16. September 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 5 · Categories: Olio

I woke up early after arriving late in my mother’s hometown. I had driven from Krakow. I hadn’t known that my windows were wide open and a bee was buzzing in the hotel room, hovering around the ceiling light. I looked outside at the pink sky and the city below me. The buildings were two stories high, mostly apartments. The city stretched for at least a mile and had none of the pulchritude of Krakow. It looked like a city without whimsy and vaguely well to do for Poland.

My father told few positive stories about his home town. His family was poor and his relationship with his father was fractious. The only warmth in his voice would come when he talked about playing soccer or going swimming with his friends. But my mother loved growing up in Tomaszow Lubelski. Her family was wealthy. She went to a good school. She had a beautiful white dog, a kid brother she adored and a goat that would follow her around town. She would talk about how how wonderful their Sabbath meals were, that she looked forward to them every week.

My mother once said to me, “Hitler didn’t kill me, but he took my childhood away from me. I’ll never forgive him for that.” This was an uncharacteristic complaint from my mother, who was almost always stoic. Once when I was ten and we were in the kitchen baking together, I asked her, “How do you do it? Everybody got killed. How do you stay happy?” She looked at me like she always did when she thought I was acting like an American. Dismissive. “What do you mean, how do I do it? I wake up. I do things. Every day. There’s no other choice.”

If there was a place in Poland that had the remote potential to make me nostalgic for shtetl life, it was Tomaszow Lubelski. But there was little present to evoke warm feelings. Only a few historic buildings were left. Everything else looked boxy and from the 1970s and newer. I walked into one of the historic buildings, the county records office, and tried to find my mother’s birth certificate.

The county clerk was helpful and gracious. We went through computer records and handwritten birth notices from the late 1920s. Only a few people with my mother’s maiden name had their births recorded and none were relatives I knew. My mother didn’t know exactly when she was born. When she applied for American citizenship, she made up a birthdate. It wasn’t surprising that there were no records of her birth, but I was disappointed.

In the center of my mother’s town, a sign welcoming visitors had a list of all that was historical and worth visiting. I was surprised to see the Jewish cemetery on that list. Long abandoned, its headstones were, like in my father’s town, used to pave streets during the war. In the 1990s Jewish war survivors from Israel collected funds and erected a monument to the memory of the town’s Jewish community. The monument can be found on the cemetery’s south side. The Israeli survivors also paid to have a secure fence placed around the cemetery’s boundary and hired a man who lived next door to keep watch and be a gatekeeper.

As I waited for someone from the gatekeeper’s family to arrive back home, a couple of middle-aged men walked by and gave me hostile looks. Were they anti-Semites or were they simply having a bad day? I had my suspicions. I had already been in Poland for a week and until then almost everyone had been welcoming. Many had gone out of their way to help me. People smiled. They were patient with my bad Polish. But I hadn’t spent time in small cities until then and hadn’t spent any time in eastern Poland. This was the heart of Polish ultra-nationalist, right-wing politics.

The daughter of the gatekeeper drove up and asked me who I was. I told her my mother had been born in this town. The young woman smiled and let me in. Young women in Poland were almost always solicitous to me, more than likely because of my wrinkles and thinning hair. The woman’s long braids reminded me of pictures of my mother in her twenties. Just a few days before, a young woman like her offered to help me carry my backpack up a flight of stairs. “I’m old, but I’m not that old,” I said. She laughed.

The cemetery was overgrown with vegetation. My feet got wet from the morning dew. Only a few tombstones remained. As I said a prayer, I began to sob. I wasn’t listening to my father’s voice inside me telling me to buck up. Instead I let it all out. It felt good, cathartic. This was where my ancestors were buried, after all. An infant sibling of my mother, never mentioned by her parents but whispered about when she was a kid, was probably buried here, too. Why wouldn’t I cry?

When the Germans took Tomaszow Lubelski in 1939, my mother was living on a farm owned by a Christian friend of my grandfather. My grandfather wanted his family out of harm’s way so he sent them off to the countryside. A German officer barged into the farm house when the Christian family wasn’t there. My grandmother looked Roma, not Jewish. My mother, in braids and with high cheekbones, looked Slavic. Both spoke a perfect Polish. The translator for the German officer assumed my mother and grandmother weren’t Jews. “The German wants a good Polish soup. Make some for him right now,” the translator said.

Had the Germans stayed in Tomaszow Lubelski from that day on, all the Jews in town would have been systematically murdered like they were in my father’s town. But when the Soviet Army invaded Poland a week later as part of the Soviet’s agreement with Germany to divide Poland in two, the Soviets mistakenly took control of my mother’s hometown. When the error was discovered, the Soviets were told to leave. The Soviet officer in charge took his time. He went to the Jewish community and made them an offer: stay and the Nazis will no doubt murder you; leave with us and you’ll live.

Not everyone believed the Soviet officer’s prediction of the future for Jews in Tomaszow Lubelski. My grandfather was one of the skeptics. But his younger brother was confident the Soviet officer was telling the truth. Surprisingly, my grandfather decided out of family loyalty that he and his family would leave with his younger brother. Two thousand Jews marched out with the Soviets. When they reached the border they were offered Soviet citizenship. My grandfather and great uncle, always capitalists, refused. They were sent to a gulag. The Jews who didn’t leave with the Soviets and stayed in Tomaszow Lubelski were murdered in Belzec.

It’s a short drive from my mother’s hometown to Belzec Concentration Camp. The road parallels a railroad line, probably the same one that brought over 400,000 Jews to be gassed. The workings of the camp were destroyed by the Nazis when it was abandoned in 1943. In fall of 1942, when my relatives in Volodymyr-Volinsky and Tomaszow Lubleski were killed, the Germans were murdering fifteen thousand Jews a day in concentration camps and killing fields.

Hardly anyone visits Belzec. It’s too far east. There are no major cities nearby. There are no structures left to enable people to imagine the horror of being in a camp. Instead the entire area is taken up with an austere, volcanic rock filled field sculpture. It’s eerie and frightening, which is entirely appropriate. The grounds cover tens of acres.

As I walked the pathways I saw no one else. My mother had three cousins who survived the war and lived in Queens when I was kid. I thought about them as I took in the details of the field sculpture. Their parents were murdered in Belzec. I began to sing the section in the Kaddish that talks of peace for all and for Israel. I sang it loudly over and over as I walked. It was a source of comfort.

I walked to my car outside of Belzec and paused to look at the railroad tracks two feet from the passenger door. The Jews came in cattle cars. There was no pretense of slave labor at this camp. The Jews walked in. They were all murdered. I got in my car and drove in bad traffic and exhaust filled air non-stop to Lodz, where I spent a day doing some research for a novel. I walked around the city and talked to librarians.

08. September 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 4 · Categories: Olio

I took a bus from Warsaw to my father’s Polish town, which is now in Ukraine. It was a step back in time of at least twenty years. Poland has a viable economy. Ukraine doesn’t. My father’s town, now called Volodymyr-Volynsky, is a modest-sized city that has been a regional trading center for eight hundred years. Now its principal source of revenue comes from smuggling booze, cigarettes and who knows what else across the Polish-Ukrainian border twenty kilometers to the west. The road along those twenty kilometers is full of potholes, rills and gullies.

Photo by VM.

Unlike Warsaw, Volodymyr-Volynksy wasn’t destroyed by the war. Churches, even one from the twelfth century, are intact. I could walk the same streets as my father and see many of the landmarks of his childhood. I visited his “red-brick school,” which coincidently my wife’s step-grandfather also attended. I knew that my father had lived on the edge of town in a straw-roofed shack. Those kinds of homes were gone, but photos of them taken by the Austro-Hungarian government before World War I can be found in online archives.

The town’s main synagogue survived World War II as well, but was demolished by the Soviets. There were no Jews in town left to stop them. Before the war, there were over twenty thousand Jews in Volodymyr-Volynsky. After the war there were less than 90 survivors and all but a few soon left. Today, there are probably less than five Jews in the entire city and all come from elsewhere. There are also less than a few hundred ethnic Poles in a city where Polish and Jewish life dominated.

In the region that contains my father’s hometown, Volhynia, there were 330,000 Poles and 200,000 Jews in the 1930s. By the end of the war, less than 3000 Jews and Poles remained. In Volhynia, Nazis enlisted Ukrainian fascists to murder Jews and then the Ukrainians, with German help, murdered Poles.

When Polish people have occasionally told me that the Soviets during and after WWII treated Poland worse than the Nazis did during WWII, I’ve never engaged them in debate. The assertion is loaded with anti-Semitism and too ludicrous to merit discussion. The Germans murdered over five and a half million Polish citizens. But I have always wished to remind these Nazi apologists that the massacre of ethnic Poles in Volhynia, 40,000 to 60,000 murdered during the war, showed the likely future for all of Poland had Germany won.

I walked around the boundary of the old Volodymr-Volynsky ghetto. This was where my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins spent their final days. I then walked along a street featured in a 1916 photo of a business district. I own a copy of that photo and one of the signs visible in the image is for a hat and umbrella shop owned by P. Rojstaczer. My grandfather’s name was Pinchas.

I took a modern recreation of the 1916 photo. I talked to the owner of a little shop next to the one once owned by Pinchas Rojstaczer. The streets and sidewalks were no longer made of dirt. The horse and wagon buggies had been replaced by cars, trucks and bicycles. But the church in the background was the same. My father, no doubt, had walked this same street many times.

My father told me in that in 1946 he came home to see if anyone in his family had survived. He was a soldier in the Soviet Army at the time, stationed in the Soviet zone of Berlin.

He walked around town that day just like I was doing in 2018. The people he knew weren’t happy to see him. That night he went to sleep in his family home one last time. Around midnight he heard noises outside. “Let’s get the one Hitler left behind,” one of them said.

My father saw flames and smoke above him and knew the gang outside had lofted torches onto the roof. They were trying to burn him alive in his family home. My father was a soldier with a gun. He shot his way past the blocked front door of his house and shot everyone he saw around him. Then he ran out of town.

I walked around the town’s central plaza where a fall market was taking place. People were buying their winter cabbages, carrots, and onions in 10 and 20 kilo bags. I bought a pair of pretty wool socks for my wife. How many people there would know of that night when my father shot his way out of town seventy two years ago? It was probably long forgotten.

The pre-war cemetery near the center of town where my father’s ancestors are buried is now a park that leads to a school. All the tombstones are missing save for one stub. The thousands of tombstones that filled this park were broken off by Nazis and Ukrainians and used to pave streets during the war. I probably walked over those tombstones, now covered over in asphalt or concrete, that day.

One of the few Jews who currently lives in my father’s hometown was a gracious host who knew the Jewish history of the city well. I walked with him and a translator in the graveyard, now filled with deciduous trees. People on their way to the school and who knows where else walked past us. I’d noticed in my walks with my host that many people knew him and greeted him warmly.

“You’re a popular fellow,” I said to him.

He was a musician born in another small western Ukrainian city. He’d moved to Volodymyr-Volynsky because his wife was offered a good job in town. He smiled. “I have a lot of friends. I’ve performed at a lot of weddings.”

“They know you’re Jewish, don’t they?” I asked.

“Oh yes, they know.”

I was surprised that a Jew in this town would be treated warmly. My sense that Eastern Europe was still fully saturated with anti-Semitism was in error. There was at least one pleasant exception. There were no doubt many others. The man loved Ukraine and the people of Ukraine loved him back.

We took a taxi, an old Lada, to the killing field where my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins are buried. A fifty-foot high concrete monument was erected in 1989 to honor the eighteen thousand Jews murdered here. I’d seen pictures of the monument before and felt fortunate that this place had been identified. I knew where my relatives were buried.

Other Jewish WWII survivors and their children aren’t so fortunate.There are thousands of unmarked killing fields throughout Ukraine.

A border-like red and white bar, sixteen-feet long, protected vandals from entering the memorial and the surrounding killing field. Still, there have been recent anti-Semitic graffiti sprayings nearby and in the not so distant past, grave robbers have dug into the killing field’s remains in search of gold and jewels.

As we walked around the site, the taxi driver did his own search. He was looking for mushrooms for his wife’s borscht. He would reach down, pick a mushroom, carefully examine it, and if it didn’t match his criteria, drop it.

I’d never seen a killing field and hadn’t known what to expect. But it was instantly identifiable. The first burial mound we saw was the biggest, a meter high rectangle about a third of the size of a soccer pitch. As I approached I started to cry, but then I heard my father’s voice in my head again. Be a man. Make yourself strong.

I’d only seen my father cry twice. Once during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, he came into my room when my mom was out of town. He asked to come into my bed as the thunder rolled in the house. He held me and cried. Then when the thunder ended he got up and said, “Thanks. I’m OK now.”

When my mom came home I told her about this incident. “It’s the war. The thunder reminds him of it,” she said. I realized then that my mom had held my father during many a thunderstorm. The other time I’d seen him cry was when a distant relative gave him a picture of his sister taken in 1935 that had been mailed to America. Would my father have cried seeing this burial mound? There is no doubt.

There were three burial mounds. I said a prayer at each one. The Jews of my father’s town had dug their own graves. Every day for over two weeks, they were marched out from the ghetto. Then they walked seven kilometers to this site and were given shovels. They were told that they were digging pits for airplane fuel tanks for a new airfield.

At the edge of the biggest killing field I noticed a birch tree perhaps thirty years old. The tree had grown at such a pronounced angle away from the burial mound that the trunk’s base was two feet closer to the killing field than the trunk at eye level. It was as if, while young and growing, the birch tree had been trying to get as far away from this evil as it could.

I wanted to get away, too. That afternoon, I took a bus filled with Ukrainians going back to their jobs in Poland. The bus driver got into an argument with the Ukrainian border guards that seemed to be about the inadequacy of his bribe. We sat in the bus for four hours and then were pulled off for a bag inspection. I was the only non-Ukrainian. “I don’t speak Ukrainian, only Polish,” I said to the border guard. “Is your family Ukrainian?” he asked as he looked at my passport. “Yes. My father was born here,” I said. He gave me a wave of approval without even looking at my backpack.

A short video (by VM) of me at the killing field can be found here.

01. September 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 3 · Categories: Olio

There are fewer than 10,000 Jews in all of Poland today. Before WWII, there were three and a half million. Today Poland is a monoculture of ethnic Poles who practice Catholicism. Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, Armenians, and Roma were once a major part of this country, which had a long history of uneasy tolerance of other cultures. Multiculturalism vanished in Poland after WWII. The towns Jews lived in throughout Poland and the rich culture they possessed are all gone. Jews are now zoo-like specimens in Warsaw and other cities. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is an attempt to document a difficult past with a tragic ending.

I walked into the exhibits of the Jewish history museum, appropriately placed one level underground, and looked at the displays about the beginnings of Polish Jewry. The museum was all new, completed in 2014. Located within the boundaries of the old Warsaw Ghetto, it’s glass covered and elegant.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews was markedly different than the museum I had visited in the morning. The Warsaw Uprising Museum, contained in one of the few large pre-war red brick buildings left in Warsaw, was poorly lit and covered in black paint. This one, filled with calming mauve taupe paint and lightly stained wood, was meant to be welcoming. But I was wary.

The museum’s narrative begins with those in power in Poland happy to see Jews enter their land in the early part of the second millennium and making rules that allow Jewish merchants to prosper. I suppressed my impulse to talk back to the Jews described in the museum, “Don’t do this,” I wanted to say. “Don’t come. I know how this story is going to end. Badly. Horrifically. It’s a trap. Poles will hate you. Then Hitler will come to murder you.”

I looked around and watched the other visitors. They might as well have been in an art museum. Their faces were tranquil as they took in the multimedia displays. Did these people, mostly Polish adults and groups of kids on school field trips, know this tragedy in any detail? I didn’t think so.

In the museum’s exhibits, anti-Semitism in Poland was an external force. Cossacks made pogroms. Germans made concentration camps. The dark past of conflicts between ethnic Poles and Jews was whitewashed as was the role of the Catholic church as a breeding ground for anti-Semitism. The creators of the exhibits had purposely made Polish-Jewish relations anodyne over hundreds of years of history. This museum displayed a selective narrative, one that wouldn’t upset any of today’s Polish leaders.

I’ve lived in the American South and have heard white Southerners in denial over their dark past. An American museum of slavery designed for their comfort and denial would employ an approach similar to what I saw in Poland’s Jewish museum. Slaves would be shown as happy people treated with kindness by their masters. No, ethnic Poles were not slave owners. They weren’t the cause of the annihilation of Jews in Poland. But their hatred of Jews was omnipresent and during the Shoah they were complicit.

I got one fifth of the way through the exhibits and started to cry. I couldn’t take any more of the eerie calm of the crowd and the exhibits absent of heart and foreboding. I walked quickly, almost ran, through the rest of the exhibit, went back upstairs and got a beer to calm myself.

I thought about another museum, one planned, but never built. The Nazis collected a great deal of Jewish memorabilia. Had they won the war and annihilated all of European Jewry, they planned to show 200,000 Jewish relics in a post-war Jewish museum of their own. The Nazi museum would have celebrated the annihilation of Jews and been scathing in its depiction of Jewish life in Europe. Certainly none of that was present in this Polish museum. But the types of artifacts shown in the Polish museum were identical to those the Nazis would have displayed.

It’s a sad and depressing fact that the state of Jews today in Europe is nearly the same as the the Nazi’s dark hope. Jews are essentially extinct throughout the Pale of Settlement. They are essentially gone in Germany as well. The Polish museum was inadvertently a museum of cultural extinction.

As I drank my beer (and had some duck and tzimmes), I thought of how I would design a museum like this one. Darkly painted, it would tell a story of hatred and the evils of anti-Semitism. But the museum I wanted was one that could never be built in Poland.

I heard my father’s voice in my head, the one that told me not to be a baby, but to be a man. “Be strong,” he’d say to me in Yiddish. I needed to stop brooding and see the rest of the museum.

I went back downstairs and walked through the exhibits a bit faster than most. The Jews portrayed in this museum were not a bad people. They were not greedy. They were not Christ killers. In the post-war period, they weren’t detested communists and communist sympathizers who destroyed the lives and livelihoods of ethnic Poles. All the awful anti-Semitic tropes present in Polish culture even today were as absent as the role that Poles played in the destruction of Polish Jewish culture.

Instead in this museum there was a nostalgia for Jews and their music and customs in Poland. The dire poverty of many Jews before the war and the threats they faced from Poles, both of which propelled Jews to dream of leaving Poland for Palestine, were ignored. In this history, the Jews came to Poland, flourished and then were washed away in a terrible externally driven tragedy.

Jewish scholars who played a role in the construction of this museum had to know they were helping to invent a narrative. But they had achieved a partial victory. Jews were shown to be worthy of sympathy. To have Jews depicted in a Polish museum free of negative stereotypes was major progress. Is a museum that tells lies by omission of value? Not for me, certainly. But I’d be happy if I knew for certain that one hundred years from now, Jews will be thought of with nostalgia in Poland as pleasant, dairy-restaurant creating, klezmer playing merchants and craftsmen.

I was done with a generic and artificially sweetened history of Jews in Poland. I had to see my family’s history up close. First I needed to see my father’s Polish town, Wlodzimierz (center of map). It is now part of Ukraine and called Volodymyr Volynsky.

25. August 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 2 · Categories: Olio

I landed in Warsaw. On the bus from the airport to my Warsaw apartment, I looked around. The Germans destroyed Warsaw in WWII. Almost all I saw was 1970s Soviet era construction and newer. My father, who was kicked out of his home for lack of religious observance and had lived in Warsaw from 1936 until war broke out in 1939, would have found much of the city unrecognizable. But some parts had a nostalgic feel.

I walked around Warsaw for only a day and a half. Like my mother in Munich twenty years before, I had no need to linger. Warsaw was a dreary, yet utilitarian city. People seemed happy to talk to me, sometimes in Polish, more often in English. Warsaw reminded me of my own hometown, Milwaukee. The landscape was similar and the people were as unpretentious as the architecture. The similarities were not unexpected. Milwaukee had many Poles and the abundance of both Poles and Germans was why my father, unlike my mother, never learned English particularly well.

Milwaukee has one thing that Warsaw doesn’t. Jews. Tens of thousands of them. There are three times more Jews in Milwaukee than are left in all of Poland. In Warsaw, the only Jews I recognized on the street were Israelis on vacation. I ended up being a translator for two families for a bit. It was mentally exhausting to quickly flip between English, Hebrew and Polish. My parents flipped between three to four languages every day of their adult lives. I tip my hat to them.

My father had lived in Warsaw as a teen when it was overflowing with Jewish culture. He loved his time there. He had a job as a furniture maker, a skill he had learned from his father, and made good money. He told me about the night life in Warsaw in the 1930s and the fun he had chasing girls. Big city life free of religion had been liberating. 

My father had been to Warsaw during the war as well. In the Soviet Union in 1943, he was drafted into Stalin’s Polish People’s Army to serve on the front lines. He knew enough German to be enlisted as a translator for a Russian colonel.

In late summer of 1944, my father’s troop advanced with the Soviet Army all the way to the suburban Warsaw town of Praga on the east side of the Vistula River. The Warsaw Uprising – an attempt by the non-Soviet-aligned Polish Home Army to drive German troops out of Warsaw – was failing on the other side of the river. Shortly after the Soviet victory in Praga, my father’s arm of the Polish People’s Army was given the order to attack Warsaw and aid the Polish Home Army.

I’ve read many scholarly accounts of the Warsaw Uprising and the advance of the Polish People’s Army. I also have my father’s story. They are not at all the same. I wanted to know the popular history of the Warsaw Uprising. How did the Polish government want to portray this event? The facts are that the Polish Home Army and Polish People’s Army were both crushed by the Nazis, who then blew up Warsaw and turned its beautiful buildings into rubble. Everyone agrees with those facts. But the devil is in the details.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum, completed in 2004, tells a story of Polish militarism and courage. You’d think through most of the museum that the Uprising had been entirely successful. What was a quixotic attempt to unseat weakened Nazi forces from Poland’s capital is transformed in the museum’s displays, audio tracks and movies into a show of Polish force, determination, and pluck.

It’s standard operating procedure for nations to try to redefine devastating defeats as moral victories. Given my distaste for hyper-nationalism, I find such efforts unappealing at best. When I hear people shout “USA! USA!” I groan. Pride in one’s origins is understandable. Ardent belief in a nation’s superiority is both absurd and harmful. But Poles lost their nation for over a century. Perhaps they can be forgiven for their not uncommon strident patriotism and their desire to distort history.

The facts are that in 1944 the Polish Home Army was an army in name only. It was a resistance group, poorly equipped and undermanned. For the Polish Home Army to fight the Germans on its own was folly. The Polish government in exile knew it was folly. They needed a real military force to engage the Germans in Warsaw. But the Soviet forces on the other side of the Vistula River weren’t interested. Neither were Western allies, who had battles of their own to fight. 

[Photo shows aerial view of Warsaw, more or less completely destroyed,  after war’s end. Still from museum film.]

In September 1944, the Polish People’s Army was told by the Soviets to cross the Vistula alone so that it could have the glory of reclaiming its capital city. Now comes the part of the story of the Warsaw Uprising that isn’t in any scholarly book. It’s my father’s story. 

Polish soldiers in my father’s troop were suspicious. Why weren’t the other Soviet soldiers going to fight as well? My father’s Russian colonel talked to him in confidence. “Tomorrow my soldiers will be slaughtered,” the colonel said. “Russian air cover will not come. My soldiers will die because we’ve already won this war and Stalin wants all Polish soldiers dead.” Stalin was looking ahead and wanted to avoid the possibility of a capable Polish military force challenging him after the war’s end. 

This colonel’s prediction came true. My father stayed with his colonel and watched his friends cross the river and die. The Soviet’s betrayal in the Warsaw Uprising isn’t mentioned in the museum. Its focus is on the Polish Home Army, which is viewed heroically in Polish culture. The Polish People’s Army, in contrast, is commonly viewed by Poles as a Stalinist tool full of pro-communists and communist sympathizers. My father would vehemently disagree with this characterization. 

I’d seen enough of Polish failure and death strangely turned into a moral and patriotic victory. I left the museum and walked through a rather depressing neighborhood of Soviet era apartments. I knew where my next stop would be: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

20. August 2020 · Comments Off on Killing fields: Part 1 · Categories: Olio

(Well before the pandemic, I went back to Poland and Ukraine to see my parents’ homes and the places where my relatives were murdered. Here’s Part 1 of the travelogue. I’ll post the other parts in the weeks ahead.)

My mother:

“I went back home after the war to look for my father. An old neighbor saw me on the street and recognized me right away. ‘You have to come with me otherwise they will kill you,’ she said. I hid in her house overnight and left in the morning. Don’t ever go there.”

My father:

“Don’t ever visit. I went back home after the war and they tried to murder me by burning down my house with me in it. I had to shoot four people to get out alive. They remember me. If they see you, they’ll try to kill you in revenge.”

My mother and father were distant cousins. They didn’t know this. I didn’t know it until I looked at my DNA relatives on an online website and found out that all of them were related to me on both sides of my family. Even before DNA tests, it wouldn’t have been an outrageous hunch that my parents were related. They were Ashkenazi Jews born 90 kilometers apart. My mother came from a wealthy home in Tomaszow Lubelski. My father came from a poor one in Wlodzimierz. At the time of their births, both towns were in Poland. Now my father’s town is in Ukraine. 

My mother survived the war because the Soviets sent her family to a Siberian gulag in September 1939. My father survived because he fled to Tashkent in the same month. All of my mother’s family made it through the war except for a few aunts, uncles and cousins who were murdered in Belzec. Everyone in my father’s family was murdered in a killing field in what is now Ukraine except for him and perhaps three first cousins.

My parents had a close and loving marriage that lasted forty plus years.

They met in America, Milwaukee to be precise. My father first spotted my mother from a distance of twenty yards as she walked out of a Sears, thought she was both beautiful and elegant, immediately sensed that she was a Polish Jew, followed her home, and smoked a few cigarettes outside while he waited for her to leave her home. He then knocked on my mother’s door and introduced himself to my grandmother, said that he earned a good salary as a union carpenter, and his intentions toward her daughter were honorable.

To say that I admire my parents would be a profound understatement. I am, in fact, in awe of them. That wasn’t always true. But I always respected my parents even while I deluded myself into thinking I was a next-generation, superior version of them. Both were well-tuned survival machines alert to any danger. As a family, we always had our passports ready and 10K of cash and gold stashed in a wall in case America turned into another Poland, Russia or Germany overnight. I would have arguments with my parents about this paranoia.

“You know what the difference is between the shit of Poland and here?” my mother once said to me. “Money. Take money away from Americans and they’ll be the same fascists as anywhere else.” I thought this proclamation, to which my father nodded in affirmation, was absurd at the time. Now when I see pictures of the Deplorables who attend Donald Trump’s rallies, I’m chagrinned.

My parents worked morning, noon and night to make a good life for themselves and their two sons. When invited to a party, they would dance, smile, laugh, savor the meal, and my father would drink until his face glowed a bright red. They never read Tennyson, but were like his Ulysses. They drank “Life to the lees: all times” they “enjoyed greatly, have suffered greatly.” Theirs wasn’t a simple and pure joy, certainly. My father once looked at everyone dancing at a Polish Jewish wedding, smiled broadly, and said to me in Yiddish, “Look! Everybody is happy here. Hitler is watching us from above and he hates what he sees so much that he’s clawing his eyes out.” Never again have I heard a more mordant way of expressing the truism that living well is the best revenge.

That wedding was like all events my parents experienced in America. It was viewed through the lens of the Shoah. It was a lens that all in my family held, including me. I know and have read about Jewish children whose parents lived through WWII and who never heard their parents’ stories. For them, the family’s past is a dark mystery. I can’t say that. I know hundreds of stories about my parents’ lives in Europe.

But while my mother and father were happy to tell stories about their past, they were adamant about never revisiting the places they once lived. Whenever I told my parents that I wanted to see their hometowns, they looked at me sternly and told me unequivocally that not only was this a dumb idea, it was also a dangerous one. 

This taboo about revisiting the past was partly broken about two years before my mother died. My father had passed away several years before. I was teaching in Italy for a semester. My mother called to work out the details of her upcoming visit to see me and my family. Then she said something that made me put down the phone for a few seconds so I could compose myself. “I want to go to Germany with you,” she said. “I want to visit my DP (Displaced Persons) camp.” 

“What? Why?” I asked.

“Because I was young and I was free for the first time in six years,” my mother said. “Those years in the DP camp were good ones.”

“I can borrow a car and we can drive there,” I said. “Do you want to go to Poland, too?”

“Poland!” my mother shouted over the phone. “Why would I want to go to that shithole?” 

I smiled as I heard this. I had my mother back, not some strange woman fond of her days in Germany. We did go to Munich with my wife and daughter. My mother told stories non-stop while we walked around. We lasted two and a half days out of a planned four day visit before my mom looked at me and said, “This is enough. I need to get away from these goddamn Germans for good.” That trip was over twenty years ago.

I, of course, never lived in Poland, Ukraine or Germany. But my parents’ stories about their hometowns are still vivid and visceral to me. I’ve never felt particularly American even though I was born in Wisconsin and have spent almost all of my life in this country. English was not my first language. Yiddish was. Polish was my third language after English, which I learned from my brother and by watching TV sitcoms. 

The worst insult my parents could throw my way was, “You’re acting like an American.” That meant I was being weak. I was being soft. It meant that if America ever turned into another Russia, Poland or Germany, I would be one of the first to die or end up in a gulag. I made sure to avoid “acting like an American” in my parents’ presence.

It’s probably true that I’ve been inconsistent about acting like an American outside my parents’ presence, too. Late at night or when I’m tired, I tend to fall into an accent that sounds more Eastern European than it does Midwestern.

Last year, I felt a renewed need to see the source of my parents’ stories. I longed to go to Poland and Ukraine. I knew this trip wouldn’t be for pleasure. I don’t possess the warm nostalgia for shtetls that I hear from third and fourth generation American Jews. My parents’ stories of Europe before the war were about how hard and awful Jewish life was for all but the wealthy. If I traveled to Poland and Ukraine, I expected to see a dark and depressing place, one where it would be best to keep my mouth shut. 

I hope to be alive for at least another twenty years. But I don’t know how long I’ll continue to be healthy. This was the year to go. It was also necessary to go by myself. I would have gone with my brother if he had still been alive. I knew I’d be blue and pensive. He would have been that way, too.

30. June 2020 · Comments Off on COVID-19 in the land of Maximum I · Categories: Olio

While growing up in an immigrant family, I had a job: explain America to my parents. They didn’t understand Americans. The assumption was that I, with fresh eyes, could do a better job of it. I also served as the family’s translator of impenetrable American accents, usually Southern.   

According to my parents, Americans were lazy intellectually and physically, soft, undisciplined, mouthy, ridiculously optimistic, naive, superficially friendly, unserious, emotionally cold and disloyal to their own families. The assumption was that you couldn’t trust Americans not because they were dishonest, but because they were incompetent. My parents didn’t understand America, but they did believe they understood the character of Americans, which was awful, and as parents their number one goal was simple: their children would benefit from the wealth of America but avoid its defective character. The worst insult my parents could level at me was, “You’re behaving like an American!” 

I took my job as the explainer of America seriously. Like de Tocqueville over a century before, I carefully observed the America I saw. I took mental notes. Americans, I noted, were incredibly individualistic. You couldn’t get them organized in group activities that weren’t sports, no way, no how. As a kid, I’d hear Sinatra on the radio sing I Gotta Be Me and think that that was America in a nutshell. Everybody has Gotta Be Me. Our cities look like crap. Nothing runs on time. Our parks have trash strewn everywhere. Everybody is their own king. Our selfishness and radical individualism are even written into our Declaration of Independence:

“all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This statement by Thomas Jefferson is a lofty way of saying that America should be about me, me, and me. From day one of our country, we were told to be selfish a-holes. Contrast that with the French “liberté, égalité, fraternité!” Fraternity is just not an American thing. 

Scholars far more serious and learned than I am have noted how the Enlightenment in the West championed and defined the rise of the individual over community. America took it one step beyond. We went maximum I. Everything in America was about the individual and our radical individualism, our hatred of government and community, define our character and define what we consider our exceptionalism. 

It turns out that creating a nation of radical individualists comes with some advantages. It means that those individuals, suffused with egotism, will tend to be incredibly good at innovation and making things. That’s what America does better than anyone else. We win Nobel Prizes so frequently that the Nobel Prize committee might as well move their ceremonies and offices from Stockholm to New York City to save on travel. That many of those “American” Nobel Prize winners are immigrants means that not only do we breed radical individualists, but we attract them as well. My father, for example, hated Americans, but he loved how America let him do what he wanted when he wanted to do it. My father’s favorite song? Sinatra’s My Way, which he would belt out in our home in full voice not infrequently. 

Being radical individualists means we create with ease world beating companies led by billionaires. America is where money is made, more money than anywhere else. 

But the American exceptionalism of radical individuality comes with a price. Our communities are at best ragged affairs. Health care? It’s not for everyone. Shelter? Not for everyone either. Disparity between the rich and poor? Off the charts. And when we are required to do something that demands community and self-sacrifice we are going to fail at it. America, the land of Maximum I, is just not built for such an effort. 

The failure of America to deal effectively with the coronavirus and COVID-19 has flummoxed many observers. How could a country so powerful and wealthy be taken down by a virus? Much of the blame for this failure has been assigned to our leadership, in particular Donald Trump. Yes, Donald Trump has been horrible at leading us through this disaster. But I try to imagine another leader trying to get Americans to wear masks and I come up empty. I try to imagine another leader trying to get Americans to not hit the bars and beaches and I come up empty as well. Obama would have done better, sure. But I have no doubt that America would still be a COVID-19 hell.

I think of my parents and what they would say about COVID-19 in America if they were still alive: Americans, what do you expect? Soft, undisciplined and selfish. America’s failure would confirm their bleak view. I think of the look my mother gave me when I asked her why she didn’t say yes to the marriage proposals from American Jewish soldiers in Europe after the war, the pure derision on her face. “Why would I have wanted to marry one of those babies?” 

I didn’t agree with all of my parents’ litany about Americans. Dumb is everywhere. America doesn’t own stupidity. I’d have arguments with them about their anti-American attitudes. But I look at what America has done during this pandemic. No preparations. No medical safety equipment at the beginning, equipment that is still hard to obtain. No N95 masks for its citizens, who have to walk around with homemade cloth things instead. For thirty days or so, most Americans made an effort to “flatten the curve” and then many decided, fuck it, this is too hard.

In contrast Western Europe, the source of modern individualism, screwed up its initial response, but got disciplined in a hurry and at least temporarily brought its infections and deaths down. Asia, where community is more important than it is in the West, quickly worked to keep infections low from the start. 

We are probably at the 20% mark of this pandemic. We have at least another nine months before we have a vaccine, probably longer. In America over the months ahead it will be every person for him or herself. That’s how America works. That’s part of its exceptionalism. It’s an exceptionalism that may well produce a breakthrough in therapeutics. It’s an exceptionalism that may well produce a rapid vaccine. But it’s also an exceptionalism that treats the death of its own citizens with frightening callousness. 

12. March 2020 · Comments Off on What I’d tell myself · Categories: Olio

This photo is over 40 years old. I’m on the left, my brother is on the right. My parents used to refer to us not by our names, but by our sizes. I was the small one (der kleiner), my brother was the big one (der groyser). In his teens, my brother got a different name, the wild one (der vilder). He was self-destructive. When I was thirteen, my mother made me promise that I would watch over him and make sure he stayed alive. For ten years, that’s exactly what I did. I was successful. It was exhausting. I did what I had to do out of love. Then his wife did the same until my brother’s heart gave out. This picture was taken toward the end of my watching over my brother period. The following year he’d get married. We’re as happy to be together as we’d ever be.

When you’re twenty-two, my age in this picture, you think you know everything but you’re a baby. You’re filled with hubris or at least I was. I look at this picture and I’m reminded of two things: 1) my love of my brother; 2) what a pisher I was. I want to go back in time and tell myself what to do and not to do. Of course, my twenty-two year old self wouldn’t listen. But I’d still try. You have to try.

I have few regrets. I’ve loved and been loved fully. I’ve achieved a great deal. I’ve been lucky with my health, my finances, and my family has been healthy, too (pooh, pooh, pooh, as my mother used to say). I’ve been one lucky s.o.b. I wouldn’t, looking back, do a whole lot differently in terms of major steps. But I could have made those years a whole lot smoother along the way. That’s what I would tell my young self if I got inside a time machine and went back to 1979. I’d keep it simple. Maybe I’d just hand my younger self a piece of paper with a list. Then I’d go to Skokie and get a decent piece of kishke, something I haven’t found anywhere in decades. Here’s the list.

 

  1. Do not worry about every step you take. They don’t all have to be perfect. Every day you’ll make a few missteps in your work and your relationships. It’s like a jazz musician hitting a bad note. Even the best do it. You just need to keep on, keepin’ on and be sincere and honest in what you do.
  2. Hold on tight to the ones you love. Most of them will die far sooner than you think and you’ll miss them every day. Enjoy every minute with them and don’t get bent out of shape on days when they or you misbehave.
  3. Life really is about the company you keep. About 1/3 of the people you meet are truly wonderful. Another third are unreliable, but can surprise. The final third will always hurt and disappoint. Stay away from that final third. Try to spend as much time as possible with those in the upper third and aspire to be like them (because face it, you’re in the middle third).
  4. Your parents are smarter than you think. Listen to them now because later on you’ll remember what they once said and think, damn these people were geniuses.
  5. Yeah you’re smart, but there all kinds of smart and you’re book smart. You’re not people smart. You’re not emotionally smart. You don’t think that stuff is important but it is. Watch others who have those kinds of smarts and learn from them.
  6. Your depressions will come and go and miraculously will diminish with time. That thing your father did – physically shadow boxing his depression – turns out to be a marvelous exercise.
  7. You are not static, your personality will change. You’ll get louder. You’ll in fact be as loud and out there as your mother by the time you’re in your 40s (yes, I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s true). You’ll slowly get some of those emotional smarts you think you’ll never possess or need. Strangely people, complete strangers, will want to be around you and tell you about their lives; scary but true.
  8. Keep taking intellectual risks and expect that most of the time you’ll fail and hear no from the powers that be. But the rewards from those yeses will greatly outweigh the pain from all the nos. Take even more risks than you think you should.
  9. You’ll live longer than you expect so don’t be in such a hurry. Take time to hang and be with friends.
  10. Keep striving, but the fact is that you’re no Shakespeare, Mozart or Einstein. You’ll be remembered a healthy little, not a lot. But you will be remembered. Embrace what you do accomplish.
  11. Eventually you’ll get to an age where conquering the intellectual world is still important, but who you love is more important. Nurture every one of your friendships along the way because you have no idea how much you’ll love to see the faces of the fat, bald and droopy versions of those people decades later.
  12. Those obscure languages you know that you think will never be of use will come in handy one day. Don’t let them get too rusty.

 

06. March 2020 · Comments Off on Going nuclear over David Brooks · Categories: Olio

Many years ago I was at the funeral of a brother-in-law who died young of cancer. My mother, not related by blood or marriage, wanted to be at the funeral and drove ninety miles to the cemetery. As we stood around the grave, my mother stared at my late brother-in-law’s younger brothers. I knew what she was doing . She was looking to see if they were wearing wedding rings. She was examining them for their overall health. Her gaze never veered from those two young men. “This isn’t Poland,” I said to my mother. That’s all I had to say. She then knew that I knew what she was thinking.

“What would be so wrong?” she asked me in Yiddish.

“It’s not that it’s wrong. It’s that it won’t happen here,” I said. My mom seemed satisfied with this answer, but I could tell she was satisfied in the sense that she thought Americans were stupid and were never capable of doing the right and proper thing.

After the funeral, my wife asked what my exchange with my mom was about. “She wants one of your sisters’ brother-in-laws to marry your sister,” I said.

“You’re kidding,” my wife said.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “That’s how it was done in Poland. She can’t imagine why it shouldn’t be done here. Your sister has a baby. Someone needs to take care of that baby, be a father. Who would be better than one of those two?”

“That’s ridiculous,” my wife said. “And you agree with her?”

“In theory, she has a point,” I said. My wife laughed. I think she thought that I was joking.

It turned out that my brother-in-law had a little bit of the old world in him. He didn’t make one of his brothers promise to marry my sister-in-law, but he did make one of his brothers promise that he would watch over his child like she was his own. That’s what he indeed did do. That’s what families do. It’s why they thrive.

About a month ago, I put my family tree together. I got back to about 1820 or so before I lost track. The tree starts out in Poland on both sides of the family. It now includes people in Argentina, America, Israel and even Germany (some young ones have improbably moved back to Europe). I know many of the families in that tree and know enough stories about them and their long gone parents and grandparents to fill a book (which I wrote for my daughter and is strictly for family reading). These people survived cholera, typhoid, heart attacks, cancer, gulags, the Dirty War, the Holocaust, the Israeli War of Independence, the Yom Kippur War, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. Somehow these families (mostly) grew and thrived. The latest generation has some divorces. Such is modern life. But still these families thrive.

Recently I read a “provocative” article in The Atlantic written by David Brooks entitled The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake. When I look at my family tree in the context of that article, I think, “There’s no mistake here. This is a complete success. Mr. Brooks is a fool.”

I think of my marriage. Where would I be without it? Who would I love and grow old with? I think of my parents’ marriage. I heard the word divorce in Yiddish said by my mother exactly once. It was an idle threat. Those two were joined at the hip. I think of my in-laws’ marriage. They’ve been joined at the hip for over 65 years. Where is the mistake in any of this?

I looked up Mr. Brooks online and found out he got divorced and married some ridiculously young thing. Aha! Mr. Brooks was projecting and being ridiculously inductive in his article. Just because his own nuclear family was a mistake doesn’t mean that all nuclear families are mistakes.

In his article, Mr. Brooks has some data that “shows” nuclear families are a mistake. According to him, the nuclear family was never very good except for a brief heyday after WWII. Again I think about my family tree. According to Mr. Brooks, my great, great, great, great, grandfather, Rabbi Herschel Rojstaczer, had a lousy marriage in Volodymyr Volynsky. Who knew? Mr. Brooks, to be fair, does equivocate. He states that back in the old days, nuclear families were good because they were big and were like corporations. You needed a big family to run your farm. Ahem. There have been no farmers in my family. We’ve been city folk. Tradesmen, small time merchants and the rare rabbi. I guess according to Mr. Brooks my ancestors must have all been miserable.

According to Mr. Brooks, nuclear families are only working for the wealthy nowadays. Last fall, I went back to my childhood neighborhood, which was never the best and is now a step down from where it was when I was a kid. I talked to the man who owns the house next to the one I grew up in. He was putting away stuff from his daughter’s wedding from the night before. He’d raised his children in that house and had lived in it for thirty years. He was glowing while talking about those years to me. Maybe I should write to him today and tell him his nuclear family must suck because Mr. Brooks told me it did. Maybe I should write a letter to every family on that block and tell them their nuclear families suck. I know at least one of those people just might write me back. He’s the brother of a childhood friend. He lives in the same house he grew up in and lives there with his wife. He just might write to tell me to eff off.

Yes, there are stresses on today’s nuclear families that didn’t exist forty years ago. Most of those are related to money. The brother of the childhood friend in my neighborhood is making half of what his dad made back in the day. Just about everybody in skilled construction, which is the trade I grew up around, makes about half of what their fathers made in today’s dollars. Mr. Brooks barely talks about that in his article. He’s a conservative and doesn’t want to give the working class honest wages for a day’s work. He’d rather just blow up nuclear families. But I’d love to run a experiment where we erase forty years of suppressed wages in America and double everyone’s salary. Do you think nuclear families would work better than they do now? That’s a rhetorical question.

It’s strange that a conservative is against an institution so old that evidence for its existence is found in archaeological digs. What’s stranger is that what Mr. Brooks is proposing, blowing up the nuclear family, is flat out impossible. We have no alternative method to raise children at the scale required.

Mr. Brooks talks about his love of his extended-family-like “forged family,” a local group not related to him by blood or marriage. These kinds of relationships are all well and good, but they are relationships by choice. You like the people you’re around. You stick with them. But what happens when you decide you don’t like the people you’re around anymore? Or they don’t like you? There is nothing to keep you bonded. Pfft. You’re alone.

One of the essential aspects of real extended families is that, in fact, you don’t like everyone in them. There are people in my own extended family that I would do my best to avoid if they weren’t related to me. But they are related so I suck it up and spend time with them. I’ve even grown to love some of the very people I wouldn’t have been able to stomach had they not been related. Learning how to get along with (and even fall in love with) people who aren’t like you emotionally or intellectually is a skill you aren’t going to learn easily except in forced group relationships. Living in an extended family is a central way we learn that being annoyed or worse with someone else’s behavior isn’t the end of the world. You learn compassion, patience and resilience.

There are, indeed, many nuclear families that fail. I don’t wish to make light of those failures or accuse the wives and husbands in those marriages of being irresponsible or wrongheaded (except for maybe Mr. Brooks). There are tens of millions of people actively engaged in relationships that work well, provide emotional strength, and have no relation to the nuclear family. I wish them nothing but joy. But for most of us, nuclear families are an integral part of our happiness. We don’t need a better way to raise families, Mr. Brooks. We just need to give them the wages the adults in those families earned forty years ago.

08. February 2020 · Comments Off on The long slow death of the interior life of the American male · Categories: Olio

I was at a neighborhood party. There was no talk of politics because there were some Trumpinistas present and no one wanted the party to blow up. Instead there was, of course, talk of the neighborhood and city politics. People asked me how long I’d lived in the neighborhood (forever is basically the answer) and what I thought of Palo Alto schools (too much of a pressure cooker, but basically OK). Then a man asked me what books I’d recommend that I’d read recently. He knew I was a writer, but still. A man hasn’t asked me about books at a non-writers party in a decade at least. I probably had an initial look of shock because I don’t have a poker face. Then I composed myself and recommended what I thought were the best of the books I’d read last year.

It may be another ten years before a man at a party asks me about books again. It may never happen again. Men hardly read books today. They dropped reading literary fiction about thirty years ago and a handful still read revenge porn stories with Jack Reacher type characters. Bureau of Labor Statistics bear this out. American males read, on average, fourteen minutes per day for pleasure as of 2018. That’s it, fourteen minutes. Women don’t read much more – seventeen minutes a day – but I note that women at parties do ask me about books. They also dominate the book clubs I’ve done Skype/FaceTime sessions with and fill the seats at bookstore readings. A YouGov survey indicates that sixty-nine percent of men never read for pleasure at all.

Men also only sparsely attend theater and concerts. A couple of months ago a young woman was sitting next to me at the symphony. She was a violin student and we chatted about the music. I asked her boyfriend what he thought and he gave me a blank stare. “I’m here because she’s here,” he said. He looked relieved that I was filling up the intermission time by talking with his girlfriend.

The loss of men participating in American high culture is something that gradually happened over my lifetime. World War II and the GI Bill started men on the path to self-reflection. Soldiers were given cheap paperbacks during the war and access to higher education after. Of course, not every man participated. Highbrow and middlebrow cultures weren’t big in the working class neighborhood of my childhood. But in my home, culture was a presence even though my parents hardly read books. My mom read Tolstoy and other books in Russian when she came to America, but when the McCarthy era hit, she got scared she might be deported for such reading and stopped taking Russian books out of the library. My dad worked like a demon and read the newspaper.

While my parents weren’t book readers, they certainly valued books and encouraged their kids to read. My father would quote from Pushkin and Lermontov and would tell me that reading novels and poetry were essential for understanding life. We’d go to Russian cultural events, like when the Bolshoi came to Chicago, or Polish-Jewish cultural events, like when Arthur Rubinstein came to play in Milwaukee. The idea was that high European culture enriched your mind and soul. In my family, the life of the mind was important. Intellectuals were admired. The assumption on the part of my parents was that their two boys would pursue the life of the mind as a lifetime avocation.

Central to all this was that examination of the interior life was essential. It wasn’t just what intellectuals and wimps did. It was what everyone who wanted to live a full life did. You didn’t just run around and make money. You thought about your actions, their intent and purpose. You put your actions in the context of the behavior of those around you.

Why were my parents self-reflective? I don’t think they were born that way. I’ll take a leap and say that war transformed them. There’s nothing that can throw doubt into your mind about life and its meaning than being shot at or being woken by bombs blasting away. Both of those jolts happened to me only once each and I’ll never forget them. My parents survived gun shots and bombs again and again as well as starvation, frostbite, and typhoid over a six year period. They knew the war scarred them and changed them permanently. When my mother was looking for a husband, she avoided American men because, “They were babies. They couldn’t possibly understand my life and what I lived through.”

Don’t get me wrong. My parents weren’t intellectuals, far from it. They were pragmatists and doers at heart. But the war made them think about matters loftier than how they would make their next mortgage payment. It’s not surprising that my parents expected their children to live full interior lives, although my parents were leery of us becoming intellectuals.

My brother was more intellectually inclined than I was. He dragged me to the library, where he would pick out books for me to read. He took me to see Hamlet when I was twelve. He had me listen to Coltrane. Eventually I shared his interest in literature and music. This wasn’t a common pursuit in our working class neighborhood, but it wasn’t reviled. I was respected and admired for being able to both throw a punch and help anyone with their homework. It didn’t hurt that respect for high and middlebrow art was part of 1960s American culture. Books were celebrated in major magazines. Even late night talk shows occasionally had real authors, classical musicians and opera singers.

Strangely or maybe not so strangely for me, Orthodox Jewish schooling contributed to this pursuit of the life of the mind. We’d read the Bible in Hebrew and discuss it with the help of Rashi’s commentary. Reading the Biblical scholar Rashi was basically my first exposure to footnotes. I can’t imagine that there is a better way to reinforce the idea that footnotes are valuable.

While our pursuit of art and the interior life was unusual in our childhood neighborhood,  my brother and I found out that what we were doing was not at all unusual once we moved to the suburbs. The fathers of my friends frequently had, as a mark of their success and erudition, their own libraries filled with leather-bound books. They had jazz and classical music albums. During their adult parties, I’d eavesdrop and hear them talk about the books they read and music they listened to. In their world, a successful man was a sensitive soul when he wasn’t earning the family’s daily bread. I looked at these men – stockbrokers, store owners, lawyers and doctors – and assumed that not only would their life be my life, but it would be a life that was fulfilling.

Were these fathers sincere with their intellectually minded talk? Not all of them were. Their social lives demanded that they at least fake it. Thorstein Veblen, a late 19th/early 20th century sociologist, would probably say that what they were doing was signaling they were part of the leisure class. The men talked about art and literature because it showed that they had achieved enough success to have the time to pursue reading books and attending concerts and art shows. But for many, this time spent on art and self-reflection was, indeed, important.

My friends didn’t follow in their fathers’ footsteps, though. When they became adults they wanted man caves not libraries. Video games filled shelves instead of books. Talk about art and books was replaced entirely with talk about sports, which were being broadcast 24/7 on cable TV.

Why did this evolution happen? My wife says that it was due to the distracted culture of video games and over-scheduled children’s lives. She believes reading for pleasure is something that develops early. How America has raised children over the last thirty years implicitly assumes that literature and art aren’t important.

I think there’s truth in this assessment, but I also believe something else is going on. Like my parents, the fathers of my friends knew war. Many were soldiers in World War II or soldiers in Korea. Some of their older children were soldiers in Vietnam. War scars everyone emotionally. It forces many to be self-reflective. For thirty years, we routinely made the young men of the middle and upper middle class fight in our wars. Then we abandoned the draft.

War is now something strictly fought by our poor and uneducated. The sons of the American soldiers who went on to college and aspired to having homes with personal libraries weren’t exposed to war. They never experienced anything life threatening. The war books and novels that their fathers held dear because they spoke of a common painful experience meant nothing to them. The sons felt no need to be self-reflective. No traumatic experience fundamentally changed them and exposed their souls.

A few months ago I was in front of a tourist town bookstore that had some books outside on a cart. A father, about fifty years old, and his son, about twenty-four, looked at the cart like it was an artifact from a foreign land. “What are those?” the son asked (he really did ask this question). “Books,” the father said with derision. “Why are they here, outside?” the son asked. “I guess because they want to sell them,” the father said. They both looked perplexed and then walked to a neighboring bakery. I watched them walk by. I felt an urge to say to them what my father sometimes would say to me: “You can learn more about life from ten pages of Tolstoy than you can learn from five years of living.” But I knew my plea would have no effect.

I don’t want this country to bring back the draft and fight more wars in an experiment to see if the self-reflective, book-reading American male will return. Such an effort would be too damaging and, despite my theory, probably wouldn’t succeed at turning men into readers. I don’t want to go back in a time machine and live the rest of my days with the fathers of my friends. Among other things, I don’t think, given their drinking habits, that my liver would last more than five years if I did so. I’m, instead, happy to talk to women who still read and to talk to the handful of young men who are artistic souls (they will always be with us). But I do have a profound nostalgia for the time when my friends’ fathers routinely talked about books and art with emotion.

 

 

 

27. January 2020 · Comments Off on Why cultural appropriation is here to stay · Categories: Olio

When I was in high school I lobbied to have Muddy Waters play at a school music night. He and his band came for a mere $1500. He wasn’t pleased about doing a high school gig, but clearly he needed the money.

I was ecstatic. It would be the only musical event I ever attended at my school. Muddy Waters was the real deal to me. Bands like The Rolling Stones were pale (haha) imitations of real bluesmen like Waters. But I was the only one in the crowd who looked happy listening to Muddy and his band. Everyone else would have been far happier if we had a cover band playing the ersatz blues of The Stones.

After that concert, I tried to understand why my fellow students disliked what was raw and real, Muddy, and loved what was fake, derivative bands like The Stones. I decided that the appeal of The Stones was really about their whiteness. My fellow students couldn’t connect directly to a black musical art form. They needed a smoother, anodyne and whiter version of the real thing. Just like Elvis Presley took Sam Cooke’s music and put a less musical and whiter face on it, The Stones were putting a white face on the blues.

It irked me that playing white versions of black music made millions while playing the real deal got you a gig at a Milwaukee high school. Life wasn’t fair. But as I grew older, I mellowed a bit. The Stones and Elvis could be thought of as cultural appropriators, sure. But there was another way to look at them that was perhaps less negative. They were translators. They translated black music into something accessible to white people. Was it as good as the real thing? No. But it was as close as mainstream audiences wanted to get to the real thing.

In literature, I’ve run into the equivalent of Elvis and The Stones frequently. It hasn’t just been in novels like The Help, where a white person writes a cartoon version of black culture that sells millions of copies. I’ve read novels about Holocaust survivors and Eastern European immigrant families written by people who are clueless about this culture. I’ve thrown books against the wall again and again that have been on bestseller lists. I know that if white Christian readers encountered an authentic book about Holocaust survivors and their families, they’d read a few pages, close up the book and never open it again. Mainstream readers prefer anodyne versions written by Americans appropriating/translating outside cultures.

Given the reality that the mainstream reading public strongly prefers the inauthentic to the authentic, publishers, of course, prefer to publish works by cultural translators/appropriators. They’ve been doing so for as long as I can remember. They’ve been making big bucks doing this as well. What has changed recently is not the demand for tone deaf books by white Christian cultural translators. Instead what has changed is the rightful public resentment by people from outside cultures, especially from writers of those outside cultures whose work has been ignored by big publishers and mainstream readers.

Five years ago, a cultural translator book like American Dirt, which came out last week and is about a Mexican woman trying to come to America, would have sold millions to white Americans without much of a peep from the Latinx community. Now Latinx and even Asian writers are angry. I don’t expect cultural translators/appropriators to go away. The market demand for their work is too great. They will continue to be published and sell millions. Latinx writers will continue to throw books against the wall they read that are written by appropriators. Asian writers will continue to throw books against the wall. I’ll continue to throw books against the wall. But these books are here to stay just like rock and roll.

I note that the Rolling Stones have made billions playing the blues badly and are still filling stadiums. In contrast, Muddy Waters died long ago and while he was alive bought used cars from my wife’s uncle. The marketplace decides what sells and what sells is frequently not very good and in bad taste. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that I love to listen to recordings of Susannah McCorkle, an American, singing Brazilian tunes and Theodore Bikel, an Austrian Jew, singing Russian folk tunes. I’m certain people in the know about Brazilian and Russian music howl at these efforts. I don’t care. The desire for the inauthentic but comfortable and non-threatening will always be strong.