A few days ago my wife and I went to a party and I got a little drunk and charmed the table. Our host had served me two vodka cocktails and then at dinner there was a lot of red wine. On the drive home my wife got upset with me for being obnoxious and I said that I was a talent and needed to express myself. For the rest of the night and the next day or so, she would say, “I get it—you’re a showoff, right, so you need to dominate a conversation? Isn’t that what you told me?”
One thing that set me off is that there were a couple of people at the party who are much more successful than I am in the media field (not to mention the Israel lobby) so my competitive instinct took over. My wife regards this as beneath me. One of the successful people was a writer who my wife wrote off as having no personality and being a suckup and a liar. A liar? My wife had asked her something about social life, and the writer said offhandedly, Oh I never see anyone, I haven’t been out in a year. My wife said this was a flatout lie. The writer is a social type, it is completely obvious, and she obviously gets out all the time and just didn’t answer the question maybe because she regards our society as lesser or because her answer seemed clever to her. There was no sincerity, my wife said. And in turn my wife faulted me for a lack of sincerity, in my drunken holdingforthness.
I relate everything to my Jewishness, and I read this conflict in Jewish terms. The writer is Jewish and I am familiar with her manners. I grew up hearing and telling jokes about the value and pleasure of irony and deception. The famous Minsk Pinsk joke, in which one salesman accuses another of lying when he has told him the truth, was told at my dinner table. My wife doesn’t like irony. She grew up going to a Quaker resort where the three words on the dining room wall were Simplicity Sincerity and Service. I’ve come to respect those values. But can I develop them in myself, and do I even want to?
A friend advised me recently that I am struggling with the idea of chosenness. I associate New York success, that thing the three partygoers possess in greater measure than I do, with chosenness, and along with chosenness, spectacle: marketing, branding, performance. I don’t know that it’s altogether a bad thing. But chosenness is a real element in Jewish culture. You hear even secularized Jews mention the Jewish covenant with god; why, in the middle of an academic work called Capitalism and the Jews, author Jerry Muller states in passing that Jews have such a covenant—and I bridle, because the religious language is never interrogated, and neither is the sense of specialness that comes along with it.