Finding My Place in “the Great Tradition”/ memoir essay by Gerald Sorin

“When I saw the old men and old books and saw the dusty gilt brocade on the prayer shawls, I felt that I was being pulled into some mysterious and ancient clan that claimed me as its own simply because I had been born a block away.” The words are Alfred Kazin’s in A Walker in the City (1951) but might well have been mine in 1953 when I approached the bima to recite my Torah portion and become a bar mitzvah.  Kazin, who like me was born in Brownsville on Sutter Avenue (two blocks away and a quarter-century apart), went on to say, “Whether I agreed with its beliefs or not, I belonged; whether I assented to its rights over me, I belonged; whatever I thought of them, no matter how far I might drift from that place, I belonged. This was understood in the very nature of things; I was a Jew. It did not matter how little I knew or understood of the faith, or that I was reading alien books; I belonged. I had been expected, I was now to take my place in the great tradition.”

            “Belonged,” repeated four times, is of course, the operative word, and despite its irony, implies an embrace (even if a little too tight). When I read Kazin’s enduring masterwork at age sixteen or seventeen, I knew that I too belonged in the same way Kazin did. What I couldn’t know, of course, was that other, more manifest ways of belonging, and of taking “my place in the great tradition” lay ahead: by the 1980s, the President of a Reconstructionist Synagogue? Director of a Jewish Studies Program at a State University? Member of the Managing Editorial Board of American Jewish History; and winner of two National Jewish Book Awards?  This was never part of any dream of mine, but… Hineni! (Here I Am!)

The decision to venture tentatively into the field of American Jewish Studies came nearly ten years after earning a doctorate in American and European history at Columbia University in 1969. The decision turned out to be… well, as I’ve suggested, life changing. An innocent flirtation, initiated out of what seemed like mere intellectual curiosity, developed into a passionate love affair. The “subject matter” itself, broader and deeper than I’d ever imagined, was influential. More important, as sometimes happens in academia (perhaps not often enough), a great teacher came my way. 

I met Deborah Dash Moore in a former Vanderbilt mansion housing the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on the corner of 86th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, now the elegant Neue Gallerie museum.  The YIVO building, though showing its age in the 1970s, was still impressive. But it did not distract me from my studies with Professor Moore.  A newly minted Ph.D., she was hard at work turning her dissertation into her creative and enduring book, At Home in America (1981). Nevertheless, and fortunately for me, she brought her full energy and enthusiasm to bear in her seminar on Jewish Immigration to America. Deborah’s passion was contagious. I got hooked on the possibilities of American Jewish history, especially when connected, as it was in class, to an international context. I returned immediately the next semester for Professor Moore’s course on Jewish labor in the United States. We read, among many other books and articles, Irving Howe’s recently published World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews and the Life They Found and Made (1976), a stunning and beautifully written, if idiosyncratic (lots of labor activists, few, if any, rabbis or entrepreneurs) interpretation of the lives of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Deep immersion in that monumental book, and multiple readings, led to my writing, many years later, a biography of Howe, which to my wonder and delight won the National Jewish Book Award in History in 2003. 

Deborah’s courses and my continuing attempts to synthesize American and Jewish history also influenced my decision to do a biography of the prolific writer and Communist Party activist Howard Fast. This book, Life and Literature in the Left Lane (2012)also won the National Jewish Book Award in biography in 2013. Winning a second time helped me believe that maybe the first time was no fluke.

The crossover from American Studies to American Jewish Studies has been a long and extraordinarily satisfying journey, awards aside. But when did the interest in things Jewish really begin? I realize, biographer that I am, that looking back means putting a construction on the messy material that constitutes my life, any life. There are, however, moments and events in my past that seem like seeds which eventually flowered into a more vigorous Jewishness than the kind in which I had been raised.

            I knew I was Jewish, of course. My parents, although hardly religious, identified as Jews. And I think they believed in God. If asked, it’s likely they would have said what Alfred Kazin’s parents apparently said: “We believed and we didn’t believe.” My father came to the US from Minsk when he was 18 months old. My mother, born in America to immigrants from Poland, grew up in Brooklyn, and like my father, lived in Jewish Brownsville for much of the time between 1905 and 1960.  And from 1940, the year I was born, to 1951 so did I — which meant that in my formative years I was surrounded by other Jews and Jewish religious and social institutions, including the Hebrew Educational Society (which housed a synagogue as well as a Hebrew school and recreation center) and a YMHA which in addition to the usual facilities of Ys, had small rooms for classes in Yiddishkayt. 

In Brownsville, in the 1940s, in less than two square miles there were also dozens of Hebrew and Yiddish schools stretching from Saratoga Avenue east to Sackman Street and from Pitkin Avenue south to Riverdale. In the same area there were eighty-three synagogues, several in impressive buildings, but most in storefronts and basements, ten on Stone Avenue alone — few however with regular attendance. I could be found with other boys on many a Saturday morning on Stone Avenue within yards of a synagogue, but standing in front of the Rio Movie Theater, where for five cents, two children could see a double feature. “I’ve got three, who’s got two”? was the stronger refrain, not the Aleinu (“It is our duty to praise”) the closing prayer of Jewish religious services, faintly, but clearly audible to the right of us. 

I was also surrounded by Jewish businesses. There were two kosher delis directly across the street from my apartment house at 412 Sutter Avenue, and between them stood what was called the “appetizing store,” also glatt kosher, in which I first heard the word “sable” – a delicate flavored smoked fish highly prized by all the Jews I knew. And one block over on Belmont Avenue was the kosher butcher and bakery, and the great open street market, with its barrels of live herring and sour pickles, and its pushcarts and peddlers, who hawked their goods in more than a few languages, but mostly Yiddish. 

Three doors from my house, east toward Rockaway Avenue, was a grocery owned by people my parents called “the refugees.” I didn’t think to ask my mother or father, “Refugees from what?” until I was ten in 1950. Their answers haunt me still.  In that grocery, to which I was often sent for milk and bread, I heard a great deal of Yiddish. My parents could understand Yiddish but could not converse with any fluency in the Old World language. Nonetheless, I picked up a handful of words, most now part of English – schlep, meshugene, and chutzpe, for example. And some phrases not part of English— yet: gey in drerd arayn (“go to hell,” or “drop dead,” loosely translated) and aroysgevorfene gelt (thrown out money).

I did not attend a Yiddish school. But my alte-zayde (great-grandfather), a socialist and a regular reader of the Forverts (Forward) tried to teach me Yiddish when I was eight – somehow I think now in defiance of the fact that the language had so recently been effectively erased by Hitler. We stopped the lessons when I was eleven because I entered the Hebrew school on Pennsylvania Avenue between Belmont and Sutter Avenues to prepare for my bar mitzvah. I also attended, in the same building, Boys’ Congregation services – mostly as what the rabbi-in-training called “a blue-moon member.” 

My alte-zayde, thinking I should learn Yiddish and Hebrew simultaneously, was unhappy about losing his uhr-eynikle (great-grandson) as a student. I loved my zayde Berche, but unbeknownst to him I was mostly unhappy throughout our lessons, and I felt the same during the two years of Hebrew school.  I didn’t hate either experience, but both deprived me of time for stickball. We Jewish boys were addicted to that game.  

I have two powerful and enduring memories of stickball games, which I now understand had something to do with shaping my Jewish identity. At age twelve I was playing the outfield in Thomas Jefferson High School’s fenced-in schoolyard when a homerun was hit onto Sheffield Avenue. As I went to retrieve the proverbial “Spaldeen,” a rabbi, wearing a radiantly colored tallit which looked like a cape, ran toward me in a panic. He assumed I was a goy – playing ball on Shabbos after all – and pointed to the fire-alarm, urging me to pull the lever – quickly. Guessing that there was a fire in the little shul, I, of course, obeyed.

I didn’t think much about this at the time, needing to get back to my position in the outfield. But later I thought, why did the rabbi need me to pull that lever? Would he have pulled it if I hadn’t been there? My father, whose 86-year-old mother was immersed in Torah and Jewish lore, knew enough about these questions to tell me that Orthodox Jews were forbidden to “work” on the Sabbath. But when he told me that if no one were around to help, the rabbi would have pulled the lever himself, because not pulling it might have cost the lives of people in the shul, I was captivated. I wanted to know more. The Children’s Library on Stone Avenue, the first public library in the world devoted to children, was not very far away. The librarian asked me if I was smart. When I said, “maybe,” she went to fetch, if I am remembering this correctly, Milton Steinberg’s classic Basic Judaism. Well, I wasn’t that smart. Perhaps I learned a tiny bit from the book, but I wondered afterward why it had been in the Children’s Library.

Some ten years later my friends and I, Jewish boys all, were playing ball –again on Shabbos – right next to a synagogue building. I had a bat in my hands ready to swing when the strains of, I believe, Psalm 9 (I did not know that at the time!) emanated from the shul. I also did not know that while Psalm 9 is part of nearly every congregation’s Friday evening service, it is rare but not out of the question for Saturday morning. Maybe I was just lucky. In any case, I automatically rested the top of my bat on the ground and stood still; and I saw my friend Stu quickly stop whatever it was he was doing. We exchanged smiles which seemed to say, “We’re outside the building, and there’s something joyful inside, but in truth, something still alien to us.”

In high school most of my teachers and fellow students were Jewish, but rarely more than nominally. At Columbia College, however, I had exposure to teachers and students who did not take their Jewishness for granted. The late Joseph Rothschild, a professor of political science, was an inspiration for me, a model teacher and a genuine intellectual. He seemed completely secular, even to the point of telling risqué jokes in class (all boys). After a session featuring Marx and Hegel, and some jokes about standing people on their heads, we left Hamilton Hall together. Immediately, Professor Rothschild pulled a skullcap from his jacket pocket, put it on and rushed off to what I now know must have been a mincha/maariv service (combined afternoon and evening prayers).

How hard it must be, I thought at the time, not yet familiar with the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan, to live fully in two different civilizations. Then I got some help. I was fortunate enough to befriend two Orthodox Jewish students, Zvi Gitelman, now Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Harold Jacobson, Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Illinois, Chicago. In addition to studying hard at Columbia, Zvi and Harold were carrying twelve credits at the Jewish Theological Seminary at Broadway and 123rd Street. Yet somehow, they found the time to play Frisbee, touch football, and in past years, of all things, stickball – but not on Shabbos. Needless to say, I was impressed with their energy and academic stamina, and even more by their religious commitment, keen intellect and joie de vivre.

There were no such models at Wayne State University in Detroit where I pursued a master’s degree in American History with a minor in Europe. I had by now discovered — in addition to personal antisemitism suffered within the academy — that these histories were integral parts of each other and had to be studied in tandem for fullest understanding.  I did not yet see that Jewish history would also become connective tissue in that same work, nor that Jewish Studies would have such personal appeal. Several professors, Lee Benson, my mentor, Edward Lurie, and Barry Rothberg were Jewish, but none practicing nor in any visible way identifying. My wife, Myra, and I were surprised at how lonely we felt in this regard.  Yet, back at Columbia in 1963 for my doctoral studies, surrounded by busy Jews, I slipped right back into experiencing my Jewishness as faint background music.

(End of Part One. This article will continue in Lightwood #6, Summer Issue)

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Gerald Sorin, Distinguished Professor of American and Jewish Studies, at SUNY New Paltz since 1965, has taught at the University of Utrecht and at Nijmegen, as a Fulbright Fellow. Chair of the History Department and Director of the Jewish Studies Program until 1996, Sorin founded and continues to direct the Resnick Institute for the Study of Jewish Life. He is the author of eight books, including Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane. and innumerable articles. In 1994 he was awarded the State University’s highest rank– Distinguished University Professor. His new book on Saul Bellow will soon be published.


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