Arts & Culture

Long Island: Suburb Par Excellence

I returned to my homeland today, to the historical enclave of Jews which, for generations, has been synonymous with Jewish culture, with Jewish identity; with the aspirations of the 5,800-year-old People of The Book; I refer of course to Long … Read More

By / December 9, 2008

I returned to my homeland today, to the historical enclave of Jews which, for generations, has been synonymous with Jewish culture, with Jewish identity; with the aspirations of the 5,800-year-old People of The Book; I refer of course to Long Island, NY.

I did a reading for my novel, More Than It Hurts You, in Huntington today. When you drive far East enough, Long Island, despite being relatively close to New York City, could be any suburban flatland, anywhere. The strip malls, the chain stores – Manhattan’s nearest neighbor seems to aspire to… what? Exurban Atlanta?

It’s a bummer, and yet I have fond memories of it: sweet sixteens, bar/bat mitzvahs, day camps – all the things that my Protestant wife makes fun of me for now. (What does she know? Has she ever played "Coke and Pepsi"?)

It’s an interesting place, Long Island: on the map it looks like a tailless crocodile with its mouth open. The island’s far shore yawns into a pair of peninsula’s a hundred miles east of Manhattan. Huntington is about halfway down the crocodile’s cragged back. And the farther east you go on Long Island, the odder it gets — until you reach the Hamptons, which don’t really count; they’re like an outpost of Manhattan. I think the reason it gets weirder as you go (more stories of murder and hate crimes) is because there’s no one passing through. It’s an island, after all, with all the isolation that the word implies; the only people who go out to Eastern Long Island towns are on their way to Eastern Long Island towns, and who wants to be on their way there?

It seems most of Long Island’s Jews live closer to the city, which is only right; we are called "rootless cosmopolitans," after all.

Still, I grew up only 25 minutes from the city, in a town that was mostly Italian and Irish. And my being Jewish started a school-wide brawl, One kid, let’s call him Tony (since that’s his real name) called me a dirty Jew in fifth grade. This insult simmered for a few days, and then it all boiled over, a huge rumble – his friends (some of whom were Jews) against mine (most of whom were Italians). This fight taught me the hardest lesson I ever learned about human nature. Tony was punching me in the face while one of his friends held my hands behind my back. But then my friend Frank came and freed me, and – at the same time – grabbed this guy Tony, and held his hands. "Hit him!" my friend Frank said. "He’s been hitting you, right?"

I was about to slug him, but he looked up at me with eyes that said, Can you really be so cruel as to exact the same punishment from me? Can’t we let bygones be bygones? I walked away, feeling saintly (if a Jew can feel saintly). Tony freed himself and clocked me in the nose. Which only reinforced my belief: Jews shouldn’t fight. (My friend Rich Cohen, author of "Tough Jews," would doubtless disagree.)

I don’t go back to Long Island very much.

Darin Strauss, author of More Than It Hurts You, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week. Stay tuned.