Too Clever by Half

The Smart-Aleck Childhood of a Religion Journalist

By Ezra Glinter

Published April 14, 2010, issue of April 23, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate
By Mark Oppenheimer
Free Press, 256 pages, $25

Time To Talk: He wears a family tie on Mark Oppenheimer’s day off.
Time To Talk: He wears a family tie on Mark Oppenheimer’s day off.

Being a smart kid isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, but it usually pays off in the end. That, at least, is the lesson taught by Mark Oppenheimer in his alternately tender and comic memoir, “Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate.” A religion columnist for The New York Times and a contributor to many other publications (including this one), Oppenheimer lays aside his more obviously journalistic interests in this book to explore his own adolescent infatuation with oratory and his life-long love of language.

While it may seem self-indulgent to write a whole book about one’s middle-class upbringing and passion for debating — an archetypically preppy activity if there ever was one —“Wisenheimer” is actually a welcome relief from the usual dysfunctional-family-and-substance-abuse memoir. Like some of Jonathan Franzen’s autobiographical essays, or Tobias Wolff’s prep-school bildungsroman, novel of education, “Old School,” “Wisenheimer” deftly depicts one boy’s intellectual, social and sexual coming of age. While the latter two elements give the book its most obvious personal edge, it’s the former where Oppenheimer really reveals himself.

Oppenheimer identifies himself as a wiseass, a smart aleck or, to use his favorite term, a wisenheimer. He describes his childhood self, growing up in Springfield, Mass., as a precocious but very annoying little boy who sounded a lot more mature than he behaved. Yet despite the fact that he drove his parents and siblings to distraction with his nonstop talking, his family also nurtured his natural gift of gab.

As a child of left-wing intellectuals (Oppenheimer’s parents’ ideological leanings can be gleaned from the fact that they once sent him to a clothing-optional summer camp), Oppenheimer enjoyed sparring verbally with his parents’ adult friends, gleefully challenging their political orthodoxies. He also fondly recalls visiting his grammar-obsessed grandparents in Philadelphia, who impressed upon him the value of proper English. “Whenever I wonder where I get my love for language, my close attention to it, my deep investment in it, I think about my grandmother bent over a piece of stationery, demanding that her state senator change the [grammatically incorrect] Pennsylvania license plate,” Oppenheimer writes. “I wasn’t the first wisenheimer in my family.”

Oppenheimer’s argumentativeness was less welcomed by his elementary school friends and teachers, who were unimpressed by his habit of signing his papers “Mark the Great.” As Oppenheimer readily admits, he wasn’t the easiest child to get along with, and his book is filled with unflattering depictions of his ill-advised exploits. Lonely and alienated, he often marshaled his verbal prowess for unkind ends. When one of his few friends was dumped by his girlfriend, Oppenheimer decided to get revenge by impersonating the girlfriend on a helpline and accusing her father of sexual abuse. “A lot of what I did could be called youthful mischief, I suppose,” Oppenheimer regretfully muses. “But in truth I had become a bully.”

As Oppenheimer grew up in the 1980s, his sense of himself as a too-smart-for-his-own-good outsider was helped along by the pop culture icons of the day, including television characters such as the tie-wearing young Republican Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties,” and movie heroes such as the high school truant Ferris Bueller. “I was always an outsider, so through all the turmoil of school in those years — the shifting cliques that I never learned to negotiate, the teachers who were baffled by me, the teachers who were cruel to me — it also became a matter of ego survival to valorize my skill, to decide there was something good about it,” Oppenheimer writes. It was only in junior high, however, with his discovery of debating, that Oppenheimer truly found his place

in the universe.

The bulk of “Wisenheimer” is given over to Oppenheimer’s junior high and high school debating career. This took place first at a rough-around-the-edges private school, where he “managed to impress people as a surprising, precocious, pocket-sized curio of an intellectual,” and later at the more posh Loomis Chaffee prep school, where he became an international debate champion. Oppenheimer’s focus is less on his achievements, however, than on his discoveries — the excitement of participating in tournaments overseas, the skills of thought and rhetoric that he laboriously accumulated, and the relationships with fellow debaters that he developed at home and around the world.

Narrating one’s process of intellectual maturation is a difficult thing to do without becoming dry or pedantic, but Oppenheimer does it with a light and inviting touch. He recalls preparing for his first debates in seventh grade, in which he first discovered “the pleasures of slow, accumulated knowledge,” and the “tactile pleasure in the business of going to and from the stacks.” He affectionately recalls his debating coaches, invariably paunchy or bearded men. (“I often wondered at the limitless possibilities of a hypothetical coach who was hirsute and fat,” Oppenheimer remarks. “Had such a man existed, his teams would have been unstoppable.”) They were eccentric, perhaps, but also heroically devoted to their students, and they nurtured their abilities to think and to argue. And he wistfully recounts his disenchantment with debating, which he found himself outgrowing as he finished high school.

Eventually, Oppenheimer went on to Yale, where he debated half-heartedly and got excited about other things, such as the study of religion, in which he earned a doctorate. Now, he notes, instead of practicing public speaking, he observes it, in the form of sermons and political speeches. Few people’s teenage obsessions stay with them throughout life, but neither do they cease to inform and contribute to their continued development. A universal lesson, to be sure, but in Oppenheimer’s case, it’s a word from the truly wise about the mixed blessings that come with being an inveterate wisenheimer.

Ezra Glinter is the books editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.