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Naming Day in Berkeley

Doreen1 was back in Berkeley now, remarried, another family. It had been ten years since I had seen her, fifteen since we had both lived in that renowned town.

I called to say hello, and she invited me and Molly to come to some kind of ceremony for her newborn son. She called it a “naming ceremony” and when I asked her if that meant a brit, a circumcision ritual, she said no, it’s a naming ceremony.

Her new husband, Jeff, was from New York, a Renaissance man whom everyone described as brilliant. He was a professor like her first husband, Paul, but he didn’t sound anything like Paul, who had stopped being a brilliant professor long ago, and had gone off to work as a teamster.

Molly wanted to go, to get out of the cycle of playgrounds and dirty diapers and see some grownup people. She was also curious to meet beautiful Doreen, the heroine of Carol Lifkin’s trashy book, a best-seller which had been made into a TV mini-series.

The house in the Berkeley flat-lands off Sacramento Street was overflowing with couples, most of them in their late thirties, lots of little kids, everything at Berkeley tempo, wine and smoke on the sun-dappled brown-shingled porch. Every room in the spacious three-bedroom house was packed with Doreen’s and Jeff’s friends, most of them from their “radical Havurah” group. None of the people whom I had known in the Berkeley of the 60′s was there, but I recognized Agnes Brown, the black journalist who had been involved in the Free Speech Movement and the Vietnam Day Committee. She remembered me as a friend of Sidney Kramer’s, and she asked me about the tormented genius who had spent the 70′s in hell. He had tried suicide four times during a decade of in-and-out incarceration as a manic-depressive.

“What a loss—to us,” Agnes said. “But Sidney was always so crazy intense. . . . You know, I owe him a lot. He and Ben Goldman were always very sure of their Jewishness, and they didn’t just say yassuh to the black nationalists who were ranting on about the Jews. Did you know that I converted?”

I was shocked. “To Judaism?”

When I asked her why, she said that the people closest to her were Jews, from childhood on. “My father was a state legislator. I was never out on the streets trying to score smack or sell myself at age twelve. I relate to Jews better than to blacks. I respect the history and the learning, the religion, you know, it saved my life. I got raped six months ago by this ghoul called Greasy, the Berkeley nightmare. . . . He raped me for five hours, broke into the house and held a knife to my throat. My little boy was asleep in the next room. Greasy said he was going to kill us both. He was very big, powerful, a black man with a hood on his head. I had never been so close to death before. All I could think of was the Shema, you know. I kept saying it over and over and over again like a mantra—Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. It saved my life. I would have lost my mind without it.”

The guests started cramming into the wood-paneled living room with its parquet floor. Molly and I held up our kids to let them see what was happening. A hip, Reform-type rabbi was standing next to the new parents. I gaped when I saw Doreen. I had told Molly what a beauty she was, a princess of the Movement, and here was this plump, middle-aged woman.

Who would have thought that our generation would ever grow older? Doreen had always photographed so well: at the Oakland Induction Center, at People’s Park in ’69, or in Godard’s movie, when he spread some of his $6-million budget among the fresh-faced revolutionary students shouting “Power to the People.” In one scene of that film, Doreen, who came from Beverly Hills as I did, said, “I don’t have to prove my revolutionary credentials to anyone.” She looked lovely, like when she curled up to Paul and let her Chinese skirt crawl up to reveal a silky leg.

In the movie, as in real life, Paul’s presence had always been the more impressive. He had been born political, and he possessed that first-born’s assurance in whatever he said, smooth but thoughtful while others feared they would trip over their tongues or say something foolish.

Doreen’s new husband made a different impression. A distorted, intelligent, snotty face, bumpy head, and glasses. He and Doreen were rambling on about how they had chosen their son’s name—Adam.

Molly was put off by the spectacle. “A naming ceremony? Why can’t they just celebrate a birth instead of holding all these people here? What’s so interesting that they all look so rapt? Let’s go.”

Agnes nudged up to us. “Jeff is right up to here with Noam Chomsky—he’s really very brilliant. And he’s okay, although he’s a bit too contemptuous of mere mortals.”

Jeff had three Ph.D.’s from Harvard and Cal Tech in philosophy, physics, and political science. He was probably Bach on the piano, the best Channel swimmer in the world, and a genius of Kabbalah as well. He had written six books and his lectures at Berkeley were packed with admiring students.

As the ceremony droned on, the kids got restless, and we took them out to the front lawn. Doreen and Jeff took forty more minutes to explain how they had come to name their son Adam. The audience seemed to enjoy the presentation, which, I learned later, had to do with clay and earth and reflections of the Eve story and the color red. Finally, the hip rabbi mumbled a blessing and the ceremony ended with gentle laughter and applause.

Then Doreen, surrounded by an entourage of friends, brought gurgling Adam into the sun. When she saw me, she gave me a hug, shook hands with Molly and our children. A sloppy pregnant woman who looked in her ninth month joined us, and Doreen introduced her as Berkeley’s leading midwife. Jeff came over to introduce himself. I told him we had come back to the States for a short stay to try to make some money, and that we were going back to Israel soon. A slight smile flashed across his broad face.

“The trouble with Israel,” he said, “is that if you have to be Jewish to be a first-class citizen, how can you claim to be a democratic state?”

I figured such a brilliant person would run circles around me, so I got him to do the talking, asking him about their Jewish-consciousness group.

Jeff was pleased and explained how the “radical Havurah phenomenon” got started. “We’re all on the Left. We were all active in the antiwar movement. We wanted to interpret what this Jewish revival thing is all about. What developed was this circle of about fifty people—including about fifteen Ph.D.’s and writers of twice as many books—singing together, lighting candles on Friday nights. Very few had real Jewish backgounds. I did. My grandfather was one of the leading Jewish intellectuals in Europe.”

Jeff had been a member of the Labor Zionist youth organization Habonim, and had spoken on the same platform with Ben-Gurion in the 50′s. “That’s when I swallowed all the bullshit the Zionists feed you.” But he had actually grown up in the Social Democratic world, in the Workmen’s Circle. About one-third of his friends had similar pink- or red-diaper New York Jewish backgrounds.

“Anyway, we all had a sense of wanting to redo the ritual and to create new ceremonies, like the one we just had. What’d you think of it?”

“Oh, very nice,” I said.

“So we learned more about the Jewish holy days and customs in order to create new rituals, followed by critical evaluations of Zionism, talks on Jewish socialism in America—but also talks on Cuba and other subjects as well.”

Their group had listened to a couple who gave a presentation on traditions concerning Jewish births. Another talk was on death rituals, another on prayers, and another a sociopolitical analysis of Jewish organizations. Jeff said he himself had given talks on Harold Rosenberg’s essay on creating a Jewish identity while retaining secular values, the prophet Amos on socialism, humanistic things like that. It was a cultural, not a religious, revival, he insisted.

They had added a “post-Reform rabbi” who said things like “You are the tradition.” Doreen had planned the whole naming ceremony, Jeff continued, the rabbi was just a master of ceremonies. She picked the passages that were read, planted a symbolic tree in the yard, and bought twelve joss-sticks at the Indian head-shop on Telegraph Avenue to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. They had roughed it out over the issue of circumcision.

The question wasn’t religious, Doreen claimed, the question was why circumcision? “It’s clear it’s not necessary,” Doreen said. “It’s not now debatable as far as health goes. So what you have is this surgical procedure that hurts, and that even has a small risk to it.” She didn’t want to hurt anyone, least of all an innocent baby.

“Without the health issue,” Jeff interjected, “there are only social questions—an uncircumcised boy would have trouble with his peers. And he would be different from his father. That was the reason I wanted it.”

Doreen was against it completely. But Jeff took his own advice, to “do what you feel comfortable with.” So they reached a compromise. A doctor came over—a member of the Havurah—and he did a partial circumcision. The 50-percent solution. “I didn’t feel I’d be breaking a law of God if I didn’t have my son circumcised,” Jeff snickered. “It wasn’t a theological question at all.”

_____________

 

In its first year, the radical Havurah avoided the subject of Israel entirely, fearing that it would destroy its budding effort. But Israel finally emerged as an issue. “Only it wasn’t contentious, there are no outright anti-Israel people in our group,” Jeff said. “Carol Berman over there set up a program getting Arabs and Jews on the Left together. A woman from the National Lawyers Guild talked about torture in Israel. A Saudi from the Quakers’ Middle East project also spoke to our group. There’s a lot of that. Basically, we’re worldly, secular people interested in the spiritual aspects of Judaism, not in the religion. As Paul Tillich said, if you have ultimate concerns, you believe in God. We are traditional secularists—like we have our own Haggadah, including a passage by Eugene Debs.”

Agnes walked over to us with a man who wore a shabby, soiled Greek sailor hat and introduced him to Molly and me as an old friend of Sidney’s, Bill Zalman.

“Have you seen him?” Zalman asked me. “How is he?”

Zalman was a patriarch of the student movement, a founder of SDS. He looked sad and lovable, a forty-five-year-old man who had become a religious Jew in the late 1970′s. “Bill’s our only religious member,” Doreen said, poking him playfully.

After talking about Sidney’s suicide attempts and his struggles with Lithium, I asked why Bill was different from the others, why he had become a baal teshuvah, a penitent.

“I didn’t have any religious tradition in my family,” he said, focusing on my eyes. “My parents were New Dealers, very assimilated. And SDS, well, it’s strange about SDS. There was never any talk at all about Jews in the organization in the 60′s, even though about 40 percent of the members were Jews. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago at an SDS reunion that we had any discussion about it. We even had a Jewish caucus—it was the first time in my experience that something like that was held in a larger, revolutionary movement. It seems that the interaction between the feminist movement and the Jewish movement is crucial for advancing the revolution. I never really thought about Israel until after the Yom Kippur War.”

Molly and I both liked him. He looked like a victim of the times, a sweet and vulnerable and lonely man. The others seemed to be sanctimonious intellectuals who paid lip-service to Israel’s right to exist. Bill spoke humbly, perhaps a little too humbly—a beaten-down monk among his Berkeley people, who seemed to feel sorry for him.

“We need a world organization of strugglers. Planetary comprehension of our situation. Every nation has a tradition moving toward that place. My roots are in Jerusalem or in Hebron or someplace—but my roots are also in America, in the radical, progressive human-rights movement. Every people has a right to its burying place. Abraham is the father of both Jews and Arabs. I’m looking for the combination between Jewishness and radical tradition so that I’m not fragmented. I consider myself enlisted in the army of the Jews.”

Jeff winced. Doreen looked away. Agnes smiled. Doreen tried to redirect the conversation. “The things that are important to us now are the anti-nuclear campaign, health and welfare issues, Cuba. . . .”

_____________

 

Another SDS founder joined the circle on the lawn. Arni Zampolsky was a devout believer in Marx, part of the Marxist elite that by the 1970′s had become a major force in American universities. He had entered the Jewish-consciousness group after overhearing his eight-year-old daughter tell another kid that her religion was “Scorpio.” He was another of the “cultural Jews” and said he believed “in the need for a concrete ethnic culture for myself and my daughter in order to counter the rock-and-roll youth culture and TV commercials that surround her.”

There was something reptilian in his movements. He exuded arrogance and self-righteousness. “It’s a historical accident that I’m Jewish,” he said. “I’m a Marxist. I certainly don’t believe in ‘my people first.’ Israel isn’t any more important to me than China, Cuba, Cambodia. Everyone in our group is pro-Palestinian. Our only differences are over the nature of the group itself, the relevancy of Jewishness.”

Blotchy red Adam, who had been asleep, was gasping for breath, crying.

“The group’s not at all monolithic,” Doreen explained, pulling out her breast and bringing Adam to it. “There’s lots of conflict. David Korn—he was a major force during the Free Speech Movement—well, he accuses us of being too secular, humanist. Politics remains very central to our concerns.”

“We’re not overly concerned about Soviet Jewry for one thing,” Ami sniffed. “That’s mainly an establishment Jewish concern. None of us are going to rush into the streets to demonstrate—everyone’s quite sophisticated politically. It’s a real Jewish, socialist, feminist group.”

Jeff mentioned that I worked for a newspaper.

Ami’s face immediately registered paranoia. A comic-book reaction: his eyes narrowed into red suspicious slits, his pupils darted back and forth. “You are not going to report on any of this. If I knew you worked for the media I never would have rapped to you.”

He left abruptly, joining other guests, snarling and gesturing toward me. “Don’t mind that,” Jeff reassured me. “I mean, he’s right, of course—none of this is to be written about, used by the media. We are not interested in attracting new members or anything. We’re just a group of friends with mutual Jewish interests.”

I thought they were right to be paranoid about what other friends might think, as well as their enemies—a radical Jewish cabal! Doreen, having comforted Adam, now, in a sense, offered her breast to me. “You remember what paranoia was like—Arni just doesn’t know you. And we’ve been burned so often.”

“There’s a lot of conflict and pain among us,” Bill said softly, “mostly over how important it is to be Jewish.”

Jeff looked at him impatiently. “We’re not political or religious Zionists for whom Israel is the ultimate expression. None of us is concerned with the goal of living in Israel.”

“Except me,” Bill said, smiling wryly.

_____________

 

We gave Agnes Brown a ride back to the city. She sat in the back seat between the children. Molly asked her what she thought of the naming ceremony, and the group as a whole.

“I’m not a part of it—you know what they say about converts. We’re the most fanatical about the religion. I believe in Judaism, not just in Jewish traditions and cultural Jewishness. Doreen’s an old dear friend, and I went to her ceremony to see her and Adam, not to take part in any of that jive. I knew most of these people in 1964, and now it’s a generation later, you know what I mean?”

I said that I didn’t relate to people who were so intent on only one aspect of being Jewish that they turned it into a cause—some people on the Left did that with their so-called Jewish culture.

Agnes said, “There’s some superfine people, like Bill and Deborah Glass and Mike Sommers. Then there’s some obnoxious people like Leo Jacobson—and by the way, he’s not just concentrated on the culture. He advocates more religious content, more transcendental experience—and he’s got supporters in the group. His big rival is Jeff, who wants to leave God out. I don’t know how God could survive that. Jeff, like he told you, is focused on political, humanistic stuff, as they say in their jargon. And Leo, he’s trying to ‘reconnect with Torah.’”

“Snotty know-it-alls,” said Molly. “Pompous Berkeley—I suppose they can intellectualize anything. They say they’re not interested in Israel—that’s fine. Nothing wrong with that. But then they turn around and say they’re all pro-Palestinian and Israel is a fascist state. They seem to me just as blind as those Jews who support anything that Israel does. There’s a real struggle in Israel. People aren’t so removed from real life.”

“I left Berkeley in ’68 and didn’t come back to the Bay Area for ten years because all the radical bullshit and racial tension got me down,” Agnes said. “For a while I got drawn back in when SDS factioned out. But finally I just dropped out of everything, including my marriage. I went back home to Philadelphia. I have a nine-year-old boy, and when he was a toddler, I started thinking about Judaism in terms of my life and his life, and I studied everything I could about it, ethics and the laws and dealing with each other.

“I aways believed in God so that was no problem. Doreen was very supportive about my becoming a Jew. It was around that time that the Berkeley radicals started to become aware of the need for a spiritual life. None of us were Moonie types or People’s Temple types. Judaism is constantly changing, and its values fit what we radicals believed in and talked about all these years.”

_____________

 

She had gone the whole route, an Orthodox conversion. Most of her old Berkeley friends treated her like a freak. “You know, at the SDS reunion a few years ago we broke up into all these groups—but I couldn’t bring myself to go to the Jewish caucus because of their narrow definitions—cultural and ethnic but not religious. By their definition, I’m not Jewish—it excludes me because I don’t relate to Yiddishkeit. I’m a religious Jew. I’m not just eating latkes on Hanukkah or doing the hora. That’s why I don’t go to any of the secular minyans the group holds. I’m religious, so I’m not Jewish in their eyes. It bothers me because we have a lot in common. We got a history together.”

One old friend, a magazine editor, hung up on her when she told him she had converted. Two hours later, he called back, saying, “Listen, I don’t think you’re crazy. But you’ve done something I’ve spent my entire adult life running away from.”

“I told him, you know, our generation is older now. We got families. Our parents are dying, and all of a sudden, we need kaddish. The Left doesn’t begin to deal with death. We got to build new bridges,” Agnes said.

I mentioned something Sidney Kramer had written from an outpatient facility in Los Angeles, “Epistle to the Jewish Left.” It said that although Jewish leftists should align themselves with Israelis who favor territorial compromise with the Palestinians, their most important work was at home.

Agnes shook her head: “Our generation was so alienated that we didn’t even know about the Jewish community here—about everyday reality, taking care of old people. Now I think we should concentrate on our own people first, just like SNCC did. I know, baby, I been in both places.”

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 All names except for those of public figures have been changed.

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