Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

How High School Drama Helped Me to Become a Sociologist: An Essay in the Sociology of Autobiography (1)

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

How High School Drama Helped Me to Become a Sociologist: An Essay in the Sociology of Autobiography (1)

Article excerpt

After dinner, my parents assembled all the relatives in the living room. I then entered through a narrow hallway. Although I was barely four years old, I was unafraid. I wore a white shirt and dark brown corduroy pants. "Sha, sha," my father urged ("hush, hush"). When the room fell still, I sang a Yiddish song about young boys, "fresh out of their eggs," playing under the boughs of saplings. Whether I sang well or poorly I do not recall. I know I sang confidently, mimicking the expansive arm movements of performers I had seen on the Ed Sullivan Show. I also remember being surprised that I momentarily captured the attention of my normally raucous two- and three-year old cousins. When I finished, there was murmured approval and cheek pinching and lipstick staining my face. Then we drank tea and milk and indulged in my mother's pastries. My first public performance was a success.

Although I seemed to take naturally to performance, there was actually little natural about it. My father taught me a repertoire and promoted bravado. My mother's unflagging love instilled self-confidence. Therefore, it only seemed natural to me that, at the age of five, I should jump, uninvited, onto the stage of a talent show at the synagogue and burst spontaneously into song. Why certain audience members thought I was obnoxious I couldn't imagine. And although some public school teachers apparently disapproved because I was Jewish, it even seemed natural to me that I should be asked to play the lead role of Santa Claus in my grade two class play, advancing to the role of Narrator for the grade four Christmas pageant, presented in the auditorium before the whole primary school.

Whether reading from the Book of Matthew or singing Unter di grininke baymelekh, performance always gave me pleasure. I enjoyed the attention and the prestige, to be sure. But it was also fun to escape the everyday world through an act of imagination and to pretend to be someone else; and it was exhilarating to be able to influence the emotional state of so many people all at once. For a decade--between the ages of five and fifteen--the real world grew malevolent. I felt less an actor than the object of other people's actions. But performance offered temporary escape and hinted at better possibilities that would be fully realized only in high school.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Saint John was a largely working class city of 100,000 people. With only a small middle class, it lacked a university, a professional theatre, and even a bookstore. And while in other Canadian cities of similar size, such as St John's, Newfoundland, there was a rich folk tradition of music, theatre, and dance that drew sustenance from preindustrial times, I was never aware of any such heritage in Saint John.

Although I was born in Saint John, I was a stranger there. My family's culture did not have a great deal in common with that of the 250 or so embourgeoisified and acculturated members of the Jewish community, and very little in common with that of the city's mainly English Protestant and Irish Catholic Gentile population.

My father, a tailor, had grown up in Poland, where he was a young activist in the Labour-Zionist movement. He trained as an agricultural labourer in preparation for work on a kibbutz. He never made it to Palestine because in the pre-war years the British Mandate sharply restricted the entry of Jews so as not to upset the Arab majority. He escaped Poland just as the Nazis entered and spent the war years in a workers' battalion attached to the Soviet Red Army, driving camels in Kazakhstan, sewing uniforms in a Ural Mountain kolkhoz, and surviving the bombing of Smolensk and the siege of Stalingrad. Following the war and two years in an American-controlled detention camp in Germany, he embarked for the city where his only North American relative, a first cousin, happened to reside: Saint John.

My mother had arrived twenty years earlier from Lithuania. …

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