He was the mayor of a town where most people didn’t know what a Jew was,
had never seen one that they knew of, and certainly hadn’t met one before.
All they knew was what they read in the Bible, you could have said,
and so none of the old animosities and prejudices applied. Had anyone
ever heard the phrase before, they would have said “He’s one white Jew.”
But they hadn’t, way out on the prairie; a visit to the city was a special event
that took the better part of the day. So he got along with everybody—he
knew it was good for business, and kept his opinions to himself. The
Chamber of Commerce men thought he was a Republican. Those who
knew him socially assumed he was a Democrat. One year when both
parties needed a candidate, they came and asked him to run for mayor.
He’d built up a little dry goods shop into a department store, one of just two
in town. It didn’t have an escalator, like the Rose’s store down the street,
but it had a second floor where he had a view of shoppers below as he
kept the books, alongside racks of boys’ clothes, bath towels and notions.
His name had never been attached to any scandal or embarrassment. Oh, his
daughter Rachel had been sent home from school one time with a note from her
Social Studies teacher. She’d written a report about Ruth and Boaz, how
they’d slept together before they were married—“bundling” it was called—
and so there was nothing wrong with it, kids should be allowed to do it
as long as they were chaste, like the couple in the Bible. “I thought you
would want to know about this,” the teacher wrote to the parents. “It
caused quite a stir when Rachel read it in class, and I sent her to the
principal’s office.” The father read the report and the note, smiled, and
allowed himself a little laugh. “If it’s in the Bible, it must be okay,” he
said. He turned the note over and wrote “Miss Killion: I agree with you. We
have spoken to Rachel, and this will never happen again.” Sometimes, he told
his daughter, you have to wear the mask–he had never done anything
to draw attention to himself. He was absent from the store on Sabbath, when
his assistant manager stood in for him, but no one thought anything of it;
he was entitled to a Friday night and Saturday off, they thought, he works hard.
When the two parties came to him and asked him to run, he thought about it.
His name would get out there, that was free publicity, but he’d have to make tough
decisions that were sure to make somebody angry at him, no matter which
side of a question he chose. It was a little extra money, that would be nice to
have, but not enough to make the aggravation worth the while. City Hall was
right down the street from his store, however; it would be easy to pop over there
when he had to, and zip right back. He talked to his wife, and she thought it
would be a wonderful thing, to be the first Jewish mayor of the town, the only
Jewish mayor for miles around, maybe even in the whole state. Why, even in
New York they’d never had a Jewish mayor! And so he decided to run, as a
Democrat, but the Republicans wished him well. He proposed a new sewage
plant, that’s what the town needed to grow, he said. And a junior college—
for the kids who couldn’t afford to take four years off from starting their lives,
who couldn’t be spared by their parents from family farms and businesses.
He won—it wasn’t even close. Everyone thought he’d do a great job, they said
“Look what he’s done with that business.” He was more admired than he’d
ever suspected. It was a grand thing—people said hello he didn’t know, people
congratulated him, told him he was made for bigger things, party leaders in
the state capital took notice of him. This, in a town that didn’t have a minyan!
To be so respected, so admired—he wouldn’t toot his own horn, but his wife
wrote to tell his family and hers, back east. “We are suddenly social
butterflies,” she said, “much in demand, although to get into the country club
I don’t hold my breath.” And he allowed himself a small measure of smug
satisfaction. “Who’d a thunk it,” he said to himself. “Certainly not me.”
And yet, as he considered it from another angle, it was wasted glory. “Here,
in this little one-horse town, what if my Ruth lies down with her Boaz,
and gets up with child? Yes, the child will be Jewish, but a little putz,
a zshlob.” He resolved that night to speak to his wife about birth control.
From Town Folk & Country People