The Inevitable Pit

Stephen Greenblatt writes about his family and the New World

I am an American who thinks of himself (interchangeably, with increasing degrees of specificity) as an Eastern European Jew, an Ashkenazi and a Litvak, but this self-identification, I have to acknowledge, is strange. It is true that my grandparents were born in Lithuania: my father’s parents in Kovna, my mother’s in Vilna. But they left for America sometime in the early 1890s, and, with a single exception, it was more than a century before anyone in my family returned for a visit. No one seems to remember the precise year of their departure or even the precise occasion, though there was somewhat vague talk, when I was growing up, about the need to escape a tsarist Russification scheme that centred on drafting eligible young Jewish men into the Army for 25-year terms of military service. I know that the Russian Government lurched between wanting to isolate Jews in a carefully demarcated Pale of Settlement, as if they were a dangerous virus, and wanting to swallow and absorb them by destroying their separate identity. Twenty-five sounds suspiciously like a mythic number, but Russian reality has often had a mythic quality, so it is possible that some such scheme at one time existed, and even a much shorter term of military service would have seemed almost unendurable, particularly to anyone who was committed, as were both my grandfathers, to observing Kashrut and keeping at least a reasonable number of the other commandments.

My grandparents must, in any case, have had very little stake in staying in Lithuania: they were young and poor, and they had relatives who had already ventured off to the New World and sent back encouraging reports, along with money to help pay for their passage. I have no doubt that they wanted to maintain their religious identity: they lived out the rest of their lives as reasonably pious, observant Jews, keeping kosher homes, going to shul, sending their sons to cheder, saying Kaddish for their dead.[*] But they left Eastern Europe not only and perhaps not principally as religious refugees; they were economic migrants, participating in a vast movement of populations from the stagnant economies and closed communities of Eastern and Southern Europe to the vibrant, shifting, unstable, largely unregulated society of the United States. Like so many others in the decades before 1914 – the great masses of Sicilians and Calabrians, of Poles, Ukrainians and Romanians, along with the Irish, the Germans and the Swedes – my grandparents packed up their few treasured belongings (a pair of candlesticks, a heavy brass mortar and pestle, the formal clothing they are wearing in the old sepia photographs) and said their farewells. They left quickly and illegally – in the case of my maternal grandparents, escaping across the border hidden beneath the straw of a peasant’s wagon – made their way to a port city, sailed seasick and miserable in steerage, passed through Ellis Island, and headed off to wherever they had contacts with those who had preceded them.

On landing in the New World, my relatives stayed in the cities of the North-East – Boston, New York and Montreal. (This allows us to say with some confidence that they were not leaving Lithuania because of the climate.) There were only two exceptions. One couple evidently boarded the wrong train and wound up in Savannah, Georgia, where in a scant generation they became drawling Southerners with dubious opinions about race relations and strong regional enthusiasms. (My father’s cousin, Mike Greenblatt, wrote a well-known football song: ‘I’m a rambling wreck from Georgia Tech, and a hell of an engineer.’) Another relation ventured out west, with his wife and two small children, to try his hand as a pedlar in Wyoming. This was the occasion of the unique return to Lithuania to which I have alluded: after some years in what must have been a singularly raw and difficult environment, the pedlar’s wife, declaring that it was simply too difficult to get kosher meat, returned with her daughter to Vilna. This was not, in historical perspective, a wise decision. The pedlar became the wealthy and successful owner of a department store in Cheyenne, which he left to his son. Decades passed and, in the late 1930s, the son, who remained unmarried all his life, received a letter in Yiddish, written in a shaky hand by the mother who had abandoned him. She begged him to send money for his sister’s passage to America, but, emotionally wounded and ambivalent, he delayed, and subsequently both his mother and his sister perished in the Holocaust.

But it was not any premonition of world-historical disaster that drove my relatives away from Eastern Europe, nor were they determined, like the Hasidim, the Amish, or for that matter the Puritans, to cling tenaciously in the New World to a strictly separate mode of life. To be sure, my grandparents lived in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood – now a predominantly African American neighbourhood – and they attended a shul whose chants and customs greatly resembled what they would have known in Lithuania. At home they spoke their fantastically expressive Yiddish, rich in curses, charms to ward off the evil eye, and terms of endearment. The women cooked the heavy, heart-attack inducing food – flanken, kreplach, tzimmis, zoyas, blintzes, and chicken soup glistening with droplets of schmaltz – that had delighted and killed off their own parents and grandparents. And they clung to a set of distinctions that seemed, by the time I encountered them, as mysterious, impenetrable and irrelevant as the differences, savoured by Italians, among Genovese, Milanese and Torinese. Somehow my father always seemed to know, as if by occult signals, not only whether a person in the news or a performer on stage or someone he had just met was Jewish but whether he was Litvak, Galitzianer or Russisher, fine distinctions that seemed to matter to him, though I could never figure out why or in what way. When I was growing up, it seemed particularly absurd to me that, because her parents had come from Vilna rather than Kovna, my mother, born in Boston, somehow regarded herself as ineffably superior to my father, also born in Boston, and still more absurd that my father seemed to accede to this distinction. But, in retrospect, I recognise that these distinctions were signs that the inner world of Eastern Europe had survived for a half-century after the exodus.

It had survived, but it was fading fast. My grandparents came to America to improve their lot, or, more accurately, to make it possible for their children to do so. Certainly, my paternal grandfather, who was his whole life a poor ragpicker with a horse and wagon, did not dramatically advance his own fortunes; I imagine he could have done what he did just as well in Kovna. But what could not have happened in Kovna – or at least was wildly unlikely to have happened – was the uncoiling, as it were, of the spring of educational and professional ambition in the next generation. Though the family had almost no money, my father, their only son, managed to go to law school. He would put his shoes outside his door at night so that his father, the ragpicker, could polish them.

By the late 1940s, my father’s modest success as a lawyer had propelled the family out of poverty and into the middle class with its potent symbols: a car, a house in the suburbs, a television set, summer vacations at the seashore in Maine. These symbols were the same as those to which the Irish and the Italians and the Poles aspired: in one generation the fundamental shape of my family’s life had become virtually indistinguishable from that of everyone else. It was no longer conspicuously Eastern European, or Litvak, or even Jewish: it was quite simply American. When my parents listened to popular radio shows like Fibber McGee and Molly or Burns and Allen, when they watched I Love Lucy or the Ed Sullivan Show, when they went to Red Sox baseball games and outdoor concerts by the Boston Pops, they were participating in a collective culture that did not acknowledge – either with interest or dislike – their difference.

There was an inherent contradiction, or at the very least a grave tension, between the desire of my grandparents to enter the economic mainstream of American life and their desire to retain what we could call their culture, if by that term we mean a relatively stable and well-demarcated set of traditional religious, social and aesthetic practices and values. To be sure, virtually all of their friends were fellow Litvaks, for the most part family members, as were most of their business associates. But they sent their children to public schools, which meant English language education, and though they predominantly spoke Yiddish at home, they learned English and used it in their everyday lives.

My father claimed that his father, whom I never knew, spoke English almost completely without an accent, except for an embarrassing tendency to pronounce the silent second ‘l’ in Abraham Lincoln’s surname. My parents and their siblings naturally learned Yiddish as the mammaloshen, but they acceded cheerfully, though with occasional nostalgic glances backward, to the overwhelming dominance of English. My father could still read Yiddish, although, unlike my grandfather, he could not write it. He loved to share jokes, especially dirty jokes, in Yiddish with his friends. (Often, and maddeningly to me as a child, only the punchline, greeted with a burst of raucous laughter, was in Yiddish.) But the language as a whole – that is, as a medium for an entire life-world – was crumbling into pungent, almost untranslatable characterisations (shlemiel, shlemazel, nebbish, shmegegge, meshuggener, paskudnyak and so forth) and isolated, endlessly recycled phrases: kaynahora (a magical invocation to ward off the evil eye); gay in drerd (‘go to hell’; literally, ‘go into the earth’); khob zey in bod (‘to hell with them’; literally, ‘I have them in the bath’); ‘I need it like a loch in kop,’ (‘hole in the head’); hock a tchynik (‘to yammer or talk nonsense’; literally, ‘to chop a teakettle’); oy vay iz mir (‘O woe is me’); ‘so langer yor, Stevie’ (‘so many more years’ – whenever my name was mentioned in conjunction with anyone who had died); and, with melancholy frequency, oisgevorfene gelt (‘money thrown away’). He and my mother would speak to each other in Yiddish when they wanted to keep something a secret; though as a code, phrases like funf taller (for ‘five dollars’) seemed to me pathetically weak. Still, I have to grant the overall opacity of their shared language, for to my great regret I never learned it simply by overhearing their conversations, and they never made any effort to teach it to me or my brother.

Why didn’t they do so? Though they made fun of accented English, I don’t think they were ashamed of Yiddish, and they understood the pleasure conferred by such writers as Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz and Mendele Mocher Sforim. But they evidently did not feel that the language was a link to a place worth remembering or to a culture worth preserving. My parents, as far as I can tell, were never curious about the place from which their parents had come, and after the war they felt active revulsion. To Yiddish culture, they felt a sentimental attachment, but they did not choose to hand it on to their children. They were, to be sure, very much committed to transmitting Jewishness: my father spent a huge amount of his time serving B’nai B’rith and the Anti-Defamation League and the synagogue; my parents kept a kosher house, lit Sabbath candles and observed the holidays; my brother and I were sent to Hebrew school and were called to the Torah at 13; and we were told again and again, long before we began to go out on dates, that we must only marry Jews. What was this insistence about? Religion, of course: my parents’ lectures frequently invoked the difficulty that the children of religious mixed marriages would inevitably have, not knowing what they were. But there was another theme that would always be introduced, which seemed to me even then to be reaching back to the past. Not the past of my parents, but something of the more distant past that had been hidden in the wagon under the hay when my grandparents left Eastern Europe and had been carried in steerage to the United States.

Their world was very firmly divided between Jews and goyim. If there was a plane crash and fifty people were killed, my Aunt Rose, the most conservative voice in my family, would scan the newspaper list of victims for Jewish names and exclaim: ‘What an unglick; six Jews died.’ All of my family had a special feeling for Jonas Salk or Albert Einstein that they did not have for non-Jewish doctors and scientists, and if a criminal in the news turned out to be Jewish, they felt a special shame bordering on fear. When I was vociferously protesting the Vietnam War, my Aunt Rose once said to me: ‘We should be grateful that they let us live here.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ I cried: ‘You were born in Boston.’ Though I must have understood that for most of the world through most of history, citizenship was not so automatically conferred, my aunt’s American birthright seemed to me so overwhelming and decisive that I could scarcely conjure up the mental world in which it was only a provisional circumstance.

Gratitude was not the defining attitude of my family toward the Christians among whom they lived, however. Goyim were not actively hated and, apart from the contemptuous phrase goyishe kop, were not openly despised. My parents would insist, with rather too much ecumenical sweetness, that there were some very fine goyim: indeed, many whose intelligence and moral rectitude put the Jews to shame. But there was always a scarcely hidden suspicion, no doubt fuelled not only by atavistic memories of the old country but also by their own direct experience of ethnic slurs and nastiness. And the suspicion reached a climax in any conversation, and there were many, about mixed marriages. ‘You may find a nice shiksa and fall in love with her. Not all goyim are coarse. Many of them are truly refined, and you may marry one and live happily together for years. But someday, when you least expect it, the two of you will be having an argument, and the argument will get more and more heated, and then at its height your wife will call you a “dirty Jew”.’

We may regard this fear as the dark side of my parents’ primordial loyalty, their commitment to what they took to be their natal community, and their conviction that at the core of what lay outside of this community was hatred. They never expected an answer to this clinching argument against intermarriage; it seemed to them so self-evidently horrible that it represented an absolute bar to venturing outside the culture. But why then did they let Yiddish, the beating heart of that culture, go? It is possible that the answer lies in the Holocaust. If the Germans and their friends had not so successfully exterminated the Yiddish-speaking populations of Eastern Europe, then those communities might have continued to be a vital cultural force to this day, producing exciting music, theatre, literature and art. This cultural dynamism, the argument would continue, might have drawn the American-born children and grandchildren of immigrants back into their orbit. The problem is that there has been no comparable drawing power among groups whose European populations were not sent to the gas chambers. That is, the descendents of Swedish, Italian, French, Russian, German, Greek, Polish, Korean, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, all present in huge numbers in the United States, also fairly quickly lost their languages. (The only great exceptions here are the immigrants from Latin America, who have tenaciously clung to Spanish, though at a high economic cost, and have succeeded in making it the country’s all but official second language.) There was, in other words, nothing particularly unique about the pattern of culture loss and assimilation in Eastern European Jewish families; the erosion of primordial loyalty in two to three generations has been more or less typical of most immigrant groups to the United States.

The experience of these groups reflects features of American society that are significant in themselves and powerful as a model of what a successfully united Europe is likely, with some significant variations, to have to embrace. My family, more or less wittingly and willingly, took the plunge into an economic life whose central principle is the ceaseless destruction of the old in the embrace of the new. ‘In nature,’ the visionary philosopher of this life, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in an essay of 1839, ‘every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energising spirit.’ ‘The coming only is sacred’: my grandparents would never have assented to this proposition, even at the moment they turned away from the past and climbed the gangplank onto the steamship, for they were committed to the ancient commandments of the God of Israel. But when they entered the New World, they encountered a social order whose attitude towards commitments like theirs was not so much rooted hatred as indifference shading into contempt, impatience and boundless restlessness. ‘The Greek sculpture is all melted away, as if it had been statues of ice,’ Emerson observes with equanimity,

here and there a solitary figure or fragment remaining, as we see flecks and scraps of snow left in cold dells and mountain clefts, in June and July. For the genius that created it creates now somewhat else. The Greek letters last a little longer, but are already passing under the same sentences, and tumbling into the inevitable pit which the creation of new thought opens for all that is old.

To anyone who has survived the 20th century, the phrase ‘the inevitable pit’ is chilling, and the passage heightens the queasiness by continuing in a proto-Nietzschean vein: ‘The new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet; the new races fed out of the decomposition of the foregoing.’ But it is not Vilna’s Ponary Hills, piled high with corpses, that Emerson’s heated rhetoric is anticipating here: rather, it is full-fledged American enterprise capitalism, consigning traditional modes of living to the trash heap in order to make way for new modes that will themselves soon be obsolete. ‘See the investment of capital in aqueducts made useless by hydraulics,’ Emerson exclaims, ‘fortifications, by gunpowder, roads and canals, by railways, sails, by steam, steam by electricity.’ It would be possible to tinge such an observation with nostalgic regret: indeed, there is a literary tradition, at least as old as Ariosto’s stanzas on gunpowder as the end of chivalry, that laments the destructive consequences of technological advances. But far from expressing regret, Emerson embraces the destruction of the old as an essential element in the thrilling realisation of human freedom.

Reflecting in a brilliant new book on this Emersonian vision and the economic order it celebrates,[†] Philip Fisher argues that democratic social space in America depends on and fosters what he calls ‘a culture of abstraction’, atomistic, unbounded and transparent. The United States lacks virtually all of those elements that, to European thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, were the preconditions of nationhood: Americans are not a Volk; there is no single unifying environment or climate; and the population did not share a set of culture heroes – the equivalent of Luther, Bach, Goethe and Beethoven in the German struggle for unification – around whom a national identity could be fashioned. Instead, with its waves of immigration, Fisher suggests, America is a culture of creative destruction, where the thickness of traditional ethnic, religious, linguistic or historical communities is replaced by the deliberate thinness of an interchangeable and uniform world of mass-produced objects, desires and pleasures.

In assimilating to the culture of the New World, immigrants like my grandparents did not submit to the traditional rituals and stories of another, dominant group: no one made them set foot in a church, bow down to graven images, recite the mythic creation stories of alien peoples, erect a Christmas tree in their living room or eat tref. But the material world in which they participated was a national culture whose immense transforming power over their lives derived precisely from its refusal of the local and the particular. This refusal was, of course, hugely to the advantage of the new arrivals, because in effect it made everyone an immigrant. ‘By choosing to have no tradition,’ Fisher writes, ‘no deep and permanent stories, no old songs, no traditional dances and ceremonies, a democratic culture, aided by the dynamic of technology and what we now call entertainment, proceeded to level in every generation the playing field between the natives and the newly arrived.’ At the same time and for the same reason, American culture had far more enzymatic power to break down my grandparents’ Eastern European Jewish identity than the Tsar’s Army could ever have had. To the extent that they migrated to America in order to preserve their traditions, my grandparents made a spectacular mistake, akin to moving to Guadalcanal to escape World War Two.

What if they had stayed behind? What if my grandmothers, whose executive power was no less formidable for being largely concealed within the home, had flatly declared that they could not abandon their aged parents or that they doubted the availability of kosher meat or even (far less plausibly) that they could not endure to leave the pine forests and blue lakes of Lithuania? What if my grandfathers had found a way to escape the military draft and decided that after all they had a future in Vilna and Kovna? My paternal grandfather could have had his horse and wagon; my maternal grandfather his little hardware shop and his sign painting. They could have said Kaddish for their parents where their parents, too, had said Kaddish. But I do not imagine that their lives between 1881 and 1939 would have been frozen in traditional patterns firmly set in place by the 18th century. As the tensions built up around them, they and their children, my parents and aunts and uncles, would have had to decide whether to become involved in the Bund or in Zionist groups or in spiritual revival movements or in secularising circles. In the 1920s and 1930s the pressures escalated, and, even as they were scrambling simply to make a living, they would have heard about events in Russia, in Germany and in Poland, and they would have tried to understand what these events portended.

From the perspective of the United States, it sometimes seems as if life in the old country remained fixed in its customs, only coming to an end in the catastrophe of the Final Solution, but I know that this stillness, this existence somehow outside history, is an illusion. Yet I am confident that, whatever changes might have occurred in their lives in the 1920s and 1930s, one thing would not have happened: my grandparents would never have thought of themselves or their children as Lithuanians or Poles, in the way that they came to think of themselves and their children as Americans. (In the early 20th century some Jews in Poland tried to call themselves ‘Poles of the Mosaic persuasion’ or some such thing, and there may have been similar attempts in Lithuania. But by the 1920s these adventures in assimilation had foundered on the rocks of intensified anti-semitism and racial nationalism.) No matter how long their families had lived in the same villages and no matter how well they were faring economically, they were not going to define themselves in national terms and abandon their primary identification as Jews, any more than the Swedes who lived for centuries in Russia abandoned their primary identification as Swedes.

For an alternative model, my grandparents, had they remained in Lithuania, would not have had to look as far away as the United States: they could have looked to Germany. There the majority of the Jewish population did identify themselves powerfully and primarily as Germans. One of the most strangely moving sights today in Berlin is the Weissensee Cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, which is a monument to the Germanness of German Jewry. In their architectural motifs, their inscriptions, and even the shape of their elegant lettering, the tombs all bespeak a Jewish ‘at homeness’ in Germany that is in striking contrast to the remains of the Jewish cemeteries of Eastern Europe. The Weissensee Cemetery has as its centrepiece the specially marked tombs of those Jewish young men who died fighting for the fatherland in World War One, and it goes almost without saying that there is no trace in the inscriptions of Hebrew, let alone of Yiddish.

This national self-identification, tragically destroyed in Germany but virtually inescapable in the United States, was not remotely possible in Lithuania. Had they chosen to stay put in Vilna and Kovna, my grandparents would, in this sense, have clung to their Jewish identity – or rather to one or another of the available Jewish identities – more tenaciously and more definitively than they were able to do in the United States. Their mode of Jewishness, that is, would have been more encompassing, even if it conflicted with other available ways of being Jewish. Theirs would not have been a hyphenated identity: they would not have been Jewish-Lithuanians in the way that they quickly became Jewish-Americans. And therefore they would not have embarked on the path towards what Fisher calls the deep topic of American culture: ‘abandoned difference’. Instead, they would have stayed on the path towards mass murder.

By 1943, the year that I was brought weeping into the world in Mt Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Nazi authorities in Vilna had forbidden the birth of Jewish children. If my grandparents had remained in Lithuania, my parents might still have met and courted and married. Perhaps, too, they might somehow have miraculously avoided the ‘Aktions’ which killed thousands in the ghettos that the Germans had set up in Vilna and Kovna. Nazi edicts and malnutrition notwithstanding, I might even still have been born – sexual desire and procreation have an odd way of insisting on themselves, in spite of everything – but my chances of survival would have been virtually nil.

That I am here today depends, then, on the fact that my grandparents did not decide to stay in the land where they were born. On the ship to America, someone informed my maternal grandfather, whose name was Mendel Seidel, that all Americans were named Brown, Smith or Jones, so he told the immigration officer at Ellis Island that his name was Mendel Brown. Perhaps these surnames did not really mean very much to him: he presumably thought of himself as Mendel ben Avraham. In the same vein, my paternal grandfather probably told the officer that his name was Grünblatt, but it got recorded as Greenblatt, and so it remained, stuck halfway between the old world and the new. The name does not sound particularly funny to Americans, but I know that it has a slightly outlandish ring to English ears. Years ago as a student in England I was friends with the group of comics who later formed Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One of the early episodes features a trial scene in which the judge reads a long list of names of the victims of a homicidal dwarf. My name turns up in the list. The joke consists principally in the excessive length of the list, but my name gets a particular laugh from the studio audience, for reasons that my extended periods of residence in England have led me better to understand. For though England is a multicultural nation, ethnic difference is still registered – and often registered as risible – in a way that it has ceased to be in the United States.

To be sure, names were not matters of indifference in the America of my parents and grandparents. My Hebrew name is Yaakov Shlomo, after some deceased relatives, no doubt born in Lithuania. But my parents carefully gave me approximate English equivalents, Stephen Jay, reversing the order presumably because they thought it looked or sounded somehow more elegant, and, for the same reason, using the Greek spelling of my first name, the name of the first Christian martyr. I recall as a child being annoyed and a bit embarrassed when, on vacation in Ogunquit, Maine, my parents would say, when they made dinner reservations at the town’s fancy St Aspinquid Hotel, that our name was ‘Greene, with an “e”’. Why couldn’t we say that our name was Greenblatt? I repeatedly asked. Because, they reluctantly explained, they had come to realise, after several unpleasant experiences, that when they gave our name as Greenblatt, the restaurant somehow or other lost the reservation or forgot to seat them. Why spell the name with a final ‘e’? Because without that ‘e’, the name looks too much like a shortened form of Greenblatt or Greenbaum or Greenjewish.

These ruses seemed to me distasteful, a survival from a nasty world that had all but vanished. My parents would insist that it had not vanished, at least not as completely as I thought, and no doubt they were right, but nothing in my adolescent life experience bore out their fears. If I felt that the world was divided between us and them, the dividing line ran not between Jews and Gentiles but between young – that is, my generation – and old. The late 1960s turned this feeling into the core of a short-lived political and moral revolution, but in the form I first experienced it, there was little or no explicit ideology. Or rather, the ideology was Emersonian: there was very little, I felt, that I could profitably take from my parents’ store of social wisdom to put to use in my own existence. They meant well, and I loved and respected them, but their life world was already too far away from mine, as their parents’ had been from them, and their parents’ parents’ had been before that. Once the break had been made with Eastern Europe, once the family had launched themselves into the American current, it was, as Fisher argues, as if each generation had found itself anew on the shores of a new world.

The university I attended, Yale, had long been a bastion of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but by the early 1960s, when I headed off to New Haven, the clubby world of prep schools and the ‘Gentleman’s C’ was giving way to an intellectually alert and fiercely competitive breed of students, many of them with names like mine. The presidents of Ivy League universities had been grappling with what they regarded as their ‘Jewish problem’: in effect, the number of third-generation Jews of Eastern European origin who qualified for admission and, since their parents had enough money to pay the tuition costs, did not have to submit financial aid applications that could be more easily and quietly turned down. The manipulation of geographical quotas and the preference given to the children of graduates enabled admissions officers, determined to preserve the old Wasp hegemony, to sidestep the explicit racial and religious quotas that had become an embarrassment to institutions that claimed to be meritocratic. Nonetheless, the number of Jews at Yale was steadily rising. The social transition, though significant, was rendered relatively invisible by the shared student culture: I bought a Yale sweatshirt, joined the freshman glee club to learn the Yale songs, and took up smoking a pipe. On my first day in the huge freshman dining hall, I faced for the first time in my life the eating of non-kosher food to which, though it now surprises me, I had not given any thought. I could have made arrangements for kosher meals, which were served in the Hillel House, but that would have meant marking myself off decisively from my non-Jewish classmates. That is, after all, what Kashrut is about, and, after a moment’s hesitation in the food line, I realised that I did not wish to do so. I felt fully enfranchised in the society of which I was a part.

Even when, in my freshman English class, we read Eliot’s poem about ‘the jew’ who ‘squats on the window sill’, I did not feel threatened or marginalised. Rather I was confident that I possessed a set of intellectual, aesthetic and moral tools that enabled me to understand – though to understand, in this case, did not mean to pardon. Then a strange thing happened. My English professor, seeing the intensity of my engagement in the class, asked me if I would be interested in assisting him with a book he was completing. I accepted at once and made an appointment at the financial aids office, where these student positions were funded. I assumed that the appointment would be routine – a matter of filling out a form – but a minute into the conversation, just after I explained why I was there, the official, Mr Spaulding, looked up at me and said: ‘Greenblatt, that’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?’ Yes, I replied.

‘Frankly,’ he continued, ‘we’re sick and tired at the number of Jews who are coming into our office trying to wheedle money out of Yale University.’

I stared at the big Yale ring on his finger – a blue stone set within the gold engraving of the campus mascot, a bulldog – and stumblingly asked how he could make such generalisations.

‘What do you think of Sicilians, Mr Greenblatt?’ Mr Spaulding asked.

‘I don’t know any Sicilians,’ I answered.

‘Well, J. Edgar Hoover has statistics that show that Sicilians have criminal tendencies. Yale has statistics that show that too many Jews are getting in without scholarships and then asking for money.’ He paused for a moment and then added: ‘We could people this whole school with students from the Bronx High School of Science, but we don’t choose to do so.’

‘I’m from Newton High School,’ I said lamely, and then fearing that I was going to burst into tears, fled from the office, with some incoherent parting words about the concentration camps.

Here was apparent confirmation of my Aunt Rose’s pessimistic account of America as only one very small step away from Vilna. Though I felt miserable, I didn’t believe it for a moment: I could walk to the office of the president of Yale, I said to one of my Jewish classmates, Joe Lieberman, to whom I told the story, and demand that Mr Spaulding be fired; if my demand was refused, I could write to the local newspaper or to the New York Times and make my protest public. But I didn’t do those things; instead, I phoned my father who gave me different advice: ‘You could launch such a campaign,’ he said, ‘but, whether successful or not, you would spend the rest of your time at Yale in its shadow. We don’t need the money. Put it out of your mind, and let me write directly to the mamzer.’

To this day I feel bad that I followed this course, so passive and unheroic, but the historical tide was on my side: a year later, the Financial Aid office was reshuffled, and Mr Spaulding was no longer at his desk. Today my younger son has just graduated from Yale, my wife (who is half-Russisher, half-Litvak in origin) teaches there, and, judging from his name, its president (like the presidents of Harvard and Princeton) is a descendant of Eastern European Jews. My classmate Joe, an observant Jew, is a United States Senator from Connecticut and was recently nominated as the Democratic candidate for Vice-President.

At the same time, there is very little that links me to the life world of my Vilna and Kovna grandparents. I have almost no facility in Hebrew or Yiddish, do not keep kosher, rarely observe Shabbat, celebrate very few of the Jewish holidays. When my father died, I said Kaddish for him everyday, but by myself, in my house, rather than in a minyan, for I did not want to get up at 6 a.m. to go to the Orthodox shul. The connection has not been completely severed, but it is now less an overpowering destiny than a loose, somewhat sentimental voluntary association. When, on graduating from Yale, I went to England as a Fulbright Scholar, I thought I might as well cut the cord completely. When the High Holidays came round, I didn’t bother to attend services. Nothing happened to me, of course, but then that fact seemed to me rather depressing: I had only succeeded in making my life that much more abstract, to use Philip Fisher’s term. Since that time I have leavened the abstraction with seasonal, highly attenuated religious observance and with the acknowledgment of my origins with which I began this essay. It is something more than a formal acknowledgment: a very strong sense of differentiation and identity-formation. But I do not imagine that there is any longer any authentic connection to the Eastern European Jewry from which I come.

When my children were little, they went to a day camp in the eucalyptus and pine forests of the Berkeley hills, looking out across San Francisco Bay. Run by the local reformed temple, it was called Camp Kee Tov, and it featured songs and other activities with Jewish themes. Once I asked my older son Joshua what they had been doing that day. He said that they had been pretending that they were living in a shtetl and had been attacked by Cossacks. They all ran and hid in the forest. Then, when the counsellor blew his whistle, they gathered together again for milk and cookies and Hebrew songs. This is the utopian end of an old story, and like all utopias it is more about forgetting than remembering.

A few years ago I went with my younger son Aaron to Vilna and to Kovna, where I gave lectures on Shakespeare. One afternoon we took a taxi out to the Ponary Hills, to the small monument that has been built at the site of the killings of the Vilna Jews. The central panel of the marble monument has recently been replaced in order to acknowledge for the first time that the victims were Jews; not too long ago, I gather, it said only that 50,000 Soviet citizens were massacred there. We scraped off some wads of chewing gum that visitors had stuck on the Star of David (bored Lithuanian schoolchildren, I imagine, engaged in zero-degree desecration), and we said Kaddish for the dead. Before we headed back to town, we stepped into the tiny, one-room excuse for a museum that has been built to commemorate the horrors. There were a few old photographs on the walls, including one of the tiny group of Jews who had miraculously survived. They had made it through the great waves of killing and were among the miserable remnant still working in the ghetto in Nazi-organised factories. The war had by this time begun to turn against the Germans, and the SS were concerned that the thousands of bodies in the Ponary Hills that they had tipped into shallow ditches originally dug to lay pipes would easily be found. There might, they thought, be unpleasant consequences. So they dragged this surviving remnant up to the ditches in order for them to exhume and burn the bodies of their fellow Jews, their neighbours, friends, mothers and fathers. It was more than the task of a few days; at night the men, who understood that their lives would end with their task, were chained together and lowered into a pit, surrounded by barbed wire.

Somehow they managed under the cover of darkness, in the midst of what must have been the greatest despair that human beings can endure, to dig a tunnel under the barbed wire, and at a certain point, when their grim job was nearing its end, they attempted a break-out. Most of them were killed at once; others were soon caught and killed; still others were killed by peasants or by anti-semitic partisans whom they attempted to join. But a handful escaped and survived. A photograph showed them reunited in Israel after the war. It listed their names, and my son Aaron gave a triumphant shout. ‘Look, Dad,’ he said with absurd, precious American optimism tinged with a faint trace of irony, and he pointed to the name Seidel, the name that my grandfather had changed to Brown on his way to America. ‘We would have made it after all.’

[*] The following is a list of English equivalents of some of the Yiddish words and expressions not already glossed in the article or commonly known. Shul: synagogue; cheder: religious school; unglick: misfortune; shiksa: non-Jewish woman; goyishe kop: gentile mind; tref: non-kosher food; mamzer: bastard; minyan: a prayer quorum of ten Jewish men. The original meaning of schmaltz is ‘cooking fat’.

[†] Still the New World was reviewed in the LRB of 18 May by David Bromwich.