11 November 2013

For the Cause

Here's where the smoldering begins.

In 1946, when my dad returned from serving in the Second World War, he finished his degree at UW-Madison on the GI Bill of Rights.  By the time I heard about these legendary events--fighting to save civilization and having a good time as a college student, there was more than enough myth-making to last a lifetime.  There were his buddies from the war--a collection of Americans from every corner of the country, identified primarily by their uniforms and only secondarily, in my dad's case, for example, by their religion (I used to marvel at the embossed "H" in his dog-tags that identified him as a "Hebrew" or Jew.)  There were stories of court martial trials for too much ping-pong, coffee and donuts; grabbing an extra case of beer for the journey home from the Philippines; ladies in Paris who loved American boys; and tender notes home to his mother, an immigrant from Minsk, who no doubt took pride in her patriotic son.

Back in Madison, certain unified myths broke apart a bit.  One such example, an iconic favorite of mine, are the annual pictures from my dad's fraternity, Phi Sigma Delta.  It was, as might be apparent from the photograph above, a Jewish fraternity, a relic from a time of restricted membership in social clubs throughout the country.  My dad was a statistician in high school (his slight, brainy frame necessitated finding any means necessary to get close to his love of sport) and as such, he kept meticulous notes on who was who in his photos.  The names themselves tell a story.  Dads row, in the front, seated:  Bob Sunder, Bob Epstein, Eddie Zimmerman, Jimmy Silverman, Steve Simon, Burt Sernovitz, Alvin Holzman, Mel Cohen, Stan Mohr, Monas Bachman.  In the second to last row, standing, sixth from the right, is Abner Mikva, US Congressman from Chicago, Federal judge, councilor to Presidents.  Of course, back then, he was just "Ab."
As a kid, I could look at these pictures for hours, thinking about the lives lived by these young men, their adventures and aspirations at the mid-century pivot of American history, and then wonder what came of them.  Dad kept track of most, as far as he could, caught up with them at reunions, on the golf course and at business gatherings; but once his own life imploded in professional failure and defeat, the silent migration transferred, almost wordlessly, to me.

He, the son of an immigrant mother who fled pogroms in Minsk, bow-tied and saddle-shoed into post-war American success; but haunted, I maintain, by the burning fires of a destroyed European Jewry.  Unable to really look back and a stubborn refuser of Jewish religious, linguistic, intellectual or cultural traditions, Dad punted, effectively, on developing a cohesive, hopeful, and rooted story to tell his kids.  Oh, I could sing his high school and college alma maters, recount his Langdon Street fights with anti-Semitic youth ("if he's drunk enough, son, you just grab his tie, keep him off balance, and punch his lights out!") and his world map of his service hangs on my office wall.  But it's as if a dark place precedes his own story, an empty grave waiting to be filled in, and once his name was made, his service, and his children were born, he realized, tragically, that that was all the gas he had in his tank.

On one hand it's sad, I'll admit.  The story of a man who did just enough.  A transitional man.  The first of his generation raised in English.  Navigating a new world for a mother who remained emotionally bound to a lost history in Jewish Russia.  An exemplary student.  A loyal, if moderately playful, soldier--and then the pivot.

The only real conversation Dad and I had about God was related to the war.  He didn't do battle.  He repaired jeeps and laid track as an Army Engineer.  But when I pushed hard at him in high school about why he chose to not educate his kids as Jews, he said with a resigned succinctness:  "After the Holocaust, it was clear there was no God."

He would be dead two years later, lost to self-neglect and a heart attack.  But if I could talk to him today, knowing what I know about the burdens of first-generation kids; mid-century anti-Semitism; the grand narrative of war, destruction, genocide immediately and incomprehensibly followed by the founding of the Jewish state and the accelerated path to assimilation for American Jewry, I might have said to his erstwhile theological crisis, "So what if there's no God?  Look at all those Jews you got to hang out with?"

His atheism, in other words, was a copout.  It was a rejection of the weaving and the work necessary to build a life of meaning, of narrative, of passing on the values and morality from the smelting pot of his historical experience.

I've grown more compassionate toward him over the years, and in my own work try to make the case that simply not caring about one's identity is not an option.  But I also remember, especially on days like today, Veterans Day, that some people, even those not scarred by battle, nevertheless return home from war as wounded soldiers, damaged by the cataclysm of battle, unable to withstand the enormous guilt of survival and the weighted responsibility to carry on.

But for a while, Dad, you looked good and you did good for the cause.  You got us through a hell of a mid-century, brought your children into the world, and now it's our job to take it from here.

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