The Corner

Preludes in C-sharp Minor

Today’s Impromptus is the last in a series — a series of notes on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest release, The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill. Like Eisenhower, the author had a well-known brother named Milton. She quotes him in her book, and so do I, in my notes.

Milton Himmelfarb was a scholar, a keen surveyor of the Jewish scene, in particular. He made an observation that is often quoted today: American Jews, he said, earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.

I quote this remark in my Impromptus, and I think of Bill Buckley, wincingly — and guiltily. WFB often heard something quoted back to him: “Demand a recount.” That’s what he said when asked a question while running for mayor of New York. “What’s the first thing you would do if you won?” “Demand a recount.”

There was another remark he often heard quoted back to him — some version of, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty.”

He referred to one comment or the other as “my Prelude in C-sharp Minor.” What did he mean? Rachmaninoff wrote many things in his life, but he had a particular hit in his Prelude in C-sharp Minor — one and all played it in their drawing rooms. When Rachmaninoff gave a recital, people did not think they got their money’s worth until he played that famous prelude. This made Rachmaninoff sigh, apparently.

Milton Himmelfarb’s life produced much more than that one observation about Jewish voting habits — much more than that one prelude. But what a wonderful prelude! And how many of us compose even one?

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