The Scientists: A Family Romance

The Scientists: A Family Romance

by Marco Roth

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A frank, intelligent, and deeply moving debut memoir

With the precociousness expected of the only child of a doctor and a classical musician—from the time he could get his toddler tongue to a pronounce a word like "De-oxy ribonucleic acid," or recite a French poem—Marco Roth was able to share his parents' New York, a world centered around

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A frank, intelligent, and deeply moving debut memoir

With the precociousness expected of the only child of a doctor and a classical musician—from the time he could get his toddler tongue to a pronounce a word like "De-oxy ribonucleic acid," or recite a French poem—Marco Roth was able to share his parents' New York, a world centered around house concerts, a private library of literary classics, and dinner discussions of the latest advances in medicine. That world ended when his father started to suffer the worst effects of the AIDS virus that had infected him in the early 1980s.

What this family could not talk about for years came to dominate the lives of its surviving members, often in unexpected ways. The Scientists is a story of how we first learn from our parents and how we then learn to see them as separate individuals; it's a story of how precociousness can slow us down when it comes to knowing about our desires and other people's. A memoir of parents and children in the tradition of Edmund Gosse, Henry Adams, and J.R. Ackerley, The Scientists grapples with a troubled intellectual and emotional inheritance, in a style that is both elegiac and defiant.

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Editorial Reviews

Rarely does a book make so little effort as Marco Roth's The Scientists to sell itself. Roth's bio reveals that he "was raised amid the vanished liberal culture of Manhattan's Upper West Side. After studying comparative literature at Columbia and Yale, he..." He what? There are plenty of ways the sentence might end that would, as they say, move units, but none of them is "helped found the magazine n+1." The promotional copy begins: "With the precociousness expected of the only child of a doctor and a classical musician — from the time he could get his toddler tongue to pronounce a word like 'De-oxy ribonucleic acid,' or recite a French poem — "

This sort of thing isn't for everyone. It may not even be for many. But press on and one learns that this memoir's true subject is not the culturing of Roth's brain in an especially rarefied petri dish. The Scientists is about the death of Roth's father, Eugene, and the halting journey toward truth, self-knowledge, and identity on which it launched the son left behind. As a chronicle of struggle, of anguish, the book is as much about the limitations of brains and books as it is a celebration of them. Just beyond the petri dish of precocity and privilege, it seems to say, the autoclave awaits.

Roth learned just after his fourteenth birthday that his father, a doctor and researcher working in Mount Sinai Hospital's sickle-cell clinic, suffered from "full-blown AIDS." His father had, his parents told him, contracted the relatively new and mysterious disease in a freak needle-stick accident. Roth was sworn to secrecy, which he upheld longer than most teenagers could have. What he managed to uphold even longer was his belief in the official story, which even the most credulous reader will doubt from the outset — not because it is altogether implausible but because one feels, having become accustomed to certain narrative conventions, that absent its slow unraveling there might have been no book to write.

That is not to say Roth couldn't have dramatized, to great effect, the less complicated tragedy he believed had taken place. In The Long Goodbye, Meghan O'Rourke grieved the loss of her mother without having to divulge a family secret. But it is in the nature of the modern memoir to deliver on the promises it makes, even implicit ones, and even if it goes on, as The Scientists does, to surprise in other ways.

A word on one of those surprises is in order. When a critic calls a memoirist bracingly or fiercely honest, it is often a sleight of hand, an attempt to make the reader forget that in this shameless age, no confession is so strange or scandalous as to be brave in itself. What makes The Scientists singularly brave is not the nature of its disclosures but the fact that Roth, a great writer, risked appearing mercenary or opportunistic in order to write it. He staked his relatively young reputation on the belief that he could convey absolute honesty and resist the impulse to curry sympathy or self-mythologize. At times Roth comes off poorly — overly sensitive, or too eager to think where he might feel — but it is a measure of his honesty that he never seems oblivious to his faults. In revisiting experiences more painful than many of his readers will ever have to endure, he is incapable of weakness or insincerity.

Some reviews have stated that Eugene Roth died of AIDS. In fact, he terminated his long illness by taking sodium cyanide, but not before explaining to his son how the compound would operate and then shooing him from the room lest he become an accomplice. This is not the kind of passing one finds in a college essay: " 'Sodium cyanide,' he explained, 'can take you one of two ways. When it enters the heart it causes almost immediate cardiac arrest, a heart attack. Everything stops. If your heart muscle is relaxed, then it's a very peaceful death; they say painless. If your heart is pumping blood out and contracted, then the body goes into a seizure. It's a fifty-fifty chance.' "

The elegant symbolism of this statement is enough to make one's hair stand on end. The hyper-rational decision to take his own life, to deny AIDS the last laugh, is more or less what one expects of a scientist. But it is cyanide's macabre coin toss that presents such a perfect summing-up of the differences between father and son. For the dispassionate, cold-blooded man of science, death is regrettable but fascinating, something to observe in slow motion even as it swallows him up. For the hot-blooded, tantrum-throwing man of letters, it's bound to bring on a seizure.

Life is not so simple. Per Roth's postmortem, his father did not go gentle: "Smell of shit. Mouth fixed open in a grimace of pain. Legs curled fetally. One hand outstretched, another in a fist." But Roth, rather than explode in fits of emotion, becomes curiously calm. He throws himself back into his studies, first a paper on the poet Stéphane Mallarmé:

Fixing on such an abstract distraction with the earth still brown and raw on my father's grave was surprisingly easy. Mallarmé's music, nonsense, silence, and coldness all felt impersonally personal. Before the glowing azure blank of my computer screen, I struggled with this new idea that art could be quite useless or meaningless, that language would do its own thing, if left to its own devices, that the poet and the reader must learn to get their consciousness, their shaping power, out of the way, let writing run its course, just as, say, the processes of protein synthesis ran their course in varying patterns, broken off and copied from the master text.
Roth receives his inheritance. (His father had threatened to disinherit him for a rebellious, if short-lived, attempt to choose Oberlin over Eugene's alma mater, Columbia.) He goes to Paris in successful pursuit of Jacques Derrida. He barricades himself behind books, some of his own choosing and some recommended by his father's admiration. He discusses, at various points in this memoir, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Flaubert's Sentimental Education, Mann's Tonio Kröger, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and, most memorably, Goncharov's Oblomov, but one pictures Roth gnawing through libraries like a cartoon beaver dispatching a forest.

Roth is in the midst of Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle when another book drops like a bunker-buster onto his fortress of intellection: an advance reader's edition of 1185 Park Avenue, a memoir his father's sister, Anne Roiphe, had written about her childhood. Roth read the book in the knowledge that his aunt had succeeded in alienating plenty of family members with her past writings. At length he came to this: "If [Eugene] did not, even then, tell me everything about his life and if his AIDS was in fact contracted in the more usual way I would have been heartbroken — heartbroken because he would have lived so long bending beneath the deceptions forged in other ignorant and cruel times."

In a discussion of a lesser work, this would count as a spoiler. In The Scientists, it just an embarkation point, the start of another quest for truth in what one senses will be a life made up of one after another. The question is less Is my aunt right? than Who is my father, really? and then, because all these things are of a piece, Who am I, really? As befits a book about reading and thinking, thinking and reading, The Scientists only grows more formless as it meanders toward its conclusion, which is also, in a way, its inception. But one marvels at Roth's inner life, which he has rendered so richly. If one begins this book asking, "Just who does he think he is?" that reader will certainly finish it thinking, "Glad I asked."

A writer living in southern Connecticut, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications. He also writes a food blog, The Poor Mouth, which can be found at

Reviewer: Stefan Beck

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The couch where my father died was also the couch where he taught me to read. I might as well start there: my alphas and his omega joined by a piece of furniture. It was a white sofa bed, pushed up against a wall the color of late summer nights. The room was supposed to be the apartment’s dining room, but served more as my father’s library. Sitting on the couch you faced two twelve-foot-tall bookcases, crammed to the top, with a third just like them on the right. The books both beckoned and frightened. Some of them were forbidden, placed high up on the top tier, after my mother once caught me leafing through a three-volume German history of the Second World War and its trove of Nazi photographs: glorious flamethrowers, the parade of tanks, the piles of corpses like so many broken dolls. Other books I didn’t want to see at all. The cover of something called Freddy’s Book showed a horned, hairy, and goat-footed man, hanging in a thicket of thorns.
“’Tis the eye of childhood that fears the painted devil,” my father quoted at me, when I asked him to move it or turn the spine around. So the book stayed there, an object of dread, to admonish and terrify me until I grew brave enough to take it and read. It turned out to be a fairy tale about a misshapen but very human monster, a sort of Frankenstein’s creature, who learned, in the somewhat happy end, to live with his deformities.
It wasn’t a completely comfortable couch. The raised stitches on the cushion covers and armrests made it look hand-knit, but they left lines on bare flesh. I used to pick at the knots of fabric whenever bored or anxious during our weekend lessons. “Don’t destroy it,” my father said. English came first. The primer of choice, or at least the one I remember first actually being able to read, was called Nobody Listens to Andrew. The illustrations were Dick-and-Jane-like, a crew-cut boy in knickerbockers, girls in frocks with bows and neatly parted hair. The story, however, was not. Because nobody did listen to Andrew. He was just a boy with a busy family, a father who read the newspaper and smoked a pipe, older siblings, and in the end, maybe, Andrew ran away for an afternoon, or hid out in the treehouse in the backyard, or perhaps there was a bear lurking and he tried to warn everyone, but no one listened, turning it into an inverted version of the boy who cried wolf, a parable for a more responsive generation of parents. I never knew where my father found the book or why he’d picked it out. It didn’t make much sense to me. I was an only child and everyone seemed to be listening to me all the time.
These first lessons were followed quickly by French, the seventeenth-century fabulist La Fontaine, “La Cigale ayant chanté tout l’été,” we read together. Then I’d recite the tale of the ant and the grasshopper back at him, four lines at a time. That was classical education: “Repetition is the mother of memory,” my father quoted again, as I stumbled over the lines at first. I kept up, eager to please, waiting to catch him in a secret smile of approval. Repetition may have been the mother, but my memory had a very visible father. Sometimes I was attentive, other times, leaning back, I’d run an imaginary rat through the maze of interconnected honeycomb moldings on the ceiling. Staring down, I’d idly trace the arabesques of the Persian rug with my toe.
When my wandering attention finally convinced him no further progress was possible, my father released me to entertain myself. I skipped off across the dining room along the carpet’s red rhomboid medallions, making myself go back to the beginning if I missed a step, then jumped from peacock to antelope along the hallway’s animal carpet until I reached the open arch leading to the enormous rectangle my parents called “the living room,” although we really used it as a music room. It was barely furnished: a small seating area with a couch and glass coffee table at one end and the piano and stereo system at the other. The far wall was a bank of six windows looking out onto Central Park.
Weekend afternoons, two or three times a year, the room filled with a group of Chinese, Chileans, Poles, Italians, the random Yugoslav, and Jews from New York’s five boroughs, my father’s favored colleagues from the hematology and epidemiology divisions of various New York hospitals. I was put in charge of opening our front door to the arriving guests, who included elderly couples with Middle European accents from around the neighborhood, the shaggy poet who lived in the apartment across the hall, my mother’s musician friends. They sat on the rented chairs I’d sometimes help unfold and listen to a string quartet run through the program they would play at Lincoln Center the following week, or a recital of a Schubert song cycle, or, once, a brass quintet my father had discovered busking outside in the park. Their trumpets shook the windows and left our ears ringing.
I looked for my mother’s curls bobbing up behind the pianist’s shoulder as she turned pages, then I searched the rows, trying to catch a cue as to how the music was going by reading the faces around me. If someone met my stare, I’d shyly switch to where my father sat on the edge of a black armchair, trying to meet his eyes, gray behind his oversized black-framed glasses. He hunched forward, his chin cupped in his palm during particularly complicated passages, the lines on his broad forehead creasing, his broad lips pulsing gently, as if he were keeping himself from humming along. He was overweight in those days, a pudge of stomach visible when I caught sight of him in profile as he greeted guests, his upper arms rolled with what I now recognize as fat instead of muscle. I no doubt thought of him as bigger than he actually was. Although a couple of inches shorter than his father’s six feet two, when he stood up at the end of the concert to thank the musicians and invite everyone for hors d’oeuvres he seemed, for that moment, to command the room. The rare moment when he stood next to my mother at the end of the evening, in the entrance foyer, as they saw our guests to the door, he seemed even taller. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder.
When no one was around, the living room was a lost continent, an America I could enter only by swimming across an expanse of open parquet until I’d reached a small kilim at the center. In quieter moods, I would lie on one of the rugs reading D’Aulaire’s books of Greek and Norse myths or, absurdly—as it seems now—the Signet Classics editions of Shakespeare’s history plays my father gave me after he’d taken me to see Laurence Olivier’s Henry V at the old Thalia movie theater on Ninety-fifth Street. The seats at the Thalia sloped upward, the front row higher than the back row, in a way that forced your eyes to the top of the screen. I remember the battle scenes, the knights hoisted onto their horses by cranes, the whooshing flights of English arrows, and not much else. I cannot now tell what possible good it did me to lie there, warmed by the sun streaming over the trees, reading Shakespeare uncomprehendingly, making sure to ignore the notes. I lingered over the mysterious list called “Dramatis Personae.” When I got further, I read mostly for the plot. I had perverse rooting interests, an odd sympathy for the murderous Richard III. Iambic pentameters did not come flowing out of my mouth. I was about eight or nine.
I’d lie on the carpet underneath my mother’s Steinway B. It was a warm place. If my mother came in to play a Scarlatti sonata, for instance, or the accompaniment for a Schubert song, I’d listen while feeling the vibrations of chords and the thump of pedals push through me. Cadences and phrases flowed and mingled somehow with the patterns of the carpets. My father had brought most of them back from Iran and Lebanon when he’d traveled there in the early 1960s, but I ignored their provenance. They were as eternal to me as meadows, and they were my meadows. Peacefully, I’d continue to draw out, in the weavings, what I was sure must be the music I couldn’t yet read, according to some secret law of association now beyond recall.
My father wandered through and sat on a sofa at the opposite end of the room underneath a giant oak-framed mirror that doubled the space. I’d watch him and my mother’s reflection as she managed her small hands and petite frame around the keyboard’s widest intervals with only the rarest flaw. “She plays beautifully, your mother,” he’d say to me, rarely complimenting her directly. This way of mediating kindness through me confirmed my sense that I was the center of our family life. Of course he could simply have been performing an object lesson in kindness, telling me how much my mother needed to be praised. She did need to be praised and she did play beautifully, although no longer professionally, and then no longer even semiprofessionally, and then, gradually, hardly at all.
Who was to say if all this was good or bad? I was the definition of “precocious,” which probably pleased my parents, but nobody feels precocious at that age. The mixed shame and pride of standing out only comes later. When I learned to recite “The Crow and the Fox,” in French, or repeated a joke in a Yiddish accent to family guests, or sat straight, with my hands folded at concerts, in imitation of the grown-ups I observed around me, it was because I could do these things, make a game out of them. I also knew my father would be ashamed of me if I didn’t do them. I grew used to an imperfect understanding, a shadow of meaning that fell across the pages as I turned them, incomprehensible directions, a sense of an always wider world simultaneously close to my grasp and beyond it.
I hid myself in the front hall closet, closed my eyes, and pushed against the coats, going deeper, reenacting the beginning of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, waiting for the moment when the hangers became tree branches and my mother’s inherited furs became talking versions of the creatures they once were, live to the touch. I discovered I could give myself the illusion of a greater distance than was there by closing my eyes and reaching out into the darkness, expecting to brush the wall and thrilled when I didn’t.
Other gaps frightened me: between the “train and the platform,” as the subway conductors announced, also between the elevator and the landing. Our building’s was an old elevator and didn’t always stop perfectly, leaving a step up or step down and a glimpse into the shaft’s void. I dreamed often of a world between the floors. Riding alone, I’d be let out somewhere that was like our hallway but not our hallway, the walls a darker shade. The people inside were not my parents. They were like them but older, and they kept cats, which we didn’t, because they made the apartment smell like pee. “I live on the fourth floor,” I’d say. “But where’s that?” they’d say. Oh, I must be on the other side of the building, I thought. My mother was always talking about people on the “other side”—the building was in fact divided into North and South sides, joined by the common back stairway and landings where we left our garbage for the maintenance staff to carry down in the freight elevator they sometimes let me operate—so I guessed this was what she meant. The strangers would then let me out onto the back stairs, which turned into a narrow crawl space, the light growing dimmer behind me as I pushed on in the dark.
My mother remembers my childhood as a happy time. We were each of us alone together without rivalry or loneliness, restlessness or fear. The apartment was our temple: like the old Penn Station and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but scaled down for domestic life. The architects had balanced openness and views over the park with cloistered spaces like my parents’ upstairs bedroom and the kitchen, once reserved for servants, where the three of us clustered to eat at one end of a thick-grained table meant to seat eight. Under the high ceilings, even the heaviest pieces of mahogany furniture had only a friendly solidity to them, as if planted rather than placed.
My parents bought the apartment at the 88 Central Park West co-op in 1969 for $135,000. The Upper West Side then was an up-and-coming neighborhood, still considered edgy and derelict in places. Lincoln Center had recently been completed. Along Sixty-ninth street, musicians and teachers in cheap brownstone tenement apartments shared stoops with working-class Irish and Puerto Ricans who’d moved on up from Hell’s Kitchen. The doormen lived a couple of blocks away, as did the cabdrivers; their parked, off-duty hacks punctuated the drab side streets with cheerful yellows. We met their children in a playground made of concrete-and-wood copies of ancient structures: a ziggurat boasting a slide, a Greek amphitheater for a sprinkler, a sandbox contained within the concentric rings of a Saxon hill fort. For the first few years, my parents’ fellow co-op board members included a painter, a well-known poet and professor, a theater actress, a few doctors and lawyers, and several elderly and well-off Jewish refugees who had managed to escape Europe in the 1930s.
Maybe it was the early bourgeois bohemian character of the building or the fact that my father then earned only a modest researcher’s salary at the Bronx public hospital where he also taught medical students, and had spent a fair amount of the money he’d inherited on his mother’s death to buy the apartment—or simply that he’d grown up on the then-fashionable East Side, on Park Avenue—“The most boring street in the world,” he called it—but, for some reason, he insisted we were “middle class.” This phrase echoed through my childhood. It explained why we did not own a country house in the Berkshires or the Hamptons, like my friends’ parents. It explained why my parents voted Democrat, why my father drove four-door Japanese compact cars, and why, instead of shopping for his suits at Saks or having them custom-made, he bought them, ill-fitting as they were, at Syms. It explained many things and also nothing at all, although it crucially shaped my sense of social justice. If “middle class” meant large apartments on Central Park West, then there was no reason why such housing shouldn’t be available to most of us, in a truly egalitarian society. It was only logical.
For my father, the phrase invoked an acceptance of one’s limitations as much as anything else. We were, according to him, a family of average height, average means, average talents distributed evenly, and average ambition. He said this one day shortly after I brought home my first low math grade, when I was twelve. I thought I heard a false note in this determined paean to mediocrity. Even earlier, I’d understood there were people my father called “Philistines”: people who didn’t listen to classical music, who watched sports on television, like my mother’s father, people who were ignorant of world history like my father’s sister, and who didn’t care for art or literature like my mother’s brother, an engineer; there were those who “preferred Coca-Cola to champagne,” as my father wistfully said when Reagan beat Mondale (quoting Adlai Stevenson when he lost to Eisenhower). I’d seen actual, historical Philistines in my illustrated history of the Jews, “sea peoples,” the book mysteriously called them, with beards, cruel faces, and spears, who worshipped fish-shaped gods like the one in my coloring book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I knew these people were the historical enemies of the Jews, that I was a Jew of some kind, though not the synagogue-going kind, or the Zionist kind, either; that although the Philistines outnumbered the Jews, the Jews still sometimes defeated them, as David defeated Goliath, and as Samson had, with the jawbone of the ass. It seemed then that my father meant me to be one of these Jewish heroes with unruly, curly hair like Samson’s, to resist these invaders who’d brought him such grief.
Besides the Philistines, there were people my father denounced passionately as hypocrites. There were a lot of those: people who cared about school only for status or money; people who went to synagogue to show off their clothes, their daughters; people who talked about justice but wanted power or money or status, also called lawyers, like our distant cousin, Roy Cohn, the head lawyer for Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. I knew a few other things about our family, things he’d begun to tell me—not directly, not exactly. They were legends, like the stories in the Bible, as remote from our lives as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
There had been a poor man, once upon a time, Moses Philips, my great, great grandfather, selling bits of cloth from a pushcart on the Lower East Side. The poor man was a clever man, an industrious man, and his pushcart begat several pushcarts which begat a company that supplied material for shirts and so begat in its turn a company that made shirts my father never wore, Philips Van Heusen. The man had a son who took over the business. He moved from the Lower East Side to the upper reaches of Park Avenue, and that son sired a son of his own to take over the business, and also, as in a fairy tale, three daughters. The eldest married the heir to a paper company, the middle daughter married a banker, and the youngest married for love, a tall young lawyer, a sturdy swimmer and athlete born in the eastern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unfortunately, my grandfather was no hero or charming prince; he was a Grimms-tale schemer, marrying for money. They had two children, my father the younger by four years.
He had been sent to private schools he didn’t like and summer camps he hated. Boy Scouts were children dressed like fools led by fools dressed like children. A gentleman was a man with an expensive tie. A cousin of his was sent to military school for fighting a bully who’d been beating up my father. I’d learned that their world, both our world and not our world, the world he escaped from, was full of phonies, vulgarians, and frauds. Those people were not “middle class.” My very name, European, ending in a vowel, my father once explained, was intended to be a symbolic break with those people who’d tried so hard to make my father “a real American.” He’d been a junior to his father’s senior, named after him while he was still alive, a deliberate affront to Jewish custom. This act of base assimilation, my father complained, robbed him of his identity before he’d even had one.
This, my father told me emphatically, was not to be my fate. According to my mother, he used to hold me aloft when I was a baby and say, “You are a person.” He would say this to me later, too, although with various inflections. It was such an obvious statement, I was totally mystified by it. What else could I be? I was an only child of the “Free to Be You and Me” generation—despite my parents’ distrust of popular music, we actually owned the record, the one where Mel Brooks is the voice of a baby girl who thinks she’s a boy, William finally gets a doll, and fussy princesses get devoured by cannibals (“‘Ladies first,’ she said, and so she was, and mighty tasty too.”).
“Free to Be” was an odd mantra for my childhood, especially because there were so many kinds of people my father obviously disapproved of. According to him, he’d basically given up on his own family when he was thirteen, reinventing himself as a changeling. He first did this through religion, plunging into his bar mitzvah studies. He’d briefly turned Orthodox and learned Yiddish, in 1952, well before the Yiddish revival movement became part of a more distant generation’s nostalgia for lost roots. He spoke it largely to provoke his family, who had left behind both their language and sincere religious observance as remnants of the old country, reminders of the poverty and oppression they had escaped as though fleeing Egypt.
By rebelling through a resuscitation of history and discarded traditions, rather than by embracing the emerging counterculture of drugs and jazz—perhaps because this rebellion happened so early in his youth, before he had complete freedom of the New York streets—my father also, unintentionally, brought himself into conflict with what would become the dominant trends of American counterculture. The ordinary symbols of American rebelliousness were anathema to him. When the rhythms of the weekend drum circles in Central Park pulsed through our windows, my father declared it was “jungle music” for “shvartsers, rock and roll was so much screaming or “geschrei-ing,” even the avant-garde, contemporary classical music my mother began to take an interest in was only fraudulent noise.
As part of my middle-class childhood, my parents sent me to a half-French, half-English school, just across Central Park from us, on Sixty-second Street off Fifth Avenue. The Fleming School, despite its fancy location, was actually a daring experiment for its time and place, and middle class in exactly the way my father used the term. It was a small school—no more than two hundred children in kindergarten through eighth grade—overshadowed both by the Lycée Français, an official outpost of the French state educational system, and the richer and more pedigreed New York private primary schools, like the Ethical Culture School, where my father had been sent as a child. Ethical Culture had since moved within four blocks of our apartment, but he refused to send me, just as he refused to send me to Hebrew school, or summer sports camps, as had been done to him. I was going to be my own person.

Copyright © 2012 by Marco Roth

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