One rainy afternoon in November 1982, mon amie Amy, her mother (visiting from their hometown, North Dartmouth, Massachusetts), and I (from Silver Spring, Maryland) were driving to lunch in Durham, North Carolina. Amy and I were graduate students at Duke. From the backseat, her mother asked me, “Who is the one relative you would least like my daughter to meet?” This is a good question from a potential mother-in-law interested in formalizing her daughter’s relationship with a nice Jewish boy. I responded after a bit of hesitation:
“My Uncle Leon, my father’s brother. He’s a shlub. A nice guy, but a shlub.” I then tossed the question to her daughter. Amy responded, “Cousin Sheldon (Shelly), a real goniff.”
Fast forward four months, and we got engaged (another story). I called my grandfather to tell him the good news. I’d never spoken to him about Amy, and from his half-hearted congratulations, I imagined that he assumed that my New-Testament-studying fiancée—whose surname, Levine, I had also neglected to mention—was a shiksa.
The next day was his birthday, and my parents had traveled to Miami Beach (where else?) to celebrate with him. My Uncle Leon was there as well. When they all gathered, my kvelling parents asked, “Jay shared the good news about the engagement, right?” To the apparently half-hearted affirmatives, my father followed up, “Do you remember the big Levine Iron Works sign? That was her grandfather’s business.” As it happened, both my father and Amy’s father had been raised in Yonkers. My grandfather and Uncle Leon together shouted: “SHELLY!”
It turns out that Uncle Leon and Amy’s cousin Sheldon had grown up together and were best friends. Beshert!
Postscript: it also turns out that Sheldon’s reputation as a goniff had been based on a false accusation; Sheldon was, in fact, a mensch. The real goniff was another family member (who shall remain nameless). Leon, as ever, remained a good-hearted shlub.
Jay Geller and Amy-Jill Levine are the parents of Sarah and Alexander. At Vanderbilt Divinity School and Vanderbilt University’s College of Arts and Science, Amy-Jill is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies, and Jay is Professor of Modern Jewish Culture. They are both prolific authors and all-around menschen.