The Clare Spark Blog

June 14, 2013

“Father, dear father, come home with me now”

TennightsinbarroomThere will be many tributes to fathers in the next few days. This one will deal 1. with my own father, and 2. with the efforts by social psychologists of the 1940s to rehabilitate the image of the Good Father in order to advance their moderate conservative agendas.

First, my own father, Charles Spark, M.D. My father the doctor was born in NYC, and was the child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. During the 1930s he was a research fellow in endocrinology at Montefiore Hospital, and before that he had published a pioneering research paper while still in college. Immediately after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, he wrote and directed an antifascist play at his workplace. After Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to join the medical corps even though he was over-age (he may have been drafted, and lied to me). Henceforth, we followed him around the country as he ran pathology laboratories at army bases in Texas, Missouri, and California. His precocity, versatility, and willingness to sacrifice himself for his country was impressed upon me from early childhood. I prayed every night that he would not be killed, even though he never saw combat. That is how children think.

He was shipped off to Guadalcanal where he had a violent allergic reaction to the environment, and was shipped home, claiming later that he almost died. For reasons that escape me, he gave up medical research for general practice and we moved into a veteran’s housing project in Elmhurst, NYC. We had never lived high, so the cramped material surroundings were not deeply shocking. All that mattered was that our family was reunified and my father practiced medicine for enlisted men and their families next door.

So my father assumed the proportions of a family hero. He was not only a high achiever in his field, I was expected to live up to his accomplishments, and later in life when I asked him why he gave up medical research, he wrote to me that I was to be his “greatest contribution to medicine.” What I could not know as a child was that neither he nor my mother had any parenting skills. They were nothing like the elites of Europe, who, early on prepared their offspring to take a leading part in world affairs, to travel broadly, and to imbibe high culture and languages, preferably from tutors.

Call it benign neglect. Both parents assumed that I would be an outstanding student and would find a suitable mate (though he frequently warned me about the duplicity of men, binding me to him in the process: he almost didn’t attend my wedding in 1959). So it was their examples as intelligent individuals with high expectations for me that set me up for the future. I learned nothing from my family about sexuality, the other emotions, and neither of them had an interest in Freud or his followers. But neither indoctrinated me in any religion or ideology, though my mother often mentioned her pride in her rabbinic ancestors (see I had the impression that they must be liberals of some kind. Sadly, they are both deceased, and I cannot interrogate them on these interesting questions.

It was not until I was at Pacifica and made the acquaintance of numerous New Leftists that I began to look into masculine versus feminine roles. From political scientist Carl Boggs I learned that paternal authority had been eroded for centuries. From feminists, I learned that there was a furious debate over the status of women: hard left women tended to believe that women had greater status when their labor was visible (e.g. Mary Kelley), while another faction (social democratic, e.g. Kathryn Kish Sklar) argued that domestic feminism leading to the welfare state marked the advance of all women. It was noted that by all that under industrialization, the father was no longer the paterfamilias who distributed resources in the household: father was now out of the house and the role of religious training fell more and more on mothers. (Ann Douglas wrote a best seller, still highly regarded, but controversial: The Feminization of American Culture. Douglas preferred the terrifying Calvinist God, not the feminized Jesus of the 19th century.) Hence the widespread nervousness among conservatives about “the [encroaching] nanny state.” 1970s feminism was the last straw (see .

During my dissertation research, I discovered that social psychologists at Harvard University were frantically attempting to rehabilitate the good father, merging the figures of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, in order, they said, to raise “civilian morale.” Feminization, it was believed, would lead to Marxism, not to the conservative reform that such as Henry A. Murray, Gordon Allport, Talcott Parsons, and their Harvard colleagues preferred as moderate men. Indeed, Talcott Parsons published an article in an anthology edited by Isacque Graeber and Steuart Henderson Britt, Jews in a Gentile World (Macmillan, 1942) that limned the bad father: the Jewish God was nailed as brutal, militaristic, and domineering. Whereas Murray and Allport in their notebooks on civilian morale praised the Leader/ Father/God as loving and committed to democracy, the very embodiment of Eros. (On this topic see, also the postwar planning intended to continue this “moderate” agenda: .)

So on this Father’s Day, 2013, we find ourselves in a quandary. Do we want Father to be the stern disciplinarian, the masculinist role model for boys who will divert libido from too-compassionate, radicalizing mothers to [moderately] Democratic fathers (as these social psychologists suggested)? Can women raise children without a husband? Conservatives and liberals are still slugging it out on this question.

As for my own father the doctor, I remain deeply attached to him, notwithstanding his many flaws. Both he and my late mother believed in me, in some ways stimulated me, and in other ways left me alone. Perhaps by default, they encouraged me to be curious and to admire and emulate the most daring thinkers in Western civilization.

Charles and Betty Spark mid-1930s

Charles and Betty Spark mid-1930s

May 12, 2013

I Remember Mama: Betty Spark

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 5:43 pm
Tags: , , , , ,
Betty Spark ca.1930s

Betty Spark ca.1930s

Everyone probably has some gripe with her or his Mother, which we are supposed to put aside on Mother’s Day. So today, I am going to remember all the maternal accomplishments of my late mother Betty Spark, a.k.a. Betsy Ross, Rebecca Dorothy Rosen, and others I can’t remember.

My mother’s parents were both immigrants from somewhere in Eastern Europe. She named me after her beloved mother Clara Thumin, whose rabbinic family is shown here (at the bottom of the page).

Clara, who was fluent in seven languages, ran away from her family at age thirteen, I am told, to make her way in America. She met and married Louis Rosen, and together they ran a dry-goods store in Columbus, Ohio. From family stories, Clara was a premature anti-racist, as was my mother Betty.

Here is my mother at her most glamorous, taken probably in the 1930s, the decade when her mother died. She met my father the doctor in New York City shortly after her mother’s early death, and worked for the Republican National Committee under the nom de guerre of Betsy Ross. Later she became a social worker, an investigator of Harlem families who might or might not be eligible for welfare benefits.

My mother was not enthused about domesticity (though she was great at soups and gefilte fish, made from scratch), was even delinquent in many respects, but here is what she taught me anyway:

She taught me to read when I was five years old, and gave me such books as Bible stories for the very young; during one of my many childhood illnesses she brought me stories from the opera, so that to this day I remember reading the plots of such obscure operas as “The Daughter of the Regiment” or “Fra Diavolo.” We always listened to radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, then sponsored by Texaco,I believe; she taught me arithmetic; she taught me to swim; she taught me to love museums; she had graduated from Ohio State University in three years, so I graduated from Cornell in three and one half years, at which point (after I had taught tough kids science at Jamaica School for a semester) she advised me to apply for a fellowship at Harvard, where I met my future husband Ronald Marvin Loeb, father of my three children, including Daniel S. Loeb (Betty gets some of the credit for Dan’s drive and interest in investing). She was also sociable and fascinated by the lives of strangers, whom she might meet on a bus or anywhere.

But most of all, she taught me to stand up for myself, even when I was strongly on the Left (at least theoretically). I am thin-skinned, so she said “Now, Clare. People are going to attack you. Build a fence around yourself and defend your turf.” My mother was never anything but a capitalist, and yet she was proud of me, wherever I happened to be on the political spectrum. A strong woman herself, given to taking the microphone at shareholder meetings to complain about the lack of women on their boards of directors, she was the embodiment of unconditional love and an exemplar of strong convictions that were not to be hidden from any and all antagonists.

We should all have such mothers, mothers who insist that we be ourselves without losing interest in the lives of other people. She most strongly identified with her mother Clara Thumin’s illustrious Romanian family, said to be rabbis stretching back to the thirteenth century.  I proudly claim that lineage for myself, a secular Jew who reads closely and fights for universal literacy. Thanks forever, dearest Mother.

Thumin family

Thumin family

April 28, 2013

Hatred and sanity

Nazi ad for Der ewige Jude

Nazi ad for Der ewige Jude

Despite the fact that Psalms 97:10 adjures the faithful “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!” (Tanakh), I’m writing this blog because a dispute broke out on a friend’s FB page, regarding whether the emotion of “hate” was always to be detested and repressed, or whether it was the sane response to a world spinning out of control: authoritarian, death-obsessed, and failing. I was the “hater” who was stigmatized. So I’m writing this blog to defend not only myself but Philip Roth’s character “Mickey Sabbath” in his 1995 novel SABBATH’S THEATER, a righteous hater if there ever was one. Call Mickey crazy if you prefer: I call him and his creator genius artists, with out-of-bounds imaginations that are unsurpassed.

I laid out the longstanding antagonism between “Christian” love and “Jewish” hate here: I will quote the most relevant paragraph now to illustrate the “binary opposite” that any historian should recognize; the subject was journalist Andrew Sharf’s characterization of “the Eternal Jew” as neutral, not derogatory:

No European myth is benign or even neutral with regard to Jews or to the liberal values that Andrew Sharf wants to defend, nor can it be otherwise. All Jews, including the “eternal” ones, are “bad”; the antithesis of Christian and Jew corresponds to the antipodes of Christian [organic] conservatism* and Jewish [classical] liberalism: (heartfelt) mysticism and (heartless) science, trust and withering skepticism, loyalty and betrayal, community and mob, busy bee and parasite, garden and wasteland. “Good Jews” like Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, Cumberland’s Sheva, Walker’s Schechem, and Dickens’ Riah who appeared in the humanitarian literature of the late eighteenth and early to mid-nineteenth century were good only because they were more Christian than the bourgeois Christians who were behaving like Shylock and Fagin; capitalism purged of its Judas red-beards would presumably lose its heartless and exploitative character. Christian landlords would never evict a tenant, Christian bankers would never foreclose a mortgage: this demented idea is fundamental to the völkisch revolution of Nazism,[2] but was not their invention. Nazi anti-Semitism, then, was only partly about the considerable material advantages in expropriating Jewish property and expelling Jewish rivals: Nazis, to maintain their credibility as redeemers and protectors, would have to plunge a stake in the heart of the “demon Thought” (to use Byron’s expression). For the antifascist critical mind is not found in a guilt-ridden Adam shrinking from conflict with illegitimate authority or from the perception of other irreconcilable conflicts. Instead, the anti-Semitic/ anti-intellectual mind anxiously mystifies class and gender antagonisms by positing (an unattainable) harmony as “normal.” Brandishing images of solidarity, the fascist bonds people only to “romance” in a false utopia necessarily maintained through deceit, terror and catharsis.

I was born into a non-observant Jewish family: all my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most of my childhood was spent following my adored father-the-doctor around the US as he ran various pathology laboratories for the U.S. Army in which he served as a captain (after the war, he told me resentfully about the antisemitism he encountered). I was usually the only Jewish kid in my eight public schools in Texas, Missouri, California, then in Coney Island and Elmhurst Queens. Nothwithstanding the lack of intellectuality in my immediate family, I was never indoctrinated one way or another to either hate being “Jewish” or to hate the invariably white Christians in my immediate environs. Not long before she died, my mother Betty Spark asked me, were I to do it over again, would I choose being Jewish. (This from another secular Jew.) I said of course, and thought to myself today, “I only wish I had learned Yiddish for its spectacular vocabulary of derision,” a language my mother spoke and understood, but had not bothered to teach me.

My family ca. 1942

My family ca. 1942

I’ll say this about my sort of Jewish Mother: she advised me never to carry a grudge; i.e., never to become a hater. As the daughter of a doctor, I have diagnosed many “haters” whose anger was turned against themselves, leading to ulcers and worse. I take after Betty in this respect, and cling to those qualities in myself that make me a better warrior and a wiser mother and grandmother. Some think of me as cold, detached, and male-identified.

When I, as a citizen and a historian, see politicians, lackey journalists, schoolteachers, professors, former lefty friends, Pacifica radio, and millions of quacks, abuse their powers by mis-educating other people, I believe that a form of “hatred” is the only rational response. That does not mean that I am impervious to the power of old attachments: I remain fond of many who no longer speak to me. It also does not mean that I have succumbed to Christian forgiveness. I don’t believe in forgiveness in all cases, though I do not oppose those who are more “charitable” than I. I prefer repentance, self-understanding, and reparations. (My observant son-in-law tells me that Jews are required to ask for forgiveness for humiliating slights three times. If the victim refuses to forgive, then the Jew may hold on to his anger. If thievery or violence are involved, then one goes to the law.)

Put me in a box with Captain Ahab, a character who is almost always wildly misread for ideological reasons (see We are connoisseurs of revenge. We are warriors against all forms of evil, especially arbitrary, duplicitous authority that diminishes the creativity of individuals. If that makes me a jerk with both a ramaging Id and a Hebraic puritan superego,  and, hence, a bit mad, so be it. I stand with Herman Melville, Philip Roth, and bless his crazy heart, “Mickey Sabbath,” a Jew I can understand.

[For earlier blogs on the problem of evil, see, or]

[Note on the Nazi poster advertising the “show” that 1. this is unmistakably the Wandering Jew of medieval myth, then resuscitated during the Reformation; and 2. Nazi ideology held Jews responsible for bringing communism to Germany. Anticommunism was the chief factor that bound Hitler to the German people. The Wandering Jew myth had nothing to do with communism, which did not exist when the myth was invented, though some trace it to the New Testament.]

October 11, 2009

Veteran’s housing (post world war two), Elmhurst, Queens

veterans housing project, postwarThis is where I lived for about five years after the second world war, in which my father had served as a pathologist in the medical corps. There was a Kiwanis Club contest for oratory, and I gave a talk “Why Veteran’s Housing Is Unsatisfactory, ” regaling the club with stories of paraplegics and other enlisted men living in tiny huts with kerosene stoves that sometimes exploded, injuring or killing (?) the occupants. I lost the contest to a girl who spoke about “Prejudice,” but I still got a Demosthenes medal that I  treasure. One of the judges was a Democratic city councilman who had supported this ghastly project as a suitable reward for veterans and their families.

I remember my classmates who were with me at P.S. 13: they had names that were Irish, Polish and Italian; i.e., their parents were probably very recent immigrants, like the Eastern Jews who terrified the WASP elite, who then passed the Immigration Act of 1924, closing the golden door to all but a few.

My memories of this project were happy, mostly because my family was reunited, and my father’s medical practice was next door to our tiny place. But it pains me to think of how enlisted men were treated, and it was obviously a class issue. The memory of this place still haunts my dreams, and perhaps that is why I place such emphasis on the development of military psychiatry. See the index to my blogs here: The original photo was published in the Queens Post, and the red line shows where it was cropped. My late mother, Betty Spark wrote a weekly column for them, and her interest in people and her ability to write about almost anything of concern to the unfamous was passed on to me.

September 24, 2009

Liberal opinion leaders and my puritan discontent


David Weigel tracking the Ron Paul demo

 Last evening, a local NPR station broadcast Terri Gross’s interview with David Weigel, an observer of “the Right” with some libertarian credentials of his own. The subject was ostensibly the emergence of a new theme in “right-wing” protest: fiscal conservatism and reverence for the U.S. Constitution. Gross pushed her guest, I thought, to agree with her that the growing deficit was not the real reason folks were turning out for town-hall meetings and mass rallies; rather the deficit (like Constitutionalism) is a cover for the conservative movement to regain momentum for its customary attacks on pro-choice feminism, blacks, illegal Latino workers, and gays. But what was most striking was her view that the protesters were mere clay in the hands of crypto-Fascist organizations and the demagogues of Fox News Channel, prime villains in the recruitment and organization of the 9-12 march on Washington. In other words, she views “the Right” as an undifferentiated mob of proto-Nazis and fascists, illuminated in their dogma by “divine right” that they misread into the Constitution.

    I complained about the program on my Facebook page, and got thoughtful responses from an old friend I met while in graduate school at UCLA, now a history teacher in a Southern university. I promised a blog about the subject, really an excuse to lay out my own philosophy of education, for NPR, like its Pacifica Foundation predecessor, is a listener-supported “educational” outfit that also gets considerable taxpayer funds from the CPB, in addition to the tax-deductibility of individual contributions. The topic is also timely, because Roger Simon has been raising the subject of the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, because it has recently come to light that an Obama operative was directing artists to make work in support of the administration’s policy initiatives. Simon and his companion Lionel Chetwynd are wondering what happens when governments fund the arts and humanities.

    As I have been demonstrating all summer on these blogs, the progressive movement has been engaged in enlarging the role of government in ways that are at best, a mixed bag, and at worst, protofascist. Where do I stand with respect to the “culture wars” as a scholar and teacher through this website? As readers of the blogs will have concluded by now, I view every reader, whatever their background or ideology, as an educable person who would rather be free from coercion than to be yanked around by demagogues and other persons who pander to the prejudices of their audiences. I see myself as an emancipator from illegitimate authority and dogma of every kind.

    I was heavily influenced by both of my parents, the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. My father Charles Spark was a research pathologist during the 1930s, then an army doctor (a pathologist in charge of U.S. army base laboratories during the second world war), and when he was discharged, he treated veterans and other people of modest means. From him I was taught to be skeptical of most medicine, and especially psychiatry: “We know very little about the brain,” or, “most doctors are quacks,” he warned me. He had no use for the ways of the nourveaux riches but also all establishments, and had a keen nose for corruption. But most importantly, he stressed the importance of preventive medicine and empathy for the anxieties of those who suffer pain.

      My mother Betty Spark was a minor journalist and social worker, primarily an investigator of persons on relief, some of whom were frauds. Like many other women of her generation, she was an underachiever but an avid consumer of high culture and great talker. She also had an insatiable interest in other people, and made friends in unlikely places. She was no snob and moreover, she was relatively free of racial prejudice. The notion of writing off other people as simpletons, yahoos, or puppets, was foreign to her.

     In college (the Cornell State College of Agriculture) and in my first bout of graduate school (Harvard Graduate School of Education), I was trained very rigorously in science education, with little time for the humanities. (Doubtless, I take personal umbrage when city dwellers look down their noses at rural populations who cope with the vagaries of nature and whose labor is intense and uninterrupted with frivolities.)* Whatever I have done in the, for me, almost recreational fields of history and literature is almost entirely the result of independent reading, for I had few prerequisites in history when I applied for the doctorate in history at UCLA after years of radicalism at Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. The result was that I brought the habit of skepticism, a strong work ethic, and the eye for detail inculcated by the science background, plus, being Jewish (secular) and expecting imminent catastrophe when and if I ever made a mistake or failed to read my environment accurately, I escaped indoctrination and gradually withdrew from prior political alignments, especially as I saw too much conformity to various lines of analysis and hero-worship on the Left as well as the Right. It was hard enough to deal with the idealization of my father the heroic doctor, and I will always struggle with that.

    One reader of this website asked me what I meant by “freedom” (one of the bad words I had listed as creating mobs, because it was so vague as to be meaningless, hence allowed anyone to project whatever meaning the “leader” preferred. See blog I answered him thus: the freedom to see and correct my own misperceptions and mistakes. This may seem like an evasion to some, but I am quite serious. Hip philosophers and social theorists argue endlessly about “structures” versus “agency” and if you don’t listen to them, your work is “under-theorized.” So be it. To conclude this rather personal blog, “freedom” like the other words I listed as potentially mob-making, has a meaning that is dependent on its context. To a small businessman, freedom may entail lower taxes and less bureaucratic red tape in complying with government regulation. Do such persons idealize the “free market”? That is a question we should all be asking, and I would be interested in getting responses from readers to this blog as to what “freedom” means to them, if the word has any concrete, timeless content at all. Don’t look here for final answers, and call me Isabel (an inside Melville joke).

*David Brion Davis (later a famous Yale professor and authority on slavery) allowed me into his American intellectual history course during my last term at Cornell, though I had none of the prerequisites.  I recall thinking that this endeavor was child’s play compared with the sciences, and gazed incredulously at my friends in the school of Arts and Sciences who were seemingly on an extended vacation (unless of course they were science majors).

Create a free website or blog at