Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Paul Goodman

Parshah Vayak’hel             Read excerpt from “My Kind of Synagogue”

Paul Goodman (1911-1972) was born in NYC to Barnett and Augusta Goodman, who were both immigrants. He never knew his father, who abandoned the family when Paul was an infant. This left his bohemian mother, a working single parent. He had a Hebrew school education, and graduated first in his class at Townsend Harris High School.

As a child, Goodman freely roamed the streets and public libraries of his native New York City, experiences that later inspired his radical concept of “the educative city”. He graduated from The City College of New York in 1932 and completed his PhD. work at the University of Chicago in 1939 but was not officially awarded his doctorate until 1953.

Goodman was a pacifist and anarchist whose beliefs, expressed in prose, poetry and social criticism, helped shape the doctrine of the New Left of the 1960’s. Committed to personal and sexual freedom, he believed that society’s institutions inhibited innate human creativity, caring and non-violence. The freedom with which he revealed, in print and in public, his homosexual life and loves (notably in a late essay, “Being Queer” ) proved to be one of the many important cultural springboards for the emerging gay liberation movement of the early 70s.

Though a Columbia professor, he was invited to teach at the University of Chicago but he was fired from his job (as he was fired from every teaching job in his life) because he insisted on his right to fall in love with his students. He was never in the closet about his bisexuality and saw no reason to hide it even in the face of the trouble it caused him in that less permissive time. Through the next twenty-five years he lived with his common-law wife Sally. Goodman had two daughters, Susan (whose mother was Virginia Miller, Goodman’s first wife) and Daisy, and a son, Matthew Read.

Midlife found Paul Goodman drained and fearful in the face of his status as a marginal artist with children to raise. He wrote in a journal: “I am at a loss, in our great city, how to do anything at all that could make an immediate difference in our feeling and practice (and so in my own feeling and practice). Therefore I have ceased to want anything; I do not know what we want.” It was at this time that he met Fritz Perls, a German Jew who spent the Hitler years in South Africa and fled to the United States as the apartheid regime arose there. Perls had studied with the founding generation of Freudians but soon developed a very unconventional therapeutic practice. Perls’ ideas blended well with Goodman’s and they were soon involved in a rich collaboration, founding the Gestalt Therapy Institute and writing Gestalt Therapy.

This exposure shifted Goodman’s career from artist/writer to social critic. He wrote no more stories or plays and fewer poems. His breakthrough book, Growing Up Absurd, was rejected by a dozen publishers before finally seeing print in 1960 and becoming a huge success. Soon the rest of society began to catch up to him as young people began to rebel against the excessive conventionality of the fifties. He was well placed to address the anti-institutional critique which emerged at this time and led to massive change in the years to come. By the mid-sixties he was adopted as sort of an uncle of the youth/student movement, wrote a book a year, and made almost constant campus appearances. His contribution was scholarly yet personal, classical yet revolutionary, and thoroughly natural and anti-institutional.

As the movement became the Movement and shifted to a struggle between the Old Left and the New Left, Goodman remained unapologetically free. Many of his former followers abandoned him as he refused to offer a blueprint for building structures for the future, preferring the formulation of here, now, next. He seemed both saddened and relieved by this and soon settled into his familiar status as outsider critic, but now with a comfortable fame and some financial security.

In 1967 his son Mathew died tragically in a mountain climbing accident. Friends say he never recovered from the grief this caused him. Soon his health began to deteriorate and his writing mellowed into the reflections of an old warrior. He died of a heart attack on August 2, 1972 just short of his sixty-first birthday. A prolific writer, nearly all his books are out of print (they are widely available second-hand, however).

American Anarchism, from a mural by Susan Greene, includes Paul Goodman (front row). This mural is painted on the side wall of Bound Together Anarchist Collective Bookstore, 1369 Haight Street, San Francisco.


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