If there is one question that encapsulates the essence of Polishness (geography aside), it is, "What did I do to deserve this?" That's a Polish question because it is not really a question at all: more of a statement disguised as a question. The refrain is used as a uniquely Polish manipulation, the kind that leaves the art of answering the question that was not asked in the hands of the listener - that is, the guilty party - because we are all guilty: the parents who promised, the children who did not fulfill, the people who do not appreciate, and above all the Master of the Universe.
We are all guilty before those who ask, "What did I do to deserve this?" (or, in the formulation favored by my father, a believer who lost his faith and became a heretic who would renew belief in the Creator only to be disappointed in him again: "Lord of the Universe, what did I do to deserve this?" ), because from the very presentation of the question it follows not only that the questioner does not deserve this, but on the contrary: he has the opposite coming.
Not only does the mother not deserve to have to sacrifice herself for our sake, since we won't come to the Passover seder; what she deserves is for us to come to the seder laden with gifts and also stay for two days. She deserves for us to throw her a surprise party on her birthday and buy her a fine gift and she absolutely does not deserve for us not to come even for a visit.
Our father deserves for us to marry an Egged bus driver with stock in the company, for us to study physics at the Technion, for us to finally buy an apartment instead of renting and for us to listen patiently, even for the 30th time, to his story of heroism from the last part of his army service.
And do we not deserve also? A better job, better partners, people who will make us happy, winning the lottery, employers who appreciate us. But when we ask, "What did we do to deserve this?" we never mean good things. Never why am I in Tel Aviv and not in a refugee camp? Why to my good fortune am I not a burka-covered Afghan/Pakistani/Muslim woman? but always only negative things that show how deprived we are.
The basis of "What did I do to deserve this?" is the assumption that somewhere there are things that I deserve.
The idea that there is something that "I deserve," that there are scales of justice and of reward and punishment on the basis of which the righteous shall flourish, is itself based on the assumption that there is someone from whom I am supposed to demand what I deserve - God or his supporting cast.
Because we are Polish (irrespective of country of origin and ethnic group ), instead of laying out what it is that we are demanding from our surroundings or from God, we formulate the supplication in a roundabout, upside-down way. But God is actually the ideal target for the "what did I do to deserve this" plaint, because he never answers anyway.
As in the Knesset elections or, with all due separation, in voting for reality shows, the "What did I do to deserve this?" question actually points to the exact opposite.
"Why do I deserve to be alone at home now like a dog?" means, "Don't I deserve to be surrounded by guests and loved ones?" which is interpreted as, "I deserve it, of course I deserve it."
Then why not say straight off "I deserve this"? It's because we don't want to be greedy, and also because we are Polish, meaning we are born ready for disappointment.
The truth is that not only do I deserve it, we all deserve it. I deserve to be happy, rich, loved; I deserve for my children to be happy all the time and think only good things about their mother; and all my girlfriends deserve the same and the whole world, too. In fact, everyone deserves a better life.
"Don't I deserve for my daughter to be happy at last, after all I went through with her?" my mother once asked me, during a moment of serious disappointment at what she perceived was wretchedness wrought by me as a result of an ill-made decision, which of course stemmed from my having once again not bothered to consult with her.
"And don't I deserve, after what I went through, for my mother to support me and not make me feel guilty for not being happy, as though it were not enough that I am suffering from not being happy?" I answered her.
And she, in response, concluded that "Apparently I really deserve for you to answer me like that. I must have been the worst mother in the world."
And now, as I write this, I ask myself: Nu, really, what did she do to deserve that kind of a daughter?
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now