S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 June 28, 1947: 24-28

For some years, the Croesus of Providence Street, Worcester, where I grew up, was Mr. Wolfson. He lived in a mud-colored concrete villa higher up the hill than the tenement house we lived in and not far below the gates and eminence of the Worcester Academy, the minareted private school that crowned the hill. Mr. and Mrs. Wolfson lived in their villa all by themselves; on a street of multiple dwellings, theirs was the only private house. Several of the richer Providence Street residents had houses of which they occupied half. These were double wooden houses with a separate stoop and entrance for each family. But Mr. Wolfson's mansion of puckered concrete was all his own. It was a house around which one could build dreams. It had a turret and irrational wings and a massive front door with curtained glass panels at each side and a polished brass electric push button, like a doctor's. Concrete battlements pierced by alternate square and diamond-shaped apertures circled the roof. But the magic and the wonder of Mr. Wolfson's mansion was that it had, instead of the customary parlor windows, with their lace curtains on brass rods, a great, darkly resplendent oval of stained glass. The room with the oval window was itself oval in shape and it had in it an upright piano. The Wolfsons always referred to it proudly as "the music room." Neither of them played the piano and it is unlikely that they knew much about music; nevertheless, they were secure in the possession of the only music room on the hill. Mr. Wolfson's house, with its stained-glass window, was the Parthenon of Providence Street. Beyond the house and beyond the Academy was a country road called Lover's Lane. The older boys of the neighborhood used to take cherished out-of-town girls up to Lover's Lane (every out-of-town girl was cherished, regardless of her physical appearance) and on the way pause with pride in front of Mr. Wolfson's house and point out the stained-glass window. It never occurred to any of us to wonder what effect this multicolored jewel had on the light in Mr. Wolfson's parlor. We never reflected that the room might be gloomy; nothing about Mr. Wolfson could be anything but iridescent. He moved majestically up and down the hill in a nimbus of spectacular opulence.

Providence Street always referred to Mr. Wolfson as the Gvirr. A Gvirr was what we should now call a tycoon. Many Providence Street businessmen were referred to as Gvirrim, but Mr. Wolfson was; indisputably, the Gvirr. I remember hushed speculations about the extent of his fortune, ranging from bearish mutters of fifty thousand dollars to the flamboyant estimates of the bulls, who pronounced confidently that Mr. Wolfson must be worth two hundred thousand—probably because they enjoyed giving utterance to a figure so astronomical. Actually, it did not require much wealth on Providence Street to belong to the class of the Gvirrim. The term was applied somewhat loosely. For example, I remember going back to Worcester to visit my mother many years after the reign of Mr. Wolfson had ended. I inquired of the uncle with whom she then lived how his brother, who had formerly been his business partner, was getting on. I did not know that there had been a fierce quarrel between my uncles and that the two brothers were no longer speaking to each other, and was amazed at the flood of vituperation that followed my inquiry. I said I was sorry and, possibly to enlist sympathy for the hated uncle, I said that I had seen him that morning and that he had looked poorly. "Poorly!" cried his detractor vindictively. "He is a Gvirr. How can a Gvirr look poorly?" This astonished me. Certainly my other uncle, when I had met him that morning, had looked awfully shabby for a tycoon. I expressed skepticism. "Why," countered the embittered man jealously, "it is a well-known fact. In the real estate alone, he has four hundred dollars!" But Mr. Wolfson towered above such minor Croesi. He was the Gvirr.

Of all the Providence Street celebrities of my childhood, I can now see Mr. Wolfson the most clearly. I remember his sartorial elegance. In a community that, on weekdays, was not too meticulous about collars and ties, he was always sprucely dressed. He was a shortish, sallow man, with a militant, ginger-colored mustache, the ends of which he was always sharpening between thumb and forefinger, and he had ginger-colored hair, parted in the middle. His eyes, too, were yellowish—ophidian, incessantly darting about, with a look at once furtive and arrogant. He was a comb manufacturer, and he was the color of one of his own imitation-amber combs. I never remember seeing Mr. Wolfson smile; he was always grim. But since our lives in those days focussed in the Providence Street Synagogue, and since Mr. Wolfson, after an intense and scandalous campaign, became for a season its president, I remember him best as he was on Friday nights and Saturdays and high holidays, wearing the presidential regalia and sitting in state in a special armchair beside the Ark, opposite the rabbi. On these occasions, Mr. Wolfson wore a stovepipe silk hat, a Prince Albert coat, and striped trousers. The fabulous circumstance was that he owned these garments outright. In this, he was unique; in our circle, such garments were nearly always hired, and seldom used except for weddings.

I remember Mrs. Wolfson, too. She was a large, handsome woman and she had, in contrast to her husband, a benign air. Once, Mrs. Wolfson went to Boston and came back in a new tweed suit. This suit was a nine days' wonder. Such a fabric as tweed had never appeared in our neighborhood before. The Wolfsons were the first people on Providence Street to own a car. It was a Winton Six. I remember being awakened, early on a summer morning, by a chum with the information that Mrs. Wolfson was going to Boston in her car. We ran up the hill and, sure enough, there was Mrs. Wolfson, in a straw hat and veil, a little Gioconda smile on her lips, getting into her car to be driven off to her summer holiday at Revere Beach, a resort near Boston. It seemed to me then that this outing of Mrs. Wolfson's represented the ultimate glamour that life could afford.

The Wolfsons were childless. As there was much jealousy of them even before the scandal over the coveted presidency, there were many standard, and ribald, jokes about this fact, most of which I did not then understand. Providence Street took its revenge for Mr. Wolfson's opulence by reflecting on his infertility. It was not only the Wolfsons' wealth that made the gossip about them so invidious; it was also their social isolation. Their friends were all in Boston. They went constantly to see people in Boston; people from Boston came to see them. Neither my parents nor any of their friends ever visited the Wolfsons socially; they were never asked. I suppose that, like the Duke in Max Beerbohm's "Zuleika Dobson," Mr. Wolfson felt that there was simply no one on Providence Street qualified to join the Junta composed of himself and his wife. Some of our mothers occasionally got into the Wolfson house, though, when they went to solicit money for charity drives. They were always received by Mrs. Wolfson, who interviewed them graciously in the music room behind the stained-glass window. The visitors never went away empty-handed, but they invariably got the sense that their stay must terminate automatically with the bestowal of a check.

The scandal over Mr. Wolfson's accession to the presidency of the synagogue was a clause célèbre of my childhood. It would be difficult to convey to what degree the mental and spiritual life of Providence Street was obsessed by the idea of the importance of learning. I do not refer to secular education but to theological. An oligarchy, zealous and austere, dominated the intellectual circles of Providence Street, and its shibboleth was a knowledge of the Sacred Books. With a kind of jocular awe, it would be said of a man of learning, "He knows his Black Dots!" This subtle and heady praise was reserved for the massive scholars, the truly erudite. The Black Dots were periods placed singly or in slanting rows under the letters in the sacred chants—the "Song of Songs," for example—and were musical notations for their cantillation. A man's standing in the intellectual life of the community was determined, symbolically, by his familiarity with the Black Dots. My father belonged to a group whose avocation it was to read through the six basic Talmudic books of the Mishna once a year. Avocation is hardly the word, since, for the members of this group, it was their outside, worldly lives that were marginal, not their religious absorptions. They spoke in hushed reverence of the great scholars of Russia—the saints, or Gaonim, as they were called—who read the entire sixty volumes of the Talmud once a year. In this task, the saints were assisted by the circumstance that they knew most of the Talmudic books by heart anyway. But on Providence Street, the scholars contented themselves with reading through the six volumes of the Mishna, and I remember the celebrations, with wine and cake, that took place annually when the elderly students had completed their Talmudic marathons.

Just as the phrase "He knows his Black Dots" was the accolade of grace, so another phrase connoted the ultimate in vituperation. This was to say of a man, "He is a Grober Jung [Gross Fellow]!" It is impossible to convey, in a literal translation from the Yiddish, the virulent contempt of this expression. You might have written the English prose of a Walter Pater, but on Providence Street, if you were unfamiliar with theological law, the endless convolutions of Talmudic exegesis, you were a Gross Fellow and there was nothing to be done about it; spiritually and intellectually you were in limbo. You might have got rich by manufacturing combs, you might have a Winton Six, a tweedy wife, a stained-glass window, and connections in Boston, but to the Sanhedrin, who were the uncrowned dictators of the intense spiritual and mental life of the hill, if you weren't on speaking terms with the Black Dots, you were out of the running. The epithet Grober Jung conveyed a density not merely intellectual but spiritual, a coarseness of sensibility as well as opacity of mind. It sometimes amused me when it was applied by coarse fellows to others no less coarse, but the shot always told.

Now, Mr. Wolfson knew nothing at all about the Black Dots. He was, by common consent, a Grober Jung. I have thought since that if I had then known the phrase "inferiority complex," I might have used it to explain Mr. Wolfson and I have felt that it was the menace of the, to him, unknown Black Dots that did him in. Mr. Wolfson, it is clear to me now, must have had an intense awareness of his intellectual shortcomings. Perhaps he thought to compensate for them by acquiring the glittering bauble of the presidency of the Providence Street Synagogue, which had become vacant. In any case, Mr. Wolfson threw his hat into the ring. (Did he argue, I wonder, that at least he had the wardrobe for it?) His first move was to endow a Hebrew school for the young. There was no rabbinical Hatch Act to limit campaign expenditure, and Mr. Wolfson spent lavishly. The street buzzed with controversy and indignation. An ignoramus who had not even a bowing acquaintance with the Black Dots to be president! A manifest Gross Fellow for president! An illiterate comb manufacturer to sit beside the Ark, dominating the congregation and on an equal eminence with the learned and revered Rabbi Silver himself! It was unthinkable, it was blasphemous, it was obscene. Nevertheless, Mr. Wolfson won.

The first Friday night that Mr. Wolfson, in full regalia, walked down the aisle to the presidential chair, the atmosphere of the Providence Street Synagogue was quivering with tension. The cognoscenti focussed on the majestically advancing figure looks of hostility and contempt. One could hear a faint sigh of disapprobation. I remember a fascinating item of Mr. Wolfson's inaugural costume; with the stovepipe hat and the Prince Albert and the striped trousers I was familiar, but for this occasion the incoming president had provided himself with an extraordinary tie, the like of which I had never seen. It was not a tie, properly speaking, at all. It was a little, puffed-out bed of shiny gray silk or satin, which entirely covered the triangle formed by the silk-faced lapels of Mr. Wolfson's coat. From the center of this coverlet, there gleamed a diamond pin. The new president mounted the carpeted steps to the little platform slowly, and before he sat down, he looked for a moment with defiance at the congregation, his dull, shifty eyes seeking out his enemies: His look plainly said, "You may be the masters of the Black Dots, of which I know nothing, but I am master of you!" His glance swept for a moment to the gallery, where the ladies were segregated, and met his wife's. It seemed to me that they exchanged a look of mutual triumph. Then Mr. Wolfson gave a screw to his mustaches and sat down. I looked up at Mrs. Wolfson and was dazzled. She had seldom gone to the synagogue on Friday nights (her absence from these services had constituted the basis of one of the charges of impiety against the Wolfsons), but she was there that night to witness her husband's victory. I had never before seen Mrs. Wolfson in the evening, and I remember getting a clear impression that on this occasion she looked like an opera singer. She was ample, and I must have compared her, unconsciously, with colored posters of Tetrazzini at which I had stopped to stare in a record-shop window on Main Street.

The pride of office went to Mr. Wolfson's head and he eventually overplayed his hand. He must have been president for about six months and in the full tide of his power when an incident occurred that shook the street. One Saturday, during an interlude in the service, Mr. Wolfson did an unforgivable thing. He looked across the dais at Rabbi Silver and beckoned to him to come over to the president's throne. I was standing beside my father, not far away, and saw the whole thing, as I was afterward called upon frequently to recount. Rabbi Silver, in response to the president's gesture, smiled but did not move. He shook his head slightly. He meant to convey to Mr. Wolfson that it was not becoming for a parishioner to summon a rabbi, no matter how exalted the parishioner was. Mr. Wolfson motioned again, and Rabbi Silver smiled and shook his head again. For a moment, the little strip of carpet between Mr. Wolfson and Rabbi Silver became a charged field—a Canossa.

The incident might have passed without too many repercussions, because Rabbi Silver was a wise and tolerant man, had it not been for the dramatic intrusion of Mr. Rubinstein, the Providence Street drunk. Mr. Rubinstein was a little, watery-eyed, grizzled old man, who fascinated me because he was nearly always talking to himself; whenever you met him, he was likely to be engaged in a deep and engrossing conversation with himself, and he did not mind in the least if you eavesdropped. Sometimes Mr. Rubinstein had to be refused admittance to the synagogue, but on the day of the little drama of Mr. Wolfson and Rabbi Silver, Mr. Rubinstein was present, and in a state of comparative lucidity. Since he did not happen to be interviewing himself that day, he was able to register what seemed to him an unforgivable lapse of form on Mr. Wolfson's part. He lurched up to the foot of the steps leading to the presidential chair and shouted up to Mr. Wolfson, shaking a fist at him, "How dare you! You ignoramus, how dare you motion to the Rabbi to come to a Gross Fellow like you! If you want him, there he is. Go to him, and thank your God he speaks to you!" Mr. Rubinstein uttered the dread "Grober Jung" so loudly that the whole congregation heard it. Mr. Wolfson's habitual pallor deepened. The spasmodic working of his cheek muscles revealed that the barbed epithet had reached its mark. He became suddenly pitiful. He wilted. True, the insult had come from the scum of the earth, but Mr. Wolfson was only too aware that it represented the communal opinion of him. I got a quick, undefined impression that it represented Mr. Wolfson's secret appraisal of himself. The dread thing had been blurted out loud; it could not be recalled. For a few days, the despised Mr. Rubinstein became a hero, the spokesman of the spirit against the fleshpots.

From then on, things went from bad to worse for Mr. Wolfson. To be sure, he finished out his term of office. He continued to wear his Prince Albert and his stovepipe hat, he still twirled his mustache, but his eminence had become the eminence of the pillory. The virtuosi of the Black Dots jeered at him openly. He did not seek reelection, he no longer appeared in the synagogue, and he disappeared from my view and from the view of Providence Street generally. One day Providence Street munched with relish the rumor that Mr. Wolfson was "in trouble." His comb business had failed. His factory, it was said, had been taken over by the bank. These reports meant little to me. I still use to pass Mr. Wolfson’s house and gape at his stained-glass window. No one who inhabited such grandeur, I was certain, could really be said to be in serious trouble. It was not until I learned that the bank had taken over Mr. Wolfson's house and had dispossessed him that I got a true inkling of the tragedy. For a long time after that, I kept passing the house. It looked mournful. The windows, except for the stained-glass one, were boarded up. Either the custodians from the bank were aesthetes or the size and shape of the oval window presented a mechanical problem they were too lazy to solve.

I was to see Mr. Wolfson just once more. It was a late afternoon in October of the next year. Coming back from a tramp in the woods beyond the Academy, I picked up Mr. Rubinstein. He was swaying along, deeply absorbed in one of his rapt conversations. He made no acknowledgment that I had joined him, but he must have been aware of it, because when he presently made what he apparently considered a good point, he nudged me and gave me a sly, self-appreciative glance out of the corners of his rheumy eyes. As we came to the Wolfson mansion, I stopped. The setting sun had caught the stained-glass window and it blazed in a bewildering medley of color. Mr. Rubinstein, involved in his own dialectic, did not look at the window; he had stopped because I had, and he stood at the curb, his back to the house, summing up his case. As I turned regretfully away from the glory of Mr. Wolfson's window, I became aware of a nondescript figure toiling up the hill, on the opposite sidewalk. Suddenly, Mr. Rubinstein saw him, too; he forgot, for a moment, his personal argument and took time out to spout his automatic epithet at Mr. Wolfson. His voice rose in a kind of scream. "There he goes, the Gross Fellow!" he shouted.

It really was Mr. Wolfson. I should not have known him. He was tieless and collarless; his worn suit hung limply on his shrunken figure. His ginger mustache drooped wispily. He saw us and, suddenly energized, started swiftly across the street toward us. As he came closer, I saw that his eyes, fastened on Mr. Rubinstein, were maniacal; he was riven with hatred. He howled something at Mr. Rubinstein, who had already forgotten him and had resumed his earlier argument or, for all I knew, started another, entirely different. From the way Mr. Wolfson looked at him, I saw that Mr. Rubinstein symbolized for him the whole course of his downfall. I was sure that Mr. Wolfson was going to kill Mr. Rubinstein. Indeed, halfway across the road, Mr. Wolfson bent down and picked up a rock to hurl at Mr. Rubinstein. I remember being horribly certain that if Mr. Wolfson missed Mr. Rubinstein, the rock would smash the stained-glass window, and, curiously, my concern was divided equally between the beloved window and Mr. Rubinstein. Mr. Wolfson advanced, rock in hand, murderous. At this moment, something pathetic must have cropped up in Mr. Rubinstein's talk with his imaginary interlocutor. He was completely unaware of Mr. Wolfson's approach; he had forgotten him entirely, and the new and unguessable situation he had become involved in was so poignant that he sat down suddenly on the curb and began to cry. Mr. Wolfson advanced. I wanted to explain to Mr. Wolfson that Mr. Rubinstein was lost in a labyrinth of his own, I wanted to stop him somehow, but I was paralyzed with irresolution. So, now, was Mr. Wolfson. It is probable that the sad story it suddenly occurred to Mr. Rubinstein to tell himself saved his life, for Mr. Wolfson must have misinterpreted Mr. Rubinstein's tears as a plea for mercy. The rock dropped from Mr. Wolfson's hand. He came up to Mr. Rubinstein and pushed him with his foot. Mr. Rubinstein rolled over comfortably on his side, still weeping contentedly. For a moment, Mr. Wolfson looked down at him with dead eyes. Then he resumed his climb up the hill.

A month or so later, when I passed the Wolfson house again, it was covered with scaffolding, and workmen were going in and out the front door. The bank was converting the house into tenements. Where the stained-glass window had been, there was now a gaping, oval eye. No revolution since—neither the crash in Wall Street nor the overturn in Russia nor the ebbing away of capitalism—has ever given me such a quick and vivid sense of mutability as the mournful disappearance of Mr. Wolfson's stained-glass window.

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