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What it means to be a Jew lies at the very heart of Confessions of a Secular Jew, a provocative memoir and a thoughtful speculation on the nature of Jewish identity and experience in an increasingly secular world.
The legacy bequeathed to Eugene Goodheart was a "progressive" secular Yiddish education which identified Jewish struggles against oppression with working class struggles against exploitation. In the vanguard was the Soviet Union. Goodheart's heroes were Moses, Bar ...
What it means to be a Jew lies at the very heart of Confessions of a Secular Jew, a provocative memoir and a thoughtful speculation on the nature of Jewish identity and experience in an increasingly secular world.
The legacy bequeathed to Eugene Goodheart was a "progressive" secular Yiddish education which identified Jewish struggles against oppression with working class struggles against exploitation. In the vanguard was the Soviet Union. Goodheart's heroes were Moses, Bar Kochbah, Judah Maccabee, Karl Marx and that strange honorary Jew, Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism would later become known to the world. Confessions of a Secular Jew is the story of Goodheart's disillusionment with the naive, even false, progressivism of that education. At the same time, it is an attempt to rescue and come to grips with the positive remains of that education and heritage.
In the introduction to the new Transaction edition of his memoir, Goodheart addresses the themes of social justice, Zionism, chosenness, messianism, and alienation from a secular Jewish perspective. The memoir takes the reader from Goodheart's coming of age in Brooklyn to his higher education at Columbia College in the early fifties and beyond to his varied career as university teacher and literary critic. The memoir provides memorable characterizations of writers whom he knew, among them Lionel Trilling (his teacher), Saul Bellow, Richard Wright (whom he met in Paris), Hannah Arendt, and Philip Rahv.
Coming of Age in Brooklyn
There's a Yiddish expression, S'iz shver tzu zein a yid (It's hard to be a Jew). "Hard but interesting," a distinguished writer once said. When I say hard I don't mean in the obvious sense of belonging to a pariah people that has known every conceivable indignity and atrocity. Hard doesn't do justice to such suffering. I mean hard in the sense of knowing what it means to be Jewish. It is not hard for the Orthodox Jew, who lives by the Book, or the Hasid, who follows his rebbe, or even the Yiddish-speaking and -reading Jew who does not believe in God or is indifferent to the question of whether or not he exists. The Orthodox Jew, the Hasid, the Yiddishist are all secure in their identity. But what of the rest of us who, when pressed, struggle to make sense of our Jewishness? The biologist Julian Huxley writes that "the Jews vary as much, if not more than any other people in the world." Alain Finkielkraut consoles us with the remark that "Judaism's very lack of definition is precious." Which is not the same as saying that there is no Jewish identity. Being Jewish for me is at once a given and a question. Ethnic identity isnever unitary or coherent, and I mistrust the current obsession to turn ethnicity or race into a singular story, usually of oppression and victimization. Easy for me to say, having grown up in America in the middle of the twentieth century. The Jews of Europe and North Africa could hardly avoid the theme of oppression and victimization. The Tunisian-born Jew Albert Memmi, in his Portrait of a Jew, defines the Jewish fate as a misfortune. My fate is that the migration of my parents to America enabled me to escape the misfortune. For better or worse, the variety of Jewish identity is its fate in diaspora. The Jew mixes with the country in which he finds himself and takes on its identity as well. Paraphrasing Saul Bellow's Chicagoan Augie March, I am an American, Brooklyn-born.
The legal scholar Derrick Bell admonishes his black colleagues about the dangers of being black and thinking white. We would not want to be warned about the risks of being Jewish and thinking gentile. Why would we want to deny ourselves the freedom to think and feel in whatever direction our minds and feelings take us? Just as we would not want others to define us, we would not want to tell others what it means to be Jewish, although I understand the temptation. Any answer to the question is bound to provoke a quarrel, and--here I will risk a generalization--the Jews are a quarrelsome people. I'm sure that I will be making large claims from my experience that seem self-evident to me but puzzling and even offensive to others. I will be dealing with matters that have no direct bearing on my Jewishness, in the belief that one can nevertheless find its presence everywhere in my life. If I confined myself to composing a portrait of a Jew, I would have betrayed the kind of Jew I am.
I was raised in full consciousness of being Jewish. I was sent to a Yiddish shuleh and I can read and speak Yiddish. But I do not consider myself a Yiddish-speaking Jew: Yiddish is not part of my essence. I am not a believer. I do not celebrate the holidays, nor do I atone for my sins on Yom Kippur. And I have transmitted virtually nothing of my Yiddishkeit to my children. This failure of mine became the subject of a quarrel with my father, who told me I had in effect thrown away the gift of Yiddish he had given me. My children were no longer Jews. I defended myself by pointing out the difficulty of a divorced father giving his children a Jewish education, especially when they clearly didn't want it. The environment in which I grew up virtually dictated such an education for me and my friends, but it was not reproducible. My father was unmoved and held me responsible for what he conceived to be a betrayal. So I asked him, as our argument came to a boil, whether he hadn't betrayed his heritage when he left his Orthodox father behind in the Ukraine and went off to America, where he set himself up as an atheist. "Your break with your father was greater than the break between me and my kids. You abandoned the religion of your father, the religion that's supposed to define your Jewish identity, so what are you talking about?" "No," he insisted, "I have Yiddish, it is what makes a Jew a Jew. What your children have, wonderful as they are, is nothing. They have no cultural identity." (They were his grandchildren, he was a devoted and doting grandfather, but in this argument they were only my children.)
It seemed so unreasonable, yet I couldn't escape the feeling that my father was onto something. Mind you, to an Orthodox Jew he was little more than a heathen, an apicoiris, and he reciprocated in his contempt for the dress of the Orthodox, the beard, the sideburns, the black coat, the ancient ways. On Yom Kippur we neither repented nor fasted. My father would draw down the window blinds of our kitchen so that we could eat to our heart's content, unobserved by the neighbors in the apartment house across the way. (My mother, an atheist like my father, has always discouraged visits to her on Yom Kippur. She doesn't want her neighbors to know that her son and daughter-in-law travel on the high holy days.)
I said that I am not a Yiddish speaker and that Yiddish is not part of my essence. Was I being truthful? In times of crisis or despair or pleasurable intimacy with a friend I often find myself thrown back to a Yiddish expression, where for the moment my soul comes to rest. My bond with my oldest friends has as its medium a Jewish joke, an intonation that my wife, who is only half Jewish and comes from a completely different tradition, recognizes as something alien, quite unlike my customary way of speaking and acting among colleagues and acquaintances. Yiddish is the language of comic despair: the perfect ineffectual vent for frustration, the resentful person's imaginative revenge against life. It has unique capacities as a bearer of the experience of suffering. Its words and cadences seem to have evolved for the purpose of conveying the experience of persecution, exclusion, and massacre, and at the same time redeeming it through humor and irony. There is nothing like meeting an old Yiddish-speaking friend from the past. The language itself is like a warm embrace. It is automatic membership in a club: no resume, no interviews, no dues required. Those who know it but left it behind, perhaps embarrassed by their immigrant parents who remained stuck in a ghetto mentality and never learned to speak properly the language of the new country, may find themselves in middle or old age longing for what now seems a comfort zone of Yiddish-connected memories. Yiddish is like some metaphysical substratum to which I always have access.
My parents' lives were shaped by the great catastrophic events of our century: revolution and world war. My father grew up in the Pale of Settlement (a sort of reservation for Jews) between Odessa and Kiev, the son of the richest merchant in the village. His father owned a large store that sold miscellaneous items, including candles to the local churches. His business required travel outside the Pale of Settlement to St. Petersburg, and the czarist government granted him the right to travel, a rare privilege for a Jew. But the life of my father's family was hardly privileged--or it was "privileged" in a wholly unwelcome sense. He told me of a pogrom in which the Cossacks entered his father's store. One of them grabbed my grandfather, forced his head on the counter, drew a saber, and threatened to cut off his head. My father's stepmother went to her knees, begged for her husband's life, and bought it with whatever cash there was in the store. My father witnessed the scene. On another occasion, there had been a warning that the Cossacks were about to enter the village, and my father and his brother were sent up to the roof of their house, where they stayed for three days.
It's hard to measure the lifelong effect of such events on the consciousness, but it surely formed the abiding mistrust my father felt for Ivan Shtink, the goy. In America, where in his business as an insurance agent he dealt regularly and amicably with gentiles, he could never achieve the trust of friendship. "Scratch a goy," he said, "and at some point you'll find the anti-Semite." And he warned me against marrying one, because in a crisis anti-Semitism would rear its ugly head. My first wife was three-quarters Jewish, my second and present wife one-half Jewish. Does this count as defiance of parental authority or compromise?
The Russian Revolution may have emancipated the Jews, but it didn't liberate my father. The Bolshevik cavalry entered his village and its captain billeted himself and other officers in my grandfather's residence. The captain took a shine to my father, who was then nineteen years old and invited him to join his cavalry, but my grandfather intervened and forbade it. He was an Orthodox Jew, and much as he disliked the czarist regime, he disliked the Bolsheviks even more. They may have officially emancipated the Jews, but this was less important than their atheism. The idea that his son would join a godless movement appalled him, and he told my father that if he joined he would be disowned. My father solved his problem by emigrating to America. He fled in the night with a forged passport, and acquired a birth certificate in Germany on his way to America. (On the certificate, which remains among the papers in my possession, is a photo of my father as a young man. It's as if he had sprung into life fully formed.) His first cousin Nathan, a wheeler-dealer who knew whom to bribe, paved the way to America. Cousin Nathan wound up a player in Philadelphia politics; his son is a district court judge who capitalizes on our family name by officiating at a mass marriage ceremony on Valentine's Day.
My mother came from Belz (a part of Bessarabia, now Moldova). She emigrated to America in 1924. In the teens and early twenties of the twentieth century, Bessarabia was a combat zone between Russia and Romania. Though she lived under Romanian rule for six years, my mother had grown up speaking Russian and had gone to Russian schools. Her father had left Belz for America in 1912. The small business he started there was collapsing, and he hoped that he would make enough money to return to his family and eventually arrange their passage to America. The First World War intervened, and it took him four years to return. Meanwhile, my mother's mother suffered kidney failure and died, leaving a sixteen-year-old girl (my mother) in charge of her younger brother and sister. (Two older brothers had already gone to America to join their father.) My mother speaks of these years as if she is still living them. She has been forever marked by the poverty and anxiety of the time. When she finally came to America with her younger brother and sister, her experience as a surrogate mother thrust her into the role of housekeeper for her father and her four siblings. She cooked the meals, washed the dishes and the clothes, and ironed her brothers' shirts while they gallivanted in the world. A bitterness about her lost youth lies barely beneath the surface of her existence even to this day.
My parents escaped the oppressions and squalor of the old country, but they would never overcome their attachment to it. Once in America they could not be expected to take easily to its new ways; indeed, they felt threatened by them. Life became a struggle for existence, as it had been in the old country. From the perspective of displacement in the New World, the old country was suffused with nostalgia, it acquired the glow of a lost Zion. Immigration was the kind of adventure that extinguished subsequent desire for adventure. My parents' preferred existence (and they were typical in this respect) was a kind of inertia, risk-taking being anathema to them.
My great-uncle on my mother's side, Isaac Goldenberg, founded one of those landsmanshaftn that sprang up in New York and other cities with large Jewish populations. Their purpose was to reunite immigrant Jews from the various shtetls from which they had originated. The Belzer Bessarabian Sick Benevolent Association revived the shtetl in the heart of New York. "Sick Benevolent": the first thought was mutual aid in illness and crisis. In a brief narrative of events leading to the establishment of the association, my great-uncle speaks of Belzer immigrants "pour[ing] our their bitter hearts about their loneliness and isolation among other landsmanshaftn" before their own landsmanshaft came into existence. Looking back after forty years of the association's existence, he observes with pride "one large family from Belz." "Family," "friends," "fraternity," "clinging," "ties" appear again and again in his speech. "Uprooted from their native soil, torn from their families and friends, clinging together, they joined hands and formed the nucleus of a fraternity bearing the name of their town, Belz." To my surprise, he also speaks of members of societies prior to 1900 as wearing "on various occasions military uniforms with rich colors, golden epaulets and ribbons." My great-uncle and his brother, my grandfather, were not alone in trying to escape military service in Czarist Russia, and yet here is an account of a kind of patriotic atavism in which immigrants "perpetuate the name of the shtetl, the love for those left behind and of their abandoned fatherland by marching with their full regalia, with ... infantry or cavalry uniform, just like at home. This was sort of a holy reminder of their birthplace and did help to unite each group." My grandparents' and parents' generations did not dress in the regalia of their oppressors, but my great-uncle's account of those who did is not only understanding, but admiring as well. I have never known such patriotic feeling in an America that never oppressed me. Maybe one needs the experience of exile and rupture to to know that feeling.
Writers speak of immigrant loneliness in the new country, my great-uncle speaks of it, but immigrants had an antidote: the solidarity of family and kinship and community, and in some instances a political movement. My mother, her three brothers, and her sister visited one another several times a week. Visit may not be the right word. My uncle Abe came every Sunday uninvited for breakfast. Invited implies formality and distance. You invite people outside your family, and he was family. My maternal grandfather (zeide) had suffered a stroke in his early fifties, which made him virtually deaf and impaired his speech. He lived with us and with my uncle at different times, as did my bachelor uncle. The apartments in which my parents, aunts, and uncles lived may have been separated by streets, but the separation was artificial. In their minds, they inhabited a continuous space.
Writing about his Brooklyn childhood a generation before mine, Alfred Kazin describes the "untiring solidarity" of his family: "Marriage was an institution people entered into--for all I could ever tell--only from immigrant loneliness, a need to be with one's own kind that mechanically resulted in the family. The family was a whole greater than all the individuals who made it up, yet made sense only in their untiring solidarity." Uncle Sam may have behaved badly, Cousin Rose may have offended or acted inconsiderately, but family was family. Fallings-out did occur, and relatives did not speak to each other for years, but a falling-out never made for indifference. The grievances themselves were a kind of lasting bond. Though Uncle Abe did not speak to Uncle Sam for several years, they found themselves together at family events. A grudge was not expected to last forever, but honor had to be satisfied with an apology, if not an admission of fault. If an apology was not forthcoming, a third party would have to intervene, often after years had passed: "Zei nit kein akshen" (don't be stubborn like an ox.) At some public occasion the adversaries would somehow slide into reconciliation. Sometimes the reconciliation did not take place in life. I was twelve years old when a great-aunt, my grandfather's sister, whom I had never seen before, rose during the funeral service for my zeide, screamed out some Yiddish words which I didn't understand, and tore a piece of cloth from a garment she was wearing. Later mother told me that she was doing penance for not having made up with her brother before he died. (In memory it does not seem like penance but rather like a grab for attention.)
I have never heard my parents speak of loneliness. Frustration, disappointment, yes, but not loneliness and uncertainty--that existential condition that members of my generation share and admit to. We, not our parents, were lonely in America, uncertain about ourselves. Even now my ninety-nine-year-old mother knows her own mind with an unequivocal clarity that I am incapable of. My parents, for all their difficulties, limitations, and suffering, knew themselves or believed that they did. I have never known them to be insecure in their judgments. They were never confused about right and wrong. What gave the family certainty, Kazin tells us, was their purpose in life: "My mother and father worked in a rage to put us above their level: they married to make us possible. We were the only conceivable end to their striving; we were their America." And that was our burden. We would realize a life unavailable to them that they wanted for us. They knew what they wanted for us: achievement, success, prosperity, a family. Did we know what we wanted for ourselves? Could we want anything for ourselves that they did not want for us? If we were their America, what was our America? In devoting their lives to us, they were not sacrificing themselves. They were living through us, who in turn were living for them.
The Brooklyn where I grew up in the thirties and the forties was the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Coney Island, and the famous bridge, the accent unmistakable, the people eccentric, the whole atmosphere as fabulous as Texas. Or at least this was the Brooklyn of popular mythology. It leaves out its Jewish character. The great novelist of Brooklyn is Daniel Fuchs, who wrote a trilogy about life in Williamsburg, Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, and Low Company. Fuchs's Brooklyn is a generation older than mine, and what he captures is its un-Americanness. Unlike Texas with its wide open spaces, his Brooklyn was dense, airless, desperate, and oppressively intimate, rather like the Eastern European shtetl on a macrocosmic scale. This would be hyperbole for the Brooklyn of my childhood and adolescence, but Fuchs has caught its essential spirit. In upper Brownsville, where I lived, people sought the clearer luft of Eastern Parkway on a torrid summer night as if they were ritualistically repeating the flight from the old country.
We occupied a three-room apartment on the sixth (top) floor of the building. I slept in the living room on a couch that became a bed at night. It made me adaptable to almost any living situation. The doors of all the rooms in the apartment were open day and night. Occasionally I thought I heard the creaking of my parents' bed. Privacy was a word I can't remember hearing. I didn't know enough to desire my own privacy, so growing up I never thought that I had been deprived of it and had to do battle for it. I shared the life of my parents, scarcely knowing what was mine and what was theirs. As an only child and the sole object of my parents' attention, I absorbed all the affection and anxiety they had to offer. It was as if the family was a single identity and any claim for privacy was an act of rebellion and rejection.
I grew up believing that I was an only child because my mother had labored twenty-six hours to deliver me. It may also have been her perfectionism that decided her not to have any more children. She wanted to concentrate her energies on me; all her capacity for careful arranging, for anticipating consequences would suffer no distraction. All my life I have been the object of a child-raising conspiracy to make me into some ideal conception of a person and to protect me against danger. My mother worried that when I played ball I would perspire, catch cold, and get pneumonia. The possibility of illness required constant vigilance, existence being a daily battle against the threats of nature. My well-being and my appearance were their constant project. A suit was tailor-made to my unusual height, but it never fitted properly. Because mother worried so much about my comfort, everything I wore had a baggy look. My parents noticed every wrinkle in my clothes, every strand of hair that resisted or evaded the comb, and the scrutiny lasted into middle age. In my forties I grew a gray-white beard that I wore for nine years. Imagine, an aged son. My father said, "You look ten years older than you are. Shave the damn thing off." "None of your business." It was my father's business. Once he introduced me to an acquaintance as his grandfather. Mother said that she wanted to see my face before she died. Spitefully: "Call me when the time comes and I'll see what I can do." When father died I relented and made the gift. There was never a conflict between them where I was concerned. Every consideration, every affection, every anxiety, every misgiving would be redoubled. It never occurred to them that I might experience their united front as an obstacle, an oppression, as providing me with insufficient air to breathe-and loneliness.
Shadowed by two six-story apartment houses, our street ran on an incline, punctuated by manhole covers (sewers, we called them). Between the sewers we played punchball and stickball. My talent was for punchball. I could hit a "spaldeen" almost "two sewers" with my clenched fist and slap a ground ball between fielders for a base hit. My reflexes as a fielder were sharp; I could be counted on to catch the ball. My happiest memories of adolescence are the game-winning hits, the rally-stopping catches I made. My friends and I lived through the heroism and failures of the Brooklyn Dodgers. We grew up with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Dixie Walker, Ducky Wucky Medwick, Cookie Lavagetto, and Dolph Camilli. I preferred the reactionary Daily News to the more liberal New York Times because the News provided the baseball averages of the players daily, while the New York Times reserved them for the sports section of the Sunday edition. At night I dreamed of making Pete Reiser--like catches against the centerfield wall or hitting a monster home run. My father took me occasionally to Ebbets Field and my mother allowed me to Scotch-tape the photos of my heroes on the hallway wall, since I did not have my own bedroom. But I felt their bemused remoteness from my enthusiasm. It was a part of America they had never really entered. Sports for me were a kind of spiritual autonomy from my parents.
Getting into fights was one sport my parents didn't approve of, and for a time in early childhood I was regularly beaten up by other kids without resisting. I had internalized my parents' distaste for violence of any kind. Fortunately, the black doorman of our apartment house, a witness to the scenes of my defeat, took pity on me. Crouching down to my height, he put up his dukes and showed me how to strike back. He may have forgotten to tell me that he was showing me how to defend myself, because I thought he was giving me license to strike first. I experienced the pleasures of beating up other kids. But I was not a natural-born fighter, and as I grew older I found myself at the losing end of most fights. I suffered my greatest humiliation when a kid solidly built and many inches shorter challenged me to a fight in the presence of other kids and with one punch in the abdomen knocked the wind out me, sending me to the ground. Street life in the thirties and forties in Brooklyn was, of course, a far cry from what it is now. Our weapons were our fists: no knives, no guns, at least not in my neighborhood. We formed a social and athletic club, but no gang. Once while walking on Eastern Parkway, I was suddenly surrounded by a group of gentile boys from another neighborhood. As far as I recall, I had done nothing to provoke them, but they were prepared to do me harm. Fear loosened my tongue, and I began to speak earnestly and rapidly. What had I done to provoke them? What were they trying to prove? I hinted that I had friends, older and stronger, who would seek them out if they hurt me. It was not so much what I said as the astonishing flow of language that came out of me. Looking bewildered, as if they had encountered a freak, they backed off, and I realized that I had a weapon: speech.
As I grew older, my athletic abilities declined. My arms were thin, my hands small (despite my height), my stamina deficient. In college, the basketball coach, observing my height, thought maybe he had a potential player on his team and asked me to dribble down the court and shoot, but my small hands could never grip the basketball and I shot it wildly over the backboard. The fencing coach, again impressed with my height and the length of my arms, put me to the test, which I failed. Though reading and writing would become my athleticism, I have never lost my passion for sports, now sublimated in hours before the television screen, watching basketball, football, baseball, and even golf.
During my childhood, my mother's family was close-knit. One of my earliest memories is of a regular Sunday visit from my uncle Abe, who would sit in our kitchen for an hour or two, drink a cup of tea accompanied by a generous portion of my mother's homebaked cake, and exchange gossip with my parents about family and friends. Once when I was ill, at about the age of ten, he came into my room and consoled me with the remark, "It could be worse, it could have happened to me." I always thought it odd that an uncle at least twenty years my senior would entertain me with a joking comment appropriate for a contemporary. Was it a mark of respect for me, a feeling that I could take it? This streak of sardonic humor informed a stoic pessimism. Life wasn't easy for him. He had twice lost a job, his older son an eye in a sports accident. But stoic pessimism doesn't quite describe him. He wept bitterly for his son, but his humor sustained him. He could always depend upon it.
There was bad blood between him and his older brother, Sam, who worked together as pressers in a shop in the garment center in New York. Abe complained that Sam was selfish and undependable. Instead of sharing work, he would leave the shop early and expect Abe to finish up. A handsome bachelor, Sam seemed always to have a date or a party to go to. Since Abe had a family and the compensation was for the pieces pressed (it was called piece work), Sam assumed without asking that Abe wouldn't mind the extra work. But he did mind, and he resented Sam's inconsiderateness. Abe had Sam's number, and his was the consensus view of the family. The family regarded him as a popinjay and ladies' man. My own view of him differed. In my early childhood he lived with us in our three-room apartment and shared the living room, which served as bedroom, with me. An only child, I thought of him as my brother (or, when in a Yiddishizing mood, my brudele). If my parents were the disciplinarians, Sam was a good-time Charlie, always taking me out for a treat.
A very late sleeper on weekends, he would occasionally ask me to wake him up. One morning he did not respond to my words or shaking. I had just seen a Chaplin movie in which Charlie, playing a police officer, knocks someone on the head with a billy club, and my uncle had bought me one, together with a police outfit. So I bopped him into screaming wakefulness. He laughed hilariously after recovering from his pain and never once reproached me. The episode became part of the family legend.
The quarrels and resentments between Abe and Sam were a persistent theme, my parents generally sympathizing with Abe. Sam was the black sheep, but he was my brudele and I his favorite nephew. He had the looks of a Hollywood leading man: not an irregular facial feature, a swarthy complexion, immaculately groomed. His clothes were purchased at the best shops, his taste impeccable. In his younger days he seemed like a free spirit, unlike his brothers and sisters, who were all saddled with obligations and whose demeanors expressed concern and anxiety. He lived with a married brother or a married sister, paid a nominal rent, and had all his needs attended to: meals when he didn't eat in restaurants, laundry washed and ironed, his bed made. When he lived with us, there were occasional flashes of resentment from my mother and father about his lack of consideration, but the resentment never threatened what seemed to be a deeply held feeling of obligation that my mother, a married sister, felt toward her unmarried brother. The unmarried state was the state of childhood, and children must be cared for.
His brother and his sister shared the responsibility. For several years at a time he lived with one or the other. With the addition of real children to the households, Sam's continued residency became untenable. He eventually found himself a room in the apartment of strangers. For the rest of his life, he lived among strangers, out in the mornings, home at night, eating in restaurants. As he grew older, the air of freedom he gave off in his youth disappeared. A sullen look of disappointment appeared on his face, which never left him. I try to imagine the dailiness of Sam's life. Waking up every morning to a present without prospects, he had no one to speak to, no friends to call. Yes, he had a family, but it was really no longer his family. And he did not have the resources of imagination.
My mother had a simple theory why he didn't marry. The women spoiled him and he believed that no woman was good enough for him. My aunt Anya once said that in the Catskills, where he vacationed, women carried mattresses on their backs to his room. The family cultivated his Don Juan legend with a mixture of disapproval and admiration. As I grew older, I began to suspect that what was supposed to happen in his room between him and a woman never happened, that it may have been the reason why he had remained a bachelor. Of course, I had no way of knowing, since he was of a generation of immigrants who never spoke of such things.
I suppose the statistical probability in a family of five siblings is that one of them will remain unmarried. This is pure supposition. For his sisters and brothers, his being unmarried was an external fact: a reflection of egoism, a refusal to accept responsibilities, a lack of consideration for others, in particular his family, who had to take care of him. My mother was sure that he would eventually rue his situation: "It's no joke being alone in the world." Of course, in his younger days he was not alone: he had his family. What my mother and her other siblings lacked was a capacity to imagine what went on inside his head, what made him what he was. I can't recall a single conversation in which my parents and aunts and uncles speculated about his motives or wondered aloud about what made him tick. It was his effect that they constantly remarked upon. Their generation lacked psychological imagination, including my bachelor brudele himself, whose taciturnity increased as he grew older. I suspect that he did not speak much to himself either. When he spoke it was to complain about not feeling well or not being treated right, but he never gave the impression of being in touch with his feelings. His devotion to appearances would not permit the tremors of self-doubt and anxiety to come to the surface.
It was strange having a brudele so different from me. My friends and I expressed every feeling we were ever conscious of having. Which is not to say that he never complained. Kvetching was the main activity of his generation, and he was good at it. For my uncle the source of the problem was elsewhere, never with himself. Was it pride that silenced confessions of weakness or fear or self-doubt? He never knew the pleasure of confession. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, I would "discover" myself in telling all, in letting it all hang out. I'm not sure that I learned anything real about myself in all the confessing I did. I suspect I was doing little more than venting anxiety, or perhaps I was playacting. As I grew older, it became harder for me to confess, and although my uncle's silence is still opaque to me, my memory of his demeanor provokes me to speculate about what it might conceal and to reflect about my own acquired inhibition to speak intimacies.
I am no longer sure that he was not in touch with his feelings. It may be that his feelings were so strong and so painful that he would not risk revealing them. He had shame, and I was shameless. I can no longer confess my deepest feelings to others, not because they are shameful in their eccentricity. More often than not they are the common coin of the emotional life, but the confession implies the claim of uniqueness, of something extraordinary, because it wants astonished attention, it wants to amaze. (Rousseau began his confessions saying that he was like no one else. And he was like no one else, not in what he confessed, but in the sheer torrent of his confession.) Since the auditor hears not the uniqueness but the common coin, the confession falls on deaf ears or is met by glazed eyes. If the confessor is not blind to his effect, he must hate both his auditor and himself for having confessed.
Let us imagine that my uncle had opened himself up, what would he have said? "I am alone and unloved" Not possible. "You don't love me, you don't care"? He might have wanted to make the accusation, but how can one speak to someone that way? You need the permutations of art to disguise and justify the expression of such feelings. Without art it was better to trade on the dignity of a pregnant silence--to suggest depths of feeling by concealing them. Of course, living alone without a family, with a minimal fare of experience, he must have had very little to report of interest to anyone. He was no John Marcher, of Henry James's The Beast in the Jungle, with a fantastic inner life to compensate for not having lived. How much of my uncle's pain, I wonder, came from the monotony of the "events" of his inner life?
Uncle Sam seemed to be waiting for something to happen. He must have lost the will to make things happen. He was a presser by trade, but I don't recall a single thing he did: a sport, a hobby, an object that he made, an interest that he acted upon. In retrospect, one might say he suffered from depression, but it didn't seem that way at the time. The problem was not with him. It was as if his very existence entitled him to someone, to something that would bring him happiness. As he waited, his resentment grew. Since his whole life was on a low flame, the intensity of his resentment was always well within bounds. It would never explode and make a loud sound. The effect of his resentment was in the look on his face, which communicated a sense of injury. Things did not come his way, and while he waited, age came upon him with a vengeance. He acquired a facial tumor that had to be operated on, and the surgeon's knife accidentally cut a nerve that destroyed the symmetry of his face. Therapy improved matters somewhat, but the once handsome and perfectly featured face had become a grotesque version of itself. (It reminded me of the episode in the film Mondo Cane in which the camera moves to Rudolph Valentino's birthplace and shoots the faces of men in the town who look like grotesques of Valentino, the camera performing the role of my uncle's surgeon.) My uncle lost most of his hair, his teeth were stained from tobacco, and perhaps neglect further demolished his looks. Vanity would not allow him to accept the change. He bought himself a hideous toupee and powdered his face. When I read Death in Venice, my uncle comes to mind in the figure of Gustav von Aschenbach during his final days.
Illness--a blood disease, kidney trouble, gallstones, and finally leukemia--overwhelmed him. Despite Uncle Sam's Don Juan reputation, I think of him now as a man without adventure. His egoism was sheer inertia. The movements in his life were the illnesses that traversed his body, and they challenged him as nothing else in life challenged him. He felt utterly alone and helpless, filled with complaint and grievance. Too proud to beg, in his misery he became fiercely resentful of his sisters, my mother and my aunt, who, as they said, had their own problems. They tried to help, but it wasn't enough. They would not, could not take him in and become his nurse. My mother found him impossible in the last years and although she felt for him, she resolutely refused to feel responsible or guilty: "I'll do what I can for him, but there are limits. He made his bed, lived the high life, thought of nobody but himself, and now ..." She shook her head in despair.
He left the world with scarcely a trace. Yet he looms larger in my memory than do any of my other relatives. Something in the minimalism of his life was compelling: his resentments, his hermeticism, his taciturnity. The most minimal existence leaves its traces and spaces to be filled in. At the funeral of another uncle, years after Uncle Sam died, I was asked by the wife of a cousin whether I knew the cause of Uncle Sam's death. "I thought it was cancer," I said. She knew something I didn't know: "I heard the doctor warned against kissing him on the lips." "What does that mean?" "He had AIDS. I'm sure he had AIDS." I felt a shock, although I was not astonished. I had always suspected the possibility that he was homosexual. But the warning about kissing, if indeed there had been a warning, was hardly evidence. I decided to ask my mother, his elder sister, and she responded with outrage: "Wouldn't we have known? For years, we lived so close together. There would have been a friend, some indication. This kind of talk is scandalous, scandalous." Mother convinced me, but the real story is not whatever the truth may be, but the need we have to fill the empty spaces of someone else's life with a story.
* * *
When I left home for good in my mid-twenties, not extraordinary for my generation, I kept in regular phone communication with my parents. The expectation was that I would phone two or three times a week, and I rarely disappointed them. Most of our phone conversations would begin with their asking, "What's new with you?" "What's new with you?" "What should be new with us? We're old, you're young." I can hardly remember a time when the start of a conversation was not a variation of this exchange, and it immediately impoverished our conversation, because hard as I tried I could rarely produce the "something new' that was required of my youth. The failure to do so came to be judged as an absence of generosity in me, a stubborn refusal to give them what they wanted. As I grew older I would deliberately withhold news about my life as a kind of revenge upon their expectation.
If my parents did not understand my need for privacy, they protected me from the demands of the practical world. I was never assigned chores or required to work after school. I was expected to give myself completely to my studies. Something of a throwback to the Yeshiva bocher, I never learned to do anything with my hands. My parents secured me against distractions that would keep me from intellectual accomplishment. From time to time, they would leave our apartment for no other reason than providing me with the necessary quiet for my schoolwork. I thought it a normal part of family life.
I grew up in a state of anxiety that I would never fulfill the expectations of my parents and teachers. My sixth-grade teacher, the virago Miss Crassner, discovered me. I could express myself on paper and in class discussion and she placed me in the first row, though I was the tallest kid in class. The seating arrangements reflected your standing as a student. (Other teachers with more humane instincts assigned me to the last seat in the last row, so that the views of the shorter students would not be blocked.) Miss Crassner was a spindly spinster with a gaunt face that was saved from haggardness by the intensity of her expression. She had an eagle eye for mischief, and every infraction of discipline was swiftly punished by a demerit. Everyone behaved in her class. Her teaching sounded like a series of commands. Every week she graded your performance and your seat would change according to your grade relative to others. I alternated between the first and second seat in the first row. Occasionally after a relatively unimpressive week, I was placed in the third seat, but I can't recall having fallen any lower than that. Monday was the day of judgment, when my anxiety was at its peak. The anxiety has stayed with me. We were given quizzes, asked questions in class, required to write book reports. Sometimes I answered the question with confidence, at other times with uncertainty or with a shot in the dark, but always there was a wait for approval or disapproval. My life became a perpetual expectation of a grade. Graduation from elementary school was a great triumph. I received all the prizes, including a book with an inscription from Miss Crassner, Dave Dawson and the Pacific Fleet. Much would be expected from me.
Prizes came my way in junior high school and high school. In college I did well, but I competed there with students whose achievements were comparable to my own or who knew more or were more talented. In my mind, the sixth grade was my consummate achievement. But all my early successes were contaminated by a fear of failure. My thoughts did not travel smoothly through my sentences. A kind of static appeared in my speech. I would strain to complete a sentence as rapidly as possible for fear that the animating thought would break down and I would lose the attention of my audience. The rush to finish the sentence might mean a violation of idiom. It offended my sense of fastidiousness about language and made me miserable. My father's impatience played a role: "Come on, get to the point." The expression on his face was enough to get me to the point. I think writing became a recourse against my father's impatience. On paper I could bide my time before expressing myself. I could daydream between sentences, interrupt the act of writing and pursue some distraction, and no one would rebuke me. But inevitably my writing was affected by my father's impatience. Nothing I wrote gave much room to the distraction of ornament or to the pleasures of digression. My writing always had to make its point and make it quickly.
I resented my father for his impatience, particularly since he himself suffered from a similar affliction. Although the manner of his conversation always affected a certain confidence, I heard the same nervous apprehensiveness in his own speech: the hesitations, the occasional blurring of focus. I must confess that I have reenacted my father's impatience with my own son. I try to check it, but it is a compulsion that takes away my initiative.
I was given piano lessons, and my third and most memorable teacher was another version of Miss Crassner. Jewish children were given music lessons irrespective of whether they had talent or cared for music. Did the existence of Heifetz, Elman, Menuhin, and Horowitz imply that the Jews had a gene for music? Every Jewish mother in her heart of hearts hopes for a prodigy. I cared for music, but my fingers possessed limited talent. My teacher's name was Miss Davis, and she sported a pimple on the tip of her nose that seemed trained upon my fingers as I moved up and down the scales. It was a pimple of perfectionism. Rarely letting me complete a measure, she would find fault with my fingering, with my dynamics (my piano was too loud, my forte not loud enough), with my phrasing, but mostly with my tempo, which was erratic. I counted aloud at her insistence, but it made little difference, for I stretched or quickened the count to accommodate the varying difficulty of the piece. Miss Davis would bark one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. She would keep the beat by tapping on my arm as I played, but to little avail. The result was that I never seemed able to play a piece through from beginning to end. She said I was musical but deficient in technique, and, so that I would not take comfort, added: "Without technique, being musical doesn't mean a thing."
Every year Miss Davis hosted a recital in her Riverside Drive apartment in which her students performed in the presence of their parents. Like Miss Crassner, she ranked her students, the least proficient playing first, the most accomplished last. To my surprise, one year she placed me next to last. My parents and I took the subway up from Brooklyn. I was to perform several Bach preludes. I remember the hourlong subway ride up to Miss Davis's home as a state of continuous anxiety. We were supposed to perform from memory. When my turn came, I sat myself down on the piano bench, played three measures, and stopped. My fingers failed to remember the rest. There was a long pause and not a sound from the audience. Miss Davis urged me to try again. This time I collapsed after two measures. I got up, walked toward the audience, read the humiliation on the faces of my parents, sat down, and had to endure the successful performance of the last student.
The humiliation I read on my parents's faces was, of course, mine as well. It did not prove long-lasting, however, because piano playing never became inextricably part of my self-esteem. It was an ornament, a possible source of pleasure when I played well. But it wasn't where my self-esteem resided. Even sex, which in my youth provoked anxiety and made me vulnerable, didn't have the power to humiliate as did an affront to my intelligence. I eventually switched to another teacher, the concert pianist Vivian Rifkin, who allowed my liberties with tempo and phrasing, so that I could at least play a piece through from beginning to end. We don't need Freud to tell us that no one (if it can be helped) should be denied the satisfaction of completion.
Excerpted from Confessions of a Secular Jew by Eugene Goodheart Copyright © 2004 by Eugene Goodheart. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 20, 2001
This memoir is a nostalgic journey through confusing times. Goodheart's honest self examination of himself and his era will resonate among those Jews who were raised within the melting pots of urban America in the second half of the 20th Century.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.