My father was like Zelig, a peripheral character uncannily at the center of some of the most important events of the tumultuous twentieth century. His life is a great illustration of many difficult things and the light it can shed on other lives is considerable. I can’t overestimate the light it sheds on mine, even as it’s been a life’s work, so far, to fully view everything it reveals. He imparted enduring moral values and a humanistic worldview to my sister and me, even as he placed enormous obstacles in both of our paths.
The dramatic arc of Irv’s life story, this likable underdog’s tremendous potential, notable achievements and terminal bitterness, is a tragedy that compels me to put things into a perspective I can use as I trudge toward old age, which does not tarry in its inexorable creep. I remember the world of my childhood and the changes in the decades since. The changes of our lifetime are like an echo of the titantic changes that took place during my father’s eighty years.
Born in New York City in 1924, young Irv walked into a small town kindergarten unable to speak English and was promptly mocked by his tiny classmates and punched in the face by the Great Depression. His family, already poor, became unspeakably more poor, the poorest family in that wretched little town. He was drafted and served in World War Two, while virtually his entire family was being wiped out by Nazis. Against all odds he went on to get a graduate degree in History from prestigious Columbia University and remained committed to helping bend the moral arc of history toward justice while he worked hard to build a respectable middle-class life. He then raised two kids while watching his idealism turn largely to dust over the next four or five decades. Seeing his life’s hard work slipping down the drain did nothing to enhance his serenity during his golden years.
My father was supremely sensitive, a lover of animals, of the underdog, friend of the oppressed and an eloquent fighter for the weak. As a young public school teacher in New York City he spoke to parent-teacher groups in support of school integration after the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Ed, finally admitted the obvious, that “Separate but Equal” was a pernicious fiction that needed to die. My young father was greeted as a “nigger-loving fucking Jew Commie” and attacked by parents and teachers alike in the cafeteria of the first NYC public school where he spoke in support of school integration in the late 1950s. After that first scare he was accompanied by two NYC cops at the other schools where he spoke. He later worked in a special unit at the NYC Board of Education that intervened in riot-torn high schools, and solved problems in school after school, even though the peace did not endure anywhere.
My father was scarred beyond healing by a childhood of grinding poverty, emotional and physical abuse, finished with a tart note of small town anti-Semitism. His wounds and his great intelligence combined to make him a fierce and formidable fighter. His most enduringly destructive battles were conducted across the dinner table in the little house he owned. A man with a great, dark wit, a deep reservoir of compassion, able to grasp subtle nuance, he also saw the world as an eternal struggle between right and wrong and was unable to refrain from total war, especially with his children, though he’d regret this greatly, and explicitly, the last night of his life.
As my father’s most dependable adversary I was groomed from before my first memories to fight the way a pit bull puppy is trained to do battle. The pit bull is a cute dog, trusting, loyal and friendly by nature. It takes a great deal of calculated cruelty to transform this animal into a vicious prize-fighter. Young pit bulls raised to fight are tortured until they become enraged enough to rip another dog’s throat out. My father, a good man who loved the souls of animals, was horrified by such things, though he did things to his wife and children that were equally terrible.
F. Scott Fitzgerald rightly defined first-rate intelligence as the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in mind at the same time. My father was a good man, in some ways a great man, who frequently did terrible things to those he loved. My father was a flawed and deeply wounded man who could not help but destroy, even as he did the best he could to protect those he loved. He was brilliant, he was an idiot. He was a kind and thoughtful man, he was a fucking sadist. He was the best of husbands and fathers, he was the worst of them.
He was an unshakably honest man, even as he denied the reality of the mass-murder of most of the family to his nine year-old son. My father led the nation’s largest Zionist youth movement after his retirement from teaching, was a proud Jew, even as he told his young son to stop whining when the boy learned about the murder of his mother’s twelve aunts and uncles, in addition to most of his father’s family, executed and buried in mass graves only thirteen years before the kid was born. There is no contradiction in any of this, even as it has taken me the better part of six decades to grasp this eerily simple fact.
Only a gullible school child, or a person raised to be an uncritical consumer of any toxic product that is winningly advertised, could believe only the good about any hero. There is no such thing, except in our longings, as a purely good hero. Andrew Jackson, remembered as a beloved man of the people, a champion of participatory democracy, friend of the common man, was also a cunning land speculator who seized millions of acres from people he killed and used his government position to become fantastically rich while trading slaves, a vicious racist betraying allies while slaughtering Native Americans, indulging a psychotic rage whenever the mood was on him. Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, choose your hero, every one of them three dimensionally human. We all have different sides to us. The good within a person is always in a struggle to overcome the shabbier impulses. Those we admire the most do the best job in that struggle. Or anyway, the ones I admire the most do that.
The biographers I admire the most, like Jane Leavy in her great book on Mickey Mantle, give us all the reasons to love and admire the protagonist while also unflinchingly providing the terrible specifics of their human flaws. On the same page we have all the evidence that the beloved Mantle was a loyal, generous, heroic man with a great sense of humor and that he was a haunted, irredeemable asshole well-justified in his self-hatred. A man capable of great kindness and touching gentility, he was equally adept at literally farting in the face of a young Yankee fan clutching a score card in her little hand. “Oh, Jesus, I did that?” he said sheepishly to the little girl, now a grown-up sports writer and a supremely talented biographer.
I devoured that book greedily, thinking “fuck…” over and over as I read about one of my childhood heroes, liking him no less, understanding him much more. I aspire to do something similar telling the story of my father’s forgotten life. It is a life that deserves not to be forgotten.