Washington Diarist

With Honors, Alek Keshishian's movie about four Harvard roommates who learn charity and humility by taking in a homeless man closed recently after an aborted run. I wish it had done better; for Keshishian and I were college classmates, and he appears to have borrowed his plot from my life. In the movie, a cuddly bum named Simon (played by Joe Pesci) finds the only copy of an honors thesis written by Monty, a Harvard senior, and trades it back for food and lodgings. In real life, my tenderhearted roommate, Paul, met a homeless person named Max while collecting money to save the whales, and gave him an open-ended invitation to sleep in our common room. In the movie, Monty has a bookish roommate named Jeffrey (!), who nervously resents Simon's presence. "You know why you hate me so much, Jeffrey?" Simon taunts. "Because I look the way you feel." In real life, I had similarly distressing confrontations with Max, especially after he went on a mad joyride in my rental car, threatened me with an antique scythe and rampaged around the dorm, shattering Victorian lamps. Here, unfortunately, life diverges from art. In the movie, the four roommates make peace with Simon, whom they come to recognize as a repository of earthy wisdom and humanity; when Simon dies of asbestos poisoning, a tearful Jeffrey reads selections from Leaves of Grass over his grave. In real life, Max lingered on and on: for two years, whenever Max was in a pinch, Paul would vacate his bedroom and move in with his girlfriend, leaving me and our third roommate fearful and alone with the belligerent guest. I haven't seen Max since graduation, when he interrupted an emotional farewell in our suite and theatrically denounced us as pigs. Somehow, he still seemed less cloying than Joe Pesci.

The correspondence bin at tnr is full of mysteries. Erudite literary criticism provokes little reaction from readers; spine-tingling judicial profiles have been known to inspire no letters at all. But all of us at the office were surprised by the reaction to Martha Gellhorn's recent essay lamenting the failure of responsible journalists to challenge the assaults on President and Mrs. Clinton in the right-wing press. In the past few weeks, scores of letters have poured in, almost all of them deliriously positive. " Brava to Martha Gellhorn!" the correspondents exclaim. "President Clinton may not be perfect, but he's the best we've had since fdr." I had initially found the piece a little nostalgic but now recognize that Gellhorn has tapped into something more profound. It is the dissonance between the bland earnestness of the Clintons themselves and the gothic ecstasies of hatred they manage to inspire. The bible of the Clinton-haters, of course, is The American Spectator. Once a clever and appealingly subversive journal, it has become unhinged in the Clinton era by dark populist resentments. The latest issue features a Shakespearean fantasy in which the Clintons appear as Lord and Lady "Macdeth" and the ghosts of Vince Foster and Mary Jo Kopechne haunt the earth. Hillary's soliloquy is an unintention-al self-parody of the genre: "O come, ye Wellesley-spawned Eumenides of spite, unsex me here! Replace my blood with quarts of chilliest testosterone, and butch my hair...." The president's couplets are a little less heavy-handed: "But let our morning's revels look to botany/If she's at Rose, then I'll with Flowers be." This is a hard act for the Spectator to follow; expect Little Rock variations on The Rape of Lucrece.

Similarly over-the-top is the recent performance of Governor Mario Cuomo, who deserves the Orval Faubus award for unblushing efforts to thwart the Supreme Court. At the end of June, in the most important religion case of the year, the Court invalidated the Kiryas Joel school district as an impermissible fusion of church and state. A few days later, in the last hours of the legislative session, the New York assembly, with Cuomo's enthusiastic support, passed a bill that purported to circumvent the Court's decision by allowing many villages in the state to form their own school districts. The bill includes, however, suspiciously rigorous size and wealth requirements. If the bill had in fact applied neutrally to villages across the state, then it would have satisfied David Souter's concern that the Satmar Hasidim were being singled out for a special benefit. This week, however, the New York State School Board Association ran the numbers and concluded that demographic requirements of the bill are so Byzantine that only one village in the state is eligible to meet them: the village of Kiryas Joel itself. New York, in short, has produced another religious gerrymander of the most flamboyant kind. As judicial nullification goes, this is only a little more subtle than the state of Virginia's reaction to the Brown decision: it closed the public schools and then promptly reopened them as white academies run by private contractors. Cuomo's strategy of massive resistance is ultimately doomed; but he has succeeded in delaying a legal challenge to the real constitutional scandal, which is not the school district of Kiryas Joel but the village of Kiryas Joel. As The Wall Street Journal confirmed last month, the village is thriving as a municipal theocracy in which federal funds are laundered for religious uses. Why is the would-be justice from New York pandering to this medieval rabbinate after all of his preaching about the separation of church and state? For the same reason, sadly, that he recently abandoned his cardinal principle that the death penalty in New York should not be decided by majoritarian passions. November is near.

I know one Hasidic sect that doesn't need any state support for its religious schools: the Lubavitchers, blood rivals of the Satmars, who are mourning the death of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson in June. With no help from the governor, the Lubavitchers have refined a brutally effective method of parochial education. The memory of it makes me break into a cold sweat. As a law student, I was often accosted by the brightly colored "Mitzvah tanks"--mobile homes outfitted with smiling pictures of the Grand Rabbi and tinny speakers blaring Yiddish airs. "Step up and put on Tefillin!" shrieked the bright yellow banners. "Tefillin on board!" To a nonobservant Jew at a northeastern university, there is no more nightmarish prospect than the anxiety of being plucked off an elm-lined street and helplessly wrapped in the vestments of the seventeenth-century shtetl. Worse yet, anyone who came near the tank was assaulted with an extremely fraught question: "Excuse me, are you Jewish?" Once, out of curiosity and shame, I sheepishly climbed onto the truck and allowed myself to be bound up in phylacteries. Shivering awkwardly in the winter chill, I felt relieved for having survived the experience, until my inquisitor dramatically raised the stakes by inviting me to accompany him back to Crown Heights for full-time talmudic study. When I demurred, he lashed out angrily, accusing me of turning my back on God and my people. Next to such fearsome teachers, the blessings of Mario Cuomo seem particularly vain.