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Child, Father, Literature (how literature becomes the escape from a crazed rootless past where everything is hypocritical)
A Jew is a person in exile from nowhere.
Or maybe that's a myth I like to believe because the truth is too oppressive.
Born into a religion strong on primogeniture, I was the first male grandchild on either side of my family. All four of my grandparents were, each in their own way, uncomfortable remnants of Russian-Jewish life in the nineteenth century, and my parents hastily rejected what they took to be their own parents' crazed immigrant mentality in order to assimilate into their idealistic version of the North American dream, Canadian variation.
By the time I was born, on December 30, 1942, my parents had established themselves in Kingston, Ontario. My father, a chemist, had a job at the now defunct Monarch Battery Company. With the perverse pride that accompanied all such stories, he explained to me that this job was the only one he was offered in a year of searching after he received his doctorate, the reason for the difficulty being that he was Jewish. The moral of the story was, of course, that a Jew-and this went double for a Jew named Cohen-had to be better than everyone else because the deck would always be stacked against him. This same moral served many of his reminiscences, and it went along with his cheerful motto: "When you're a Cohen, you have to believe your shit smells better."
When my mother was six months pregnant with me, she developed acute appendicitis. The doctor, forced to choose between an unborn fetus and a twenty-five-year-old woman, selected the latter. This was either the first time someonetried to kill me or my first drug experience. When my mother had recovered from the operation she celebrated by falling down the basement stairs.
My godmother was a pianist, a Parisian Jew who escaped France on the last boat allowed free passage before the German invasion. The ship had Jews on the upper decks, the French treasury stashed below. Stopped by a U-boat off the English coast, the captain declared there was "no cargo of interest" and the ship was allowed to proceed to Montreal.
Every day after my birth my godmother and my family doctor came to visit me. My godmother sang me songs while the doctor waved his gold pocket watch in front of my eyes. My mother thought they were doing some kind of early musical training until the doctor admitted he was testing for brain damage. When it became clear that I would survive being born, I began bringing up everything I was fed and was on the point of starvation when someone thought of giving me goat's milk. That I could digest, and apparently it gave me the strength to spend the nights having colic attacks. In sum, I was one of those babies who got off to an eventful beginning.
All four of my grandparents had fled from what it meant to be a Jew in Russia at the beginning of this century-on the surface, pogroms, below the surface more elaborate versions of the same. Via New York and Montreal they settled in Western Canada and started having children. The children eagerly planned to escape their immigrant parents in order to live the life of enlightened North American Jews who had put the Old World behind them in order to better embrace the New.
For my father this ideal was Enlightenment Man as described by Isaiah Berlin: an atheist, a rationalist, a believer in knowledge as virtue, a person convinced that the world is a giant jigsaw puzzle of which we've seen only discordant pieces, but which a being of perfect intelligence and knowledge could fit together.
My mother was willing to play along with all this though she had no interest in the details. Her attraction was to mainstream European and North American culture, from French Impressionist painting to existentialism; from classical music to ballet and Shakespearean theatre; from New York musicals to American novels and magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Reporter, The New Yorker, etc.
Neither of them was taking on anything totally inconsistent with their past, but the centre of gravity had obviously shifted. They hadn't "rejected" their Jewishness. They were synagogue members, most of their friends were Jewish and they were adamantly in favour-at least until the time came-of their two sons dating and marrying Jewish girls. On the other hand, the cultural and geographic gap between them and their parents was hardly coincidental. In marrying each other they had, much more than their siblings, made a perhaps unspoken pact to tear themselves away from their parents and their parents' kind of life.
On their arrival from the Russian Pale after the pogroms of 1905, my mother's parents and many of their relatives established themselves in Winnipeg. My grandfather eventually got a job at the Ford assembly plant, where he stayed until it closed in the 1930s. He then moved to Toronto-this too was a move made by many relatives and friends-in search of work. For the first year my mother, who would have liked to go to university, stayed behind and worked as a secretary so that the family, which included her two younger siblings and my grandmother's somewhat demented father, would have at least one sure source of income.
My grandfather eventually opened a garage in Toronto; it staggered along until his death, when my uncle took it over and (much to my father's disgust) sacrificed all his other plans to rescue my grandfather's name by paying off his debts and proving that the business could be run successfully. Religiously observant more out of habit than conviction, my maternal grandparents were freethinking Zionists who seemed much more concerned with enjoying and surviving the present than worrying about details of religious dogma.