Book Review:

The Long Hard Kvetch

by Joseph B. Rosenberg

Confessions of a Secular Jew – a Memoir
by Eugene Goodheart
The Overlook Press
The author shows how being an academic can be every bit as stressful as playing professional sports.

Professor Goodheart, a noted scholar now teaching at Brandeis University, makes a valiant effort to portray his life and experiences in an honest readable manner.

What occurs, however, is one long kvetch covering 262 pages. In a tone very similar to John Edgar Wideman's Hoop Roots, reviewed in January, Professor Goodheart examines almost all his relationships and tracks his efforts to find meaning in his heritage and upbringing. In Hoop Roots, basketball was used as a metaphor for African-American life; in Goodheart's Confessions it is climbing the academic ladder that is the tableau against which a life is measured.

Professor Goodheart grew up in the New York, Jewish, Post World War II world where you were politically correct by supporting Henry Wallace's Progressives in 1948, flirting with Communism, then, with the backdrop of HUAC, Nixon and Joe McCarthy, becoming anti-communist but still of the left, being pro- and pro-active for civil rights, then being against the Vietnam War and finally, in the Reagan days, becoming a neo-conservative or libertarian. The professor was on campus for most of this era dealing with student unrest, collegial jealousy—and the long decline and death of his mother.

Having grown up with smart Jewish kids just like Professor Goodheart, I can understand and have empathy for the pressures of the intellectual games that informed his career. Surely writing the well nuanced essay for the Partisan Review is as difficult to learn as setting a pick in basketball. The little games of intellectual one-upmanship and "gotcha" are just as bloody to the psyche as a hard intentional foul. Many of us have rejected the strict orthodoxy of our parents, but now, in the last part of our lives, we are examining our traditions and honoring them as Professors Goodheart and Wideman do.

I admit this book can be a little whiney, self abusing and involved in arcane disputes, but it can be fascinating reading, especially to learn about a group that challenged and changed intellectual America in the past 60 years. Maybe if you're easily bored, you can wait for the Reader's Digest Condensed version.


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This story was published on February 6, 2002.