Commentary Magazine


On Not Being a Jew

My girlfriend is trying to decide if I was an Auschwitz guard in order to know how seriously to regard my attentions. She is somewhat old-fashioned, of course, a quality I respect her for, but I don't believe that I was. I believe, in other words, that the Auschwitz guards were Germans, not Gentiles. I'm Dutch, as far as that goes. One of my ancestors, a girl of sixteen, was publicly whipped in a market square in New Amsterdam for fornicating with a married man (he was fined). Another, a burgher of the same period, was murdered in a revolt of his slaves. I, for my part, was once fired from a good job for climbing into a mountain lion's cage. I took care of the row of retired MGM lions at the World Jungle Compound in California. MGM adopts as its own one particular lion every year, the year of his clinical prime, which is three to four, and then retires him to the row of cages that I took care of. There was also this mountain lion, a lady in heat who called to me at night in my boarding house across the fields with a sound like a pigeon's coo. When I crawled through her door, she went to the back of the cage, turned, and then sprang at me—I simply froze. She darted her football-sized paw into the pale bulls-eye of my face with the claws withdrawn, like a lady's muff. This was in 1953 and Trader Horn, who was the boss, happened to be passing by and fired me.

I went to school at various times with Charles Lindbergh's son, Gene Tunney's son, Nelson Rockefeller's son, David Selznick's son, Joseph Kennedy's son, the Aga Khan's son, Henri Matisse's and James Joyce's grandsons, with a Dupont, a Mellon, a Cabot, a Phipps. So why do I complain? I don't really. I had my lumps to take too, naturally. I spent a great many nights in flophouses in Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and so on, making up for all this, where an alarm bell rang at nine in the morning and everyone had to be out of the building until five o'clock except for the corps of cleanup trusties. I wrote a term paper at college about one skid row, going into a couple of dozen missions, sitting on the bony benches with the bums, and eating a thin jelly sandwich after the hymns. The Catholics were more generous and easygoing but I fell for a Grace and Hope nun, a timid hillbilly soprano. At home I'd been required to take lessons in golf at the country club, but I stopped, partly in social revolt for what I'd been seeing and partly because I was on the golf course when a friend of my father's, a liquor company executive, got struck in the groin by a wild ball. He lay on a bench in the locker room as though he'd been hit by a car. The next summer I was traveling with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, sleeping in the heap of straw in the giraffe's wagon with a number of battered fellows. When I walked in my sleep they were panic-stricken, thinking the giraffe must have gotten loose and was trampling them. The proprietor's name was Heavy and he thought that I couldn't understand English because I stuttered, so he would yell “No sleep, no sleep!” to me, as if to a Chinaman.

My stutter made my teens eventful even when they wouldn't have been otherwise. It took up to an hour for me to place a long-distance phone call, with three operators hooked in on the emergency. Storekeepers were always shoving a paper and pencil at me and then suddenly, deciding I wasn't a mute after all, running around from behind the counter to push me into the street, supposing I must be an epileptic instead. I went to a kind of Yeshiva called Deerfield Academy, with the oldest headmaster in this hemisphere. He had started the school in 1911, and was an astute power broker, hard on the faculty but a fine man, in fact. We called him the Monger—I can't remember why. He gave those of my teachers I specially liked a free hand with me and the years passed quickly enough. One of my friends there is now a traffic manager for Pan Am and I would be at a loss to say what either of us got out of the place, except for straight schooling. We were taught to pick up any papers that we found on the grounds (I don't know who dropped them, but we were all the time picking them up), and to look at the sunsets on the western hills. Sumptuous Harvard was next, where I learned that Pepys is pronounced “peeps” and studied with several extraordinary teachers, MacLeish, Wilder, Ciardi, Kazin, for instance, though I spent an inordinate amount of my hours hanging around Fish Pier and the East Boston docks and the Revere oil refinery. I went to the railroad bridge above Charlestown State Prison to be enveloped in diesel smoke, and to a red-light whorehouse which was on Copp's Hill next to the famous burying ground. I used to scuttle past that three or four times in a single evening, never able to nerve myself up to go in, until the girls gave up calling to me. As jittery as I was, I needed more rest than my roommate, so I went to bed earlier. I'd masturbate and shortly afterwards he would come in. I'd pretend to be fast asleep so as not to disturb him. He'd masturbate and go to sleep, and then I'd go to sleep.

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At Harvard during my freshman year I got to know my first Jews. I tried eagerly to make friends with all that I met, as long as that idea remained plausible, and sometimes their Jewishness was the best thing about them, when, soon after, they turned into bland and but-toned-down types as the sense of being in a minority left them. I had grown up in a bedroom suburb of New York where it was next to impossible for a Jew to live. Once a real estate agent, a red-haired widow, sold one a house and was virtually bankrupted and forced out of business as a result of being ostracized. Another family somehow contrived to acquire a piece of land but the neighbors hired a bulldozer to come in and dig a trench around the property to keep the Jewish children penned in. It was a strange town. A wealthy elderly lady attempted to leave her estate on the noblest-looking of the avenues to the community for a new high school. This was prep-school territory, however, and in a perfectly open town meeting, New England-style, the proposal to accept her gift was voted down. Instead the school was built in a swamp alongside the Merritt Parkway. We at the Country Day School used “jew” as a verb gigglingly. There were two storekeepers whose names we recognized as suspect, a Mr. Rosen and Mr. Breslow. Both worked seven days in the week (a notion of endless reverberations), and when they retired the newspaper said that indeed they'd belonged to the Hebrew faith. Mr. Rosen owned a grocery store, so it was our parents who dealt with him, but Breslow, whose shop was for knicknacks and comic books, we took for our own, some of us stealing, some making the phone calls at midnight to him. I hung up without saying a word, myself, because of my stutter, and then would go to the mirror to look at my nose, which had been described by somebody as Jewish. The thought thrilled me insidiously.

These memories retain the impress on my mind that being told that it's bad for the eyes to wear rubbers inside the house does. They are luminous, permanent. “Never bargain,” I was taught at home, and so if I had some object to sell, as when I got rid of my trumpet, I enjoyed bringing it to a pawnshop and bargaining diligently with a Jew. By the age of thirteen, nevertheless, I had picked up two rather remarkable labels: I was a member of the American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologists, and a socialist. I had known, I think, only one socialist, a humorous man named Gray who lived with his many children in a thirty-room house near us. Actually, I'd never spoken to him but I knew that he was a socialist and I stuck to my guns against all argument, although called a commie at school and although every week I spent an absorbed afternoon in the company of Time. At Deerfield in 1948 they ran a straw poll. Dewey won something like four hundred forty-one votes. As for the other candidates—this I am clear on—Henry Wallace got eight, Truman got three, and Norman Thomas my single vote. An incredulous whoop went up when I gave it. But Deerfield was a sweet-natured, 1910 place by comparison with my hometown, where I fought many tearful, furious fights. They might be on unionization or the minimum wage, but anti-Semitism was generally sniffable in the discussion. Though Negroes were only a laughing matter, Jews were not, and quite correctly so, because in a very few years Leonard Bernstein was to be the New York Philharmonic's conductor, publicly kissing the President's wife (this was the worst), and Arthur Goldberg would have caught Kennedy's ear instead of the silly Bernie Baruch. Even the town itself would eventually fall when the developers built too many houses for the sales to be closely controlled. The population has tripled from the community I knew, and if there still aren't many outright, shameless, stark names like Cohen or Gould in the telephone book, a number of Wolfs and Millers and Whites have appeared, the ambiguous forerunners.

Meanwhile, I was out in the West fighting forest fires in a hot-shot crew, or mopping the basement of Madison Square Garden when the circus arrived in New York. Lindbergh's son, I used to hear, was paddling a kayak on Long Island Sound, camping out winter and summer. Another boy I went to school with moved up to Fairbanks, Alaska and became a world authority on grizzly bears. My college roommate, having read Thoreau, was solving our masturbatory difficulties by sleeping rolled up in a khaki blanket on the floor of the sitting room. On the other hand, my best friend at Deerfield had made the unfortunate mistake of reading a lot of late Tolstoy, had quit school to live on the Lower East Side, and was giving the shirts off his back to every addict who asked for one, until he wound up in a mental hospital. I was a bit Tolstoyan too. I lived there a little later on, watching the games of stoop-ball, the loop-the-loop trucks, the kids swimming off the piers downtown, the beatniks who lived overswept by cats with a sign in the window: “Have you ever owned a painting?—20¢.” I would stop and lean down and feel the pulse of a bum who was lying unconscious on the sidewalk to make sure his problem was liquor. The lives led by the very poor are not more harassed than the lives which middle-class people lead. It's the crampedness, the developing paranoia which makes poor people so wretched—never getting away for a trip, never enjoying any real recreation, some new scene, new distractions. Wagner and Lehman campaigned through with apologetic, uneasy expressions and saddened voices, looking like much older men than they did uptown, looking like men who wished to retire and let someone else try to fix this. Once when I sprained my ankle I realized how dangerous the neighborhood could be, because I couldn't run. And I couldn't dash through the most depressing streets like Third Street, where the Emergency Home for men was located. Third Street was spattered with puke, littered with broken glass, but it was also where the hot dog pushcarts loaded up, and you would see the full-bearded patriarchs who did the pushing extinguish their charcoal at the end of the day in order to get some wear out of the coals tomorrow. You'd see a police car cruise slowly by and a boy on a tricycle peddling as fast as he could alongside with his arm raised. I lived next to an artisan locksmith who taxied all over the city to jobs or else worked in front of our building on a succession of cars, having the driver lock him in the trunk, so that he could pick and adjust his way free. He sometimes seemed superbly human and sometimes scarcely human at all, he worked so hard. He had a slouchy Z posture, gnarled blocky fingers, the earnest face of a clever groundhog, and a fat chest he folded his arms on when he was talking. His main tool was just his hammer, and he could have walked into any bank and begun to tap at the locks on the vault without being asked to show his credentials. He looked like an incontrovertible locksmith, an honest master.

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We alumni of the Lower East Side pour out stories when we get together as if we were at a college reunion, especially those of us who are in a position to go to college reunions as well. Plenty of girls were there from my sort of background, girls metamorphosed into wan social workers. And some of them went overboard and married a sandal-maker of thirty-eight or a man obsessed with clocks and axes. I was too much of a waffler to turn into a drastic Tolstoyan, and besides I'd been out in the fresh air for years on my hitchiking trips, learning the truck drivers' language of headlight flicks and benedictions conveyed with a roll of the idle hand. The first girl I kissed was an innkeeper's daughter in Pitts-field, Mass. (I wrote her a letter of self-abasement afterwards, which her mother steamed open.) The second girl lived next door to me in a hotel I stayed in in Cleveland. She was three days escaped from a coal mining town in the Appalachians where they spit on the floor of the fire hall, watching the weekly movie, and she crossed the clattering streets holding my hand as if we were wading into big breakers. We went to the Palace Theater with its chandeliers, mirrors, and thick pile rugs as if we had inherited a mighty sum.

It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I would volunteer where I was from: before, I said “near Stamford” or “from Connecticut.” And all this adventuring, all this clumsy “penance” of a kind, perhaps, living in Negro hotels on upper Broadway, makes me a confident WASP nowadays without any apologies for what I am. As a matter of fact I'm not a WASP in actuality; my name is Americanized Dutch. But I'm lumped with the WASP'S as cheerfully as we in that bedroom suburb would have classified an Armenian with the rest of the Jews, if we had met an Armenian. WASP is a pejorative word, a literary equivalent for Dago or Kike. W.P., for white Protestant, would certainly have legitimate meaning, but the A.S. in the middle has been added gratuitously for kicks. Everyone took to the word at first, but lately, oddly enough, the people who use it the most are themselves WASP'S, either boot-me's who relish the sensation of turn-about, or else the ones like myself who say it ironically, as a Negro will say he's a nigger. Usually Jews, sensing its disparaging connotations and remembering Kike, avoid the word as somehow non-U, though they may be content that it exists.

As a WASP, anyway, I found that my tearful battles when I was thirteen on behalf of social justice or whatever it might be considered to be were wholly beside the point, to put it mildly. I saved no householder his house, and history was marching swiftly along. No doubt some of my classmates who remained placidly anti-Semitic until they were of voting age are freer of the memory of those early catechisms than I. My mother asked me recently why so many of the writers interviewed on TV appear to be Jews and I said because probably most writers are Jews. It was a new world for me, New York in the late 1950's. To be a Jew must have been like being a Yorkshireman if you were a young English writer—the vigor was said to be yours; the eyes were on you. I found I was kind of an Ibo, an ornament, in some circles, though welcome and liked. My smooth skin and glossy hair were commented on by every girlfriend. That scene from Saul Bellow's The Victim must have been enacted two dozen times, where someone would reach out and touch my hair in the midst of an unrelated conversation. Of course I was no victim; I was doing quite well for myself. The girls thought sex would be better with me and I thought sex would be better with them. They would try to decide what to cook for me that I might feel at home with and would end up doing Indian pudding, and then afterwards would marvel, practically catch their breath, at the literal cross my hair forms on my chest. It was fun and then tender and serious too, no longer mere experimentation. I did grow rather bored at being taught chutzpah and mensch and shlepping so regularly—no one seemed to realize that everybody was teaching these same words to people like me. Usually the teacher himself had only just learned them, but they were ethnically his and the idea supposedly was that some of their extraordinary vigor might be imparted to me if I ingested them. A person who knew how to say chutzpah could develop chutzpah even if he weren't Jewish.

I could make a good many obvious jokes about all of this, but when I spent nine months in British Columbia, where the whites are either Scottish or Irish, I would have embraced anybody who'd walked up to me whispering chutzpah. And in New York I was learning, meanwhile, about the slaughter of six million Jews. During the war we Gentiles had heard in detail about the Japanese concentration camps but very seldom the German camps, and, although some time along in my teens I had figured out for myself the astounding information that Christ was a Jew, this was not news you could figure out. There was a galaxy, of reasons for the surge of identity or pride: maybe the Jews who had never wondered where they wanted their roots to be needed more patience than I. People who had changed their names wished that they hadn't done so. Jews my age simply were saying the word “Jew” a great deal, as if they had never said it before, trying the feel of it in their mouths. The most Protestantized Ivy League fellows began to teach me chutzpah and to tell me about their Jewish mothers, and everybody in New York who wasn't a Jew was marrying a Jew, just as everybody who was a Jew was marrying someone who wasn't. My father even lunched with a Jew, though he was at the ends of the earth. (He was in Yucatan sightseeing.)

One way or another it must have been as intriguing to be a Jew as it was precarious. I was walking on Broadway the afternoon when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. You could breathe the hushed, gingerly triumph. One old man of the many who'd hastily rushed to the street came up to me. “Did you hear Oswald got shot?” I said yes. “Yeah, a Jew shot him!” he said gleefully.—Now they'll have to respect us! Ruby's psychotic logic, before he began to imagine horrible pogroms, is reported to have been somewhat the same. A liberal and moral people who have been belittled enough become confused, the intellectuals too, as when Israel achieved her lightning conquest and suddenly sat astraddle so much territory. She'd had to win but now she was bigger. Being bigger, and the prowess of victory, supplanted having to win, like a shrill bugling.

_____________

During the 50's, at the time when I was beginning to publish, there was an historic coming-of-age of American Jewish writing. Malamud after The Natural, Bellow after Dangling Man, Kazin after On Native Grounds went out and wrote more than brilliantly; they wrote differently, establishing a new tradition, indeed a new establishment. To a young writer three establishments were apparent. The Southerners, leaning heavily on the greatness of Faulkner and on their own social graces, didn't especially interest me, except of course for Faulkner. The New Yorker paid its contributors lavish honorariums but seemed a dying institution. It had the phenomenal John Updike, shortly to leave the staff bodily and artistically, and the admirable workhorse John Cheever, and the frail, phosphorescent J. D. Salinger, who wrote as if he were chipping mica. I had grown up reading Melville, Whitman, Dreiser, Faulkner, and the next in line for me was Saul Bellow. Malamud, slightly less gifted, pulled even with him in certain short masterpieces because of the clarity and incandescence of his themes, but when Bellow had a theme going for him, as in Henderson the Rain King and in Seize the Day, I read him most avidly. We were finally introduced by the affectionate poet John Berry-man, and took to each other, he becoming a friend by correspondence and a faithful reader, so that there was no question as far as I could see of this establishment being exclusive, as Gore Vidal has complained. Other than Bellow, the novelists I encountered who went out of their way to make kindly gestures to me were people like Philip Roth and Harvey Swados. The burst of concentrated enthusiasm for writers consciously Jewish couldn't help having an effect, however. I think that Cheever received less attention than he deserved for several years while he was at the height of his powers, and maybe the recognition due other writers was also delayed. For youngsters like Updike or John Barth it didn't matter as much. The push of their talent was only beginning, and a lean fox catches more rabbits.

In my own case, my first novel came out at the same time as Sam Astrakhan's An End to Dying, which was about immigrant family life, shifting from the Ukraine to the garment center. Both were pretty fair books, he was a friend of many of my friends, and I remember being startled and disconcerted by how completely they gave their immediate attention to him. Being reviewed well, though, I was happy and, in any event, the only bad effect of non-recognition to a writer at that stage of the game, if such is his fate, is when he can't publish what he has written while it is still important to him, a trouble I didn't generally have. I dealt with a couple of magazine editors who expressed surprise when I mentioned Bellow's liking my stuff (“You? He does?”) and who turned their moo-cow eyes on me intently when I allowed as how I felt an affinity for him. “But he's so unhappy,” they said, meaning in his role of suffering Jew.

Philip Roth in the meantime was having a problem quite the reverse. After the howl of hosanna for Goodby Columbus, which is a splendid book, he was able to publish practically anything he touched and would sometimes wonder whether he should. He'd done the first widely read satire of a genre of Jewish-American life, and so the false expectation was raised that each of his succeeding books must be a first. It seems to me that along with Barth and Updike he's the best writer now in his thirties we have—I think he knows the most about people. But he was penalized in the responses to Letting Go and When She Was Good for that curious, initial hosanna.1 Some critics say that Henry Roth should have received an instant hosanna too, in the 1930's, for Call It Sleep, and regard his career with pity as blighted. I agree that his book should have got one, but writing is a spartan, bloody profession and I think if he'd had further books in him they would have come out, like Nelson Algren's did, who was just as neglected, although his first two books are nearly as gracefully written as his middle two, like Nathanael West's, like Faulkner's, who in 1944 is said to have been listed twice in the central card catalogue of the New York libraries for A Green Bough and The Hamlet.

One thing did matter to somebody like me, classified as a WASP writer. This was being told in print and occasionally in person that I and my heritage lacked vitality, that except perhaps for a residual arrogance the vitality had long ago been squeezed dry, if it had ever in fact existed in thin blood like mine. I was a museum piece, like some State-of-Mainer, because I could field no ancestor who had hawked tin pots in a Polish shtetl. Obviously talk like that can grow fur on a stone. If it had gone on a while longer Louis Auchincloss might have turned into a dynamo! I looked up old photographs of my greatgrandfathers in Kansas, with faces unsteady and mad as John Brown's, and recognized an equivalent rashness in me. I had a riverboat captain on the Ohio for a relative. Another guy was a naval cook in the Boxer Rebellion, who sprang ashore from his ship and was the first man shot dead.

_____________

But the decade is past when even the zealous take note of who is a Jewish writer and who is not. The question has shifted way around instead to who is a writer at all. We go to the movies now, or read the lyrics on the back of the Beatles' record albums. It's certainly quicker than reading a book. There are sculptors who do their sculpting over the telephone, and we all go to poetry readings because we can catch a taste of the young fellow's personality without actually needing to bite a chunk out of his work. Allen Ginsberg is the new Carl Sandburg. Blessings on both: Sandburg was quite a stage man himself. But the concept of taking a poet's vocal abilities so seriously we've borrowed from the Russians, forgetting that they hold their readings as a dismal if defiant substitute for a free press. Hardly two years ago novelists who were having trouble with their work, the talented but chronic underperformers, were going into journalism, which was supposed to be the form of the future. Now it's the Easy Arts that are in—easy for viewer, easy for artist. Who wants to read books any more (unless it's zany pornography)? The Graduate replaces Bonnie and Clyde replaces La Guerre Est Finie as Book-of-the-Month. We writers are told that the novel is dead, that we're working in a dead language—time is short, people are listening to glugging guitarists and aren't going to spend it curled up with a book. I doubt that we're going to be told this for long, but if I am wrong, if we do find that our language at last is certified dead, then I think that we will draw strength from our privacy, like Isaac Bashevis Singer has, and some of us, precisely because of that privacy, will forcefully irradiate and transcend translation.


Footnotes

1 The excitement about Roth's new stories, such as “Whacking Off,” is based on the sense that he is again pioneering, when this really isn't the point. The point is that he knows about people and is a whole man. Norman Mailer's achievement with The Steps of the Pentagon has elated people in an equally misconstrued way, I think. They are glad to see Mailer can still write so well. Unfortunately, our most gargantuan and calamity-ridden talent seems unable to spend any more than a month or two on a book, which is not a clear cause to rejoice.

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