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A Cultural MemoirA Cultural Memoir

A Cultural Memoir

An excerpt from National Post columnist Barbara Kay’s new volume of essays.

Barbara Kay
19 minute read

Acknowledgements: A Cultural Memoir and Other Essays by Barbara Kay is a collection of original essays, including a minimemoir, excerpted here, on the cultural and intellectual influences that shaped her worldview.

Two factors above all have made me who I am, and would have dominated my life, even if I had grown up in wartime, poor, disabled and unlettered. I am female and I am a Jew. Ironically, given that history has not been especially kind to women or Jews, I happened to win the lottery there too. I attribute my confidence in both identities to my epoch. Jews and women of my cohort in North America have enjoyed a golden age unlike any before in history.

I was born in 1942. My earliest memories are Jewishly buoyant. I vividly remember my parents' and my community's excitement in 1948 when Israel achieved statehood. Because of the unprecedented wave of post-Holocaust sympathy for Jews, my generation —not all of us, but most of us raised in liberal urban centres—has been the first (and possibly the last) in our history to reach adulthood without encountering overt anti-Semitism. Furthermore we were the first to spend the better part of a lifetime under the empowering illusion that anti-Semitism was once and for all a spent force in a chastened and enlightened world.

I was to discover that covert, genteel anti-Semitism still flourished socially and institutionally, but none of that impinged on my life growing up. I was aware that Jews were still social outsiders, but I don't remember resenting that fact. I had no sense that I was wistfully peering through the glass at a higher caste's festivities in which I could not participate.

I ascribe my complacency to my parents' cheerful acceptance of the social divide. To my parents' generation, anti-Semitism was an eternal fact of life, virtually encoded in the DNA of non-Jews. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents had fled their countries of birth—Rumania and Poland—explicitly to escape growing anti-Semitism of a virulence no Canadian Jew of my generation has ever witnessed or experienced. My parents were grateful that Canadian anti-Semitism was relatively benign and never expressed bitterness when they saw casual proofs of it.

My parents' superficial relations with non-Jews were therefore entirely cordial, but always a bit wary. They would often say, without evident rancour, that if you drilled deep enough below the polite surface of any gentile, you would eventually hit an anti-Semitic seam.

They would also often allude, as well without rancour, but in somewhat righteous tones, to the superiority of Jewish family life and social customs, making disparaging remarks, for example, about gentiles' weakness for alcohol or their affinity for blood sport. They weren't wrong on the evidence; as a rule, Jews are moderate in their drinking habits and loathe blood sport.

But they never gave middle-class gentiles credit for social virtues we nouveaux riches lacked and that I came to admire: their preference for aesthetic understatement in their homes and self-adornment; their unspoiled children; their respect for all honest work, not just the kind you get with high marks in school; their love of pristine nature enjoyed in Spartan habitats; and their moderation in eating.

All these traits bespoke what my parents would consider a lack of drive or gusto, but what I considered an enviable instinct for separating life's material chaff from its existential wheat. We Jews were so excessive by comparison. I think my parents didn't struggle to be fair to gentiles, because of their history of anti-Semitism. They didn't hate gentiles, but they did feel morally superior to them.

So unless external circumstances brought them into close association with gentiles, their social lives were spent in the trustworthy fellowship of other Jews. Consequently, my social life unfolded within the affectionate embrace of well-endowed all-Jewish summer camps and clubs that had been founded as a practical response to exclusion from gentile establishments. Inside their pleasant clubhouses and expansive grounds were the tribal comforts of utter familiarity and unconditional acceptance.

The more important reality was that even social anti-Semitism was diminishing, not rising, as I grew up. And therefore no educational or career door was ever closed to me on anti-Semitic grounds. Nor can I think of a single friend of my youth who failed to realize his or her potential because of anti-Semitism. In educated circles, in fact, it became quite chic for Jews to acknowledge their Jewishness in playfully confident ways (see Woody Allen and later Jerry Seinfeld and so many other Jewish comedians) and for educated gentiles to actively seek out socializing opportunities with Jews.

As for being female, I needn't expand here on the explosive turnabout of women's fortunes in the past century. I came to adulthood on the cusp of the feminist revolution, soon enough to benefit from its early reformist agenda, happily too late to be caught up in its more radical toils.

I have observed massive shifts in the cultural zeitgeist. When I was growing up, the West was friendly to Jews and (heterosexual) men. Today the whole world, except for North America, is unfriendly to Jews. All of the West's cultural elites are very friendly to women, gays and people of colour (and cover), but hostile to Christians and, another first in history, rather hostile to heterosexual men.

At the bottom of all these shifts into and out of favour are ideas propounded by university-based intellectuals, today's self-anointed priestly caste that has replaced the moral authorities of my youth. These are some of the changes I have witnessed, and they became the themes I was to write about. I realized what it was I wanted to be when I grew up—a newspaper opinion columnist—at the age of 60. Up until then, I had assumed one needed some special credentials or experience for the job. But it turned out all you need is curiosity, a modicum of writing ability, strong views on what ails the world and, coursing through your veins, a fat combative streak. Thick skin to cover it is a must as well. I'd have put thick skin first on the list, but a high tolerance for humiliation can be acquired on the job, while the others can't.

I don't fault myself for my ignorance, because I did not come to the profession honestly. By which I mean that I had no journalism models to look to. Nobody amongst my forebears or family or friends was a journalist, or ever wrote for a living. In my youth, "reporter" or "columnist" conjured up the image of cynical, hard-drinking, hard-smoking men —occasionally a tough-as-nails woman—of high mental acumen, but low emotional intelligence, with intensely physical and somewhat disreputable "school of life" adventures lurking in their pasts. Small wonder that my parents never even paused to wonder aloud if journalism was a nice sort of job for a Jewish boy, let alone any of their three sheltered daughters (I am the middle one).

Aside from any other consideration, ink-stained wretches didn't make much money or enjoy job security. (That hasn't changed, actually.) Upwardly striving Jews from poor immigrant homes, with an eye on the main chance for their children's future success, could easily see that journalism was a pretty dim bulb beside the bright torches of social and financial capital represented by academia and the "real" professions of medicine, dentistry, law and accountancy (for men; teaching for women).

My parents' indifference to journalism as a profession for their children didn't translate into disdain for journalism's fruits. On the contrary. Newspapers as purveyors of news and opinion and gossip were an integral part of our lives. It was a minor calamity— rare to be sure—if either the morning or afternoon papers failed to land with that reassuring soft plop on our doorstep.

In retrospect, the first slow-germinating seed of my late-life career was planted by a daily newspaper column I glommed onto in my teen years. I'm a bit embarrassed to reveal this columnist's name. She was in fact one of the few well-known Jews in the profession. I'd like to say it was some heavyweight political analyst. But the truth is that I rarely read serious editorial writing in my formative years, because I wasn't engaged by politics or ideology until much later.

At the time of my discovery of this columnist, I had just slipped into the turbulent, hormone-charged waters of adolescence. But even then I took the conservative view of life. I had always assumed certain characteristics of human nature were immutable (still do), and was therefore open to learning life lessons from my elders.

I knew I needed a code of social conduct—a life jacket—to get me through the coming maelstrom without being sucked under, by which I mean engaging in behaviour that would bring shame to my parents and possibly ruin my life, as shaming behaviour could in those days. I had been raised on the socially conformist dogmas of my era, which gave licence to boys and men to engage in sexual experimentation before marriage, but not to girls. Or not to good girls.

I believed that girls should "save themselves" for marriage. I also believed that losing her reputation for virtue was the worst disaster that could befall a girl. So I hoped I would fall in love and marry very young; that way I would not be betrayed by my hormones into a fall from social grace from which I would never recover.

I was therefore open to external reinforcement and case studies for strengthening my resolve by "experts."

And so it was that my first specifically journalistic influence in the domain of human relations was Ann Landers' daily advice column. It appeared in 1955, when I was 13. In the unriven cultural environment of the 1950s, Ann was a popular moral priestess. Later, of course, she became a target for ridicule to cultural elites. In spite of her alleged superannuation, though, her column ran in syndication for 56 years. The social theorists had no use for her, but ordinary people always did.

The counterculture wasn't even a glimmer on my youthful horizon then. Culturally speaking, I was not primed for inter-generational antagonism. Mine was a receptive and biddable mind for authorities I trusted. Though something of a tomboy and rebellious in trivial ways—feigning indifference to disapproving stares, I wore jeans on the subway!—I was immutably bourgeois at heart, so Ann and I were on the same cultural page.

I liked Ann's crisp, dryly humorous "voice" that radiated moral clarity and common sense in equal measure. Ann didn't trade in the passing parade of the news cycle, but in what I considered the far more fascinating domain of real people's personal problems.

The people who wrote to Ann were generally stuck in some intractable conflict with others—parents, wives, in-laws, children, lovers, friends—wielding some emotional or psychological or financial hold over them they were obliged to come to ethical terms with. Stuck too with their human shortcomings, yearnings, resentments, loyalties and dreams, inarticulately struggling amidst myriad obligations and limited options in staking out their modest claims for personal happiness. And they were so desperate for a solution they were appealing to a newspaper columnist to decide their fate. What power columnists had!

I was particularly bemused by Ann's suppliants' lack of personal and social insight into how they had gotten themselves into their messes. I was fascinated as well as by their timorousness in confronting those who were making them miserable, even when justice was on their side. So many woeful hearts poured out tales of long-endured abuse, borne in silence to preserve family or socialcircle peace.

Quite a contrast to the situation in our home, where suppression of any deeply felt emotion or slight to our amour-propre was anathema. My mother was deeply committed to the spontaneous, therapeutic school of communication, believing it was unhealthy for the ego to bottle up any feelings whatsoever. My parents loved each other, but their relationship was often unapologetically volatile, and we accepted intramural verbal pyrotechnics as the norm in family dynamics.

(Considering the frequent emotional bruising this uninhibited model produced, we could have used a little more diffidence and a little less insight. Visiting the homes of my few WASP friends, I found the air of emotional restraint I observed between parents, and between parents and children, wondrously exotic. It became my habit to seek out relationships with non-Jews—friendships and even occasional illicit summer romances with the vanishingly few gentiles on camp staff, most memorably a sweetly laid-back small-town riding instructor—because I found the lowered setting of their temperamental thermostats psychologically restful.)

I didn't make the connection at the time, but Ann Landers was in many ways a journalistic avatar of my mother: Both of them were Jewish-American, direct and judgmental, with no patience for the emotional diffidence my mother used to complain of as a typically Canadian trait.

My mother was the youngest of four children and the only girl, on account of which she was, everyone agreed, terribly spoiled by her parents and brothers alike. This was undoubtedly the source of her supreme self-approval. "Life," my mother would often say, contentedly exhaling a fragrant stream of smoke from her Rothman cigarette, "can be beautiful." Implied was a stricture against Canadian-style self-effacement; one had to take a bullish approach in life in asserting one's wishes and needs. She wasn't advocating impoliteness or overt pushiness. She simply meant one had to be mentally tuned in to one's self-worth and strive to realize one's potential without guilt.

I was conflicted. My mother's unwavering confidence in herself and her views were persuasive, but our highly anglocentric public schooling nudged us along the mainstream Canadian path of decorum, of emotional and rhetorical self-restraint. I think I gave a great deal of weight to my school experience, because it was backed up by the King of England (until I was 11 and then by the Queen) and almost two thousand years of British history, while my mother only represented herself.

By which I mean that my mother, and my father for that matter, didn't seem to be at all connected to their own histories. Both my grandmothers had died before I was born. Both grandfathers had remarried, but they were not love matches. Their second wives were more housekeepers than mates, so they were not interested in us, nor we in them.

I didn't see very much of my maternal grandfather, as he never came to Toronto and we didn't stay with him when we visited our American family. On our frequent trips to Detroit, I was far more tuned in to my cousins than to the large, somewhat dour and dignified man who presided over what were for children seemingly endless Passover seders. My sisters and I were just three amongst many other grandchildren. I had no personal relationship with him whatsoever.

My paternal grandfather in Toronto lived downtown, near the future sites of the big hospitals below the Ontario Legislature. Most Sundays my father would take us down to visit him. "Zaidie," a stooped, bushily bearded man, would usher us into his little house with unintelligible mousy cries of welcome and sit us down in the living room. He would give us each a certain kind of candy I only associate with him, a hard-shelled amber bullet with a soft fruity centre, wrapped in a twist of pale yellow paper.

We would sit in the tiny, dark living room for an hour with nothing to do, while Zaidie and our father went into the kitchen to talk in rapid Yiddish over sweet milkless tea. Since we didn't know a word of Yiddish, and Zaidie didn't know a word of English, we could not enter each other's worlds.

Nevertheless, I have fond memories of the High Holidays, when we would attend the beautiful Peylische shul (Polish synagogue) down the street from where Zaidie lived. The women all sat upstairs in the balcony, but because of our youth, we were allowed to join our father and Zaidie in the men's section near the bimah, the raised platform from which the service was conducted.

Even on Yom Kippur, Zaidie would surreptitiously slip us some of those strange candies, the only way he could express his affection for us. But mostly we played on the front steps with all the other modern children of ancient men whose histories were of no interest to us, because apart from filial dutifulness, it didn't seem to be of any special interest to our parents.

My mother looked down on the world from the same moral heights occupied by Ann Landers, but while Ann urged a variety of intermediaries on the healing path—social workers, clergy, educators—my mother took a more unitary corrective view. From her enthusiastic reading of best-selling post-Freudians, and proving the poet's caution that "a little learning is a dangerous thing," she concluded that the root of all unhappiness was neurosis, and that the eradication of neurosis would rid the world of evil.

Her favourite writer was a psychoanalyst called Karen Horney. My mother pressed several of her books on her three daughters, but I believe I was the only one actually to read them. My only memory of these books is that one should not allow oneself to be enslaved by life's "shoulds." That was the basis of all neurosis.

My mother believed that if political leaders all submitted to psychiatric therapy before assuming office, swords would turn into ploughshares and lions lie down with lambs. She wasn't alone. An entire cohort of second-generation middle-class Jews had shrugged off the strict observance and unquestioning faith of their fathers, but they still adhered nostalgically to rituals they enjoyed, modified by convenience-oriented amendments. Since my parents' generation was making up modern Judaism as they went along, their need for a secular god was pressing.

(And so we kept kosher at home, but we ate nonkosher in restaurants. We sat down unfailingly to beautiful Sabbath dinners, but we drove cars and used electricity on the Sabbath. Synagogue attendance was mandatory on Jewish holidays, but not on Sabbath. We were welcome to engage in friendships with any girls we liked, but dating non-Jewish boys was strictly forbidden.)

There were many roads to secularism for Jews. Blind faith in psychiatry as a panacea became a kind of mania in the 1950s for those Jews who were too bourgeois and socially conformist to find appeal in political radicalism. But poor Jews to whom the capitalist paradigm had not been kind—that is, Jews who began poor like my father, but couldn't make the upstream leap to middle class rewards—were more likely to turn to socialism and even communism as their new god. I didn't know any poor Jews, though, and the astonishing disproportion of Cold War fellow-travelling Jews in the West was a revelation I was only exposed to in adulthood.

Communism and the therapeutic worldview were alike in that both were a snare and a delusion. Communism was naturally by far the worse of the two evils, but therapeutic culture has not been a great success either.

My mother was intellectually naïve, but in fairness, I think that, optimistic by temperament, she couldn't deal with the fact that six million Jews had just been murdered for no reason at all—or no reason any reasonable person could understand. She could not accept the pure evil of the Nazis. It had to be a mental disease that science could cure.

None of my teachers in high school or university was Jewish—although there would be a disproportionate number of Jewish teachers today—but most psychiatrists I've ever known were and are Jews. Even though I never presented any signs of abnormality, I spent a desultory few months in therapy as a matter of precautionary course and so did many of my peers.

I was assigned to a phlegmatic, inscrutable psychiatrist who seemed bored by the commonplace grievances I summoned up and who didn't seem to think the dreams I assiduously recorded offered much scope for interpretation. I think we both wondered what I was doing there, but what could he do? It was embarrassing to share the sort of intimate thoughts he felt obliged to probe, but I didn't question the value of doing so at the time.

(Strangely, I was somehow able to square this faith of my mother's with a compelling attraction to Orthodox Judaism, taken up partially in good faith and partially as an homage to an Orthodox boy I was besotted by, which I struggled to practise for a few years amidst family tolerance, but no supportive enthusiasm.)

In retrospect, I realize that no secular faith could have been more calculated to encourage narcissism, moral relativism, blame-shifting and arrested development than therapy culture. If you've read J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey, you know what I mean. Neurosis was supposedly a tragic psychological deficit, but amongst highly self-regarding Jews, it inevitably came to be equated with superior intelligence and complexity. We all wanted to be considered neurotic, just like Salinger's glamourously brainy Glass family.

Later, in the common room at University College, where the student body was disproportionately Jewish, we would sit around in our black turtleneck sweaters—no one to more elegant advantage than the impossibly slender and beautiful Barbara Amiel, now Lady Black, one year ahead of me—drinking endless cups of bitter coffee, smoking the room blue and vying anecdotally for the title of Most Misunderstood- by-Parents Jew on campus.

It wasn't the usual thing in the 1950s for Canadian women to go on to university—or even for men. But I didn't know that at the time, because it was the usual thing in my arriviste enclave of Toronto's Forest Hill Village, peopled by workaholic Jews like my father, their assiduously self-improving and socially confident wives, and their materially spoiled but achievement-funnelled children.

The high school I attended, Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, served a generally affluent district in which Jews were a minority, yet its school population was about 90 per cent Jewish, or so it appeared to me. It seems that most Forest Hill gentiles discretely whipped their kids into private schools rather than have them mix it up with Jews single-mindedly on the make, just as studiously focused Asian students today tend to drive out university students looking for a more relaxed social environment. We were such an anomaly in the public school system that several sociologists wrote a book about us called Crestwood Heights.

Forest Hill espoused an unabashedly hierarchical streaming system. If your marks in Junior High weren't very good, or if you wanted to be a secretary as many girls did to tide them over until they married, you were diverted into "vocational" classes, where you didn't take Latin or some of the sciences, but took "shop," typing and bookkeeping. If your marks were decent, you took regular classes.

But if they were very good, you were invited to join the "R" class—I forget what it stood for—where you studied German in addition to the obligatory French and Latin. (The irony of Jews learning German so soon after the Holocaust was not lost on us. But I— guiltily to be sure—enjoyed learning the language, because it reminded me of Yiddish, which I had always heard but not understood, and knowing German meant my parents could no longer use Yiddish as their "secret" language for gossip they didn't want us to understand.) We were assigned the best teachers too, which meant the crème at the top of already-rich crème. It was a great honour to be an R student, and we all worked very hard to live up to our image as "brains."

We were model students. We were intensely focused, voluble—no prodding necessary—and competitive. I can't remember a single "discipline" episode. More than half our teachers were men, and some of them had graduate degrees. Much was expected of us, and much was given to us, especially in writing competence. When the first essay I wrote in university was returned to me, my professor asked me where I had gone to high school. When I told him Forest Hill, he smiled and said, "I thought so."

Revisiting what I chose to call us—"dream students" —well, that is my perspective, simply because we never made trouble in class. We soaked up information with enthusiasm, perhaps a bit of impatience and more than a touch of showboatism. But I wonder if it was that uncomplicated for our gentile teachers.

Which leads me to what will prove to be an ultimately relevant digression on the American novelist, Thomas Wolfe (no relation to the contemporary journalist/novelist Tom Wolfe), who was to become the subject of my master's thesis in literature.

I had discovered Wolfe at an unusually early age. Perhaps nine or ten. I was laid up for five weeks with a kidney infection that demanded complete bed rest and was devouring books my mother brought home from the library at a furious pace. To reduce time spent trekking back and forth, she started choosing longer books, and that was how I ended up reading Wolfe's massive, four-volume ode to America, beginning with the bildungsroman that brought him to public attention in a huge way, Look Homeward, Angel.

I adored Wolfe's magnificent prose style, even if I would later concede it was too florid for modern tastes, and I was riveted by his angst-ridden creative triumphs and tribulations. He opened a window for me on a bizarre new social planet through his faithful reconstruction of his histrionically dysfunctional Asheville, North Carolina, family.

Everything Wolfe wrote was transparently autobiographical. His unsparing vivisection of his parents and siblings, his southern milieu, Harvard University in its pre-diversity days and later New York society was a course in social American history no university course could surpass.

I was particularly fascinated by Wolfe's adventures with Jews, so few and marginal in his childhood, but so many and influential after he arrived in New York City in 1923. (The title of my thesis was "Thomas Wolfe, the Exile Motif and the Jews.")

There he taught English at New York University. Almost all his students were poor, first-generation Jews. His provincialism and received prejudices against Jews made life awkward for him. Wolfe didn't want to teach, but needed the money. That his students were almost all Jewish was a blow to his morale. "I teach! I teach! Jews! Jews!" he wrote to a friend.

It is hard for Wolfe at first to see his students as individuals or even as normal people. In his childhood he has seen Jews as "barbarians," and even engaged with friends in small-time pogroms for entertainment. Now at their service, he is made uneasy by their intellectual intensity, the "knowing" look in their eyes, their confidence, their sense of entitlement, their tribal solidarity. They aren't timid like other immigrants. They are already well-lettered, they are aware that they are intellectual scions of an ancient, book-based civilization. Socially clumsy, linguistically graceless (Yiddish their maternal language), they are vocal, demanding, competitive, striving. They exhaust him.

But once he begins to see them as individuals and form relationships, he comes to appreciate and respect them. (There is an affecting portrait of a brilliant, physically unattractive student whose polemical zeal initially repels Wolfe, but whom he ultimately befriends.)

Interestingly, Wolfe is the first American writer to treat Jews in fiction not as hybrid Americans but as full Americans, and to acknowledge his anti- Semitism as a fault in himself—not in Jews—that he is bound to expunge. His description of 1937 Nazi Germany—his ancestors were German and he visited Germany to discover his roots—in his fourth novel, You Can't Go Home Again, is one of the most empathetic literary treatments of Jews I have ever read.

And it was as I wrote about Wolfe and his struggle to quell his default estrangement and contempt for his students that I did begin to wonder if my gentile teachers at Forest Hill, some of whom probably grew up in small towns or neighbourhoods where Jews were a rarity or figures of suspicion, had felt something like the defensiveness and perplexity that had assailed Wolfe. Did any of them, I wonder, ever write to a friend: "I teach! I teach! Jews! Jews!"

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