THE BRINGING-UP OF THE LITTLE JEW
Jews are constantly telling me what a grievous disadvantage they find themselves under in conducting their business because they happen to be Jews. The word "happen" is theirs, not mine. They forget to make a very important distinction, which can only be made if you have been honest enough to observe it. Being a Jew is a disadvantage only if you are a Jew doing business within the Jewish tradition. But you can be a Jew who conducts his business honestly and decently. I have met one or two such Jews in my life. I have never known them to suffer of racial prejudice.
But most Jews (unless they deal exclusively with their own kind, in which case Heaven help them!) find themselves up against the rock of gentile prejudices even before they have had any dealings at all with the gentile. It certainly cannot be fair, it will be argued, to condemn a man even if he is guilty, before he has had a chance to show his hand. The answer is that there is no law compelling the gentile to wait till he has been cheated before he steps out of the way of the Jewish trap. The average Jew displays his disposition on his face, the result of his peculiar up bringing on the principle: Leolom Tickach, always take. It has brought the old wolf so much into his face the gentile has to be a born ass to let himself be bitten.
About two years ago, Harry Montor of the Seven Arts Syndicate came to ask me for an interview. "There is really only one question I want you to answer," he said. "You've developed quite a publishing business. Have you found being a Jew an obstacle to your career?"
My answer, syndicated as The Strange Career of Samuel Roth, was easy to give. I had not found being a Jew an obstacle to me either in the publishing business or in any branch of the life I had lived. In spite of my naturally indolent attitude towards studies, I was graduated from a gentile grammar school with honors. I obtained entry for my poetry and prose into the best newspapers and magazines, just by submitting my work through the mails. I got a scholarship in Colombia University, not by passing examinations, or exerting influence, but by submitting to the scholarship committee a few immature but ambitious sonnets. I lived in Hartley Hall on the Columbia campus the quietest and most beautiful months of my life. But for America's entering the war, I would still be there.
Yes, the goyim were always generous to me. But, on the other hand, I never tried to fool them or even court their favors. In grammar school, I made no effort to become friendly with my gentile teachers or with the students in my classes who were not Jews. John Erskine and Carl Van Doren, whose gracious interest made possible my Colombia scholarship, knew that they were helping a Jew because it was almost the very first things I told them. My very first contribution to Columbia Spectator was the review of a Jewish book. It was a very strict principle with me. If I found it at all necessary to deal with a goy, I made certain to warn him in advance that I was a Jew and liable to change shape and eat him at a moment's notice.
Discrimination against Jews at the University was plentiful, of course. But I do not remember that anyone discriminated against Irwin Edman, Frank Tannenbaum or myself. The very contrary to the usual was true, I know, in my case. I was liked rather than avoided for my aggressive Jewishness. After I publicly announced that I would join no fraternity to which Jews were not admitted, I believe I received more pressing invitations to join than many a popular gentile in my class. I advance the suggestion that it is altogether possible for a Jew to live at peace with the Christian world about him, if he begins by presenting his proper credentials, and does not try to establish with it a basis of equality which does not exist. Being born a Jew is a misfortune, like being born a Pigmy. I have never known a Pigmy to advance his fortunes in the world by affecting stilts. But a Jew can make a beautiful position in the world for himself merely by being honest.
Israel Zangwill made it a point of honor to impress his nationality on all the people he dealt with, although the overwhelming Jewishness of his physiognomy should have made that unnecessary. He liked to tell how on board the ship, that took him to America the first time, he had the good fortune to become acquainted with an eminent economist who was to occupy the chair in economics at one of the great eastern universities. The economist labored under the disadvantage of a bad case of spinal curvature, but Zangwill found him one of the pleasantest of companions and the days and nights passed swiftly for both of them because of their numerous animated conversations. When finally the Statue of Liberty was sighted in New York harbor, the economist suggested to Zangwill that they might, if he wished it, continue their lively discussions on shore. "But you understand that I'm a Jew," interposed Zangwill gravely. "Yes," replied the economist, "and you understand, of course, that I'm a hunchback." I do not imply that there is necessarily dishonest in the attitude of a Jew who undertakes a business relationship with a gentile without warning him in advance that he is a Jew. In most cases when he fails to do this, the Jew is merely exercising his constitutional right as a citizen of a free republic. No one can blame the Jews for being reluctant to give up without a struggle the civil privileges which during the last hundred years they have wrested, by main force of wheedling and wit, from unwilling constitutional governments. I am, however, advancing the opinion that if we exercise our newly acquired rights more cautiously, our chances will be better not only to keep them but possibly to gain even new ones. The presence in the American constitution of articles granting the Jews equality in the face of the law does not alter the fact that to the average American, a Jew is still a Jew, and subject to great suspicion.
Suppose the American constitution does give us equal rights with Gentile American citizens? Does that alter the fact that every once in a while another great American industry joins in the boycott of Jewish labor? Does our theoretical equality makes it easier for Jewish students to enter American colleges? Constitutional rights that have been granted can also be taken away. The increasing hostility of America to its Jewish citizenry would seem to indicate it as the height of folly for American Jews to rest nonchalantly on their constitutional rights.
During my days as a bookseller on West Eighth Street, I became friendly with a man who employed more than four thousand people. It was known of him also that he did not permit Jews to work in any branch of his business. "Will you tell me why?" I once asked him.
"Just business," he said, "Jews are not dependable, and they are untrustworthy."
"Would that explain their success in business?" I asked.
"I don't know what explains a Jew's success in business," he replied. "But have you ever heard of a Jew who made a success of another man's business?"
I was silent.
He smiled. "When you find such a Jew," he said "send me a wire collect, and I'll begin hiring Jews immediately."
"Have you never employed a Jew, then?"
"Sure, many of them. By accident. They come around to our employment department, give Christian names, and get away with it - until I spot them. At the works they say that I've got an unfailing eye for Jews. They never escape me."
I protested that this seemed both remarkable and unbelievable. I, a Jew, very frequently mistook a Jew for a gentile!
"Being a Jew isn't it enough, Roth. You've got to have a nose for Jews. You've got to be able to smell them out. If I can't spot it in their features, I can find their Jewishness in their conversation."
"What about Jews with Harvard accents?"
"You've got me wrong. I didn't mean their accents at all. Most American Jews talk like Americans, and less with their hands than regular Americans do. I have a more infallible way of recognizing a Jew in my employ. When a Jew talks to his employer he usually looks over his head."
I think I know exactly what this man meant. Isaac looks over the head of his employer to the invisible Lord God of Israel. Since all the wealth before him was really meant for the enrichment of Israel, there must be at hand some nice easy way to get out of the crude hands of the goy in actual possession. He cannot help this dishonest feeling. It is almost as instinctive with him as it is instinctive for the gentile who sees him to pass by him. That's how poor Isaac has been brought up. And what a little Jewish boy has learnt, to quote a contemporary patriotic Jewish drama, he never forgets.
What is this Jewish upbringing! To know it you have to enter and live in, a Jewish home. I only knew one Jewish home intimately, the one in which I was, so to say reared, and so I shall give you some inkling of it. It was typical of all Jewish homes, rich or poor alike.
The Hebrew of the rabbis was all I had been permitted to learn in Poland. My father's respect for what might be learned outside of the Pentateuch being very scan, it was lucky for me that public school attendance in New York City was compulsory. I was enrolled in the public school of my district. But that did not mean the end of my Hebrew studies. To continue those I was compelled to go to cheder (Hebrew school) for two hours after school every afternoon.
My father had to pay so much every week for my Hebrew schooling. What he paid came out of the slender means by which we were fed and clothed. And what poverty we lived in, those days! My father drudged heavily and bitterly for the little money he earned. For some fifteen or eighteen dollars he found once a week in his pay envelope he had to rise four o'clock mornings to go to work, and he stuck to his machine till nearly ten o'clock at night. The agony his livelihood cost him made a miser out of my father. He could not bear to part with the greenbacks which came to him with so much anguish of body and spirit. But not once did I hear him complain of the cost of my Hebrew education.
It was really heartrending. He grudged my poor mother every penny he allowed her for the bare necessities of life and the rental of the insect-ridden apartment we occupied on Broome Street. If he found in the ice-box, when he came home, apart from what had been left for his supper, a little butter, an egg, or some barley, he quarreled about it interminably with my mother, and was certain to cut down her allowance the following day. Yet when it came to parting with cheder money, no questions were asked. Why?
The explanation for this is simple enough. Without the aid of a local police to enforce it, Hebrew education is compulsory among Jews. To fail to force me to go to cheder would have meant complete social ostracism for my father and mother. The Jewish boy must learn enough Hebrew whereby to read his prayer book on Saturday mornings in synagogue, and for the ceremony of Bar Mitzvah, his thirteenth birthday, when he is installed as a full-grown member of the Jewish community, with full responsibilities of a citizen. To have failed in this important preparation is, in Jewish life, an act of high treason to the Jewish nation. That is how it happened that, against my own wishes I spent the precious hours after school, learning Hebrew .
If you stop an American Jew and ask him why he plagues his children with Hebrew studies (after the already exhausting sessions of the public schools) he will give you one of two reasons. He will either plead that he is giving his son the religious education he needs to complete his equipment for a successful career, or that he thinks it is important to supplement the cultural training his son is acquiring in the public school with the cultural Jewish training that is traditionally just as important to his son.
The first answer is given by the simple ignorant Jew, the sort of Jew my own father was. The answer is sincere and honest enough, for it was transmitted to him by a hundred thoughtless generations. But fundamentally it is untrue. The amount of Hebrew a child needs to know for purely religious purposes, he learns in two years, before he is six years old, before he is required to begin his secular education. And religion is not taught in the Hebrew schools.
Hebrew instructors are not religious and do not bother to teach religion. I was a cheder student when a child, and I was never taught religion. When I grew older I held a position with the Bureau of Jewish Education maintained by funds publicly collected from the Jewish community of New York. I do not think I violat