Yiddishkeit at East Coast reunion

Thomas Wolfe was wrong — you can go home again.

Especially when the homecoming has a distinctly haimish feel.

I flew this month to New Rochelle, N.Y., Rob Petrie’s TV refuge in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and where I’d shlepped my books to the city’s lone public high school.

A couple of decades in the ultra-assimilated San Francisco Bay Area had warped my perception: I’d blocked the fact that everyone in the New York City vicinity is Jewish — Afro-Americans, Asians, pet golden retrievers.

The 50th reunion of my graduating class drew countless Jewish returnees, most of them retired, many of them actually Jewish.

I distinctly remembered my class being one-third Jewish, one-third Italian, one-third Negro. Wrong! Somehow I forgot all the Protestants. And I'd forgotten just how diverse the class was.

Regardless, the reunion cocktail lounges and halls were jammed with, let’s say, two-thirds non-gentiles. Jews popped from every alcove.

As yearbook blurbs predicted, they’re degree-laden. Graduates of every Ivy League school, as well as the many small designer colleges dotting the Eastern Seaboard (almost no one apparently dreamed of enrolling farther west than Philadelphia).

Loads of Jewish lawyers. Tons of Jewish mothers. Lots of Jewish Ph.D.s.

Numerous Jewish brainiacs who somehow got into computer businesses early enough to turn a buck or two.

It now and then got tricky connecting a current face to a high school photo on a dangling nametag. But familiar names surrounded me: Bernstein, Bloomberg, Greenblat, Greenspan, Halpern, Levine, Margolish, Peretz, Rifkind, Rosenthal, Schumann.

I fantasized a parody of an old show tune: “Everything’s coming up Moses.”

The Yiddishkeit buoyed me. So I trotted over to Lois Baer and boldly went where no grad had gone before. I confessed that 50-some years ago I’d had an incurable crush on her but was too shy and awkward to voice it.

The next day, Jewish karma struck: Fran Nusbaum confessed she’d had an incurable crush on me but was too shy and awkward to voice it.

Rebecca Shahmoon pulled me back through time to an Israeli dance group and Anshe Sholom, the city’s only Orthodox shul. But Burt Schain didn’t recall his wizened grandfather constantly shhh-ing our schoolboy questions during services.

Memories gushed out, not unlike the old man’s disembodied voice from beneath a massive prayer shawl that cloaked his head and torso.

Leslie Gelb, the only Class of ’55 member to earn a slot on the school’s wall of fame so far, greeted me cordially. The former assistant U.S. secretary of state reminded me our late mothers had been good friends and had swapped newspaper clippings, his columns from The New York Times, my pieces from daily Gannett newspapers and a national magazine.

Mostly, though, conversations were kept airy. Limited references to the 61 classmates who had died. Virtually no details of next week’s surgery, or last week’s. And no politics, save a teeny bit of Bush-bashing by a handful of aging armchair lefties.

Amazingly little sniping (one woman did mention that at least 20 high-schoolers had had the same nose job). Absolutely no mention of adolescent grudges. No talk of failure.

And, if truth be told, no yarmulkes.

But jokes with Jewish punch lines or flavor added spice. And Yiddish phrases were inserted into sentences as if the graduates were latter-day Joshua Appleseeds making sure future generations wouldn’t go without.

Dress tended to be nouveaux casual, though a few females wore massive diamond rings that indicated the former Jewish American Princesses had been transformed into Empresses.

Many at the reunion had acquired second homes — maybe an outgrowth of their Ashkenazi genes. Each winter, as their parents before them, they escape to Florida’s balmy Jewish geezer ghettos for half the year.

The rest of the time they can’t wait for visits with grandkids, who are scattered throughout the new American diaspora. And they echo the hope, almost universally, that the youngsters are being brought up Jewish enough.

Woody Weingarten is managing editor of j. weekly.