A couple of years ago, fresh off the long drive to my new princely town, I wrote about its remarkable WASPiness (here and here). But now I barely notice it, and I have even come to realize that among the professors and post-docs in The Scientist’s department–whose names are along the lines of Itai, Amichai, Shai, Oren, Shulamit, Michal, Shachar, Jonathan Goldberg, David Bloomenfeld, and Brice–it’s possible there are a few people like me (and that poor Brice is understandably confused when he shows up on Yom Kippur, which he might think is an ordinary Tuesday, and his lone voice echoes down the empty hallways. “Hello? Hello? Anybody out there . . . ?”).
If this town and the university at its centre still don’t quite advertise themselves as hotbeds of Yiddishkeit, that doesn’t mean my neighbors aren’t in a Klezmer band (they are) or that Baby MoFo can’t attend a local (non-Chabad) summer camp that will be conducted entirely in Hebrew next month (he is).
But it’s fun to see this princely town as I first saw it–to see it through the eyes of one first seeing. This afternoon, a beautiful, sunny day, the boys were off from school, and I took respite with an iced coffee and a chapter of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (née Nathan Weinstein), a novella about an advice columnist with a Christ Complex (think the Bintel Brief in the hands of the other folks). A few minutes after perching on a bench outside the Starbucks with my cold drink, I saw, out of my peripheral vision, an elderly woman with thinning, carefully set white hair, polished nails shaped into old-fashioned ovals, and sturdy but not dowdy black patent leather shoes, sit down beside me. She watched me intently, clearly waiting for me to acknowledge her. I didn’t (How often does one score a break from one’s kids to do nothing but sit and read and drink an iced coffee and enjoy the sound of silence and the sun on one’s face??). So she gave up waiting, and she cleared her throat. “Excuse me,” she said. I marked my passage in the book–the protagonist is attempting to escape his despair through a pastoral fantasy and arrives in a rural world where the deer run wild: “The man said that there was still plenty of deer at the pond because no yids ever went there. He said it wasn’t the hunters who drove out the deer, but the yids.”
I look up.
“I’m just visiting here, and I was wondering–Are you a student here?”
I smile. “No,” I say, “I teach here.”
“Really?” Flattering though it might have been from someone a bit younger, the comment made me realize that when you’re in your 90s, college age and 30s seem equally and unattainably distant — kind of the way millions and billions of dollars seem equally and unattainably distant to this Poor Princess.
But it turns out there was something else she meant by “Really?”
She continues: “They let you in here?”
Me? A woman? A dark-skinned person? A Canadian?
She pushes further. “They welcomed you?”
“Yes,” I say hesitantly.
“With open arms?”
“I think so . . .”
“And are there others?” She gestures at my pendant.
“Yes,” I say. “There are others.”
“And what do you teach?”
I tell her.
“Do you teach them about us–your know, our stuff?” she asks.
“I do,” I say. “Do you know The Jazz Singer?”
“With Al Jolson?” She laughs with amazement. I wonder if she knew him. She lowers her voice. “And the goyim–they like it?”
“I think so,” I say.
“I don’t believe it,” she says.
“Believe it,” I respond. And we say our goodbyes, and I saunter off.
And when I get home, I remind LL that I am signing him up for ballroom dancing and etiquette lessons at Barclays. It’s a revered institution where children who use their chopsticks as swords and have other defects of manners (or circumcised bits) can learn to be proper, poised, socially sophisticated WASPlike little gentlemen and ladies. After all, we’re in a princely town. Barclays is by invitation only, but I might have an in– I hear there’s a Jew on the board.