For Thanksgiving my wife and I went to my parents’ place outside Philadelphia. My wife is also from Philly, and on Friday night we went to Chestnut Hill to a relative of hers for post-Thanksgiving dinner. As we were getting ready to go, my father joked that he wasn’t invited "due to anti-semitism." My wife never rises to the bait. It’s one of her rules in life. She said, “Maybe,” and just smiled. But my father brought it up again later, now naming a Christian friend of my wife’s and saying she’s anti-semitic, and my wife said something vague, and then my father said with an ironical meanness made naked by being in his 80s, that he thought all Christians were anti-Semitic.
I ignored the whole thing. I was changing, getting off my muddy boots. I’d been moving rhododendrons.
My mother ran into the mud room and said that I should say something to my father about it, that he was outrageous, and he would listen to me not to anyone else, because my dad and I are close. Then my wife and my sister came in talking about it, and my wife said, "It hurts my feelings, Phil." I waved it off. I said, “Don’t give in to the feeling. You’ve known about this 20 years, don’t decide to get upset.” Later I said, “You’ve been bonding with my mother, and that’s great. But don’t use this. You don’t need to get sensitive about this stuff.”
It did hurt my wife’s feelings 20 years ago, when she first met my family. She said, “I’ve heard about anti-semitism, but I never heard about anti-anti-semitism.” She’d just met my father, and he had called her Brenda Frazier. I think my wife and my father were the only ones who knew who he was talking about. Brenda Frazier was a big debutante back in the ’30s and ’40s; she symbolized a class, and she was vapid. My father was calling my wife Brenda Frazier because he put her in that social caste. It upset my wife, and I got angry at my father about it, came down on him hard. But I don’t think it had much of an effect. It’s my father’s genuine world view. My father lives in his head even more than I do, and he and Jeffrey Goldberg have a lot in common: Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that there is a “river” of anti-Semitism running under American society. He probably still believes it. My father believes it too. He’s only half-ironical about it. What are you going to do? Half his kids are married to non-Jews, a couple of whom employ Yiddish better than his kids.
At the Thanksgiving party we went to later, my wife explained to her cousins who the biggest gonif was in the family they were gossiping about, and then she had to explain the way that gonif means a thief and not a thief in Yiddish, that it’s a half-respectful term for a certain kind of cleverness.
On Saturday morning I got up at 8 and was in the kitchen alone with my father. I saw my wife buzzing about but she didn’t come in and I wondered if her feelings were really hurt, and if she’d never talk to my father again, and if I was being insensitive and spineless with my father. I love my father. He’s brilliant and idiosyncratic and uncomfortable. His sociological views are formed by his own Brooklyn-CCNY-Ivy League experience. He was as unready for the world his intermarried children made as I am for all the young anti-Zionist Jews I meet who don’t even identify as Jews. I said to my father, “Dad, a word to the wise. When you talk about anti-semitism in Christian families, it hurts some people’s feelings. There’s a lot of anti-semitism out there, but I wouldn’t say it’s true of my wife’s family really.” My father nodded and looked back at his paper, but I’m pretty sure the hook went in.
My mother came down to breakfast, then my wife came into the breakfast room and we all had coffee. My mother asked about the dinner the night before, and we related the gossip about the family with the gonif in it, and then I told a Jewish story of my own on a related subject. Thirty years ago a friend of mine from Elkins Park PA was dating a girl from this big fancy Main Line family. My friend is the wittiest person I know. They were all at dinner and passing the vegetables around properly in the same direction, when my friend said, “Boy this is nothing like my house. It’s pandemonium and everyone is yelling for the beans or the mashed potatoes.” The patriarch of the famous family raised an eyebrow and said, “Jewish?” And my friend said, “Yes. Sorry.”
Then a few minutes later at dinner, the patriarch turned to my friend and said, “By the way, when I asked if you’re Jewish, I didn’t mean it was a bad thing.”
“Oh of course not,” my friend said, with his wicked little grin.
After that I drove my wife to her yoga class. The whole way she kept laughing about my friend’s line of 30 years ago. She said she’s going to use it herself. “Are you from Philadelphia?” “Yes. Sorry.” I haven’t told you that story before? I said. No! she said, she’d have remembered that line.
When I dropped her off I told her what I’d said to my father. “That was a good way to say it,” she said. I’m hoping that’s the end of it.