Nat Hentoff. Interview with a Boston original
IN ``Boston Boy'' (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, $15.95), Nat Hentoff tells of the time, as a teen-ager, he slipped and fell on the ice on Elm Hill Avenue. When he looked up, a gang of Irish kids were standing around him. Was he Jewish, they wanted to know? Desperate, the decidedly Jewish Nat decided to pretend he was Greek. After all, this was Boston around the late '30s, a time when gangs of Irish toughs stalked the neighborhood like wolf packs, looking for Jewish prey; a place where Father Coughlin's newspaper, Social Justice -- sold each Sunday throughout the city -- warned constantly of the Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.Skip to next paragraph
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Later, Nat was less fortunate and had a tooth punched out when Irish youths caught him unprotected. But this time his Greek tactic allowed him to escape unscathed. What's more, a pop-music record he was clutching somehow remained unbroken.
Potent vignettes like these -- recalled from a mellow distance by a clear-eyed journalist -- trace the roots of Hentoff's social views as he tells of his life in Boston until the time he left for New York at age 28 to write about jazz in Down Beat magazine.
Hentoff's name was later to become virtually synonymous with fiercely independent stands -- on First Amendment rights, Middle Eastern politics, and many other social issues -- taken in his Village Voice and Washington Post columns, his books, and elsewhere. And that pop record he was clutching was an early sign of his other lifelong interest -- jazz -- which, in ``Boston Boy,'' serves as a frequent metaphor both for life and for the freedom of expression that means so much to him: Hentoff became a renowned jazz critic whose pieces are seen on the Leisure & Arts page of the Wall Street Journal and in other publications. Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and other jazz greats strengthened his ``life as heretic, a tradition I kept precisely because I am a Jew,'' he says in the book. These jazz musicians were ``my chief rabbis for many years.''
``Boston Boy'' unfolds like a series of slide projections -- vivid, sharply focused, and cumulatively documenting the making of a civil libertarian. Most of the episodes in this composite picture are less violent than the Elm Street incident. Many are warm, funny, and full of turbulent little patches of ethnic Jewish life in the Roxbury area. Some are recalled in a faintly wistful tone: the herring man standing next to his barrel, the brilliantly described Jewish religious services, the famous Boston Latin School that Nat attended, or the ethnically neutral ground of the public library. Survivor's subterfuge
But there was nothing fond about many of the memories, as Mr. Hentoff explained to me when we chatted at ``Village Voice.''The time he slipped on the ice, for instance: ``I know what they [the Irish kids] want. They want to beat me. There was nothing fond in that remembrance, that kind of fear, and worse than that, the anger at knowing that I had two choices: I could get up and get beaten to the ground again, and be a hero; or, I could lie as I did and say I was Greek and try to swivel out of it. No, there's nothing fond about that remembrance.''
The recollection of this survivor's Greek subterfuge is extra-bitter in light of how highly Hentoff has prized honesty and outspokenness throughout his career, and how joyously irreverent the book shows Nat was of almost everything he disagreed with -- Christian or Jewish, liberal or conservative. In an early scene, he brazenly eats a huge salami sandwich on Yom Kippur, a Jewish day of fasting. This unspeakable offense is one of many anti-establishment acts Hentoff commits throughout the book.
``For years I have tried to avoid labels,'' Hentoff pointed out to me, with the look of a bemused sage on his fully bearded face. ``I remember when I was growing up in Boston, the Boston Herald was a very conservative paper economically, long before Murdock bought it. It was very good on civil liberties. So I learned back then that you can't generalize about a newspaper or person. In my experience there are many conservatives who are much more dependable on civil liberties than most liberals. I don't find liberals trustworthy on civil liberties because they generally go where they think the people should go in terms of their own priorities for the elections. In the last couple of years, I've gotten a lot of ideas from a lot of people who are anti-abortion, whom I never would have thought of talking to or reading before.''
Such independence has earned him harsh criticsm from all directions. The book actually begins, in fact, with a description of how three rabbis tried to excommunicate him, in 1982, because he signed a poltical advertisement in the New York Times which protested the invasion of Lebanon by Israel.