March 8, 2001
My friend Roth is dating a girl named Erica. By religion, she is Swedenborgian. He'd never even heard of this (neither had I), until she came along and spelled it all out for him.
Emanuel Swedenborg was an 18th-century multidisciplined scholar in Sweden -- their version perhaps of Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin -- whose scientific discoveries included the function of the cerebral cortex, among other things. He had a series of visions about which he wrote 30 theological works, which, after his death, served as the basis for the Church of the New Jerusalem both in England and Bryn Athyn, Pa.
Erica grew up never knowing a single Jew, and though she had met many during and since college (she worked in the movie business, after all), Roth was the first Jewish man she ever dated. As such, he took on an added sense of responsibility as the unofficial spokesman for the Chosen People. Erica, who minored in journalism, was always questioning some arcane point of order beginning with "Why." It was like living with a 4-year-old. Why do you wear those little round hats? Why don't you eat all day on Yom Kippur? Roth always tried to explain these things as best he could from his distant Jewish education, colored with his rather considered opinion. Her Jewish knowledge was more cultural, consisting of "Seinfeld" episodes and mostly failed attempts to pepper her conversation with Yiddish words.
After the theater one night, Roth took Erica to Jerry's Deli. He ordered borscht and brisket for them to split, with a side of latkes and two diet Dr. Brown's cream sodas. In his attempt to explain 4,000 years of folklore, he told her what we all know by heart: "Every Jewish holiday basically boils down to, 'They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat.' That's what my father says before we sit down to eat any holiday meal, like saying grace.
"Why are you guys so paranoid?" she said.
That one got Roth's attention. "You're not necessarily paranoid if it turns out that everyone is out to get you and kill you. The truth is an accepted defense against libel. First it was the Pharaoh, then the Romans, then the Christians, then the Nazis. Now the Arabs are acting up again.
"And do you know why they all tried to kill us? I'll tell you why. Because they're jealous, that's why. And do you know why they're jealous?" Erica knew better than to hazard a guess when he got like this. "I'll tell you why. They're jealous because they know we have the four things that every woman wants in a husband. We're smarter, funnier, richer and more sexually active than they are. You don't believe me? I read it in The New York Times. It was in the Week in Review section with a table. That's why even youz Swedenborgian mother tells you that Jews make great husbands. Smart, funny, rich, gentle, loving people. And we rarely beat our women. What else is there? You want tall, dark and handsome? I'm dark and my mother thinks I'm handsome. Stand me on top of my money and I'd be playing for the Lakers," he told her.
Roth wanted some dessert, but Erica wasn't feeling so good after eating all that heavy food. "Shecky Greene used to say, 'I grew up thinking you were supposed to feel bad after eating Jewish food,'" Roth told her.
"Who's Smecky Greene?"
Roth waved the waiter over and said to Erica, "Let's have a little noodle kugel and I'll tell you all about it."