Thursday, September 29, 2005

A lament for my high school alma mater

The New York Times recently reported that about 1,500 students at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx skipped classes and marched out of the school for a protest demonstration. They were protesting the installation of metal detectors and x-ray machines to scan students' book bags at the school entrance and surveillance cameras along the building's stairwells.
New York City education authorities declared that these security measures were necessary because of the school's high crime rate which, according to the Times, is "60% higher than the citywide average for schools of the same size." When one considers how seriously the city's school system is crime-ridden, Clinton's situation is obviously catastrophic. Thirteen "major crimes" were recently reported at Clinton in a single year.
Clinton is now co-ed but was an all-boys school for most of its century-long history. The current enrollment is about 4,500., an independent guide to the city's public schools, estimates that about 60% of the students are Hispanic, 30% black, 5% white, and the remainder presumably Asian.
As an alumnus of DeWitt Clinton (class of January 1942), I am stunned and saddened that such extreme security measures are now needed to curb criminal activity at a school where I recall spending four enjoyable, academic-rewarding years. And this was during a period when many students' families, my own included, were hurting badly during the Depression.
The school was located on an attractive, almost pastoral campus, some distance away from crowded residential neighborhoods, providing a tranquil setting unlike that of the sterotypical inner-city school. I assume that the outside physical environment hasn't changed very much since then.
In my day, about 12,000 boys were enrolled. This required the scheduling of two different sessions, one starting early in the morning and the other begining in the afternoon. I don't believe that the overcrowded conditions affected scholastic achievement. Despite its huge size, larger than most universities at the time, the school had an excellent academic reputation.
Among its alumni are such well known personalities as actor Burt Lancaster, composer Richard Rodgers (who as president of the alumni association greeted my incoming freshman class at a special assembly), playwrights Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon, the African-American author James Baldwin (who was my classmate), fashion designer Ralph Lauren, jazz musician Fats Waller, basketball star Dolph Schayes, radio journalist Daniel Schorr, and many hundreds of prominent businessmen (Bloomingdale's former CEO Marvin Traub was another of my classmates), politicians (Basil Paterson, an African-American former New York state senator was also in my class), lawyers, scientists, judges, diplomats, doctors, scholars, and other professional figures. The legendary boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson, already a celebrity as a Golden Gloves champion, was also in attendance while I was at Clinton, but I don't think he stayed around to graduate. The lure of a rich professional career probably took precedence.
The ethnic/religious demographic makeup differed markedly in my day from the current study body. I would estimate that about 70% of the students was white and the remainder about 30% African-American. The white students were predominantly Jewish but with significant numbers of boys of Italian, Irish and other ethnic minority backgrounds. I do not recall any Asian or Hispanic students. The few dozen boys bearing Hispanic names were invariably Sephardic Jews. WASPs were a rare species.
I do not remember any incidents that might be regarded as "criminal," and racial tension was unknown. The only racial "issue" that comes to mind surfaced when an African-American boy wanted to enroll in a newly-introduced two-year modern Hebrew class. He was rejected because he could not read and write the Hebrew alphabet, as required for enrollment. This was a skill possessed, of course, only by Jewish boys who had undergone preparation for their bar-mitzvahs. And for some, that was a process that often lasted longer than two years. I don't think the boy made a big deal out of his rejection.
For fear of entering racist territory, I hesitate to note how Clinton's ethnic/religious makeup now differs from the late 1930s and early 1940s and to question whether this is a factor in the school's current crisis. I would prefer to believe that other socio-economic factors are in play. But I am troubled that few if any of today's Clinton students are likely to have the kind of pleasant high school memories that I now enjoy some 65 years later.

Monday, September 19, 2005

MEMOIR: When I slept with Lauren Bacall (in adjoining baby carriages)

My mother always claimed that she pushed baby carriages with Lauren Bacall's mother in Central Park when both our families lived in tenement apartments on 107th Street in East Harlem during the mid-1920s. That was probably the closest my mother ever came to enjoying personal contact with a future or an already-established celebrity.
Like me, Lauren (or Betty, which is her real first name) was an only child. My mother remembered that she was two months older than me. Considering the proximity of our respective baby carriages, I can safely assume that at one time or another we were both sleeping at the same time. So there is some validity to my boast of intimacy with a famous movie star.
When we were both about three years old, my family moved to the Bronx and Bacall's family moved to Brooklyn. I never saw her again except, of course, on the movie screen. Although here I am writing about her in my memoir, I do not appear in Bacall's autobiography.
My mother remembered the future movie star's family name as Perske. My mother's recollection was confirmed several years ago when I read the Jerusalem Post's report on the actress' visit to Israel. The paper revealed that, on being introduced to Shimon Peres, then the country's prime minister, the two happily discovered that they shared Perske as their original surnames. It was not noted whether they were able to establish any direct family connection.
My mother apparently kept in touch for a couple of years with Bacall's mother, who was named Natalie, for she recalled that Bacall's parents divorced when Lauren was about five years old. My mother also remembered that Natalie quickly resumed using her maiden name, Weinstein, and that the Romanian-born Natalie later legally changed Weinstein into Bacall. The latter means "winecup" in her native country's language. I learned this linguistic tidbit from the New York Times, which also pointed out that "Weinstein," a common Jewish family name, means "winecup" in German. Lauren also began to use her mother's new surname and was permanently estranged from her father.
I doubt very much that Lauren Bacall ever disclosed her early intimacy with me to her two husbands, Humphrey Bogart and Jason Robards. But she is no doubt unaware that she ever had such a personal relationship with me.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Israel and the Iraq war

I am ardently pro-Israel and I ardently opposed the invasion of Iraq. So what am I to make of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq last year, who has become an iconic figure in the anti-war movement?
She has been quoted as having said that her son "was killed for benefit Israel. My son joined the army to protect America, not Israel." After supporters of the war seized on the statement to accuse her of anti-Semitism, Sheehan denied that she had ever introduced the Israel issue into her campaign against the Iraq war.
She charged that she was being "smeared" because of her aggressive criticism of President Bush. Said Sheehan: "A former friend who is anti-Israel and wants to use the spotlight on me to push his anti-Semitism is telling everyone...that I believe Casey [her son] died for Israel...That is not my issue."
Whatever the truth is about Sheehan's view, the Israel-bashers, particularly those who are left-wing organizational leaders, have indeed cited Bush Administration support of Israel as a factor in the decision to invade Iraq. They've even made a game of "outing" high-level Jewish bureaucrats in the Pentagon who may have played important roles in the decision.
As a quasi-leftwinger myself, I have been offended--no, infuriated is a better word--by how left-wing spokesmen and the elders of the Presbyterian church and other supposedly moderate Protestant denominations have demonized Israel in recent years. These self-appointed, professional do-gooders, apparently ignorant of Middle East history, overlook the failure of the Palestinian Arabs to accept numerous opportunities for statehood while obsessively challenging the very right of Israel to exist as an independent country.
Actually, the Iraq war has been a mixed blessing for Israel. The elimination of Saddam Hussein, a perennial enemy, was of course a benefit. According to some Israeli strategists, however, the erosion of Iraq into a breeding ground and training center for Islamist terrorism has created scores of new enemies, many of whom are now more immediate threats to Israeli security than Saddam was.
Al-Qaida and new terrorist groups that it has inspired have infiltrated into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even the recently "liberated" Gaza Strip. Now geographically closer to Israeli territory and equipped with missiles within reach of airports and other critical facilities, they pose a new danger to the Jewish state. In short, the U.S. did Israel no favor by invading Iraq.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Katrina and the Reagan legacy

Whenever the late President Reagan discussed the role of government in solving civic and social problems, he would flippantly declare that "government is the problem, not the solution." The Bush Administration has retained that ideological hostility toward the use of government to serve the public good. That anti-government mindset has been vividly displayed as Gulf coastal communities now struggle to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Despite repeated warnings from the experts about New Orleans' vulnerability to hurricane damage, the Administration slashed funding for strengthening the city's levees and other flood-control measures and for safety-net programs for sick and impoverished Americans. Meanwhile, taxes for high-income citizens were cut and uncounted billions are being spent to finance an unnecessary war in Iraq. National Guard troops have been diverted from their fundamental role in domestic security to fight the war and the top Federal bureaucrat responsible for calamities like Katrina has shown himself to be an incompetent political crony.
The latest demonstration of the Bush Administration's mean-spirited perspective was the President's decision to suspend the law requiring employers to pay local prevailing wages--usually union-negotiated rates--to construction workers on federally financed projects. The suspension applies to the very Gulf coastal regions where there will now be a boom in new construction to replace the damage caused by Katrina.
But what can one expect from a President whose patrician mother, Barbara Bush, who upon seeing the New Orleans flood evacuees massed in the over-packed Houston Astrodome, exclaimed: "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."
So much for compassionate conservatism.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Arabs' favorite Jewish author

For Arab intellectuals, the world-renowned Hungarian-born author, Arthur Koestler, who died in 1983 at age 78, has long been a hero. Koestler, who was a Jew, wrote a book entitled "The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage," which debunks the Jewish historical link to what is now Israel and Palestine. Ever since its publication in 1976, the book has been a major ingredient in the perennial Arab/Muslim campaign to discredit Zionism. That Koestler was a Jew, his admirers believe, allegedly gives his book a degree of authenticity.
Koestler's book claims that today's Jewish people are descended not from the ancient Hebrew-speaking inhabitants of what is now Israel and Palestine but from the Khazars, a now-vanished Turkic-speaking people who lived some 2,000 years ago in an area ranging from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Resisting pressures from Byzantium to become Christians and from the expanding Islamic empire to become Muslims, they apparently converted to Judaism in 740 A.D.
They were later wiped out by Mongol forces invading from the east. According to Koestler, the surviving Khazars fled westward to Polish and Lithuanian territories and formed the cradle of contemporary Jewry. It is far more likely that they were absorbed into the neighboring communities of such other Turkic-speaking people as Turkmen and Kazakhs.
Nevertheless, Arab intellectuals have seized upon Koestler's dubious theory to argue, as one commentator explains: "The absolute historical truth is that the Jews did not originate from Palestine. They are not 'descendants' of the mythic Jews of the Bible. Jews from eastern Europe and western Asia were descended from Mongolians and other Asiatic people who had adopted Judaism as their 'religion' over 1,000 years ago and had become known as 'Jews'."
Koestler was an eccentric ideologue. A one-time ardent Communist, he later became a militant anti-Communist crusader. His novel, "Darkness at Noon," is widely regarded as a classic work of anti-Communist literature. A former Zionist who lived in British-mandated Palestine during the early 1930s, Koestler eventually became a fierce opponent of Jewish statehood. Not surprisingly, his book, "The Thirteenth Tribe," was quickly embraced by anti-Zionist activists.
The book focuses on Yiddish- and German-speaking Ashkenazim, the largest Jewish ethnic sub-group. It ignores the existence of Sephardim, descendants of the Jews who fled Spain and Portugal in the 15th Century, and of Mizrachi or Eastern Jews who lived in Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern regions--all of whom, like the Ashkenazi Jews, have always claimed ancestral roots in Palestine.
But there is an even more fundamental flaw in Koestler's Khazar theory of Askenazi origins. He claims that the people who escaped the Mongol hordes fled western into Europe from Asia. However, the fact that they spoke Yiddish, a Germanic-based language or German itself--many of them also bearing Germanic names--clearly demonstrates that the Jews migrated eastward from German-speaking territories in western Europe into Poland, Lithuania, and other east European countries.
The issue has, of course, become academic. Israel is now a thriving nation of more than 5 million Jews possessing cultural strains from many foreign regions, but with no evidence of any Khazar influence. But until the Arabs abandon the challenge to Israeli legitimacy made by anti-Zionist polemicists like Arthur Koestler, the likelihood of a meaningful peace in the Middle East is not very encouraging.

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