Humans often enjoy dividing each other into categories. There are those who run to catch the bus and those who amble slowly towards the stop, content to wait for the next one. There are early birds and late owls, the 1% and the other 98% (leaving the 98th percentile in some kind of weird limbo, I guess), couples and singles, red state dwellers and blue state dwellers…I could go on.
When I was growing up, one distinction was key, adding humor and challenge to many family outings, when we tried to determine which category someone fell into: thinnies or fatties. Before you get too offended… it had nothing to do with weight. Fatties could be thin and thinnies could be fat. Honestly, the archetypal thinny was thin, but thinness was far from essential for thinnies, who ran the full gamut in body type. Being a fatty had nothing to do with the scale. It was a matter of… well, that’s a complex one, encompassing history, values, beliefs, lineage, and culture, though fatties are wildly diverse on all of these dimensions.
Right now, I wish I were delivering this essay as an interactive presentation for a group, because I’d love to ask a bunch of people what they think I’m talking about. Who are the thinnies? Who are the fatties? If you had to guess, what might you come up with?
I can’t play that game, so I’ll have to just out with it. Fatties are Jews. Thinnies are everyone else. That might seem screamingly bizarre, or as natural as the warm sun on a summer day. To me, it makes intuitive sense. I grew up with it. A friend of my father’s came up with these terms before I was born, and my father shared them with our family and many of his other friends. The whole thing is kind of mortifying — why would we spend our time on this particular question? — but reaching into the depths of human quirkiness is always at least somewhat mortifying.
This evening, I asked my parents how the labels came about and learned that some of my father’s friends popularized them among their buddies when they were in their 20s, recent college graduates looking to make sense of their world and have some fun. They were Jewish guys, as you might have guessed: I doubt anyone else would divide the universe of humans along these particular lines (if they did, I’d be kind of afraid). Of course, they were far from the first Jews to define their fellow humans based on this criterion, but they were too cool and enlightened to use a word like “goyim.” “Thinnies” was much more entertaining and descriptive.
During our conversation, my parents fleshed out the reasoning behind these names. When non-Jews had a party, they often served thin watercress or cucumber sandwiches. Contrast that with Jews’ parties and Jewish delis, which often featured fat sandwiches filled with heaping slabs of corned beef or pastrami. Jews typically had thick lips, while non-Jews often sported thin ones. (Before anyone bristles, keep in mind that we’re delving into the minds of a bunch of young dudes, kidding around in private many decades ago.) Jews in those days often drove fat Cadillacs, while non-Jews tended to favor smaller, simpler cars. I know that this line of thought is not PC, but it is what it is…and blunt openness about our perceptions is rarely if ever PC.
I pointed out that “thinnies” actually sounded like one particular kind of non-Jew: white Protestants of English descent. (There’s a common nickname for them, but I don’t want to offend more people than necessary.) My parents agreed, but I think this represented my father’s social world at the time. Most people around him were Jews, and many of the exceptions were white Protestant types. With that as a springboard, “thinnies” came to mean all non-Jews: a symbol more than a universally accurate description, since there are plenty of non-Jewish groups whose food and tastes seem much more fatty than thinny. No traditional Southern Italian restaurant I’ve been to has ever brought the term “thinny” to my mind, to give one of hundreds of examples. And yet… Southern Italians who aren’t Jewish are thinnies. They just are. It makes perfect sense to me, rings the bell of truth in my head.
So what did defining someone as an official fatty mean, if many other groups had tastes and qualities that also seemed to fit the word’s usual implications? At bottom, it suggested that the person was one of us, for better or worse. If my family decided that the group next to us at a restaurant were fatties, it could have been as simple as physical appearance, meaning that their features had the je ne sais quoi of Ashkenazi Jews: some combination of qualities that just hung together that way. Yes, there are Jews of all races and appearances, but we weren’t so savvy or expansive in our observations and labeling. Again, it was what it was. If someone had blasted our preconceptions in a major way, I think we all would have been delighted and intrigued.
Often, the appearance question moved into personal style and clothing: certain tastes, brands, and choices that suggested fattiness. Sometimes, this meant that we could relate to the people; other times, it meant that their choices annoyed us because they seemed kind of showy or over the top.
And then there was behavior. If, say, a family was quiet and polite, asking each other softly to pass the bread and thanking each other for obliging, we had a fairly strong hunch that thinnies were in our midst. If they were loud, argumentative, and high-strung, I mean… other factors would have to fit, but the odds that they were fatties escalated pretty dramatically.
We had an impressive track record of accurate identification with our favored methods. Often, something would come out to let us know we were right: discussion at the next table would move towards planning a Bat Mitzvah or some such.
A telling tidbit: we were much harder on fatties whose taste annoyed us or turned us off than on thinnies, who sometimes made us laugh but rarely made us bristle with true fire. During my college days, a friend pointed out that, when we passionately dislike someone, often it’s because they have some trait that we recognize in ourselves but fight against expressing. It was one of those observations that made me breathe in and feel the truth expand in my gut: a new thought that wasn’t new at all, because I’d known it all along without concretizing it in my mind. Certain fatties pushed our hidden, carefully guarded buttons, and they inspired a strength of reaction that few if any thinnies could approach.
The fatties and thinnies game is mostly a memory now: I haven’t heard my parents use those terms in a long time. Essentially, we were just playing with our Jewdar, and dressing it up in terms that made it all much funnier. But what were we trying to accomplish with that game, and why was it so riveting?
“Fatties and thinnies” essentially meant “us and them.” It implied that we had a world where most people were different from us in a particular way, but a few were like us in that very same way. We didn’t like all fatties; often we found the thinnies in the room much more endearing. But the fatties had that certain something that made them one of us along a dimension we valued, much as we laughed about it and dressed it up in silly terms.
As people (whether fatties or thinnies) mature, they often seem to find new in groups and out groups, to define themselves along dimensions that feel right to them, regardless of ethnic or religious origin. Part of the reason I feel so unsettled in the world is that I’ve never found a new group I can relate to. Pretty much any defined — even loosely — community of people gets me heading far beyond the hills, to whatever landscape exists beyond human cliques.
One summer during college, I attended a residential writing program on Bennington College’s campus, partly because the school itself intrigued me, but mostly for the classes and activities, which had no affiliation with the school. The people were friendly and kind, but I didn’t relate to their jokes or ways of interacting — their self-definition as writers who shared a community with other writers. They would use phrases like “my craft” and joke about the ways writers tended to interact and be in the world, and it just didn’t resonate with me. I still enjoyed writing alone in my room, but I didn’t care for the “culture of writers” aspect one bit. I didn’t have crushes on writers like many of the others did, and I didn’t see myself going through the world as “a writer”: a moniker that was central to many of their self-definitions. I was just, you know, Stephanie, who sometimes enjoyed writing stuff.
That summer partly encouraged me to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D.: I figured maybe I was more into exploring and writing about ideas than writing per se, and this seemed a good potential balance. But the people in graduate school saw themselves as academics, and that was even worse — and much farther from my sense of myself — than the writers. They would say things like “well, that’s not my field, but I’ll hazard a guess”… as if a person had to be a member of a particular field to share a useful or interesting thought on a given topic.
I didn’t have a field. I mean, I was in the American studies program because it was flexible enough to let me take classes in many different areas, but I didn’t see myself as having an academic field. Oddly enough, I saw myself more as a writer, and worked hard to make my dissertation engaging and vivid, the way a writer might. But I wasn’t a writer with a capital “W”; I was Stephanie trying to write an interesting dissertation. I still spend time with both writers and academics, and still feel like a complete outsider in both worlds.
I also feel alienated from any kind of political culture, even communities some might think would fit me. Though I tend to be liberal, I’m open to other opinions, and I love expressing all of my ideas, whether or not they fit any particular mold. Several weeks ago, I was slammed by a large group, mostly composed of the “liberal” women some might imagine I’d call my peers. The whole thing turned me off of participating in any of the recent protests and marches: I just didn’t feel connected to the culture behind them after being pummeled for expressing my own ideas (which include being strongly against Trump and his new administration). So I stayed away and kind of kept up with it all through my computer, and wasn’t very wistful about my absence. I’ve never met a movement I liked. They’ve all been too movement-y for me, too based in an ethic of conformity to basic principles, ideas, and even ways of interacting.
But I do have my fatties. I haven’t found a community of them that feels remotely like home, but, in general, I know I’m a fatty, and that feels intuitively and even gloriously right. “Gloriously” might sound melodramatic, but, the more I think about it, the more grateful I feel that there is one group that feels like it’s mine, whether or not I like them or they like me. My unconditional clan.
When it comes to friendship and deep connection in my current life, I make no distinction between thinnies and fatties. It’s more a matter of… say I find myself needing support from my fellow humans, and, for some reason, am unable to access it from the expected sources. Who will my closest contacts be, far in the future, when I might need some kind of emotional bonding or… something that isn’t available in the ways I now enjoy? It’s calming to feel that I’d have a logical place to go. In a case like that, I might seek out a group of fatties: a synagogue or Jewish community or… something. I wouldn’t have to venture forth and approach people randomly, hoping to find a connection by some kind of dumb luck. There’s a place I would start, and a clear reason for starting there. Feeling this way makes me happy. Complete independence of soul might only take me so far for so long.
Sometimes, when I’m in the mood, I still play the thinnies and fatties game, just by myself. A few days ago, I was pretty sure two guys on a bus here in Boston were young fatties, and, when I listened to their conversation, I eventually realized I was right: they started talking about their childhood synagogues. Bingo! This made me smile. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much. If I could figure out how to allow small successes like that to create true happiness more often, I’d be heading somewhere I really want to savor.
Image Credit: “Last Dinner…. mmmm game…” by Lord Cuauhtli, January 21, 2008, flickr.com