July 2019


I am a Jew

(A series of 7 articles)

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Tel Aviv

January 31, 2019

I am no longer in Tel Aviv or in Israel, but Tel Aviv was “home” in a country that is an unsettling combination of foreign and intimately familiar.  I was guided by knowing that many, of my ancestry, settled there and that only timing,  fortuitous decisions and the chance of US entry visas (rarely given in the 1930’s) separated us from death or an alternative path to refuge in Israel.

Tel Aviv

For three weeks, I visited and interacted with cousins or other descendants of central and eastern European Jews, a marked contrast to a life lived largely, and at times almost exclusively, among Christians.  For two generations in my family, we have been with others, learned to be like others, shared intimacy with others, deeply loved others, partnered and married others—such that they are no longer others but dear and close to us—and yet we have not lost our Jewish identity,  and there is something deeply familiar about Israelis.

Bauhaus in Tel Aviv

In Israel, it was as though my entire adolescence and adult life had been stripped away.  California, Asia, Europe, and even New York felt like temporary influences.  What I had with Israelis seems to precede these places—I had returned to the home of my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents.

And yet, as my cousin Miriam said:  we are the stories we tell ourselves . . .

I visited with Miriam, her sister Laura, and two other cousins in Israel.  These cousins share the same great-grandparents or are descended from siblings of the same great-grandmother.  The family moved from what became Poland to Vienna, sometime around World War I; one branch then moved to Antwerp and the rest to New York and New Jersey.  These cousins still know each other, or of each other.  So I was led from those I knew, to two whom I had never heard of or met.  None of them were born in Israel.  They were Zionists who chose Israel.

My cousins have many years and strong bonds in Israel.  One, a retired Belgian journalist, covered the Middle East for Belgian newspapers.  She is disappointed that the path to peace has been so difficult and might have left,  but has nevertheless been there since 1971.   The others are married, or divorced with spouses or partners, friends and children, and one with grandchildren.  One is married to another American Jew, another to an anglo-Canadian.  One does business with the U.S., another is in a close circle of American émigré friends.  They switch back and forth easily between Hebrew and English, and their Israeli children have served in its army.

In Israel, I also had my first close-up view of a world that precedes me, that of Orthodox Jewry.  One Polish great-grandfather was a progressive orthodox rabbi, according to Miriam, and on the lecture circuit in Europe and later in the United States.  Yet I do not know the ultra-orthodox or even many orthodox Jews.  There are many in New York, but generally, like other assimilated Jews, my preferences and geography have separated me from them.  The traditionally religious are often viewed as backwards, insular, clannish, and likely to judge us as non-Jewish. . . and yet these views are based on very little.  I have no knowledge of them, and so Israel was my chance to listen, ask questions and challenge my prejudices.

First in Jerusalem to the tour guide at the Western Wall, a traditionally dressed American woman, who led the English speaking tour of the excavations.  Using a model, she explained the ancient configuration of the Temple Mount and the location of the Holy of Holies, the prayer and celebratory activities now possible in the tunnels, and the prohibition to entering the Mount until the arrival of the Messiah.  Among the tour visitors were a few American rabbinical students, one of whom is the son of the Orthodox rabbi in London, Ontario, where my sister lives.

At the Dead Sea, I initiated a conversation with two more American students, who explained (while floating) that many young Orthodox students come to Israel for a year or two of rabbinical studies, but not necessarily to become rabbis.  The studies are part of an education which encourages them to practice whatever profession they choose, while keeping their minds on the Torah.  They briefly explained the differences between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds—the latter offering a more varied, subtle, less clearly directive commentary, a more interesting text to study.  They have been reading it, in the original Aramaic, since the fifth grade.

In Israel we also have old friends, and with them too I found the warmth of the familiar.  A brother Ilan (in Jerusalem) and sister Efrat (in the Galilee), whom we knew at school in Singapore and whose parents were friends of our parents.  Both are married, with children, and now their first grandchildren.  I had last seen Ilan, in about 1983, when he recognized me at the Marina Safeway in San Francisco; he then spent a couple of nights sleeping on the floor of my studio.  It was easy to feel the similarity in their liberal education, warmth,  directness, and in the strength of the women.

But there were differences.  Our friends and their children have served in the army—no one in my world has ever been in the military.  They both married Jews—I’m single, gay, my sister married to a Scots-Irish Canadian.  They seem more closely engaged in the building of their country—in a larger, older country like the United States, fewer of us are able to do this.  They see their children frequently and are often with them for Friday evening Shabbat.  My niece is far away in Liverpool studying theatre.  Seder dinners yes, Chanukah or Rosh Hashanah dinners at my parents in California (years ago) or more recently at my cousin’s in New York, but I cannot think of a sabbath dinner in recent memory.  I was at three in Israel, and the candles were lit.

Tel Aviv has a lot of high-rises, but mostly it is still a city of 4 to 6 story buildings, dating from the 1930’s and later in the 20th century,  with surprisingly shabby facades, but beautiful tree-lined streets and gardens.  The avenues are filled with stores, and with bakery cafés, seemingly on every block.  The city is relaxed and urbane with wonderful weather and a beautiful, endless, beach, like Los Angeles, but much smaller and more intimate.

The men, or some of the men, in Israel are intense and uniquely handsome.  Some are almost biblical, thin, with darkish skin and black hair, fit from the army and with no other pretense.  Israel, for the older gay man, appeared to offer a paradise–lacking the ageist prejudices of New York.

Since I have relatives there, and the weather is better than in New York, a cab driver asked, why I was not living in Tel Aviv?   The welcome is automatic.   I did not have to blend-in or change myself in any way.  I do not have to be observant (most Israelis are not).  I don’t even have to speak Hebrew.  I was welcomed, my right to be there understood, a unique and wonderful feeling, a sense of belonging (as my pool friend M. described it when I returned).  All of this was wonderful, a refuge, and a kind of liberation, although it does not include the Palestinians.

Independence Hall, Tel Aviv

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Visiting the Wall

January 16, 2019

Israel is a complex country, not simply because of the contrast and friction between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but also because of the richness of its historical and contemporary Judaism.

Israel’s conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem, in 1967, was an extraordinary event, since the Old City is majority Arab and the site of important Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy sites.  For Israel, it is for the first time the repossession of the remains of its ancient capital and of its Temple, from which the Jews were expelled by the Romans in 70 AD.

the Western Wall, courtesy Dan Lundberg and Wikimedia Commons

While I believe that religion has or should have evolved beyond its origins in time and place, this is not what others believe.  There is an extraordinary triumph in taking back a place to which access has been denied, or severely limited, for two thousand years, and the triumph is both religious and nationalistic. The formerly-limited praying area in front of the Temple’s Western Wall was enlarged after the 1967 war, by demolishing houses and relocating their Muslim occupants.  Now there is a large plaza busy with visitors and worshippers. What is known as the Old City’s Jewish quarter has been rebuilt and expanded, including several religious institutions and the reconstruction of the city’s most significant synagogue which was destroyed by Jordanians.  And while Israeli security carefully protects the integrity and security of the Moslem mosques on the Temple Mount, excavations around its base are uncovering layers of history, including ancient Jewish history, providing religious Jews with additional opportunities to worship in close proximity to the identified location of the Temple’s Holy of Holies.

a new sanctuary, created in excavations adjacent to the Wall

Alone on this second visit, I covered my head, walked onto the plaza and touched the wall.  Even for the liberal, ignorant, Diaspora Jew, it was impossible to feel nothing.

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Jerusalem, Day Three

January 13, 2019

Last night I slept off my jet lag with 10 hours in bed, walked it off from my cousin’s apartment to the Old City, and then swam it off at the Jerusalem YMCA.

Jerusalem’s Old City retains its magnificence.  It is surrounded by medieval Ottoman and earlier Herodian walls, set off from their surroundings.  I have never seen a walled city of this importance.  The great commercial cities of Europe shed their walls—and this was never a commercial city.

The walls are surrounded by archeological sites, cemeteries, and plazas, walkways, parks and roads, widened and improved by the Israelis.  The Temple Mount sits high within, on a stone platform of ancient Temple walls.  It has been ornamented for centuries, since the Moslem conquest, by two mosques including the gorgeous Dome of the Rock.  (Despite my love of beauty, I decide to respect traditional Judaism, which does not permit me to visit. )  Mohammed ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount, and my guide tells me that Moslems (some, I later read) do not believe that David and Solomon were Jews or that the Hebrew Temple existed.

The Old City from the Mount of Olives

The Old City retains its holy sites, intertwined with competing narratives, its separate and ancient way of life, its holiness, its craziness, and its mystery.  Its narrow streets and shops cater to residents and pilgrims as they have since the First Temple.  Walking the narrow streets, past holy trinkets and souvenirs, I imagine Jesus walking past the money changers in the old Temple, intent on purifying and elevating Judaism.  Tomorrow I will tour the ancient tunnels under the Wailing Wall and see more of this. Otherwise I’d prefer to avoid the tensions of a place that has been prayed-in for three thousand years and fought-over since 70 AD.  After all we lived here for only a thousand -plus years.  Remembering the tragedy of losing it, we were nevertheless gone for nearly two thousand.

Beginning at some point in the 19th century, modern Jerusalem, Moslem, Christian and Jewish, grew up around the Old City walls, but it is not up against them.  Outside the walls, we saw or visited relatively poor Arab towns, on and below the Mount of Olives.  We visited important Christian churches and monasteries–where Jesus ascended to heaven (White Russian Orthodox), where Jesus wept for the future destruction of Jerusalem, where Jesus lied down before the crucifixion (Catholic), and where John the Baptist was born (Ein Karem).

An ancient olive tree on the Mount of Olives

Then this weekend I saw the newer city that is Jewish Jerusalem and modern Israel’s capital.  I caught up with a childhood friend, Ilan K., met his family, heard their Hebrew, shared the warmth and familiarity of their family life, and had coffee with a distant Belgian cousin (Renee Ann G.) who settled here in 1971.  I visited new neighborhoods, new shopping centers, and re-imagined, nearby Moslem villages, Ein Karem and Abu Gosh.   Ilan drove me past the Israel Museum, the Holocaust Memorial (Yad Veshem), the Jerusalem Forest,  and the Herzl Memorial.  This city is less ancient,  less mysterious, less crowded, not always beautiful, but more comfortable and appealing.  The tensions and competing claims of the Old City are more distant.  The Arabs are no longer here, or seemingly more integrated into Israeli life.  This may not be the City on a Hill, but it is the refuge of the Jews and of more consequence and importance to me.

Yad Vashem

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January 10, 2019

So much has been written about Jerusalem, so my describing the sites is meaningless.  All I can offer here are my observations informed by the knowledge of my guide, Berhanu, an Ethiopian Christian and a close friend of my second cousins, who has studied and lived in Jerusalem since childhood, but is not responsible for my reactions.

I am staying on a narrow lane not too far from Hapalmach Street, formerly a wealthy Arab suburb although the Arab residents left in 1967; the residents are now Jews, and the street names Hebrew.  The buildings are low-rise apartments, built in stone, as is the entire city.  Some of the buildings are new and others were large houses, now converted into apartments, with some stories added, stone over stone, as in the oldest parts of the city.  The neighborhood looks homogeneous and relatively affluent, with here and there interesting shops and small restaurants, an arts cooperative and organic food restaurant in a former leprosy asylum, a wine store with only Israeli wines,  a small café with three tables and breads and pastries, a tired supermarket, lacking a bar of soap, but with salt from the Dead Sea.

My cousins’ aunt owns a long and rectangular ground floor apartment, one room deep, in an old Ottoman house.  The entry is through a gate and a long fenced-in garden, at the rear, with a stone terrace, a lemon tree, a garden shed, path and flowering shrubs.  It was raining when I arrived, and inside, stone walls, a tiled floor, and eclectic fenestration and doors face the greenery.  The aunt, Yocheved, a Zionist now in her 90’s, fought in the 1948 war, lived here for some years, worked for the Anti- Defamation League in New York and has lived, primarily, at 100th Street and Riverside Drive, for years, just eight blocks south of me.  Her husband was a prominent biblical scholar, and they spent the summers here.  I know her as Judy, who can command a Seder and read complex Hebrew text at the morning service of the  Ansche Chesed synagogue on West End Avenue at 100th Street.  She is a huge personality and she and her friends, American women,  know the texts as they know Judaism.

Aunt Judy’s garden

Berhanu’s tour of the old city began outside the walls, which date from Herodian times and were built up by the Ottomans.  Our first stop was on Mount Zion, which surprised me, but it was the site of either King David’s first castle or alternatively where he first,  temporarily, placed the tablets and the arc of the covenant.  The main church is German Catholic, built over much earlier ruins. The Christians first focused on this site because of its earlier importance, and because Mary, the mother of Jesus, was linked to earlier Hebrew symbols.  Architecturally, the building resembles Greek Orthodox churches and Greek Orthodox art, which, more than the Roman, inherited the earlier Hebrew aversion to statuary and three-dimensional representation.

Except at limited hours, the Temple Mount is not readily accessible to non-Moslems, a disappointment, as I had read that it is extremely beautiful. The Turkish market, a long vaulted street, lined with shops and stalls and crowds, leads directly to a main entrance to the Mount.  But access is now guarded by Israeli soldiers, who guarantee its security and would allow me no further.  The Jordanians rule from within.

The Dome of the Rock (691 AD), built on the even more ancient Temple Mount    (500-1000 BC) and photographed from the Mount of Olives.  Grave stones in the foreground

the Turkish market

The plaza in front of the mount’s Western Wall (the focus of Jewish prayer), is protected by security personnel and scanners, but otherwise it is easily accessible.  The Israeli military has a presence just above it, and military induction ceremonies are held in front of it.   Close to the wall, men and women, worship in separate zones, with men having about two thirds of it.  The plaza is guarded by young Israeli soldiers shouldering guns.  At this visit, I am unable to feel inspired by the Herodian wall or its later additions.  Perhaps mistakenly, I do not approach or touch the Wall. ( I did that, in 1969, when my father brought me here.)

Walking the streets of the Old City is an intense and ancient experience.  The city feels older and more complex than anything I have seen in Europe—something like the ancient complexity of Rome, an imperfect comparison. The streets of the Moslem section are crowded with shops and people, a warren of narrow, often covered, pedestrian streets shared by Moslem and Jewish visitors.  This is the Middle East, and the city is also a crowded bazaar, with cheap clothing, houseware, and hardware stores, spice shops and food markets, and in the less crowded Christian section, store after store of religious objects and art.  People live here in tight conditions, even in this relatively quiet post-Christmas season.  Hostility is unpredictable and there is no easy escape.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is where the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, found the true cross and the burial tomb of Jesus.  We enter from crowded streets through small chapels controlled by Ethiopian (and therefore African) orthodox clergy.  They sing and worship in an ancient semitic language, and the two chapels each reproduces the ancient Temple’s Holy of Holies, a small room with an Ark of the Covenant and tablets within.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is said to date from 43 AD, belying the ancient presumptions of Christian Europe.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The main church is shared by the Greek Orthodox and Catholic, and to a lesser degree Armenian, churches, all struggling for relative control and the primacy or legitimacy of their various theological interpretations.  The church is gorgeous and ancient and strangely intimate, with a long line of pilgrims waiting to enter Christ’s Byzantine tomb, all standing beneath the dome of its grand Crusader chapel.

This is a city that is a living place, much more than a series of churches and museums. It has been worshipped and fought over, but it is the latter, the struggles for power, identity and theological interpretation, that I am feeling everywhere.  The struggle is very ancient, so much older than we commonly reference, of religions and sects fighting for legitimacy, as defined by control, or asserting control or re-asserting control of holy and previously holy places.  I am fascinated to see it but recoil from associating with it.

Let’s give these ancient sites to those who define their beliefs by control of them. I see nothing in it but pain and grief.  Judaism survived and evolved for two thousand years without Jerusalem, although Judaism brings me here again as I seek to redefine my relationship with it.  I need Israel, but perhaps I do not need ownership of this old city or control of it.  I want to honor it, but I do not want to repeat the past and fight over it, even if others would inevitably and again, deny me access to it.  In my view, and perhaps that of others, we created what underlies it and can be proud and honored by what arose from it.  We no longer need to control it to define us.

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Israel Starts at Kennedy Airport

My trip to Israel began at my building at 108th Street and Riverside Drive.  I had plenty of time before the 6:30 pm flight so took the subway:  first the #1 train to the B at 59th Street, then a change to the E at 7th Avenue, and finally the JFK Air Train at Sutphin Boulevard.   All typically New York so far, with many different types of people including a young couple from Moscow on the E—all in a system that moves quickly but cannot be described as clean or attractive, excepting perhaps the Air-Train.  It was midday, and not too crowded, and I had a nice conversation with an MTA employee who clarified my transfers.   Then at Kennedy’s Terminal 4, a helpful young woman, directing passengers, told me that that I was too early for El Al check-in and placed me at the beginning of what became a long passenger waiting line.

The crowd was eclectic—a number of older American couples traveling to the Holy Land, by their look Christians, mostly white some black from the continent’s interior—and a number of Israelis. I had a pleasant conversation with an older Israeli  who was directly behind me.  She frequently visits her son and grandchildren in Cleveland and was on her way home.  The food she said is not good in Cleveland, so she did a lot of cooking, but her grandchildren are learning Hebrew as their mother is a Hebrew teacher.  She is round, casually but carefully dressed, with hair too-perfectly-set against an elderly face, and she is warm and genuine.  Her antecedents were from both Europe and Syria, an unusual blending for Jews in the United States.

When El Al is ready,  I am the first to line up at one of the small standing desks for interviews, and a young Israeli woman asks me a number of security questions:

Why are you visiting?   I’m seeing friends and cousins.

Do you belong to a congregation?   No

Do you celebrate the holidays?   Passover, with a shrug that indicated some of the time.

What are your cousins’ names?    These were given.

Do you have any plans to visit the surrounding countries?  No.   Have you visited the surrounding countries?  No

Do you know anyone in the surrounding countries?   I have a Palestinian American friend who visits her family in Jordan.  How often do you see her?   Every few months.  When did you most recently see her?  A few weeks ago.

And then the usual . . . but with the explicit reference to protecting against explosives—did you pack your own luggage?  Yes.  Did anyone else give you anything else to carry?   No

All very friendly, but she spoke clearly and with authority.   She then walked me over to the ticket agent,  an American, and waited a few moments while the agent began to check me in.  The ticketing, but not the security, is delegated to local ground staff.

At the gate I was early, so it was quiet for a while, but soon there was an animated and interactive crowd that was surprisingly religious, including Americans and Israelis.  At about 5 o’clock a number of men, seemingly unrelated to each other, some in kipa, others in the black suits and fedora of the more orthodox, gathered to face a large east-facing window, praying, with a series of shallow bows known as davening.  I had seen this before, but now I was moved, among Jews and in Israel, well before boarding.

courtesy Wikimedia Commons

On the plane, a  young American mother with a baby and her sister asked me to switch seats with a third young woman behind me, so that they would not be sitting next to a man.  She later found an empty aisle seat, elsewhere on the plane and then asked the third young woman to move to that seat, so that she and her sister could better manage the baby.

The mother was friendly, not insistent, but without embarrassment for these requests.  Her daughter, reddish-blond, round faced, and two years old, was charming, happy and interactive.  The mother entered the plane with her head uncovered, but later put on a head scarf. Her sister, perhaps twenty, was very beautiful–in her face, figure, movement and extraordinary golden hair.  Her modest clothing did not conceal her looks. Meanwhile to my left, two young Israeli men barely said a word and did not get up once, during the entire 10 hour flight.  As is occasionally the case around straight men and beautiful women, I seem to be doing all of the looking.

January 10, 2019 

prayer at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv

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My Aliyah

Judaism is a fixed part of my life, although I’ve never emphasized it. I have used it to focus on other things—that is until the shootings at the synagogue in Pittsburgh which had an unexpected and negative impact.

As a first reaction, I wrote a brief essay on my limited experience with antisemitism and then started reading:  Paul Johnson,  A History of the Jews (a favorite); Ari Shavit, The Promised Land;  David S. Wyman, Abandonment of the Jews, Hannah Arendt, The Jew as Pariah, Amos Oz,  Dear Zealots Letters from a Divided Land, A Tale of Love and Darkness; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, David ben Gurion, Israel, a Personal History,  and now others.  For the first time, and with pleasure, I’m reading the Bible, from start to finish, although currently I’m only in Exodus.

I’m at the beginning of a new exploration, but I do not know Israel.  I visited, but only briefly with my parents in the 1960’s, so I am going next week.  The trip now includes five days in Jerusalem, a possible day trip to the West Bank, two days at the Ein Gedi hotel near the Dead Sea,  a week in northern Israel, west of Haifa and then Acre, and 4-5 days in Tel Aviv.

Most compelling will be the people:  some I’m getting to know (two second cousins I met in New York);  family friends I have not seen in decades; cousins, several times removed,  I have never met, and perhaps others.

Israel is where Jews come from and where we began.  When I think of Israelis, I think of “them”, and I think of “us”.   Israel is a safe haven for Jews, even if we do not need it.  (Very few of us were welcomed to the United States, during and after the Holocaust, and many from the Middle East and Russia have gone to Israel  because they needed to do so.)  Israel has changed all of us.  We no longer vie or cringe for acceptance, and antisemitism need no longer define us.  Because we have Israel, we know, and the world knows, that when Jews are victims we can push back.  For us, Israel must exist.

But Israel exists because we founded or re-founded a state where others, not Jews, were already living.  Our state excluded or did not fully include them.  We reclaimed something that was taken from us, but arguably no longer belonged to us.  Time, war and memory have not yet remedied this.  And so what was achieved is marred by something wrong at the beginning—and will continue to be so until we find a way to correct or compensate for it.

Of course, this is not for me to decide, or rather it is not primarily for me to decide.  I do not live in Israel; I have made no sacrifice for Israel; and I have no knowledge of insecurity.  I am fully embraced by a country that does not hate me, and where my personal security as a Jew is generally taken for granted.  I live in a society that is not defined by religion, and that is how I prefer it .

But here too I descend from a people that took its land from others and with no prior claim or disaster to justify it.   All Americans, even those we view as oppressed, have benefited from a country founded and taken by force. We rarely talk of it, because the implications of doing so are too great.

So my views on Israel should be based on introspection and care.  I am descended from two peoples who found refuge and who took from others in order to be secure.  I cannot disassociate myself from Israel, because I am a Jew, nor from America,  because I have inherited and implicitly accepted its benefits.  And in my view, I cannot be whom I need to be without considering both the light and the dark side of what was done for us.  I can think, I can speak, I can even participate, but I cannot easily judge because I have made no effort to put my country, the United States,  in order.

December 31, 2018

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I am a Jew- should I be afraid?

The shooting of eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh pushes me to re-examine my identity.  The Anti-Defamation League reported a very large increase in anti-Semitic violence.  Should I be concerned?

Earlier in the week, I was listening to an interview on a Christian radio station.  The guest wanted the evil of Roe vs. Wade to be reversed by the current Supreme Court.  He was also asked about the killings in Pittsburgh and the reappearance of anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence.  His answered that he would discuss the sources of anti-Semitism on the next show.  Should I have worried at the lack of immediate condemnation?

Every time Jews are murdered and the killer references anti-Semitism,  or when anti-Semitism re-enters the mainstream, all of us have reason to be afraid.  However,  Jews are not the only focus of resentment.  It  is blacks in Charleston, whites and Latinos at a Baptist Church in Texas, concertgoers in Las Vegas, gays at a club in Florida, children at an elementary school in Connecticut and, a few days ago, college students in Thousand Oaks, California.  Many are rightfully concerned, but we have a national problem that does not uniquely target Jews.

My sister and I were raised in northern California in the 1950’s and 60’s, in a place and time where anti-Semitism did not exist.  There were so few of us.  Ethnicity and religious differences were rarely topics of conversation, and I was even asked whether Jews celebrated Christmas.  I had all sorts of friends, mostly non-Jewish.  There were many things I worried about, mostly school, my friends, my not-yet-formulated attraction to other boys.   I didn’t worry about my religion.

It was at home that I learned to be different,  a refugee history, a strong emphasis on education, on history, on breadth of experience, a parental insistence that what other people said or did was not ever an excuse for our behavior, and a concurrent directive, never articulated, to assimilate or “fit in” — to be athletic, accomplished, a good student, friendly, attractive, respectful to adults. . .  all were too much for me to entirely accomplish, but not because I was a Jew.

It was shocking as a young man to meet traditional anti-Semitism.  In Paris in the early 1970’s, I was asked whether I was a practicing Jew, in a context that inferred that a non-practicing Jew was preferable.  And my Jewish and partly-Jewish friends told me that this identity was generally not discussed.  At Princeton I learned not only that old-line Anglo-protestants were the superior social model, but also that “New Yorkers” (to some) were relatively less desirable.  I remember distinctly negative remarks about “them” at my eating club, during the annual “bicker” or member selection process.  The  desire to “fit-in” to the elite couldn’t keep there; with several other friends, I left the club and ate elsewhere during my senior year.

In San Francisco in the early 1980’s,  Jewish families, some dating from the Gold Rush, were active and prominent, and again in my home state my background was an advantage or of no particular concern.  But moving to New York, in the mid 1980’s, I saw that unassimilated Jewishness was “lesser” and that making clothes was less desirable than manipulating money.

Now of course (even then)  Judaism has become a symbol of power and influence in American life.  It is partly because of the power and independence of Israel that we are no longer viewed as a victimized and despised people.  We needed Israel, even in America, and it is fear and the determination to never let the past repeat itself that has transformed us from a victimized to an arguably victimizing people.  The old anti-Semitism came from our rejection of Christ and the determination to retain our own distinct beliefs and identity.  The new anti-Semitism reacts to the same distinctiveness and to the positive and negative effects of this determination to never again be its victims.

I do not want to live in a country that is defined by race or by religion.  Until now, the United States has been the model of the heroic, non-sectarian state, the country that gave me everything.  Since the Second World War, Jews have been strongly represented in intellectual circles, in the arts, in business.  Arguably the most successful of minority groups, we have asserted and earned the right to be different and the right to “fit-in”.

Symbol of our country. Inscription at the base by Emma Lazarus. Image by Bhutti at English Wikipedia.

In New York many of us are privileged, prominent, well off, rich, concerned with the rights of others, confident, generous, even arrogant. We have shaken the inferiority of our ancestors, even that of our parents who were the first Jews fully accepted in the nation’s mainstream.  In New York we have our own social groups, our own references of accomplishment and success; we dress and consume just a little bit differently than the privileged who preceded us.  For generations we have had our own institutions and schools; but we are now also strongly present in the institutions that excluded us.  We have almost forgotten our long history as Christendom’s most hated minority.  That is perhaps until now, where if anyone can be a target we will definitely be among them.  (Even in California, our mother taught us that the German Jews were assimilated, but that it did not protect them.)

In the present landscape, the targets of anger and alienation vary, but nearly all of the killers have been disaffected white men.  How is it that these men feel angry and powerless?  Clearly many white men in this society hold a lot of power, but others have much less of it or feel that they are losing it.  Unfortunately, the progressive left appears to be more interested in criticizing or demonizing them than in addressing their alienation, embracing, or including them.

In truth, very few in this society have real personal power.   Many sacrifice their integrity, individuality, or their manners in the presumption or pursuit of status or money, and daily we watch our “leaders” sacrifice their personal authority to stay “in power”.   (Please, we can do more than invite women and minorities to participate in this “privileged” craziness.)

There is something wrong with a society that allows shootings to continue, while refusing to correct itself.  And the only existing deterrent, subsequent punishment, does not seem to matter to the perpetrators who are profoundly alienated. What can correct the present state of affairs, if violence is a symptom, not the cause, and if gun control is sadly only part of the solution?

Our narrative must change.  Each of us must accept that we are different and yet want to “fit in”.   How we do this is part of our personal evolution, a common struggle self-actualization and community that occurs in everyone.  In seeing this, we do better to love and respect the same struggle in others–as individuals, as groups and even as white men–and to see that every person’s personality and history will lead down a different road to a different resolution.  Only then can we suspend judgment, refuse to stand in the way and perhaps help others get there.

November 10, 2018

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The Double Height Studio

While many apartments in Manhattan have high ceilings, there are a small number that push up even further, with one or two double-height rooms and, frequently, a mezzanine that overlooks their open volume.  These large apartments were built as “studios” for New York artists and those associated with them.

References to Paris

As architecture, they reference Paris, whose artists and art market dominated the latter decades of the 19th century.  “Studio” apartments were first developed in Greenwich Village after the Civil War, when New York, still looking to Europe, was beginning to come together as an art center.  But the more highly evolved examples were built uptown, after 1900.  Replacing Paris as the primary art center after World War II, New York inspired its own much more common housing type, the artist’s “loft”, located Downtown.

Thus two apartment types, the double height studio and the loft, were inspired respectively by 19th and 20th century art markets.  Both were occupied by artists or, later in their evolution, by those who enjoyed an association with the arts.  (My brother-in-law,  who built his own double height studio, explains that the higher ceilings allow larger work and make for better and more diffused light.)

Following is an image of Eugene Delacroix’s studio in Paris, on the rue Notre Dame de la Lorette as shown in the weekly newspaper l’Illustration in 1852.  Delacroix, famous in the in the mid 19th century, was said to have been an illegitimate son of the Duc de Talleyrand, and his technique was an inspiration to artists of the Romantic movement and later to the Impressionists.  (See the current exhibition at the Met.)

Studio of Eugene Delacroix, Brown University Library, Wikimedia Commons

His studio had a high ceiling, a large north-facing double-height window with a skylight, a tall fireplace mantel and pictures covering the walls.  The stove was typical of the period, due to heat loss, and it featured a lengthy stove pipe, to maximize its effectiveness. [1]

It was both a work space—note the easels, the tables, and the stairs built to handle large commissions—and a show space for selling work.  This, as we will see, became a familiar image in New York. [2]

The studio of the successful French artist was sometimes built for that purpose, as was Delacroix’s later studio, now a museum on the Place Furstenburg, again with north light and a roof light above it, facing a quiet yard.  Of course, few artists in Paris lived and worked in this manner.  Most were in much more modest spaces, often on the upper floors of walk-up buildings, but even many of these offered north-facing roof light.[3]  But there were also multi-unit studio buildings for artists, and their development continued into the early 20th century.

Art deco studios at 31 rue Campagne-Première, by architect André Arfvidson Author=LPLT,  March 2009, Wikimedia Commons

This building is at the juncture of art-nouveau, art-deco and the international style.  Its architect was active from 1900 until the early 1930’s.   Following is a quotation from Wikipedia France :

« . . . les grandes baies vitrées et les appartements en duplex annoncent les volumes spacieux du Mouvement moderne et la mode de l’atelier d’artiste des années 1920 et 30, convoité par une clientèle à la recherche d’innovation. Les vingt ateliers que contient l’immeuble, dotés d’un grand confort, étaient réservés à des artistes fortunés. »

Roughly translated as follows:

“. . . the large bay windows and the duplex apartments announce the spacious volumes of the Modern movement and the style of artist studios that was fashionable during the 1920’s and 30’s, coveted by a clientele seeking innovation.  The 20 studios in this building were built with considerable comforts, thus targeting artists with means.”

Development in New York

The first artist studio building in New York was a speculative venture, designed by the first American architect trained at the famous Paris Ecole des Beaux Arts,  Richard Morris Hunt.

This building, on 10th Street in Greenwich Village, was based on examples that Hunt saw in Paris.  Built around a sky-lit, two story, exhibition room, were three floors of high-ceiling studios, many with bedrooms at the half-levels.  It was the first building in America built specifically for artists.  In its early years, it housed John La Farge, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Winslow Homer, among others.[4]

The building was sadly demolished.  But there are other more modest art studios in Greenwich village, and as in Paris their large windows are still visible on the upper floors of old houses.

Tenth Street Studios, 51 West 10th Street, from the collection of the American Institute of Architects and the American Architectural Foundation, Wikimedia Commons

The buildings in which I am most interested, however, are the later cooperative apartment buildings, which synthesized references to Paris art studios, while fitting into the larger development of New York apartment buildings before and after the First World War.  The earliest of these buildings were extremely innovative, avoiding the long hallway plans that characterized conventional apartments of their time.

They met the needs of artists, while offering compact, grand, work and living spaces.  They did so by focusing circulation on the mezzanine and the double height space, a compact alternative to the foyer-based plans that were later developed by Rosario Candela.  They offered multi-bedroom living spaces with indoor plumbing and central heating; they stacked taller than their equivalents in Paris, with large comfortable elevators transporting both people and art.

A double height living room in a “studio” apartment at 33 West 67th Street. For sale, spring 2019, Brown Harris Stevens, Lawrence Sicular

These were both owner-built housing and business ventures that mixed larger units with smaller ones for rental revenue, or catered to those who were not artists at all, or offered simplex living rooms, for owners with more conventional needs or tastes. They incorporated services, such as the restaurant, kitchen, theater, pool and squash courts at the apply named Hotel des Artistes, or, later, access to a hotel and hotel services for the Carlyle House.  Ultimately, they inspired more banal creations during the 1980’s, double height living rooms overlooked by single mezzanine bedrooms.  But together they offered a story in architecture that remains inspiring, and relatively rare.

Studio living room at 50 East 77th Street, sold in 2015 by Brown Harris Stevens, Lawrence Sicular and Caroline Guthrie

[1] The Studios of Paris, The Capital of Art in the Late Nineteenth Century, John Milner, Yale University Press, 1988
[2] Milner, Ibid.
[3] Milner, Ibid.
[4] New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age,  Stern, Mellins and Fishman, Monacelli Press, 1999.
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