The Questions of a Lifetime
‘Why are we in America?” was the first substantive question I ever asked. It was 1939. I was 4 years old and speaking to my father, Yudie, in a San Antonio neighborhood not far removed from the frontier. He responded by writing a poem, in Yiddish, about how he left a Lithuanian shtetl in 1922 to join his siblings in America. My mother Sonia came from Poland, via Mexico, a few years later. When I got older, I joked that I thought everyone in Texas spoke Yiddish.
“Will there still be news after the war?” I asked my father during World War II. Each day he drove my brother William and me to our local public elementary school. There was no radio in the car, so my father wouldn’t leave the house until he’d heard the latest news about the war. I was always worried we’d be late. We usually arrived just before the tardy bell. I learned later that news would not only still exist but that the concept of news is elastic and ever-expanding, going well beyond great wars.
“What were the causes of the American Civil War?” asked a professor at Harvard College while I was a student there in the mid-1950s. Similar lofty questions filled the air in Harvard Yard, at the dining tables in Adams House, and in well-worn lecture halls. “Were the Dark Ages really without learning and culture? What were the consequences of the closing of the American frontier? What is the Greek idea of tragedy? Why do the righteous suffer and the evil prosper?” Science posed different questions with precise answers, about how to create compounds, measure weights, and understand mass and acceleration.
“Do I want to be a doctor?” I asked myself in 1957 during the summer after college graduation. I’d been accepted to several medical schools. No, I decided, I wanted something else. At Harvard Law School, the interrogative Socratic Method was applied in such a way that previously confident students were resigned to humiliation.
“Aye, aye sir,” is the answer of a junior officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, aboard ship or on shore. Follow orders, rules, and military etiquette. I served my country by doing as I was told. No questions asked.
“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” said President Kennedy in 1961. I took his command literally. Moving to Washington, I became an assistant U.S. attorney. I asked a prosecutor’s questions in my effort to learn and present affirmative facts or to challenge those offered by the defense. Eventually I asked legal questions in courtrooms as a civil litigator, in classrooms as a law professor, and in conference rooms as an arbitrator.
“Who is America’s most obscure president?” I asked Ellen Robinson in May 1971. It was our second date. She answered that this was the same question that she asked her dates. “If we have that much in common, we should get married,” I said. Ten weeks later we did. Our marriage is in its 46th year and has produced five children and 12 grandchildren. (For the record, I say Franklin Pierce was most obscure; Ellen says Chester Alan Arthur. )
“What’s in this week’s Torah?” my then 5-year-old son once asked me during our traditional Sabbath-eve dinner. I made dinner-table questions a feature of family life in order to divert the children from their antics and introduce content to our discussions. One week, I forgot to raise any topics. The child’s question led me to write an article. That generated an offer from a major publisher to write a book. I co-authored “Torah With Love: A Guide for Strengthening Jewish Values Within the Family.” A reviewer wrote, “This is one of those books which can change lives.” Years later, an author referred to our book as a “classic.”
“I wonder what we are missing right now?” is the question I asked Ellen during the weeklong celebration of Harvard’s 350th anniversary in 1986. The dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government had just noted that in 1936, at the Harvard tercentenary, not a single one of the speakers made reference to conditions in Europe. Three years later the Continent was consumed by war, the consequences of which would take 50 years to resolve. I attest that in 1986 none of the academic, political and cultural leaders who spoke offered a single thought to suggest that Europe was again on the verge of world-changing events. Three years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall, the physical symbol of the divide between freedom and totalitarianism, fell. In 1991, the “evil empire” itself, the Soviet Union, collapsed.
“Where shall we go?” I asked each of my children when they were teenagers and ready for a one-on-one trip with Dad. Our eldest, Jeremy, chose communist Europe, and we contemplated the blessings of freedom and the meaning of democracy from both sides of the then-still-standing Berlin Wall. Asher chose New Zealand and Australia during the latter’s 200th celebration of the arrival of the First Fleet. When Barak and I set off to see the Roman Empire, our shared reading assignment was Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall.” On our trip to Turkey, Dina and I walked up to the ruins of Troy while listening to “The Iliad.” My trip with Kira, the youngest, took us across a broad swath of the new South Africa, conceived by Nelson Mandela.
“What do you know now that you didn’t know then?” I asked my childhood, high school, and college friends when we reconnected during a yearlong, cross-country 80th-birthday celebration in 2015. We talked about lessons learned, not current events. We talked about resilience after being battered by life, adjustments to a changing world, disappointments and satisfaction in family, career, and community.
“Are you depressed?” an exercise therapist asked me after an unexpected four-way coronary artery bypass surgery during that same 80th birthday year. “No, am I supposed to be?” I responded. I was actually amazed at what medical science had done for me.
“What bedrock principles and values would you like to pass on to your descendants?” My answer: integrity is not negotiable; never stop learning; cling to the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and defend the restraints of the Constitution; salute the flag; and pass along these values to the next generation.
Oh, and ask substantive questions.
Mr. Epstein is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. and a self-styled “minor American playwright.” This essay is adapted from his contribution to a collection published for the 60th reunion of the Harvard College Class of 1957.