IT IS LATE SUMMER afternoon and the long Sabbath is winding down. In the darkening house, beams of passing cars move across the living room wall, casting kaleidoscopic shodows of the adult figures around me. No light will be kindled until the first star appears and the day of rest glides to a close.
Throughout the house, voices begin to rise, as if better to be heard in the gathering dusk: voices of neighbors who have dropped by for "a cup of tea, a piece of fruit," but who now, hours later, are still heatedly arguing the merits of FDR's new economic program. The voices of my brothers match their new found collegiate wisdom with the pungent Talmudic parable of their father. The imperious voice of an itinerant rabbi, our perennial weekend guest, offers its basso profundo pronouncements on any issue raised within his poor hearing. My own voice and those of my neighborhood friends weave into the adult disputations that ricochet about us. Then they bounce out again for our own discourse about the Detroit Tigers' World Series chances, and the deep religious conflict posed to first baseman Hank Greenberg if he were to take to the diamond on Yom Kippur afternoon.
I count such hours of free-ranging intellectual cohabitation with adults to be among the richest of my childhood. They occurred spontaneously, day or night, whenever family members and friends gathered, and they provided for me and my young contemporaries sturdy links to the minds of the "grown-ups." Without benefit of "Mister Rogers" or "Sesame Street," without toys-for-teaching or flashcards-for-fundamentals, life itself brought an incitement to learn. I was, you might say, the beneficiary of a chronic enrichment program, delivered via the blessedly porous intellectual barrier separating the generations.
It was not as if I and my contemporaries were unaware of our places as children.
Insolence or disrespect, even a hint of chutzpah, were nowhere to be found in our developing behavior. But one of our surest places was as welcome members of household in which information and ideas were served up family-style, with helpings to be taken freely in whatever portions our intellectual appetites allowed.
There were occassions, of course, when my young mind was taxed by an overload of knowledge too rich to handle. I recall suffering as a result feelings of bewilderment and anxiety, even nights of insomnia.
Sitting around the living room in the company of my elders, I learned bloody details of the local butcher's rectal cancer along with the possibilities for triumphant living in the face of mortal illness; the terrifying symptoms of a kinsman's paranoia along with the rudiments of psychoanalytic theory; the facts of my father's financial plight along with Isaiah's exhortations to charity.
The price I paid in transient episodes of emotional distress and psychological befuddlement seem to me now to have been very much worth the bargain, for I enjoyed at the same time uninterrupted access to minds far more fertile than my own.
Because the stimulating world of my elders was always open to me, I required no cleverly wrought games to be seduced by the romance of history; no membership in a drama club to be dazzled by the magic of the theater; no solitary afternoons of TV to ignite my imagination. Mine was an unbroken chain of associations with adults who cared enough always to share themselves with their young. Therein, I believe, lay the secret of my own private "head Start" program. It was continous rather than episodic, part of the ebb and flow of life itself rather than an artificial addendum to it.
There was, however, a related ingredient in the home of my childhood, equally precious: a palpable sense of loving please in my development. The slighest evidence that the mental intoxicants provided me and my siblings were taking hold produced in my parents exhibitions of unalloyed joy, and each time we demonstrated the fruits of our enrichment -- a clever insight, a fact remembered -- we were rewarded with abundant displays of esteem.
Our elders evidently knew instinctively what psychologists only now are beginning to document: Children grow up with a powerful urge to achieve their manifestations of competence (my parents called them chocmas, or "wisdoms") are reinforced by affection.
Even infants begin to view themselves as masterful when their unfolding skills -- smiling, cooing -- evoke rapture in their caretakers, and later, the most onerous school tasks take on a special luster for children whose hints of success bring torrents of parential praise.
My parents and their contemporaries were remarkably skilled in techniques for shaping achievement behavior. They caused their children to associate experiences of learning and attainment with those of acceptance and approval, often by applying a schedule of reinforcement that would have delighted the most Watsonian psychologist of the day.
Our conditioning took place not in a self-conscious or programmed way, but naturally, as part of life itself.
In giving our schoolwork their unswerving attention, often without fully understanding its content, our parents let us know how deeply it counted. In showering us with warmth and affection for long division problems successfully solved, with awe and admiration for history dates memorized and delivered in a single breath, they provided episodes of learning overlaid with love.
It is more than symbolic that homework and meal, reading books and eating snacks, were often acccomplished at the same dining room table.
"Push over the papers and eat," my mother would say as the failing afternoon light emerged with evening darkness: a brilliant Skinnerian ploy in which nourishment for the mind and body were delivered together. As I write these words, 30 years removed from the living presence of my mother, my senses are ravaged once again by the aroma of meatballs, perched on a pyramid of potatoes, oozing gravy on tomorrow's spelling list.
In my own young life, the merger of intellectual and emotional rewards was epitomized in the violin. It was my mother who provided both the spur and the gratifications for my attempts to master that unyielding instrument.
That I did not become the internationally acclaimed child virtuso hoped for by countless parents of the day is irrelevant. In my mother's eyes, I had.
On Sunday afternoons, as the family encircled a static-ridden Emerson radio bringing us the New York Philharmonic, it was not unusual for my mother to chafe at the storm of "bravos" greeting the virtuoso feats of child prodigy Yehudi Menuhin or the teen-aged Jascha Heifetz.
"I don't see what's the yelling," she would say, unimpressed. "Du shpilst besser (you play better)," she would assure me -- not to offer flimsy encouragement, but because she really believed it.
My mother's criteris were simple and unambiguous. Neither Menuhin or Heiftz, nor Kreisler, nor Elman could offer a recital of Yiddish melodies in her own kitchen as she cooked and cleaned. I could -- and I did.
During many long winter evenings I stook at the entrance to the kitchen, tuning my scratchy half-sized fiddle, preparing to greet my loving audience of one. Even as I struggled to find the correct pitch for each string, the accolades began: "Listen how he knows to tune," my mother would say to no one in particular.
My entrance made, my sheet music supported by the open oven door, I would begin the evening recital, exhausting the repertoire my mother loved, sometimes even adding my soprano voice to the swelling Yiddish melodies of yearning and unrequited love.
No matter that the intonation was poor, that eighth notes were taken at half the speed required, or that final measures emerged forte, not piano. There was in my mother's face as I played the rapture, the beatitude, of one sharing the presence of genius. As the kitchen recital was about to end, she would beg me to do it all again: She wanted the neighbors to hear.
With the last tear-wringing notes of "Eli, Eli" suspended somewhere between the stove and the icebox, my mother was out the back door, into the night and across the snow-filled yard that separated us from the neighbors. Moments later, their breaths steamiang from the winter cold outside, a beaming audience would arrive and draw up seats around the kitchen table.
For my mother, we were no longer in a tiny lit by an unshaded ceiling bulb; we were in Carnegie Hall's dress circle, chandeliers ablaze overhead. Once again I would launch into my entire store of Yiddish songs, interrupted only for "Old Folks at Home," a tune my mother found so soulful that she insisted it must have been stolen from the Jews.
Finally, as if to demonstrate her incipient acculturation, she would request as an encore the only song of the New World that she really knew: "My Country Tizz."
Those kitchen soirees helped me to feel -- deeply, in my childish gut -- that attainment and pleasure are one. From studies of the impact of economics on family life, many have concluded that such enriching experiences are likely to be fostered only in middle- or upper-class families; that we should not expect equally sturdy bridges to be built to the minds and hearts of poor children.
Not so. The parents of countless "disadvantaged" youngsters manage to provide both the stimulation and the rewards necessary for stroking their children's motivational fires. The correlation between social class and competence is far from perfect, and the careers of many children even from the most destitute homes, run counter to the extected trend.
Judged by any standards, my family was at the lowest rung of the economic ladder of the time; we were "deprived," certainly, but somehow not of each other. The same has been true for countless impoverished families who, despite an appalling lack of material resources, have continued to nourish solid connections to the minds of the young. Intellectual stagnation is hardly an unconditional trait of poor children and many learn, as I did, to associate achievement with joy.
On New York's East Side in the early years of the century, dozens of immigrant children from Europe triumphantly survived chronic hunger and abject porverty.
Their names included entertainers Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante, opera star Jan Peerce, politician Al Smith, Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher Julius Axelrod and hundreds more whose caring kin served as human launches to competence and success.
The late Sam Levenson recalled a childhood of poverty shared with seven siblings, all of whom became productive and achieving adults. Levenson's home in New York's East Harlem was in a neighborhood "above average in squalid tenements, putrid poolrooms, stenchy saloons, cold flats, hot roofs, dirty streets and flying garbage."
Still, Levenson considered himself to have been a fortunate child, exposed to a continuous maelstrom of caring adults who both stimulated and inspired. "My environment was miserable; I was not," he insisted.
The precious blend of intellectual nourishment and loving attention I enjoyed as a child clearly is not hte domain of any one social class -- or race, or color, or religion. It is hinged instead on a communion of mind and spirit, a psychological connectedness, that lies well beyond the demographer's capacity to chart.
Moreover, the subjects used to link the minds of the generations -- whether Talmudic lore or black history, cooking or electronics, sports or politics -- appear to be less important than that the links are forged. Nor does the subject matter need to be fully understood by the young. A family's open and shared enthusiasm for a local civil rights cause may elude the child's comprehension, yet an enriching residue is likely to endure.
On those many afternoons when I sat with my friends in the company of our elders, I, too, heard notions that were confusing and illogical. My father's Talmudic legalism seemed then to me to be arbitrary and unyielding, my brothers' stormy arguments over the redistribution of wealth unaccountably passionate and difficult to follow, my neighbors' tales of life under the czar strangely remote, as if they had landed on our street from another planted.
Yet each time I was exposed to the world of my elders, welcomed lovingly on their ground, I was enriched. As dusk enveloped the Sabbaths of my childhood, as the voices of the long afternoons faded and a new week began, I knew inwardly that I had walked a marvelous path from which the vistas would remain boundless and grand.