THE SOCIOLOGIST ON THE CUTTING EDGE by Joseph Bensman From Creators and Disturbers,edited by Bernard Rosenberg, Copyright © 1982,Columbia University. Reprinted with permission of the Publisher. Permission obtained by Allen Saxe.
I'm the son of a shoemaker who spent sixty years in middle America, never really learning English but conducting his business exclusively with a non-Jewish clientele by communicating with an idiosyncratic assortment of words and gestures. He came to New York in 1900, worked a year in garment shops, had some landsleit (immigrants from the same community) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, saved enough money to move there, and then became a peddler. He traveled in the outskirts of Sheboygan, selling and sometimes exchanging fruit for junk. He came to Two Rivers (where I was born in 1922) and discovered a town with no shoemaker! He went back to Sheboygan and bought shoemaking equipment. The salesman ostensibly taught him how to repair shoes. He could be called a religious man who, however, worked on Saturdays and drove to Sheboygan for the holidays. He existed in spite (or because) of almost no contact with the town, a man who got along with his customers but, underneath, harbored real resentment against "beer-drinking and time-wasting goyim"
I was the youngest of ten children living in a house my father would not relinquish in the thirties so that we could qualify for relief like most of our neighbors. He wanted the welfare, but evidently wanted even more to keep the house. When I first wandered beyond its immediate confines, and at least through high school, I continuously experienced anti-Semitism in ways that I suspect the New Yorker can't imagine. I had no supporting group for me in my Jewishness. So I was a kike and a Christ-killer. My nickname was Yosky-their distortion of Yascha, which my mother called me. From four through twelve I belonged to delinquent gangs whose activity ranged from raiding gardens to breaking and entering railroad cars and stealing aluminum and other metals. At one point we were as close to the reformatory as you can get without actually being thrown into one. Yet I was always marginal, never wholly accepted, in but not of the group. I was the gang's "intellectual." If they needed me to figure out a way of planning a break-in, I was good for that.
I lived in a working-class neighborhood. In school I met middle-class kids. My brothers and sisters taught me how to read before I went to school, and from kindergarten on, my nose was always in a book. There was no cultural or educational tradition in the family, except the notion that if I turned out to be pretty smart they'd shep nachas (gain prestige) from it. But my bookishness did not exactly endear me to the neighborhood kids. I remember one stealing my hat and then beating the hell out of me because I was a lousy kike. At least that was the reason he gave. In one case around 1937, my assailant was a German kid. One of the parents of my best friend was a Bohemian who, whenever he got drunk, would call me a Christ-killer. I surely knew that I was Jewish.
I went to cheder for a while but did not get bar mitzvahed. Attending the cheder cost fifty cents a day-and in my eleventh year we couldn't afford that sum. The family lived on fish and potatoes. Two Rivers was a fishing town, and we grew our own potatoes.
I kept reading away, cultivating my father's kind of resentment, which I directed at middle-class kids who comprised the gangs our gang fought. Within a working-class gang one developed class consciousness, particularly in the form of hostility toward well-mannered snobs. I suppose I always resented kids whose stock-in-trade was manners, poise, and a feeling that they owned the world. From the age of four on, I knew I was smarter than most of those kids; but I simply could not discover a sensible basis for their self-confidence, the poise and the manners which allowed them to think they could push everyone else around. I must have been thirty-five before I realized that they were just as nutty as I was, but covered themselves with a facade of manners I had not been able to penetrate.
By the time I reached seventh grade, I was half-mockingly called "the professor" by my classmates. Since I had emerged from a lower-class environment, I became a hero of working-class kids. I could put down the middle and upper class just by virtue of my vocabulary. In eighth grade, I had committed the minor offense of throwing a pen at a pupil's foot and missing it by half an inch. The teacher was so shocked at this that she made me memorize the Constitution. As a result, I recited the Preamble in class and thus became a boy orator. This thrust me into a political and social science tradition I had not previously known to exist. I went out for debate and for extemporary speaking which made me a big macher (big shot) in the high school. I depleted the city and the school libraries. Their books enchanted me much more than homework. I did well, I think, as an act of defiance against the system.
When I became a boy orator my picture began appearing in the local press, and with that I got hints of recognition at home. The pattern of my family, and it's my pattern also, was never to let the other person know that you're impressed. So I was teased and put down for my accomplishments, but even in that act I recognized that they were praising me.
I learned at an early age that my father had a brilliant mind with absolutely no possibility of using it in his American ambience. He was far more original than any of the teachers I had. Once when we were debating the issue of unicameral legislatures in state government, he asked me about it. It was clear that he didn't know these words. I spent twenty minues telling him what we were debating.. It was totally outside his own experience. Just the same, in his broken amalgam of languages, he remarked, "Well, when you got legislators in two houses of different size, in the large one you can get local interests represented that you couldn't get in the small one." Now that was brilliant. We had batted this problem around for six months and in minutes he presented, a stronger case than any of us could formulate.
But my father's greatest influence on me consisted of his resentment of the stuffed shirts and middle-class "respectables." On one memorable occasion he talked about a peddler who was the cantor, the most religious man in shul. This peddler had a son who owned the local pool hall. He described the son as a typical greenhorn: a man with a five-cent cigar, knife-edged pressed pants, shined shoes, holes in the toes of socks, and dirty underwear. His total image of society lay in that description. He was sure that anybody who made two thousand dollars more than he did had to be a gonif (thief). I think I internalized his whole attitude, and that it's as good a basis for sociology as any.
My father was an honest artisan. His ambition for me was to be a tailor and to earn a respectable living in the local tailoring shop. Of course I had no interest in it. I was a high-flying debater, who had been reading at such a high level that what to do next was altogether unclear.
While I was a senior in high school, I thought I might become a village freak, the kind of small town intellectual at whom everyone else laughs and jeers. That year, I joined the community discussion club. We were then debating the third term for Franklin Roosevelt. I was pitted against the Vice President of Hamilton Manufacturing Company-the Vice President of Public Relations-a very smooth guy who made all the firm's speeches. Everyone there, bankers, lawyers, businessmen, thought that Roosevelt was either insane or a Communist. I was well prepared, making an innocent historical speech in which I concluded that Roosevelt had to be elected because he was antibusiness. In the question period I cited numbers, statistics, laws, legislation. I had more evidence than anyone present. To me it was exhilarating because here I was fighting the whole goddam establishment. Also, I knew that in the very act of winning, I was done for in Two Rivers. There were maybe half a dozen people there who, although they would not publicly support my argument, congratulated me after the meeting.
Joseph Bensman was born in Wisconsin in 1922. He is the author of severa1 books in applied and humanistic sociology, among them Small Town in Mass Society (1960) with Arthur Vidich, and Dollars and Sense (1967). He was professor of sociology at City College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. Joseph Bensman died in 1986.