My plumber was here all weekend putting in a new hot water heater. At the end, when we were settling up, I told him how grateful I was for the discount he gave me on his labor. "That's because you didn't try and jew me down," he said. "If you had, I wouldn't have given you such a good rate."
I let it pass like I hadn't felt a knife blade enter my heart. He goes on talking, but my ears are burning, my thoughts are racing. My body is in turmoil. Not knowing how to respond, I told him this story:
Last summer I was at my camp on a lake in the Adirondack foothills. I had invited my dear friends Barbara and her husband Shelly up for a few days. They are Jewish. One night when we were on the porch singing and playing guitar, my cousins Rick and Peg came over for a visit. Peg sat down next to Barbara and started to visit. When she heard Barbara had a practice in New York City, Peg went on to say her daughter had just returned from a trip there. "I was so proud of her," Peg said. "She jewed down all the street merchants and came home with a ton of stuff."
Barbara felt the knife blade, but she said nothing. She and Shelly talked about it later, wondering if they should mention it to me. They let me know the next morning at brunch. I was horrified. I knew I would have to talk to Peg about it, for all our sakes, because we cannot collude in this anymore.
Barbara went into the kitchen to get a muffin. She started to give it to Shelly and then decided not to. "No, I want this myself," she said, putting the muffin down on her own plate. Shelley, surprised and a little annoyed, called out, "Indian giver!"
"And that's the end of the story," I said to my plumber Rick. "Do you get the moral of the story?"
He looked embarrassed and said nothing.
"We can't let each other do this," I said. "It's wrong to think this way, to speak this way and to let it pass in our presence."
"Yeah," he said.
"We grew up hearing it. We weren't responsible for our parents but we're responsible for ourselves," I said.
I didn't have any remorse for calling him on it, but I had sorrow that it ever came up. I felt bad that he was embarrassed. But I could have been anyone. We all could have been anyone. We all are everyone, in a strange metaphysical way. That's why my heart felt the blade.