Asian high schools and the lost American Jewish arts of scholarship and laughter

Lowell High School

My old high school, Lowell, in San Francisco, was celebrating its current building’s 50th anniversary, so the school had an open house. Before this morning, I hadn’t set foot in the school since I graduated (one in a class of almost 1,000 other students), and I was curious to see whether it matched my memories and how much it had changed. I also wanted to show my children, who bask in the glory of well-funded, small, suburban public schools, what a big urban school looks like.

My children were impressed by the school’s size but, mostly, they were impressed by the number of Asian kids and adults roaming the halls. When I went to Lowell, I think the Asian population was about 40%. The year I graduated, Lowell was one of the top ten high schools in the country. A few years after that, diversity mania struck and the City Board of Education, which has always hated Lowell’s academic prowess (since it highlights the problems in the other City-run schools) imposed a quota on Asians. The school sank like a stone in national rankings. Intrepid Asians sued, the quota was struck down, and the school went back to being very, very Asian – and, it is once again, one of the top schools in the nation — and 51st in the country — although, for budget reasons, it can’t compete with well-funded public schools in the suburbs.

One of my children commented that, being Jewish, I must have stood out in this “Asian” school. In fact, I told the kids, the contrary was true. Back in my day, the two largest identifiable groups at Lowell were Asians and Jews, so much so that there was a joke in the school that, if Yom Kippur and Chinese New Year fell on the same day, they’d have to close the school. I said that I don’t think that nowadays Jews boast such academic prowess. They’ve assimilated enough to be just like all the other white middle class kids.

Jews came up again on the way home when, for reasons I don’t remember, I started telling my kids about Dan Greenberg’s classic book, How to be a Jewish Mother: a very lovely training manual. Although my mother, being half goyish and European (not all Jewish and Russian/Polish) didn’t quite have the chops for full Jewish motherness, she was close enough that I got (and loved) the book.

Greenberg took traditional Jewish jokes and wove them into a wonderful tapestry. Because I can’t find my copy of the book, I could only quote from memory, but I did tell them how a Jewish mother gives a gift (and I’m paraphrasing here): Give your son two ties. When he puts on one (at your urging), look at him sadly and ask, “What’s the matter? You don’t like the other one?”

I also remembered what a Jewish mother should say if she comes home and finds her adult daughter with her boyfriend on the couch, necking: “Leave this house now and don’t come back until you’re a virgin again!”

My kids laughed, but one commented that “being a Jewish mother gives you a license for bad behavior.” That was an interesting thought. Certainly, centuries of dealing with hardship – poverty and persecution – have shaped the character of women who have to raise their children in an unforgiving world and, moreover, to struggle very hard against circumstances the whole while. So yes, Jewish mothers can be a pain in a tuchis. More importantly, though, Jews learned to deal with everything, including motherhood, through humor. If you can laugh, you’re not dead yet.

All of which led me to a thought: when persecuted, Jews responded with scholarship and humor. Now that they’re culturally assimilated and are inextricably intertwined with the Leftist governing class, they’ve abandoned scholarship and they (in common with all Leftists) have no sense of humor.

On that disheartening note, I think I’m going to console myself by spending some time with Leo Rosten’s delightful The Joys of Yiddish. I’m reading (and recommend) the original edition because I have solid information that the updated edition too often abandons Rosten’s trademark humor in favor of a pretentious scholarly tone. Only a shnook would fail to realize that one of Rosten’s major points in writing the book is that humor is an integral part of Yiddish because, up until assimilation created cultural decay, those who spoke Yiddish survived because they could laugh.

(If you can get a copy, you might also enjoy Everything but Money — an autobiography that explains a lot about early 20th century American Jews, education, humor, and humanism.)