I’ve just returned from a lecture trip to South Carolina. Among other things, I gave a talk called “My Memoirs Made Me Jewish,” a paradox I’ve rehearsed here recently. The visit went well, although I was perplexed when during the Q&A a woman in the audience seemed unclear about what exactly I mean by the conceit (note to self: make this crystal clear in the next iteration).
At La Guardia we caught a cab and headed home. I was exhausted from the visit and the early flight so I huddled in the corner, eyes closed, lips sealed, hoping to nod off, while the driver engaged my husband in conversation. In the past twenty years or so, I don’t think I’ve encountered a single Jewish cab driver (as he would prove to be), let alone a driver fluent in English. By this I mean the driver who would immediately start talking the moment you entered the taxi and never stop. He’d be full of opinions and sure he was right on all topics.
But today when the driver, who was from Ukraine, ascertained that my husband had been a professor of literature, and proceeded to engage him on the subject, I knew we had encountered a cultural throwback. The driver held forth on the relative merits of Victor Hugo (whose work he had read at age eleven) and Balzac. And of course War and Peace read in Russian at age twelve. After that our autodidact emigrated to America and reading was replaced by television. Did we remember The Twilight Zone? He was shocked that Sandy (when quizzed) said he had never read Pushkin (though I almost piped up to correct the record: we had seen Eugene Onegin at the opera).
I had also been tempted to ask about Ukraine today, tell him my grandfather had been born there in the nineteenth century, that I had traveled to his country a few years ago on my “roots” journey, but I was afraid to start down that road, even though I had noticed his name on the identification plate, Kirschner, and thought it might be Jewish.
Mercifully, despite the rain and the traffic, the ride finally came to an end in front of our building. As I went to get my bag from the trunk, eager to escape any further attempts at conversation, the driver looked at me and uttered a phrase from Yiddish I hadn’t heard since my father died in 1989: “Zei Gezunt.” I was too stunned to comment.
What had led Mr. Kirschner to bid me stay healthy in Yiddish?
I was forced to conclude that my memoirs had succeeded beyond anything I had dreamt of in “making me” Jewish, as if I didn’t look Jewish already.