Un-Parallel Lives

Playing Till We Have to go – A Jewish Childhood in Inner-city LA

By Larry Derfner

Why read the account of someone else’s life and experiences if not to capture a sense of time and place and, maybe, to compare it – in conceit or envy – with your own life.

Larry Derfner’s Playing Till We Have to go – A Jewish Childhood in Inner-city LA pulled me in from the first page and made me reflect on how our experiences as first-generation Americans differed.

Derfner and I worked together at the Jerusalem Post years ago. My hope was this book would help me understand what made him tick – why he became leftwing, and I didn’t, why he looked for trouble where I went the other way, and why a basically huggable guy was often infuriating.

I think of Larry Derfner as the Jimmy Breslin of Israeli English-language advocacy journalism. His newspaper features were exhaustively reported while his opinion columns were exhaustingly strident. I always loved reading his stuff. He also drove me crazy.

I was his sometimes editor, not that he needed one. I needed his dexterous writing style and clean prose to fill and balance my pages even if I found his politics hard to swallow. Even when I disagreed with Larry, I could appreciate his plain-speaking conversational writing style, which I envied. It seemed effortless, and I wished I could write that way.

As an editor, I’d handle copy I might disagree with. In Derfner’s case, his positions were rooted in heartfelt principle. Unlike some contributors I edited, Larry made no off the wall claims, engaged in no emotional manipulation. And – best of all – he didn’t just write to his amen corner.

In Playing Till We Have to go, I learned that his European-born parents moved from the City of New York to Los Angeles in 1960 to pursue their American dream. He grew up in a mostly agreeable Los Angeles, California district where neighbors knew each other, and kids played companionably outside their rental apartment buildings. Larry ruefully enjoyed the fruits of his parents’ upward mobility and was molded into adulthood by a very present father and full-time stay-at-home mother. Considering his parents arrived in the country in 1940, only a year before the US entered World War II and a year after Hitler invaded Poland, the author grew up a pretty normal American — one who had fond memories of Trick-or-treating on Holloween.

At the same time, I was growing up on the other side of the continent on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a household on a downward social-economic spiral. There was nothing convivial about my mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood, one of the most dangerous in NYC. In 1910 there were half a million Jewish people on the Lower East Side. By the time I was born in the 1950s, there was only a remnant community of mostly poor and working-class Jews left behind. In 1963, there were 548 murders in the Big Apple, and the mayhem just got worse (by 1980, the annual murder rate reached 1,814).

In 1972, NYPD cops Gregory Foster and Rocco Laurie were gunned down by the Black Liberation Army on Avenue B. My mother and I had only recently escaped from the Avenue D Jacob Riis project to other public housing on Madison Street in a comparatively less turbulent area of the Lower East Side.

Unlike Larry, I dreaded Holloween, which was an occasion for resident louts to harass Jewish children coming home from yeshiva, vandalize apartment doors by banging socks full of flour and urinating in elevators.

His father, Manny, was a larger-than-life garrulous figure. A red who was entrepreneurial, owning a couple of liquor stores and dabbling in real estate. Mr. Derfner was a communist in Poland, then in British Mandate Palestine, and eventually in America. While capitalism was good to him, it didn’t transform him into a capitalist roader – not at the character level. My father, in contrast, having spent WWII in Europe doing forced labor, was an emotional basket case when he reached America. Never a provider, he would find solace in insular ultra-Orthodox Judaism and disappear from my life for 30 years.

Different coasts, different sensibilities: I grew up kosher, yarmulke-wearing, and frum. Until I went to college, I never sat in the same classroom with a girl, much less a non-Jew. Larry’s Jewishness was cultural and ethnic. Like mine, his people spoke Yiddish, but ritual and shul played a minor role in his life. His parents’ friends were mostly Polish Jewish refugees, including the greenhorns who came after the Holocaust (he reminds us that no one spoke much about the Shoah in those days). Most of Larry’s Jewish friends were the children of Polish immigrants or refugees. He noticed that kids whose parents came after the war seemed less self-assured and assertive.

In school, Larry rubbed elbows with Chinese and Japanese, and African Americans. He was perfectly comfortable hanging out with goyim. In fact, he developed an appreciation for the black aesthetic – music, dialect, and style. He reveled in being the only white boy on a black baseball team.

I loved his descriptions of handling puberty. During his bar mitzvah, though his mind was on a neighborhood girl, he somehow managed to focus. “I chanted the haftorah perfectly. Just finishing it was a tremendous relief…” a universal feeling among every boy who has been through the experience.

In Playing till we have to go, Larry reveals how well he reads people. He paints delicate sketches of his father’s African American liquor store customers, coworkers, and Polish Jewish neighbors. He can spot the type of schoolboy who will be agreeable to be liked or the underprivileged youth whose threatening exterior cloaks essential decency. Here is what happens when he tries to help James, a black boy with fractions: ” ‘Larry, I never did know how to divide.’ We were in the eighth grade. Here was this magical kid with a noble soul, a boy I felt real affection for, but suddenly there was a gulf between us. He didn’t even know how to divide. I felt sorry for him, and the feeling made me sick.”

Larry prides himself on being a non-conformist and contrarian. I figure that to go against the crowd, you need to be self-confident and feel secure. Maybe Larry got his rootedness from his father.

From Manny, he learned to try to do the right thing. To see his surroundings with eyes open. He savored the edginess of the neighborhood where his father’s liquor store was located – he calls it a black ghetto.

He develops into a chevraman – a people person, an athlete, a tough guy, a reader, an observer of different human types, capable of learning from his miscalculations about who to trust.

There are hints about Larry’s motivation for making his future life in Israel – he is excited by the action. Larry gets his political fierceness from Manny, who is portrayed as protesting some Israeli policy vociferously.

So many Jewish coming of age memoirs are written by feckless nebbish types like me. It is refreshing to get a different, heartening perspective – a kid who grows up to appreciate his advantages whatever emotional baggage his parents gave him. Larry doesn’t turn his back on his parents’ religious traditions because you can’t reject what they didn’t much cherish. Instead, he embraces their commitment to making the world a better place – and, anyway, in left-leaning circles, tikun olam is the central tenant of Judaism.

Well-paced and compelling, readers interested in what it was like to grow up a relatively typical first-generation Jewish American in the 1960s will find this book hard to put down. His is also a story of purposeful acculturation – choosing to connect to people who are different and relishing the experience.

I sense a sequel coming.

Down the Rabbit Hole with Jared Kushner and take your ‘Required Reading’

It’s really dreadful,” she muttered to herself, “the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!

If 2016 is any yardstick, up to 30 percent of American Jews will vote for Donald Trump in 2020.

Some percentage of these will be ultra-Orthodox non-Zionists (the Williamsburg, Kiryas Joel, and Borough Bark crowd). Their politics is patronage-based. They vote as a bloc following the guidelines of shtadlanim, the medieval-like brokers who handle relations with the non-Jewish outside.

Support will also come from the modern (i.e., less insular) Orthodox (YU and OU worlds) who tend to be socially and politically conservative and take their cues from Israeli rightist influencers.

I am writing here with a third and smallest group in mind. These include family and my former Zionist-leaning comrades who are convinced that by backing Trump they are putting the Jewish state’s wellbeing foremost.

Many profess to approve of his policies across the board; several support him grudgingly and concede he is an odious fellow. All reasonably fret that any Biden-Harris administration would be oriented toward J-Street or worse.

That Trump is pro-Israel is undeniable. Elsewhere I have argued that Trump’s pro-Israelism does not override the mortal threat he poses to the US political system’s stability. That his impulsive, neo-isolationist, and huckster approach to foreign policy puts Israel in peril over the long-term. I will say more about his latest pro-Israel accomplishment below.

For the moment, I appeal to my pro-Israel friends who remain enamored with Donald Trump or feel they’re obliged to support him, to read Bob Woodward’s Rage

The book is surprisingly fair-minded. 

Woodward, for instance, does not gloss over China’s initial stonewalling over Wuhan. Trump’s right decisions are credited and contextualized. The veteran journalist and president watcher received remarkable White House access for his latest book. 

What makes Rage required reading are a couple of priceless chapters devoted to the inscrutable not-yet-forty-year-old Jared Kushner, senior advisor and son-in-law to the United States president.

If you can read these chapters and stick with Trump you have fallen down your own rabbit hole.

Kushner, according to Woodward, says that if you want to understand how things in Trump World work there is a required reading list. He considers his wife’s father to be brilliant and reveals how he enthralls his core supporters.

The roster begins with Peggy Noonan’s March 10, 2018, Wall Street Journal column, “Over Trump, We’re Divided as Ever;” Alice in Wonderland, the 1865 novel by Lewis Carroll; The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, by Chris Whipple, and concludes with Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter by Scott Adams.

I always found Noonan, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, insightful and levelheaded, and went back to the column Kushner cited.

Writing three years into the Trump presidency, Noonan wondered why some centrists and moderates refused to get on the Trump bandwagon. She was also curious about whether the president’s working-class supporters were satisfied with his performance thus far.

To gauge the latter, she spoke with her Trump-supporting working-class white Catholic sister and uncle. They reported being contented. She thinks she knows why. For too long, the wealthiest and most powerful Americans had not taken their fiduciary responsibilities seriously toward people like them. They had not even faked “a prudent interest” in the travails of working people.

Noonan concedes that in office, Trump established a “deregulatory spirit that is fair and helpful.” He placed sober conservatives on the federal courts. At the time of her writing, the economy was humming, so no complaints there.

Yet moderates and centrists who mostly agreed with his policies had not warmed to Trump. They felt disquiet about “the worrying nature of Mr. Trump himself. You look at his White House and see what appears to be epic instability, mismanagement and confusion. You see his resentments and unpredictability,” Noonan wrote in 2018.

At first, the moderates and centrists thought maybe they were blind to his genius. Yet the chaos he was creating was not strategic in pursuit of any policy ends, “its purposeless disorder for the fun of it.”

She concluded that Trump is “unhinged” and characterizes his administration as a “screwball tragedy.”

So why would Kushner direct us to Noonan? It is an odd way to laud your father-in-law, Woodward comments.

Probably because Kushner would have wanted us to focus on the following lines from the column: “On some level this is working. And on some level this is crazy. He’s crazy…and it’s kind of working.”

However, Noonan does not leave it there.

“Then you realize… Crazy doesn’t go the distance. Crazy is an unstable element that, when let loose in an unstable environment, explodes.”

She wraps up on a prescient note. “Sooner or later something bad will happen…if the president is the way he is on a good day, what will he be like on a bad day. It all feels so dangerous. Centrist and moderate supporters are seeing what Trump supporters cannot, will not see.”

So, I guess what comforts Kushner – and this is lesson number 1 – is that Trump supporters are in a state of almost metaphysical blindness to his character.

Next on Kushner’s list is Alice in Wonderland purportedly a Disney-style madcap children’s adventure story about a girl who sees a white rabbit dressed in a suit and bowtie sporting a pocket watch and, out of curiosity, chases him down a rabbit hole into an alternative reality where she encounters all sorts of anthropomorphic animals.

Never having read the fable as a child, I find the fantasy dark and nasty. The animals Alice encounters are mean and bickering. What happens in Wonderland – or in Kushner’s alternate reality, the White House – is nonsensical. 

Rules are arbitrary. Everyone speaks in non-sequiturs. 

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked. “There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.

Intimidation pervades the environment. The Queen’s constant refrain is, “I’ll have you executed.” 

The Cheshire Cat warns Alice that everyone she will meet will be mad. Indeed, the animals Alice encounters urge her to “come on” but there is no destination:


“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” 
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where —” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

Alice knows a lot about history but not what happened or when. Like Donald Trump on his visit to Pearl Harbor.

Lesson number 2: Kushner seems to be saying that Trump has calculatedly created his own topsy turvy, Wonderland.

Next on the Kushner list is Gatekeepers for which Whipple interviewed 17 former White House chiefs of staff to pinpoint what it takes to ensure a West Wing that operates effectively and efficiently.

By recommending this book, Kushner’s counterintuitive lesson number 3 – precisely the opposite of Whipple’s – is that disarray and conflict are excellent; smarty-pants chiefs of staff like Reince Priebus and John Kelly who try to manage the president are tossers.

That brings us to the last item on Kushner’s syllabus, Win Bigly, by Adams. Kushner here seems to endorse Adams’ analysis (and approval) of Donald Trump’s persuasion techniques. Adams is in Kushner’s good graces because the Dilbert cartoon creator predicted Trump would be elected. 

To muddy the waters, Adams unconvincingly asserts that he disapproves of Trump’s policies even if he holds Trump to be the “most persuasive human I have ever observed.”

For Adams, Trump is persuasive because of his performances. People are fundamentally irrational. They stay mentally afloat thanks to cognitive dissonance, which resolves inconsistencies in their thinking. And Trump reaches voters on an irrational level. He tells them “many people are saying” to introduce some new weird idea. He speaks with childlike simplicity “big, beautiful wall”, which, according to Adams, people can easily relate to and easily remember. 

Trump’s muddled syntax is in fact, strategic ambiguity. Trump dazzles his voters with simple solutions to complex problems. Kushner’s lesson number 4, I intuit, from Adams is: Facts are only crucial to the extent that they can be used to manipulate an audience emotionally.

Put the four readings together, and this is what you get: (1) Kushner is gratified with Trump’s Svengali-like hold on his followers. (2) He thinks the administration needs no overarching mission. That being organized gets in the way of (3) a journey that has no destination. Furthermore, (4) facts are useful only insofar as they serve manipulative ends.

My friends in the states who share Kushner’s boundless confidence in Trump, his embrace of the president’s fluidity, his thrill at watching the master bait his enemies, pushing them into irrational gutter behavior will stick with Kushner’s cynical vacuous father-in-law no matter what on November 3.

But I would like to hope that others will come to their senses and reconsider backing Trump notwithstanding the good that Trump has done for Israel

Recognizing the good Hakarat HaTov people have done and showing gratitude is a Jewish tradition.

By crucially facilitating peaceful relations between Israel and Gulf Arab states, Donald Trump and his team have done the Jewish state an immeasurable good.

Yet keep the context in mind.

After processing nearly four years of Trump administration performance, the Gulf Arabs and Egypt came to understand that they cannot rely on the US to side with them militarily against Persian Iran.

The Arabs saw how under George W. Bush, the US overextended itself fighting Islamist forces and did not choose or conduct its battles wisely. They observed Barack Obama’s inclination to disengage militarily from the Middle East with his 2012 decision not to act militarily against the Assad regime after its use of sarin gas.

Trump stumbled and bumbled further along this path in his unscripted call with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Islamist leader of Turkey during which he betrayed America’s fighting Kurdish allies. And there was his neo-isolationist declaration that America would no longer “police the world” and was “getting out” of the “blood-stained sand” of the Middle East.

The message the president was sending was that he might act militarily only if he perceives American lives in direct danger. 

None of this detracts from our gratitude.

Israelis are thankful for Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. For moving the US Embassy to our capital. And to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for announcing that the US does not consider Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank or Judea and Samaria inconsistent with international law.

We are grateful that the US has never voted against Israel (or abstained in favor of our enemies) at the UN in the past four years. That Trump is willing to take on Amnesty International and other groups, that wrap themselves in the halo of human rights, for their bias against Israel.

Thanks, too, to the Trump administration for not publicly criticizing IDF operations.

Unfortunately, because Trump is widely disrespected all these appreciated policies are tarnished, tainted, devalued.

Sometimes the president’s motives and timing are painfully transparent. As when on January 29, 2020, while the US Senate was deciding whether he was guilty of the House impeachment articles, Trump announced his long-touted Israeli-Palestinian Deal of the Century

It guaranteed the establishment of a Palestinian state, yet the PLO (in Ramallah) and Hamas (in Gaza) rejected the imposed deal. Maybe they figured Trump, Jared Kushner and the team of Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman, and Avi Berkowitz did not have Palestinian interests at heart. 

In August 2020, Kushner also brokered an agreement between the UAE and Israel and between Bahrain and Israel.

And on October 23, the president announced that Sudan and Israel agreed to diplomatic ties.

And if Trump is re-elected, expect Saudi Arabia to follow (since it has backed all these moves privately).

We thank Trump for backing Binyamin Netanyahu’s Palestinian workaround — ties with the Arab world first. 

All these moves provide a huge psychic, political, and diplomatic boost for Israel. 

Each is tainted — sad to say — because Trump delivered them. And within Israel by Netanyahu’s sagging credibility. 

Still, it would be beyond churlish not to say thank you to both leaders.

Like me, most Israelis do not care if Trump’s heart is in the wrong place. Or if the president is prejudiced (like many of his predecessors). So long as he does the right thing. At any rate, he is undoubtedly no anti-Semite and American Jews should stop saying he is.

Precisely because Trump is transactional — thinking first about what’s in it for the Trump’s, the Kushner’s, and for America’s military-industrial complex — that he, and not his arguably better-intentioned more strategic-minded predecessors, spearheaded these game-changing diplomatic gains for Israel.

Since the president is mercurial he could yet turn against Israel in a final term to close a deal with a new Palestinian leadership. Who knows? “We’ll see,” as the president likes to say.

Back to now. The reason the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Sudan, and Saudi Arabis have reached out to Israel – openly or discreetly – is to hedge their bets against Iran as the United States makes it clear it wants no more foreign military entanglements. Some of the countries will be rewarded with access to the most advanced US weapons. Others will be taken off the State Department’s list of countries supporting terrorism. 

Regardless of whether Trump or Joe Biden wins, the US posture will likely continue to diminish globally. Russia and China will be the main outside powers with influence in our region.

With Trump, the US departure will happen as a series of unpredictable and mystifying lurches. With Biden, the withdrawal may be more systematic and coordinated.

Either way, the United States’ diminishing global role – it’s pulling inward – represents an immense strategic challenge for Israel in the years ahead.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus your own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.