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My immigrant family, the popular culture, and me.

That James Joyce regarded Stephen Dedalus's ringing non serviam with heavy doses of ironic detachment was a point that escaped me entirely when I first read A Portrait of the Artist as a high school junior. After all, Stephen's quarrels seemed to me the very stuff of which heroism is made. By contrast, I dreamed my own version of Stephen's dreams in a small town an hour's drive from Pittsburgh, and, worse, in the middle of a middle-class Jewish family that made the philistines Stephen warred against look like small potatoes. Mine was not a battle of tastes in which the conventional championed Tennyson while the artistic held their ground for Byron, but, rather, one where my Aunt Sarah wept her way through Leon Uris's Exodus while my Uncle Milton heaped intricate Yiddish curses on anybody whose passion for Harry Golden's Only in America! fell short of his own. Nonetheless, Stephen and I became kindred spirits, fortified by the talismen of "silence, exile, and cunning" and dedicated to the proposition that life altered, rather than life itself, is what true artists care about.

I was also keenly aware of the ironies, for what had started with the books I read around our kitchen table and in the family quarrels they had provoked, ended years later in the relative calm of my study. And it was there that I began to think about the inextricable relationship between the high culture I tried to absorb like a sponge and the family that looked on my accomplishment with nearly equal measures of pride and worry.

Like many others of my generation, the Hebrew Bible was pounded into my head (sometimes quite literally) during long after-school sessions at the synagogue. Everything outside the building exemplified the America my parents came here to find: the candy store at the corner where we ponied up our nickels for soda pop and assorted goodies, the playground where those fortunate enough not to be Jewish played, the giddy freedom of people going about their business under the protective covering of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Inside, however, it was a very different story, one that flickered out of a dark, remote past and traveled down the hardwood benches on which the members of Beth class, myself included, squirmed.

That we didn't want to be there goes without saying; that we pleaded, begged, cajoled, and sometimes faked illness was as predictable as was our parents' insistence that we learn about Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Moses and Aaron - and, moreover, that we learn about them in Hebrew. It was slow, often torturous work, but the stories turned out to be more infectious than I realized at the time. For what I saw, without quite knowing I had seen it, was the essential difference between stories beginning with "Once upon a time . . ." and those that began with "In the beginning . . ." Fairy tales captivate readers with a force that even a Bruno Bettelheim cannot quite explain, but Bible stories pack a double punch - not only the stuff of miracle and magic, of Daniel eluding his fate in a lion's den or David felling Goliath with a stone, but also the complicated networks of the heart that bind fathers to sons, one generation to another. Granted, the Hebrew Bible means to tell the saga of a people (and a Chosen People, no less!), but it unpacks that story in the gritty particulars of fully human people. And that is what we saw, despite ourselves, as we chimed out the Hebrew verses that brought Abraham to the altar on which he had bound Isaac or that caused Jacob to cheat his brother Esau out of an inheritance. If our rabbi tended to be sanctimonious, the characters we followed as the Books of Moses unfolded were not. They were simultaneously bigger and smaller than the folks we met at family celebrations, filled to overflowing with capacities for courage and cowardice, petty jealousies and stiff-necked pride. To imagine them stripped of their context as family members was impossible because it was in families that they were formed and within which they operated. Family - rather than character - was a man's fate, although there was probably an arithmetic between "family" and "character" that none of us had yet figured out.

By contrast, I read Homer, and later Shakespeare's plays, at the kitchen table: homework, after all, is meant to be done at home, and after the dinner dishes had been washed and put away, this is where I did mine. Like Virginia Woolf, I might have preferred a "room of one's own," a place off the beaten path to the refrigerator, but such extravagances were not in the family cards. At least my chair was more comfortable, more "broken in" after innumerable breakfasts, lunches, and dinners than the backbreaker of a bench I associated with Hebrew school; and besides, there was a certain logic in reading about the lavish feasts of epic literature in a place where one could at least get an egg cookie and a glass of milk. Besides, what is the story of Odysseus and Telemachus, of Hamlet and his father's ghost, of Prince Hal and Falstaff, if not stories of fathers and sons, of families separated by the vagaries of war or the clash of circumstance? True enough, nobody in my family talked in dactylic hexameter or dropped everything to fight wars in farflung Troy, but on certain nights when the kitchen struck me as particularly warm and the only sounds were those of pages turning as Achilles sulked in his tent or Odysseus outwitted the Cyclops, I felt intimations of the universal. The world was larger than this single house, this cramped kitchen - and literature was one of the ways you could know this.

What I've been describing thus far is hardly unique, but rather the sense all young readers probably have when they first realize that they love the few books they have come to know and that there are thousands, probably millions more awaiting them in the library. What interests me, however, is the way in which I kept missing the rich material at the end of my nose. For literature struck me then as an escape from, rather than a confrontation with, my family; and, of course, as a way of learning about worlds far removed from the one I actually occupied.

Interestingly enough, I could make much the same claim for the images that beamed out at me from our family's 10-inch DuMont. They represented something of a personal victory, evidence (if any were needed) that whining could get results and that, in America, Jewish-American sons were destined to have their way. I say this because my father regarded television as in roughly the same category as car radios - that is, as unnecessary, and certainly as too expensive. The way he saw it, if he happened to be riding in somebody else's car and they happened to flick on the radio, a bit of music or a couple innings of a ball game, that was fine; but the car salesman who could have convinced him to spring for the extravagance of a radio has yet to be born. So far as he was concerned, car radios were in the same league as whitewall tires or two-tone paint jobs; and the Yiddish word he used to describe all of the above - narishkeit (foolishness) - spoke volumes about the gruff, thoroughly skeptical way many immigrant Jews regarded the more celebrated aspects of American culture.

Initially, my father felt the same way about television. If he happened to be visiting our neighbor down the street, and the set happened to be on, he had no objection to sitting down and watching. His, in short, was hardly a thought-out, principled set of objections. Unlike those intellectuals, both would-be and genuine, who measure the height of their brows by the contempt they can work up about the "boob tube" - on moral, aesthetic, or political grounds - my father's disenchantment sprang from simpler sources. Well into the 1950s, he continued to be haunted by Depression memories and a nagging sense that "the age of affluence" was likely to go bust. In this regard, his fears now seem less ridiculous than they once did when I was an impatient ten year old not adverse to complaining about how every kid in America - except me, of course - was able to watch "Howdy Doody" on his family's TV set.

Eventually, my exaggerations turned true. Block parties to watch Uncle Miltie gave way to individual ownership, and, soon, even my father relented. We, too, learned how to arrange our living room - and our lives - around a 10-inch DuMont. By today's standards, early television sets were a pathetic affair: scratchy sound, intermittent "ghosts," and, of course, a grainy black-and-white picture. But no matter. There was "Captain Video" and "Hopalong Cassidy," Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater," and for my folks, "The Goldbergs." Indeed, the last show struck them as reason enough to cast a kind word television's way, for Mollie's inveterate matchmaking and warmhearted meddling made our very DuMont seem kosher. They gazed into the screen and what beamed back at them - with a pinch here, a tug there - was themselves.

A few years later, African Americans would feel much the same way about "Amos 'n Andy." For both groups, ethnic identification was what mattered. Curiously enough, I had no problem, then or now, with "Amos 'n Andy," but found myself bristling at the Goldbergs. They were just too goody-goody, too saccharine by half. Granted, I kept such opinions to myself; besides, in an age sans the remote control, sons watched the channel fathers selected. It was not until Sophie Portnoy announced her one crime - namely that she was "too good" - that I knew why Mollie put me off. She was the sha-sha generation's most visible spokesperson, as well as the aunt who always admonished me for being such a vilde chaya.

As I remember the house in which my family gathered to watch "I Remember Mama," I'm sure that none of us imagined we were witnesses to what would later be called television's golden age," or that one of us - namely, me - would come to write about television. After all, television shows were, at best, "entertainments" and more often, simply mindless diversions, hardly fit subjects for intellectual analysis. But the fact of the matter is that we watched a good many television shows as a family, and even learned to develop half a taste for TV dinners and the wobbly tables on which they were served. If baseball and candy stores had Americanized an earlier generation of immigrant Jews, television largely did the trick for mine.

At the same time, however, the image of family life being celebrated seemed very remote from the one I was experiencing. To put it bluntly, my father bore not the slightest resemblance to those wonderfully bumbling fathers who held down the living room anchor chair on shows such as "Ozzie and Harriet," "Father Knows Best," or "Leave It to Beaver." They wore cardigan sweaters that seemed perfectly appropriate and in my naive eyes, even a fashion statement. By contrast, nobody in my family casually slipped into a sweater like that after dinner and the only person I ever remember wearing one was my Uncle Sid who was, believe me, no Ozzie Nelson, no Robert Anderson, no Ward Cleaver.

But that, as you might have guessed, was only the tip of a much larger, much deeper iceberg, for it soon became clear - very clear - that we did not live in anything remotely like their houses nor did our family and theirs have anything in common. For example, my father struggled to eke out a meager living as a dry goods salesman - in reality, a scant step up from being a peddler - while it was never clear, no matter how closely I paid attention, exactly what Ozzie Nelson did between his bright chatter over orange juice and his evenings wrapped inside his cardigan. What I did notice, however, is that he never raised his voice or punctuated his sentences with his hands. He remained unflappable, good-natured, altogether unlike the father I knew - the one who slipped into Yiddish when he didn't want me to know how desperate things, in fact, were, and who shouted if and when he felt like it.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that nobody, absolutely nobody, actually lived the life I secretly envied, and that my Jewishness or their goyishness had nothing to do with it. Look for realism on TV sit-coms and you will search in vain, for none of the television families that caught on big in the 1950s had the remotest relationship to life as it was actually being lived in the suburbs, the small towns, or the big cities. Rather, what they served up was a sanitized version of the nuclear family according to Life magazine - a world where corporate America had jobs for those men willing to don gray flannel suiting, and wives were offered the rewards of tract homes and kitchens filled with the latest appliances (Mixmasters, electric knives, blenders, even automatic dishwashers). That there was a darker, more anxious underbelly to the placid fifties is true enough - one thinks of the defiant James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Allen Ginsbergs Howl (1956), and perhaps most spectacularly, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), J. D. Salinger's enduring portrait of adolescence in turmoil.

Still, what defined the fifties for most of us were books such as the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), which argued that religious belief enhanced one's material well-being; songs such as "Love and Marriage"; styles that began with the crew cut on one's head and ended with the white bucks on one's feet; Little League games and Tupperware parties; the families I tried mightily to identify with on "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver"; and, lehavdil, the one I encountered between the covers of Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family books. Unlike the artificial world in which nobody worked and children simply played, Taylor made it clear that religious observance was more than merely opening presents and that there were families that shared experiences and meanings rather than plunging off in radically differing, ruggedly individualistic, directions.

Nonetheless, Jewish-American life during those years was longer on assimilation than religious-cultural preservation. Indeed, how could anyone remain either aloof or immune from these consequences? If the suburbs were a measure of what postwar affluence and a new, improved standard of living could mean, they were also the death knell for synagogue life as it had existed in previous decades. Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus (1959) exposed the new Jewish suburbia's vulgar, philistinish aspects with the relish of a young satirist who made it a point of honor to take no prisoners. He was on the way to becoming a household word and when he got to Portnoy's Complaint (1969), he, at last, arrived. No matter that, in my household, the name was momzer, or that Roth spent the next decades trying to convince a larger Jewish-American public that under his thick, writerly skin beats the heart of a Nice Jewish Boy. The standoff seems destined to forever divide those who think of writers as unpaid PR people for normative Judaism and those who think of writers as, well, writers.

Meanwhile, American rabbis learned - perhaps far too well - how to go with the flow and adjust to the very real possibility that they might not see their constituency from one Yom Kippur to the next. They even learned to make jokes about it. One of them goes like this: two rabbis once discovered that they shared the same unpleasant condition - namely, rats in the basement of the synagogue. As the first rabbi went on and on about how upset he was, the second rabbi said, "Don't worry. I had the same problem, but I made it go away." "How?" the second rabbi asks. "Easy," replies the first, "One Shabbos afternoon I assembled all the rats and gave them a bar-mitzvah. Now, I never see them anymore."

One could argue that much of the sixties continued the "tradition" of squeaky-clean families, albeit in enlarged or grotesque forms. "The Brady Bunch" and "The Partridge Family" are examples of the former while "The Patty Duke Show" - with its bizarre premise about "identical cousins" - can stand for the latter. Indeed, it wasn't until "All in the Family" that America could hear a toilet (TER-let, in Archie Bunkerese), flush, much less hear a bigot ranting about the America that has steadily gone downhill since WW-2 - the "Big One," as Archie likes to put it. Is it of no consequence that the shaping hand of "All in the Family" - everything from its dashes of realism to its larger doses of political liberalism - was Norman Lear, a Jewish-American shaper of the popular culture, just as a generation of Jewish-American moguls had invented Hollywood decades before?

As the standard wisdom would have it, satire is what closes on Saturday night because paying customers don't want to see a mirror held up to their warts. "All in the Family" not only proved a provocative exception to the rule, but also that characters in a sit-com can change their identifying spots over a long run. Like many others, I found it easy - perhaps a bit too easy - to identify with the Mike, the "meat head," as he valiantly tried to point out the errors of his father-in-law's ways; but even I eventually had to face up to those moments when Archie's vulnerable, altogether human side shone through, and when it became clear that Edith was hardly the "dingbat" Archie claimed her to be. If the result was a far cry from the gritty richness one could find in the Hebrew Bible, at least television had taken a giant step from the days when episodes of "I Love Lucy" were virtually interchangeable.

At the same time, however, what the ensemble approach to television casting led to were a variety of shows that recontextualized the traditional family unit into a virtually endless array of substitutes. There was, for example, the pioneering "Mary Tyler Moore" show in which the workplace - in this case, a television station - suggested possibilities for the "new woman" that were markedly different from those that surrounded the dutiful, suburban hausfrau Mary Tyler Moore had played on the older "Dick Van Dyke Show." Roughly the same metamorphosis occurred on shows such as "M.A.S.H.," "WKRP," "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere," and, of course, "Cheers" - all destined to become what the business calls "mega-hits," and all exploring aspects of family-as-workplace.

Granted, television is more given to recycling past successes than in pioneering new forms, which is why the 1980s could give us "Ozzie and Harriet" in blackface and call it "The Cosby Show" or the extended family of "The Waltons" could end up as "Family Matters." My point is that television families with children the cuter the better probably have a permanent claim on one side of the coin, while parodic, dysfunctional counterparts from the underachieving Bart Simpson to the wisecracking O'Connor brood are currently in residence on the other.

In short, "that's entertainment" - meaning that television situation comedy depends heavily on the laughs that domesticity simultaneously generates and insures. By contrast, family life was no laughing matter for our more serious American writers, both those who pronounced it lit-er-a-toor, as well as those who hankered for redder meat and generally regarded the family as an impediment rather than a possibility. The forest or the Territories have always seemed more appealing than home-and-hearth. Only in America, as my uncle's favorite author might put it, has there been such a sustained effort to negate History and to render the family itself irrelevant. Written in shorthand, an accounting of American literature might look like this: der heim is what our classic American protagonists leave. Moreover, the woods, rather than the marketplace, is where they are headed - nearly always westward and almost certainly without baggage. That there were exceptions to this general rule is true enough (one thinks immediately of, say, Henry James, a writer who knew to his bones that families were what made "manners" possible), but one could argue that the anomalies never took, and that, as a consequence, American fiction was always better at describing aspects of freedom than it was of imagining modes of responsibility.

In this regard, Jewish-American writers have always been the exception, even when they might have preferred otherwise. For if it is the parochial, potentially suffocating Jewish-American family against which these young writers struggle, it is also the family to which they inevitably return. One sees this in Bernard Malamud's assorted "sufferers," increasingly among Philip Roth's aging protagonists, and always in Saul Bellow's sad eggheads. Like Southern fabulists from William Faulkner to Eudora Welty, families - however tension-producing or complicated - have always been a prominent feature of the Jewish-American landscape.

Nonetheless, notions about "family" have changed markedly throughout our century. Consider, for example, a novel such as Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath which moves from Ma Joads's definition of family as "kin" to her son's evolving, increasingly political definition of family as the proletariat, as those who must get together and yell if laborers are to receive their due - in short, as writers in the Depression thirties defined the term, mankind.

At this point let me suggest that what we have been experiencing in our more recent fiction is nothing less than what Thomas Kuhn calls a "paradigm shift," a subtle, nearly imperceptible movement away from an older condition in which novelists operated, consciously or unconsciously, under the grip of family (either by attraction or, more frequently, as repulsion) to a new model in which novelists write under a very different sort of grip - namely, the grip of ideas. The result of this altered consciousness threatens to eradicate literary families altogether. Not surprisingly, the grip of ideas currently takes many forms, from the legacies of postmodernist experimentation to the insistence that literature must be written with special interest agendas firmly in mind, from the tight-lipped, bottle-clenching minimalism of Raymond Carver to the K-Mart realism and AM radio bleatings of Ann Beattie. Taken together, however, the result has made the very notion of "family" seem both inert and impossibly old-fashioned.

Established writers know enough to know better, which is to say that notions of the family are not likely to disappear any time soon from the work of people such as John Updike, Philip Roth, or Anne Tyler. Nonetheless, a sober assessment of much postmodernist fiction can only conclude that the family has become something of an endangered species. One need not belabor the fact that "families" were a prominent feature of the "so-called real world" that postmodernist fiction refused to touch with plastic gloves and a ten-foot pole.

I was hardly immune to the dizzying excitements of those times, those places when John Barth was the with-it generation's equivalent of the cat's pajamas. Some enjoyed getting lost in his various "fun houses"; others took a peculiar pleasure in keeping track of his increasingly complicated tales-within-tales. Nor was Barth hardly the only player fascinated by fictions that mirrored fictionality. When critics set about rounding up the usual subjects for book-length studies on metafiction, names such as Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon received chapters of their own. The rub, of course, is that postmodernist fiction was often more fun to talk about than to re-read, not only because its experimentations were often sterile, but also because its characters seemed so dehumanized. Families did not much matter because their connections failed to move anybody to love or hatred.

Meanwhile, as the dust from several decades of postmodernist experimentation settles, what we see are those writers who stayed the course, plugging away writing novels with such admittedly old-fashioned characteristics as plot, social realism, characters, and even a kind word or two to say about "family." I am thinking about people like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Anne Tyler; but I also have in mind those novelists who write what look for all the world like family sagas by adding new wrinkles to the old formulae. Toni Morrison's The Song of Solomon (1978), for example, so mixes elements of African folklore with aspects of magical realism that the result forces us to redefine what Stephen Dedalus meant by "history" and certainly to reinterpret what he imagines as "flight." Others have defined the family so radically that it turns out to be versions of sisterhood (e.g., Alice Walker's The Color Purple, 1983) or peculiarly restricted to supportive grandmothers (e.g., Alice Hoffman). Moreover, when one adds a renewed interest in ethnic writing of the sort exemplified in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine (1984), Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club (1989), Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), the prospects for a new sense of family history and a revitalized social realism have, in fact, never looked better.

James Joyce knew that the only story one can tell, or certainly that he could tell, was about how fathers and sons, despite themselves, become reunited. I would not have believed that important truth for a moment when I was young and in the grip of what I imagined to be a tough-minded modernism. Apparently, Philip Roth labored under similar misconceptions as he makes painfully, eloquently clear in Patrimony (1991). Too many postmodernist writers have so concerned themselves with the glitter of "text" that they have forgotten this important - I would claim, essential - subtext. Instead, they seek in fictions about fictions what the young Stephen Dedalus sought - namely, a way to fly past not only the nets of family, church, and state, but also the messiness of daily life itself. Is this, perhaps, why so many Jews are once again rediscovering the complicated, altogether human stories of the Hebrew Bible?

One thing at least seems abundantly clear: self-conscious exercises in literary dazzle cannot engage us at those moments when the computer is turned off and the study closed to academic business. For fiction is not finally made from other fictions but from the tougher, heart-wrenching business of defining oneself in the larger context of one's family. Postmodernist experimentation failed not only because its dazzling surfaces were hollow at the core, but also because its settings had no discernible address, its characters' bones no flesh, and its families no force. If literature is once again to become a humanistic enterprise, it needs to imagine fully human beings, and I would argue that that requires fully human families. No doubt my own parents were trying to tell me something very much like that long ago, but I, like many others of my generation, was too impatient, too cocksure of myself, to listen.

SANFORD PINSKER is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish-American literature, having published five books and edited two more, including most recently Jewish American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia (1992). Recently, he was named Editor of Academic Questions, a publication of the National Association of Scholars. FROM ALL THEIR HABITATIONS takes its title from Ezekiel 37:23, and will feature regular reports of Jewish religious, intellectual, and communal life in various parts of the world.
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Author:Pinsker, Sanford
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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