The Way We Live Now

Two items in the news caught my eye this week. One of course was the wind-down of the bitter intramural elections in Israel, which has only nominally been concerned with the peace process and the next door Palestinians; voters go to the polls Monday, May 17. The second was the announcement by Sotheby’s New York that journalist Joyce Maynard was putting up for auction the 14 letters — some of them love letters — J.D. Salinger had written her in 1972. In a curious and perhaps anachronistic way, my mind seems to have linked the two. I know, it’s a long reach.

Maynard as some will remember was a freshman at Yale who had written a fresh-faced account in 1972 of how America looked to her and, by implication, to her generation. The essay appeared on the cover of The NY Times Magazine and readers were drawn both to the writing (which was quite good) and the appealing pixie face of 18 year-old Joyce Maynard that adorned the magazine’s cover. Women had only recently entered Yale. And I can attest that many writers — male and female — were drawn to the article and her photo, and experienced considerable envy of the attention she was drawing.

One reader who apparently was attracted to the voice of the writer, as well as to her innocent look, was J.D. Salinger, author of the novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” and the stories “Franny and Zooey”; at that time Salinger was one of America’s most famous writers, all the more celebrated because he had secluded himself in New Hampshire, shunning interviews, television and celebrityhood. His last published work had come out in 1965. He had become a touchstone for teenagers as well as adults. And Catcher had become our contemporary version of Huck Finn: Fierce in its attitude towards child-like innocence, and zealous in its stance against the materialism and vulgarity that seemed to be swamping 20th century America.

Not totally zealous,however. He, at age 53, was attracted to this young virginal 18 year old and began to correspond with her, first as an older mentor, and then as a hopeful suitor. They met; she dropped out of Yale; and then joined him in New Hampshire, where they became lovers — her first experience — for part of a year. At which point, presumably, her innocence, her teen age identity, her barely formed personality began to grate on his nerves and he dumped her.

In Salinger’s life this was all perhaps a footnote. In hers, a dazzling and disastrous beginning that cast a long shadow.

Today Salinger is still a recluse at 80, while Joyce Maynard, 45, is a divorced mother of three children. With two of them still to send through college, she has decided to sell the letters Salinger wrote her, and in the process make his correspondence public. Sotheby’s New York has said they should fetch $60,000- $80,000. It’s a safe bet that Salinger is unhappy, probably furious over this incursion into the privacy he has spent a lifetime protecting. I would also wager that Joyce Maynard probably is feeling some satisfaction — at least a little, I hope — at getting her own back, even though 27 years have elapsed.

It’s a jump I know, but (the jump will be clear later) Monday is election day in Israel and I have to admit the shape of the campaign for prime minister has taken me by surprise. I expected the peace process and the Palestinians to dominate the political race. Instead internal conflicts and divisions among Israelis have been at the forefront, and political life seems to be fueled by animosity, one Jew snarling at another.

There are battles between religious and secular voters for the way democracy or theocracy will be played out; between newer Russian immigrant supporters of Natan Sharansky and the earlier religious immigrant followers of the Shas party; between the old line Ashkenazai Europeans and the Middle Eastern and North African Sephardi voters, in what looks like class warfare. Think 19th century German American Jews and their relationships with East European Jewish immigrants who arrived on American shores between 1890 and 1920.

In short, the cross cutting conflicts between different Israeli interest groups resembles nothing so much as a slightly out of focus version of American politics, complete with campaign managers from the U.S.

Given this resemblance, why are many Jewish Americans reportedly turned off by Israeli politics? Why are they today less concerned with the twists and turns, the changes, in the evolving national culture in Israel? It cannot all be layed at the door of the Who is a Jew controversy.

My view is that while we delight in, and are consumed by, our own rapid fire culture — tv gossip, celebrityhood, the internet, high and low art available everywhere and at the click of a mouse, constant change, constant conflict, the instant playback (tv sports) and the instant analysis of everything from the president’s latest speech to Columbine High — we long for Israel to personify our steadfast, unchanged icon. Israel for us is best appreciated when it is seen as the land of the pioneers, the families raising children communally on the kibbutz; the citizen soldiers united against a hostile outside world. We yearn for the days of the 6-day war triumphs, of Entebbe, and of course Paul Newman and the heroic passengers on the Exodus.

Israel, I think, often serves for us, Jewish Americans, as an equivalent to the myth of the west, which forever remains fixed and unchanged in the U.S., complete with those tall men: Gary Cooper, John Wayne, James Stewart and Clint Eastwood. We are stuck today, though, with our present reality, where America is the land of illegal finance contributions and grubby political sleaze; of a culture where fame and celebrityhood and personal revelations define much of our society. We have low rent confessions on daytime talk shows; the sharing of personal experiences with casual acquaintances in men’s and women’s groups; and a thousand and one intimacies with strangers on the internet. We have memoirs about incest, child abuse, drug and alcohol addiction; and of course we have Joyce Maynard.

We do not want this mirror image of ourselves in Israel. What is Israel, this messy, loud abrasive nation of 6 million, with Jew pitted against Jew, doing to us? Their current gunslingers — Netanyahu, Barak, Mordechai, Sharon — are a far cry from the purity of Cooper and Wayne. The Jewish nation ought to return to the Israel of old, the one we seem to feel meets our needs. We do not want to celebrate a society that reflects back to us political incivility and violence, that projects an image of Jew against Jew, that features all those titillating but mawkish confessionals. They ought to conduct their election privately, out of the glare of television and the public eye.That would certainly make us feel better. — Gene Lichtenstein