I blogged about a conversation about Palestine I had a dinner party last Saturday night. Well something else took place that my wife has brought up since.
After dinner, at about 10:30, when people were slouching around drunkenly on couches, talking, my wife’s dinner partner came to the table with a big wooden chess set, and opened it up. He had learned to play chess a couple weeks back. This guy is goodlooking, gay, courtly, mischievous; "Michael." When he had come to the party he’d seen me hugging someone else and demanded a hug from me, too. I said, "But I’m homophobic." He thought that was funny and kept putting his arm around me after that.
My wife learned to play chess a couple years ago and she and Michael started playing. But every couple of minutes she called out to me to help her. I tried to ignore the demands. I have mixed feelings about chess. I’m not that good at it, yet it’s utterly fascinating, I find it engaging, etc. I did show her how to establish her pawns, and respond to an attack from Michael’s bishop.
I stayed away for a few minutes then the next time I walked by my wife was down her Queen and a bishop. Wow. What had happened? She tugged at my sleeve to stay, and I stood by her chair, hovering over the board. Meanwhile Michael had gotten reinforcement; our host, "Sam," sat next to him.
I started doing the moves for my wife, and whenever she wanted to talk about strategy openly, I hushed her. I didn’t want the other side to sense any weakness or hesitation, just shock and awe as we silently crushed them. We attacked, and soon I had Michael’s Queen in a cross. I can’t take real credit for this; he didn’t fully comprehend what was going on.
Sam kept making fun of me. He would wave his hands over the board to try and distract me or tease me. He has a penchant for teasing. I couldn’t see the board; and I flared, "Dammit Sam, stop it!" A little angrily. Then Sam teased, "Look at that face, it’s simian." My look of concentration and intimidation.
Anyway, I nailed Michael’s Queen and another piece or so then walked away. My wife still had a losing position. I’m not sure how it came out. I did notice that Michael didn’t say goodnight to me. And I could tell my wife was upset at me for flaring at Sam. So when I said goodnight to Sam, I apologized for being unmannerly, and he said, "Oh you’re crazy, you are the greatest!"
My wife has since said that I was too intense, that it scared people. They think I’m about to get violent or pop off. (Popping off is one of my specialties.) I asked her if she thought of this behavior as Jewish. My wife and I often compare tribal traits with one another. When we began going out 18 years ago this was more of an area of tension; I detected antisemitism in various relations of hers, and she detected "anti-anti-semitism" in various relations of mine. I don’t mean to make light of this. It was a real field of difference, and we’ve gotten over it by and large. Anyway, she said, Yes she thought of it as Jewish in the sense that her own background, WASP, entails being well-bred. They give getting-along-socially the highest value. They want other people to feel comfortable in social settings. They mask their primal feelings. Even on the tennis court? Yes even on the tennis court, there is a ton of etiquette, she said. Where my behavior was ill-bred and competitive, she said.
I just quizzed her about it now, in the bathtub. She said she doesn’t think of it as Jewish per se, but more "immigrant"-like behavior. "Insecure." There are tons of well-bred Jews who know how to behave at a dinner party.
I’m not sure where I come down on this. I was working on a book for a while called "The Assimilationist," but left off because my (former) publisher rejected the proposal, also because the political questions surrounding Jewish identity became far more compelling to me–and still are–than the social/personal questions. Yet it’s also true that the social and personal seem to affect one’s political activities, to a greater or lesser degree. (C.f., Jeffrey Goldberg feeling in his 20’s that the Diaspora was the disease and moving to Israel the cure–from which eventuated, I believe, his conviction that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and it would be a fabulous thing if the U.S. invaded.)
The odd thing about the evening is that I felt really good playing chess. I felt fulfilled and powerful. Leaning over my wife, I felt my mind in motion; I felt like I was melting away the hypocrisy and social fakery of a party and being who I am, a cerebral person. My wife saw my insecurity; and I accept that. My challenge is to exercise my mental powers without being an a—–e, which has never been easy for me, and which I believe is my own nuttiness, not a tribal trait. The Yiddish word for that is mishigos.