Matzo Ball on a Flat Earth
A few years ago, I started to notice something strange about my behavior. It all began one day in a creative writing class. My professor was explaining the difference between flat and round characters. Flat characters, she told us, were predictable stock characters who always behaved the way the reader expected. Round characters, on the other hand, had depth and complexity. They could not be reduced to a stereotype. This seemed like an interesting bit of literary theory, so I put it in my back pocket.
About a week later, I was eating bagels and lox and talking to my mother on the phone. She complained about how the drugstore stopped carrying her favorite brand of gluten-free laundry detergent. I complained about my two problem sets, upcoming midterm, and seasonal allergies. Then I shared with her a bit I was working on for my latest stand-up routine about how Jews just call each other to complain about things. She told me it was funny and then asked when I was performing and if there would be a video and if maybe there will be cute girls in the audience who will think I’m funny. And then it hit me.
I immediately called and scheduled an appointment with my psychiatrist.
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice, Dr. Silverblatt.”
“Of course. What’s on your mind, Julian?”
“I think I might be a flat character. A Jewish stereotype.” Saying it out loud felt surreal. The possibility that my entire personhood could be reduced to a couple of Seinfeld episodes was quite worrisome.
Dr. Silverblatt cracked a familiar smile. “Well, you are seeing your psychiatrist about it, so I’m afraid it’s not looking good so far.”
I chuckled nervously. “I know, I know, but can you just reassure me that there’s nothing wrong?”
“I can tell you this, Julian. There are no documented psychological conditions related to being a stereotype, so I think you’re okay. But if you’re still doing stand-up, maybe you could add a bit about that.”
“Oh, that could be a good one, about Jews always needing psychiatrists to diagnose — ” And then it hit me. “I, uh, I have to go.”
I respected Dr. Silverblatt, but he could not be trusted on this matter. He was a wise-cracking, Jewish psychiatrist — a flat character, without a doubt.
The next day, I had lunch with my friend Jacob, a fellow Jew who happened to also be on the varsity basketball team. That meant he had sufficient depth and perspective to help me settle my anxieties once and for all.
“Jacob, do you think I’m a Jewish stereotype?”
“What? You didn’t even have to think about it.”
Jacob looked up from his intriguingly contradictory lunch of ham and Swiss with a side of matzo ball soup and smirked at me. “Come on, Julian. You’re a socially awkward Ivy League New Yorker with an occasionally charming sense of humor.”
“Okay, sure, but at least I’m a programmer, right? I’m not going into law, medicine, or finance.”
“Zuckerberg already broke that ground. You have to find something else.”
“Okay, well I do stand-up. How about that?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know.”
“Look,” said Jacob, with his signature vocal inflection that suggested a sense of mystery and complexity to his character. “If you’re concerned that you’re too much of a stereotype, try doing something people won’t expect from you.”
“So, like, instead of ‘What would Jesus do,’ it’s ‘What would Jews not do?”
“Yes, but avoid wordplay jokes and comparing yourself to Jesus. Those are both pretty Jewish things to do.”
Damn it. This was going to be harder than I thought.
For the next week, I pondered ways I could prove my roundness. I considered taking up a sport, but if I failed at that, which was likely, it would further damage my case. I contemplated making purposefully foolish financial decisions, but the potential long-term damages weren’t worth it. I attempted calling my mother less frequently, but she didn’t allow it. Finally, after much deliberation, I came up with the perfect plan: I would legally change my name from “Julian Rosenblum” to “Julian Nguyen-O’Sullivan.”
I was banking on — damn it, not banking — counting on the fact that people’s initial assessment of my apparent Vietnamese and Irish descent would be at odds with my appearance, mannerisms, and everything else. Thus, like Jacob and his Adidas Yarmulke, I would be a walking contradiction — a round character.
The next day, I took the train down to the New York County Courthouse at 60 Centre Street. The judge was an old man with a white powdered wig and a black robe. He exuded that unmistakable judgely wisdom.
“Your Honor, I would like to change my name. I have all the paperwork right here.”
“Okay, let’s see what we have here.” He raised his steel-rimmed spectacles and shuffled through the papers in a judicial manner. “Just one question. Why would you like to change your name, Mr. Rosenblum?”
I took a deep breath. “Your Honor, about a week ago, I came face to face with a dark reality of my innermost personhood. I realized I am not the complex, intricate character I always thought I was. I realized I am actually just a Jewish stereotype. It was devastating. But every person deserves to be special. Every person deserves to be a round character. So that’s why I’m here, Your Honor. I’m exercising my right as an American to pursue my individuality. I’m here, because no one is going to accuse Julian Nguyen-O’Sullivan, né Rosenblum of being a flat character ever again.”
The judge looked at me and smiled. “You know, in all my years on the bench, I have never seen a name change quite like this one before. And so, I’m afraid I cannot grant your request, Mr. Rosenblum.”
A single tear dripped symbolically down my tired face. “I don’t understand, Your Honor. All I want is to be a round character.”
“Well, let’s examine your story. You made an unusual realization, set off on an idiosyncratic journey of self-discovery, and then reached an ironic conclusion where you realized what you wanted was actually far more complex than you thought. You’ve been a round character all along.”
And then it hit me. “I…I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. Thank you so much.”
“Don’t mention it. After all, I am the wise old judge who provides a resolution at the end of the story.”
And so I emerged from the courthouse, not as a Nguyen-O’Sullivan, but as a Rosenblum with an unusual and profound new experience. I learned that my quest for roundness was actually about the journey, not the destination, because just as life is a slow inevitable march towards death, there is no escape from Jewish neuroticism. As I walked along Centre Street with a revitalized curiosity, I pondered deep subjects such as life, love, and how I could somehow work all of this into my next stand-up routine.