Dinner table revelations: The unexamined life

You don’t know what a bad person you are, or how bad your hair looks, until you’ve sat down with my religious relatives for a meal and tried to conduct a conversation. 

This happens to me every other week, on Friday night, when my mother hosts a summit of friends and family members from both sides of the aisle — religious and Reform — throws in a smattering of people who really couldn’t care less either way but will go along with the majority for the sake of keeping the peace, and lets the games begin. Almost invariably there’s a new face in the crowd, and it’s usually a very beautiful one because his or her ancestry stretches back to my mother’s grandfather, the once-mighty and forever fruitful Solomon (the Man), famous for his good looks, many talents and many, many wives. Solomon was Jewish but did not discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnicity or even geographic location. He once went to India to find “the most beautiful woman in the world,” married her and brought her back to live in the same house with his first wife and her children. You can read about that in my first novel, but the point is we don’t know how many people walking the earth today owe their existence to him. We just know that my mother has a knack for finding these “cousins,” and she loves to introduce them to the rest of the family at Shabbat dinner. 

The other thing we know, if we’re paying attention right now, is that what I just said about Solomon the Man and his amorous activities violates one or more of the three deadly sins of speech — lashon harah (negative speech about another person that is true), hotzaat shem ra (negative speech about another person that is untrue) and rechilut (gossip). Lest you think I’m trying to appear especially knowledgeable about matters of moral rectitude, I’ll confess I only learned the subtle variations in prohibited speech because I looked it up on Wikipedia a few months ago, and only then after being challenged one too many times by my religious relatives about something I said. 

“How do you know this is true?” they would ask every time I made an assertion that involved other individuals. 

The banking system and the economic meltdown are why I think so many Wall Street CEOs should be in jail. 

Lashon hara. 

“Do you know for a fact they’re responsible?”

A distant cousin I didn’t know I had (she lives in Europe, so my mother hadn’t had a chance to discover her before she found me on Facebook), who wrote to tell me she’s read my books, and did I know that Aunt X, who died a hundred years ago, actually had a lover? 

Hotzaat shem ra.

“Did you see this aunt and her lover together in bed with your own eyes? If not, you can’t say it’s true.”  

The mayoral elections in Los Angeles and why the DWP union boss’ backing of Wendy Greuel hurt her chances. 


“Did you go door to door and ask every voter how they feel about the DWP union boss? Is there any real benefit to be drawn from making this observation? Do you know the union boss personally?” 

The rivalry between the Orthodox Iranian rabbis in Los Angeles and their Conservative colleagues over the souls and leadership of the community, how the two factions have fought for years over whether to have a microphone in the synagogue on Shabbat.

Lashon hara, hotzaat shem ra, rechilut. You’ve just “killed” a whole bunch of people in one breath. 

My relatives weren’t always religious. They used to talk about their own ancestors from time to time, which is how I managed to gather a few good stories before prohibitions kicked in and my sources dried up. They did, of course, apply all the usual standards of censorship, erasing for all time any trace of mental illness, genetic flaws, alcohol or other addictions, bad behavior, poor manners or any other factor that, in a tightly knit society such as ours, might interfere with the children’s chances at a good marriage. But it wasn’t until some of them became seriously observant that I became conscious of what a terrible and devastating weapon negative speech can be. 

I’m deeply grateful to them for this. I really am. I’m ashamed and remorseful for all the times I’ve blurted out something about another person without weighing the consequences. I’m trying to do better. We all should. It will make the world a better place. The only thing is, this kind of awareness wreaks havoc on one’s storytelling — in print or orally — and it also leads to a great deal of unwelcome self-reflection, and these, in turn, kind of ruin your life anyway. 

Which brings me to my hair. 

Nowadays, our Shabbat dinner summits follow more or less the same pattern: The religious group sits politely and keeps mostly quiet while the Reform faction engages in prohibited speech until, sometime during the meal, one of the observant people steps in and issues a gag order. 

“The long plane ride between L.A. and Tel Aviv is hard on the elderly.” 

Unless you have scientific data to back this up, you’re hurting Israel’s tourism. 

“The collapse of the factory in Bangladesh makes you wonder about the humanity of buying cheap, foreign-made products.” 

Unless you did the building inspection yourself …

You really can’t talk about anyone who is not in the room except to say something positive, which is nice, but takes only two seconds because no one is allowed to disagree, and no further discussion is needed. Because it’s Shabbat, you’re not even allowed to talk about historical public figures with a bad reputation — Nebuchadnezzar, say, or Kim Il Sung — because the mere utterance of their name sullies the holiness of the table. So what you have are long stretches of silence that can be filled in one of two ways: either you start reciting prayers or you talk about yourself and each other, which is how I learned, exactly two Fridays ago, that my hair looks bad — really bad — and, they hope you don’t mind their being honest, they hate your hair, it looks awful, worse than it did last year this time, and it was pretty dismal then. They don’t know what it is — the color or the cut or just the fact that it’s there, on your head — but you should undo it immediately and stop wearing these dead, drab shades in clothing, you don’t look good in white, it makes you appear ashen, like you should be taking hormones, which of course will give you breast cancer …

A few minutes of this, and North Korea’s labor camps don’t sound like such a bad topic of conversation. 

“So,” I said after checking my hair a couple of times in the mirror and deciding it’s beyond saving, “Do you like Michelle Obama’s new hairstyle?” 

Oh what a relief it is when you hit the right note at just the right time! No sooner had the name “Obama” been released into the air than all the walls came down, the injunctions expired, and my entire family, religious or otherwise, launched into an all-out attack on the man’s character, abilities and intentions. They hate him all right and don’t mind saying so, and they can’t stand his wife or her new hairstyle, and if that doesn’t fill entire evenings with lively chatter, how about those Palestinians? What’s wrong with saying they’re bloodthirsty criminals when it’s true, already common knowledge, and meant to effect positive change? Oh, and do you know you’re not allowed to listen to the Persian-language radio run by Mr. X anymore because he’s an agent of Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah? 

I love my relatives, and I love my mother’s Friday night summits. I even like self-reflection once in a while. But it seems to me that our laws — all of them, even the holy ones — are subject to human interpretation. We pick and choose how to observe even when we believe we’ve stuck entirely to both the letter and the spirit, and I’m thankful for this, and so is my hair. And really, what’s history if not glorified gossip? And besides, that thing I said about Solomon the Man and his taste for beautiful women, that wasn’t hearsay or gossip, there’s DNA evidence to support my claim. Just look at this latest cousin my mother has discovered, her bronze-colored skin and agate eyes, the seven languages she speaks and 700 suitors she has already turned down. Did you know her mother once ran off with a …