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A Brooklyn girl, I commuted to college while continuing to live with my parents, and one evening after supper during my freshman year, my mother and I drove over to call on my grandmother, my aunt Sarah, and my uncle Joe, who lived together. After a while my mother glanced at her watch and stood to leave. “Alice has school tomorrow,” she said.
“School?” shouted Aunt Sarah (who had quit school after eighth grade). “School? What do you mean, school? College!!”
It was a perfect example of how we argued in our family. Aunt Sarah was yelling at my mother about word choice to express love, to express pride, to express the need for proper recognition of the august heights I’d reached in life. A polite murmur just wouldn’t do it.
It happened all the time. At a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah when I was a teenager, my uncle Willie shouted at me for a considerable period of time, while I shouted back. We argued about whether I felt pride that Jonas Salk, who’d developed a vaccine for polio, was Jewish.He said I must be proud. I said I couldn’t be proud, because until he mentioned it, I didn’t know that Jonas Salk was Jewish; and I also made an argument against parochial favoritism for one’s own ethnic group. My uncle had grown up in an immigrant family (as my own parents did) near the start of the twentieth century. I was a generation further along, and we didn’t understand each other.
Yet Uncle Willie took the time to engage in loud, animated discussion with his niece— as did, often, my own father. Girls weren’t just pretty creatures to be complimented on their dresses and then ignored. Girls, like anyone else, had opinions. The opinions, however, might be wrong—and that should be pointed out! At the time it seemed that adults were always yelling at me for no good reason. Now I marvel that they respected me enough to disagree.
So when I wrote a novel about their generation and my own — about two men who are something like my father and my uncles, and the daughter of one of them — I imagined my characters arguing. When We Argued All Night takes its title from what echoed in my mind after I grew up among New York Jews in the middle years of the twentieth century: argument as an expression of friendship or love as often as anger, argument because people mattered. They mattered enough to be told how wrong they were.