Alfred Kazin (1915-98) was a noted Jewish critic – one of my least favorite literary types. I’m not a fan of that species because it’s part of the Jewish monopoly on printed media. (Don’t believe me? Check the names on the mastheads of every magazine and publishing house in America but… be careful. Many of those Anglo-Saxon sounding names are not genuine. Name changing is part of the Hebraic shape-shifting ploy called passing.)
The Jewish critics rave about members of their own tribe (often without merit) while neglecting more talented gentile writers. And, they only promote philo-semitic authors. Plus, their view of literature is hopelessly tainted by their Jew-centric perspective. So, to put it mildly, there exists an unbridgeable political, religious and cultural gap between Alfred Kazin and I.
And yet… I gotta say that I loved Alf’s memoir of growing up in the Jewish ghetto that was Brownsville, Brooklyn in the 1920s and 30s. In fact, I couldn’t help liking the guy. Go know. I think it’s that undefinable “Brooklyn” thing that bonds us.
A Walker in the City is Kazin’s elegantly written collection of character studies, incidents and musings. It brims with colorful tales of rabbis and radicals, great books, great music, great meals and great awakenings. The reader senses Kazin walking himself into adulthood and consciousness. His love of Brooklyn, literature and his people permeate every page. I admire his own writing more than his criticisms of others.
Don’t get me wrong. I bristled at much of what he wrote but he did such a great job of writing that I cut him some slack. Hey, I’m easy. So, sue me.
I owe Alf a debt of gratitude because his memoir was one of those that inspired me to tell the story of my boyhood across the borough in Italian-Catholic Brooklyn. That said – our takes on race, religion, sex and politics are as diametrically opposed as his Brownsville is from my South Brooklyn.
It’s a sad but predictable irony that all of the Marxist and liberal bullshit about class and race preached in the streets and synagogues of Brownsville (and described so brilliantly by Alfred Kazin) failed. Bigtime. Marxists embedded in the city government used Marxist principles to replace the Jews of Brownsville with the Blacks of Brownsville. The result? After “70 count’ em 70” years of those Marxist ministrations, Brownsville is the murder capital of New York City.
The area was never a garden spot but now it is a no-go zone of hellish housing projects. It makes Flatlands and East New York look like Cap d’Antibes.
The few Jews left in Brownsville (even fans of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela) have become the prey-of-choice for roving gangs of feral youths playing the “knock out game.”
Never mind… if you enjoy reading memoirs written with wit, style, brain and heart then have I got a Brooklyn book for you – A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin.
It happened on a bright June day in 1967. I was walking across the surprisingly bucolic campus of Brooklyn College nestled inside the decidedly un-bucolic Flatbush. Many of the campus buildings were ivy-covered brick so who needed the Ivy League? I was a recent Catholic high school graduate there for a day of testing and orientation. I was unaware that I was in the epicenter of Jewish communist activism.
Brooklyn College was so radical it was called “the little red school house” but not to be confused with The Little Red School House in Greenwich Village. Both institutions graduated a spectacularly disproportionate number of Levantines who were moaning-Marxists of dubious sexuality and (worst of all) folk singers.
The co-eds at Brooklyn College were evenly divided into two opposing camps.
The “JAPs” (Jewish American Princesses) had been gifted nose jobs as high school graduation presents and came to class loaded for bear i.e. they were out to land a nice Jewish boy preferably in pre-med or pre-law. I had never been in close proximity to such exotic creatures and gazed open-mouthed at them in class as they simultaneously adjusted their hair, stockings and bra while filing their nails and applying lipstick. I was a goy so I was invisible to them. They were brainless and harmless and at least afforded me a chubby or two.
The “Rachels” and “Ruths” bore their Hebraic-honkers like a badge of honor. Their wiry hair was left to nature and they favored sandals, folk skirts and unshaven legs. Their moustaches were unshaven, too. They scurried around campus clutching to their peasant-blouse covered bosoms Joan Baez LPs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti poetry books and Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm. (I wouldn’t fuck these hectoring yentas with your dick.)
So… I was strolling across campus feeling like Joe College when a Rachel ran up to me screaming like a banshee, slavering like a bronco and demanding that I boycott class because LBJ was bombing Vietnam. She shoved a flyer into my hand and her unshaven face into mine and ranted about nukes, napalm and negroes. I thanked her and promised to read the flyer but she screamed into my face, “Nazi” and ran to her next target. I tried to proceed but was forced to walk a gauntlet of Rachels, Ruths and their male counterparts – the Bruces and Barrys. All screaming. All slavering. All thrusting flyers. All demanding that Brooklyn College be brought to a standstill because LBJ was bombing Vietnam.
The very next day the Six Day War broke out between Israel and Egypt and I was back on campus for more testing.
So… I was strolling across campus feeling like Joe College when the very same Rachel ran up to me screaming like a banshee, slavering like a bronco and demanding that I boycott class because LBJ was not bombing Cairo. She shoved a flyer into my hand and her unshaven face into mine and ranted about Auschwitz, Anne Frank and Arabs. I thanked her and promised to read the flyer but she screamed into my face, “Nazi” and ran to her next target. I tried to proceed but was forced to walk a gauntlet of Rachels, Ruths and their male counterparts – the Bruces and Barrys. All screaming. All slavering. All thrusting flyers. All demanding that Brooklyn College be brought to a standstill because LBJ was not bombing Cairo.
In fact, these leftist humanitarians wanted Cairo nuked!
Suddenly and e’en like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, I was knocked to the ground by a blinding light of revelation. I then picked myself up and stood in the center of Brooklyn College, in the center of Flatbush, in the center of Brooklyn and knew in the center of my Catholic, Italian-American soul that I was in enemy territory. The scales had fallen from my eyes! I knew that the Rachels, Ruths, Bruces, Barrys and, yes, even the JAPs were not me. Not mine. Not American. All their supposedly selfless political activism was all about them. (And, they have done nothing to dissuade me of that conclusion in the more than fifty years since my Damascene conversion.)
Day of Infamy
During the Six Day War, Israel, our supposed ally, deliberately attacked and attempted to sink the USS Liberty, an intelligence ship, observing the war from the Mediterranean. In order to prevent the Liberty from reporting Israeli war crimes, Israel killed 34 U.S. sailors and wounded 171 more. Israeli planes even machine-gunned U.S. sailors attempting to escape in life rafts.
Meanwhile, Israeli dupes inside the White House almost gave my Brooklyn College classmates their dream. They almost tricked LBJ into nuking Cairo. (Take a minute to imagine that scenario.) Then, the dupes and LBJ conducted a massive cover up. The surviving sailors were ordered and threatened into silence.
Israel claims its act of treachery carried out on a U.S. ship clearly flying the Stars and Stripes was a tragic mistake.
If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I wanna talk to you about.
In the 1970s, I learned that a former classmate at Brooklyn College had machine gunned many Palestinian women and children to death. When I knew this particular Bruce, he was a “peace & granola” hippie-dippie-trippie type. Then he got that Old Time Religion. From Meyer Kahane and the Jewish Defense League to the present, Brooklyn has been the breeding ground of Israel’s most violent fundamentalist lunatics.
Whenever I hear wild-eyed, wiry-haired women living on illegal Jewish settlements being interviewed with a baby on one hip and an uzi on the other, their Brooklyn accents are those of the Rachels and Ruths I first encountered on that bright June day in 1967 on the surprisingly bucolic campus of Brooklyn College.