He has come back to the house for a moment to get some clothing. He is going through some papers at his desk. It’s dark.
Do you wish you’d married a Jewish woman?
He twists away from the question, like an animal looking for an exit from a trap. He has no desire to hurt me. When he replies, his voice is strangled. “Yes,” he says. But he sounds unconvinced.
I lay the photocopy of the Shidduch Profile on the desk and step back. He stops moving. We stand there, next to each other, his back to me, both his hands resting on the desk, his head down. I watch his back rise and fall. “Anne,” he says, and I can barely hear his voice. “I’m so sorry.”
When he has gone, I look again at the Profile. At the bottom of the page is a quote, Lamentations 5:21: “Turn us to You, O God, and we shall return; Renew our days of old.” I think of Denise’s wall behind her battered screen door in Compton. The little frame holding Romans 9:25. “I will call them my people which were not my people.” And then I remember the second part. “And her beloved, which was not beloved.”
The currents pick up everything . The words Howard speaks, the expression he wears, are borne to my ear on the tides, reliable as clockwork, and what I say these tides bear swiftly back out to sea to other ears on other shores.
So I say to him what I would have said were we face-to-face. What would we, all of us, be to a god? I asked them that evening at y book club as we sat, gathered in my garden. How would a god see us?
(They were a little startled at my opening approach to the text—I have given them James Joyce—but game enough.)
None was more acquainted than Joyce with the Troubles. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, a Hungarian Irish Jew, sits in a Dublin pub. The talk takes a political turn. Bloom complains that the history of the world is full of persecution, which perpetuates “hatred among nations.” Someone asks him, “But do you know what a nation means?” Bloom answers: “A nation is the same people living in the same place.” And then adds, “Or living in different places.”
OK, their faces said, waiting. The paperbacks sat, poised, on their knees. Bloom, I said, escaped “nations” because he understood a better way of grouping ourselves.
An absolute adherence to culture, I said, is as stupid as an absolute adherence to nation. Cultures are merely what we decide they are, and thus they change constantly. As we mature, we leave things behind all the time.
In my garden, they lean forward with the copies of Ulysses on their knees. What are you saying? they ask me.
I am saying, I say, that the problem with a nation is that it demands that identity be taken seriously.
I am saying that a god—I use the term figuratively, I specify to them (Howard, when the tide carries this back to him, will understand me)—of goodness would never buy a Nazi ideology of racial purity and superiority of one group of people over all others. People would, yes, because these ideologies of us and of them are adaptive human nature. But human nature can be overcome, to a degree.
I am saying that as far as a god would be concerned, all of us are human. I am saying what James Joyce said: A nation is the same people living in the same place. Or else living in different places. And if we choose to be—if we choose—we are the same people.
They sat back. They said this was just beautiful. They nodded to each other, and they nodded to me. They did not understand, of course they never prescribe to themselves what they prescribe to everyone else. But they loved what they thought I was saying.