In middleclass Jewish-American families, education isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Mine was true to form, and lucky I was to profit from it. Anyway, my parents, both born in the first decade of the 20th century of recent immigrants to a country where laws against anti-Semitism had not yet been written, understood that the coin of the realm was money. If you had it, you were a king; if you didn’t, you were a bum. And being Jewish bums was not the future they had in mind for their two kids, my older sister, Natalie, and me.
What to do? Sacrifice for the best education money could buy. My father, who had graduated in 1920 at the top of his class from Central High School, Philadelphia, had almost made it. Having done well with his piano lessons from age five, he had received a full scholarship to Philly’s heralded Curtis Institute of Music. Who knows? He might have become a renowned concert pianist. Instead, Grandpa Paul came to him and his younger brother, Murray: “Boys,” Grandpa said, “your mother’s a tough woman. [Indeed, she was a by-the book Orthodox Jewish woman, while Grandpa was a kind of free-living Jewish Zorba the Greek.] I can’t take it no more. I’m going to sea.” Among his other roles, he had been a cook on merchant vessels. So, whenever things got too tough for him at home, he took his seaman’s card down to the docks for an extended ocean-borne escape. As a result, my 15-year-old future father had to give up his scholarship and become a Western Union “runner” to support his mother and his younger brother.
Fast forward to September 1966. Dad had become a well-regarded grain merchant and at this point was a commodities broker on the Chicago Board of Trade. Thanks to him, I had successfully completed four years at a well-known boarding school, had gotten a B.A. with High Honors, then a Master’s in English from Yale, and in a few months would be awarded my Ph.D. there. Dad was calling with big news. My little family and I were living in Flushing, Queens. As a Lecturer in English at Queens College, I was making $6,800/year. “Kid, listen this this. Old man Cargill, a good friend of mine, is the head of one of the five biggest grain firms in the world. He wants to put you into his Executive Training Program. You’d start at $25,000/year with full benefits. The Cargills are an old Yale family, so when I told him about you, he said, ‘Jack, it’s time we had some Jewish executives. Your son will be our first.’ Think of that, Kid!” “But Dad,” I replied. “I just wrote a doctoral dissertation on the novels of Henry James. I have no interest in business. I want to be a professor.” Dad was heartbroken, although he did get over it. This, in short, was my road not taken. And now, happily retired at 81 after successful careers in higher education and the nonprofit sector, I can say that it has truly made all the difference.
Where to now? Green means GO, red means NO!