For me, the mix of people and memory that is “Baltimore” is the matrix of modern and contemporary Jewish religion, thought and culture. I care a lot less about big concepts like creation, revelation, redemption. I think I’m anti-intellectual.
Years ago, I ran into a colleague in the department who told me with great charm, “D. and I were in your city last weekend.” Instantly I beamed, “Oh, you were in Baltimore!!” She looked at me like I was daft, “Nooo, New York.” But Baltimore will always be my first matrix. I was born and raised there, in a tight-knit family of cultural Jewish Labor Zionists. I went to an echt WASP private boy school, against which I rebelled. With my late father’s support and against my mother’s considered judgment, I left for a progressive private school founded by the Baltimore German Jewish elite in 1912.
I had happy occasion this weekend to go back to Baltimore for my cousin’s bat-mitzvah. The weather was hot and the sun was unseasonably bright. It all made for intense waves memory. I haven’t been to Baltimore maybe since my father died about six or seven years ago, or, more likely, since my mother moved to New York a few years after. For me, Balitimore is loaded with associations. Guilford, Roland Park, Cross Keys, Mt. Washington, Greenspring, Pikesville, which is now orthodox and ultra-orthodox. And all the cousins, the ones who live in Baltimore and the ones who flew in, or took the train, or drove in from New York, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Hadera. And, of course my mother, the brother, the sister-in-law and nieces. Old friends from Habonim drove up from Rockville with their daughter, who is good friends with my cousin the bat-mitzvah.
I know intellectuals are supposed to hate their families. It’s a pose and an affect I don’t tend to like, or try to avoid, or just simply don’t share. I am severely sentimental by nature. Pretty much, I was was lucky growing up. I got out of prep school, and I got out of the house a lot when I was in high school, which made it easier between my father and me. As a middle child, it could also be the case that less, much less, was either expected or demanded of me. At least that’s how I remember it. I know all of this is extremely subjective but, then again, that is the nature of family affect. I can’t and won’t speak for other people, inside or outside my family. But I don’t think people who “hate” their families are any more objective, even when they so for good reason, and even when they do so no more than is necessary.
I am going to assume, at least for the moment, that I am not completely deluded and confess that I loved every minute of the weekend in Baltimore. In general, I think other people are pretty smart, including my relatives. Some of them are amazingly smart. They have interesting things to say, have deep life experience, do interesting things. Collectively, and this is the point, other people, including my relatives, have more and better common sense than do I or the people about whom I write. And they have a keen nose for bullshit. It is not always clear to me that the “modern Jewish philosophy” that my colleague-friends and I study, pursue, assess, and practice with such earnestness is any match for the more indigenous forms of reflex and reflection called ”Jewish culture.”
I know these types of culture matrices aren’t “deep,” and I know that they can tend towards the tacky, and even banal, which for me is precisely the point. A cultural matrix runs along and binds things up on the surface of things. Under the right conditions, the reflex and reflection are more sensitive to local conditions, more malleable, more emotionally generous than the works of the big thinkers. I don’t think this counts as philosophy, or Jewish philosophy. But I do think that “families” constitute one condition of possibility, one among others, the type that is easy to lose sight of.
It was my cousin’s bat-mitzvah, the passage of time, the living and their presence and the dead and their memory, and the physical passage through space that moved me to reflect about this. Driving back up on the way home with Baltimore behind me, I entered into what for me is everyday terrain –the Turnpike along the industrial wastelands of central and northern New Jersey, watching the planes take off and land at Newark International Airport, the New York skyline in the distance. The clouds were heavy; it started to rain big heavy drops, the temperature cooled down. For my cousins who live there, just down the road on I-95, Baltimore is real, quotidian space. For me, it’s a hot, humid memory place. My cousin in from Israel might come spend a couple of nights. I might take him downtown to a Cambodian sandwich dive near NYU. The brother and brother-in-law are coming in from Tokyo.
[JPP invites any and all Baltimore testimonials. From Jews or non-Jews, about Judaism and religion or not. They can be nostalgic, non-nostalgic, or anti-nostalgic; from family members or from anyone. I will come back to tinker with this post given the right critical pushback.]