Guest Commentary: ‘The silent generation’
By Rabbi Rudin
“You are all a lost generation.”
When Gertrude Stein said those now famous words to Ernest Hemingway in 1923, she had in mind the writers and artists who came of age during World War I and in the “Roaring Twenties” decade that followed. Besides Hemingway, they included F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Isadora Duncan.
Of course, Stein’s use of “lost” did not mean the war-shattered generation had physically disappeared. Rather, its members were psychologically and emotionally adrift, without purpose, or direction. But for me, her description is also a lament for members my own American generation who were born between 1930 and 1939; many of whom currently live on Sanibel and Captiva.
We were too young to fight in World War II, so we could never be members of Tom Brokaw’s celebrated “Greatest Generation.” The unpopular Korean and Vietnam conflicts were our fights; conflicts most Americans want to forget.
Because of the devastating Great Depression, my generation was not as numerous as the famously self indulgent “Baby Boomers” born between 1946 and 1964. Alas, no capital letter describes my 1930s cohorts like Generation X, those Americans born between 1964 and the early 1980s. And already assuming leadership positions in our society are the self-absorbed “Millennials,” the generation of Americans who came to adulthood around 2000.
While sociologists devote a myriad of academic, economic and political studies to the Boomers, Xers and Millennials, little attention is paid to my forgotten Depression generation. In that sense, we are indeed “lost,” lacking even a collective name to identify us.
My personal childhood memories were permanently shaped by the titanic armed struggle against Nazism and Fascism and then learning of the horrors of the Holocaust. Even today when we say “pre war” or “post war” my generation always means World War II, and Franklin Roosevelt was the only American president most of my generation knew as youngsters.
I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia and while heading home one warm afternoon from elementary school, I learned of a major event in world history: the death of President Roosevelt at age 63 on April 12, 1945. I heard the radio reports blaring from every house: “The President is dead.” It was an eerie unforgettable experience for a history-minded fifth grader.
After the war came the long “Cold War” with global Communism. My generation’s frightening school routine included hiding under our desks in case of a Soviet nuclear attack upon the Washington, DC area.
On the domestic scene, the obscene McCarthyism of the 1950s frequently silenced many of us when we became adults. As a result, we were often complicit, even cowardly, in the face of domestic political intimidation and fear. Our parents constantly told members of my generation never to sign any peace petitions, or to publicly engage in controversial causes like civil rights. If we did so, we were warned, our names would likely be put on a dreaded “blacklist” and that could ruin our future careers and reputations.
My mother and father were outwardly proud when I participated in a weeklong African American voting rights demonstration in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in February 1964. However, they privately worried that such a public activity would block me from any professional advancement. No wonder we were sometimes called “the silent generation.”
My generation’s mantra was “get a job,” start a family, and follow McCall’s Magazine instructions to engage in something called “togetherness,” the highest good of American society.
Many of my generation were either too old, or too passive to participate in the 1965 “Woodstock Revolution” and fewer still became 1970s “flower children.” But, the 1930s were not a total loss: after all, Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, Mary Travers, Gloria Steinem and Elvis Presley were all born in that decade.
But, my generation came up empty on the political front. Four of us born during the Great Depression ran for the presidency, and all failed in their quest: Michael Dukakis, John McCain, Ralph Nader and Ross Perot. The last decade of Americans to be shut out of the White House prior to the 1930s were the 1810s. That is a record worse than the dismal Chicago Cubs who have not won a World Series since 1908. But at least the Cubs, especially this year, always have an annual chance to win it all, but a member my generation will never gain the keys to the White House.
None of the three modern religious leaders who continue to have the greatest impact upon me was born in the 1930s: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1900-1972), Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and Pope John Paul II (1920-2005).
The last time I checked, the best known American religious leaders of my generation were Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Jonestown cult leader Jim Jones and TV evangelist and one time GOP presidential candidate Pat Robertson. But if those four do not inspire you, there is hope: Jorge Mario Borgoglio, Pope Francis, was born in Argentina in 1936
A fitting theme song for my generation is from Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies:”
I’ve run the gamut, A to Z
Three cheers and dammit, C’est la vie
I got through all of last year, and I’m here
Lord knows, at least I was there, and I’m here
Look who’s here, I’m still here
Happily, Sondheim, born in 1930, is still here with the rest of our generation.
-Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s Senior Interreligious Adviser, is the author of the recently published “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise” (Texas Tech University Press). The book was nominated for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.