Arts & Culture

Why I Don’t Believe in Santa Claus, Part 1

Matt Rothschild, former Lit Klatsch blogger, has allowed Jewcy to post the first chapter of his book, Dumbfounded.  This is the first of three installments. My grandfather was a grand storyteller, but you could not count on him for accuracy. As … Read More

By / December 22, 2008

Matt Rothschild, former Lit Klatsch blogger, has allowed Jewcy to post the first chapter of his book, Dumbfounded.  This is the first of three installments.

My grandfather was a grand storyteller, but you could not count on him for accuracy. As far as he was concerned, it was the point of the story that mattered-that is, when he remembered the point he was trying to make. And when my grandmother, who hated cigars and had limited patience for my grandfather’s storytelling, was out of the house, he’d light up a good Cuban, settle into his favorite leather chair, and launch into a tale so contrived it would make the Brothers Grimm blush.

"When I was a little boy in Paris . . ." he would begin.

"I thought it was Vienna."

"Don’t interrupt, Matthew. Now. When I was a little boy in Vienna . . ."

My grandfather came to the United States sometime before World War II. He arrived from either France or Austria, wherever he felt like telling me at a given time. This was a man who knew five languages, and if he didn’t like what you had to say in English, he began speaking another language. Then he would shake his head, wide-eyed and innocent, pretending he couldn’t understand you. Rarely seen without a smile, my grandfather was always quick to tell a story-it was just the truth that gave him trouble.

Personally, I didn’t care that his stories weren’t always true. When he told a story, it was him and me, alone. My grandmother wasn’t invited. She would just make fun of us, anyway. Now that I was seven years old-almost eight, really-this was the only time it didn’t feel awkward to climb into his lap and play with his arm hair. I liked to make mountains by pulling on the hairs as I listened to him reinvent his childhood. My grandfather was a retired diplomat, and he often said, "World leaders could forget their differences, I’m sure, if they’d just listen to a few good stories." Presumably, the underlying moral of his tales would make them see the error of their ways while showing them how much they had in common. I didn’t know what a diplomat was, but if they got to tell stories and have their pictures taken with famous people, the way my grandfather did, this is what I wanted to do as well. They also got expensive gifts from people, and I loved presents.

I devoured his stories voraciously. I thought that if I learned to tell stories the way my grandfather did, I might be as successful as he was. But despite all his success, I knew there was one leader his stories failed to work on: my grandmother.

"Listen here, snail eater," she’d say, materializing out of nowhere, shiny silver hair falling down to her chin, and pointing a well manicured finger at my grandfather. "Maybe they’re hot on having cigar butts litter the floors of Paris, but I don’t want that shit in my house. Take it to the curb."

My grandfather would mumble about how it was really his house and everyone else was just a guest-after almost fifty years of marriage, my grandfather was still trying to assert his dominance over his castle, but he never did get it quite right. So, indignantly, he finished his story-cigar defiantly lit-from a bench in Central Park, across the street from our nineteen-room apartment. "Your house indeed," my grandmother would say, slamming the door behind us.

My grandfather paid the rent, but we all knew who wore the pants in my family.

***

My grandfather was raised in a genteel, aristocratic Europe, where people politely disagreed over a friendly glass of absinthe. But my grandmother was born and raised in New York City, where every waking minute is a potential street fight. These two opposing figures stepped in to raise me after my own parents-who wished to remain children themselves-abandoned me when I was still a baby.

My father disappeared altogether, never to be heard from again. And my mother, seeing her own parents’ offer to raise me as an opportunity to reinvent herself as a party girl, hopped on a plane and flew to Europe without a backward glance. She called exactly four times a year-on birthdays and my grandparents’ wedding anniversary-and did not visit New York again until I was ten years old.

My grandparents and I lived in Manhattan, on Fifth Avenue, the only Jews in our building. Jewish delicatessens and bakeries may punctuate every other block of New York City, but thirty years after my grandparents settled on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile-that glorious stretch of asphalt from 82nd Street to 105th-theirs was still the only Jewish name in the most exclusive building in the most exclusive neighborhood in one of the most exclusive cities in the world. "She threatened to tear someone’s balls off, and they let her in," I heard people say behind my stylish, petite grandmother’s back. But like so many half-truths, this, I learned, was an urban legend. The whole truth was far more typical of Old-Moneyed New York in the 1950s.

Old Money never allowed anti-Semitism to become advertised policy-it was just an unspoken rule. Review boards famously barred Greenbergs and Friedmans from inhabiting the same space as Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Yet they compromised for my grandparents. Much later I would wonder what my grandparents compromised, in turn, to live within such gilded bigotry. 

In order to live in this historic building, my grandparents must have jumped through some hoops, offered to play by someone else’s rules, the most prominent of which was keep the Jewish thing quiet.

For my grandfather this was no great compromise-he left religion when the world allowed Hitler to wipe out most of European Jewry. But my grandmother was a woman who thrived on being contrary. That’s how I know it was my grandfather who pushed for his family to suck it up and live in that building. If his own family had lived among princes in Europe, why should they not live among them in America, too? My grandmother, the daughter of an affluent merchant, couldn’t have cared less about living among those who sneered at her family’s "new money," who blocked them from membership in every prestigious social club in New York City. But for my grandfather she agreed to live in a hotbed of Waspy prejudice. It was her way of telling him, "I love you."

When she made any kind of concession, however, she’d never let anyone forget it.

"Oh, no," my grandfather told our driver once, "this is the wrong car." It was late November-well after Labor Day-and we were on our way to dinner. The driver had pulled up in the white Rolls-Royce.

My grandmother, buttoning her coat, snorted. "Howard, shut the hell up. Just get in the car," she said, grabbing my hand.

"What will people think when they see us in the white?" he asked. My grandfather was always battling to earn some neighbor’s respect, reassuring people they’d made the right decision letting these Jews in when they had rejected so many others. He had just as much, if not more, money than his neighbors did. He had finer clothes, better cars-he had everything they did, but still he was afraid of being seen as an outsider. He had massaged Old Money until it begrudgingly paid him attention, and he was determined not to make them regret it-but his wife often refused to cooperate.

"What do you expect him to do? Take the car back to the garage while Matthew and I just stand here?"

My grandfather was silent.

"It’s bad enough that I have to live around a bunch of oil paintings in suits," she continued. I was seven years old when I realized she was referring to our neighbors, not actual paintings. "Now I have to freeze when there’s a perfectly good heated car, just because it’s after Labor Day."

I felt sorry for my grandfather, whose refined taste was obviously lost on my grandmother. She didn’t understand the benefit of appearances. If she had her way, we would have sat at home eating Kentucky Fried Chicken out of the bag instead of going to a fancy restaurant. She took off with great strides, dragging me toward the waiting car. "Oil paintings do not run our life!"

My grandfather knew she would leave him behind, so he huffed under his breath in French and got into the white car. And once we were on our way, she put her hand in his, and he squeezed it because-though he’d never admit it-he loved his wife even more than he loved his reputation. 

Reprinted from Dumbfounded by Matt Rothschild.  Copyright © 2008 Matt Rothschild.  Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.