Lester Drentluss, a Jewish Boy From Baltimore, Attempts to Make It Through the Summer of 1967
ALTHOUGH Lester Drentluss, the mildly promising New York editor, held a party celebrating Israel’s military victory and modestly accepted congratulations at the door, he was not someone who had become militantly Jewish only when it became clear that the Israeli armies had crushed the combined might of the Arab world. Lester had detected a fashion for Jewishness in his own world several years before, when Yiddish words began to appear in the conversation of his firm’s chief editor, Douglas Drake, a Methodist minister’s son from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. “There’s no use trying to sell books to the goyim,”Drake had said one day as he announced his decision to devote 90 percent of the firm’s advertising budget to a historical novel based on the saga of the first Jewish frogman.
“But why would he put down his own majority group?” Lester asked later, when he had learned from Drake’s secretary, an Irish girl from Queens, that goyim means gentiles.
The secretary shrugged. “Everybody’s got his own mishogas,” she said.
Although Lester was Jewish, he felt left out. (“It means ‘craziness,’ ” the secretary added impatiently, anxious to get back to her copy of Exodus.) His family had been in Baltimore, Maryland, for five generations, and his parents were so militantly Americanized that he had once been spanked for doing an imitation of A1 Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Whenever his mother heard anything that sounded as if it might be Yiddish, she immediately said, “Well, I’m sure I don’t know what that means” — a habit that was so ingrained that she once blurted out “Well, I’m sure I don’t know what that means" after a brother-in-law she suspected of overt Jewishness told her he wanted to keep a bit of gossip “entre nous.”
At the first word of Yiddish from Douglas Drake, Lester decided to reappraise his own ethnic situation; Drake was known as a trend-spotter. Soon Lester began to spot some signs of a trend himself — a boom in Jewish novels here, a Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin there, He noticed an increasing use of Jewish mothers by comedians and of Jewish advisers by politicians. Scotch-Irish professors seemed undisturbed about being included in the category of “Jewish intellectuals.” The gentile movie stars who failed to convert to Judaism repented by donating their talents to Bonds for Israel benefits. The subway graffiti had begun to include phrases like “Medea Is a Yenta” and “Kafka Is a Kvetch.” Lester’s final decision came in February, 1965, while he was reading an article in Life magazine about Robert Lowell, the New England poet. “Do I feel left-out in a Jewish age?" Lowell was quoted as saying. “Not at all. Fortunately, I’m one-eighth Jewish myself, which I do feel is a saving grace.”Lester decided that the day a Boston Lowell Bragged about being Jewish was the day a Baltimore Drentluss ought to let it be known that he was at least eight times as Jewish as Robert Lowell.
That night, he tried out his Jewishness tentatively on Rosemary Higgins, a willowy blonde on whom he had been trying things out tentatively for six months with little success. “I think it’s rather ironic that America’s Everyman might turn out to be Herzog instead of some goy,” he said to Rosemary as they had wine and gefilte fish at the apartment of Lemuel Scroggins, the Southern Populist poet.
“The Jewish sensibility is really rather unique,” Rosemary said.
“Thank you very much,” Lester said, trying to shrug his shoulders in the manner of Menasha Skulnik. “Nice of you to say so.”
Gradually, Lester began to tell self-deprecating stories about the quaintly domineering mother who had raised him on love and chicken soup with kreplach (his mother, in fact, had only tasted kreplach once, at the home of a poor relation, and had taken pains to compliment the hostess on the lightness of her won tons). He published a short literary-quarterly article called “The Schlemiel as Hero its American Literature.” He complained often of heartburn.
Robert Lowell had been right; it was a Jewish world. At work, Lester’s colleagues seemed to take a new interest in his opinions on which Jewish novel to publish each month. At the fashionable bagels-and-lox brunches given by Lemuel Scroggins on Sundays, Lester began to feel more a part of the conversation. Scroggins phoned to invite him almost every week — usually adding that he should “bring along that lil’ ole blond shiksa Rosemary.” Lester’s acquaintances began to assume that Rosemary was his to bring along; she often confided to the girls in the group that the most exciting men were “Mediterranean types.” Lester also suspected that he was communicating better with Wash Jefferson, the group’s favorite Negro. “Don’t think I don’t understand your suffering, Wash,” he said to Jefferson just after the Selma march. “We’ve all been down that road.”
“You sure are a sensitive mother,” Jefferson said.
Lester’s only problem was his parents, who decided to pay him a visit when his letters began to take on a disturbingly ethnic tone. “Well, I’m sure I don’t know what that means,” his mother had said after Lester called his gouging landlord a goniff while showing his parents through the apartment. “You certainly didn’t pick up language like that at home, I can tell you that.”
Lester’s father, who had seemed calmer than his wife at first, suddenly accused his son of learning Yiddish at Berlitz, an idea that had actually occurred to Lester at one point before he finally prevailed upon Douglas Drake’s secretary to help him with his Yiddish during lunch hours.
“I thought you might like to see Fiddler on the Roof tonight,” Lester said, trying to re-establish a friendly atmosphere as he passed his mother a drink and a plate of cocktail blintzes. “They say it manages to convey some of the tradition of humor and suffering that all of us carry from the ghetto.”
“What ghetto!” his mother said. She began to cry.
“I’m surprised at you, talking to your mother like that,” Mr. Drentluss said. “Don’t the traditions of our people mean anything to you, Lester — five generations in Baltimore, a law firm full of gentiles? How can you flout your own heritage?”
“But people change in America,” Lester said. “Frankly, Dad, the old traditions are mostly a lot of mishogas.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what that means,” his mother said, between sobs. “I’m only thankful that your grandparents aren’t alive to see this.”
For his Israeli Victory Party, Lester had tried to rent Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery, and then decided to settle for his own apartment. He and Rosemary arranged a magnificent display of food; Lemuel Scroggins said it looked like “the Great Bar Mitzvah in the Sky.”
“Mazel tov,” Douglas Drake said when he came in. “It’s a great day, even though the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Tent Fire Disaster of 1944 has erupted in my chest.”
“With me it’s felt like the Coconut Grove fire since that lunch,” Lester said. He and Drake often compared heartburn symptoms, and both were suffering from a huge lunch celebrating Lester’s triumph in landing a blockbuster book that every publisher had been after — a first-person account by the only Jewish-American dentist to take part in the Sinai Campaign. Rosemary, clinging to Lester’s bicep, told Drake that the company should do a follow-up book on the tradition of ferocity in the Mediterranean fighting man. Lester shrugged.
Just three or four weeks after the Victory Party, during a period when Lester was in the habit of humming “Havanagilah” in the elevators, he was surprised and disturbed to read that an officer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had made a speech complaining about Zionist aggression and “Jew storekeepers.” Two or three Episcopal priests of Lester’s acquaintance resigned from SNCG in protest, and some of his Jewish friends endorsed the statement and asked forgiveness. Lester was confused. A few days later, he overheard somebody at a Lemuel Scroggins brunch say that Jewish storekeepers in the ghetto were more at fault for the summer riots than anybody, with the possible exception of Jewish liberals. Lester thought at first that it might have been an isolated incident, but then Douglas Drake, with ominous enthusiasm, asked him to read the manuscript of a black nationalist book called Can the Jews Atone for Everything on the Day of Atonement? Moved by the manuscript, Lester phoned Wash Jefferson to apologize.
“I don’t blame you,” he said to Jefferson.
“Don’t blame me for what, man?” Jefferson asked. “Did you get blackballed at one of those clubs I put you up for?”
“I don’t blame you for hating me,” Lester said.
“I don’t hate you, Goldberg,” Jefferson said.
“My name is Drentluss.”
“You Jews sure are sensitive mothers,” Jefferson said.
Lester stopped humming in the elevators. “I don’t know what this storekeeper business has to do with you,” his mother wrote him when she heard he was depressed. “Your people have been professional men for three generations.” Lester was surprised to find himself slightly cheered up by his mother’s letter; his relatives were innocent, and he himself could hardly be accused of exploiting the ghetto when he had never been there. A week later, his spirits dropped again when he was not included in a Scroggins brunch honoring some people who had participated in a seminar called “Black Power, the Third World and the Exploiters.” Rosemary went, and reported that Lemuel, who had formerly spoken of Negroes as “them poor downtrodden schwartzas in Alabama,” was beginning to talk about “black people” — whether he was referring to his cleaning lady, Hazel M. Jones, or to Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser.
One night, late in the summer, Douglas Drake, who no longer seemed to be suffering from heartburn, came to Lester’s apartment to drop off a rush manuscript on the agonies of the Palestine refugees. As Drake walked in, Rosemary looked up from a magazine article on the occupation of Old Jerusalem and asked Lester if he thought it was wise for non-Christians to have control over Christian shrines.
“I don’t know much about it,” Lester said.
“It’s hard to understand why they won’t at least give back the West Bank of the Jordan,” Drake said. “After all that napalm they dropped on it, it can’t be worth much anyway.”
“They’re a strange people,” Lester said. “They surely are.” He couldn’t understand why Drake seemed to hold him personally responsible for what Jews did in Jordan; his family had been in Baltimore for five generations.
Rosemary looked up from her magazine again. “I think Moshe Dayan might have too much chutzpah for his own good,”she said.
Drake smiled at Lester knowingly.
Lester looked puzzled. “Chutzpah?” he said. “I don’t think I know what that means.”