My mother, like many young women of her generation, had wanted to attend high school. And college. But the family was poor and there were many mouths to feed. In the end, she had to quit school after seventh grade to take a job. She worked as bookkeeper, a respectable profession. At 14, my mother was respectable. Also naïve and innocent.
The first place she worked was a music publishing house on the Lower East Side where she had grown up. She was there for seven or eight years and finally decided to seek a better paid job.
Immigrant children had trouble breaking into the workforce. And of course, my mother had the additional burden of being female at a time when women were not considered equal. There was no “political correctness” to protect them.
My mother was blond and green-eyed. At 5 foot 7 inches, she was tall for her generation. Her English was better than most of the family since she had been born “on this side” of the Atlantic and had all her schooling in New York.
She was ushered into a room to be interviewed for the job she wanted. A few questions were asked. A form was handed to her and she filled it out. When she came to the box that asked her religion, she wrote Jewish. The interviewer looked at the application, said: “Jewish, eh?”
He tore the application to pieces and threw it in the trash in front of my mother. She said that from that day forward, she wrote Protestant because no one would ever do that to her again.
I’ve told this story before, but I needed to retell it. Because I finally made a leap of understanding between this anecdote and connected it to a part of my mother I never quite “got.”
My mother wanted me to get a nose job. When I turned 16, she wanted me to have plastic surgery to “fix” my nose.
“It’s not broken,” I pointed out.
“But don’t you want it to look ‘normal’?” she asked.
“It’s looks fine to me,” I said. I was puzzled. My sister, by the way, took her up on the offer. I continued to say “no thanks” and my nose is still the original model with which I was born.
Following the last time I retold this story, I realized my mother wasn’t hinting I wasn’t pretty or suggesting my nose was hideous. She was asking me if I wouldn’t prefer to “fit in” with the rest of society, if I wanted to not look so Jewish. Remarkably, this thought had never crossed my mind. Until a few weeks ago.
I always knew many children of Holocaust victims refused to circumcise their sons because that’s how the Nazis identified little Jewish boys. I knew non-white mothers frequently sent their lightest skinned children north at young ages hoping they could “pass” for white. But never, until a few weeks ago, did it occur to me that my mother was trying to help me “pass” for non-Jewish.
I’ve heard stories from a lot of people who use racial discrimination as an excuse for all their failures. They see racists behind every rock, anti-Semites behind every smile. There are plenty of racists and bigots no matter where you go, but I’ve sailed through life ignoring it. I was always “just me.”
I never considered the possibility I was turned down for a job because I was, in the immortal words of Mel Brooks, “too Jewish.” I always assumed it was me. I failed to measure up. My personality was too brash. My skills were insufficient.
I told Garry about my revelation. It was quite an epiphany, especially at my advanced age, and I needed to share. It left me wondering how much I’d missed.
I told him I’d finally realized my mother’s persistent suggestion I “get my nose fixed” was an attempt on her part to help me fit in, to not look so obviously Jewish. I had never considered that anyone might not like me for other than personal reasons. I said I thought perhaps I’d been a little slow on the uptake on this one.
Garry said “And when did you finally realize this?”
“Yesterday,” I said.
“Yesterday?” he repeated. If Garry looked dumbfounded.
“Yesterday,” I assured him.
He was quiet and thoughtful. “Well,” he said. “You’re 67? That is slow. You really didn’t know?”
I shook my head. I really didn’t know. Apparently everyone else got it. Except me.