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The Surprising Endurance of Jewishness -- My Recollections of Daniel Ellsberg

I live in an apartment building in Washington, DC. Throughout the 90s and up until about 2003 or 2004, Daniel Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia, lived in the building, in apartment 146. Daniel Ellsberg is a former US military analyst employed by the RAND Corporation who precipitated a national political controversy in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of US government decision-making about the Vietnam War, to The New York Times and other newspapers.

Dr. Ellsberg and his wife had several residences.

Dr. Ellsberg would frequently come into the building's fitness room and work out on the reclining stationary bicycle, always reading the morning paper. He was a compulsive reader, as far as I could determine, and had the demeanor of an intellectual. If I had to guess what he did for a living, I would have said that he was an FBI undercover agent. He always seemed distracted, but was actually keenly aware of what was going on in his environment.

I like to listen to classical music when I work out. Dr. Ellsberg never betrayed any interest in what I was playing on my cassette player. But one day I was playing a Beethoven string quartet, the A minor quartet, opus 132, and Dr. Ellsberg inquired: "Is that one of the Beethoven string quartets?" I said yes. He said: "Which one is it? Does it have a name?" I said no, it's just the A minor quartet. He was insistent: "But does it have a name." I said no, it doesn't have a name, it's the A minor quartet, opus 132. I learned later, upon reading a biography of Dr. Ellsberg, that he had studied classical piano when he was a boy, and he had the potential to become a concert pianist. He spent hours every day practicing as a boy.

Dr. Ellsberg and his wife moved out of the building in late 2003 or early 2004. The couple had a son, Michael, who had recently graduated Brown University. Dr. Ellsberg's parents were Jews who had converted to a Protestant sect -- unitarianism? -- before he was born. Patricia Marx Ellsberg's parents were also Jews who, I believe, had converted. As far as I know, Michael Ellsberg was not raised in the Jewish religion. I remember the day the Ellsbergs moved out of the building. It was a Saturday. Michael had been placed in charge of the move. His parents weren't in the building. As I sat in the lobby of the building I overheard a conversation between Michael Ellsberg and someone else. The individual asked Michael Ellsberg if he was Jewish. Michael said: "Technically, I'm Jewish, but I don't practice the religion." I found that a remarkable statement. Apparently, Michael Ellsberg had a trace of Jewish identity despite the fact that only his grandparents would have identified themselves as Jews. Jewish identity has a surprising endurance over the generations.

Incidentally, the front desk manager in the building, 3801 Connecticut Avenue, NW, from 1986 to 2003, Elizabeth Joyce, was friendly with Patricia Marx Ellsberg. The two of them used to chat from time to time.

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Comment by Dazzling Zoomer Gal Diana on September 15, 2009 at 2:52am
"Jewish identity has a surprising endurance over the generations."
Yes Gary. it's called Rabbinical Law, or so I've been advised. /;->
Comment by Kittycat on September 13, 2009 at 8:05pm
It's surprising to me sometimes of what endures and what doesn't.
Comment by Kittycat on September 13, 2009 at 8:03pm
This was really interesting. Thanks for the history. You make it seem like it happened yesterday.
Comment by Gary Freedman on September 13, 2009 at 12:57pm
Michael Ellsberg is a developmental editor. Dr. Ellsberg's oldest son, Robert Ellsberg, is publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books.

Michael Ellsberg graduated from Brown University in 1999, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, with Honors in International Relations.

Contact Michael at michael@ellsbergediting.com
Comment by Gary Freedman on September 13, 2009 at 12:12pm
Daniel Ellsberg is a personal friend of the Freud scholar, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. He was also a friend of the late (and much missed) analyst, Margaret Brenman-Gibson. Daniel Ellsberg had been an analytic patient of Dr. Lewis Fielding--but that's an entirely different story! I might add that psychoanalysis -- like a sense of Jewish identity -- has a surprising endurance.
Comment by Gary Freedman on September 13, 2009 at 12:04pm
Elizabeth Joyce will be 80 years old next year. I hope she is well. She was a wonderful lady.

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