Commentary Magazine


Jewish Culture: Renaissance or Ice Age?
A Scholar Discusses the Creative Outlook

In our next issue we will print the first section of a symposium on the problem of creating Jewish culture in America, taking its departure from Elliot E. Cohen’s article in the May COMMENTARY. This section will include discussion by Hannah Arendt, Benjamin Ginzburg, Jacob B. Agus, Siegfried Kracauer, and Solomon Grayzel. Cecil Roth, distinguished historian and Jewish “culture-maker” in the field of scholarship, here offers a personal essay that may be thought of as a companion piece to Meyer Levin’s “The Writer and the Jewish Community” (June COMMENTARY). Together these two—dealing as they do with the realistic framework of community life which any effort to build Jewish culture must reckon with—constitute a kind of preface to the symposium.

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As a Cisatlantic, I obviously lack a principal qualification to discuss “Jewish Culture in America,” but I am fortified by the consideration that our problems in England and yours in the United States are not really dissimilar. Indeed, the three-quarters of a million Jews in the British Empire are no negligible reinforcement to the five millions in America, even if we surrender to you our title to Canadian Jewry. Before long, when in the natural process of time the foreign-born element will have become submerged, this will be (unless indeed it is already) by far the greatest homogeneous linguistic block in the Jewish world, as Yiddish-speaking Jewry was for so long.

One can go further: it will be, numerically, the greatest homogeneous linguistic bloc that there has ever been in the Jewish world, even at the greatest age of Jewish cultural productivity, except this same Yiddish-speaking Jewry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The total number of persons involved will compare favorably with the population of many smaller countries which stand in the forefront of European civilization—Holland, Norway, Denmark. Is there any reason why this group should not evolve a comparable cultural life?

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It depends, more than anything else, on the degree of interest and support that is forth coming. After all, the Netherlander or Norwegian is in a Dutch or Norwegian environment willy-nilly, and the same was true also of the Jews of Eastern Europe a century ago. Today, on the other hand, a considerable proportion of Jews are not in a Jewish environment of any sort, and have no desire to be. Moreover, whereas the Netherlander’s or Norwegian’s cultural life is in most cases one and indivisible, the cultural life of even the most devoted Jew of the Western world is inevitably that of his general environment, and only a certain proportion of his cultural leisure is devoted to his Jewish interests.

Nevertheless, this often-urged explanation is hardly valid as an excuse. I gather that the maximum potential circulation of a highly successful book in the English-speaking world is well over two million. Proportionately, that would imply a reading potential of fifty thousand or more among the Jews of the English-speaking world (apart from non-Jewish readers) for a book of a similar appeal: more, indeed, since presumably we belong to a more intellectualized, and somewhat more moneyed, group. I wonder how many works of Jewish interest in the English language have commanded even one-fifth that number of Jewish readers, and especially of Jewish purchasers. (I cannot imagine that the Jewish public was responsible to any extent for the success of works such as Jew Süss.)

But the facts of the matter seem to be, as any English bookseller will tell you, that Jews (not the readers of COMMENTARY, but Jews en masse]) are not interested in books—or, at least, in books of Jewish interest—whatever ideals their ancestors may have held: and unless this attitude of mind changes, there can be no solid basis for Jewish culture in the English-speaking world.

You must now forgive me for being mundane, not to say sordid. But there is no need to remind COMMENTARY readers, of all people, that even the Jewish writer must live, and that the Jewish writer is vain enough to aspire to reputation. From this point of view I certainly committed a profound error when I abandoned my original line of research and writing in general history (my first book, The Last Florentine Republic, received the immediate compliment of translation into Italian). My entry into the Jewish field which appealed to me so much was, from the viewpoint of security, disastrous.

Of late, another threat—perhaps more serious—has developed to the integrity of such culture as we have. Partisan labels have become of overwhelming importance, even in Jewish intellectual life, to an extent that was never true before. My advice to the young Jewish writer who wants to flourish financially is that he should become a fanatical Zionist or anti-Zionist, professional Orthodoxian or Reformer, and so on. He could then have a fair chance to be taken up (if there is a vacancy) by one group or the other, to be publicized as the genius of the generation, to find his works discussed and boosted, and to be summoned to stump the country on lucrative terms. The one thing he must refrain from doing is to preserve his integrity of mind—that would be fatal to him. It is fatal to Jewish culture that this should be so.

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That one genus of Jewish literature prospers to some extent in the English-speaking countries is itself a bad sign rather than a good one. I refer to “defensive” or “anti-defamation” literature. While solid works of erudition or creative flights of the imagination flag, volumes that can serve a defensive purpose command disproportionately high sales. Of my own books (if I may be permitted to lapse again into autobiography), none has sold so well as my Jewish Contribution to Civilization, which has been through edition after edition in several languages; one enthusiast purchased a thousand copies for distribution. Under the circumstances, it may seem captious of me to say so, but I think nevertheless that this is an unhealthy symptom. It is all to the good that Jews should know about themselves; but not merely because they want to inflate themselves with vicarious pride in some Jewish achievement or “know how to answer the anti-Semites.” Had one of my purely historical works, which are presumably much the same level in quality (to my mind, as a matter of fact, far better), sold as well, it would have been a far more healthy sign.

What are the reasons for this retrograde state of affairs? One is, I think, that in English-speaking countries Jewish culture has been centered to an excessive degree in the various theological seminaries and rabbinical training colleges. This is deplorable, from the point of view not only of the public but also of the seminaries.

In the past, the strength of Judaism lay precisely in the fact that Jewish culture was the interest of every man: that each householder was a student, if not a scholar; and that the Rabbi did not belong to any priestly caste, but was simply the student par excellence. In Poland, to be sure, intellectual life revolved around the yeshiva. But there was a difference. Although the yeshiva trained Rabbis, it was not a rabbinical training seminary: its essential object was to train scholars, and only a minority of its alumni regarded or used their studies as a means to gain their livelihood. Hence there was in Eastern European Jewry down to our own day (and the same applied to all the great Jewish communities of the Middle Ages) an educated laity, who participated in cultural activities, venerated scholars and scholarship, purchased books to the limit of their ability, and provided the material and moral background that made Jewish culture in those days possible—and made it great.

Today, a Jewish education above the cheder or Sunday school is considered the prerogative and monopoly of the professional Judaist, and Jewish higher learning which has no theological or religious bent is regarded as superfluous. Under these circumstances, no great productivity can be hoped for. Norway would never have produced or maintained an Ibsen had there been no higher education in the country outside the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Oslo, or Ibsen’s works would have had no patrons and readers except the village parsons. It seems to me that in America you are moving slowly (but so slowly) towards a healthier state of affairs in this respect; and perhaps you are already beginning to enjoy the benefits. I wish I could say the same of England.

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Another obstacle, not quite so obvious, is the sort of cultural inferiority complex that we have nurtured all too long. We assume, I think (and you in America perhaps even more than we in England), that whatever Jewish learning or culture comes from overseas is necessarily far better than what is developed at home; that the proper language for Jewish culture is anything other than English; that the foreign savant is, by virtue of being a foreigner, of a status superior to his native-born colleague. Actually, that has not been true for years; now that the supply from abroad has dwindled, the belief is highly dangerous.

The fact is that Continental Jewish scholarship and culture were in decline, and American Jewish scholarship on the upward grade, well before 1933. There is already available in English a very important corpus of Jewish literature, mainly of American origin, which deserves far more attention and respect than it has hitherto received. English-speaking Jewry has produced of recent years works of fiction, of poetry, of history, of apologetics, of philosophy, of theology in great number, and some of these are of considerable significance. It is however an unfortunate fact that little of this has had a sufficient circulation to justify, and still less to encourage, the publisher. If no native-born and native-trained American Jewish savants of first eminence have as yet become widely known it is, I am convinced, mainly because of lack of appreciation and encouragement. Of course, the primacy in the Jewish cultural world today is very properly and deservedly held by Palestine. The supremely important intellectual and literary output of the Yishuv is, however, dependent to a large extent on the support, both direct and indirect, of the Jews of the Diaspora, especially the Jews of America. That is as it should be. But it is on the one hand preposterous, and on the other unfair, that this should be at the expense of the intellectual and literary output of American Jewry, which remains half-starved. There are obviously sufficient resources for both. We must rid ourselves of the idea that what is produced in other languages than English is per se and necessarily of superior quality.

Of course, worse than this by far, and alas a great deal more common, is the other species of Jewish inferiority complex, that of Jews whose cultural interests seem all-embracing—except where something Jewish is concerned. We have literary epigones who delight only in literature which is strictly Gentile in authorship and subject-matter, connoisseurs who are interested in every branch of art except that which has some Jewish connection, collectors who delight in crucifixes but will not look twice at the most superb piece of 17th-century synagogal silver, antiquarians who find an overwhelming interest in everything about Wessex or Massachusetts except its former Jewish colony; to which you in America add Jewish clubs that display no Jewish periodical, and Temple sisterhoods whose ratio of Jews in their celebrity lectures is restricted to one each season.

Even where some interest in Jewish culture exists, it is often, I fear, rather patronizing: the reader preens himself on performing a rather worthy action in giving up a few evenings to a Jewish book, and wealthy patrons of culture consider that they have indulged themselves in a species of intellectual slumming if they entertain a Jewish writer or scholar. To be sure, the author can generally obtain funds for the publication of any work within reason in America—provided he abase himself sufficiently. The result of this has been that the operative factor in the publication of books of Jewish interest in the English-speaking countries has often been, not the merit of the work, but the pliability and acceptability of the writer.

Of course, no student can be blind to the importance that the patron has had in literary history in past ages. But in the great ages—first-century Rome, or 16th-century Italy, or early 18th-century England—the patron was endowed not only with money but also with taste; not only with generosity, but also with discrimination. Today, one wonders how many magnates whose names are gratefully recorded in scholarly dedications have had the assiduity to wade through the pages whose printing they have made possible. (It was, I think, her genuine cultural interest that made Mrs. Nathan Miller’s encouragement of Israel Davidson’s publications so memorable.) On the other hand, democratization of patronage is not necessarily a remedy. A publication society, with members paying a few dollars a year, can be made to flourish, in generous America at least (though not in niggardly England), but then primarily on a charitable appeal; in much the same way that American Jews subscribe to their synagogue funds or federation campaigns. Of course, this, too, helps: it is on such a basis in part that the Jewish Publication Society of America has been enabled to do magnificent work, and indeed to raise the status and standard of Jewish authorship, in recent years. It is, however, not in itself a sign of a flourishing cultural life, which, to reiterate, must be based not on a philanthropic approach but on intrinsic cultural interest. Charity can assist culture, but is no substitute for it.

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So much for the mechanism. What of the subject matter?

In the realm of fiction, there are still I think vast unexplored territories. Ever since Zangwill perfected (rather than invented) the Jewish genre novel, half a century ago, every aspirant Jewish novelist in England and America has followed in his footsteps—sometimes with considerable success. But this has always been from the point of view of the Eastern European ghetto or its more westerly offshoots. It is disappointing that (so far as I know) none of the scions of the Oriental communities has imitated this example and given us a picture of the background of a Sephardic family in the Eastern Mediterranean and its descendants settled in Manchester or New York, in accordance with the tradition weakly established in Ladino by G. B. .Romano, in French by Albert Cohen, and in Hebrew by Judah Burla. This would at least have the appeal of novelty. It is now more than a century since Grace Aguilar vaguely experimented in this direction.

Possibly, indeed, one of the cultural potentialities of Jewish life in America, as of the “regathering of the exiles” in Palestine, may be the utilization of all these varied experiences and the ultimate emergence of a composite impression. But there is no sign of this as yet. What is produced in the field I have mentioned, to be sure, is not necessarily “Jewish fiction,” any more than a photograph of a Rabbi is “Jewish art”: it is, at its worst, simply fiction with a “Jewish” accent. Surely there is material for first-class imaginative treatment in that barely explored territory, the contemporary American, or English, Jewish scene. Not the hackneyed story of success, or of the flight from the ghetto, or of the mixed marriage, or of the anti-Semitic menace, but the varied canvas of the unsensational everyday life of Jews. All of us know, within our immediate circles, the material for more than one Jewish Forsyte Saga or even American Tragedy.

On the other hand, we Jews in the English-speaking countries have made a serious blunder in excluding works of scholarship from the scope of “literature.” The fault lies on both sides—with the scholars as well as with the public. One of the outstanding leaders of American Jewish intellectual life, whose influence in his day was unrivalled, is reported to have said of a manuscript submitted for his opinion: “If it is readable, it is not scholarly: if it is scholarly, it cannot be readable.” We all secretly seem to feel the same, even if we do not express it so frankly. We assume that contributions to Jewish learning are a matter for seminaries, and that anything erudite must necessarily be dry as dust, lying on a plane entirely different from, and necessarily inferior to, the work of the writer of fiction or of the poet, to which alone the high title “literature” can be given. A tenable point of view, perhaps, for Central Europeans, but not for persons who speak and read the language of Gibbon and Motley.

The Jewish scene assuredly provides, for example, the raw material for a truly great historical literature. But, for the production of this, some degree of encouragement (not only moral) and support (not only monetary) is essential. It is idle to claim that either has hitherto been forthcoming. G. .M. Trevelyan may well have fulfilled the ambition of his great kinsman, Lord Macaulay, and displaced the latest novel in the boudoir (or its modern equivalent) of the young ladies. At least one does see young ladies reading his Social History, or Toynbee’s Study of History, even in public. Alas, I have never seen a young lady reading any Jewish historical work, even in private.

When I speak of Jewish history, I do not refer to a record which ended two or three centuries ago and was enacted solely in strange and remote lands. Nearer home, too, in England and America, and in our own day, events have occurred—and not in the realm of Jewish suffering only—which will one day be recognized to be of vast importance in the history of our people. Leaving England on one side, the evolution of American Jewry during the past sixty years has been from some points of view the most important fact in Jewish history since the Middle Ages, because in it and through its instrumentality the future of Judaism has perhaps been secured. It would seem obvious that American Jewish history should have a tremendous significance in the eyes of the American Jew—not merely the romantic record of the few hundred Marrano and pseudo-Marrano settlers of the pre-Revolutionary period, but far more so that dramatic, heroic, providential tale of the establishment and development of the great Jewish community of today.

What a tale to tell! One day, it will be told as it should be. But, when the heavensent historian arises who can tell it, he should not be hampered for lack of resources, or deterred by the indifference of a public which persists in maintaining that if it is history it is not worth reading, and that anyway history should concern itself only with remote ages and remote lands.

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There is of course more to culture than the written and the printed word. There is music, art, drama, ballet, and much else, which should all be taken into account For all this, too, America has the necessary reserves, not only of money, but also (I am convinced) of talent. What it lacks is, simply, the degree of interest, among all classes, that one might reasonably anticipate—one-tenth, let us say, of the degree that is manifested in Palestine!

In the long run, then, it all comes down (like so much else) to the problem of the education of a Jewish audience. There is ample material for Jewish culture in England and America, there is no lack of workers (until they are discouraged), there is a discreet amount of selective enthusiasm. What is lacking is popular interest and popular support: and that can be forthcoming only if a Jewishly educated public emerges, both interested in the subject and willing to put itself to some inconvenience and expense to forward it. We must educate our new masters, as Disraeli said. But I suppose that I am arguing in a circle.

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