Invisible Privilege: A Memoir about Race, Class, and Genderby Paula S. Rothenberg
A prominent figure in the creation of women's studies and
Life began for Paula Rothenberg in a privileged home in New York City, but it took her to the battlefields of the culture wars on behalf of the underprivileged. Now this veteran of that cultural clash examines the subtle and complex ways in which issues of race, class, and gender impact people's lives.
A prominent figure in the creation of women's studies and multicultural studies as academic disciplines, Rothenberg is perhaps best known for her textbook Race, Class and Gender in the United States, which was widely attacked by conservatives defending traditional curricula. Now she shows how higher education upholds race, class, and gender bias, and, more generally, analyzes the ways in which many white people's unwavering belief in their own good intentions leaves them blind to their societal privilege and their role in perpetuating class difference.
In this candid look at social and academic realities, Rothenberg shares incidents from her own life and the lives of family and friends to show how privilege is constructed and to reveal the forces that make us unaware of it. Through recollections of her childhood in an upper middle class Jewish family and her college years in the early sixties, she tells how she discovered that the world one takes for granted as "everyday life" is in fact riddled with privilege of which we are unaware.
Reviewing the social upheaval of the seventies that challenged fundamental assumptions about gender roles, race relations, and even the nature of the family, Rothenberg tells how she gained a new understanding of what it meant to be an educator and activist. In sharing events surrounding the publication of Race, Class and Gender, she offers an inside look at the culture wars and brings her story into the '90s with a cogent discussion of hate speech and the "political correctness" controversy.
Rothenberg recalls the early mobilization against sexual harassment and recounts what it was like to create one of the first feminist philosophy courses. She also offers a hard-hitting critique of current teaching practices and a response to critics of multi-culturalism and feminism--as well as a look at how de facto segregation continues in American education in the form of tracking.
Both deeply personal and broadly social, this finely crafted memoir will capture the interest of anyone who cares about the future of education, race relations, feminism, and social justice.
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A Jewish Girlhood
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As the first and, for a while, only child of upper-middle-class, Orthodox Jewish parents growing up in New York City, race and class privilege came easily to me, but it was gender that was always problematic. I understood in some vague way that it would have been preferable had I been born a boy, but my parents were well off and certainly wanted to do well by their children. Because my brother was not born until six years after me, the privileges that ordinarily would have accrued to him as the male child in a Jewish home went to me as the only child in an upper-middle-class homea case of class winning out over gender, and clearly to my advantage. But what about race?
Certainly I knew many people who were not white, and I felt sorry for themjust as I pitied those born poor or with physical disabilities. On the other hand, it never occurred to me that I was white because my whiteness was coextensive with my membership in the human race. In the world in which I lived, human beings had no racewhich is to saythey were white, just as they had no classwhich is to say, they were all materially well off. The only caveat was, of course, that human beings had no gender eitherwhich is to say, they were all men. I have spent much of my adult life trying to make sense of the paradoxes that arise from the intersections of race, class, and gender privilege as they have shaped my life and the lives of others.
Far from being absolute andunmalleable, privilege is a quixotic thinghard to pin down. It ebbs and flows, depending on a host of variables. At another time and in another place, perhaps, my parents would have found the birth of a girl child so burdensome that they would have simply abandoned me or sold me into marriage as an infant. While infanticide is no longer an acceptable way of dealing with girl children in most countries, in many places it has been replaced with the systematic neglect of daughters, a neglect so severe that in some countries girls between the ages of two and four die at nearly twice the rate of boys. Even in the United States, white women who bear children out of wedlock are twice as likely to keep the child if it is a boy. But I was fortunate; I was born into a family that did not have to choose which of its children to feed and clothe, or which would receive medical treatment and which would die from neglect. In this respect, a potential fate for others of my gender was mitigated by my class.
While we were far from "wealthy," my family certainly would have been considered well off by most people. My brother and I attended private schools, and even in my parents' years of declining income, when I mentioned to my mother that I was having trouble with the carburetor in my year-old car, she wondered out loud whether it was worth repairing or whether I should simply get a new onecar, that is. We had an apartment in the city and a house in the country as well as a Buick or an Oldsmobile to take us back and forth between them. Our apartment, especially on the weekends, was filled with fresh flowersbouquets of white or salmon gladiolas and vases of huge, yellow, pom-pom mums around the Jewish holidays in addition to bowls of rhododendron leaves, pussy willows, forsythia, or lilacs to mark each of the seasons. We lived well and looked "rich," but from the inside, things often felt tentative. Unlike that of those who are truly "wealthy," our family's lifestyle was entirely dependent on my father's salary, which could fluctuate dramatically from year to year and which was not supplemented by inherited wealth or significant income from investments. In good times, there was a lot; in bad times, there was less.
My family's fluctuating prosperity could be inferred throughout my childhood by the size and color of the women who worked for us. My earliest memories are of Odessa, a very dark, heavy-set Black woman who had grown up in the South and who came to work for my family when I was quite young. If pressed to remember her, I would say that she was warm and loving and kind to me. But such descriptions of Black mammies by little white girls are so common as to be trite, almost insulting. And after all, what did I really know of her? She worked for us until I was eight, and I accepted her presence in my world without question, just as I took for granted the furniture in my room and the food on my plate. Years later, when I went through my mother's papers after she died, I found a note from Odessa written in pencil on a piece of torn brown household paper. It offered congratulations on the occasion of my brother's birth, and it was signed "With Respect. Your Maid, Odessa." Mother had kept it for thirty-seven years.
Odessa was followed by a steady stream of "Ethels" and "Eunices," ever lighter, ever thinner Black women who had been born in the United States and who were themselves replaced by women from the Caribbean who carried themselves with considerable dignity and spoke, quite literally, "the King's English." Day workers who left before dinner were replaced by women who stayed to serve the meal and wash up, and they, in turn, were replaced, if only briefly, by a young, white, Canadian woman who wore crisp uniforms, lived in, and spoke French.
Her name was Renée, and she couldn't have been older than twenty-two or twenty-three. She worked for us for three or four months one spring before getting pregnant by a member of a visiting Canadian hockey team that had come to play the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. She lived, of course, in the maid's room off the kitchena tiny room with a small window that never saw a bead of sunlight. The window looked out onto a rear courtyard, far from the street, and each morning the garbage cans hobbled their way across the cement as the building's janitor dragged them to the curb. Pigeons made their nests in the dark recesses of a broad ledge outside the window. They made loud nesting sounds early in the morning, and the ledge was always thick with bird droppings that looked to me, when I was a child, like slightly soiled wedding cake frosting.
Until Renée was hired, the room had been used for storage, but in preparation for Renée's arrival, my mother set out to make the room as comfortable as she could. This was not easy. It was a room so tiny that after fitting it with a bed and a dresser, there was no space for a chair. My mother hung a few shelves on the wall above the bed and bought a cheerful bedspread, curtains, and a few brightly colored towels. Always considerate, she replaced the adjoining bathroom's toilet seat with a new one and bought a new rubber mat for the tub. She placed an alarm clock, a small lamp, and a plastic radio on a tiny table that just managed to fit at the head of the bed, and she bought a small TV that was positioned on the bureau at the foot of the bed. I remember being amazed that someone would actually live in that room and being confused by the pleasure my mother seemed to get from furnishing it. Did she really believe that this room could be someone's home?
As it turned out, Renée was found wanting from the start. My mother considered her "slow" and was constantly frustrated by her unwillingness or inability to learn the way my mother wanted things done. I was in my early teens and slightly embarrassed by having to relate to someone so youngand so whiteas a servant. As a result, I often tried to pretend that she wasn't there so that I could avoid having to talk to her. Sometimes I felt sorry for her, consigned to that awful room, with only a TV for companyher real life, or so I imagined, limited to Thursday afternoons and all day Sunday. But other times, I resented her for her willingness to live that way and blamed her for it.
Now when I think back to her, I see a young girl from rural Canada with little formal education. Perhaps she wasn't sorry or homesick at all. Perhaps coming to New York to work as a domestic seemed to her the opportunity of a lifetime, or perhaps it represented the end of all her hopes and dreamsafter all these years, who can really say? An easy prey for the visiting hockey players, after a few months in my parents' employ, Renée took to spending more and more time in her room, crying. That's how my mother discovered that she was pregnant. And, having made this discovery, she had no choice but to turn her outor so she said. For months, I tried to imagine what might have happened to Renée after she left our home.
Unlike her treatment of the countless Black women who worked for us before and after Renée, my mother made no attempt to treat Renée as one of the family. I suspect that that was because being white and young, Renée easily could have been. It was unnecessary for my mother to keep her distance from the Black women who worked for us because that distance was already built into their relationship. Within the socially constructed context of white superiority and Negro inferiority of the time, it was convenient for many white people to believe that "Beulah" or "Matilda" was part of the family. In addition to allowing whites to feel good about themselves by dissociating them from the heartless inhumanity of slavery and racism, it rationalized the long hours, low pay, and limitless demands made on Black women servants on the grounds that they were more like family than paid labor. This is not entirely dissimilar from the rationale that has been used for so many years to deny fair pay to all working womenthat in contrast to men, women work for pin money, for "extras." In both cases, questions of fair and equitable compensation and treatment don't arise because the assumption is that women work not out of need but in one case out of devotion and in the other, in pursuit of frivolous luxuries. In addition, the pretense that Black women were part of the white family helped render their own families invisible. This made it unnecessary for white women to ask who was caring for their servants' children or to feel guilty about keeping them from their homes. Whites enjoyed the illusion that Black women servants acted out of love for their white families because only love could have justified the unequal nature of the relationship from which whites benefited so greatly. The same might be said of the relationship between women and men within traditional marriages.
In spite of my family's history of privilege, the reality that we were well off but not wealthy meant that over the years, as my father's earning capacity diminished, the live-in maids were replaced once again by weekly help and, finally, by an elderly part-time cleaning woman, Black and U.S. born, who made the trip from Harlem on Tuesdays and Fridays. Verlene became my mother's friend and confidante, and long after she had stopped making the trip and my mother had been forced to move into a studio apartment, the two of them talked on the phone regularly to commiserate over their mutually declining standards of living. By then, my mother said "Negroes" instead of "shwartzas," and she and Verlene, who preferred to speak of "colored people," spent long hours on the phone irate over the Black power movement and the linguistic alterations it recommended.
In each of their communities, my mother and Verlene would have been recognized as genteel women who had suffered a diminution in their social and economic position as a result of their husbands' losses. Verlene was married to a musician; after he became too old and sick to work any longer, her part-time cleaning job made a significant contribution to the family income. In earlier years, her husband had performed with some of the well-known Black bands of the day, and Verlene had had an opportunity to travel with him and see something of the world. (Ironically, something my mother longed to do but had never done.) Like my mother, she was a cultured woman who had seen her position in life decline through no fault of her own. You could almost say their friendship was inevitable. How could my mother ever have asked Verlene to wash her floors?
My parents were registered Republicans with democratic tendencies. They taught me that all people were equal and reacted with horror to the violence they witnessed in the televised coverage of the attempts to integrate the schools in Little Rock in 1957. My mother, who had voted for Eisenhower, faulted him loudly for failing to take early and decisive action to end the conflict and deplored the behavior of southern whites who would attack children just because of their race. At the same time, my parents spent considerable money to send me to private school so that I could avoid going to school with children who were not white.
Unlike my brother's country day school, which boasted a rigorous curriculum, including classes in Latin and Greek for which I yearned, my own school had no redeeming academic virtues. It simply ensured that middle-class Jewish girls and boys would grow up surrounded by one another. This choice of schools, of course, reflected my parents' gender-based assumption that a son was educated to earn a good living and a daughter, to be a good wife and mother.
Ironically, my brother's elite private school was a veritable mini-United Nations that enrolled the sons (but not the daughters) of various U.S. and foreign political and economic leaders. My own school did have a few "Oriental" kids, as we called them, who had been admitted to several of the younger grades. But although I passed them in the halls and in the lunchroom, I do not remember speaking to any of them at any time during my entire high-school career, and I don't remember any other white kids speaking to them either. If I thought about it at all, I would have told you it was fine that they were in the school but, to be perfectly honest, I can't recall that I ever thought about itthat's how irrelevant they were to me. I think I believed that by failing to challenge their presence, I had done as much as could be expected. I see their faces now in my memory and can hardly begin to imagine the cruelty of that awful isolation in which they were confined and the part I played in it.
Although allowed to occupy the margins of the classroom, these Asian children never studied anyone who looked or lived like them, and, of course, neither did most of us. The curriculum was firmly rooted in the white, male, European experience, which was offered up as reality. Girls were forced to see their own adolescence through the eyes of J. D. Salinger, Samuel Butler, Theodore Dreiser, and Samuel Richardsonalways object, never subject.
The literature and culture of Latin America, Africa, Asia, even Jewish writers, was virtually absent from our syllabi and bibliographies, although in the early grades we spent one class period each filling in first a map of Africa and then one of South America using bits of cotton, pieces of foil, and other scraps to identify the natural resources of each country. Having completed this survey of resources to exploit, we evidently had learned all that was necessary to know about our neighbors near and far.
Although almost all the children and teachers at the school were Jewish, we celebrated all the Christian holidays with great enthusiasm but always included "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" as part of the annual holiday sing. The rest of the time, we made paper chains to decorate the Christmas tree and sang "O Tannenbaum." Oddly enough, I don't remember my parents ever objecting. I think that all of us accepted the fact that we lived in a Christian society that legislated a school calendar around Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday rather than Chanukah, Passover, and Succos. Besides, all of us wanted to believe in the illusion of "brotherhood" (sic), which was so prevalent then, and that required singing Christmas carols, along with an occasional Negro spiritual, a traditional Spanish folk song, and a token Chanukah melody. Those of us who were not at the center of the curriculum or the culture were simply grateful to be there at allever anxious to claim a piece of the core by fitting in. There was nothing to be gained by calling attention to being left out.
Although the streets between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues on New York's Upper West Side were beginning to be home to a number of Puerto Rican families, there was no danger of any Latin music at my school or any danger of Puerto Ricans either. They went to school several blocks from my apartment house, a world away, in the public school that my father's dollars saved me from attending. After a while, a "Spanish" man was hired as a maintenance worker at our apartment building, but his primary responsibility was to collect the trash and take it down on the rear elevator. He rarely ran the passenger elevator or stood guard at the front door. Lobby duty was reserved for Irish Pat and German Henry.
I began my elementary education, at the age of five, at the local public school on West End Avenue. After four days, for reasons best known to them, my parents became convinced that this was not the right school for their first and only child, and they set out to enroll me in private school. But even in the late 1940s, getting into private school in Manhattan wasn't easy, and doing so on very short notice at the start of the term was almost impossible. Although the school my parents chose for me was hardly prestigious, even it had a long waiting list. To circumvent this unfortunate impediment to my education, my parents, in the first of a series of efforts on behalf of their children's future, called on their privilege to ensure my own. Determined that I would not return to the public school for even one more day, they made calls to their contactsfriends, friends of friends, and business acquaintanceswhose children already attended the private school and who were generous in their support of it. Within a matter of days, I found myself standing on the front steps of our apartment building and waiting for the yellow school bus that would transport me across Central Park each morning to the handsome building on the Upper East Side that was to become my school for the next six years.
Throughout my life, my parents would call on these and other contacts as a matter of course to help my brother and me navigate a cumbersome bureaucracy or to provide us with the margin of safety that would guarantee our success. In this way, they were able to secure my brother's admission to his country day school, place each of us in summer jobs that would add to our résumés and enhance our college applications, if not our bank accounts, make sure that each of us got into college, and, finally, circumvent yet another long waiting list to obtain a bed for my father in the nursing home where he would die. Like all people of privilege, my family has always benefited from a special kind of affirmative action that results from a network of well-placed friends, relatives, acquaintances, and business contacts. Because the beneficiaries of this kind of affirmative action believe that they are simply getting what is due them, it remains largely invisible.
Although immersed in my Jewish roots at home and surrounded by Jews everywhere, being Jewish was complicated for me. On the one hand, most of the people I knew as equals were Jewish, so being Jewish was just part of being alive; on the other hand, my family was Orthodox in a world of Conservative and Reform Jews, which meant that we were different in a way that I found uncomfortable and embarrassing. When my classmates, whose parents were Conservative or Reform Jews, missed school for one day because of a Jewish holiday such as Rosh Hashanah or Passover, I was likely to be out for two or four, as required by Orthodox observance. While my classmates might eat matzoh at their Passover seders as a symbolic gesture, I was doomed to an entire week of cardboard box lunches consisting of buttered matzoh and hard-boiled eggs eaten in shame. For one week each year, the glutinous and unappealing food served in my school's cafeteria took on an allure that has rarely been rivaled since.
Like those "Oriental" children to whom I never spoke, I understood what it felt like to be an outsider. The Orthodox practices in our family separated me from my classmates who had learned how to be American Jews. Walking the twelve blocks from our apartment house to the synagogue dressed in our High Holy Days bestbecause we were prohibited from riding in any kind of motor vehicle on the Sabbathmade me feel like a recent immigrant to these shores, even though my suit was from Hattie Carnegie. And my Jewish friends regarded the old-world practices of my family with the same mixture of contempt and morbid fascination that we otherwise reserved for children who were neither white nor well to do. Even those of my friends' parents who must have known better acted as though the rules of kashruthwhich prohibit eating pork and shellfish and mixing dairy products with meatwere an incomprehensible embarrassment instead of part of their own recent family history.
My first trip to a Chinese restaurant with Barbara Kurtz and her parents left me literally ill with embarrassment when my friend and her parents discovered that I had never eaten wonton soup, egg rolls, or spare ribs. My eight-year-old self ate them that night, trying hard to enjoy their forbidden delights, caught between shame at my own ignorance and revulsion at the new tastes and textures on my tongue. I liked the feeling of the egg roll's crisp wrapper between my fingers and was mildly aroused by its musky aroma, but it was difficult not to gag on its suspicious mixture of ingredients, which even the sticky sweet duck sauce could not make palatable. I longed to participate in the Chinese restaurant world of Upper West Side normalcy that was denied me by my parents' Orthodox Judaism, but its prohibitions were so deeply etched that even the fortune cookies brought little joy.
Repeated trips to synagogue taught me firsthand that separate most certainly was not equaleven before the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education. Our family attended the Jewish Center on West Eighty-sixth Street, an orthodox synagogue for Jews with old money. The rabbi was a well-respected scholar named Leo Jung, who always looked to me as though he had just stepped out of a painting by El Greco. And for a time, the assistant rabbi was a young man named Norman Lamm, who would go on to become president of Yeshiva University. Men sat in the central portion of the sanctuary, with women seated behind a wooden partition in elevated rows on either side and tucked away in a balcony at the rear of the schull.
From an early age, it was clear to me that my mother was ambivalent about this seating arrangement and about other aspects of Orthodox Judaism. When questioned, she offered me the traditional explanation that women and girls were to sit safely beyond the sight of the men, lest the women's presence distract them from their prayers, but made it clear that she found the practice and the reasoning behind it insulting. Although the seating arrangement was largely symbolic, with the women separate from but clearly visible to the men, its implications were clear. Jewish women had standing in the home, but in the synagogue, they were second-class citizens whose participation was carefully circumscribed. I found this somewhat confusing because boys like my brother, sitting with their fathers, often became bored and frequently fidgeted in their seats or whispered to each other to pass the time. It was difficult to understand why sitting with grown women would be more distracting to the men.
While I was confused and offended by the seating arrangement and felt intimidated by the stern demeanor of the rabbi, the cantor, and my own uncle, who served as president of the congregation, a part of me found it difficult to take the gender hierarchy in Judaism very seriously. My own sense of self-worth was partly derived from my own privileged position in the family, guaranteed by my brother's delayed arrival, and partly derived from my mother's class position, with which I identified. While my father had been raised in a relatively poor Orthodox family, the youngest of four children who were raised by their widowed father, a tailor, my mother's family was considerably better off and considerably less Orthodox. My mother, for example, was raised in a kosher home but often ate in restaurants and hotel dining rooms, enjoying shrimp, lobster, and other, to my mind, "upper-class" delicacies. From an early age, I connected my father's Orthodoxy with his inferior class background and identified with my mother's family's elevated class standing. The gender-based hierarchy of privilege and status dictated by Orthodox Judaism was for me mitigated by the hierarchy of status and privilege to which my mother, but not my father, laid claim by virtue of her family's real-estate holdings. My father went to synagogue on Saturday mornings and often took my brother with him, but my mother and I went to Carnegie Hall on Friday nights to hear Arthur Rubinstein play. Although both halls were located in imposing stone buildings and were similarly appointed with red velvet seat cushions, deeply stained mahogany woods, ceiling frescoes, and burnished brass, and both had markedly similar standards of decorum, to my mind, there was no contest.
As a young girl, I attended a Jewish day camp, Nep-O-Rock, located between Neponsit and Far Rockaway on Long Island. It was there that I made my parents proud by being chosen more often than anyone else to light the Sabbath candles at Friday lunch while reciting the Sabbath prayer. It was there, too, that, at the age of eight, I learned to sit still and not tell while a young male counselor sat me on his lap and stroked the inside of my thighhis fingers playfully skirting the elastic cuffs on my little girl underpants. After a while, I did tell; but my mother was so angry with me that I have regretted telling ever since.
I began taking religious instruction at the age of five or six, studying Hebrew and religious ritual and culture with a young rabbi who came to the house. In spite of this, and although I dutifully said the Shema Yisrael every night before going to sleep, for as long as I can remember I found it difficult to believe in God or understand why anyone else would. By the time I was nine or ten, the idea of divine punishments and rewards and the bizarre lists of injunctions, responsibilities, and prohibitions that defined all religions made both religion and God seem transparently contrived. On a personal level, the degree of human misery that I knew existed in the world, along with the persistent unhappiness in my own family resulting from my parents' ill-conceived marriage, left me convinced either that there was no God or that the one who existed was hardly worth believing in. The fact that my parents believed in him made me pity them. I wished that they were strong enough to take charge of their own lives and perhaps redeem their futures.
At eleven or twelve, convinced that there was no God, I set out to put my belief to the test by deliberately violating one of the most serious prohibitions in our religion. One Yom Kippur, the holiest time of the year for Jews and a fast day as well, I waited until my family was asleep and then ate a piece of breadate it not because I was hungry, but simply because I was defiant. I remember sitting cross-legged ("Indian-style," as we then called it) on my bedroom floor in the dark, waiting for something to happen. No thunder erupted from the heavens; no lightning bolts seared my comforter. I didn't even get sick. Later that year, during Passover, I hid a piece of bread in my room so that I could eat it once the holiday had begun and the prohibition against chometz was in place. Again I waited in vain for some sign. When none was forthcoming, I ended my empirical investigation into the matter of God's existence. For the rest of the time I lived in my parents' home, I fasted on Yom Kippur and forsook bread during Passover, but I no longer believed in God or said my prayers. It was not until I went away to college that I transgressed those dietary laws one final time. I spent Yom Kippur night in the cafeteria at Billings Hospital with several other students, nonobservant Jews themselves, consuming an assortment of improbable foods in order to assert my now adult personhood. After that, it wasn't necessaryI did as I chosebut there was no longer the possibility of transgression.
While it was clear to me that my father observed the laws of kashruth and the other requirements of his religion out of fear and with an uncritical, blind faith, I was never sure what motivated my mother, and to this day I still am unclear about the extent and nature of her commitment. My father laid tefillin each morning. He bound each of his arms and several of his fingers with strips of black leather as part of the ritual saying of the morning prayersan obligation that each Jewish man assumes when he comes of age. Attached to these strips of leather, and to one worn round his head, were small leather boxes containing lines from the Torah. Over his head and around his shoulders was draped a white and blue fringed tallis, or prayer shawl. In my eyes, this process, carried out in the gray light of early morning, transformed him from a warm and loving father into a remote and impersonal figure to whom I dared not speak. From the first moment when he began to wrap the tefillin around his arms, his total allegiance was to the God of his fathers. There was no room for a seven-year-old girl in this schema. As I was growing up, I often stood in the doorway watching him, feeling like an intruder. And, of course, this was true. As a girl child, I knew that that ritual was forever forbidden to me. Sometimes I stepped forward in the hope of attracting his attention. Would he raise his eyes from the prayer book and meet mine or, better still, smile and call to me? But, of course, he never did. Later, when I began to debate outright God's existence with the intellectual arrogance and passionate intensity of a high-school and then a college student, my father found my questioning, even at its most respectful and thoughtful, intolerable. His was not the faith of an Aquinas or even an Augustine; he believed in a vengeful God and had so little experience with intellectual inquiry that he found it irrelevant as a basis for living his life.
A 1918 graduate of the High School of Commerce in New York City, my father went to work immediately after graduation. Embarrassed by his failure to go on to higher education, for most of my life he maintained that he had attended City College, even offering this false information to me as fact when I wrote out my college applications. Years later, I remember how proud he was when he was able to help one of his nephews enroll at Rutgers University. He read the New York Times each morning and, during my childhood, the Journal American each night, but never to my memory read a book.
My mother, on the other hand, was a great and eclectic reader. Her tastes ran the gamut from movie star magazines, bought in hotel smoke shops while we vacationed at Jewish resorts, to contemporary novels and classical literature. I remember her stretched out on her bed or on the chaise lounge in her bedroom reading Immortal Wife or Love Is Eternal, two of the many Irving Stone historical biographies that were so popular in the 1950s, or perhaps Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny or Marjorie Morningstar. Or she might have been reading Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse or some Jewish humor by Sam Levinson or Leo Rosten. She subscribed to the Ladies' Home Journal and Redbook but not to the more risqué Cosmopolitan, although she sometimes bought that magazine as well. And for many years, she had a subscription to Harry Golden's The Carolina Israelite.
Golden, a white, Jewish Northerner who had relocated to the South, was a passionate advocate for civil rights and used his paper during the 1950s and 1960s to publish telling editorials on the evils of racism, often using humor to make his point. My mother admired his courage and read the paper religiously. I think she especially admired Golden because she regarded him as someone who had a strong sense of Jewish identity but refused to be bound by what she considered to be the petty conventions of Jewish society when forced to choose between them and justice. My mother identified with Goldenat times believing herself to be just like him; at others, I think, wishing she were.
My mother's mother, Anna Kashowitz, the only grandmother I ever knew, was also an avid reader, but her tastes defied my understanding. I remember frequent trips to Womrath's, a book store on upper Broadway, where she used the lending library to borrow and return an astonishing number of murder mysteries by Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, and others. These books always struck me as improbable choices for her. Gram was a very proper and well-educated lady who had graduated from Washington Irving High School in New York City in 1908 and then gone on to complete a teacher-training course that certified her to teach in the New York City public schools. She taught school for a few months, before marrying my grandfather, Isaac Siegel, eighteen years her senior, in December 1910. I have never been sure whether she left because of her marriage or because, as my mother once told me, she succumbed quickly to an attack of spitballs. A demanding and critical, although loving, taskmaster throughout much of my young life, she despaired of my penmanship, especially the messy way I wrote figures, and had very strict ideas about what constituted appropriate behavior in any situation. I can hardly remember a time when she was not dressed conservatively in black and wearing sturdy burnished gold jewelry, a black hat with a short veil, and long black suede gloves. That such a figure of propriety would actually read books with the unlikely titles The Body in the Grass and The Case of the Blue-eyed Blonde never ceased to amaze me. How she would have loved today's feminist mystery writers, women like Amanda Cross and Anne Perry, and maybe even Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, all writers I frequently turn to in order to get me through the night.
When I think of my grandmother, I imagine her entering our apartment and carrying a treat from Mrs. Herbst's Bakery: a delicious buttery babka made with raisins, chopped walnuts, and a honey glaze, or wonderfully flaky butter cookies that fooled me every time. The cookies looked so humble and unassuming that I always forgot how utterly and indescribably delicious they could be. Or perhaps I remember her taking me to a movie at Loew's and then to Schrafft's on Broadway and Eighty-fourth Street for coffee ice cream smothered in hot butterscotch sauce and sprinkled with slightly salty, still warm, toasted almonds. The price of these treats and cherished excursions was allowing her to hold my hand tightly during the movie or as we walked to it. I hated this prolonged and obviously needy physical contact and tried to avoid it whenever possible. I did not yet understand how lonely some old people could be or how starved for physical contact. I wish I could hold her hand now. I would never let go.
Just after it opened in 1955, I persuaded Gram to take me to see Love Is a Many Splendored Thing on one of our afternoons out. Being twelve years old, I was somewhat ambivalent about going to see this film with my grandmother instead of my friends, but it was the movie everyone was waiting for and I wanted to see it right away. We had barely settled into our seats when a boy I knew and coveted from afar appeared a few rows away with a group of other boys. Seeing such a film with your grandmother was embarrassing enough, but having to hold hands with her throughout the movie was more than I could bear. I sat on my hands.
Set in Hong Kong during the Korean War, the film tells the story of a beautiful Eurasian doctor, played by Jennifer Jones, who falls in love with a white, American newspaper correspondent, played by William Holden. I think that my grandmother was a little shocked by the film, not for herself, but because she worried about whether it was entirely appropriate for someone my age. Not only did it portray a passionate romance with some serious kissing, but it also raised the issue of interracial marriage. I remember being both fascinated and, if I am to be honest, mildly disturbed by William Holden's attraction to Jennifer Jones and its implications. Keeping them apart made no sense, since they were clearly destined for each other, and their love was most certainly a many splendored thing. On the other hand, it was apparent that any future for them would transgress carefully drawn boundaries, and I was unsure how I felt about that.
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