In the good old days, Forest Hills, New York – where I grew up between 1939 and 1951 – was a shtetl for assimilated American Jews. Like my parents, all our neighbors were American-born offspring of Eastern European immigrants. A generation removed from their identity conflicts, we children knew that Forest Hills, liberated from Judaism, was our promised land.
My father and mother rejected the Romanian Orthodoxy and Bund Socialism of their immigrant parents for the security of American Judaism. My Jewish boyhood was spent on the secular side of the shared living-room wall that separated our apartment from our neighbors, Cantor Gorsky and his wife. Through that wall, every Friday evening, I heard him recite Kiddush and the Birkat Hamazon.
On weekday afternoons he taught neighborhood boys the haftarah for their bar mitzvah. Long before it was my turn to join them, I had memorized the blessings that floated into our apartment. To make sure, I was required to attend after-school Hebrew school at the nearby Forest Hills Jewish Center. It provided some of the more vivid miseries of my childhood. My bar mitzvah was mandatory, but there was a tacit understanding with my father that it would mark my exit from Judaism. And so it did.
Yet some Jewish culture and history penetrated. My older relatives spoke Yiddish when they did not want children to understand. (But we became reasonably adept translators.) At the end of World War II Life magazine photographs brought the Holocaust, which had never been mentioned, into our home – though it was not a matter for discussion.
I also discovered that Hank Greenberg, the baseball star so beloved by American Jews for his perfect fusion of identities – hitting home runs on Rosh Hashanah and going to shul on Yom Kippur – was our cousin. His sister’s family hosted interminable Passover Seders, which invariably drove my cousins and me from the table after the Fourth Question.
I knew about Israel, born just after my twelfth birthday, because letters to my father began arriving from his Romanian relatives who had survived the war to make aliyah. I was intrigued by the foreign postage stamps and secretly proud of his generosity to our previously unknown cousins. But Israel never was a topic of family conversation.
My high-school years (at Horace Mann in Riverdale) were shared with other non-Jewish Jewish boys whose parents, like mine, wanted their sons to be free of Jewish encumbrances. I first encountered Christian America in Oberlin, Ohio, my college hometown. Before Sunday lunch, my classmates spontaneously sang the Doxology, praising “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Then we were served ham or pork chops. Christmas trees sparkled in every dormitory living room.
* * * * * Eventually armed with my doctorate, I arrived at Brandeis in 1965 to teach American history. Brandeis aspired to become the Jewish – but not too Jewish – Harvard. It proudly displayed its Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chapels, but I never saw anyone enter or leave this ecumenical enclave at the campus edge. Yet it canceled classes on Shemini Atzeret, a holiday totally unknown to me.
After five years of late-1960s campus turbulence I relinquished Jewish zaniness for the Christian decorum of Wellesley College, dedicated since 1875 to the education of young women. Like its ivy-covered Big Brothers and most other Seven Sister colleges, Wellesley had entrenched admission quotas designed to perpetuate an Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite.
Genteel anti-Semitism was the pervasive Wellesley norm. By the time I arrived, Jewish students were no longer segregated within their dormitories. But just a few years earlier an Orthodox student who requested postponement of exams scheduled on the High Holy Days was incarcerated in the infirmary for the duration, without access to books or friends, and served treif food she could not eat – to ensure that she would not cheat. In the Religion Department, the unofficial custodian of Christian culture at the college, no Jew had ever received tenure nor was a Jew permitted to teach the required New Testament course.