Commentary Magazine

Jewish Sons

It is 1972 and my son is making his way home from California. He has a B.A. in philosophy and has had a transcendental experience. In the hills beyond Palo Alto he has known the unnameable. He writes letters about this experience, but his handwriting is so poor that I cannot decipher them; he writes poems of such complex metaphor that I cannot understand them. Once he was a basketball star.

The journey is a slow one. He travels in a truck with many stops along the way, campgrounds, universities, rock festivals. He will arrive in due time, he tells us, and leave again for the Florida Keys. He feels the need of a vacation.

He arrives at three o’clock one August morning and he does not have a key. So he breaks open the back door, finds tools, repairs the damage, and spreads his sleeping bag on the floor of the den. In the morning I find him there and two more young men asleep on the back porch. One of them wakes up, drinks a pitcher of orange juice, and leaves. I never find out his name. A hitchhiker, possibly.

The other is Tom. He is younger than my son, a sophomore, lank-haired and bony, an unfinished farm boy. He has never been East before, my son is his guru. In July they camped on Tom’s father’s farm and my son speaks glowingly of his family, especially his grandmother, a waitress at the local diner, the realest person I have ever met, says my son.

The realest person he has ever met. What does that mean? That I am not real, that his father is not real? I feel a pang of jealousy.

I want to kiss my son and I do not want to. I want to cover him with great wet, noisy, hungry kisses and tearful hugs, the way my grandmother kissed me when I was a little girl. The way I hated. So, although it has been more than a year since I last saw him, I brush his cheek awkwardly, trying to convey by my restraint how I have longed for him. His beard scratches my cheek, fills me with wonder.

We offer to make up a bed for Tom on the porch. He doesn’t need sheets or a pillow, a blanket is sufficient. He sleeps in his clothes and reads every night before he falls asleep. He is reading Che! He is polite and hungry, a satisfactory guest. I treat him to all my specialties, gazpacho, coq au vin, clam chowder. He eats. In the morning I go to work, my husband goes to work, and Tom and my son work on the truck. My neighbor’s son comes over to help. There are numerous things that need to be done to the truck.

He doesn’t have much to say, this son, and when he talks he mumbles. I am slightly deaf, it makes me tense not to understand him. So we have a little joke. Would you mind re-mumbling that, I say, and he obliges.

He and Tom have private jokes too. They have a lingo that is beyond me, a private language like two blacks at a white cocktail party. It has to do with pot, rock, Berkeley, cosmic consciousness. They play guitar together, mostly chords, and they sing syllables, fragments. When I empty the dishwasher at night they sit in the kitchen making jokes. I am tired of these incomprehensible jokes and I tune myself out. Pretty soon, they are giggling, high. Vee haf vays, my son is saying, of making you into soap. Oi pliz, says Tom, make me bedder a lampshade.

I straighten up, a glass in my hand. We don’t make concentration-camp jokes in this house, I tell them. I hear my voice, shocked, up-tight, sub-urban.

Vee don’t? Vy not? Giggling.

I try to tell them. My son is embarrassed at my behavior. There is no subject not fit for humor, he tells me grandly. He fills me in on Lenny Bruce and the human condition. With the exception of genocide, says my strangled voice, when civilization turned back, when an unspoken barrier was crossed, filling him in on Elie Wiesel. A difference in degree, says my son, improved technology. Everybody gets slaughtered sometime, mama, get cool.

Am I trembling? Suddenly we are talking about Vietnam, about Israel. Tom is saying My-Lai was no different, the Israeli slaughter of the Palestinians was also genocide. His voice is innocent and fervent.

I try to tell him, what? A hundred years of settlement, pioneering. Jewish imperialism, he says. Seven hundred years of Turks and British. He never heard of it. The Arabs who stayed are Israeli citizens. Propaganda.

Historical facts, I cry.

History is an illusion, says my son. Tom agrees. Nothing that happened before we were born is of consequence, we want only to right injustice.


A secular state in Palestine, says Tom in great earnest, where all will be equal, all races and creeds will be treated with justice. His smooth clear cheeks glow.

Jews know what Arab justice is, I say bitterly.


Is that supposed to be a reasonable answer? I am exasperated. Where are you hearing all this? You have never been to Israel, you don’t know any history, you hardly even know any Jews, you are an ignoramus.

I know what Fawzi Rousan told me, says Tom excitedly. Fawzi is my friend, and when he tried to talk at UCLA they stamped and yelled and wouldn’t let him speak.

Who wouldn’t let him?

Fascist Socialist Zionist Pigs!

The glass flies out of my hand, strikes his face, and falls unbroken to the floor.

Ignorant Obnoxious Anti-Semite!

My son, white-faced, is on his feet. Violence, he mourns, violence from my hypocrite mother, who walked in peace marches at my side, who betrays the movement with her uncontrollable Western urge to destroy. You could have killed him, you could have cut his eye out.

I’m sorry it wasn’t a knife, I say.

I go upstairs to wake my husband and tell him what has happened. I relate it badly. It sounds stilted, like a debate. My husband is upset. He loves his son and does not want him to leave. You shouldn’t have done it, he says, now he will go away. I cry, but I cannot be sorry. There are more important things than my son, but I do not say that.

There is this zeal for Jews, a passionate sorrow for Jewish suffering that makes me need to defend positions I don’t even agree with. I am vulnerable in argument when this passion overcomes me. Love, fear, the movement of ancient blood. I believe in survival, I believe in the covenant. My husband, Orthodox-trained, has different ambiguities. He seeks moments of spiritual enlightenment, but the synagogue always fails him, so he settles for oratory, heart-swelling cantillations, performances. All this seems vaguely Christological to me, un-Jewish.



In the morning a black depression is sitting on my chest. Where to begin? The fall of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem? The expulsion from England? From Spain? Dreyfus? Herzl? It is too complicated, history is an illusion, the Holocaust did not happen. It was a television show.

When I go downstairs I see that Tom is gone. He has taken his duffle bag, his guitar, and his copy of Che! The blanket is folded meticulously on the couch. I put it away and it is as if he has never been there.

I wonder about him. Where has he gone, who will feed him? He is penniless. I esteem the pride that makes him so free, and I am relieved that I do not have to face him.

Later, I find a letter. The letter is written in pencil on notebook paper. It covers four sides, no paragraphs. I can not stay anymore, he says, because my feelings are very hurt because I am not ante-simetic. Not because of the glass, the glass was nothing, but I was brought up to beleive that every person has to be judged by himself. I do not judge any person by his race, color, or creed, but only by what kind of person he or she is as a person. I am trying to understand your feelings because I know you are a victim of the times you lived in but those times are gone. Fawzi (a good person) explaned to me how the Arabs want there land to be a place for any race color or creed, not a place where a person has to be a certain religion or he is a second class citizen like in the United States (with the blacks, I mean). What was done was very unjust. To take the land from the Palestine people by military might. It was not right that the Zionists did not let him speak. Not that Hitler was right either. I would never say that.

It goes on and then there is a postscript: Thank you very much for being so nice to me, Jewish food is the best I ever ate.

I put the letter away. I cannot deal with such high-minded confusion. If it were a composition I would give it a D-minus.

I try to talk to my son. He walks away from me. I have disgraced him, I have caused the loss of his disciple, I am a social embarrassment to him. Don’t talk to me, he says, don’t talk to me about Jews, don’t talk to me about Israel. If you ever want to see me again, shut up, he says.

At least he has left the door open. I wish I could make you understand, I say. How, he says bitterly, by making me watch newsreels of concentration camps like you did when I was a kid? Why did you do that? You knew I couldn’t stand them, you gave me nightmares. Why did you do that?

I am shocked. I have no recollection of such an episode.

He stays two more days. The truck is not yet ready. I go to work and do not know if he will still be there when I return. He tells me nothing of his plans. I do not ask about Tom. Finally, on Saturday, the truck is ready. My neighbor’s son helps him load it. I give him groceries and a coleus plant to decorate the truck. L’chaim, I say, but he doesn’t answer and I know it won’t live.

I see my neighbor standing in his yard and I walk down the street to talk to him. My neighbor is a huge, kind man, bearded, troubled, profane. He has a psychiatrist. His children have psychiatrists. The little bastard’s been hiding in my basement, he tells me. My kids took him in when you threw him out.

I am astounded and I laugh. I had visions of him starving to death, I say. I was worried about him. He ran away.

He didn’t run far, says my neighbor. You should have thrown him out, the little prick. Says to me why should I have it so good and his old man has to scratch for a living. Tells me all about injustice.

He thinks we’re rich, I say, and I laugh again.

I told him if his fuckin old man worked his fuckin ass off like I do he’d be rich too.

Where is he now? I ask.

Down on the highway waiting for your son to pick him up. They’re going to the Keys. Don’t worry, kiddo, you didn’t change their plans.

I walk back to my house. In the driveway my betrayer is locking the back panels of his truck. Tight-lipped, he does not look at me. I want to say goodbye, I say. Goodbye, he says.

The truck grinds gears, lumbers away, heading for the highway where my enemy is waiting. My tall skinny son is gone.

I think of my Litvak grandmother, tall and skinny too, her potato nose, her little blue eyes, her mouth spitting sibilants like needles on a string. It is Passover in Brownsville. There is a tin candelabrum, red and blue cut-glass cups for the children, cracked dishes, and the moldy smell I hate, crumbling house, clotted featherbed, red-eyed poodle. Next to my father at the head of the table sits a stack of shabby books. My grandmother fingers them hopefully. Around the table are my uncles, the dentist, the pharmacist, the pattern maker, the horse player, and their dolled-up wives. “Let’s eat,” says my socialist father. “Bring out the fish, mama,” sing the uncles.

The books sit on the table, nobody opens them. Once I take a little peek. They are Hebrew books, I don’t know how to read them.

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