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“Those Damn Jews …”
A writer’s poignant memoir of a people whom he had been taught to fear and learned to love in a time of trouble
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
Then I met the poet, out of a Jewish immigrant family from Vienna, son of a peddler of tin pots in the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri who still drove over the tough hills (the “arcs") selling pans out of a buggy to the poor families clinging for their lives to those rocky slopes. His son’s name was that of an angel, Gabriel, and he could be a devil. As a kid he had spoken Yiddish and Osage and then learned English from Catholic sisters; his talk was full of Christian phrases and Ozark Mountain talk, invocations of the saints and earthy references to the fact that men and women were really made out of the humble body of the earth. I was writing poetry and so was he; mine was about the usual glories and horrors of adolescence, his about tough-minded, tough-muscled, and tough-talking Ozark farmers. I had long since given up carrying the torch as a Shabbas goy; he had long since given up actively running his department store after a massive heart attack. After hours at my drugstore job I would go to his apartment, where he lay on a couch in a robe, and intone my poems in what must have been a revolting and cracking voice. Gabe would listen with interest, and then say, “Now Paul, I’ve got a new one,” and he would read in a near-hillbilly accent a poem of violence and love and hate and hound dogs which would have shocked his Viennese ancestors.
The years rolled their brutal course down the hill of time. Still poor, my clothes still smelling of the horse barn, still writing those doubtful poems where too much emotion clashed with too many words.I went one evening to Gabe and told him that I had just been given a Rhodes Scholarship for three years at Oxford University. He looked at me with those strong and fiery eyes that lit up all of that weakened body. Silence while he handled the shock of my news. Then he said, quietly, “What clothes are you going to wear when you land in Oxford?”
I looked down at the cheap stuff I was wearing. “These.”
Gabe’s temper was like an owl—it was quick to take off and it could fly through darkness. With the shout of an Old Testament prophet accusing a sinner, his small hands making large circles in the air, each of his eyes a burning bush, he screamed at me, “No son of mine [by then I had become an honorary son] is going to go to England looking like that! Go down to the store tomorrow. I’ll leave orders. Start from scratch. Get an outfit that won’t make us ashamed. Jesus Christ, if you’ll excuse my using that expression, you look like a bum. And now you’re going to become a god damn gentleman, the first one in your family.” He paused for breath. Then he said with a great effort (he was not supposed to become excited because of his failing heart), lifting his hands toward me in a gesture of love such as I have seldom known in a life which has been lucky with those who have loved me for the person they thought I was, “Paul, I want you to start with a bare ass. Get everything.” Across the room, his shaking hands seemed to touch my forehead. I could not read a poem. I could not speak.
Next morning I went to every department of Gäbe’s store. Socks, underwear, shirt, neckties, suits, overcoat, raincoat, hat. Looking back, I can see that one suit must have been a horror; it had not only trousers and jacket, but also a revolting object called “golf knickers,” emphasizing my naturally bowed legs. When I walked through the ancient dark gate of Merton College, Oxford ( A.D. 1256), in a University which for centuries Jews had been forbidden to enter, I was wearing wholly Jewish clothes.
For my Oxford degree I had to translate French and German philosophy (as it turned out, Descartes and Kant) at sight without a dictionary. That meant Germany for my first summer vacation, to learn the thorny language on my own. With grammar, phrase book, and dictionary I lived up in the mountains of Bavaria. There I met Franz, the truest European I ever knew. He sang folk songs in French. He had taught at the school in Bishop’s Stortford which Cecil Rhodes, my benefactor, had attended. He had left England in July, 1914, for a month at home in Germany and never returned, caught in the division of students which was later slaughtered at Langemark. He had written a Ph.D. dissertation on “Die Philosophie von als ob,” the philosophy of “as if.” Nothing could have been more relevant to Nazi Germany of those years than the concept of reality not as existential being, but as if what you experienced in your blind emotions were actually actual.