We prefer our Jews out in the open

Kyle owns a vast collection of seventies mass-market paperbacks, which I had never regarded as actual reading material (they are more like wall covering) until I was recently obliged to fall back on them. This was the golden age of Jewish fiction, or fiction about people hung up on Jews.

Entertaining Strangers (Avon, 1977), by A.J. Gurney, Jr., is narrated by a professor of the humanities at M.I.T.:

Everybody in the academic world was Jewish, certainly. Everybody—students, faculty, staff—all seemed to know each other from high school, and played the viola, and went around saying secret, cabalistic words their grandmothers had taught them—words like “mensch” and “shlock” and “shtick” and “shmuck” and “goy.” That’s what I was, suddenly. A goy.

The suburb where I lived was Jewish. . . . The schools we sent our children too now had a Jewish superintendent and Jewish teachers and a Jewish curriculum. So my children were turning Jewish. They studied kibbutzim and learned Israeli dances and came home wanting to celebrate Hanukkah because you get more presents, and said “All right already” when you asked them to pick up their rooms.

And Nancy was converting, fast. She was getting an additional degree, which Jewish women like to do, and putting sour cream on everything, and using kosher salt, and starting to cook Chinese, which for some reason is Jewish too.

Oh, sure. Everybody was Jewish. You went to the Jewish dentist, and he’d strap you in the chair and make you listen to selections from Fiddler on the Roof. You went to the theater, and there were those secret words again, and you had to turn to the Jewish couple next to you to find out what was said. You’d stay home and turn on the television and watch situations about people who were always telephoning their mothers, and there’d be long lists of Jewish names in the credits, and commercials with Jewish actors speaking in Jewish rhythms about things which only Jews admit they have: itching and indigestion and constipation. And if you picked up a book, it was Philip Roth being even more embarrassing, and the Pope was admitting that Christ was Jewish, and people began going around saying Cary Grant was Jewish, too.

The Goy (Bantam, 1973), by Mark Harris, is also about a gentile professor, a historian and diarist:

In the beginning, he had learned all he knew of the world from printed pages. . . . Thus, when the time came, and he fell among the Jews, he rejoiced, he admired them to extravagance, he envied them their talk, their frankness, their uncensored passion, the unfenced limits of their debate, partaking without repaying in kind, sitting silent and seeming cold, not because he chose that way but because he was incapable of passion except on paper.

And he married into them as soon as he could . . .

Later he reflects:

Jews on the whole had always made him think his work made sense. They believed in the perilous world and therefore in every effort, whether history or introspection, to find it out, explain it, clarify it, and maybe even partly solve it. They feared the outside danger. They thought that books, art, history, science, inquiry mattered, and the private man’s own history, too, and so it had always been mainly Jews consenting to his waywardness, his experiment with history as one man’s tale told daily to the length of his life.

Philip Roth (in Operation Shylock) again comes irresistibly to mind:

In summary, then, George’s lecture on that topic I could not really remember having chosen to shadow me like this, from birth to death; the topic whose obsessive examination I had always thought I could someday leave behind; the topic whose persistent intrusion into matters high and low it was not always easy to know what to make of; the pervasive, engulfing, wearying topic that encapsulated the largest problem and most amazing experience of my life and that, despite every honorable effort to resist its spell, appeared by now to be the irrational power that had run away with my life—and, from the sound of things, not mine alone . . . that topic called The Jews.