Commentary Magazine


Epitaph for a Jewish Magazine:
Notes on the Menorah Journal

My first introduction to the Menorah Journal was a fittingly formal one. A few years ago, while visiting the home of a Yiddish intellectual, a friend of my parents, in the upstate New York town where I grew up, I happened to say something enthusiastic about COMMENTARY. My host interrupted me with obvious impatience and led me at once to his old-fashioned bookcase, in which two long rows of volumes of the Menorah Journal stood locked behind darkly gleaming glass doors. “That,” he said, pointing proudly, “was a real Jewish magazine!”

The enthusiasm, as I have since discovered from the perusal of old issues and now from Leo Schwarz’s handsome anthology,1 was thoroughly warranted. The Menorah Journal was surely one of the most exciting episodes in the history of the American-Jewish intellectual community, and its volumes, which extend over nearly half a century, provide a fascinating record of the varying efforts of this community to preserve a meaningful attachment to Jewish culture while participating fully in American intellectual life. One realizes with a little shock that the Journal, whose name is scarcely known to my own generation, published its final issue only three years ago. But this, too, is part of its poignant history; after the brilliant flare of activity of its first fifteen years, the magazine was to flicker through a strange half-life for three decades, sustained chiefly by the energy and will of its editor, Henry Hurwitz, ceasing publication only after his death.

The distinctive character of the Menorah Journal can be traced back to its origins. The first Menorah Society was organized by a group of Harvard students in 1906, and the spirit of the journal which began nine years later was that of men who had sat at the feet of Santayana, William James, Josiah Royce, and the other great turn-of-the-century Harvard humanists. Horace M. Kallen, who participated in the original group, has some revealing things to say about its aims in a retrospective essay on the “Menorah idea” which he wrote for the valedictory number. The Harvard founders of the movement, according to Kallen, envisaged it as a strictly non-sectarian, non-ideological Jewish cultural group, directly analogous to a collegiate cercle frangais or Deutscher Verein. In a period when people spoke openly of a numerus clausus at American universities, these students felt the need to work out a positive definition of themselves as Jews to displace the negative one created by the polite but nevertheless palpable hostility they often encountered. The movement spread quickly from Harvard (though never, I think, altogether losing its Harvard tone), so that by 1915, when the first issue of the Journal was published, there were thirty-four Menorah Societies; the number was to rise within a few years to more than eighty.

Both the early issues of the Journal and Kallen’s essay emphasize two key terms in the Menorah quest for Jewishness—Hebraism and humanism. The reasons for the stress on humanism by a non-religious cultural movement are more or less obvious, but it is worth pausing over the importance for the Menorah writers of the word “Hebraic.” To begin with, the term was meant to draw the line between religionists and individuals who identified only with the cultural tradition which began with the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, it required considerable debate, Kallen writes, before the phrase “Jewish humanism” rather than “Hebraic humanism” was chosen for the Journal’s initial statement of purpose. Kallen himself, as late as 1948, still insisted on distinguishing “Jews” (those who accept only the cultural tradition) from “Judaists” (those who also adhere to some form of the Mosaic faith).

The term “Hebraism,” moreover, was likely to be associated with Matthew Arnold’s famous distinction between “Hebraism” and “Hellenism,” and it is precisely within the context of Arnold’s work that many of the Menorah writers wanted to put the question of their Jewishness. More than one essay of the early years of the Journal begins with or somewhere alludes to Culture and Anarchy, though the brightest of these pieces refreshingly inverts the original terms, arguing that Arnold’s notion of Hellenism corresponds more or less to the historical actualities of Hebraism. The connection with Arnold, however, was less a matter of concepts than of tone; what is most important for the Menorah writers is to be able to talk about Judaism in the same terms, in the same refined accents, that the secular high priests of the polite English world used to discuss their culture and history.

It is for this reason that noblesse oblige became something of a Menorah slogan for Jewish commitment; the phrase occurs in the original statement of purpose and continues to be stressed through to the final issues. The implication, of course, is that Judaism is to be thought of as a spiritual aristocracy, which, in proper aristocratic fashion, calls upon its members to require the finest of themselves, to make the best use of their potential as intelligent human beings—to be, in short, true exponents of “Jewish humanism.” This complicated orientation toward Jewishness and the larger cultural world was to have a paradoxical effect on the tenor of the Menorah Journal during its peak years.

The determinedly Jewish nature of the Journal meant that the scope of its articles was limited to questions of particularly Jewish interest. But in keeping with the humanist program, Jewish interest was broadly defined so that it embraced everything from the Bible to the assassination of Walter Rathenau and the poetry of Andre Spire. During its great period in the 20’s the Journal managed very impressively to be specialized without being parochial.

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The cultural assurance responsible for this achievement, however, was joined to a sense of uneasiness. Interspersed among the many frank—often intriguing—expositions of Jewish experience or vigorous attacks upon Jewish problems, one finds occasional pieces that are nervously anxious to justify such interests. At times, it seems as though the Menorah Journal is trying to persuade itself and the world that there is in fact a Jewish humanist tradition, and that this tradition has a direct and vital relationship to Western culture. The main strategy is to validate Jewish cultural phenomena by assimilating them to Western analogues, or, conversely, to interpret Western culture in terms of Jewish influences. Thus, in one of its first numbers, the Journal publishes a piece entitled “Sholom Asch: the Jewish Maupassant,” and through the early years of the magazine one frequently comes across essays on such subjects as “The Pilgrims and the Hebrew Spirit,” “The Hebraic Influence in American Poetry,” “The Judaic Strain in Modern Letters.” This last article, written by Burton Rascoe, a literary journalist and the editor of The Bookman, exemplifies the most distressing type of apologetics to be found in the pages of the Journal—appreciations of Jewish culture written by admiring Gentiles. For example, Rascoe’s notion of what he calls “the recognizably Jewish characteristics” ranges from intellectual curiosity and cleverness to sexual mysticism, so that he has no trouble at all in discerning Judaic strains in just about anything that matters in Western literature.

The undercurrent of insecurity about belonging to the genteel world of Western letters occasionally rises to the surface in certain pieces that painfully reveal the writer’s ambivalence toward his Jewishness. One suggestive document of this sort is “A Friend of Byron” (1926), a study by a very young Lionel Trilling of Isaac Nathan, the man who set the Hebrew Melodies to music and also wrote critical observations on Byron’s verse. The tone of the essay is so self-consciously British and literary, and “poor Nathan,” the culturally aspiring Jew, is treated with such appalling condescension, that it is almost as if Trilling, himself the son of an immigrant, had invented a persona through which to speak: we are allowed to see the alien Jew of mediocre talents only from an immense, stultifying distance of erudite, British otherness. And this Jewish acquaintance of Byron’s is, significantly, a man who suffers a painful fall between two cultural stools; he might have been a good enough rabbi, Trilling concludes, but he “envied too greatly the world of the Gentiles” and so ended up as “a bad critic [who] could quote Rashi, Jonathan, son of Huziel, and David Kimhi to support his opinions of English verse.”

There is a pleasant and perhaps even instructive irony in the fact that Lionel Trilling, who was to become a very good critic, would one day quote the rabbis effectively to support his opinion of Wordsworth’s verse. The distance between this early piece and his “Wordsworth and the Rabbis” (1950) can be taken as a partial measure of how much more securely placed the Jewish writer had become in the Anglo-American intellectual world by the 1950’s. “A Friend of Byron,” to be sure, is not in all respects typical of Menorah Journal writing in the 20’s, but it lays bare a sense of cultural tensions that underlies many of the contributions to the magazine and at least some aspects of its editorial policy. By the 1950’s, of course, Jewish writers and critics had moved from the periphery to the center of American literary culture, so that a main cause for the tension was removed. It began to be natural for a writer to use Jewish materials—if he was fortunate enough to possess any—when they seemed appropriate, with no need first to justify them or reconcile them with the Anglo-American tradition.

But if the Menorah intellectuals were at times self-conscious about the cultural tone of their Jewishness, most of them were also far more excited over the creative possibilities of a renewed Jewish culture than the two succeeding generations of American Jews have been, and it is this quality of excitement that marks the Journal’s first fifteen years. Its pages are alive with the ferment of renaissance. In contrast to the successors of the Menorah Journal—magazines which have centered around the act of criticism, the stance being typically analytical and detached—Henry Hurwitz’s magazine in its first fifteen years was a focus for synthesizing and constructive energies. Critical intelligence is abundantly present, but quite frequently it is used much less to observe and assess than to clear away the rotten lumber of the past and present—and then to lay the foundation for some huge edifice of reconstructed Jewish life. The earlier issues of the Journal bristle with essays whose titles proclaim the intention of their authors to begin with basic questions and to propose ultimate goals—“The Choice Before Jewry,” “Can Judaism Survive in the United States?,” “A Search for the True Community,” and so forth. It is hardly surprising that Mordecai Kaplan’s ambitious project for the reconstruction of Judaism was first articulated in the pages of the Menorah Journal during its early years.

Perhaps the best statement of this constructive impulse in the Journal and of the ideal that guided its relation to the Jewish past is Marvin Lowenthal’s luminously intelligent essay, “On a Jewish Humanism” (1924). If humanism can easily decay into a vague creed of high-mindedness which merely serves to screen the mind from realities, Lowenthal describes eloquently how it can also develop into an enlarging way of life in which the mind opens itself continually to the astoundingly variegated facts of lived experience and accumulated culture. “The destruction of habitual notions,” he writes, “under the shock of facts is itself a humanizing process. It is a spiritual calisthenics and limbers not only the mind, but that dim seat of our deepest instincts, the core of impulse and prejudice we call the soul.” A Jewish humanism, then, would break down all of our petrified reductionist conceptions of the nature of Jewishness; the inquiring Jew would discover a collective history that was immensely richer and more ambiguously diverse than any simple program of commitment or rejection could possibly conceive. And there would be a particular personal value in his choosing to explore the Jewish experience. Being a Jew, he would be more intimately in touch with this body of experience, having already seen and felt how at least some aspects of it were actually lived. Moreover, because of the unique development of Jewish culture—intricately bound up in the Western majority culture and yet always distinct from it—Jewish humanism offered the intellectual an invaluable critical perspective on the Western world.

The exhilaration of discovery that Lowenthal succeeds in transmitting by means of his own full sense of the multiplicity of Jewish experience is precisely the feeling that animates the Menorah Journal during its best years. One senses it equally in the essays which are searching for the elusive meanings and the obscured facts of the past, and in those which are struggling to come to terms with the dilemmas of the Jewish present.

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The historical essays published in the Journal during this period are particularly remarkable. Written mainly by scholars, they have little of the special narrowness we tend to associate with academic writing and, on the other hand, none of the subtle condescension of popularization. Without insight-hunting or tendentiousness, the historical writers manage to make palpable their own sense of the relevance of their subjects. The quality of mind which the Menorah enterprise attracted is suggested by the fact that three young scholars who in the early years became regular contributors are today perhaps the three most distinguished authorities on the Jewish past in the English-speaking world: Salo Baron, Cecil Roth, and Harry Wolfson.

The scope of the historical writing in the Journal is as striking as its quality. Some of the essays explore suggestive curiosities of Jewish history—like Roth’s fascinating piece, “The Slave Community of Malta.” Others use the tools of historical analysis to effect radical reassessments of entire ages—like Baron’s attack on the whole “lachrymose interpretation” of Jewish history in “Ghetto and Emancipation.” Still other essays illumine great figures of the past to make their meaning for the present freshly intelligible—like Morris R. Cohen’s argument for the permanent validity of Spinoza or Wolfson’s more recent discussion of Spinoza and religion. But in all these cases, one of the implicit intentions of the writer is to startle the reader into a realization that the Jewish past is more complex and certainly more interesting than his cherished stereotypes of it.

What was happening in contemporary Jewish life was given the same breadth of coverage. When, for example, the community in Palestine was shaken by the Arab uprising of 1929, the Menorah Journal followed the events in a typically exhaustive manner: there was an eyewitness account of the attacks by Edward Robbin, a young American living in Jerusalem; an analytic overview of the situation by Maurice Samuel, also written from Palestine; surveys of the American and Palestinian press reaction; and finally an assessment of the future of Arab-Jewish relations by the editor. During the same months Salo Baron’s articles on “Nationalism and Intolerance” were appearing in the Journal, and, though they were concerned mainly with Europe, they clearly had bearing on the broader political questions involved in the Palestinian conflict. One might imagine a Zionist monthly or a Middle-East newsletter covering such an occurrence in similar detail, but the general effect would be very different. The Menorah Journal could do it while remaining a Jewish periodical of general intellectual interest: the coverage in depth was itself the expression of intellect grappling with intractable and even ominous actualities, trying to make sense of them and, perhaps, in so doing, to influence their future course.

The editors of the Menorah Journal were always proud of the fact that they had never belonged to what they called the Jewish Establishment in America, and their freedom from party, sect, or institution did strengthen their ability to offer both a variety of perspectives on a given problem and the perspective of variety on the subjects which they regarded as Jewish. The diversity of interests and cultural habitats of the regular contributors is remarkable. Academic experts on Jewish history and philosophy (Roth, Wolfson, and others) rub shoulders with free-lance Jewish journalists (Maurice Samuel, Herbert Solow); literary Jews (Israel Zangwill, Ludwig Lewisohn, Charles Reznikoff) with Jewish littérateurs (Trilling, Clifton Fadiman, Louis Untermeyer, Babette Deutsch); rabbis and religious ideologues (David De Sola Pool, Mordecai Kaplan) with secularist social thinkers (Lewis Mumford, Irwin Edman). A few of the Jewish periodicals today try to provide a similar diversity, but in the Menorah Journal the extremes are further apart and the contrasts are surely sharper.

One might even say there were two Menorah Journals in the 1920’s poised in precarious coexistence. On the one hand are the writers whose primary concern is with the larger cultural community and with how, as Jews, they are to participate in it. On the other hand—often an editorial hand—are the observers of the organized Jewish community, who carefully scan everything from recent rabbinic sermons to fund-raising reports and the local Jewish press, and who act as permanent critics of the Jewish Establishment, almost as a kind of shadow rabbinate. The double nature of the Journal during this period is vividly reflected in the advertisements carried in its pages. The various theological seminaries enumerate the attractions of their programs beneath suitably grim-looking photographs of their buildings; and, on facing pages, The Dial announces the first American publication of The Waste Land, or the Yale Review lists the distinguished critics and writers of fiction among its contributors. Such strange juxtapositions were part of the distinctive Menorah spirit: certainly there has been no journal since whose readership has had an equally keen interest both in what was happening within the seminary walls and on the advanced fronts of creative writing.

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By 1931, however, there are few advertisements of any sort in the Menorah Journal, and these are mainly for books on Jewish topics or books by regular contributors. The Journal, and the Menorah Movement as well, had been badly crippled by the Depression; in 1931 it interrupted regular publication for the first time since it was founded. A bimonthly in its early years and a monthly in the late 20’s, the Journal now made a limping reappearance as a quarterly, on which basis it was issued—with increasing intermittence—until its demise. But the heaviest blow struck by the Depression was ideological rather than financial. In 1929, the Menorah vision of a humanist renaissance had appeared to be firmly located within the central arena of intellectual life in America. Two years later, the vision had simply become irrelevant. Against the urgent claims on conscience of the radical movements, the Journal’s quest for high culture must have seemed like the most effete fin-de-siècle decadence and its insistence on Jewish identity a reactionary gesture of pathetic futility. With its occupation gone, it lost valuable staff members as well as writers; in fact, many of its regulars soon began to appear in the newly founded Partisan Review and other radical magazines.

The Menorah Journal logically should have died at this point, but Henry Hurwitz, who had edited it from the beginning and committed his whole life to the Menorah enterprise, was determined to keep it going. But the kind of existence the magazine was to lead during its subsequent long decline was, perhaps inevitably, an unconscious parody of those qualities which had earlier distinguished it. The ideal of culture without a broad base of purposeful intellectual activity produced a journal that reminds one of the annual of a fine arts museum. The tone is distinguished: tasteful reproductions of Jewish art treasures on the cover and within, attractively elegant layout, contributors with the best of formal credentials. What is missing—with occasional exceptions—is the feeling that anything urgent is being said, or that there is any audience beyond an isolated coterie to whom to say it.

Nothing could illustrate this predicament more clearly than Robert Gordis’s essay, “Marxism and Religion,” written for the magazine in 1937. One could not imagine a more crucial issue for a Menorah Journal article to have grappled with at that point in time. But Rabbi Gordis’s statement—reasonable, articulate, well-formed—lacks any imagination of the presence of a real antagonist. Marxism, we are calmly and firmly assured, has been unjustly intolerant of religion, for religion insists upon social justice just as Marxism does (cf. Isaiah, Micah, et al.), and it fulfills deep human needs that can never be supplied by a materialistic social philosophy. Certainly this question was worth debating, but Gordis seems to be debating it only with himself, with the editors of the Menorah Journal, and with the members of his suburban congregation—hardly with the Partisan Review intellectuals.

As rabbinical contributors to the Menorah Journal multiply in its later years, more and more of the articles leave one with the impression that the solutions to the agonizing problems of modern Jewry are relatively clear-cut and perhaps even ready-made. The old intellectual apparatus is still very much in evidence—the high-powered vocabularies with their “metamyths,” “self-verifying experiences,” and so forth; the easy references to Kierkegaard, Kafka, and all the rest of those touchstones of modern intellectual gamesmanship. But more often than not, the elaborate-looking structures of thought are erected only to support a sermon, and a rather ordinary one at that. Hurwitz himself begins to sound at times like a lay preacher, in praising, for example, “the glories of our American freedom” with a tired rhetoric and a tired, but desperately insistent, marshalling of ideas.

This desperate insistence on an irrelevant message is probably the unhappiest aspect of the Menorah Journal in the years of its decline. In the 20’s, the renaissance vision of the Journal had given birth to a number of projects for the dissemination of the Jewish humanist heritage—a Menorah Summer School, a Menorah Institute for Adult Studies, a Menorah Lecture Bureau. Each of these activities sustained itself for a time, and the lecture bureau also provided a substantial source of income for some of the writers who helped to make the Journal what it was. In the 40’s and 50’s, Hurwitz, with an imagination still fired by the renaissance idea, spins out scheme after unrealized scheme—a Menorah College, a Menorah board of experts to write a Menorah Judaica Library, a nationwide congress of representatives to replace the power structure of the Jewish Establishment. There is something grand as well as pathetic in these final motions of an idea that had outlived its time. Hurwitz himself, in his last public address, catches the mood of his own enterprise perfectly by describing it wryly as a “somewhat quixotic cultivation of the Jewish vineyard.”

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At the same time that the Journal was tilting at windmills with increasing frequency, the independence of party that had characterized it in its early years was being transformed into a partisan sense of hostility toward the Jewish world for having left the Menorah idea behind. This process is most clearly detectable in the position on Zionism. During the 1920’s Menorah writers had shown considerable sympathy for Ahad Ha-am’s cultural Zionism, which was much more in keeping with the non-ideological, “culturist” emphasis of the magazine than was Herzl’s political Zionism. By 1932, this sympathy translated itself explicitly into editorial support for Brit Shalom, the group that was working for the establishment of a bina-tional state of Arabs and Jews; Hurwitz himself begins to sound a little strident in rejecting the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine as “a hopeless aberration.” After World War II, the Journal takes a progressively critical stand on Zionism that will end as a flirtation with the militantly anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. This final stage begins in 1945, notably enough with Hannah Arendt’s essay “Zionism Reconsidered,” a withering attack on the Zionist leadership and program.

The presence of Miss Arendt shows that even in its decline the Menorah Journal was still able to command writers of great intellectual sophistication. Such writers, though, tended to be either disaffected Jews who had some quarrel with the organized community, such as Miss Arendt, or Jews who did not find themselves comfortable with the prevailing political views or the cultural style of the intellectual community. Sidney Hook, for example, begins to contribute to the Journal in 1937 with an assault on the naïveté of Jews who support Communism; Moses Hadas, a rare authentic humanist in the original Menorah spirit of high culture, remains a frequent contributor from the late 1930’s till the end. And there are, of course, a few writers of stature—the most conspicuous is Cecil Roth—who, having developed a loyalty to the Journal in its twice seven years of plenty, continue to contribute to it through the long lean years.

The real life of the Menorah Journal, however, was elsewhere—in the successors it had inspired while it still continued to publish. There has been something of the Menorah idea, and, in fact, some of the Menorah writers, in every Jewish journal of intellectual aspirations that has appeared since the late 1930’s. Its most direct heir, of course, is COMMENTARY, whose original editor, Elliot E. Cohen, was the managing editor of the Journal during some of its best years. The magazine Cohen founded continues to resemble the Menorah Journal at its peak in being a Jewish periodical close to the center of the American intellectual scene, and in its fidelity to the traditions of literate critical discourse.

In a 1928 editorial written on the occasion of the change-over of the Journal from bimonthly to monthly, Hurwitz, looking back on the preceding thirteen years of activity, asserted that “The Menorah Journal has marked the emergence of a new force in American Jewish life . . . the force of modern critical intelligence.” The relationship between that force and American Jewish life has often seemed tense, sometimes hostile. But any kind of Jewish life that fails to give a central role to critical intelligence would appear to most of us to be no longer worth living. It is not easy to imagine what may be produced by the shifting interplay of criticism and community or criticism and tradition. Yet whatever the result, it will continue to owe something to the Menorah Journal and its vision of the integration of Jewish identity and the full life of the intellect.


Footnotes

* The Menorah Treasury, edited by Leo W. Schwarz, Jewish Publication Society, 963 pp., $10.00.

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