We grew up with my mother’s special brand of religion: Eccentric Judaism. My two older brothers and I were allowed to eat shrimp and lobster, but we wouldn’t dream of tasting pork. On Saturdays we weren’t allowed to write or spend money, yet that was negotiable, depending on our circumstances. We spent six years without a home, moving from hotel to hotel in Manhattan, always short of money. So there were times when, given that we often didn’t have a kitchen, we’d spend money on Shabbas to get food. Even Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, was malleable. We drank water and fasted until about 2 pm because that’s as long as my mother could take it before succumbing to her appetite. “Life before Torah,” my mother would say, and she invoked it whenever it suited her agenda.
In my recently published memoir, Scattered, I write of losing faith in Judaism in 4th grade, when my class at PS 111 on West 52nd put on a play about King Arthur. I auditioned for the role of Merlin the magician, after my brothers coached me for the part, teaching me to speak in a low voice for maximum gravitas. I landed it, beating out two boys.
My mother nixed it for me though, when she saw me kneeling as I rehearsed in front of the mirror in our hotel room. At the end of the play, everyone had to kneel to King Arthur.
People would often underestimate me if they knew that my parents hadn’t taken good care of me, so I used to be covert about the six years my family was chronically homeless and the years I spent in placement with the Jewish Child Care Association. People assumed I couldn’t drive, or had never been to Fire Island or didn’t know French—that kind of thing. And I’d get touchy because people who grew up underprivileged tend to be thin-skinned.
Now I’ve written a childhood memoir, Scattered, so my story is out. And while most people give me a lot of credit for transcending such challenges, friend-of-my-youth Jacqueline Heagle is quick to give me perspective.
“You are a spoiled brat,” she reminds me.
Jacki thinks my experiences with my family roaming around public spaces like libraries, the Automat and Central Park, wandering around the United Nations and midtown Manhattan, having older brothers who went to college and told me stories, reflects a world of privilege. She quips that I’m showing off.
Jacki and I met at the Pleasantville Cottage School when we were 11. I was an emergency case, placed in the same 5th grade class with her on June 17th, 1967, two weeks before the end of school. A few months later she was sent to a group residence in Westchester, but we were reunited in a group residence for teenage girls in Rego Park, Queens, when we were 14. We lived together there for three years.
Jacki found it painful to read Scattered because it made her feel jealous. She grew up rarely leaving her Brooklyn neighborhood and apartment overlooking the noisy elevated subway line; her family was on welfare and the big treat was to get pizza when the check arrived. She has written eloquently about how she eagerly awaited being sent to “The School” and finally got to go when she was eight. Jacki felt that she was reborn when she arrived at Pleasantville. She remembers the first day she got there, how she climbed her first tree and ate her first fresh apple. She hardly ever went home or saw her parents after that.
The Jewish Child Care Association provided that safety net for Jacki, and for me. After Jacki left the residence, she was on her own, but still the JCCA helped her pay for college. And when she decided to leave college, they helped her pay for beauty school. She earned her living for decades as a hair stylist and raised her two sons with far more advantages than she had.
The Jewish Child Care Association didn’t get everything right. Corporal punishment was accepted, and there are stories I hear, and believe, of a few cottage parents sexually preying on children. But most of us feel that Pleasantville provided a feeling of safety and security for us.
So how do I feel about being exposed by the book I felt driven to write? Is the world made by colliding classes, power structures and degrees of respectability, or do I see it that way because of how I got here? It’s so confusing, my past, and where it has brought me. I’ve been trying to sort out the confusion for a long time. When a child is torn from her world, and forcibly placed in another, she is likely to learn fast to observe who’s got power, who doesn’t and how to manage in the new system. So I’ve spent a lot of time either being resentful of my disadvantages, or feeling guilty because of my privilege, and somehow both.
I think the extreme worlds of my childhood, between the U.N., the libraries and cheap hotels, a mother with grandiose notions but neglectful habits, gave me a unique ability to read society and the social world around me.
Sometimes when I’m congratulated for writing well, the praise comes with a sense of theft, as if someone like me who has spent decades in academia—I started teaching when I was just out of college—should be expected to say things in muddy, incomprehensible ways.
I understand the qualm. Academics are known for their pedantic style. This is particularly the case in the humanities, where, given the universal topics, one would expect the opposite. Scholars for the most part write obscurely for a small audience—minuscule, really: less than half a dozen peers. To show off, they become convinced that arguments need to be labyrinthine and the language unintelligible.
This awful mode is learned in graduate school. Unfortunately, judging by the sample of the latest crop of scholars, there doesn’t appear to be an end to this education to obfuscate.
Truth is, it isn’t a matter of style. The problem, in my opinion, is the fear to be honest, to say what one thinks elegantly and persuasively when the occasion prompts. In other words, this handicap is related to the fear of speaking one’s mind. Graduate school, again in the humanities, is a hindrance: it teaches future teachers to hide behind cumbersome theoretical frameworks. The pleasure to read, to write, to think is sabotaged by the obligation to align oneself behind a doctrine.
Yes, I’m convinced academics are timorous people, I’m not sure if more or less than everyone else, but in our case it shows because of the privileged position in which we find ourselves. Given the extraordinary opportunity to speak out, they burry their head underground. Academic freedom is wasted on academics.
Feeling suffocated, I have sought role models outside academia as well as in the liminal zone where the classroom and the outside world meet: Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Henry Luis Gates, Jr., Morris Dickstein… That is, I have tried to follow figures capable of simultaneously speaking to two audiences, the one within and the one outside campus.
Each of them has responded to the needs of his time. What they’ve shown—to me, at least—is that the dividing line between insiders and outsiders is nothing if not artificial. The two audiences exist only in our mind. When we exile them from there, these become one.
To write well is to express oneself with clarity, precision, and conviction. And to be humble: one must irrevocably assume the reader—all readers—to be our equals. To think otherwise is an exercise in solipsism.
I can’t think of a period over our last 3,000 years of history—yes, since the Bible began to take shape as a compendium of folktales—when Jews haven’t been part of a literary renaissance. We’re always dying…and leave a record of our near extinction. Indeed, Jewish literature thrives because it is constantly said to be on its last stand.
We write the apocalypse: no sooner does someone announce our demise, we do everything possible to prove it wrong.
Ours, no doubt, are apocalyptic times. Not since 1945 has anti-Semitism been more noxious than it is now. All of us Jews are seen as parasites in countless places. The hatred against us wasn’t cured after the Holocaust; it simply went commando.
We’ll unquestionably survive the current climate of animosity, although not without casualties: we’ll be again be physically decimated, not to say psychologically bruised. It has taken us a long time to think ourselves out of the Holocaust. Our next survival will also require enormous stamina.
That’s the eternal cycle in which we’re actors. The theme of Jewish history—and its literature—is the dialectic between creation and destruction.
We’re textual creatures: our primary relationship with the world isn’t material but textual. We’re simultaneously authors and characters in a larger-than-life narrative. And texts connote languages. Every chapter in our history is delivered in another language. I don’t see a literary renaissance today in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Polish, Russian… Our current mode, our lengua franca, is English. In fact, English is
what Yiddish was a century ago: our portable homeland.
That habitat isn’t eternal; it will perish, just as others did before.
What puzzles me about the present-day literary renaissance is its hubris: American Jews believe they their sheer drive can overcome anything. Yet no diaspora in Jewish history has been more insular, and more monolingual too. Our literature is a testament to our arrogance.
A measured life is defined by the awareness of its own shortcomings.
Every Thanksgiving I think of the Thanksgiving scene in the 1990 film Avalon, one of Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical Baltimore films. Avalon tells a multi-generational tale of a Jewish family, ranging from the immigrant generation who arrived at the start of the twentieth century to the Americanized generation of mid-century.
At the large family Thanksgiving gathering a feud develops between the two brothers of the central, transitional generation because they start the meal before the arrival of the older brother. The family tries unsuccessfully to soothe him by explaining that they waited but couldn’t delay the meal any further because the young kids were getting hungry. The two brothers end up not speaking because the older brother remains so deeply offended that they carved the turkey without him.
As I watched the movie I realized that the scene makes no sense. In this Jewish immigrant family, how on earth did Thanksgiving, and the question of who carves the turkey, attain such monumental significance that it splits apart a family who have managed to stay together through so many difficulties? And why is the kids’ hunger such a problem? Thanksgiving dinner is usually earlier than standard dinner time, so why are they so hungry? And if they are hungry, just feed them. What’s the big problem?
Then it hit me. My family didn’t look like that at Thanksgiving. My family looked like that at Passover, right down to the kids table added at the foot of the long dinner table at which the adults sat.
Now I understood the scene. It wasn’t about a turkey. The offending insult was that they had started the seder without waiting for the head of the family. And the seder ritual was why you had to start on time so the kids wouldn’t be too hungry. They’d have to sit there, bored and with food right in front of them, but not being allowed to eat until interminably long prayers were over. They’d be miserable, and if the kids are miserable, then so too are the adults taking care of them. So they had to start the seder on time.
By de-Jewifying the scene, transplanting it from Passover to Thanksgiving to make it more “universal,” they’d rendered the story incoherent. It annoys me no less now than it did then.
He was telling me about his experience teaching a new course at our university. Faculty from very different fields had come together to develop a common core of readings and topics for a course designed to introduce first year students to college life. Each professor would teach their own section but the students would receive a common experience. The format meant that every instructor would be out of their area of expertise and comfort zone for at least part of the course, most likely for most of it.
“So there I was,” he told me, “standing in front of these new students as an experienced teacher, not just nervous but terrified.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Jews don’t have a middle range. We go right from a little bit scared to absolutely terrified.”
It’s a legacy of the Holocaust, with roots further back in our history. The flames of the Holocaust have singed all of our imaginations, leaving behind their psychological scars. And scar tissue isn’t flexible. So we end up not having a whole lot of flexibility when we feel threatened. We tend to operate in all-or-nothing mode. When we get scared, even just a bit, we start to see Nazis.
We’re not the only ones who suffer from a scarred imagination in dealing with anti-Semitism. It’s a principal reason why anti-Semitism remains set apart, so often unintegrated with the other “isms” people are trying to address: racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc. At least for some of us, when someone raises a question about whether we have acted in some way that is sexist, racist, etc., we understand that there may be subtle issues of unintended prejudice involved, and we might be willing to examine our actions and beliefs to at least some extent. We don’t react as if we’re being called serial rapists or members of the KKK. But raise a question about anti-Semitism possibly being at work, and people react like they’re being called Nazis. The Nazi terror continues to impact people in a way that make it practically impossible to discuss more subtle forms of anti-Semitism short of genocide. Jews aren’t the only ones with no middle range when it comes to anti-Semitism.
The problem is the order in which I put words in a sentence. Having grown up in a Yiddish and German speaking household, I seem to think in the structure of those languages even when I’m speaking English. Maybe if I looked like Yoda they’d get into it, but as a New York Jew in Iowa, I’m just strange.
I think of Cynthia Ozick, who has said that she writes Yiddish sentences in English. Some years ago I was invited to deliver a lecture on Ozick’s wonderful paired short story and novella The Shawl and Rosa. I made this point by reading a few words from one of the first sentences in Rosa: “Her meals she had elsewhere.” That, I pointed out, is not standard English prose. In English one would normally say “She had her meals elsewhere.” Standard Yiddish sentence construction is what it is.
I’ve learned that my students don’t have the patience to try to understand different accents or speech patterns. When I’ve sent them to hear guest speakers on campus, if the speaker has a noticeable accent many of them come back reporting that the speaker was very difficult or impossible to understand. But it’s not true. With pretty minimal effort the ear adjusts. It’s that they were unwilling to make the effort.
A few years ago some students organized a panel discussion where they invited several faculty members to speak about our various identities and how they interacted with each other (the academic term for this is “intersectionality,” a topic they wished to explore further than they had done in their classes). One of the identities I claimed is that English is not my first language. I was born in Berlin and came to the US with my parents at age two. I told the students that I was always impressed by how well those among them who were monolingual were doing with that handicap. I expressed my admiration for how with only one set of idioms and word choices in which to express themselves they seemed to be managing quite well, and apparently had come up with creative ways to keep themselves from being bored. As I spoke I was enjoying watching the two Asian students sitting up front having a great time with it.
After a couple of years in Iowa I noticed that I was thinking in Yiddish and German more than I used to. I was tempted to attribute it to my regressing back to a sort of second childhood as I age, but I think there’s more to it than that. Having grown up in New York City and then having lived for many years in Southern California, I’m used to being surrounded by the varying sounds of different tongues. Here in the plain Plains, I miss it, relatively surrounded as I am by linguistic monolithic monotony. So I think I’ve internally recreated that diversity for myself. It’s one way to handle a diasporic existence.
“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I first realized I didn’t agree with this saying when I spoke at a commemoration of Kristallnacht at Kenyon College where I was teaching in 1988. “The Night of Broken Glass,” as it’s known in English, is often cited as the beginning of the Holocaust, so by that reckoning November 9, 1988 was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Holocaust. I was asked to speak as both a philosopher and a child of Holocaust survivors. The evening’s ceremony included a brief march in which people carried lit candles.
The symbolism of the candles was on my mind because I’ve also got my own, more personal associations with candles on that date. November 9, but in 1965, was the date of the East Coast blackout, where much of the northeast US went dark, including New York City where we lived. We had a lot of candles at home because November 9 was also my father’s birthday. Living in Poland then, he had turned 16 the day of Kristallnacht. Maybe one of these days I’ll write something more about my connections to November 9, because that date in 1989 was when the wall came down in Berlin, the city of my birth, the city where my parents met and married.
As we all looked at the lit candles in the dark during that college ceremony, I said that this saying presented a false choice. The Holocaust is a case where we need to do both, light the candles as well as curse the darkness. Illuminating the events by understanding them, as we were trying to do in our educational environment, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t nonetheless curse that darkness. Intellectual understanding doesn’t replace moral condemnation or emotional release.
Which brings me to the second saying with which I disagree. It’s best known in the French form in which Tolstoy used it in War and Peace: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” Sorry, not as far as I’m concerned. The saying inhabits too mechanistic a universe. We can understand what drives a person to do something, but there’s always at least one moment of choice. Call it my existentialist side trumping my determinist side. I want to uphold the principal that what one person can do, another can understand. Otherwise, what are we doing in the university anyway; if we can’t in principle come to understand each other we may as well all just go home. “Nihil humani a me alienum puto,” wrote the young Karl Marx in answer to a question about his favorite maxim, quoting Terence. “Nothing human is alien to me.” But we still may – indeed, sometimes we must – deem actions unpardonable even if we understand them. Again, it’s the Holocaust that comes to my mind here.
Am I too quick to condemn and too slow to forgive, too unwilling to temper justice with mercy? Perhaps. But I think we rarely get the balance between the two exactly right, and I find I’d rather err on this side than the other.
I always have a valid passport. I keep it within easy access and I know just where it is, and I’ve made sure my kids have one too. You never know. It’s not that I’m paranoid – well, maybe it is, but that’s not how I think of it – it’s that I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. I used to think of my need to be exit ready as a fear of being trapped, but I’ve realized it’s got very little to do with what I think about the present or future. It’s about the past. It’s a link to my parents, a way of keeping their worldview alive in me. As bizarre as it may sound – at least to those who aren’t children of survivors, but I expect those who share my background will understand – not to have a valid passport feels to me like a betrayal of my parents, a failure to heed hard won lessons.
Actually, I should clarify that, when I speak of myself as a child of Holocaust survivors, the identity I really claim is that I’m a child of temporary Holocaust survivors. What I mean is that while my parents survived the war years, they both died younger than I think they would have had they not had to endure the hardships and traumas of those years. They survived, but only temporarily, my mother having died by age 49 and my father by 59.
My mother was German and my father was Polish, and I know that after the war they contemplated moving to Switzerland, but our citizenship status wouldn’t have been as firmly secure as that of native-born Swiss, and they weren’t about to accept any sort of second-class citizenship.
Here’s a story my father told me about how he got his US citizenship:
The procedure was that he appeared before a magistrate or judge of some sort and was asked basic civics questions, presumably by an immigration official. (I’ve got only my father’s version of this.) One question put to him was as follows: “You say you’re going to be a law-abiding citizen in the US, but in Europe the law required Jews to turn themselves in. You didn’t. So why should we believe you?”
You can imagine the time I’ve spent trying to puzzle out what could possibly bring someone to ask such a question. Perhaps my father’s English wasn’t good enough and he misheard the question. Maybe the interrogator thought he was lobbing my father an easy pitch, expecting some pat answer like “Oh, I know that would never happen here.” Or maybe the guy really was that much of a fool.
In any case, whatever was actually said or meant, that’s how my father heard the question. To his eternal credit, as I always say when I tell the story, my father turned to the judge and said: “Bring in someone else to ask me questions. I’m through talking to him.”
The judge reassured my father not to worry, he would get his citizenship.
Jews have played a crucial role in popularizing Christmas. They have enhanced the national observance of Christmas by composing many of the Christmas songs beloved by all Americans. More secular than religious, these songs, among them Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Walter Rollins and Steve Fletcher’s “Frosty the Snowman,” and, most recently, Paul Simon’s “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” remind celebrants that Christmas belongs to all Americans who share in the spirit of patriotism, generosity, peace, and good will. Ironically, other Jews in the United States have developed strategies to downplay the significance of Christmas by composing poems and songs—in print, performance, and the media—that satirize and neutralize the religious nature of the holiday. Humorous songs and comedic performances offer outlets for the disenfranchised to vent disappointment over society’s fixation with the crass commercialization of Christmas.
Harboring an appreciation for music, I listened to many Hanukkah record albums and compact discs that introduced new songs to the public. This led to my discovering musical parodies of Christmas and Hanukkah that were recorded on specialty labels and eventually recreated on CDs, DVDs, and YouTube.
Check out the following:
- Kosher Christmas Carols (2005)
- ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah – The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights (Idelsohn Society)
- Brandon Walker – “Chinese Food on Christmas“
- “Jewmongous“ (Sean Altman)
- “Christmas for the Jews Song“ (Saturday Night Live)