Robert Brustein

Robert Brustein

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 15 1997 3:30 AM

Robert Brustein

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       Yesterday, I shuttled down to New York to attend the funeral of my Aunt Rose. She had died at the age of 96, the last remaining member of my father's generation. As I greeted the other mourners and passed the open coffin, appalled at the ghastly cosmetics applied to her wizened face, I couldn't help but ponder on all that was passing with her. The Brustein family had emigrated from Poland in 1895 when my father was 7. Like many Jews of their time, they lived on the Lower East Side, nine of them in a single room, boys in one bed, girls in the other. The toilet was a locked outhouse on the ground floor, six stories down. I remember my father telling me how, when he needed to relieve himself, he used to shout, "Ma, throw me down the johnnie key and a piece of bread and butter."
       My grandfather was a shoemaker, but when cobbling failed to produce a living, he put my grandmother to work in the kitchen and started a restaurant on Hester Street. My father and his three brothers were the waiters. Because my Aunt Rose was a beauty--a redhead--they put her in the window with my Aunt Sally to attract the customers. I suspect the diners were more attracted by the price and the eight courses--"soup to nuts for 15 cents."
       Now I'm saying goodbye to the last representative of over a hundred years of an immigrant family in America. I realize with a start there are only seven of us left with the family name. Four of them are my brother (in his 70s) and I (about to turn 70); my son Daniel; and his son, my grandson Max, who bears my father's name. We're a vanishing breed, and intermarriage will only kill us off faster. My recent remarriage to an extraordinary Jewish woman whom I adore, after 18 years as a widower, must say something about my continuing belief in the possibilities of the family and the persistence of the Jews. But my wife is past childbearing, and I'm fast approaching the biblical limit of three score and 10. What are Lear's words after Gloucester offers to kiss his hand? "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality." I understand why David Mamet has a play called The Disappearance of the Jews.

Robert Brustein is artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.; professor of English at Harvard; and theater critic for the New Republic.