Commentary Magazine


Either/Or—A Memoir

If we can’t stay eternally youthful for ourselves—“for ever panting and for ever young,” as Keats put it in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—we can at least stay that way for one another by not going to reunions. Such was my first thought when the e-mail invitations began arriving last winter.

They came from former classmates at the two New York schools I went to as a boy, the Ramaz School and the Bronx High School of Science, and both were for the same 50th reunion. This was because Ramaz, at whose elementary school I studied from 1947 through 1952, when I finished eighth grade, had a high school I didn’t attend. The high- school class I would have belonged to graduated in 1956, the same year as did my class at Bronx Science—and since 50 years later I still seemed to be considered an honorary member, I was now being invited by it, too.

The two events were of different sizes. My class at Ramaz—the school’s name had been formed from the first three initials of Rabbi Moses Zevulun Margolies, the grandfather-in-law of New York rabbi Joseph Lookstein, who founded it in 1937—had some 30 students; my class at Bronx Science, 750. At the Science reunion I might have known few people. At the Ramaz one I would have known almost everyone. Yet since the “I” that would have known them was born, as it were, in the act of leaving them, they belonged to a period of my life now hardly recognizable to myself. In the end, I went to neither affair. Let us remember and be remembered as we were.

The fact that Ramaz, in the late 1940′s and early 50′s, was so small, and that there were, to the best of my knowledge, only two other Jewish private schools like it in all of New York City, and probably not a dozen in the entire United States, says something about the strides that American Jewish education has made since then. Of course, in those days there were also more old-fashioned places in New York like Mesifta Torah Ve-Da’as, or the Talmudical Academy, which were halfway between a traditional East-European yeshiva and an American-style institution. Although they taught secular subjects and their students took New York State Regents exams, they were for boys only, had a rigidly Orthodox orientation, and heavily emphasized, on the Jewish side, the study of Talmud above all else.

Ramaz did not stress Talmud. While most students came from religiously observant homes, the school was co-ed and prided itself on the high quality of its education. It charged what were, by the modest standards of the times, high tuitions, and the parents who paid them expected their children to be eligible for the best colleges. The image it cultivated, in keeping with its location on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was of a progressive Jewish prep school, a kind of Fieldston or Horace Mann for modern-Orthodox boys and girls.

The preppiness meant that the boys had to wear shirts and ties to school and the girls blouses and skirts; that we had school caps with an “R” on them, with which we were supposed to cover our heads in the East Side streets near our building in place of the yarmulkes we wore inside; and that our curriculum included a class in “social dancing” in which we learned to fox-trot and to rhumba and to ask politely for the next dance and to cut in. As for the progressiveness, it consisted largely of a course called “Hygiene” that taught us, with a thoroughness I found eye-opening, the facts of life. (It is astonishing how much, compared to youngsters today, we didn’t know then.) Nor were we disciplined with any great rigor, my harshest experience being made to sit through a class as a nine-year-old with a piece of gum I had been chewing affixed to the tip of my nose. The nearest thing to corporal punishment I recall was administered by a scowling Hebrew teacher who hurled well-aimed erasers at us from the blackboard when we stepped out of line.

On the whole, the education I received at Ramaz was solid and pedestrian. Although there wasn’t a teacher who excited me or broadened my horizons, we were expected to study hard and I did. My one rebellion was unrelated to our studies. One year the school issued “prayer cards” on which, in columns marking the days of the week, our parents were asked to vouch for our having said shaharit, the morning prayer, at home before leaving for school. (Afternoon prayers were recited in class.) I led a mutiny that ended with several members of my class rising to their feet and tearing up the cards. Eventually, the experiment was rescinded.

What I suffered most from at Ramaz I couldn’t blame on the school. This was growing up in a neighborhood—my family lived at West End Avenue and 104th Street—that I was not really a part of. I didn’t know the boys on my block who went to the local public school, and by the time I came home every day on the double bus ride from 86th Street and Lexington Avenue, it was too late, and I was in any case too shy, to befriend them. I was living, not in a foreign land, but in one I had never been naturalized in. Instead of returning every night to a ghetto as did Jews in the Middle Ages, I set out for one every morning.

Still, in those years I did not feel inwardly split between the Jew and the American in me. Most probably, this was because the American was less developed. It was there, of course. I was, after all, an American boy—I played American sports, and memorized major-league batting averages, and never missed a Western at the movies, and listened to the hit parade on the radio. New York was a city that even then, before the word multicultural had been invented, was among the most multicultural the world had ever known. The only anti-Semitism I encountered came from the tough Irish boys who sometimes drifted over from across Broadway to pick fights.

I didn’t question being sent to Ramaz. It was part of the way things were. I neither liked it nor disliked it with any fervor. My single most vivid memory of it is of the day I decided to leave.

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That day began with the intention of staying at Ramaz for four more years, through high school.

When I took the exam for Bronx Science in the middle of the eighth grade, it wasn’t with the expectation of changing schools. I had only wanted to prove that I was as smart as my sister. Science, which had the reputation of being one of the best academic high schools in the country, was one of five elite New York institutions that took students on the basis of citywide tests, and my sister had been accepted three years previously and had gone there.

I might have thought more seriously of following in her footsteps had I not, in the course of my eighth-grade year, become quite devout. Until then I had performed the commandments of Judaism because I had been taught to. Now, I did so as God’s votary. I had a newborn consciousness of service, a feeling of purity and rectitude, as if every act or utterance—a blessing before food, a bedtime prayer, the washing of hands on rising in the morning—was like sweeping the floor or making the bed of a master who employed me well. How could I be a shirker at such a task? Yehuda ben Tema says: Be fierce as a leopard, and quick as an eagle, and swift as a deer, and brave as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven. So began the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative code of Jewish law compiled by the mystical 16th-century rabbi Joseph Caro. Much was expected from me. I would prove equal to it.

My parents regarded this outbreak of pietism with bemusement mixed with some concern. They were sophisticated people for whom Orthodoxy was a pleasantly regulated way of life shared with a social circle composed largely of my father’s academic colleagues at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical training institution of Conservative Judaism, and their wives. God, as far as I could see, had little to do with it. (Certainly not for my mother, who had shocked me that year when, unaware that I was watching from the kitchen doorway, she violated the Sabbath laws by relighting a flame that had gone out beneath the tin stove guard on which lunch was being warmed for expected guests.) When I took to wearing an arba kanfos, the ritually fringed undergarment that more moderately observant Jews forgo, my mother made a face; my father, though he complied with my request to turn on the radio for me so that I could listen to college football games on Saturday afternoons, let me know he thought it was absurd. Yet he was not unhappy, I think, to see me become a serious Jew, and he was pleased when I accepted his invitation to study Talmud with him one or two evenings a week.

Those evenings brought me closer to him than I had ever been. We sat at the desk in his study, the huge folio volume that had belonged to my grandfather, with its treasure-chest scent of stored wisdom, opened in front of us. We were studying the tractate of Bava Metzia, the laws of torts traditionally assigned to beginners, and my father had chosen not Chapter One, “Two Who Hold,” but rather Chapter Three, “He Who Entrusts.” (“He who entrusts a friend with a farm animal or tools that are stolen or lost. . . .”) Together we followed the twists and turns of the Aramaic discussion. Why, if the friend confessed negligence, did Rav Papa say he acquired ownership of the property in question? To whom did it belong if he paid for it and it was then recovered? It was hard work. An hour left me exhausted and dizzy with accomplishment. We had matched wits with the sharpest minds the study of Torah had produced. Rava! Rav Hiyya! “Rav Huna says: even if he offers to pay for it, first make him swear he doesn’t have it.” Why? Why make him swear? You couldn’t tend to God’s house unless you could follow His instructions.

It was springtime; my father’s study window was open. “At a time when the stars are aglitter/And the grasses whisper and the wind tells its tales,/A plangent voice may reach your ears,/And your eyes may spy a distant light/In a window, and through it/A shadow like a ghost’s,/Swaying, moving, moving, rocking back and forth,/Its soft croon coming to you/Across pathways of silence:/It is a Talmud student,/Up late in his prison cell.” We had studied this Hebrew poem by Haim Nahman Bialik in school. Now I swayed, moved, in its lines.

And so if I thought at all of changing schools, it wasn’t for the Bronx High School of Science. It was for a yeshiva where I could be a real Talmud student—and where my parents would never permit me to go. I would stay at Ramaz, then. When I was notified that I had passed the test for Science and had a month in which to register, I felt proud of my success and put it out of my mind.

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But there was another boy in my class, Stanley Nussbaum, who had gotten into Science too. Not only that, but Stanley had announced his intention of going there. Now, sitting in class and looking at him—he occupied the front seat in the row nearest the door—I felt a combination of admiration and resentment that I knew well enough to identify as envy.

This envy made no sense. What was it to me if Stanley Nussbaum went to the Bronx High School of Science? It was the voice of the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination that, like everyone, I had inside me. The yetzer ha-ra would be happy if I dropped my Jewish education entirely. It would gladly lure me to a place where I couldn’t behave like a Jew.

It stood no chance. And yet there I was, staring day after day at Stanley Nussbaum and thinking, “A few months from now he’ll be in the world.” It had never occurred to me until then that the world was something I felt deprived of.

Ah, but he was making a great mistake! If the evil inclination meets you on your way, drag it with you to the study house, the rabbis said. Yet the envy only grew worse. The door was open to me, too. I had only to walk through it.

And so, gradually, the idea of going to a public high school crept into my mind. The more it did, the harder I fought it, and the harder I fought it, the more it fought back. “He’ll soon be free,” the yetzer ha-ra said, pointing at Stanley. “And you’ll still be in your prison cell.”

I was in a state of inner turmoil. Never in my life had I had to make such a momentous decision. And I had to make it on my own, because my parents—to their great credit, I would say now—refused to express an opinion on the matter. I still don’t know whether they had one.

It went right down to the last day. I sat at the breakfast table with my parents and prayed that they would tell me what to do. But they didn’t. And so I made up my mind: I would be a good Jew and stay at Ramaz. I rose from the table with a sense of relief and went off to school.

But all morning I could only stare at Stanley Nussbaum. “You’re a coward,” the yetzer ha-ra whispered. “Go ahead, then, be one. The world is full of cowards. But admit you’re only staying at Ramaz because you don’t have the courage to leave.”

Some time in the course of that morning, I broke down and admitted it. I went home and told my parents that I was going to Bronx Science. And Stanley Nussbaum, as fate would have it, broke down too. At the last minute, like me, he changed his mind and decided to stay at Ramaz.

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My freshman year at Bronx Science was a miserable one. Instead of spending all day with the same small group of students who sat in one classroom while the teachers came and went, it was now I who went from room to room and was surrounded by different faces in each. I made no friends. I missed my old ones from Ramaz. I lived in terror of a class called “shop” in which we were taught by an intimidating Southerner with a cracker drawl to work with drills and power saws that I was inept at. (In my home on West End Avenue, my parents called the super for anything more than changing a light bulb.) And I was becoming increasingly entrenched in a faith that I felt increasingly unfaithful toward.

Covering my head in school was unthinkable. “Jewish beanies,” as yarmulkes were sometimes mockingly called in those days, were not the common sight in the streets of New York that they were to become. My arba kanfos, too, was abandoned after our first gym class when I realized that I would have to change clothes in the locker room in front of everyone. I managed to yank it off and stuff it away without drawing guffaws, but I never wore it to school again.

I had not been brave as a lion.

Had I thought about it more deeply, I might have wondered about the nature of a faith that is so easily embarrassed. It might have occurred to me that one does not fear ridicule so greatly unless one identifies with it in some part of one; that, just as the smallest crack in a wall portends its eventual collapse, being the first sign that the ground has begun to sink beneath it, so my faith was already doomed. But I was too stung by my perfidy to be any more aware of this than is a wall.

Today, after reading some of the reunion-year autobiographies in which my high-school classmates have brought one another up to date on their lives, I realize that I was not the only Orthodox Jew in concealment at Bronx Science. There were other boys from observant homes like mine who were “passing,” and who may have suffered the same pangs of guilt. But we were well-camouflaged, and I can’t recall a single case of mutual disclosure.

The irony of it was that Science in those days was probably 80-percent Jewish, 90 when it came to the top students. (Today, the prize-winners listed in the alumni news bulletin all seem to be Asian.) Yet the Jews I met there were like none I had met before. Many were as bookish as I was, but there were also tough Jewish kids, and wild Jewish kids, and Jewish kids who, by the second month of school, were cutting class to go to the neighborhood pool room. If I had wanted the world, I had gotten a chunky first bite of it to chew on.

But now, every morning at prayer in my room, I strapped the leather thongs of my tefillin so tight to my arm that it hurt, as if to bind myself, like Odysseus to the mast, against the world’s siren song. I envied Stanley Nussbaum once more—this time for having stayed at Ramaz. I thought of returning there. I would have done it if not for my pride. No one would have the satisfaction of seeing me come back in defeat.

And so that freshman year of high school went by and I felt more and more lost. And then, toward the end of it, I hit on an idea: I would leave Bronx Science not to return to Ramaz but to enroll in Talmudical Academy. That way, not only would I lose no face, I would be a real yeshiva student at last.

My parents, however, would never agree to it. It was one thing to humor me through what they hoped was an adolescent phase, another to deliver me to the portals of obscurantism. This time they would not leave the decision to me.

It was then that I did something utterly outlandish. I cut school one day, took the subway to Talmudical Academy in upper Manhattan, asked for registration papers for the sophomore year of high school, filled them out, forged my father’s signature, and returned them. I didn’t tell anyone about this. At the end of that summer, when the first day of school came around, I got up in the morning, dressed, had breakfast, and set out, not for the IND line and the Bronx as my parents thought I was doing, but for the IRT and Washington Heights.

What did I think I was doing? Did I plan to hide where I was studying for the next three years? Who would pay my tuition? These are not questions that I remember the answers to. There are times in one’s younger years when, though possessing not a shred of the confidence one later acquires, one does things whose audacity stuns the future self. But this is only because that self, being calmer and more self-assured, can no longer conceive of the desperation that drove one to do what one did.

From the moment I passed through the doors of Talmudical Academy until I fled several hours later, I hated every second of it. The place had a seedy, shabby air. It smelled bad. The only teacher I recall, a Talmud instructor, had forgotten to zip his fly and stood with it open before a smirking, all-boys’ class. I felt far more constricted than I had ever felt at Ramaz. I wanted only to get away.

Fortunately, I had never bothered to inform Bronx Science that I was leaving. I walked out of the Talmud class, took the IRT back down to 59th Street, changed for the IND, rode it up to 183rd Street and Creston Avenue, and arrived at Science in time to finish the first day of my sophomore year. To the best of my recollection, I never breathed a word of the whole episode to my parents.

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A good if not outstanding athlete, I was always fast on my feet. At the beginning of my second year at Science, I tried out for track. I turned out to be a better-than-average middle-distance runner and second leg on our mile relay team, which came in fifth one year, out of 60 or 70 schools, in the New York City championships.

I now had my first group of high-school friends, all from the track team and all West Siders like myself. After school we walked to the Jerome Avenue el and rode the subway together to Van Cortlandt Park, where we trained. We ran sprints for speed and laps for wind, and joked in a locker room pungent with liniment and shower steam, and stopped on our way home at a little place that sold Italian ices in all the colors of an artist’s palette. On weekends we hung out together, too, playing handball or basketball, or bowling at an alley on Broadway, or gambling away our modest allowances at poker. There were no more thoughts of leaving Bronx Science.

The one problem with track was that many of the meets were held on Saturdays. In winter this wasn’t so bad. The competitions were held in an old armory on 167th Street; I only had to walk three miles to get to them, and, the days being short, I could take the train home when they were over. But in autumn we ran cross-country up in Van Cortlandt and the days were longer. I had to walk seven miles to get there, run a two-and-a-half mile race, and walk back again. By the time I arrived home, my legs were too heavy to lift over the rim of the bathtub.

There was an obvious solution. “Take the train,” said the evil inclination. “The Torah doesn’t say you can’t travel on Saturday. It says you should let your donkey rest. You don’t own a donkey.”

This was not a serious argument. You could score the same points against practically all of Judaism. Kosher slaughtering, praying at regular times—none of it was in the Bible. It was part of the Oral Law codified by the rabbis of the Talmud.

“Indeed,” came the answer. “And next you’ll tell me the Oral Law was given with the Written Law at Mount Sinai. That’s why Moses spent so much time up there. He was memorizing the Talmud.”

No, he wasn’t, I replied. But God had wanted mankind to be His partner. The Written Law was His constitution. It had to be interpreted by human courts.

“And what makes you so sure,” the next question was, “that the Written Law was given at Mount Sinai? Because the Bible says it was? That’s brilliant. The proof that God gave the Torah is that the Torah says so! If you used logic like that in your geometry class, you’d flunk.”

But surely, I reasoned, God needed to educate mankind. Why not from a mountaintop?

“Because,” the voice said, “God is everywhere. He can’t be more in one place than in another. And why educate only the Jews?”

Perhaps so that they could serve as a model for the rest of the human race that God had created.

“God didn’t create anyone. For goodness’ sake, you go to the Bronx High School of Science. I don’t have to tell you about evolution.”

But evolution was a form of creation too. Why couldn’t God have created man step by step? Why not the whole universe that way?

“You’ve heard of Spinoza? Then listen: Since God is Being absolutely infinite, of whom no attribute can be denied which expresses the essence of substance, there cannot be any substances except God, and consequently none other can be conceived. God didn’t create the universe. He is the universe. How could God create Himself?”

These exchanges didn’t take place in a single conversation, or in a single day or month. They were part of an extended battle. And I was losing it. I was a country at war in which the fighting was moving steadily closer to the center: first the outlying districts were taken, then the provincial towns, then the roads leading to the capital. Each time another position was overrun I fell back and threw up new defenses; each time, they were overrun again.

This was all perfectly ordinary. The same battle had been fought since the time of the Haskalah, the 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment in Eastern Europe, in the minds of vast numbers of young Jews—almost always with the same outcome. No theme is more widespread in the Jewish literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries than the loss of faith resulting from the collision of religion with modernity.

And yet I was on the verge of becoming an anachronism. By the time I was a student at the Bronx High School of Science in the 1950′s, an understanding between Judaism and modernity was already being reached. Religious faith had ceased to be an issue in Jewish literary and even religious life. Orthodoxy, which had been in headlong retreat for over a century, had rallied and was holding the line. Today, 50 years on, a large percentage of my own classmates at Ramaz is still observant.

Perhaps this is because the understanding was not really with modernity. Rather, it may have marked the moment at which Judaism, precociously ahead of its times, slipped through the gates of post-modernism. No longer, it seemed, was there a need to decide between the rabbis and Spinoza, between God and Nature, between Genesis and The Origin of Species. Now there were alternate systems, multiple perspectives, equally legitimate takes on reality, mutually compatible contradictions. One could be Orthodox and heterodox, a Talmudist and a physicist, a believer in relativism and in revelation, all at the same time—or one could simply bypass questions of ultimate reality completely by regarding them as stale epistemological and metaphysical conundrums. Did God exist? He did and He didn’t, like Schroedinger’s cat, and it all depended on which box you opened.

Had I left Ramaz and gone to Bronx Science a few years later, I might have become a Schroedingerian myself. But we were not taught quantum mechanics at Science in the mid-1950′s, or even relativity theory. The physics we learned was Galileo and Newton’s. We were told to think in terms of “either/or,” not of “both/and.” I don’t recall who it was who once said that what you haven’t learned by the age of twenty you’ll never internalize if you live to be a hundred, but he was an astute psychologist.

Born two months before the outbreak of World War II, I fought the battles of a 19th-century Jew. My faith in the Jewish God was like a soldier tragically killed, for no good reason, in the last hours of combat before an armistice is signed.

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In my junior year at Science, I fell in with the literary crowd. It started with a creative-writing class. Our teacher, Mrs. Applebaum, sat on the front of her desk, with her legs, her best feature, draped over it. She had us keep journals that she collected and read every month. If anything was considered too personal, we were allowed to scotch-tape the pages together. There were rumors of scotch tape being removed and replaced.

We wrote sketches and stories and poems and read them aloud and discussed them. Dorothy Applebaum may have peeked at our inmost thoughts, but she taught me what writing was about. It wasn’t about the thoughts themselves. It was more like shop. You had your tools—nouns and verbs and adjectives and punctuation marks—and each had its use and you used them to make anything you wanted: phrases, and sentences, and paragraphs, and pages. The difference was that these were tools I knew what to do with. I was handier with a comma or a semi-colon than with a jigsaw or a drill. I wrote a story that took place on Martha’s Vineyard, where I had spent part of the previous summer with my parents. It began, “The ocean lay before him as gray as a gull and sifted the wind with its spray.” The words came to me in an ecstasy while walking down Broadway in a thunderstorm, the rain pouring down my face, and the story was published in the school literary magazine.

The students who clustered in the magazine’s office were a new type of friend. We sat around arguing about Dylan Thomas and Dostoevsky, and went to cafés on MacDougal Street, and saw plays in tiny off-Broadway theaters, and sat on floors at parties singing folk songs to the plunk of a guitar. Spanish civil-war songs were popular:

Los cuatro generales!
Los cuatro generales!
Los cuatro generales,
Mamita mia, mamita mia!

So were songs of the American Left:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me.
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”
“I never died,” says he.

Joe Hill was a Wobbly. The word gave me the shivers. There were hobos in it, and railroad tracks, and great American distances I had never seen.

That year I read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Home-ward, Angel. I was floored by it. For three days I read without stopping, staying home from school. It was huge. Its emotions were huge. I recognized them as mine, only vaster, magnified a hundredfold, flung far into the world like the starry sky of a planetarium that comes from a small box of light. All the immense hunger for life—the terrible loneliness of having to be oneself—the nagging question, “When will it begin?”—were in this story of a childhood and adolescence in rural North Carolina utterly different from my own. It expressed a yearning so great that only America was big enough to hold it. It was, this America, a great, restless, dreaming giant of a land. I pictured it as a Gulliver, its head propped against the skyscrapers of New York, its feet dipped in the Pacific, tossing in bed at night, tossing and turning as I did, on fire with desire. A whole, vast, restless, yearning continent! And the farthest I had ventured into it were six years of a Hebrew-speaking summer camp in the Poconos and the house my parents had rented on Martha’s Vineyard.

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I spent that summer in southern Tennessee. I could thank my mother for that. Browsing in the back pages of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, she had come across a small ad placed by a Jewish organization seeking high-school volunteers for a summer work camp at an adult-education institute in the mountains near Chattanooga. I didn’t want to spend another summer on Martha’s Vineyard and I signed up for it.

There were nine of us, four of whom drove down with our counselor from New York in a red Chevrolet convertible. It was my first long car trip through America. There were no thruways or interstates. We drove through small and big towns on one-lane roads with stop lights and junctions, and slow-moving trucks, and country diners with pinball machines that buzzed and flashed while you ate, and four-dollar-a-night motels in one of which we slept. It took two whole days to get there. Somewhere in Virginia I had my first encounter with segregation. I was walking on a sidewalk when an elderly Negro coming toward me stepped into the gutter to let me pass.

The Highlander Folk School was a unique place in the American South, one that flouted Jim Crow laws to hold racially mixed workshops on social and political issues. (That summer, one of them was attended by Rosa Parks, who would soon afterward launch the civil-rights movement by refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.) Highlander had left-wing connections and could survive only because it was located high up in hillbilly country. The local inhabitants, whose Southern speech had a rapid, high-pitched twang, disliked government regulations and snooty city folk far more than they did blacks, but they got along well with the Highlander staff and protected them. Once, the story went, back in the 1940′s, when the Ku Klux Klan drove up from Chattanooga in order to burn the place down, they ambushed its cavalcade and sent it fleeing back down the mountain.

Highlander was located on a working farm and when we weren’t on duty in the kitchen, we were kept busy baling hay, building fences, and painting barns. It was my first experience at hard physical labor and I loved it. To lean into a bale of hay with a pitchfork, the sweat running down my bare back, probing for the center of the unformed mass I was about to lift—to hoist it clean in one movement and toss it into a wagon hitched to a tractor, pulling back at the last second to send the hay flying free—and again and again until the wagon was full—there was in this an exhausting, a devotional pleasure not unlike a page of Talmud or the relentless pace of a quarter-mile.

There were other firsts that summer. I heard my first rock-and-roll, sung by Bo Diddley and Little Richard from jukeboxes in roadside cafés. I fired my first gun, a .30-caliber Winchester rifle. I necked with my first girl in the back of a car in my first drive-in movie. I got drunk for the first time on the moonshine bourbon made by the locals, who joked that it acquired its taste from the dead flies floating on the surface.

They were a resourceful lot, those Tennessee mountain men. When they ran out of money, they looked for a job. When they had enough money, they quit their job. If their car broke down or their roof leaked, they fixed it themselves. If the larder was empty, they shot some squirrels or caught some trout. A social scientist might have described them as a marginal and vanishing class, living on the fringes of an American economy that would soon swallow them. They were men of few words. Their only strong creed, as far as I could tell, was not to be messed with. They had an instinctive sense of fairness and of competence that were really one and the same thing, for they judged a man by what he did or was able to do, and no amount of bluster could sway those judgments. They smelled of gasoline and tobacco, and they were the real America that until now I had only sung about at high-school parties.

Who but a city-born-and-raised Jewish boy falls romantically in love with his native country at the age of sixteen? This too had happened many times before me in modern Jewish history, to young Jews in Warsaw and in Minsk and in Berlin and in Budapest—in all of whom the same battle had been joined, since they found no way of integrating the Jew they were brought up as with the Russian, Pole, or Hungarian they had become. There were the well-known cases, like that of the Yiddish novelist and dramatist S. Ansky, a yeshiva boy who spent nearly twenty years of his life in the 1880′s and 90′s “going to the people” as a Russian narodnik and social revolutionary before returning to the Jewish fold.

And there were the unknown ones. Once, leafing through an album in the home of a cousin, I was startled by a photograph of my grandfather, a religious Jew who, wispy-bearded and bespectacled, always wore, in every picture I had seen of him, a black gabardine and skullcap. Yet here—the photograph must have been taken in the 80′s when he was still an unmarried young man—he had a bare head full of wild curls and a Russian peasant tunic, looking for all the world like a revolutionary himself. What secret chapter of his life had I stumbled on? My cousin had no idea; there was no longer anyone in the family to ask.

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I myself was now to lead not one secret life but two, each with its own set of friends. In them, I didn’t speak to my “Jewish” friends about my American side and I didn’t speak to my “American” friends about my Jewish side, and the Jew and the American within me did not speak much to each other, though they fought fiercely enough when, like moles whose tunnels have crossed, they sometimes met.

But in this, too, was I not a throwback to another age? I was struggling with 19th-century ideas of nationalism and identity just when they were being swept away for good. These ideas presupposed both a people and an individual striving for a wholeness that was now about to be exposed as delusory. Nations and selves were arbitrary constructions, and the more of them one belonged to, or that belonged to one, the better. Why indeed only two? Long after the period in question I was to meet a writer, a man considerably younger than myself, who took pride in thinking of himself as an American, a Mexican, a Hispanic, a Jew, and a Sephardi; if he could have acquired a few more identities on the cheap, he would have done so. Told how I had felt torn for years between being an American and being a Jew—for although I could easily conceive of myself as one or the other, I was not prepared to submit to the compromise of being both—he looked at me as astonished as if I had confided that much of my life had been spent debating which of my two legs to walk on.

That summer marked the end of my religious observance. In early July I was still putting on my tefillin, which I had brought to Tennessee in their velvet pouch. By the end of August I was eating pork. Viewed from the outside, this was a bewilderingly abrupt transition. Yet it was only the surrender of the final citadel after all other resistance had laid down its arms. Who, the last defenders dead or captive, was left to go on fighting?

Still, I continued to put on my tefillin. Throughout my last year at the Bronx High School of Science, I used them to deceive my father, who had no idea how I had changed. Every weekday morning I closeted myself in my room with Milton’s Paradise Lost, whose proud, fallen Lucifer I understood. When a half-hour, the normal time for shaharit, had gone by, I shut the book, took my tefillin from their pouch, strapped them hard enough to my arm to leave visible welts, and emerged for breakfast before leaving for school. It had been easier to be a mutineer at Ramaz than it was to be one with my father, who only years later confessed to me that he had not the slightest belief in the Supreme Being to whom he poured his heart out every day in mournful prayer.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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