When I was a child, the grownups around me held all kinds of beliefs and I wished I could be like them. Failing that, I hoped they wouldn’t find out how I really felt.
As a high school girl, visiting my mother’s French friend Renee in Princeton, I would watch the Smith girls in their camel hair coats kissing goodbye to their boyfriends at the Princeton Junction station. The girls displayed an ardor I thought enviable. To me, the Princeton college boys looked like human beings with cow faces. So I admired wonderingly the power their girlfriends had mustered — to look at those cow faces adoringly.
Renee took a different view — more French, I think. To pour oneself, open-eyed and wide-smiling, up near to a boy’s face like that — “holding nothing back” — was obviously self-defeating for a woman, as Renee saw it.
I didn’t know which kind of woman to believe, so I believed them both. Which is probably about right. Different strokes for different folks.
If I could interview them now — How’d all those adoring gazes work out for you? — the remaining Smith girls probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about. What was axiomatic then as a courtship modality is hard even to remember now!
Speaking of beliefs, I can remember clearly when I began to know — not believe — that I was Jewish. It had nothing to do with the prospect of persecution that is said — like being sentenced to hang — greatly to concentrate the mind.
Whatever anti-Jewish persecution I encountered as a young woman fell far short of the devilish and dangerous harassment that dogs the steps of Jewish students nowadays, converting ordinary social and classroom encounters into tests of the soul.
It was more like little arrows delivered too fast to get one’s shield up. The barbs were winged in a manner too offhand and ironic to send back without making some awkward tear in the invisible social fabric. That was the point. If you didn’t return fire, you lost social power. If you did, you were acting in a gauche, socially awkward manner, so you lost points that way. Go fight City Hall.
Some time, I’d like to conduct a workshop, with invited experts who could explain
How to Handle Social Anti-Semitism
without Spoiling the Party.
I never figured it out, but it would be worth exploring.
At a faculty reception at Brooklyn College, where later I taught philosophy, I once asked Barry Rosen how to handle the social anti-semitism that presents itself as a joke (as in, Can’t you take a joke?). I’d been pretty much a flop at fielding those jokes during my time in Australia, so I really hoped he could tell me. Rosen had been held hostage at the US Embassy in Teheran, and I figured he knew about the real world. He was standing, absorbed in conversation with the great Yaffa Eliach, author of Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, when I joined them, soon finding an opening for my question.
“It’s not a joke,” Barry said, giving me a long, serious look.
Well, I knew that much. What I didn’t know was what to do about it. I mean, what do you do while still keeping your honor and your cool. If there’s an answer, maybe you just have to be more evolved than I am to know what it is.
Anyway, when I found out that, deep down, I was Jewish, it didn’t have to do with believing anything or being mistreated.
I’d been writing the earliest drafts of the memoir of my misspent youth, incidentally soon to appear with illustrations as Confessions of a Young Philosopher. The true story it tells divides into three rather different sections. The publishers who rejected early versions told me that the writing looked to them talented but the three sections of the story fell apart. They didn’t cohere into a single narrative.
Since it was a true story, which had happened to the self-same young woman — me — I knew there had to be some cause or connecting thread that tied its three parts together. Today’s post-modern publisher’s readers would deny that there is any such a unified self, or unifying thread connecting the parts of one’s story — but the post-moderns came along later and I never believed them.
In those days, when I was putting together the earliest drafts of my memoir, I was also in a Park Avenue neo-Freudian psychoanalysis, designed to cure my misspent youth. So Freudian explanations were the ones that I tried first, when attempting to get the parts of my memoir to cohere. They were great stuff. The Freudian theory successfully explained everything told in the memoir — but the three Parts still fell apart.
Next, I tried the Hegelian treatment of life stories, as embodied phases of dialectic. I had committed many obvious mistakes of reasoning that Hegel’s explanations were able to lift out and correct. But dialectical remedies still could not show what had motivated me, what I’d been looking for, as I moved from one misguided life episode to the next. My story remained rather mysterious, to me who had lived it, and was now trying to write about it.
Finally — being all out of ideas — I tried Jewish. Was there anything that could help this writer in the Jewish view of life as a partnership with the God who is present to history — that is, present to real situations in real time?
All I can tell you is that, when I tried that one out — as the motivator of me — all three Parts of the story locked into place, swiftly and smoothly, disclosing themselves as components of a single coherent narrative!
And that’s how — despite my apparent neglect of all but ten of the 613 commandments — I became a believing Jew.