A Jew in the NorthwestPrint
Exile, ethnicity, and the search for the perfect futon
By William Deresiewicz
I was standing, like a good Northwesterner, in the produce section of my locally owned organic-food supermarket—this was a couple of years ago, not long after I had moved to Portland from the New York City area—when I heard a voice in my ear.
“Excuse me,” it said. “You’re a Jew, aren’t you?”
My sphincter clenched. There were two ways this could go, and neither one was good. Either the guy I could now sense hovering at my elbow was a Lubavitcher, doing outreach among his fallen brethren (drawing them near, in the term of art), or he was a Jew for Jesus, hoping to tell me about the Lord. In the first case, I would sling the brushback pitch that I had learned to keep at hand for such occasions, amply familiar from life in New York. Ma ha’avodah hazose lachem? I would say: What is this worship to you?—the words of the Wicked Son in the Passover story. (“To you,” the Haggadah explains, “and not to him. By excluding himself from the community, he has negated the essential.”) In the second case, I would probably just start screaming and ripping up his pamphlets, as I did to a guy in the subway once. Christian missionaries tend to transform me into a kind of Semitic Incredible Hulk, a ball of ethno-historical rage. (A third possibility, that I’d been teleported back to Poland, circa 1941, and was about to be invited into a cattle car, I discounted as unlikely.)
As it turned out, the guy beside me wasn’t a Chassid or a Jesus freak. He was a typical 40ish Portlander—full beard, big sweater, innocent face. But his eyes were shining beatifically, and that’s what tipped me off to what was going on. I had come across this sort of thing before, back in my Israeli folk dance days. There was a certain kind of Gentile, a sort of earnest, clueless Jew-groupie, who would show up at the workshops just to soak up all the exotic yid energy. That’s what this guy clearly was, because he was gazing at me as if he’d finally seen a unicorn. Really, I thought, you’ve never met a Jew before? Well, this was Portland. Maybe he hadn’t, at least not consciously. Just being out as a Jew in this town, as someone once remarked, amounts to a political statement. But me—big nose, Levantine complexion, a certain sardonic set to the lips—I was out whether I liked it or not. So here we were, playing through a version of the classic scene that’s right up there in the tribal imagination with Lot’s Wife and the Burning Bush, the one where the camera pans around Annie Hall’s family dinner table to reveal Woody Allen in full Chassidic regalia.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“Hi,” he stuck out his hand. “I’m Kevin!” Pause. “Did you know that it’s Purim today?” I turned back to the vegetables, too stunned to reply. Purim? What did this goy know about Purim?
“No?” he said. “I guess you’re not that in touch with your heritage.”
Not that in touch with my heritage? Wasn’t aware it was Purim? I have neither believed nor have I practiced since being thrown out of yeshiva high school—the charge sheet reading, as I would later imagine it, gross insubordination and incipient atheism. But still, 30 years later, I can’t see a full moon without reflexively calculating the Hebrew date and reminding myself which holiday must be upon us. (April: Passover; September/October: Sukkos; January/February: Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day; August: Tu B’Av, very obscure, the Jewish Valentine’s Day.) It was March, and the moon had been a day from full the night before. Of course I knew it was Purim.
“It shines out of your face,” my persecutor went on. “It’s a great tradition. You should be proud of it!”
My face! My tradition! My God! If you forget you’re a Jew, my father used to say, the goyim will always remind you. But he was a Holocaust refugee, and I doubt that this is what he had in mind.
I was not the first Jew, it turned out, to feel a little conspicuous upon arriving in the Northwest. As with everything else in Jewish life, there was already a precedent. Not one but two of the leading Jewish literary figures of the postwar decades found themselves marooned in the region at the start of their careers, both of them victims of academic exile. Leslie Fiedler was hired by the University of Montana at Missoula in 1941. Bernard Malamud took a teaching job at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) in the little town of Corvallis in 1949. Both were city boys from immigrant communities. Both felt like aliens in the region. Both stayed for years. And both lived to tell the tale of being Jewish in the Northwest: Malamud in A New Life, Fiedler in “The Last Jew in America”—titles that jointly reflect the complexity of the situation in which they found themselves.
When Malamud came to Oregon, as Philip Davis tells the story in Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, he was 35, depressive, lightly published, stubborn, with a scuttled novel and 10 years teaching high school, a wife and young son, and nothing but an M.A. for credentials. Having few options or resources, he had applied for work at 200 schools, gotten offers from two, and chosen Oregon State over a college in New Mexico. Other than a few summers working in the Catskills and a few months as a census clerk in Washington, D.C., he had never lived outside New York. His world had been one of immigrant poverty, Jews and Catholics, City College, Yiddish, his father’s dingy grocery store on Brooklyn’s Gravesend Avenue slowly asphyxiating in the shadow of the El, and the desperate pursuit of intellectual and cultural aspirations—ideals as oxygen.
Corvallis must have seemed like the other side of the moon. Set in a bowl of farmland and forest between the Cascades and the Coast Range, the town, population 16,000, had lots of unpaved streets and not a single traffic light. There were no theaters, no art galleries, and only two or three decaying movie houses. Oregon State was a cow college, strictly practical: agriculture, engineering, and not much else that anyone took seriously. The English department, housed in a Quonset hut left over from the war, was treated as a service unit, drilling future farmers in grammar and composition. If you wanted to study the liberal arts, you had to go to the University of Oregon, down the road in Eugene. If you wanted to teach them, you could go and whistle—especially if you didn’t have a Ph.D.
The atmosphere was sleepy and relaxed—also philistine, conservative, provincial, and puritanical. Malamud’s departmental colleagues were afraid to drink at parties, lest word get back to their hawk-eyed chairman. The new instructor’s initial meeting with his immediate boss, the director of composition, was curtailed after a few minutes when the man announced that he was late for a golf game and took off down the hall practicing his swing. The culture, even at the college, was physical, not mental. Football was big, and ROTC. Jews, not so much. When Malamud, looking for a place to live, turned down a particular house as too much for his family’s needs, the landlady suggested that he “ask some of your people to help you”—“your people” as in “you people,” though Corvallis had only about a hundred of them.
A continent from home, and with no foreseeable end to his exile, Malamud was miserable. But he didn’t suffer in silence. Turning himself into a one-man arts council, he established creative writing classes for local adults and gathered friends to form a foreign film society, a Great Books reading group, a lecture series, a chamber music society, and a theater troupe. His students, whom he disdained, he tried to scandalize out of their narrow backgrounds by playing up the sex in what they read. His superiors, whom he infuriated—chairman, dean, even the college president—he went at with full New York effrontery. The worst of it came when Malamud dared to defend a young colleague who had led a protest at an ROTC march during the Korean War, and in front of the governor, no less. When the director of composition fired the man almost on the spot, Malamud told him that he had “a heart of corn flakes.”
Oregon did give Malamud one thing: nature, on a scale and of a beauty he had never imagined. For the child of pavements and city stink, merely the first sight of the Adirondacks had been enough to make him feel like Wordsworth in the Lakes. But this was the West. Now, just beyond the little town were dark-green hills, fields of black earth, and mountains steaming with mist; overhead, rolling skies of “gold, black, silver, grey.” It was a new world. Still, no amount of fresh air was going to turn Malamud into an outdoorsman. Slight and sallow, he threw like a girl, drank milk for his stomach, and had been 4F during the war on account of an ulcer. With a pair of friends, he formed a “League of Lopsided Men,” admission contingent upon a complete incapacity to fix or make things—the Jew as weakling, less than fully male, the antitype of rugged Western masculinity.
“The picture I am left with of Malamud,” a student wrote, “is of a very unhappy man … a lonely man. I think he felt Oregon was a foreign country.” Oregon, for reasons of incomprehension, antipathy, or in the case of his colleagues, sheer envy, returned the sentiment. By the time he had been at Oregon State for 10 years, Malamud had published The Natural and The Assistant (the latter still his most acclaimed novel), won fellowships from Yaddo and the Rockefeller Foundation, and received a Rosenthal Award for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.But it was only after The Magic Barrel won the National Book Award in 1959 that he was allowed to teach classes in literature and creative writing. The college also gave him its bronze medal that year for faculty achievement. The gold went to the inventor of an improved breast cup for cows.
Malamud was a luftmensch, delicately dreaming; Fiedler was a tummler: brash, noisy, priapic, Dionysian. Three years younger than Malamud but a generation further into America, Fiedler grew up on the south side of Newark in a tough industrial neighborhood of blacks and Jews. Montana was already the second leg of his Western expedition. A radical by age 16 and a notorious college troublemaker, he had been blackballed by the elite Eastern graduate programs—“Mr. Fiedler will never be a gentleman or a scholar,” wrote one professor, getting it half right—and had done his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin.
If Fiedler was no Malamud, Missoula was no Corvallis. Oregon was cows: settled, agricultural, conservative. Montana was cowboys: wild, raunchy, libertarian. As Mark Royden Winchell, author of “Too Good to Be True”: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler, beautifully put it, “In Montana, the term professor was less likely to call to mind a politically engaged intellectual than the piano player in a whorehouse.” (Fiedler’s students called him “doc.”) The state had a strong radical tradition to balance its landed interests, and Fiedler’s chairman had only one rule for his instructors, who could teach anything they wanted: don’t sit down in class.
For a contrarian like Fiedler, Montana was a redoubt from which to do battle with the Eastern literary establishment. (“Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” the essay that revolutionized the study of American literature by fingering the homosocial motif that lies at the heart of so many canonical books, and that became the nucleus of his flagship work, Love and Death in the American Novel, was published when Fiedler was 31.) A regular, soon, in Partisan Review, he became, in effect, the westernmost of the New York intellectuals. As a connoisseur of American culture, he also savored Missoula’s frontier tang—the wooden-faced cowboys and dead-end Indians he’d see in the saloons, the drifters and ranchers and drunks—which, washed down with a whiskey or two, offered relief from college politics and the PTA.
Montana gave him distance from the East, but the process also worked the other way. Fiedler’s Jewish identity remained acute, not to say aggrieved, his sense of being a misfit also. Like Malamud—light unto the Gentiles—he sought to civilize his little corner of the West. He lectured to book clubs and women’s groups and brought to Missoula the kinds of literary figures, including William Faulkner and W. H. Auden, he had made a virtue of leaving behind. And when the place became too much for him—or rather, too little—he did what Malamud could almost never do and left. Between years at Harvard and Princeton, fellowships in Athens and Rome, summers at the Indiana School of Letters, and an initial stint in the navy (he volunteered after Pearl Harbor), Fiedler managed to spend nearly half his time in Montana somewhere else.
Still, the place that he won for himself—Fiedler the insurgent—he wound up feeling trapped by. Malamud’s rebellions were as nothing to his. An early essay, “Montana; or the End of Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” ruffled feathers by describing the regional physiognomy as “developed not for sociability or feeling, but for facing into the weather.” Later, when the president of the university blocked his efforts to integrate the English department, Fiedler tried to have him deposed. In a small place like Montana, with the leadership of the public university at stake, the whole state oligarchy was swept into the fight. Remarkably, Fiedler prevailed, but the controversy fixed him forever in the local imagination as the university’s designated gadfly. He had at last become, he said, “the Montanans’ Leslie Fiedler rather than my own.”
Malamud and Fiedler, they went West because they had to. But me, I came by choice. I’m an immigrant, not an exile. So what am I doing here, a New York Jew in the land of tattoos and flannel?
It’s like this. I fell in love with the place. I spent a sabbatical here a few years ago just for the hell of it, and by the time it was over, I never wanted to leave. Everyone was so nice! They looked you in the eye! They smiled at you! They asked you how your day was going, and they really wanted to know. (Their day? Well, their stupid roommate had taken their bicycle without permission and ended up wrecking it, so now they needed a new bicycle and a new roommate, which totally sucked.) The niceness was political, as well. The Portland planning genius, which had created a city that was neither a playground for the rich nor a decaying postindustrial shit-hole, was all about making room for other people, putting public space over private advantage. Here was a city, a real city, that didn’t make you feel like garbage.
And the nature, and the alternative spirit, and the youthful optimism, and yes, damn it, the food. I had to buy a futon when I got here. As I walked out of the store into a gorgeous big blue summer sky—having been assisted by a young guy in a skirt and a nose ring who was perfectly friendly, perfectly patient, and perfectly well informed about flame retardants, off-gassing, organic materials, local manufacture, and all the other things I’d been concerned about, and who didn’t try to pressure or upsell me—I thought, “Portland makes me come.” The city worked, and it worked in a completely different way than New York did. The end of the year was like the last day of summer camp; I wanted to chain myself to a parking meter, so they couldn’t take me away.
A few years later, after a messy divorce with academia, I got my chance to go back. This was the last thing that anyone who knew me expected me to do. I was the latest of the would-be New York intellectuals. Spectacles on my nose, autumn in my heart, just like Isaac Babel would have wanted it. Gloomy, sarcastic, militantly urban in the Woody Allen–Fran Lebowitz mold. Neurotic and here to talk about it. I wasn’t from New York, I was from the suburbs, North Jersey—which made me, once I got to the city (and stayed there for the better part of two decades), more New York than the New Yorkers. Anyone who’s followed the same path will understand this. The city wasn’t just a place for me, it was a belief system. The subway stops were my rosary (I would finger them on the map); the streets were my church; the hot dogs were my Eucharist. Art, culture, books, the life of the mind: the same ideals that were oxygen to Malamud and Fiedler were oxygen to me. The city was the place I came of age, the object of my longest-standing love affair.
So now, after 10-years’ academic exile of my own, why wasn’t I returning? Because Portland had shown me a different set of values. Because I had decided to try another kind of life. Because unlike Malamud or Fiedler, I wanted to take lessons in civilization, not give them. Because I hoped to see what more, in altered circumstances, I might become. So like the first Jew and countless others since, I went forth from my land, and from my birthplace, and from the house of my father.
There’s a joke I heard as a teenager in Zionist youth movement. We were going to be latter-day pioneers, my friends and I, and move to Israel to build a just society. (Make Aliyah, as they say: “ascend.”) But one of the people who had already been trying to make a go of it there for a while—wrestling with the red tape, enduring the rudeness, reeling from the culture shock—regaled me with the following:
The Devil appears to a man on his deathbed. “I’m going to give you a choice between Heaven and Hell,” he says. “And just to make it fair, I’m going to let you see them first.”
Heaven is, well, Heaven: halos, harps—pleasant but dull. Hell, however, looks terrific: drinking, music, dancing girls. “I’ll take Hell,” the man says.
Once he dies, though, Hell turns out to be exactly what you would have imagined in the first place: flames, screams, demons, pitchforks. “Wait a minute,” the man complains. “This isn’t what it looked like before.”
“No,” the Devil says. “But then you were a tourist, and now you’re a new immigrant.”
I’d forgotten all about that joke until I moved back to Portland. Culture shock? Kevin, my groupie from the supermarket, was only the beginning. “Excuse me, you’re a Jew …”: that encounter was about, not simply the Jew as other, but otherness itself as other. Can you imagine someone in New York (or Cleveland, or Chicago) going up to a Native American and saying, “Excuse me, you’re an Indian, aren’t you?” I’m used to people having trouble with my name, but only in Portland do they not only think it’s funny, they think that I should think so, too. A year ago last fall, when I went to volunteer at local Democratic Party headquarters, I was greeted by one of those politigeek college-boy staffers (sport jacket, tennis shoes, acne), who wanted to start by taking down my name. As I finished spelling it out for him, he fixed me with this Alfred E. Neuman smirk, as if to say, Really? That’s your name? “Really?” he said. “That’s your name?”
What, is everybody here called “Smith” or “White”? Maybe. The very notion of ethnicity cannot be said to exist in Portland. “Diversity” maybe, around the edges, but diversity is just another way of keeping separate. Ethnicity, here, is a hipster with a food cart selling nouvelle Asian-fusion jerk chicken: a set of sensations uprooted from their context, to be mixed, matched, tweaked, twisted, and twirled. In the eastern cities, it is something else entirely. It is engagement; it is confrontation; it is cultures and communities fighting it out in the urban space: loving and hating one another, love-hating one another, seeing themselves in and against one another. Making their own city. Making their own America. And making one another (and the language, and the country) over in the process. You got a problem with that?
I didn’t know this till I got here. It was just the air that I breathed; how could I have noticed it? But I began to figure it out when I realized what it is that I’m missing in Portland the most. It isn’t “culture” in the sense that New Yorkers usually brag about—museums and theater and so forth, the sense in which I’d once embraced it. It isn’t the chance to get a decent cannoli or pastrami, or even a holy Sabrett’s. It isn’t the spectral presence of the old New York intellectuals, my spirit guides. It’s edge. It’s energy. It’s irony. It’s curiosity. It’s everything ethnicity and eastern speed impose on you.
The people here, I’ve found, are like the climate: mild and lacking in extremes. The getups are interesting, the faces rarely. The city often strikes me not so much as Western as Midwestern. It’s Mayberry with tattoos. A lot of the young people who flock here, and who give the city so much of its look and character, originate in places like Minnesota or Missouri. They leave to escape the Jesus and hopelessness at home, come because they feel like freaks and want to find a place where they can wear their hair spiky and put rings in their eyebrows, but they don’t realize how much of Minnesota and Missouri they bring along with them.
I mention the youthful migrants, but they affirm the local norm: friendly, pleasant, placid, passive. People here, you see them standing in the winter cold and drizzle—smoking, talking, even sitting down and reading—with a positively bovine imperturbability. It’s just a different nervous system. (Portland bumper sticker: “More Relaxed Than You, Dude.”) No one eavesdrops, no one interrupts, no one mixes in or gets a tone. They look at you, yes, but they don’t look at you. I see it now, when I’m back in New York. Everything there is so meta. You look at someone—in the subway, on the street, you’re sizing them up—and they see you and stare back, so now they’re looking at you looking at them, and you’re looking at them looking at you. You’re not being friendly, you’re being aware.
It took my coming here, in other words, to find out who my people are. They’re not the Jews, or not only the Jews, and if it took me so long to figure this out, that’s partly because I’d been raised to believe that they are only the Jews. They’re Judeo-Italians, let’s say, Judeo-Catholics. Ethnic Eastern urbanites—skeptical, noisy, alert, with a mordant sense of humor and the kind of critical self-consciousness that bevels everything with wit and doubt. That’s the tribe I’m proud to be a part of. And Kevin was right: it is a great tradition. When I’m back in New York, and I see an alter kocker in a homburg crossing Riverdale Avenue, or a grandmother in a housedress sitting by a doorway across from the Cornelia Street Café (around the corner from the stretch of Bleecker that I like to think of as Little Little Italy), or a balding academic in a bistro on the Upper West Side—well, that’s when I know that I’m home.
Of course, none of this is Portland’s problem. I’m the one who wanted to live here. No, this is my problem, because however hard I try to adapt, I always feel too something: too loud, too fast, too tense, too rude, too abrupt, too damn self-conscious. I try to smile at people but always mess up the timing. I say “How’s it going?” but no one’s convinced. I’ll try to crack a joke—to, you know, represent—and people look at me as if I’ve started speaking Hindustani. I never planned to stop being myself, I just didn’t realize quite how myself I was. I came to see what else I might become, and like every traveler, what I’ve really discovered is who I already am.
It’s the same for the hero of Malamud’s novel, also looking, as the title proclaims, for a new life. “S. Levin,” the first line calls him, the odd initial a sign of suppressed identity, the old self left behind. Levin is Malamud, more or less—the lowly new instructor from New York, arrived to take up his position at a state school in “Cascadia”—but Malamud in extremis: alone, lonely, a former drunk and lifelong failure, his past a black hole. The opening scene is archetypal, almost allegorical. Bearded, uncertain, Levin sets down his valises and looks around “in a strange land.” Introducing himself, he adds merely, “From the East.” The parallel is clear: Levin is the immigrant, the greenhorn, fresh off the boat and eager to be filled with a new American identity.
It’s going to take some doing, though. Like Malamud, Levin is the classic Jewish milksop. His boss, Gilley, the director of composition, is “tall, energetic, with a rich head of red hair,” a sportsman. His wife, Pauline, is “tall, flat-chested”—none of your fleshy Jewish girls—“a lily on a long stalk.” While Levin’s colleagues shingle roofs and pour concrete, he ventures into lawn mowing, then mans up and learns how to drive. Soon he is voyaging into the countryside. As he passes log trucks, farms, and millponds, he is “discovering in person,” he thinks, “the face of America.” The real America, in other words, not New York, just as his students “represented the America he had so often heard of, the fabulous, friendly West.”
Where he’s going on that country cruise is to an assignation with one of those very students, a weekend on the coast. He barely makes it. Once, twice, three and four times Levin breaks down or gets stuck or lost on the grimly comic nightmare journey through the mountains. The romance fares no better, one in a series of erotic pratfalls. When a colleague’s wife accosts him in the woods, the two kindle a long-smoldering flirtation right there on the forest floor—but not before he hangs his trousers on a branch. The life of brawn and instinct, the American life, is not for him.
There are other problems. Like Malamud, Levin makes waves in the faculty lounge. He doesn’t merely want to get along, he wants to lift the place, throw out the punctuation drills, and help his students reach the life of the spirit—make them more like himself, in other words. But he states his case in American terms—the humanities as foundation of democracy—quotes Jefferson, not Schiller. It is the great outsider’s strategy (Martin Luther King Jr. used it, too): leveraging American ideals against American practice, a way also of making yourself more American.
But no one in the college wants a lecture from a first-year man on how to do their business—still less from Levin, suspect from the start. There’s that beard. “I respect beards,” Gilley says darkly at their first meeting, “but some of your students may think you’re an oddball.” “Americans have often worn them,” Levin counters. “Are you American?” a barmaid asks. “How come you have that big beard?” One local simply says, “You a Mormon or somethin’?”
A New Life is about trying to assimilate, and with beautiful cunning, the novel tries to assimilate, too. The word “Jew” is absent in all its forms until the very end. Levin, Jewish? Nothing ever tells us so directly. Instead we get that beard, a mask that reveals, a neon light that pulses Jew, Jew, Jew. And there’s another metonym. “No more New Yorkers, goddammit,” says Gilley, as things begin to boil. Then, “Why don’t you go back where you came from—to the stinking goddamn New York subways?”
But it isn’t just the Jews, or New York. Levin’s time in Cascadia is everywhere shadowed by the collective memory of a recent predecessor, a certain Duffy from Chicago, another fledgling instructor who came to grief by opening his mouth too much. Duffy is Irish; Malamud, who married an Italian girl, also knew about Judeo-Catholics. As for Chicago, “That’s East out here,” Gilley snaps. From beyond the grave, Duffy sounds the novel’s single note of urban wit. “The time is out of joint,” his suicide note had read. “I’m leaving the joint.” Duffy’s office becomes Levin’s; Levin reminds everyone of Duffy. The longer he stays in Cascadia, the more we sense that Levin’s acting out a script that was written by his doppelgänger, or maybe just the situation. One of the novel’s working titles was The Easterner. Levin, for all his precious sensitivity, is not an individual, at least not as far as the locals are concerned, he’s a type.
Nothing makes this clearer than what ought to be the most personal thing in his life. Levin falls into a romance at last—with none other than Pauline Gilley, the “lily on a long stalk.” Here is assimilation in earnest. Pauline: not only is her name as Christian as they come, it actually means Christian. So what’s in it for her? Sure enough, she had had an affair with Duffy and is looking to repeat. But it gets worse. Pauline, it turns out, is the one who had seen to it that Levin was brought to Cascadia in the first place, urging her husband to give him the appointment against his better judgment. And the reason? Five pages from the end, the novel plays the card it’s been withholding all along. Says Pauline to her paramour, “Your picture reminded me of a Jewish boy I knew in college who was very kind to me.”
It’s quite a punch line. Trying to escape his Jewishness, Levin finally learns that it’s controlled his fate from the first. He’s not S. Levin, ready for reinvention, he’s The Jew. As for that new life, he may get one with Pauline—the novel’s end is painfully ambiguous—but it won’t be in Cascadia. As it did with Duffy, the place repels the alien intrusion.
Malamud, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking house and married a Catholic, wrote a novel about the impossibility of assimilating. Fiedler, whose parents spoke English and who married a Jew, wrote a short story about the near-impossibility of not doing so. “The Last Jew in America” is about feeling like the odd man out, not, as its title would seem to suggest, among the Christians of Missoula (or Lewis and Clark City, as Fiedler renames it) but among the Jews: “those so-called Jews from the Faculty,” “with their gentile wives” and “their goyish eyes, bloodshot from last night’s cocktail party.” In addition to their equally deracinated brethren downtown, a handful of merchants and lawyers, the place contains only three “real Jews,” a trio of oldsters who form a triptych, not of ethnic loyalty, but of tormented ambivalence.
There is Jacob, the protagonist. He’s the one who rails against the “so-called Jews.” And what kind of Jew is he? The renegade kind, the 14-year-old yeshiva boy in Verenskaya who broke his mother’s heart by staying home on Yom Kippur to eat bread and read Daniel Deronda (gross insubordination, incipient atheism) in Hebrew translation. The Stalinist kind, at least before the inevitable disillusionment, railing against the Zionists as agents of British imperialism. The kind “who fled the shtetl and the graves of my ancestors to be a new man in a new world.” And finally, the sentimental kind, looking, late in life, for kindred and community, dreaming of becoming, for the blissfully assimilated children of the still-abashedly assimilated adults, “a kind of portable grandfather, a door-to-door link with the past.”
There is Louie, dying in a Catholic hospital on this, another Yom Kippur. For Louie, Jacob will pound the streets, scaring up a minyan, a prayer quorum, for a last Kol Nidre. Louie is the professional Jew, raising money for the United Jewish Appeal, organizing “desultory Seders and Purim celebrations,” gathering from the four corners of the earth the ritual substances: Mother’s Gefilte Fish, rye bread with kimmel, and Mogen David wine. But Louie assumed the role of “town Jew”—now passing, Jacob reluctantly feels, to himself—only after being drummed out of the labor union he had loved with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might. “A crooked Jew,” his rival denounced him as (if you forget that you’re a Jew …), and so, having no choice, he became a full-time one.
And then there is Max, Jacob’s bête noire: rich, contemptuous, apoplectic. Show up for the minyan? Over his dead body. Once, he and Jacob and Louie had reminisced about the old country, chatting in Yiddish and sharing copies of the Forwerts. But since then Max has turned into the angry Jew, the fuck-you-both Jew, not an un-Jew but an anti-Jew, not abashedly assimilated but proudly so, militantly so, assimilated in the name of the Six Million. “All the good Jews are dead,” he bellows. For Jacob, Max is “an insult to the Jewish people,” a cartoon out of Der Stürmer, the greedy kike with a hooked nose and grossly comic accent—who also happens to cut a big check every year to the UJA.
Jacob gets his minyan, but Max attacks him for hastening Louie’s death with all the commotion. In a moment of high scorn, Max sells Jacob his share in the World-to-Come for a nickel. The situation is biblical, not Jacob and Max but Jacob and Esau, fighting over Louie—Louie as Isaac, Louie as the past, Louie as Jewishness itself. Jacob, Max: every Jew thinks that he’s the chosen one, the favorite son. Every Jew, conflicted about his own Jewishness, is embarrassed by every other Jew, who’s never the right kind of Jew, never a “real Jew.”
What will the goyim think? Like A New Life, the story takes place against the backdrop of the West, here too the genuine America. (And the backdrop of McCarthyism, a crusade, as Jews and Catholics rose to positions of prominence, to extirpate the “un-American.”) To put a Jew in the West, both Fiedler and Malamud knew, is to confront, without the insulation of an encircling community, the place of the Jew in America. Fiedler’s story gives its title to a set of three linked narratives. In “The Last WASP in the World,” a son of Lewis and Clark City goes to New York and wins renown as a poet, only to find himself submerged in a world of Jews. East is East and West is West, just as they were for Malamud. In “The First Spade in the West,” also set in Lewis and Clark City, a putative descendant of the great expedition’s lone African-American insists on his right to call the town his own. Who are we, Fiedler wants to know, when we’ve left the place we’re from? Writing of Malamud himself (in a book called Fiedler on the Roof), and thinking of Leopold Bloom, he puts the matter thus: “the very notion of the Western Jew is like that of the Irish Jew a joke in itself.”
The American West is no longer what it was, and neither is the American Jew. Portland is the most progressive big city in the country, and Corvallis may be even further to the left. As for the Jews—or this one, anyway—I don’t regard myself as less American than anyone else, don’t require the West to validate my sense of belonging. I don’t worry about being manly enough, or handy enough, or the fact that my parents were immigrants. And whom I have to thank for this is Malamud and Fiedler—them, and everyone else who blazed a trail into the American mainstream, my patriarchs and matriarchs, the pushy Jews who pushed their way in: who interrupted, who got a tone, who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Pioneers, O Pioneers.
In fact, I wonder whether Portland isn’t less American than me, and just because it’s missing me—missing ethnicity, and what goes along with ethnicity and makes up its essence, a sense of history. I understand now why the baristas always ask you how your day is going: because today is the only day that exists here. To put it in another way, there don’t seem to be any grown-ups in Portland. There are people in their 40s and 50s and 70s, but there isn’t anyone who represents the past, and the weight of the past, like my old-timers and Italian grandmothers. There isn’t anything that represents the past. I drove out to Missoula that first year in town, traversing the Northwest from one end to the other. What struck me most along the way was that everything seems to be named after Lewis and Clark: Lewis & Clark College, Lewis and Clark High School, Lewis & Clark RV Park, Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington, etc., etc. (Fiedler’s sly point with “Lewis and Clark City”). The suspicion arises that nothing much has happened in the region since the two of them came through.
When Barack Obama was inaugurated, in a great national celebration, about a year after I returned from the Northeast to live here, my strongest feeling was one of remoteness from the event, a sense that American history was happening, as it almost always has, somewhere else. In the East, you feel as if you’re in the midst of things. Portlanders feel as if they’re in the midst of things, but not the things I’m talking about. Hence the following colloquy, overheard at the gym:
“People talk shit about Oregon, but we got the greatest fucking forests in the world.”
“Yeah, it’s an hour and a half to the beach, an hour and a half to snowboarding, you got great hiking right here, and it’s two and a half hours to the desert. We got it all.”
“I know, dude, it’s fucking crazy.”
He’s right. It is fucking crazy. I was gardening one morning when a blissful hippie couple happened by. “Hey,” they said, “how’s your day going?” Then they praised the perennials, savored the look of the mulch, and urged me with a smile to have a peaceful afternoon. As they strolled on down the street, I realized what they’d been doing. They’d been “sending positive energy into the universe.” How sweet, I thought, and how remarkably naive. What kind of place—and a city, no less—allows you to remain so innocent of history that you can wander through the world on such terms?
And yet I remain, and just, perhaps, for these very reasons. Here is a place that perfectly fulfills my political values but utterly fails to fulfill my cultural ones, and maybe that’s no accident. Portland doesn’t much remind me of the country that I know, but I came here, after all, to discover a new America. New York may be the city of my past, but Portland—green, self-limiting, communitarian—is, I believe, the city of our future. Or at least it needs to be, if we’re going to have a future. As any student of American history can tell you, you reach the new by releasing the old. And as any student of another place can tell you—I mean a certain strip of land between the Jordan and the sea—too much memory can kill you.
After a dozen years in Corvallis, Malamud left for Bennington College, long a magnet for artists. After two dozen in Missoula, Fiedler was recruited by the State University of New York at Buffalo, which was building a first-class English department. Malamud had “no complicated emotions” about leaving the West. A New Life, in fact, is an often mocking roman à clef about his faculty associates. Written during his last years in Corvallis but not published until he was safely back east, the novel is a kind of farewell stink bomb flung over his shoulder at the place that rejected him. But when Fiedler visited Missoula a few years after his departure, he felt, to his surprise, as if he had come home. “[I]t is a Montana landscape I see when I close my eyes,” he said around this time, “its people I imagine understanding, or more often misunderstanding me. And in this sense, I have to think of myself as a Western writer.”
As for me, my sojourn in Portland has reminded me of something else I used to hear in Zionist youth movement. It is the most famous line in Hebrew poetry, composed by Yehudah Halevi in 12th-century Spain. “My heart is in the East, and I am at the end of the West.” An immigrant, I realize now, is exactly what I am. You flee the old country for the promise of a better life, and then you spend your time regretting what you left behind. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? You come for the political values, but then you lament the cultural ones. These Americans! The Russians in Brighton Beach stare out across the water as if they were gazing at the Black Sea, and I keep a MetroCard in my wallet. If I forget thee, O Manhattan. I understand why people used to go back to be buried in Calabria or County Cork. Put it this way: I want to live here, but I don’t want to die here.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.