The advanced praise printed on the back cover of Larry Derfner’s second memoir, “Playing Till We Have to Go: A Jewish Childhood in Inner-City L.A.,” speaks to the ideological dexterity, or perhaps statelessness, of its author. The writers range from Yossi Klein Halevi, the former youthful Kahanist firebrand turned English-language interpreter for the Israeli middle; Susannah Heschel, a Dartmouth academic whose name can be found on sign-on letters for sundry left-of-center causes; and Gabriel Noah Brahm, a writer and literature professor based in the American Midwest who has become a caustic conservative writer in recent years.
Derfner, now a Haaretz editor and contributor, has been all over the place – geographically, professionally, ideologically, and probably psychologically. I was first introduced to him as an impressionable Jewish teenage socialist – like Derfner’s own father, it turns out – who closely followed the news coming out of Israel. Despite a decade of formal Jewish education, or perhaps because of it, I could barely comprehend modern Hebrew, so I mostly stuck to the English website of Haaretz (in its gritty pre-paywall days) and The Jerusalem Post.
The Post at the time was even more right-wing than it is today, and it was the fitting incongruousness of Derfner’s presence in those pages that first drew me into his writing. His long-running column “Rattling the Cage” did exactly that: He regularly shocked the delicate sensitivities of The Post’s conservative readership, especially fellow immigrants, with acrid denunciations of the occupation and racism in Israeli society. He was eventually let go by The Post for a controversial blog post that critics said justified Palestinian terrorism.
Derfner is a member of my father’s generation, too young to have been alive during World War II but sufficiently old to occasionally refer to Kennedy Airport as Idlewild. It was from there that Derfner, along with his parents and sister Suzie, bid farewell to their brother Armand, a double-Ivy law student, and set off for Los Angeles. Not the Hollywood of every kid’s dreams, but the poor and lower-middle class pressure cooker of south L.A.’s Crenshaw District – and in 1960 to boot.
“Playing Till We Have To Go,” which came out in November, is facially different from Derfner’s first book, “No Country for Jewish Liberals” (2017), in that it is not marketed as a political memoir. But it’s impossible not to read it through a political prism, certainly for those who have continued to follow Derfner’s work in the decade since he left The Post. On the Israeli spectrum, he remains a leftist, along with many others who would be liberals, centrists, even conservatives in a more balanced political environment.
Derfner’s latest idée fixe has been the excesses of the youth-led progressive movements in the West, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. While sympathetic to their broad demands for gender equality and racial justice, he is evidently concerned about a loss of proportionality when it comes to their targets, that essential ability to discern a schmuck from an evildoer, as well as the closing of space where ideas – including repulsive ones – could be litigated.
Our present cultural upheaval does not leave the past to rest, as we have seen in the struggle over The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project (launched during the 400th anniversary of slavery to reframe U.S. history by spotlighting Black Americans’ contribution to it). American history in its most granular aspects is being forcefully reinterpreted in light of recent events. Out with arc narratives and dispassion and in with self-flagellation and moroseness!
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Although by no means a conservative, Derfner has written a nostalgic but nevertheless honest account of a fleeting moment in American Jewish history. It is a text that younger readers in tune with the radical movements of their time will find gauche and, for lack of better neologism, un-woke. It is not quite a celebration, but neither is it a rote condemnation of a benighted period of time whose sole value is to serve as a cautionary tale.
The memoir’s focus is fairly brief: from 1960 to 1964, the period in which the Derfners lived in a lower-middle class apartment complex on Rodeo Lane before they moved to the more tony west L.A. There were around 20 or so Jewish families in the area, the vast majority of them headed by Holocaust survivors. Derfner’s father, known as Manny to the mostly Black workers at the liquor stores he owned and affectionately referred to throughout the book as Pop, was a Holocaust escapee. Distinctions such as these are blurred today, but the small dividing lines between families and communities is a recurring theme in the book.
Derfner’s family are observers and participants of American white flight from urban centers, and race is the memoir’s combustible feature. Much of the book consists of entertaining, often quite funny, vignettes of family life, ballgames, fights, clowning around and the dramas of early puberty. To his credit, Derfner includes some cringe-worthy stories, including one of him singing “Mammy” in the parking lot of his father’s liquor store as a child.
School was where the diverse communities of Crenshaw, or at least their children, would converge and sometimes cross the lines imposed by their parents. These are the parts of the book where the author’s passion for life in Los Angeles in the early ‘60s shines through.
His narrative contains multiple stories of what today would be described as racial or cultural appropriation. When Derfner started at Audubon Middle School, he began adopting the mannerisms and speech of his Black classmates. He initially chalks this up to “an understandable weakness of character” and needing to fit in at school, but he later admits a deep reverence for the African-American culture in which he was immersed as a kid. “My imitating the ways of my Black peers at Audubon and Rancho wasn’t just a case of pre-adolescent insecurity, or of trying to be different; it was also a simple matter of discovering beauty and wanting to emulate it.”
Derfner is writing of a generation of working and lower-middle class American Jews who have long since moved on and whose children will never confront the world in which they were shaped. Thus, those children – and certainly their children – have little standing to judge. In the author’s words, it is a story of “common people, something most American Jews aren’t anymore.”
The journalist who would emerge from this world appears in places, albeit fleetingly. But highlighting the moments in which I think the writer was shaped would amount to nothing more than worthless psychoanalytic drivel. Instead, taken as a whole, “Playing Till We Have to Go” should be read as the contemporary Derfner’s account of his childhood and the world as it was in the early ‘60s. In that respect, Derfner has produced a delightful and engaging work.
“Playing Till We Have to Go: A Jewish Childhood in Inner-City L.A.,” by Larry Derfner, published by Bowker, 222 pages