she does n’t) and then prove that the fault lies with my stomach and not the Christian, should I be crushed? I should say not. I’d only grab for a figurative jawbone of an ass (out of the Old Testament, of course), and go find me another Christian to lambaste. I’d expect my wife to find herself another Jew and grab an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Believe me, my Gentile wife does not use the New Testament when she plays ‘Let’s Discuss.’
Neither does she comfort me if I lose my place in the play. She takes the stage centre until I can reënter ad-libbing and flailing. In this play, ‘Let’s Discuss,’ do we parry each other? I do not recall. I therefore doubt it. What I do recall is that neither of us has time for that. We are too busy exchanging gorgeously happy blows with deep solemnity.
Do we ever tread softly? My wife excoriates a Gentile friend: for the sake of argument, I, treading softly, interpose that I can understand that frailty: I feel the same frailty in me; my Gentile wife misunderstands our Gentile friend. Is that so? Then woe is me. By treading softly I have tripped myself into a fine kettle of fish.
Like most Jews and Gentiles, my wife and I read neither the Old nor the New Testament often enough. And therefore in our plays, ‘Let’s Discuss,’ we seldom put our modern characters into Biblical dress. When we people these plays we do not say, ‘Mr. Shropnik — a ratlike Judas,’ or ‘Mr. Brown — a saintlike Luke’; we simply say, ‘Shropnik — the rat’ and ‘The devil take the nimbus.’
The reverent and the relevant things, according to both Rabbi Hillel and Jesus Christ, are simply love, peace, and justice. But when my wife and I discuss these things we are agreed! Hence there is no need to drive points home, to parry, to be tactful, comforting, or crushed — not for either of us.
It is so simple — but not easy to take for granted — that, Jew or Gentile, we are individual, and lonely. To reach for a common point of view is good and fine. To reach it is still better. But even up there at the summit I am afraid most of us will find that there is another distance to climb. Most of us will find that it is not only ‘a common point of view that makes people kin,’ but, rather, ‘a consanguinity’ still to be reached and still to reach for. It is in that reaching that I married — a Gentile.