Thursday, August 27, 2009
Me and the Jews
ANSWERING THE QUESTION. I'll start with two quotes that should explain the why's and wherefores of this post. The first is from me:
If anyone wants it... I'll tell my own story of how I discovered the Holocaust and why it changed the rest of my life.
The second is from one of our most esteemed commenters, Lake:
IP, I'd very much like to hear about your first encounter with the Holocaust, and perhaps why Krauts was the hardest book to write. If you're willing, that is. This is a hard thing to think about, much less write about.
He's more on the money than he knows. It's a very hard thing to write about. But I'm going to give it a try. And I will tell the story of that first encounter, but only after I have told other stories, other facts of my long and complicated history with the Chosen People. Some of what I relate will be difficult to tell, but that's not the hard part. The hard part is conveying a personal learning experience without making it seem like a lesson or, worse, a sermon about matters that interpenetrate all our lives so frequently we could be excused for believing that we're merely the fabric in a needlework project, being sewn by some other into a sampler whose motto we might or might not agree with. I'm not sermonizing. I'm recounting my own attempt to make sense of complications and contradictions that devil me to this day.
I was raised to be prejudiced against the Jews. Not because they were inferior or evil or un-Christian, but because they were the only serious rivals of the real Chosen People, people of Anglo-Saxon and celtic descent. For my father it was that simple. If we were the New York Yankees, they were the Boston Red Sox, which meant that almost everything about them was wrong or at least unacceptable. Everything different was a line of demarcation. They were Democrats (many of them Communists). They were ostentatious in their wealth. They had bad taste in cars and houses and clothes. They were loud and obnoxious. They had bad manners and didn't even know it. Everything similar was the field of competition. They were smart, they were devoted to education, they were fiercely competitive, they took care of their own, they had a way of enduring storm after storm after catastrophe and still rising almost unbelievably at the top of whatever hierarchy they were in. They were so much like us in every important way that they were completely intolerable because they sent food back in restaurants and made dirty jokes in mixed company. It was absolutely unacceptable to let them beat you in what mattered most: school.
This was relevant in my own life because after kindergarten, from first grade through graduate school, my classmates always included a significant percentage of very bright, very hardworking, very competitive Jews. For reasons I will explain later, I very early stopped seeing them as "the enemy," but I never forgot that they were the "creme de la creme" of competition, and beating them never quite lost its Yankee-Red Sox flavor. I'm neither proud of that nor ashamed of it. More than my father ever was, I became a Scot pretty young in life, and I was, if not as tribal as they were, close. I liked winning, and it's more fun to win when at some metaphorical level, it's your kind against their kind. I still don't see what's wrong with that.
Along the way, of course, I also picked up prejudices of my own that had, to be fair, little to do with my father's.
[These, by the way, did not extend to individual acts of bigotry. While he never expressed any regret of any kind about ways that he might have failed me, my father did reveal his sense of shame -- the only one I ever heard from his lips -- about a Jewish friend from high school who went to the same college and was blackballed by every fraternity, including the one my father joined. He committed suicide soon after. My father told me, "He was the nicest, gentlest, greatest guy you could ever meet, and he couldn't live with being ignored by his friends." My father pointed out his picture, and his friendly message, in the yearbook. I still remember the boy's name and photograph. And I remember that my father repeatedly went to bat for an employee of his who pissed off senior management for being every stereotype my father had about Jews -- obnoxious, tactless, graceless, and remarkably brilliant. I remember his name too.]
My prejudices? Always a romantic in the Sir Walter Scott mode, I thought Judaism itself was boring and creepily emasculating. Those yarmulkes and shawls. The dumb hats and curls of the orthodox. I thought Jewish accents and inflections were jarring, nasal, Hebrew a language of throat-clearing coughs that sounded gross compared to the music of English. Their synagogues looked like community centers, not holy places. Their young women wore ugly shoes and their older women wore too much makeup and nagged in public. They offended my esthetic senses, all of them. Although I did fall in love with Rebecca when I read Ivanhoe. If only I could meet one like her... which I did only much much later.
Do I seem to be protesting overmuch? Of course I am. Before I go any farther, a few bald facts. The most beautiful girl I ever fell in love with -- the Rebecca fantasy -- is still the most beautiful girl I have ever laid eyes on. It was a crush that led nowhere, except to the first of the innumerable theorems I have concocted for myself about Jews over the years, because I am so obsessed with them and want desperately to understand the physics of their universe. Theorem No. 1: Nine out of ten Jewish girls are plainer than other women, but the tenth is a beauty so dangerous civilization could not survive more of them. My first girlfriend was Jewish. Two of my five or six permanent male friends in adult life have been Jewish, as well as many of the most intelligent and caring friends one encounters in passing in a long and nomadic professional career. It was my father (!) who told me, without any apparent irony, that if you have a Jew for a friend, you have a friend for life. I discovered that he was right, probably more than he ever had a chance to find out. Jews have the power to teach you more about friendship than you (or I at least) ever knew. Not necessarily that they are better friends, but they are less guarded about how they feel. They are quicker to hug you (never hugged a guy before), quicker to confront you, more interested in hearing and telling all the emotional depths of both your lives. They offend, oh yes they do, but they also forgive, with more depth and alacrity than most Christians. And they will give you this gift even if you are not the closest of friends. They know hurt and pain and doubt and splinters of joy, and they are generous as secular priests in hearing your confessions and granting the absolutions of shared humanity.
We Yankees don't do that. There are a lot of things we Yankees don't do. And now I'll get specific with my metaphors. We don't do what the current Red Sox are doing, throwing deliberate beanballs at the opposing team. In that ancient little crackerbox of a park they play in, where it's okay to show up like an unshowered, unshaven slob and play the greatest game ever played like some goddamned sect of superior "kill or be killed" animals. My first lifelong Jewish friend, who died at forty, was also one of the cruelest people I have ever known. He had no sense of "enough." When he targeted someone as worthy of his abuse, he was as relentless, cunning, and perverse as a serial killer. He did terrible things to people, and after I came to know him and his family, I eventually understood why. But it reinforced all my old prejudices. Visiting him at his home was like living the reverse of "Goodbye Columbus." I could not comprehend the differences between Jewish family life and my life. They talked frankly with one another about all manner of topics that could never have come up in my straitlaced home -- sex, food, food, food, each other's personal failings, the neuroses of everyone they came in contact with, and with unsparing attention to detail, bowel movements -- but they were not devout and they were all individually isolated and alone with an existential despair that Anglo-Saxons don't allow as a topic of even interior reflection.
Most of you know that I'm a writer, whether a good one or not, who knows? But I came to agree with Fitzgerald, who postulated that Jewish writers use their undoubted energy to make up for thin talent. Look at the numbers. There are so few Jews (about 2 percent of the U.S. population) and so many Jewish writers. I despised Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, etc, although I loved Nathanael West (Nathan Weinstein), because he was an exception. I had a real problem with Saul Bellow, who not only shared my birthday but also wrote some of the most beautiful sentences I've ever read for a man who was so philosophically destitute. Actually, I eventually had to admit, Jewish writers had no shortage of talent; they had a shortage of faith. Faith in the ineffable beauty of mankind.
So why would Jewish writers, and Jews in general, suffer from a shortage of faith? Why would there be self-hating Jews, misanthropic Jews, communist Jews, Jews who regard all human personality as pathology and write learned psychiatric papers to prove it, Jews who wallow in piss and shit and fuck juice while they pay no mind to the glorious breakthroughs of the Jew Einstein, who defeated time and space to give us the possibility of a simultaneous universe in which every single electron has meaning and purpose?
I come back, again and again, to the term "Chosen People." It's not necessarily a blessing, is it? Any more than first born or "most gifted" in a family is more blessing than curse. What it really means is "singled out for extra attention," good and bad. That's who the Jews are. They are the apotheosis of mankind. They are the archetype of our species. They are the single longest surviving, more-or-less culturally intact, distinct, historically continuous human tribe on earth. They are a perfect microcosm of everything great and awful about the human race. They are more us than any other single subset of humanity is. More brilliant, more procedural, more intellectual, more vulgar, more passive, more aggressive, more stubborn, more compliant, more argumentative, more dominant, more persecuted, more physical, more cerebral, more kind, more cruel (comedians?), more mercenary, more generous, more wise, more foolish... and on and on and on.
At least that's how I worked it out for myself. Most of my prejudices have imploded on themselves over the years. I used to hate it that American Jewish men who visited Israel maybe once in their adult lives aged into Yiddish accents that made them sound like they were doing impressions of Catskills comedians. It doesn't bother me anymore. Now it seems to me that they're returning as best they can to the language of the ancient middle eastern desert, migrating back to their ancient roots in the the tribe of Khabiri, first men to rise from barbarism into morality. Jewish mothers and their food fetishes used to bother me. No more. They are the constant reminder that life itself has a primally physical element and that it's actually the female of the species which keeps the male intellect rooted in the reality of sensation, sex, and, yes, the end-products of food, piss and shit. Do they yell? Yes. Well, since I learned that it's okay to hug a man, I've also learned that it's okay to yell back at a Jewish mother. Especially if you're a Scot. (They love us Scots.)
Yarmulkes, shawls, torahs, and nutty leftwing politics don't even bother me about Jews any more. It's our job -- the younger sons and daughters -- to protect them from their own excesses. They're Judy Garland. We're supposed to let her get taken for a ride because there are parasites and perverts who take advantage of the weaknesses inherent in her genius? It's our duty -- and the measure of our own worth -- to keep her safe, even from herself.
I concede this is a tale of bigotry, beginning with my father, but all of us are bigots. We all prefer our own to the others. That's an ineradicable element of human existence. The only important question is, what makes it possible to bridge such gulfs between all the various others? For everyone who may think that I was badmouthing my father, this is where I will cross you up. My father taught me a thing we need desperately today -- a bigotry of equality. It's really, honestly, completely okay to be the Yankees vs. the Red Sox. He didn't teach me to look down on the Jews. He taught me to compete with them. And I did. But he did not, never ever ever did, foreclose the possibility or the ramifications of what happened when I was six years old, on a brick sidewalk, in Salem, New Jersey.
We were first graders at an Episcopal school consisting of 26 students. First year for the school, first year in school for us. My best friend was Julian Jonas (his real name). I'd been to his house, met his parents, played in his backyard. He had more cowboy sixguns in his yard than I did. He even had a toy Winchester .45. You could insert bullets with caps and fire them. Tremendous. I'd have begged my parents for a gun like that if it would have done any good. It was the first and only time I got to play cowboys and Indians with so much hardware.
Julian also had an older brother named David. The only older brother of a friend I had in elementary school who wasn't an asshole. David was, well, not that I'd have described it this way then, the perfect son. He was handsome, kind, generous with his time, somehow old beyond his years, and possessed of a gorgeous voice, even in fourth grade. That first year of the school, there was a Christmas gathering at which the fourth and fifth graders sang the "Twelve Days of Christmas." David had the part about "Five golden rings." I can still remember the stage, the tables, the parents, the kids in awe every time David sang "five go-o-o-o-l-den rings." Rich, pure, and resonant. It was all you could recall afterwards. And David was never less than utterly nice to me, his brother's friend.
Sorry if I'm slow to get to the point. Julian's and David's parents were also nice but old. They looked twice as old as my parents. Dr. Jonas was balding and white-haired, although his eyes still held a hint of boy mischief. Mrs. Jonas, though, looked unwell. There was no flesh under her skin. She was a lady made of bone. Dr. Jonas looked something like my grandfather. Mrs. Jonas looked like his mother.
Then there was a warmish, wet day in February, long after David's stirring Cristmas performance, when the bus delivered us to the little chapel where we got our prayers before going to class. We walked the brick sidewalk from the chapel to the parish house, where Mrs. Fish our teacher was waiting, and something was wrong with Julian. I asked him what. He told me his mother had died over the weekend. We stopped on the herringbone brick. He struggled with the picture in his head. His mother had been cremated. He said there was a puff of smoke and she was gone. He acted it out for me. Once. Again. His mother was smoke.
There's nothing you can do. All children have is stunned silence. My parents told me about the things I had seen but not known about. The faded wrist tattoo above her clawlike hands, which I had seen but didn't understand and which (I didn't know) Dr. Jonas also had. And something about the camps. The Germans had put them both in concentration camps. And now she had died. Of what?
The Germans killed the Jews for being Jews. That was the shorthand of what I learned.
The sidewalk was damp, herringboned, we had just come from chapel and the blessing of Christ, and I had no way of knowing that after this semester I would never see either of the Jonas boys again for the rest of my life. And so, to me, he is still standing there, a six year old boy telling my six year old self and every subsequent version of myself what it's like to witness the dissolution of the corpse of your long-dead mother taken away from you forever.
And that's something I will never forget. I could give you details. The wet leaves. The humble gray peak of the chapel. The comforting clump of plump kids in uniform in procession. Julian's big baffled eyes.
From that day onward, at least part of me was a Jew. Not a good one, maybe, but a voraciously curious and emphatically angry one.
ADDENDUM. There's another slight anecdote that verifies my final statement above. Just so you know it's not mere rhetoric, as things sometimes are, let's face it. About 25 years ago, I went to a computer trade show in Las Vegas, my first one. I was one of several employees of my company manning a booth in a vast convention center. Everything was normal, boring, all you'd expect of a geeky trade show. The people go by, back and forth, and you watch dully because they're all exactly who they're supposed to be -- cocky managers, dishevelled code freaks, salespeople, etc -- and then...
I saw him maybe 150 feet away, and the hairs rose on my arms and the back of my neck. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of recognition. German. Nazi. He was blonde but not tall, not old, not young, certainly not Hitler youth, not a clicheed poster-child of any sort. He was, if anything, a bit rumpled and nondescript except for his eyes. I just knew. He actually came to our booth. And I was right about the basic facts if not the part no one could prove. He was German, he was peremptory, barking, and rude. I had to excuse myself and flee the booth. I wanted to kill him. In the worst way.
End of anecdote. But I've never had a similar experience before or since. I've been to Germany on business trips at least twice since then without experiencing anything like that instant visceral hostility. (Not that meeting Germans made me like them much, but I didn't feel any urge to hurt them.) You tell me what happened. I don't know.