Commentary Magazine


The Art Biz

In the cool dark California night, Henry Markowitz is closing up Michael Spivitz Fine Art Gallery. He has to stay open until ten on Thursday nights to take in the evening crowd. The tourists tracking in sand from the beach and the open-air cappuccino bars. Henry hates the sand and the bathing suits, but, as Michael says, this is the reality of selling art in Venice. Henry has often had to resist the urge to turn these people away. At least the ones without shoes. The one thing he cannot abide is bare feet—as if this were the concession stand at the beach and not a gallery showing the work of important 20th-century artists. Admittedly, the art works aren’t originals. There are Chagall prints and Dali lithographs. They sell a great many lithographs, but they are signed. It seems to Henry that there should be a modicum of respect shown to these wisps of authenticity. Sandals at the very least.

He sweeps the parquet floor with a big push broom he keeps in the back. There is a cleaning service, but he can’t help himself. Five years ago he would not have envisioned himself sweeping a gallery in Venice Beach. His thought when he went into the art business was that he would be dealing in antiquities: cataloguing, negotiating with collectors and museums in paneled rooms, and, of course, using his expertise—a Ph.D., two monographs, several articles—in early books and prints from England and France. This seemed the natural course for him while he was retooling at the Wharton School, putting a negative tenure decision and a failed grievance behind him, and, as his therapist put it, recognizing how many different life paths there really were once you opened yourself up to them.

But one thing did not lead to another. Prints and manuscripts at Sotheby’s was not forthcoming. The job at Christie’s in London turned out to be only seasonal. He did have a firm offer from a friend of his brother’s, but assistant manager at Laura Ashley in Short Hills, New Jersey, was not for him.

“Why not?” his brother, Edward, demanded.

“Why not? It’s got nothing to do with art,” Henry said.

“It’s retail,” Ed said, brutal and succinct.

“It’s women’s ap-ap-ap-”

“It’s a job,” Ed said.

“Apparel!” Henry burst out.

“So what,” Ed said, always pragmatic. “I thought you wanted to stay in New York.”

“Short Hills is not, is not, New York,” Henry cried. And he refused to discuss it further.

The path that did open up for him was manager at Michael Spivitz. It was not New York, but it was art. And Henry has been working on bringing in some original contemporary pieces. He is working on an opening for a fabulous lesser-known sculptor who works in brass, creating seed forms with uncurling stems, or sometimes miniature human figures unfolding from a central root like earthy homunculi. He has given up New York, uprooted his elderly mother and moved her to Venice, laid down his life learning to drive on the L.A. freeway, but he is still in the art business.

He is just turning off the lights when he sees someone rattling the glass doors. It is a woman with a frenzied look and flyaway hair. He gestures that the gallery is closed and she gestures that she needs to talk to him, so he lets her in. As the heavy glass opens, her voice explodes into the gallery, frantic, with a heavy Israeli accent. “My son! My son is in trouble.”

“Has there been an accident?” Henry asks. “Yes! Yes, an accident.”

“Where is it?” Henry peers out into the dark street.

“Not in a car. He has disappeared.”

“I don’t understand,” says Henry.

“You understand Hebrew?” she asks him. He shakes his head.

“My name is Amalya Ben-Ami,” she says, “I’m staying at Venice Sands. I came just a few weeks ago with my son from Haifa, and now he has disappeared.”

“You’ve lost your son? Did you call the police?”

“Yes, yes. They can do nothing. I need you to help me.”

“I?” Henry stands there in his Indian cotton shirt and stares at the Israeli woman. She wears a good deal of jewelry as well as an enormous leather handbag. It sounds like some delusional fantasy, what she’s saying; she tells it to him slowly and deliberately as if he were some kind of moron who can’t follow her. “The police cannot help me,” she says, “Michael Spivitz has got my son. He has my child.”

“Michael Spivitz?” Henry asks, aghast.

“Let me explain this to you. Your employer has got my son,” she says. “He is keeping him.”

“That can’t be,” says Henry.

Then she breaks down in front of him, just sobs in frustration, like a teacher who has tried to explain the simplest problem and has not gotten through at all. “He has stolen him,” she sobs, the glow of the track lighting shining on her flyaway hennaed hair.

“That’s impossible,” says Henry. “It doesn’t make any sense at all. My partner does not steal children.”

“It’s true,” she says. “Do you disbelieve me?”

“But I have no idea,” Henry pleads with her. “You’re distraught, you’re—”

She puts her enormous handbag on the floor and begins pulling out papers, her passport, her airline tickets, a letter on consular stationery. “This is his picture,” she says, and holds up a photo of a tanned teenager with dark eyes. “His name is Eitan Ben-Ami.”

“Look here,” says Henry, “I must get home. May I call you a cab?”

She seems crushed at this and cries even more. “You don’t believe me.” Henry doesn’t answer. “You don’t listen to me.”

Henry is beginning to feel nervous standing there alone with her in the gallery. “If you’ve lost him, this is a matter for the police,” he says.

“I tell you I’ve gone to the police,” she cries out. “They do nothing.”

“Well,” Henry stammers, “then there’s nothnothing to be done. Now I must close up, I must get home. Please let me call you a cab for your hotel.”

She stands there silent for a long time. Motionless. He begins thinking he should call the police. The police are very good in this neighborhood. Prompt and courteous. “I want to talk to a rabbi,” she says suddenly in a small voice.

“I’ll call you a rabbi then.” Henry hurries anxiously to his desk and begins telephoning synagogues listed in the yellow pages under Houses of Worship. He leaves flustered messages on several answering machines. “This is Henry Markowitz. There is a woman here, Amalya Ben-Ami, staying at Venice Sands, and she needs to speak to the rabbi as soon as possible. She is quite dis-dis-distressed.”

_____________

 

Henry’s condominium is ordinary and white, identical to all the others from the outside, but he has hung up his herbs and garlic braid in the galley kitchen, filled the second bedroom from floor to ceiling with his book collection. In the living room a Persian rug covers most of the gray wall-to-wall carpet, and the sliding glass doors are adorned with long flowing curtains and a custom-made scalloped valance in royal blue silk. His old prints cover the walls, and in a place of honor away from the light he has hung his small but real Dürer sketch of a rabbit. He takes off his clothes as soon as he gets in, puts on his silk bathrobe, and runs a hot bath. He needs to soak; he needs to close his eyes and forget the day. He pours himself a drink and takes out the leftover prime rib, beets, and potatoes au gratin to heat up.

Although he lives alone, Henry cooks. He is one of those rare people capable of cooking a full dinner just for themselves. He spends time planning delicious and attractive meals, buys flowers for the table, even when he has no one else to entertain. Good food on good china, fine crystal, and old silver are necessities for him, essential to his existence. What is life without dinner? An afternoon without a good wine? A bed without fresh cotton? A house without flowers? Only emptiness.

He sinks into the bath and the water flows over him. He is a tall man, fleshy and pink, his curly hair receding, his deep-set eyes heavily shadowed from compulsive nocturnal scholarship. For Henry still keeps up with the literature in his field, and still works at writing articles—actually, one article—late at night propped up in bed. The water flows into his pores, relaxes his muscles; he feels his whole body uncoiling.

Then the phone rings. He closes his eyes. He called her from the gallery hours ago, but she is calling anyway. The phone rings eleven times. He gets up with the water streaming off him, wraps a towel around his waist. “Hello, Mother,” he says.

“I’ve bought seats,” Rose tells him.

“Seats for what?”

“The seats for Yom Kippur,” she says.

“Mother, I’ve already told you I can’t do it.”

“I don’t understand that,” she says.

“I can’t take off the whole day.”

“The whole day! Yizkor, the memorial service—half-an-hour in Dad’s memory. And Maury’s.

“But Mother, it’s an hour drive each way. I simply cannot take off the entire afternoon.”

“If I could take the bus—” she says.

“You can’t take the bus.”

“If I could, I would take the bus. I bought the seats today. I don’t think they have refunds.”

“Mother, you should have talked to me before you bought it.”

“I did talk to you.”

“And what did I tell you?” Henry asks wearily.

“You told me the same thing you’re telling me now.”

“And then why did you buy the seat when I said I wasn’t going?”

“Because you should be going,” Rose says. “One day a year you should stop and think.”

“I do think about Dad,” Henry says. In fact, he has been thinking about his father a lot lately. He and his therapist have spent hours in the past year and a half working through Henry’s feelings toward his father.

“I mean, you should think about me,” says Rose.

“Mother, I haven’t even had dinner yet,” Henry says, “I’m exhausted; I’ve been on my feet the whole day, and I think my prime rib is drying out.”

_____________

 

The next morning at the gallery Michael says, “Henry, you look tired.”

“Michael, I’ve had such a night. A woman came here looking for you. A lunatic insisting her son was missing and you had him. Twice I nearly called the police. I thought she might pull out a gun.”

“Oh, I know,” Michael says. “She’s been harassing me for weeks.” He sits down at his desk. “I’m sorry she gave you such a fright.” Michael is Canadian, and when he says sorry he pronounces the word “sohry.” He is a fair-haired man, tall and slender with a blond mustache and blue eyes.

“But where c-c-could she have developed these fantasies, these delusional fantasies?” Henry asks.

“I don’t know. She seems completely obsessed,” Michael says. “She calls me constantly. I’m having my number changed.”

“Good God,” says Henry, who is not English, but often speaks with an English inflection when moved. He thinks for a minute and then says, “She’s clearly blaming you for her son’s disappearance. But why? How did she meet you?”

“Well, through him,” Michael says. “He’s staying with me.”

The blood rushes to Henry’s face. “The boy?”

“Well, yes,” Michael says, looking up from his paperwork with limpid blue eyes.

“With you? You? But why?”

“Because he wants to,” Michael says.

“But he’s fifteen!” Henry exclaims.

“Actually, he’s sixteen,” says Michael.

“But he’s a child.”

“Henry.” Michael comes around to the front of the desk and touches his arm. “I’m not keeping this boy. He’s had some problems with his mother, that’s all. He asked if he could stay with me.”

“But the police! But he’s a child!”

“We’ve all spoken to the police. I asked him. They asked him: do you want to go back to your mother? And I’m afraid he said no. Apparently he’s a U.S. citizen, and so he can stay as long as he wants. His father is American.”

“Michael, I’m—I don’t know what to say.” He can feel himself blushing, his cheeks hot.

“Henry, Henry, Henry,” Michael murmurs, his voice patronizing and sweet. Henry is probably fifteen years older than Michael. “But such an innocent,” Michael would say during the time they lived together when Henry had first moved out to L.A. “Henry, Henry, Henry,” Michael would soothe and chide him, alternately smoothing and ruffling his feathers. It had taken Henry two years to work up the courage to leave. Two years to give up Michael’s house, his cars, his sleek kitchen, his beautiful things, his quick glances, sure touch, his sweet voice with just the faintest tang of sarcasm.

_____________

 

Henry lies face down, naked on the table for his massage. “So how’s the art biz?” Jason asks as he kneads Henry’s back and shoulders.

“It’s—it’s—” Henry begins.

Henry lies there on the table, stiff as a corpse, his big fleshy body tight and unyielding to Jason’s touch. It’s true he’s wound tight. His mind is full of Michael and Michael’s nonchalant news. That this boy, this very young boy, is staying with him. He has no trouble believing the boy is staying there of his own free will. In that house? With the view, that spa and swimming pool? With Michael’s wines?—he wouldn’t appreciate the wines—but the ambience, Michael himself. It is all intoxicating. And to one so young. How could he? The thought is utterly horrible, and yet Henry cannot chase it out of his head.

“Wow, you’re just so tight today,” says Jason. “I feel like I can’t get under your skin.” Henry looks up at Jason and feels his anxiety compounded with embarrassment. He can’t relax. He just can’t do it. And he had always found Jason’s hands so beautiful, and Jason himself so amusing, with his surfer talk and his classical face, the long eyelashes about which Jason is vain, always curled, so that he looks like one of those rare Greek statues with the agate eyes still left in the sockets and lashes of beaten and curled copper. If it had been Jason it would be one thing. Jason is grown-up, not an adult exactly, but a grown-up boy. This fifteen- or sixteen-year-old—what difference does the year make?—this little one can’t possibly understand. He couldn’t possibly know what Michael is about. Henry has “been there” as they say, “been there and back,” “been through it all.” How many different euphemisms are there for that web? The spidery path of Henry’s anxious youth and innocent middle age.

Already, before he gets home, already while driving, Henry feels a migraine blossoming, opening like an enormous Magritte rose into every empty cavity of his head. He feels its manifold petals pressing against his ears, against his eyes, even behind his jaw. As he enters the apartment he holds this terrible flower high and still, so as not to ruffle it. He takes his medication, lies on his bed with all the curtains drawn, and watches the colors behind his eyes. Hours pass. Far away he hears his neighbor’s television, the condo’s yard service with the leaf blowers. Slowly he gives way to nausea. Then he sleeps.

How is he to look at Michael without thinking of this terrible thing? This boy in the house. For several days, Henry can barely look him in the eye. And yet, Michael has done a great deal for him. He took him on when he had no experience, and gave it to him. He believed in Henry’s managerial skill and trusted Henry’s taste. He befriended Henry when he had almost no one and introduced him to a first and then a second therapist. He was an agent of change in Henry’s life, a messenger from outside the gates of the academy. He gave him courage, declaring, Open your eyes to the world, come out and scale the walls! Exchange your scholarly obsessions for a new career. Leave the shadowy libraries for the bright, blinding California sun.

Henry continues to steel himself each day at the gallery. He says nothing, but as he works, he argues with himself. He sits and does the books at his table in the back. Of course, there are certain feelings, desires, but must every passing interest turn into an acquisition?

Henry sits there and he is ashamed. He isn’t worthy to make the analogy, desire and the collector’s acquisitiveness. After all he is in the business, pricing and selling lovely things. He looks at Michael and feels indignation mixed with guilt. If only he could tell him off. If he could speak to him with some authority and say, this is wrong, this is foolish. But he is too close to pass judgment. Confounded, compromised. He has been in the past a little like Michael and a little more like this boy. He has felt them both within himself, the tiger and the lamb.

The evening before Yom Kippur, Henry has to go to the dermatologist to have a sebaceous cyst looked at. His dermatologist is Stephen Gold wasser, cheerful, something of a yente, with thinning red hair, a large fleshy face, and skin soft as a baby’s. Goldwasser is a big advocate of the drug Retin-A.

“I think we’ll have to freeze it off,” Goldwasser says. “Are you going to Kol Nidre tonight?”

“I have an engagement,” Henry says. “But tomorrow perhaps I’ll—my mother has tickets.”

“That’s what she told me,” says Goldwasser. “She was here Monday. Let’s go get some liquid nitrogen and freeze this baby.” He ushers Henry into the little room where he works on cysts and warts. “Have a seat, make yourself comfortable. Turn this way. Did you read about the Israeli woman in the Jewish Opinion?

“I don’t get—”

“This will sting just a little bit. I love this. I tell all the kids dermatology is just like Star Trek with the nitrogen—”

“Ow!”

“—and the laser guns. This is going to shrink right up. The woman apparently lost her child here in Venice. He’s run away. They’ve found him, but he won’t come back. She has no money, no connections. The Federation actually made an appeal for her so she’d have somewhere to stay for the holidays, and she’s staying with the Fleishmans. You know Leon?”

“N-not intimately,” Henry says.

“I think he’s giving her legal advice. Here, did I give you this pamphlet on sebaceous cysts? Here’s what it looks like under your skin. You see? And there’s the wax formation. It’s truly bizarre. Apparently the kid went by himself to one of these clubs and never came back.”

Of course Henry doesn’t breathe a word to Goldwasser. He simply makes his next appointment and leaves.

He is hardly in the mood to go to Michael’s party that night, and yet he has to. It is Michael’s fortieth birthday. This is the engagement he mentioned to Goldwasser. Not at all a social engagement; all business for him. The Art Biz, as Jason calls it. Hours of talk with prospective clients, networking with buyers, lawyers, and possible sources. It is business that tires the legs and wearies the soul as one makes the rounds in a dark and rollicking room, drink in hand. And what of the art? Where is that elusive beauty to be found? The vision of life, the line that makes you look and look again. The form of suffering, the vessel of light. The art is nowhere to be seen. Like the little nightingale in Hans Christian Andersen, she has flown away.

He was determined when he left the academy to open his eyes to the world. And yet how vulgar that world is. Is it simply that he’s hidden behind university walls for too long? Is he thin-skinned? In fact, his skin is delicate, Goldwasser has told him. He had felt better when he was hiding. He had felt more confident. When he came West he still had the capacity to be shocked by it all. The people, the cars, the sun shining without seasons, the pursuit of material things. When he was shocked, he sees now, he could still enjoy it. He could take a kind of indignant pleasure in it. And now? Now he is weary, knowing, and regretful.

When he arrives at the party, Michael embraces him amid a throng of people, and Henry almost puts his hands up to protect himself. His charming fair-haired employer, mentor he might have called him, now embracing him with his slender arms, enfolding him in his Mephistophelian wings. The party is at a private men’s club, and is full of dealers. There is music; there is wine. Strips of teriyaki steak on little sticks. There are erotic ice sculptures, showy kisses, shouted conversations. The conversations are about cars. It is all horrible. Not merely commercial, not merely work, but a horror.

The party is loud, and gets louder. People communicate in pantomime. The music and liquor flow through the crowd. There is singing at the piano. Henry feels his head buzzing. Soon his headache will unfold, like a pale night-blooming flower. The pianist bangs louder and louder. He strikes up a fanfare, and then waiters wheel in a birthday cake, a float on wheels, gargantuan, mafioso in proportions, and out of that cake springs a boy, the boy, wearing a G-string.

_____________

 

The next morning on Yom Kippur, Henry oversleeps. His mother calls at eleven o’clock.

“I’ll have to take a taxi,” she says.

“All right,” Henry tells her.

“Even if it’s a hundred dollars.”

“How could it be a hundred dollars?” he asks her, his voice muffled in the bed. “I don’t think it will be more than forty.”

“Forty dollars for a taxi! How can that be? I’ve never spent so much on a taxi in my life. I’ve never had to go to the temple in a taxi. I don’t know the way.”

“Mother, don’t cry.” He cannot bear the sound of her weeping on the phone.

“I don’t understand why you won’t go now, when before you said you would take me,” she says.

“I will go, mother. I will,” he promises. He struggles out of bed and showers, gulps down half a cup of coffee and two pieces of toast for breakfast.

“I think it must be finished,” she tells him as they park their car in the temple lot.

“But look at all these c-c-cars,” Henry says.

He stops in the men’s room on the way in to catch his breath. He cannot believe he managed to drive to the temple without an accident. He can’t see straight. He washes his face and dabs his eyes with a scratchy paper towel. Then slowly he walks back through the social hall with its mural depicting Solomon sitting in judgment of the two women, the great king dressed in what looks like Masonic robes, holding a saber over the head of the innocent babe. He walks past Chagall’s twelve tribes of Israel reproduced as twelve hooked rugs hanging on the wall. His mother is sitting near the front, gesturing for him to take the seat next to her. All around her sit couples and families, squirming children, widows, all listening to the rabbi’s sermon.

Henry looks at the rabbi standing there in his rainbow-colored tallis. The rabbi is young and slight, with a thin face, and rather limp, thin hair. His voice is reedy, high enough to pierce Henry’s muffled ears. “Why is it?” the rabbi is asking, “that on Yom Kippur we Jews stand together and read off the list of sins together? Murder, adultery, burglary, slander—whether we did it or not as individuals, we beat our breasts as a community. This is our tradition. One of communal, rather than personal, guilt, and one of communal redemption. We make a confession as a group. We stand up and speak to God as a group. We hear the verdict as a group. I said at the beginning I was going to speak about connections. This is what I mean by connections. When we stand and recite our sins, when we ask for redemption, every one of us is connected to everybody else. Ultimately your sins are my sins, and my sins are yours. We are all in this together. We are all interconnected at the most intimate level there is.”

Henry shudders in the chill air of the sanctuary. He feels almost feverish. He does not want to be sitting there in that congregation, does not want to be touched by and connected to that mass of people, or, in fact, to anyone. He wants to go home. Back to his bed. He wants to be absolutely alone except for his books.

_____________

 

“Let’s pause for a moment,” the rabbi says. “Let’s pause and meditate on what it means to be connected to each other. What we mean to each other with all our faults. Let’s think about what it is to say: you and I are all mixed up together, and it doesn’t matter who has done what in this past year. We’ve all done it. As the great theologian John Donne wrote: it doesn’t matter for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for me, for you, and for all of us. No human is an island who can survive by him- or herself. We are each clods of earth on the continent. We are attached. So let’s take a moment for silent prayer. Take the hand of the person next to you if you will. Connect yourself.”

The organist plays softly, wisps and tendrils of music, and Henry finds himself in the strong grasp of his mother on one side and the sticky grip of a little girl on the other. For several long moments his mother sits with her eyes closed. “Mother,” he whispers. “Mother, are you asleep?”

“Sh,” she hisses, jerking awake.

The organist plays on, and Henry feels himself perspiring. He needs to extricate his hands, but he cannot. Instead, he sits miserably, pinned to his seat, the events of recent days clouding his head. The sight again and again flashing through his mind of the boy blasting through Michael’s birthday cake, his perfect, hairless little body. Must he, Henry, be connected to that? Is he, Michael’s manager and right hand, meant to be part of—to be co-author of that?

And then Henry sees something else. Just in front of him he sees Amalya Ben-Ami, the mother, with her hennaed hair and enormous handbag, this woman supposedly distraught and penniless, sitting next to Fleishman and his wife, her hosts and benefactors according to Goldwasser. And she is sitting there with her hand in Fleishman’s and ever so slightly, Henry is sure of it, massaging his knuckles with her thumb.

Henry’s eyes open, he gasps into the silence around him. Can this be? That this woman who has lost her son is now using the opportunity to carry on with this middle-aged and married man? This attorney? And at this moment Henry feels an inner sob, pain and relief mixed together. His disgust floods and overwhelms even his inmost guilt. It seems to Henry in this moment that not he but the whole world has cracked open to reveal a garden of grotesqueries, a garden worthy of Hieronymus Bosch with the variety and surprise of its cunning little monsters. It seems to him, as in a horror film, that the synagogue, the art world, the whole city of Los Angeles, is infested. Insect-ridden just underneath the skin. He sits up in his chair, heart racing. He pulls his hands out of the communal hand-clasping and rubs them with his handkerchief.

_____________

 

Henry, we’ll have an accident,” his mother tells him, as they speed home. He grits his teeth and keeps driving. “Henry, you’re going too fast.” She is clutching the shoulder strap of her seat belt. But he barely hears her. His mind is full of voices. “How is the art biz?” Jason asked him. “It’s retail,” his brother exploded when Henry told him Laura Ashley was not what he wanted. “Look, there are many paths in life,” his therapist said, “and it’s not like one road is necessarily better than the other. The question is, what’s better for you, given that you are at this place right now.”

And what is this place? Henry asks himself now as he speeds home, driving with cathartic anger, eating up the gray freeway, devouring the blazing sky. What is this place I have gotten into with the lithographs and the hooked-rug Chagalls? With Michael and his child lover, and the boy’s own mother peddling herself in the temple. What is this place? What is it? He has uprooted his mother and brought her to live near him. He has learned to drive. And yet he can see it all now, can permit himself to see it with righteous certainty: this place, Venice, with its art and beach, and all its local color, is really Sodom. It is really Sodom and Gomorrah put together. Nothing but thievery and uncovered flesh.

He sees the dichotomy with great clarity. Venice on the one hand, brazen and rotting in the sun, and, on the other, the East Coast, all cloistered and covered, all petticoated modesty. Dear Princeton with its old trees and towers, all his dear universities, even NYU, bastions of books, art, learning, pockets of civility where the rituals and niceties of life are still observed. Where iron gates hold business, all that whoredom, at bay.

“Henry,” his mother is telling him, “I thought the rabbi was very well-spoken.”

He will have to go back. He will have to find a way. “Henry,” his mother says, “Is that a police car? Is he chasing us?” Somehow he will support art. He will go back. He will rededicate himself to beauty. Not to the dealing, not the business, but to art itself. He will leave, leave, and he won’t look back over his shoulder. He will leave, and he won’t look back. He is already trying to remember the name of his brother’s friend in Short Hills.

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