Center field: Honoring my parents as values-generating machines

The author recollects about lessons from his parents’ generation.

By GIL STERN STERN TROY
February 3, 2015 21:23
David Ben-Gurion

Teddy Kollek and David Ben-Gurion on the Kinneret.. (photo credit: NAFTALI OPPENHEIM/ BEIT YIGAL ALLON ARCHIVES, GINOSSAR)

This Saturday, I had the privilege of standing up in synagogue to honor my parents publicly, as they recited the “Shehecheyanu” prayer to celebrate their sixtieth anniversary.

When Elaine Gerson and Bernard Dov Troy married in 1955, apples were for eating, not computing; a mouse squeaked but did not click; windows broke but did not crash. When they thought “cell,” they thought biology, not telephones – which were never smart – and they had real friends, not virtual ones. Ronald Reagan was one of Hollywood’s leading Democrats and the most famous Governor Clinton in American history was New York’s DeWitt Clinton, not Bill, who would soon be turning nine.

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Israel, population 1.8 million, was small, besieged, poor and fragile, while New York, where my parents married, was the cultural capital of an America enjoying its post-World War II high. Most Americans trusted their leaders and their democratic institutions. 60 years later, Israelis are more confident than they were, Americans less so. Both should take pride in the democratic vitality and values these two close allies have embodied during this period of tremendous growth and upheaval.

Israel of 1955 was the land of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, of Jaffa oranges and collective folk dances.

Israelis managed the deprivations of tsena (austerity) and the threats of Arab border incursions with the insouciance of idealistic pioneers who trusted the best would soon come and of gritty survivors who had seen much worse. Israel had tripled in size in seven years.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Nazi and Arab anti-Semitism confirmed the Zionist argument that the Jews needed a national home while experiencing the Israeli magic that made rejected refugees welcomed citizens.

America of 1955 was the land of Dwight Eisenhower and Billy Graham, of John Wayne and James Dean.

Big institutions and clear social scripts dominated, defined by men in their gray flannel suits and happy homemakers in their white gloves. The victorious fight against Nazism and the new fight against Communism reinforced Americans’ sense of their own righteousness.

Although blighted by sexism and racism, this America had strong families sharing common values.

Both America and Israel have become more individualistic, prosperous, tolerant, integrated. Members of once-marginalized groups, especially Israel’s Sephardim and African-Americans, feel accepted now. The Israel-America convergence – propelled by modernity in our high-tech, hyper-democratic age – demonstrates that even as President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bicker sophomorically, the Israel-America relationship remains mature and strong, reinforced by common interests and shared values.

So, as Canadians say, “no worries,” we will survive more rounds of Netanyahu-Obama follies, guaranteed to end by January 20, 2017, if not sooner.

That’s today’s political lesson. But I am also contemplating a deeper moral lesson, inspired by my parents’ sixtieth anniversary celebrations.

“I lived through a revolution,” my father said when he retired after three decades of teaching in New York City’s public schools. Respect for teachers had diminished.

Both my parents, as educators, were on the front lines of a war they feared they lost. Drugs, crime, teenage parents, broken families, neglected children, and epidemic levels of selfishness and alienation ruined many lives, especially in the areas they served.

Since the 1990s, the rates of many of these social dysfunctions have leveled off, but Affluenza, a mix of crassness, neediness, hollowness and materialism, afflicts even the safest, most achievement-oriented households. Many Americans and Israelis sense a cultural loss, an existential crisis, even while appreciating our everyday miracles. Few Israelis miss the days of deprivation; few Americans miss those unhappy days for so many non-WASPs. But many also want to resurrect a values conversation, some traditions, some anchors.

Half a century in the advertising business taught my uncle Win Gerson that “today, the one constant is change.” My parents have been a constant in this changing world. They were never hippies, although there may have been one Champlain Colony – our summertime Bungalow Colony – masquerade night with wigs and love beads. Nevertheless, my parents and their friends were and are counter-cultural. Rooted in Jewish and Zionist values, proud of their American home and their Israeli homeland, committed to family, they stand for tradition in an age of innovation, for stability in an age of disposability, for integrity in an age of posturing, for eternal communal values in an age of superficial selfish indulgences.

They lament that relationships have become disposable, that everyone is too quick to call their family “dysfunctional,” that shopping and texting trump reading and ruminating, and that doing the right thing has been trumped by “everybody does it.” To my parents, the greatest achievement is being a mensch, a good person who feels good about doing good.

Proud of their Jewish tradition, they delight in Shabbat and the holidays while celebrating their many communal commitments. They mourn that intermarriage is increasingly becoming the liberal American Jewish norm rather than a shanda, with the Yiddish term for “shame” itself outdated in our shameless, exhibitionist, hyper-individualistic, mostly anonymous, if-it-feels-good-do-it world. They acknowledge that non-Jewish partners can be loving mensches themselves; but they know you cannot build a vibrant Jewish home or future with mass intermarriage – and the statistics confirm their fears.

For decades, Elaine and Dov Troy have lived the values they believe, gradually becoming dinosaurs. These affirmative, optimistic, values-generating machines have been simcha-junkies, happily attending whatever positive lifecycle events they can with the scrupulousness most people reserve for funerals. My brothers, our spouses, and our children can laugh lovingly at their clumsiness with computers and cell phones. Still, we appreciate their moral vision as old-fashioned in the best sense of the word – eternal and enduring, resisting trends. We value the clear blue-and-white compass they have lived by and passed onto us – a priceless inheritance we will try not only to preserve but to strengthen.

The author is professor of history at McGill University and a Visiting Professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

The author of eight books on American history, his latest, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, won the 2014 J.I. Segal Award for Best Jewish Non-Fiction Book in English.


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