My Bar Mitzvah (and Thanksgiving) Speech

FROM SEQUENCE 2012
November 2012

For James and Jonah, on being called to participate
in a minyan or as citizens of these United States.

While I was never bar mitzvahed, I have learned that the Bar Mitzvah boy is given a passage of the Torah to study, and he, 13 years old, gives a speech at his family’s synagogue about the meaning of his Torah portion. (This usually involves claiming to have learned something about being a good person.) My text was given to me by PBS, but perhaps also by God in a certain sense, one evening during my fifty-ninth year. The text took the form of a documentary about the dancer and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

One November Friday night, an evening before attending the Bar Mitzvah of a friend of my son’s, I was, for other reasons, quite tired, and I lay down on my couch a little after 8, clicker in hand. At 9 this documentary came on. Previously I knew very little about Robbins, and I have not been a particular fan of Broadway musicals or of the American Ballet Theatre. It is possible that, except for clips on TV and a remake of his first ballet, “Fancy Free,” I have never seen a Robbins production, and if I have now watched a two-hour documentary, . . . I am like a tourist who briefly visited a foreign city.

Two things struck me. One was how dedicated Robbins was to his chosen crafts: dance and choreography. For 60 years he just kept working and working, always trying to learn, always trying to get it right. This level and consistency of dedication is in and of itself extraordinary, a kind of genius independent of whatever creative and expressive talents he may also have had. Secondly, the major event of this man’s life occurred on quite another stage, when he agreed to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and during his testimony he “named names”: four people who, he said, had been communists, as he in his youth had been. In doing this he destroyed these four people’s careers for some period of years and turned them into pariahs. In the documentary one of the named says that for three months she and her husband did not receive a single phone call. Her friends were all afraid of themselves being caught, condemned, unable to get work.

One of the subtexts of this portion of the documentary was the anti-Semitism of the communist-hunting of the McCarthy period. I have subsequently read in Wikipedia that Senator McCarthy hired a Jew, Roy Cohn, as his chief counsel, choosing him over Robert Kennedy, “reportedly in part to avoid accusations of an anti-Semitic motivation” for his Senate subcommittee’s investigations. And it is not for nothing that McCarthy and his great supporter Joseph Kennedy were Irish Catholics, anxious to be fully accepted in a country in which Catholics were a minority and the Irish considered by many to be good for nothing but manual labor and police work. The “Red Scare” of the 1940s and ‘50s offered them an opportunity: Catholics could fit in by identifying Jews as the real outsiders.

Ostensibly McCarthy and the HUAC investigators who proceeded him were uncovering Americans who had, typically in their youth and during the Depression, been members of the American Communist Party. But, for example, HUAC’s focus was on the entertainment industry, a business dominated by Jews. The overt statement was that Americans who would join a Communist Party were not real Americans, and this both because the Communist Party had strong ties to the Soviet Union and because communism’s ideology (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”) challenged the presumably more American “every man for himself” approach. There was, however, another, less explicit statement: Jews were not Americans. This aspect of McCarthyism echoed the early days of Nazi rule during which Hitler’s government, backed and advised by leading German bankers and industrialists, whipped up anti-Semitic sentiments as a way of destroying the power of the labor unions and driving down wages. In the American case, xenophobia was whipped up and used to attack leftist Jews, not least those active in labor unions.

As I understand the history, there were a series of battles in the movie industry between the workers and the studio bosses, and some of the most significant of these battles were between a set of unions (the IATSE or IA) controlled by the mob in collusion with the studio bosses, and a more democratic body, the CSU. The fundamental issues were control over the unions and workers and keeping down or raising wages. However, the mob leaders and bosses came up with the idea of accusing their opponents of being communists—i.e. un-American, traitors. E.g., in 1941 a movie producer named Walt Disney took out an ad in Variety, the Hollywood trade magazine, declaring his conviction that “Communist agitation” was behind a cartoonists and animators’ strike going on at that time. Such tactics proved so successful that anti-labor and anti-Semitic politicians in Washington and elsewhere adopted them. Thus the sad irony: Americans thought the goal, right or wrong, was rooting out communists, but this was only a means for controlling workers and keeping down wages—the wages of the vast majority of Americans, however anti-communist they may have been. (Of course variations on this tactic have been used over and over again, and the vast majority of Americans continue to be fooled by it and to lose track of who is fighting for their interests and who against them.)

The documentary’s position was that the Jewish Robbins (née Rabinowitz) got caught during the McCarthy period because, like many a child of immigrants, he wanted nothing so much as to be accepted by his country, to fit in, to be liked not only for who he was but also because who he was— he hoped—was a real American. (Which would be to say as unscrupulous as Walt Disney, Roy Cohn and Joseph Kennedy?) Myself, I have always felt that I belonged, that I was completely American, whether I liked it or not, and notwithstanding—likely allowing—all my objections to American values, customs and politics. It is also the case that I am, as the Nazis would say, Mischling, a hybrid. (As most Americans, Mexicans, Canadians, French people and likely “Aryan” Germans as well are, though of course the elements of the mix vary from family to family.) In my particular case, when my mother, from a Jewish family, announced to her father that she wanted to marry a man named Sam, her father joked that this Sam couldn’t be Jewish because in those days no American Jews had Old Testament names. Boys from Jewish families were named Jack, Harold, Murray, Norman, Phillip, Jerome, etc., because, presumably, that helped them fit in, or at least made it clear to all, the boys included, that fitting in was the first priority. My mother belongs to a very particular linguistic grouping in the United States: Children who grew up in Brooklyn but during their adolescence unlearned their Brooklyn accents, a bit as Liza Doolittle was pushed to unlearn hers. As a result she has at times been mistaken for a foreigner, for someone who learned English very well but later in life. And it might be said that this approach to being an American was passed along to me. I learned French in adulthood and came to speak French with my wife and son in our home. As a result, sometimes when people hear me speak English—if I have recently been speaking a lot of French—they cannot figure out what foreign country I come from. In fact, I can tell them with a smile, one of my ancestors was Priscilla (Mullins) Alden, one of the famous lovers of the Mayflower. My namesake, William Eaton, was the first American general to lead an army abroad, in North Africa, against the Barbary pirates: “To the shores of Tripoli; . . . First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean,” as the “Marines’ Hymn” describes it.

Again, I take this to be not only my particular story, but also just one variation on the story of so many of us. A few days after the Bar Mitzvah I had dinner with a Brazilian-born friend who ended up outlining on the paper table-covering her family history. There was a Jewish grandmother whose family had come to Brazil to escape the Inquisition, but whose members were still, five centuries later, not considered real Brazilians, not even by some of the family members themselves. This concept of real Brazilian seemed reserved not for descendants of the people who occupied the land before it was conquered by Europeans, but for Europeans who were Catholics. Thus my friend also told me of a grandfather, the man who married her Jewish grandmother. He came from Germany in the 1920s and fit right in. He was, or claimed to be, Catholic. (A Catholic doctor no less, usurping a traditional role of Jews?) So many years later, growing up in suburban New Jersey, my friend’s American-born son had insisted that for Thanksgiving his mother make not Brazilian food but rather both turkey and ham, to help him prove to the world and to himself that he was both American and not Jewish.

Robbins faced a second problem when it came to fitting in. He was a homosexual, and long before the gay pride movement. He was a homosexual, and he was being hounded by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who has since been thought to have been a homosexual and/or cross-dresser. According to the documentary, Hoover’s agent in all this was the TV personality Ed Sullivan who persisted in threatening Robbins that if he did not testify his homosexuality would be exposed. I now regret every minute my sisters and I spent watching Sullivan’s TV show when we were growing up. To not have the courage and autonomy to refuse to name names is one thing; to be forcing people to testify, and to be threatening to expose their sexual proclivities if they did not testify, this is both criminal and obscene. I am also sure that Sullivan’s viciousness can be found in his programs, and Robbins’s anxieties and egotism in his dances, and that Disney’s willingness to resort to slander as a way of making more money is there in his cartoons, and . . . . And I am sure that through these widely viewed cultural products these “values,” these ways of being, have been passed along to many Americans, “impressionable youths” included.

According to the documentary (Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About), Robbins was unwilling or unable to accept being “outed” as a homosexual because this would trash his immigrants’ child’s wish—to fit in. He may also have been afraid of not being able to get work. After being blacklisted, an up and coming Hollywood director named Abraham Polonsky directed only one more feature film in the remaining thirty years of his life. Robbins lived to work. To not have been able to work would have been torture. He went to Washington to testify and he named names. I have subsequently read, in a Joan Acocella piece in the New Yorker archives:

[O]ther homosexual artists, such as Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein, stood firm . . . His [Robbins’s] testimony makes shameful reading. He fell over himself to name names. As one congressman remarked gratefully, his level of coöperation was “a bit unusual.”

The PBS documentary includes some commentary from a historian of the period. It is very difficult for those of us who were not living at that time and who were not in Robbins’s shoes to condemn what he did, the historian says, and then, justly, I believe, he completes the thought: But, still, what Robbins did was both despicable and wrong. And in the larger scheme of things—and in Robbins’s sensitive soul as well, the film suggested—this traitorous, cowardly action stayed in his mind longer than the pride he must also have felt given his extraordinary string of wildly popular dances and shows.

I pause to note one irony, or several. This homosexual Jerome Robbins-Rabinowitz whose patriotism the US Congress challenged—in one of its shameful moments, though far from its only one—this Jerome Robbins-Rabinowitz, so afraid of not being accepted given who he in fact was, . . . This one individual has been, and perhaps as much as any American of his generation, responsible for giving Americans a way—an odd way?—of feeling proud of themselves. (E.g., through West Side Story, The King and I, Peter Pan and Fiddler on the Roof, and through ballets like “Fancy Free” and “Dances at a Gathering”.) Sometime after his testimony the State Department paid for Robbins and a group of dancers to tour Europe to show the world the greatness of American/“Free World” choreography. We might say, among other things, that freedom was something Robbins knew only in the breach. Even in his work he was, as we say, driven.

So now we come to the Bar Mitzvah. Not having been raised Jewish, I have attended services in a synagogue perhaps 10 times in my whole life. Each time I attend a service, in addition to the beauty of the singing, I am struck by what my father (and my wife) might call the mumbo-jumbo (the clinging to ancient superstitions) of organized religion. These particular wordings were not used at my son’s friend James’s Bar Mitzvah; I am here copying from a Reform Siddar (prayerbook) I consulted subsequently:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name
in the world which God created, according to plan

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer

As the fish gives himself to the sea
As the bird gives herself to the air
So may we give ourselves to You

While such prayers are being recited, I often find myself looking around the room at the other people, wondering if they really believe this stuff. At the Bar Mitzvah service for my son’s friend, I found myself wondering if the rabbi even believed in God, or in anything like the God being described in the prayers he was leading. (Going back to anti-Vietnam War days, my strongest religious connection has been to Quakerism, and above all to the power, often awful power, of Quaker meeting for worship. I taught “First Day School” when my son was little. I have read that 50 percent of Quakers do not believe in God. My own “God” is a kind of placeholder for the unknown and for the unknowable, and thus a reminder of the universe of human ignorance as well.)

Nevertheless, perhaps under the influence of the Robbins documentary I had watched the night before, or impressed by how proud James’s parents were to have him going through this rite of passage and in front of all their relatives and friends—I appreciated a different aspect of the Bar Mitzvah service. It was as if there was another subtext, as if the “believers” there assembled were saying:

We probably don’t really believe these words we are saying, but we are saying them because this is what our ancestors have been saying for thousands of years. We are reaffirming this historical connection, and the connection is felt more strongly because in order to reaffirm it we are saying words whose superficial content we don’t even bother thinking about. And we rejoice in saying these words, and we would say whatever is asked of us, because these are our people, this is our home.

As I sat in the synagogue I found myself thinking, too, of something I had read around the time of Yom Kippur, a few months earlier. In some German concentration camp a woman or group of women asked and were given permission to hold services. They had no rabbi and none of the ritual objects. They were starving and cold and disease-ridden and had seen so many die and expected to themselves die soon. They gathered together around a candle and sang the Kol Nidre, the haunting song of Yom Kippur. My thought, now, at this 2012 Bar Mitzvah in a well-to-do neighborhood of New York City, was that this, too, was why we say these time-worn prayers. Because over the course of thousands of years of human history, and in the future, periodically there have been and will be times when it will seem that all we have left to hold onto are our communal traditions, our imaginary Gods—and this even if we are also being made to suffer, being killed, for our beliefs or for our ethnic identification. (Or in the interests of capital.)

The French philosopher Henri Bergson, raised Jewish, is famous, inter alia, for not having converted to Catholicism although he found himself drawn to it. In his last will, prepared in 1937, he wrote:

Je me serais converti si je n’avais vu se préparer depuis des années . . . la formidable vague d’antisémitisme qui va déferler sur le monde. J’ai voulu rester parmi ceux qui seront demain des persécutés.

I would have converted [to Catholicism] had I not seen the tremendous wave of anti-Semitism building over many years and now soon to break upon the world. I wanted to remain among those who tomorrow will be persecuted.

This to me comes closest to expressing my own Judaism, and my own Puritanism as well. If people are going to persecute and be persecuted for their beliefs, I will be among the persecuted. I may or may not have a choice in this, but I know my role, where I belong, where I will feel most at home.

In coming back toward Robbins’s testimony to HUAC, I will pause for a moment on the Jewish rite of circumcision. Male individuals have a part of their anatomies, an intimate, sensitive part, taken away by their families and communities and before they are old enough to be consulted or say a word in their own defense. Personally I find this practice barbaric, and I refused to allow my son to be circumcised and notwithstanding the fact that current medical opinion (and insurance policies/payments?) now has most every American boy being circumcised, usually before he leaves his first hospital. My position is that if for religious or health reasons my Jonah wants to have a piece of his penis cut off when he is older, let that be his decision.

But of course penile circumcision is just one of the many forms of circumcision—or of invasions of privacy and autonomy—carried out by homo sapiens in the name of community. In parts of Spain, I believe, it is traditional during wedding ceremonies for the guests to cut off pieces of the groom’s tie. And there are traditions of bloody wedding night sheets being thrown out to the guests to confirm the taking or sacrifice of the bride’s virginity. In Russia and other cultures a new male colleague or visitor is not trusted until he gets drunk (very drunk) or otherwise inebriated with the established group. This is another tradition I, not a drinker, do not like, but I understand it. Once drunk one makes confessions and says and does stupid things. The community now has something to hold over you and so can trust you. (E.g., if you confess to being a homosexual or to having had some homosexual experiences, this can be used as and when necessary to force you to testify or to betray a labor movement.)

When Robbins agreed to sacrifice himself—his autonomy and his honor—before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he was showing the Congress and Americans as a whole that he was one of them. He probably knew that one of the chief communist-hunters, Roy Cohn, was also a homosexual, and he may have understood that the people taking, recording and listening to his testimony in the HUAC hearing room had plenty of secrets of one kind or another in their closets, and had also at key moments in their lives agreed to sacrifice their own integrity and to do shameful things in order to fit in—be it to not be ostracized in high school, to get or keep a job, to marry “well,” become “partner” or get tenure or win election to Congress. This, we might say, is one of the ways in which communities are made, by demanding and overseeing the sacrifice of the autonomy—and with it some of the dignity—of the community members. (It is not for nothing that my son and his classmates put on ties—cords around their necks—to come to their friend James’s Bar Mitzvah service. And since Jonah as yet does not know how to make the noose, I first made it around my own neck and then slipped it off my head and on to his. And his mother, watching, complained for him about his having to button the top button of his shirt—restricting breathing and freedom of movement, it can seem. And I also saw some pride in Jonah’s eyes, to be wearing a button-down shirt and tie like his dad.)

The shameful things we do in order to fit in—and in marking others to be ostracized so that we ourselves might be accepted—haunt us throughout our lives. In 1963, a namer of names, actor Sterling Hayden, declared, “I was a rat, a stoolie, and the names I named of those close friends were blacklisted and deprived of their livelihood.” Scholars Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner have apparently stated that Hayden “was widely believed to have drunk himself into a near-suicidal depression decades before his 1986 death.” In the large organization where I earn my living, I daily work with people who behave in Haydenesque fashion, badmouthing their colleagues (or identifying them rightly or wrongly as Jewish or otherwise abnormal) whenever an opportunity presents itself. This is how these quite ordinary people try to fit in and get ahead. And, yes, sadly, some of these badmouthers and ostracizers are people who, on account of their sexuality or for other reasons (including alcoholism, lack of interest in their jobs or lack of ability), feel themselves vulnerable to themselves being ostracized and discriminated against.

Myself, I remember once, I must have been about 18 years old, I was travelling with three people: my best male friend, a girl I was romantically, sexually interested in, and a girl who was, as the saying goes, just a friend, and Jewish besides, as the other two people were not. We all ended up in one big bed, and I played some role, likely the lead role, in communicating to this girl, the Jewish girl, that she was not wanted there, she should go sleep by herself while the other three of us stayed together. In the course of coming of age (and throughout adulthood) one has hundreds if not thousands of opportunities to behave in this way, and I am sure that this was not the only time that I was an ostracizer, though this seems to be the incident that continues to prey on my conscience, and likely because the ostracized person was Jewish, and with a “Jewish nose,” like me.

What I want to stress, and by way of conclusion, is that acting shamefully and fitting in go hand in hand. And groups and communities are defined by boundaries, and in order for the boundaries to have meaning there have to be people on both sides, in and out, one of “us” and one of “them,” friends and enemies, Americans and Un-Americans. And like Jerome Robbins—“like little Jerome Robbins,” I find myself wanting to write—we carry the shame with us, casting its shadow on whatever we may be able to accomplish as a result of being part of the group.

I would hardly excuse Robbins for his naming names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. There were others, including people with less money and status, who refused to testify or refused to name names. Several ended up in prison, including the scriptwriters Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr., who in Danbury Prison joined the former HUAC Chairman, former US Representative J. Parnell Thomas, himself convicted for embezzling federal funds. Those who stood up to the Committee or to the wave of persecution include famous people such as Zero Mostel (later the star of Fiddler on the Roof), Lillian Hellman, Pete Seeger, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson. But more touching are the unfamiliar names on the various blacklists, people who may have lost more and had less to fall back on when they were ostracized. Selecting at random from a Wikipedia list of “Others first blacklisted after June 1950” I come to Anne Froelick, who

began her writing career while serving as secretary to Howard Koch, then a writer for Orson Welles’s The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Taylor assisted Koch on his adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds . . . Taylor was involved in causes such as fighting fascism and promoting unions and desegregation, which reportedly led her to join the Communist Party. In 1951, Taylor’s party membership caused her husband, Philip Taylor, to lose his job as a manufacturing planner at Lockheed. She continued to try to make a living as a writer using her married name. She wrote four plays that were produced locally, including Storm in the Sun. Along with that, she co-wrote a comic novel, Press on Regardless, . . .

This Wikipedia article on the Hollywood blacklist calls attention to John Henry Faulk, host of an afternoon comedy radio show and a leftist active in his union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. He was scrutinized by AWARE, one of the firms that during those years made money (paid for “nice homes”, for straightening kids’ teeth) by investigating other people’s possible communist sympathies or “disloyalty.” Marked as unfit, Faulk was fired by CBS Radio. In 1957, by filing a suit against AWARE, he became a leader of the fight to end the blacklist.

All this now set down, I would also note that, in my understanding of the Something to Dance About story, Jerome Robbins’s testimony before HUAC was his second circumcision, by which he became, in addition to Jewish, fully American. He wanted desperately to fit in, and he did. He fit in better than almost any American of his generation. (And I would like to think that he was able to use his millions and his status to help, in whatever way, the gay movement or individual homosexuals. What I have heard is that he gave a lot of money to the New York Public Library for some kind of dance archive.) What he would also seem to have learned along the way is that there is a price for fitting in. It can be a terrible price.


The image used here, of a boy being circumcised, appears on many, many websites. One site I came to offered this caption: “A little boy cries as a Turkish doctor injects him with a local anesthetic before circumcising him in Kabul, Afghanistan.” (N.B.: the boy is not Jewish, but Muslim.) The photo was there credited to Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images.

Excerpts from Robbins’s testimony to HUAC

From Thirty Years of Treason (see “Links” below)

Committee staff member Frank S. Tavenner: What was the inducement that led you into the Communist Party?

Robbins: The Communist Political Association had been presented to me as an organization which was very much for minorities and for advancing their causes. This interested me very much. I had had, prior to my joining, several instances of very painful moments because of minority prejudice. This was naturally an appeal for me.

Tavenner: Will you give us the names of other persons who were in this group whom you can identify?

Robbins offered six names, after which Committee member Representative Bernard W. Kearney thanked him for his “very frank and unusual testimony,” and Committee member Representative Clyde Doyle said, “I want to join in heartily complimenting you on doing what you have done.” Doyle told Robbins that some of the people who had been asked to testified had referred to those who named names as “stool pigeons and informers. You realize, no doubt, that when you volunteered the names of other Communists whom you knew to be Communists that you would, by those people at least, be put in that class. . . . What is it in your conscience, or what was it in your experience, that makes you . . . willing to come here, in spite of the fact that you knew some other people . . . would put you down as a stool pigeon, and voluntarily testify as you have today?”

Robbins: I’ve examined myself. I think I made a great mistake before in entering the Communist Party, and I feel that I am doing the right thing as an American.

 

Links

Joan Acocella, “American Dancer: Broadway, ballet, and Jerome Robbins,” New Yorker, May 28, 2001.

Henri Bergson, extrait du « testament » écrit le 8 février 1937, cité par Floris Delattre dans son article « Les dernières années de Bergson », Presses universitaires de France, 1943.

Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). See also their Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies (The New Press, 2003).

The Hollywood Blacklist: Wikipedia article (accessed November 2012).

The Reform Siddar quoted here: The New Reform Prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah.

Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About – The Definitive Biography of an American Dance Master: DVD of the documentary, directed by Judy Kinberg, written by Amanda Vaill, Kultur video, 2009. )

The Noir Forties: The American People From Victory to Cold War by Richard Lingeman (Nation Books, 2012). Chapter 6, “Red Dawn on Sunset Strip,” provides information about the battles in the movie industry between the workers, studio bosses and the red-baiting Mob.

Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968, selected and edited by Eric Bentley (Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 1971, 2002). Has transcript of Robbins’s testimony.



Categories: American culture, Parents and Children, The Real World

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