Commentary Magazine


Girl Trouble

Charged up with high-voltage anger, Rabbi Steven Eskanazzi covers twenty-odd Manhattan blocks in nine minutes. He wants the anger full-strength, doesn’t want to lose any piece of it by putting it into words. He keeps an empty phrase going in his head: something must be done. Something must be done. A Jewish girl—same age as Steven, they’ve known each other for years—falls in love with a German; okay, that can happen. Then goes around flaunting the German in public, advertising her obsequious in-loveness; disgusting.

He descends the concrete face of the warm, dirty city from his building in the mid-Eighties to Jackie’s on Sixty-fourth near Columbus Avenue as if he were shinnying down a rope: the forward pull is automatic and it takes energy to hold himself back, waiting for traffic at the corners. He jangles the coins in his pockets as the yellow Checker cabs pass before him, the Volkswagen Rabbits, the long Cadillacs escaped from the 60’s. He threads his way across the expanse of Seventy-second amid the hot heaving buses, reading unintentionally the advertisements on their sides.

It’s April 13, 1978; something must be done. He reaches the medium-sized, faded-yellow apartment house, goes in and examines the panel in the front lobby. J Bloch, 6K. Pushes the button. He’s panting and his throat is hot and raw. A harsh buzz (the building’s mocking vulgar response) and the door unlatches. Through the main lobby with its smell of dim-brownness and furniture polish to the creaky-old-man elevator for a slow ride up to six. He rings her doorbell.

“Well hell-o, do come in, what a truly gigantic pleasure.” As the door clicks shut he’s in a living room all in oatmeal (the shag rug, the two small facing sofas) with a framed poster, mainly purple, advertising the Joffrey Ballet, and the oatmeal curtains closed. Something’s wrong. The blood comes prickling to his face. He looks up and away.

“Why don’t you put something on?”

She’s wearing what would appear to be a man’s shirt, and that’s all. Sleeves rolled up, top buttons open. The biggest problem is her right leg sloping toward him as she stands with hips cocked, causing the universe to drain downward through some sort of hole in his mind, sand through a funnel.

“Why don’t you drop dead? Did I invite you?” Her every move causes him another jolt. He falls back a step and then another, moving along the wall toward the corner. “And now you’re gonna tell me how to dress? What are you, king of the world? Do I tell you how to dress?—not that you couldn’t use a little help.” Lowered insinuating eyes, teasing. “Would you like a few suggestions? Soft, sweet, and sexy, that’s the look—pink silk. Beige and gold. Calvin Klein.” He steps back again as she comes forward, then looks her in the face and talks fast.

“Is modesty too much to expect from a grown Jewish woman? Or any woman?”

Oh, expletive modesty, she says. “I don’t happen to be a modest person.” And steps toward him again, causing another internal shimmering shudder like a cascade of wind chimes in a breeze. “And by the way, you aren’t, either—we’re a lot closer than you think, I mean, a lot.” Another step, and she bursts out giggling as he retreats into the corner and says, “Stop it!

“We’re a lot closer than you’d ever dream,” ignoring him. “I’ve got cooties, right? You can’t touch me, right?” The musical giggle—hands clasped behind her back, she advances again and stops inches away to look up at him. He’s slight but she’s smaller. He can smell the laundered cleanness of her shirt, her fragrant black hair. He can follow the quivering up-and-down of the improbable pendant on a chain as she breathes—an intricate dark-gold locket, antique-looking. The thigh-grazing hem of the shirt rises as she gathers a bunch of hair and lets it feather back into place. Acuteness of the bend at her elbow and again at the wrist. “But then of course you are the most arrogant stuck-up person I ever met, and that’s got something to do with modesty too, don’t you think? Mister big-shot who barges into girls’ apartments and tells ‘em how to dress? Mister modesty police? Don’t you think?”

_____________

 

Although he is a rabbi and an Orthodox Jew he has never (in fact) taken seriously the risk of incurring ritual uncleanness when you touch a woman. When you’re unclean, you can always get clean again. Private sessions between unmarried persons of the opposite sex are themselves unlawful, but he has in mind the components out of which you could assemble a theological justification: states of emergency, obligations to prevent sin.

He steps past her, returning to the vicinity of the front door and resting his hand defensively on the frame, about to speak. “What can I do for you, Stevie?” Shaking her head at him with arms crossed, mock reproach. “What do you want to tell me, Stevie?” Shaping each word with her lips. Her energy is so high it drives her from mood to mood faster than he can follow.

“I only came for one reason,” fighting for concentration. “Because you think that, whatever you do, no one’s ever going to tell you no. No, you can’t do it. No, you can’t have it. No, that’s not right. No one, ever, has ever told you no,” gathering speed and resentment, “and that’s why you’re a spoiled brat in a generation, a whole generation of spoiled brats, in a whole country of spoiled brats. Lord help us when you grow up and take over, because the only word you’ve ever heard in your whole life is yes. So I’m telling you no. I’m here to tell you no. Your behavior stinks. Your behavior with Klaus stinks. Your behavior is disgraceful. And good-bye, I’m leaving.” Hand on the doorknob.

“Liar. You’re lying, aren’t you?” Quietly. “You’re here because you want to grab me and make love.”

Sex, you think sex—”

“But you’re too scared to admit it, including to yourself.”

“Sex, you think, is the only thing in the world, don’t you?”

“It’s the only thing on your mind anyway, right at the moment.”

“Sure, fine, sure, I’m a human being, I’m a man, but life doesn’t reduce to hormones.” She’s approaching again, graceful, toe-out ballet steps, step and pause, step and pause, working hard to keep from laughing.

“How would you know?” Another deliberate small step. “You don’t know any more about it,” step, “than a five-year-old, do you?” He’s looking tensely around the room but stands his ground. “Do you? Huh? Do you? You’re so transparent. It upsets you, doesn’t it?”

“You want me to give in because you’re irresistible. I know you are. It’s true, you are. I’m still telling you no. No, get it? No! And I’m leaving.”

“You are not.”

“Stop it, stand still. Stop it!”

“Make me.”

One instant before she plows into him he seizes her by the upper arms, holding her motionless with his own arms rigid and hard. She squirms, he holds on. “You’re hurting me, you’re doing it on purpose. You’re enjoying it—every man is a sadist, go ahead, lie to me, tell me I’m wrong, tell me another lie. . . .” He is trying by the rigidity of his grasp not to feel her, or squeeze her arms—directing his thoughts to the heavy punching bag in his high-school gym, which must have weighed about what she does. It was covered in blue vinyl and patched with duct tape. Thick heavy vinyl. A mental effort so intense, her words register only after the fact: “Squeeze harder, hurt me, that’s what you want, you don’t have the guts—”

Yechhhhh,” his face screwed up, “you are revolting.” He’s pushed her away and she springs back and bursts out laughing, “You look just like a little kid when you say yech!”

“Why do you talk garbage?” He pulls the door open with a whoosh; the breeze bats them, the airless heavy smell of the hall.

“Garbage. You wish. You don’t like it so it’s garbage, ’cause you’re too much of a coward to tell the truth.”

“And every woman is a masochist, in your warped opinion?” His words pick up a hollowed-out sound from the hallway.

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“Good-bye and good luck.”

“Coward. That’s your motto: no. No!” She slams the door with a supple foot (her leg grazes his) and scoots around to lean against it. He backs off again. “That’s perfect, you uptight self-righteous creepy male chauvinist pig, that’s exactly, that’s—”

“Spare me the—”

“The whole country.”

“Spare me the clichés—”

“That’s just what’s wrong with it. You want to know? You want to know what’ll happen when we do take over? I’ll tell you what,” low-volume screaming but with laughter running underneath, “instead of no there’ll be yes, and people—”

“You’re talking like a child—”

“Will be happy for once instead of all screwed up and terrified.”

“An adult understands that you can’t just romp in the field and run around screaming. Children, yes, hate to hear the word no,” accelerating in a runway-rush to keep her quiet, “hate to find out there’s more to life than having fun, hate for anyone to cramp their styles and tell them sorry, you can’t have that, and all you’re telling me is you want to be a child forever, that’s your motto, and it’s pathetic.”

_____________

 

“Pathetic? I’ll tell you pathetic. Pathetic is going crazy because you want to make love to a girl,” only she puts it more concisely, “and she’s standing right in front of you and you haven’t got the basic elementary guts, that’s pathetic. No to everything, that’s pathetic, no to sex, no to freedom, no to grass, no to liberation. Yes to nuclear weapons, huh, right? Nuke ‘em, right?”

“Who’s talking about nuclear weapons?”

“That’s your program—”

“You are nuts.”

“That’s it, yes to racism, and putting people down, and telling girls how to dress, that’s pathetic, coward. And when we do take over, the world will be different.” He’s backing away again as (chest heaving) she approaches. “Because you’ll be allowed, when there’s something and you want to do it, and it doesn’t hurt anybody, and the only reason not to do it is because of someone’s stupid religion, or stupid laws, or stupid rules, then you’11 do it, and the hell with all that uptight garbage, and people will be happy, and even you” (bopping him smartly on the head with a rolled-up Time she’s grabbed off a sofa) “won’t be able to stop them!” The Travolta Fever issue. “Coward!”

The idea flashes through him of running his hands up her sides. He. shudders, tries to throw it off. (“He has raised discomania to a national craze,” Time reports.) “Kindergarten society,” he says. “Permanent kindergarten.”

She hits him again. “Coward.” And again. With a lunge he grabs her wrists, gathers them in his right hand and clamps tight as the magazine falls with a soft smack to the floor and she looks up at him and laughs, breathless; squirms hard, shoulders twisting, breasts moving inside the loose shirt. His heart punching.

“Okay, you got me.” Subsiding; a quick flick of her head to toss stray hair off her face. “Go ahead, I’m listening, make me religious.”

“Drop dead.”

“Convince me God cares. I’m waiting. Convince me God cares what Steven Eskanazzi eats for breakfast. Little Stevie Eskanazzi. You eat bacon, you ruin His whole day—right?” With a yank on “right,” she pulls free and on instinct he falls back and winces as she laughs at him, panting, pushing hair off her forehead. “Okay, I’m waiting, make me religious.”

“I can’t, won’t talk about it, not possible, not decent and not right with a half-naked woman in front of me.”

“Then do something about it!” Panted shout. “Has anyone ever told you how to be a man? Or only a Jew?” He’s clutching his clipped-on yarmulke and the hair beneath it, scanning the room. “Do you know you’re tearing your hair? It’s sweet”—he thrusts his hands in his pockets—“I’ve never actually seen that before.”

“I’d hit you if you weren’t a girl, it would be a pleasure.”

“Big strong man, hit me anyway. You’re the girl.” He has her wrists again and holds them before his face in his laced-together hands and just barely smiles. “All right, this is the whole Torah. . . .”

“Let go of me. This the first time you’ve smiled in twenty years?” She yanks backward but can’t free herself. “Let . . . ,” squirming. “Having fun, rabbi?”

He lets go and steps back quickly. “G’bye.”

“Tell me, Stevie, please. Tell me.” Instant change of tone as she slips once again between him and the door. She’s two inches away, whispering sweetly. “Tell me. Please? I’m a human being, too. Really, I’m a human being, too.” Delicately pushing another hair back in place. He winces again and turns away: the cascading shudder, the wind chimes, the avalanche. “Girls are human beings. Even if you can see their legs, they still are. I know it’s hard to grasp. I can understand English. Honestly. I know you think I’m a twit. . . .”

“I don’t.”

“You do.”

“Okay, I do.”

“Tell me, please?”

_____________

 

He pulls the front door open again, another sucking whoosh, forcing her to step nimbly aside—and pauses with his hand on the knob.

“Here is the whole Torah. Try saying no to yourself for once. Consider that you might be wrong. If you take care of your family, the rest of the world will take care of itself. I said if. And the rest is commentary. And goodbye.”

“I don’t think I get it. Explain it again.”

“You want to understand religion? I’m giving a talk in a synagogue five minutes from here this Saturday morning. Beit Shlomo. For your sake I’ll rewrite the whole thing. You want to know about religion, show up and listen, be my guest.”

“I’ll be there. Yes, I’m coming. I’ll be there. Don’t give me that like totally astonished look. I’m a human being, I can go places, I can understand lectures, and if Libbie is so damned crazy about you, why doesn’t she go hear you? ‘Cause she’s too damned scared to go. She’s scared to breathe. She’s scared of her own face. You both think I’m scum, that I’m a twit and scum, but what you are is cowards.”

“Don’t talk to me about your cousin. You aren’t even fit to say her name, if you want to know the truth.”

“Are you in love with her, too? Or just me?”

He’s out the door and smacks the elevator-call button (across the hall and one door down). It rolls majestically open—just where he left it. She’s put her head out and sings mockingly into the flat hollowness of the hall: “Ogni donna mi fa palpitarun desio ch’io non posso spiegar, un desio. . . .”

He stops halfway into the elevator, listening tensely, facing away. The door starts to close, nuzzles him and retreats. “It amazes you, doesn’t it—a twit like me singing Mozart. My voice isn’t bad, is it? Not that you’d know the difference. I studied singing; but you’re the one who has no idea what I’m singing. I’m the twit, but you’re the one who knows zero.” He stands frozen, the door nuzzles him again. “Every lady,” singing and taunting, “makes me palpitate—a desire I can’t explain. . . .” He steps in without looking back, smashes the “L” button and hears her “See you Saturday!” as the door closes. Riding down, he says out loud, “I think I lost.”

In the empty lobby he stops still and stares at his feet. What is this? A hurricane roaring around inside him. He pushes out the door and walks uptown as fast as if something were chasing him. The quivering pendant. Her astonishing narrowness as he held her and she squirmed. The bend of her elbow and her wrist. Dodging uptown through the basso honks, barks, and mutterings of the city, the occasional hollow shriek of a cab rounding a corner, carrying his burden of confusion like a tottering stack of packages in his arms, cutting him off from the world—awkward, conspicuous, wholly self-absorbed.

_____________

 

“It thought,” he tells his roommate Rafi soon afterward, “boy meets girl, it’s supposed to be like, what, romantic or something. In fact it’s a wind tunnel, it’s like walking across the Long Island Expressway.”

Rafi is sitting in his bathrobe at the kitchen table with tea and a volume of the Talmud and his portable radio tuned to news. John Wayne is seventy, feels fine. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Joan Mondale want to save Grand Central Station. John Mitchell is out of jail on furlough for medical treatment. Ehrlichman to be released soon. Patty Hearst freed temporarily, pending appeal; fourteen months to serve. The nation is still cleaning up after the 60’s—absent-mindedly, in a daze. Bianca Jagger is doing something, and so is Margaux Hemingway, and so is Amy Carter, age ten.

“A wind tunnel. I thought in some sense the male was supposed to be the stronger party. So why am I shaking like a leaf?”

Rafi switches off the radio and glances up. “You’re not.”

“I was.” Standing at the sink with an empty glass in one hand and his other on the faucet, stiff and staring. “What the hell? What the hell is this?”

Rafi had been worried about the meeting, but it hadn’t lasted long and it was clear (though Steven sounded strange—a musical instrument out of range, tense and pale) that nothing had happened. “Lust is strong. So what else is new?” He quotes from the Mishnah in Hebrew: “Who is powerful? He who masters his sex-drive.”

“Something is new.”

Ma she’hayah, hu she’yihyeh.” Ecclesiastes: what has been, shall be. He continues in Hebrew, “and what has been done shall be done. And there is nothing new under the sun.”

“Something is new.”

“Tell me another one.”

A few minutes later Steven says, “I’m not denying she’s beautiful.”

“Oh. Who asked you to?” Rafi closes the Talmud, kisses it, and tucks it under his arm. “I’m going to sleep.”

“You think,” motionless over the sink, one hand still resting on the faucet, “that it’s possible Libbie Bloch is, quote, crazy about me?”

“I don’t know. Really wouldn’t know. She’s a nice girl, you’re a nice guy, why not?” Pause, standing. “Is this a trick question?”

Another pause. “She’s not frum.” Isn’t Orthodox, doesn’t keep kosher.

“Which girl are we talking about anyway? Who’s beautiful?”

Steven doesn’t hear. Rafi returns ten minutes later to go through a pile of magazines on the floor, Steven sitting at the table now with a glass of water. “In ten minutes,” says Rafi, “you made it from the sink to the table. Huh.” Working through the magazines. “Drink your water. C’mon. Drink it.”

Steven needs quantities of water for his health. Kidney disease kept him out of the Army during Vietnam. “You know why people behave right, do mitzvos, act in the correct way? Habit. Just habit. Mitzvah goreres mitzvah.” One good act induces another. “If I’d ever attacked a girl before, I would have attacked another girl tonight. The only reason I didn’t is, I never had. I had my record to protect. Or something. I think.” Trailing off.

“That’s a nice explanation,” says Rafi, “a nice explanation for why people act good, except it neglects one minor little thing, that some people act good because they are good.”

“I wouldn’t know about that.” Silence. Then he adds, “I guess Libbie Bloch is good.”

_____________

 

Miss Elisabeth Bloch, startled out of near-sleep by her bedside phone, groggily picks up. “What do you wear to synagogue on a Saturday morning?”

“Jackie?”

“Expert advice, the straight scoop. My guess is, the slit skirts won’t fly. Correct? That’s just like my—y’know—female intuition.”

Libbie is lying on top of her bedspread and it’s 10:45 P.M. She had been watching her thoughts wheel and tumble near the ceiling like winged putti in a luminous Titian haze. Thoughts about Steven, originally. Roughly an hour ago, on the telephone, she’d had her first-ever intimate conversation with him; at least, intimate sort-of, in a manner of speaking. Then he’d set out on a mission to her cousin Jackie that she considered extremely dangerous. But soon after, the glow of their conversation had returned. The small suburban bedroom, her childhood bedroom gone rose-and-golden in the dim warm light of her bedside lamp—the pink flowers studding the wallpaper turned it into a jewel box and she was inside, and then she was walking on some sort of balcony looking down into a large bright noisy room full of flowers, except that she had to go because she needed a cab, and then the phone rang. “What are you talking about?”

“Gee, what am I talking about? What’s so complicated? Did I wake you, I’m sorry. I just want to know. I’m going to synagogue Saturday morning to hear Stevie give a lecture. Or something. Some kind of speech. You ought to be, like, falling on the floor with happiness, right? I’m going to synagogue. Me? The girl who hasn’t been inside one since she was six? I think—something like six.”

Silence.

“You want him, why don’t you go get him?”

Silence.

“It’s not like I haven’t always known you wanted him. Obviously you’ve followed him around like a puppy-dog for decades. But honestly it just hit me tonight that you really are crazy about him and it’s not just a little-girl crush—so what is it with you, why don’t you just do it?”

“He would never marry a non-Orthodox girl.”

“Well, fine, you’re pretty Orthodox.”

“Don’t be a moron, you know what I mean. My synagogue, the school where I teach, they’re Conservative, and not very Conservative, more like Reform. I don’t keep kosher and so forth. As you know perfectly well.”

“Well, you don’t eat ham sandwiches, or even shrimp. I practically never heard of a girl so fantastically religious she doesn’t even eat shrimp.” Silence. They both know exactly what it is to keep kosher: their shared grandparents, Orthodox Jews from France, taught them all about it. When the grandmother died ten years ago, the grandfather returned with misgivings to his ancestral village outside Paris. He writes Libbie once a week, and she writes him back.

“So get Orthodox!”

“You don’t change your religious practices to get a man, that would be dishonest, and everyone would see right through it. He would, obviously, and everyone else, too—it wouldn’t even work, and anyway you wouldn’t do it, because it would be insincere. It would be really low. It would be unprincipled and everyone knows that. Anyway I know it. Everyone knows it. And Orthodox Judaism—the position of women in Orthodox Judaism is no good. I mean, yes, they say they’re happy, and I don’t deny that Grandma really was happy. Yes, they’re treated with dignity and respect and all that, and their role is in a sense the central one. But obviously they make you sit separately from the men in synagogue—and I can’t tell you how devastated my mom and dad would be. It’s not an issue, because it’s a thing you wouldn’t do, on principle. But my parents, Lord, it would be—they would be crushed, it would be nearly as bad as marrying a goy, maybe worse in a way, depending on the goy. For me to tell them I was turning Orthodox and marrying an Orthodox Jew? It would be back-to-the-ghetto time, you know that perfectly well, they would be mortified. I mean, mortified. They’d be shattered. But you couldn’t do it, I mean, on principle. It’s not an option. It’s not a thing you could do. And the thing is, he wouldn’t marry me anyway.”

“Okay, fine. Loser. Quitter. Just tell me what to wear on Saturday morning.”

For a moment she says nothing. Then in a soft dignified voice: “You don’t understand.”

“Like hell I don’t. I read you loud and clear, Miss Passive-Pure-and-Sweet. Let him come to me. It won’t work any more, it’s 1978, remember? That romance crap is gone, where you sit on your rear end like a potted plant and get picked out. And thank God it is. You’re relieved, aren’t you? You were a feminist before I was!”

“Sure I’m relieved.”

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings but you are getting, sort of, y’know, weirder and weirder—but you taught me feminism! You are relieved?”

“I just told you I am. Of course I am.”

_____________

 

Two hours later Steven has finally concluded he is not going to fall asleep. He stands on his bed, then hops softly to the ground, puts on a bathrobe, goes to the living room. Pulls the large, worn humash from the bookcase and lays it open on the kitchen table. Turns to the passage in Exodus that (with Passover approaching) he plans to discuss in his lecture on Saturday Merely looking at the pages of this Hebrew Bible lofts his mood into a distant key, comfortable but majestic. He knows the text by heart, starts to read and then (following the ancient markings) to sing quietly aloud. He continues way past the end of the section he had picked out.

Eventually his eyes are dry and tired and his neck hurts. He stops. The refrigerator cycles on: a big moment in the night silence. It cycles off. That long-ago afternoon when he and Jackie were teenagers and she almost seduced him but he ran out on her is still the major event of his life, dividing his memory in two. Idling beside the propped-open kitchen window he registers the occasional car swishing past, three stories below. The weary haul of a truck. The pantomiming traffic lights. In deep night, mere things can turn vaguely alien and untrustworthy, a cluster of crows eyeing you—the toaster, coffee maker, phone on the wall. Your mind can wander off, slip away like a prowling cat and leave you blankly staring. Something is bothering him even beyond Libbie and Jackie and the near-seduction of ten years ago, a tone coloring his thoughts like an offstage clarinet, not happy but not sad. He can’t quite pull the memory into focus.

Toward three, a random house-noise wakes Libbie. Guilt and worry surge through the smallest crack in her sleep—she’s always been that way. She lies uneasily awake. Where did the phrase come from? Did Jackie use it once to taunt her? Did her dreams concoct it: the virgin feminist?

Words and thoughts get stuck in her head, particularly ones that make her unhappy. She once mentioned this tendency to one of her endless line of unsatisfactory boyfriends, a scrawny medical student who had explained to her over dessert in a fancy midtown restaurant (candle flames echoing off silver) what the tendency meant: that she was suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. “A classic presentation,” he said, pushing back from the table and thoughtfully crossing his legs (first smoothing the trousers) so she could be exposed to the full weight of his medical authority. He stretched an arm forward to tap his teaspoon on the saucer, enjoying the clink. Enjoying everything. “Of course, I don’t want to claim expertise in psychiatry, though I do know a little.” A quiet smile. “But, bottom line: I would definitely seek treatment.” A final definitive tap of the spoon.

She had known him in high school. Then he had become a colorless hard worker at a medium-grade college near Boston, and now he wore his medical-studenthood draped round him like the imperial purple. I would definitely seek treatment. (Clink.)

It makes her smile. At length she is asleep again.

Her cousin Jackie sleeps soundly. The sleep of victory—seamless, smooth, and sleek. Her life and her times are satin on her cheek.

_____________

About the Author

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale.




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