In Search, by Meyer Levin
You Can Come Home Again
By Meyer Levin.
Horizon Press. 524 pp. $3.75.
In the concluding pages of this autobiography, Meyer Levin tells a story about himself as a very young man: “Once in Paris, in a general talk about aims in life, Marek Swarc asked me ‘What do you want? What do you want to be?’ and the definition that slipped out was a bit startling to me, for I blurted, ‘A good Jew.’ “So, quite like one of Sartre’s heroes, Meyer Levin has spent his life searching for authenticity, attempting to relate himself as an artist, an honest man, and a Jew to a world which, as he is painfully aware, often frustrates the artist, subverts personal integrity, and rejects the Jew. He has learned what Sartre means when the latter writes that “authenticity . . . consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks that it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror or hate.”
Though there is much in Levin’s Jewishness which he identifies with the experience of being rejected, he would deny that his search has come exclusively or even primarily from the desire to stand fast against attack and hit back as a Jew, or that his sense of community with other Jews comes merely from having found in them fellow partisans also at war against the common enemy, anti-Semitism. What he has been seeking is a society and a tradition in which he can share more than the chance camaraderie of the battle.
Levin thus presents himself as the antithesis of the “rootless Jewish intellectual” about whom we have heard so much discussion in recent years. To be sure, he tells us that he began in shame and self-hatred, and even wrote his adolescent first novels out of the desire to pass, at least in fantasy, beyond the barriers of the Jewish world he rejected. He was not content, however,. to take root in his rootlessness and he has written his autobiography to portray his achievement of a new understanding, and affirmation, of his Jewishness.
As the fruit of a quarter of a century of effort, Levin’s achievement, one must say, is hardly impressive. His affirmation, as he reports it, does not involve any deep religious or cultural identification with Judaism but seems rather to consist of a happy participation in certain customs, particularly those associated with eating homentashen, kreplach, and similar dishes that “link us to our horde.” The ethical content of his Jewishness is a pervasive but vague sense of being commanded to live by a higher code, but since he is an agnostic, the sanction for this “Torah” is not religious; and it is difficult to discover where it is based. For the most part, the core of his Jewishness seems to be in sentimentalizing about the mystic destiny of the Jewish people and envisaging as the contemporary commandments of identification any actions—it does not matter whether it be dancing a hora, being associated with a Jewish center, or becoming a halutz—that express á desire to belong to “the folk.”
Beneath his generalizations there seems to exist an ideal Jewish type which Levin, after all his soul-searching, has found good and acceptable. It is the American Jew who eats mama’s cooking with relish, considers himself a good liberal, goes to synagogue for Kol Nidre and is moved by Eili, Eili, gives to UJA and approves of Israel, but will never make his home anywhere else than in New York or Chicago. This may or may not be the typical American Jew today (I believe there is much more to him than this description would suggest); but it does sound, sixteen years later, very much like the characters of Levin’s novel The Old Bunch (1935). In the time that has intervened Levin has come to accept and identify himself with the very people about whom he once wrote with a realism tinged with some venom.
The conclusion of Levin’s search is, therefore, no new vision. It is merely a return to his earliest environment, after his repeated forays into both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. It is revealing that the very story from In Search which is quoted at the beginning of this review has been told by Levin before, in the character of Joe in The Old Bunch. In the 30’s, too, Levin remembered that he had once blurted out the desire to be “a good Jew,” but in the novel he went on to comment that “a kind of sickness was growing in Joe . . . at the hopelessness of finding one simple truth, in a world so involved. . . . Why did everyone get sidetracked with some shred of truth, with religion or love, politics or surrealism, but so few seemed to keep themselves open for the whole bitter and nourishing truth of the human race?”
In the course of his quest Levin has tried all of these various “sidetracks.” He has conceived puppet shows, written a political novel about the labor risings of the early Roosevelt years, and shared the rebellious emotions of the 30’s to the extent of going to Spain during the civil war. He came closest to a “bitter” and “nourishing” truth when he described the pain of the Jews in Europe after their decimation by Hitler and celebrated the glory of the arising nation in Israel. But it was not possible to remain a DP and he has not chosen to become an Israeli. He believes that he has found peace in accepting himself as “a peculiar mixture of Chicago and Chassidism.”
It implies no lack of respect for the countless American Jews who have in the last decade felt a stronger tie of sentimental attachment to their people and helped bear its burdens in a critical time to suggest that a Jewish writer should be more exacting than to take even the best kind of American Jewish Babbitt for his ideal. As a resolution of Levin’s search this is a disappointment, and it is not made any the more imposing by Levin’s final words about “bearing witness to truth,” which seems to mean no more than standing up with dignity to be counted as a Jew.
In all fairness it must be said, however, that there is a certain kind of representative importance to his story in that he has shared, at one time or another, most of the Jewish moods of our time. Those parts of the book that report on Europe and Israel are interesting in themselves. Certainly one respects his various substantial services to the Jewish cause and, even though often annoyed by his self-pity, one sympathizes with his torment.
Again and again Levin locates the origin of his inner conflict in an early rejection of his immigrant father, which he has come to resolve and transcend by making the whole Jewish people his folk-father. He never mentions his mother, but perhaps she is the more important in his development. His image of the Jewish people seems to have been cast in the figure of a mother whom the wandering son neglects, is fitfully concerned about, and helps in time of trouble. For such a son it is important to have her to return to when he feels lonely and broken, to be cleansed by her forgiveness, and healed in the refuge of her bosom. This story is, alas, all too familiar to those who have sat before the footlights of Second Avenue. It is not without its pathos, but it is hardly a strong or creative summing up of Jewish destiny, much less any light for the future.