THE BOY was Jewish; the city, as Irish as Paddy's pig. It was the 1930s; Hitler stalked Europe; here at home, the voice of Father Charles Coughlin came over the radio every Sunday night, spewing infamies and pronouncing maledictions upon the Jews. Father Coughlin was popular in Boston. Hadn't James Michael Curley, the mayor, called Boston "the strongest Coughlin city in America"?
Translating Coughlin's words into action, young Irish toughs bashed Jewish boys for sport on the streets of Roxbury and Dorchester. The Irishers knew the Jews would not fight back. That libel was part of the local folklore right up until the 1950s, when I grew up not far from where Hentoff did. The Israeli victory over Egypt in 1956, as I recall, wrought an unmistakable change -- one caught in this period joke:
"How fast was that car going? As fast as an Egyptian running down Blue Hill Avenue." (Blue Hill Avenue was the main thoroughfare of Boston's Jewish community, and along its sidewalks, after 1956, the Jewish boys started to fight back.)
Nat Hentoff's evocative memoir is about a different Boston -- for Boston boys who happened to be Jewish, a city of fear and cowardice.
Hentoff is a noted jazz critic and, in his weekly Village Voice column, a crusader for liberty, heresy, and the First Amendment. He came by this predilection for dissent very early. As a small boy he ate a salami sandwich on Yom Kippur, willfully violating, to his father's horror, the taboo against eating on the Day of Atonement. Later, he organized a strike among the teen-aged employes of a local candy store to win a pay raise. Later still, at Boston's Northeastern University, he was forced to resign the editorship of the school newspaper for writing pieces vexing to the composure of the chool's president.
The young Hentoff's interest in jazz sprang partly from a transfer of his strong emotional response to the keening synagogue chants, but partly too from an attraction to the politics of jazz. The last line of the book, a quotation from Bix Beiderbecke, emphasizes the connection between jazz and a passion for liberty: "One of the things I like about jazz, kid, is I don't know what's going to happen next." That might also be said of a society in which liberty is permitted to flourish.
The sources of Hentoff's political/esthetic commitments lay both in the uniformity of his Roxbury neighborhood and, paradoxically, in its variety. The neighborhood was almost wholly Jewish, and the weight of religion and old country habit must have been stifling to a young man born in freedom's bower (unlike his parents, who came from the Russia of the czars). Yet, offsetting this ethnic and religious uniformity, was a uniquely contentious politics: "In the spectrum of the ceaseless political debate in our ghetto, the FDR Democrats were the moderates -- some would have said conservatives. There were also much smaller but fiercely voluble bands of Communists, Trotskyites, and anarchists. . . . We had single-taxers too, and more different flavors of socialists than ice cream." There were, however, no Republicans. "A few votes were cast for Republican candidates, but I figured those were Jews with mental disturbances or Communists who wanted to hasten the Revolution by making Republicans as visible as possible."
Boston Boy is a bit like a jazz riff in the way it unfolds. It lacks development, both in the compositional and the psychological sense. Like a vagrant score searching for a theme, it flits restlessly from subject to subject, incident to incident. Missing is a central character. Hentoff does not write about himself or his family -- his traveling-salesman father, and his enigmatically-suffering mother -- with notable penetrationor interest. He does not come alive on the pages of his own life. Here he is one day admitted to the Boston Latin School, the next he is at Northeastern, the next he is the MC of a local radio show, the next an habitu,e of jazz clubs, the next it's 1953; he's off to be a jazz critic in New York -- and the book is over. It all happens too quickly and it is narrated too episodically. We miss the man in the blur of his movements.
STILL, the portraits of other people are worth the price of admission. Boston Boy, in this respect, is like a movie in which the supporting actors steal the show from the leading man. Memorable is Hentoff's tribute to Frances Sweeney, an Irish newspaperwoman who, in the pages of her muckraking Boston weekly, assailed the anti-Semitism of her tribe; thereby, she gave one of her young assistants a lasting example of the centrality, for a journalist, of a sense of indignation. James Michael Curley also comes to life i Boston Boy. Here he is at a campaign stop conducting a florid soliloquy with a portrait of himself; later, attacking an opponent on Hentoff's radio show, he's seen flinging $20 bills at the host as a bribe to extend his time on the air. Jazz giants also make vivid brief appearances as Hentoff grows older, moves away from home, makes an unsatisfactory marriage to a WASP aristocrat (more heresy there), and begins to respond to the siren call of New York.
There are moments of pathos in Boston Boy and several incidents unflattering to the author in which the reader experiences a gamut of emotions, from disgust to anger to rueful self-recognition. In one, menaced by a gang of Irish toughs, Hentoff says he is Greek to avoid the beating sure to be given to a "Hebe." In another, he closes his apartment door in his mother's face. Her offense? To bring him -- what else? -- a pot of chicken soup. At such moments, the appeal of Boston Boy reaches beyond those of us who know the streets of Nat Hentoff's shame -- to claim the universal geography of the human heart.