Let Me Tell You About Jonathan…in New Rochelle

The Bleemans bought the house in New Rochelle in 1933. It was the depths of the Depression, but Murray was able to get help from the bank. Jonathan, in first grade, was too absorbed in his expanding life to pay attention to his sister Isabel, born just after the move from Queens.
The family settled in slowly, joining the synagogue closest to their house. Murrray joined the nearby Fraternal Order of Masons, “It can’t hurt the business” was his excuse although his accounting practice needed no help. When the baby was four Jonathan’s mother (who had been Esther in Queens but became Estelle somewhere on the way to New Rochelle) joined the temple sisterhood.
In 1940 when Jonathan turned twelve he began lessons for his bar mitzvah, the traditional coming of age ritual for Jews.

He zipped through the Hebrew part of his lessons with Rabbi Snackelberg, filling in the hour by starting arguments about the British White Paper, the Palestinian problem, and the looming threat of the Nazis in Europe. Jonathan was neither Zionist nor anti-British, but he did listen to the radio, and, rather than repeat the Haftorah portion over and over, preferred to argue, constructing logical edifices that baffled and frustrated the rabbi, whose viewpoint was narrow and very partisan. Jonathan knew this was a result of what his grandma called ‘davka’, a kind of defiance of the accepted. Dinner table discussions with his parents often devolved into similar bad guy/good guy arguments – the Jews as victims, the Arabs and Brits as the enemy bent on the destruction of the Jewish People, a favorite trope. Jonathan reacted negatively to any mention of ‘the Jewish People” which was often used to justify everything from his bar mitzvah to dietary or religious observances and the necessity of attending boring temple services on the main Jewish holidays. His logical arguments often won grudging acceptance, leaving the rabbi and his family bewildered by their own ambiguity.

The only one he could never convince was his grandmother. Whatever his arguments about the laws of Judaism as medieval, illogical and unsuitable for the modern world, his grandmother would look shrewdly at him, nod her head, lift one shoulder dismissively and say “You don’t want? Don’t do.” Jonathan, respected this unassailable front and realizing how essential the religious practice was to her, would submit. His parent’s reactions made less impression; his mother, frustrated, called her husband “Murray! Talk to him.” His father mustered only “That’s enough, young man,” as sternly as he could, murmuring “davka” to his wife. She shook her head “Let’s hope.”

When Jonathan finally stood at the bimah, the Torah scroll open before him, the rabbi glared, perhaps expecting an argument instead of the Haftorah. But Jonathan did well, chanting the Haftorah portion in a clear voice, no stumbling, no pauses, making his parents proud. The speech Jonathan gave was conventional, enlivened only by a few jokes at his own expense and full of praise for his parents and sister – the traditional cliché-ridden short elaboration – “Today I am a man, thanks to teachers, parents” etc.
After his bar mitzvah he immersed himself in high school, joining the debating and the chess club. Not terribly athletic, he joined the fencing club because the rules seemed very clear – physical distance, fencing uniform, the body protection and the mask.
Jonathan, like most boys, attended services only sporadically after his Bar Mitzvah but considered Judaism a given, a fundamental part of his identity. It was the reason he chose the law as his career choice in his junior year in high school, surprising no one. His parents approved. Estelle saw the financial possibilities; Murray, the respect a real profession would earn. Jonathan thought of the law as an easy choice, something that would allow him to go on arguing and debating.

Although he was as horrified as everyone else by the discovery of the concentration camps at the end of WW II, it was his senior year history teacher who made it frighteningly believable. Mr. Newsom, without ignoring the horror, emphasized the distortion of the legal system which enabled the Nazi rise to power. Jonathan was shocked by the vulnerability of a legal system, something he, in his eighteen-year-old mind, had considered inviolate.
Assaulted by the usual hormonal surges in his teenage years, Jonathan used his debating powers to full advantage in the back seat of the family car after a movie date and the yearly proms and sock hops but shied away from having a ‘steady’ girlfriend, much preferring to ‘play the field’. Exploring but never trespassing the line (even though some girls seemed very interested in ‘going too far’), he enjoyed himself but remained conscious of the dangers of ‘getting a girl in trouble’.
Jonathan graduated in the top third of his class just as WW II was ending. His 4F status (weak eyes, flat feet) kept him out of the military and allowed him to enter CCNY in September 1945. He chose history as his major but changed to political science in his second year. Passing the new qualifying entrance exams for law school (the Lsats) in his junior year, he graduated in 1950 and entered NYU Law School immediately. TO BE CONTINUED