March is a murderous month, its chill penetrates bone. Mufflers, upturned collars, fur-lined gloves, earlaps are of no avail. Oh, they help a bit. We shiver, seek warmth, and what is so warm as a symposium on a bitter March night? It is the hall of the Workmen's Circle, there is the preparatory hum (the speakers not yet on the platform), so warm and sociable, there are familiar faces (the Slaners, the Engelsteins, the Pankens), we forget all that rawness outside, midst the lively chatter, the smiles and recognitions, the waving from afar, the pointing out (“there's Meyer Schapiro”). The audience is liberal/socialist/ex-Trotskyist, remnants of battered causes, even battered remnants of battered causes. And the subject for the evening: The Writer as Jew.
There is a lively group in front of us, one tells a joke:
A husband finds his wife in bed with a stranger. “Aaah,” she says, “here comes Blabbermouth. Now everyone will know.”
And they roar at this old joke, while my wife and I grin that such a well-worn joke should be surviving.
3. 1st Speaker
The first speaker is Irving Howe. He compares the Jewish culture to that of the American South. He means mostly the East European Yiddish-style culture, and he means the Southern culture which flowered before the Civil War. He strikes a rather gloomy note, he is talking of the end of cultures. He speaks directly, in a polemical style. He sees the doom of Yiddishkeit in America—the press is losing its readers, the new generation does not understand the language, the old customs lose meaning. There is no way of transplanting the marvelous old culture of the small towns of Poland and Russia, that image becomes fainter and fainter.
(“He is striking a pessimistic note,” whispers my wife, “but it is a long-range optimism; he implies the death of anti-Semitism, the end of separatism, of the ghetto, a genuine assimilationism in a world without economic depression.”)
Later in the evening, as we were walking home, I first formulated my question:
Wouldn't you say there was a significant difference between the dying of Southern culture and that of Yiddish culture? The culture of the old South was doomed by history, in a given place, and transformed by the loss of a civil war, by vast industrial changes, and so on. The Southerners cannot take this culture and bring it to another land, to revive it there—that place and those circumstances are needed. But the Jews, living in one style of sufferance or another, have developed varying kinds of cultures according to the time, place, circumstance. The death of the East European Yiddishkeit is one cultural death in a series of cultural deaths. Do you see [and here I echoed my wife's whisper] a total acceptance of the Jews in the West, an ultimate disappearance of the Jews?
But the fact is that Howe had in mind the death of the East European Yiddish style, something so close to us, and so abruptly destroyed, so suddenly and monstrously destroyed, and saw nothing to take its place, here in America, no sign of a separatist culture. That was hard to deny.
5. 2nd Speaker
But Isaac Bashevis Singer denied it. He was the next speaker. “I respect Mr. Howe,” he said (my quotations, by the way, are from memory), “but that Yiddish culture will die—is it not perhaps wishful thinking?” And he proceeded to strike an optimistic note. It was Mr. Singer's contention that we are on the verge of a great Renaissance in Yiddish culture. He advised us to send our children to cheder and synagogue, to observe the holidays, and so keep alive, revitalize, this Jewishness. He spoke not so much about the end of an epoch as about the beginning of a new one. There was a kind of fervor in his remarks, he looked forward to a flowering. The Six Million so recently slaughtered (the Hagadah song—Who Knows One?, etc, now has a gap to fill between thirteen and six million), and already there is a rebirth. A truly optimistic, forward-looking note. The audience was carried away, the way it is when a man, no longer young, talks hopefully of the future, it is a kind of promise of immortality. And yet, solemnly considered—what Renaissance, what rebirth? Who? Where? I felt like Mr. Cohen of East Broadway who picked up the ringing phone, and when a voice inquired whether this was the residence of the Vanderbilts, answered: “Who am I? What am I?” I see no sign of a Jewish Renaissance. There is a grim holding, a coming to grips with the horrors still fresh, a kind of tentative boldness in playing on the world's guilt. And if we send the children to the Talmud Torahs and the synagogues (many of them are there), will that create something new and marvelous? Or are all the particularities being homogenized in what used to be called the Melting Pot? We now refer to the Mix. But our speaker (he is a writer speaking) is full of excitement and hope, we are carried away, sober considerations and all. Why not a Renaissance? But the mind, the rationality, does not surrender so easily. If it is going to happen, shouldn't there be signs of it happening now? Where are the signs? We are puzzled.
6. 3rd Speaker
So was Harvey Swados. He was the next speaker, and puzzled. Something was finished. Of that he was sure. And something had to take the place of what was finished. Of that he was sure. He is a novelist, a Jew, who writes in English; Singer is a novelist, a Jew, who writes in Yiddish. Then Swados points out something he finds of interest. It seems that young people, in their twenties, even early twenties, are writing about the East Side ghetto of fifty and sixty years ago; they are recapturing the lives of their grandfathers, bypassing their fathers altogether (I mean in the literary way). That is a strange thing, and the speaker couldn't explain it. He saw this as a curiosity. And it certainly is a curiosity. If the young people can write about what it is they have not experienced in America, why cannot they write about what it is they have not experienced on the other side? Were we on the verge of a shtetl Renaissance, the way the Europeans of four hundred years ago revived the Classical glories? True, the Europeans waited many centuries before embarking on this revival. But we are in the jet age, the time-sense is hopped up. Why cannot we revive what is dead only a few decades? But Mr. Swados was making no predictions, he saw the themes of these young writers as a curiosity, and let it go at that. (There is nothing unusual about writers choosing a historical period that interests them, but the oddity is that the youngsters bypassed their parents and chose the period of their grandparents. I repeat for emphasis: that is only one generation from the shtetl.) The speaker was making a sociological comment, not particularly passing a literary judgment (T. Solotaroff later blasted some of these nostalgic works in a telling review in COMMENTARY, but might not other novelists do the job better, the past is forever open, we only have to seize it with feeling and artfulness, and then who knows?). We did not have the sober sense that we were on the verge of this kind of revival. But it could happen. That made the matter puzzling.
In looking at the title of this symposium, I set down the following list:
Jewish writers who write in Yiddish about Jewish matters.
Jewish writers who write in Yiddish about non-Jewish matters.
Jewish writers who write in the language of their country (or any language) about Jewish matters in a Jewish style.
Jewish writers who write in the language of their country (or any language) about Jewish matters in a non-Jewish style.
Jewish writers who write in the language of their country about non-Jewish matters in a Jewish style.
Jewish writers who write in the language of their country (parenthesis taken for granted) about non-Jewish matters in a non-Jewish style.
After the set pieces came the Question & Answer period. The questions came at a fairly rapid rate, interspersed by the long speeches, some of them rambling, the ex-cathedra comments and the soliloquies which sometimes turn out to be questions after all (“Wait, Mr. Chairman, I'm getting to the question”). Swados responded in a laconic manner. His answer on one occasion was “no.” Was he deeply distracted, bored, or was this his everyday manner? Howe responded in a kind of virtuoso style, bore down heavily on a man who questioned his coupling of the cultural prospects of the Jews and of the South, the questioner seeing the South as full of reactionary, if not fascistic, forces. In these questions and answers, Singer was at his best; he carried the crowd with him by his enthusiasm for a cause, Cultural Renaissance. A man in the audience pointed out that he had a nephew who, without any particular Jewish background or upbringing, was doing very well indeed in the academic world, was forging a brilliant career for himself. “You have a nephew,” said Singer, “I have a niece.” The crowd roared. The comment had the overtones of one of those matchmaker jokes. . . . A questioner asked Singer whether his work lost in translation. “I have no complaints about my translators,” he said. Then he added: “Sometimes translation hurts the author, in one case I know where it helped.” Laughter at the infighting. . . . A young woman made a long, intelligent speech, drawing on an extensive knowledge of Jewish history, emphasizing and documenting the point that the end of East European Yiddishkeit did not mean the end of Jewish history, it was a chapter in a long story whose end had not yet come. She spoke eloquently, a groundswell of handclapping started up. Singer ran to the microphone. “Don't applaud yet.” Was he not on the speaker's side? Had he said that the world from which he came was going to last forever? Only to raise your children as Jews, teach them their history, take them to synagogue, Talmud Torah. “Don't applaud yet.” The applause rang out.
Germany had been overlooked, the discussion had centered on Poland/Russia. At least that was my orientation, though unquestionably other lands were involved—Rumania, Hungary, and all those countries destroyed and reborn, divided and absorbed, in two world wars were part of the Yiddish flowering. But I imagine that for most of us in this room, the Russian/Polish area was in the foreground—Minsk, Lodz, and all those Gibernias. But Germany had a different ring, a quality of exceptionalism. What kind of Yiddishkeit from Germany? I remember, as a boy, the hostility of the Russian toward the German Jews (the feeling mutual). The German Jew was considered to be arrogant, to hold himself aloof. He was Jewish, but not Yiddish. There was intense national hostility. Germany, the land of assimilationism. True, the three great Jews of the last hundred years—Marx, Freud, and Einstein—came from Germany, and all Jews were proud of them, including, even especially, the East European Jews. They were proud of all Jews who made their marks in the outside world; even Germans, who somehow lost their Germanness in the world's acclaim and became the more Jewish. It was questionable whether Marx, Freud, or Einstein knew a word of Yiddish. So what? They were Jews who had made their way in the Gentile world. Nevertheless, the Germans were not considered exactly Yiddish, and so it came as no surprise (only shock), that the scourge of Hitlerism, the mass exterminations, should have originated precisely in the country of the assimilationists. So in this discussion of Jews and literature, the Germans were included out. The name of Heine was not even mentioned. But Germany was in the mind and heart of the audience. Now and then (even parenthetically), the Six Million were mentioned, they were part of what was being said, an overpowering invisible presence.
A joke told by one of the pranksters in front of us (they were certainly a bunch of cards) brought the Six Million to my mind in a curious way:
Someone asks a Jewish woman about her son.
“My son. From him I have tsores and nachis.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, tsores is that he is a homosexual.”
“Is that so? And the nachis?”
“The nachis is that he is going with a doctor.”
Again, here was an old joke, not exactly a classic, but with a certain classic ring to it, in the curious economy, the wild unexpectedness of it. We grinned. Is there any subject from which the Jews will shy in the way of self-criticism, self-mockery, any subject that is sacred? Yes, the Six Million. I am an inveterate hearer of jokes, but on this subject there is a silence, as of the grave. As of the grave is a fine way to put it. There has been a peripheral joke:
A distraught man is pounding the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, crying:
I want to be with my people, I want to be with my people.
He carried on so violently that a crowd gathered, and an elderly man, of grave mien, approached him, and asked, in a kindly voice:
“What is it, my son?” and one could see that he had in mind the charnelhouse of Europe.
I want to be with my people.
And where are your people, my child?
In Miami Beach!
Without doubt a vulgar joke, doesn't hit home, and then there is the apocryphal inscription on the entrance of one of the concentration camps:
In the gate, out the chimney.
But that too has a hollow ring. There is now a subject about which we Jews do not dare to joke. “It is not a laughing matter.” There were even jokes about the Czarist pogroms (also a laughing matter):
Buy your pogroms here. Names and numbers of all the slayers.
And we know the story of the grandma who was locked in a room, when the Black Hundreds assaulted the house. “Who is in that room?” “Nobody,” answers the daughter. The grandma cries out: “Becky, open the door. A pogrom is a pogrom.”
That old joke has come to be in bad taste. Yes, Germany has committed unbelievable crimes against the Jews. And it may even be responsible for the beginning of the end of our self-mockery, as the blood guilt for the Six Million sharpens, exacerbates the conscience of the world. And so Germany may be responsible for the beginning of the end of the Jewish joke, one of the most consummate of the miniature art forms, for these jokes, these stories, rank with the masterly work of Sholem Aleichem, of Mendele, of Peretz, of all the East European whizzes (for readers with little Hebrew and less Yiddish, these writers are to be found in translation in A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, edited by poet Eliezer Greenberg and critic Irving Howe). Better we should have had the Six Million and the jokes.
Israel, too, had been overlooked in the symposium, though for different reasons. It is my understanding that Yiddish is discouraged in Israel, and that leads me straight into a joke:
A mother and a son are riding in a bus in Tel Aviv. The mother talks Yiddish, the child answers in Hebrew, and the mother says:
She repeats this every time the boy answers in Hebrew, and finally a bystander (happens to be an American), asks the mother:
Why do you ask him to talk Yiddish?
I don't want him to forget that he's a Jew.
It is a good joke. Despite Bialik, Agnon, it is a meaningful joke. We are more Jews than Hebrews. It is the power of the Vulgate, of Dante's Italian (when he wrote it) over the dying Latin. Is Hebrew dying? Not in Israel, but probably in America. As an American, as a Jew, as a writer, as an American Jewish writer, as a Jew who writes in English, as an American who writes in English about mostly non-Jewish matters, with I suppose a Jewish undercurrent, I know that I have forgotten my Hebrew (read without—mostly—understanding), but will never forget Yiddish, the tongue in which I spoke to my mother, and speak to her still, for the Lord who gives and takes, has taken, and took her some six weeks before this symposium on the Writer as Jew, which could also have been called the Jew as Writer. I learned Hebrew for my bar-mitzvah, and then my knowledge faded, but my Yiddish stays alive, I talk it to my father, my uncles and aunts, to myself, to my mother (Oleha Ha'Shalom, that is Hebrew), and hope she hears, the way I hear her, in her lovely Yiddish, ever so Americanized.
But in Israel Yiddish is discouraged, Hebrew is the language of the land, the children learn it, read it, speak it, write it, and so presumably it will become the language of the Jews in Israel, although the mama, East-European, says:
I don't want him to forget that he's a Jew.
Yiddish is a young language (couldn't be more than a thousand years old), and maybe will die young. In that case the Renaissance of which Mr. Singer spoke will be in Hebrew, if there is to be a Renaissance. It will be an Israeli phenomenon (the Yiddish fights on), though some believe it is taking place in the West and that leads us to:
and not so much America, as the role of the Jewish writer in America (sounds like the title of a symposium). The situation of Mr. I. B. Singer is, if not unique, certainly unusual. It is my understanding that he was born in East Europe, spent roughly half his life there and the other half (again roughly) in America. That is all I know about his biography (except that his late brother, I. J. Singer, was a Yiddish writer, and that he, I. B. Singer, has a niece). I have read a number of his stories, which either take place in Europe, or if in America, have the East European tone (it was the same with Sholem Aleichem, whose style was surely fully formed by the time he came to America. He is said to have wheeled my baby carriage, I mean the carriage in which I spent time as a baby, or pushed it, or maybe just touched it, in the northwest reaches of Central Park, across from the Great Circle on 110th Street. The reader will excuse the irrelevancy, it is just that I wanted to get into the act). Then there are the very young writers mentioned by Swados—they write about their grandfathers' New York ghetto life. That's kind of odd. That leaves my generation, whose fathers were the immigrants. If we were to be touched by the grandfather complex (we don't write much about our fathers' ghetto life) we would be writing about the small-town life of East Europeans (we descendants of East Europeans would). But I know of no such work. Does such a work exist—written by an American-born Jew about the East European life of his grandfather, to say nothing of his father? I suppose such a work does exist—it is difficult to exclude subject possibilities. But the tendency of the American-born Jewish writer is to write about life in America, maybe Jewish life in America, but pretty much to avoid the Ghetto as subject. But now the generation behind us (or is it two generations?) begins to write about the ghetto. And if the American ghetto, why not the European ghetto? The great grandfather complex-will that be in the nature of the Renaissance? Our generation fought more to achieve an American style, or an international style, and it is probably too late for a Jewish style. But what about the generation behind the one that is behind us, our children's children? Will they go deeper into the Jewish past, when the history of the shtetl will be four times removed? And another question, Mr. Chairman, which relates to the remarks of Mr. Howe. Are there any Southern Jewish writers? If so, are they involved in a double decline?
Still talking of America, it is said by some that the Jewish cultural Renaissance is here, and a group of a half-dozen or so writers, all of whose names are no doubt familiar to my readers, is adduced in evidence. These are American Jews, writing in English, about subjects Jewish and non-Jewish, appealing to Jewish and non-Jewish readers. In my opinion these writers, some more accomplished than others, constitute a phenomenon rather than a Renaissance. They write mostly in the tradition of American letters, in an American idiom (in some cases with an admixture of Yiddishisms, even a Yiddish tone). The fact of this grouping is in part a reflex of the Hitlerian horrors—the Western world (or part of the Western world, or certain psychic layers in part of the Western world) want the Jews to succeed. These writers (good, bad, and indifferent) are considered as a group by the Christians as well as by the Jews. Under other circumstances they would be considered only on their merits as individual writers. The sense of Jewishness is more intense, but that is subsumed in the American tradition, the American language and style. We do not have a ghetto situation in America; there are memories of such a situation, mostly historical, in some cases personal, but those who exploit these memories are making an as-if situation. The unusually favorable situation of the Jews in America makes a Jewish Renaissance difficult. It is better, much better, a thousand times better, that way—good life is more important than the most dazzling parochial literature, than the most dazzling universal literature. Of course, you can't have one without the other. Maurice Samuel has written of “two thousand years of creative exile experience.” That sense of exile is not so much alive in the third- and fourth-generation Jews in America. Disastrous circumstances will easily awaken it. Howe's optimism (the death of Yiddish culture, and of anti-Semitism, in a profoundly democratic society) is perhaps in order. But America is only one country. (In Soviet Russia today, Yiddish language and culture are under fire. The government is forcing an assimilation. That is altogether different from an assimilation freely arrived at, has an anti-assimilationist effect, reinforcing the Jews' sense of themselves as Jews. But even when the assimilation is not imposed, as was the situation, for example, in Germany in the hundred years before Nazism, the Jew can at any time be de-assimilated, to a l/64th fraction.) Danger in one land spells the possibility of danger everywhere. So there is a constant wariness, an unease securely founded in the substance of world history.
The Question & Answer period was over. Sometimes a foolish question was rewarded by a wise answer. Sometimes a wise question was depreciated by a foolish answer. It was getting late, wrist watches were being glanced at, furtively, openly, a certain restlessness developed. It was cold outside. The popular song (of another year) said it this way: Baby, it's cold outside. It was warm and pleasant in the room, but time to go. Oh, not immediately—there was the usual milling, people gathered round the speakers' platform to ask more questions, to shake hands, to straighten out one of the speakers, or just to hang around. Then there were coats to be picked up, and meetings with friends, or acquaintances, little groups at the exits, little groups outside in the street, waiting (for friends, or just waiting), discussing the highlights of the symposium, praising and criticizing the speakers. The ex-audience shivered, bundled up, looked for warmth in corners that did not exist, or existing, did not provide warmth. The crowd faded from the doorway. We were in the streets of an American city. Here Jewish kids were not picked up and slammed against the wall. No Yiddish was being spoken. The city opened up to us—so many places to go, even home. Seldom, if ever, since the Dispersion, have so many Jews had so much freedom, for so long a time, as in this land. We are suspicious, cautious, we look for the possibilities of trouble, anti-Semitism lurks everywhere, bad times will bring it out, there are various types of exclusion, Americans are not immune, there is even a small Nazi organization, nobody knows what the future will bring, situations change quickly, but the Jews have had it very good here for a very long time. That in itself is a cause for worry. How long can such good fortune last? The Jewish writers should be interested, are interested, in these matters. Are we living on sufferance, the world's guilt for the extermination of the Six Million? How is it possible not to worry? We move off. Where to? Smith's Bar & Grill? Luchow's?