Gentiles & Jews at the Hop

A reunion retrospective

The “affair,” as the reunion was called, was held not in the Cleveland Heights High School Cafeteria, as I’d expected, but at a large, comfortable country club with a well-regarded kitchen and an ample dining room divided by the dance floor into two large, separate, high-ceilinged wings. The elegance of the setting sharply contrasted with the dour Foster’s Hall or Masonic Temple where we’d held our weekend dances thirty-five years before, stomping in saddle shoes or loafers. The DJ, who had expanded his high school record collection into the tools of his adult livelihood (Swing for Hire), sat on a platform at the edge of the dance floor, faithfully playing dance hits of our high school days—Bennie Goodman, Artie Shaw, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Billy Eckstein, Stan Kenton, the Ink Spots, the Dorsey Brothers, Sarah Vaughan— for 350 curious or nostalgic lindy-lovers and jitterbuggers. Three hundred and fifty out of a class of almost six hundred—not a bad turnout considering that 26 had already died, 108 were “missing,” and 183 had moved out of state, according to the program.

With squeezes and squeals of recognition, I embraced one forgotten pal after another until Scott York, who’d been two years ahead of me at Heights High and was now—astonishingly—my lover, led me onto the dance floor.

This was something to celebrate. For though Scott and I had each been chosen Best Dancer back in 1950, we’d never danced together at a high school dance. Not because he was two years ahead of me, since I sometimes went out with older boys; not because we were each coupled, since even the coupled were free to dance with anyone; not because of a paucity of dances, since there were usually two every weekend sponsored by the dozen or so Greek letter clubs that ruled our social life. No, if i was never the partner of Scott York it was because each club—and dance— was, strictly and without exception, either Jewish or gentile. I was Jewish, Scott was not

In fact, though I knew all about Scott—pictures of him making the longest or most difficult hoop shots appeared with impressive frequency in the Cleveland Plain Dealer as well as in the Heights High School Spectator, where his name had been regularly listed as Vice President of his class, Cutest Couple (with the smiling Betsy Snow), Best Dancer, highest basketball scorer—he was oblivious to me. Even as Hitler was accomplishing the ultimate separation of Jews from gentiles in the villages and cities of Europe, at our high school, during and after World War II, Jews and gentiles stayed apart in an unspoken pact. In the Front Hall beneath The Clock, the major morning gathering place for the roughly 50/50 all-white student body, Jews congregated to the east of The Clock and gentiles to the west, Jews used the east stairs to the second floor, gentiles the west. At lunch-time Jews gathered in Clark’s for their cheeseburgers, fries, and shakes, while gentiles went to. . . . Frankly I don’t know where the gentiles lunch. Perhaps they went to the bar-b-que place on Cedar Road, perhaps to the drugstore on the corner of Cedar and Lee for chicken salad on white bread or to Mawbee’s for burgers; perhaps they stayed in the school cafeteria, for all I know. To us at Clark’s the fact seemed of too little consequence to warrant remembering.

Stifled by those restrictions, as quickly as possible after graduation I emptied my head of all such facts, stuffing it instead with zygotes, blastophores, and French verb conjugations in summer school classes at the local college, getting the hardest requirements out of the way on home turf, the more assuredly to make my break to a distant college and a freer life come fall. But despite my graduation vow to renounce all things local, that summer when I walked into the biology lecture hall and recognized Scott sitting halfway back amidst the unfamiliar hordes, I mounted the stairs to his row and brazenly sat beside him.

But this story is not about the youthful palpitations of the summer heart. Therefore, suffice it to say that Scott (who was also getting requirements out of the way—quel coincidence!—in his case to graduate from college early) kissed me on our first field trip to the Arboretum as the first drops of rain sent the others scampering briskly ahead; I invited him to his first “classical” concert (Dvorak, he recalls); as the summer wore on we found ourselves together each Saturday afternoon flashing vocabulary cards and dissecting frogs in my garage and each Saturday night flashing our eyes and dissecting our feelings at the Blue Moon Cafe and later parked somewhere in Scott’s ancient Ford. Three indelible details remain with me from that long, distant summer: Scott’s animated blue eyes opening so wide in conversation as to perfectly ring the pale blue irises with white; his fingers on the table forming jumping tents for emphasis; and the peculiar voiced sighs that escaped his lips about every third kiss.

When the summer ended, I went off to college as planned, he to serve his stint in the Navy and on to graduate school, each eventually fading into the other’s charged but distant memory. Then, one Christmas thirty-four years later, Scott York, divorced, appeared at my door in New York City in the very season of my own divorce. In one decisive instant the champ leaped up to drop the ball of the past through the high hoop of the present, as I, cheering, eagerly invited him in. The blond hair was faded and thin, though supplemented below by a trim, still-yellow mustache. But as we sat talking before a sputtering fire, Scott’s animated eyes widened to reveal familiar dramatic rings of white around the blue; his fingers formed dancing tents for emphasis; and suddenly I wondered: does he still sigh that funny way every three kisses?

Yes! Living together for a summer, Scott and I poured our lives into a single pot. We boiled down our disparate years until we were left with the familiar fragrant essence of a shared childhood and common origins. The startling postwar presumptions and rigidities that had grossly exaggerated our differences to keep us exotic and apart the first time, now dissolved in our newly discovered similarities.

No wonder I responded gleefully to the announcement of my thirty-fifth high school reunion, even though I had ignored the tenth, twentieth, and twentyfifth. Tickled to be living proof of the absurdity of the pugnacious, obsolete restrictions of our youth, I wrote the reunion committee that I was coming. Putting my money where my heart was, I enclosed a check to cover two tickets and filled in the line headed “accompanied?” with the name that had reverberated in my (and, I trusted, the Committee’s) romantic memory through the eventful, transforming, intervening years of the deadly fifties, the wild sixties, the serious seventies, and the greedy eighties.

Seeing the tables filling up fast, we left the dance floor to grab a couple of seats at a table with some of my former friends. A tall, large-eyed woman named Phyllis Cohn whom I barely remembered ran up to us and gushed: All my life I’ve wanted to kiss Scott York, and now I’m going to do it! Graciously I watched.

{Noblesse oblige.}

Between courses I circulated among the familiar faces, reviving the past. As we stood on one of the food lines for dessert Scott whispered a shocking observation: With the exception of a few people on the dance floor, it looked to him as if only the Jewish half of the class had turned out for this reunion.

I quickly scanned the faces visible on our side of the dance floor. Indeed, at every table sat my old Jewish friends. Where were the others? Eating and chatting, nobody else seemed to notice the absence of half the class. Well, no one had troubled about the other half in high school either.

Unless, added Scott thoughtfully, all the gentiles are sitting in the other wing, beyond the dance floor. . . .

After dessert we danced across to the other side and were abashed to find Scott’s hunch confirmed. There were all the ones I had forgotten: my best friend from elementary school (pre-puberty, before the ethnic gates were locked), my alphabetical next of kin, my Victory Garden partner, my scholastic rival, the girls I was friends with in class but never out, the boys I flirted with but never kissed. There they sat on the other side of the dance floor, the other half, our mirror image, eating and chatting excitedly just like us and quite as oblivious of us as we were of them.

The whites of his eyes circled the blues as an amazed Scott tried to announce his discovery, but no one paid any attention. In the Jewish wing, likewise, no one was impressed or even surprised by my revelation; people had simply, “naturally,” sat with their “friends.” Evidently, separation was so customary here that, like a persistent smog, it was invisible; and if made visible, then unexceptionable. Thirty-five years of history had made no difference at all.

Scott visited my grandmother’s rabbi to see about taking lessons in Judaism, despite my atheistic demurrers. On his first visit he told the rabbi he was in love with a Jewish woman and received three booklets to study, one fat, two thin. When he had read all three and returned for a second visit, a receptionist told him the rabbi was on the phone but would be with him shortly. As he took a seat in the outer office to wait, he couldn’t help overhearing the rabbi say from the next room, “Listen, I’ve got this gay waiting, so I’ve got to hang up. But as soon as I can get rid of him I’ll call you back.”

We didn’t respond to preliminary inquiries about my fortieth class reunion; we’d seen enough. Back in New York, our own reunion had been formalized in a secular marriage ceremony performed by a feminist friend, now a judge. For dancing, we simply rolled up the rugs in our Chelsea loft (which is never segregated).

At this year’s Thanksgiving, for example, the seven people who clasped hands around our table while I pronounced a simple but exuberant one-word “thanks” included: my twenty-six-year-old daughter, Polly; a writer friend, Nancy, with southern Baptist origins; her new lover, a Sufi dancer named Eileen whom we were meeting for the first time; and a young German couple, Andreas and Anke, sculptors on a three-week trip to the States whom Scott had met abroad the previous summer. We’d assembled this motley group, mostly strangers to each other, serendipitously and in the interests of cultural exchange. Thanksgiving, after all, the most sacramental of our national holidays, celebrates the mingling of two cultures: the European Pilgrims and Native Americans who with gifts of food saved the Pilgrims’ lives.

After our moment of thanks, everyone clicked glasses and settled in to eat. As we passed the turkey, cranberries, and sweet potatoes, I recounted the story of Thanksgiving to the German guests, dutifully including the bitter postscript that in time the Pilgrims’ descendants isolated and excluded their native benefactors whose descendants now live apart on “reservations.”

While we were discussing what manner of fruit are cranberries the conversation took an unexpected lurch. Andreas, who had spent the day showing slides of his work to art galleries and visiting museums, suddenly launched a bitter complaint about homosexuals dominating the New York art scene.

What? cried the rest of us in unison, exchanging looks of shocked disbelief. (Hadn’t Hitler, another failed art student blamed his failure on a conspiracy of left-wing Jews?) Overcoming our embarrassment, one by one we firmly if politely rushed to correct him. But Andreas only fortified himself with a swallow of wine, wiped his mouth on his napkin, raised his voice and proclaimed: But this is not opinion, this is a fact! Why do you question it? Everyone knows homosexuals all stick together, lust like the Jews. It is simply a fact!

We looked around at each other, aghast. The blood had drained from Polly’s cheeks; Scott’s eyebrows were up, his irises ringed with white; Anke, eyes closed, was slowly shaking her head; Eileen put down her fork and folded her hands; Nancy, red-faced and puffing, cleared her throat to begin—but only meaningless syllables came stammering out. And I, hearing the insidious inuendos being presented to us, two Jews, two lesbians, and Scott, twisted my napkin in my clammy hands, too stunned to speak.

When we recovered our voices, if not our appetites. we took turns tossing the initiative back and forth as we presented our reasoned arguments to Andreas. Even Anke, despite her limited English, was nodding with us, not him. But he only grew more obstinate. And then the moment for us to confront him with our outrage and reveal our identities passed. Instead, with diminishing heart, we continued to marshal! our civilized, sophisticated, but helpless arguments, as if it were possible to reason with bigotry, until the plates were cleared, the pumpkin tasted, the meal and argument abandoned.

Enough! This time I could not simply swallow my distress, silently letting it pass. After a week of brooding I posted a five-page letter to Andreas in Berlin expressing my pent-up sorrow and outrage. And though he never replied, that letter started me wondering why I hadn’t protested to the Reunion Committee or to my grandmother’s smug rabbi or to any of the dozen others who keep popping out of my memory to confront me with my laxity, like the surprising reflection that greets me from every plate-glass window. Perhaps it is easier to express my distress to a stranger than to the familiar people I grew up with or to someone my grandmother admired. Or can it be that, like some anti-German bigot, I was finally provoked by Andreas’s German accent?

Whatever the reason, I have now begun to resist. When the next class reunion rolls around I intend to join the program committee so that after the class predictions have been read I can walk up to the mike, beckon everyone near, and deliver at last an impassioned speech that, though brief, will explode in all the aging hearts in the room. (It’s never too late!) Then, as the D| turns up the volume on “Frenesi,” Scott and I will each take someone from the other half out onto the dance floor where we will keep changing partners on into the night until everyone has danced with everyone in a glad and truer reunion.

Alix Kates Shulman has written four novels, published by Knopf- Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Burning Questions, on the Stroll, and In Every Woman’s life, as well as two books on Emma Goldman, three booths for children, and numerous stories and essays.