Confronting Your 20-Year-Old Self

What would it be like to meet your 20-year-old self — at least for those of us long past that age (as, I suspect, most of the readers of this column are)? Well, I had two opportunities to do that recently.

First some background. Writing this column for the Jewish Standard (and then republishing it in my Times of Israel blog) is not my first regular (unpaid) columnist gig. The first was when I was a senior at Yeshiva College in 1967-68 and wrote a column for our school newspaper, the Commentator (Commie).

The column was, I think, a consolation prize. I (foolishly) started writing for the paper only in my junior year, and although I wrote a lot and was very actively involved, the incoming editor-in-chief decided that I was too much of a newcomer to be elected to the Governing Board. Sensing my disappointment (which wasn’t too difficult because I didn’t hide it), he gave me the column. Moral: Sometimes a consolation prize can be the real one (especially since I was appointed to the Governing Board halfway through the next year on the basis of my columns. Not bad eating my cake and having it too.)

Those columns were about what you might expect from a college senior at Yeshiva: local school stuff (student apathy, student rights, and introducing a Jewish philosophy course into the undergraduate RIETS curriculum); Jewish issues (Soviet Jewry, the Shoah, the need for unity, and post-Six-Day-War Israel); matters close to my heart (an obituary of Woody Guthrie, who is still close to my heart — see “Still Bound for Glory After All These Years,” 11/30/18); and the great issues of the day (the draft and Vietnam War, the ‘68 election, legalizing marijuana (seems I was 50 years ahead of my time, although not a pot smoker then or now), student protests and strikes, and the King assassination — it was 1968 after all).

It was the last issue, the King assassination, that gave me my first opportunity to confront my younger self. Last year, Commie decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of certain important events by publishing on its website articles contemporaneous to those events. And for the King assassination it chose my column (plus a letter strongly disagreeing with it) where I argued that YU, like most universities, should have cancelled classes on the day of Rev. King’s funeral. I decried the fact that it did not. Others disagreed.

And still disagree. Shortly after my column reappeared, I bumped into the writer of the dissenting letter, then a lowly junior and now one of our generation’s leading Jewish philosophers, who continues to grace YU’s classrooms. (Figure out who yourself.) We had a friendly chat, and I told him that while I appreciated his concerns now more than then, I still thought I was right. And he said essentially the same about his letter.

Upon reflection, though, I realize that I missed the importance of one fact I had briefly touched upon. In calling for the cancellation of classes I noted that one professor, not surprisingly R. Dr. Emanuel Rackman (who still continues to influence my thoughts and inspire me), devoted that day’s lecture to Dr. King and his work. With very few exceptions, however, no other teacher in either the Jewish or secular departments followed suit. But after noting that, I quickly resumed my argument.

That, however, should have formed the crux of my column. I should have written that YU did not have to follow others’ leads; it could have recognized that day of national mourning by honoring and commemorating Dr. King with the Jewish value of more learning, not less — if that learning, following R. Rackman’s lead, had been truly dedicated to Dr. King’s memory. But business as usual was not sufficient to impart that value; hence, my original critique stands.

What I should have contended, therefore, was that every class, every shiur, should have been devoted to a discussion of Dr. King’s life and work and the hatred and racism that killed him. Just think of the impression on the student body — and beyond — that a school-wide shiur devoted to Judaism’s abhorrence of race hatred delivered by the Rav, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, R. Rackman, or R. Dr. Irving (Yitz) Greenberg — or, even better, a discussion among them — could have had. What a missed opportunity.

My 20-year-old self had passion and the right values, and I like him for that. But he could have used a bit less self-righteousness and some more wisdom, nuance, perception, and understanding (some of which I hope he/I developed over the years).

And then I received an email from last year’s editor-in-chief of Commie, Benjamin Koslowe (whose grandfather Neil was editor-in-chief when I was a sophomore), who was working on a senior thesis that he eventually titled “YU Students’ Engagement with the Crises of Their Times: A Story of Apathy and Protests, as Told by the Commentator and The Observer, 1954-1971.” (The Observer is Stern College’s student newspaper.) He wrote that in doing research for his thesis he combed through Commie’s archives and came across my columns, which were helpful to his understanding of the YC students in that annus mirabilis of 1968. Since we both live in Teaneck, he asked, could we meet and chat over lunch? And so we did.

In preparation for our meeting (remember, I’m a (retired) lawyer and lawyers prepare for meetings — indeed, lawyers prepare for everything), I reread all my columns. (You thought I was able to summarize them as I did earlier based on a 50-year-old memory? Get real.) And after reading and then discussing them with Benjy, and reading what he wrote about them in his thesis (which was a first-rate job), I came to pretty much the same conclusion that I did after reading my King column.

I like my 20-year-old self. He had passion; he wrote fairly decently for a college senior; he understood, and was often on the right side of, the important issues of the day; he was concerned with morals and values. He cared. But as with the King column, he could have used less self-righteousness and more wisdom, nuance, perception, and understanding. Lots. Not surprising for a 20-year-old.

A good friend emailed me after reading Benjy’s thesis that it was “good to know there is at least one Orthodox person who hasn’t changed and who is still morally responsible.” He, like Benjy’s thesis, was overly generous in his comment about me. But I hope he’s at least partially wrong. Even if I’m satisfied now where my moral compass was then, who hasn’t changed after 50 years of adulthood? Who hasn’t grown though marriage, raising children, and the loss of loved ones, or been transformed by dealing with health issues, meeting new people, and making new friends? Who hasn’t had their youthful idealism challenged by seeing evil win too much and good too little, or been made a bit wiser by a lifetime of experiences, successes and, yes, even failures?

I must have been doing something right as a 20-year-old to have induced an amazing 20-year-old woman finally to fall in love with me that year (only three years after I fell in love with her). And here we are, 20-year-olds no longer, approaching our 50th wedding anniversary. But deep inside both of us there still remains something of those passionate, morally responsible, and caring individuals. To paraphrase Madeleine L’Engle, we stand on the rock of what we were in the past and all that we have learned since as we look ahead to the future.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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