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Reading books like Franny and Zooey as a child in California made Jews seem an exotic minority. In New York, they seem like any old hegemony.

Alice Gregory
September 19, 2011
Photo: Carlos Novillo Martín.Rus'/Flickr
Photo: Carlos Novillo Martín.Rus’/Flickr
Photo: Carlos Novillo Martín.Rus'/Flickr
Photo: Carlos Novillo Martín.Rus’/Flickr

When I graduated from my Marin County high school in 2005, 38 years after the Summer of Love, all the parties were held outside. Oil from the eucalyptus trees made the California redwood decks slick. Girls drank too much, kicked off their shoes, and slipped anyway. Parents of friends passed celebratory joints around and gestured toward the hot tub, goading us to “take a dip.” A lot of kids inherited their mothers’ Range Rovers and moved into finished basements when community college classes started in September.

The California I come from doesn’t have many rules or much reverence for family history. It’s a moneyed Eden populated by parents who didn’t like the rules and who forsook family history for a new world order on the Pacific Rim. They colonized a paradise, and 40 years later, mental exercise isn’t nearly so popular as Pilates class. Nobody was really Jewish. Nobody was really anything.

Like most teenagers, I wanted to belong to a pre-established, recognizable category of person. The quickest shortcuts are obvious to anyone: play a sport or party. Party I did, but not hard enough or often enough to secure an identity for myself. And dribbling a ball seemed silly. I was a child who read a lot, and I became a teenager who read more. It was really just a failure of imagination: I didn’t know what else to do. The novels I read were like social field guides. They helped me to identify different species of humans and told me how to evolve into the ones I liked best.

The authors I liked most, it turned out, were Jews—the long-famous ones with universal appeal. Judy Blume gave way to Cynthia Ozick. I never latched onto Bellow, but I like Nathanael West a lot. And of course there was Philip Roth, whose slapstick raunch was good for more than just prurient nights. His virile, foul-mouthed protagonists were particular while also representing something larger about a people I wasn’t a part of. There was manageable oppression everywhere—outside the home, where they were called “kikes,” and inside the home too, where mothers forced ungodly amounts of food on them and demanded intimate knowledge of their bodily functions. Here, in Newark, N.J., was a world of expectations and obligations, of ancient traditions and urgent ambitions—a world of enough pain to motivate.

Even John Updike, literary prince of the Protestants, seemed to share my envy. I understood while reading Bech: A Book—his parodic, postmodern novel-in-stories about a washed-up novelist—why, given the choice, Updike would choose as his alter-ego an esteemed writer like himself but with an extra sprinkle of charismatic glitter: Jewishness. While the adoring, fictional critics within the book may praise Henry Bech for his “quixotic, excessively tender, strangely anti-Semitic Semitic sensibility,” Bech himself doesn’t lack intellectual insecurity or the notorious neuroses native to his race. Updike’s shticky self-reflexivity (“Bech’s weakness for Wasps was well known”) also made sense to me. It’s what gave the book not only its prankishness but its heart, too. The aching antihero that emerges in Bech: A Book has little in common with Updike’s usual protagonists. As opposed to his gin-sipping, gentile counterparts, Bech is more interested in taking women than in taking stoic swims, more invested in earning public praise than in earning a silent father’s lock-jawed approval. I mean, who wouldn’t be?

As much as I identified with Updike’s covetous gaze, like so many 14-year-olds, what I really desired, more than anything else, was honorary membership in J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. They had everything I didn’t: a private language (of spiritual crisis, Sappho, and soap shards); a chicken soup-pushing mother; and a family mythology so mentally incestuous and hermetically sealed that it suffocated their leader in suicide. I was shrewd enough to be suspicious of Salinger’s obsessive reverence for his own characters, but it didn’t prevent me from wanting to be one of them.

It’s no wonder teenagers love the Glass family, and it’s no wonder I was so keen on focusing on their Jewishness and then glamorizing it. They are a flock of loners, too sentient for the world, all but homeless outside of the family apartment, and—most crucially—empowered by their collective Otherness. Kurt Cobain would have made a good Glass.

What doubt there is among Jews about Salinger’s Jewishness should be punctured at least a little by Franny’s agonized monologue about materialism, which she moans to Zooey from her pathologized place on the living room couch: “I mean treasure is treasure, for heaven’s sake. What’s the difference whether the treasure is money, or property, or even culture, or even just plain knowledge?” Until Zooey responds, it’s almost irrelevant that Franny’s not alone in the room. Her monologue about the hypocrisy of intellectual aspiration verges, at times, on soliloquy, and it’s nothing if not a display of crippling Jewish guilt.

There is a lot written about Salinger’s Jewishness (his father was Jewish, his mother an Irish Catholic who passed as Jewish when she married) and how relevant it was to his work. It’s hard to deny that the basic makeup of his characters matches that of the caricatured Jew: anxious, world-weary, simultaneously proud and self-loathing, forever grappling with a neurotic sense of foreboding. The Glass family is also only half-Jewish, but growing up, they seemed fully Jewish to me—mostly, I think, because they were from New York.

Then I actually moved to New York, for college, and suddenly I found myself surrounded by real New York Jews for the first time. Initially, it was intoxicating. That what distinguished them was clearly more geographical than it was religious didn’t matter in the least. Obviously, I knew Jews in California too, but they weren’t like these Jews. The California Jews hadn’t been bar mitzvahed. And they certainly hadn’t been familiar with magazine mastheads or new Criterion Collection releases. At home—on weekends—they ate foods whose literal English translations (whitefish salad, honey cake) were almost as rapturous as the Hebrew ones I was unable to pronounce.

It’s not on purpose that I’ve never dated a non-Jew, but one’s attractions are always a bit aspirational, so it makes sense that I haven’t. Even Ben, my “fake boyfriend,” is Jewish. We met within the first week of college and still chat online almost every day. For four years, we slept in the same bed on Friday nights but never thought to touch one another. We edited each others’ papers and sought each others’ romantic counsel. Ben always made a theatrical show of fairness. He made me replace the food I ate from his cupboards and always remembered when I owed him $5. I’d roll my eyes and fork over the cash. “What?” he’d ask, “You think I’m going to let some goy waltz in here and bleed me dry?” It was all sort of a joke, but not really. I always missed him when he went home for the High Holidays. In affectionate moods, he told me I could “pass.”

Jewish boyfriends (real and fake) certainly seem to call their mothers a lot, not that I have any point of reference. The cliché feels true, though. I’m good with other peoples’ mothers: I like conspiratorial exasperation, and I enjoy eating dinner almost as much as I enjoy wrapping the leftovers in tin foil afterwards. It’s possible, easy even—especially at mealtimes—to be too solicitous a shiksa, too curious a colonizer. I’ve attended enough Seders at this point to not treat them like study-abroad programs, but still, it’s good to express genuine interest in your competition. Perhaps this will change over the years—I imagine it will—but for now, I’m attracted to men who have obligations to people other than me. A Jewish mother guarantees this.

One Jewish friend had parents who hosted a huge, buffet-style brunch each fall in their apartment overlooking Central Park. Men with advanced degrees and well-trimmed beards introduced themselves between bites of bagels. Small children scampered down hallways and played games on the Oriental carpets. My friend’s mother enjoyed herself—smiling, chatting, cooing at babies—but she remained alert the whole time, seeing to it that no coffee cup went below half-full. The idea was that everyone felt taken care of. In California, such a celebration (casual, multigenerational) usually calls for potlucks. Picnic tables are laid with wooden bowls full of ancient grains. Dessert is fresh fruit, and you drink sulfite-free Merlot. Everyone goes heavy on the goat cheese, and nobody stresses out about anything. The idea is that everyone takes care of themselves.

Even the spectacularly wealthy, spectacularly fun kids in college were saved, in some elusive, Jewish way, from appearing as gauche as they otherwise might have. Their parents might have been rock stars or media moguls, but they still collected first editions and went to publishing parties. There were breathtaking socialites who skipped class to both walk in fashion shows and host exclusive Seders. Tangled artfully in delicate gold necklaces, they wore tiny, diamond-encrusted stars of David. They made elaborate attempts at concealing new tattoos from their parents, which of course weren’t only disapproved of but also forbidden. The regard for tradition was touching, even if it was half-assed. The fact that they attended to Jewish family obligations implied that besides beauty and undeniable charm, they knew they had something bigger than themselves to be proud of and preserve.

The lesson, I guess, is that we—the goyim who aspire to some cursory definition of Jewishness—see you in a different way than you see yourselves.I say “we” because my feelings on this score are widespread enough to have become something of a literary trope. “What was Zabar’s? How did you get there? What was lox? Why was it orange? Did the Pleshettes really eat fish for breakfast? Who was Diaghilev? What was a gouache, a pentimento, a rugelach? Please tell me,” pleads Mitchell Grammaticus, one of the three main characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel, The Marriage Plot. Like Eugenides himself, Mitchell is the son of Greek immigrants from Detroit. He’s a religious-studies major at Brown in the early 1980s, and his roommate, Larry Pleshette, is from Riverdale. Larry’s parents serve on the boards of artistic nonprofits; they house ballerinas defecting from Kiev; Leonard Bernstein is known to have come over for drinks. Their house is like a shrine for Mitchell, full of totemic objects. He describes the contents of their freezer (rum raisin ice cream) with more ecstasy than he does any of his spiritual epiphanies.

For a long time, I felt as Mitchell did about the Jews I met in college—awed and finally in the presence of people, not characters, whose image I could approximate. But the longer I live in New York, the less impressed I am with the Jews, which is as it should be. Scanning the world and classifying its inhabitants might be a useful way to live when you’re very young, but at a certain point, it becomes obvious that there are more exceptions to the rules than there are rules, enough people who surprise you to realize that there aren’t any meaningful classifications at all. I think I was stunted a bit in this regard because of my exposure to the Jews I met in college, who in the beginning at least, really did seem to confirm what I had read about and romanticized in high school.

After six years in New York, I can barely count on one hand the non-Jews I know. I hear of stylish Purims and secret latke recipes; friends catch the biblical allusions I don’t and are more comfortable than I am joking about Hasids. But it’s not like Judaism is some magical charm that makes for bookish, indoor superheroes. All the things I once took to be synecdoche for Semitism are really just certain sorts of class signifier—ones made accessible by a mere college degree. It’s not that they’re superficial so much as they are shared, and therefore no longer special-seeming.

Though I’ve finally shaken the simple syllogism held in my mind all these years that conflates Jewishness with literacy with virtue, you wouldn’t guess it from looking at my life. It’s all my adolescent daydreams made manifest. If I could sit my adolescent self down for a minute, I’d commend her impulses and tell her not to worry. I’d tell her that in a few years she’d be surrounded by real-life versions of the characters she read about, but not to get too excited—that it would be exciting at first, and then annoying, and before long totally normal. I’d tell her she’d live in New York and that her mayor would share a surname with Franny’s cat. I’d tell her to keep reading Jewish books that convince teenagers that it’s cool to be smart.

Whatever jokes were once made about “the Johns” (Cheever, Updike, Knowles) are now made about “the Jonathans” (Lethem, Safran Foer, Ames). The Johns have infidelity, swimming pools, and study hall proctors; the Jonathans have Tourette, shtetls, and HBO shows filmed in Cobble Hill. We are a better-read (and -fed) elite. We still have status symbols. And though it may sound specious to some, a ruling class that reads is better than one that doesn’t.

Venerating Jewishness as a teenager was not an act of rebellion, but it was a way of questioning and ultimately rejecting a culture whose sense of purpose—to say nothing of prestige—seemed extemporaneously contrived. I spent my youth wanting to belong to a club that I thought wouldn’t have someone like me for a member. What I didn’t know then was how easily, and how soon, I would be approved.

Alice Gregory is a writer living in Brooklyn.