Over an uneventful family dinner, decide to tell your parents a blonde joke you heard at school.
“That one is as old as I am. But back then, it was a Polish joke,” your father will tell you. The concept of the “polish joke” being entirely foreign to you, watch him pull out the “P” volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica for context, not that he will find anything useful. This ritual happens often enough that most of the encyclopedia volumes are encrusted with meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Distracted as you are, pretend to listen to his sober recitation of historical facts. The idea of the entire world ganging up on poor Poland will smack of grade school geopolitics: the senseless teasing, it really isn’t fair. (This injustice won’t really prick you when it comes to blondes, probably because your homeroom nemesis has the platinum locks of a Disney princess.)
When your father picks up on your simmering outrage, he will glance at your mother and mutter, “The Poles have always had a problem with anti-Semitism.” Notice your mother scowl and wonder if her disapproval is directed toward your father or the Polish people.
Years later, go to a boyfriend’s family Christmas party. There, his uncle, an accountant wearing an argyle sweater vest, will corner you on your way out of the ladies’ room. “Have you heard this one?” he’ll ask. What will follow is not a Jewish joke—not, May God bless and keep the Czar… far away from us—but what can only be called a kike joke, a tangle of resentment and jockish taunting, capped with a punchline about a rabbi who unrepentantly tricks a man out of his life savings. Open your mouth to respond, but nothing will come out. Uncle CPA will add, “I heard it from a guy at work. Saul Greenberg.” To the friendly eavesdropper, his tone will seem gentle, almost apologetic.
Look closely. There will be a smirk hiding behind his whiskey sour.
Leave the party early, since you both teach in the morning. On the drive home in his neat-as-a-pin Honda Civic, try to tell him about the encounter in a way that is dispassionate, even academic. Why do certain jokes get dated and wither away, while others, regardless of how things change or how many millions are slaughtered, never die? You won’t be able to see his eyes, because he is behind the wheel, his hands at ten and two. Generously leave him a moment to think, to process what you’ve said, and another moment to respond. Eventually, he will reply in a low, goofy voice, “The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this network.”
Turn away to look out the window. Think to yourself: Oh, good. Another joke.