I know well-bred, well-mannered when I see it. I know about restraint and modesty and not showing off your wealth or your bank balance in public. I know that Jews, nouveau riche Jews, spent and are spending lavishly on weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and 3-year-olds’ birthday parties. It really isn’t very nice. Or is it?
Lavishly is perhaps not the right word. Lavish is perhaps the way you put jam on bread or suntan oil on exposed limbs. Expensively, grandly, are better words for four hors d’oeuvres tables, silver chafing dishes, hiring Usher plus professional hip-hop dancers to dance with the guests, videos, games, and red running roast beef for 200 best friends. When Philip Roth made fun of the wedding extravaganza in Goodbye, Columbus, he didn’t stop the would-be offenders of taste from escalating the must-have details of their affairs. No amount of mockery could turn the Jewish community toward sack-cloth and New England simplicity. Roth annoyed and embarrassed a Jewish world that wanted to be seen as elegant, assimilated, and dignified as Yankee Doodle Dandy. But in the end, he lost.
What most Jews didn’t want then and don’t want today is to become Quakers. They do not aspire to be modest, or shy about the wealth they have accumulated by their own hands and brains or even through the great luck of being born into the right generation of the right family.
So, instead of being embarrassed, maybe we should look on the expenditure of hard-earned treasure in communal display as a joyous even triumphant stamping on the back of Jewish history. Maybe that thousand-piece dessert tray is a well-earned, historically unique expression of comfort and even defiance after generations of deprivation and hardship. Maybe the name rock-band and the flowers on each table and the swishing of satin and velvet and the flashing of necklaces is not too much but just right.
We are talking about post-Holocaust America here. We are talking about a people murdered, exiled, stripped of all they had. In cattle cars, in gas chambers, in ditches in dark forests, herded into burning buildings. We died. We were starved in ghettos, hidden in sewers. We had little to celebrate and nothing to celebrate with.
We are talking about a people kept for centuries away from the businesses and lands that brought affluence to their fortunate gentile owners. We are talking about a people who themselves or their parents arrived on this shore with nothing. Many of them were peddlers, going door to door, sweet-talking housewives, in a new alien language, carrying merchandise up and down steps, riding long roads in lonely places. We are talking about the lucky grandchildren of men and women who sat at sewing machines for nine hours a day. We are talking about people who in the old country never felt safe, never had enough, could be murdered by marauding Cossacks, or their own neighbors, or the police at any moment on any whim.
Maybe that thousand-piece dessert tray is a well-earned, historically unique expression of comfort and even defiance after generations of deprivation and hardship.
The Fiddler on the Roof frequently fell off that roof onto the ground. And a simple reality check reminds us that Jews could lose everything they owned, if they owned anything at all, if the wrong army rode in to town or the noble whose bidding they were doing changed his mind about their worth to him. The forest, the fields, the towns were dangerous. Neighbors might trade with you on Monday and murder you before the church bells rang on Sunday. Things could go well for 20 years and then suddenly a mob could turn on its Jews, accusing them of poisoning wells, stealing a cow, cheating in a trade.
In Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah he interviews a Polish peasant in a town outside Auschwitz who, speaking into the camera, says that the Jews hid their gold under the floorboards of their homes but when the Jews were taken away and the neighbors pulled up the floorboards they found no gold. The Jews had hidden it elsewhere, so the face on the camera tells us. So, the Jews were accused of having too much even when they had too little. I would rather we had too much, and I don’t think we should hide what we have here in America. We are absolutely entitled to a few centuries of gold trim, 12 kinds of cheese, champagne, kosher or non-kosher sugar plums, and chocolates raining down on us.
Jews give more to charitable causes than most other Americans. We have almost from the beginning of the great wave of immigration created institutions to support Jews and non-Jews who need help to survive in a rather chilly capitalist society. Jews enthusiastically joined in the Civil Rights movements, in peace movements, in American politics, local and national. So, we are entitled to celebration and joy and showing off. Showing off is human. It is a little bit wicked but compared to the wickedness of the world we live in it is not so bad. I would rather spend an outrageous amount for a party or a designer pocketbook or a vacation than live like a good mouse in a drab house, because someone else can’t afford my style, and I am not afraid that someone might think I am vulgar or otherwise unseemly. If that Polish peasant comes hammering at my floorboards, I hope she finds ruby rings and diamond earrings.
Jews can be good without being self-effacing. In America we don’t have to hide anything and we shouldn’t. After so many years of fear and deprivation a little too much will not spoil our Jewish hearts or our Jewish minds.
Yes, we have Jewish laws about moderation and not acting piggish before our neighbors and friends. But human beings do not always control the impulse to shout out their presence to the indifferent heavens or the gossipy neighbors. Non-Jews, too, toss away caution at moments of passage. Think of Christmas decorations on modest houses or the chauffeur-driven cars of teenage prom nights.
So, to the Philip Roths among us I say, don’t be a reverse snob. Don’t despise the bar mitzvah boy’s 15-minute video with his baby photos and his favorite teddy bear, and the entire LA Clippers basketball team. We don’t have to sneak through America as if we were still hidden in an attic. Think of all the grease this puts into our capital system, the money spread and sprinkled and seeding other purchases. Think of Jews celebrating their safety in this place, at this time, which may last forever, but probably won’t.
And so I am a supporter of flash and drum rolls and dancing loud and wild. Protestant restraint is fine if you like that kind of thing. But its also fine if you want to spend money.
Prosit: Cheers, l’chaim.
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Anne Roiphe is a novelist and a journalist.