Campaign in Northrup
To the Editor:
The reappearance of Evelyn N. Rossman in the pages of COMMENTARY [“A Fund-Raiser Comes to Northrup,” March] produced ambivalent feelings in this reader. Miss Rossman’s observations about the Jewish community are acute enough to cause pain. That her talent remains un-dimmed is well illustrated by two beautifully made points in her most recent essay on Northrup. First, she has given us a most succinct statement of the dilemma of Jewish education today when she says that “Children study for membership in a religious community that exists primarily at their level.” Second, the classification of teen-age reaction to the American community I think is worthy of the best sociological reporting; everyone has met one or another of the types she lists and I, for one, cannot think of other categories.
However, I am disturbed by the attitude of extreme detachment which Miss Rossman evinces in her article. When she describes the motivations of the campaign leaders as being rooted in the insecurity of youth spent in Russia, Poland, New York, and Boston, she implies a certain equation among those widely separated geographical places. . . . This type of analysis is a slight both to America and to the Jewish community which it has produced. . . .
Apparently we are to draw the conclusion that the need for social acknowledgment exists only among East European Jews and certainly is not a necessity to the life of the writer. Nothing is said of any positive virtues that this same group may have contributed to the American or American Jewish community.
She reaches a high note of stridency in describing the desperate need for acceptance of these insecure, plaque-ridden parvenus. . : . I believe that such a characterization is narrow, unfair, and probably untrue.
A last point. I know nothing of Miss Ross-man’s personal philosophy (it is impossible to glean it from the article); however, she seems to betray a reliance on the “co-religionist” thesis of Jewish unity. I believe that this is the unspoken major permise of her polemic. It is difficult to conceive of a writer of Miss Rossman’s sophistication being unable to grasp the fact that the essence of “Jewish Community” is not necessarily bound up exclusively with the synagogue. It is because of this assumption that she is forced to bemoan the danger that this type of fund-raising will prevent a “real acceptance of Judaism,” whatever that may mean. Miss Rossman must certainly be knowledgeable enough to know that there is at least a possibility that the synagogue is an imperfect vehicle to rationalize the felt unity of the Jewish people. To criticize it on the terms which she has chosen is merely the demolition of another straw man.
To the Editor:
I would like to comment briefly on two seemingly unrelated items in the March issue. The first of these is the article by Evelyn N. Rossman, “A Fund-Raiser Comes to Northrup.” I felt almost too ill to finish this story, not because of its lack of credibility, but because it caused me to relive the realities it so well recites. It is in effect a comment that could well go under the subheading “What Happens when the Uncivilized Devour the Uncivilized” or “Leviathan—Modern Version.”
My second comment centers around the tone with which some of your “Letters to the Editor” writers address each other. I make specific reference (though not exclusively) to Harold Rosenberg’s reply to Ernest van den Haag’s letter on the former’s article on Eichmann. Is it to assume the incorrect in suspecting that Mr. Rosenberg’s article was written with at least some view toward a better and more civilized existence for all of us?
As a professor in a fine university I am acquainted with the right and need of intellectuals to speak honestly, sparing, however, not another’s ideas, but the person.
Perhaps your readers might see the connection between my first and second comments.
Hans S. Falck
Saint Louis, Missouri
To the Editor:
“A Fund-Raiser Comes to Northrup” leaves me vaguely troubled. Everything reported is recognizable and it is so terribly sad that the logical response must be either cynicism or withdrawal from such community organizations.
What is so troubling about this article? I am not sure—yet it leaves me with the same feeling I had when reading your recent Symposium by young Jewish intellectuals. I am troubled that in your magazine I cannot find an articulate discussion of the practice of Judiasm except in terms of mysticism, nostalgia, tradition, the kind of rejection that Miss Rossman’s report would lead one to. . . .
I for one would like to see such discussions on Judaism—but not limited to Zionism, tradition, or expediency. I believe you owe us the amount of discussion in the recent religious field that you have so ably given in other areas.
Charlotte W. Ridgeway
To the Editor:
While accepting as a matter of course the enormous shortcomings of the American Jewish community, and particularly of the suburban type of situation which Miss Ross-man writes about, I think the time has come to point to some of the signs of a new birth of creative Jewish life in America. Even in the comments about the fund-raising, COMMENTARY seems completely unaware of the new trends which have come to the fore in the past ten to twelve years, and which make many of Miss Rossman’s comments seem quite outdated.
All over the country, there are congregations which have long since abandoned the high-pressure methods indicated in the article and the enormous amount of personal prestige evidenced by memorial and tribute plaques plastered on every doorway. I would venture to say that the majority of recent campaigns, certainly within the ranks of Reform congregations—of which there are over 600 today—have been conducted on voluntary levels, with no personal prestige or memorials involved, and including self-assessment programs developed at congregational meetings on a democratic and committed basis.
On the educational and cultural fronts, there is enormous room for encouragement. Adult Education programs are beginning to flourish, like the very solid, college-level course [presented by] my own Temple. . . College professors handled these courses, and 400 to 650 congregants attended each particular session.
Experiments are further going forward in the use of language labs and closed-circuit television for the teaching of a far greater degree of Hebrew fluency than any achieved outside of the all-day schools. Camp weekends, adult retreats, and day camping programs are forming an important adjunct of the educational process.
In the creative arts, in southern California alone there is an impressive list of events scheduled for this season—events serious in nature, well planned and executed, and bringing before both Jewish and non-Jewish communities internationally known figures in music, art, and dance.
In the face of the rising amount of evidence that the American Jewish community is finally beginning to come of age, and to become creative in its own right, so that it may take its place in history along with other famous Jewish communities of the past, it seems to me that there may be room for an answer to Miss Rossman’s article by someone qualified to talk in positive terms of the emerging American Jew.
Harold H. Friedman
Beverly Hills, California
Evelyn Rossman writes:
After each of the five articles about “Northrup,” I received letters concerned with my “rejection” of the Jewish community. The writers invariably assume that I’m an outsider, judging unkindly, perhaps unfairly. I’ve received exhortations to embrace Orthodox Judaism, assuring me that I can find peace only “within the tradition.” A Jesuit priest once imagined that I was ready for conversion. The articles, each written after some crisis within the town, have been called, “harsh . . . strident.”
In fact, however, I’ve written, not out of arrogance and detachment, but out of weariness and excessive involvement. What may seem like detachment, is an affectation, like the pseudonym, necessary because I’m so close to my subject.
I’ve been involved with the Jewish community in Northrup for almost thirteen years. I belong to the temple I described. I even contributed to its campaign out of concern for schoolrooms which were necessary and for which I accepted responsibility. My children go to the school. It is very inadequate, but better schools are more than an hour away.
Harold Ticktin sees something insidious in my mentioning Russia, Poland, New York, and Boston in the same sentence. All that is meant, is that these are the places where most of the Jews in Northrup were born. The older generation was born in Eastern Europe and the younger, for the most part, in cities that have large Jewish populations. Their coming to Northrup is part of the exodus from the cities to suburbia, that is usual as job opportunities and income increase. The older residents who grew up in European trouble or in American depression are likely to compare the life their children lead with their own experiences and find them quite different.
Every letter, in one way or another, asks the value of telling about events that can only make the reader very uneasy. “I felt almost too ill to finish,” writes Hans S. Falck. “Acute enough to cause pain,” says Harold Ticktin. What do I hope to accomplish with this painful candor? Why did I choose this form rather than a short story, or a novel? The fund-raiser, the rabbi, the parvenu leaders, could be drawn into a tale that would make Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” seem gentle and mild by comparison. At the moment, however, it seems less brutal and more responsible to tell as much of the truth as I can bear to write down (I too have a threshold of pain), with the hope that something might come of the provocation.
The rabbis who do not intervene or who actively encourage the kind of campaign I described may think again of their role and responsibility. The community leaders who are so dazzled by buildings that they cannot imagine their cost, both in money and human relations, may read a study in consequences. Other communities may pause, for a little, and think of Northrup before they choose a similar course.
Miss Ridgeway sees a connection between the article and the recent Symposium. There is a connection, but it is not, I think, what she implies. The Northrup pieces were written to express the views of people, who unlike the intellectuals of the symposium, are committed to Jewish life. They follow the traditions, to some degree. They are concerned with Israel and want a Jewish education for their children. They believe that Jewish education cannot be provided without schools, teachers, rabbis, and a community that will pay for them. The Northrup articles offer a progress report of a particular town’s effort to live as a community. Evelyn Rossman (to some degree a fictionalized person) does not reject Jewish life. She and people like her, however, find themselves dispossessed in communities like Northrup. They don’t leave, however, out of the awareness that the community is theirs, even when it is foolish. They are sad to discover that communities that were developed as an antidote to “alienation” may produce another generation of ignorant young people. Unlike the writers in the Symposium, who reject without knowing what they reject, these young people may say, “Yes I went to Hebrew school and to temple . . . and still want no part of it.” Are they to blame?
Mr. Ticktin wonders whether I’m aware that the “essence of the Jewish community is not necessarily bound up with the synagogue.” I have been trying to explain, however, that in the suburban community the synagogue has made and continues to make a great effort to contain the Jewish community and to speak for it. In the small town, the Jews are understood to be a religious rather than a secular group and the rabbi is considered their representative. In order to take an essentially secularized group of people under its wing the synagogue becomes increasingly secularized itself. It supplants the center by running athletic and social activities. It tries to lure people from the country club by competing with country club facilities.
Miss Ridgeway would like to hear about Judaism, as it is not “limited to Zionism, tradition, or expediency.” But what else could it be? Judaism is and always was theology, law, history, custom, a struggle for improvement of human beings and society, and a continuous debate about the best way to live and improve. When tradition was strong, the debate was conducted behind the protection of a way of living. Today, with tradition weak, the debate and struggle is exposed and may seem raw to those unaccustomed to it. But it seems wrong to be silent when there is so much to change and when it is plain that what is lacking is not vitality but direction, and a sensitivity to the consequences of words and deeds. If I do not write about the “Jewish community . . . coming of age,” it is because I don’t see it so in Northrup. Nothing pleases me more than to hear of communities that are finding more mature ways to live and learn.
I’ve been interested in the reactions within Northrup to the recent article. The town is small. Everyone knows who I am and I’m an accessible person. The phone rings all day. There are angry people who regard the piece as the work of an “informer.” There are others who call to say, “It’s absolutely true, but how could you do this to us, your friends and family? How could you be so detached and still belong with us?” Others call to say, “Thank you. Somebody had to say it!” For them, it serves as a purge for their own pent-up feelings. For me, the most important letters and calls are those that ask, “What should we do now? How can we make it better?”