WASHINGTON DIARIST APRIL 26, 1993
I don't know whether the more esoteric passages of the kabala mention the talismanic importance of blond-headed gentiles, but I would not be surprised if they did. The flaming gentile in the Jewish institution often enjoys a status not so different from a luxury good: the Toy Goy. The Toy Goy has many privileges: he is permitted to slough off before and after (but hexer during) Jewish holidays; to laugh at Jewish jokes around the office: to be as superficial, happy and untroubled as he pleases. His responsibilities normally are slight: to point to the bright side of things; to lend credence to assorted pro-Israel views discounted when voiced by Jews; to persuade Jewish colleagues that their terminal bad luck is actually good luck; above all, to be lucky himself.
There is a catch, however. The catch is the Jewish holiday. Predictably enough, the offices of The New Republic have emptied for Passover. All around are chairs vacated by Jews who chose to celebrate one of the great escapes of all time by escaping, leaving their house gentiles to pick up the slack. It's O.K. Really. I don't mind.
My life has been punctuated by vanishing Jews. Some combination of accident and design has conspired to semitize my experience: since early boyhood I have passed seamlessly from one Jewish institution to the next—a Jewish school, the New York art dealer Wildenstein, the New York investment bank Salomon Brothers, The New Republic. Most years I commemorate the flight of the Jews through the Sinai to the Promised Land by witnessing a far more hectic flight of the Jews through the traffic jam to the airport, then looking around to see what they have neglected to finish. Each of these annual occasions revives my sympathies for the much maligned Pharaoh. I too find the prospect intensely irritating that the Jews may have up and left for good.
Just before the Passover Exodus I returned to New Orleans to address the Cum Laude Society of the Isidore Newman School. The school, in which I was incarcerated from the age of 5 to the age of 17, was the first of the many Jewish institutions through which I have passed. It was opened at the turn of the century as a manual training center for Jewish orphans. From 1965 to 1978 more than half my classmates were Jewish, the school calendar was determined by Jewish holidays and rituals, and the school's sports opponents, when in need of a bandy insult, called us. weirdly, Jewmen. Some of my earliest memories are of playing dreidels, singing Jewish folk songs and defending myself against anti-Semitism.
It's a tricky business returning to your old school, men in the guise of the Toy Goy. This was immediately clear from the manner in which I was introduced to the assembled students. For all the truth-seeking noises they make, schools are only secondarily interested in simple truth. Or, rather, they are interested in truth to the extent that it overlaps with their principal goal of survival. And the survival techniques of the ordinary school are essentially fascistic. Alumni are dragged back in the same spirit that huge bronze memorials were erected in the Soviet Union: as a tribute to the wisdom of the institution. We created this. Since they have an insatiable demand lot alumni heroes, and since heroes are rare, schools must eventually bend the truth to fill the gap. The deal you cut when you return to your old school, to be put on exhibit as an Example to Youth, ends up looking something like this: the school agrees to forget what you were actually like as a student, if you offer an implicit endorsement of the school. Show up to school and behave yourself for one day as an adult and all charges accumulated over thirteen years of childhood will be dropped. Not bad.
In the old auditorium I sat on the stage beside the Cum Laude Society—to which I never belonged, never even came close to belonging—and smiled at the sound of my past being reinvented for the occasion. Scholar. Athlete Wit. On one track of my mind I reveled in descriptions of my school performance entirely unrecognizable to anyone who had actually attempted to teach me. Oh, yes, that's reel But on a second track I was experiencing what the late New Orleans novelist Walker Percy, leaning on Kierkegaard, called a repetition. "A repetition," Percy explained in The Moviegoer, "is the re-enactment of past experience reward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed lime, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle."
A funny thing happens when you sit quietly savoring pure, lapsed, peanut-brittle time. You begin to regress. You begin to feel less and less like an Example to Youth and more and more like whatever you were when you were last on the same spot. The last time I had performed on the stage of the Isidore Newman School was when I was cast ill the role of the Jolly Old Snowman in a third-grade play of the same name. Out of my mind went my lecture; into my mind popped the horrific words of the song I sang for the last time twenty-four years ago:
I'm a jolly old snowman
As you can plainly see
And I come from the North
Where it's cold as cold can be
A light sweat broke out on my forehead at the thought that I might actually rise on the memory spot a few feet downstage from where I sat and belt it out again. Then, suddenly, the specter vanished, to be replaced by an even more horrifying montage: slow-motion replays of the several times I nearly succeeded in getting myself tossed out of the Isidore Newman School. There was the hook report of Johnny Tremain, pathetically plagiarized word for word from a long blurb Oil the back of the dust jacket. There was the English teacher to whom, in the wake of her scathing and accurate evaluation of my person, I had actually said, "Are you always so pleasant to deal with or is this just an especially good day for you?"
Then there was the perhaps first ever attempt to read a pornographic subtext into that singular portrait of childhood innocence, To Kill a Mockingbird. You may recall that one of its characters is a boy named Dill, who, possibly to emphasize his rootlessness, was given no last name. Possessed by some demon, I raised my eight-grade hand and announced my discovery that Dill's father was named Robert Doe. The teacher stood frozen in place as I prodded him with the obvious follow-up questions: "So what does that make Dill's name now? ... Those of us who taught Michael remember his wit," the faculty leader of the Cum Laude Society was saying with real conviction as he finished his introduction. It was only toy goyish good luck that he'd never taught me.