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My Times and Life
A Historian's Progress through a Contentious Age
By Morton Keller
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Middle-class families tend not to leave a fulsome written record behind them. I can tap no store of letters or memoirs from friends or relatives, near or distant. Indeed, aside from myself there are no immediate family memory-carriers to draw upon. My mother had no siblings; my father had a brother, considerably older, usually distant in space, long gone, leaving no extended family around when I arrived on the scene. Except for my mother's socially remote immigrant parents, there was no human context in which to embed family memory, only a scattering of my parents' friends. The short and simple annals of the poor can be shared in good measure by the middle class.
The primary primary source of my ancestry and youth turns out to be photos. These are the most common record-keeping device of twentieth-century American families, and certainly the least subject to the constraints of talent or skill. In our own time, the swift ascent of digital computer photography has taken the Kodak era's every-man-his-own-picture-taker appeal to a new level of participatory creativity. This peculiarly democratic, contemporary impulse to (usually talent-free) expression may be seen as well in those popular pastimes macramé and jogging, and most fruitfully in the domains of e-mailing and texting, where neither high literacy nor solid substance is part of the price of admission.
My father came to America from an exotic locale: turn-of-the-century Palestine. He was born into a family that had been there since the early nineteenth century. In the wake of Napoleon a small aliyah of several thousand devout East European Jews made their way to the Holy Land: a post-Enlightenment reaction by the Unenlightened. There is a family legend — maybe a true legend — that the pioneering ancestor crossed the Black Sea in a small sailboat on the way to Palestine.
The family initially was centered in Safed, an old center of Jewish learning and mysticism. It was rich as well in plagues and earthquakes, which perhaps explains why my father's father wound up in Jerusalem and other members of the family took to cultivating orange groves. I remember an occasional letter in the 1930s from my father's family (no one closer than cousins of some remove) who went around armed against Arabs, already at war with these "intruders" (whose Palestinian roots in fact probably antedated most of their attackers).
I made my first trip to Israel in the 1970s and met my family, whose patriarch was Aaron Keller, a second cousin and retired farmer who had tracked me down in the course of a trip around the world, and thus reconnected me to this lost ancestry. We had a family gathering; to my wife Phyllis's astonishment, another distant cousin of mine, close to my own age, displayed bodily movements and facial mannerisms eerily like my own.
It was a social as well as an economic statement that the family dwelt in a compound of several houses on Gluskin Street in the middle of Rehovot, one of Israel's older Zionist-founded communities. It was initially an agricultural market town (hence, probably, my family's presence there), and later the home of the Weizmann Institute, Israel's leading science research center (with which my relatives apparently had nothing to do). Their houses were substantial by Israeli standards. And the British police headquarters nearby, built during the British Mandate, stood on land bought from the family.
These Israeli relatives were an eye-opener in other ways, too. They were unlike any other Israelis I met in the course of my life: neither kibbutzim socialists nor Tel Aviv entrepreneurs nor Hebrew University academics, but the Israeli equivalent of South African Boers or Algerian colons: longtime residents, steeped in an agricultural past, contemptuous of both the Arabs and the latter-day secular/socialist Zionists who surrounded them. They referred to the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Histadrut, the major Israeli labor federation, as "the Kremlin." When I met them in the 1970s, they spoke little or no English, a notable achievement in modern Israel.
Meeting these landsmen sharpened my understanding of my father. He was not the easiest of men; he had an artist's prickly temperament. Born in 1889, he spent his youth in Jerusalem, where his father, an artisan of some ability, had a crafts and souvenir store. Early on he was enrolled in a cheder: a religious school whose obscurantism in that time and place can only be imagined. In any event, in the early 1900s his artist's impulse drove him out of the cheder, indeed out of Jerusalem and Palestine, to — where else? — Paris.
He studied art there (no further information was vouchsafed me when I was growing up) and came to America a few years later. An additional lure: his older brother was a sculptor who emigrated to America without his family and returned to Palestine some years later. The shipping manifest of the SS Louisiane, out of Le Havre, tells me that my father arrived in New York on June 11, 1909. His brother, Abraham, met him and contrived to whisk the new arrival onto land without his being subjected to the rigors of Ellis Island.
I pore over the sepia-tinted handful of photographs from my father's Palestine that have come down to me, seeking to tease out clues to my roots. In a 1901 picture my early-teen father, looking much as I did at the same age, stands on the right, beside his considerably older brother. Posed before them are my father's mother, with his brother's wife on the left, displaying their youngest child; the other two are draped around their grandmother. (I know no names; I deduce the relationships.) [Plate 1]
My father's father was dead by the time of this photo. But there is an earlier image of him proudly posed behind his model of the Rothschild Hospital in Jerusalem, which was opened in 1888 as the first Jewish-identified hospital outside of the Old City. [Plate 2] The building is still there, now housing the Hadassah College of Technology: a physical representation of the evolution of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem from the introspective Jerusalem of my father's youth to a larger, protonational identity.
That model of my grandfather's is real to me: I saw it in the 1970s when I visited my father's relatives in Rehovot. The roof came off to reveal minute doctors, nurses, and patients engaged in the ronde of hospital life. It was done with some skill, and speaks of the combination of craftsmanship and souvenir-selling that was my paternal grandfather's livelihood and of the artistic talent that, in different form, was transmitted to his son. (But then the genetic strain stopped cold. Neither I, my children, or grandchildren — save perhaps one — have artistic talent.)
This is about all I know of my father's life in Palestine before that day in 1909 when he departed, to return only twice for brief visits after World Wars I and II. My mother's family — about whom I know even less — had a more familiar immigrant experience. My maternal grandparents made their way to the United States in the late 1800s, part of that vast, faceless mass driven out of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires by worsening anti-Semitism and economic conditions, drawn by the lure of Der Goldener Land.
My recollection of my mother's parents (she had no siblings, aunts or uncles, or cousins) stretches from the 1930s to their deaths in the 1950s. Their major distinction was in the difference between their personalities. My maternal grandfather, Aaron Sherman, was a gentle, other-worldly man. He was a skilled tailor and made a reasonably good living working for Hattie Carnegie, an upscale women's clothing entrepreneur not unlike the cosmetics diva Helena Rubenstein. She appealed, if not to the carriage trade, at least to the taxi trade: the growing number of (primarily Jewish) women sufficiently well-off to buy expensive clothes and have them skillfully fitted by craftsmen like my grandfather.
My mother's mother, Clara Sherman, was another story: what today would be called a piece of work. She came to America from a Romanian shtetl: from where, when, and at what age I don't know. In my recollection she remains a classic non-assimilated immigrant, with little English (Yiddish was her mode of discourse) and even less connection to the American world around her.
I don't know what tribulations along the old immigrant trail soured her. I do recall her manic insistence on having huge dinners to which various "uncles" and "cousins" — few if any with true family connections — flocked; a free meal was not lightly skipped in those days. What I remember most of all was the gulf in temperament that made her a constant trial to my mother who, guilt-driven, would spend long hours on the subway paying dutiful but inevitably painful, tension-fraught visits.
In my time, my maternal grandparents lived in an attached row house in Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood, an area since obliterated by the ravages of the social decline that hit that part of the city during the late twentieth century. Before that they resided, I surmise, in New York's upper West Side, close to Hattie Carnegie's original store.
Sometime after World War II, in a monumental act of folly, my grandfather opened his own tailoring shop across the street from Loehmann's dress store at Sterling Place and Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, and moved to East New York. This pioneering shop, in which women could get high-fashion dresses at knockdown prices, led to forms of group conduct immortalized in Erma Bombeck's great ethnographic study, All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in Loehmann's Dressing Room. The store didn't bother with niceties such as alterations. My grandfather hoped to tap that trade with his new shop. But saintliness is not the high road to commercial success. Until his death in the 1950s he struggled to make a living, which did little to temper my grandmother's sourness.
Where to begin my own saga? Like the nation to whose history I've devoted my career, it properly begins at the beginning, with a Declaration denoting my Independence: not from unwanted Imperial rule but from my mother's womb. Mine was not an eloquent document, but it was signed, and legal, and official: a birth certificate. It announced that Mortimer Keller was born on March 1, 1929, at St. John's Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. It bore the signatures not of the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, but the less historically resonant James J. Walker, mayor of the City of New York, Commissioner of Health Louis I. Harris, and Registrar William H. Guilfoyle, M.D.
Like any historical document, it calls for context and interpretation. Someone born in 1929 inherits a burden of historical resonance comparable to those who saw the light of day in 1914. Each of those years marked The End of an Era and the commencement of a new one: the onset of the Great Depression, the beginning of the Great War. However unwanted, those disasters were part of the birthright of everyone born under their stars.
Why did I enter life in St. John's, an Episcopalian hospital, when Brooklyn had its fair share of Jewish ones? Perhaps convenience: the hospital was at 1545 Atlantic Avenue, fairly close to my parents' address, relatively upscale 320 Eastern Parkway. But Brooklyn Jewish Hospital was not much further away at 555 Prospect Place in Prospect Heights. My mother's budding assimilationist impulse may well have been at play.
For reasons lost to my family's (non-)history, my parents named me Mortimer. The appellation was quite popular, among the top one hundred given names in the early twentieth century. But it was already in steep decline by 1929.
It was a name of Old French origin — on the face of it, not likely to attract a Jewish family derived from Palestine and Romania (though my father did put in some time in Paris). God only knows what mix of upwardly mobile inclinations and romanticism went into what I assume was my mother's choice.
True, the name does literally mean "dead sea," suggesting a faint link with the Old Testament and my father's Holy Land origins. But its actual derivation appears to have been from a stagnant lake on a baronial French family's lands. One of my few first-name counterparts, publisher Mortimer Zuckerman, was born in Montreal in 1937, the provinciality of the birthplace perhaps accounting for the persistence of a near-archaic name.
Early on in my life, Mortimer morphed into Morton, an easy Anglicization. Here we plunge still deeper into the assimilationist woods. Morton was a slightly less popular name than Mortimer in the early twentieth century, slightly more so later. It was a name solidly English in its origin, though it did have an exotic original meaning: Moor Town. Presumably it was less redolent than Mortimer of — what? Out-of-dateness? Foreignness? Jewishness? The most notable Morton of my time was the decisively non-Jewish popular singer Morton Downey (born 1901), whose son Morton Downey Jr. (born 1932) would later be a celebrity television talk show host. Or was the name change my doing, a response to playground taunts over the by-now obsolete Mortimer? Search me. (If you do, you won't find an answer.)
Then, in rapid turn, came another change: from Morton to Mickey, so widely used by family and friends that it became as much a name as a nickname. This sets off yet more obvious assimilationist signals. Two historian friends a few years older than me had similar socially neutral monikers. Harvard colonial historian Bernard Bailyn was, and is, for all purposes and to almost all comers, "Bud." So was my Brandeis colleague Marvin Meyers. Ours was a generation of Jews whose more tradition-bound parents adhered to established naming rules — Mortimer, Bernard, Marvin — but whose aspiring offspring sought a more readily acceptable identity in their common form of address.
This was even more widely true of last names. Mine — Keller — was adopted by my father's Palestinian family, in place of an earlier name lost to memory, when they became subjects of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy as a protective device against on-the-ground Ottoman rule. (I'm sure the Emperor Franz Josef was pleased.) And no doubt the Bailyns and the Meyerses, a generation or two back, called themselves something more Jewish Old World than that.
Eight months after my birth, the stock market crashed. I am quite confident that there was no causal connection. But it is solid historical fact that October 29, 1929 — that day when the stock market definitively informed America's Dorothys that they no longer lived in the jolly old land of Oz, but were on their way back to woeful Kansas — was also the day of my parents' fifth wedding anniversary. My father, as one of the few surviving bits of family lore has it, kept from my mother on that happy day the fact that he had been hit hard indeed by unfortunate events downtown.
Of course neither my parents (nor, need I say, I) had any notion of how much, and what kind, of history lay in wait. Indeed, I entered into my time in a context, both family and social, of overwhelming, unalloyed ordinariness: that vast, vague, unsung entity called the middle-middle class, devoid of the violence or affective pathos of workers, or the eccentricities or emoluments of upper-middle folk (to say nothing of those even higher up the social food chain).
Most constructions of society dwell not on the stratum into which I was born, but on the layers above and below: on the miseries (and virtues) of the poor and almost-poor, and the comforts and (usually self-imposed) torments of the rich and almost-rich. Ric Burns's New York, a Public Broadcasting Service documentary history of the city, unrelentingly dwelt on the sufferings of the poor and the excesses of the rich, at the cost of the more ambiguous life experience of what by the twentieth century would be the dominant class of New Yorkers.
But so it has been in the history-writing of my time. Why is it that as the modern United States turned definitively from a working-class to a middle-class society, its historians chose to dwell on the tails and not the peak of the social bell curve? That is a problem best left to students of the prevailing ideology of the academic class.
We were middle class in the American sense of being comfortable but hardly affluent, not in the English sense of being in fact quite well-off both financially and in the social pecking order. In this large and indeterminate category — like "post," as in "post-modern," a copout term of social categorization resistant to more precise definition — we occupied a solid economic niche. I estimate that as a self-employed commercial artist my father earned around $3,000 to $5,000 annually during the Depression years, which must have put us well within the top ten percent of American family incomes.
My father appears to have readily found his way as a commercial artist in New York. He began by drawing advertisements for the Yiddish press. I have one of them: a sketch of a devout, heavily bearded Jew sipping a cup of coffee, presumably announcing (in Yiddish?) that it was good to the last drop — as well it should have been, since this was an ad for Maxwell House Coffee. [Plate 3]
He also earned income by drawing postcards to be used by new immigrants to assure their left-behind families that all was well in the New World. [Plate 4] Possessors of commercially viable talents — artists like my father, writers, Tin Pan Alley composers — had a measurably easier time of it than most other immigrants.
Excerpted from My Times and Life by Morton Keller. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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