About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

120 - The Shiksa Syndrome

120 was The Shiksa Syndrome, by Laurie Graff (Broadway Books, 2008).

Dust Jacket: "Manhattan publicist Aimee Albert knows a good spin, but she's the one who winds up reeling when her gorgeous, goyishe boyfriend breaks up with her -- on Christmas! For a stand-up comedian, you'd think he would have better timing. But Aimee's not about to let a man who doesn't even have a real job get her down. She dusts herself off and decides to seek companionship with a member of her own tribe. There's just one problem: all the shiksas are snapping them up!"

Just in case you didn't already judge this book by it's cover, Serious Literature this ain't. (My friend L says I'm a book snob. Guilty as charged.) It is, however, a heck of a lot of fun, despite a few plausibility gaps, and has enough to say about identity and intimacy to save it from the realm of the totally vapid. (It also has chick-flick screenplay written all over it, especially in some of the comic scenes; if you see a trailer in a year or so, remember you heard it here first.)

While the Christmas breakup referenced above is indeed ill-timed, the reasons behind it aren't primarily religious. Simply put, 39-year-old Aimee wants a family; Peter, a struggling standup comic, isn't there yet. Things come to ahead when, after a Christmas dinner in which Aimee's parents' latkes feature prominently, she asks if Peter could give up Christmas to raise a Jewish family with her. His response is not the "No" you might expect, but a more complicated one:
"'Funny you bring this up,' Peter says. ... 'Because I was just thinking today how you never ask me anything about my religion.' ...

"'Okay, I know it's totally unfair,' I say, 'but I guess I always feel that my holidays are ... well, dominant,' I finish, kind of ashamed of how I feel. 'It's probably because everything's here. My family. Synagogue. New York. For me it's all the same things like always. Only it's better because now you're here too. Though --

"'I wonder. Are you ever homesick? ... Do you ever want your stuff back?'

"'Sometimes. I know I'll never move back, but sometimes I really miss Minnesota. The snowstorms. My family. Sunday dinners. All of us going to church. I never told you this, but I sang in the choir as a kid. ... But it never really did it for me. ... When I first got to New York, I tried a few places. Felt like I was missing something. But all that changed when I met you. I really enjoy your family. I can totally get into all your traditions. ...

"'Committing to you feels like having to commit to your world. Not just New York, also about how you're Jewish. ... I mean your Jewish identity. ...

"'But, Aim, I can't. I'm sorry. .... I can't even think about it until I'm in a different place with work. Till I'm earning real money. And I'm ... just not ready ... not yet ....' he says. 'I can't make any of these decisions now. And I won't make any promises. I still want to be with you, but it has to stay like this until ... I feel like I'm just too young -- '

"'Look, I'm so not close to being there. But you are,' he says ... 'You're ready. So maybe it's best. I don't want to be wasting your time. I love you.'"
Mourning the breakup with Peter, and still grieving the 9/11 death of then-beau Sam Feinstein in the World Trade Center, Aimee probably would have withdrawn from the dating scene for a while, were it not for her best friend Krista. Krista, also newly single, decides Jewish men are the ticket, and starts dragging Aimee along as her wingman to Jewish singles mixers. The first time out, Krista's shiksa-goddess looks prove to be a hunk magnet, while Amy's left dancing with dweebs; the one halfway-promising guy she sees won't look twice at her.

That, however, is B.C. -- before coloring. For Aimee's birthday, her brother Jon and his girlfriend surprise her with a makeover that leave her with sleek red hair and green contacts. Coupled with her post-breakup weight loss, the transformation is so complete that Krista (who's now posted a profile on JDate listing her religious affiliation as "willing to convert") walks right by without recognizing her. At the next singles event, Mr. Halfway-Promising from the first mixer, Josh Hirsch, is clearly taken with the new Aimee, who gradually realizes as the night winds down that he's mistaken her for a shiksa. On their first date, a pull-out-all-the-stops dinner at the tres-chic China Grill, he makes it clear that that's a huge plus from his perspective:
"'My last girlfriend would never have anything but a glass of red wine, if she would even drink at all. Jewish girls. ... So she was on the partner track. Total workaholic. And in the end really disappointed I wasn't quite the Jewish professional she hoped me to be. ... She wanted what she wanted, and, I have to tell you, it kind of made me rethink Jewish women."'
Aimee's protest of the stereotype is anemic at best, and before long, she's invented a parallel Gentile life for herself, complete with a faux childhood in Middle America-sounding Scranton. After all, as a P.R. executive, who knows better how to maintain a perfect impression?
"What I can appreciate is the power of brand building. Don't let anyone ever tell you first impressions aren't everything. See, your brand stands for something to your customers. They can relate to who you are because somehow you've created a connection with their soul. And you can control that perception."
Shortly thereafter, she convinces herself that Josh buys her brand because he wants to be fooled. Over the objections of a disapproving Krista, who's begun to fall hard for Josh's friend Matt, she decides not to come clean ... even though she regrets the decision almost immediately.
"Suddenly, I miss being Jewish. Although I'm not quite sure what I'm missing because nothing has been taken from me. Well, perhaps a little of my humor ... some of my disclosure ... parts of my vocabulary ... and a lot of my Jewish know-it-all because now I don't. But I am enjoying Josh and love feeling like a sweet, adorable, pampered girl."
Over the coming months, Aimee's efforts to maintain the charade result in some Three's Company-worthy slapstick/ farce action, including an unplanned run-in with her sister and niece in the New Jersey 'burbs. Moreover, she's not the only one denying her identity; despite growing up in Long Island's Five Towns, Josh and his family's Judaism is so minimalist that they celebrate not a seder, but a simple, tasteful Passover dinner, complete with bread on the table. He's quick to reassure her, however, that they do celebrate Christmas. (Why a dude who neither identifies strongly as a Jewish man nor has any interest in dating Jewish women is trolling Jewish singles mixers is never really explained.)

Not surprisingly, amid these shenanigans, Aimee can't help but rethink her own religious and cultural identity. She's positively crushed at missing not just her family's seder, but Krista's first one, for the Hirsches' Passover Lite dinner. When a longtime friend of Josh's family dies, Aimee accompanies him to sit shivah with the family, and aches to be the requisite tenth adult for their minyan so the mourners can say Kaddish -- especially since it almost doesn't happen without her. (Josh himself, though he was bar mitzvahed and is eligible, declines.) While it was easy to box up her menorah and bat mitzvah album for safekeeping at Krista's, replacing them with Christmas wrap, setting aside so much of her very self proves to be a lot more complicated:
"How far am I willing to let all this go? How much am I giving up so I can get? I keep making myself less in order to get more. In the end I'm afraid it won't be. But what if I'm wrong? Or do I mean right? Once I straighten this all out, could Josh make me happy? For now I'm unsure where we stand on issues I never even thought we would have."
Ironically, much as Dorothy has to go to Oz to find out how much she values her own home, Aimee has to go to church to fully understand her own faith. After meeting with a West Side pastor, she muses:
"Jim says when it comes to reverence, the Torah is to Jews as Jesus is to Christians. I never thought of it like that but find it more than interesting to contemplate. I mean, Jewish people are known to stress learning. The focus on interpretation and discussion, the openness to debate. Or in the words of Tevye, 'On the one hand ... on the other hand ... on the other hand ... '

"I wonder if all that study gave birth to the stereotype of the overly analytical Jew. I've been accused of that myself. If you're one to think the constant back-and-forth over the same thing a little analytical. Maybe more like a little neurotic. But in kindness it is just the ability to see, yet, another hand. There's always more than one way to look at something, and how you do informs your behavior. I only have to look as far as myself to know this is true."
Likewise, it's in church on Easter that she fully comes to appreciate the Jewish approach to prayer:
"'Now tell him your needs and desires,' says the pastor.

"Wow. Christians get straight to it, I think. It feels so unencumbered.

"In Judaism, we praise and honor God before we ask him for stuff. In fact, for me it has always felt as if we really should skirt around the idea of too much personal asking. Better to ask for help and guidance rather than a direct 'Dear God, please let me win that new account.' Rewards will be attained through mitzvahs and good deeds. We step back before we step forward. Honor, but know your place.

"But what do I know? It's all my interpretation. To me, Jim's words feel like permission to go for it. That said, I'm such a mess I don't have the chutzpah to ask God to hook me up with a husband. My best bet at this point is to ask for help and guidance."
Themes of identity and self-determination recur throughout the novel. Early on, it's established that Aimee doesn't drive -- hardly unheard of in Manhattan, but after a series of scheduled road tests pre-empted by tragedy (the last, and most devastating, on 9/11), she's terrified of the possibility, and convinced herself it's just not meant to be. This seems emblematic of her willingness to be a passenger in her own life, letting others determine where she's going and how she gets there. Josh, to his credit, springs a surprise on her that's not the marriage proposal she expected, but a driving lesson, and Aimee responds with "gratitude that he is taking charge."

Gradually, though. Aimee comes to see that it's her undemanding nature Josh has fallen in love with, which isn't really her at all. As she describes the conversation just before the driving lesson:
"'How easygoing you are,' he says, driving over to the side of the empty road. Stopping the car. 'You're so low-maintenance.'


"He means this as a compliment, but I don't hear it that way. Low or high, it's one of those terms I do not like. What does it really mean? Everyone requires maintenance. So does everything. If the maintenance feels too high, it's probably more a reflection on the other person. He or she feeling that something or someone isn't really worth that level of their energy or attention. ...

"'What do you mean?' I ask Josh, anxious to hear him explain.

"'Like now. I'm always in these relationships where those silences mean the woman wants to know where it's going. Always all this analysis. Man, it gives me a headache. But with you --'

"Me? Oh yes, little ole low-maintenance me.

"See, to be with someone, to be with anyone is to make accommodations. But if you really want to be with that person, you don't feel you are making them. Doesn't Josh see how he accommodates me by simply filling in the blanks? To prove this point to myself, I don't answer. I look at him. Questioningly. And then I smile.

"'You just roll with it. You don't ask for anything. It makes me want to give that much more.'"
With this knowledge comes the unsettling realization that if she's compromising too much for Josh's sake now, she may not have compromised enough in the past. Says Peter, confronting Aimee during a surprise run-in in Scranton (don't ask!):
"'Just get this,' Peter says in a commanding voice I never have heard. 'You are deceiving him that you're his -- oh, what do you always call it? -- oh, yeah ... his Shiksa Goddess. And you think he'll fall so in love with you he won't care you betrayed him? ... You know, Aim, if you tried this hard with me, you could have been my goddess and gotten to still be you in the bargain.'"
As you'd probably expect, Aimee's secret is ultimately revealed, but the outcome isn't quite the one you'd (or at least I'd) expected.

The jacket blurb calls The Shiksa Syndrome "disarmingly poignant," and I'll almost buy it. It would, however, be a far better book if it weren't for a few factual and plausability errors. I can suspend my disbelief for a few silly coincidences (specifically, the chance meetings with Aimee's sister in NJ and with Peter in Scranton). I'll even ignore Gershow's creative license with upstate NY and PA geography, as it's certainly not my first encounter with metro-NYC chauvinism ... but c'mon, people, Syracuse, where Josh and Aimee attend Josh's college reunion, is hardly "[Aimee's] neck of the woods ... not far from Pennsylvania" (it's 90 miles from Syracuse to the Penna. border, and another 40 to Scranton), and is not the scene of quaint country roads like the one where Aimee's driving lesson allegedly takes place. I draw the line, though, at believing hip, professional adults in 21st century Manhattan would be as ignorant of common Yiddish words and originally-Jewish customs as Gershow would have us believe. Kristi can't pronounce "oy vey" or "mishegas"? Josh asks Aimee if she's ever eaten corned beef, or knows what a bar mitzvah is? Puh-leeze. Not only did I (a tasty blend of Irish Catholic and WASP wannabe who grew up not far from Josh on Long Giland) start preschool knowing this stuff; even my maple-eatin', BoSox-cheerin', L.L. Bean-shoppin' New Englander husband learned it at least by junior high. And while we're at it, how did Aimee's makeover render her so changed that her best friend didn't know her on the street at point-blank range, but still recognizable in a moving car half a block away by her niece?

Vent over now. Still a fun read, but not one to be taken too seriously.

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