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Mountain Man

In New England, Salinger could be a puritanical scold and a back-to-nature Buddhist Jew

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(Photo collage by Tablet Magazine; Salinger photo: Getty Images; New Hampshire photo: istockphoto)

J.D. Salinger stood at the butcher’s counter. He was tall, handsome and quarrelsome. He was explaining that he wanted his turkey shaved—not just sliced in slimy slabs, like last time. Last time they had screwed it up, he wanted the butcher to know; he was bothered by the memory. I stood next to him with a cartful of strawberries. I was stocking up for a teatime bridal shower.

The Co-op in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I grew up grocery shopping with my mother, is not Zabar’s. You don’t get crabby with the deli guy. Actually, you don’t think of him as a deli guy. He’s a butcher who sometime in the ’80s began cutting meat for sandwiches, like they do in New York City. The Co-op counter sold what I used to think of as “regular food,” good apples, bad oranges, lots of ham, and local milk. Only after I moved to New York and became Jewish and started fighting with deli guys myself did I realize how much a person can pontificate about food. It was 1993 when I stood next to Salinger. By this point, he had lived in New Hampshire longer than I ever did, enjoying the anonymity the state—Live Free or Die—affords both loggers with guns and distinguished authors. Salinger was a Co-op regular, but he never took to the have-a-nice-day Co-op way. He was exacting, unsettled, discerning, worldly. He was Jewish.

Or he kind of was. Salinger, who died Thursday in Cornish, New Hampshire, at 91, was born to a Polish-Jewish dad who sold meat and cheese that either was or wasn’t kosher, depending on your source; and a Scotch-Irish mother who changed her name from Maria to Miriam and passed as Jewish, though she never converted. (Salinger learned that interesting twist right around his bar mitzvah.) In the racially homogenous Connecticut River Valley—home to both the artist-resort town where Salinger lived and the college town where I grew up—there have always been some former city people, people Jews might recognize as Jewish, though most of us didn’t, partly because they became, above all, echt New Hampshirites, with chickens and four-by-fours and forges and snowshoes and all the trappings of rural, cold-climate life.

A special subset of American Jewry—I’ve heard them called mountain Jews, as distinct from book Jews and money Jews—like New Hampshire, a fierce place full of loners that is not freighted with the nanny-state reputation of Vermont or the country-club crap in Connecticut. Mountain Jews grow beards, and their own food; they’re often atheists or Buddhists, and sometimes doctors or teachers; they don’t like people enough to live in cities, and they don’t like Jews enough to live in Israel. A high school friend, the son of a psychiatrist who’d moved to town from New York, told me that his father and some other Jews had decided in the ’60s and ’70s that clustering together in cities is what had made Jews (often their parents) vulnerable in Europe. It was an error they were determined not to repeat. When I saw him, Salinger looked just like those men: rangy, serious, and in picturesque country clothes that looked more J. Press than Sears.

And though he hazed the Co-op employees, they revered him. When I asked the deli guy if the shaved-turkey fanatic was indeed Salinger, he said, proudly, “Jerry comes in here all the time. He likes the doughnut holes.” The people of Cornish, especially, took on the cause of Salinger’s privacy as if it were the state’s sacrosanct opposition to sales and income tax; they took pleasure in deceiving tourists and scholars who came looking for him. Not far away, in Cavendish, Vermont, where Alexander Solzhenitsyn lived, townsfolk kept a sign in the general store that said, “No Directions to the Solzhenitsyn Home.” But in Cornish no one even acknowledged that they’d heard of Salinger, much less had him as a neighbor. You got a withering look if you mentioned his name.

Early on, at his father’s insistence, Salinger apprenticed in the meat-importing business, which he studied in Vienna, Austria; he knew from shaved turkey. He got out of Austria in 1938. Good timing for a Jew—almost-Jew—son of a Jew. Good timing for anyone. In New York, Salinger tried and failed to publish stories in The New Yorker (one reject I nominate for posthumous publication was called “I Went to School with Adolf Hitler”) and shipped off to war with the Army in 1942. By the end of the decade, he had helped to liberate a concentration camp, retooled himself as a Buddhist, and created the Glass family, seven fictional eccentric Upper East Side children and their parents: Les and Bessie. Bessie Glass, that is, née Gallagher.

A woman refusing to convert, and thereby compromising Salinger’s identity, loomed large in Salinger’s imagination. Salinger was not a nice Jewish boy, and he wasn’t a good Irish Catholic boy either. He was a purist, even a kind of puritan. That’s another reason northern New England suited him. His scorching misanthropy was gorgeous in his books, because there’s no time you’re more willing to hate flesh-and-blood people than when you’re reading and lost in the abstraction of words on a page. In his life, though—and in the lives of fans who used to strike the Holden Caulfield pose—it led to little more than a state of perpetual annoyance. The army bothered Salinger; glossy magazines bothered him; editors bothered him; the movie business bothered him; finally, everything bothered him, and he stopped publishing and bunkered himself in Cornish, which has its share of problems (poverty, etc.) but—to give the town its due—very, very few phonies.

Nothing was ever shaved right for Salinger. I’m surprised he ate meat, actually; he had been through earlier diet regimes including macrobiotics, fasting, forced vomiting, and doses of urine and vitamin C. He distrusted medicine and embraced Christian Science for a time. He liked the idea of sweet, clean, oracular young girls (like his creations Pheobe and Esmé), but in life they were never pure or wise enough for him. Joyce Maynard’s book about her affair with him—she was 18, he was 53—pulls off the unlikely trick of telling a Salinger story from the point of view of the pure thing that the Salinger hero desires. Pure things, though, should not write books, have their own desires, or sell off love letters that make august figures like Salinger seem lecherous and cruel. When Maynard auctioned off Salinger’s letters to her, the software mogul Peter Norton bought them, saying he’d return them to Salinger. Men are very, very protective of Salinger.

It used to be you could never mention that you admired Maynard for fear of losing your attractiveness to indie guys who suddenly would see you as impure. Now I don’t think indie or any guys remember Maynard-Salinger, but it’s still a good parable for women: if you like a guy who likes pure things, you must actually somehow stay pure or he will absolutely hate you. Salinger trapped his wife Claire Douglas in their house, and kept feeding her new ideologies and practices, including all the puking and macrobiotic stuff, and Dianetics, the prototext of Scientology. It exhausted her, and even turned her suicidal and murderous. In the end, she spared her own life and didn’t kill her daughter, as she had planned to. They merely got divorced.

Like a lot of puritans, Salinger liked litigation. He was always suing and banning screenings and enjoining publications and insisting on copyrights. He was a contractionist. He wanted to keep value close. To the extent that women yap and preen, they were the enemy. He detested the women who failed to become, in his view, sufficiently trained in Buddhism or Kriya yoga or special ways of eating. He seems to have said some pretty awful, even sick things to and about his wives, his daughter, his girlfriends. I’m not sure how he treated his widow, Colleen O’Neill, a local nurse. My last glimpse of Salinger was in the parking lot, where he and O’Neill were companionably loading their car with groceries.

To me, at that deli counter, he said only one thing: “That’s a lot of strawberries!” There was an exclamation point. I heard it. And take it from me: when Salinger acknowledges you, be you man or woman, Jew or Gentile, your heart leaps. You remember exactly why you love Holden Caulfield, and the prose of J.D. Salinger, and the myth of him. Because at a vulnerable time, say when you were home unmarried at your parents’ place throwing a silly teatime bridal shower for a silly bride and wishing you were a silly bride yourself, you so ferociously want to be unphony enough that Holden—Jerry—Salinger—the Jew—will like you, will find in you a reason to be happy and not fear another Holocaust or the demons of fame or the horror of existence. And that longing, of the small town white girl, to be something pure for someone like Salinger; that longing is so profound that you can’t distinguish it from the work itself, and for a time—a very important time—Nine Stories or Catcher in the Rye is the greatest book you have ever read.

Virginia Heffernan writes The Medium, a weekly column about Internet culture, for The New York Times Magazine.

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Benjamin E. says:

The claim of Salinger being a jew is simply incorrect. He didn’t even slightly practice judaism. This article is plagued with false references to “the jew”. Mr. Salinger practiced yoga more than any other form of spirituality. It was this blatant mislabeling that lead Mr. Salinger to be a recluse. Heffernan overheard how he liked his turkey, and missed the point of who he was. This article is an example of how intrusive the public can be, and how ignorant writers(heffernan) who have their own agenda can be.

ron rosenbaum says:

This was so brilliant and touching. I could not allow that illiterate comment to go unanswed.

Illiterate comment? I think Benjamin E. was right on the money. Mr. Salinger wouldn’t even meet the Reform movement’s definition of a Jew.

Irene Borger says:

Thanks for your read on it. Note that it was Peter NORTON, the philanthropist (and founder of Norton Utilities) who bought the letters. (Mine are in a safe deposit box and not for sale.)

David Margolick says:

Is Heffernan suggesting that Salinger was originally Viennese? That’s not so. And if he were in Vienna in 1938, it was as an American citizen, and he’d have had nothing to fear. This effort to characterize Salinger as Jewish, and to build an entire article around one encounter (two, I guess, if you count his loading groceries) seems extremely forced to me.

Jesse Oxfeld says:

Thanks for the catch, Ms. Borger. It’s been corrected.

MJ Rosenberg says:

Why must ethnic chauvinist Jews be more exacting about “who is a Jew” than crazed Haredim or the Nuremberg laws.
He was a Jew. Holden was a Jew. The Glasses were Jews. And his mother, who chose to pass as one, was too.
RIP, Holden

william says:

Boy! What mediocre mindset conceived this article? At least it made me feel better about myself.

A man (white) born of an English protestant mother and an Irish catholic father. (feel free to generalise)

Mr Mel says:

Whether he liked it or not Salinger was a Jew. The is an old story about the Banker, Otto Kahn, a convert to Christianiy. He was walking on 5th Avenue with a friend of his, who happened to be kyphotic. As they passed Temple Emanu-El, Kahn said to his friend, “you know I used to be Jewish”. The friend answered “you know I used to be a hunchback”.

Annette Smith says:

Whether or not Salinger was or wasn’t a Jew, thought of himself as a Jew or didn’t, he was an American literary icon, entitled to the life he chose to lead, as long as it was within the law. Furthermore, as a Jew, I find Ms. Heffernan’s article offensive. She may have become Jewish (whatever that means). But it didn’t seem to save her from the kind of stereotyping that is reflective of some deep-seated bigotry.

Patricia Reef says:

Heffernan’s article was very interesting and moving. Salinger is an American literary icon and I loved Catcher in the Rye and only wish I could write half as well as Salinger. Salinger,was not Jewish,however.His grandfather was a rabbi and I was so impressed and delighted to hear that. Salinger’s father was Jewish but married out of the Jewish faith,an Irish Catholic woman. to be Jewish, you have to be born from a Jewish mother, or formerly convert to Judaism. I never read anything that said Salinger converted. He was a great American writer period. He probably inherited in his genes the ability to write with sensitivity and humor from the pathos of being a loner and the combination of many generations of mixed genes, part of being an American, and our searches for identity and rejection of hypocrasy.

Stephen Folkson says:

I remember, a long, long time ago, when I was a teenager, the rage was J.D. Salinger’s “A Castcher in the Rye.” I honestly do remember reading it, but do not remember what it was about. I don’t think I was terribly impressed with it. I never read any of his other stuff either. I never was turned on to reading until I was in high school. I worked in the school library,and one day came across the “Lanny Budd” books by Upton Sinclair and spent the whole year reading every word. What a year. From then on, I used to haunt libraries looking for stuff to read, and I still do, so many years later.

Ruth Gutmann says:

Virginia Heffernan’s post gave me pleasure. Special thanks to M.J. Rosenberg too! It is astonishing what people are able to read into a text. If it were not useless I would tell all those suspicious and hostile commentators to stop and question their reactions.

” to be Jewish, you have to be born from a Jewish mother, or formerly convert to Judaism. ”
What the heck does formerly convert mean?…..or for that matter, “born from”
I enjoyed the article and whether JD was jewish, wanted to be jewish or acted jewish doesn’t really matter to me. Furthermore,” Al Jolson was better on the telephone than as a singer. “

Dear Commenters:

I never thought in a million years that I’d have to defend J.D. Salinger’s claim to Jewish roots —

I’m the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, the largest international organization for adult children and other descendants of intermarriage. As a member of Jewish outreach, I was recently informed that one of Mr. Salinger’s descendants currently lives as a Jew.

If the rumor is true, I sure hope that his descendant does not see this thread, filled with ethnocentric attacks on Mr. Salinger’s connection to the Jewish people and negative comments implying that the author of the article, Ms. Heffernan, is unworthy to comment on Jewish topics because she is Jew by Choice (convert).

The negative remarks of the commenters would likely cause Mr. Salinger’s descendant to question the wisdom of affiliating with the Jewish people.

Many of the commenters’ attacks on Mr. Salinger display a profound ignorance of the situation in which many children of intermarriage find themselves, and of Mr. Salinger’s tragic personal history in particular.

Mr. Salinger was Jewish enough for the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. Both denominations require that the child of either a Jewish mother or a Jewish father be brought up as a Jewish from birth, and given life cycle rituals like a bar or bat mitzvah.

Even though no Jewish outreach to interfaith families existed when Mr. Salinger was born, he was raised as a Jew, and had a bar mitzvah. That would have been enough for Reform and Reconstruction nowadays.

Shortly after his bar mitzvah, he was told that his mother — coerced by her Jewish in-laws — had been hiding her Christian identity.

Can you imagine the impact of this discovery on a 13 year old? No wonder the heroes of his fiction display a contempt for adult “phonies” and a suspicion towards all conventional appearances.

Now many of the commenters criticizing Mr. Salinger’s claim to any Jewish connections note that he did not live as a Jew as an adult and sought spirituality in other religions. They appear resentful of this.

Given the unwelcoming attitudes in many of the comments decrying his Jewishness, can you blame him? And this is the year 2010. Imagine the icy reception Mr. Salinger would have received from other Jews, in, say, 1936, if, as an unknown writer, he had expressed any interest in conversion or living as a Jew.

I know from interviewing adult children of intermarriage who grew up in that era that the American Jewish community — unlike the German Jewish community — was very rejecting of them.

There was no organized interfaith family outreach in American Judaism until the early 1980s, when Mr. Salinger was in his sixties. And even today, adult childen and grandchildren of intermarriage are routinely snubbed and rebuffed when attempting to gain entry to the Jewish community.

At the present time, there is outreach for interfaith couples and Jews by Choice, but almost none for half-Jewish people.

Now, about Mr. Salinger’s personal history with the Holocaust — none of the hostile commenters appear aware that Mr. Salinger spent World War II as a staff sergeant in the Army, suffering through bloody campaigns in Europe against the Nazis, helping liberate a concentration camp, and then serving — because of his fluent French and German — as an interpreter to American officials rounding up German prisoners of war.

Salinger’s experiences in WWII were so bad that he had a nervous breakdown. I would say that those are substantial services to Judaism and humanity, and should be treated with some respect.

With regard to the comment that Mr. Salinger, as a trainee in his father’s business, was in no danger in 1938 Vienna, because he had an American passport — please consult any history of the Holocaust — and see report after report of people being killed or injured in the streets everywhere in the Nazi empire — from 1934 onward — because they “looked Jewish.” Which Salinger assuredly did. Roving gangs of Nazi thugs did not always ask for their victims’ paperwork first.

It is not “stereotyping” for Ms. Heffernan to suggest that someone named “Jerome David Salinger,” who apparently looked like the Polish-Jewish side of his family, might have been in some danger.

Now, with regard to article itself — as a convert Ms. Heffernan is to be considered a Jew, and has every right to discuss Jewish topics. Her article about her knowledge of Mr. Salinger’s life while he lived in New Hampshire, and the attitude of the people of Cornish towards him, is a tiny and precious snapshot which will be greatly appreciated by future Salinger biographers and scholars. Her knowledge of other “mountain Jews” in the area provides another bit of context to Mr. Salinger’s life there.

Her perception of Mr. Salinger as a kvetching New York Jew in the utterly non-Jewish setting of Cornish, NH and his momentary kindness to her, is in keeping with what is known of his character and behavior. Irregardless of his adult spiritual beliefs, his early New York Jewish upbringing was marked in his behavior and outlook throughout his life.

While, as Ms. Heffernan notes, Mr. Salinger left much to be desired in his treatment of family members,lovers, and other writeres — he was a complex man who had many personal demons — but he is often recorded as showing kindness to flustered young people, such as Ms. Heffernan was at that time.

In conclusion, I would like to state that the negative comments on Mr. Salinger’s connections to Judaism appearing on this comment thread epitomize the double-bind experiences that many half-Jewish people find themselves in today when they encounter the Jewish community.

We are often told that we are “not Jewish” — and if we attempt to live as Jews, obstacles are put in the way of our converting or entering Jewish communities. Then we are berated, subtly or openly, by some Jews with two Jewish parents, for having explored other spiritualities.

If we do convert to Judaism, our conversions are repeatedly challenged as not authentic enough. It is classic crazymaking behavior.

It my earnest hope, as the leader of the Half-Jewish Network and of the Inclusivist Judaism Coalition that I will live to see a Judaism that is multicultural and multiracial, and where the number and gender of one’s Jewish ancestors will not be as important as one’s spiritual or secular culture ties to them, and that all persons connected to the Jewish people by family ties will see those ties honored.

Robin Margolis

Obviously Salinger was a man who did not fall into any neat categories, and resented it when others tried to stereotype him. Nevertheless Jewishness was part of his background and gets reflected (along with many other things) in his Glass family stories.

The carping about whether he is Jewish according to traditional Jewish law is silly. Yes the quiblers are accurate that an Orthodox or Conservative rabbi would not consider him Jewish. Ms. Heffernan is not nominating for Chief Rabbi or insisting that some traditional rabbi accord him the status of a Jew. She is discussing his identity and traits.

I am not sure I am persuaded by this article, but I find it plausible that some element of his outsider identity as a Jew became part of the Holden Caufield persona, albeit in WASP accents.

Thank you for an interesting take on JD Salinger: Jew, misogynist, and New Hampshire emigrant. Mabye he is isn’t a Jew. Either way, olav hashalom, as the Jews say about the deceased

Patricia Reef says:

I had no idea Salinger had a Bar Mitzvah or was brought up in the Jewish faith. If he wanted to be considered a Jewish writer fine. If he did not follow any Jewish movement fine. I previously talked defining a Jewish person from my own experience being brought up in the conservative Jewish faith. I was taught the traditional view of being Jewish is you have to be born from a Jewish mother or formerly convert into the Jewish religion. If Salinger had a Bar Mitzvah that is a statement of his faith to me. If he did not follow it later in life that is fine with me. I am not up tight about being Jewish myself.I do follow the Jewish religion but I do not reject ANYONE THAT DOES NOT. I WOULD LOVE TO WRITE AS WELL AS SALINGER AND DO NOT THINK HE SHOULD BE EVALUATED ETHNICALLY. HE IS AN OUTSTANDING AMERICAN AUTHOR.

Mr Mel says:

This controversy will go on forever. As far as I’m concerned his is Jewish. Salinger grew up a Jew and I don’t know if he ever renounced it. I also don’t know if he was Baptized, I doubt it. If you have enough money and choose to, one can buy an Orthodox conversion the same way you can purchase a Get or prevent a spouse from getting one. This is the way the world works.

FlaGuy954 says:

Whether or not Salinger was a practicing Jew or not is immaterial. The fact is, he was a Jew. There has always been controversy as to “Who is a Jew?” and how a Jew is defined. No matter. J.D. Salinger was a Jew, plain and simple.

When I was a middle school student, I found Catcher boring. Now S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, there’s a better coming of age book.

As a man born of a Jewish father and a gentile mother, and brought up as a Christian, but with a Jewish cultural flavour, and as someone who first read CitR when I was 14 in 1960 — it had been banned in the Australian state of Victoria (the Chief Secretary didn’t think it was a book he’d be happy having his teenage daughter read) and so had a certain allure, I found this reminiscence very touching, not least since almost all of the pieces linked on Arts and Letters Daily are by men. I always ask whether the Nazis would have considered a person who was half- or quarter-Jewish through one or more fathers Jewish and so worthy of death. Despite what conservative rabbis might say. Anyway, I didn’t know about JDS’s ethnic background, which makes no difference to my memory of the impact CitR had on me, fifty years ago.

shlomo dror says:

I have actively searched for everything about Salinger on the web since he died, and I think this is the most enjoyable read on the subject. It is also the most credible picture I have come across of what he became as a human being since his fame reached a high-water mark.
Beyond these priceless virtues, I quite enjoyed Ms. Heffernan’s personal disclosures, her reflections on widely observable Jewish midot (morally tinged personality characteristics, and the anthropology of small town life, especially in New Hampshire.
Yishar koach, Ms. Heffernan, and full credit to M.J. Rosenberg, a most distinguished writer and historian himself.
In simple terms, I LOVED THIS ARTICLE!
shlomo dror of Jerusalem

Shalom Freedman says:

An earlier commentator on this article Danny Steinmetz said the following,”Obviously Salinger was a man who did not fall into any neat categories, and resented it when others tried to stereotype him. Nevertheless Jewishness was part of his background and gets reflected (along with many other things) in his Glass family stories.” I believe this is a correct way of describing it. Salinger’s work has a great deal to do with the theme of ‘not – belonging’ and not being fit into a category. And in this he might have taken an encouraging word of precedent from perhaps his most beloved literary predecessor Kafka, who doubted that he had anything in common with anyone and felt he should be’ content to sit alone in a corner and breathe’.
Still without going into this subject in the depth it requires it is possible to say the following. There is something culturally and stylistically ‘Jewish’ in the whole ambiance of Salinger’s world. Seymour Glass has a ‘Jewish name’and the whole reflective mode of Buddy Glass’s meanderings have a certain Jewish over-self- consciousness.
But two other major points should be made briefly.Salinger was a man looking for something spiritually. He did not apparently ever look deeply into Judaism perhaps because it represented to him something narrow and confining. It is a pity he did not know and connect with the Jewish spirituality which came with the Shlomo Carlebach world. Salinger was not Halachically Jewish, but I believe the elements of Jewish identity (As this article indicates) cannot be denied. It would be interesting to compare him to the two great half- Jewish giants of the Western literary tradition, Montaigne and Proust.All three of these writers loved digression and the bouquet of ever- flowering parentheses . But indirections only could these great writers signal to the world there own startlingly original and often beautiful perceptions and reflections.

Patrick Flanagan says:

Interesting to watch the debate as to Salinger’s historical/racial/religious/cultural antecedents.

I can say emphatically, he was not Scotch-Irish, which would possibly indicate to others (not North Americans) that he was born from some percentage (or proof if you will) of Scotch whiskey and well, Irish whisky (correct Irish spelling) just to further abuse the analogy.

The correct term is Scots-Irish, and while I can extend latitude in this to our American cousins and the quirkiness of custom and tradition in expressed language, I am sure (as are all the above contributors sure of theirs) that Mr Salinger himself would object to sloppy and incorrect historically common terms, and to having his ancestry defined thus. Of course the question remains, was the man’s enormous talent as a result of his Irish background, or other? Let’s get back to that shaved, not sliced turkey, shall we?

Patrick (Irish-Irish)

David Torres says:

If Salinger had applied citizenship in Israel, he would have been
turned down, as his mom was Irish Catholic and never converted
to Judaism.

Even people that have converted to Judaism would have a difficult time
getting Israeli citizenship.

People born in Israel, that are not Jewish face a very tough row to hoe,
when they apply for citizenship.

By Israel’s standards, Salinger was not Jewish.


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Mountain Man

In New England, Salinger could be a puritanical scold and a back-to-nature Buddhist Jew

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