Wednesday, April 2, 2008

August 3, 1926

[Note: To see large scans of Papa's letter, click the thumbnail images on the right of this page.]


August 3, 1926

7:00 P.M.

My dear Jeanie:

Nothing has changed since
yesterday but the heat, The thermometer
now registers 96. and the weather
forecast promises 48 hours more
of torrid heat.

Oh how I wish I was near
you now in the mountain country,
No vacation would be sweeter than
to be away in the quiet mountains
in these hot days, away from the noisy
city, and to be in your company now
would be heaven on Earth.

I wish I could write you a real
sentimental love letter, but what's the
use, I don't think I should do it
now, not because of lack of courage


but because of countless personal
utterances to you, I know your view
on the matter (of my devotion.)

However I think that I am right in
stating that due to our long aquaintance
I have gained your intimacy and confidence
which I cherish so much.

We are almost inseparable friends now
aren't we?

I have often prayed for divine intercession
that the little spark of love that you have
for me may should turn into a flame. --

I am still hopeful, and I am playing
on the last string of my harp like that
famous picture you saw. --

I am still waiting for your precious letter
your dress is not yet in, If I get it before
the end of this week I will mail it by
special delivery.

Nothing else now

Please remember me to Ma.

Your loving Harry

Pardon my abrupt
script as I am writing this
as the Post office.



Perhaps the torrid heat made Papa feel listless and resigned, or perhaps my grandmother's physical absence made him feel a bit lost, but whatever the reason, he had not, until he wrote this letter, admitted to the apparent failure of his efforts to win my grandmother's heart. Though his formal, gentlemanly prose creates a tone of nearly British understatement ("Dearest: A Zulu chieftain with whom I was not yet acquainted removed my right eye with his spear and I daresay interrupted a perfectly lovely tea") and, perhaps, aims to coax a contrary response from my grandmother, he cannot conceal how disappointed he is over the limits of her affection.

For those of us who knew my grandmother, the question inevitably comes up: Why, exactly, was Papa so smitten with her? She was beautiful and young, certainly, but she was also as hard-bitten, sharp-tongued, and intolerant as he was optimistic, gentle and forgiving. I remember how she would impatiently snap at him "Oh Harry, what's the difference?" as he puzzled aloud over some question (this is my only memory of them together). My mother remains baffled by Papa's magnanimity in the face of my grandmother's testiness, and even my grandmother admitted more than once that she really didn't understand what Papa saw in her. So why, when he was young and eligible, did he devote himself to her so completely, and with such persistence, even to the exclusion of other romantic prospects?

Or, to put it more bluntly, what was wrong with him?

Part of the answer lies, I think, in Papa's idealistic nature. This was the source of his sincere, admirable ability to see the good in people and in the world. It inspired him to pursue impossibly challenging causes against the odds, as it did with his Zionist activism. It also led to great disappointment, as it did when he put the Twentieth Century Girl on a pedestal only to learn she was merely a flawed mortal. Idealism is not always practical or productive, but it makes for a rich emotional life and keeps the world romantic.

As I've speculated before, though, Papa's overt idealism and romanticism may have masked something troubling with which he struggled as a young man. To long for a romantic ideal is also to hope for something unachievable, to seek what is unattainable, to reject the possible. It's also a handy way to avoid facing difficult truths and choices. The search for a perfect woman is, in reality, a search for someone who does not exist, and is therefore not a search at all. It's not that Papa didn't really want to get married and start a family -- his caring and self-sacrificing nature would not be satisfied if he didn't -- but I think, for all his professed loneliness and sincere desire to take care of a wife and child, he was unknowingly held back by something stronger.

Leaving the old country at eighteen was terribly difficult for him and, as we've discussed, he may have handled it in part by looking backwards and idealizing his former life instead of planting both feet decisively in his new world. His impossible pursuit of a perfect wife, however packed with disappointments, kept a new life at bay, kept him from entering adulthood fully. Moreover, it kept him from admitting that he had said goodbye for good to the simplicity of his youth, the security of his family, and to his beloved and influential father. For the first eleven years he lived in America, Papa taught himself to pursue stasis rather than progress in his emotional life.

I think the death of his father in mid-1924 shocked Papa and forced him, painfully, to accept at last that he could not go home again (he even described a feeling of "paradise lost" in one diary entry, a clear reference to the sudden intrusion of reality). It cannot be a pure coincidence that he met my grandmother soon after and, as we can see from his letters, credited her with a degree of perfection and desirability he had not yet encountered in anyone else. (For example, in his 1924 diary he writes of his disapproval for modern women and their crass behavior; in his letters to my grandmother he complements her on possessing certain rare qualities no longer in fashion.) It is as if he suddenly realized the urgent need to replace his lost family with a new one, and, accordingly, declared his search for a wife over when he met my grandmother.

I'm not saying he didn't really love my grandmother, because I know he did. Yet he must have seen her as a bit of an abstraction, too: a lovely, old-fashioned Jewish girl from a good family who came into his life just as he was ready to start anew. (Could she, so much younger than he, have triggered some paternal feelings in him, too, and appealed to his desire to care for a family all the more?) I think it must have been a great relief to him, as well as romantically appealing, to leave the world of dating and matchmakers and marital pressure behind and give himself over to an all-encompassing passion for one woman.

His calculations did not, unfortunately, take into account her feelings or personality or circumstances, but he adjusted his approach to maintain his single-minded devotion. When she showed disinterest, he saw it as a sign of a dormant love awaiting awakening; when she admitted her own flaws (she called herself too lazy to write him letters, for example) he recast them as virtues (she was not lazy, only distracted by more important matters); when her family tried to send him packing, he saw it as a challenge, a reason to redouble his efforts.

Having lived for so long in a state of limbo, it was not difficult (and perhaps it was somehow satisfying) for him to wait indefinitely for my grandmother to return his love. He may have written of resignation in the above letter, but he did not feel resigned. He would wait for her for four more years until she at last became his wife, and so, seventeen years after his arrival in this new world, he could finally stand with her and say "I am home."

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