Essay | Defining my Jewish Identity by Leonard Quart

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I grew up in the 1940s and ’50s when the city’s ethnic groups were more clearly divided and a lingering enmity between them still existed. Intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews was also then a relatively rare occurrence, and although in the schoolyard and workplace there was a great deal of interaction between groups, there were few intimate friendships.

My parents were Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union who came to New York in the 1920s. Both came from rabbinical families. My father’s father had written two books that took a lifetime to complete, but were published by a well-known Hebrew and religious book company. When I was a child I remember them lying untouched in our apartment’s breakfront, and my wondering about the contents of these mysterious books. But in my sixties a learned cousin held a reading of the books, translating the words into English and illuminating their substance.

The most interesting of them consisted of 345 pages of aphorisms, 32 on a page, written in rhyme, and often playing with Cabalistic (medieval and mystical) notions of numerology. My grandfather was a rationalist, who believed that in the “eternal battle” between the heart and the mind, at the end “the heart is the fool.” Although not a mystic he loved punning, playing intellectual games, and displaying his vast reading and learning, and the Cabala was an integral part of his font of knowledge. He concluded the second volume with an affirmation of his Jewish identity – by stating that he wrote “to know the ways of life of a people and its greatness, and learn its history and tradition.”

In New York this grandfather also presided over Sabbath services in a small, claustrophobic, attic synagogue in the then Jewish South Bronx. His congregation consisted of immigrant garment workers, furriers, and shopkeepers, and the pay he received for being their rabbi was minimal. I have only a few fragmented memories of him, for he died when I was three. The most vivid image is of a white-bearded, ruddy-looking man wearing glasses and a black skullcap, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking tea with jam, while lying in bed mortally ill with lung cancer.

My mother’s father was also a rabbi, but in the Soviet Union he had led a large synagogue in a fair-sized river town, Orsha, where the family lived a comfortable life. He also immigrated to the South Bronx where he headed a much larger, more established synagogue (with stained glass windows) than the one my other grandfather presided over. The synagogue (Tifereth Israel) was largely Yiddish speaking, located in a working class Jewish area that was on the cusp of changing into a black and Hispanic neighbourhood. He presided over it during its last years, before it was sold and became a Pentecostal church.

This same grandfather never learned to speak or write English, so when he moved in with us after my grandmother died and could physically no longer take care of himself (he was suffering from the early symptoms of Lou Gehrig (ALS) disease), our communication was mostly limited to my fulfilling the daily tasks I did for him. Still, I remember him as a serene and sweet man, detached from both the familial and larger world that swirled around him. He continued to pray, study the Talmud and the Commentaries, and read the daily Jewish paper in our small kitchen, while my mother, with utter devotion, attended to all his needs. He was a much less complex man than my writer grandfather, who, according to my mother, could be harsh.  

That I had two rabbis as grandfathers obviously had an impact on my life, and especially on what sort of people my parents became. My parents may not have been genuinely religious but they were traditional and passionately linked to being Jewish. And they still sent me to an old-fashioned, Orthodox yeshiva, as a way of reinforcing my commitment to being a Jew. A grievous mistake on their part, because I found the school stifling and alienating— a great deal of oppressive rote learning and uninspired religious study, topped off by a few incidents of corporal punishment. The experience deeply affected my relation to religion at an impressionable age. From then on I recoiled from anything resembling religious ritual and worship.

I also felt hemmed in by the tribal nature of my parents’ notion of Jewishness, which divided the world into Jews and Gentiles. Their attitude may have been understandable given their experience growing up with anti-Semitism in Russia (pogroms, quota systems) but constricting nevertheless. They were living in New York in the early ’50s, and it was a time when no city offered Jews more. It gave them visibility as individuals and a group. It provided employment and education (though subtle discrimination still existed) and gave them freedom from blatant ant-Semitism that was still common In Europe.  Most New York Jews fell in love with a city that seemed to be their own – a refuge and homeland.

However, like all attempts at generalization this one falls short of defining the complexity of Jewish lives in the city. For though I know my parents felt at home in New York, they didn’t embrace the city and its ethos with great feeling. They rarely spoke about the nature of the city, and their experience of all that it richly offered was very limited. It was their Jewishness that they cleaved to and defined their lives by. They continually maintained it as a fortress against any alien values and beliefs that could disrupt their lives.

Consequently, it was not only religion that I repudiated, but what I felt was my parents’ parochial version of being Jewish. I desired to move in a more cosmopolitan and bohemian, and less tribal, world. Ironically enough, it was the municipal and free City College, that island of Jewish working-class intellectual achievement, which opened up a wider world of intimate relationships with WASPs, blacks, and other ethnic groups. And after that experience it wasn’t difficult to leave the insulated world my parents inhabited. I left New York for graduate school in South-eastern Ohio, and my first experience of American life was an ambivalent one. My feeling of being at odds with dominant American values gained clarity in this college dominated by fraternities and sports. Still I found there a group of people at odds with the Midwestern university milieu and embraced, and was in turn embraced by them; writers, painters, sculptors, activists, intellectuals, even an idiosyncratic professor or two, white and black, who came from a variety of places and backgrounds. My world had expanded far beyond my life in New York.

But given my background, I didn’t become deracinated and deny my Jewish past or the culture that shaped me. I may be totally secular and play little or no role in Jewish organizations, but I continue being acutely conscious of the often painful and sometimes luminous history that has shaped me. I read novelists like Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman, follow Israeli politics by reading Haaretz online, have done a number interviews with Israeli film directors, and have written essays on Holocaust films and about writers like Philip and Henry Roth, and Saul Bellow. That may be only a small part of my writing, but it’s no accident that I still feel deeply about Israel and Jewishness.

However, I continue to be critical towards Israeli policies on the West Bank and Gaza, and repelled by the racism and power of the ultra-Orthodox under the somewhat amoral, cynical Netanyahu—whose commitment to holding and wielding power is seemingly his main reason for being.  In addition, I have never treated the Jewish artists I have written about by suspending critical standards. They were writers who happened to be Jewish, not Jewish writers who I needed to exult.  Finally, my identity as Jew is just one of a number of identities, professional, familial, intellectual, and political among them, and it has never taken precedence over the others. But nevertheless it remains an indelible one.

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