Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: In Promised Dixieland

Except for being mildly affronted by its logical perversity, we accepted Saturday morning attendance at what was called “Sunday school,” like everything else, as part of the inscrutable pattern of our days. Absenteeism was sensibly scorned. This hour and a half was the rigorous core around which our day of abandon was formed—the preface to an afternoon in one of Roanoke’s (Virginia) fumigant-scented movie houses. After Rabbi Rivkin, Ramon Navarro.

It was a Saturday custom to gather on the street early, before adult stirrings. The Bluemont Cemetery was its quietest, stretching, green or brown, into the lumping Allegheny foothills. Occasionally there were unfrenzied excursions into marbles or one-a-cat, but for the most part we lay on our backs in damp-grass seminar and watched the waning of a bleached moon. The mountains were purple-clear and close, shouldering the city in an intimate ring. This was an hour of bemusement, recess from urgency. The Bully (Paul) knuckled the smaller boys, but without conviction. The Buffoon blew expert spit-bubbles—reflectively. The Baby (Jerry) giggled quietly into the grass. All of us, six or eight, chatted languidly, softly, waiting for breakfast time to mark the beginning of Saturday’s activity.

Of course, there were only two or three of us in the Ghent section of Roanoke for whom Saturday had a special significance. Paul and the others, as Gentiles, fulfilled their Sunday school obligations, less fashionably, on Sunday.

They were still deep in the woods, in their bow and arrow maneuvers, when we ceremonially boarded the bus on the corner.

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This was the first formal indication of the Sabbath: bouncy seats, shiny knobs, and—most intoxicating—the sophisticated perfume mixture of gasoline, leather, and lady passengers. We squirmed and squealed, but as the bus turned the Winston corner to approach the Temple, there was always a sudden, disconcerting regrouping of the stomach muscles. This was little more than an “institutional twinge.” After all, our rabbi was clean-shaven and had once played checkers with dinner plates on his kitchen linoleum.

Pooling our information on religious matters, we had been able to categorize the members of our faith, in order of intensity, as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, worshiping respectively in shuls, synagogues, and temples. Our impressions of the first group were arranged in a moist pattern of tasselled shawls, thick black beards, and the solemn dance of candle-glow on shaded walls. There were dark corners, mysteries, and muttered anguish, an emotional incontinence that deeply embarrassed us. We were unable at the time to define our aversion and knew that the utmost tolerance must be practiced in such matters; still, it was always gratifying to consider the probably grim fastness of the shul as we approached our own clean-cut temple.

It was never quite decided whether the middle group, the muddled Conservatives of the synagogue, did or did not wear beards.

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The italicized phrases beneath the English I words in our Saturday morning hymn books were pleasant to enunciate, thick and sensuous in the mouth.

Adenoi Elohenu . . . Adenoi echod. . . .

After all, work-a-day practice had made us familiar with the system of affirming one’s loyalties early each morning in song. Our public-school principal, a wonderful muscle bulging in her forearm, rang us in from the yard with a large bronzed cow-bell, and we immediately stood by our desks, waiting for the down-beat. We sang “Dixie” first. Our bodies, still warm from the playgrounds, leaped with its rhythm.

Oh I wish I was in Dixie . . . Hooray . . . Hooray. . . .

Understandably, we were very fond of Dixieland (i.e., Virginia). For at least one of us, the standard image was the Confederate soldier pictured in our history book, returning from a lost war. He was slumped over his horse, but his bent figure seemed somehow to express an unextinguished pride, a gallantry that was lacking in the blue-clad conqueror from the cold north. He was a sensitive man, overwhelmed by the brute, but spiritually invincible, aggrandized by defeat.

After “Dixie,” we sang “America,” evoking images of a breathtaking expanse of land, and of cool-eyed, white-wigged patriots scrambling into assembly. They were admittedly worthy people, but inspired no major passions.

The system was easily extended to the Sabbath, when we chorused, with somewhat more enthusiasm our acceptance of one more of the loyalties to which we had been born.

This singing, even in translation (we sang in English, of course), was relatively imageless. The only personality involved was The Lord, and there were no pictures. As a matter of fact, we suspiciously avoided any concrete contemplation of The Lord. We were doing very well without thinking heavily about Him, and, as they say in baseball, why break up a winning combination?—especially on Saturday. We left such matters to the cowled supplicants of the shul. However, we were not disrespectful; conscious of the dignity of the occasion, we stood straight and solemn in our fresh clothes to sing.

During the Bible story period, excitement mounted and attention strayed to the familiar Allegheny fringes, seen through the open windows high on the wall. The stories themselves, however, were not considered dull. They were dramatic, and the characters arresting, particularly since they were, so to speak, relatives. Moreover, their moral quality was recognized, just as we recognized the historical quality in the school tales of early Virginia. It was possible to draw a distinct line leading from ourselves back to the birth-adventures of the Old Dominion—State, the Mother State, the State of Presidents—even back to the famed salt licks, which were somehow very significant for the old animals of pre-colony Virginia. And there was another line, less distinct, which tied us also to Abraham.

We of the Ghent contingent had a third lore to consider, at least as interesting if less credible than the others, spun by Jerry’s old Indian maid-servant, who would have been impressive if only for a precariously fitted upper plate. With much clacking of porcelain, she struggled through stories of a time that antedated the order of the biblical world.

The favorite concerned a hero who rose to the upper world where people were eagles. Assisted by a spider woman’s magic, he defeated the bumblebees in the tumblewood, achieving thereby a magic power by which he was able to rob the people down below. Victorious and wealthy, he was then lifted up to the final heaven by ropes of lightning.

Her narrative, however, did’ not confuse us. There may have been doubts as to the strict historical truth of some of the Bible stories, but their ethical authenticity, at least, was unquestioned. None of us would ever have thought of stealing. Certainly not in earnest (that is to say, not because we had to).

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The completion of the Bible story session marked the climax of our weekly existence. We fanned out from the Temple into the downtown district. There were preliminaries. Fathers stood by, courtesies were extended to business associates, all of whom seemed in excessively wordy humor. Then with a few more coins added to the group in our handkerchiefs, we made our precipitate plunge into the sensual.

The symbolic quality of the small-town drug store has not been overdone by the pamphleteers. Air-cooled by a revolving fan from above, cushioned from below, we rested our arms on marble and watched festival fingers assemble our lunch. We were always reverent in this very chapel of wellbeing, free from any hint of the bacterial or the malevolent, the polished cradle of the good life. Our lunches were chosen for color as well as taste, bright egg-salad yellow rating high along with golden-toast brown. Diets and colors were unvarying from week to week.

On a table near the exit was piled an impressive mound of candies, and a sign that read sweetly: “Three for Ten.” The formula: two chocolate bars and a pack of chewing gum.

Then, heavy with nourishment, we marched into the dark chambers of a downtown theater where, for the next few hours, we were a delirious part of that mass decerebrate: the motion picture audience.

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This was the Sabbath, the meridian. There were nightmares—chambers of dark space through which we fell, almost familiar ogres from whom we fled, shadows that breathed over us where we lay—but these were clearly in error. Saturday was the reality. The comfortable Allegheny range was the reality.

On other days the elders piped their tune. Twice or so a week they played bridge. Often at night we went along, stretched on couches, rocking between two worlds, nodding with the ghostly murmurs. . . .

Vulnerable . . . double . . . spade . . . vulnerable. . . .

But there were more novel patterns. Hesitantly our fathers were wrapping themselves in baggy knickers and checked socks for Sunday golf. Our mothers held club sessions and asked such suggestive questions as: “Are parents people?” There were dinners with placecards, and dances with cocktail bars. The women draped their living rooms with thick Chinese rugs and scouted new apartment houses. And the “schfartzes” came to do their housework every day.

This was an exquisite historical metamorphosis. Not only out from bondage, not only out from the ghetto, but actually in a favored caste position. Our parents stiffly enforced the conventions in a kind of delicious self-flagellation—although they rarely countenanced cruelty, in the manner of the native whites. (For his part, the Negro declined to relinquish his own prerogative, and deeply, impotently cherished the Shylock tradition.)

Was this not the Promised Land, the green field? “Oh Lord, hast Thou led Thy people. . . . “ In 1825, when Roanoke was a trading post on a highway junction, many of our ancestors were on the rack of pogrom or poverty in Eastern Europe. Here, a century later, pogrom and poverty were unthinkable, and even their memory was being erased . . . the yarmalkes had disappeared . . .the intonation was in a state of repression. Our generation, in no humility, was to inherit the earth.

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The way of the Lord had been slow. Elias Legarde—no Moses—had set Jewish foot in Richmond in the third decade of the 17th century. But this was the land of the Cavalier, fabulous plantation, established church, mercantile sterility. It was more than a hundred and fifty years after the coming of Elias that the first congregation was constituted in Richmond—Beth Sholom, formed by the “non-barbarians”: Spanish, Portuguese, and a few select Germans. Another century passed before a congregation was established in Roanoke. At the time of the Great War, there were fifteen thousand Jews in the Old Dominion state; at the end of the Great Depression, almost twice that many.

As a people we had toiled through millennia, clambered over continents, sailed into the port of New York, filtered down and ended here. The ancient pilgrimage was at rest in Virginia.

Of course, for each Virginia pilgrim there were still five hundred of The Tribe wandering in the wilderness—but this circumstance was not altogether a misfortune: in Roanoke, our ratio to the Gentiles was one to a hundred and forty, which constantly provided a kind of mathematical comfort. We were but half a thousand and there was solace in insignificance.

In Norfolk, later, we numbered six thousand, enough to require a further refinement in the process of dilution. A sizeable contingent, whose lineal relationship stretched back generally to Western Europe, made considerable use of the concept of the “savage Slav.” The famous feud of the Russian Jew versus the German Jew burned smartly, since the “German” felt that the “Russian,” by innate blatancy, imperiled his position. Social and religious lines were drawn up, and the “Germans” waged a constant campaign of identification-by-etiquette.

The favorite matron’s story, “The Tale of the Washed Jew,” which assumed folktale proportions, was set in an exclusive hotel, or beach club, or restaurant. The protagonist (narrator) had been thrown together, quite by accident, with a group of strange women. In the course of the meal, or whatever program was involved, they had all become friendly, mutually attracted by similarities in taste, manners, and apparent social standing. The narrator, as a matter of fact, had managed to be rather impressive. Suddenly, across the lobby (boardwalk, restaurant floor) dashed a host of screaming, dishevelled, loose-jointed individuals with dark hair. This naturally turned the conversation of the strange women into a quiet derogation of the obstreperous Hebrew. Our heroine expertly allowed the dramatic tensions of the situation to accumulate, and then very softly said: “You know . . . I’m a Jewess.” There was a shock of silence, uneasy change of conversation, but eventually one of the women, bright-eyed, would turn and say: “Dear, I never knew there were . . . like you.” The affair, according to the narrator, ended in a heart-warming atmosphere of kindliness and understanding.

This story had variations, but invariably included, along with overt disapproval of the strange women’s bigotry, an unmistakable element of applause for their social discernment. And the narrator felt that she had struck a blow (perhaps the only possible kind) against anti-Semitism. There had been a (somewhat understandable) confusion of the Jew and the Unwashed, and that had been set straight. Eventually the laws of social exclusion would be drawn along more logical lines.

This did not, however, remain the exclusive tradition of the “German Jew.” Qualified Russian Jews became elite by invitation, and, indeed, they formed their own elite. The German-Russian antagonism persisted only vestigially, and the “cultured” Jew-“uncultured” Jew polarity set the more significant vogue.

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And yet, even as children in Roanoke, a pertinent sense of urgency was transmitted to us. It was subtly evident that there was a Jewish exorcism to perform, and, under parental tutelage, we became adept at it. In restaurants we ate our chocolate pudding a little more carefully, in buildings we shrieked a little less loudly, in streetcars we became a little less sick. There were aunts who were nervously polite to salespeople, and uncles who carefully referred to O. P.’s (Our People) when talking in public places.

Only in retrospect did the over-all pattern become clear: survival by suicide.

But as children, we could well afford these special obligations. There were special rewards: summertime was synonymous with Virginia Beach, the perennial playground. Plans were in assembly all during spring. Sometimes there were only several weeks, sometimes all of vacation time. The warm sand stretched as far as the eye could see, paced by the wide cement boardwalk, but we always lived in the same “restricted” area. Here were the hotels and rooming houses where our friends and relatives stayed, and our part of the beach was a pattern of discrete little districts of rendezvous. The various groups swelled in the evenings and on weekends with temporary refugees from the Norfolk heat.

The rest of the beach was alien land, and we cavorted down it with a sense of exploration. There was always the compulsion to run magically along the water line, just teasing away from the ocean’s bubble-edged swirl. In the evening, fresh clothes luxurious against our smarting bodies, we walked down to the amusement center. While older people left us for the darkened boardwalk dance floor, we wandered with our pennies and nickels through the bright wonderland of violent machines and gaudy prizes. Finally spent, we trudged home, caressed around with the curling ends of the music and the water’s lazy whap. There was the early morning to think about, the unpeopled beach, and the ocean a sad gray sheet lifting the morning sun.

At vacation’s end, we had the rest of the year to loll in the benefits of normalcy. On weekday mornings, our first concern was the aspect of the mountains. (It was usually friendly.) In the afternoon we ran on bright green lawns. At night we sat by the cemetery, manufactured frightening stories, shivered at the strange, black, threatening mien of the Blue Ridge.

But always, we marked the days until our spiritual revival: The Sabbath and its fruits.

Until there came the uneasy years, the U startling years, when the world suddenly turned unfamiliar. Faces went strange, landmarks uncertain. Our dear mountains gradually stiffened into a rocky wall. And slowly we began to suspect that somehow, somewhere, we would have to begin all over again—if indeed it were not too late.

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