Excerpt: Loving and Leaving Washington

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9781612348247The following is an excerpt from Loving and Leaving Washington: Reflections on Public Service (August 2016) by John Yochelson. 

FROM CHAPTER 2: SURROUNDED BY STRIVERS

Stately elms lined the streets of Buffalo, New York, in the 1950s. They almost blotted out the summer sun, making houses seem grander than they really were. Ours was a midsized Cape Cod bungalow. The picture window in the back looked out to a well-kept lawn, elevated garden, and detached garage. A dramatic wall-length reproduction of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love hung above the maroon velvet sofa in the living room. A handmade breakfront fit snugly into the dining room next to the paneled kitchen. There were four compact bedrooms upstairs, including one with carved twin beds for guests.

Kathryn and Sam Yochelson took great pride in 394 Woodbridge Avenue. They bought it in Dad’s hometown on the eve of World War II in 1939, not long before he was called to five years of military service in the Army Medical Corps. When they came back with a two-year-old son in 1946, Mom turned it into a jewel. She and Dad had come a long way. He topped the list of local psychiatrists. She found her own niche in the arts while raising two kids. Our home was the emblem of their success.

My parents’ courtship had a storybook quality. The setting was New Haven, Connecticut, in 1929. Sam, a Yale graduate student on full scholarship, calls on Kathryn, a striking young art teacher who lives with her family a few blocks from campus. She already has a wealthy suitor, who will one day inherit a chain of movie theaters. Kathryn falls in love with the scholar, picking him against the wishes of her father but with her mother’s approval. They marry at twenty-three, living on scrambled eggs and hard rolls. Sam completes a PhD degree in psychology, earns a medical degree, and trains in psychiatry. Kathryn teaches elementary school to make ends meet and audits classes at Yale Art School. By all accounts that’s the way it happened—a familiar plotline for thousands of American-born children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants.

Dad tried to enlist the day after Pearl Harbor. He was turned away for poor eyesight at first but was inducted soon enough to draw on his psychiatric training. He spent most of World War II as Major Yochelson in Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, where he screened soldiers for combat in the European theater. Mom, who had wanted to start a family for years, got pregnant with me in 1943. I was due on Christmas Day but arrived late. Dad ran red lights rushing to get her to the hospital on January 2, 1944.

The decision to return to Buffalo after Dad’s discharge made sense. The 1950 U.S. Census ranked the city as the nation’s fifteenth largest. Millions of European immigrants passed through on their way across the Great Lakes. No one knew that our hometown was peaking at midcentury—its port to be bypassed by the St. Lawrence Seaway, its steel plants shuttered by foreign competition, and its trees felled by Dutch elm disease. We lived in a vibrant, down-to- earth place where ten-year-olds rode the bus alone. Only the lack of a major league baseball club left Buffalo a notch below Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

My parents’ life experience shaped their ambitions for me. Both came from large families of modest means. Dad’s scholarly father, Sholom, never realized his dream of becoming a rabbi. Fleeing Vilna, Lithuania, as a teenager, he needed a way to support himself that required less preparation. He settled for schochet, or kosher ritual slaughterer. A pillar of the synagogue, he observed the Sabbath so strictly that my grandparents paid a non-Jew to turn the lights on and off on Saturdays. His ambitious wife, Fannie, with her trademark mink coat, always seemed to want more than she had. Their three sons and daughter worked their way through college—two doctors, a lawyer, and a teacher.

The American-born Yochelson boys eagerly shed the baggage of the Old Country. Their rejection of Orthodox Judaism stirred conflict. Dad rebelled against Sabbath restrictions that kept him away from sports, splitting his head open on the edge of a table trying to avoid his father’s belt. Middle brother, Morris, changed his name to Young, left for the West Coast, and was disowned after marrying a devout Catholic. Youngest brother, Leon, won grudging acceptance when his fiancée converted. A disappointed father saw all of his sons leave their faith behind.

Mom grew up in a more loving home. Her father, Nathan, a dapper scrap metal dealer, managed to support four boys and two girls without learning to read or write English. When times were good, he bought made-to-measure suits, smoked Cuban cigars, and shipped smoked fish home from New York. Affectionately, he called his daughter Kathryn his “little duck.” Mom adored her mother, Esther, a fragile beauty whose taste for learning and culture had a defining impact on the family. Esther’s failing health forced Mom to anchor the household in her teens. My grandmother’s early death from rheumatic heart disease left Mom—then a newlywed—devastated.

Mom’s brothers changed their ethnic-sounding family name from Mersky to Mersey as World War II approached. Two boys went into business, and two went to graduate school on the GI Bill. Mom’s younger sister studied nursing in Philadelphia, where she met her physician husband. Mom spent two years at normal school to earn an elementary school teaching degree. Her side wanted to make it in America, just like Dad’s.

My parents saw education as the key to my future. More than anything, they wanted to groom me for an establishment that had been beyond their reach growing up. Their time in New Haven laid the foundation for all the good things that followed. Dad, however, had been denied an entry-level undergraduate teaching post on religious grounds. The university sent him to medical school instead. My admission to Yale College would make up for the slight. Then we’d be a real Yale family. Mom and Dad would give me every edge they could. My part was making the most of the opportunities.