David Ehrenstein, Meet David Ehrenstein


It all began simply enough, as extraordinary things often do. About three years ago a friend suggested I Google myself to see which of my articles on film and politics came up. I was delighted to discover that that there were quite a few. But I also found reference to a physics periodical, edited by one David Ehrenstein. Now who, pray tell — or what fresh hell, as Dorothy Parker would have it — was this?

While I suffered a hypertensive stroke back in 1996, my recovery (mercifully brief and total) didn’t leave a Joanne Woodward-style split personality in its wake, an “Eve White” exploring “Brownian motion” and “weakly interacting massive particles” running on a parallel track to my previously acknowledged “Eve Black,” obsessed with Ozu films and Kay Thompson vocal arrangements. Did I have a distant cousin who for some reason my family never told me about? There are, it should be noted, but a small handful of “Ehrensteins” — as opposed to “Aaronsteins” — in the United States to begin with. In fact I’ve spent countless hours admonishing check-in personnel that “It starts with an E not an A.” Had I stumbled onto a “double” out of Edgar Allan Poe? Perhaps some sinister doppelgänger interloper à la Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley had been at work. But why stop at mere garden-variety paranoia? Could it be that there was an “alternate reality” rendition of “me” out there? Briefly visions of a Philip K. Dick version of The Patty Duke Show danced in my head. But then I came to my senses, and dashed off an introductory e-mail to David Ehrenstein, to which he quickly replied.

“I knew of you since the early ’80s in high school when I saw your book Rock on Film in a bookstore and was very startled,” David Ehrenstein recalled. “I later thought I should have bought the book just for the novelty but couldn’t find it at that store. And then I wasn’t sure whether I had dreamed up the whole thing.”

Well, at least we were on the same page on that score. But I’m black, gay, tall and well into my 50s. He’s white, straight (married with two children), a head shorter and well into his 30s. It would take more than Alex Haley to divine our intertwined roots.

“My paternal grandfather, Irving, came to New York City from Latvia at the age of about 2 in 1902,” the other David Ehrenstein informed me. “They were Jewish, though I know he liked ham sandwiches.” Well, in and of itself, that means he would have gotten along quite well with my father, a highly unobservant Jew who came from Jamaica just before World War II. His ancestors hailed from Poland. But that’s not my “black side.” That proceeds from my mother, the last of seven children in a common-law marriage between an African-American man and a white Irish immigrant woman. They lived on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. When my mother came of age she took a secretarial job downtown, and it was there she met my father — who was a salesman for a toy distribution company. They married and moved to New York where I was born in 1947, and raised as a Roman Catholic, as it was my mother’s religion, and the church was just around the corner. Got that? Good.

“I grew up in Bethesda, MD,” the other David e-mailed, “went to college at Oberlin where I helped found the a cappella group the Obertones, grad school at U. of IL in Urbana-Champaign. Post-doc work at NIH in Bethesda, ’94-’97, then switched to science journalism.”

I grew up in the suburb of Flushing Queens, but spent the better part of my adolescence in New York City proper as I attended the High School of Music and Art (no, not the Fame school) where I was surrounded by Red Diaper Babies (the issue of 30s-era leftists) and sang in the chorus. We opened the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center with the Stravinsky arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.” But I was enthralled by experimental film, and right out of high school published my very first article about Andy Warhol in Film Culture. Still, I was a great musical comedy enthusiast — as was the other David Ehrenstein, who starred as Harold Hill in an all-Yiddish production of The Music Man in high school. “Tsuris in River City” anyone?

“I guess I was struck by how different we are in some obvious ways,” he observed. “And yet we have similarities, too. I’m this nerdy physics guy with essentially no awareness of the Hollywood scene, whereas it’s a major part of your life. On the other hand, we both did choirs and musical theater as kids. Oh, yeah, and we’re both journalists.”

So of course we had to meet — which we did recently when he came to town for the World Year of Physics 2005 event at the Los Angeles Convention Center. No end of fun was had as he introduced me to startled co-conferees familiar with only one David Ehrenstein. (He’d doubtless get the same reaction if I took him to a film festival.) This variation on the theory of relativity led to a discussion of the original at lunch, where I experienced firsthand just how much Albert Einstein is Elvis in the world of physics. David Ehrenstein didn’t know about Nicolas Roeg’s film Insignificance wherein Marilyn Monroe explains the theory to its author via a demonstration involving toy cars and flashlights, but he informed me that in the animated feature The Triplets of Belleville, the formula for Einstein’s second theory of relativity — a reworking of Newton’s theory of gravity — is scrawled on a wall. The first theory of relativity (E=mc²) was confected before Einstein became a “doctor.” Einstein was 26 years old and working as a janitor at the time — a fact that should humble and depress us all.

But David Ehrenstein, the physics guru, isn’t at all depressed. And neither is his son, about whom he recalls, “When we looked at the web page showing your books, he asked if you had written any children’s books, so he could be read one at bedtime sometime.” Now isn’t that a lovely notion? One David Ehrenstein reading the work of another David Ehrenstein to the offspring of the former, surrounding him in Ehrenstein-ness.

Hmmm. Maybe I’ll write something for the lad about that most famous of “weakly interacting massive particles,” Marilyn Monroe.

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