“What Kind of Jewish Name is Devon?”: By Eric Marcus
October 2, 2007
In the thick of the Jewish holidays, I’ve found myself thinking even more than I usually do about my recently departed Grandma May. Not because she was herself so Jewish—think more Grace Kelly than Sophie Tucker—but because of how she managed to navigate the terrain of her Jewish identity throughout a life that began in Warsaw, Poland, and lasted more than a century.
This was never more evident than in how Grandma stretched to embrace the non-Jewish spouses of her grandchildren, including my first partner who was Methodist (although, at the time, his religion was far less the issue than his gender). So it came as something of a surprise to me, following the breakup of my nine-year relationship, when my grandmother said, apropos of nothing, “Maybe this time you’ll find a Jewish one.”
Grandma wasn’t the kind of grandma who pushed her grandchildren to marry Jews. She knew the world had changed dramatically from the days when it would have been unthinkable for her two sons to marry goyim (which they didn’t). Still, her preference was that we marry within the faith out of a sense of tradition and her stated belief that cultural differences were often the cause of marital discord and divorce.
So my grandmother’s wish that I find “a Jewish one” was more about her hope that I’d stand a better chance of finding lifelong happiness if I chose someone with a similar religious background. (She wasn’t picturing the High Holy Days escorted to synagogue by her gay grandsons—she generally couldn’t stand going to synagogue). Grandma wanted me to be happy. And for her, happiness meant getting married and staying married. Marrying a Jew, she believed, could improve the odds.
While I saw the merit of my grandmother’s beliefs, I knew that finding a Jewish one could be a problem for me. I’d never dated a Jewish one beyond a few dates and I was generally attracted to guys who were culturally and physically very different from me, so the odds of finding a new long-term partner who was Jewish seemed remote.
But before long Grandma got her wish. A nice Jewish boy asked me out and we started dating. A few months into the relationship, which seemed to have a future, I decided it was time to introduce Devon to Grandma, which I did over dinner at an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side.
The dinner went well, although I worried that Devon had assumed a familiarity with my grandmother that while appropriate for most Brooklyn-based ninety-one-year-old Jewish grandmothers, came close to crossing the line with a woman who much preferred to be called Mrs. Marcus than “Grandma,” at least on the first date.
After dinner, Devon walked us back to my building and then headed home. Grandma and I sat in the lobby and waited for the car service to arrive. I was curious to know what she thought, but decided to let her initiate the conversation, which after a few moments of silence, she did. “What kind of Jewish name is Devon?” she asked. Of all the things she could have asked about, that seemed like a strange and less than promising way to begin. “Grandma,” I explained, “in my generation a lot of parents gave their kids names that aren’t exactly Jewish.” I pointed out that she had been the one to name me and I wasn’t Scandinavian.
I was already feeling a vague sense of dread when she asked the second question, “Does he always drag his feet?” “Grandma,” I said, with more than a hint of exasperation, “he was wearing boots tonight—maybe he’s not used to wearing boots.” She wasn’t buying. “A schlepidich!” she exclaimed, and added for good measure, “I don’t know how you can stand it.” (For my non-Jewish readers, that essentially means a foot-dragger, but not nearly that nice.) It was rare that my grandmother ever said or did anything that hurt my feelings, but she’d hurt my feelings and I got defensive and said, with some hope that I could still turn things around, “Well, at least he’s Jewish.” Without a smile and looking directly at me she said, “Yes, but did he have to look so Jewish?” (“But, Grandma,” I thought, “he’s so straight-acting! Don’t I get any credit for that?”)
I’d somehow forgotten that I wasn’t the only one in the family with self-loathing tendencies. Being Jewish was good. Looking Jewish was bad. There was nowhere for this conversation to go, except to places where we were both going to feel bad and I already felt bad enough. It didn’t matter that I was thirty-four -years-old. What my grandmother thought and said mattered. So it was a relief that the car service had arrived and I could buckle her into the back seat and send her home.
The relationship with Devon didn’t last—and not because of anything my grandmother said—and soon I was dating a Midwestern Catholic. We were a great match, and I thought he’d be a great match for my grandmother as well, especially because he had an Austrian-born grandmother with whom he was very close. I knew he’d know how to navigate the fine line between respectful formality and warm familiarity, but this time I wasn’t going to risk a one-on-one dinner. I had something a little less intimate in mind.
A few months after Barney and I started seeing each other I invited him to join me for Family Beach Day at my aunt and uncle’s cabana at the Malibu Beach Club on Long Island. There would be thirteen of us in all, including my brother’s family and his two young sons. Barney is the oldest of eight and he loves kids, so I knew my nephews would adore him, which they did.
It was impossible to know how my grandmother would respond to him, but I knew she’d love his Irish-Austrian good looks. His fine, small features were right up her alley, and his mane of prematurely silver hair proved irresistible (she had a decades-long crush on John Forsythe). On our annual walk from the cabana down to the ocean so she could dip her feet in the surf, Grandma had me on one arm and Barney on the other. The two of them never stopped talking the whole way there and back.
After the evening barbecue, we drove Grandma home and I walked her upstairs to her apartment. While I was getting her settled I couldn’t resist asking what she thought of Barney. She said, “He’s a very nice boy,” which for her was high praise. But there was more. She furrowed her brow and asked, “Does he always wear such a small bathing suit?” Grandma was a great believer in personal modesty and I’d failed to warn Barney that family beach day was not a Speedo kind of outing. Still he looked great in a Speedo, which Grandma had clearly noticed. “What were you doing looking at his bathing suit?” I asked.
There was nothing more delicious than when my grandmother started to giggle. Because her innate modesty demanded the suppression of all outsized emotion, it was an internal battle from the moment a smile began to play on her lips. And then the little shoulders started to shake, and soon she had her face in one hand and was holding on to the kitchen table with the other, all in a final desperate attempt to hide the laughter that defied her best efforts at control.
When we both stopped giggling and Grandma was wiping away her tears, I said, “Okay, we can do something about the little bathing suit.” During the eleven years she knew and loved him, Grandma never said a word about the fact that Barney wasn’t Jewish.
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