“BUT YOU didn’t tell us anything about your being Jewish,” said one of my otherwise admiring readers, referring to Tuesday’s auto-analysis. Someone did point out this omission, but even if no one had, someone should have, in order to enable me to return to a subject which, with all modesty, must remain one of the few favorite subjects which will always be left to me. Some years ago there was young chap named Beverley Nichols who wrote an autobiography at the age of twenty-five. To begin at the beginning.
I was born of poor and honest, but Jewish, parents, in a rather small town in a province which belonged to Austria at the time I was born in it, but is now the more or less proud possession of Poland. I do not think of myself as a Pole, however, and have been mistaken for an Englishman, Spaniard (which is quite silly) and, especially, Viennese, because of my song and dance. When persons, thinking to flatter me, say, “Oh, but you don’t look at all Jewish”, I retort, “My mother wouldn’t like that at all”, which is a way of informing them that the intended compliment has fallen on barren ground. But there was one man who wasn’t fooled, and who didn’t try to fool me, and he was blind. (This is something that deserves a separate paragrph, all to itself.)
Once many years ago I was a reporter for the Harlem Home News. I was assigned to interview a retired police captain who was living in Washington Heights, which the News was then cultivating as new territory. I asked a number of questions and got them answered, but in the middle of our interview, this man, blind as he was, said: “You’re a Jewish lad, aren’t you?” I was taken aback and asked, “How can you tell?” “I can tell by the way you speak.” I always remember this blind, but honest, retired captain when people who have their sight think to flatter me by saying, “Oh, but you’re not Jewish.”
But this takes us ahead of our fascinating story. I was brought to this country at the age of four or five and I know that our first address was somewhere on dear old Allen Street, It was on, or near Allen Street that I first learned what little I ever learned of the Hebrew language and the Hebrew ritual. I don’t think the old fellow who taught us-for some miserable weekly or monthly pittance-was very much up on the Montessori, or any other educational, system, and learning as unwillingly as I did, I retained very, very little, and in today’s balance sheet, the teachings of that Allen Street melamed figure as practically sheer waste.
But, strange as it may seem, I enjoyed attending synagogue services, but for a reason that would have made my pious ancestors-my mother tells me that my forbears were forbiddingly holy men-turn in their graves. I attended the synagogue Lecause I enjoyed the opera singing. I uscd to watch the backs of the cantor’s necks get purple ridges with the effort of ejecting treble notes, but with all this I heard some really fine singing-first at a synagogue somewhere on Rivington Street and, later, on 116th Street near Lenox Avenue, in the synagogue which the late Josef Rosenblatt made famous with his voice. But on such occasions when good cantors were not performing I used to spend many a Sabbath morning walking in the sunlight, often in the northeast and northwest sections of Central Park, and upon my return from these strolls, my mother, suspecting the truth, would chaff me by asking how I had enjoyed the singing of the dumb cantor.
My memory at this moment fails to dredge out of the past any more odds and ends which might fit into this portrait of myself as Jew. I think I may sum up my whole career by saying that I have been a professing, rather than a practicing Jew. I do not believe that I have thrown the Jewish question into every conversation in which I have taken part. I have, as I already have indicated, many interests which are neither Jewish nor non-Jewish. I have assumed my Jewishness rather than made a Jewish question out of myself. Those of us who were present Monday afternoon at the luncheon in honor of Professor Einstein and to mark the assumption of the editorship of the Jewish Daily Bulletin by Mr. Herman Bernstein were amused when Mr. Bernstein, recalling his diplomatic mission, said that in Albania, at least, there was no Jewish question, since there were only one hundred Jews in that country. This reminded me of a line in George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra.” An individual, or a delegation, is calling on Caesar, but Caesar isn’t in his tent. A servant or a secretary informs the caller, or callers, that the big man is outside “settling the Jewish question.” Which leads me into a little bypath. If Shaw wasn’t merely wise-cracking-a practice which has never been beneath him-and if there were Jews in Egypt at the time of Caesar and Antony, they must have been the descendants of those Jews who had refused to follow Moses out of the brick factories and thus kept the Jewish question alive in Egypt-of all places.
Maybe Lewis Browne, sections of whose book, “How Odd of God”, the Bulletin has commenced publishing, may be able to cast some light on the historic probability of Caesar having to take off an Egyptian afternoon to settle the Jewish problem. But Mr. Browne is now where the Jewish problem is even less acute than it is in Albania. He and Mrs. Browne left Santa Monica last Friday for a South Seas cruise of several months. “We’re looking for an island”, he writes to me, “where the natives wear neither brown nor silver shirts-indeed no shirts at all.” Just think what fun it must be not to wear a shirt in January and not catch cold!