Jonathan Stone as an Afro-American? Because Jewish protagonists are such old hat? So suggested a buddy of mine—not an anti-semite or self-hating Jewish, but an intelligent man of the observant, practicing variety. May I respectfully disagree? In fact, The Solomon Scandals in some respects is as much a Northern Virginia Jewish novel as a newspaper one. I cannot imagine Scandals any other way.
What’s more, I can’t even see it as a purely Washington novel, since there is so much Virginia in it.
Northern Virginia is just across the Potomac from suburban Maryland, where far more of the D.C. area’s Jews live. Maryland has the National Institutes of Health. Virginia has the Pentagon and CIA. Jews work and excel at all the agencies mentioned here, as well as the related consulting firms, aka Beltway Bandits (no insult—that’s just the jargon these days). But the differences between Maryland and Virginia are stark. Virginia is far more conservative. Even today a Confederate statue stands in the middle of Washington Street, the main drag in Alexandria, despite the election of an Afro-American mayor.
The fictitious Jonathan Stone has grown up near by in McLean, Virginia, among the more Waspy parts of the Washington area. While he lives in D.C. now, he is very much a son of McLean, where he still has friends and family. Jews were but a speck of the student body at Langley High School, his old school shown here.
For journalistic reasons, nothing more, Stone investigates Seymour Solomon, the leading Jewish philanthropist in the D.C. area and a major presidential contributor. Stone himself, like me, is not religious. But he faces and cares about a classic dilemma. Will he hurt the Jewish community, at the local and even national levels, if he comes out with a negative story on one of its pillars? Or will he actually help it if he belies the old canards about Zionist conspiracies in the press?
An “Afro-American conspiracy,” by contrast, doesn’t quite resonate among bigots. What’s more, in considering my friend’s idea, keep in mind that I’m not steeped in Afro-American culture. How long would it take for me to learn the nuances well enough for Stone to be black? And could I ever? Even a master like William Styron, in writing The Confessions of Nat Turner, unwittingly enraged some Afo-Americans.
Of equal importance, we’re not just talking about the generic issues of living within an ethnic group. Although Stone isn’t an observant Jew or a scholar, religious or secular, he is influenced by Spinoza‘s “faith of facts and syllogisms. I’d pledged a far more demanding fraternity than ZBT, the brotherhood of Aristotelians and Spinozians. I was no philosopher, but The Ethics fit, and not just the logic of it all. ‘Good and evil fortunes,’ I remembered from my college days, ‘fall to the lot of pious and impious alike.’” The Ethics is online, and I’d welcome readers’ interpretations of the work as applied to the plot and people in The Solomon Scandals. Educate us by expressing your own views backed by facts, in the Spinozan tradition. Be clear, and write for lay people, not just experts. Use the comment area of this post.
In making my case for Scandals as a Northern Virginia Jewish novel, I’d also point out that Jews in some situations don’t have any choice but to regard themselves as Jews. Northern Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s was rather different from Washington, D.C., or Montgomery County, Maryland, location of a large Jewish community. I can recall some talk at my high school about the Nazis in Arlington, near by. The photo to the right is of the Hiterlites’ leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, later gunned down by a disgruntled follower. I can also remember a teacher who was said to keep a gun in his desk, and who hated my guts without quite articulating why. Was antisemitism behind the hate? I don’t know. But the times were such that I could easily suspect it. I transferred to a class taught by a Jewish teacher, one of the few at my school.
Overt antisemitism was rare—in fact, the near-by city of Alexandria elected a Jewish mayor years before the Afro-American one—but the exceptions could be unnerving. My family’s synagogue was the target of bomb threats in 1958 as a result of the rabbi’s civil rights stands motivated by traditional Jewish love of social justice. Rabbi Emmet A. Frank took on Harry Byrd’s legendary political machine, a promoter of racial segregation. He actually had the nerve to question the belief that “Byrdliness is synonymous with Godliness.”
Most of the congregants in Temple Beth El almost surely agreed with Rabbi Frank on the above. But as a small minority, Virginia Jews had to fit in, and living there was rather different from life in Maryland, where subdued religious bigotry and other kinds were not quite so much in vogue. “Is it good for the Jews?” was a far more relevant question on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Maryland Jews could hide among their own. We couldn’t. Rabbi Frank himself infuriated many a Beth El member with a letter to the Washington Post where he approved of Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations in public schools. Was that really the best way to coexist with Baptists and Methodists? Dozens of enraged families left the congregation and formed another (members of the two temples are now back on friendly terms).
Perhaps similar fit-in concerns would have lingered in the minds of Herbert and Lydia Stone, Jon’s parents in McLean, as they pondered what effects Jon’s stories about Solomon might have. So might other history even if it wasn’t Virginia-specific. In Chapter 16 the younger Stone reflects on the original version of his family name, Faberstein. “Given the prejudices against Jews in the upper reaches of the public-relations industry in the early fifties, the change to ‘Stone’ was hardly happenstance.’” This was the era, after all, of gentleman’s agreements against Jews or African-Americans buying houses in certain upscale neighborhoods. At any rate, nothing is better at bringing out your Jewishness than antisemitism. The ’50s must have provided Herbert and Lydia with plenty of chances to feel Jewish.
Yet another religious issue in The Solomon Scandals would be the Jewish aspects of Seymour Solomon’s own life—all the paradoxes. On one hand, Solomon shows filial loyalty, worshipping his father to the extent of naming the Abraham Solomon Building after him. And always, always, he gives to charities, Jewish and even Christian, not just secular. But just how would Spinoza‘s statement in The Ethics apply: “‘Good and evil fortunes fall to the lot of pious and impious alike”? Questions abound as to whether Solomon has fairly won his millions in leasing business from the government, or whether he stinted on construction materials for the huge complex he has built for the IRS—and CIA, it turns out—south of Alexandria in an area that in real life is parkland. No, Solomon’s religion is not to blame, and, in fact, he is in cahoots with purebred Wasp scoundrels, having found he needed their connections. But his Judaism is a factor in the sense that antisemites might falsely link his personal failings to the supposed flaws of Jews as a whole (smears of the same kind that the Bernard Madoff scandal may help spread).
Finally there is the classic issue of intermarriage. “The truth,” Jon writes, “is that I’d fallen in love with Margo in spite of her being gentile, not because of it—a natural enough feeling from someone whose German relatives on his father’s side had most likely died in a concentration camp. Propagating well was the best revenge.” Such matters count in Northern Virginia where Jews are a small minority, and where so many are married to gentiles, probably a higher percentage than in Maryland.
In some, not all, cases, we are talking about people on the edges of Jewish life. While certain of the issues in Scandals are reminiscent of those in the title story of Goodbye Columbus—for example, middle-class happiness vs. social consciousness—the Northern Virginia Jews in the book are a different tribe from Philip Roth‘s characters. Maryland Jews in the 1970s were closer to New York not just in geography but in Jews’ adherence to old ways. This may have changed somewhat, with the movement of more Jews from the Northeast into Virginia, helping to make it so different nowadays from the rest of the state. Fairfax County, where I grew up, is now notable for its large immigrant population; and my old high school building actually houses, of all things, the Islamic Saudi Academy.
I’ll close with an important caveat. In my immediate neighborhood, antisemitism just didn’t exist, even covertly. I can recall describing the Tauxemont-Wellington area to a Jewish New York editor who had trouble believing in the harmony within this small town—for that’s what the neighborhood was, in effect, complete with Dutch suppers and a Community House. We had more gentile friends than Jewish friends, and they were and are good people. I often thought of religious differences when around the worst of the rednecky elements at high school. I seldom did, except on Jewish holidays, when around immediate neighbors. A bunch of them came to a remembrance for my mother, who had died at age 94 on March 31, 2008. Imagine: 94, and still a little crowd to say good-bye. That spoke volumes not just about my mother—older than most of them—but also about our former neighbors with whom she had so often traded her desserts.
Those are just a few thoughts of mine. What are yours? Am I right or wrong about Jews and Northern Virginia? I regard this page as a living document and may be quoting insights from readers.
Image credit: The photo of the Confederate statue is CC-licensed from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Follow Wikipedia links for other credits.