Before starting work on LEON: A LIFE, I read everything on the syllabus and listened to all the lectures from “The American Novel Since 1945” from Open Yale Courses. Taught by Professor Amy Hungerford, it’s a wonderful class that includes works by Richard Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Marilynne Robinson, and Edward P. Jones, and I had never read any of these listed authors before. To delve into these mainstays of the American bookshelf was a revelatory and stunning experience, and way past due.
Wait, wait, I can explain the lapse. At Harvard Extension School, I concentrated in Foreign Literature and Culture, reading works that had been translated into English from Chinese, Russian, Arabic, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, Hebrew, Polish and Czech. That reading list kept me away from the expanding English-language canon for a while.
I must note that the Foreign Literature and Culture concentration has since been retired, because really, who in this world needs to understand the thoughts and dreams of people across centuries by studying the literary achievements of the most prominent writers among a selection of the most enduring cultures of our age? Oh, I understand the likely reasons, probably a combination of low demand, limited supply, and small enrollments. Plus, in the face of pressure to promote science, technology, and business courses, I’d expect that there would have been an effort to fortify the remaining humanities tracks through consolidation.
It makes me sad that one can no longer travel the literary world through today’s Harvard Extension School, as I was rather hoping that the program would have been expanded and modernized for our times rather than cut entirely. Yet I’m grateful that the Master of Liberal Arts (ALM) program still exists, as it did for me, as a way for someone with a day job to complete a meaningful graduate degree at night. And for that I have to thank the Harvard Extension School’s former Dean, Michael Shinagel. His predecessor, Dr. Reginald H. Phelps, had had a longstanding goal of establishing a graduate degree program for the Extension School, and it was Dean Shinagel’s leadership and political skill that brought about the issuance of the school’s first ALM degrees in 1981.
Michael Shinagel not only looks like Leon Schneider, but their memoirs have certain parallels as well.
In the foreword to Holocaust Survivor to Harvard Dean: Memoirs of a Refugee’s Progress (2016), Shinagel writes: “Academics have spent their careers writing and lecturing, so it is perhaps easier for us to write our memoirs.” That academic standpoint also spurs my one complaint, that Shinagel starts some of his chapters as one would start a lecture by outlining the main points to be covered. For example, two paragraphs into the Oberlin chapter and we already find out that he got married in his junior year and made Phi Beta Kappa in his senior year. Three paragraphs in, and we know he earned a fellowship for graduate study at Harvard. Slow your roll, Dean.
From the title, we know the broad arc of the story, that the Holocaust survivor becomes a Harvard dean. Similarly, in LEON: A LIFE, we know from the start that the Brooklyn scrapper and ladies’ man turns into a movie extra and family man. These are not spoilers. The mystery in memoir is not how it ends, but rather what happens in the middle, an exploration of the critical moments that define character. Those moments should be unraveled with great care, using the craft of a storyteller and the timing of a comedian.
How, then, did a Holocaust refugee become a Harvard Dean?
In March 1938, the Shinagel family, including four-year-old Michael and an older brother, left Vienna for Czechoslovakia, and then to Brussels. There, his father was placed in a Vichy detention camp, and so the rest of the family followed to Marseilles, where the mother’s resourcefulness effected the father’s release. They got visas from the heroically insubordinate American vice consul Hiram Bingham IV, and the Shinagels arrived in New York City on June 13, 1941.
The young Michael becomes a New Yorker; that is, “the family rebel and troublemaker” who splits his time “between a gang of Irish Catholic toughs, who seemed to accept me as one of their own, and American and immigrant Jews, who provided a more stable and studious alternative lifestyle.” He follows baseball, plays sports with friends. He has his bar-mitzvah but doesn’t like it.
Like my brother, I had a bar mitzvah when I turned thirteen. But I did it out of a sense of duty, not one of belief or tradition. I recall the day of my bar mitzvah in temple. After I completed my recitation, the rabbi gave me a Bible to commemorate the occasion. When I returned to my seat in the congregation, I gave the Bible to my father, saying it meant more to him than it did to me. I did not like going to the temple, and I resented being forced by my father when I was young.
As I got older, I did not practice my Judaism because of my quarrels with my father and because I had my own issues with the Holocaust. I was determined to be a good person, but not in the traditional religious sense. When my father would ask me if I went to a temple, I would answer that my temple was in my heart.Michael Shinagel, from “New York City Years (1941-1951)” in Holocaust Survivor to Harvard Dean.
Following the family’s ordeal escaping the Nazis, Michael’s father had suffered “a serious psychosomatic reaction that resulted in all of his body hair falling out, even his eyelashes”; and subsequent hormone treatments had made him impotent. And tellingly, it is his father with whom Michael associates Judaism, despite the matrilineal tradition, despite that his maternal grandfather had been a rabbi in Czechoslovakia. Just as his father had become impotent in the wake of total hair loss, so too, for Michael, had become the practice of Judaism in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Michael has fully transformed into an American, and he exercises his newfound freedom. He drops out of college, hitchhikes, gets busted, and joins the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He goes back to school, just where he wants to go. He marries who he wants to marry, against his parents’ wishes that he stay within the faith. He studies what he wants to study, despite being warned away from the anti-Semitism within the field of English literature. He starts a family as a graduate student despite derision from one of his professors and his peers, and he knocks out his Ph.D in record time.
The second half of the book tracks Michael’s ascent through a series of smart career moves (and some domestic changes) as he moves from Harvard to Cornell University, Union College, and back to Harvard, where he became the longest-serving dean in Harvard history. During the journey, he tells anecdotes about famous scholars (yes, it’s a thing); describes efforts to improve diversity in admissions, recruiting, and access; and shares just a little bit of inside baseball about tensions between colleges within Harvard. From the standpoint of an Extension School grad, we were lucky to have had on our side someone with Shinagel’s obvious charm, intelligence, and determination; in other words, we had a bona-fide Yankee setting home run records in Harvard Yard.
I had originally thought to compare and contrast in this space the memoirs of Shinagel and Schneider, but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.
But I will start you off with this excerpt from LEON: A LIFE, “The Great Depression,” in which Leon’s father, impotent like Michael’s but only economically, bonds with his middle son over their shared transgressions.
My father was the cheapest. All the pressure from years of deprivation made him so that he couldn’t spend a nickel. The Depression ruined him. He spent five or six years with five children and his father-in-law with no money. We were literally on the verge of starvation. Nothing to eat unless I personally stole the money.
We never had two spoons that looked alike. We had glassware from the Standard Oil company and from yahrzeit candles. All our tableware came from a multimillionaire – Woolworth. We didn’t care.
My father was a skilled machine operator, but the factory closed. He was out of work. But if a lamp broke, he would rewire it.
He got on WPA, Works Progress Administration. I used to call it We Pay Always. It was a relief organization, but they didn’t hand you a check. You had to work for the 14 dollars a week.
They said — We’re going to give you a pick and shovel and we’re going to send you out to Floyd Bennett Field — which was a zillion miles from where we lived, for a 35-cents-an-hour job. He took a trolley car for five cents to the end of Coney Island. If you wanted to get to Floyd Bennett Field, you had to spend another five cents. No transfers in those days. He would walk the four miles to save the nickel, and then he’d walk the four miles back.
He’d leave the house at six in the morning, come home late, at eight o’clock at night, and he made 35 cents an hour, $2.80 per day, less ten cents trolley fare. Digging with a pick and shovel for eight hours a day.
On the weekends, he’d rent a horse and wagon for three dollars a day. We would get up in the middle of the night and go to the farmer’s market, and he’d buy over a thousand pounds of potatoes for a penny a pound.
We bought paper bags to put the potatoes and onions in, and we bought a sign — POTATOES 18 LBS. FOR A QUARTER.
The A&P was selling for 15 pounds for a quarter, why not buy from the peddler?
I’m 10 or 11 years old, and I would drive the horse and wagon, like I’m in an old-time western. He would yell — Potatoes, Potatoes and Onions! Eighteen pounds for a quarter!
Then he got a taxi and he fixed it up like a truck, so that he could sell the potatoes and onions from the back of the truck. He used to let me drive. I learned how to shift, and I would drive very slowly in low gear. But he wouldn’t let me cross the intersection. He’d walk on the sidewalk while I’m driving the truck.
We used to pick up some rocks with the potatoes and put them in with it too. Also, you’d have a heavy thumb on the scale. But people were smart, they had their own scales.
Someone would say — Bring me up 18 pounds. I’d bring up 15 pounds.
They’d say — Hey, it’s 15 pounds —Sorry, I must be off. I’d have to run downstairs, make it 18 pounds, go back upstairs.
At the end of the day we made three or four dollars, and we used to eat a lot of leftover potatoes and onions. We lived on potatoes. I love potatoes today.
I liked being with my father. We’d stop off and we’d get pea soup at this place. It was the most wonderful dish I’d ever had in my life. I used to remember this particular pea soup was like nectar. I would lap that up. We didn’t have bacon in the house, but we’d go out and he let me have bacon and ham and all that shit.Excerpt from LEON: A LIFE, “The Great Depression”