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Conversations with Leslie A. Fiedler Newark, Jews and the Boy on the White Horse

Newark, Jews and the Boy on the White Horse

by BRUCE JACKSON

Leslie A. Fiedler died on January 29 of the year that ends in the middle of this week. Leslie was one of the few literary scholars whose work ordinary people read and found useful. You saw and still see his Love and Death in the American Novel on the bookshelves of people who were not academics. It is one of the few books of literary criticism that has never gone stale or out of date. Fiedler never used academic or any other kind of jargon, or any words about which you had to ask, "who is he when he’s at home?" Leslie’s words were always at home.

He was one of the people who made the University at Buffalo English department of the 1960s and 1970s justifiably world-famous. He continued to give it coherence and weight in the years after he retired because he never went away: he was always around, dealing with graduate students, giving an occasional lecture, being a presence, writing, always writing.

When Leslie died, his family wanted him buried out of Temple Beth Zion, which is in the city, has a very nice sanctuary with stained glass windows designed by Ben Shahn, and has a large parking lot. But the rabbi, recently arrived from Anchorage, Alaska, said No, this Fiedler wasn’t a paid-up member and we only use the temple to bury paid-up members.

People told him, Leslie Fiedler is the most important literary critic in America and he helped put Buffalo on the map as a literary place. The rabbi gave not an inch. If this Fiedler wasn’t a paid-up member of the congregation he couldn’t be buried out of his temple. The rabbi didn’t know it, but two richguys in town had offered to pay for Leslie’s membership in Beth Zion, but Leslie said absolutely not: he had never in his adult life been a member of anything, and he wasn’t going to start in anticipation of death. Someone offered to pay Fiedler’s dues now. No, the rabbi said, after death is too late to pay your dues.

A former president of the congregation called him to plead Fiedler’s case, but the rabbi was adamant. "If we do it for this one," the former president told me the rabbi said, "it will open the floodgates."

Floodgates for what? How many internationally famous really important Jewish writers does Buffalo have? How many internationally famous really important Jewish writers does any city have? "How can he say no to a request like this?" I asked the former president of the congregation.

"He’s from Cleveland. He’s been in Alaska. He doesn’t know who Leslie Fiedler is," the former president said. "He’s worried that all these not-members will come flooding in, wanting a burial in his temple."

It was a moment of perfect Buffalo Jewish loopiness and Leslie would have loved it.

Several months after Leslie died, the Buffalo English department held a memorial service for him. Not one of his friends was invited to take part. His wife Sally was allowed to read some of Leslie’s poems later in the day in another building on the far side of the campus. During the memorial service, one of the speakers used his allotted time saying how much better a Jew he was than Leslie.

Leslie would have loved that too. Leslie had a lot of sense, but two of the best senses Leslie had were irony and humor, which, in Jews like him, were inextricable.

My friend John Gagnon used to say that the community of intellectuals is no longer local, physical. It is rather wherever people of like mind are in the world, connecting through whatever technology is available to them. I was young then and liked what John said and for many years thought it sufficient. But more and more I understand there is another dimension for those of us who grow older: our constant communion and conversation with the dead who are gone but who are not only not forgotten, but not, in our heads, the least bit silent. Their voices, the words they said and the words they would in all likelihood say now, resonate in the present with perfect clarity, if we only stop the noise and take time to listen.

Leslie Fiedler was a man of words–written words, spoken words. He always told stories, always used the stories to make connections between people, places, ideas and times. What follows are some things Leslie said to Diane Christian and me several years ago.

– BRUCE JACKSON

Newark

Newark is a real place for me. Essentially it was a very exciting place and I learned lots of things in Newark. I hated it. I felt really in prison, trapped. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I wander so restlessly about the world ever since.

You asked why I went to Montana. Well, anyplace outside of Newark was okay. It’s only later that I discovered that’s why everybody went to Montana to begin with. Not because they wanted to go to someplace, but because they wanted to get the hell out of someplace else. That’s the whole basic motif of the western movement in the United States. It worked out fine. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to, but you couldn’t have imagined anything that was more non-Newark, anti-Newark, than Missoula, Montana.

The Newark I lived in was Jewish. The grade school I went to–Southside Avenue School–.the classes must have been 95% Jewish. When the Jewish holidays came, all the students disappeared, and even the few loners in the class who weren’t Jewish stayed out too, including a boy who name was Christos Christopholos. He was a Greek boy who was in our class, and I thought it was really great that he stayed home on Yom Kippur.

….I’m not sure what it explains in my life, but it’s important for me:. we were absolutely almost entirely Jewish as a student body and not a single one of our teachers was Jewish. They were all suburban Gentile ladies. They were from the WASP world. They sort of discovered me, those ladies, and they tried to teach me to talk right so I could mingle unnoticed with the great Gentile multitudes. One thing that began to happen to me in school (and I have mixed feelings about it) is they took my mother tongue away from me, my mamaloschen, the language of the streets which I spoke with the kids, which was a language full of Yiddish words. None of us could speak Yiddish, but we knew how to say schmuck at least and mumser and so forth. Our inflections were Jewish and some of our pronunciations, and I was brainwashed so finally I have ended up speaking no recognizable dialect, just general American, right? It was odd. They thought of themselves as missionaries, those teachers who were rescuing us for the high life. But we went much further than they did, so that they were shocked and horrified.

The first teacher I ever had who thought I was a writer hoped that I would someday be able to write very successful detective stories. Instead I was dreaming of the Revolution of the Word and becoming James Joyce.

I had a double experience as a kid. Before I went to school in Newark my father had lived for a while–he was a pharmacist and had a drugstore–in East Orange, New Jersey, where I went to the school where not only all the teachers not Jewish, but every other kid in the school except me and my brother were Gentiles. It was the bad old days before anybody worried about separation of church and state, so we had "chapel", assemblies once a week where the Bible was read. We all said the Lord’s Prayer, which I pretended to say, really mouthing obscenities, because I felt somehow I was betraying something. That was the school in which the only kind of religious division–nobody really realized I was a Jew for a long time–but sometimes during recess time or after school when we played in the playground, the kids would divide up against each other, the Protestants over on one side of the playground and the Catholics on the other. One marvelous occasion when they thought all hell was going to break lose, they wanted to make sure everybody was on the right side and they asked me which I was, Protestant or Catholic, and I said Jewish. The ecumenical movement was invented and they all joined together and all chased me all the way home screaming, "You killed our Christ." This disturbed my father so much that he moved back to Newark. He sold his business in East Orange, and we left. I was in kindergarten through the first three grades of school in that school.

That third grade was also the great turning point in my life because I had a teacher who dearly loved me and was pleased with everything I did, but I could never please myself. I performed well enough to please her but I could never live up to my own expectations, which were beyond anything. And I would burst into tears when I did something not as well as I thought I should. One day she took me aside and said, "Leslie, don’t cry. You’re going to be a great man." And I believed her. I honestly believed her. I didn’t know what a great man was exactly. But I honest-to-God believed her. Her name was Miss Wessel. I’ll never forget that lovely lady. So then we moved back to Newark and I was in school all the way through high school, where the students were all Jewish. High school was maybe 80% Jewish.

In some ways after I got to Newark I began to believe there were only two kinds of people in the world: Blacks and Jews. Because when I was in junior high school I went to school in the third ward of Newark, which is the core of the Black ghetto, where most of the kids in the Junior high school–just the ninth grade in that school–were white and/or Jewish, and all the kids in the primary grades and in the neighborhood were Black. It was there that I learned about race relations in America, because if you were black or white, you didn’t walk down the street alone; you walked in a pack. Both ways, we were a pack.

My deepest visceral reaction to memories of Newark is of despair and disgust, but when I think about it I realize I learned lots of things in Newark. There were two institutions in Newark which really educated me more when I was a kid than the schools I went to. One was the Newark Public Library, which is one of the great public libraries of the world. It is one of the largest open-stacked libraries. The one in downtown Newark. It’s absolutely marvelous. There’s quite a good museum next to it. In the library you were absolutely free to wander through, and I would wander through and at age l4 I pulled Marcel Proust out of the wall, first in English; and when I was l5 I tried to learn enough French to read him in French.

Talk

But I was getting educated in another way because I worked on Saturdays from the time I was l3. On lunch hours I would go across from the shoe store in which I worked in Military Park, which is the heart of Newark, where all the hobos and bums would hang out, and I would sit and listen to the stories they told and learned a kind of "street smarts" from them. They used to be entertained everyday by the most literate among the hobos, a guy called "Frenchie" who would sit and read aloud chapter after chapter of Jack London’s The Iron Heel to the rest of the bums in the park. That was the first time somebody made a homosexual pass at me. Other guys would tell me that when they combed their hair that morning, their scalp began to fall out because they had reached that stage of syphilitic decay. I learned about life in Military Park. And the setting was so marvelous because that park is called Military Park because it’s dominated by a huge statue called the Wars of America. It’s also a place where itinerant preachers would turn up and also communist speakers. I learned what it’s like to heckle. But by the time I was 13 or 14 I was also trying out talking on street corners myself. I talked about how Roosevelt was a Fascist and was protecting the Capitalist system in America. I also would stand in front of people I didn’t approve of. I learned how to heckle and I learned how to confront hecklers. In some ways my style is street- corner style.

The audiences I spoke to were basically white audiences, but when I went off to graduate school my first year outside of Newark, was Madison, Wisconsin, which annoyed me in some ways and I would always flee to Chicago. In Chicago I used to speak on the southside in Washington Park and I would talk to all black audiences. I learned this exchange: you would say something, and they say, "Now you’re preachin’, brother." And I’d say something else, and they’d say, "Go right on preachin’." I learned that kind of back and forth thing.

Also in Newark, the other thing I tried doing, we got very interested in theater. We learned Stanislowski method; it later got shortened to "Method" acting. We studied the theory of the thing and had a small group that put on plays. We leaned how to cry. We learned how to laugh. We also learned the same thing that I learned on the soap boxes on street corners, that the motion has to go back and forth from the stage to the audience, from the audience to the stage. For a long time I was tempted away from my chosen career as a writer–poet, I thought of myself in those days–and thought of becoming an actor. For a long time I kept acting. I used to do amateur acting in my early years in Montana. And even after I was here in Buffalo I did a little. I once did the narration for Lucas Foss (the Oedipus Rex, Stravinsky thing). I acted in a play of Al Cook’s once; the most miserable play that was ever written on the face of the earth.

I can’t even remember what it was called. All I remember is that we actors would say, "Can’t speak this line and the director would say, "Strike it out." It was half as long when we produced it as when we started.

Being Jewish

…My father’s family was completely assimilated. The only Jewishness my father had left was anti-Semitism. He used to say at the top of his voice: "One thing I can’t stand about Jews is they always talked too damn loud."

[My grandfather] was the one who told me all the fairy tales before I could read them in a book and broke the whole tradition. He used to tell them to all the kids in the neighborhood. And like an idiot, I never took down his versions of them. They just slipped away. He had the best version of "The Princess in the Glass Hill" that I ever heard. All his stories began the same way. He always (when he told them to me, at least) made them very male centered, boy-centered. All his stories began, "Once there was a young man who got on a white horse and rode out into the world." He himself was more of a peasant and ran around with a bunch of kids who would jump on a local farmer’s horse and ride and steal stuff from the orchards. He had a mark on his foot which he claimed came from a horse’s hoof; I think it just happened to be shaped like that, but he had a great story about jumping on a blind horse who ran into a tree. I couldn’t believe anything he said, but it was all done in very good humor. He was the strongest human being I ever knew in my life, and the gentlest. We used to beg him to feel his muscles. He was little. Slight. But strong. Incredibly strong. And bullied all his life long by my grandmother, who was much smaller than he was, whom he could have broken in half with one hand. She bullied him. She was absolutely analphabetic, and he could read and write and spoke six or seven languages. He taught himself to read. He used to read aloud to my grandmother stories, which I realized years later were Isaac Singer’s. He knew a lot. He told me the story of the story of The Merchant of Venice the first time I ever heard it. He told it as a story. I thought it was about a bad Litvak who gave the Galitizianers a hard time. He was political. My father was political in his own way. He always claimed he was a sturdily independent voter and ended up voting for the Democratic candidate. Even Al Smith. And he was extremely anti-communist. Talk about Puritans. I grew up in a real Puritan household. My father used to write letters to the newspaper about how the world is going to hell; now full of long-haired men and short-haired women who confuse liberty with license….

My grandfather was quite anti-religious. Theoretically, anti-religious. But every once in a while he would take me when I was a kid, when the high holidays came, to one of those store-front synagogues they set up. He would always say the same thing to me. "Not because I believe, but so you should remember."

I remember. At one and the same time I don’t doubt for a moment that I’m Jewish, but what I mean when I say it is absolutely problematical to me. I’m not very Jewish culturally. Certainly not Jewish in a religious sense. I guess mythologically, I’m Jewish. I believe that I come from an unbroken line of people who go all the way back to Aaron and Abraham. And if my pedigree ends with mythological characters, that’s true of all high pedigrees. Right? I am also Jewish in the sense that if Hitler was around, he would have cleared me too. I would have passed the test. I am also Jewish in the sense that if somebody says to me, however friendly or hostile a fashion, "Are you Jewish?" I say, "Yes, I’m Jewish."

I have actually written a little about this whole problem of the strange nature of my Jewishness–an article which I might have told you about before for a book on the Holocaust. I have many Jewish vestiges. Every Yom Kippur I fast. Every Chanukah I light the lights and place them beside the Christmas tree. Every Pesach I have a seder, which doesn’t keep me from dashing out into the yard and shouting "Christ is Risen" occasionally too. That’s a past I feel continuous with, however much it may be dissolving. I once wrote a story called, "The Last Jew in America." I sometimes feel like the last Jew in America. I really am. Of my grandsons, three are not circumcised. How can I be a Jew if I have no one to say Kaddish for me?

A book of Leslie Fiedler’s conversations with BRUCE JACKSON
and Diane Christian about literature, politics, war, race,
America, and other matters will be published in the Center
Working Papers series in 2004.

BRUCE JACKSON, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo, edits the web journal BuffaloReport.com. His most recent book is Emile de Antonio in Buffalo (Center Working Papers). Jackson is also a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: bjackson@buffalo.edu