When I was the10-year-old child of itinerant bohemian parents in the West Village, being Jewish to me was Kathe Kollewitz lithographs of thin women and hungry babies in your living room; Pete Seeger records on your hi-fi: If I had a Hammer, This Land is Your Land, There Once Was a Union Maid (who never was afraid, of goons and ginks and company finks and deputy sheriffs who made the raid….). Jewish was warm bagels and mountains of cream cheese and your grandmother with thick ankles and flesh-colored stockings rolled up just above her kneecaps, heaping strawberry jam on your plate.
Why oh why couldn’t I be Jewish? It was embarrassing, always being the guest. I wanted to be the host, to ask someone else to set the table, my table, before eating MY delectable food.
I tried unsuccessfully to bring my father into the spirit of my quest. Over hamburgers at the Blue Mill Tavern on our weekend visits, I probed. Couldn’t my great-great-grandmother named Mottsinger have been just a little bit Jewish? Couldn’t I, on the basis of this almost certain fact, be allowed to stay home on Jewish holidays? It was lonely at school on those mysterious days, whose rituals were never really explained to me; it was taken for granted that I knew. I hated not being in on the secret, but was too shy to ask the real meaning of those “holidays” – or were they actual “holy days?” They seemed a lot more serious than Christmas and Easter, with all the reindeer and bunnies and Bing Crosby on every friggin’ loudspeaker in Woolworth’s. A few blue and white greeting cards in the windows of the Hallmark shop did nothing to dispel the mystery. I was given no helpful clues by my lapsed Catholic mother, or my used-to-be Methodist father.
“No,” my father would repeat each time I asked, “The Mottsingers were Austrian mercenaries who made guns during the Revolutionary War. I doubt they were Jewish.” Then he’d signal the waitress for another drink.
It wasn’t fair. I wanted it so much. Being Jewish was co-ed summer camp, fathers with strange accents who said “vine” instead of wine and always came home without stopping first for a scotch and soda at the corner bar. Jewish was reading the newspaper and looking worried while dinner was being cooked and the kids did their homework. After dinner, Jewish was your father shaking off his day job, going into the den, and closing the door and doing his “writing,” like my P.S. 41 classmate Laura Liben’s father.
Jewish was kitchen cabinets chock full of canned apricots and pears in syrup, and boxes of delicious macaroons and matzohs and in the refrigerator tangy wine-colored horseradish and mysterious packages in white paper – sliced turkey – aged Emmenthal, roast beef that had just a hint of pink in the middle. Bowls of tuna fish salad loaded with freshly chopped celery. Ice cream in the freezer.
Jewish was teasing and laughing and sometimes your father shouting, like my best friend Janie’s when she ran up a $25 phone bill talking to her boyfriend, or if your new cocker spaniel peed on the old, valuable Turkish carpet in the hall. Jewish was art lessons and guitar lessons and fancy, painful wire braces for crooked teeth, and every spring new Capezio flats—but for your father, new heels on the same old brown lace-ups.
Jewish was inviting weird bohemian kids like me for dinner when we got locked out of places because my mother didn’t have the rent money. It was really my only chance to eat such good food: thick slices of pot roast, and string beans and beets and hot rolls with real butter, and noodle pudding sprinkled with cinnamon for dessert; or meat loaf with a crusty top of onions and tomato sauce— rye bread, cheesecake. No, Jewish was never fried Spam or chili con carne from the can or the Vegetarian Special at Riker’s in Sheridan Square. I fantasized that if I ate enough dinners with my Jewish friends, that I could BECOME Jewish. (My personal version of You Are What You Eat.)
Many years later, after I had left the Village for college and then returned as an adult, I was browsing in the Strand Bookstore in Union Square and opened a Best American Short Stories anthology. There, blinking in front of me as if in neon lights was one by a writer named Meyer Liben. He was the father working, night after night, behind the closed study door! My friend Laura’s father, a real writer!
You could be an artist, and your family could still eat delicious food. Who knew? You just had to be able to close that door sometimes.
Apparently there were many more stories. All the tip-toeing and shushing that I remembered had not been for nothing. I was suffused with gladness.
Being Jewish was doing something serious, and getting it right.
Barbara Riddle is a regular contributor to WestView News. Segments of her memoir-in-progress, Sex and Sinclair Lewis: Tales From A Greenwich Village Girlhood have been excerpted in these pages and can be found online. Her autobiographical novel of the Sixties, The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke is now available as an ebook or paperback. Write to Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Thanks to the Internet, I was recently able to find the following biographical note about my friend Laura Liben’s father. I found it incredibly moving— another slice of little-known history brought to you by WestView News.
About Meyer Liben
By Theodore Solotaroff (Editor, Best American Short Stories)— May 1967
Meyer Liben is one of those writers who come, as it were, out of the blue. A businessman who retired early because of illness, he began a second career as a writer when he was in his forties and has waited another ten years for the publication of his first book. Certain advantages have followed from this late start. Liben remains an amateur in spirit, though not in performance: he writes because he likes to write, because it is his natural way of expressing himself, of keeping track of the flow of experience, of situating himself in the world.
Though an experimental writer, he has none of the mannered obscurity one associates with the term: in technique, his experiments are rather simple, homey ones—an open conversational form, somewhere between narrative and essay, punctuated by headings at the transitional points like the subtitles of the old silent movies. (His fiction somewhat resembles that of Paul Goodman, though Goodman has told me that the indebtedness is his.) It is as though Liben one day dropped in on Literature, found that it was a pleasant place to spend his time, and, having passed the age of intimidation, rearranged the furniture just a bit to make himself more comfortable.