Some personal news: Two weeks ago, a browse through family records revealed that I am one-quarter gentile, on my nanny’s side. My first reaction, I have to say, was, “Codswallop!” Yet, when I thought back to how dearest Eustasia would tell me stories of her family’s flight from the Norman menace, and of that thing in her house she called a Christmas tree, for the first time it all made sense.
Delighted as I was with this exotic turn of events, I confess I felt a tingle of anxiety. I couldn’t simply suppress the identity within me, yet I wondered if my establishment friends—a sports coach, a geography professor, even a senator—would ever accept it. And who were these people—my people? I felt as ignorant as the proverbial dinner guest who knows not his marrow scoop from his halibut fork.
I jumped at the chance to learn more about my ancestors—no imposition to me, as I’d always been fascinated by the history of the gentile peoples. My curiosity became insatiable when I learned that in 1970 miles of streetlights illuminated the great WASP cities of Boston and Staten Island, while the inhabitants of the Sinai Desert were still wandering from tent to tent.
Thankfully, researching their ways was simple. Municipal-library shelves are stacked with works by great chroniclers of gentile society and its near-colorful characters. F. Scott Fitzgerald is just one author who should be on the reading list of anyone claiming to be well read in this particular field. (Trivia corner: The name Fitzgerald? Gentile name.) The experience was enlightening and dizzying. Suddenly, gentiles seemed to be everywhere in intellectual life! I don’t know about what they’re saying now, that parts of Wittgenstein’s family were just Austrian WASPs, but I can imagine it, with their easy manner around castles and never smiling in daguerreotypes.
So, you may ask: If the gentile is doing so well for himself, why bother writing these notes? I write because everywhere I look, gentile traditions are being made seemingly obsolete in all kinds of ways. Look around: The fusion fad’s unhappy fruits are everywhere, from creaseless cocktail jackets to “pink mayonnaise,” which, as Eustasia would tell you, is, in fact, neither. And I am not merely concerned with aesthetics. Let me say this with no circumlocution: Gentiles are the keystone of our society. They serve as our presidents (more trivia: Every president since Truman has been gentile), they take care of our fires and our perps, and we know all of this because they write our boyhood memoirs. Without them, we would not even know the cities in which we live—for who else would have combined some flowering plant and a compass direction and given them new names?
Go forth, then! Be activists, and help raise awareness of gentile culture. I myself run a little volunteer program at Brandeis. To be sure, there are the slings and arrows one might expect when anyone stands up for what he believes, but trust me: There’s no place I’d rather be on a rainy St. Swithin’s Day than in the old campus gazebo, for only among our vibrant and tolerant student community can my Anglican dance troupe unleash its full passion.
I hope that in reaching out to our youth, the gentile culture will somehow forge a way forward into this so-called millennium, while remaining grounded in the traditions I hope we pass on to our godchildren, and to our godchildren’s godchildren. And when the old knowledge deserts me, I will turn where I always turn: to the Ralph Lauren fall catalog. There is more wisdom here, friends, than there are stripes on a seersucker suit.
And as for my own dilemma? Well, I finally summoned the courage to tell the family secret to my friend, a prominent congressional member for a certain dairy-farming state. After a pause that felt like hours, dear reader, he just chuckled: “Son, welcome to the fit-ins, the social rejectors, the ones who need not raise their voices and speak truth to the ruling class, because, damn it, that’s who we are!” As he said that, he gave me a friendly tweak on the ascot, and at once I felt—to quote one of Eustasia’s characteristically dry quips—"as if I’d been there all along."