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Requiem for a Mentor

Robert Lowenstein, a 1928 graduate of Rutgers College who recently died at the age of 105, was a teacher at the legendary Weequahic High School in Newark, a sage of uncompromising principles, and a fount of love and inspiration for one of America's preeminent novelists, Philip Roth. By Philip Roth

Philip Roth and the late Robert Lowenstein
Novelist Philip Roth, inset, was a student of the late Robert Lowenstein’s in 1946. Twenty years ago, they developed a close, enduring relationship. As Roth put it: “In the spirit of Bob Lowenstein, I will put the matter in plain language, directly as I can: I believe we fell in love with each other.” Photography by Benoit Cortet (top); John Munson (bottom)

I was 12 years old when I entered the Hawthorne Avenue Annex in February 1946. The annex, a 15-minute bus ride for me from the main high school, was where you went as a Weequahic High School freshman in those days. The first teacher I had to face on the first hour of my first day at the annex was Bob Lowenstein. Dr. Lowenstein. Doc Lowenstein. He was fresh from serving in World War II; unlike most high school teachers he was unassumingly in possession of a Ph.D., and what was recognizable even to a 12-year-old was that this was a formidable man who did not gladly suffer fools.

Bob was my homeroom teacher. This meant that I saw him first thing in the morning, every single day of the school year. I was never to take a course with him—I had Mademoiselle Glucksman for French and Señorita Baleroso for Spanish—but I didn’t forget him. Who at Weequahic did? Consequently, when it came his turn to be mauled in Congress’s anti-Communist crusade of the 1940s and ’50s, I followed his fate as best I could in the stories that I had my parents clip from the Newark newspapers and mail to me.

I don’t remember how we came together again in the 1990s, more than 40 years after I’d graduated from Weequahic High. I was back in America from having lived largely abroad for some 12 years and either I wrote to him about something or he wrote to me about something and we met for lunch at Zelda [Lowenstein’s wife] and his house in West Orange. In the spirit of Bob Lowenstein, I will put the matter in plain language, directly as I can: I believe we fell in love with each other.

He sent me his poems in the mail, sometimes as soon as he’d finished writing them, and I sent him my books when they were published. I even sent him the final draft of one book—American Pastoral—to read in manuscript. There was lots in the book about early 20th-century Newark and I wanted to pass it before him to make sure I’d got everything right.

I sent a driver down to West Orange to drive Bob the two and a half hours up to my house in rural northwest Connecticut, and together the two of us had lunch and I asked him to tell me what he’d made of what I’d written. We talked over lunch—we talked all afternoon long. He had, as usual, a lot to say, and I believe I listened to all that he said no less attentively than I listened in that 8:30 homeroom at the Hawthorne Avenue Annex when he read out the announcements for the school day.

calloutIn my novel I Married a Communist, the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, says, “I think of my life as one long speech that I’ve been listening to.” For me, Bob’s is one of the persuasive voices I can still hear speaking. The tang of the real permeated his talk. Like all great teachers, he personified the drama of transformation through talk.

I should mention that when he arrived at my Connecticut house from West Orange, he got out of the car with a book in his hand. What he’d been reading on the drive up were the poems, in French, written by the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy during the course of a brief life that ended 100 years ago. I knew, of course, that Bob was a serious man, but only when I saw that he took Péguy to read on the road did I realize just how serious.

In 1993, when I turned 60, I gave a reading at South Orange’s Seton Hall University and the reading’s sponsors threw me a little birthday party afterward. Bob and Zelda were there. In fact, my reading that night was introduced by Bob, who lived a mile away from Seton Hall and never missed a poetry reading there. He was then 85. That he had 20 more years of sparkling life left in him—well, who could have known that, except perhaps Bob himself?

I had written to ask him to introduce me, and seeing him up at the Seton Hall lectern that night recounting with great wit and sharpness and charm our first acquaintance as pupil and teacher made me inordinately happy. I believe it made him happy too.

Bob was the model for a major figure in I Married a Communist, a book I published in 1998 recalling the anti-Communist period I mentioned earlier and that savage, malicious mauling that people like Bob suffered in those years from the teeth and the claws of the scum then in power.

The character is a retired high school teacher named Murray Ringold, and, like Bob, he teaches at Weequahic High, though not, like Bob, Romance languages but English. I also altered Bob’s appearance, his war record, and certain significant details of his personal life—Bob didn’t, for example, have a hotheaded murderer for a brother or a wife who was a victim of a fatal crime in Newark—but otherwise I tried to remain true to the force of his virtues, as I perceived them.

I also included in passing his singular pleasure of hurling a blackboard eraser when what was said by the pupil at whom the eraser was hurled seemed to him radically knuckleheaded and more than likely the oafish outgrowth of inattentiveness, the crime of crimes.

The subject of I Married a Communist is, at bottom, education, tutelage, mentorship, in particular the education of an eager, earnest, and impressionable adolescent in how to become—as well as how not to become—a bold and honorable and effective man. This is no easy task, as we know, for there are two large stumbling blocks: the impurity of the world and the impurity of oneself, not to mention one’s massive imperfections of intelligence, emotion, foresight, and judgment.

The mentors of the adolescent in question, Nathan Zuckerman of Newark’s Weequahic section, are mainly the American patriot Tom Paine, the radio writer Norman Corwin, the historical novelist Howard Fast, the English teacher Murray Ringold, and Murray’s brother, the angry Communist zealot Ira Ringold, whose murderous rage, whose own destructive core, the man himself is vainly in flight from. “The men who schooled me,” Nathan calls them. “The men I came from.”

This book about a boy and his men opens with a brief portrait of Murray Ringold, the Ringold brother who is not violent and whose rage is tempered and reserved for unwarrantable injustice. Murray Ringold, by the way, undergoes an education of his own. So, too, did Bob, of course, when, impaled suddenly on his moment in time, caught in the trap set to ruin so many promising careers of that American era—a casualty like thousands of others of the first shameful decade in his country’s postwar history—he was forced for six years out of the Newark school system and his chosen profession, banished as a political deviant and a dangerous man to let loose on the young.

I refer now not to a boy’s but to an adult’s education: in loss, grief, and, that inescapable component of living, betrayal. Bob had iron in him and he resisted the outrage of the injustice with extraordinary courage and bravery, but he was a man, and he felt it as a man, and so he suffered, too.

I hope that in my novel I have given ample recognition to the qualities of our late, legendary, and noble friend, who understood, as did the poet Charles Péguy, that “tyranny is always better organized than freedom.” I don’t know how Péguy found this out but Bob learned it the hard way.

I’ll conclude with a few lines from the opening of I Married a Communist. I am describing the fictional teacher Mr. Ringold, better known to those of us in the unwritten world as Doc Lowenstein:

“He was altogether natural in his manner and posture while in his speech verbally copious and intellectually almost menacing. His passion was to explain, to clarify, to make us understand, with the result that every last subject we talked about he broke down into its principal elements no less meticulously than he diagrammed sentences on the blackboard … Mr. Ringold brought with him into the classroom a charge of visceral spontaneity that was a revelation to tamed, respectabilized kids who were yet to comprehend that obeying a teacher’s rules of decorum had nothing to do with mental development. There was more importance than perhaps even he imagined in his winning predilection for heaving a blackboard eraser in your direction when the answer you gave didn’t hit the mark … You felt, in the sexual sense, the power of a male high school teacher like Murray Ringold—masculine authority uncorrected by piety—and you felt, in the priestly sense, the vocation of a male high school teacher like Murray Ringold, who wasn’t lost in the amorphous American aspiration to make it big, who—unlike the school’s women teachers—could have chosen to be almost anything else and chose instead, for his life’s work, to be ours. All he wanted all day long was to deal with young people he could influence, and his biggest kick in life he got from their response.”

Farewell, esteemed mentor. •

Copyright 2013 by Philip Roth, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.