In Memory of a Friend, Teacher and Mentor
By PHILIP ROTH
Published: April 20, 2013
I WAS 12 years old when I entered the Hawthorne Avenue Annex in February 1946. The Annex, a 15-minute bus ride for me from the main high school, was where you went in those days as a freshman at Newark’s Weequahic High. The first teacher I had to face on the first hour of my first day at the Annex was Bob Lowenstein. Dr. Lowenstein. Doc Lowenstein. He was fresh from serving in World War II, unlike most high school teachers he was unassumingly in possession of a Ph.D., and what was recognizable even to a 12-year-old was that this was a formidable man who did not gladly suffer fools.
Bob was my homeroom teacher. This meant that I saw him first thing in the morning, every single day of the school year. I was never to take a language course with him — I had Mademoiselle Glucksman for French and Señorita Baleroso for Spanish — but I didn’t forget him. Who at Weequahic did? Consequently, when it came his turn to be mauled in Congress’s anti-Communist crusade of the 1940s and 1950s, I followed his fate as best I could in the stories that I had my parents clip from the Newark newspapers and mail to me.
I don’t remember how we came together again around 1990, about 40 years after I’d graduated Weequahic High. I was back in America from having lived largely abroad for some 12 years, and either I wrote to him about something or he wrote to me about something and we met for lunch at Zelda and his house in West Orange. In the spirit of Bob Lowenstein, I will put the matter in plain language, directly as I can: I believe we fell in love with each other.
He sent me his poems in the mail, sometimes as soon as he’d finished writing them, and I sent him my books when they were published. I even sent him the final draft of one book — “American Pastoral” — to read in manuscript. There was lots in the book about early-20th-century Newark, and I wanted to pass it before him to make sure I’d got everything right.
I sent someone down to West Orange to drive Bob the two and a half hours up to my house in rural northwest Connecticut, and together the two of us had lunch and I asked him to tell me what he’d made of what I’d written. We talked over lunch — we talked all afternoon long. He had, as usual, a lot to say, and I believe I listened to all that he said no less attentively than I listened in that 8:30 homeroom at the Hawthorne Avenue Annex when he read out the announcements for the school day.
IN “I Married a Communist,” the narrator Nathan Zuckerman says, “I think of my life as one long speech that I’ve been listening to.” For me, Bob’s is one of the persuasive voices I can still hear speaking. The tang of the real permeated his talk. Like all great teachers, he personified the drama of transformation through talk.
I should mention that when he arrived at my Connecticut house from West Orange, he got out of the car with a book in his hand. What he’d been reading on the drive up were the poems, in French, written by the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy during the course of a brief life that ended almost a hundred years ago. I knew, of course, that Bob was a serious man, but only when I saw that he took Péguy to read on the road did I realize just how serious.
In 1993, when I turned 60, I gave a reading in South Orange, at Seton Hall University, and the reading’s sponsors threw me a little birthday party afterward. Bob and Zelda were there. In fact, my reading that night was introduced by Bob, who, as you recall, lived a mile away from Seton Hall and never missed a poetry reading there. He was then 85. That he had 20 more years of sparkling life left in him — well, who could have known that, except perhaps Bob himself?
I had written to ask him to introduce me, and seeing him up at the Seton Hall lectern that night recounting with great wit and sharpness and charm our first acquaintance as pupil and student made me inordinately happy. I believe it made him happy too.
Bob was the model for a major figure in my novel “I Married a Communist,” a book I published in 1998 recalling the anti-Communist period I mentioned earlier and that savage, malicious mauling that people like Bob suffered in those years from the teeth and the claws of the scum then in power.
The character is a retired high school teacher named Murray Ringold, and, like Bob, he teaches at Weequahic High, though not, like Bob, Romance languages but English. I also altered Bob’s appearance, his war record and certain significant details of his personal life — Bob didn’t, for example, have a hotheaded murderer for a brother — but otherwise I tried to remain true to the force of his virtues, as I perceived them.
I also included in passing his singular pleasure of hurling a blackboard eraser when what was said by a pupil seemed to him radically knuckleheaded and more than likely the oafish outgrowth of inattentiveness, the crime of crimes.
The subject of “I Married a Communist” is, at bottom, education, tutelage, mentorship, in particular the education of an eager, earnest and impressionable adolescent in how to become — as well as how not to become — a bold and honorable and effective man. This is no easy task, as we know, for there are two large stumbling blocks: the impurity of the world and the impurity of oneself, not to mention one’s massive imperfections of intelligence, emotion, foresight and judgment.
This book about a boy and his men opens with a brief portrait of Murray Ringold, the Ringold brother who is not violent and whose rage is tempered and reserved for unwarrantable injustice. Murray Ringold, by the way, undergoes an education of his own. So too did Bob, of course, when, impaled suddenly on his moment in time, caught in the trap set to ruin so many promising careers of that American era — a casualty like thousands of others of the first shameful decade in his country’s postwar history — he was forced for six years out of the Newark school system and his chosen profession, expelled as a political deviant and a dangerous man to let loose on the young.
I refer now not to a boy’s but to an adult’s education: in loss, grief and, that inescapable component of living, betrayal. Bob had iron in him and he resisted the outrage of the injustice with extraordinary courage and bravery, but he was a man, and he felt it as a man, and so he suffered too.
I hope that in my novel I have given ample recognition to the qualities of our late, legendary and noble friend, who understood, as did the poet Charles Péguy, that “tyranny is always better organized than freedom.” I don’t know how Péguy found this out, but Bob learned it the hard way.