Up from Weequahic

New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture and the Class of '58

By Sherry B. Ortner, Duke University Press, 334 PAGES, $29.95

Sometimes the announcement of a book just leaps out of a publisher's catalog and grabs you by the throat, and such was the case with this study by Sherry Ortner, a MacArthur Prize- winning anthropologist who has made her career as an authority on the Sherpas and on gender. Ortner and I were at Bryn Mawr together, and a decade ago she mentioned that she was beginning a study of her own class at Weequahic High School in Newark, N.J., as an ethnographic experiment in American class mobility. Although I grew up in suburban Boston, I graduated from high school in 1958 as well, and this book is very much the story of my generation of American Jews, who came out of the sedate '50s and encountered the next decade's social turbulence and excitement.

To understand their experience of social mobility, Ortner decided to track down her 304 classmates at Weequahic, conduct interviews with them and analyze the way that cultural capital, movements of the '60s and economic changes had influenced their lives. She found 246 of them and interviewed about 100. Ortner is an entertaining writer with a strong personal voice, and indeed, as she traveled to about 80 cities and drove (usually white-knuckled) over thousands of miles of American highways, she sometimes thought of the book as a road novel and herself as a female Jack Kerouac. Novelists, she writes, "are the traditional ethnographers of their own cultures."

But although she also cites Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, Weequahic High School's most famous alumnus, as literary influences, Ortner is much more burdened by the theories and vocabulary of Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Marx and Pierre Bourdieu. Too often, her academic determination to make the data fit a pattern fails to account for the irrepressible life revealed in the fascinating stories she tells.

New Jersey Dreaming is divided into two chronological -- and stylistic -- parts. In the book's more academic first half, Ortner examines the making of the class of '58 in terms of its class background, ethnicity, race and gender. Then, in a more novelistic voice, she traces the class members' lives up to the present. Before the 1967 race riots drove Jewish families away, Weequahic High was 83 percent Jewish; Roth unforgettably recites the school cheer in Portnoy's Complaint: "Ikey, Mikey, Jake and Sam / We're the boys who eat no ham / We play football, we play soccer / We keep matzos in our locker."

The class of '58 was also overwhelmingly white and heterosexual, with only 19 black members, and even today no "out" lesbians and only three gay men. But in Ortner's view, race, ethnicity and even sexuality are really displacements of class. She sees Weequahic as typical of late-'50s America in a couple of respects: its middle- and lower-middle-class distribution and its participation in the "renormalization of the family" after the war, which endorsed conventional gender and family models and disguised serious disruption. The upward mobility of the Jewish alumni of Weequahic, Ortner argues, was representative of the class of '58 in the United States as a whole: "People's individual fates are best seen as tied to larger social movements." Her classmates' economic and professional advancements, she maintains, reflected the decline of anti-Semitism and rise of the civil-rights movement and women's liberation, as well as the economic surge of the post-World War II decades.

Although Ortner decided not to let her interviews with classmates stand alone as an oral history in the manner of Studs Terkel, the characters, memories, and opinions of these people will be the most interesting part of the book for most readers. Their accounts of how immigrant families planned for their children, the encouragement and opportunities offered to Jewish men, and the role of accident and luck in their destinies suggest a rather different story from Ortner's academic and theoretical arguments. Individual voices and personalities also seem to have more to do with individual fates than Ortner wants to concede; shifting social movements alone, for example, can't explain why Ortner herself has been more professionally successful and adventurous than any other woman in her high-school class.

In particular, Ortner's insistence that the Jewishness of Weequahic was not a very significant factor in the life experiences of the class members seems to ignore or deny some of the most intriguing implications of the study. The non-Jewish members of the class certainly thought it mattered. "Sometimes when there was a Jewish holiday," recalls Marie Rio, "I would be one of maybe ten in the whole school [who didn't celebrate it]." Elaine Colecchio pretended that she had a Jewish mother in order to claim kin with the majority.

Although Ortner looks at marriage patterns in the class, she does not study the rate of intermarriage. Some of the Jewish girls rebelled in high school by dating "hoody" non-Jewish boys from the working class, while the boys declare themselves to have been terrified of shiksas. But once they went to college, how many eventually were part of the great wave of Jewish intermarriage in the 1960s, a development I suspect was related to class mobility and cultural capital? Ortner's Marxist definitions of class miss the force of cultural change in the '60s as well, a time when my own formerly ghettoized Jewish relatives started joining Alcoholics Anonymous, dealing drugs or painting in acrylics.

Above all, I wonder about the next generation. In her project journal, Ortner notes, "I'm thinking to do something about show business, in which a number of the children of the Class of '58 were [trying to be] involved." This comment strikes home, as not just my son but the sons of most of my friends and editors want to be actors, screenwriters, comedians and producers. I don't think Marxist theory can explain this shift. Is it an overall American pattern, produced by Hollywood and the celebrity culture? Is it an indication that the children of the assimilated Jewish professional class have a yearning for the Catskills? Is it the attraction of a "creative" life opposed to the workaholism of their upwardly mobile parents?

I would be eager to read Ortner's sequel, but I hope she will listen more to what her subjects say and pay less attention to the voices of her theoretical masters. More Bellow, less Marx!