One sunny day in the mid-1990s, Jackson Mac Low and I had lunch at the Zuni Café on Market St in San Francisco. It was early Spring, warm, and we talked and ate at a table outdoors under a sky whose blue had retained a cool California Winter hue despite the pleasant air around us.
I knew Jackson well by then, but as a fellow poet – a comrade more than a friend. Yet something got us talking about our personal histories that day, and we soon discovered that we were both from Chicago. I find that people from Chicago like being from Chicago, and that they like other people being from there too.
Carrying on, we realized to our surprise that we also shared a birthday. Each of us had been born on September 12th, Jackson in 1922 and I on the same day 20 years later, in 1942.
“In what hospital were you born,” I thought to ask him. “St. Lukes Presbyterian.”“But I was born there too!”
Jackson laughed. “Where did you go to college?” he asked me. “Oh,” I replied, “I spent a decade at the University of Chicago; it’s that kind of place.”“Don’t I know it,” he said. “I did too, most of one at least.”
Academic faculties change over two decades, yet it turned out that Jackson and I had studied with a number of the same people, most notably the philosopher Richard McKeon and David Grene, a classicist who was my professor when I was a graduate student on the Committee on Social Thought. He’d been a young Classics instructor when Jackson knew him.
All this was startling, and a sense of something like wonder settled over us, precipitating a change in our conversation which now seemed as if between a pair of doppelgangers. I’d brought Jackson a copy of my then-new book Prospect of Release, a set of fifty sonnets that turns on my two Fathers: Tadziu Poeller who died at 34, orphaning me, and Paul Mandel who married my Mother and adopted me. Another pair of doppelgangers. The procedures of my writing in the book were based in the ritual practices of Jews relating to death and in what one might call the Jewish theology of death as well.
Jackson read one of the sonnets aloud, picking one at random, then intoned a few of its lines with a peculiar emphasis, a kind of eloquence. Then he read a second one, this time silently, to himself, so that I don’t know which it was. When he looked up at me from the page, he said “Like you I’m Jewish.”“I had no idea,” I responded, “but I suppose I’m not surprised.”
“I was when I found out,” he went on. When he found out? I wondered what he meant. Suddenly I realized that, yes, I should be surprised at this news. A little earlier, Jackson had mentioned growing up in Kenilworth, a wealthy suburban community on Lake Michigan North of Chicago where home-buyers were required to sign what back then was called a “covenant” – a contract stipulating that they never sell their residence to a Jew.
The waiter arrived and set down the plate of calamari Jackson and I had decided to share. Nothing less Kosher than calamari!
“What do you mean, Jackson? And how did you ‘learn’ that you were, that you are, a Jew?” I asked as we sat in the sun with our dish of trayf.
We chewed for a moment, both of us; he took a swallow of wine. “Alone in the house one day – I think I was about 12 – I was going through the drawers of my Father’s desk and found some old papers in a folder, immigration papers, that referred to a ‘Michelovsky’ family – our family, obviously – noting that we were Jewish. Michelovsky must have turned into Mac Low soon enough. Somewhere I got the idea that my Mother’s family was Jewish too – though I no longer remember how. We were hidden Jews.”
Stunned, I asked Jackson whether he’d ever discussed the subject with his parents. No, he said. He’d seen no point in bringing it up with them.
We continued talking, and the tone of our exchanges soon relaxed. In a while, the Sun still high, our lunch was over, and we left the Café Zuni, walking a few paces together. I stopped. “I’m the other way,” I said.
The following day, thinking back on our talk, I considered the resonance of Jackson’s chance discovery with his poetic project, also one of discovery through chance, and it seemed to me that Jackson and his work alike had been formed by this discovery, just as the chance events of my own early life had formed me and my work, more powerfully I thought, than by any subsequent aesthetic or poetic choice he had made.
I recalled that Jackson’s son – who lived in San Francisco at the time; he was a mathematician or physicist if I remember correctly – bore the name Mordechai. A name from the Jewish Bible.
The name Mordechai occurs in one place only, in Megillat Esther, the earliest written record of an attempt to eliminate the Jews, set during the Babylonian captivity from @ 800BC to @500BC. Mordechai is the uncle of Esther.
The word “Mordechai” obscures its bearer’s identity as a Jew – it means “creature of Marduk,” the great Babylonian God. Just as “Esther” comes from “Ishtar” – the Babylonian Goddess.
These were the first hidden Jews, the first in the written record at least, and I wondered whether Jackson (and Iris Lezak, who I presumed was Mordechai’s Mother) had had them in mind when they gave their son his name. Did Jackson mean to memorialize his own hidden history in his son's name?
I'd love to have asked him, but I never saw Jackson again. Or not alone at least. I was already living in Washington DC by then and was only in San Francisco to visit my daughter Sarah.
I ask myself sometimes whether I’m the only person alive who knows that Jackson Mac Low was a Jew. It seems impossible. Yet, this part of who he was goes unmentioned in his Wikipedia biography.
Many questions don’t get answered. The relations between chance and all our doings, from identity through every question of how we live and die must be beyond measure.
Chance allowed me to know Jackson, and it gave me the pleasure of being born on the same day as he, in the same city, and of sharing so many inexplicable commonalities of biography with him.
Jackson Mac Low died on the 8th of December, 2004. If all holds true I'll be saying my last goodbyes as the 10th Winter from now approaches. But what holds true, really? Not nearly as much as we never know and occasionally uncover.
T O M M A N D E L POETRY & CHANCE
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