Thursday, July 12, 2007

MEMOIR: My father was a rebel

When I was growing up, my parents never tried to influence my choice of a future career. Like so many of my friends, living within a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, my boyhood ambition was to be a big-league baseball player. I was regarded by my peers as a smooth-fielding second baseman, but I couldn't hit a curve ball. That, and some other athletic weaknesses, guaranteed that I would never make it to the big leagues. Journalism soon supplanted baseball as my career goal. And all the while, my mother and father never suggested what I should do with my life.

In contrast, my father had to contend with his father, an Orthodox rabbi who insisted that his son follow in his occupational footsteps. My father, however, was a rebel who declined to satisfy his father's ambition for him.

My grandfather belonged to the Hasidim, a Jewish mystical sect whose religious practices are marked by more emotional fervor than most other Orthodox Jews.

My father was brought to the U.S. in 1906 as an eight-year old from the sector of Poland then under Czarist Russian rule. The family settled on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

In the strict style of the Hasidim, my grandfather refused to allow my father to attend public school because he frowned on the mixing of sexes in the classroom. My father went to the local elementary school for several days, then was quickly withdrawn when Grandpa learned that there were girls in my father's class and that the all the teachers were women.

My father was then enrolled in a yeshiva, an all-day Jewish religious school where he learned English and a smattering of other secular subjects after regular school hours. The secular subjects were usually taught by immigrant college students.

It was generally assumed that my father would go on to a rabbinical seminary when he completed the equivalent of public high school at the yeshiva, and that he would subsequently be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi.

But my father's personal career objective did not match my grandfather's. My father's faith in Orthodoxy had suffered from exposure to the radical free-thinking views of the neighborhood's galaxy of socialist soapbox orators. The prospect of remaining in the Hasidic fold after completing his yeshiva studies and becoming an Orthodox rabbi had become remote.

My father's ambition was to become a doctor. However, his limited secular education and the family's modest financial means made such an ambition unattainable.

An alternative career path developed during his final term in the yeshiva. It was opened by Rabbi Stephen Wise, a nationally renowned Reform Jewish rabbi. Wise had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish community in his native Hungary. When he settled in the U.S., however, he decided that the Reform Jewish movement was more likely to flourish in this country than Orthodoxy.

He eventually became a Reform rabbi and a leader in the Reform movement. He realized that the students being educated in the Orthodox yeshivas were far better prepared in Talmudic and other traditional Jewish religious studies than the young men usually entering Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in Cincinnati.

Wise decided to recruit graduates from the Orthodox institutions, offering them scholarships to Hebrew Union for training as Reform rabbis. My father received such an offer and quickly accepted it. His father, however, objected. To my pious grandfather, becoming a Reform Jew was tantamount to leaving the Jewish faith.

To avoid family controversy, my father reluctantly rejected Rabbi Wise's offer. He was now 18 and decided to leave New York to seek his fortune elsewhere, unfettered by paternal supervision.

For the next couple of years, my father drifted from a job as a clerk in a dry-goods store operated by a Jewish merchant in a small town in Arkansas to one as a shoe salesman in Tennessee. After learning that Henry Ford had begun to pay $5 a day to work on his assembly line, he headed for Detroit and was hired. He was presumably the only former Hasid who ever became a factory hand for the Ford Motor Co.

During World War I my father was drafted into the Army. He served briefly and was discharged for medical reasons. In a strange move still criticized by military historians, his outfit, the 339th Infantry Regiment, was shipped in September 1918 to Archangel and Murmansk in Russia.

The regiment, which acquired the popular name of the "Polar Bears," was a unit in the Allied North Russian Expeditionary Force which was deployed in what one historian has called "a confused effort to thwart the Russian Revolution."

My father was always preoccupied by the irony that, had he not been discharged earlier from the Army, he would have been forced to return to the very land his family had fled only a decade before. That was something he could not have as easily rebelled against as he had done to his father.

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Blogger Jim said...

Your story reminds me a bit of Chaim Potok's "The Chosen". How I loved my introduction to the truth that "a Jew is a Jew is a Jew..." was not a correct image of your faith. I just finished his "Old Men at Midnight", and have most of his other novels also....

I mean no offence with the above, falling into old-time holiness Pentecost at the age of thirty, I once wondered where these people had been all my life and thinking they, alone, possessed "truth". We "grow as we go", however, and thirty-five years later I attend an AOG, do a lot of reading, and believe judgment will involve the heart, not the name over the door...

Friday, July 13, 2007 6:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Claude said...

What a fascinating insight into your father's life!
Fate has strange ways. What if he hadn't been ill?

Friday, July 13, 2007 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger joared said...

Interesting story about your father. He must have been quite adventureous in those early years of the twentieth century to have ventured as far west as Ark.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007 5:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Mary said...

Very interesting...Thank you. I have a number of Jewish friends, all of whom (yes, all) have superior intelligence, talent, and "savvy". Any ideas from where these characteristics emanated, e.g. parenting, genetics, adaptation, or all of the above?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007 11:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Ronni Bennett said...

Reading this, I got a picture in my mind of a line of Hasids in full hat/long coat gear working on a car assembly line. Not something that I could conjure on my own, heh, heh.

Even in Portland, Oregon, Rabbi Wise was a formidable presence in our house when I was growing up. My mother listened to him on the radio and his voice is one of my earliest memories.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007 1:44:00 PM  

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