Monday, September 28, 2009

Thoughts of a Half-Jew on Yom Kippur

My first day of college was Monday September 27, 1971, obviously a day I will never forget. I attended Penn State and graduated in May 1975. The first two years I attended classes at the Abington Campus, an extension facility located in the Philadelphia suburbs. I transferred to the main campus at University Park, Pennsylvania at the beginning of my third year, in 1973.

September 27, 1971 was a beautiful, warm late summer day. My first class started at 2:00 in the afternoon. My class schedule allowed me to continue my full-time summer job at the Franklin Institute in downtown Philadelphia into the school year. I worked that morning, and left for class at about 12:30 in the afternoon, arriving at the Abington campus just before 2:00 PM. My first class was introductory philosophy with G. Fred Rieman -- ironically, Georg Friedrich Riemann was the name of a famous German mathematician. In fact, at the end of the term I was talking to Dr. Rieman after class and he said he started his career teaching math. I suppose it's like a biology teacher named Charles Darwin.

In any event, I already knew two people in the class: Bill Devuono and Gloria Goldsmith. Bill Devuono was in my high school class at Central High School in Philadelphia (230th class). We had been in the same social studies class in the 12th grade, taught by Jacob Finkelstein (Jake Wabbit, as he was less than affectionately known). Bill DeVuono was a friendly chappy. Central High School was an all-boys school in those days, by the way. Gloria Goldsmith and I were in the same 7th and 8th grade classes at Wagner Junior High School. I introduced myself to Gloria a few days after the beginning of the term at Penn State. She remembered me from junior high.

I can still remember what we talked about that first day of class in philosophy. The subject was "duty and responsibility." We discussed the Kitty Genovese case, the story of the young woman who was stabbed to death in the courtyard of her apartment building in New York City, while her neighbors stood by in their apartments and failed to call the police. It was a crime that became a metaphor. Did the neighbors have a moral duty to call the police? Strange that I can remember the subject matter of the first day of class.

The next class, after philosophy, was introductory English with Dr. Smith. I vaguely recall that Dr. Smith had a southern accent. That was not a very memorable class. Dr. Smith was not a memorable teacher.

In any event, that term I worked from 8:30 AM to 12:30 PM at the Franklin Institute on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I had French class, which took up the whole days; there were two classes (one in the morning and one in the afternoon), with a French lab sandwiched in (can I say that on Yom Kippur?). The teacher was Irma Jean Smith, from Kalamazoo, Michigan. She was working on her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. The subject of her thesis was Jean Cocteau. She lived not far from campus, in Abington, and she spent her summers in Paris, working on her thesis. She smoked Marlboros. I'll never forget her lighting up a cigarette during the first class on September 28. I had never seen a teacher smoke in class before. I can remember the ducks quacking in the duck pond on campus during that French class. Am I starting to sound like Marcel Proust? Marcel and his madeleines -- can I mention THAT on Yom Kippur? Marcel Proust was half-Jewish; did you know that?

That reminds me of something. One day in French class, the sound of a Chopin piece entered the classroom; Chopin's piano pieces are like novels condensed into a sigh, as Schoenberg himself described this intense and concentrated music. Someone was playing a phonograph recording of Chopin in a nearby classroom. Miss Smith said, "At least they could play a French composer!" At that moment I thought, "Chopin's father was French" -- but being a shy, insecure student, I said nothing. By the way, on July 24, 1933, in the synagogue of rue Copernic in Paris, Arnold Schoenberg, who had converted to Christianity years earlier, returned to the Jewish faith. But that's neither here nor there.

Course work at Penn State was concentrated in those years. Penn State was on a 3-term, 10-week per term school year in those days. After I graduated college in 1975 Penn State switched to the conventional, 2-semester, 15-week school year.

By the way, September 27 is also Sheryl Dyner's birthday. She turned 56 this year. Sheryl Dyner was a biology major at Penn State who graduated in May 1975, like me. In a big coincidence (I know, Jerry Seinfeld would say there are no "big coincidences" -- a coincidence is a coincidence) Sheryl Dyner started working at the Franklin Institute after she graduated Penn State, in 1975. She worked for Irene Jacobs. But that's another story.

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