In February 1944—some two years after America’s entry into World War II and less than two years before the end of the war—COMMENTARY’s forerunner, the Contemporary Jewish Record, published a symposium entitled “Under Forty. American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews.” The theme of the symposium was apparently a literary one, for the editors in their introductory statement announced that their intention was to cast light on the question of whether there was any important difference between the work produced by American writers of Jewish descent (who had only recently become “full participants in the cultural life of the country”) and that of their “Christian colleagues.” It seems clear, however, that this approach was something of a stratagem employed by the editors to get at another and more elusive question—a question at which they merely hinted in asking “to what extent, and in what manner, has [the Jewish writer’s] awareness of his position as artist and citizen been modified or changed by the revival of anti-Semitism as a powerful force in the political history of our time?” What lay behind this question, I feel sure, was the editors’ awareness that most of the writers they had invited to contribute were assimilationists and that their assimilationism was grounded in the belief that the “Jewish problem”—as it used to be called—was on its way to being solved in the modern world. The Dreyfus Case had persuaded Theodor Herzl that assimilationism would never work; surely the Nazis ought to have taught American Jews the same lesson. And if a Jew becomes convinced that there is no escaping the disabilities of Jewish birth, isn’t he then required to abandon assimilationism as a program, even for himself, and search for some other solution?
The eleven contributors to the symposium included some of the most gifted and brilliant members of the younger generation of writers and critics in America—Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Delmore Schwartz, Isaac Rosenfeld, Louis Kronenberger, Clement Greenberg—and it is therefore no surprise that they should have understood the true nature of the apparently academic questions they were being asked to consider. Yes, they all said—and here I am going beyond the explicit comments some of them made and into the implications of their remarks—we now know that integration into the surrounding culture is not the answer to anti-Semitism. But where the good 19th-century emancipated Jew could find an alternative answer in the principle of national sovereignty—not only because he thought it would work but also because he believed, along with so many of his contemporaries, in nationalism as a creative and benevolent force—we have learned (thanks partly to the Nazis) to be repelled by nationalism in any form whatever. The Zionists we have met are generally “dreary middle-class chauvinists”—the phrase is Alfred Kazin’s—and we have no wish to associate ourselves with them or what they stand for. What, then, is left? You speak of the “Jewish heritage” and ask whether we have been shaped by it. Certainly we have been shaped by the fact of our Jewish birth, but we are by no means sure that you are not confusing the experience of being the child of immigrants with the experience of being a Jew. And what is this Jewish heritage? Whatever it may have been in the past, today in America it has deteriorated into nothingness, or worse than nothingness. It has been integrated into a culture which is itself inferior and vicious, and it has taken on all the worst qualities of that culture while retaining nothing valuable of its own.
Out of modern Jewish religion, said Lionel Trilling, “there has not come a single voice with the note of authority—of philosophical, or poetic, or even of rhetorical, let alone of religious, authority,” and “as the Jewish community now exists, it can give no sustenance to the American artist or intellectual who is born a Jew.” Said Clement Greenberg: “Jewish life in America has become, for reasons of security, so solidly, so rigidly, restrictedly, and suffocatingly middle-class that behavior within it is a pattern from which personality can deviate in only a mechanical and hardly ever in a temperamental sense. No people on earth are more correct, more staid, more provincial, more commonplace, more inexperienced; none observe more strictly the letter of every code that is respectable; no people do so completely and habitually what is expected of them. . . .” Who is the American Jew? asked Alfred Kazin. “What is Jewish in him? What does he believe, especially in these terrible years, that separates him at all from our national habits of acquisitiveness, showiness, and ignorant brag? . . . What a pity that he should feel ‘different,’ when he believes so little; what a stupendous moral pity, historically, that the Fascist cutthroats should have their eyes on him, too, when he asks for so little—only to be safe, in all the Babbitt warrens.”
These were severe and merciless indictments (though one could find their equal in Zionist literature and worse in the Hebrew prophets), and certainly they were motivated in part by the bitterness these young American Jews felt over the fact that the Jewish community should have been no better than the middle-class America from which so huge a proportion of its most gifted artists and intellectuals had always felt estranged.
Indeed, the few positive statements made by the contributors—for example Delmore Schwartz’s: “And thus I have to say (with gratitude and yet diffidence because it has been so different for other Jews, different to the point of death) that the fact of Jewishness has been nothing but an ever-growing good to me, and it seems clear to me now that it can be, at least for me, nothing but a fruitful and inexhaustible inheritance”—had less to do with Judaism or the Jewish community than with the advantages to a modern writer of having been born into a marginal culture. The Jewish writer in America was doubly schooled in the experience of alienation and so, paradoxically, could speak as the quintessential modern man.
The word alienation supplies the real key to understanding the 1944 symposium. Not all the contributors were socialists—of the ones I have selected for analysis, only Clement Greenberg actually said that the Jewish problem was a version of “the alienation of man under capitalism” and could only be solved in a socialist society—but it has not in our time been necessary to embrace socialism in order to repudiate the life and culture of the middle class throughout the Western world. Thus it was the middle classness of the Jewish community which more than anything else accounted for the harsh words the young writers of 1944 had for their fellow Jews in America. Below the harsh words, however, lay an assumption obviously shared by most of the contributors—that, by committing themselves to the Ideal in culture and politics, they were being more truly Jewish than the community which called itself Jewish.
That they were unfair and one-sided in their judgments a large number of these writers themselves later came to acknowledge. One has only to skim through the back files of COMMENTARY to see how far many of the contributors to the 1944 symposium (and others like them) went in revising their estimate of the “Jewish heritage.” Though in 1944 they would probably have all agreed with Trilling’s flat assertion that modern Jewish religion had produced nothing of value, ten years later at least half of them had become enthusiasts of Martin Buber, while the whole of the New York literary world was ringing with praise of the Yiddish storytellers, the Hasidim, Maimonides, medieval Hebrew poetry, and even the Rabbis of the Talmud. (Trilling himself wrote an essay called “Wordsworth and the Rabbis.”) The relation of the Jewish writer to his Jewishness had shifted dramatically, and by 1955, after the work of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud—to mention only two names—had begun to appear, Kazin could not have said, as he did in 1944, that “When I read a novel by an American Jew that is at least as grounded in the life it rejects as Farrell’s Studs Lonigan or Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, I shall believe in the empirical fact of our participation.” The work of these writers was not only grounded in American Jewish life, but in many instances it even struck an affirmative stance, celebrating—as did Kazin’s own autobiographical book about Brownsville, A Walker in the City—the richness and color of the immigrant urban experience.
What had happened? To some extent, no doubt, the new relation to Jewishness and Judaism that was expressed by the literary intelligentsia of the 50’s developed merely as a consequence of the passage of years: what a man flees in youth he often learns to love in middle age. But the main factor operating here, I believe, was the widespread retreat among intellectuals from the whole complex of attitudes symbolized by the term alienation. The new relation to Jewishness, in other words, was an aspect of the new and more positive relation to America which was bred in large part by the menace of Soviet totalitarianism on the one side and the change (or apparent change) that had taken place in the character of the American middle class.1 A symposium published in 1952 in Partisan Review, “America and the Intellectuals,” provides extensive evidence of this new relation, which might be described psychologically as a great willingness by the intellectuals to acknowledge and value the American in themselves—a willingness that extended quite naturally, in the case of those who were also Jews, to the Jew in them. It ought to be said, however, that the new attitude toward the American middle class in general—which was seen as having overcome its Babbittry and which was now thought of as the great bulwark against totalitarianism—was never quite extended to the American Jewish community. If most of the contributors to the 1944 symposium later came to discover great fascination and virtue in traditional Jewish culture, very few of them ever acknowledged the unfairness of the charge that Jewish life in America bore no trace of the admirable characteristics of the Jewish past. For whatever else may be said of the American Jewish community, it does—in the fantastically elaborate network of social, welfare, and educational institutions it supports (a network that no other group even begins to parallel), in the rescue work it has done, and in the generosity it has consistently shown toward the oppressed and the homeless whenever called upon to do so—maintain in a very active and vivid way the traditions of communal responsibility and social service which in past contexts have been singled out as among the most attractive qualities of “the Jewish heritage.” And one could easily expand the list of traditional Jewish qualities that persist in one form or another among the Jews of America.
While all this was taking place in the generation that is now between forty-five and fifty-five years old, a new generation of American Jews was beginning to make its appearance on the scene—a generation which on the whole was at least one remove from the immigrant experience and which emerged into consciousness in an atmosphere that contrasted very sharply with that of the 30’s. Radicalism and rebellion were probably less fashionable among the young than ever before in modern history; a much publicized religious revival was in process; the State of Israel was in existence and fighting for its life; and the Jews in America had arrived. Discrimination had declined sharply; anti-Semitism was in great disrepute (after having been fashionable for so long even among the educated); and the somewhat premature claim made in 1944 by the editors of the Contemporary Jewish Record, that Jews had become “full participants in the cultural life of the country,” was now finally and wholly true. Jews were active and prominent in every sphere of activity in America, including the arts; what Benjamin DeMott recently observed in these pages concerning Jewish writers—that they now have a “place in the establishment”—could be said with equal justice of Jewish musicians, painters, doctors, lawyers, politicians.
The editors of COMMENTARY were curious to know how the generation of Jewish intellectuals who came to maturity in such an atmosphere and under such conditions felt about its relation to the Jewish heritage and to the community which is committed to preserving and extending that heritage. Since Jewish intellectuals are now prominent in all fields, we did not limit our inquiries to literary people, but rather tried to extend the occupational range of our sample as far as possible—with the intention, however, of finding young men and women who, in some sense which is rather difficult to define with precision, correspond in type and distinction (or promise of future distinction) with the 1944 group. Assuming—perhaps foolishly—that a Jew with a definite religious commitment of any kind would regard the sort of questions we wished to ask either as irrelevant to him or as self-evidently answerable, we did not invite any representatives of the younger religious intelligentsia (though when one of the people we did invite turned out to our surprise to be a member of that group, we decided to publish his reply anyway). We also decided to invite only native-born Americans, but here again one respondent (and possibly more) turned out not to fit the specifications; his contribution nevertheless appears below. The age limit we set was forty, though I believe that most of the contributors are much younger than that and only three of four are over thirty-five. In any case, the intention was to question young people who seemed to us—from what we knew of their work—to have been formed or shaped by the characteristic conditions of the postwar period rather than by some earlier ethos. We sent out about fifty questionnaires, expecting ten or fifteen replies; instead we received a total of thirty-one, and they are all printed below, in alphabetical order.
This is, of course, by no means a “scientific” sampling; perhaps it is not even representative. The symposium does, however, bring together a random group of the most talented and most articulate younger intellectuals of Jewish birth in America today. Their backgrounds—geographical, social, and religious—are remarkably diverse; they come from all classes, and their parrents range from rabbis to militant atheists. Their occupations, too, are highly varied. Almost all the academic disciplines are represented (including science); there are novelists, poets, critics, publishers, and editors; there is a film producer, a newspaperman, a Congressional assistant, a psychiatrist. Many of the contributors are married (in some cases to non-Jews) and have children, which means that they have been forced to confront such problems as whether they wish to give their children a Jewish education: the problem of Jewishness for them has therefore become “existential” and urgent where it once may have been theoretical.
How, then, do these third- and fourth-generation American Jewish intellectuals—these children of the “neoconservative” age, the age of the religious revival and the rediscovery of America—differ in their relation to Jewishness from their elders, the children of the immigrants and the depression and the militantly anti-religious atmosphere of the various radical movements of the 30’s? The answer is—hardly at all. To be sure, there is far less bitterness in the pieces below than one might find in the 1944 symposium; on the whole, the contributors to the present symposium are neither vigorously rejecting Jewishness nor enthusiastically rushing toward it. Most of them have something good to say for the Jewish heritage, though very few express any sense of living commitment to it—and like their forebears of 1944, they assume easily, and incorrectly I think, that the American Jewish community is indistinguishable from the middle-class American community in general and bears no sign of the former attributes of the Jewish people. Again, like the 1944 group, they are against “chauvinism” (though the overwhelming majority express a great sympathy for Israel) and “parochialism,” feeling that they properly belong to a much wider world than is encompassed by the Jewish community—or, indeed, by America itself. Except in some of the older contributors (who in this respect are closer in tone to the preceding generation), there is scarcely a trace of the idea that a man must have strong local or “parochial” attachments before he can achieve a true universalism of spirit.
But what is most surprising and, to my mind at least, most reassuring is the atmosphere of idealism that permeates this symposium, an idealism that many of the contributors themselves associate with the fact of their Jewishness. Believing (on the basis, it should be emphasized, of an obviously scant acquaintance with the literature and history of Judaism) that the essence of Judaism is the struggle for universal justice and human brotherhood, these young intellectuals assert over and over again that anyone who fights for the Ideal is to that degree more Jewish than a man who merely observes the rituals or merely identifies himself with the Jewish community. This, really, is what the 1944 group was also saying, that the essential tradition of Judaism came to be embodied in modern times not in the committed Jewish community but in the great post-Emancipation figures who rushed out of the ghetto to devour and then re-create the culture of the West: Marx, Freud, Einstein.
How do they feel about the future? By and large, they are perfectly well aware that their kind of Jewishness provides little hope for the survival of even those Jewish traditions which they admire ; as some of them actually point out, they are living off the religious and cultural capital of the past. They seem to think, however, that the best Jewish traditions are no longer the unique possession of the Jewish people—obviously one can be an idealist without being a Jew. And many of them would agree with Jason Epstein, who says that all “the conventional groupings,” national, religious, and ethnic, “are on the way out,” that the world is in a state of revolutionary change, and that its contours are bound to re-form themselves during the next fifty or a hundred years. To paraphrase Elihu Katz’s striking remark about Israel: the trouble with the Jews is that they are such a big idea in the perspective of world history and such a little idea in the perspective of modern history.
But are the Jews such a “little idea” in the perspective of modern history? In some sense, of course, they are; so, for that matter, are Protestants and Frenchmen. Yet the demise of the Jewish people has been predicted with equal confidence so many times in the past two thousand years that one simply hesitates to be persuaded by still another plausible case for its inevitable disappearance. I do not believe—if I may conclude by joining the symposium myself—that the Jews are destined to disappear, though I would be extremely hard put to argue the matter convincingly. Nor do I believe that a Jew does himself, or the world, any great service by an indifference to the future of the Jewish people. Let me make it as clear as I possibly can that in my view any man has an absolute moral right to choose his loyalties, even if this means violating the law of the land and incurring the disfavor of his fellows. At the same time it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that certain choices bring with them unpleasant human consequences, and especially those choices which involve the wilful tampering with things that are somehow too big and too mysterious to be controlled by individual reason. I know of course that this argument has been used by kings to justify divine right, by the rich to justify the existence of the poor, and in general by those who have tried to stem the tide of social change. Nevertheless, there are—there must be—in the life of every individual areas that are sacred, and demands before which the only proper attitude is piety or reverence. After four thousand years of existence, the Jews are indeed a very big idea in the history of the world, and no person born into this idea can dismiss it or refuse to acknowledge the loyalties and responsibilities it imposes on him, without doing himself some violence. I will not pretend that anything very concrete in the way of program or philosophy follows from such piety. But I will register my conviction that one ought to feel a sense of “historic reverence” to Jewish tradition even, or perhaps especially, if one is convinced that the curtain is about to drop on the last act of a very long play.
1 I have discussed these developments at greater length in several articles: “Jewish Culture and the Intellectuals,” COMMENTARY May 1955; “The Young Generation,” the New Leader, March 11, 1957; and “The Intellectuals and Jewish Fate,” Midstream, Winter 1957.