You know how these things happen: About a week ago I saw Barney’s Version, the adaptation of the 1997 Mordecai Richler novel. While watching it, I realized that I hadn’t seen the other great adaptation of Richler’s work, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in ages. And all of that got me thinking about the phenomenon of the “pushy yid.”
If you never seen it, Duddy Kravitz is one of those major characters that can stand in as a complete category … In America, people used to say, “You’re such a Babbit,” referring to the Sinclair Lewis character who personified bourgeois values. “Oscar Madison” meant a sloppy person. Other examples including calling someone a “Lady Macbeth.”
The film, Duddy Kravitz, opens with a long monologue by Duddy’s father, a taxi driver played by the late Jack Warden, in which he extols the cleverness of a neighborhood “hustler” who resold discarded trolley transfer tickets and parlayed the proceeds into a fortune. Soon we meet Duddy, played by Richard Dryfus, who spends the rest of the film scrambling to make more and more money – basically by being pushy, having the guts to do what others won’t, the energy to do what others can’t.
Many gentiles have long pointed to the “pushy Jew,” always angling to get his or her way, especially in business. That, of course, made other Jews go out of their way to break the stereotype, and to cringe when one of their “landsmen” stepped out of line. Better to be polite and meek, and not call attention to oneself.
But if you think about it, why not be a pushy Yid? Did being meek and polite ever get anyone to the top? Did Dominique Strauss-Kahn get to where he is by being shy and retiring? It has yet to be seen what will happen with the DSK case. But if he does one day become the leader of France, whether or not he is completely exonerated from charges that were brought against him here in New York, again, it will not being from moving quietly through French politics.
And yet, the pushy Jew still, to this day, is an embarrassment. In “Yinglish” we call them “a shonda for the goyim” — showing our shame to the outsiders. And besides, pushy people of any kind aren’t too much fun to be around.
Case in point. During Visiting Day at my daughter’s summer camp, the parents may swim with their kids in the deep portion of the lake, but they must first take a swimming proficiency test. Otherwise, they can wade in the shallow area, which is probably a meter and a half deep. Bureaucratic, frustration, but a part of life. No one wants to wait on a long cue instead of spending precious time with their children.
Believe me, there is never a time that I’ve waited on this line, when someone hasn’t attempted to jump the cue. The most recent one was a first, though. One woman went to the front of the line and told the lifeguard in charge that she had a migraine headache and it was necessary to go in the water immediately, and that she should be allowed to take the deep water test next. The young man politely told her that the line wasn’t currently very long. The woman said, “You don’t understand, they [presumably her family] are about to call an ambulance. It’s too hot and I need to cool off.” Then the kid gracefully invited her to go into the shallow end. The woman said, no, the only thing that would help her was to actually swim. In the end, I saw this woman happily playing in the deep end. I guess the lifeguards let her stay in the water until it was her turn.
So, what can we conclude from all of this. First, it’s important to be proud of your background, even when there are a few nudnicks who ruin it for the rest. And then, the hardest part … to be a liberal means to accept people on their own terms. I have learned to embrace my people. It’s just that some are harder to embrace than others.
The saving grace: Although people do learn from those who came before, it seems like there’s less and less reason to be pushy, now that Jews aren’t trying to escape the fate of being a taxi driver, like Duddy Kravitz. My grandfather delivered bread … my father was a teacher … now I do this. Perhaps they were pushy so I don’t have to be.