Commentary Magazine


Walking Distance A Story

“Do you know the joke about Jews in foreign places?” Haskell says to his wife.

“Tell me.”

“One of the first things the Jew does is to find the local synagogue. There he sees other Jews still studying the Law. He is overjoyed. Then he remembers he can’t stand to be with them. He rushes out into the world and worldly pursuits with renewed purpose.”

“Good joke. Are you telling me for amusement or information?”

“Both, I suppose.”

“What information are you telling me?”

“I think I’m going to be one of the Jews inside the synagogue for a change.”

(Silence.)

“Well?”

“Are you sure that’s not the part that’s the joke?”

_____________

 

* * *

“The more mechanized the world becomes, the more precious walking distance is,” Haskell says to his wife.

“That depends on what’s in walking distance, doesn’t it? And what about, ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’”

“My God, where did you dredge that up from? Anyhow, it ought to be, ‘A man’s reach should not exceed his walking distance, or how will he remember his humanity?’”

“His humanity?” asks Haskell’s wife.

“His earthliness.”

“What do you mean, earthliness?”

“How will he know what the limitations of the human body are for?”

“What are they for?”

Phoebe and Haskell do not as yet know anyone in the city of Boston, to which they have recently moved from New York. This dialogue they are having is the only one in their lives at present and they are making the most of it.

“Remember Tolstoy’s story about a man who walked around a rich field? Every corner he could reach before sunset was supposed to mark off the land he could keep. To get back to limitations is to earn one’s inheritance.”

“As I remember it, the man died at sunset. So goodbye land and life together. I think Tolstoy was more interested in pointing out man’s mortality than in enriching the walking-distance concept.”

“Never mind the author’s moralizing. It sank into its own grave. But the excitement and beauty of that walking scene!”

_____________

 

* * *

“Late! Bed!” Haskell says to his wife.

“How can it be late? It’s Friday.”

“I’m walking to the early service at the Orthodox synagogue in the morning.”

“You’re joking.”

“You think I can’t make it?”

“I mean about walking to synagogues. Suddenly you’ve been going, haven’t you? Three Saturdays, three synagogues. First Conservative, now Orthodox. You’re really working your way back.”

“The kids watch TV anyway. You like to sleep late. I’ll be home by the time you’ve finished brunch.”

“But why now, suddenly? How come?”

“I’m curious. Also it restores something to my Saturday mornings. It brings back my childhood Saturdays.”

“Why here in Boston is what I mean? You weren’t that curious in New York or that much in need of having your childhood Saturdays restored. Why here?”

“There are so many of them. And they’re all here—in walking distance.”

“Do you mean that? Do you mean you have to go because they’re there? Like Everest?”

“You take Yoga on Beacon Street because you can walk there and not have to drive on icy roads.”

“But I’m not going to become a Hare Krishna girl.”

“What are you afraid I’ll become?”

“Religious.”

_____________

 

* * *

Haskell and Phoebe had been expected by their New York friends (and they had expected themselves) to move to Cambridge. There was the notion of the literary life extending from “Cambridge to Cambridge.”

But times and dollars have changed. A Cambridge house bought in 1940 for thirty-thousand dollars now brings a hundred thousand. Cambridge houses in the Harvard-Radcliffe compound are, for the most part, fenced in by head-high split-post fences, and well they might be. Urban blight, filthy streets, crime, bad public schools, nonexistent snow removal (in no particular order of occurrence or importance, but each one probably feeding into all the others) are the dreary story of Cambridge now. Except for those who live behind the split-rail fences and who send their children to the Brown & Nichols School, the Shady Hill School, the Foxcroft School, or to any of the other costly private ones.

“We’re not going to waste even one minute, are we,” Haskell says to his wife, “lamenting the obvious fact that we can’t afford. . . .”

“—and nobody like us can either. . . .”

“—to rent or buy a Cambridge apartment or house inflated to triple price. . . .”

“—and to send our children to private schools as well!”

“Yes,” says Phoebe to Haskell and Haskell to Phoebe, “we are.”

_____________

 

* * *

Haskell and Phoebe rent a place in Brookline, which has the hateful reputation of being the stamping ground of rich Jews but which is, in fact, the home of far more low- and middle-income Jews than rich ones and far more nearly indigent old Jews than anything else.

The rich ones, of course, occupy the ostentatious top-of-the-hill places in the “estate sections” of Fisher Hill and Chestnut Hill. The huge baronial set-ups built for baronial-sized families and household staffs hump heavily on either side of Route 9 like dinosaurs that can’t make it to the last mudhole.

An agent tells Phoebe that many of them go for less (a ninety-thousand-dollar bargain!) than the more modest fence-enclosed houses in the Harvard-Radcliffe compound that have been declared by tacit agreement king of the housing beasts.

So much for taste, aesthetics, and the golden mean of Cambridge. If Santayana wanted to live there now he would have to become a nose-and-throat man.

Boston and its environs are full of high-status hilltops. Beacon Hill, Chestnut Hill, Fisher Hill—and even the modest Coolidge Corner section of Brookline where Phoebe and Haskell live divides itself into houses “on the hill” and “at the bottom of the hill.”

The origins lie perhaps in the early bad habits of citizens who chucked garbage and excremental slops from windows, to the inconvenience of those below. Downhill and down river were the worst places to be, and the pit of the theater in Shakespeare’s time—now our “orchestra” section—could be endured only by the coarse.

Phoebe concludes that Boston, which maintains this old form of status, is generally on a lower level in the scale of social evolution, assuming that social evolution itself resembles the shape of a hill.

By comparison with Boston, New York City, especially Manhattan, with its flat, gridiron layout of North, South, East, West, is a positive mandala of order, reflective of the vast, equal fields of heaven. Park Avenue, for all its posh expensiveness, is no nearer park or river or sky than Amsterdam Avenue. And although the land rises naturally toward Harlem and Washington Heights nobody makes anything of it.

_____________

 

* * *

“I like Coolidge Corner,” Haskell says to Phoebe. “I like Harvard Street. All the shops in walking distance. Since we have to live in Boston, this little urban pocket of Brookline suits me fine.”

“Yes, we go for walks just like on the West Side of Manhattan. We come back with bags of bagels, poppy-seed Danish, slices of almond cake. Tell me,” Phoebe says to her husband, “where is New England? What is this peculiar fate that the minute I reach out to touch America, lands me among Jews?”

_____________

 

* * *

A literary friend sends a letter.

“Now that it’s gotten really cold in New York (you know that rotten, damp, break-your-bones cold), I think of you in the sparkling New England winter night. I think of you breathing in the Boston still redolent of James and Santayana and all the Lowells.”

“I’m going to write her,” Phoebe says to her husband, “that it is the coldest recorded January in one hundred years here. That I can’t find my way to Cambridge because I’m scared to drive on all the snow and ice. I’m going to write her that what I’m breathing in is the Boston of Peretz. I’m going to write and describe our street of two-family houses and who rents the apartments in them—a few Israeli families with small children in which one or both parents are completing engineering studies at MIT, similar families from Korea completing medical studies. But mostly the elderly refugees from Europe of thirty years ago, and the elderly refugees from the slums of Dorchester and Mattapan of five or six years ago, who moved here because of all the synagogues in walking distance.

“‘Dear Sophie,’ I’ll write to her, ‘Peretz did not write amusingly like Sholem Aleichem about uneducated Jews whose native wit and wisdom brings tears of joy to our eyes, but about educated, aspiring Jews, artists and scholars—tripped up, held down, imprisoned by the circumstances of their Jewdom. A musical comedy will not be made of the work of Peretz.’ That’s what I’ll write her.”

“Yes, write it,” Haskell says to his wife. “Write, write! You’re a writer, aren’t you? For God’s sake, then, write!”

_____________

 

* * *

“It’s becoming a ritual in itself,” Phoebe says to her husband. “How long do you intend to keep this up? Saturdays in the synagogue? The family abandoned? Oh, no, not that! That’s not what Saturdays are for!”

“What are Saturdays for?”

“They’re for going to the Haymarket to bring home the week’s groceries. Saturday is for straightening everybody’s desks so they can get to work again on Monday. And for clearing off the dining table that has become everybody’s desk. Saturday, when husband and wife work, is for family-affairs-mending, bicycle-riding with your children. Not for synagogues! My God, not for synagogues!”

“What I hear in all this is that you do consider yourself a woman who works. Well then, work! Work!”

_____________

 

* * *

“The point is,” Phoebe says to her husband, “if you were going to become a religious Jew, why you didn’t become one before we got married? Or in New York, when we lived in New York all those years.”

Haskell shrugs. Phoebe notices that when he wants something he does not express himself directly about it. Surprising to notice this for the first time after ten years of marriage. Is this the first time he’s wanted something she’s afraid of? She has always thought him open.

“Hell—we sample everything else in the area,” Haskell says to his wife. “Baskin and Robbins ice cream, McDonald’s hamburgers. You want to take the children to the Freedom Trail in Boston, the Witch-hunting Trail in Salem, and every other thing that’s here. Why make a deliberate detour around the synagogues?”

Hillel, Young Israel, Isaiah, Avodah, Ohavei Shalom, Havurat Shalom. . . . Phoebe can’t keep up with the names. Synagogues as numerous as grasses, as subtly differentiated as wildflowers.

A Reform rabbi can show the greatest individual variation. He can be learned in Talmud, or know just enough to get by. Or he may be a Reform rabbi who intends to “reform” Reform and put back the Hebrew and the ritual and the swaying, genuflecting praying (let the Catholics see who the mother of their God really was!).

At their worst, the old Orthodox shuls may be sparsely filled only with old men who mutter through their prayers, communing with their dead, films already over their old eyes.

Phoebe has no Hebrew. At school she learned French. She imagines Haskell’s Saturday mornings as being like a trip to a foreign country where he converses with the natives and comes back refreshed. For two or three days after these Saturdays, Haskell hums melodies. The prayers themselves are songs.

“The poetry is in the Hebrew,” he tells Phoebe. “Those translations in the Union Prayer Book are like Dick and Jane versions approved by the New York City Board of Ed. I don’t blame you for thinking there’s nothing there. You’d never know it from that Union Prayer Book.”

_____________

 

* * *

Phoebe’s mother visits.

Haskell transports them—it is summer—to the Boston Common.

“These are the famous Public Gardens, mother.”

“Lovely flowers. They know how to keep a park here. Central Park breaks my heart. I remember when it was a garden spot.”

“These are the famous swan boats.”

“They’re charming. Shall we take the children for a ride, if they are safe?”

“Maybe we can do that later, mother, but Haskell says there’s a program in another part of the park, the Greek Grove, that he’d like to take the children to see. So we’ll go there first, because he says it’s starting soon.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know exactly—there’ll be music, and dancing. And Haskell says the rabbi plays a guitar.”

“Rabbi?”

They are already dancing. The young Jewish students, the Hillel groups, the ones with the militant buttons—a fist and the words “Never again!” and the ones with peace doves.

This part of the park is not so clean. The grass is dusty, with bare spots.

Phoebe’s mother is seated on a bench and a dirty newspaper laps at her ankles.

The students are crowded around the speaker’s stand, which is the high point of this part of the park—the open, columned kiosk or temple.

Other students are already dancing a hora. A loudspeaker blares over the bench where Phoebe’s mother sits. She is trying to read the Wall Street Journal. She would always be, her posture seems to say, a cool New York matron in her summer black and pearls, no matter where her daughter and her son-in-law bring her.

“Is this what you brought me here for?” her look seems to say to Phoebe.

The students are dressed in a mixture of shlemiel-rags and hippie-rags, Indian beaded headbands and crocheted yarmulkes bobby-pinned to the backs of messy curls. Leather thongs with zodiac pendants that beat against the bare chests of the boys, and mogen dovids that fly up and down among the ample breasts of the loosely-bloused girls.

Phoebe’s children are ecstatic. So much wildness, so many grown-ups going berserk, what could be better? They join the hora through the dusty grove, and are lost and have to be searched for.

Sandals, dust, bare feet.

The loudspeaker blares.

Phoebe’s mother’s look seems to say, “Is this what happens when you move to Boston? Is this why you brought me here to visit you?”

The students in the grove dance and sing of joy and renewal and hope.

Their hope is as nothing compared with the rabbi’s. Hope is his message, his life, his middle name.

The rabbi is the son of a famous family of rabbis. He plays the guitar and at the same time he hops on one foot in the columned kiosk, while the loudspeaker blares over Phoebe’s mother’s head.

He sings his two-note chant:

Come on everybody, we are going to sing to-
    gether,
because if we really sing together
we may really begin to feel something
and if we really begin to feel something
then we can move mountains,
we can change the whole world;
let the whole world hear us singing,
let the whole world know how much we care
    about it. . . .

Watching her mother, Phoebe thinks the rabbi’s voice sounds as if it is amplified inside a metal bread box.

The students are dancing in rings on the dusty common. Striking up grass. The rabbi in his Greek-columned grove is hopping like a satyr with an itch. Plus a satyr who doesn’t know how to use a microphone and whose every breath comes through like the death rattle of a brontosaurus.

Haskell is grinning and sweating. He has just broken out of the hora, laughing, to catch his breath.

Phoebe’s mother sits stiffly on the bench. Even if not by ideology, then by every felt preference, her mother, Phoebe knows, had opted out of all this long ago.

Her mother has been true to her own early dreams. To be born in America, first-born of immigrant father and mother, meant to grasp the freedom to disaffiliate. America meant an open world! Why be parochial? Why stick timidly to the idea of loyalty to the accidentally born-into tribe?

Not by ideology but by every felt preference, her mother opted for one world. Alas for the one world!

Several shakes of the kaleidoscope later and what does the lens-gazer see? Lenses, telescopes, observatories and their instruments, great Palomar, numberless Galileos, and heaven itself, all burned to ashes. One Jewish Holocaust. One State of Israel. Disaffiliation is no longer a positive thing, but a void, an area of neglect, an omission, an undeveloped aspect of self.

“Let the whole world hear us singing,” chants the rabbi who is hopping up and down and breathing heavy blasts into the microphones with his two-note melodic line, “. . . and God’s work will be done if only people will hear the singing, and people will hear the singing, and all together we can save the wooooooooorld. . .

What has never been expressed in words can never be refuted by words. Early loyalties, feelings, beliefs, aversions, longings, all swirl around Phoebe’s mother like so much solar dust—impalpable, yet as real and near-visible as the ring that swirls around Saturn.

Isolated like a planet within the orbiting particles, her mother sits in her summer-black city dress with pearls, surveying, shocked, over the top of her Wall Street Journal, the assembled Jews cavorting on the dusty grass in the Greek Grove of the Boston Common.

Haskell’s walking distance has walked Phoebe’s mother back through time. And she shows, by the trembling of the newspaper in her hands, how outrage is never armor enough.

_____________

 

* * *

Phoebe thinks that the best thing would be for her to balance her husband’s walking-distance goals with her own “too-far-to-walk-to” goals. She would like to find something that requires traveling a daily distance to. In New York she was a writer; here, in unfamiliar surroundings, she does not write. In this college-infested area of New England, it is natural to think of adding on a degree.

There has been much talk in newspapers and journals about universities without walls, but so far every university which has sent her a catalogue demands the full paraphernalia of matriculation. Demands, also, full-time commitment—no part of her time left to offer to children or to writing, should the impulse move her again.

She is forced to resort to walking-distance explorations herself.

The one historic non-neighborhood thing in the neighborhood is the Kennedy house, on Beales Street. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in that house.

Phoebe walks there with the children after school. They take turns pressing the button in each room and Rose Kennedy’s voice comes on, patiently explaining the origins and uses of the contents of each room.

Women’s voices, like their figures, are groomed to different ideal proportions in different periods. Rose Kennedy’s voice is sweet and deep, as if the speaker were always smiling sadly. Her voice, apparently, has always been like that. Now it is appropriate to her life.

The last room of the house is the kitchen. Beyond that is a small yard—all that is left of the original Kennedy land.

Mrs. Kennedy’s last recorded comment is, “We were very happy here, and although we did not know about the days ahead, we were enthusiastic and optimistic about the future.”

Phoebe goes back to the house many times, alone. Because it is there, within walking distance, she visits it over and over, trying to see in the beautiful laces and silver sets of the downstairs, and the flowered bedrooms upstairs, something about life and time, her country’s sorrows, displacement.

“My husband at that time was president of a bank. . . .” Mrs. Kennedy says in the living room. “. . . A good deal of time reading to the children . . . selected from lists . . . the Women’s Industrial Union. . . .”

In the kitchen, Mrs. Kennedy remarks that she often stopped by, in the midst of errands with her children, at St. Aidan’s Church, in walking distance.

In a bedroom she says, “Life was much simpler then. . . .”

In the end, no message, despite the carefully articulated messages on the recordings in each room, no message whatsoever comes to Phoebe from this quadruple-tragedy mother. From the well-appointed Beales Street house, the Kennedy family had moved to another, larger, well-appointed house several blocks away. Then, with the great clan of children, to Riverdale, and finally to the compound in Hyannisport. There, through all the deaths, no chink had showed. Determined, like royalty, not to let grief disarray. Life lived at the side of the grave in unbroken successions of clothes and hairstyles and resorts.

What is a compound but an architectural walking distance? All tears must have been shed in the pacing from mansion to mansion and relative to relative.

Elements of “The Monkey’s Paw”—wishes granted in such a way as to bring grief instead of joy. Or like some folk curse: May you be a millionaire and your children be brilliant and may you and your children all live in beautiful mansions in walking distance of each other. And may you walk from mansion to mansion and brilliant to brilliant and weep endlessly for your sorrows.

_____________

 

* * *

A movie at the public, walking-distance library.

A modern poet. Her manner—of one surprised by her own warmth. Her expression alternating between hard bitchy bitterness (talking of what her mother did—humiliations, punishments—her eyes with large, light-colored irises, become crafty, darting out poison, sneaky looks from under her lids) then open, wondering, vulnerable, when she talks (through her poetry) of the love she is given by husband and children.

She tells how she became a poet—by listening to a literary critic on television (her psychiatrist suggested it) and then slowly, piece by piece, building up her study as she gained confidence. First a bridge table, then a desk, then bookshelves.

A record of Bidú Sayao singing something by Villa-Lobos. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, ah-ah-ah-ah.

The poet’s eyes fill with tears. “This typewriter only gives me back words. It can’t make me cry the way that music does. That music makes me cry. I’ve lost something! It’s something I’ve lost! I can’t get back to it!”

What is it that is lost?

It is in the quality of the song itself, the quality of that womanly voice ranging warmly yet freely, with a terrific range, more birdlike (not in tone but in flight) than human. Yet human. The range of emotions as well? The quarter-tones, peaks, and valleys. The tenderness. The coolness. The soaring, swooping freedom, the freedom. And in a woman’s voice!

_____________

 

* * *

Since Haskell and Phoebe have moved to this new city, events and people seem to occur against no background. They are aware of experience “happening” in a way they weren’t aware of before they moved, when the familiar context had been there to absorb it.

A couple they struck off a pleasant acquaintance with at a department party invite them to dinner with other friends. Phoebe and Haskell wait to meet another couple who will provide some monde for the invitation they want to extend to the first couple.

_____________

 

* * *

Phoebe takes more walks. A woman in one of the houses begins to greet her with recognition. They talk, meet again with husbands in the evening.

The husband is an Old Testament scholar. He tells, with gusto, a story of the time Seventh Day Adventists came to his door. Saying, as usual, “We would like to talk to you about the Bible.” Two pious-looking women, clutching New Testaments. With great cheerfulness and enthusiasm, the Bible scholar shouts to them, “Come in! Sit down! By all means! What would you ladies like to know?”

Husband and wife, Bible scholar and Mrs. Bible scholar, they have a special well-met marriage story. He is the son of scholarly, intellectual European Jews, the branch called misnagdim—enlightened, rational. She is the daughter of a pious, impoverished family of Hasidim—that branch that produces mystics and wise men in the upper reaches, and superstition and ignorance in the lower, ready prey for the unscrupulous “wonder” rabbi.

Her crowning childhood story:

When she was seven she broke her arm. In the tumult of family life, her mother did not notice, and she herself stoically complained only at times. Came the wonder rabbi to collect his tithes, and notices the little girl holding her arm like so.

“I will cure this little arm,” said he. And making a poultice of tea leaves, he wraps the child’s arm.

Weeks go by. No better. So this admirable child, saying nothing, walks herself to the nearby hospital (walking distance) where they pronounce the arm broken and say she must bring someone of mature years with her. Home to fetch older brother, back to hospital, arm is set and heals, but always bothers her a bit in the bad weather.

Her husband, disgusted: “Hasidim! The worst misfortune that ever befell Jews. The zaddik concept was the worst that ever occurred in Jewish history. Think of all the so-called zaddikim who took the money of their congregations and escaped Hitler’s camps, while their congregations perished!”

Now the wife must fight back. “But it was a great satisfaction to these people to save their rabbi. To them he was holy, and it would have caused them far more anguish if they thought their rabbi had perished too.”

“Ahhhh!” cries the Bible scholar, working his fingers as if he would have liked to snatch at those doomed to perish and bring them over to safety.

“Charlatans! Charlatans of the worst sort!”

“You simply don’t understand the full meaning of their rabbis to those Hasidim!” the wife now cries.

It is a whole metaphysical drama, this attack and defense.

How the intellect of each of them rebounds vigorously from the other! To Phoebe it seems that the wife’s memory of her family’s religious dupism needed the assaults of the husband. In resisting these assaults, she is forced to search for and recover whatever in the past was good—a clear gain.

They have deftly worked out their dialogue of disagreement and thrive on it. Both have healthy, resilient looks about them.

Phoebe wonders if she and Haskell also, like this admirable couple, can work out a dialogue of disagreement without disagreeableness or rancor.

Phoebe and Haskell move warily around each other, as two strangers do. The move from New York has altered them. Each, by separating from the place, has separated from some part of him or herself that was born of that place and nourished on it. They do not feel they know each other well any more. Each is wondering what new aspect of the other will spring up, a surprise Jack-in-the-box, possibly frightening or ugly, possibly inconvenient.

Everyone knows (or says he knows) that people ought to change and grow, and marriage must give room to that. But a Jack-in-the-box or a Jill-in-the-box is different. A Jack-in-the-box springs out, fully formed, take it or leave it. First it delivers its blow of fright, and then it wobbles at you, there, of what further significance?

Haskell is becoming religious. Phoebe is becoming—what? She continues to look around for some new aspect of herself. She doesn’t at all see yet what it is she might become.

_____________

 

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