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.