Out There: Being so Ashkenazi

When the country first banned smoking on public transportation, those of little faith thought it could never be done, never be enforced.

Herb Cartoon 370 (photo credit: Fainberg)
Herb Cartoon 370
(photo credit: Fainberg)
My father, charitably, labels it being a homebody. The Wife, less charitably, refers to it as getting old and crotchety. My kids just call it being Ashkenazi.
Whatever the tag, I find myself more and more just wanting to stay home.
It’s not that I’m a misanthrope or antisocial. It’s just that at home I’m able to control the environment, keeping it relatively aggravation-free. This ability, by the way, is much greater in the winter.
I love the winter. It’s cold outside, cozy inside. And the best part is, you can close the windows, keeping all those outside noises outside: radios blaring, buses hurtling, babies crying, passersby talking, dogs barking, cats fighting, birds chirping, doves cooing, jackhammers pounding. And I live in a quiet neighborhood.
Shutting out those noises means, obviously, that sleep comes easier in the frosty months. But come springtime and – boom – we open the windows and are back in New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century: everyone’s life, along with the pollen, seeping uninvited into our apartment.
Still, even with the windows open, the aggravation level at home is much lower than on the street. You go out – to dinner, a reception, a wedding, a movie, or even to the opera – and nine times out of 10 something is going to annoy you.
It could be the traffic, the lines, the unbalanced restaurant table missing that little black thing on the bottom of a leg, the kid crunching popcorn at the movie, the synagogue prayer-leader singing too long, the gal on the bus talking too loudly on her cellphone.
Ah, the cellphone, that modern bane to public space. Cellphones are the new smoking.
You remember smokers – they used to be everywhere. On the buses, in the coffee shops, in your face – everywhere. Puffing away at restaurants, they ensured an aggravated meal. If you didn’t say something to ask them to stop, you would both gag on their smoke and kick yourself for not saying anything. If you did say something, chances were an unpleasant exchange would ensue that would ruin your dinner. Either way, you lose.
So during this Independence Day period when we note the many miracles that make up Israel, one other tiny wonder should get noticed: People no longer smoke on buses. Who would have thought two decades ago that a day would arrive when you could get off an inter-city bus without your clothes smelling like smoke?
When the country first banned smoking on public transportation, those of little faith thought it could never be done, never be enforced. They thought it would be impossible to get Israelis to stop smoking on buses. For that matter, they thought it would be impossible to get the bus drivers to stop smoking on buses.
Yet, it was done. The smoking stopped... only to be followed by cellphones.
Obviously, there is no comparison between the health hazards of second-hand smoke and the annoyance level of someone engaged in a loud cellular phone conversation. But still.
“Just ignore him,” The Wife said recently, noticing my face tense up as someone in a restaurant the table over from us conducted business on his phone.
But that’s like telling someone un-relaxed to relax; someone upset to calm down. Once you home in on that conversation, you can’t detach, even if you want to. The mind says stop, but the ear says listen.
My dad has a novel approach. Faced with the inconsiderate caller, he will pretend to be talking on his own phone and say noisily that he can’t hear because some guy next to him is talking too loudly. That’s the modern version of a friend who, faced with smokers refusing to douse their cigarettes in his presence, would simply take out a small bottle of air freshener and spray it in their direction.
Me, I’m made of gentler stuff. My kids, actually, would call it wimpier stuff, unless I actually pulled out the bottle and started spraying the air myself.
Then their mortified reaction would be, “How could you do that? You are so Ashkenazi!”
I love that insult from the mouths of my kids – “You are so Ashkenazi.” What exactly does that mean? Right, I’m Ashkenazi. My ancestors came from Russia and Germany. Where’s the rub?
But in the mouths of babes, or at least in the mouths of my children, this is the ultimate putdown. “You’re Ashkenazi” means you’re uptight, tense, square, don’t know how to mangal (barbecue) or properly spice your food.
And then it happened: In an act of total acculturation, I made that imprecation my own.
There we were, The Wife and I, at the opera in Tel Aviv for a big night out. We were very excited, the windows in the beautiful hall were all closed, and we were ready to hear some glorious music.
Just before the curtain was raised, the PA announcer asked the audience to shut off cellphones. I quickly went to turn mine off. As I did, however, the screen lit up for a millisecond and the fellow behind me loudly admonished me to turn off my phone.
“That’s what I’m doing,” I protested.
“Good,” he said, “because it’s bothering me.”
Twenty seconds later, he’s yelling at another guy sitting in his row doing the same thing. Clearly, as the kids would say, this fellow had “issues.”
Then, about 20 minutes into the performance, a phone goes off. Not a few aisles down, not over in another section, but right smack dab next to the guy with the issues. I don’t dare turn around but sense a woman, probably petrified about what her neighbor is going to do, scramble for her purse in a frantic effort to stop the ringing.
The guy next to me, whom I had not spoken to up until then, tapped my knee, winked, and motioned behind us with his thumb, as if to say, “poetic justice.”Well, almost. Poetic justice would have been if the culprit were the guy’s wife or daughter. It wasn’t. It was some poor woman who, innocently, just forgot.
At intermission the neurotic fellow left.
“Serves him right,” I told the woman. I was restrained. What I really wanted to say was, “That guy is so Ashkenazi!”