The restaurant at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay conjures up the bustling atmosphere of the train station this museum once was. The large clock gives way to a panoramic view of the city.
It was a few days before Christmas and I had finished lunch with our hostess. As we prepared to pay, a gentleman at the neighboring table said hello to us. “You’re American?” he asked. We smiled, momentarily becoming tourists in a city that we both knew well.
“Born in New York,” I added.
“I recognized your accents,” he said in a voice inflected with Russian. He knew New York well. “I studied at the Ethical Culture School. On West 64th Street.”
“Unbelievable,” I answered, and meant it. This was the same school that my mother and aunt had attended for a time. The world’s walls seemed to have retracted by inches.
These two principles, well-roundedness and dedication to culture as a form of service to society, are cornerstones of ethics.
At that time, universities were much on my mind — and they still are. I was then in the midst of applying to American universities. And now I have begun applications on the national French platform, Parcoursup. My desire to study creative writing may well lead me across the Atlantic. Regardless of where I end up going, I have had to consider what values I will take with me into the “next chapter.”
This searching of the inner landscape has led me to venture beyond the French environment in which I grew up, and explore my own New York family story.
Fellow students and teachers alike have told me that my upbringing was “different” from that of other people my age in that it emphasized culture, the arts, and spirituality. And perhaps they are right. My education and experiences have taught me how to diversify my interests and to use what I do best — writing and performing — to concretely benefit society. These two principles, well-roundedness and dedication to culture as a form of service to society, are cornerstones of ethics. My upbringing has revolved around ethics, something I had never been aware of until now.
I vaguely recall seeing the Ethical Culture School during an earlier visit to the Upper West Side. It is a tall, red brick building and one of the Ethical Culture Society’s original structures; there are now middle and high school campuses in Fieldston, the Bronx.
The Manhattan school, which now teaches from pre-kindergarten to 6th grade, was founded in 1878 by Felix Adler as the Workingman’s School, to offer workers’ children the opportunity to study free of tuition. The idea merged with his newly-created Ethical Culture movement. Adler, a German Reformist Jew, promoted a secular humanist “non-religion” with the motto “deed before creed.” The aim was to encourage young people to have a broad range of interests, namely in culture, and educate them to act for social change, undefined by their religious differences or social backgrounds.
The Ethical Culture Society then flourished on the ground floor of political activism in 20th century America. The Workingman’s School became the Ethical Culture School and hosted events where problems like racism, violation of workers’ rights, and antisemitism were discussed, and solutions put forward. Talks on civil rights and urban poverty were given by figures such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B DuBois and Eleanor Roosevelt. “See things not for what they are,” ran one of the school’s maxims, “but for what they might be.” Adler’s philosophy helped propel organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), founded in 1924, and the National Child Labor Committee, established in 1904.
A strong tie bound my mother’s family — the Mann family — to this society. This tie was my great-grandmother, Edna.
A psychologist, she was a part of New York’s community of assimilated Jewish intellectuals, many of them secular. Later in life, she would counsel gang members in the South Bronx and live to be a centenarian. Earlier in the century, she was a close friend of John Lovejoy Elliott, who had headed the local branch of the Communist Party, co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and taught at the Ethical Culture School.
One of Elliott’s pupils was future theoretical physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” Robert Oppenheimer. He was shaped, as many others were, by a strong footing in ethics through seminars around social issues, workshops on moral dilemmas and a common core of subjects.
Later in life, she would counsel gang members in the South Bronx and live to be a centenarian.
My fascination with Oppenheimer grew when I discovered more connections between his family and mine: both lived on West 94th Street at different times, and a young Robert learned and practiced sailing around Bay Shore and Fire Island (Long Island), where both families had secondary homes in the 1920s and 1960s. Oppenheimer’s parents, and my mother’s, were both married by the then-directors of the Ethical Culture Society: Felix Adler himself in 1907, and Algernon Black, one of Adler’s protégés, in 1951.
In my mother’s generation, pupils learned next to nothing about the school’s history. But perhaps the values of this education left a stronger mark on her, and consequently on me, than either of us knew. Wherever I go to university, I intend to take with me what I have learned of ethics, the words I have written for this column and those yet unwritten, and the stories of my family; in this case, my grandmother and great-grandmother, neither of whom I met.
This doesn’t mean that I will apply to the Ethical Culture School; it doesn’t encompass university, and the tuition fees are exorbitant now. Nonetheless, it stands as a spiritual throughline between a family of Jewish intellectuals and their grandson, an atypical American writer who, for now, lives in Normandy. A writer named Robinson whose way will soon change.