HE FUCKING hated Jews, okay? He was no anti-Semite, either. Hadn’t he married a Jew, thereby becoming the progenitor of four children who, against all odds, decided, one after the next, to practice what they all called, without a trace of irony, the faith of their forefathers? All four of them married other Jews and spawned a whole crop of grandchildren—nine and counting—who themselves were Jews, and not just the bagel-and-lox-eating kind either, or even the kind who insisted on some kind of intellectual superiority based on something to do with the Torah, as if the stories in Genesis and Exodus rivaled War and Peace or anything Shakespeare ever so much as scribbled on a scratch piece of parchment, but the point was—what was the point, anyway? Oh yes. That he, Gordon Jones-Gray, had, at his age, become the patriarch to a family of Jewish, Jewy Jews.
God almighty. If he had to go to one more bar or bat mitzvah, he’d vomit blood.
Which is exactly what he told his wife, Shirl, when she opened the invitation for the twins’ upcoming double-header, at Temple Beth Israel, in West Orange, New Jersey.
He loved the twins—he loved all his grandchildren—but he really couldn’t stand it anymore. “I’ll go,” he said. “But I’ll be vomiting blood.”
“You will not be vomiting blood,” his wife said. “Or anything else, for that matter. Take a couple of Tums. You’ll be fine.”
It was a longstanding if not funny joke, how it was he, the lapsed Episcopalian scholar, from South Carolina no less, and not any of his wife’s family, who popped antacids like they were candy. Jewish after-dinner mints. That was the line.
“It’s not my stomach,” he said, suddenly aware that though he’d felt fine a second ago, his guts were now twitchy with pre-released acid reflux. “It’s my whole being. My sense of aesthetic dignity. My intellect.”
“I can no more tolerate this ongoing charade, this dress-up game, this parade of pretense, this frontage of faith, than I can the pontificating punditry of politicians,” he said.
“Take a nap,” his wife said. “Or better yet, a walk. It’s a beautiful day. Take Buster out. He looks like he needs to poop.”
Hearing his name, Buster thumped his tail. He was a large gray standard American poodle whom Shirl had begun taking to bed with her—meaning with them. Buster lay between them, his snout, as often as not, on Gordon’s pillow. In the morning the pillow would be soaked with dog drool and Shirl would promise to change the pillowcase but didn’t.
Of course, he could change his own pillowcase, too. He could change the whole arrangement. Forbid the dog to get on the bed, or even come into the room! Conversely, he could take his pillow, his book, and his bottle of Tums across the hall to Jenny’s old room. Once papered in a pattern of rosebuds and bright with the light that Jenny refused to curtain off, the room had been redone in shades of ochre and yellow by Shirl, who said the color scheme reminded her of early morning. It reminded him of old-age homes, but never mind. He left the decorating, like most everything else to do with the house, to Shirl, who was, if nothing else, competent: a good cook, a careful wielder of the vacuum cleaner, a tidier of newspapers. And the garden—that was hers, too. It was early spring and the garden was just beginning to bud out. By May it would be in full, glorious, almost indecently colorful bloom. Shirl, she talked to the flowers. She sang to them. “Flowers are people, too,” she said.
“Just look at Buster Brown,” she now said. “Look at those big doggie eyes. He’s desperate to go out.”
“He looks like he always looks.” In addition to doing the little dance he did in anticipation of a walk, Buster seemed to be growing a hard-on, that candy-pink lipstick thing that dogs unfolded from inside their furry little aroused members. In a moment, he’d either be humping the air or somebody’s leg, his former humping-partner, a Collie-mix named Jefferson, having gone the way of all flesh. He approached Gordon, his mouth expectant with drool, his hips beginning to convulse.
“Fine,” Gordon said to the dog, cocking his head to indicate that the two of them—woman and beast—could have it their way. “Let’s go.”
Grabbing the leash in one hand and a couple of plastic bags in the other, he opened the back door into the garden, where the dog bounded past him, springing joyfully into the freedom of the spring day before stopping to inspect what turned out to be a dead mouse.
That happened sometimes, usually after a heavy rain. They’d find their stiff, rotting, matted bodies bent around a stand of coneflowers or lying prone in the dappled green grass.
He thought it over. He wasn’t an unreasonable man. Perfect, no. Not even close. He snored, just for starters. Also, he tended to hold forth. His wife’s words, not his. He thought of his discourses, usually delivered at the dinner table and usually only in the company of either family or close friends, as being something more like explications, open ended and open for airing, inviting discussion and debate, the hearty back and forth of true intellectual discourse: the exchange, that is, of ideas. But Shirl was no longer interested in ideas, if she ever was. True, back when he’d first met her, when she’d caught his eye when she was a psychology major at Barnard and he a doctoral student in English at Columbia, she’d possessed a lively, engaging, subtle, and flexible mind. She read. She laughed. She argued—and not with him, either. About ideas. That was when such arguments were the air they breathed, the torrent of words their reason for being, when you could lose a friend over a remark made at a cocktail party. Buddy Stevens—how the man had gassed on about the brilliance of Ayn Rand, who even then Gordon spotted as the ideologue, poseur, imposter, and crypto-fascist that she so obviously was. Her real name was Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, and she was born in Russia: another Jew, with a big mouth, go figure. But as Ayn Rand she was nothing but a reactionary, and worse, humorless. But Buddy Stevens, he was smitten. He was drunk. He was in love with her. It was intolerable. How could a man of Gordon’s sensibilities remain friends with a man who declared Ayn Rand to be “the most important literary figure of our day, perhaps even of the entire modern century”? Preposterous! And as things had turned out, Buddy wasn’t long for the doctoral program, anyway, having knocked up a girl in Boston and, agreeing to marry her, married her, again in Boston, where they immediately bought a small brick house in one of the closer-in suburbs and he went to work as an assistant editor at Little, Brown, where he eventually rose to become editor in chief, after which he went on to even greater heights in publishing, in New York this time, but never mind. He was a nincompoop, from start to last, and no wonder he did so well at the trade, having a knack for choosing the most facile, the most commercially viable, the most up-to-the-moment—that which would, in other words, be sure to appear on various bestseller lists? Garbage like the entire oeuvre of the perfectly wretched Pat Conroy, whom Buddy Stevens had discovered and let loose on a vulnerable and easily duped world.
He just couldn’t get over it, either—how, upon hearing that, once upon a time, Gordon had personally known the then young and extremely undiscovered Pat Conroy, people went into spasms of praise for the author’s unconscionably purple prose, not to mention his flights of raw and ugly misogyny. Oh, well, Updike’s most famous female creations were either mutts or bitches, so perhaps it wasn’t the misogyny that Gordon objected to so much as the sheer pomposity of the overheated writing.
“Yeah, when we were kids, sure, I knew Pat,” he’d say to whomever it was he was talking to at a cocktail party or departmental wine and cheese event or one of his wife’s book club gatherings. “He was a bed-wetter.”
It wasn’t true, that the young Pat Conroy had been a bed-wetter. What he had been was a quiet blond kid who’d ended up going to the Citadel and writing a bestselling novel about it, and, before that, the son of a passing friend of his mother’s, whom he’d been forced to spend a single afternoon with, in Beaufort, before his mother lost her enthusiasm for Mrs. Conroy and stopped seeing her. His mother could be like that—she’d take people up and, like abandoned puppies, cover them with her full affection—and then, just as suddenly, lose interest. So no, he didn’t really know Pat Conroy at all, and never had, not really. Still, when people heard his accent and asked him where he was from, and he told them that he grew up in South Carolina, one thing led to another, and although he always felt bad about it afterwards, he couldn’t help saying it. “His nose was always running, too,” he might add. Or: “He stuttered.”
At least he didn’t lie anymore when the subject of his South Carolinian roots and connection to Pat Conroy came up. He didn’t even exaggerate, not much, anyway. There was no need. No one was listening, so why bother? And Gordon himself had grown tired of his story, though not so tired that he could stand another endless droning-on-and-on festival to the gods of future American Jewish culture, writ large.
Because it was boring as all get-out, for one, and not just because the this-and-that mitzvah ceremonies were largely conducted in Hebrew, but also because they were, by their very definition, religious rituals, and religious rituals were empty gestures, vessels that had run out of steam a century or two ago, becoming little more than keepsakes, tchotchkes placed on the altar of nostalgia. Sure, go ahead, what the heck, believe in your God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or, if you like, in the Higher Intelligence of the Universe, Buddha Wisdom, Jesus-of-Nazareth-as-Promoted-to-God. He didn’t care. Just don’t make me a hostage to your childish need to make me witness your cheerleading antics. He’d hated high school football too, including the cheerleaders, bouncing bouncily their bouncy uniforms, which had basically meant that he’d had no social life at all. Not in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Which was another thing: the way his wife’s family looked down on him—even now looked down on him—because, instead of earning his BA at an Ivy League college, he’d matriculated at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia. So what, he wasn’t from a wealthy family, and even if he had been, who gives a rat’s ass? Everyone, that’s who, except not really, because who really gave a flying fuck really only included:
Everyone in his wife’s family, including his own four children and their four spouses and nine children;
His colleagues in the English department of the American University, where he was an emeritus professor with an expertise in Faulkner;
Himself, because, let’s face it, once he’d gone from Columbia, South Carolina—where he’d continued to loathe football and not have much of a social life—to Columbia, the university in New York, where he’d both met his wife and earned a doctorate, he’d come to see that the greener the ivy, the greener the greenbacks, the grass, and the light, not to mention the thumb and the valley.
He and Shirl lived in the Spring Valley section of Washington, DC, which was absurd on so many levels that even now he found himself chuckling about it on occasion. For one thing, just a year or so before he and Shirl bought the red brick, five-bay, center-hall colonial they still lived in on Overlook Road, the entire neighborhood had been off limits to Jewish buyers, subject to a so-called “restrictive covenant,” which restricted such people as, for example, Jews, from living there. And who was it who’d pitched a fit, saying that he didn’t want to dwell among such small-minded bigots and/or put money in the pockets of those who did their bidding? Because back then, before the this-and-the-that and the so-forths and so-ons, he’d been, if not a champion of the Jews, then at least proud to have been included in their midst. How perfectly stunning it seemed to him to have found a woman not only with Shirl’s undoubted intellectual capacities, but a willingness to engage in intellectual battle, to suss out the grand roiling issues of the day: communism, feminism, postmodernism, Cuba and Russia and Yugoslavia, the work of Woody Allen and Allen Ginsberg, e.e. cummings, Nikki Giovanni. How he’d relished the sound of her voice, the sound of their voices, warmed by red wine mingling together until late at night. That she was Jewish was an additional point of pride, if not with her than with him, for the simple reason that, unlike the placid, pretty, made-up girls he’d dated in South Carolina, Shirl was fierce. Fierce in her use of language, both secular and profane; fierce in her convictions; fierce in her sense of who she was. She wore black slacks and black turtlenecks, her black hair cut short like a boy’s, her small, taut body ready to pounce at the slightest hint of wrong thinking, wrongheadedness, or just plain stupidity.
The other reason living in Spring Valley was preposterous was that they couldn’t afford it. Not on an academic salary. He didn’t much care for the look of the place either, with its manicured hedges and flagstone walkways, its miles of pachysandra, its assumption of well-ordered comfort, superiority based on old money taste. In its handsome, unselfconscious smugness, it reminded him of everything he didn’t like about Beaufort, because even though Spring Valley neither looked nor felt like Beaufort—with its watery recesses and Spanish moss and slow pace and antebellum aesthetic, the buzz of mosquitos in the iron plants, the rustle of skirt against slip—it possessed, in toto, the Washington equivalent of the world outlook possessed by the Beaufort country-club set.
He hadn’t understood why they simply couldn’t continue renting the house in Cabin John, which, though growing cramped with each additional child, had a simplicity about it that appealed to him. The drive to campus wasn’t much, either. He certainly didn’t mind it. And their neighbors, like them, were mainly younger couples embarked on non-moneyed careers: government lawyers, high school teachers, scientists working at NIH.
But Shirl insisted. She was going crazy, stuck in that little house, tripping over bassinets and playpens. She wanted space. She wanted sidewalks. And most of all, she wanted to plant her outspoken, New York-accented, Jewish butt smack down in the middle of where she wasn’t wanted.
“Fuck ’em,” she said.
He’d loved that about her, too, how fearless she was about matters of class, money, taste, manners. Ladies of Hadassah, stand up! But as it had turned out, the ladies of Spring Valley had welcomed her with open arms, inviting her to their homes for coffee and cookies and, in time, coming to her with their most private, pressing matters, hunkering down in the den, crying as she listened, nodding, sage, open, inquisitive, and, most of all, Jewish. A Jewish Jew who’d studied psychology and who, unlike members of their own tribe, consulted psychotherapists, underwent analysis, read Freud and Jung, Bettelheim, Adler.
She came from a wealthy family. Her father helped them with the down payment and, afterwards, made sure that her own share of the family wealth was invested well, invested in such a way that they’d never have to worry about finding the money to educate their children, go on vacation, or buy a new car.
Wealth, brains, and that outspoken Jewish way of being in the world—in his marriage to Shirl, he’d gotten the whole trifecta, including that outspoken Jewish way of discarding the entire ancient faith with its endless trail of ritual and law, the obsession with separation (milk from meat, cotton from wool, men from women, ox from cattle, day from night, the Sabbath from the rest of the week, the holy from the profane—as far as he could tell, it was all but infinite) and its heavy-handed ethnic tribalism, all that sensitivity to anti-Semitism, all that paranoia and vulnerability to slights, no matter how well earned. In Shirl, it just wasn’t there. What was there was the shimmering intellect, the way with words, the reading glasses, and the books—she was the only woman he’d ever known who read with the same fervor, the same appetite and passion, as he did.
He’d written three or four himself. Three or four? Four: why couldn’t he “own” (as Shirl would say) all four of his titles? Because, okay, the first book—on Faulkner’s often overlooked short stories, specifically, how even when set outside of Yoknapatawpha County, the clash of decrepitude and gentility, as in “Mountain Victory,” was woven through the written surface of the stories, an underskin—was a collaboration. The second was his and his alone, though published, disappointingly, with the University of Pennsylvania. The third, a novel, was also his and his alone, and it had barely seen the light of publication at all, and though in the end it had been brought out in a handsome, hard-bound volume with quality paper, it had been remaindered so quickly it was as if it had never happened at all. The fourth he’d barely squeaked out, and though it had been better published than the study on the short stories, brought out by Michigan with some fanfare, it had not met with much in the way of adulation—or even attention. And though it could still be ordered online and continued to appear at the back of the Michigan Books catalogue, sales were disappointing.
Buster stopped, sniffed, and squatted. Gordon pulled a plastic bag from his pants pocket, bent to scoop up the mess, and, straightening, tied a knot in the open end of the plastic bag. His work here was done.
“Fuck ’em,” he said, out loud, as he turned to lead Buster back home.
“But you love Delia and Bella,” was how Shirl greeted him upon his return.
“Your point being?”
“So why would you want to ruin their day by making a fuss?”
“I’m not going to ruin anyone’s day. I just don’t want to be there. How can I ruin anything if I’m not even there?”
“Oh, please,” Shirl said. “Talk about a fatuous argument.”
“I believe the word you meant was tautological.”
“You have to be kidding me,” she said. “Pulling college professor shit—on me?”
“No, really,” he said. “I really think that’s what you meant.”
“What I meant is that this isn’t about you, your comfort or discomfort level, or your being bored, or your profound certainty that there is no God and therefore the expression of religion is a fraud. It’s about a couple of thirteen-year-old girls who happen to be your daughter’s children and who happen to love you because you are their grandfather and also because, obviously, they don’t yet have the developmental capacity to recognize your bullshit.”
Well, yes—she was right, anyone could see it. Not to mention that Shirl was as sharp as they came, absolutely unimpressed by pretentions, academic or otherwise, unless they came from one of her own cousins or siblings, whose pretentions, sense of superiority, and condescension she couldn’t see at all, having long since enfolded herself in the family ethos, which basically consisted of: if you’re a graduate of an Ivy League school or its equivalent (Stanford, Williams, Amherst), you qualify. If not, you’re second rate. The same held true going forward, so even though Shirl’s first cousin Eric Scholler was an adjunct, a lecturer (in his case, of health economics) and not a full professor or even a tenure-track professor, he taught at Yale, and therefore rated higher, on the family scorecard, than Gordon did. Gordon, who was merely the Distinguished Professor of English and Nathan Emery Scholar (Emeritus) at American University, with four books to his name.
Shirl wasn’t done. “This isn’t about how baffled and uncomfortable you are by our children’s having brought up their children to be Jews, because, obviously, the way we raised our kids left them feeling—”
He knew his lines. “Like they needed something more.”
“Like they needed something much more, because, even though, and I’m not blaming either one of us, but even though we did the best we could, and gave them a lot, in hindsight, it’s clear that they felt spiritually deprived, that they wanted something else.”
“Something to grab hold of,” he finished for her. “Something they could sink their teeth into. Something to grapple with and struggle with and yes, even wrestle with. Because, after all, Israel means ‘he who wrestled with God and prevailed.’”
See there? He’d done his homework, except he hadn’t. He’d merely been around this particular block a few dozen times before. The last bit, though—the Israel bit—was a new trick. He’d picked it up from the last bar mitzvah, for his eldest son’s youngest son, Saul. The Torah portion had been Genesis 32, only of course Jews called it by the Hebrew name which he could never remember no matter how often he tried to push it into his brain. After the young Saul, in his first suit, with a clip-on bowtie, had expounded on the themes of intra-family hostility, divine permutations, Jacob’s name change to Israel, the meaning of that name, and the ancient, seemingly unending anguish of the Jewish people, which persists to this day, not so much in America but in other parts of the world, though Jews are not the only people to have suffered the miseries of disenfranchisement, double standards, and race hatred, take, for example, African Americans, who have had to start a movement called Black Lives Matter, which I, for one, am wholly in favor of, having once been bullied when I was little, I know what it feels like, to be afraid to step out in public—or in my case, onto the playground during recess—because someone might call me a name or even hit me. Which is why for my bar mitzvah project I’m asking friends and family to help me support the Innocence Project, a wonderful organization that helps free innocent people, many of them African American, from prisons, where they’re serving time for….
By this time in the proceedings, Gordon had had to literally pinch himself to keep from falling asleep. Meanwhile, all around him, people were smiling, nodding their heads, shedding tears. Such a boy, that Saul was! His father—Gordon and Shirl’s son-in-law—was a civil rights lawyer.
And maybe they had made a mistake, raising the kids the way they had, without any discernible religion other than the occasional foray into a church or synagogue for a wedding or a funeral, teaching them, instead, to honor people of all backgrounds and belief systems, to cultivate kindness, and to always vote Democratic. And what, after all, was wrong with all that? It had worked just fine for Gordon. For Shirl, too.
No, Gordon didn’t feel that he had a big empty hole inside of him that needed to be filled with anything more profound than the occasional single malt, and when that didn’t quell the disquiet in him, so what? Was not he—and every other living creature—a complex web of neurotransmitting signals and lumps of interconnected, live viscera that somehow added up to the experience of perceived selfhood, of consciousness itself? The human condition, is what they used to call it. Now the human condition had to be filled up with God, and if not God per se, then with the endless details and overlapping, contrary, soupy, and opaque opinionating of Judaic millennia. All of it written in language so dense with its own fecundity that it made no sense at all. Not in any language.
Despite his wife’s family’s dismissal of his academic acumen, he wasn’t stupid, either. Nor was he completely ignorant of the vast Jewish literature: the Torah at its base, and the outpouring of commentaries, philosophical tracts, political positions, diaries, autobiographies, short stories, criticism, novels—on and on and on it went, this flood of words from this most talky of all peoples.
“This is serious, Gordon.”
“What is it you want me to say?”
“It’s not what I want you to say,” Shirl said. “It’s what I want you to not say.”
“You’re giving me a gag order.”
“I’m telling you it’s not about you.”
“You’re telling me not to speak. You’re telling me that certain subjects are not to be broached.”
“I’m telling you to get over yourself.”
“In other words,” he said. “You’re censoring me.”
“Oh, good God.” He couldn’t tell what her tone meant: Anger? Dismissal? Both?
“I just don’t like being a performing monkey,” he said. “’Here comes Grandpa, the goy. Isn’t he cute? Isn’t it nice how supportive he is? Oh, Grandpa, we love you, even though you’re not Jewish.’”
“You really mean that?”
He had to think about it for a moment before he realized that he did.
On the morning of Bella and Delia’s double bat mitzvah, he woke in the hotel room, confused about his whereabouts, thinking that he was back on Morningside Drive, where, during his graduate years, he’d had an apartment with two other students. The room was stuffy the way hotel rooms are, with stiff curtains nodding towards the appearance of being brocaded, and a stale rug. Shirl had already finished her shower, and was standing, wrapped in a towel, applying her makeup.
“Sleep well?” she said.
He had. He’d dreamed half the night that he was speaking Hebrew. Then he hadn’t dreamed at all.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.