When it comes to 20th-century Jewish authors, it’s Bellow, Roth, and Salinger who generally grab headlines. But their immediate predecessors—Delmore Schwartz and Nathanael West—worked in an era that will always captivate me. The term “bygone time” gets tossed around a lot, but to read Schwartz and West is to truly step into a different America—the America of the 1930s—than the one that Bellow, Roth, and Salinger chronicled.
For one thing, World War II had not happened. For another, the television had not yet taken over as a standard domestic appliance. But the movies and radio were in full swing, forever altering the way we consume words, images, advertisements, and stories. Schwartz and West had to compete with these newfangled media. In one of my favorite passages from Miss Lonelyhearts, West, through the prism of that novel’s narrator, laments how the noun dreams has lost its aura in this new era:
“Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst” (39).
Almost as bad, for West’s narrator, is the way consumerism and vanity have encroached upon dreams as a once-sacred trope:
“Guitars, bright shawls, exotic foods, outlandish costumes—all these things were part of the business of dreams. He had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the biceps and to develop the bust” (22).
There’s no way to prove that Schwartz had these passages in mind when he wrote his legendary story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” two years later. But if the title is merely an unwitting homage to Lonelyhearts, the thematic overlaps are too powerful to ignore. To wit: Schwartz’s entire story takes place not only in a movie theater, but also in a theater that is the setting of a dream the narrator is having.
The movie depicts the clumsy courtship of the narrator’s parents. The theatergoers are all along for the romantic ride, with the exception of the narrator, who disturbs the other patrons with his protestations: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds,” he shouts at the screen, after his father proposes to his mother. Naturally, the theatergoers wish he would just shut up and let them enjoy the film. They’ve paid good money to see it (thirty-five cents, in 1935).
In many ways, Schwartz and West set the stage for The Catcher In The Rye (1951), in which Holden Caulfield spends many a paragraph ridiculing the implausible idealism of mainstream American films. All of that—the march against phoniness—is generally credited to Salinger, and for good reason: His contrarian novel cracked the mainstream, giving vent to hypocrisies that most readers felt but never expressed. But let us remember that when it comes to the movies—and their corruption of dreams—West and Schwartz were there first.
A few months ago I finished Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am. I can’t say I was surprised to read the following:
“We shared our house with the Cass family, who lived upstairs and, like many of my parents’ closest friends, were Jewish. I remember noisy, joyous Passovers with a lot of Gefilte fish, chopped liver and the aroma of slow-roasting brisket” (11).
Why was I not surprised? As a lifelong fan of The Who, I’ve often felt there was something ineffably Jewish in their themes and melodies. I’m thinking in particular of the devotional litany from Tommy:
“Listening to you, I get the music / Gazing at you, I get the heat / Following you, I climb the mountain / I get excitement at your feet / Right behind you, I see the millions / On you, I see the glory / From you, I get opinions / From you, I get the story.”
In the way it builds, in the way it deifies, in the way it mounts and repeats, it has always reminded me of Ein Keloheinu and Adon Olam.
And here’s my confession: I like singing this part of Tommy. A lot. As in, every day. As if it’s a prayer I can’t live without. It owns me. Even though I’m a secular cat. Even though I’d hesitate to call myself spiritual.
I have often wondered why Tommy has such a grip on me. My best guess? I think it stems from my six summers at B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania.
BBPC was a place where you could get in serious trouble—you’d get “docked” from canteen or a team sport, and you’d get a dozen “dead arms” from your counselor—if you didn’t sing with the proper levels of respect and passion. It didn’t matter what the song was. It might be the “Birkat Hamazon”; it might be “The Circle Game”; it might be your color war team’s anthem.
This mild form of cultural hazing left a mark. To this day, I get annoyed at Passover when not everyone is pulling his weight on “Echad Mi Yodea.” And I get annoyed at music shows when the lead vocalist isn’t “bringing it” with everything he has.
And it all has to do with the belief—cultivated at BBPC—that singing is not to be done in a half-assed manner. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Passover table or a stadium concert. Sing it like you mean it, or don’t sing at all.
That last sentence is The Who in general, and Tommy in particular.
And so here I am, more than 20 years past my summer camp days. I’m an adult who almost never goes to temple. For all intents and purposes, I’m an atheist. But when I sing songs from Tommy, I feel like I’m regaining a precious piece of my childhood puzzle. It might not be a piece that belongs, strictly speaking, to the Jewish tradition; but it belongs to a lesson that I first learned in a Jewish setting. It is a lesson about passion, and a lesson about effort. And it is a lesson that has stayed with me, ever since.
The book’s style, setting, and protagonist invite the question: It’s a first-person coming-of-age debut. It takes place largely in New York and Boston, where I’ve spent most of my life. And the main character—the Zinsky of the title—is my age.
But my honest answer is this: “The life I’ve lived is different from the tale I spin about a fictional character named Zinsky. But I’ve used plenty of ammunition from my life to create Zinsky and his story.”
The thing is—there’s heavy ammunition, and there’s light ammunition.
In the category of heavy ammo, I’d list the following:
- My parents separated when I was six. Same thing happens to Zinsky.
- My mother was an English teacher. That, too, is the profession of Zinsky’s mother.
- I’m a zealot of all things related to literature and football. So is Zinsky.
And yet, I never quite feel like the heavy ammo provides the entire picture. The book contains dozens of minor elements—in the form of small descriptions, single scenes, and turns of phrase—that are also autobiographical. This is what I call “light ammo.”
For example: There’s a wedding scene in Chapter 21, in which two characters—bored by the ceremonies—play a game of prayerbook baseball. Here’s how it works: Zinsky whispers a page number to Jimmy Calipari, the character sitting next to him. Jimmy attempts to open his prayerbook to exactly that page. If he succeeds, he’s hit a home run. If he gets within five pages, it’s a triple. Within 10, a double. Within 15, a single. Beyond 15, it’s an out. So the game begins, with the same general rules—three outs to a half-inning—as regular baseball.
A friend taught me this game in seventh grade. We were sitting next to each other during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony of another friend. We were bored out of our skulls. And this was 1987, so you couldn’t just take out a smartphone.
So you see, prayerbook baseball’s appearance in Zinsky is an autobiographical element. It’s not the heavy stuff of location, vocation, or family; but any way you slice it, it’s material from my life that I mined to create a fictional scene.
The point is, it’s easy to think of a novel’s autobiographical elements in terms of big-picture similarities between the author’s life and the life of his or her main character.
But just as often, it’s the small stuff.