New York Jews with Chicago Blues

The best thing about this university is the diversity. We’ve got artists, poets, math whizzes, punk rockers and even New York Jews.

By David Brooks

This article was originally published on October 12, 1982 and was re-printed on February 18, 2014 as part of the Maroon’s historical issue.

The best thing about this university is the diversity. We’ve got artists, poets, math whizzes, punk rockers and even New York Jews.

Third year student.

This quotation appeared in one of the brochures this University sent to prospective students about three years ago.

“Wow! Even New York Jews!” we said to ourselves, astonished at the school’s liberality. Here was a place even we could be accepted. Here was the land of milk and honey.

But for many of us, the milk was sour and the honey spoilt. You see, we New Yorkers imagine that every city in the world is like New York only smaller and less important. When we came to Chicago we expected to see small versions of the Empire State Building and itty-bitty World Trade Centers. We expected mini-Guggenheim Museums and pint-size Frick Galleries. We expected petite Greenwhich Villages with tiny artist’s colonies and short lunatic poets. And if we did not see hordes of beautiful, fashionably dressed women walking down the ultracosmopolitan thoroughfares, then we would have settled for small hordes walking down teeny-weeny alleyways.

But Chicago is not a miniature New York. We discovered an American city, not an international one. And the last thing a New Yorker is ever prepared for is America.

So we got scared. And the fear was breeding ground for our deepest instincts, inbred by generations of subway battles and sidewalk brawls. We grew obnoxious.

And it was worse for New York Jews. A Protestant can fit in anywhere. He will not even notice when the pastrami begins to taste like bologna. And Catholics do not have as tough a time because this town is run by Catholics. Of course, there are Jews here (I have six cousins in Skokie, all psychiatrists), but these are American Jews not New York Jews; they drive Pontiacs, not Volvos. They like their matzo with egg and onion instead of plain. And they don’t read Commentary or The New York Review of Rsvh zoyhrt d’Nookd. At these longitudes, we are fish out of water.

We are a wandering tribe. And a prejudiced one at that. Always insulting Chicago. Always comparing it to the incomparable Apple. We cannot be much fun to be with. We need understanding and we need tolerance.

All these ruminations came to me last night while visiting a friend. He, a first year law student and a New York Jew, had quickly developed an aversion to Chicago and wanted to go home. He called his mother to ask permission while I sat on the couch and pretended to read The Nation. I overheard his half of the conversation.

“Hello, ma?…You got to let me come home…No, I haven’t flunked out. It’s only the second week. I just can’t stand it out here. This is a city of broad shoulders and narrow minds. Yes, ma, it’s that bad. I’m living in a town where everybody buys their clothes at Woolworths. How many fake leather jackets do I have to look at?…Ir’s a whole different world out here. I tell people about a shop on Madison and they think it’s in Wisconsin. I mention CBGBs and they think I’m talking chemical formulas.

They don’t even flouridate the water! Already I feel my teeth falling out…No ma, I’m not just saying this to make you miserable…I know your life has been one long sacrifice.

…Yes, you’ve told me how much I caused you during childbirth. I’ve apologized for that…What do you mean you didn’t even enjoy my conception?…Ok, I’m sorry for that too…Yes, I’ll apologize to dad as well…No I didn’t get this idea of dropping out from a Phillip Roth book…I promised you I’d never read anything by him. But that’s another thing. Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Stern and all those guys are killing us out here. Somebody finds out I’m Jewish and they ask, “So, when’s the novel coming out?” These midwesterners think all Jews do is write novels with putzy heros…Oh ma, it’s terrible. You’ve got to get me out of Illinois…Yes, Ma, Chicago is in Illinois. Yes, I’m positive it’s not in Wyoming. No I don’t know where Wyoming is either.

I don’t even think there is such a state as Pennsyltucky…Yes, I know I wasn’t put on this earth to be happy…I don’t mind being unhappy. I’m used to it..Ok, listen ma, I’ll level with you. I think I’m losing my marbles…Ma! will you let me talk?!

Last Saturday night I went out with some other students to a restaurant called The Medici. I’m sitting across from this girl named Diana. She’s a midwesterner—you know, with straight blond hair and narrow hips, like the girls on TV…Anyway, she’s looking at me and she’s smiling. I want to make a nice impression so I smile back. After a while she begins to tell this dull story about her father investing in hog futures. I thought it was some kind of astrology for pigs but it’s not. Anyway when she’s done everybody smiles politely and gets back to their conversation. Except me. I laugh! I laugh!! I see her the next day in the lounge and all I do is laugh and laugh! I can’t help myself! She’ll be talking about wheat or her brother ran his pick up into a silo and I can’t stop giggling. I tell you, ma, something very bad is happening! The next day she invites me out to the state fair. You know how I feel about animals: any animal that can’t hold up a decent conversation I hate. But at the fair I get a warm feeling. It must be the heat flashes you get before a nervous breakdown. I tell you, ma. I’m cracking up. This girl has never heard of Russell Baker or Bloomies or 21! She’s barely human. But everytime I see her I feel like the Yanks just won the pennant. I’m losing my mind! You got to let me come home! Please!”

I left the room thinking about New Yorkers. His mother better get him on the plane this week. A few more days with Diane and he’ll be putting down for the mortgage on the house in Skokie.