Commentary Magazine


Suburban Anti-Semitisim

To the Editor:

Boris Weiss’s “Reilly and I” [April] interested me keenly because our experience as the lone Jewish couple in a quiet neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia was so completely opposite. Our situation, it must be admitted, was simplified by the fact that we had no children.

In our case we bought a somewhat neglected house and modernized it. We landscaped it and put in a lawn and hedge, which were carefully tended. For our garden in the rear our gentile neighbors contributed shrubs and seedlings to supplement our own. If we played our records late at night, we made sure the volume was such that it disturbed nobody. This was the pattern in the neighborhood, and it suited us perfectly. When children from a nearby parochial school walked on our newly seeded lawn, they did the same to the non-Jewish lawns en route. Our good neighbor, Mrs. Dougherty, was continually phoning the Mother Superior about the depredations on her carefully tended lawn and others on the block.

At one point I contracted a fever and was not seen in the neighborhood for a few days. The second day I had two callers, Father Dougherty, the son of my good neighbor, and Father Brown. They had been sent by Mrs. Dougherty to pay a call on a sick neighbor. I confess that my life had been so provincial that, up to that time, I had had no contact with priests, and I wondered how one spoke to them. My concern was unnecessary, however, for conversation flowed freely. This was in the days when Father Coughlin was still in the ascendancy and Lindbergh had denounced President Roosevelt. To my surprise the priests were out of sympathy with the opinions of both Father Coughlin and Lindbergh. Let no one imagine, by the way, that my visitors had come to offer me the consolation of their faith.

One afternoon as the pupils were returning from parochial school I heard a crash against the front window. A large snowball had been thrown. Soon the doorbell rang and a little boy said, “I know who threw the snowball. It was Davey C, who is in Sister X’s class.” Greatly disquieted, I phoned the Mother Superior. The next afternoon a meek little boy turned up, apologized, and asked me what I would like him to do to make up for it. I gave him some cookies and candy and sent him home. Subsequently, I received a note of apology from his mother. . . .

I’m wondering whose experience is more typical, Mr. Weiss’s or mine. Could it be that this is a matter of people getting on or not getting on, and not Jews versus non-Jews?

Abner A. Miller
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

I can feel for Boris Weiss intensely, because my husband and I, and our children, recently underwent a similar experience in City Island (the northeast extremity of the Bronx).

We, too, “look funny”—my husband has a beard, and while I do not have long hair or go barefoot, I have that generally untidy and ungroomed look that is associated, I suppose, with the “intellectual woman.” . . . The chill that greeted us upon our arrival in the neighborhood was absolutely unmitigated: I suppose because the furniture everyone saw unloaded from the Village movers’ wagon looked even funnier than we did.

After a week or so, both of my children were terrified, mostly of a neighbor boy called Butchie; they would not leave the house except to take a bus directly to Orchard Beach. Gangs of teen-agers, not small children but teen-agers, would stand across the street from us and shout, jeer, and generally carry on. Whenever I walked down the street to shop I was followed by Butchie and his gang, who all chose to call me a “beatnik,” which hurt me intensely, since no one cares less for that particular literary style than I do. . . .

All this went on unabated from June until the end of October. On Halloween, Butchie and his followers had a great spree of window-breaking and general uproarious-ness, with many eggs being tossed, many of them at our windows. The boys had put a jack o’lantern on the porch roof (we had the second story of a house) and the day after Halloween, Butchie and his friends shinnied up to knock it down. Presently my husband came home and as we were eating dinner, still another egg hit the dining room window.

My husband stormed downstairs to the porch, where finding the pieces of broken pumpkin, he directed the boys to throw them into Butchie’s yard. Presently thousands of members of Butchie’s family came boiling out of the house and demanded to know what was going on. John recited the list of Butchie’s misdoings—the beebee gun shot through the window, the eggs, the beatings up of the boys, the name “beatnik” applied to me, the knocking down of the pumpkin—while Butchie’s mother stood gasping, “Did my boy do that?”

After that there was no trouble with Butchie, and in a couple of weeks the boys were playing football with him. Nobody in City Island ever took us into their hearts, but by then we had stopped wanting to be loved by the City Islanders, and the following May—after a hair-raising experience with our landlord—we moved out. This was the first time I’d lived in Real America after many years of art colonies, the Lower East Side, Mexico, etc. Now I am back in Woodstock, and I shall never try Real America again.

But it hasn’t anything to do with being Jewish. Only Real Americans are fit for Real America, and if you don’t fit that category, don’t try. I don’t see much hope of changing anything, and I can only suggest that one stick to Manhattan or places like Woodstock or Provincetown or college towns or live abroad. I don’t think that the Real Americans are ever going to rise up . . . but if they do, it is a type they are after—the “intellectual,” the non-materialist, the somehow bizarre—and not the Jews. . . .

Why this should be is a matter for a more compassionate soul than I . . . perhaps these people are somehow deeply betrayed and unhappy in a very final and very total way. . . .

Elaine Balcomb
Shady, New York

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To the Editor:

Mr. Weiss ends his story with the admonition: “Sooner or later you, too, may have to take a stand.” What stand, may I ask?

Mr. Weiss himself admits that unfortunately he did not know how to handle the problem that confronted him and his children, that he was torn between action and resignation until he had no choice but to run away.

I think that this article reflects the impression readers of COMMENTARY had—and commented on—from the 1961 symposium [on “Jewishness & the Younger Intellectuals”]: Jews who had not been taught why they are Jews were unable to fight for what they could not stand for. So Mr. Weiss instead of consulting a rabbi or a Jewish leader, asked advice from a priest.

I believe many readers will agree that it is time for the Jewish community—including the editors of COMMENTARY—to do something about positive Jewishness and help these troubled Jewish liberals who are trapped so hopelessly and who are unable to teach their own children.

(Mrs.) Charlotte M. Kulp
New York City

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To the Editor:

I was greatly heartened by the article “Reilly and I.” . . . In these days of “brotherhood” it is increasingly easy for us to believe that anti-Semitism is as dead as the plague, and it is this comforting belief, as Mr. Weiss wisely points out, that is the greatest danger. In my own teaching experience, I have encountered the virus, perhaps not as virulent as it once was, but still very much alive.

Unfortunately for me, I do not fit the Jewish stereotype, or I might not have been hired to teach a group of youngsters predominantly Polish in origin. I was their first avowed “Jewish” teacher, although there were other Jews on the staff who had changed both their names and their religion in order to conform to the “norm” in that system.

Looking back on my experience, the most frightening aspect of the situation was the inability of the administrator to accept the fact that some of his students had been preconditioned in their homes. “The school,” he told me, when I resigned, “is a democracy, or I myself would resign.”

Admittedly, as a first-year teacher, I made many stupid mistakes. Perhaps the greatest of these was to treat the very first swastika carved into my desk as a manifestation of the normal childish desire to “rile” teacher. But I was new, fresh from a university which preached “progressive” education, and I permitted the situation to deteriorate “progressively,” until I had no choice but resignation. . . .

Since the teaching profession (like the medical profession) does not like its dirty linen washed in public, I would be blackballed from all jobs if my own name appeared under this letter. . . .

Name Withheld

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To the Editor:

Mr. Weiss’s article deals with a problem that so many of us face today . . . not the problem of anti-Semitism, but of how to deal with aggression. It is the problem of anyone who is a skeptic, a believer in the power of reason, a liberal (in the sense of acknowledging the possibility of the Tightness of systems of belief other than his own).

Mr. Weiss is right in assuming that if he were committed to Judaism, he would have escaped his dilemma of what course of action to take. As a member of a congregation, he might have gone to the rabbi with the problem, and the rabbi in turn would have gone to the priest, who would have given more weight to the complaint of a fellow pastor than to that of a mere member of the community. Mr. Weiss may have been suspect in the priest’s eyes not for being a Jew, but for not being a Jew.

And this, I think, is the point. Mr. Weiss himself says that he and his family were looked upon with suspicion because they were different—“beatniks” . . . non-conformists. It is not the believing and/or synagogue-going Jews who are a threat to the social order. They wear shoes, keep their lawns clean, and even drive white Cadillacs. It is the ones who ask questions who are a threat to the establishment.

How can the ones who ask questions defend themselves? When the Reillys begin to carry knives and nuclear weapons, boxing lessons won’t help. . . . The only solution for the liberal, non-conforming parent is to raise his children in a community where there are other non-conformists. This means either the big city (a really cosmopolitan city) or a liberal college campus. As a non-believing Jew, one could avoid the problem of aggression by moving to a predominantly Jewish suburb, but this, I think, would present Mr. Weiss and his family with other problems.

Thelma J. Henner
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . “Boris Weiss’s” tale is interesting . . . but it’s the pseudonymity which is troublesome. An article in which the point is that “sooner or later, you too, may have to take a stand” hardly seems the place for such evasiveness. The “dangerous kind of ambivalence and malaise” which your writer admits marked his own behavior is only compounded by pseudonymity and, unless “Reilly and I” is a tour de force in the manner of John Berryman’s “The Imaginary Jew,” . . . then Boris Weiss may be, to accommodate your identifying note, “a young [Jewish] writer who lived for some time in a suburb of New York City” but who is not yet ready to be known as one. Your way, he turns out to be nobody, and Reilly wins again.

J. M. Edelstein
Santa Monica Canyon, California

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To the Editor:

Mr. Weiss has written . . . an eloquent indictment of the Reillys of this world and the uncertain Weisses who do not stand up to them. He understands himself, and does not shrink from self-blame, but he covertly ignores his real guilt.

One of the stereotypes of the Jew is that he is “pushy.” He tries to worm his way in where he is not wanted, he responds where no invitation has been extended, is loud and demanding when no pattern of acceptance has been established. Whether this is a true picture of the Jew is unimportant. What is important is that Mr. Weiss acted exactly as the stereotype is supposed to, and possibly triggered a dislike the Reillys had not previously felt.

In a word, Mr. Weiss was “pushy,” for his child, of course (which does not turn this fault into a virtue as is implied). He was guilty of not allowing his son to establish whatever relation he could with the local children, of avoiding them if no amicable relation proved possible. . . . The Reillys, admittedly vulgar and bigoted, were reasonably friendly before he began his misguided efforts to make Davy a part of the group. It was only after he had caught “Tommy’s ‘bullet passes,’ and . . . the Gang’s snowballs” and in general tried to insinuate his son into the gang, that the Reillys’ car sailed past his wife.

This does not condone Reilly’s action, but suggests that Mr. Weiss is to blame in a subtler and less noble sense than he indicates. It is not merely that he was afraid to stand up for himself, but that he overextended himself, not that he failed to be a man, but that he was too clearly the Jew and the alien (by his own admission, he was considered something of a “beatnik”). Apparently unsure of his Jewishness, he could not forebear to try to be “regular.” This pose was resented; he was not “regular” in terms of Whyte Street, and a sham is a sham everywhere. The result, as might have been expected, was the ostracism of his children and a contempt for the “Jew.”

Mr. Weiss is right in saying that under certain conditions one ought to fight, but he uses this truth to cloak his mistake in allowing the situation to develop. Had he simply lived with his alienation from his ancestry and not tried to make his children part of the group (one big, happy family of man), it is possible that no problem would have arisen.

Sondra Rosenberg
Stuart Silverman

Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama

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