My Wife Criticizes My ‘Intense,’ ‘Insecure,’ ‘Immigrant’ Behavior at Party

on 11 Comments

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.

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11 Responses

  1. Charles Keating
    March 26, 2008, 9:22 am

    Phill, I wonder to what extent, if any, the players' actions, including your own, and reactions, including your own, would have differed if, instead of chess, the game was not chess, but darts, or fussball? Think about it, then also ask your wife her opinion. Let us know.

  2. Oarwell
    March 26, 2008, 10:05 am

    "…her own background, WASP, entails being well-bred. They give getting-along-socially the highest value."


    What, you married an Auchincloss? Who are these mythic WASPs you keep yakking about? In my own cloistered WASP woild, these are merely novelistic fictions: real WASPs, even the clubby set, get together to A) drink and B) hit on each other's spouses. When they go home, if they've drunk enough, they can hit on their own spouse.

    Your blog sometimes reads like a Herman Wouk novel (I'm thinking of "City Boy", of clumsy Herbie "constantly struggling against the consequences of his own quick wit"). More Wouk than Malamud.

    Although Malamud did say once that
    "Life responds to one's moves with comic counterinventions."

    He also said:

    "All men are Jews, though few men know it."

    Had you been drinking before your chess contretemps? Being sober when everyone else is drunk can be alienating. What would Descarte do, when everyone else is laughing and singing "I drink, therefore I am?"

    En passant, maybe you were projecting some real homophobia towards Michael, as you "targeted his queen."

  3. Jim Haygood
    March 26, 2008, 11:10 am


    En passant, maybe you were projecting some real homophobia towards Michael, as you "targeted his queen." – Oarwell


    Phil was unconsciously emulating Brenda Patimkin in "Goodbye Columbus," in the fierce tennis match where Neil Klugman encounters her on their first date.

    Life imitates art, as it were.

  4. LeaNder
    March 26, 2008, 11:32 am

    Absolutely funny, Phil!

    No, I do not think these traits are specifically Jewish. …

    I think I would enjoy to read "The Assimiliationist". Maybe in the end many would realize that there is less to "assmilation" than it seems.

  5. American
    March 26, 2008, 12:23 pm


    If you want to get a book published let me suggest you do one on the "Hyphen Americans".

    A real study on how we diverged from the "melting pot nationality" identity to the
    current concept of seperate ethic interest influencing overall US policies.

    How this new 'voting your "ethnic" and not American interest was fostered, all the interest, including the political establishment, that encouraged it and allowed it.

  6. Jessica
    March 26, 2008, 4:18 pm

    Gee, I am a WASP although from a lower-middle class family, and I am always "popping off." Alas, have I let down my culture and my people?

    My Jewish significant other, though, is uncomfortable at my family functions. "Why is everyone so quiet?" he will lean over and whisper to me. His other commment "What lurks beneath all that niceness?"

    WASPS and Jews are a tough mix, I think, but I have been with him for 20 years and am not leaving.

  7. from oslo
    March 26, 2008, 6:29 pm

    "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."

    I agree 100%. Probably because I feel like that too. My partner (we've been together in the last 10 years) somehow made me aware of this.

    The fact that I grew up in France, spent years in Belgium and now live in Norway is certainly part of the mix. It's not a tribal trait. By the way, I'm an internet nerd born in West Africa. Go figure.

    PS: I'm a regular reader of your blog, but never comment :-)

    Have a nice day (A)mishigos !

  8. neocognitism
    March 26, 2008, 9:24 pm



    is actually a real word, used for decades,


    I've encountered it a great deal for years and years. People should use the word more.

  9. peters
    March 27, 2008, 12:01 am

    I want to put in a vote here in this very fascinating discussion. I am a wasp, episcopalian, etc . etc. and I find myself flummoxed over and over again socially by the "new manners". Which seem to me by the way as lack of manners. I am sorry that sounds so stuffy and priggish but it is quite shocking to the system to be attempting to make people feel at ease and to include them in general bonhomie, and then be whacked with aggressiveness or competitiveness or bragging. Or even worse, people taking your niceness as weakness or an invitation to preen.
    I don't see it as specifically Jewish. But I have noticed that Jewish families tolerate a lot more aggressive behavior between thenselves.

  10. Charles Keating
    March 27, 2008, 7:38 am

    Referring to the statement attributed to Malamud above ("All men are Jews"), Philip Roth remarked way back in 1960, "In fact, we know that is not so; even the men who are Jews aren't sure they're Jews." Roth was pointing out that the contemporary scene of 1960 was not represented by Malamud's work, wherein the people depicted lived in a timeless depression and a placeless Lower East Side; Roth opined their society was not affluent, their predicament was not cultural.

    Does Phil Roth's fiction represent the specific interest in the anxieties and dilemmas and corruption of the contemporary Jew, the Jew Jews think of as characteristic of our times?

    Or is he outdated. How about Phil Weiss's blog? The latest pages of Commentary?

    Steven Garfinkel (ISOO director from 1980-2002) and J. William Leonard (2002-2007) have been the voice of classification authority across three decades and five presidential administrations. They inspected, oversaw and reported to the President on the government’s classification and declassification programs. And last week they were listed among eight proposed expert witnesses for the defense in the AIPAC case, formally known as USA v. Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman.

    As deeply knowledgeable classification officials, Mr. Garfinkel and Mr. Leonard might have been expected to testify for the government in a case involving classification policy. The fact that they are testifying for the defense indicates what?

  11. ellen
    March 27, 2008, 7:59 am

    "her own background, WASP, entails being well-bred."

    Another way to look at that would be that being wasp entails hiding one's feelings, being aloof, not being engaged.

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