Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 15, 2018

A ten year Kaddish for Ann Proyect (1921-2008)

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 5:41 pm

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.

downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph

the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after—And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud—wept, realizing how we suffer

–Allen Ginsberg, “Kaddish”

Ten years ago, I wrote about the passing of my mother on Mother’s Day. At the time, I was overwhelmed by grief and the article reflected that. Now, a decade later, it is time to tell her story.

My mother was born in Kansas City in 1921, the daughter of a cobbler named Morris Rothstein and his wife Sarah, who used to peddle clothing from door to door in Kansas City’s Mexican-American neighborhood. Her Spanish was better than her English, mostly by necessity.

My maternal grandparents ended up in Kansas City as part of the Galveston Plan funded by Wall Street financier Jacob Schiff who helped to repatriate Polish and Russian Jews to the USA but not in areas where they were heavily represented like New York. Fearing that a surplus of Jews would antagonize the Gentiles, he sought to settle them in places where they would hardly be noticed—like Kansas City. It got the name Galveston Plan because that was the port of entry for people like my grandparents. Among the other Jews who ended up in Kansas City were the parents of actor Ed Asner and long-time Nation Magazine and New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin who had this pithy take on Jacob Schiff:

According to Stephen Birmingham’s book Our Crowd, for instance, Jacob Schiff had displayed on his office walls two of the largest checks he ever wrote, one of them for $62,075,000. (Big k’nockerl)…Unlike Jacob Schiff, I point out, my Uncle Benny had never consorted with robber barons like E. H. Harriman (“When it comes to rapacious nineteenth-century capitalism, my family’s hands are clean”) and would have never put a framed check on his wall.

My mother had three older brothers. There was Benny who started out playing violin in big bands but became a liquor salesman after they died out in the late 40s, Joe who was an electrician and Abe who sold cars. With his income as a shoe repairman in the 1920s, Morris made enough money to buy a four bedroom house on Linwood Avenue in Kansas City, an indication of how relatively affordable housing was back then. When the Depression hit, the Rothsteins continued to pay their mortgage but could only afford meat once a week, the chicken they shared on Friday night.

My mother went to work as a secretary-typist after graduating high school for the CEO of an envelope manufacturer she revered. Like other Jews, she used to spend time at the Jewish Community Center that was part of the Reform Temple B’nai Jehudah. It was there that she became totally devoted to Irving Levitas who as education director gave classes on Jewish history.

Years later, after Irving had relocated to New York, I got to know him fairly well when I visited my mother in Woodridge. She used to have him come up to give the same kind of classes he gave in Kansas City and I would talk politics with him. Irving was a Labor Zionist and friendly to anarchism. The Levitas clan was on the left but not Marxist by any stretch of the imagination. His nephew Mitchel was the NY Times Sunday Book review editor for many years and embodied Cold War liberal politics. I am not sure of the exact family ties between Irving and Daniel Levitas but he could well be Mitchel’s son. Daniel is a long-time anti-fascist who was a board member of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights that might be described as a northern version of the SPLC but with a much more modest funding base.

Calvin Trillin wrote a brief profile on his fellow Kansas City native in an article about people who were customers of the Strand Bookstore in New York:

Levitas is a short, slight man in his sixties. A lifelong bachelor, he seems interested in luxuries only to the extent of keeping himself in cigarettes. His expenditures on books have always coincided roughly with his salary. For many years, Levitas made his living as the educational director of a Jewish temple in Kansas City, and several years ago he took the same job at Temple Emanu-El in Yonkers. He has always lectured on the side—most often to non-scholars at, say, a cultural series organized by the men’s club of a temple. “I’ve always considered myself a middleman in intellectual matters,” he has said, and his discussion of any scholarly subject is studded with “you know”s and “of course”s that may come from years of trying to explain Husserl or Spinoza or William James to businessmen without sounding patronizing. Levitas’s nephew—Mitchel Levitas, who is assistant metropolitan editor of the Times—believes that his uncle genuinely assumes that anyone he is talking to knows at least the context in which a Levitas observation about a Chinese emperor or a nineteenth-century American anarchist is made. “He has an innocent enthusiasm,” Mitchel says. “He is more than a dilettante and less than a pedant.”

Not only did he keep himself in cigarettes, he chain smoked them. He died of lung cancer in 1987 and for the last few months of his life, my mother nursed him at our upstate home.

During WWII, my grandparents opened their doors to Jewish soldiers who were used to having Friday night sabbath dinners. One of them was my father Jacob who was a mess sergeant stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas. You know that scene in “The Honeymooners” when Ralph Kramden and Alice are having an argument over one thing or another? Ralph concludes the argument with these words: “You never loved me. You fell in love with my uniform.”

That pretty much describes my parents. As you can see from the photo below taken in 1947 or so, he was a handsome devil and my mom wasn’t bad-looking herself. Me in the middle, filled with existential angst.

My father had just returned from fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and hoped to return to a life of normalcy running the fruit store he inherited from grandfather Louis who operated a small empire of businesses in Woodridge.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 11.05.25 AM

Louis Proyect on the left, a hotel builder and small business entrepreneur who also was chairman of the local Workman’s Circle and Socialist Party. Photo taken sometime in the early 40s.

Around the time I got to be 10 or so, it dawned on me that my father didn’t like me very much. He never spoke to me and when he did, he was judgmental. He would have preferred someone less bookish than me. When I was a kid, there was nothing I loved better than sitting in my bedroom pouring through the pages of the Book of Knowledge, a kid’s encyclopedia. Since my mom preferred that her kid be a good student rather than a good Little Leaguer, they tended to bicker over how he treated me as well as his patriarchal attitudes toward her. Since my mom had a mouth even bigger than mine, any customer in our fruit store who showed some kind of attitude would get told off by my mom until he banned her from the store.

My mom was not one to sit around watching TV. She was involved in the Hadassah, a woman’s Zionist organization, and the PTA. Just like she was in the store, she had a big mouth. Even out of the store, my father had to urge her from time to time not to make enemies because he didn’t want to lose customers. She also wrote a column for the local newspaper called “Woodridge Whirl” that reported on who had vacationed in Florida or whose kid had been bar mitzvahed. She also threw in wisdom she had absorbed from one of Irving’s lectures.

After my father died in 1970, she was forced to go back to work as a secretary since my father’s life insurance was a paltry sum. I guess he thought he’d live forever after coming out of the Battle of the Bulge in one piece. She worked at the Homowack Hotel in Ellenville that was still thriving at the time, mostly I suppose for its strictly kosher kitchen. When that job dried up, she went to work for a home for the developmentally disabled in South Fallsburgh, a town near Woodridge.

Since these jobs didn’t pay very much, I used to send her a monthly check to help out. This obligation made it impossible for me to go on full-time for the Socialist Workers Party so inadvertently she helped save me from going full-tilt cultist.

Although strongly self-identified as a Jew, my mother grew increasingly disaffected from the synagogue in Woodridge that was orienting more and more to the Hasidim that had begun to colonize our village. She was also upset with the attraction that eastern religions had to local kids. As the Borscht Belt hotels like the Homowack collapsed, a number became ashrams geared to New Yorkers looking for a weekend where they could eat vegetarian food, do yoga and achieve some form of spirituality that organized Judaism could not deliver.

For my mom, it was only reform Judaism that could deliver so she began attending services at the Monticello reform Temple Sholom. She really loved the place and soon began a relationship with a man named Victor Gordon whose wife had died not long after she became part of the congregation. Like my mother, Victor was no stranger to tragedy. His son was a pilot who made a living smuggling marijuana until he died in a crash.

Around the time I began bringing my wife up to Woodridge for visits in the early 2000s, my mom had become an ultra-Zionist. I tend to think that if Irving had not succumbed to cancer, he might have helped her think more clearly about Israel even if she remained a Zionist. Her views led to clashes with me and my wife but we never stopped loving her. In my last phone call with her on Mother’s Day, when she was in the ICU, she told me that she was so happy that I found my wonderful wife (even her father was named Hasan!) and could leave this life with a full heart.

Below are excerpts from the comic book I did with Harvey Pekar that will help you understand her story.

7 Comments »

  1. Nice story, Louis. It is important to keep our pasts alive, not just to help make sense of our own lives but so that the past and those who lived and tried as best they could to cope with life’s joys and sadness are not forgotten.

    Comment by Michael Yates — May 15, 2018 @ 6:51 pm

  2. Thanks

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — May 15, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

  3. Louis, thank you for writing this. I came to know your mother well after my own mother’s death in 1972; she and Mildred Kaitz became surrogate mothers to me. Your mother introduced me to Levitas and members of my family and I attended many of his lectures here in Sullivan County. She lives on in my heart too,

    Comment by naomi — May 16, 2018 @ 12:59 am

  4. Louis, I’m struck by your post here and by the one 10 years ago. I’ve been intrigued by your posts, appreciating a lot of them. But I’d just like to say, seeing your post about your family, that my pastime now is working as a genealogy volunteer, and if there’s anything you’d like me to look up, either online or at a Boston or NYC repository, do let me know.

    Comment by Charles Hollander — May 16, 2018 @ 1:35 am

  5. Many workingclass men of your father’s generation didn’t know how to talk to their more intellectually active children, particularly their sons. These guys struggled through the Depression followed immediately by the war. The Jewish men occupied a world that wanted them dead.

    But things were just as difficult for the women, who also had a tough worked keeping them down. A lot of manliness was expected of the men, which they often couldn’t live up to. The women were better at dealing with whom they were.

    I loved your mother, never exchanged a word with your father. She was a generous soul who wished others well and helped when possible.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — May 16, 2018 @ 3:28 am

  6. Very touching. I appreciate you posting this, and admire you for the factual tenderness of your account. Fathers and mothers are a trip, aren’t they? As I’ve gotten older I keep finding myself confronting the same types of challenges they faced in their earlier days, but I can’t always use their tactics for getting on with it all: both I and my times are different. Lots to think about here. Best to you.

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — May 16, 2018 @ 7:12 am

  7. The Book of Knowledge! We had that too. It was full of surprising bits. It sticks in my mind strangely (can this be true?) that it included Charles Lamb’s Dissertation upon Roast Pig, which tickled my eight-year-old fancy enormously, never mind the imperial smugness of Lamb’s tone or the anguish of the pig.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 17, 2018 @ 2:26 pm


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