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A Short Biography of an American Jew

‘At the age of 78, when I should have accepted my past and the things I have done, I find it challenging to write candidly about my own experiences with anti-Semitism’

Jonah Raskin
February 03, 2021
Erica Harris
Erica Harris
Erica Harris
Erica Harris

It’s the Sabbath and I’m wearing a mask, standing in line waiting to buy a challah at Goguette French Bakery which is owned and operated by Naz and Najine who look Middle Eastern and tell me they’re of Persian descent. “Bonjour monsieur Jonah,” Najine says. “Bonjour madame,” I say. Our weekly encounter is brief and French is the only language we use when the challah, which has been blessed by a rabbi, passes from her hands to my hands. With Naz I speak English, though we don’t talk about anything overtly political. It’s not necessary. He makes the challah. I buy it and eat it. The challah has been at the heart of our friendship, especially over the past three months when we’ve been quarantined and he and Najine have gone on making and selling bread and helping to create a sense of community that COVID-19 seems determined to choke to death.

The pandemic, along with “shelter-in-place,” has intensified nearly all my experiences and memories. How could it not? The life-threatening virus has made me more aware than ever before of my own mortality and my identity as an American Jew. With the name Jonah, with Russian Jewish ancestors slaughtered by Nazis and Communists—and with anti-Semitism on the rise—I haven’t been able to wear my identity lightly. I could go into denial about the whole megillah, but denying something makes it come back stronger. In the Old Testament, Jonah tries to run away from his mission to Nineveh, and we all know what happens to him.

The novelist Henry James observed more than 100 years ago that, “It’s a complex fate, being an American.” Much the same could be said for being an American Jew.

At 17, I tried to pass for a non-Jew; I attended a Presbyterian church because my friends attended services on Sunday in a small town in which Jews were a minority. In my high school graduating class only eight of 350 students were Jewish, one of them my cousin, Richie, who walked to school with me. As a teenager, I could lie about my Jewish identity, but my body couldn’t. I competed in football, wrestling, and lacrosse, and in the locker room it was clear that I had been circumcised.

In the 1960s and ’70s, I rubbed shoulders with radicals who liked to create a hierarchy of the most and the least oppressed, with wealthy, white heterosexual men at the top of the pyramid and poor, Black lesbians at the bottom. I didn’t play that game. The man who holds the whip and does the whipping is alienated from his own humanity, or so my Jewish mother-in-law told me. What about Nazis? Was I supposed to empathize with them? I didn’t think so.

In the 1940s and ’50, I grew up haunted by Hitler and Göring, and entertained by the likes of Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks. I remember Stalag 17 (1953) and the black-and-white Nazi films that documented atrocities at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

I have never screamed my Jewish identity, but I have never been unaware of my Jewish past. I have tattooed myself Jewish. Yeah, I’m a victim and a survivor of anti-Semitism.

In the early 1980s, as a part-time faculty member in a college English department, the department chair and the president of the university, David Benson, both told me that I could not be hired because the institution had to increase the number of women and people of color on the faculty. I understood the concept of providing a leg up for members of minority groups, but I also felt that I was as qualified as anyone else for a tenure-track position and should not be denied one because I was white and male.

After teaching for six years as a part-time faculty member and later as a visiting Fulbright professor in Europe, I applied once again for a full-time teaching position, and again wasn’t called for an interview. In anger and frustration I turned to a friend who was Jewish, wealthy and powerful, and with connections which he pulled with Stanley Sheinbaum who was a trustee for the California State University system and who had been one of the financial backers of Ramparts magazine.

Stanley pulled strings and the university created a tenure track position for me in the communication studies department, not the English department. Years after I became a professor and the chair of the department, I met Stanley at the home of an LA Jew, and a producer in the movie industry. I thanked him. He said, with a smile, “Jonah, you owe me big time.”

I had chosen the old boy network over the office of affirmative action. I didn’t want to be hired because I was Jewish but because I was qualified. I probably could have won a lawsuit charging the college with discrimination. At an English department party, a woman offered me a slice of cheesecake. When I said, “no thanks,” she said, “but all Jews love cheesecake.” It bothered me, but I didn’t say anything, didn’t point out that that was like saying to an African American, “all Blacks love watermelon.”

California prides itself as a meritocracy, but I have known no other place where connections mean more than in the so-called Golden State, where there has been only one Jewish governor, Washington Bartlett, and he served for only one year, 1887. Sonoma County, where I live, is largely white, with a sizable Latino population. There’s a Jewish Community Center and an annual Israeli Film Festival, this year virtual, but there isn’t a pronounced Jewish presence. Nas and Najine helped to found a French language school in town, not a shul.

Over the years, whenever I have been in trouble, I have known who to turn to. My helpmates have not always been Jewish, but they have been Jewish much if not most of the time. My ties to fellow Jews have been strongest when discrimination and harassment have been the most intense. There’s nothing like anti-Semitism to raise my Jewish hackles.

Now at the age of 78, when I should have accepted my past and the things I have done, I find it challenging to write candidly about my own experiences with anti-Semitism. One part of me says, “Shut up, and don’t make a big deal about it.” Others in my own family, including my grandmother Ida—who survived a pogrom in Romania before she came to Brooklyn, New York—had horrible experiences.

I was never the victim of a lynch mob or tarred and feathered, which happened in Sonoma County, California, in 1935 to two Jews, Jack Green and Solomon Nitzberg.

If part of me tells me to shut up, another part says, “Put it out there without moralizing or sermonizing.”

Sometimes I have survived anti-Semitism through “silence, exile and cunning,” to borrow James Joyce’s phrase, and sometimes with words and fists, battling school bullies including one named Calvin, who cried out “Kike,” and “Guns for the Arabs, sneakers for the Jews.” In high school, when Catholic schoolmates who belonged to French Canadian families called me “Kike,” I called them “Frogs.” The descendants of Sicilians were known as “Swamp Guineas.” The kids from White Anglo-Saxon Protestant families were “WASPs.” Eisenhower was president and the American Jewish community was divided by the trial and the legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the accused Russian spies who died in the electric chair. In my own family, Roy Cohn, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s sidekick, was known as a “shonda fur die goyim.”

I am sorry that I didn’t stand up to Black power advocate, H. Rap Brown, who said in a speech on the campus of Columbia University in 1968, “We’re not going to play Jew to your Nazis,” as though Jews simply rolled over and let themselves be rounded up, sent to concentration camps and exterminated.

Even as a boy I knew, from personal accounts I heard from relatives, and also from history books that some Jews collaborated with some Nazis and also that some Jews resisted fascism and died doing so. History is more complicated than demagogues and ideologues allow.

I have traveled to and lived in half-a-dozen places around the world where I have experienced anti-Semitism, including Morocco, where I was told by an Arab, who invited me for couscous at his home, that Jews like Henry Kissinger ran the United States. In Mexico City, a Latina from a wealthy family insisted that the U.S. media was owned and operated by Jews. When I explained that newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was born and raised a Protestant and became an anti-Semite and pro-Hitler, she accused me of slandering a great American. The Jews are taking over. That’s the litany I have heard for decades and on three continents.

There was anti-Semitism in Belgium where I lived and taught in the late 1980s. A neo-Nazi group passing as Flemish nationalists met openly in a café on Friday nights to drink beer and sing songs. My Belgian friend, Frank Albers, took me there so I could see the Nazi icons. Synagogues in Antwerp were bombed, and spray painted with anti-Jewish graffiti, though the real cultural divide in Antwerp, an international diamond center, was between the Dutch speakers and the French speakers, not between Jews and non-Jews.

When Belgians from the two sides of the linguist barrier met and conversed they turned to English. There was plenty of weirdness to go around. A fellow American at the university bore the name “Adolph,” and took me to a bar where the owner told anti-Semitic and anti-Black jokes. “Why do niggers have sickle cell anemia?” he asked me. His answer: “From licking food stamps.”

Near the end of my year in Belgium, Eric, the middle son of my landlady, Mrs. Schellermans, took me to a site where Jews were held captive before they were dispatched to Auschwitz. On one wall I read a plaque that honored several Jews, all of them with the last name “Rasquin” who died protesting their incarceration. When I used the phrase “concentration camp” to describe it, I was corrected. It was, I was told, “only a transit camp.” At a dinner party attended by fellow faculty members, the men around the table talked about the “Jewesses’ they had known, as though they belonged to an exotic species and who performed sexual acts, non-Jews would not perform.

As a boy on Long Island in the 1940s and 1950s, there was plenty of anti-Semitism to go around. In fact, I was called “a Christ-killer” though it wasn’t until years later that I had an inkling what was behind that remark. Even at Columbia College in the early 1960s anti-Semitism lurked here and there, though the overwhelming majority of students were New York Jews.

Perhaps some of the anti-Semitism at Columbia derived from the fear that Jews were taking over the college, and because Jews were often straight-A students who went on to med school and law school. For years, Columbia had a quota on Jews. In the late 1950s and early ’60s Jews dominated the culture of the classroom, though not the locker room. The days of running back, Sid Luckman, were long gone.

I played rugby for the Old Blues, the Columbia team, and was even elected the co-captain but that was mostly for publicity purposes. I was only one of two Jews on the team, which didn’t want to be perceived as non-Jewish and certainly not as anti-Jewish. I was the Jewish face on a team mostly made up of guys from Irish and Italian Catholic working-class families.

The place where I have experienced more anti-Semitism than any other is Sonoma County, California. Soon after I settled here, Solomon Sorgenstein, a Jew born in Poland, took me to the Jewish cemetery in Petaluma. Jews were buried separately from gentiles. That was the rule. The earliest Jews in the county came from France and had French names. Later they came from Poland and Russia with Eastern European names.

For a long time my closest Sonoma County friends were two Jews: Paul Cohen, a former U.S. Marine and a San Francisco taxi driver who became a school principal; and Bill Pinkus, a lawyer, a pilot, and a fifth-generation Californian who didn’t know a word of Hebrew or Yiddish, or any Jewish history or culture. If Cohen was an ethnic Jew, Pinkus was a non-Jewish Jew. One of the commonest complaints I hear from New York Jews who have moved to Northern California is that there are no real Jews here.

I mix with believers and nonbelievers from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds and all sorts of religions, including Buddhism and Christianity in its many incarnations. At some Buddhist sanghas, the majority of the members are Jewish who described themselves as “Jewbus,” or “jubus.” Like my friend, Jimalee, I have attended churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and “pagan” ceremonies. A Protestant minister called her “a spiritual slut.” He probably would call me the same name, and I thought I was a spiritual seeker.

As a census taker in 1980, and as a reporter for local media, both print and broadcast, I have traveled everywhere in Sonoma, from hovels to mansions, vineyards to marijuana fields, and from schools for hippie kids to Sonoma State University, which belongs to the California State University system, and where I taught for 30 years. Once, in the locker room on campus, I heard one undergrad say to another undergrad, “It smells like a Jew in here.”

At a party, a college graduate insisted, as though it was proven fact, that Jews were more flatulent than Christians because chicken soup was at the heart of a Jew’s diet. If one allowed it, comments like that could drive one crazy. At the home of a biker and methamphetamine addict, I met a fellow who told me, “You’re the first Jew I have ever seen.” What he wanted to see—I kid you not—were my horns.

Recently, when I described this encounter with my friend Vilma Ginzberg, she laughed and then paused and added, “anti-Semitism isn’t a laughing matter. It can be and is often dangerous.” Vilma added, “I married a Jew and carry a Jewish last name, and so Jews and non-Jews alike assume I’m Jewish, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s been awkward and embarrassing.”

The American director Joseph Losey made an outstanding film titled Monsieur Klein (1976) starring Alain Delon about a Frenchman who isn’t a Jew, but rather bilks Jews and is mistaken for a Jew by the Nazis and dispatched to Auschwitz. It’s far more hard-hitting than Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), the Hollywood film starring Gregory Peck that dissected American anti-Semitism precisely when it needed to be dissected in the immediate aftermath of WWII and revelations about concentration camps.

Some of the comments I heard from colleagues at the college were encoded anti-Semitism, like the one from a professor who asked, “What are you doing here?” as though I did not have as much right as him to be on campus. Not surprisingly, he said, “Why don’t you go back to New York?”

A small number of students in my classes were Jewish. They would invite me to bar mitzvahs and to their homes, precisely because I was Jewish, but sometimes we found we had very little in common. I heard some anti-Semitism from fellow Jews. I considered it anti-Semitism when my friend Richard Silver, who grew up in Cleveland, told me that Jews ran Hollywood and that the overwhelming majority of California marijuana entrepreneurs were Jewish. Neither is true. The Jews I’ve known have been no better or no worse at business and finance than the Arabs I have known.

I have spent enough time among Hollywood producers and directors to know that Jews have played and still do play important roles in the film industry. My closest Hollywood friends have all been Jewish: Bert Schneider, who produced Easy Rider and other films, and complained about anti-Semitic Hollywood women whose names I won’t mention; and Mark Rosenberg, who belonged to Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, ran Warner Brothers in the 1980s and who produced, along his wife Paula Weinstein, movies like The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone. Legend has it that Rosenberg died on the set of a movie in Texas with a bagel in his hand.

I know that Jews help to create the movie industry, and at the same time I know that early Hollywood giants like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were not Jewish, and that Thomas Edison, who helped birth Hollywood from his perch in New Jersey, expressed anti-Semitic comments.

California Jews, or at least Jews in Northern California, have little in common with the Jews I knew as a boy in Brooklyn where whole neighborhoods were Jewish and every neighborhood boasted at least one delicatessen where you could also find lox and smoked white fish. My experience with LA Jews is limited, though I would always visit the Diamond Bakery on Fairfax where some of the women behind the counter had concentration camp numbers on their arms. The raisin bread is as good as any from a New York bakery.

My two brothers, Daniel and Adam, are imbued with Jewish culture and Jewish traditions. Both of them have become more Jewish as they have aged, which means hosting Seders, belonging to Jewish discussion and reading groups, cooking and eating Jewish foods like potato latkes. Adam keeps Yiddish alive everyday by speaking it. My older brother, Fred Menache Quitkin, a psychiatrist, was in my view the quintessential New York Jew. He was actually a cousin, but after his father Hyman Quitkin died, he grew up with me and my family. Fred struck me as a character out of the pages of a novel by Philip Roth—driven, haunted, and brilliant: a mensch. He died in 2005.

Occasionally, I go to Max’s, the Jewish deli in Santa Rosa, the county seat. I was recently disappointed when Max himself told me, “We no longer have chopped liver. Nobody ordered it.” Alas, that is the fate of a Jew in much of Northern California. In the 1970s it was difficult to find bagels. Now there are lousy imitations everywhere.

The two books I consider my best are both about Jews: Allen Ginsberg, who wrote Kaddish, a great Jewish American epic, and Abbie Hoffman, who liked to say there were two kinds of Jews, those who went for gelt and those who went for broke. Like many Jews, he went for both. Writing my biographies of Ginsberg and Hoffman deepened my own Jewish identity.

I have written about the anti-Semitism of Jack London, the most famous local writer, though his fans have pointed out to me that “some of his best friends were Jewish.” True enough. He was in love with and proposed marriage to a Russian Jewish woman named Anna Strunsky, who called him on the anti-Semitism in his stories. All through his life he described Jews as “money grubbing.” Also, in London’s view, African Americans were closer to apes than humans, and greatly inferior to white Americans, especially Anglo Saxons. I tell students and teachers, “Read Jack London, but remember his racism and anti-Semitism.”

Over the years, when I have wanted a Jewish fix I have gone to New York, stayed with Jewish friends and relatives, ate at places like Russ & Daughters, viewed exhibits at the Jewish Museum, and engaged in lengthy discussions about Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism. I have found that conversations with fellow Jews are usually civil, except when the subject is Israel and Palestinians. Then the Red Sea opens and Jews scatter in all different directions. Now with COVID-19 raging I’m not getting on a plane and flying across the county. I Zoom with Jews around the country. For the time being that will do.

New York’s Jewish cultures made me the person I am today, though I don’t think of myself as a New York Jew, and though I was never bar mitzvahed. That was my father’s decision not mine. He was bar mitzvahed in Huntington, Long Island, where his father, Benjamin Raskin, was one of the founding members of the synagogue and attended services until he moved to Miami with my grandmother. Both of my parents traded the Judaism of their parents for communism and Stalinism, even as they denounced Zionism. One can only shake one’s head.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Daniel in the lions’ den; and Adam in the Garden of Eden. I have been imprinted with the story of Jonah and the whale. Not a day goes by that I don’t remember the Holocaust, which my father told me about when I was 4 years old and about to go to sleep. “Not a nice bedtime story,” I told my dad. He told me, “You had to learn sometime. This is as good as any.”

Once on the subway in New York after attending a Lubavitcher event, I forgot to remove my yarmulke. It was 2 a.m. and I was on the way to Brooklyn to stay with two Jews. The Lubavitchers were recruiting me and I enjoyed their company. When I realized that the yarmulke sat on my head I laughed and left it there. No one did or said anything to me. That’s New York, among the most tolerant cities on the face of the earth in part because of the contributions of Emma Lazarus and Emma Goldman and also because of Walt Whitman and Fiorello La Guardia. After a while, there’s no point labeling anyone a Jew or a non-Jew.

These days I live on a farm in Northern California. I’m the only Jew in a kind of cooperative community. My Jewishness isn’t a big deal. And it is a big deal.

The Saturday after I bought the challah from my French-speaking Persian Jewish friends, my brother Daniel visited. We had lox and challah and wondered if and when we’d be able to go to a real Jewish deli again and feel safe.

Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman. His new book of poetry is The Thief of Yellow Roses (Regent Press).