Now that I have reached old age, I find myself in a strange place with respect to my relatives both on my mother and father’s side. When I was young, I had no interest in contacting any of them. Now in the winter of my life, I yearn for some kind of connection, knowing full well that it is unachievable. Fortunately, my wife’s relatives in Turkey have a warmth and openness that, except for my mother, did not exist among blood relatives.
On the maternal side, the only surviving relative is a cousin who I never really knew and who I have no way of contacting. It is not much better on the paternal side. I particularly grieve being cut off by my cousin Joel who I visited in both a Connecticut and Pennsylvania prison during his 4 year mandatory minimum term for growing marijuana on his upstate property. About a year before my mother died and long after Joel had been released, I called him up to get some advice on work I was doing on her house. He was so cold and hostile to me over the phone that I wondered what the problem was. I subsequently learned from my mother that Joel was angry at me for not having lent him some 30 or 40 thousand dollars to make a down payment on his house that had been seized by the government. Even though I was working for Goldman-Sachs at the time, I couldn’t put that kind of money together. As it turned out, he got the money he needed by doing legal work for a fellow white collar prisoner.
This is not the first time that money issues had led to a feud on my father’s side of my family. My father had a brother named Mike who was the oldest among eight children. During WWII all the brothers except Mike went into the army or navy while he stayed home running a lumber company that he inherited from my grandfather Louis, who died during the war and after whom I am named.
Apparently Mike made a fortune in the black market during the war while my father Jack was dodging bullets in the Battle of the Bulge. (I have no idea how Mike avoided military duty.) When my father got back to Woodridge, our little village in the Catskills, he discovered that Mike was refusing to chip in for my grandmother’s living expenses. I have also been told that his siblings suspected him of forging my grandfather’s will so that he would end up with the lumber yard, my grandfather’s most lucrative business, while the other brothers were left with small shops, in my father’s case a fruit store.
Tensions finally boiled over to the point where my father drove over to Mike’s lumber yard where a shouting match led to a bloody fist fight that the cops had to break up. Since my father boxed in the army, I suspect that Mike got the worse of it.
From that day forward, Mike never spoke to my father or any of his other brothers or sisters.
On January 26th 1945 I–Louis Nelson Proyect–was born. About a week later Mike’s son Louis Reynolds Proyect came into the world. It is not unusual for Jewish sons to be named after a deceased grandparent but it is unusual for there to be multiple occurrences. I suppose that this might have happened because there were no open lines of communication between Mike and Jack, even before their legendary brawl.
When we were toddlers, we had nicknames to distinguish us. I was “cho-cho” and he was “da-da”. Don’t ask me how we ended up with these names but we didn’t enjoy hearing them after we reached the age of 7 or so.
In class, our teachers used to refer to us as Louis N. and Louis R. Despite our feuding fathers, we became very good friends. While he was a so-so student, Cousin Louis had a quick wit and a lively personality. As kids with “maverick” personalities, we liked to hold ourselves above the other students who we regarded as “boobs” and “conformists” in H.L. Mencken terms.
In 1960 we decided that we were opposed to John F. Kennedy, mostly because the other students were for him. To be really different, we decided to back Barry Goldwater who was running against Nixon in the primaries. Eventually, what started out as a joke became serious. I read William F. Buckley’s “Up from Liberalism” and became converted to the conservative cause. Louis and I started a Young Americans for Freedom chapter, with only two members of course. Cousin Louis had a material incentive to be a conservative. His father was getting richer and richer each year and had become a typical Republican. Louis R. understood the class advantages of being a right-winger while I was just being callow.
I should mention that Rick Perlstein interviewed me and Doug Henwood for his book on the conservative youth movement titled “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus”. I don’t know about Doug, but my rightwing rebellion was not that much different from what Charles Bukowski did when he told his fellow high school students in the late 30s that he admired Hitler. He was only interested in pissing people off. Trust me, telling the sons and daughters of Jewish FDR voters in 1960 that you were for Goldwater had the same effect.
After I went off to Bard in 1961, I pretty much lost touch with Louis R. Finally, in 1968, just after I joined the SWP, he got in touch to meet for dinner in Greenwich Village. He was going to St. John’s Law School at the time, after having graduated Syracuse University. Unlike me, Louis R. still stuck to his conservative principles—so much so that we ended up arguing about Vietnam rather than discuss old times. When we ready to head our separate ways back home, he told me that that he hated Communism so much that he was thinking about joining the FBI after he got his law degree. He probably would have been pleased to learn that I was the victim of an FBI Cointelpro operation to get me fired at Met Life a few months after our meeting. That was the last time I ever saw my cousin.
In the late 80s a woman named Nina Proekt called me out of the blue. She wondered if we were related since her father seemed to recall that his father had some relatives named Proyect. After consulting my father’s relatives upstate (he had died in 1970), we discovered that the Proekts were mishpocheh, the Yiddish word for family.
We organized a family reunion upstate that was pretty nice. Needless to say, the conversation revolved around pretty trivial stuff but I was happy to feel some connection to my father’s side of the family. In the past, I was much closer to my mother’s. I was especially pleased to learn that a Russian relative of the Proekts had been a fighter pilot during WWII and had died in combat against the Nazi invaders.
Of course, my uncle Mike did not show up even though he was invited. I did take the opportunity to survey my aunts and uncles on Mike, who I had never spent five minutes talking to. I should add that this was true for my own father as well, who never bonded with me. Who can blame him, I guess. My aunt Becky had a great story. When Mike was a student at Columbia University in the 1930s (he was obviously a lot smarter than my father), he had a part-time job in a Kosher slaughterhouse cutting the throats of chickens. Before going to class, he had to bathe first to get the blood off. Not quite the Columbia University student of today.
My curiosity piqued by what I heard from Becky, I called Mike up and asked if I could come over and do some oral history with a tape recorder. I especially wanted to find out more about my grandfather and namesake Louis Proyect. Mike refused to meet but did continue speaking with me on the phone for about a half hour. Two stories will stick with me forever. He said that my grandfather, who built hotels as part of his business empire, used to come back with his all-Russian construction crew to his farmhouse when work was done on Sunday. There they would take out their instruments—tuba, balalaika, etc.–and play Russian dance music, drink Schnapps and eat herring.
The other story had to do with Mike’s break with Judaism. He used to accompany my grandfather to synagogue each and every Saturday but noticed that a number of men who he saw dovening (praying) were playing Pinochle for money in the afternoon, a violation of the Sabbath. When my grandfather could not account for this hypocrisy, Mike told him that he was done with religion.
Unlike me, my cousin Louis was not forced into taking Hebrew lessons. Since he was not going to be bar mitzvahed, there was no use for the torture that the characters in “A Serious Man” and I had to endure. Not only did his father defy the mores of our small town on this question, he created an even bigger controversy when he returned from Europe on a summer vacation in 1960 with a gift for my cousin, a Mercedes Benz 190SL Roadster. This was the first German car seen in a village that was 80 percent Jewish and still had bitter memories of Nazi death camps.
A few months ago I learned that my high school class was having its 50th anniversary reunion. An email went out to those of us who were still alive and who were using a computer. One of the addressees was my cousin Louis who I emailed, “How are you doing?” Surely he would not be holding a grudge after nearly a half-century? He did not write back.
Out of curiosity, I did some online research to piece together what he had done with his life. Not surprisingly he had gone to work on Wall Street as a lawyer for an investment company. Around twenty years ago I ran into someone at the last high school reunion and asked if he had heard anything about my cousin. He replied that all he knew is that he had married a religious Jew. That surprised me but what surprised me even more was the fact that Louis had become religious himself.
After retiring from Wall Street, he and his wife Fredi moved to Santa Fe, Mexico where his older stepbrother, another Wall Street lawyer, lived. There Louis got involved with Beit Tikva, a Reform Synagogue just like the one my mother belonged to in upstate NY. For a period of years in the 1980s, my mother would mail me books with titles like “The Meaning of Reform Judaism” and articles from the ADL or AIPAC. I put up with it because she was my mother, just as she put up with my anti-Zionism. Blood is thicker than ideology.
I was puzzled by this turn of events. I can see my cousin marrying a religious woman but why in the world would he be wasting his time praising god on Saturday mornings when that time could be better spent playing golf? When I sent news about my cousin’s conversion to a high school classmate who was avoiding the reunion like me, he sent back a one word comment that summed things up: Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff had secular Jewish parents like Louis R.’s, but became an orthodox Jew in high school as a way of protesting the trend toward secularism and liberal values in American society that had been strengthened by the 1960s. Sitting in a synagogue on Saturday morning must have been a way for my cousin to affirm traditional values. If you are going to vote Republican, you might as well waste time praying to god.
Louis eventually moved to a neighborhood in West Palm Beach, Florida that likely contained many of Bernie Madoff’s victims. I don’t have a picture of my cousin but his son Andrew who was president of the Republican club at Colgate looks just like him:
They received the award from “The Center for Freedom and Western Civilization at Colgate University” to recognize students who “have made outstanding contributions to promoting the ideals of freedom and Western civilization.” Andrew Proyect got his for being president of the College Republicans, and David Peters for his participation in the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School while attending Colgate and his commissioning as a second lieutenant in the US Marines.
After doing my research on cousin Louis, it became obvious why he did not write back. Like me, his life was committed to a certain ideology: survival of the fittest. As America’s Jews become more and more differentiated by ideology, they will begin to lose the sense of a common ethnic identity—not to speak of a shared sense of family as in this particular instance.
I feel connected to all of these people, from my uncle Mike to my cousins Louis and Joel, who loom large in my psyche even though we are not on speaking terms. In digging through the attic of my memory that contains the detritus of my conventional childhood and my revolutionary adulthood, these personalities remained preserved in Proustian fashion. As they take on a greater definition through the miracle of the pixel and TCP/IP, just as they did a century ago with the fountain pen or the typewriter, something like permanence will be achieved. Blogging might never achieve the elevated status of “Remembrance of Things Past” but they will certainly help me sort out and make sense of the various strands of an uncommon life.