March 6, 2003
In 1944, when I was 17 and a freshman at Cornell University, I introduced my mother to my new college girlfriend.
When the young lady left, my mother asked me how we met.
"We were sitting at the same table in the cafeteria and started to talk."
Her eyes opened wide. "You what? You mean you were not formally introduced?"
Before everyone assumes that shadchanim (arranged marriages) and chaperoned dates were the norms for wartime Jewish youth in the Ivy League, let me point out a paradox: My shocked mother, a 1925 graduate of Cornell Law School, made a career as a labor lawyer working for labor unions, truck drivers, garment workers and the like. She was a secular Jew, a militant feminist and an active political supporter of the Holy Trinity of New York Jewry: President Roosevelt, Governor Lehman and Mayor LaGuardia.
But on the subject of marital relations, and all that led up to them, she was at one with her Lithuanian Orthodox Jewish ancestors.
We, her three sons, did not date until we left for college. Nor did our friends, all middle-class Jews. There was some gossip about possible pregnancies among our classmates at Forest Hills High School, but I cannot recall any of us ever discussing homosexuality and the idea of cross-dressing -- even on Purim -- simply never occurred.
We knew, of course, that several girls in our class were regarded as "fast," which, to our unsophisticated minds, meant that they petted in the movies on Saturday night. But it wasn't until another year went by and I was a soldier on leave in Paris that I finally discovered what all the excitement was about.
As I reach my 76th birthday, all this seems like it was lived in another country. I will spare you the usual doleful comments of the aged on how today's youth has declined morally, physically and intellectually. Actually, if I judge by my four children, three grandchildren and their friends, they are doing very nicely in all three categories, thank you. (I take exception only to their taste in popular music.)
One thing they were spared was the chaotic political environment in which my brothers and I came to maturity. My three older children grew up, went to college, entered into their professions and made careers for themselves. Military service was never an issue, nor was the threat of attack at home by a foreign enemy. My fourth child, younger by two decades, might yet have to deal with such threats, especially if the present administration enters into what its enemies will regard as a sacred war against an infidel culture in which all the world becomes the battlefield.
Contrast this with their father's experience. By my 22nd birthday I had served in two armies and the "illegal" immigration movement to Palestine. It was years before I returned to the college campus to earn my degrees. Nor was my experience exceptional; millions of American men (and not a few women) spent much of their youth separated from their families, putting their lives on the line and on hold, so to speak, while the national interest was served.
Today people speak of mine as the "greatest generation" and pay it the homage normally given to firemen and police officers. From the Olympian heights of a seventh decade, the description is not apt. Certainly, by one measure at least, we were dreadful failures. What we have left to our children and grandchildren is a worse legacy even than the one our parents left to us. We inherited a world convulsed by the effects of two world wars, but buoyed by the hope that mankind had learned its ghastly lessons and would do away with genocide, oppression, colonialism and the other ills of the first half of the century. Instead, we leave them violent nationalisms, atomic threats, Africa, Cambodia and Al Qaeda, among other actual and potential disasters.
My mother grew to be much more accepting of my choice of girlfriends and even of my ways of meeting them. In fact, 10 years after my father's death, she married an attorney whom she met in an elevator in the building in which they both had offices.
I never had the nerve to make the obvious point. To do so would not have been befitting a member of the greatest generation. Â
Yehuda Lev is a former associate editor of The Jewish Journal. He lives in Providence, R.I.