It’s amazing how quickly Alexei took to driving in New York. Driving in Manhattan, as you know, is not for the faint of heart. When you change lanes, other drivers will not wave you in pleasantly, preferring instead to express themselves with other, less courteous hand gestures. They will make frequent and jarring use of the horn at every perceived infraction, such as lingering for a fraction of a second when the light turns green. Taxicab drivers in Manhattan are an especially hardscrabble bunch, with a dour outlook on life that is relieved only by the exhilaration of regularly inviting its termination by reckless driving. Many New York taxicabs sport reinforced bumpers in what I took to be a kind of arms race.
Alexei, usually a calm, unruffled personality who rebukes me for using the horn except in the direst of emergencies, seemed to thrill to the challenge. Before my eyes, he underwent an astonishing metamorphosis. He would weave in and out of traffic at high speeds with a feverish glint in his eye. At intersections, he would slow down just enough to tempt pedestrians to step off the curb, and then plow right through. His whole attitude towards other drivers changed from one of regarding them as unavoidable nuisances to embracing them as essential set-pieces for the showcase of his dexterity. As a passenger, I coped best by busying myself with the logistics of the drive, such as shuffling CDs and adjusting the GPS.
Our mornings were pretty leisurely. By the time I’d pattered over to the kitchen bleary-eyed to boil water for tea, Alexei’s mother had already taken a long stroll along the boardwalk and prepared a wide array of foods, including vegetarian delights like kasha, carrot patties, vegetarian borsht, and sautéed cauliflower for me, and pierogies and the like for the meat-eaters.
We’d spend the afternoons with Alexei’s mother and often his nephew, usually running errands and, on one occasion, dropping in unannounced and unexpected on a distant aunt, who lived with her husband in a once imposing 1920s-era building in Brooklyn that smelled strongly of burnt cabbage. Judging by the rather animated exchanges in Russian that ensued, our hostess did not think much of this casual style of intercourse. However, she graciously overlooked the manner of our coming, as well as the grave defect of my not speaking Russian, and spent much of the time pushing food on us. On such occasions, I sit for the most part with a smile affixed to my face as people converse rapidly in Russian all around me, occasionally speaking the universal language of admiration at photos of the granchildren and making exaggerated noises of appreciation over the food.
On Tuesday evening, we saw the off-Broadway play Jewtopia. We were seated front-row center, knees squished up to the stage, so close that I had stage fright before the performance. Not being exactly inconspicuous, I worried that I might not enjoy the play and that I’d throw the actors off by yawning uncontrollably, but as it turns out I needn’t have worried because I spent most of the performance guffawing loudly.
Jewtopia is about a gentile who wants to marry a Jewish woman so that he’ll never have to make another decision again, and the Jewish friend who helps him. In one particularly funny-because-it’s-true scene that had tears streaming down my face, the friend coaches him in Jewish restaurant etiquette. (When seated, complain about the draft and ask to change tables. When ordering, alter the menu item so that it no longer resembles the original in any particular. And the cardinal rule of Jewish dining – ask for the dressing on the side.) I have always maintained that we are not so much the chosen people as the choosy people. It’s part of our rich cultural heritage.
After the show, Brian Fogel, one of the playwrights, came onstage to promote the eponymous companion book Jewtopia, due to be released in bookstores sometime “between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur”. (Don’t let the fact that customers who ordered this item also bought Barry Manilow and Billy Joel CDs throw you off.) He read some passages aloud to great hilarity. And I vowed that, if I survived the drive home, I would buy us a copy.