Philadelphia Story

For this Jewish writer and intellectual, childhood took place in a “decaying, fear-ridden city” with a mob family who called it home.

New York Jewish gangsters Al Tannebaum and Abe “Kid Twist” Reles with District Attorney Burton Fitts in 1940. Copyright Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images.

New York Jewish gangsters Al Tannebaum and Abe “Kid Twist” Reles with District Attorney Burton Fitts in 1940. Copyright Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images.

Observation
June 11 2015
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 


The New York Jewish intellectuals had it easy. They may have grown up in poverty in the immigrant neighborhoods of Brooklyn, but the educational and cultural horizons to which they aspired were embodied visibly in the Manhattan skyline just a subway ride away—a clear, unmissable compass point. As for their Chicago peers, admittedly they may have had it a little tougher. And yet, in reading Saul Bellow or Isaac Rosenfeld or the latter-day David Mamet, it becomes clear that your average Chicago Jewish intellectual emerges from the womb as a fully developed philosopher, moving from that city’s cheap streets to its seminar rooms as instinctively as a salmon swimming upstream.

No, the true miracle is the Jewish intellectual from Philadelphia. That city raises no skyward pointers. Tribal, nihilistic, fundamentally anti-philosophical, it is a chaos. In the words of the filmmaker David Lynch, who was living there when he conceived of his cult movie Eraserhead, Philadelphia is “the sickest, most corrupt, decaying, fear-ridden city imaginable.” No one has ever determined the particular sinister ingredient responsible for this distinctively twisted character—Quakerism? the miasmal waters of the Schuylkill River?—but the talents who do emerge from its deceptively orderly street grid frequently turn out warped. Think Bill Cosby—or Noam Chomsky.

This impression is not dispelled by You Think It Strange, Dan Burt’s brief, pungent memoir of his youth in 1940s and 50s Philadelphia. Burt, seventy-three, is a poet of some accomplishment—a late development after his long and successful career as a lawyer (he represented General William Westmoreland in a highly publicized 1982 libel suit against CBS)—and he resides today in London. But he was born the son of a semi-pro boxer turned butcher in South Philadelphia, and grew up in a family of immigrants, brawlers, cops, and crooks. Burt’s memoir conjures up this now vanished world of hardscrabble, Jewish Philadelphia in a poet’s prose, quick and sharp as boxing jabs, with passages of bruising lyricism.

Burt’s father, the son of a hard, violent man, was another hard, violent man. During the Depression, grandfather Burt once beat his then thirteen-year-old son for spending part of his own earnings on a pair of shoes rather than handing over the full amount: “The legend was his father’s belt struck him so hard there were bloodstains from his ass on the ceiling.” The son proceeded to inflict this legacy on his son, who writes here of his father in a combination of rage and grim admiration.

Dan Burt’s mother, for her part, was a daughter of Philadelphia’s Kevitch family, a mixed Jewish and Italian clan that was in thick, as was the way of things, with both the police and the mob. The Kevitches, who held court at Milt’s Bar & Grill, a family-owned saloon in the city’s infamous Tenderloin district, had their hands in a range of illegal activities, from gambling to prostitution. Burt especially relishes telling of his uncle, Al Kevitch, a police detective (on the vice squad, naturally) who was on friendly terms with the Mafia don Angelo Bruno. Detective Kevitch was also himself a suspect in the non-fatal shooting of Bill Meade, a local political boss, though his guilt was never proved.

From the age of nine, Dan Burt worked in his father’s stores: first Joe’s Meat Market on South Fourth Street, then a butcher shop in nearby Pennsauken, New Jersey. He cut meat, short-changed customers, and killed rats, as required. It was drudgery, and it violated child-labor laws even at the time, yet he wrests visceral imagery from those places—as “when hail or heavy rain thrummed on the sheet-metal roof” in Pennsauken, or when, on Fourth Street, “the stink of rotten eggs and ammonia from fowl-shit mixed with sawdust” emanates from the poulterer’s next door.

After describing his childhood and early schooling, Burt recounts his escape from that world, an exit not by design but, in Philadelphia fashion, by impulse and accident. Though an indifferent student, he applied to Central High, the city’s venerable public magnet school, in order to impress a girl. At Central, a history teacher took an interest, seeing past the boy’s poor grades and regular visits to the principal for brawling. With the teacher’s encouragement, Burt matriculated at La Salle College, a local Catholic institution, where he discovered a passion for English literature and for writing. In 1964, persuaded by the La Salle faculty to apply to graduate school, he left Philadelphia for Cambridge in England, followed by Yale law school.

If this were a New York or Chicago memoir, it would no doubt end with the buoyant steps of a young man leaving for England. But it is a Philadelphia story—and so it ends instead with a sixteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, a miscarriage, and a car crash that left Burt in traction with a broken neck and his passenger, a beloved La Salle professor, with lifelong brain damage. Our author gets out of Philadelphia, but he carries its scars.

 

As it happens, I have a connection to this book, and not only because I grew up in Philadelphia or even because my maternal grandfather was, like Burt’s father, in the meat business there. The real connection is through my father, who grew up in the Tenderloin (where his mother ran a flophouse), and knew the Kevitches—though I never knew Dan Burt or had heard of him before reading his memoir.

My father was in his fifties when I was born—and died three years later—and so he belonged to the generation of Burt’s parents. As a boy his first jobs included cleaning the floors in a Chinatown opium den and helping to run numbers in the Tenderloin, likely in the employ of the Kevitches. During the Depression, he got a job as a welder at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and was foreman on the main weld of the World War II battleship New Jersey, the most decorated vessel in U.S. history and today a floating museum in the Camden, NJ harbor. He was a good friend of both Al Kevitch and Bill Meade, and I think I can reveal here, a half-century after the event, that Burt’s uncle was in fact guilty of shooting the political boss Bill Meade—at least according to my family lore. The two men made up afterward.

Having belatedly decided that he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a welder, my father entered medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. When he couldn’t afford the final semester’s tuition, Dan Burt’s grandfather, “Big Milt” Kevitch, paid his way. Years later, my father expressed his gratitude to the elder Kevitches with a set of Limoges china for their 50th-wedding anniversary.

You Think It Strange also clarifies something that had long puzzled me. This was my mother’s assertion, which I recall from my childhood, that my father had once caught a marlin. Though it always seemed unlikely to me that one could catch a marlin in Philadelphia, I never thought to ask her about it; for years I contented myself with a vague mental image of my father in a skiff on some tropical swell, wrestling a mighty fish like in The Old Man and the Sea.

But now I find in Burt’s memoir recollections of charter-boat fishing out of New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay. It seems to have been his father’s passion, to the extent that he eventually became a charter captain. This section of the book is informed by the closest Burt comes to describing any kind of love between father and son, a sentiment mediated through a shared trial-by-Atlantic Ocean, which threw harder punches than either man. Prompted finally to ask my mother, I learned that, indeed, my father had made his catch from a New Jersey charter boat—a somewhat less Hemingwayesque image than I had fancied though still evoking, courtesy of Burt’s memoir, a sense of maritime danger enough.

Burt has traveled a long way from the meat markets of South Philly. According to his website, he even renounced his U.S. citizenship in protest against the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush—which suggests he has assimilated quickly enough into Britain’s cultural elite. Yet in the roiling pages of You Think It Strange, as well as in many of his poems, this Philadelphia Jewish intellectual returns to his earliest, most formative, and most painful experiences in order to explain why, as he writes, “if a lover raises her hand to caress me unexpectedly, I flinch.” The past pulls fiercely at us from beneath the waves, and we hold onto the line with bloody hands.

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