Monday, October 1, 2012

The Jewish Homophobe

Since I remember reading Merle Miller’s “What it Means to be a Homosexual” in January of 1971 in The New York Times Magazine, I felt a personal connection to Charles Kaiser’s NYRBlog post, “When The New York Times Came Out of the Closet,” which serves as an afterword to the new Penguin release of Miller’s On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual.” I was particularly struck, however, by Kaiser’s backstory about particularly vocal homophobes at the time Miller’s article appeared. One was the Times own managing editor, A. M. Rosenthal, and the other was Joseph Epstein for his Harper’s article, “The Struggle for Sexual Identity.”

This aspect of Kaiser’s post led me to think back on being a student at the time of the Sexual Revolution. I realized in retrospect that I had encountered a variety of different homophobic stances in the classroom among my teachers, and the most vocal of those stances took place in music classes. I suppose this was understandable, since it was a time when researchers were just beginning to disclose how many members of the pantheon of “great composers” had homosexual experiences, which must have been quite a blow to those teachers who worshipped those idols, rather than concentrating on studying them. I also remember that the most vocal of the homophobes was Jewish; and he often made it a point to identify at least two composers who had not concealed their homosexuality as members of his worst-composer-of-all-time category, as if homosexuality involved a degradation of aesthetics as well as morals.

In retrospect I am inclined to call this an instance of the nice-Jewish-boy syndrome. This was a time when the old “nice Jewish boys” concentrated on excelling in intellect and keeping a low profile in everything else, while the younger ones (one of whom showed up in the last season of Mad Men) rejected that whole low-profile attitude. Why was there a generational shift? My conjecture is that the older generation lived with vivid memories of the Holocaust and saw the low profile as a necessary survival tactic, while the following generation as more detached from Hitler’s anti-Semitic nightmare.

I was teaching in Israel during the 1972 Presidential election. Just about every Israeli I met opposed George McGovern, because he wanted to declare Jerusalem an international city. I therefore wore a McGovern button with a certain amount of pride, not to mention an excuse for declaring my suspicions about Richard Nixon. I was once confronted by an Israeli who asked what I would do if the President of the United States decided to persecute Jews. I replied that, if the Federal Government wanted to get me, they would probably come up with reasons a lot better than my religion to do so!

Like most Jews I have a lot of respect for those who endured the Holocaust. However, I also believe that a generational shift has taken place and that keeping a low profile about your beliefs is a thing of the past. Of course I now live in a City whose culture embraces just about every imaginable form of tolerance. I am practical enough to recognize that there are many corners of the world, including in my own country, in which discretion is not merely the better part of valor but a necessity for survival.

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