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Out of Brownsville

Out of Brownsville: Encounters with Nobel Laureates and Other Jewish Writers

Jules Chametzky
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 160
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vk34f
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    Out of Brownsville
    Book Description:

    In this collection of literary portraits, Jules Chametzky shares his recollections of more than forty notable Jewish writers, from Alfred Kazin to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Grace Paley, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Cynthia Ozick, Leslie Fiedler, Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Brodsky, and Amos Oz—to name a few. Also included are cameo appearances by nonJewish authors, such as James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and Jose Yglesias. Not only do these various writers emerge as interesting and often complicated human beings, but Chametzky reveals himself to be a warm and gracious storyteller.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-291-2
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)

    The editors ofThe Massachusetts Review, the journal I helped to found in 1958–59, and of which I have been editor, emeritus, since 2002, devoted an issue to Grace Paley, some months after her death, and asked me to contribute some words. I wrote a one-page tribute that the editors thought good enough to publish, so I sent a copy to my sons, who responded with the welcomed filial praise. One of my sons, Peter, went a step further and suggested I put together some forty or fifty such pieces, some a bit longer, and perhaps talk somewhat about...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Alfred Kazin
    (pp. 1-5)

    Iowe Kazin. InA Walker in the Cityhe wrote about walking the same Brownsville streets I had walked; learned Civics from the same crazy (he called him “roguish”) teacher at Lew Wallace Junior High No. 66; dreamed the same dream of crossing over to the real City across the river. That book opened up and made available our whole world of second generation Jewish American life, changed my life—as did I. B. Singer, Isaac Rosenfeld, even Norman Podhoretz—but Kazin was the first and closest to me.

    For twenty-five years my father owned a kosher butcher shop on...

  6. Norman Podhoretz
    (pp. 6-10)

    Thus the neighborhood bard’s song, the rhythm banged out on the newsstand in front of the perennial candy store that was the center of social and communal life for boys in the ’hood during the thirties until shortly after World War II. That was on Pacific Street in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. We were in our teens, down the street from the school that was to erupt in a near riot in 1968 between the by-then black residents and the schoolteachers over the issue of neighborhood control of the schools. It was the occasion, among other events, for one of Podhoretz’s best...

  7. Isaac Bashevis Singer
    (pp. 11-15)

    The last time I met Singer was towards the end of his life, in his residence hotel in Miami Beach, not far from the upscale Bal Harbor Mall that his wife Alma visited every day. I was in Miami for the month of January, 1989, working on a long essay covering most of Singer’s life and oeuvre for a newHarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literatureand had arranged for an interview through Alma. She had assented when I reminded her of our earlier meetings and my several pieces about his work since the early 1960s. So Anne—my wife...

  8. Morty Gunty
    (pp. 16-19)

    Woody Allen’s movieBroadway Danny Roseopens in the Carnegie Deli, where four old-time Jewish Borscht Belt comedians are sitting around a table, reminiscing about the fictional character Danny Rose, an unusual agent with a heart. I recognized two of them. Morty Gunty starred in my first play as a student at Brooklyn College. The other was Jackie Mason, whom I said hello to once or twice at the bar of the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach years ago, where my wife and I often went for a drink after working out at the gym, and to talk with the regular...

  9. Howard Sackler & Friend
    (pp. 20-22)

    At the Christmas break after my first quarter of graduate school in Minnesota, I returned to New York and almost immediately visited my old haunts in Greenwich Village. Outside one of the bars, I unexpectedly ran into Howard Sackler, who had been a classmate of mine at Brooklyn College the year before. We were in a small class on eighteenth-century literature, given by Professor Morris Roberts, who turned out to be the most impressive teacher I had at the College. I had had excellent, inspiring teachers—Frederick Ewen and Harry Slochower, Marxists who breathed the air of a broader world...

  10. Grace Paley
    (pp. 23-24)

    The obvious thing about Grace Paley’s work and life is her radical intervention in the stream of American literature of the mid- and late twentieth century. Radical in language, subjects, politics, she came on like an original blast of fresh air at the end of the formalist fifties, the almost entirely male-dominated literature of the fifties. I remember the pleasure well, the rapture even, of that voice when her short stories began appearing. There were the rhythms of New York speech, inflected with the Jewish rhythms and intonations of her upbringing and surroundings, alive with its snap, crackle, pop—a...

  11. Isaac Rosenfeld
    (pp. 25-27)

    Isaac died tragically young and alone at age thirty-eight, of a heart attack, in a room in Chicago. Wallace Markfield’s novelTo an Early Grave, later the filmBye, Bye, Braverman,was inspired by Isaac Rosenfeld’s death. The death occurred after he left a two-year teaching stint in the Humanities Program of the University of Minnesota, where I met and knew him, not too well, but well enough to be influenced decisively by him. I had read an essay of his about a year earlier, on East European writing, inPartisan Review, when a phrase caught my attention. The phrase...

  12. Saul Bellow
    (pp. 28-31)

    For many years my favorite wine store was the Big Y on Routes 5/10 north of Northampton—once arguably the largest and best wine shop in the Northeast outside of New York. Entering it one afternoon, I stopped to talk with the clerk, who had been a grad student at UMass. He knew wines and was myconsigliere. That day he opened the conversation by saying, “My mother would have liked to be here today.” “Your mother? Why is that?” “Because she would have liked to see Saul Bellow. There he is, at the back of the store.” And sure...

  13. John Berryman: The Imaginary Jew
    (pp. 32-34)

    What are you reading?” That was the first thing I remember Berryman saying to me as he sat down at my table in the coffee shop—The Dutch Treat—that we all went to in Dinkytown, near the English Department offices at the University of Minnesota. I had met him and attended his lecture onThe Tempest, the most brilliant I had heard then or since, at the recommendation of a friend, an artist, who took his class and had photographed him. He was then an assistant professor in Humanities. The English Department did not accept him, or Bellow, or...

  14. William Phillips
    (pp. 35-38)

    After William’s death his wife Edith Kurzweil, editor for a short time ofPartisan Review(PR), asked me to contribute something to a 2003 memorial issue ofPR. I wrote a three-page tribute to William, a respectful piece about the liberating impression he made upon me and of our work together on the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (CCLM) from 1967 to ’72. I opened that essay with the following paragraph:

    I first met William Phillips in 1952 or ’53 at the University of Minnesota, when I was a T.A. in English and he was a visiting professor for a...

  15. Harold Brodkey & Erica Jong
    (pp. 39-41)

    In a novel calledThe Return of Philip Latinovich, by a renowned Yugoslav writer who lived down the street from us the year I was a Fulbright professor in Zagreb, the writer-hero of the story returns towards the end of his long life to the village he had come from. Sitting in the local café day after day listening to the conversations going on around him, he reflects that not once did any of them concern literature or literary matters, which had been central and all-consuming interests in his life. He is cast into deep doubt, an existential crisis, about...

  16. Irving Howe
    (pp. 42-45)

    In 1977 I sent Irving Howe a copy of my recently published book on Abraham Cahan,From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan, a work that I had begun in 1970–71 by reading Cahan’s five-volume memoir, in Yiddish, in a small office at the Kennedy Institute in Berlin. He acknowledged receipt, thanking me for my “little book.” Since he and Kenneth Libo had just come out with that indispensablebigbook,World of Our Fathers(over seven hundred pages), he was perfectly right to call my book “little” (only 161 pages). Still, Irving, “A small book, but mine...

  17. Cynthia Ozick
    (pp. 46-50)

    At William Phillips’s memorial service at the Ethical Culture Society, Cynthia Ozick gave a fine talk, straight from the shoulder, no false sentimentality or bonhomie. Someone had spoken of the charismatic Susan Sontag, who had wowed the group aroundPartisan Reviewwhen she appeared on the scene. I had squired Ms. Sontag around our campus for two days when she gave the opening talk for my Institute, to an overflow house, and she wowed me, and I found her surprisingly warm, funny, straight-talking, capable of humility, too. Anyway, Cynthia, from behind her owlish glasses and severe demeanor, said she had...

  18. Leslie Fiedler
    (pp. 51-54)

    My first job interview in the academy occurred in 1954, when I attended my first MLA meeting, shortly after passing my doctoral examinations. I was testing the market, as they say. William Van O’Connor, one of my advisers, introduced me to Leslie Fiedler, then head of the English Department at the University of Montana. He immediately left us alone, the Chairman and I facing each other in a big empty hallway. Fiedler’s first remark made an indelible impression: “I can’t hire any more Jews.” Did I hear correctly? “We already have Seymour Betsky [and he named another landsman whose name...

  19. Tillie Olsen
    (pp. 55-57)

    Leo Marx brought Tillie to Amherst College for a year’s visiting lectureship in 1969, where she precipitated a revolution whose effects are felt to this day. A grandmother in mini-skirts, she had already published a decade earlier the incomparableTell Me a Riddle. Much has been written about that pioneering and deeply influential work, especially its title story. Less has been written about “I Stand Here Ironing,” the monologue that opens the book. It became a mantra for the emerging feminist movement with its iconic image of an Ur-mother wielding an iron instead of the patriarchal knife of Abraham, explaining...

  20. Adrienne Rich, Anne Halley, Marilyn Hacker
    (pp. 58-63)

    I first met Adrienne Rich at a meeting of the New University Conference (NUC) at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, home of several ardent anti-Vietnam War academics. NUC had been organized, chiefly, I believe, by Paul Lauter and Florence Howe (then a married couple), and Louis Kampf and his then wife, Ellen Cantarow, as an anti-war outgrowth of the New Left. A collateral goal of the organization was to radicalize curriculum and teaching in colleges and universities. I had joined when we met in our living room in Amherst—my wife, Anne Halley, though actively anti-war, was not a joiner, except...

  21. Allen Ginsberg
    (pp. 64-67)

    One of the smartest co-editors of theNorton Anthology, John Felstiner, ends his lengthily astute introduction to Ginsberg and his place in Jewish American letters with quotes from Harold Bloom (negative: reading “Kaddish” is like being forced to “watch the hysteria of strangers”), and Saul Bellow (positive: “Under all the self-revealing candor is purity of heart”). John concedes that Ginsberg changed “the face of American poetry,” but adds that the word for him is chutzpah. I go along with Bellow: candor, and heart. “Howl” was the great breakthrough work of our generation, and “Kaddish,” for his mother who died in...

  22. Kadya Molodowsky
    (pp. 68-70)

    Sometime during a summer in the sixties, Joseph Landis, editor then and through all these years ofYiddish, a precious journal out of Queens College in New York, invited me to speak at Camp Boiberek in Rhinebeck, New York. I had published an article on Abraham Cahan a few years earlier and he wanted me to talk about Cahan’s Yiddish fiction. I had previously only heard of the camp and its funny name, and that it was dedicated to the use and perpetuation of the Yiddish language. Its summer denizens were supposed to study and speak the language all the...

  23. Amos Oz, Shirley Kaufman, Abba Kovner
    (pp. 71-74)

    Amos Oz came to the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus at least twice in the 1980s. The Judaic Studies Department had a breakfast with him before a talk, and I arranged a luncheon the next day at the Institute for a group of Jewish writers from the area to meet with him for a more informal talk. He was friendly, open, a pleasure to be with. I remember best his saying, in answer to one question, I think Jay Neugeboren’s, about the difficulties with the Hebrew language for new people wanting to come to Israel, especially writers, that it was...

  24. Joseph Brodsky
    (pp. 75-78)

    I first saw and heard Brodsky for four hours in Peter Viereck’s living room when he had just arrived at Mount Holyoke College from Russia. He talked almost continually, with an occasional sardonic grin or tightening of his lips, about the story of his life in the Soviet Union. He grew up in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again), where his trials for the crimes of being a poet and unemployed were held, and where he was sentenced to years in the gulag cutting down and chopping up frozen trees. These labors were the source of his recurrent heart problems. My...

  25. Maishe Mirsky
    (pp. 79-82)

    That’s Mark Mirsky. Recently he decided that was what he wanted to be called—his right, and considering the path of his career, probably inevitable. Harvard, the son of Wilfred Mirsky, also Harvard, one of the earliest Jewish representatives (from Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, the old Boston’s Jewish East Side) to the General Court of Massachusetts. Wilfred Mirsky spent his career in that tribal enclave of Irish pols (and a few token Italians, seeThe Last Hurrah, where they would give them “another statue to Columbus”), and summered in Hull, with those pols and retired judges (also pols). Using this...

  26. Paolo Milano
    (pp. 83-86)

    That was a name to reckon with, when I first heard it uttered by thejeunes fillesflitting through the French and Italian hall at Brooklyn College. He was a Jewish Italian exile from Mussolini, publishing inPartisan Reviewand reputedly a devastating ladies’ man. He taught at Queens College and occasionally gave a lecture at Brooklyn where the girls, who had given up their neighborhood Jewishness for Proust (well, they kept that version of Jewishness but didn’t call attention to it, and accepted Milano’s), swooned. Or so I was told, mostly by Mary Doyle Curran, a colleague of his...

  27. Edward Dahlberg
    (pp. 87-90)

    Dahlberg has been called a sport of American literature, as indeed he was. He has also been called the Job of that literature, and in his late works, a great stylist (by Allen Tate). He went from an early thirties naturalistic style, politically left, though not dogmatically or egregiously so, but writing in a slangy vernacular about Bottom Dogs, and earning the praise of even D.H. Lawrence. Then on to a wildly baroque, some would say ornate and affected high style, full of classical and Biblical allusions, pre-Columbian esoterica, raunchy aphorisms and tales (in books calledThe Sorrows of Priapus,...

  28. Paul Goodman
    (pp. 91-93)

    Peter Rose, a long-time professor of sociology at Smith College, and I spent a good hour walking the streets of Northampton on a bitter cold winter evening in the late sixties with Paul Goodman, who had spoken earlier at the college. A slight figure, he was wearing what we used to call a “pupke” hat—woolen, with a small ball of wool on top—pulled over his ears, hunched over against the cold, his nose running a little, until we ended up at a scruffy old-time diner, talking for hours.

    What I remember most is his comparing New York Puerto...

  29. Ruth Whitman—Translations & Transformations
    (pp. 94-99)

    In 1957, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts while working at Boston University, I took a summer course in Greek at Harvard, so that I could use the Widener Library the rest of the year and finish my dissertation. Next door to my class an eminent Classics professor named Cedric Whitman was teaching. That induced me to attend a poetry reading by Ruth Whitman, who had been married to him and bore his name, but, as it turned out when we met and talked, she was now married to Firman Houghton (of the Houghton-Mifflin connection), with whom she was running a small...

  30. Harvey Swados
    (pp. 100-103)

    I got a phone call one day in the late sixties from Ben Seligman, the first director of the recently established Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts. We knew and were friendly with each other because of one of those small-world, certainly in academia, situations. Not always an academic, Ben had come to us from Washington, where he had been a New Dealer and important in the world of labor legislation. His wife Libby had been executive secretary of a Jewish NGO in D.C.—where her secretary had been Beatie Raskin, a beloved cousin of mine....

  31. Clara & Richard Winston
    (pp. 104-107)

    Early upon our arrival in Amherst, we were invited for drinks to the home—an Amherst College apartment, really—of Bill and Mary Heath. He was a young assistant professor of English, as I was at the University, who was to remain for years at the College as a beloved teacher. Mel, as Mary was always called, and my wife Anne had been recruited by Leo Marx to be graders for him in American Studies. And so we met and became lifelong friends, Mel ultimately working at every position atThe Massachusetts Review, including years as senior editor, a job...

  32. Melvin Jules Bukiet, etc.
    (pp. 108-112)

    I do not know Melvin Jules Bukiet very well, though I have met him twice, and we published his story “The Library of Moloch” in theNorton Anthology. The tale, practically allegorical, involves a librarian who compulsively tapes and collects oral testimonies by thousands of survivors of the Shoah, in his own selfish search for life’s meaning. Bukiet himself is a son of survivors. The library goes up in flames when the collector drowses off and drops an ash from his cigarette on some inflammable stuff. Certainly a cautionary tale, told with great feeling for the survivors’ stories, and great...

  33. Julius Lester
    (pp. 113-118)

    Speaking of circumcision… Julius Lester worked with me for two years, 1981–83, as Associate Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, of which I was the director. When Julius won an award as the best teacher in the Commonwealth a few years later, he said at a public celebration of the honor, that those two years were the best years he had while at the University. I was gratified by that, but a little surprised. Julius was an excellent partner in the enterprise, but he was also a very private...

  34. Nat Hentoff & Others
    (pp. 119-123)

    Nat Hentoff, Harvey Swados, Kenneth Rexroth, and I were the white guys, as I remember it, at a very interesting conference on black writers, early on, in 1963, sponsored by the University of California/Berkeley at Asilomar in California. Upon assuming editorship ofThe Massachusetts Reviewthat year I had appealed to John Hope Franklin, with whom I had taught at a teachers’ retreat in Germany the year before, for advice on black writers and scholars to go after as potential contributors to the journal. Besides Sterling Brown, he named Saunders Redding, who, as it turned out, was scheduled to give...

  35. Helen & Jose Yglesias
    (pp. 124-133)

    Actually, I “encountered” Jose Yglesias, Helen’s husband of many years, before, sadly, they divorced, and before I met and got to know Helen and her work. Years ago Jerry Liebling, my oldest and dearest friend, reminded me that Jose (no accent over the “e”) had written film reviews forThe Daily Workerfor a while in the forties, until he lost the job, presumably because his reviews did not follow the party line, concerned as he was with formal issues as well as content, about which he did not often agree, either. To put this in some kind of perspective,...

  36. Epilogue
    (pp. 134-138)

    A dear old friend and colleague, after reading the foregoing, suggested that I add an epilogue, calling attention to the extraordinary times these people lived through and the faith they kept in sticking to their lasts. A good idea. Especially since many of the writers and other thinkers and critics I encountered over fifty-some years and who left an impression upon me are probably quite unknown to the present generation of readers, even those politically, academically, and ethnically adept. As we are in the second decade of the 21st century, having survived one of the bloodiest, most murderous, yet culturally...

  37. About the Author
    (pp. 139-141)
  38. Back Matter
    (pp. 142-142)