We All Sat Around Like Schlemiels

The bride was radiant, the groom suitably handsome. The ceremony at a local synagogue went off without a hitch. A rabbi wedded the two -- a graphic artist and a medical student -- citing all appropriate legend, law and lore. In a concession to modernity, both groom and bride stepped on the ceremonial glass. The assembled guests broke into applause with a round of mazol tovs thrown in for good measure.The bride was Jewish, the groom a fallen-away Christian who had gone to conversion classes and had enthusiastically become a reform Jew.The conversion apparently hadn't created problems for either family. At a rehearsal dinner, both families seem to get along famously. The bride and groom table-hopped -- all the time, mingling, smiling, laughing, hand-shaking, kissing, embracing relatives who wished them well. The message was clear: Here was a blended marriage that would work.At the wedding the next day, the bride's mother choked up with emotion. When the groom's father walked with his son down the aisle, he was beaming. Those up close, noticed a teardrop making its way from eye to cheek. As is customary, the wedding was a wonderful, joyous event.Until the groom's uncle gave the young couple a toast at the reception.And then all hell broke loose.I knew it was going to be a bumpy ride when the uncle, a jet-setter from Hong Kong and Monaco, opened by saying he wondered how long it would take his nephew to get over "this Jewish thing."Then the uncle proceeded to give a 20-minute-long anti-Semitic diatribe. He proudly showed off a gag gift to the groom -- a four-corner hat, and then had a sidekick toss balls to be caught in the hat, which the uncle announced was a variation of a yarmulke. "This is where all your balls will go," the uncle chortled.Then he talked about the groom's trip to a "Mexican butcher" for a botched circumcision, and how the bride could carry around in her purse the remnants of the accident.Then he talked about big noses, cheapness, henpecked husbands, bossy wives. I half hoped that the guy would start to slur his words and stumble, but this guy was not drunk. He was trying to be funny.Few in the audience of 200 could believe their ears. The bride's father -- a decent, hard working attorney who probably spent $25,000 for the whole affair -- was stunned, as were people on both sides of the room and families. It almost seemed that the redolent flowers at each table, the irises, roses, tiger lilies, all wilted on cue.I had flown in from rural Iowa, where a Jew is as rare as an egg cream, to the cosmopolitan East Coast, the axis of Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Boston, the home of more than half of America's six million Jews. Almost everyone at the wedding was college-educated, affluent, well attired -- hardly the kind of people to take kindly to this message that the groom's uncle was spewing. A couple of people muttered, "Get the hook." A half dozen others left the room, shaking their heads. When the uncle finished, there was little applause, lots of groans, but mostly stone silence. This was Laura Z. Hobson's Gentleman's Agreement -- updated.What could anyone do?We were invited guests. It wasn't our role to shout down the anti-Semite. No one pulled the guy off center stage. If this had been the Oscars, they would have cut the speaker's microphone, the band would have gone into a rousing number, and then they'd segue to a commercial. But that's Hollywood. In this peculiar version of reality, a bully took the pulpit and waxed lunatic.Here was a perfect case of a group of erudite, cultured people who for a variety of reasons -- tact, discomfort, social pressure -- did nothing. We all sat around like schlemiels and did nothing. Why? For fear of offending someone? I doubt that was it.There are explanations, of course. Who knew the anti-Semite would talk so long. How would he have reacted if someone had stood up to him? He might have laughed it off, and stepped up his ugly harangue. Worse, he might have thrown a punch. The wedding could have turned into a brawl.I have no idea why the lout did what he did. If anyone in his family knew, no one was willing to share it with us. I'll leave the psychoanalysis of the anti-Semite to the therapists out there. One thing is clear, though. Here was a man who did not want his nephew to marry a Jew, and was not bashful about letting everyone knew where he stood.Like Don Imus at the Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner, there were some good-natured boos, but no hook. Something worse had happened. In this setting of decent people, a collective guilt descended on the crowd as soon as the uncle finished. A sense of shame, disgust and anger settled like a dark cloud. The band played one more tune, but there was really no need. The rain had come pelting down.Three hours after the wedding ended, the groom's father knocked on the newlyweds' hotel door, and apologized for his brother's rampage. The next day, he apologized to the bride's mother and father. The damage, though, had been done, and no amount of explaining would ever make the picture right again.In retrospect, the whole incident reminded me of the old Jewish joke. Two Jews are standing in front of a firing squad. They are going to die. The countdown begins -- 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5. When the number hits 4, one of the men starts wailing a Hebrew prayer. The other man turns in horror and shouts, "Shut up, you fool! You want to get us in trouble?"Certainly, the events at the wedding was the subject of scores of Monday morning discussions around the water cooler. Months later, the ugly moment still sticks in the craws of many of the guests. Few are ever likely to forget the incident -- and if there's any good that came out of the event, that maybe is it.


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