The Intimacy of Disagreement
My mother, Esther, had a secret. It involved my father. My brother and sister and I were the only other people that knew the details. We were sworn to secrecy. Enough years have passed since she and my father are gone that I feel I can spill the beans and reveal a secret within a secret, a little gem of wisdom that I’ve never shared but think of often.
My mom’s name, Esther, comes from the heroine of the story of Purim, the beautiful Queen Esther. Queen Esther’s Hebrew name was Hadassah, meaning “myrtle” and her Persian name was אסתר “Esther” which probably derives from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, the star-planet Venus and a goddess of love. “Esther” also by odd coincidence means “hidden” in Hebrew. We love the impact when a hidden thing is revealed in a story. The Esther of the Purim story had a hidden identity, one that saved her people from genocide. My mother, Esther, had a hidden little secret as well, that was a part of her livelihood that even her best friends didn’t know. For good reason.
My mother started a small business right before my older brother’s bar-mitzvah. In looking for invitations for the event, she found that they were quite expensive. She had the idea of starting a business selling invitations, both to get my brother’s invitations at wholesale, and launch a new enterprise as well. So she headed off to New York City in the early sixties and convinced a dozen national stationery company executives that a forty-ish South Jersey housewife with no business experience could do a better job selling their wares than national department stores. She came home flush with success, so my father, a rocket scientist, disappeared into his shop in the basement and made a lovely desk with a round end for potential customers to gather around, and to get the customers out of the kitchen, Mom’s first office. A succession of families of brides and bar and bat mitzvah kids began to sit in our den and select engraved stationery for their most significant life events. She ran that business out of the house and later in partnership with bridal shops for about forty years. We were too young to think it was odd having her customers in the house. Doesn’t everyone’s mother have a business in their suburban split level that customers enter through the living room that no one ever sits in, then through the kitchen with pink metal cabinets and down a half level to the den where the black and white TV was?
An elegant addition to an event invitation was to have a calligrapher address the envelopes. Flowing cursive in a skilled hand announced that this was a special event even before it was opened. My mother had a talented calligrapher. He was a temperamental artiste who could not be rushed, and no, absolutely would not negotiate on price. No way this elusive scribe could deviate from his norms or do a special favor, a rush job, no, not even just this one time. Esther’s “hidden” secret (sorry Mom) was that the calligrapher was my father. If anyone knew, they would surely be able to push him when needed. Dad would sit in the basement and calligraph invitations, diplomas, place cards, and all manner of personalized things.
I tell this story because of a certain surprising event and the life lesson I learned when visiting “the calligrapher”. I went down to the basement to find Dad working away on a stack of invitation envelopes, this aerospace engineering digital wizard with a quill pen. I think it was the early 1990’s. The radio was on and my father was listening to Rush Limbaugh. You need to know that my father had not voted for a Republican since Lincoln and like most Jews that fought in or lived through WW2 and the Great Depression, he was a loyal Roosevelt Democrat. I’m not sure my father even knew a Republican. “Dad, do you know who that is on the radio? That’s Rush Limbaugh! He’s a far-right conservative!”. “Yeah, I know”, he said adding…
“I like to know how other people think”.
A Brookings Institute study in 2017 found that a strong majority of college students approve of shouting down a speaker with whom they disagree. Students who say they support “free speech” also strongly support denying it to others with whom they disagree. No one is listening anymore and colleges are coddling an orthodoxy of intolerance.
My father was the most insightful and synthetic thinker I’ve ever met. He had a total recall of world history, current events, cultures, and values. Much to his surprise, this father’s son became a conservative after campaigning for McGovern and twice for Jimmy Carter. Jimmy polished off my enthusiasm for big government. My father and I loved to try to round off the corners of a disagreement. I never remember a political disagreement becoming heated. It was all point and counterpoint, serve and volley. We loved testing where ideas end and true and lasting values start. There’s an art to disagreement that is lost in the caustic flow of blurted reactionism that passes for discourse on social media.
Precisely one Hebrew calendar year ago my daughter and I bought costumes for Purim that consisted of hazmat suits, masks, and “hello my name is” stickers on which I wrote a pun on Ahashuerus’s name. He was, of course, the king that Esther was chosen to marry. His name in Hebrew is אהשורוש “Ahashverus”. I wrote. אחש-וירוס “Ahash-Virus” on the hazmat suit’s name sticker… mocking this new and seeming over-hyped virus with a bad pun. Purim was shut down by the state, services canceled. For the second year in a row, little girls will not come to synagogue dressed up as the beautiful Esther.
We are slowly coming out from under our collective Covid rock, two Purims later. It’s a good time to think about that lost art of disagreement, in case you ever meet actual humans out on the street that aren’t disguised as surgeons or bank robbers and you may have forgotten that everyone doesn’t think like your insular facebook universe. The world we emerge to is a coarser place than we left, balkanized in a new and digitized way. I’ve given up on commenting on anything political on social media. Ok, almost given up. I recognize the intimacy needed to take the pulse of our ideas together in the trust of love is a gift I no longer expect to receive, but I still think I can give.
Esther’s little stationery business marked the shining milestones of eternity’s lovely march forward: birth announcements with little pink and blue ribbons, invitations to bar and bat mitzvahs, and weddings. We only make it to these next milestones together if we fight fairly to resolve our differences and find a way to stay together while thinking separately. In between glorious moments of ribbons and engraved invitations is the struggle to find a shared path forward. I pray we will come back together and trust each other enough to share the fragile and precious intimacy of disagreement that I learned from a secret scribe in my parents’ basement.