Golden Years: From The Pale To Yale

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“Blood lust” describes my passion for Daniel Horowitz’s engrossing saga, “On The Cusp: The Yale Class Of 1960 And A World On The Verge Of Change.”

Dan Horowitz grew up around the corner from me in New Haven. We haven’t been in touch for over 50 years, but his visit to the Ivy Style Exhibit at FIT two years ago, together with research for this book, prompted renewal of the acquaintance we shared growing up. The interconnectedness of Jewish geography, distant family ties, and the purloined gossip of forgotten times enlivened our breakfast splurge over sturgeon and bagels at Barney Greengrass on Amsterdam Avenue.

The book’s opening chapter, “Think Yiddish,” follows the author’s maternal Botwinik (also part of my family) and paternal Horowitz family from a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement of Tsarist Russia to New Haven. Dan’s father Bill (Yale ’29), worked his way through college. His son chronicles the father’s turbulent but ultimately successful attempt in 1964 to become first Jewish member of the Yale Corporation, a campaign marred by “gentleman’s agreement” prejudice of “Aryan from Darien” alumni.

Chapter two, “Dress British,” quotes yours truly and explores the connection of J.Press to the Yale community, together with with a portrait of other renowned local Jewish merchant tailors and haberdashers, most of whom once worked for one another, lived in the same neighborhood, belonged to the same country club, and ended up buried in the same cemetery on Whalley Avenue. Horowitz, who is professor emeritus of American Studies at Smith College and the author of several previous books, including “The Anxieties of Affluence,” affirms the significance of Eli wardrobe along with other elements of style, including the stance and speech that enabled an outsider to become an insider.

He records the twilight years of WASP Ascendency, a time of religious, ethnic, racial, and sexual exclusion that embolden a 1949 conversation between popular Yale Dean Bill De Vane and then-president Charles Seymour. De Vane boasted of the superb English stock that settled and consolidated on the Eastern Seaboard to promote “our way of life in America.”

Not the way of life for public high school graduate and Jewish townie Dan Horowitz. His recollections of entitled others, the St. Grottlesex crowd, secret societies, restricted private clubs, Yale Athletic Association celebrities, and legions of acappella songsters off on a spree is pure Balzac — with a dose of Philip Roth.

Subtitles in the text offer a Hollywood preview trailer of this personal, academic and sociological look at cultural history. My favorites: “Yale Men and American Jews,” “Conscience of  a Christian: William Sloane Coffin Jr.,” “How the Yale Faculty Viewed African American Life,” “A. Bartlett Giamatti and Class Consciousness,” “No Longer Dink Stover’s Yale,” and the final curtain, “Whatever Happened to the Class of 1960?”

Parochial advice from a maven from New Haven: “Where’er upon life’s seas you sail, read this book for God, for country and for Yale.” — RICHARD PRESS

37 Comments on "Golden Years: From The Pale To Yale"

  1. For youngsters who don’t recognize the term “the Pale of Settlement”:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_of_Settlement

  2. Thanks

  3. Bags' Groove | May 29, 2015 at 3:49 pm |

    Being part “superb English stock” and part superb Jewish stock, I’ve a pretty wide view of this world, one that will soon encompass Daniel Horowitz’s opus, thanks to you, Richard Press.

  4. The book’s author, Dan Horowitz, was a “public high school graduate and Jewish townie”, but also a second-generation Yalie whose son Ben is now a third generation Yale graduate. Mr. Horowitz’ father Bill was a member of the Yale Corporation.

    It’s an impressive, very American success story. However, at some point I think one has to let go of real or perceived slights from “the St. Grottlesex crowd,” and realize that one’s family is no longer on the outside, looking at the elite. They are the elite.

    I would give the same “lose the chip” advice to, for example, members of the Kennedy family.

  5. What in the hell is “sturgeon”?

  6. Thanks for posting.

  7. @ Taliesin

    I don’t quite buy the “get over it” line of argument. History is important. And who was it that said that the past isn’t even past?

    There is an earlier treatment of the same theme by Dan Oren, who teaches at the Yale School of Medicine: “Joining the Club: A History of the Jews and Yale.” Very enlightening. I look forward to seeing Horowitz’s book.

  8. S.E.: sturgeon is a fish.

  9. Acting as though obnoxious slights doled out to high-achievers 75 years ago by people who were at that time perceived as slightly higher-status is an ongoing narrative, instead of a bump in the road to very impressive, admirable success, is not describing history. It is deploying past grievances, minor in the grand scheme, to maintain an outsider, rebellious aura. “Lose the chip,” “get over it,” however you want to say it – the point is, I do not accept the implication of legacy Ivy graduates as victims.

  10. The bottom photo on the book jacket looks like the photo the co-op used to sell Dickies.

  11. @Taliesin, utterly agree.

  12. To reduce racial and ethnic discrimination to “obnoxious slights” is to display an utter lack of understanding of the larger social and economic factors at work and the damage they did to generations of people.

    It’s not about the few who were allowed in and succeeded, it’s about the social system that established quotas to keep talented people out as way of artificially maintaining ascendency for the privileged.

    The whole thing fell apart after WWII when the Ivies realized that they would maintain prominence only if they admitted people on talent rather than class origin.

  13. @RJG. Wrong. I don’t suffer from an “utter lack of understanding” of anything. Instead, I enjoy a clear vision, unmuddled by agendas or vendettas, of the advantages enjoyed by Mr. Horowitz and his family. Don’t change the subjet – I was addressing the author of the book. The slights he suffered from “the St. Grottlesex crowd” are minor and, from what I can tell, not all that interesting. They don’t rate discussion 50 to 75 years later.

    Discuss a book about genuinely disadvantaged people, if that’s your thing. That’s not this book.

  14. @ Taliesin

    I get it. You’re going after “Mr. Horowitz and his family” personally. You have no agenda of your own.

  15. @RJG: I made a point. You can’t refute it, so you keep trying to change the subject. It won’t work. Horowitz and family are impressively successful people, as I said numerous times. But they aren’t disadvantaged. People like that shouldn’t be sore winners.

  16. Christian | June 1, 2015 at 5:04 pm |

    @Taliesin

    You keep getting closer and closer to having me make this point, so I’m just going to go ahead and do it now. You’ve alluded to the concept of “get over it” as well as your “clear vision,” which I’d like to suggest might be the privilege of being a white male Protestant.

    Your appeal to abstract concepts of success (three generation of Ivy = no more victimhood) may not mean much to a group of people persecuted for millennia who would counter that they’ve had to succeed in spite of themselves. Remember the exchange in “School Ties”?

    Headmaster: You people are very determined, aren’t you?

    Jewish football captain played by Brendan Fraser: Sometimes we have to be, sir.

    Trust me, I’ve read a bunch of articles the past couple days on various social problems on college campuses, including this whole concept of “microaggression,” of which I confess to being ignorant. But I call out unfairness on either side of the pendulum’s arc.

    Here is my comment to Henry from a couple of weeks ago:

    Quote from Henry: “The historical slavery of America is irrelevant to the modern day”

    I had a very long conversation with a black friend once that was life-changing. The main revelation was that even when I think I’m being enlightened, etc., I’m still thinking like a white person.

    I think it would be good for you to go through the same experience, Henry. And I’m not suggesting you need to change your stance on any particular social or political issues, as you’re certainly entitled to your beliefs. But it would help you to see that appeals to an abstract sense of truth and justice in matters such as this are a privilege of being white. You’re not seeing it as blacks see it.

    “Those scars run deep,” my friend said.

    He also pointed out that the oppressor group does not get to decide for the oppressed group when they should, for example, “get over it and move on.” You would never tell the families of 9/11 victims, he offered as analogy, when they’ve had enough mourning.

    Another example are the so-called “Django moments” from the Tarantino film “Django Unchained.” There’s a scene with KKK figures in white sheets that’s played for laughs. White audience members would laugh, as did I, because we’re enlightened now, we know how wrong and evil they are, but we see an ironic undercutting of them arguing about whether or not they can even see through their hoods.

    But seeing that as modernist and existential humor (to get literary and philosophical for a moment) — showing the absudity of evil — is a privilege of being white and educated. To blacks, there can never be anything funny about a gang of men in white hoods.

  17. @Christian. Bad analogy, my friend. The immigrant experience in America has its challenges, to be sure, but it shouldn’t be compared to slavery, Jim Crow, and the legacies thereof.

    And my point is that the “oppression” that is described in the account of Mr. Horowitz’s book isn’t about things like KKK atrocities. It’s about enduring rude slights from posh people while attending one of the world’s most prestigious colleges, as a legacy student.

    As I said and will continue to say, big deal.

  18. Christian | June 1, 2015 at 5:46 pm |

    I certainly didn’t intend an analogy nor to compare the injustices of the two groups. I was speaking to white male Protestants (like you and me) and suggesting that it’s easy for us to appeal to abstract notions of fairness or success when we’re not part of the groups that have been victimized.

    Just trying to encourage us all to try to see things from the other side, not just look from our side wearing what we think are our glasses of reason.

  19. Ward Wickers | June 1, 2015 at 7:21 pm |

    @Taliesin
    I once worked in a white shoe firm in a very posh Westchester community, all white, all protestant, all men, most Ivy league or close to it, many with deep familial connections to wealth and power.

    Whenever the conversation shifted to Blacks or Jews—which was oddly frequent, I would cringe. It didn’t matter what pedigree one might have had or how clever, skilled or artistic one was, or what one accomplished. All that was summarily discounted to their ethnicity. The same was true for the Irish and Italians and, really, anyone else who was not WASP.

    You say, “…at some point I think one has to let go of real or perceived slights from ‘the St. Grottlesex crowd,’ and realize that one’s family is no longer on the outside, looking at the elite. They are the elite.” Not to the WASPs I know. Never. And, these slights weren’t likely experienced slightly or as easily negotiated bumps in some predestined road. What makes you think that you (or anyone else for that matter) knows what another person experiences and can judge those experience as valid or not?

    I once sat in a room with a brilliant non-WASP person who, like me, was a student at a highly competitive, prestigious university. At the time, there was a widely reported issue of racism on the campus and we were discussing it. In tears, she confided that even though she was top of her class and made all kinds of academic achievements, deep down she believed that she didn’t really belong at the school because she was of a certain ethnicity. She believed she was somehow deficient because of what the white-dominate world had told her again and again in so many different ways throughout her life. I was floored to hear this. It made quite an impression on me because I knew first-hand how bright and competent this woman was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time I heard this. People who live as minorities in our culture live in a truly different world from you and me.

    I wish I enjoyed a clear, unmuddled vision as you. I suspect, however, that the clarity you perceive is merely due to the blinders your culture has put on you. It distorts the view for all of us. Take them off, mate. Try to see things from the perspective of others. It might take you a step or two closer to reality.

    “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee via Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

  20. Interesting that both Christian and Wickers tell similar stories of a moment when someone let them in on a kind of secret. A perspective that led to them changing their own. That means they were trusted by that person to understand what they were being told. That’s a real privilege.

    Taliesin thinks I keep changing the subject so as to avoid his irrefutable logic. But claiming to see clearly without any agenda is a fundamentally naive position, what Wickers aptly calls clarity as the result of cultural “blinders.” What Taliesin fails to see is how he is perceived in this instance and why.

  21. WARNING: MICRO-AGGRESSION!

    ‘Ten Cracka Commandments’ for whites!

    http://www.campusreform.org/?ID=6537

  22. Hasn’t being any kind of ethnic/religious/&c. minority in any country in the world always been, to admittedly varying degrees, pretty awful? Beyond equality in the eyes of the law (and equality in how the law is enforced, clearly) what possible fix is there?

  23. Vern Trotter | June 1, 2015 at 9:55 pm |

    How do we have so many opinions here? This book is not even out until June 5. Does everyone have an advance copy?

  24. Vern Trotter | June 2, 2015 at 7:43 am |

    Today’s Boston Globe has a story about Asian Americans in the Ivy League of the 21st century. The 2018 class at Princeton is 21% Asian American. At Harvard, it is 20%. About 5% of the U.S. Population is Asian American.

    So quotas are being used now to keep their acceptance rates from increasing. Same as what happened to Jews in the last century.

  25. Slights aren’t a big deal – I’ve been the victim of many myself. Including the slights on this board insinuating that my race, religion and sex render my opinions less valid. I don’t mind it, though. Ramping up slights to something larger is sensitive to the point of fragility. I’m not fragile. And I don’t think Dan Horowitz is either.

  26. @RJG: “What Taliesin fails to see is how he is perceived in this instance and why.”

    No, I’m pretty clear on how you perceive me, and I can guess why. It’s that I don’t care. Try that on for size.

  27. Christian | June 2, 2015 at 11:56 am |

    “Including the slights on this board insinuating that my race, religion and sex render my opinions less valid.”

    Not from me. Never suggested your opinions were less valid (I share the same race, religion and sex as you), but that your opinions are shaped by, or the privilege of, your race, religion and sex, and that this may be a barrier in understanding the experience of those different from you.

  28. Taliesin
    I have no idea what your race, religion and sex or preferences are, but it’s good to know you’re not a snowflake. Life can be rough at time and everyone has a cross to bare of some kind.

    I don’t care how people percieve me either, but then I’m a sociopath. 😉

  29. Christian/Ward Wickers,

    With your newfound perspective – and I don’t say that with any sarcasm/facetiousness – how have your actions toward minorities changed? What changes do you advocate regarding traditionally supreme cultural groups (WASPs), to reflect these realities?

    It is one thing to acknowledge privilege’s existence. It is another thing to react to it. To say that policies like affirmative action/reparations (neither of which were suggested by either of you, I realize) are a necessary step in mending the issue doesn’t seem to be effective.

    So how should the socially conscious WASP move forward?

  30. Christian | June 2, 2015 at 2:59 pm |

    I think it’s much simpler than what you’re suggesting with words like “actions” and “changes.” This is more of a personal growth kind of thing. I’ve spent my life around people from other cultures (through sports, relationships with women, living in big cities, tutoring ESL when I was a student) and thought myself pretty advanced in the matter, but that eye-opening experience helped me to understand that appealing to abstract concepts of what is right, fair, etc. don’t take into consideration how others may feel about things.

  31. @Christian: “Never suggested your opinions were less valid (I share the same race, religion and sex as you), but that your opinions are shaped by, or the privilege of, your race, religion and sex, and that this may be a barrier in understanding the experience of those different from you.”

    Objectivity, or something close to it, is possible, as is a dispassionate assessment of someone’s situation. In this case, I’ll return to the point I’ve made the whole time: rehashing slights from the past, in the case of a triple generation, highly successful Ivy League family, strikes me as pitiful and unworthy of the successes the story otherwise describes. All the analogies to other situations are irrelevant because I’m addressing this case, these facts, and that’s it. Comments not addressing these facts are also not addressing my remarks.

    Elevating minor things to Really Big Deals is a form of privilege as well.

  32. Ward Wickers | June 2, 2015 at 5:21 pm |

    @ JDD
    I think a lot of positive things have happened in my lifetime. From Civil Rights in the early 1960s to electing a black man as president—twice. We’ve come a long way, I think. We can all take pride in that.

    Nevertheless, if we were offered a “do-over” with our lives, most whites in America would not forfeit their race and choose to relive their life as a black, a jew or a different ethnicity. I think we were lucky to have been born white. The dice could easily have rolled a different way. Had the dice rolled differently and we were born to a different ethnic group, would we be different people? Maybe. Maybe even probably, but we would still be human. We would still want and expect to be recognized as human, and just as human as anyone else, regardless of their ethnicity.

    I think this is what we can do most effectively whoever we are: just see others who are not apparently like us as human, too. They have similar kinds of joys and sorrows; they have their worries and struggles, and a few triumphs; they have dreams and inspired moments, and sometimes great suffering, just like us. They are much more like us than they are different. I think if we can consciously pause for a moment and see the human in others, it will make all the difference.

  33. Ward Wickers | June 2, 2015 at 5:34 pm |

    @ Vern Trotter

    Interesting article you note in the Globe. One thing that struck me is that the article says both Harvard and Stamford have about 40,000 applicants for around 2,000 openings each, and many qualified applicants don’t get in. With that kind of heavy demand, wouldn’t a practical and financially sensible solution be to increase the number of classrooms at the Ivies? With that many applicants they could probably double the size of the freshman classes. Wouldn’t everyone then win?

  34. Christian | June 2, 2015 at 5:50 pm |

    @Taliesin

    OK, but I felt like you weren’t addressing my remarks by saying that I was drawing a false analogy when no analogy was intended; I was merely presenting another recent example of appealing to abstract reason as opposed to trying to empathize with the experience of those different from us.

    If this difficulty in seeing the points made by others comes up between two WASPS (you in the purer sense, me in the Elvis Presley sense of white and Protestant with some watered-down Anglo), imagine what it’s like across vaster differences!

  35. Have you guys all led sheltered lives?

  36. “Slights aren’t a big deal – I’ve been the victim of many myself.” No big deal, he says, he’s not fragile.

    It’s classic. Now Taliesin is claiming he’s the victim, and the implication is that his experience here, for example, is equal to someone who has experienced systematic discrimination and bigotry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this scenario play out in exactly this way.

  37. Game, set, match to Taliesin!

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