Hello Gertie!

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

A Jastrow dictionary is laid open on a table filled with colorful SVARA learning materials. A person is seated at the table, wearing a brown sweater, with only their hands visible. They're holding a pen in one hand and turning the page with the other.

Summer is creeping in here in Northern California. My life is in the process of shifting from urban Berkeley to rural Sebastopol. The contrast between those two environs is striking, each bearing gifts and challenges. I’ve spent the last forty years navigating Berkeley’s fascinating culture and have felt it–and myself–shifting in many ways over these decades. At this moment, it seems like there’s a fork in the road where Berkeley goes one way and I go the other. So, my wife, Julie, and I decided it was time to take a leap and move on.  

Now, on the one hand, it’s a move that bespeaks incredible privilege because moving at this age isn’t cheap no matter where or why change is being made. And after years of feeling virtuous being a denizen of the Free Speech movement, People’s Park, and the lefty legacy of this forever radical college town brand, it feels kind of, I dunno, I guess some would call it bougie or even cowardly to forsake Berzerkeley for a quiet, less diverse, more centrist life in Sebastopol. A town where a status vehicle is a John Deere rather than a Tesla. And I do kind of feel, not exactly traitorous, but self-conscious, or even a titch guilty, about the move. 

The truth is that for a long time, my soul has been starving for quiet, for nature, for a sky full of stars. I love waking up in my new country home to find bobcat and fox scat all over the back patio! I am so happy to go days and days without hearing sirens and the constant hum of freeways. And–and this is hard to say–I am so relieved to have a break from the agony of the Bay Area’s failed progressive politics as evidenced by the Sisyphean sojourns of tent encampments that move from freeway overpass to freeway overpass, leaving a trail of damning detritus behind. I don’t know where we went wrong, but if our leadership, with its high falutin’ leftist credentials, can’t take care of its most vulnerable inhabitants well, who can? What’s that old saying, if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem?  It is probably selfish as all get out, but at this stage of the game, I’m clearly part of the problem, so I’m bailing.

Somehow all of this philosophizing about my future brought me to think about some of my early queer idols, in particular Gertrude Stein. It’s kind of a leap but bear with me. 

Being a young dyke in the early 1980s was a very hush-hush, highly guarded secret to be confided to only the most trustworthy pals or folks you suspected were part of the family. There were gay bars, women’s bookstores, and the women’s music circuit where a young Lesbian could find her kindred. There were also political organizations, but they were very serious and not much fun, more appealing to the older, more experienced, Lesbians than us 20-something whippersnappers. We were intensely concerned with who was, who wasn’t, and who was going to be gay. The Pacifica station in LA had one gay program called IMRU. (And this was decades before OMG, BRB, and ROTFL were common forms of communication!) We signaled identity with our coiffure (short hair or, it hurts me to say it, but yes, mullets), couture (including Frye boots, flannel or button-down shirts, denim overalls, and vests–lots of vests), and language that was loaded with winks and nods (e.g.: Oh, her? Uh, she is my “roommate”–alternately: best friend or companion–or: Say, did I see you at McCabes music hall last week?), and our activities (Softball, rugby, swimming, anything with power tools). Out queer folks were few and far between–it was still “secret handshake” times. 

I was an undergrad at UCLA from 1981-1984, during which time I alternated sporting a Lesbian preppy look–Izod button-down shirt, khaki pants, and brown oxfords, with a lumberdyke style plaid on top, Levis in the middle, Vibram sole boots on the ground. For no apparent reason, one of my professors took to calling me “Gertie”. It was weirdly cute, and I didn’t really mind it, but neither did I understand the nickname. One day I bumped into him in the hall and after we greeted each other–“Hello, Gertie,” “Hi, Professor W.”–I stopped and asked, “Excuse me, Professor W, um, why do you call me Gertie?” He turned and looked at me incredulously and said in his gravelly, shaking voice induced by years of caffeine and nicotine abuse, “Gertie Stein, Gertie Stein, Gertie Stein.” “Oh!! OK.” I grinned and went on my way. 

Of course, I had already encountered Stein. As much as queer folks in that era developed “gaydar” to suss out fellow travelers, we also looked for documentary evidence to help us recognize our forebears. Stein loomed large as a Lesbian trailblazer and I was immediately smitten by her at first sight/read. Bold, brilliant, weirdly handsome, a literary trickster–Gertrude Stein was the closest thing I had found to a historically significant unrepentant Butch. She was cocky and brash, bulky and elegant, self-absorbed yet famously hospitable. She lived on her terms and surrounded herself with a creative, fascinating, and dynamic community. Oh, yeah, if Prof. W wanted to liken me to Gertie, he was welcome to do so. Whether meant as a slight or a tip of the hat, I took it as a huge compliment. (It also made me wonder if he might be ‘family’.)

I read her classics and more obscure works. I was charmed by her bizzaro, evocative, sensical non-sensical poetic style. Her Cubist prose was like reading Jazz. I loved how she worked with repetition and inversion, disregarding grammatical conventions, bending punctuation to her literary will. Her voice was alive and modern, irreverent, playful, illusive, and yet serious. She knew how to say things within sayings, layering ideas like matryoshka dolls, deceptively simple, subtly profound. In Everybody’s Autobiography (1937) she set down one of her most oft-quoted quips:

What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.

An absolutely stunning turn of phrase–it captures the heartbreak of nostalgia, lost youth, and it is also pretty darn funny. And so obvious! But it took Gertrude Stein to see it and catch it in words. I fantasized about her life with her “roommate ”, Alice B. Toklas, and their art-and-artist-filled apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris. What a life! I quickly became a major fan of this iconic queer ex-pat Jewish modernist radical hero. Her life and literary innovation revealed that an amazing future was possible for the likes of 21-year-old me. 

Then other things happened. The world opened up, time passed, I left my 20s, and then my 30s, had kids and transitioned, became a not-rabbi rabbi (sounds like a Steinian notion!), and over time being queer stopped being quite as outré as it had been back in my college days. As my delving into Jewish learning deepened, I found myself wrestling with Torah texts just as loaded with veiled language and impenetrable metaphor as Stein’s, but without her self-conscious sass. Gertrude and Alice receded from my bookshelf, replaced by Gemara and Aryeh Kaplan.

Then in 2011, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and SF MOMA ran parallel shows about Stein. Seeing the adverts for these installations, my old flame was fanned and I went to both. To my horror, I learned that my queer icon and her undeniable long-term lover, Alice B. Toklas, rode out World War II in a small village in France largely through the protection of Stein’s dear friend, Bernard Fayy, an avowed Fascist and  Nazi collaborator. While other Jews’ “degenerate” art collections were raided and seized, Fayy ensured that Stein’s well-known and very valuable holdings were held safely in Paris, and indeed she was able to retrieve them after the war. In 1934 she was quoted saying that Hitler ought to have been given the Nobel Peace Prize; she was always a Republican but during the war, she appeared to become a supporter of several Nazi collaborators and the Vichy government. She leaned into traditionalism and right wing ideas, though she and Alice never shied away from either their Lesbian or Jewish identities. It was suggested by some historians that Stein’s bourgeois background allowed her to buy their way out of the Holocaust, and given her outsized and self-aggrandizing personality, asserting that she simply saw herself as above the less well-off Jews and queers who were being unceremoniously ushered to their ends. I was crushed. I couldn’t square the bold Amazonian Artist Stein with the self-serving, turn-coat, riding out the holocaust in the south of France Stein.

I sought out other Steinian histories. Some reporting that, Gertrude and Alice when faced with the conflict between their long-established identities and lifestyle and Nazi ideas about such things, simply hustled their tuchases to the Vichy zone libre where American Jews, especially if they were elders as Gertrude and Alice were by then, were allowed to live relatively freely due to diplomatic agreements between America and the Vichy government. Gertrude and Alice survived the war along with 75% of France’s Jewish population. Most of those folks reported having some support from folks who were not at risk, and yeah, if they had money it could help ensure their survival. During the war, in their country cottage, Stein wrote in her fearless, passionate, and witty style, Wars I Have Seen published in 1945 without any revisions, and which includes this passage:

[t]he one thing that everybody wants is to be free… not to be managed, threatened, directed, restrained, obliged, fearful, administered, none of these things (…) The only thing that anyone wants now is to be free, to be let alone, to live their life as they can, but not to be watched, controlled and scared, no no, not.

I found myself wondering again: Who was this woman, Gertrude Stein? A hero or a cad? A gracious visionary or a selfish survivor? Was she always just doing what she had to do? Did she have to do what she did? Did she do what she did to be done and have done it? This led me to one of Stein’s predecessors, the sage Hillel the Elder, who penned one of Judaism’s greatest sound bites (which sounds suspiciously Steinian!) from Pirke Avot 1:14:

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:

He [also] used to say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for my own self what am I? And if not now, when?

Talmudic Judaism offers example after example of people who are messy and noble, arrogant and compassionate, selfish and magnanimous. Through chevruta we learn that conflict is not only inevitable but an important tool for extracting the truth, which may only come out in bits and pieces, needing reconstruction after its removal. We were left stories about holy rabbis who spend every last penny on prostitutes, brilliant scholars who are so tight-assed that they discourage an entire generation of up-and-coming students, and mythic ravs who didn’t have one day of childhood education but who, in their middle age, found the will to liberate their intellectual curiosity thereby becoming pillars of Torah. Famously, an intractable confrontation between the two top ancient schools of thought is quelled by a heavenly voice that hollers out something to the effect of “Hey, cut it out! Can’t you see that you are both right?” As always, Jewish tradition makes room for the complexity, contradiction, and mistakes of our lives. Perhaps Gertrude and Alice were simply making the best choices they could under the circumstances. Maybe they felt a kinship with their friend Bernard Fayy, himself gay, as they managed the contradictions, compromises, and complexity of survival in a time of extreme division, and fear. Maybe they were just using their resources, inner and outer, to do for others when they could, do for themselves when they must, living into the now with all their might.

As I anticipate relocating to the pastoral scene in Sebastopol, I can’t help but wonder what new moral challenges await Julie and me. Are we staring at an even less equitable American future? Will being in the country bring us closer to safety or farther away? Is our flight from the city a sign of a moral failure or a necessary move to preserve our sanity and security? Most of all, I wonder if there will be a there there, as I no longer find a here here, and if not now, will there even be a then, when?

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