DC Trawler

Marty Peretz reminds me of my grandmother

If you are looking for something deep and psychological to read today, look no further: New York Mag has profiled Marty Peretz, editor of the New Republic and eater of his own foot. This scene in particular struck a chord with me:

At a basic level, he said, he can’t be a bigot; he mentioned two close, personal black friends, one who is “so fucking smart,” and then a third, a black student whom he had plucked from Harvard and made the circulation director of The New Republic. “I hired Muslims—I hired Fareed Zakaria,” he added.

I have a soft spot for tokenism, which is what Peretz is invoking when he says he knows Muslims and black people. Not because I approve of it (I don’t), but because it took me a long time to figure out how tragic it is.

I was the first person in my family, which traces its southern lineage to the Civil War, to date someone who is not white. M had long, straight, jet-black hair, brown skin, curves, and she sometimes rolled her Rs. After she met my dad and stepmom, and nothing seemed amiss, I figured that my family cared more about culture than color.

In other words, It didn’t matter in the least that M was Peruvian because she acted like a South Florida WASP.

Then one day, while lying on my bed, M told me that she was Jewish.

The announcement stunned me like dynamite. I was raised Southern Episcopal, after all, and the Jews had killed Jesus.

Horror (had I been deceived?) quickly turned to fascination (I cannot remember meeting a Jew before this). M told me that her mother’s parents (as well as her adoptive father’s parents) were the only members of their families to escape the Holocaust. M answered all my questions about menorahs and yarmulkes. M wasn’t phased when I asked her to say something in Hebrew.

I waited to tell Gaga (my grandmother and our family’s undisputed matriarch) until the day they met. I wasn’t ashamed of M for being Jewish, or of myself for dating someone who wasn’t Christian; I just didn’t know what it would mean to the people back home, and in case it was bad, didn’t want to give my grandmother time to cancel. “Interesting,” was all Gaga said about it during our phone conversation.

M spent the morning preparing. She did her nails in red, white, and blue with little glue-on gems. She blow-dried her hair and picked out a conservative blouse. She rattled off facts about my mother’s family while she plucked her eyebrows. She asked me what conversation topics were off limits. She promised to not swear or smoke (my grandfather, an Episcopal priest, died of lung cancer).

The introduction went OK. Gaga appeared enthusiastic/curious. M was enthusiastic/terrified. I was enthusiastic/anxious. Gaga’s Volvo pulsed with enthusiasm/etc. as we rode downtown.

At the restaurant, we ran out of things to talk about before we’d even ordered our food. I made a big deal of folding my napkin a million different ways. M was intent on dissolving every sugar granule at the bottom of her iced tea. Perhaps hoping to restart the conversation, Gaga pulled a Peretz. “I don’t know what Michael has told you, M, but I really like Jews.” Then she named every Jew she knew: Joe Lieberman, and if I remember correctly, the old man who repaired her vacuum.

M didn’t know what to do, so she simply smiled. Gaga was out of gestures, so she spent the rest of the meal telling me stories from the family vault. M didn’t say another word until it was time to head back to campus, where she cried until makeup streamed down her cheeks like two shimmering creeks of sorrow.

A few months later, it was my turn. M’s mom and adoptive dad and grandparents took me out to a nice Italian restaurant. I ordered calf’s liver with onions and bacon, and M’s grandparents praised my adventurous palate. They asked me what I wanted to do with my life. They asked me what I thought about politics. They told M she was lucky to have such a smart young man in her life. Before M and I drove back to school that Sunday, her grandmother took my hands in hers and asked me to take care of her granddaughter.

It was not until many months later that M’s grandmother told me how she came to escape Germany. How, when she arrived in the British Mandate for Palestine during the early years of the Ha’apala, she was told to pick a new name, because the ugly and Wagnerian “Helga” had come to symbolize her peoples’ near extermination. How she opened the Torah to a random page and placed her finger on a new name: Rachel.

Gaga grew to adore M during the two years we were together (they were both cut-throat Scrabble players). I never told Gaga about M crying after lunch, but I suspect part of her knew that the meal did not go well, and that she would’ve died had I brought to light just how much she upset M.

Peretz, on the other hand, dies right there in the interview. The second half of the paragraph that I mentioned above ends like this:

The litany provoked a flash of self-consciousness. “I’m really demeaning myself here,” he said miserably, before continuing. Peretz is enough of a liberal to realize that any scene in which a man sits in the dining room of the Regency with a reporter, listing all of his friends and associates who are black or Muslim, is a scene in which that man is drowning. And yet here he was.

This is what is so tricky about tokenism: You do not have to be a liberal to know that there is something gross about listing human beings as if they were items on a grocery list. And you do not have to be a bigot to believe, or hope, that knowing and loving and associating with people who are different than you matters for something, and that those associations can improve and redeem you.