Commentary Magazine


Maurice Samuel & Jewish Letters

FOR MORE than three decades, Maurice Samuel has been a kind of one-man educational movement in American Jewish life. Anyone with even a passing interest in the East European Jewish milieu, Yiddish and Hebrew literature, Zionism, the future of American Jewry, the nature of anti-Semitism, the role of Judaism in the West, is likely to have read at least one of Samuel’s books. The very breadth and variety of his literary enter- prise have made it difficult to see exactly what lies behind all this effort and energy. Little Did I Know,* Samuel’s recently published volume of reminiscence and autobiographical com- ment, is sometimes informative but not com- pletely satisfying as a document of self-revela- tion. Avowedly random and episodic-like much of his career in general-it does not adequately suggest the unity of purpose and thought in all his varied activity.

Toward the end of Little Did I Know, Sam- uel makes it clear that he does not regard him- self primarily as either a critic-and-novelist or as a purveyor of information but rather as a professional Jew, who, in contrast to his sal- aried colleagues, has chosen to "peddle piece- work." The mildly self-deprecatory image, however disarming, is also partly misleading.

Samuel’s principal strengths as an expositor of Jewish values and culture-and some of his weaknesses, too-are directly connected with the fact that he is not a professional Jew. For all his commitment to Zionism, the main part of his writing suffers from none of the limita- tions imposed by the bias of an institution or movement. He addresses no special sector of American Jewry and expounds no official orthodoxy.

One of the important figures of modern Jewish life whom Samuel has admired is Ahad Ha’am, that self-appointed teacher of an ear- lier generation, but the difference in the tone of their respective enterprises is instructive.

ROE:Rr. ALTER teaches English at Columbia. His book, Rogue’s Progress, Studies in the Picaresque Novel, was re- cently published by Harvard University Press.

Ahad Ha’am, writing in Hebrew for a rela- tively homogeneous group of newly emanci- pated Jewish intellectuals, attempted to harmonize traditional Jewish values with mod- ern secular culture in a style that was unmis- takably legislative and prescriptive. Samuel, with a roughly similar general purpose and a radically different audience, strikes a personal, confessional note. Little Did I Know is by no means his first piece of autobiographical writ- ing. Of the twelve books published since 1940 in the major phase of his career, important elements of autobiography appear in all but three, and of the latter, two are novels.

Whether Samuel is talking about the early kib- butzim, the fiction of Peretz, or the difference between Jewish and pagan moral codes, he begins not from the facts but from his own discovery of them. As he is a self-made scholar in so many areas, so he is in general a self-made Jew, and his writing continually reflects the excitement of discovery and acquisition chAr- acteristic of the autodidact. But the personal vividness that his presentation of material gains in this way is not nearly so significant as the kind of perspective in which such a pres- entation places the idea of being a Jew. To be a Jew does not mean to live by any kind of fixed prescription, whether theological, ideo- logical, or sociological. It is conceived rather as a process, a personal dialogue with Jewish his- torical experience-that is, with Jewish knowl- edge-from the Bible through modern times.

The autobiographical framework, then, of so many of Samuel’s books, is a logical necessity because the real subject is not a set of ideas, lives, or events, but the author’s encounter with them. Certain People of the Book, for example, is not so much a book about the Bible as a vehicle enabling readers to partici- pate in the writer’s own imaginative response to some Biblical characters. Certain People makes no attempt to analyze the narrative art of the Bible or to defend it as literature. It * Little Did I Know: Recollections and Reflections, Knopf, 326 pp., $5.95.

50MAURICE SAMUEL & JE’YISH LETTERS 51 offers, instead, concrete evidence of the liter- ary power that must have generated the writer’s responses, and invites the reader to initiate a similar relationship of his own with the original text. It is entirely appropriate that Samuel’s more successful non-polemical books should turn out to be attractive introductions, not definitive expositions. To the extent that Samuel’s work is a continuing process of self- exploration and self-definition, it makes no more sense to speak of him as a professional Jew than as a professional human being. But in his role of interpreter of a culture unfamil- iar to his American audiences, he has also aimed in some ways at selling that culture, and this aspect of his writing may partly justify the label of professionalism.

Samuel reminds us in several of his books that he came to Jewish life from the outside- or, more precisely, after being on the inside and leaving, he had to return as an outsider.

His childhood was spent in a traditional, if not Orthodox, Jewish home, first in Rumania, and then in an immigrant section of Manchester.

In his adolescent years, he became a militant socialist; the attachment, however, proved to be transitory. From socialism he moved to so- cialist Zionism, to relearning Yiddish and studying Hebrew, and eventually to a total in- volvement in Jewish life. The traditional Jew- ish world whose expositor he was to become he had to learn largely by book, using frag- mentary memories of childhood as prompters.

This necessity to reconstruct the past through painstaking effort qualified him perfectly to recreate it for others who had no knowledge of it. Samuel at his best is really brilliant in his ability to explain a world alien to Western readers by locating it on cultural coordinates familiar to them. It would be tempting to put together an anthology of his best achievements in this difficult art of cultural transcription: his explanation of the difference between pray- ing and davvening in Prince of the Ghetto, his initial comments in The World of Sholom Aleichem on Tevya the Dairyman as a cultural and sociological anomaly, his ingenious imita- tion in English of medieval Hebrew exegetical style and method in The Gentleman and the Jew, his discussions of the distinctive qualities of Yiddish in both Prince of the Ghetto and The World of Sholom Aleichem.

The challenge of imaginative reconstruction of older cultures has exercised a contin- uing fascination over Samuel-a fact attested to by his sustained interest in the historical novel as well as by his writings on East European Jewry. It is just this activity of reconstruction that has released his most creative energies: the one thing he can clearly do with words better than most writers is to make the past moment present in all its palpable concrete- ness with all its flow of emotional life. In the Book of Kings, for instance, after Elijah’s ter- rible triumph over the idolatrous priests, as the long drought is broken by a sudden storm, the Bible tells us that "the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he girded up his loins and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel." Certain People of the Book translates the cryp- tic verse into dramatic particularity: He who is to be the forerunner of the Messiah ran that night before one of the vilest human beings, ran through the sheets of water and the dazzle of lightning, to celebrate and to announce simultaneously the salvation of the king and the people. Breathless with exertion and exulta- tion, beside himself with the thought that his mission was ended, he sped through tangled grasses and thickening mud, and every drumroll of thunder was a shout of triumph in his ears. … He ran, unaware of tiredness . . . a ghastly parody and rehearsal of what shall be his reward at the end of days.

The ability to get this close to the feel of distant experience, at the same time setting the experience in a large imaginative context (here, Elijah’s messianic role), has helped make Samuel’s evocations of the Jewish past both convincing and intellectually engaging.

It is no accident that the best of his books from many points of view, The World of Sholom Aleichem, is the one devoted entirely to such an enterprise of reconstruction. But the same turn of mind which has made him so successful in resurrecting buried worlds also places a limitation on his vision of modern Jewish life.

o want to recreate a past, one must care T about it. And it should be said that Samuel can care about his subjects wholeheartedly while excluding any falsifying note of senti- mentality from his presentation of them.

Though his portrait of the shtetl is a loving one, he remembers the stench of the refuse- strewn alleys and the arrogance of the commu- nity’s rich, as well as the fragrance of Sabbath dishes and the gentle piety of the shtetl’s more exemplary figures. Nevertheless, in his affec- tion for the world of tradition, he never re- sponds adequately to what is almost certainly the central fact of modern Jewish history-the breakdown of that traditional world. The52 C OMMENTAR Y/MAR CH 64 agonizing question of continuity between his- torical Judaism and modern Jews is answered with too easy an affirmative by Samuel. Com- menting on Weizmann, Ahad Ha’am, and Bia- lik in The Professor and the Fossil, he admits that these creators of the Zionist renaissance "did discard some of the symbols and terms of accepted orthodoxy," but, he hastens to add, "in effect they were looking for new symbols and terms for the teaching of the original God- inspired ethos." The vagueness of "in effect" is symptomatic of an evasion at the most crucial point of the argument. Especially in the case of Ahad Ha’am, whose thought has been so central to Zionist ideology, it would be much truer to say the opposite: he used the symbols and terms of accepted orthodoxy to teach a new, profoundly secularist doctrine of national existence. What Ahad Ha’am and his followers actually attempted to do was to show how one can live by a God-inspired ethos without be- lieving in either God or inspiration.

In this connection, Samuel’s response to Bialik is particularly revealing. The Hebrew poet has meant a great deal to him. It was his discovery of some of Bialik’s poems in Yiddish that first made him question his youthful dis- missal of the Jewish people; through the poems he became aware of unsuspected cre- ativity in what he had thought of as a mori- bund group. The two men were personally acquainted, and lectured together when Bialik toured this country in 1926. Samuel’s scattered comments on Bialik constitute an intelligent appreciation. He is fully aware of Bialik’s power and originality as a poet, never falls into the kind of cant formula that pigeonholes Bia- lik as "mouthpiece of the folk." He is alive to some of the darker sides of Bialik’s poetry, its haunting images of poverty, and its prophetic wrath. Yet Samuel gives no evidence of having confronted the depths of despair in the He- brew poet, the horror of the abyss that is frozen into the heart of some of his greatest poems.

Samuel esteems Bialik as the entrepreneur of modern Hebrew culture, and neglects the Bialik who in poems like "Before the Book- shelf" came to see the sacred books of Jewish experience-his belief in their sanctity gone- as the breeding place of decay, darkness, death.

HIS IS of course not to suggest that Samuel should have been occupied with carrying a message of doom to his popular audiences all these years. But there is something perhaps too cheerfully healthy-minded in his conception of the modern Jew’s relationship to his anteced- ents. He assumes that Jewish self-alienation is a purely negative and at least partly remedi- able phenomenon. The Jew is unable to accept or respect himself because he knows nothing about himself except what the outside world has imposed upon him. The way to break down the self-hatred, then, is to acquire Jew- ish knowledge. There is clearly much sound- ness in this idea, just as it is reasonable to suppose that ignorance is in fact a major cause of self-alienation in vast numbers of Jews. But for others, even many who have been long im- mersed in Jewish life and thought, there sim- ply has been no alternative to alienation. The one important aspect of modern Hebrew and Yiddish culture which is left out of Samuel’s account is the fact that much of it was created by alienated Jews, paradoxically finding in their own desperate isolation and frustration the source of their creativity.

Samuel has written more than once of the peculiar polarity of Jewish literature from the Bible onward: on the one hand, an exalted sense of the group’s importance and unique- ness; on the other, merciless self-castigation.

As part of the general continuity which he sees between traditional and modern Jewish cul- ture, he envisages the sharply critical phase of Yiddish and Hebrew literature as a continua- tion of this age-old prophetic impulse in Jew- ish writers. But prophetic castigation is always meant to be therapeutic; it intends to trans- form its auditors. By contrast, at least some of the anger one finds in modern Jewish writers suggests no such undercurrent of hope: the late poems of Bialik, the novels of Y.H. Bren- ner, some of Peretz’s stories reveal frustrated rage, corrosive contempt, not corrective indig- nation. The interpretation of Peretz in Prince of the Ghetto is inadequate precisely because of its failure to respond to this deeply alienated quality of modern Jewish sensibility. Samuel insists that Peretz’s only significant achieve- ment is his crystallization in his stories of the ideals and spirit of the Jewish folk. He even admits at one point that everything in Prince of the Ghetto which is not folktale or Hasidic lore was included "merely in deference to the record." This is surely a foreshortened view of Peretz. As Leslie Fiedler said in these pages years ago, Peretz as a man and a writer was not a prince of the ghetto but a product of its breakdown.

If Samuel’s vision of old world and new tends to be one-eyed, he has at least managedMAURICE SAMUEL JEWISH LETTERS 53 to achieve something like a complete view of an impressive variety of complex phenomena.

His books belong on reading lists: in any of half a dozen areas, the Samuel volume will turn out to be the most recommendable intro- duction to the subject. Harvest in the Desert is probably the most balanced and readable short history of Zionism; the same is true of Level Sunlight as a consideration of the basic problems affecting Israel’s future. The Great Hatred is as intelligent and far-reaching a dis- cussion of the nature of anti-Semitism as can be found in one slim volume. And, of course, The World of Sholom Aleichem is the most vivid and complete brief account of Russian Jewish life two and three generations ago.

Moreover, Samuel has not dissipated him- self in covering all this ground. He writes about ideas and events he has lived with: de- spite his prodigious output, there is no evi- dence in his books of hasty research in order to "do" a particular subject. On the other hand, there are signs that the years of addressing himself to a popular audience may have had some debilitating effect on his writing. Sam- uel, of course, cannot be criticized for choosing to be a popularizer. The centrality of the folk is a point of ideology for him, and that idea itself implies the need to write for the people, not for any special group within it. He has generally done this with great competence, managing to avoid glibness or superficiality while presenting his material clearly and non- technically. And yet there is an unevenness of verbal texture that persists through virtually all his writing. Samuel is perhaps dangerously facile with language. The very fact that he can use words with great precision and taste makes one suspect that he is sometimes simply careless. The writer who can describe Hasid- ism in The World of Sholom Aleichem as "life at its jolliest" (sic) is also capable, in the same book, of the kind of finely selective use of lan- guage one finds in his comparison of Russian and Jewish folk melodies: "As the sadness of great stretches of space informs the songs of the Russian peasant, so the sadness of great stretches of time haunts the truncated words, the elisions and repetitions of these minor Jewish chants." It can be damaging for a writer not to feel the pressure of intellectually rigorous demands from his readers. He may end by improvising his own uncertain stand- ards of verbal accuracy and stylistic decorum, which can blur the focus of his exposition.

Thus: "The Bible is a vast blend of folkloristic growths and individual creations; and this two- in-one character is of its essence as record." Another problem implicit in the attempt to address a large popular audience on questions of Jewish concern is the difficulty in knowing to whom one is talking. How does one decide on a tone and manner of presentation that will be appropriate for everyone from sisterhood ladies to intellectuals ignorant of Judaism and curious non-Jews? On the whole, Samuel has handled this difficulty as well as could be ex- pected, but it is a problem for him, vaguely perceptible in most of the non-polemical writ- ing, obviously acute in his book on Peretz. The author of Prince of the Ghetto seems at some points uneasy about his audience. He is un- willing to trust Peretz to his readers, even with the aid of abundant introductory comment and notes. He insists that the Yiddish writer cannot be translated, must be retold for a Western audience-which means that he is continually interposing a narrative persona of his own making between the reader and Per- etz. The degree of subtlety and artistic finesse lost through this procedure becomes clear by comparing Samuel’s retelling of "Devotion Unto Death" with the Howe-Greenberg trans- lation of the same story in A Treasury of Yid- dish Stories. The most obvious thing about the story as it reads in straight translation is that’it is a folktale told by a sophisticated writer. But the magic of the story is marred in Samuel’s version because he feels he must constantly re- mind us that it is not silly to read this kind of story, that it "is a fairy tale in which the truths taught are of the spirit." If the book is meant for a wide range of readers, this would seem to be aimed at one far end of the range, in the direction of the simple-minded.

NSUCH a varied enterprise, frequently di- rected as it has been to an uncertain audience, it is natural that individual volumes should be flawed, some of them perhaps seri- ously limited. But the surprising feature of Samuel’s books is that, taken together, they have a special kind of cumulative power.

The reason is, I think, the unified perspective in which he sees all his subjects. Despite the fact that he is a popularizer, peddling piece- work both the written and spoken word, despite his avowed lack of originality as a thinker, he has continually viewed the idea of being a Jew against the background of eternity.

If his presentation of his subject has been episodic, his conception of it has not. He has /MARCH 64 written so often of the recent Jewish past not because it is colorful and for that reason worth "preserving," but because Jewish history for him, as for the Bible, is universal history, is the tentative, tortuous working out of a cosmic experiment. The one book of his which is cen- tral to all the others is The Gentleman and the Jew, where he formulates his general concep- tion of Western history. Samuel sees Judaism, and through it, Christianity, as an attempt- often seemingly a desperate one-to convert pagan history, to establish cooperation instead of combat as the basis for human society. Be- cause the world’s fate is necessarily implicated in the fate of the people who have been the bearers of this redemptive idea, the Jewish subjects Samuel writes of are never imagined parochially.

The question, then, sometimes raised about him, whether he could have achieved more, been less narrow, had he not limited himself to his Jewish preoccupation, is really meaning- less. In dealing with Jewish problems he has directly or indirectly been concerned with uni- versal problems; he has simply chosen what is for him the most personally relevant way to approach the large issues. This connection be- tween particular and universal is especially clear in his treatment of two central themes in his writing: anti-Semitism and Zionism. If one assumes that anti-Semitism is just another prejudice against a minority group-an as- sumption perhaps difficult to sustain in the lurid light of the Final Solution-then The Great Hatred is not really about anti-Semi- tism. Samuel, writing at the end of the 30’s, before the world had begun to be haunted by the organized madness of death camps, insisted on the demonological nature of anti-Semitism and on totalitarianism’s inner necessity to de- stroy the Jewish idea. His book is not about the plight of the Jewish people but about how the Jews are implicated in the world’s choice between an ethic of mindless power and an ethic based on respect for the dignity of the individual.

Similarly, the Jewish nationalism Samuel has argued for in his books on Israel is never narrow or chauvinistic. The Hebrew prophets, as he understands them, imparted to the world the idea that the nation had to be transformed into a morally responsible entity. "Unless the nation is a moral thing," he writes of the pro- phetic view, "the individual cannot be moral." This seminal idea has obviously not taken very well in the soil of Western history. Christianity substantially left nationhood in the hands of the pagan world, while the Jews themselves have struggled with the idea rather than real- ized it. Israel for Samuel must ultimately jus- tify itself by an unwavering commitment to continue the struggle. This sense of high pur- pose in the Zionist enterprise may occasionally lead him to overvalue the facts, as in his con- ception of Weizmann as a second Moses, or in his adulation of the early Palestinian pioneers, whom he sees as the literal heirs of the pro- phets. But in general, his conviction that Is- rael should be working out an idea of universal significance has helped him to view the coun- try in a healthy critical perspective. He has preserved a sympathetic insight into what Is- rael at its best has attempted to be, but he continues to demand that Israel never be con tent merely with what it actually is.

What may not be apparent from reading one or two of Samuel’s books is that the ulti- mate source of his thought and effort is reli- gious. It appears that in the years following his initial return to Jewish life, he gradually developed the conviction that the moral as- pirations of Jewish tradition do reflect a divine will and purpose, if not in the direct manner claimed by the tradition itself. Because this conviction has been so basic a motive in his career, there is an element of truth in the image of preacher which this lecturer and man of letters uses to characterize himself. Toward the end of his most recent book, he tries to explain why he has spent so much of his life exploring and expounding the particulars of one tradition: In that substance [Jewish tradition] the spirit expresses itself, having no other means of ex- pression for us. The One God of whom I get glimpses speaks to me, as a Jew, in that substance, making it the starting point and medium of my perception of the world, my mode of entrance into it and my identification with it.

The italic emphasis which Samuel feels compelled to use here, and so frequently else- where, may indicate how keenly he senses his position to be an embattled one, how isolated he has sometimes felt in defending it. But the kind of religious commitment expressed is sane and intellectually plausible. It has given his books, whatever their limitations, breadth of outlook and an underlying moral serious- ness. For a man with these convictions and this sense of purpose, it would be imperti- nent to suggest that he could have used his talents better.

* Little Did I Know: Recollections and Reflections, Knopf, 326 pp., $5.95.

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