In person, Nat Hentoff is an unprepossessing man. Slight of build, a little disheveled, mildly absent-minded, a trifle out of focus, lacking rhetorical fire, he seems for all the world like a retirement-age Jewish academic. This indeed he might well have become, save for the jazz, the politics, and the contentiousness he absorbed in his youth in Boston. The Hentoff of this memoir is startlingly different from the personage one encounters on the current college-lecture circuit—wearily reasserting left-liberal strategies to combat Reaganism. For Boston Boy is a thoroughly lively, completely absorbing exploration of Hentoff’s first twenty-eight years. Those who have followed his curiously meandering career since his arrival at Down Beat magazine will find this book an invaluable source of insights about Hentoff’s well-known passions: First Amendment liberties, civil rights, the possibilities of the public schools, and music. Also, the book is certain to become a basic text for those interested in the rise of the “New York intellectuals” of the 1950’s and 1960’s, of which Hentoff was a dissident specimen. Thus, Boston Boy deserves comparison with such works as Irving Howe’s A Margin of Hope (1982), an intellectual autobiography—covering roughly the same period—of Dissent’s famous editor. (William Phillips’ A Partisan View: Five Decades of the Literary Life, 1984, is another title of relevance here, as is Alfred Kazin’s New York Jews, 1978.) Best of all, however, Boston Boy is simply a good read—vivid, narratively interesting, lumpy with stories and portraits and provocations.
While Boston Boy indulges in the digressive, anecdotal, block-and-gap formlessness permitted the “memoir,” it is possible to see the writing as an exploration of three themes. These include the forbidding allurements of Orthodox Judaism; the liberating power of jazz and jazz culture; and the greatness of inclusive, ethnically rich Democratic Party politics.
In his writings and public debates, Hentoff frequently proclaims his atheism. It is therefore a bit surprising to discover in Boston Boy a thoroughgoing preoccupation with Judaism. The book opens with this sentence: “I would not have known I had been excommunicated had it not been for the news reports.” Hentoff proceeds to explain how, in 1982, a group of rabbis expelled him from the faith for his signature on a New York Times advertisement protesting Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Hentoff’s tone is whimsical. He only wishes, he says, that he might have been present to state his case: “And I would have told them about my life as a heretic, a tradition I keep precisely because I am a Jew, and a tradition I was strengthened in because I came to know certain jazz musicians at so early an age that they, not unwittingly, were my chief rabbis for many years.” Yet the reader also senses that Hentoff is relieved that the court had no real authority, for, as the reader learns, he wants very much to remain within the house of Judaism—if perhaps only in that special room reserved for God’s protesting sons.
That Hentoff had something to rebel against is clear enough from the first third of the book. His childhood and adolescence were heavily patterned by exacting regimes: school; heder; shul; music lessons; paying jobs. His father was Orthodox but not fanatically so. Born in Russia, he emigrated to America to escape service in the army of the czar, only to find himself fighting in an American uniform in France. Painter, union organizer, haberdasher, Cy Hentoff lost his shop in the Great Depression and became a traveling salesman. Nat was expected to work—his first job was with a Yiddish-speaking fruit peddler—and achieve the highest marks in school.
While the boy accepted the demands of school and work, he grew increasingly resentful of religious disciplines. Upon reaching the seventh grade, he was admitted to Boston Latin School (BLS), the famous public institution that has produced such luminaries as Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Leonard Bernstein. The secular perspectives absorbed at BLS began to compete with those inculcated in Hebrew school. Hentoff disputed his Jewish teachers, was expelled, and barely made it through his bar mitzvah. It is telling that one of Boston Boy’s major symbols is Hentoff’s memory of eating a huge salami sandwich in a busy public place on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day of fasting. “This despicable twelve-year-old atheist is waiting to be stoned. Hoping to be stoned. But not hit,” writes Hentoff sardonically. He returns over and over to this memory. It reminds him of his vocation as an oppositional figure, a dissenter.
Hentoff’s posture, however, is decidedly that of loyal opposition. He writes whimsically, movingly, of a Sabbath morning in 1974 when, after thirty-six years, he returned again to a synogogue for religious services. The occasion was the bar mitzvah of his elder son. While Hentoff had not encouraged the boy to take this step, he was surprised by the awareness of significance it aroused. It was a moment when “I felt the ghosts of all whose name, in one spelling or another, I...
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