The Essential Tragedy of Irv

When we put together the final puzzle of a man’s life, the most essential pieces, it strikes me now, involve how content he was with his life, how much joy he took in the things he loved, how he loved the creatures he loved, how he made others feel, the kinds of relationships he had.   The wealth he acquired, or failed to acquire, is a much smaller piece than the effect he had on those he came in contact with, it seems to me.  

My father was born under a series of bad signs, without question.  He did not have the wisdom, like so many famous self-made people we read about today, to choose to be born into a wealthy, or even middle class family.  His parents were extremely poor.  His mother, angry, religious and intolerant.  Also violent.  His father, utterly powerless.  The world must have seemed to him a very bleak place in the years before he was stationed, at 21, in a bucolic spot in recently defeated Nazi Germany.  

His little brother, who my father always said regarded the world through rose colored glasses, would get excited watching a guy load a soda machine.  “Oh, you should have seen it, Irv, it was so cool! He had all these different flavors, in different colored cans, and he rolled them down these wire racks, it was fantastic,” his brother would say.  My father rarely wore such glasses, and, anyway, those rose colored glasses didn’t really help my uncle with his uncontrollable rages.

With the odds stacked against him, I can see what Eli meant about how far he’d come.  The “dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill” can be googled today, as a friend recently did, and quickly linked with his thesis adviser at Columbia Graduate School, one of the most admired historians of the twentieth century.  Neat trick, Irv!  He rose, by merit alone, through the teaching ranks to lead a small team of idealistic men and women who intervened to make peace in riot-torn New York City High Schools.  He parlayed his night job, director of a small regional office of a Zionist youth movement called Young Judaea (whose website informs us is the nation’s oldest such youth movement) into the national directorship a few decades later, after he retired from teaching.   He gave his children the unworried middle class existence he’d never dared to imagine as a reluctant-to-bathe wretch in Peekskill.

It’s probably unfair to dwell too long on how content he was.  Contentment, after all, in some measure flows from a baked in genetic disposition, innate capacities for happiness vary greatly.  Though our choices in life play a role, a certain amount of external luck is also undoubtedly involved.  

The question of how content anyone is reminds me of the old snap quiz from Philosophy 101: would you rather be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied?   A trick question, since it doesn’t stipulate that the thing that gives satisfaction will be snatched away in the time it takes you to answer the question. You know, take the food, and randy companion, and mud away from the pig and… that’s a pretty miserable pig.  Leave Socrates alone on a chilly desert island, he still has his fabulous imaginative brain to keep him warm.  

I think of the faith in a better world my father carried like a torch through the first half of his life.   He was very interested in Tikkun Olam,  repairing the world, making this planet a better, more fair and merciful place to live.  I know he leaned way to the left as a college student and throughout my childhood, well into my young adult life.  I regret I never got his story of attending the Peekskill riot of 1949.  

He would have been 25 that summer, a student, either a Syracuse undergrad (where he was sympathetic to the arguments of campus Communists — note*) or Columbia graduate student.  He went to the Peekskill gathering, I’m 90% sure.  The concert was organized by Commie rabble-rousers featuring Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, among others.  It was organized as part of the post-war push for brotherhood, human equality and the end of racism– all principles the Second World War had ostensibly been fought over.

The first time they tried to hold the event local Klan types assaulted the crowd while law enforcement stood by smiling, stuffing Red Man chewing tobacco into their cheeks, spitting long brown jets of the toxic spew.  Cars on the narrow road to the site were ambushed, overturned, windshields smashed, young idealists beaten, hit in the face with rocks the size of fists, by fists and also baseball bats.  Was my father there that day?  I will never know.

Several days later they reorganized the event and held the concert, with proper security in place.  Young men in t-shirts stood shoulder to shoulder forming a human wall against the return of the men who hated the push for brotherhood, human equality and the end of racism.  Mobs of haters generally prefer to terrorize the unprotected, and it was, in retrospect, foolish of the Leftists not to have organized security to repel people who were violent in their opposition to radical things like integration of the races, justice and liberty for all Americans.  The second concert went off without much violence.

Which one of the concerts was my father at?  No idea.  Maybe both, maybe one, possibly neither, though for sure he’d returned to Peekskill for it.  All I have to go on is a dim memory of my father mentioning it and the purple prose of Howard Fast giving his  forgotten account of the long-forgotten episode in the fight for freedom and true democracy.  These prose are contained in a book, Peekskill USA, that I am turning in my hands now, its cover confidently predicting it will become “one of the enduring classics of American reportage.”  Indeed.   Like my father’s early, deeply left-leaning political beliefs, an artifact, a mere nostalgic after-trace.

I think of my father with great sympathy now when I look back over the eighty year expanse of his life.  His loss of faith, as he looked around him at the lack of real progress, the erosion of his hope, the increasing fatigue brought on by years of driven over-work, endless battles with his ungrateful middle class children, the ascendance of an aggressive right wing in American politics, these things beat him down.  He certainly felt increasingly trapped by fate and in the end, died convinced his fate had been sealed by the time he was two.

Let us look at the things he loved, then.  He loved soul music, deeply.  He would mimic Sam Cooke’s phrasing with impeccable accuracy, tunefully and with a decent voice, in the snippets he sang to my mother at the dinner table. He loved the animals we always had in the house, dogs, mostly.  He was their primary caregiver, always.   He loved justice and mercy, even if he didn’t always practice it with his wife and children, or with himself, for that matter.   He loved a good laugh, and gave more than he got.   He loved to wrestle with the political problems of the day and did it hands on when he still had the strength to engage with it.  He was an avid reader of intellectual periodicals and a fierce advocate for his beliefs, though this fierceness faded until, by his final decade or two it would become hard to see more than a flash of it.

How he loved the creatures he loved, outside of the dogs, is a more difficult area to assess.  How he made them feel, also problematic, and it varied greatly depending on who you spoke to.  He lamented, hours before he died, that he never saw affection expressed in the home he grew up in and therefore had no idea how to do it.  Yet, over the course of his life, he was loved and admired by many people.  I need only to picture the shrewd, intelligent faces of longtime friends Arlene and Russ, turned to take in every word Irv said, nodding with great satisfaction or bursting out laughing, or both at once.   They loved him and he loved them.

Russ once had my family meet him and Arlene at an Italian restaurant he’d discovered on Northern Boulevard.  He assured my father that, unlike many Italian restaurants, this one did not serve dishes that were like “congealed snot”.  Outside the restaurant Russ, a much smaller man than my father, grabbed his old friend, pulled his face toward him and kissed him on the lips.  My father recoiled, laughing.  As we all laughed Arlene informed us that Russ was high was high as a kite on demerol for the gall stones that were torturing him.

“Admit it, you loved it, you son of a bitch,” Russ barked to his old friend.   

He loved and was loved by people throughout his life, in spite of his insistence that he didn’t know how to show affection.  He always managed to convey his feelings, quite dramatically.

(to be continued)

* in law school I read a case that defined the “fighting words” exception to the First Amendment’s right of free speech.  An utterance that amounted to an unambiguous “invitation to exchange fisticuffs”, wrote the unanimous court, was never the sort of speech the framers of the First Amendment thought worthy of constitutional protection.  The famous case where the fighting words doctrine was laid out is the 1942 Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire where the plaintiff was a loud mouthed crank who challenged a New Hampshire town marshal (“Goddamned racketeer”, “fascist”) who was trying to get him off a soapbox, if he didn’t like what he was saying, to basically make him get off his soapbox, where he stood on his phantom First Amendment legs. The cop didn’t, in fact, like what Chaplinsky was saying, nor his attitude, and these things would eventually result in the entire State of New Hampshire being sued by Chaplinsky.  And Chaplinsky eventually finding himself immortalized on the wrong end of a 9-0 Supreme Court decision during the early days of America’s involvement in World War Two.

What does this have to do with my father, you ask?  Somebody is clearly mistaken, and it may well be me, but when I discussed this case with my father (and it’s unlikely to have been Chaplinsky, I think now, reading on Wikipedia that he was a Jehovah’s Witness and not a Communist) his face lit up and he recalled the campus crank from Syracuse, his roommate had a passing friendship with the guy.  He was a Communist and a semi-professional rabble rouser, not even enrolled at the university, and had stirred up some shit on campus with his no holds barred invitations to exchange political fisticuffs.  My father chuckled as he remembered it, as he was always fond of this kind of thing and had obviously been fond of it then.    Could it have actually been Chaplinsky?  No idea.  Wikipedia does an excellent job on the Fighting Words Doctrine:

The fighting words doctrine, in United States constitutional law, is a limitation to freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court established the doctrine by a 9–0 decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. It held that “insulting or ‘fighting words,’ those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are among the “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of [which] … have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.”

 

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