My son, my teacher
When I was 9, my father’s garment business went bankrupt and we left New York City for Connecticut.
“You don’t look Jewish,” the locals would say to my blond sister whenever we told them we had moved from New York. But with dark eyes, dark curls and a “New Yawk” accent, I was never mistaken for a non-Jew.
Soon after arriving, I was chased around the perimeter of my school by kids calling me “kike,” a word I had never heard before. At dinner, I asked my parents what it was, and then I had to tell them why I wanted to know. My mother nearly choked on her flank steak and threatened to go to the school and give them a piece of her mind.
Not the “piece” a fourth-grader would want her mother going to school to share. My father shut down this idea: He was starting a new business and the family didn’t need the attention. I quickly learned that being Jewish wasn’t anything anyone needed to know.
Putting the episode behind me, I nonetheless decided to go incognito as a Jew by avoiding every stereotype. I wore no jewelry and no makeup. I played third base on a softball team. I became an assimilating superhero. The Anti-JAP! I was 100 percent committed to obliterating any ideas the anti-Semites had about Jews, specifically Jewish girls.
When I met my husband, I was still undercover. I lived in a one-room apartment, slept on a futon and mostly ate popcorn from an air popper I kept between my sleeping slab and the TV. I didn’t cook much, but on the plus side, I also didn’t “make reservations,” as the joke about Jewish women and the culinary arts goes. It’s not just the kitchen I was unfamiliar with; I also knew little about what to do with the rest of the house. (Insert bedroom joke here.)
I continued with my Anti-JAP persona through the birth of our two children. When the other moms compared notes on couches, window dressings and thread count, I kept quiet, eating the toddlers’ snacks. I also had nothing to say about hair products, skin products or handbags.
The first time I saw a friend of my son’s carrying a Chloe bag, I remembered passing one like it at Neiman Marcus on the way to the restroom, almost tripping when I doubled back to reread the price tag.
This seemingly sane young woman bought a high-end lipstick, gum and wallet carrier that cost as much as my first car.
I casually mentioned it at the next play date.
“That bag cost $2,400!” I yelled after hello.
“Oh, um, hi,” she said, nervously running a hand through her highlighted hair. “I wear it every day, so if you amortize out the cost, it only comes to, like, $5 a day, and it’s totally worth it.”
“Right,” I said, impressed. I’d never used the word amortize in a sentence in my life, and we owned a house.
“Where are you going for spring break?” she asked, eager to change the subject.
I froze. But as the kids reached school age, I was starting to see that this was something we were going to have to do. Not only did we have to do it, I found that after hours and hours of diaper changing, cleaning and never having time to read a book, I wanted an exotic vacation. I wanted to lie on a beach, swim in a warm blue ocean and sip drinks with fruit in them like everyone else on Facebook.
“Is that so wrong?” I screamed — possibly whined — to my husband.
“Of course it’s not wrong,” he said calmly, as he always does. “It’s just so unlike you.”
As the boys continued to grow, there were other material items I lusted after. Like Herschel book bags for school, well-made Italian leather shoes for their growing feet and organic milk. What was happening to me?
Now my older son is a teenager. He’s grown up in Los Angeles, where, fortunately, he never has been teased for being Jewish. He feels absolutely no need to don an Anti-JAP cape. He makes no apology about loving expensive sneakers, soft cotton T-shirts and good food. If you called him a JAP, an expression that, thank God, mostly has been retired, he would stare at me quizzically.
He’s barefaced about his passions and doesn’t even make the connection to any of them being stereotypically Jewish. Last month, he and a friend started a clothing line. I hope somewhere my father is doing a little Tevye dance for his grandson, the burgeoning garmento.
All of this has brought to mind one of the more famous quotes from the Talmud: “When you teach your son, you teach your son’s son.” As parents, we are expected to teach our children, but in this case, it is my sons who are teaching me to take off my Anti-JAP cape, that it’s OK to relax, put my feet up — and maybe even get a pedicure.
Dani Klein Modisett is a comic and writer, most recently of the book “Take My Spouse, Please.”