Paul Greenberg

There must still be places like the all-night cafes and cafeterias I remember on the Lower East side, where students could sit till all hours nursing a cup of coffee or maybe a glass of tea -- a glesele tay, to lapse into my childhood Yiddish -- while solving all the problems of the world, or maybe just stirring them up. Or at least making the kind of obscure ideological distinctions that seemed all-important at the time.

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Intellectually, the New York of the 1930s may have been the liveliest part of the Soviet Union. Name your own opiate of the intellectuals. It would surely be represented during those all-nighters. And fiercely debated. With any luck over a good piece of strudel, which would be the only connection with the real world.

A visiting rabbi circuit-riding here in Arkansas once recalled his seminary days in New York when he was trying to study a page of Talmud in such a setting -- an assignment that can be a week's if not a lifetime's work -- when he realized an old man was looking over his shoulder. "Nu," asked the stooped figure, "you want an argument?"

By which the old Jew meant a discussion full of Talmudic citations, philosophical/ theological tangents, rapid-fire volleys (called pilpul, from the Hebrew for pepper), and mutual challenging exchanges over some observation by a rabbi in ancient Babylon that may have been mined for 2,500 years, but might still have some rich ore left to unearth.

This was the milieu into which Irving William Kristol would be born January 22, 1920, the son of one of the innumerable luftmenschen (airy dreamers) in the garment trade. The boy would lose his mother to cancer when he was only 16, and his father would go broke more than once, but, what th' heck, when everybody's poor, who notices?

His was not a religiously observant household, but the habit of Talmudic argumentation persists in the ethnic culture. Like an afterglow of revelation. So it was only natural that, when young Kristol enrolled in City College, he would enlist in one of the two ideological camps represented there in the depths of the Depression -- both of them on the left, of course. The political perception of that generation of New Yorkers ended well short of center, the way New Yorkers' geographical perception may still end at the Hudson River.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.