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Personal Reflections

June 22, 2007 (2)

Growing Up Jewish in New York City in the 1950s.

Although I have run into it from time to time (including a number of times recently here in Colorado) as a Jewish kid growing up in America, my actual `hands on’ experience with Anti-semitism, in America at least, has been rather limited. I don’t think that I am unusual in this. Growing up in post World War II – New York City, a place both cosmopolitan and provincial in turns, it was not difficult to believe the whole world was Jewish,…and if not Jewish some combination of Jewish, Italian, Irish, Black and Puerto Rican. Mine was the generation of cultural mixing and inter-marriage and among my cousins, sisters and myself, we married Puerto Ricans, Italians, Irish, Unitarians and even a WASP or two.

Over the years, my closest Jewish friends have married Blacks, Indians (from India), Palestinians. The rule seemed to be in those days: if they were different, we were attracted, adding to the sense of impending doom of our parents, aunts and uncles who grew up in a world where such things were done so much less frequently. `Different’ was exciting; `sameness’…well that would be like marrying your sister (or brother)…and knowing what we all know about our brothers and sisters, who would want to do that?

Indeed, I am trying to think of anyone who married `a landsmun’. A few here and there come to mind, but they are the exceptions. One sister’s second husband was Jewish. It ended in divorce after about a decade. What I call my present `almost brother-in-law’, who lives with another sister, is too. Then there is one cousin, a stunning woman who modeled professionally into her 70s, who saved the dignity of our extended family by marrying – yes, it’s true – a Jewish doctor, who besides having the right professional credentials and being a very kind and decent man, played college basketball for Columbia University.

Along the same lines, my early closest childhood friends were Catholics, overwhelmingly Italian with a few Irish lads thrown in. The Italians had colorful names that 50 years later I still enjoy repeating, if simply for the music of it: Anthony Macaluso, Mario Napolitano, Amedeo Corraggio, Brian Fabrizzi. Then there was Richy Phillips and Jimmy Cullen. And me. There was also a kid, one of the best stick ball players that ever lived, David Baroody, by name. He was Syrian and I remember between stick ball games, he trying to explain to me what is an Arab and what is a Syrian and me trying to explain to him what’s a Jew. As I recall, we didn’t get very far in these cross cultural probes but the stick ball games…ah they were first class.

My Catholic friends tried to tell me why they went to confession on Saturday afternoons (reluctantly, forced by their stern mothers); I tried to explain why I went to synagogue on Saturdays (I did) rather than Sundays. None of us had a clue of course and had to ask our parents, none of which had a clue either, but it didn’t matter. IF we didn’t know the answers to these great mysteries, we were convinced that we must have SOME primal spiritual connection because our mothers were so much alike they could have been sisters. What bound us together, very powerfully actually, with an emotional glue were two sports – basketball and baseball – neither of which we ever tired of playing. For almost a decade, we were a tight knit group until, finally they, went off to Catholic school (around the 8th grade) and I found a little cabal of Jewish friends in high school. The names of good friends changed to the likes of Lieberman, Krisiloff, Shukat, and Shapiro.

Although my father and my uncles talked about the anti-Semitic atmosphere in which they had grown up, and of how most of them had volunteered for military duty to fight Nazis in World War II, that was THEIR experience and hardly reflected the world in which my cousins and I were growing up. My family came from places in E. Europe with names like Bialostok, Grudno, Vilna. The section of the family that stayed there was wiped out in the early days of Operation Barbarossa. In Alexander Werth’s, in Russia At War, described how, in the first days of the Nazi offensive to the East in to the Soviet Union, the Jews of Bialostok and Grudno were immediately exterminated in days, among them the remnants of our Eastern European relatives. I didn’t have to read Werth to know that.

But here in the United States, or so we thought, Anti-Semitism was a social ill that had disintegrated with the defeat of Hitler, along with other forms of racism. It still existed we knew, in the stratospheres of corporate legal offices, some country clubs and occasionally – but very occasionally – on the streets. I don’t think there has been a less racist generation in America than those of us who grew up in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism and racism in general was something that our parents had fought to defeat, both in Europe and in America. We, the younger generation, were very proud of them…now we could move on to more important things (like baseball and basketball). Although prevalent before World War II, racism was so discredited by the war that it ceased to be fashionable when I was a kid.

There were a few incidents that suggested this idyllic picture was a bit simplified. Some Irish bullies, who used to beat me up until I broke one’s nose, after which we became friends. But before I had the courage to do that, he used come after me, calling me `Christ killer’. I had no idea what he was talking about. A couple of times, the phrase `dirty Jew’ was thrown my way, once in a pick up basket ball game (in which most of those on my team were Italian), that led to a brawl. But those were the exceptions, not the rule…If much bigotry remains in the fabric of American cultural life, racism against Jews and Catholics, – Poles, Italians and Irish – was a largely deflated social phenomenon during my formative years.

College was different. St. Lawrence University, Canton New York. 1962-1966. Overwhelming liberal protestant school, Unitarian-Universalist history to it, in a back water place up-state New York, nearer Ottawa just 60 miles away across the St. Lawrence, than Brooklyn. There was one Black student in the freshman class with me. As I recall, he didn’t last a week. In a entering class of 500 or so (half didn’t make it through), maybe, maybe there were 5-10 of us who were Jewish. Anti-Semitism did not flourish here either actually – it was and remains a liberal Unitarian college with all that implies – but one could feel a kind of subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) undercurrent of it, especially in certain of the more waspy fraternities and sororities which dominated the campus social life in those days. There, in upstate New York where winter temperatures dipped to 40 below, I did come to a profound understanding. It came as an epithany of sorts: there were some people in the world who were not Jewish or Italian or Black or Puerto Rican. I related this revelation to some of my cousins back in New York City, but they thought I was exaggerating.

June 22, 2007 (1)

And Good Night Mr. Hashem Wherever You Are…

Mr. Hashem is – or was – a real person, my freshman English composition teacher at St. Lawrence University during the 1962-1963 academic year.. It was a year I truly suffered through at the time and only appreciated later and then dimly. Suffice it to say that 45 years after the fact that he comes to mind in the middle of the night and I wake up smiling. Not that ours was much of a friendship. I hardly knew him personally, and then mostly through the biting – no scathing – comments he would make in response to my assignments.

He’d assign a 1500 word essay once a week.

I had never written anything more than 5-600 words and that usually with great difficulty. I worked as hard on those essays as on anything I did in college…and failed almost every one. The problem was, as I see it looking back objectively over those four and half decades, Mr. Hashem was a stickler for rules – 3 spelling mistakes or 1 – one measly – sentence fragment produced an `F’. Worse, the damned things had to be logical and well argued, whatever that meant.. I didn’t stand a chance. I was sure these rules were personally aimed at me.

There was a pattern to the `F’s I got (indeed I flunked his freshman English class and had to repeat it). He had a sardonic sense of humor. `Not bad Prince, not bad at all. A few interesting ideas here. Didn’t think you had it in you – F’. If it wasn’t `bad’, why `F’, I’d ask him? He would then casually point out the 3 or 4 or 5 spelling errors and shake his head as if to say `you f**king idiot – if you can’t spell – don’t even talk to me.’ So I didn’t (talk to him).

Then there was the one time that his response to my paper – as I recall it was why I had gotten kicked out of ROTC – was longer than my essay. Hashem seemed to appreciate the moral stand I had taken by refusing to spit shine my shoes and telling the frat-boy senior officer bully where he might go and what he could do when he got there, thus ending a glowing 2 week military career. Although his commentary was sympathetic to my plight, still he finished first by quoting Shakespeare `A thing of beauty is a joy forever’ which I found quite touching had it not been for the inevitable `F – Prince you had two sentence fragments’ at the tail end.

And just when I had the courage to show him that I could write 1500 words without misspelling 3 words or producing a sentence fragment, he got fired, disappearing from Canton New York forever. Only later did I find out why.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Hashem was himself a fine writer. Among those who he used uphold at setting the standard was John Ciardi, a writer for the New Yorker. Anyhow, Hashem had tried his hand at fiction and had produced for a campus literature review a kind of hard hitting fairy tale. He was the first person who helped me appreciate how nasty are so many folk, fairy tales and children’s songs and the different ways that they reflected on the human condition. This later helped me understand some of the themes of Greek Mythology. I have often thought of Hashem when reading through Graves The Greek Myths, as I still do from time to time.

The tale that did in poor Hashem was a short piece about a mouse who was charged with guarding a cesspool, although guarding from what danger, I can no longer remember. The little mouse did take his job very seriously and tried to maintain only the highest cesspool standards, because even cesspools need standards. But eventually as happens even with the best of cesspools, this one had a series of unresolvable problems, the result of which was that despite our guardian’s best efforts, it stank to high heaven. At such times when the crises became insurmountable, at a loss of what to do, our valiant mouse-guardian would work himself into a tizzy and simply run around in circles until, exhausted, he collapsed.

That was it. No resolution, no end of tale, happy or otherwise. A hint of Sartre’s Huit Clos? This is it? Hell on earth with no outlet but a stinking cesspool? It all seemed so anti-climatic, frustrating. I didn’t have a clue why Hashem would write a tale of mice and cesspools. Besides once again, I couldn’t get the symbolism. What was this about anyway? Not only could I not spell or write an essay without a sentence fragment (I still can’t), but I couldn’t even understand symbolism or metaphor. It only proved what I feared all along, that under the facade of being intelligent and articulate, I was essentially hopeless, and Hashem had called my bluff.

It was only months later, that one of those little nerds who understood poetry and never, never made a spelling error or wrote in sentence fragments, explained the little mystery to me. He was a fellow student, who majored in french and went on to become a stock broker or something obscene like that. He asked me if I had ever noticed that the college president ,(who had written a book on the history of western philosophy that no one bought but teachers at St. Lawrence) did, with a long thin nose, and eyes that squinted, look something akin to a rodent. Having had little contact with the man, no, I had not noticed the resemblance, but once it was pointed out, yes, I could see those mouse-like traces.

And then of course everything else made sense, for once you know the mouse, you know the cesspool, the college itself. To this day I do not know what it was about St. Lawrence that triggered such an analogy, being myself at the time completely oblivious to politics – college or otherwise, to metaphors or such seemingly incomprehensible literary mechanisms for challenging power.. Nor do I know what happened to Hashem, to what other cesspool he moved on to, how many other innocent and linguistically inept souls he flunked in English without batting an eyelash. I simply wish him well wherever he may be.

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