James R. Russell
James R. Russell

In the Heights

In the Heights.

By James R. Russell.

Washington Heights is an Upper Manhattan neighborhood. The George Washington Bridge with its heavy traffic, blue catenaries, winking beacons, and majestic steel towers dominates our neighborhood, spanning the Hudson River on the west. There is a spectacular a view of the cliffs of the Palisades towering over the New Jersey riverbank. On the east, the Harlem River divides us from the Bronx, which is the only New York City borough on the continental land mass of the United States. You can see Yankee Stadium all lit up at night for a game, from our side of the river. Inwood is to the north, with its hilly park and the remains of the old Indian fishing village of Shurukapok. The boundary with Harlem lies just south of the cemetery where the naturalist James Audubon is buried. Next to the cemetery is Audubon Terrace, a grand neo-Classical complex of pillared stone buildings and red brick sidewalks that used to house the Museum of the American Indian and the American Numismatic Society. The American Academy of Arts and Letters is still there, as is the Hispanic Society of America, with its precious Velazquez and its colossal statue of El Cid. To the east is Jumel Mansion, the estate where George Washington bivouacked during the Revolution, and the stately apartment houses of Edgecombe Avenue, where in my youth middle-class Black people lived in large apartments with uniformed servants. The neighborhood is a beauty. I still prefer it to any place on earth, though I live nearly three thousand miles away.

Washington Heights is a multi-ethnic place, the very embodiment of the American melting pot. There were so many Armenians in the neighborhood once that they used to call it Washington Hayots, “of the Armenians”. On Christmas Day 1933, radical nationalists belonging to the Dashnak party assassinated the head of the Armenian Church as he was serving Mass in Holy Cross Church on 187th Street and St. Nicholas Ave. The killing made front-page headlines in The New York Times and inspired William S. Burroughs’ first novel, written a decade later: And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks. One of the witnesses to the murder was a local boy, Avedis Derounian. He resolved to devote his life to fighting the fascism, and infiltrated the Silver Shirts, the German-American Bund, and other crypto-Nazi organizations. His book Under Cover, published with his nom de guerre John Roy Carlson, was a bestseller during World War II. After the war the Dashnaks, who had collaborated with the SS in occupied Europe, restyled themselves as Cold Warriors and smeared Derounian as a Communist. I got to know him when I was young and he was already a broken man. He spent his last years quietly in the B’nai Brith library in mid-Manhattan. After the war, Avedis published a book under his own name with Knopf. It’s called From Cairo to Damascus: he went to the Middle East and met the escaped German war criminals and British anti-Semites who were hoping to finish Hitler’s job and were coordinating the Arab aggression against Israel. Avedis loved the fledgling State of Israel and wrote that it was the ideal model for a future free Armenia.

Archbishop Leon Tourian, whose grisly death spurred Derounian to a lifetime of battle against fascism and anti-Semitism, was a survivor of the Smyrna massacre of 1922: the only surviving film of that almost forgotten horror was found a few years ago in somebody’s closet, a stone’s throw from the church. As Archbishop Tourian lay dying in the parish office of Holy Cross, congregants rang Dr. Housepian, a veteran of the Armenian volunteer corps in World War I, who lived down the block. His little daughter Marjorie answered the phone. She was to go on to become Professor of English and Dean of Barnard College. Her book, Smyrna 1922, was the first on “Atatürk’s” crime against humanity. Her memoir of her childhood, A Houseful of Love, was a bestseller translated into a score of languages and serialized in Reader’s Digest. Her son, Steve, a classmate of mine at Columbia, still lives in the neighborhood. He’s my oldest friend.

Nobody in the Heights was rich but plenty were illustrious. The Armenian translator of the Iranian national epic, the Shah-nameh, lived down the street from Holy Cross. Reza Shah had awarded him the highest civilian decoration of the kingdom. The greatest Armenian graphic artist and typeface designer in America lived on Pinehurst Avenue. There was an Armenian Nparavacharr– a very learned word for a grocery store– run by a very learned gentleman with whom I used to converse about literature when I stopped to buy a bag of Pyramid Armenian Coffee, which, the scroll declared beneath a picture of a disconsolate Egyptian desert landscape (camel, palm tree, pyramid), was yerashkhavoryal, “guaranteed”! Both my Armenian teachers, one a genocide survivor from Erzurum, the other a daughter of survivors from Kayseri, lived in the neighborhood.

Just off 178th Street you can still see the golden mosaics and painted domes of St. Spyridon, the Greek church and school. When I was in college I used to buy a bottle of ouzo to drink with my girlfriend Stephanie, who was from central Massachusetts and lived in our neighborhood. With my knowledge of Attic and Koine Greek I’d try to decipher stories in the Greek daily Ethnikos Keryx, which you could buy at the newsstand on 181st Street. The shrine of Mother Cabrini looks out over the Hudson, just below Fort Tryon Park. In the park is the Cloisters museum, with its precious monuments of Medieval art and architecture. Next to the church of Mother Cabrini is the condominium that used to be St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where the monk, writer, and mystic Thomas Merton had his tonsils out. Merton was probably the greatest writer in the history of the Catholic church in America. Many Irish and Italian Catholics still call the Heights home.

Past Holy Cross Church of Armenia, just before the cliffs drop down to the Harlem River, rises a vast, mosque-like structure. This is the bet midrash, the study house, of Yeshiva University, the largest Orthodox Jewish institution of higher learning in the New World. It teaches not just Torah, but nuclear physics, and, at its Albert Einstein school in the Bronx, medicine. Most of Bennett Avenue, just up the hill and west of Broadway, belongs to the insulated, pious Orthodox Jewish congregation whose ancestors followed their spiritual leader, Rabbi Breuer, in an exodus from Nazi Germany while the going was still good. Most of the German Jews in Washington Heights were Reform, however, had ramrod-straight posture, spoke a clipped and precise English, and sniffed at the barbarous manners of American youth, so unlike bei uns in Deutschland. My Dad and others sometimes jokingly called the Heights “The Fourth Reich”. There was a dreadful kosher bakery, Gruenebaum’s, on the corner of Bennett, and a great secular German Jewish bakery, Gideon’s on 187th.

I was born in the Heights at Babies Hospital, a part of Columbia-Presbyterian, on a night in 1953 when Dylan Thomas, I’m told, was giving a reading at the college in Harlem where my mother taught Chemistry. The poet died of drink soon thereafter, at St. Vincent’s downtown. I’ve always felt a karmic connection to him and hope to meet him in the Garden of Eden. In fact I expect the Garden of Eden to be Washington Heights, and if it isn’t, let somebody else have my share in the World to Come. We lived back then in a large, dark apartment on the top floor of a building on 164th and Broadway. When I was four our family moved down to a long, red-brick apartment house on Riverside Drive West and 160th. Sputnik went up and my brother Josh was born (post hoc ergo propter hoc!): the Russian satellite gave him his nickname. We played with our friends all over that green and leafy neighborhood: this was the baby boom and there were plenty of kids.

Many of the young mothers had tattooed numbers from concentration camps on their forearms. One had seen her children go to the gas after selection when they got off the cattle cars. She survived the war and only went on living because a rabbi told her she had to have more children and give them love. The father of two of my playmates was Elitsur Friedman, a Czech Jew who fought the Nazis in the Resistance, then fought the British and the Arabs at the birth of the State of Israel, then took part in the Acre prison break, then came to this country because he was a member of the Irgun and the ruling party in Israel was Labor and he was blacklisted. Eli was a chemist. Mom had many other colleagues in the neighborhood: DNA had just been discovered and they would talk genetics over Sunday brunch. Brunch was good: there was a delicatessen on Broadway where you could choose a live carp from a tank. The proprietors smoked fish and baked bagels and bialys. I used to love the briny aroma of the pleasingly plump sour pickles in their barrel. During the week before Passover, limousines from tonier neighborhoods were double parked outside.

Window air conditioners for the home were new and scarce. People got bigger and bigger fans until they sounded like airplane engines and scared the hell out of me. On hot summer nights, it was better just to go outside with a cool drink and hope for a breeze off the river. Puerto Rican boys played bongo drums. Broadway was lined with restaurants featuring Comidas Chinas y Criollas. My best friend was a kid named Michael Poindexter who lived up in Inwood. His Mom was a registered nurse; his Dad worked for the City. They attended a Baptist church. I was the only “white” person at his Confirmation, and he was the only “black” person at my Bar Mitzvah. We both got stared at. The soul food at his party was a whole lot better than the decorous and forgettable lunch at mine. At his church, the men wore sharp suits and shirts so clean they glowed; the ladies wore chiffon dresses every brilliant color of the rainbow.

When I was a student at the Bronx High School of Science, the best school in America and maybe the world (except for the Tenishev academy in Petersburg before the Revolution), I used to ride home on the subway with my classmates Mark Klapholz and Marvin Rubinstein. Mark’s parents had been through the war but didn’t talk about it. Idz kup gazetu, “Go buy the newspaper,” was the only Polish he knew: he performed his errands like a dutiful son. Marv’s Dad had been a Red Army soldier. He was captured by the Germans and survived Auschwitz. Marv’s mother was a camp survivor also. On Shabbat, Marv and I often davened (prayed) together at his shul, Mt. Sinai, then walked to his home on Ft. Washington and 176th, where his Mom served pot roast, roast chicken, potato kugel, and compote. The war had made his parents permanently fatigued; and Mr. Rubinstein died while we were still in High School. In shul we made fun of things and giggled and the rabbi would point accusingly at us and roar “You boys, Shut up!” But I loved the ancient melody of An‘im zemiros there.

There were many small synagogues in our neighborhood. The one I liked best, on lower Pinehurst just north of the Bridge, was crenelated, like the walls of Jerusalem, and greeted you with a verse from a Psalm, the Old Hundredth:

Bo’u sha‘arav be-toda; ḥatsrotav, ba-tehilla. “Come you into His gates with thanksgiving; His courts, with songs of praise!” Sometimes on the way home from school I’d take a long detour just to pass it. The more you study, read, sing that Psalm, the better it gets.

And then it ended.

Back when I had a job, I loved teaching Virginia Woolf’s novel, To The Lighthouse. The first part is full of people, voices, color, good meals. It ends suddenly with the part she entitled, “Time Passes”. World War I, offstage, takes away the young men. People stumble, silent and alone, down corridors at night, and die.

Time passed. I taught at a college in New York and lived in the Heights. Life was good.

But then, the chair of the “Armenian Advisory Committee” there took me aside and said there was no way a Jew could be tenured to teach their language.

The chair of my department, a Christian Arab who was a professional Jew-hater (in the Muslim world, some kaffirs try to be more royalist than the king), agreed.

I left New York forever.

I got another job at a cold-hearted place up the coast where it is chillier indoors than out in the snow; and after about a quarter of a century there, two anti-Semitic Armenian students colluded in a campaign to force me out.

I had enough, and retired Emeritus.

But in the “cancel” culture I live in silence and isolation, without academic colleagues or friends.

It was silent when no one stood up for me.

It became quieter still when I moved to this California backwater.

And since the latest battle in Gaza and the triumphant return of full-on anti-Semitism at 1930s levels, the silence is a deafening tinnitus in my ears.

It was not enough for them to destroy my life, take away my home, and deprive me of a livelihood. Now they are erasing my past, too, cleansing of its history the only real home I have ever known and loved. For a vile musical, “In The Heights”, has just been made into a movie. It presents my neighborhood, the place I’ve just told you about, my friends and fellow Jews, as entirely, exclusively “Dominican”. Yes, there was indeed a vast influx of both legal immigrants and illegal aliens from that state on Hispaniola island, the Dominican Republic, into our neighborhood, starting in the 1960s. By the early 1980s, the drugs, crime, noise, and filth had made the neighborhood so notoriously dangerous to live in that many people feared it would become another bombed-out, fire-gutted moonscape like the South Bronx. Many of the ethnics fled. But we Jews tend to be homebodies and most of us stayed put. Read The Miracle of Intervale Avenue, about a tiny synagogue than endured in the hell that the old Bronx became. My brother still lives in the neighborhood. My parents lived there till their 92nd year: they’re in managed care now. We had to sell their apartment to pay for it. I’ve nowhere to go home to.

Many Dominicans are good neighbors. I got to love their café con leche, their great pastries, the flavored, shaved ice sold on pushcarts in the summer months. I enjoyed talking to the old Dominican guys who drove spotless limousines for local car services. But there were other, more disturbing sounds. Like the Dominican who told me I couldn’t be Hispanic because I’m a Jew. Really? My mother’s family were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella and kept the Spanish language alive in Morocco and northern Greece (then in the Ottoman Empire) for five hundred years. St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila were descendants of Spanish Jews, as, in all likelihood was Cervantes himself. Many of Christopher Columbus’ ship mates were Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition for a better life in the New World. No semi-literate wetback from some Caribbean dump gets to tell me if I’m a Hispanic. And no crappy movie gets to rewrite and falsify the history of my neighborhood. That kind of erasure has happened in Jewish history too damn often.

But it doesn’t end there, with actors prancing around the places where generations of my friends and neighbors were born and grew up, pretending that there is not and never was a Washington Hayotz, the Breuer shul, St. Spyridon, Mother Cabrini, Yeshiva University, or me. That there was never any American melting pot at all, nothing but the vile lie of the “1619 Project”, according to which the whole history of this vast and striving country boils down to white cruelty and inferiority and black victimhood and supremacy. National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered”, which is the worst news program in the world (pace Rundfunk Berlin), devoted a big chunk of the hour the other day to “In The Heights”. There was not a word, of course, about any of the people or cultures I’ve written about here. No, the entire report was devoted to a criticism of the movie’s director for not giving the parts in the picture to actors with darker skin. That’s all. Critical Race Theory. Buy Mein Kampf and read all about it. And that director was hauled on to the show to mutter a contrite apology in the manner of an enemy of the people during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Not one of the very few friends in academia I have left will talk about any of this stuff openly. They believe, with suicidal complacency and a fair measure of craven cowardice, that “critical race theory” and the other warmed-over Nazi abominations will just pass if they hide their heads in the sand and do nothing. In their ivy-choked towers they choose not to “engage” with such issues, and to carry on with their obscure philological researches. The lesson of history is that nobody learns from history, least of all academic historians. Who cares whether there was a place once, called Washington Heights, in which people from many lands, with many rich cultures, intermingled, worked hard, raised good families, lived in homes they loved, and were proud to be Americans?

I am an old man. (It happens before you know it, kids. It creeps up and you wonder how. Time passes.) My Dad was one of Martin Luther King’s lawyers. I marched for Black civil rights. I was active in Gay Liberation. I speak Russian almost like a native; and I used to write poetry in Modern Greek. My work on pre-Christian Armenia and Armenian epic is groundbreaking. I am the best translator of Western Armenian poetry in English. I am a good man. I am a decent man. I am a very learned man. I was a great teacher. None of it matters in the slightest now. Because I am a “canceled” man.

I would move to Israel but I have a gentile partner who has no interest in the place and is too old and infirm (well, the fact is, we both are) to pick up and move yet again. And damned if he’s going to learn even the rudiments of a language completely unrelated to this, whose alphabet flows upstream and has no vowels. Our lives are nearly over and we’ll stick it out here. Washington Heights lives in memory and in nightly dreams, taking its place amongst Toledo, Seville, Salonica, Warsaw, Krakow, Lvov, and the other cities where my family, where many families, once were and now aren’t. No one cares.

And it is the Fourth Reich, not as a gentle joke, but for real.

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is at present Adjunct Professor of Iranian Religions at the Daneshgah-e Adyan va Mazaheb, Qom. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London. His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.
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