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Dec 1 2011

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Now With Soviet Jews!

By at 8:43 am

guess who's coming to dinnerIt wasn’t until after my African-American husband and I had been together for over a decade that we finally got around to watching the movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

In 1968, critics called it “a serious family drama” and predicted “it will make you laugh and may even make you cry.”

Well.  We laughed… though not, I suspect, at the parts we were supposed to.

The thing that made us laugh hardest was how the movie’s main conflict was presented as being about race.  Just race. Only race. Nothing else.

For two hours, we were supposed to pretend that the sole objections the respective parents – good San Francisco liberals on one side; good church-goers from L.A. on the other – might have to their children getting married had to do with the color of their skin(s).

Religion is never brought up, class is never brought up, and certainly no suggestion is ever so much as whispered of a possible values clash. Surely, all good people think the same way, don’t they?  It’s inconceivable that maybe the church-going folks wouldn’t want their son marrying into a hippy, permissive family, while the newspaper publisher and his art gallery owning wife might find their daughter’s fiancé’s parents much too conservative and narrow-minded for their taste.

Nope. It’s all about color. Only color. Nothing else.

Not at our house.

At our house, the color issue was noted and pretty soon afterward shrugged over. The religion issue was a bigger one.

To the day she died, every few months or so, my husband’s grandmother would ask me, “Why don’t you want me to take the baby down to the church and get him baptized?”

“Because we’re Jewish,” I’d remind politely.

“Oh.”  (For the record, the woman was sharp as a tack, no failing faculties for 91 years.  She just liked to check in periodically. In case I’d changed my mind. Or forgotten.)

The biggest challenge was – and still is – the fact that our families come from completely different worlds.

Our own version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner happened years into the marriage – we were on our third child by then – when my father and my father-in-law were accidentally seated next to each other during an extended family meal.

While both men are adept at making polite conversation, it is best not to let it dip too far below surface pleasantries of weather, the brilliance of the grandchildren, and the latest Law & Order franchise.

My father was born in the former Soviet Union just before the start of World War II. He grew up under Stalin, was banned from being a doctor due to anti-Jewish university quotas, and worked as a paramedic and lab tech in a system where government-controlled health care meant bribes to receive anesthesia, ambulances that never arrived, unsterilized needles, and never enough medicine to go around. He came to America with exactly $300 dollars in his pocket, got a job, bought a house, educated his children, and made a life.

My father-in-law was born in Virginia before the Civil Rights Movement.  He grew up under Jim Crow, was drafted to serve in Korea for a cause he didn’t care about and a government that didn’t view him as a person, came North to earn a Master’s Degree, and worked as an administrator in a hospital where no money or insurance could mean inadequate care, a transfer to an inferior facility, and/or denial of services. He bought a home in Harlem as New York City looked to be going down the tubes, and stuck it out through foreclosures and boarded up windows and crack houses on every corner, only to see his neighborhood gentrify and long-time residents forced out by hipsters looking for a good deal on landmark architecture.

My father and my father-in-law hold a great many opinions. Which are diametrically opposed in pretty much every way.

For my father, he made it because of America. For my father-in-law, he made it in spite of it.

For my father, America is a land of opportunity; those who chose not to take advantage of it are only lazy and thus solely responsible for their own fate. For my father-in-law, America is the land of segregation; those who haven’t taken advantage of its privileges are only victims and thus are never responsible for their own fate.

Each man has more than earned the right to his opinion. But, do they really need to discuss it at my table?

That night, my husband had one job to do.  Keep them away from each other.

He did not do it.

Instead, he egged them on.  He thought their discussion was interesting.  He thought it was educational. He thought it was entertaining.

I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, entertained. I tried to distract them by pointing out the cute things our kids were doing. No dice.

The thing is, I didn’t blame them. I blamed my husband.

As they were leaving, my father-in-law told me, “Peace. Always.”

My mother told me, “They will never understand us, and we will never understand them.  But, that’s alright.”

Not for me. I didn’t speak to my husband for over a week, in order to make sure that the next time I said, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” he’d understand perfectly.


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