I always found it next to impossible to imagine my father as a child.
Salis was the first name of David Daiches’s father, about whom he writes here so eloquently.
I always found it next to impossible to imagine my father as a child. In his black frock coat, stiff shirtfront, and bow tie, and his rather precise 18th-century English, and in his role as the Rabbi of Edinburgh and official spokesman of the Jewish people to all Scotland—a role which he played superbly—he had a dignity and formality of manner and public presence infinitely removed from the world of childhood.
But also it was because I knew so little of the circumstances of his childhood that I found it impossible to visualize them. I am not even sure where he was born. It was in 1880, somewhere in Poland (then under Russian rule): at one time I thought Vilna was the place, and on other occasions my father would mention the village of Neustadt (Neistodt in Yiddish pronunciation) as if it was his birthplace. But he disliked talking about it, and I don’t think he made more than half a dozen references to his childhood in Poland during all the years that I knew him.
I did know, of course, that he was the second son of a distinguished rabbi and scholar, and I knew, too, that he was scion of a long line of rabbis and scholars which stretched back to the early Middle Ages. From all I can gather, his infancy was spent in strenuous Jewish and Hebrew scholarship: I remember he once referred to his studying Talmud as a small boy by the light of rush candles stuck in the wall. This suggests poverty as well as precocity, yet I don’t think the family were poor, for I believe my grandmother brought with her a reasonable dowry and for some time her father supported my grandfather while he lived a life of pure scholarship and meditation. My father once told a story of a “nurse” putting her head out of the window and shrieking that a pig had got into the courtyard, to which he (then a very small boy) impertinently replied that he had seen no pig before the nurse appeared at the window. A nurse and a courtyard suggest reasonable prosperity. However that may be, my grandfather sent his sons to high school across the German border, in Koenigsberg, where my father attended the Gymnasium and acquired a sound education in the classics. From there he went to Berlin University to study philosophy under Paulsen and at the same time to prosecute his rabbinical studies at the Hildesheimer Seminary, a Jewish theological college which had as its ideal the combination of strict Jewish Orthodoxy and sound training in traditional rabbinics with a knowledge and appreciation of secular Western culture. This Hildesheimer ideal burned brightly in my father all his life, being eventually transformed by him into his unique Scottish-Jewish synthesis. From Berlin he went to Leipzig, where he eventually graduated A.M., Ph.D., with a thesis (in German) on the relation of David Hume’s philosophy to his history. The thesis won the special prize awarded to the best German prose stylist of the year.
My father’s native language was Yiddish, but at school in Koenigsberg he appears to have rapidly learned to look down on that language as a kind of bastard German. In any case, he never again spoke it willingly nor did he encourage his children to learn it or to show any interest in it. For him the language of Jewish culture was Hebrew, not Yiddish, and I was brought up with an anti-Yiddish bias, not as the result of any conscious depreciation of Yiddish on my father’s part but as the result of the silence and implied scorn with which he treated it. The Polish and the Yiddish part of his life he put resolutely behind him, and I know virtually nothing of it.
My father, however, did talk of his student days in Germany at the beginning of the century, and I have a clear picture of him then as a studious and dedicated young man, avoiding the nonsense of German student ritual, but enjoying his glass of beer and his cigar, moving quietly and determinedly in the lively and colorful Berlin of the 1900’s. He was a fine figure of a man, not tall, but well built, with abundant black hair swept back from his high forehead, a carefully shaped mustache waxed at the ends (he had dropped that habit long before I was born), and a neat Van Dyke beard. I sometimes wonder whether during his student days he ever had any doubts about his ability to reconcile Orthodox Judaism with modern secular culture, whether his philosophical studies ever momentarily shook his faith in the truth or efficacy of the rabbinical view of life. There is just the faintest suggestion of the dandy in the few early photographs of my father, which sorts oddly with his idealism and sense of dedication. Perhaps he had a struggle; perhaps a period of doubt and hesitation lay between his Jewish childhood and his adult ambitions as a rabbi. But this is mere speculation; what is definite is that he emerged from his student days in Germany a passionately serious and dedicated young man.
What was his relation to his father? My grandfather, a famous Talmudic scholar of the first eminence, migrated to England while my father was still a student, to become rabbi of an Orthodox Jewish congregation—the Beth Hamedresh Hagadol—in Leeds, and from that time on my father regarded Britain as his true home. My father already knew English, and after a few years in England spoke it perfectly, while my grandfather never mastered more than the merest rudiments of the language. He and my grandmother represented for me a picturesque old world in which I was not really at home. My father mediated between their world and my own, translating my grandfather’s Yiddish (my grandmother could speak English) and trying to interpret the behavior of an Edinburgh schoolboy to the old man; yet I had the feeling that my father, for all his tremendous sense of family pride and loyalty and for all the great affection between him and my grandfather, was not altogether happy in seeing us in the old world atmosphere of my grandfather. He looked forward to a Judaism no less Orthodox but less involved with memories of the ghetto. We went rarely to see our grandfather. I may be wrong, but I have a suspicion that my father preferred to keep us apart.
The house in Leeds where my grandfather lived was one of a row of small early 19th-century brick dwellings, all exactly alike, in which a number of nouveau middle-class hangers-on of the Industrial Revolution had once proclaimed their precarious gentility. The street had a run-down look when I knew it, and it was inhabited either by very small businessmen or by miscellaneous oddities of firm respectability but moderate means. It was the kind of street one can see today in any British industrial town, shabby and tired-looking, but determinedly decent. Behind the front door of any one of its houses one expected to hear thick Yorkshire accents proclaiming phrases out of J. B. Priestley or Eric Knight.
But number 6 was different. The brass plate on the gate read, in letters almost too worn to be legible, “Rabbi J. H. Daiches”—the “J” should have been “I,” as it stood for “Israel,” but my grandfather considered the letters interchangeable—and if you pushed open the gate and went up the tiny garden path to the front door you were aware of approaching the entrance to a very different world from that of industrial Yorkshire. It was, one might say, an emanation, which seemed to ooze through the closed door, a smell perhaps, a feeling, an atmosphere. And if you opened the door and went through the dark bead curtain in the small entrance hall and smelled the mingled odor of cigar smoke and Jewish cooking, you had left Yorkshire very far behind.
My grandfather as I knew him was a benevolently patriarchal figure with twinkling eyes and a white beard. Only recently an old man who had known him in his prime told me that in his younger days in Poland he had been known as a dandy who had oiled his beard and worn patent leather boots, and that he had given scandal to the Orthodox by sending his children (my father and my uncle) to secular non-Jewish schools and universities. Between afternoon and evening service at the synagogue he would go for a walk with a certain Christian civic official with whom he would converse in Russian—a habit which caused much shaking of heads among the older people. This new light on my grandfather came as an astonishing revelation to me, who had always considered him as belonging to a ghetto world of Jewish piety and Jewish isolation. But evidently he too was a pioneer and even a rebel in his day, and tried to reconcile tradition with progress.
I saw no sign of that as a child, however. I had to watch my every movement in my grandfather’s house, in case I should unwittingly offend against his sense of what was proper Jewish behavior. I could never leave my head uncovered for a moment, for example. At home we always covered our heads to pray, and to say grace before and after meals, but we were never expected to keep our heads covered continually. My father wore a black skullcap when receiving members of his congregation in his study, but as the years went by he developed the habit of keeping it in his pocket throughout much of the day and diving hastily for it when the bell rang. In his father’s presence he wore it continually. I remember once, seeing the two of them together in my grandfather’s house, thinking how young and modern my father looked beside the white-bearded older rabbi. Yet at home in Edinburgh I had so often thought my father old-fashioned in manner and dress, with his black frock coat and formal English of the past century.
In the house at Leeds the slightest daily activity seemed to partake of ritual. The great stone kitchen in the basement, where my grandmother presided amid rows of shining copper vessels, was like something out of Grimms’ fairy tales, and even the dining room, with its long narrow table running up the length of the room and its black horsehair sofa on one side (how the horsehair used to scratch my bare legs!) seemed more than a lining room to me. My grandfather used to shuffle in in his carpet slippers before dinner and take his place at the head of the table, where there was laid out for him a special little cloth on which were a bottle of cognac, a plate of sliced pickled herring, and a loaf of dark rye bread. He would fill himself a tot of brandy and drink it off at a gulp; then he would cut a slice of bread and eat it with the herring; and then his special cloth with everything on it would be removed and the meal proper could start. I would watch this ritual from the depths of the horsehair sofa with pure admiration and at the same time with a sense of the mystical strangeness of it all. Once, when I was almost grown up, I ventured to remark that I, too, liked pickled herring. My grandfather expressed the utmost astonishment, and passed me the plate, and would not take anything himself until I had eaten rather more than I really wanted.
When I was a child I knew no Yiddish at all, and only learned the language later (and never well) after I had learned German, with the result that such Yiddish as I spoke was more German than Yiddish. When I conversed with my grandfather, which was not often, we used elementary Hebrew until I was in my teens, when he spoke his native Yiddish and I replied in my Germanized form of the language. What used to puzzle me was that his conversation with me consisted almost entirely of low jokes. I knew that he was recognized as the world’s leading authority on the Jerusalem Talmud, of which he had produced a noble edition with a large Hebrew commentary surrounding a tiny island of original text, and I kept expecting words of profound wisdom to fall from his venerable lips. Instead, he would inquire whether I went to the bathroom in order to secretly drink brandy and smoke cigars, or he would suggest that the sixty-five-year-old char-woman was pining for me to take her to the pictures.
I would come into his study and find him stroking his beard and poring over a huge Hebrew tome, looking the very quintessence of rabbinic grandeur. I was prepared for him to throw a question at me concerning my own Hebrew knowledge and had even got up one side of a long dialogue in that language on which I was prepared to embark if only he would give me an opportunity. But when I appeared he would close his book, ask me to bring him a cigar from the cupboard (like my father, he would smoke nothing but the choicest Havanas, which he got as presents from members of his congregation), and proceed to make joking or teasing remarks about kilts and bagpipes, or about girls, or clothes, or some other unrabbinical subject. Yet as soon as I left the room he was back at his book again, and I could see him through the window from the back garden, with his hand on his beard and his head nodding gently, reading and meditating.
He lived in what seemed to me an almost feudal fashion. His salary must have been negligible, and in any case when I knew him he had virtually retired, but he had retainers who would come and see him and bring him cigars or a bottle of brandy or an occasional duck or chicken. He had absolutely no money sense. My grandmother managed the financial affairs of the household, and when she died he was at the mercy of an elderly broken-down couple who came to live with him and look after things. Every time I visited him he would want to present me with a large check, and had to be restrained by my father or some other watchful grown-up. Indeed, he was quite capable of giving me a check for much more than he had in the bank, for I don’t think he ever knew how much he had in the bank—or indeed exactly what a bank was supposed to do. Much of his income was paid in kind, and he had little occasion to handle money.
He visited us in Edinburgh only once, on the occasion of my brother Lionel’s Bar Mitzvah in March 1924. My father placed his study at my grandfather’s disposal, and he would sit there most of the day with one of my father’s Hebrew books. I was eleven and a half at the time, and in the midst of a wave of enthusiasm for things Hebrew and rabbinic. How disconcerted I was when my father sent me in to recite my Hebrew verbs to my grandfather, and he interrupted me before I was fairly started and turned the whole thing into a joke! I think now that he did not want me to feel an obligation to be serious and show off my Hebrew knowledge when I was with him; he wanted to try and get to know his grandchildren and not to be simply a symbol of piety and scholarship for them. But we never really got to know each other; my father’s optimistic faith in the importance and the viability of British Jewish Orthodoxy, his resolute repudiation of Yiddish and its ghetto associations, stood between my grandfather and his grandchildren.
In my grandfather’s last years he led a retired and lonely life, never leaving his house—indeed, scarcely stirring from the big table in his study where he sat and read and dozed all day. He became too feeble to walk to the synagogue, and on Friday nights and Saturdays a dozen or so cronies would come and conduct services in his study. It was my grandmother’s death that finally confirmed him in his retirement: though he lived some twelve years longer I don’t think he left the house once after her funeral. When I was a student at Oxford I used to visit him on my way back to Edinburgh, and I had the feeling that the modern world, towards which he had once made such important gestures of friendship, had finally become too much for him and he had given up the attempt to keep up with it. Yet he, to me for so long the very essence of rigid old-fashioned Jewish piety, had started out as something of a rebel; by his decision on how to educate his children he had shaped the pattern both of my father’s life and of my own.
The modern world caught up with both of them, my grandfather and my father. If my grandfather retreated from it in his old age, my father, with his optimistic belief in the progressive waning of anti-Semitism and the emergence of Judaism as a proud and respected part of a European pluralistic culture, was equally baffled when the rise of Hitler put the clock back in Europe. He watched with horror and incredulity the disappearance of his Germany—the Germany of Goethe and Kant and Beethoven—and could never understand what had really happened. True, the events of the 1930’s would have confirmed him in his devotion to Britain if any such confirmation had been required, and it did intensify his feeling for Scotland, one of the few countries in Europe, he would so often declare, where the Jews had never been persecuted (though he knew that this was due at least partly to the fact that the Jews reached Scotland relatively late in European history and in small numbers). But there were rumblings of fascist agitation even in Scotland; they didn’t, it is true, amount to much and they represented a negligible minority of the people, but they disturbed and angered my father. He would keep an eagle eye open for letters or articles in the Scottish press which showed any trace of sympathy with the Hitlerite position, and he would reply to each one with a forceful and eloquent letter to the editor.
This anti-fascist activity was but an extension of his normal vigilance on behalf of the good name of the Jews in Scotland. His letters to the Scotsman, putting the Jewish position wherever it required to be put and always assuming the closest natural sympathy between Scottish Presbyterians and Jews, had been a feature of that newspaper since 1919. He had developed the art of Jewish apologetics to a fine point; his letters combined the shrewdness of a lawyer trained on Talmudic disquisitions with the ringing eloquence of a preacher and the moral passion of a prophet. His letters to the Scotsman on such subjects as Zionism, the activities of Christian missions among Jews, the position of the Jews in Europe and in Scotland in particular, Jewish ritual slaughter, anti-Semitism, and on any topical subject with reference to which the Jewish position required explanation, became perhaps my father’s best-known claim to fame: they were read and admired throughout Scotland, and they did an immense amount to create a pro-Jewish public opinion in the country. The other day a railway official at Waverley Station, Edinburgh, was checking my reservation on a train out of the city and his eye was caught by the name. “Any relation of the late rabbi?” he asked. “I always used to read his letters to the Scotsman.”
My father enjoyed his role as a public figure. In his letters to the press his voice rang with the authority and the dignity proper to an official spokesman of his people, and similarly at public meetings in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland—at Masonic Lodges, the Dunfermline Business Men’s Club, the League of Nations Union, Burns Clubs—he would present with eloquence and passion the Jewish view of the subject under discussion. To be invited to speak at a Burns dinner (of course, with a special kosher meal provided for the rabbi) seemed to him a proper recognition of the fact that, as the leader of the Jewish community in the capital of Scotland, he had something to say about Burns, as about every subject in which Scotsmen were interested, that was both unique and important. He had not been long in Edinburgh before he became known as one of the city’s most distinguished public speakers, who could be counted on to make a forceful oratorical contribution to any humanitarian or liberal cause. Of course he spoke too at Zionist meetings and at Jewish fund-raising occasions of all kinds, and looking back I seem to see an endless round of such occasions, but I think it was the speeches he made as a representative Jewish spokesman before non-Jewish and mixed audiences that gave him most satisfaction. For that, in his view, was one of the prime duties of the modern Orthodox Jewish rabbi—to speak up for his people with dignity and equality before his fellow citizens. He was gratified, but not surprised, when he began receiving invitations to the royal garden party held annually when the King and Queen were in residence at Holyrood Palace. He was even more gratified when, towards the end of his life, he was asked, as an eminent and popular figure in Edinburgh public life, to lay the foundation stone of a new city-housing estate.
If this side of my father’s activity took him considerably beyond the path of duty trod by my grandfather in the performance of the more traditional activities of a Jewish rabbi, it must not be thought for a moment that my father in any way neglected those traditional activities. He would receive almost daily visits from older members of his congregation in search of guidance on some intricate matter of Jewish law: whether a chicken could be considered kosher if a pin had been found stuck in its gizzard at a certain angle or what was the correct procedure on the part of a bachelor who wanted to get out of marrying his deceased brother’s widow. These matters he dealt with scrupulously and conscientiously, becoming on such occasions the old-fashioned administrator of rabbinical law in all its logical nicety. His very appearance seemed to change when he gave an audience of this kind: he allowed his shoulders to hunch forward a little and spoke, reluctantly and in his Germanized fashion, the Yiddish which was the speech of his visitor; and of course his skullcap was always on his head. This side of him was always uppermost when he spoke to the older, foreign-born members of his congregation; with the native-born generation he was brisker and altogether more modern; the singsong tones of Talmudic exposition gave way to a more resounding rhetorical note or to the reasonable “let’s-argue-this-out-together” tone of 20th-century inquiry.
My father seemed to take for granted that his own vast knowledge of Hebrew and rabbinics and Jewish religious philosophy would somehow filter down to his children without too much active effort on his part. His own strenuous youth, in which he absorbed two different streams of education with a completeness that has always astonished me, was part of a world he had put behind him: he did not seem to expect us to emulate his extraordinary feats of academic endurance. We belonged to the modern Western world which he had trained himself to cope with and to which he had so thoroughly adjusted his own religious position without giving up anything material in Jewish Orthodoxy. Our Jewish knowledge and traditions we would get as a matter of course, because we were Daicheses and his sons; our secular education we must work for. He thus took great interest in our schooling and would talk to us about our progress in Latin and Greek and mathematics, throwing Greek quotations from the Odyssey at us to see if we could translate them or asking what proposition in Euclid we were working at. True, he gave us Hebrew lessons, and as far as I can remember I was able to read Hebrew before I could read English: I cannot recollect a time when the reading of Hebrew did not come automatically to me. But his lessons were unsystematic and sporadic, and were often interrupted by urgent telephone calls or unexpected visitors. Every Friday night we sang, in the traditional intonation, the following Saturday’s portion of the Law and the Prophets, and so learned the synagogue cantillation by a gradual process of familiarization—we never deliberately sat down to memorize anything. From a very early age I was able to sing any passage at sight. And I picked up Biblical Hebrew by translating hundreds of passages in no sort of order and with no sort of system; I just found myself eventually able to read with understanding almost any part of the Hebrew Bible. Every now and again my father would decide we did not know enough systematic Hebrew grammar and would bring in from his study a dusty copy of Gesenius’s Hebrew grammar and ask us to memorize the paradigms of verbs. But he never stayed long on this sort of thing. In the same sporadic way he would decide suddenly that it was time my brother and I learned some Talmud, and he would appear with one of the huge volumes and take us at a galloping speed through Baba Metzia, “the Middle Gate.” Or he would have a spell at medieval Hebrew poetry, or the Biblical commentators such as Rashi; and once he thrust on me a Hebrew translation of Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris. He always professed himself surprised that we did not know more than we did, forgetting that, as he was our teacher, the responsibility was his. Once he suddenly said to me at dinner: “If you were hiking in Palestine and wanted to find a place to spend the night, how would you explain yourself in Hebrew to a passer-by?” and he laughed good-naturedly at the awkwardness of my modern Hebrew conversation.
Before my father came to Edinburgh there were two Jewish congregations in the city, one consisting entirely of older, foreign-born members whose native language was Yiddish, and the other, though also Orthodox, having a high proportion of Scottish-born members who did not believe that to practice Judaism meant to duplicate exactly the kind of life their fathers had led in the East European ghetto. My father made it a condition of accepting his “call” to Edinburgh that it should come jointly from both congregations, and when he arrived in the city his first task was to weld the two into a unity. For some years they continued to worship in different synagogues, that of the foreign-born group being an old and draughty hall in what was pretty much a slum area of the city. The other synagogue, a converted chapel in Graham Street, clearly represented the wave of the future, and its congregation grew while the other’s declined. My father would worship and preach on Saturdays at the Graham Street shul, though he would visit the other (known as the Central Shul) at regular intervals and preach there in Yiddish. After a few years the Central Shul closed down and Graham Street accommodated both congregations. My father’s real ambition was to build a splendid new synagogue in a pleasant part of the city, a synagogue which could easily accommodate all the Jews in Edinburgh and would in addition have an attached bes hamedresh where the older and more traditional members could pray three times daily and conduct their Talmudic study circle.
This ambition was finally realized after immense effort, and the new synagogue in Salisbury Road was opened with full civic honors in 1932. Its opening was a high point in my father’s career, for here was represented the union of the old and the new in a common Jewish Orthodoxy; the building took its place worthily amid the architecture of Edinburgh and signified that Edinburgh Jews played their part with integrity and dignity and with the respect of their neighbors in the life of their city. The shadows cast by Hitler’s Germany were soon to obscure the Jewish horizon completely; after 1934 there was little cause for optimism even among men as naturally optimistic as my father. Nineteen thirty-four, too. was the year when he and my mother celebrated their silver wedding, the year when we moved into a new house, the first my father had ever owned, and the year when I graduated with first-class honors at Edinburgh University, to my father’s immense satisfaction.
So altogether the years 1932 to 1934 represented the watershed, as it were, of my father’s career. After that the world he had counted on began to disappear beneath his feet; anti-Semitism, which I had been brought up to believe was a phenomenon of the bad old days that would never recur, would rise to unprecedented heights in Germany and I myself began for the first time to doubt profoundly the whole basis of the creed in which I had been brought up. My father’s world was never the same after 1934.
It had been a hard climb to the summit represented by the opening of the new synagogue. The position which my father had won for himself, and through himself for his people, in Scotland was achieved by the continual expenditure of energy, writing, speaking, debating, counseling, planning, being diplomatic here and righteously indignant there, moving continuously between platform, pulpit, study, and meeting room. Our house was in some respects like a public institution; callers were likely to arrive at any time and had often to be given a meal at a moment’s notice. My father had to keep up a style of living which his modest salary made extremely difficult. The Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation was small—about four hundred families, two thousand souls—and not wealthy, and could not afford to pay its spiritual leader much of a stipend. My father, by virtue of his personality and abilities, had made himself the virtual spiritual leader of all Jews in Scotland; but in sober fact he was but the rabbi of a small congregation. The result of this was that while the outside world regarded him as the Jewish equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury or at least of the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, and expected him to live accordingly, my father had to get by somehow on his small income. We had to live in a large and thoroughly genteel house in a residential part of the city, we had to dress well, we had to subscribe decently to public charities. My father was thus always harassed by financial worries, always haunted by unpaid bills. And though somehow the bills always got paid eventually and no visible sign of financial stringency was ever open to the public eye, the continuous strain must have worn down both my parents.
There was another kind of strain, more wearing than financial worry. My father, in the course of his successful attempts to make himself a real leader of his people and to build up a public conception of the Jew in Scotland as the respected member of an important element in a pluralistic culture, aroused some bitter jealousies and made some implacable enemies. A number of petty busybodies who had made a profession of exploiting disputes among different sections of the community were taken aback at my father’s policy of uniting all the Jews of Edinburgh into one congregation (it was, indeed, a unique policy and the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation remains a unique Jewish congregation in Britain) and deliberately set out to make trouble for him. On one occasion a couple of them attacked my father’s silk hat as it hung in a cloakroom while he was at a meeting, and ripped it to pieces. This was one of the more dramatic episodes, but it was in fact less serious than the continual attempts to undermine my father’s position, to discredit him in the eyes of Jew and Christian alike, that this small group kept making for some years. My father, who conducted his side of the business with a fine dignity, won in the end, as he was bound to, though for some years a small group of malcontents worshipped separately in a hired room (known among the other Edinburgh Jews as “the Bolshie shul”) in a mood of spiteful piety.
All this, of course, was worrying, but most worrying of all was one affair that became known as “the Levinson case.” One day in the 1920’s a gentleman calling himself Rabbi Levin-son turned up at Edinburgh and made contact with the members of the “Bolshie shul.” He began to make large claims about his rabbinical distinction and jurisdiction, and eventually my father, after making some investigations into the man’s character and history, denounced him as a trouble-making impostor and wrote a letter to the London Jewish Chronicle saying that “Rabbi” Levinson was no rabbi and warning British Jews against him. Levinson then proceeded to bring an action for libel against both my father and the Jewish Chronicle, claiming a huge sum of money by way of damages. This was an immense shock to my father. He knew perfectly well that Levinson was a rogue and an impostor, but knew also that this would not be easy to prove in a court of law. And of course my father had no money to fight a legal action. But the action had to be fought, and my father engaged the best legal representatives available trusting that he would win and be awarded expenses. As the case proceeded Levinson’s counsel submitted as evidence of his being a genuine rabbi a large number of documents, some of them signed by rabbinical authorities of international reputation. All these were testimonials to the scholarship, piety, and rabbinic distinction of Levinson. When my father’s counsel saw these documents, he thought the case was over: what answer could there be to such evidence? My father, however, persuaded his counsel to ask leave to borrow the documents for a week (they had been deposited in court), and leave was granted. He read them over very carefully, and as he read he noticed a number of things. One of the most impressive documents was signed by Rabbi Kuk, the late Chief Rabbi of Palestine. Now my father knew Rabbi Kuk, and corresponded with him; in fact, he had a letter from him on his desk at that time. He compared the signature of his own letter and its seal with that on the document brought by Levinson, and found that they were quite different. With this clue in his possession, my father went carefully through the other documents. Many of them were clearly genuine; but then these did not prove anything except that the writer thought Levinson a nice man. But every one of the documents purporting to come from a rabbinical authority was suspect. One purported to come from a town in Poland which my father was sure did not exist. Another came from the head of a Continental yeshiva (rabbinical college) that he had never heard of. One purported to come from a rabbi in Australia.
My father informed his counsel that in his view all the important Levinson documents which seemed to prove that he was in fact a genuine rabbi were forged. The eminent lawyer flatly refused to believe this. No man, he protested, could be guilty of such criminal folly. But my father insisted, and urged that before the documents were returned to court they should be photostated for further study. This was done, under protest from his legal advisers. Soon afterwards, Levinson applied for leave to take the documents temporarily out of court, as he was applying for a position with a Jewish congregation in Wales and needed these testimonials. He was given leave to withdraw them for a short period. When they were put back, as they were a week or so later, my father asked his counsel to borrow them again, briefly. Legal opinion was again reluctant, but my father pressed the point, and the documents were soon again in his hands. He noticed at once that the bundle felt lighter. He examined them carefully: every one of the forged documents had gone! When my father rang up his lawyer to tell him this, the good man was flatly incredulous, but seeing was believing.
Well might my father have said, in Biblical and Cromwellian phrase, “The Lord has delivered him into my hand.” For that was the beginning of the end of Levinson, who had no idea that my father had retained photostats of all the original documents. When the judge sharply asked Levinson for an explanation of the missing documents, he said that they had been accidentally destroyed by his landlady when she was clearing up his room. It was not long before Levinson was completely exposed and the case was concluded. Judgment, with costs, was awarded to my father, and Levinson’s lawyer was reprimanded from the bench for dubious practices.
However, Levinson skipped the country (it was thought that he went to America) and avoided paying a penny, so that eventually my father’s solicitors had to come back to him to settle their bill. Fortunately, the Jewish Chronicle, who had been joint defendant with my father, recognized what they owed to him and assumed his legal expenses.
Throughout the long months during which the Levinson case dragged on, my father continued to fulfill all his normal duties, preaching, lecturing, writing, advising. We children had no idea at the time of the great weight of anxiety that must have been pressing upon him: we knew all about the case, but we thought of it as something thrilling and amusing. Even at the end, with the enormous relief of the judgment, my father remained calm and went on with his arduous daily duties. To him, his victory was another proof of the Tightness of his way of life, of his kind of synthesis. As for me, I never doubted that my father would win—I took it as a matter of course—and when I heard of the judgment there came into my head the sentence I had read in history books, spoken by loyal subjects after the execution of a traitor: “So perish all the King’s enemies.”
Life for my father had its duties and its courtesies, which he observed with what I can only call a scrupulous innocence. The subtleties of personal intercourse were left unspoken. It was the same with his attitude to religion. We all had our duties, which we were expected to fulfill. We had to learn our Hebrew, attend shul regularly, wash our hands before eating and say grace afterwards, and (it went without saying) refrain from any of the activities offensive to an enlightened Jewish Orthodoxy. Lionel and I would argue with our father about the reason for this or that Jewish observance, or even question its value or utility, but theology, or the mysteries of religion, or the nature of piety we never discussed with him. There was nothing of the mystic in my father, and his defense of Judaism (given often in addresses to literary societies or in articles in the non-Jewish press) was on the lines of a humanist utilitarianism: the good and useful and satisfying life was one led in accordance with laws and customs which safeguarded morality, preserved society, and decently canalized human instincts. The divine origin of such laws was a fact both manifested by Jewish history and required by human nature (for how could moral laws be absolute if they were not grounded in divine commands?).
Yet his pulpit eloquence could reach great emotional heights, and his magnificent sermons on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, were full of deep religious feeling and a moving awareness of the ritual solemnity of communal repentance. I can see him now, rapt and prophetic in his white kittel, weak at the end of the day’s fasting yet strong in voice and powerful in presence, leaning from the pulpit as he gives his final Yom Kippur sermon, his voice ringing out as he quotes and translates the Hebrew hymn beseeching forgiveness as the night falls and the day of penitence is coming to an end: “Open unto us the gate, at the time of the closing of the gate, for the day fadeth.” I remember the frisson that used to go down my spine as I heard those words.
Yet he would never take that tone in private conversation. It would have been unthinkable for him to talk to his family about sin or forgiveness or divine mercy. He would discuss with us the history of some law or custom, or the true meaning of some Biblical text, or the short-sightedness of the “Liberal” Jews in abandoning some traditional part of the liturgy or belittling the rabbinic tradition, but the ultimate truth of religion and the nature of religious experience were not for him proper topics of personal discussion. After a day of religious exaltation and powerful preaching, he would return home on Yom Kippur night tired and relaxed to chat about the number of people in shul, decorum among the congregation, and the odd mumbling way in which old Mr. Sklovsky had read maftir Yonah.
In his innocence he took much for granted. Most of all, he took for granted that the deep, unmentioned roots of his own faith would spread automatically down the generations. He, as an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and a student of David Hume, had solved once and for all the relation between Judaism and modern secular culture: there was nothing for Lionel and myself to do but follow in his footsteps. Not that he ever thought of us as becoming rabbis—indeed, during one brief period of my adolescence, when I had that ambition, I was actively discouraged—but I don’t think that it once crossed his mind that we would ever seriously question his synthesis. And throughout our childhood the pattern of family loyalties and family affection was woven so closely and strongly that any such questioning was unthinkable. Even when as a child I wondered about the existence of God, it never occurred to me to wonder about my father’s British-Jewish way of life. And I was troubled about the existence of God. For some time in my earlier childhood the only concrete proof I could find was that people did not have children until they were married: this, I argued, showed clearly that God really did preside over human affairs and took care to send children to couples after marriage. But when I discovered that birth was a biological process that was possible without marriage, I realized at once that the only tangible proof of God’s intervention in human affairs had been removed. Night after night, on going to bed, I used to plead with God to send me that night some sign to prove His existence—some dream, some token, however slight, that would indicate that He was there and had heard me. None ever came. This was not the kind of thing I could discuss with my father.
As I grew older, and became interested in Jewish history and the whole fascinating process of the development of Jewish tradition, I accepted Jewish Orthodoxy and my father’s synthesis out of pride in the Jewish cultural heritage, rather than out of the simpler religious belief of my childhood. I came to see theological questions (which bothered me in my early teens) as subordinate to the more practical questions of the basis of a culture. There was a period in my teens when, passionately devoted to the Zionist cause, I saw myself in a Messianic role leading the Jewish people back to their ancient homeland. And I remember during my first year at Edinburgh University thinking that the summit of my academic ambitions would be to become professor of English at the newly founded Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It is perhaps a sad and certainly an ironic comment on human affairs that when I was offered that position at the end of the war I declined it.
At school I had done my work and gone home, taking no part in sports or other extra-curricular activities, which were mostly on Friday night or Saturday. But the University was different. There was a great variety of social and intellectual life outside the lecture room, and I found myself joining societies, writing for the student magazine, making friends among my non-Jewish fellow students. I discovered, to my delighted astonishment, that my fluency in speech and facility in turning verses, which had helped to amuse the family at home, made me a popular and sought-after figure at the University, and Lionel too found that his oratorical gifts (which he inherited from our father) and genius as a raconteur gave him an important place in student life. The sense of liberation was enormous. I had not realized until then how narrow and indeed lonely my life had previously been. There was, of course, the family circle with its loyalties and affections; but in my last years at school, when my literary interests were growing and I was going through a phase of romantic introspection, I had no one to discuss these things with, and got into the habit of going for long walks alone. I even grew for a while apart from Lionel, with whom I had grown up in closest association, for as we became older our interests came to differ. And I had no real friends at school—at least none of whom I saw anything outside school hours. But now I was free of a newer and richer world, and not only free of it but sought after by it.
At first this had no effect on my Jewish feeling. I was, in fact, aggressively Jewish, taking every opportunity of pointing out my background and, I am afraid, rather snobbishly insisting on its superiority. When, in my first year at the University, I fell wildly and romantically in love with a fellow student (it was an extraordinary calf-love affair: I had hardly spoken to a girl except my sister before that) we exchanged passionate avowals and then decided to part forever because my being Jewish made any further relationship impossible. (The decision, I should add, was mine, not hers. It never occurred to her that there was a barrier.) I had a broken heart for a year after that. I also did some serious thinking. To my father, it was inconceivable that I should even take a non-Jewish girl out to tea. Indeed, it was inconceivable to him that Lionel or I should take any girl, even one of deep Jewish Orthodoxy, out to tea or anywhere else. The Daiches boys didn’t do that. We were the rabbi’s sons, and known, and we were not to be seen going about with a girl. When the time came, we would be introduced to beautiful, intelligent, and perhaps also wealthy Jewish girls from cities which had larger Jewish populations than Edinburgh, and we would then, doubtless, fall in love and get married. Or if we did not fall in love with the first one provided, there would be others. Here again, my father’s innocence was shattering. He was bitterly angry as well as puzzled when he once met Lionel walking with an extremely respectable Jewish girl in an Edinburgh street. This was when I was having my first romantic love affair with the non-Jewish student, and it occurred to me that if my father felt this way when Lionel went for a walk with a Jewish girl from an Orthodox family, what would he have said had he known that every day I had been walking my girl home from the University?
Deceit was forced on me by degrees. My father knew that I was a member of several University societies attended by both sexes. He knew that girls attended the University lectures. Presumably it was all right if I got into conversation with a girl after a lecture or after a society meeting. Was it all right to walk a few steps while talking with her? If so, how many? The position was, in fact, ludicrous. I began to ask myself whether this “so far and no farther” attitude between Jews and non-Jews was healthy or desirable or even, over any length of time, possible. And when I found that I made friends at the University to whom I could talk more freely and satisfyingly than to any Jewish friends or relations, the problem became more acute still. I did not realize then, though I came to do so later, that this very aura of danger that hung around my relations with non-Jewish girls tended to spark off romantic calf-love. I was very inexperienced and emotionally callow, ready in any case to fall in love with the first pretty girl who showed an interest in me. I wasn’t used to having pretty girls show an interest in me. The first time that I took a girl to a dance was at the end of my first year at the University when, secretly and with every kind of precaution against being found out at home, I took the fellow student I was in love with. (Let the psychologists say what they like about the sense of guilt, but the fact is I had a wonderful time.) The second time was some years later, when I had learned a great deal both intellectually and emotionally: I took then another fellow student, also not Jewish, who was to become my wife.
Thus it was that a policy of anguished reconsideration of the relation between my Jewish background and my non-Jewish environment was forced on me. It was a long, difficult, and painful process, which was not complete until the end of my years as a research student at Oxford. My deep affection and admiration for my father never altered, but I had a sense of living on the edge of a precipice. I would come home from a walk on the Pentlands with a group of my University friends (or with only one of them), to find, say, preparations for Passover in progress, and I would feel as though I was walking from one century into another. I remember particularly one winter evening coming from a gay meeting of a University society to a Friday night service at the synagogue. There were only a few older people present at the service, and as the melancholy strains of the concluding hymn, “Yigdal,” rose thinly up to the roof, I thought of the centuries during which this hymn had been sung, of long dead Jewish congregations in Provence, the Rhineland, and Poland who had held so steadfastly to their Jewish way of life and passed their heritage unchanged on to their children. I thought of my own ancestors, of my grandfather and of his father, Aryeh Zvi Daiches, whose picture I had seen on the wall of my grandfather’s study, a noble-looking man in a fur-trimmed cap, one of the innumerable Jewish scholars and teachers from whom I was descended.
My affection for my father increased, if possible, as I realized how innocent and how vulnerable he was. At the same time, I read Jewish apologetics with an increasingly critical eye. I re-read my father’s book, Aspects of Judaism, and noted in the margin arguments which I could not find convincing. I studied the Jewish prayer book, and noted the difference between the strains of noble piety and those of crude superstition. I came to see the Hebrew Bible as a fascinating record of the spiritual development of a people rather than as a book of conduct inspired by God. When I went to Oxford, and engaged in research on English translations of the Hebrew Bible, I pursued my Hebrew studies and read more and more about Biblical history and about the development of Judaism. I read much Zionist literature, as well as modern Hebrew poetry. I translated some of the poems of Judah Halevi into Scots. Unconsciously, I was preparing for a showdown with my father. Whatever happened, I was not to be accused of lack of knowledge of or affection for my ancestral heritage.
Showdowns between different generations are never really possible, and I learned that, too, eventually. True, my father was innocent and vulnerable; but he had his own dignity and his own sense of responsibility towards his congregation. There was a point at which argument failed, and he fell back on that dignity and responsibility. For all our clannishness and profound mutual affection and loyalty, we were not a demonstrative family. Only at the moment of bitterest difference between my father and myself did he bring himself to voice sentiments of tenderness and of love. Not long afterwards, when I was on my way to America with my wife, a radiogram was brought to me as I lay, slightly seasick, on my bunk. It was from my father and mother, and read: “Yom Kippur blessings.” It was the Day of Atonement, 1937.
And yet, surprisingly, a happy ending. Less than two years later, in the summer of 1939, I was back in Scotland with my wife and small son. (We had had an Orthodox Jewish wedding in America, for my father’s sake.) We took a cottage in Perthshire by the River Tay for the summer months, while I did some writing. My father and mother made inquiries and found a nearby farmhouse to let for August, so they spent August there, just across the river from us. Part of that time my wife’s people were with us too. We would go over to the farmhouse on Friday night, for the traditional Sabbath eve dinner. Somehow an inclusive world had been established which took us all in. Arguments, I knew now, were futile and cruel. I remember a sunny afternoon in the garden of our cottage, with my parents leaning over their grandson in his pram. It was a week or so before the Second World War began.
The last scene of all was in December, 1944. I was working at the British Embassy in Washington, and had been flown over to Britain to spend some time at the Ministry of Information. I managed to get a week’s leave in Edinburgh. I had not seen my parents since the happy summer of reconciliation in 1939, a time that now seemed worlds away. As the taxi stopped outside the familiar house—shabbier than I remembered it, but otherwise startlingly the same—I found it hard to believe that this was me, returning, in 1944. The front door was open, and I went in, and found no one downstairs. I went upstairs, and there in the drawing room, huddled over a small electric heater, were my father and mother. It was a bitterly cold day, and coal was in short supply. My father had his arm in a plaster cast, and I learned that he was recovering from a nasty accident—he had been knocked down by a truck when waiting to board a tramcar. I sat between him and mother, and we talked.
My father’s arm mended rapidly, and the following Saturday he insisted (against all advice) on going to shul and preaching. I went with him, holding his arm so that he would not slip on the icy pavement. He looked frail and worn as he stood in the pulpit to begin his sermon, but his voice was as strong as ever. His talith kept slipping off his shoulders, and, as he had only the use of one arm, he was unable to put it back: I had to go up and help him. He took as his text the account (from that day’s portion of the Law) of Jacob sending young Joseph to seek his brothers in Shechem, and went on to discuss the whole question of youth going out beyond the ken of the older generation. Why should Jacob have allowed his beloved young son to go out into the dangers which he knew were awaiting him? Was this not being a bad father? No, Jacob was right. There is a point beyond which a parent cannot be protective towards his children. Jacob was right in sending his rather pampered young son into dangers away from home: Joseph would have to work out his own salvation. And the older generation can learn from the younger. I think he was speaking to me, offering full understanding and reconciliation. But, as always, he was more at home in public than in private utterance. A handful of regular attenders, a few American Jewish soldiers, a couple of R.A.F. boys on leave, heard my father’s last testament: but he and I knew whom it was meant for.
I left Edinburgh the next day, and I never saw my father again. Though I did not know it at the time, he was in fact dying of a disease he had long concealed from everybody. If he had gone into hospital for appropriate treatment in time, he could have been cured easily. But he hated the idea of a deputy doing his work; this was his congregation, he had welded it together, and he would minister to it until the end. And he did. After his accident he continued to preach regularly, attend meetings, deliver public speeches, and carry on all his multifarious duties as rabbi, until, some five months later, he collapsed one evening after a day crowded with meetings and died shortly afterwards.
Was my father’s life, in the end, a tragedy? Only, I think, if we read the story too literally. True, his synthesis, however brilliantly illustrated in his own life, proved incapable of transmission whole to his children. His ultimate recognition of this was perhaps rueful rather than tragic. But he went on with his ministry to the end, pursuing his chosen way of life with heroic dignity. Perhaps, in Talmudic phrase, his works exceeded his wisdom; his life is more memorable than his writings. And Rabbi Eleazer the son of Azaryah said that he whose wisdom exceeds his works is like a tree with many branches and few roots, easily overturned by the wind, while he whose works exceed his wisdom is like a tree with few branches and many roots, which cannot be overturned by all the winds that blow.
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My Father, and His Father:Rabbi in Scotland
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Justice both delayed and denied.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor, did not want to come forward. In an eerie echo of Anita Hill’s public ordeal, her accusations were “leaked to the media.” With her confidentiality violated, Ford had no choice but to go public. Coons could not say where that leak came from, but he did confess that “people on committee staff” had access to the letter in which Ford made her allegations. Draw your own conclusions.
Though many observers insist that what we have witnessed since Ford’s allegations were made public is about justice, it’s hard to see any rectitude in this process. Ford has been transformed into a public figure apparently against her wishes. The details of the attack that Ford alleges are deeply disturbing, but they are not prosecutable. Ford’s recollection of the events 36 years ago is understandably hazy, but what she alleges to have occurred is too vague to establish with much accuracy. She cannot recall the precise date or location in which she was supposedly attacked. Contrary to the protestations of Senate Democrats like Kamala Harris, the FBI cannot get involved in a matter that is not within the federal government’s jurisdiction. And even if local authorities were inclined to involve themselves, the statute of limitations long ago elapsed.
With precious few facts available to congressional investigators and without the sobriety that public scrutiny in the age of social media abhors, the spectacle to which the nation is about to be privy is undoubtedly going to make things worse. A public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh will be a performative and political display, if it happens at all. It will be adorned with the trappings of courtroom proceedings but with none of the associated protections afforded accused and accuser alike. It will further polarize the nation such that, whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, public confidence in Congress and the Supreme Court will be severely damaged. And no matter what is said in that hearing, it is unlikely to change many minds.
Given the dearth of hard evidence, it is understandable that observers have begun to look to their own experiences to evaluate the veracity of Ford’s allegations. The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan is the author of a powerful and compelling example of this kind of work. Her essay, entitled “I Believe Her,” is important for a variety of reasons. Maybe foremost among them is how she all but invalidates defenses of Kavanaugh that are based on the positive character references he’s assembled from former female acquaintances and ex-girlfriends. Flanagan was assaulted as a young woman, and her abuser—a man she says drove her to a suicidal depression similar to what Ford has described to her therapist—was not interested in a romantic relationship. CNN political commenter Symone Sanders, too, confessed that “there is no debate” in her mind as to Kavanaugh’s guilt, in part, because she was the victim of a sexual assault in college. The similarities between what she endured and what Ford says occurred are too hard for her to ignore.
These are harrowing stories, but they also reveal how little any of this has to do with Brett Kavanaugh anymore. For some, this has become a proxy battle in the broader cultural reckoning that began with the #MeToo moment. Quite unlike the many abusive men who were outed by this movement, though, the evidentiary standard being applied to Kavanaugh’s case is remarkably low. His innocence has not been presumed, and a preponderance of evidence has not been marshaled against him. It is not even clear as of this writing that Kavanaugh will be allowed to confront his accuser. At a certain point, honest observers must concede that getting to the truth has not been a defining feature of this process.
In the face of this adversity, there are some Republicans who are willing to sacrifice Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some appear to think that Kavanaugh’s troubles present them with an opportunity to advance their own political prospects and to promote a replacement nominee with whom they feel a closer ideological affinity. Others simply don’t want to risk standing by a tainted nominee. The stakes associated with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court are too high to confirm a justice with an asterisk next to his name—a justice who may tarnish future rulings on sensitive cases by association. Those Republicans are either capitulatory or craven.
Based on what we know now, Kavanaugh does not deserve an asterisk. Maybe he will tomorrow, but he doesn’t today. Those who would allow what is by almost all accounts an exemplary legal career to be destroyed by unconfirmable accusations or outright innuendo will not get a better deal down the line. Some Republicans are agnostic about Kavanaugh’s fate and believe that his being stopped will make room for a more doctrinaire conservative like Amy Coney Barrett. But they will not get their ideologically simpatico justice if they allow the defiling of the process by which she could be confirmed.
The experiences that Dr. Ford described are appalling. Even for those who are inclined to believe her account and think that she is due some restitution, no true justice can be meted out that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the accused. Those in the commentary class who would use Kavanaugh as a stand-in for every abuser who got away, every preppy white boy who benefited from unearned privilege, every hypocritical conservative moralizer to exact some karmic vengeance are not interested in justice. They want a political victory, even at the expense of the integrity of the American ideal. If there is a fight worth having, it’s the fight against that.
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.