Jewish moral voices on ‘Naked City’ – Part III

This is the third of three columns exploring Jewish moral voices in the classic series “Naked City” (1958-1963), utilizing oral histories I did with writers and producers.

One of the last Jewish statements on “Naked City” was found, in a curious manner, in an episode that aired on April 3, 1963, “Howard Running Bear Is A Turtle,” written by Alvin Sargent and B. Schweig (pseudonym for Ernest Kinoy). It dealt with a love triangle involving Otsego and Mohawk Indians who, as a tribe, were construction workers in New York.

Piper Laurie portrays Mary Highmark, a Native American woman whose marriage had been arranged to a man she does not love, a co-worker of a man for whom she has long had strong feelings.

Aware of his wife’s inability to show him affection, the husband gets drunk and attacks his co-worker high on the 47th floor of a construction site, falling to his own death in the struggle. The Indians close ranks and refuse to discuss the fight with police. Their insular council is more concerned with protecting and exiling the man who fought back in self-defense in order to enable him to follow certain tribal rituals intended to honor the dead man’s soul and thus spare it from wandering and mockery.

Needless to say, resourceful young detective Adam Flint (Paul Burke) visits an expert in Native American customs in order to understand exactly what is happening here. The whole episode is a well-done and moving early TV lesson in multiculturalism.

The man involved in the fight, Howard Running Bear (Perry Lopez), wants to come forward to the police, declare that it was an accident, and begin a new life with his beloved. But the tribe shackles him with traditions and obligations and even collects money, despite their modest circumstances, to be sure that he follows the prescribed course. The tribal leader tells him, “Your people and what made your people are more important than selfishness.”

Howard Running Bear is torn by guilt from all sides, both regarding his obligations to the tribe and his sense of duty to keep the woman from falling further and further into self-destruction.

The police make some headway in the case when an African American woman, a Miss Knox, calls to say that she witnessed a fight. The small but significant role was acted by Cicely Tyson in an early, effective performance.
Miss Knox, a secretary, quotes a Jewish co-worker who also witnessed the fight. She cites the punchline from an old Yiddish joke, “du kenst krig’n g’harg’t azay,” to the effect that there are some things that one can obviously get killed doing – like grappling at the top of a construction site. Tyson spoke her Yiddish line well.

Interestingly, the Jewish woman is not shown. Either she has not come forward or has left it to her black friend to talk to the police. What does come forward is the Yiddish expression. Did the writers think it comic relief to have an African American woman speak Yiddish in a serious drama about Native Americans? Certainly, the role is most respectful of African Americans, depicting a black woman as a secretary instead of the usual stereotype as a domestic and crediting her with language skills.

Where was the elusive Jewish woman who was quoted? Was she intended to be an older mentor or a contemporary of Miss Knox? Certainly the Jewish voice, as represented by the Yiddish expression, was intended as a voice of sense, of old world “centering.” But there is no older Jewish woman to voice it, only the suggestion of one.

While Jewish characters are absent in the episode, there are interesting Yiddishisms and references to Jews here. Early on, Adam Flint relates something of the history of the Mohawk and Otsego Indians to his partners, noting that in the 1880s the Mohawks began “kibitzing” skillfully on construction beams and soon were encouraged to go into that field because of their aptitude for it. Observing how different races and religious groups learn to work together, another policeman told of a Cossack who worked as a night watchman in a Reform temple.

Is the “Jewish question” even more present in the drama? Is it a parable on tradition versus modernity that refers back to Judaism as well as to Native American culture? The tribal elder asks Howard if he could tell his father or father’s father of his inclination to break tradition. Mary protests, “These people are wrong, and all the fathers are dead.” Is that the theme here?

True, Mary later tells the elder that she was ashamed of “ugly” behavior mocking Native American customs at a social gathering. She tells him that “even though you’re my enemy and have ruined my life,” she understands who he is and why he has to do the things that he does.

Howard Running Bear turns himself in to the police because, as he puts it, “Too many people have been hurt. Someone had to put a stop to it.” Is that this episode’s commentary on “tradition”? Is the message here that while old traditions can be respected, they should not be allowed to hold sway over moderns.

Both Sargent and Kinoy, whom I interviewed, respectively, in 2001 and 1999,10 say that they intended no “Jewish” agenda in the episode, which they recall as based on a news story of the time.

Kinoy’s father was a schoolteacher in Brooklyn, while Sargent’s, who died quite young, sold horse feed in downtown Philadelphia. Both writers received but a smattering of formal Jewish education. Kinoy left his Sunday school when a teacher forbad him to report scientific facts that he learned in public school. Sargent had his bar mitzvah and, after his dad’s death a year later, he said Kaddish daily for a year at a nearby synagogue.

Though he did not understand the service, Sargent said he felt “secure” with the small minyan (prayer quorum of 10 or more). Still, Sargent, whose family observed kashrut (the dietary laws), said he felt “rejection” in his widening gap of knowledge about Judaism. He regrets that he did not pick up the Yiddish language, because it was “whispered at the table.”

After serving in the Navy at the end of World War Two, Sargent did some acting but was predominantly a writer. He jokes that the typing and Morse Code skills he learned in the service “made” him a writer. He wrote for “Naked City,” “Route 66,” and “The Nurses.” For several years he has written films. Three that have Jewish characters are “Julia” (1977), “Ordinary People” (1980), and “White Palace” (1990). He won Oscars for his work on “Julia” and “Ordinary People.”

Kinoy enjoyed a bit more immersion in Yiddish culture. Indeed, he used for this very episode a pen name taken from a Y. L. Peretz character, B[ontsche] Schweig. He told me that he pulled out the nom de plum when he did not like the way his ideas were edited and when he was on the staff of a rival network.
He believed that the latter reason applied to this script, as he had no recollection of negative feelings about it. Beginning when he was a small boy, Kinoy had long been interested in Native American, especially Iroquois, culture and enjoyed visiting Indian reservations as a child.

In both earlier and subsequent years Kinoy’s professional pursuits immersed him in Jewish history, life, and culture. Before Columbia College, where, he says, he majored in the “college radio station,” he attended the Ethical Culture High School, largely a secular Jewish phenomenon.

While at college he took a radio writing course, funded by NBC, which was always searching for behind-the-scenes talent, and he went to work for the network, making his niche early in the then-experimental medium of television.

Among his early programs of the post-war years were “NBC University Theatre” and “The Big Story.” Early in his career he did a lot of writing for the Jewish Theological Seminary’s “Eternal Light” series. Among the most famous series for which he wrote were “The Defenders” and “Roots.” He won a Christopher medal for episodes of “The Rescuers,” which told of Christians who helped Jews under the noses of the Nazis.

During World War Two Kinoy was, for some months, a prisoner of war in Germany. One of his earliest broadcasts, “Walk Down the Hill,” was a Studio One production about a Jewish serviceman confronted with the dilemma of whether or not to admit to being Jewish.11 He also wrote the first film on Entebbe, “Victory at Entebbe” (1976), and the docudrama on the Neo-Nazi march in “Skokie” (1981), starring Danny Kaye.

Given the credentials of both writers, one understands why Yiddish and other Jewish terms entered their script about Native Americans. They told me, separately and sincerely, that they cannot say for sure whether or not that episode was a protest, conscious or subconscious, against the omnipresence of Jewish traditions in their respective experiences.
In these vintage “Naked City” episodes, the voices of older Jews, whether implied or heard, whether strident or nagging or humorous, added dimensions of decency and common sense and popular wisdom to a younger generation in peril. Some of television’s best writers drew upon their Jewish background and their struggles with it in order to enable characters to find direction, commitment, justice, and responsibility.


Updated 8/3/05


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