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The Punky-Wunkies, Part Two
In Case There's a Fox
The Punky-Wunkies left me alone on Monday morning, and in the afternoon I contrived to be trailing them on the way back from school. At first it felt a little awkward. This was a good method to avoid being surprised, but what exactly was I planning to do: ambush them myself and demonstrate my greatly improved marksmanship by hitting their leader between the eyes? That hardly seemed fair. I was handicapped by the need to be gallant. If I struck first, I would be the aggressor. If I didn’t, then the element of surprise would always be on their side. I decided that I was like one of the spies in Joshua, and that I was on a reconnaissance mission into enemy territory. This time, when the Punky-Wunkies disappeared under that fence, I followed, at a discreet distance.
They traversed a whole series of backyards, until they arrived, from the rear, at a wooden bungalow with slightly peeling paint, which they entered through a screen door. At this point, I hesitated.
To involve adults in this conflict seemed contrary to the rules of engagement. But on the other hand, I was curious to see what sort of parents they had. I mustered all my courage to approach the screen door. I was about to knock when the screen door was pushed forward and someone stood in the opening. It was a very tall, slightly balding, middle aged man in blue denim pants and a white undershirt. He almost didn’t see me.
I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, but are those your children who just went in there?”
He looked at me now, and he seemed to be squinting. Perhaps I was so small from his perspective that I looked like an ant. “Huh?”
“Um, are your kids at home?” I rephrased.
“Sure. You wanna come in?”
Before I knew it, I was inside. I can’t remember exactly what I saw when I walked in. The feeling was that of a vast emptiness, but it couldn’t have been vast, because the house wasn’t big, and it couldn’t have been empty, because they were living there. All I can remember is that, looking around me and back up at the very tall man, I suddenly realized that they were poor. Not poor like me, whose parents had twenty thousand dollars in the bank but no furniture. Poor in a more conventional way. Poor with no way out.
I was so embarrassed for them to know that I knew they were poor, that I took on my most officious tone of complaint and said: “I think you should know that your children have been throwing stones at me on the way to and from school.”
I don’t know what I expected him to say. He just stared at me for a moment, and then he said. “Uh huh. Okay.”
I had just met my first inarticulate man. His inability to formulate some sort of well worked out policy statement in regard to this problem was even more staggering than the discovery of the Punky-Wunkies’ poverty.
“I just thought you should know,” I said, as I backed right out the door and tried to find my way to the main road from the labyrinth of back yards.
When I told my parents about my encounter with the Punky-Wunkies’ father, they were not as impressed as I thought they should be by the utter hopelessness and desolation I had discovered in that little house.
“Oh, Ya’el, you exaggerate everything,” my mother said. “Just like the time you came running in here saying that Kerry Cassidy’s sister had been raped.”
“But she really did have a baby,” I said. “And nobody made her get married. That’s all I meant. And those people really are poor,” I added. “I’m sure that they’re poor. I’m just not sure that being poor means what I used to think that it meant.”
“What do you mean?” my father asked.
“It’s not really about money, is it?” I said. “I mean, they could win a million dollars in the lottery tomorrow, and they’d still be poor, wouldn’t they?”
“There are many ways to define poverty,” my father said. “It depends on the definition. Sometimes poverty is defined as net worth, sometimes it’s based on income and sometimes it’s determined by social class. I’m guessing that our current income and theirs may be similar. But our net worth is probably higher than theirs. And, of course, we belong to a completely different social class.”
The next day the Punky-Wunkies surprised me by showing up at our apartment door. My mother let them in, and they all filed past her so their leader could lodge a complaint with my father. “Your kid has been throwing stones at us,” he accused.
“Yes, I know,” my father said.
This admission slightly baffled the head Punky-Wunky. However, he added: “This rock she threw hit Lizzie over there in the knee and it hurt real bad.”
My father inclined his head. “You have my sincerest apology. Her stone shouldn’t have struck your sister. It was meant for you, instead. Next time, she won’t miss.”
The head Punky-Wunky stared at my father for a split second, and then he led his party out again. Passing me by the door, he paused a moment. “Your Dad is weird,” he said.
“How are things going at school?” my father asked. It was almost time for Easter Break, his course work was winding down, and he had a few job interviews lined up.
“Okay. Mrs. Bridges invited me to come see the last showing of My Fair Lady. She got some free tickets from Mrs. Crispin. And we’re going to perform our own version at the Talent Show in May. Scott Seymour is playing Henry Higgins and Margie Dixon is Eliza Doolittle and I’m playing Henry Higgins’ mother, which is a pretty good role. It’s a lot juicier than Mrs. Santa Claus, because I get to be sarcastic.”
“Good. And how has the quest for friendship progressed?”
“Oh, I gave that up.”
“You gave that up?”
“It was no use. I mean, if the purpose was to get somebody to come over and play with me, then that’s already been accomplished. Kerry Cassidy comes over whenever it suits her, which is about once every two weeks.”
“You don’t sound too pleased about it.”
“It wasn’t my choice. I didn’t choose her for a friend. She chose me. I don’t get to decide when she comes over. That’s entirely up to her. And I don’t get to choose what we play. If that’s friendship, I can live without it.”
“What happened to the list? Didn’t you make a list in order of preference?”
“Yes, I made up the list. She was number twenty-eight.”
“Are you saying you asked everybody on the list, and the first twenty-seven turned you down?”
“No. I only asked the first four, but I think it’s not a coincidence that none of the first twenty-seven bothered to ask me. I mean, it’s not all up to me. Unless they actually want to be friends, nothing is going to happen.”
“That’s true,” my father agreed.
“So I think the way I was looking at it before was based on a false premise: the idea that anybody could be my friend, if I just made the right move. In fact, they all have their own list of preferences, and I have a good idea now that I’m pretty low on their lists.”
“But not on Kerry Cassidy’s list?”
“Well, actually I’m guessing I’m pretty low on her list, too. The thing is, she probably knows that she’s low on everybody’s list. So she chose me, because she figured I was pretty low on people’s lists, too. In which case, there was a better chance I would say yes.”
“That was clever of her.”
“Yeah, clever. Just not very noble. I don’t really want to play that game.”
“You might not be able to avoid playing it,” my father said. “That game is a major component of many aspects of life. For instance, I’m applying for jobs right now. I have my own list of preferences, and so do all the other job applicants. The employers will doubtless compile their own list of preferences for each of the applicants. Which person gets which job will be determined by the interaction of all the lists of preferences. Chances are that I will not get the job that is first on my list, and that my future employers will not have placed me at the top of their list, either.”
“Because almost nobody will get what they want. That’s sad, isn’t it? It’s almost tragic.”
My mother, who was darning socks in the next room, butted in: “You think everything is tragic, Ya’el. It can’t be tragic if it’s normal. Things are only tragic if they hardly ever happen.”
I was given to absolutes. My mother thought everything was relative.
“What’s really tragic,” my father said, “is if somebody doesn’t get a job he wants, not because the employer doesn’t want him, but rather because they assume he won’t want them. Or somebody doesn’t apply for a job he could easily get, because he assumes they won’t want him. That’s tragic, because it could have been avoided if everybody had access to everybody else’s list of preferences.”
“But Americans always hide their list of preferences!” I exclaimed. “They always treat everybody the same, so there’s no way to tell who they really like. Even on Valentine’s Day, they’re not allowed to send cards just to people they like. They have to pretend to like everybody, which is about the same as pretending not to like anybody at all. Why do you suppose they do that?”
My father shrugged. “Maybe it’s because they don’t want to miss out on any offers from people they don’t like, just in case they have to make do with someone lower on their list.”
“That could work if only one person did it,” I said. “But when everybody does it…”
“It’s not very useful,” he agreed. “Anyway, it seems to me that if you want to determine who is the best person you could possibly hope to befriend, you’re going to have to compile a list of everybody’s preferences, not just your own.”
“But how? I already told you they keep those a secret.”
“Do you think their preferences are so subjective and peculiar? Or are they based on something that you all agree on?”
“I guess there’s a pretty strong objective element,” I mused. “I mean, we all prefer Margie Dixon to everybody else, because she’s smart and pretty and pleasant to be with.” I added: “She’s also athletic and well dressed, which doesn’t mean as much to me as it might to some of the others.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you what. You don’t have to come up with a list of preferences. Why don’t you just grade every student, including yourself, on a scale of one to ten, as to those five traits: intelligence, beauty, personality, athletics and fashion. Give me the results, and I’ll compile the list of preferences. I’ll assume that people value most highly in others those traits that are best developed in themselves. Once I have a plausible list of preferences, I’ll run them through the computer on campus – we have an algorithm for this kind of problem -- and I’ll tell you who your best possible friend is.”
“Sure. Why not.”
“You’re both insane,” my mother said.
Mrs. Bridges came to pick me up in front of the Village Green Apartments. “We have one more stop to make,” she said as I was buckling my seatbelt. “I have to pick up Carol.”
“Carol? Carol Who?”
“Carol Herzog, of course.”
Carol the Jew, I muttered to myself. “Why do you have to pick her up?”
“Because she accepted my invitation, too. To see My Fair Lady.”
“Oh. But she was at the dress rehearsal. She’s seen it before…”
Mrs. Bridges laughed. “So have you.”
“Well, yeah,” I conceded. “But I really liked it.”
“So did Carol,” Mrs. Bridges lilted. “You know, Ya’el, you two have a lot in common.”
“No, we don’t.” I crossed my arms over my chest and looked out the window. It would be just like Carol to insinuate herself into our company in this way. What a great way to ruin a nice evening.
Sure enough during intermission, Carol turned to me and said: “At my Temple, we’re collecting money to send to Israel.”
“That’s very nice of you,” I said, “but I wouldn’t bother, if I were you.”
“Oh, it’s no bother,” she said. “After all, Israel is our country, too.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Sure, it is,” Carol insisted, with all the cheerfulness of the clueless. “It’s called the Jewish State, isn’t it?”
“Okay, I give up, Carol. I guess you’re right. I guess Israel belongs to you and not to me.”
“Don’t be silly. You’re Jewish, too.”
“No, I’m not.” I got up and stamped into the hall. After intermission I asked Mrs. Bridges if we could trade places, so I wouldn’t have to sit next to Carol the Jew.
She gave me an odd look, but acquiesced. Later that evening, after dropping Carol off, Mrs. Bridges said: “Why did you call her `Carol the Jew’?”
“Oh, did I say that out loud?”
“Yes, you did. And it wasn’t very nice. I think you hurt Carol’s feelings.”
“Why would that hurt Carol’s feelings? She is one, isn’t she?”
“That’s no reason to label her.”
“But I didn’t label her,” I insisted. “She labeled herself. I wouldn’t even know she was one, if she didn’t keep mentioning it all the time. It’s not as if there’s a mark on her forehead.”
Mrs. Bridges laughed. “You say the strangest things, Ya’el. Is that why you don’t like Carol, because she’s Jewish?”
“No, Mrs. Bridges. I don’t like her, because she thinks that I am.”
Mrs. Bridges frowned. “But aren’t you?”
Scott Seymour and I were assigned a joint social studies project. That was good, because I liked Scott, but it was also bad, because he insisted that we do everything his way. Our project was called `The Solution to Pollution’. I wanted to explain that the whole thing could be resolved by limiting population size, and that without such a limitation, no other measures could ever be enough. Scott just wanted to talk about emission standards.
Eventually, I went to see Mrs. Bridges about our conflict. Mrs. Bridges smiled and spread out her hands and said: “You know, Ya’el, part of what you’re supposed to learn from this project is how to work with others.”
“Oh.” That hadn’t occurred to me. “Oh, so you don’t really expect me to solve the pollution problem?”
She laughed. “Not single-handedly.”
I took that in. “So, the real purpose of this exercise is to… show how well we can get along?”
“The real purpose is to show how you can work together to create a really great presentation.”
“Okay. I can do that.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure. I’ll just go along with what Scott wants to say and help him to streamline his presentation,” I said. “And I’ll solve the pollution problem some other time.”
“That’s very generous of you, Ya’el,” Mrs. Bridges said, and her eyes were still laughing.
“I can really help Scott polish up his delivery,” I said. “Back home I used to give a lot of speeches to the class.”
Mrs. Bridges cleared a chair for me, just as I thought our interview was at an end. “Sit down here. Tell me, Ya’el, were you popular back home? I mean, before your father lost his job.”
“Popular? No, I was never popular.” I thought about this some more. “No, I wasn’t popular at all. But… I wasn’t unpopular. That’s the most amazing thing about it. People liked me!”
“Well, that’s not so amazing,” Mrs. Bridges said. “I like you.”
I ignored that. “No, I mean, really. I wasn’t popular, and none of my classmates were my friends, but it didn’t matter at all, because I belonged! They liked me, and I was happy, and I didn’t need anything more than that.” I looked into Mrs. Bridges’ friendly blue eyes and added: “If you’re lonely, then you need friends really badly. But if you’re not lonely, you don’t need friends at all.”
Mrs. Bridges said: “I thought it was the other way around. People who have friends aren’t lonely. Loneliness comes from not having friends.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” I said. “But it’s not true. It’s just like Henry Higgins, at the beginning of the play: he wasn’t lonely at all, even though he didn’t have any friends.”
“He had Colonel Pickering.”
“No, he didn’t. As far as he knew, Pickering was still in India. And he was going to consult with him on dialectology, but he didn’t think of him as a friend. Higgins just had his work and he was happy. But at the end of the play, he was suddenly lonely…”
“Because he’d fallen in love,” Mrs. Bridges said.
“Whatever. I’d say, because he wasn’t happy, anymore. When I was happy, I didn’t need any friends.”
“But surely you had some friends?”
“I had one friend, but she wasn’t a classmate. She was a year younger than I was, and we spent a lot of time together, but we hardly ever talked about anything important. She wasn’t a soul mate or anything, and I didn’t feel that I needed one, until we came here.”
“And you had no friends in class?
“I didn’t need to have friends, because I fit in. I wasn’t the tallest or the shortest. I wasn’t the richest or the poorest. I was pretty smart, but there were others who were smart, too. The gap wasn’t so enormous. I could never pretend that I was athletic, but you know what? I wasn’t the slowest runner. There were always two other kids who came in after me: the fat girl and the boy who was the class weakling. Nobody teased me about anything, even though they knew I was a little strange.”
“Did they tease other people?”
“No, I didn’t. But I guess I didn’t stand up for them, either. Nobody teased Gadi, even though he was a weakling, because we all felt sorry for him. He was very sickly, and we all knew that he would never be allowed to serve in the army, and that was shameful enough. So we all just kind of looked the other way when he threw up in class because the teacher had asked him a hard question, or when he fainted because it was too hot. Osnat was the fat girl, and some kids made fun of her for that, but not very often, and she didn’t seem to have it too bad. She always had these necklaces made of candy, and she offered to share them, so she was okay. There was Sassy, whose parents spoke Arabic and who was a really bad student, but nobody made fun of him for that, because he was too nice. The one person who got teased the most was this strange girl named Hasida.”
“What was so strange about her?”
“She looked strange, and she acted strange.”
“What did she look like?”
“Grey. Everything about her looked grey. Her hair had no color. I don’t mean it was blond or even white, it was just grey, which is a very unusual color for a child to have. Maybe it wouldn’t seem so unusual here, because you would call it mousy brown hair, but in Israel that isn’t called brown. In Israel, we identify hair color by the color of the highlights – you know, the parts that shine in the sun. Black hair has blue highlights, brown hair has red highlights, red hair has orange highlights, blond hair has yellow highlights. Sassy’s hair was black, as black as can be. My hair was brown. Yeah, I know it’s not called brown here. Here it’s called black. But in Israel, my hair was brown. Osnat’s hair was red. Gadi’s hair was blond. It was okay to have all different kinds of hair color. We weren’t what you would call racially pure or anything. Our ancestors came from all over the globe. But Hasida’s hair had no highlights. It was just dull, uniform grey. It was as if it had no color at all.”
“And they made fun of her for her hair color?”
“No, of course not, I’m just telling you that so you’ll know what the problem was. It was like that with everything about her. Her dresses had no color, either.”
“How is that possible?”
“I don’t know. They weren’t really grey. And they weren’t really patternless. It’s just that when you looked at them, you couldn’t tell what color they were supposed to be.”
Mrs. Bridges laughed. “Ya’el, you’re making this up.”
“No, I swear, I’m not. You could tell there had been a pattern, but you couldn’t make out what the pattern was. The cut of her dresses was weird, too. The sleeves were always long, but not all the way to the wrists. They hid her elbows, that’s all. Maybe they were just worn out, these clothes, maybe they’d been washed so many times that everything had faded away. But that couldn’t explain her freckles!”
“Yeah, she had freckles, which lots of people do. Most people’s freckles are kind of brown. Some are darker than that, and some people have sort of reddish freckles. But Hasida’s freckles had hardly any color to them at all, they were all grey and they stuck together in great big blotches, so that a major part of her face was sort of washed out.”
“And children made fun her for that?”
“No. Not really. They made fun of her because she was like that on the inside, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“She had no personality.”
“Everybody’s got a personality.”
“Not everybody. Hasida didn’t. She wasn’t stupid, or anything. She made average grades. She could do things as well as most people. She just didn’t seem to have any attitude toward anything. She didn’t laugh or smile, but she also never cried. She never complained or bragged or shouted or sneered. She couldn’t tell a joke or listen to one, for that matter. She had no opinion about anything. In Israel, everybody has an opinion. But not Hasida. People started goading her, just hoping to get some kind of reaction. The most she ever did was frown at them, and even that wasn’t for sure, because the freckles hid the wrinkles between her eyebrows.”
“And you didn’t join in when they goaded her?”
“No, I didn’t. It made me feel uncomfortable. I thought they should leave her alone, the same way they ignored it when Gadi threw up in class. I mean he was sick, and she was sick, too. Only it was a different kind of sickness. She had no soul. She couldn’t help that.”
“Did you try to make friends with her?”
“No. I tried to talk to her a couple of times, but it was useless. However, I did try to do something nice for her once.”
“I gave her a happy new year’s card.”
“Was that a big deal?”
“A little bit. It was in September, and sending a new year’s card was sort of like Valentine’s here. It was a way to say: ‘hey, I like you’. Only… only it was more real, because we weren’t required to give cards to everybody. So if somebody gave you a card, it kind of meant something. I wasn’t popular, so I knew I wasn’t going to get many cards. On the other hand, I didn’t really need any cards, either. I mean, I wasn’t longing for friendship, the way I am now. I was pretty happy with my life just the way it was. So I decided to give cards just to the people who might really need them. I gave out three cards: one to Sassy, because he was really nice and I felt he deserved better, and one to Osnat, because I knew she didn’t have many friends, and one to Hasida, because… well, just because.”
“That was very kind of you,” Mrs. Bridges said.
“I thought so at the time. And my mother thought so, too. But now that I’ve been on the other side, I guess it wasn’t really that nice a thing to do, after all. I mean, in the case of Hasida. Because she had to realize that I wasn’t really her friend, and maybe she thought I was playing that hedging game that everyone seems to be playing here.”
“Yeah. Everyone here is very nice. Nobody treats anybody badly. I mean, except for the Punky-Wunkies, who I now realize are poor and underprivileged. I guess they were mean to me, because nobody ever taught them that it isn’t done. That it’s a mark of bad breeding to throw things at people you don’t like. Besides the Punky-Wunkies, nobody has said one unkind word to me since school began. And yet I feel horrible.”
“Yeah. All the time. I feel so embarrassed, for instance, that I went right up to Margie Dixon at the beginning of the year, and I asked her if she wanted to come over to my place. Not knowing that she was totally out of my league. And she was so nice about the way she turned me down, that I had to ask her twice more, before I had any idea that she didn’t really like me. In Israel, that would never happen. If somebody didn’t like you, they’d tell you that right out.”
“But wouldn’t that hurt your feelings?”
“Yeah! Right then. It would be like a big ouch, and then it would be over. But here it lasts for months, maybe years, as it gradually dawns on you that nobody really likes you, and what’s more, they didn’t respect you enough to tell you to your face.”
Mrs. Bridges said: “Well, I never thought of it that way.”
“Anyway, I guess Hasida didn’t appreciate my giving her that happy new year card. After it happened, after I gave them the speech about what the government was doing to my family, she was the very first one to spit on me. I was going down the stairs and she was standing on the second floor balcony by the class door, and she called to me and I turned and she leaned over the railing and spit. It got all over my eyes, and when I wiped it off, I saw that her spit, like every other part of her, was grey.”
After the social studies projects were over, I asked Mrs. Bridges if I could be allowed to give an extra presentation on the subject of poverty.
“Why?” Mrs. Bridges asked. “You’re getting an A on your project with Scott.”
“Yeah, I know, but I just felt that Margie and Mary’s presentation on a minimum wage lacked a certain amount of depth, and I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty lately. I’d like to share my thoughts with the class.”
Mrs.Bridges smiled sadly, as if she felt my volunteering without proper incentive were something she was willing to overlook just this once. “Sure, Ya’el. We’ll set up a time.”
I suppose it would have been different if I had volunteered to wipe the blackboards or empty the wastepaper basket, because those were things that needed to be done anyway. But here I was volunteering to do something that nobody needed or wanted, and that would not benefit either myself or others. This tied in neatly into my subject matter, but I doubt that either Mrs. Bridges or I understood it at the time.
“When we think about what it means to be poor,” I told the class that Thursday at two o’clock, “we’re actually confusing a lot of separate issues. Or at least, I do. Maybe I should ask you. What do you think it means to be poor?”
My classmates stared at me blankly, because I had suddenly taken on the role of a teacher, and this was a little harder to accept than my playing Henry Higgins’ mother or Mrs. Santa Claus.
“Scott,” I prompted, “what does being poor mean to you?” I kind of had a crush on him at this point, so I enjoyed watching him as he formulated his answer.
“Not having enough money.”
“Okay. Not having enough money for what?”
“For groceries, I guess.”
“Okay. So, maybe I’ll just write down ‘Don’t have basic necessities’ right here,” I said. “That would be like, not having enough to eat so you’re hungry all the time, or not having a proper shelter from the elements, so you’re out in the open and you’re cold and shivering or dying of heat stroke, depending on what time of year it is and what part of the globe you live in. Something like that. Like the little match girl.” They all gave me blanks stares. Apparently they’d never heard of her. I tried again. “How about you, Mary? When you hear that somebody is poor, what do you think it means?”
“Maybe they don’t have nice stuff. You know, a nice house and nice clothes and toys and things.”
“Okay. So, they have enough to eat maybe, and they have a place to live, and clothes to wear, and toys, but the things they have are not as nice as somebody else’s. Right?” Mary nodded.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s make that number two, and let’s write ‘Have less than others’.” I looked around. “Anybody else?”
Kerry Cassidy raised her hand: “They have to work at really crummy jobs, and they don’t get coffee breaks or even to go to the bathroom when they need to. Like, there were these people who got tied to these big oars on these ships, and these other people with whips kept at them so they would row all the time, and they had really big muscles, but they never got a potty break, so they had to just go where they were and they smelled really bad.”
“Ew, gross!” This cry came from the general vicinity of Margie Dixon, but it was actually several girls in unison.
There was a general uproar at this, with various people saying: “Oh Kerry, you’re such a weirdo!” and others rising to defend her vision of poverty, until Mrs. Bridges had to step in and restore order. “Okay, simmer down. Let’s listen to what Ya’el has to say.”
“Okay, Kerry, those were actually galley slaves,” I said. “And technically speaking, there’s a difference between a poor person and a slave. A slave doesn’t have any choices, because somebody gets to decide for him. A poor person can say no. But you do have a point. One view of poverty is that if you’re very, very poor, people can practically treat you like a slave, because you don’t have a choice.” I cleared my throat. “In fact, what people do is they trade their time for money, and sometimes they borrow money, which means they owe their time to other people. And then, if they don’t get a better offer for a job, they have to take whatever offer they are given and they don’t get to just say no.” I approached the board: “So let’s make number three: Aren’t Free to Choose What They Do.” I looked around: “Any other ideas about poverty?”
Everybody looked glum. I said: “How about Eliza Doolittle, at the beginning of the play, was she poor?”
There was a chorus of “Yeah.”
“Okay. What kind of poor was she?” I looked at the board. “It wasn’t number one, because she had enough to eat and clothes to wear and a place to live. Right?”
“It was number two. Because Henry Higgins had nicer stuff than she did,” Scott said.
“Right. Number two applies. But the problem with number two is, it applies to almost everybody. I mean, no matter how much stuff you have and how nice it is, there’s almost always somebody who has more stuff and nicer stuff.”
“Yeah, but if people share what they have,” said Carol the Jew, “then everybody can have the same amount, and then nobody will be poor.”
I looked at her and frowned. It figured that she would be a communist, too. “Yeah. That would solve the poverty problem if number two were the only kind of poverty we cared about. But… everybody could be equal, and everybody could be starving to death, and that would be poverty under number one. That could happen in a famine, for instance, or whenever the entire country is in trouble for some reason.”
“So what’s your point?” Scott asked.
“My point is that there’s a conflict. Each of these views of poverty -- there are a couple more that you guys haven’t mentioned – is based on something completely different and they don’t always work together. If we thought poverty was just about starvation, then almost nobody in this country is poor, and there really isn’t a problem.
If we thought it was about inequality, why then there’s a very big problem. But chances are, if you solved it, you would have starvation as a result of it, the way they have in Eastern Europe where everybody is equal but they’re all poor. And if you go by the enslavement view, which is number three, why then many people who have lots more stuff are actually poorer than other people who have less stuff.”
“What do you mean by that, Ya’el?” Mrs. Bridges asked.
“I mean, some people have a big house and a big mortgage. And other people don’t own a home, but they also don’t owe anybody anything. The people with the big house and the big mortgage have to work and earn a lot of money every month, because they promised. But the people with no house and no mortgage can do whatever they want.”
“What do you mean whatever they want?” Margie asked. “Nobody does whatever he wants.”
“Okay. You’re right. Nobody can do whatever he wants with somebody else, ‘cause that somebody else might not agree. But the people who don’t owe anybody anything at least don’t have to do anything with anybody else that they don’t want to”
Margie’s eyes glazed over. “Huh?”
I looked at the entire class, and it was obvious that they were bored to tears. So I tried one last thing. “Some people don’t have much money, but they don’t have to work, either. Nobody tells them what to do. Under number three, they’re rich and the average middle class person is poor. You know, like Alfred P. Doolittle. The idle poor. And some people have lots of money, but they can’t spend it.”
“You mean like bank robbers who are in jail, but they’ve buried the money somewhere?” Kerry Cassidy asked.
“No. I mean like refugees.”
They stared at me blankly.
“What are refugees?” Mary asked.
“People who had to run away from home because something bad was happening there.”
“Is that like renegades?” Kerry asked.
I looked at Mrs. Bridges to see if she’d help me, but she didn’t say anything. I was almost ready to give up. Then I thought of something. “How many of you have seen The Sound of Music?”
They all raised their hands.
“Was Captain von Trapp rich or poor?”
“Rich!” They all cried out.
“And how do we know he was rich?”
“He had a big house,” Mary McGinnis said.
“And he had lots of servants,” Kerry added.
“Yeah. Okay. And were his servants rich or poor?” I asked.
“Poor!” they all agreed.
“And how do we know the servants were poor? Didn’t they have enough to eat? Weren’t they dressed nicely?”
“Yeah,” said Kerry. “They had nice clothes and enough to eat, but it didn’t matter because they were servants.”
“Well … duh,” said Scott.
“Okay, so that’s by number three: they didn’t have as many choices as Captain von Trapp. Captain von Trapp got to tell them what to do all the time. But that doesn’t prove for sure that the servants were poorer.”
“How do you mean?” Scott asked.
“The butler was working for the Nazis,” I said.
“Was he?” Margie Dixon asked.
“Yeah, he was,” said Carol the Jew. She looked kind of pleased that she knew that.
“I thought it was Rolf the telegraph boy who was working for the Nazis,” said Mary.
“They both were. The point is, the Nazis could have been paying him so much that he didn’t need Captain von Trapp’s measly pay. Or he could have been independently wealthy and working under cover as a servant, just so he could stick it to Austrian loyalists. Just because somebody is working as a servant doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have as much money as the person he’s working for. In fact, Captain von Trapp could have been in debt and had a negative net worth, whereas the butler could have been debt free and been worth more than him.”
“Well, I don’t think the butler was richer than Captain von Trapp,” Scott said.
“Probably not,” I agreed. “I’m just saying, you can’t tell by looking at someone and the way he lives whether or not he’s poor. I mean, after the Nazis took over Austria, and they confiscated the von Trapp estate and the whole family had to cross the Alps on foot, were they poor then?”
“Yeah,” said Margie. “At the end of the movie, they were poor.”
“But what if they had a lot of money in a Swiss bank account?” I asked. “What if they had a million dollars and all they had to do was cross the border to get to it?”
“Then they weren’t poor,” Scott said, sounding annoyed.
“But what if they got lost in the mountains and never found their way down, and they died of starvation?” I asked.
“That wouldn’t happen!” said Mary.
“Well, it might.”
“Then I guess the older children would have to eat the younger children, and then Captain von Trapp and Maria would eat the older children,” said Kerry Cassidy.
There was another round of “Ew, gross.”
“My point is,” I said, “that a person could be very rich, but still die of starvation.”
About then the bell rang.
Mrs. Bridges looked me up and down. “That was a very interesting presentation, Ya’el.” Only it sounded as if she wasn’t sure what she actually meant by “interesting.”
“Yeah,” I agreed glumly. “It was a disaster.”
“I’ve given lots of talks before at school,” I told Mrs. Bridges. “But none of them went as badly as this. I didn’t even get to talk about the thing I really wanted to talk about.”
“Class. Don’t you think it’s strange that none of the students mentioned that Eliza Doolittle was poorer than Henry Higgins because she belonged to a lower social class?”
“Well, in America, we don’t have social classes,” Mrs. Bridges said.
I gave her a look, to see if she was pulling my leg, but she was sincere. “We don’t have them in Israel, either,” I said. “At least, not officially. All they mark on your identity card is nationality and religion. But all the same…”
“They mark nationality and religion?”
“That’s right. That’s how they thought they could force us to cut up my brother. Because on our identity cards it says that our religion is Jewish.”
“And it’s not?”
“No. It’s not.”
“So couldn’t your parents ask them to change that?” Mrs. Bridges asked.
“They did. They filed an application. It was denied.”
“They said we hadn’t proved we weren’t Jewish.”
“How do you prove something like that?” she asked.
“Well, that’s just it. You can’t. There’s only one way that they accept, and that’s if you convert to another official religion. You know, like Catholicism or Islam. If you can bring a certificate from one of those religions that says you belong, then you might stand a chance to get Jewish marked off.”
“And your parents didn’t want to convert to another religion?
“We were pagan. That wasn’t an official, state sponsored religion, so it didn’t count.”
Mrs. Bridges laughed. “What do you mean you were pagan?”
“We worshiped the old gods. The Canaanite gods. The ones in the Bible. You know, Baal, Ashera, Dagon, all the sons of El….”
“But… weren’t those cults that demanded human sacrifice?” Mrs. Bridges asked.
“Well, not most of the time. And besides, so did Jehovah. He wasn’t any different. Read your bible. He was terribly bloodthirsty… He liked human sacrifice, when he could get it.”
Mrs. Bridges was some sort of Christian. She told me which Church she went to, but I don’t remember. “Well, if you’re talking about Abraham and Isaac...”
“I’m not,” I said.
“God was just testing Abraham. He would never let him actually go through with that.”
“I don’t know why you keep mentioning Abraham and Isaac,” I said. “I missed first and second grade, so I don’t know much about them.”
“What do you mean…”
“We were in the United States when I was in first and second grade. By the time I got back, my class was already reading Joshua.”
“No! Nobody goes to synagogue in Israel. Well, maybe one or two religious nuts. No, I’m talking about school. Regular public school. It was one of our classes. You know, reading, math, geography, Bible, science, agriculture and P.E. That’s what we studied.”
“Well,” Mrs. Bridges said. “In the U.S. we have separation of Church and State. So we don’t study religion in school. I can see why your parents might have objected to that.”
“They didn’t object to that. We weren’t studying religion; we were studying the Bible which is a very ancient book about the history of our country. The reason it’s good for Israelis to study the Bible is that the Hebrew in it is the very best kind there is, and also it tells about the most important events that happened to our country, from the perspective of people who lived during those days. I mean, imagine being able to read word for word what people said back then. ”
“But you read it in translation, right?”
“No. We read it in the original.”
“In fourth grade?” Mrs. Bridges asked.
“Well, I started reading it in third grade, but they were already on Joshua. So I guess they started in first or second grade with the first five books…”
“But surely you didn’t read everything, straight through…”
“No. We skipped the boring parts, like when there was a really long list of names, we skipped that. And when they had, like, building instructions, on the dimensions of something they were building, or a recipe or something like that, we skipped that, too. I mean, we kind of skimmed through sometimes, so we’d know what was in it, though we didn’t really read it for content. But all the other stuff, the things that happened, and how people went to war, and the different ways they killed each other, and what parts of the land were conquered, and stuff like that, we read all that, and we were responsible for it. ‘Cause you know, when people finish high school, there’s an exam they have to take, and it includes math and science and grammar and Bible. And I guess people who haven’t been paying attention in third and fourth grade Bible class do pretty badly on that part of the test.”
Mrs. Bridges smiled. “But you paid attention.”
“Oh, yeah. I was a good Bible student. I even argued with the teacher.”
“You argued with the teacher?”
“Well, in third grade I did, and a little less in fourth grade, because we had a better teacher. Anyway, in Israel, arguing isn’t considered as bad a thing as it is here. Everybody argues. It’s a way to reason through things. And my classmates really liked it when I started arguing with the teacher in Bible class.”
“They’d go: ‘Way to go, Ya’el.’ And they backed me up. Nobody was religious, and everybody was interested in the truth. That’s why I was so shocked when they turned on me.”
“What did you argue with the teacher about?” Mrs. Bridges asked.
“Lots of things. Like the story of Yiftach’s daughter, for instance. Do you know about Yiftach’s daughter?”
Mrs. Bridges shook her head.
“Okay, how about Yiftach himself? Have your heard of him?” Again she shook her head. “I don’t know what he’s called in English. Usually if somebody’s name starts with a yod then in English it starts with a j. So maybe you know him as Jiftach. Does that ring a bell?”
“No, can’t say that it does.”
“Well, Yiftach was one of the judges. He was the son of a prostitute, so his brothers – his half-brothers, I guess -- didn’t like him so much. They thought they were better than he was. But whenever there was trouble, and they needed someone to fight their battles, they always called on him. That’s how he became a great leader and a great judge. And one time, right before he set out to battle, he promised Yehovah … I mean, Jehovah, you know, that’s the name of the god that supposedly a lot of people believe in…”
“Yeah, I know,” Mrs. Bridges said.
“He promised that god of his that if he let him win the battle, he would sacrifice the first living thing he saw on the way home. And so he did win. And everybody was very happy, and his daughter came out to meet him, playing drums or tamborines or something. And so, when he saw her, he got very upset, and he started tearing his clothes and stuff, because he knew he had to sacrifice her, since she was the first living thing he saw as he was coming home. He loved his daughter, but there was nothing he could do about it”
“No!” said Mrs. Bridges. “But surely God wouldn’t let him.”
“Oh, God let him all right. She was a virgin, and they let her have a kind of vacation in the mountains with her girl friends and she was supposed to spend that time purifying herself. And sure enough, when she came down, they sacrificed her.”
“They had you read that in fourth grade!”
“Third grade. Anyway, the teacher said that the moral of the story was that you shouldn’t make rash vows. You should think them through very thoroughly before you promise something, in case there were hidden costs or possibilities you hadn’t thought of. You see, he didn’t know his daughter was coming to meet him. He thought he would probably see a goat or something.”
“Well, he probably should have thought of that,” said Mrs. Bridges.
“That’s really beside the point,” I said. “That’s his problem. But what about his daughter? What did she do wrong? And we don’t even know what her name is. I told my teacher that proves that human sacrifice was practiced by the followers of Jehovah. Otherwise, he’d have been executed for murder. But as it happened, sacrificing his daughter was perfectly legal.”
“But doesn’t it say in the ten commandments: ‘thou shalt not kill’?”
“No, it doesn’t say that. It says: thou shalt not murder. And murder is just whatever kind of killing isn’t legal. There’s a whole list of people you are supposed to kill, and murderers are at the top of the list. It comes right after the ten commandments, in the section on laws. Yiftach wasn’t a murderer; he didn’t get into any kind of trouble about it, so sacrificing his daughter had to be legal. That’s the kind of stuff I used to argue with my teacher about.”
“Why don’t people live in the middle of the earth?” Talli asks, as I am trying to point out wildflowers to her.
“I don’t know.” I’m still worrying about her recent request that I buy her a friend.
“Sure, you know,” she says. “You can tell me. It’s okay.”
I look at her. Does she think I know everything? That I’m hiding some of my vast knowledge to spare her the pain?
“You said we live on top of the earth,” she persisted. “You said our house is on top of the ball of the earth, not in the ball of the earth. Why don’t we live inside the ball?”
When I said that, I thought I was correcting her use of prepositions. I had no idea the issue for her was spatial.
“Um, well, because the ball isn’t hollow. There’s stuff inside.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Oh, I don’t know, rocks and molten lava, the kind of thing that comes gushing out of volcanoes.”
“What’s a volcano?”
“It’s this really big mountain with an opening where sometimes hot, molten stone gushes out, killing everything in its path as it rushes out. A volcano can lie dormant for hundreds of years, and then it suddenly erupts. Remember that documentary we saw?”
Talli nods solemnly. Then she points at a little mound of earth with her sneaker. “Is that a volcano?”
I bend down to look at it. “No. That’s a molehill.”
“Are you sure?”
“We don’t have any volcanoes on our property.”
“How do you know?”
“I had it surveyed before I bought it. I never buy real estate with volcanoes on it.”
Talli breathes out a sigh of relief. “That’s good.”
Before my father left for the interview in Dallas, he handed me a computer printout. “Good news. There’s a clear solution to your problem. This is your best chance at friendship,” he said, reading out the name: “Carol Herzog.”
“Carol the Jew!?”
“Is she a Jew?” he asked, confused.
“She is the Jew. She’s practically been throwing herself at me all year.”
“You mean, she offered you friendship?”
“Well, yeah. Right from the first day. There was no way I was going to be friends with her.”
“She called me a Jew. She didn’t ask if I was Jewish. She just assumed. And nothing I’ve said since then has convinced her otherwise. She can’t be my best chance at a friend!”
“The computer just runs the algorithm. It’s you who gave me the data. By your own description, you and Carol Herzog have similar strong points and similar deficits. You’re both smart, but not athletic. Neither of you is particularly good looking, but you are both about average. And by your own admission your personalities are only about passably pleasant. Anyone better will not want you, because they have other options that rank higher. Anyone worse than her isn’t worth your while. This is the optimal solution: Carol Herzog.”
The realization dawned on me, almost blinding me with enlightenment. “Then I never had a choice! And everyone in class knew it, except for me.”
“You realize, of course, that the moment you leave Israel you automatically become a Jew,” my father’s friend Ehud had said the last time he came over for avocado sandwiches.
“I don’t know why you think that,” my father said. “It’s here in Israel that they’re not allowing me not to be a Jew. In America, they don’t mark your documents with religious affiliation.”
“It’s not on paper, but it’s just as real. More so, maybe. Because they won’t tell you that’s what they think, so you’ll never be able to tell them it’s not so. You can’t even deny it. It’s just out there.”
“But they won’t try to make me circumcise Eyal.”
“No, they can’t. Although, you know, he’ll stand out, anyway. They circumcise all boy babies in the hospital now. The doctors tell them it’s good for them.”
“Probably. They don’t want their kids to stand out. So they’re making everybody do it. He’ll be the only little Philistine left.”
“I don’t care.”
“But that’s what it’s all about, you know. Fitting in. You don’t get to choose who you are. Other people choose that for you. It’s how they see you that makes you what you are.”
“But there’s nothing to see.”
“Look, everything’s relative. Tall and short, for instance. In a room full of midgets, any normal person is a giant. In a room full of giants, any normal person is a midget. People aren’t born tall or short. It’s the people around them that make them what they are.”
“But being Jewish isn’t something real. It’s all a made-up thing. So, there’s nothing to compare.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Ehud said. “Here, you’re not so Jewish, because there are people lots more Jewish to judge against. There, in a room full of non-Jews, you’ll be the most Jewish person in the room.”
My father laughed. “That would be true, perhaps, if being Jewish were associated with some specific objectively defined qualities.”
“It is,” Ehud said.
“You’re just a racist,” my father replied affectionately.
“That’s true,” Ehud agreed. “As far as I am concerned, Hitler should have finished the job.”
“Can we go to Wal-Mart now?” Talli asks.
“You know, so you can buy me a friend.”
“They don’t sell friends at Wal-Mart.”
“Well, where do they sell them?”
I’m trying to finish folding laundry, so I really don’t want to get into this. I give Talli the standard, officially sanctioned answer, the one I don’t believe in. “You can’t buy people.”
“Because they’re not for sale.”
“But… but how do people get other people, if they don’t buy them?”
“They make them,” I say. “The way I made you.”
“But there’s gotta be another way…”
I stop folding laundry. “Okay, Talli, I’m going to tell you a secret, but don’t tell anybody else.”
She nods vigorously.
“Actually, you can buy people, but they are very, very expensive, and most people can’t afford the price. So most of the time, when people need other people, they rent them by the hour.”
Talli is listening intently. “Rent them by the hour?”
“Yes. Even the large corporations, which have lots and lots of money, when they need someone to do a job for them, they pay them for their time, but they don’t buy them outright. So when the workday is over, the person gets to go home and do whatever he wants.”
“Oh.” Talli thinks about this. “So we can’t buy a little girl and put her in my room, and make her play with me whenever I want to?”
“No, we can’t do that. But we could invite a little girl over, and offer her milk and cookies, and she might be willing to play with you for about an hour.”
“Just milk and cookies?” Talli asks. “That’s all it would take?”
“Well, you’d also have to let her play with your toys.”
“Play with my toys!! No. I’d never let her do that. Those are my toys.”
“Hmm. Then I guess you can’t have a friend.”
“But why couldn’t I have a friend who doesn’t want to play with my toys?”
“Most children expect to be allowed to play with a friend’s toys when they come over.”
“They’re just thinking about themselves!” Talli exclaims indignantly. “Why do they want to play with my toys?”
“Other children are selfish that way,” I say, smiling. “They withhold friendship when people don’t offer to share their toys.”
“I would never be like that,” Talli says. “I know that somebody else’s toys belong to them, and I would never even touch them.”
“Well, you are an exception to the rule,” I say. “But if you want to buy a friend, or at least rent one for an hour, sharing toys is the price you have to pay.”
“I’d rather have the kind of friend that I can tell her what to do, and she just does it,” Talli sulks.
“That kind of friend is out of our price range. I think that you’ll have to make do with the sorts of friends you can suggest things to, and then they can decide whether they want to do them or not.”
“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” Talli says.
“You mean there was a nice Jewish girl who wanted to be your friend, right from the start, and you have been whining about how you don’t have any friends all year?” My mother looked at me and shook her head. “What is wrong with you, Ya’el? Why do you always create problems where there is no problem?”
“But she’s Carol the Jew!”
“See what you’ve done to her?” my mother said, turning to my father. “You’ve brain-washed her so now she’s anti-Semitic.”
“I’m not anti-Semitic!” I protested. “I just can’t stand pesky Jews.”
My father laughed. “Has it ever occurred to you that Carol may not have had a choice about being Jewish?”
“But you said that there’s no such thing as a Jew. That people just made it up in order to set up barriers between people. And you said everybody has a choice about what they are.”
“Adults have a choice. Children have to do what their parents tell them. Maybe you should give Carol a chance. According to the data you gave me, you two seem to have a lot in common.”
“That’s right. That’s what Mrs. Bridges thinks, too. But then again, she also thinks we’re both Jews.”
“Why don’t you forget about labeling her? Why don’t you just find out what kind of person she is?” my father said.
“Okay,” I grumbled.
Talli is looking at herself in the mirror, while I comb her long, brown hair. It’s much lighter and much straighter than mine, a trait inherited from her biological father, a man I’ve never met.
“I want you to cut my hair,” she says. “I want you to cut it all the way to here.” She indicates a spot just a little below her ears.
“But why?” I love Talli’s long hair.
“Because… I want to look like Macy.”
“You want to look like Macy? Why?”
“She has hair so short, she looks like a boy.”
“So, you want to look like a boy?”
“No, silly. Of course, not. I want to look like Macy.”
“Oh, I see.”
When Talli persists in this request for three days in a row, I finally agree. Macy is the first child in Talli’s preschool class that Talli has ever alluded to by name. Until recently, she totally ignored all her classmates. I don’t want to discourage her interest in Macy.
The class was busy filling out science worksheets.
Carol the Jew got up to take a drink from the water fountain. I hated water, but since I was charged with the task of asking her over, I got up and stood behind her.
“My mother wants to invite you over for dinner this Thursday. Can you come?” I said to her bent back.
She turned around. “Really? How come?”
“Um. I told her how nice you were.”
Carol looked suspicious. “Well, I’ll have to ask my mom.”
Mrs. Bridges, seeing us talking, came over. “Did you have a nice Passover?” she asked.
“We didn’t celebrate Passover,” I said.
Carol the Jew said: “Passover is next week. It’s after Easter this year.”
Mrs. Bridges looked confused, so Carol said: “It goes by the lunar calendar.”
“Oh, so you’ll be celebrating it next week.”
“We don’t celebrate Passover,” I said. “We celebrated Easter over the break.”
“Really?” Mrs. Bridges asked. “How did you celebrate it?”
“We ate a chocolate bunny.”
Mrs. Bridges and Carol both laughed. I didn’t quite get why that was so funny.
In February of 1993 the ATF besieged the Branch Davidian complex at Mt.Carmel, on the outskirts of Waco, and David Koresh, the Davidian leader, said he would make a decision after Easter. But the Branch Davidians were Seventh Day Adventists, so they celebrated Easter by the lunar calendar. Their Easter coincided with Passover. When nothing happened by the time Easter was over by the Gregorian calendar, the ATF spokesman declared that Koresh had reneged on his promise. Diane Sawyer, in her government-friendly coverage of the siege, noted that the authorities did not have any respect for the Branch Davidians’ so-called religion.
I was in grad school in Houston, only a three hour drive away. Eyal flew in from Philadelphia. He and I were planning a protest at BaylorUniversity during Spring Break, but when that was foiled by University officials, we headed for the store, stocked up on milk and diapers, and drove in the direction of the compound at Mt.Carmel. We were stopped at a roadblock manned by ATF agents, who demanded our drivers’ licenses.
“We just want to bring milk and diapers for the babies that are in there. Can you see that they get them?” I asked.
The ATF officer, a brash, cocky young man, said: “I wouldn’t count on it. If those babies want some milk, they’d better come out.” He turned to Eyal: “Ya – El, Ey – yal,” he sing-songed. “You sure have some funny sounding names. How come? Did your parents hate you?”
A week later, the compound was burned to the ground, with the Davidians, men, women and children, still inside. The dark Davidian flag was hauled down, and the American flag triumphantly took its place.
“Those potatoes are really good,” Carol said.
My mother beamed. “Thank you. It’s so nice of you to say.”
My father cleared his throat, which was a sign that a speech was coming. “We came to this country in search of religious freedom,” he said.
“Oh, what does a little girl like Carol want to hear about that?” my mother interrupted him.
“I believe in religious freedom, too,” Carol said.
“Well, of course, you do. Who doesn’t?” My mother’s cheerfulness was forced.
My father started to say something, but she interrupted him again. “Why don’t you two go and play. I’ll bring the dessert out to your room, Ya’el.”
We got up to go. “And no talking about politics!” she called after us.
“Oh, no,” I agreed. “We’ll stick to the weather and our health.”
“It’s a line from My Fair Lady.”
“Macy didn’t notice me,” Talli whines when I pick her up from school. “She didn’t see that I look just like her.”
“Did you ask her how she liked your new haircut?”
“Did you talk to her?”
“You know I can’t talk to other people.”
“I just can’t.”
“I don’t think it was nice of Macy not to notice,” she adds.
“Talli, would you like me to ask Macy’s mother if she can come over to play?”
“Are you sure?”
“Because… I don’t want anyone touching my toys.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked Carol.
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
“Nothing… I mean, whatever you want.”
“Your mom is very nice.”
“Yeah. Sure. Whatever.”
“Who sleeps in that bed?”
“Oh, it’s just for guests.”
“You have a lot of sleep-overs?”
There was a long silence. Just as I started to say something, Carol said: “So you like musicals, huh?”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“Me, too. Fiddler on the Roof is my favorite.”
“Have you seen Fiddler on the Roof?”
“Yeah. That’s the one about the milkman who has to marry off his daughters, right?”
“Yeah. Though I never thought of it that way.”
“How did you think of it?”
“It’s about the clash between traditional Jewish values and the more modern outlook.”
“So I guess we’re lucky to be living in the modern world, where we get to pick our own husbands,” she said shyly.
“We do?” I snorted. “Have you picked out a husband already?”
“No, silly. But when the time comes, nobody else gets to decide for me.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, we don’t even get to pick our own friends. What makes you think we can pick a husband?”
We’re at the PTO meeting. It’s held in the third grade classroom. The children are milling around at one end of the room, playing with paper cutouts. The PTO president is going on and on about fundraising projects. Talli is sitting on my lap, but her eyes are following Macy as she cavorts with another little girl.
“Talli, if you want me to, I’ll ask Macy’s mother tonight,” I say softly in Hebrew.
“Okay,” she says.
“Are you sure?”
She nods decisively. Now it’s my turn to screw up my courage.
“Talli was wondering if Macy might like to come over sometime,” I say to Lenore McCollup, Macy’s mother. Lenore is a jolly woman with a sloppy figure and a Kentucky accent.
“Well, I’m sure she might.”
“Are Saturday afternoons good for you?” I plunge right ahead.
We start haggling about dates and times, and pretty soon we have it all set up. “Well, I guess we have ourselves a play date,” Lenore sums up. “I’ll drop Macy over at 3:00 o’clock.”
I frown. “Actually, Talli has trouble warming up to a new child without adult interactions. I was wondering if you could stay, the first time around.” I know I sound insane, asking that.
Lenore is cooperative. “Why, sure. That’s no problem at all. So, I’ll see y’all then.”
“What do you mean, we don’t get to pick our own friends?” Carol asked.
“I mean, I wanted to be friends with Margie Dixon. And she said, no. So then I asked, Scott, and he said no. And then I asked a couple more people, And they said no. And … here we are.”
Carol got a hurt look on her face. “If I were you, I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who didn’t want me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean!” she said, getting up.
Just then my mother came in with the ice cream. “Sit down, sit down,” she said, so Carol sat back down.
When my mother left, I took on a conciliatory tone. “Look, Carol, I didn’t mean anything bad about you. I think we’re both in the same boat. The fact is that other people always get to decide who you end up with, because no matter how many people you know, you can’t possibly end up with someone who chooses someone else. So our choices are severely constrained by the choices that other people make. Which is almost the same as saying that other people get to choose for us.”
“But it’s not the same,” Carol said. “Because we get to say ‘No.’”
“Yes!” I said. “That’s exactly my point. The only way you can be sure to avoid marrying someone you don’t want is by being prepared not to marry anyone at all. Are you prepared to do that?”
“I’m going to get married,” she said. “I’ll take my own good time choosing, but I will get married.”
“If you’re firm in that decision, then chances are you will be married to someone who isn’t your first choice. Or your second choice. Or your third choice. It won’t be someone on your top ten list or even your top fifty list. In fact, it more or less means that everyone else in the world, acting collectively, will decide for you.”
“That’s not true!”
“Yes, it is. I can prove it. There’s an algorithm!”
Talli and I are preparing for Macy’s visit. There is a knock at the door. Talli runs to the door, looks through the glass, then comes running back to me, and hides behind my back as I open the door. Two little old ladies, one with faded red hair and the other snowy white, stand smiling at me. “Hi. We’re your neighbors from down the lane. We’ve come to talk to you about the upcoming local election.”
I let them in and offer them something to drink. They don’t want the lemonade I offer, but they each take a cookie.
“We can’t stay long,” the redhead says. “We’re just visiting with all our neighbors, trying to remind them about the county election. We wanted to ask you to be sure and vote Democrat.”
I sit back, prepared for an interesting political discussion. “Why?”
The two women look confused. “Why what?”
“Why do you want me to vote Democrat?”
The two women exchange confused glances. The redhead finally answers: “Why, because we’re Democrats.”
I laugh. “Yes, well…. I gathered that much. But are you Democrats for any particular reason? Or were you just born that way?”
The other, white-haired woman says: “Well, I can see that you are a Republican. We won’t take up any more of your time.”
They both get up to go.
Now I’m the one who’s confused: “But don’t you want to convince me?”
The redhead shakes her head. “Oh, honey, I learned years ago there’s no use arguing over politics.”
I’m dumbfounded. After they leave, Talli pulls on my sleeve. “What did those ladies want?”
“I’m not sure.”
Carol listened carefully to my explanation about the algorithm and how shocked I was when it turned out I would have to accept her as my friend. Then she said: “There’s one thing I still don’t understand. If you dislike me so much, why am I so high up on your list of preferences?”
“Because the preferences were compiled from a list of qualities that are more or less objective and that all our classmates would agree upon. By those criteria, you rate higher than many of the other students, because you are so smart, and clean cut and honest and decent and nice.”
“It’s not a compliment. Those are just the facts. That’s probably why everybody figured I would choose you – yourself included. But what they didn’t take into account is the fact that I can’t stand you.”
“Yes, and why is that, exactly?”
“Because you keep trying to ram your Judaism down my throat!”
“My Judaism?” Carol laughed. “That’s ridiculous. I’m not even religious.”
“You’re not?! Then why do you keep talking about your synagogue?”
“Our Temple is just where we go to meet other Jews.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. Then I asked: “So how do you know the people you meet there are Jews?”
“I told you, they go to Temple.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little circular? You attend synagogue to meet Jews. The people you meet at synagogue are Jews because they attend. Then what is the point of being a Jew?”
“There is no point. It’s just what we are. Everybody’s something. We just happen to be Jewish.”
“Okay. And how exactly did you get that way?”
“I was born Jewish.”
“But Carol, you look like everybody else. How do you know you’re Jewish?”
“Because my family is Jewish.”
“Nobody’s forcing you. You could stop being Jewish any time you like.”
“But we like being Jewish. We don’t want to be anything else.”
“Okay. Well, my family doesn’t want to be Jewish. Why can’t you let us be?”
“I haven’t done anything to your family.”
“Yes, you have. You sent money to the Jews in Israel, and they used that money to try to chop up my brother’s penis. And because of that, we had to leave Israel for good! You cost me my country.”
When Lenore arrives with Macy, Talli hides behind my back. I serve cookies and lemonade. Lenore chatters away about the weather or how busy things have been at the bank where she works. I try to keep up with the small talk, but I’m not good at it.
Macy says to Talli, who has been peeking at her while still clinging to me: “Can I see your room?”
Talli shakes her head. She whispers to me in Hebrew: “I don’t want her touching my toys.”
“But Israel is the Jewish State,” Carol said. “It was created to give shelter to all the Jews of the world after Hitler tried to destroy them.”
“No, it wasn’t. Israel was founded by Zionists in the nineteenth century, long before Hitler was even born. Long before there even were any Nazis.”
“But Zionists were Jews.”
“Zionists were people who were tired of being told they were Jews, and they wanted to have their own country, where nobody would ever treat them like Jews again! They wanted to be free. And the last thing they would have done was enforce rabbinical law. The rabbis hated them. They were radicals! They wanted to have their own country where neither the old Jews nor the European rulers could tell them what to do. But in order to do that, they had to learn to be farmers and soldiers and do all the work that has to be done if you’re going to have a free country. All the work the Jews in Europe left for someone else to do. That’s why everybody hated them; they never got their hands dirty.”
“That’s not true,” Carol said. “Everybody hated them, because they were smart, and well educated, and they knew how to make money.”
“Yes. That’s true, too. But… they refused to do the things that are absolutely necessary if you’re going to keep a country going: grow food and fight wars. So the people of Europe saw them as parasites.”
“But they weren’t parasites, because they made valuable contributions.”
“A parasite can make a valuable contribution, but it’s still a parasite if it couldn’t survive outside the host,” I said. “For instance, the bacteria in our stomachs. Remember last week’s science module?”
“Yeah. But nobody can stand on their own. No man is an island. So there’s nothing wrong with being dependent, as long as you contribute,” Carol said.
“Maybe so, but the Zionists didn’t want to be parasites, anymore. They especially didn’t like being called parasites and being treated like parasites. But the Europeans were racist, and they wouldn’t let them assimilate, no matter how hard they tried to stop being Jews. Even when Jews did try to join the army, things didn’t work out. There was this guy called Dreyfuss, for instance. He was French, but because they thought he was Jewish, something bad happened…”
“I think it was a court martial?” Carol said.
“Yeah, well, anyway, whatever it was really upset everyone, especially Herzl, and he decided that it was better to be a live fish swimming in the ocean than a pickled herring safely packed away in a jar, and that it was better to stand alone as a free nation, than to be second-class citizens.”
“A pickled herring?”
“Yeah. Somebody said, maybe it wasn’t Herzl, I forget who, that a Jew is to a regular human being like a pickled herring is to a fish in the sea.”
“Well, that’s silly.”
“Anyway, that’s what the Zionists thought, and they worked hard to stop being Jews. The Zionists revived Hebrew from a dead language to a living one, because they knew it would never do to use one of those borrowed European languages that the Jews used. They drained the swamps…”
“The swamps are part of the ecosystem, and it destroys habitats when you drain them,” Carol said.
“Yeah, well they didn’t like getting malaria so much. They irrigated the desert and they grew crops … And they fought, and they killed and they died. And then when they had finally won their freedom, these left-over Jews from the concentration camps, who had never wanted to become Israeli, because they liked being slaves, and who had allowed themselves and their children to be herded into death camps without so much as lifting a finger to stop it, these lazy, cowardly, mean spirited people showed up in droves, expecting a handout, thinking they deserved every bit as good as the real Israelis, just for being Jewish. And that’s when what had started out as a secular state where everybody could be free became a Jewish state.” My voice was getting a little squeaky, as the sheer horror of what happened helped whip me into a frenzy of self-righteousness. “They destroyed our country, and the money from America corrupted our politicians, and they passed laws that gave the religious nuts lots of power over everybody, and they were mean to the people of the land, who were there before us, and they wouldn’t let them assimilate, because they thought the way to treat a minority is the way the Europeans had treated them. And they started teaching Jewish consciousness in the schools, and they brainwashed everybody into believing that they had to be Jews. And that was the beginning of the end for us.” I ran out of breath at that point. I expected Carol to be as overcome by the pathos of what had happened to us as I was.
“That’s what your father wanted to tell me, when your mother interrupted?” Carol asked. She was very calm.
“Tell your father I’m sorry. I’m sorry he chose not to circumcise your brother. And I’m sorry that you are having a hard time adjusting. But… Israel belongs to the Jews. And maybe someday he’ll change his mind, and you can go back.”
“You’d better leave,” I said, my voice shaking.
“Yeah. I think I’d better.”
“Maybe we can all play a game,” Lenore says.
“But I want to see her room,” Macy insists, whining.
“Well, honeybunch, Talli’s not ready to show you her room, yet. So how about we play a game first?”
Lenore is a natural. Just as Talli has been watching Macy from a distance, I have been studying Lenore’s parenting style for weeks. At soccer games, at PTO meetings, even when picking Talli up from school. Macy isn’t necessarily that much more emotionally mature than Talli, I’ve concluded, but the way Lenore handles it is what makes the difference. Lenore doesn’t explain. She demonstrates. Maybe that’s why people like that are called demonstrative.
I gave Talli a lucid explanation of the mechanism whereby friendship is maintained, with the give and take rigorously spelled out, but I don’t identify with that mechanism, so Talli can’t internalize it. Now Lenore is going to show us how it’s done.
“Talli,” says Lenore. “Talli, look at me. Can you do this?”
Talli looks. Lenore takes Macy by both hands. They are facing each other. “Watch this, Talli,” she says. Despite herself, Talli watches with great interest. Macy starts climbing up Lenore’s legs, as if the legs were a wall she is scaling. Then, when it seems she can’t possibly climb any higher, Lenore flips her, and Macy lands on her feet. “We learned it at gymnastics class. See if you and your mom can do this.”
I’m doubtful, but Talli seems eager to try. After a couple of fumbled attempts, I manage to flip Talli. She is beaming with joy.
“Why that was great!” Lenore cries out. “Talli, I believe you are a natural.”
The Punky-Wunkies never bothered me again, after their visit to my apartment. In hindsight, perhaps the whole thing could have been avoided if instead of explaining that there was no height requirement for entry into fifth grade, I had admitted that I was short for my age. Perhaps the head Punky-Wunky was trying to be friendly. It may be that my manner had put him off.
Carol the Jew and I never became fast friends. It was just as well, since the school year was almost over, and we were getting ready to move to Dallas, where my father had accepted a job offer.
On the last day of school, I thanked Mrs. Bridges for all she had done for me that year. “You are a really good teacher,” I told her, oblivious to the fact that I was in no position to judge her. She accepted the praise in the spirit in which it was intended. “There’s just one thing,” I added. “It’s about spelling.”
“There’s a problem with the English spelling system, but I disagree with George Bernard Shaw’s suggested solution.”
“Yes. I’ve been looking it over in my spare time, ever since you mentioned it to me, and I see a number of problems. He wants to make the spelling system phonetic, but English is pronounced differently by different people, just as he demonstrated with Eliza and Henry Higgins. And British people speak differently from Americans, and then there are the Australians and the people in India. If we made it phonetic, we couldn’t communicate with other English speakers in writing, and we also couldn’t read old literature in the standard spelling. It would require all the books to be reprinted, and that would mean chopping down whole forests, and that in turn might deplete the ozone layer.”
Mrs. Bridges nodded. “Yes. So you think we should keep the spelling system the way it is?”
“Yes. It would save a lot of money and a lot of trees not to have to reprint a single book. But here’s the thing. The problem with the spelling system is that there is a terrible mismatch between the way things are spelled and the way they’re pronounced. And while it would be too costly to change the way things are spelled, it wouldn’t cost a penny to change the way they’re pronounced.”
Mrs. Bridges frowned. “I don’t understand, Ya’el.”
“I propose a pronunciation reform!” I got very excited as I made this declaration. “Instead of spelling things the way they’re pronounced, why don’t we pronounce things the way they’re spelled?”
Mrs. Bridges smiled. “Er, yes, that might be nice, but don’t you think it would be very hard to do?”
“No. It would be easy! Every child who starts reading tries to pronounce things the way they are spelled. Then they have to learn to do it the other way. So why not just let them keep reading things the way they are printed? And as for adults, every grownup knows how every word is spelled, so why not just ask them to pronounce them that way from now on? And in about a generation there will be babies born who have never heard it any other way, so they won’t even have to work at it! It’s just like what the Zionists did when they revived Hebrew, except much easier, because nobody has to learn a different language! It’s not that much different from what Eliza had to learn. And any fool can learn to pronounce his own language with a different accent!”
Mrs. Bridges laughed.
“You don’t have to thank me for solving the spelling problem,” I added modestly. “You just propose this to the principal. I don’t need any credit. Then, after it’s implemented in this school, it can slowly spread to other schools, until it’s taken the whole country by storm. In only one generation, there won’t be a single child left who gets anything less than one hundred on a spelling test! Then you can take spelling out of the curriculum and substitute some other more crucial subject, like agriculture or weapons design.”
Mrs. Bridges hugged me. “You really are something, Ya’el.”
And so I left Ann Arbor with the feeling that, despite everything, I had really accomplished something that year. For the next couple of years, I kept my eyes peeled for news of the pronunciation reform that I was sure must be sweeping through Michigan. I was disappointed not to find a single mention of it.
“Talli has a game she likes to play,” I say to Macy and Lenore. “It’s called ‘It’s a Joke.’”
“Cool,” says Lenore. “How do you play it?”
“Well, the person who starts makes a counterfactual statement…” I notice Lenore’s eyes starting to glaze over. Macy is munching on a cookie. “I mean, they say something that isn’t true.” At this, Lenore registers her comprehension with a big smile and an encouraging nod. I continue: “So then the other person says: ‘That’s not true!’ And the first person cries out: ‘It’s a joke!”
“Well, that sounds like fun,” says Lenore. “Doesn’t it, Macy?”
“Talli, you want to start?”
Talli shakes her head.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll start: ‘We live in a gingerbread house in the middle of a lollipop forest.’”
Talli giggles. “No, we don’t!” she says, not very loudly, but still quite audibly for someone whose voice is muffled by her mother’s back.
“Okay!” says Lenore. “That was fun. Macy, you want to try?”
Macy thinks about it. “This cookie isn’t any good!” she says.
Lenore says: “Yes, it is!”
Macy rolls her eyes. “It’s a joke!”
“Okay, Talli,” says Lenore. “Your turn.”
Talli peeps at her from behind my back. “I’m not having any fun,” she says shyly.
“Yes, you are!” says Macy.
“It’s a joke!” Talli cries.
By the end of the visit the two girls are giggling together. It’s a small step, but the trajectory has already been set. By their third play date, Talli will allow Macy to enter her room. By the fourth play date, Lenore’s presence will no longer be required.
For now, Talli has a friend. She doesn’t need to buy one at Wal-Mart. My problem, however, is not so easy to solve.
After Macy and Lenore leave, Talli asks me: “Why do we speak Hebrew?”
“Because we’re from Israel,” I answer without thinking.
“Well, I am.”
“Have I ever been to Israel?”
“You were there once, when we scattered your grandfather’s ashes. Remember? Everybody there speaks Hebrew.”
Talli doesn’t remember. “Why don’t we live there now?” she asks.
“Because some bad people took over the country and drove us out.”
“Oh. When I are we going back?”
“When they leave.”
“When will that be?”
“I don’t know, Talli. It could take another thousand years.”
“And then we’ll go back?”
She accepts this, and I gather up the dishes to wash. But two minutes later she pops her head into the kitchen and asks: “How old will I be in another thousand years?”
(c) 2008 Aya Katz