"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Jewish Odyssey Of Peter Kepler - From Brooklyn To Goyim And Back Again

Peter Kepler grew up in Brooklyn. His classmates were all Jewish, the high school football standouts (an oxymoron he admitted) were all named Klein and Schwartz or Bernstein; his friends all had bar mitzvahs and never fuddled Hebrew.  Everyone went to temple, observed seder and the High Holidays, and supported Israel.  In fact it wasn't until college that Peter lived with Christians.  

"You should have gone to Brandeis", his father told him when  came back and asked why his classmates hate Jews.  "Aside from self-hating Jews, which is a problem, our tribal drums all beat to the same measure; and God willing, you might have met a nice Jewish girl". 


Peter had heard all this before, the Jews this, the Jews that; and one of the reasons he had accepted admission to a prominent midwestern university was to escape the inevitable - a nice Jewish girl, temple, and 'What's in it for the Jews?'  

This was dinner table conversation at the dinner table. New labor laws? What's in it for the Jews? Maritime law, interest rates, educational reform? What's in it for the Jews?  Leaving those morose, heavy-duty, whingeing, whiny evenings behind was enough reason alone for heading for the hills of deep Christianity.  

What did goys talk about anyway?  Summers on the Vineyard, skiing at Gstaad, Muffy and her new car he supposed, knowing nothing except 'They drink', repeated by his mother whenever the subject of how little there was in it for the Jews once everything had been picked over.  'We're still Shylocks to them', she said, 'and don't you forget it'. 

So why was it then with so much complaining, kvetching, whining, and dinner table misery were the Jews so much better off than everybody else?  Richer, more influential, more productive, talented, innovative, and brilliant? 'The book', his father added.  'We are The People of the Book', rabbis and rabbinical including even Bernie Kalb, the only dumb Jewish kid anyone in the neighborhood had ever known, a clumsy oaf who tried his best to learn a few verses from the Torah but came up dry no matter what.  Yet for his labors God would reward him.  

Be that as it may, the book couldn't account for so many Jews in Hollywood, Einstein, fashionistas and clothiers, intellectuals, authors, artists, or philosophers - la creme de la creme of Europe and America; and all this after being rounded up in cattle cars and sent to the gas chambers.  Lesser peoples would have been flattened by that episode instead of putting ghettoes, shtetls, and concentration camps behind them and making success out of nothing.  

The Jews in America had no pedigree like the Boston Brahmins, the Rittenhouse Square Philadelphians, the Park Avenue legatees of the Mayflower and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  From a few scraps of cloth and a ragpicker's wagon came Ralph Lauren and his Jewish clothing empire, ironically advertised as the most old world, Anglo-Saxon fashion line there ever could be.  

The Jews of Hollywood were so enamored of the American dream, Neil Gabler wrote in An Empire of Their Own, a chronicle of the rise of Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and the Jewish film moguls of the 40s, that they romanticized and fantasized it into the most successful films of all time.  The Book, chutzpah, ambition, intelligence, and romance were more likely stars in the American Jewish constellation than just the Book alone. 

Yet, despite the incredible success, wealth, influence, talent, and intelligence of the Jews, they were still hated.  'Ten percent of every society in every country of the world is anti-Semitic' said one Holocaust scholar. 'Start from there and keep adding'; but he had only speculation as to why? Nothing could explain the persistently virulent and widespread hatred of the Jews.  Was it jealousy and envy of their success?  Their history as moneylenders, landlords, and 'usurers'? Queen Isabella must have had her reasons for expelling all Jews from Spain in 1492. Christ killers? Their history of isolation and insularity?  None of this parses.  Something was missing. 

The Coleman Silk character in Phillip Roth's novel The Human Stain is a light-skinned black man who passes for white.  He tells his mother that he wants nothing to do with 'the Negro people' and is appalled by the color-bound consciousness of Howard University.  'They are your people', his mother says; but Coleman refuses to be trapped by black identity, or any identity for that matter.  He is his own person who will be judged as such, success or fail. He disowns his mother, father, and family and becomes 'lily white', living a racial lie until death.  Peter Kepler was a Jewish Coleman Silk (in Roth's story Silk takes on a Jewish identity and is ironically trapped in two untruths and two prejudices) who wanted out. 

So he went to his midwestern university and found himself squirreled away in library carrels like Jews before him, isolated or self-isolated and determined to make the best of this offensive place; and by so doing made himself into the stereotypical ghettoized Jew.  'What I had to put up with', he told his father who said 'I told you so, but you wouldn't listen.  We're not wanted'.  

He did not end up with a real shiksa, a blonde, blue-eyed prom queen but married a woman whose father and mother were Chaldean Christians but who carried enough Arab genes to pass for nothing but Arabs.  Like his Italian, Greek, and Turkish brothers before him, he tried to seduce a really white girl, but to no avail.  The social curtains were simply drawn too tight.  

Back to Brooklyn he went, to law school with Lerners, Horowitzes, and Birnbaums, and then to a condo with his Syrian wife in Park Slope, a tony, mixed neighborhood he could afford after clerking for a Jewish appeals court judge and joining a team of litigators at Rothstein, Karp, Levin & Wolf.  He never strayed far from home, never more mindful of his parents and rooted in his 'tribe' as his father was fond of saying. 'Separate but equal is a good thing', his father said, 'as long as you are separate with smart people'.  

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