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Reverse Assimilation

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Reverse Assimilation

      If I had my childhood to do over, I would still want to grow up in the Roland Park of the 1950s and '60s. Falls Road and 40th Street were perfect protective barriers that insulated youth from "outside" influences and helped to make childhood innocent, easy, and happy. And for me, such idyllism also made later introductions to new brands of person, to fascinating discoveries of unknown worlds.

      The young Roland Park male in the '60s was attending Gilman or, if his parents fancied themselves enlightened, Friends. Prior to Gilman he had gone to school with girls: either six years at Calvert, or three years at Roland Park Country School (RPCS), where he learned everything there was for an eight-year-old to know about classical Greek architecture from Miss Jose. (For some reason RPCS thought it unwise for its girls to be exposed to nine-year-old boys and forced us out after Third Grade. In 1961, RPCS was unmanned entirely.)

      Gilman Lower School let out early on Wednesdays, which suspiciously coiniided with the timing of Mrs. Farber's dancing class at the Elkridge Club, where the face of the Roland Park boy would contort in pain whenever Mrs. Farber or my Aunt May forced him to dance with the freckled, homely "chubbette" in the corner. He didn't know then that he'd give his right arm to dance with that same comely brunette in a coffee house ten years later. He bought his baseball cards at The Morgue (Morgan & Millard's) and fireballs at Doc's (Tuxedo Pharmacy), and terrorized crotchety neighbors. Whatever he did, he did it in Roland Park with other Roland Parkers. (Most of the boys back then are still there and still the same, except now they terrorize neighbors into buying insurance.)

      The Lower School seemed to foster Roland Park's insularity. The only observable blacks were those found in the photographs of the Weekly Reader. And, we mused, what did those poor African kids want with the pencils and erasers we sent them in those CARE boxes? Wouldn't they be happier with a box of Hydroxes? Knowledge of the Civil Rights movement was limited to the shock of the family maid's preempting of Pete the Pirate on TV to watch Dr. King's speech on that Wednesday afternoon in August 1963.

      Gilman seemed to keep us safe from the world. We were protected against polio by "cubes" of sugar administered to us in the Lower School auditorium. The Cuban Missile Crisis didn't phase us. How could it? Our school was on such safe ground that Gilman didn't make us dive under our desks for air raid drills as we had to do at RPCS. At 1:00 Monday afternoon when the sirens sounded, we might be found in Hunt Hilliard's shop making "skyhooks" or rehearsing our centennial production of the Civil War--the whole war in 30 minutes with John "Abie Baby" Deford in beard and stovepipe hat. (The sympathies of the boys definitely ran in favor of the Stars and Bars and my R. E. Lee.)

      Our occasional glimpses of a troubled world beyond Roland Park were rare. Our knowledge of other locales seemed, instead, confined to our summer camps and, as required in Fourth Grade, memorization of the names of the county seats of all 24 political subdivisions in Maryland.

      We only began our growing up and a real awareness of a larger world that Friday afternoon in November 1963 when Reg Tickner unexpectedly entered our classrooms to announce that the President (whom most of our parents disliked) had been wounded in Dallas.

      In First Form my homogenetic nurturing was radically interrupted by my discovery of Jews. They were new and strange: they came to Gilman each morning from that faraway, unknown world on the other side of the JFX; they didn't leave school early for Mrs. Farber's; they never received demerits in study hall, always did all their homework, and they were never seen on Saturdays swimming at the clubs or loitering outside the drugstores on Roland Avenue. Thinking now about that first influx of Jews into Gilman, I wonder whether we seemed as novel to them as they did to us.

      In First Form I was a closet Gilbert & Sullivan freak (SWM into G&S) who would never dare sing my patter songs anywhere but in the seclusion of my third-floor room at home. When I discovered, however, I had a classmate at Gilman who knew every word from every song from every operetta, had even played Ko-Ko in a Mikado at Pikesville Elementary, I came out of my G&S closet.

      Chip Manekin and I became fast friends, obnoxious Savoyards who got on everyone's nerves, and great jokesters who were always on the brink of receiving that dreaded third demerit. Chip could confound teachers out of demerits by sheer illogic. Me? Whenever I really got on Herbie Dresser's nerves in English class, I would be ordered to the headmaster's office. Schlepping myself out of class, I'd strut into Ludlow Baldwin's office, take a seat, explain to him that I was only visiting, and then spend 15 minutes regaling him with stories of Turner goings-on. To this day I don't think Herbie Dresser ever realized that Ludlow Baldwin thought my mother a saint, and that sons of saints could do no wrong.

      Spending time with Chip Manekin, one couldn't help but notice other differences: his absences from school on odd days to miss when not sick, the matzo he'd carefully unravel from saran wrap in the dining hall during Passover, and the Hebrew books he'd sometimes carry and study from right to left. Chip was brash and didn't care what others made of him or his curious outlook on adolescence: "Someday I'm going to be Orthodox, but right now I want to have fun!" This was all alien to me. To sing Pinafore with Chip was also to receive an intro course into the Hebraic mysteries.

      One thing led to another. Chip led to Ray Bank and Larry White, to Marvin Miller and Michael Blum. ...I noticed something inexplicable happening to me. For almost six straight Saturdays I found myself at friends' bar mitzvahs instead of with family and friends at my brother's Severn lacrosse games. If my parents Were alarmed at all my new Jewish friends, they never betrayed any such feelings. The doors of my parents' house were always wide open to the comings and goings of Blums, Banks, and Manekins as well as Gampers, Smalls, and Defords. Mom never balked at having to drive me over to spend weekend nights on South or Labyrinth Roads, and Dad enjoyed priding himself on his recollection of G&S as he chauffeured Chip and me to Mergenthaler to worship our idol, Bruce Baetjer, as he wowed 'em in the Comic Opera's latest Gilbert & Sullivan. In fact, Mom would take extra care to stock the fridge for the advent of Michael Blum and his somnambulant tours of our kitchen in search of individually wrapped slices of American cheese.

      With my discovery of Jews came my first consciousness of anti-Semitism (more often than not from my Jewish friends) .One of the most impressive talks I ever heard Ludlow Baldwin make came not when he was lecturing about the Fertile Crescent, but when he was livid on discovering penciled Stars of David next to each Jewish name on the Honor Roll in the common room.

      There had been a few Jews at Gilman before my time, but nothing like the numbers enrolling in the mid-'60s. For those of us who entered the Upper School from Calvert and from the Gilman Lower School, the presence of so many boys who seemed so unlike us was bewildering. Attending six bar mitzvahs, getting to know Park Heights Avenue as well as I knew Roland, having friends who couldn't or wouldn't be my guests at the pool, loosening ties to some of my boyhood chums, and awakening to anti-Semitism caused anxiety that combined with other adolescent tensions to produce a somewhat mixed-up kid. By the end of Second Form I wanted out of Roland Park, out of Gilman, out of the house. I insisted on packing myself off to boarding school. Though I left Gilman, I did not leave behind what my experiences there had taught me, nor did I leave behind my friends, almost all of whom were Jewish.

      At an Episcopal boarding school I was lectured that Jews and blacks weren't the problems. What we really had to worry about were those Catholics. How the Book of Common Prayer and Archbishop Cranmer were relevant to the dangers in dating Catholic girls, I'll never understand. I could stand only one year of boarding school. My last day there I was awarded the prize for excellence in Ninth Grade English--a copy of the then-current best seller, Chaim Potok's The Chosen.

      Back home I became a sort of Dickensian orphan who belongs nowhere and so can move freely from one world to another. I'd go chug beers at the Hunt Cup with fellow WASPs and act in community theater with Jews; date debutantes from Bryn Mawr and Deborahs from Park. In step with the times, I became "anti" any established group whose exclusiveness hindered my freedom to move with whom I wanted.

      I rejected as elitist certain fraternities and organizations at college. Rather, I pursued my chosen course at the University of Pennsylvania by acquainting myself with as many different types of people as I could. I celebrated seders with Sue Schwartz and brunched at The Newman Center with Mary Van Metre. I would masquerade with Manekin on Purim in the Kosher Kitchen at Yale and imbibe with Ned Grassi at swanky parties in Princeton. I once gained admittance to a small, private reception for Hubert Humphrey at Hillel by merely assuming the name of my Gilman friend, Michael Blum. Poor Mike. He had such a bad reputation at Penn and he didn't even go there.

      Rather than relegate myself to any social sect, I have grown comfortable being in between. The personal advantages of being betwixt outweigh the guilt associated with betraying feelings and values for the comfort of acceptance. I'm way too goy to be Jewish and not faithful enough to the old boys to be a true-blue WASP. I would feel as uncomfortable wearing a yarmulke on my head as I would a duck-laden belt round my waist.

      Increasingly, I find myself a go-between for those who have relegated themselves to their own too-narrow spheres. I cast no malicious stones at either the old-boy or old-Jew but, rather, have come to believe that most ugly social and religious prejudices are by-products of the natural, strong prejudice both have in favor of their own and by which they believe their traditions, values, and respective societies are safeguarded. This doesn't make things such as anti-Semitism or extreme ghetto insularity right, but for me it does make them somewhat understandable.

      My wife went to Princeton and to Harvard Medical School, but she never went to Mrs. Farber's or the Hunt Cup. Not making a debut at Baltimore's annual Anglo-ethnic folk dance (a/k/a the Bachelors' Cotillion) is of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. Our feelings of pride and joy when our daughter was given her Hebrew name "Daniella" at the Hillcrest Jewish Center in Queens were no less true than those universal feelings of Pride and Joy all peoples share.

      I never disparage my childhood neighborhood or what it did for me. I am thankful to have had a father who introduced his son to the absurdity of Gilbert & Sullivan and to have had a number of years at a school which, to its great credit, parted the waters of the Jones Falls and lured parents into sending their sons across and into the wilderness that was Roland Park.

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