Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Robert Silvers

At the end of 1973, just after the October War, I was a graduate student in Jerusalem and wrote a long, vexed political essay on the war; I had no idea who might publish it, but I wanted very much for I. F. Stone to read it. On an impulse, I sent it to Robert Silvers and asked that he pass it along. A couple of weeks later I got a telegram the size of a letter, asking me, with astonishing courtesy, whether I had “placed the piece,” and if not, whether I would “consider” the New York Review. (I did.)

By the time I met Bob, in the fall of 1974, I had done three more pieces for the “paper,” as he called it. I’d begun to learn—from a dozen long-distance conversations, cigar-perfumed galleys, and packets of clippings that would show up in my mailbox almost daily—that I had a lot to learn, not only about my subject but about choosing my words, which seemed increasingly indistinguishable from my comportment in the world. I had, by then, the disquiet of an orphan and a father; what seemed to him the routine indulgences of writers seemed to me extraordinary mentoring. When we finally met for dinner, at Patsy’s, in New York, the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser was in tow, auditioning me for a spot in the club of Jewish seriousness. I must have passed, because the next morning Bob asked me whom else I would like to meet. I answered, hardly thinking, Philip Roth and Noam Chomsky. The next morning, Roth was scrambling eggs for me; three days later, in Cambridge, Chomsky was explaining discriminatory Israeli land law.

This was how things proceeded for the next ten years; during my twenties and early thirties—during which I was drifting between North America and Jerusalem, academia and journalism—I produced twenty more articles. I had finally finished a doctorate, but writing for Bob had become the closest thing I had to a profession. The subjects of our conversations widened: to Jordan, terror, Arthur Koestler, the people of the book transformed into the people of the book review. I moved from Israel to New York in 1979, and Bob provided a letter to help with my mortgage; the next year, he helped me get a job at the M.I.T. Writing Program. Things continued pretty much this way until 1985. They ended, rather abruptly, when I published my first book, The Tragedy of Zionism, the rationale for which he could not really understand, and which I was too young and tangled to fully explain. Why revisit the history of Zionism, or explain Israel’s democratic deficiencies, to cover the triumphs of the settlers and Likud? We never spoke about, or even acknowledged, the rupture; that would have been uncivil, mawkish. But the assignments and calls ended. I took a real job, as an editor myself. Love stories don’t end well when one kisses and the other gives the cheek.

Yet love it was. There is a patch of road in Connecticut, between Boston and New York, where the highway sign says “Roberts Street / Silver Lane,” and, for many years, the flash of the words as I’d drive took me to a moment of longing. There were few days when I did not catch myself remembering where I learned how to say this or cut that; I still imagine his handwriting in my margins. After HBO made a documentary about Bob a couple of years ago, I finally wrote him, tipping my heart: “What sticks above all is the voice, your voice, which I heard in the best part of myself over the twelve years I wrote for you, learning something about grace and precision in almost every encounter. I am now not young: a grandfather. Still, it was thrilling to hear that voice again last night, as I watched the film. I just want you to know that I am thinking of you with gratitude—and always will.” The answer was predictably gracious, generous, deflecting sentiment, ending, as always, with “My best.” It was.