My parents, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, moved to Washington from New York in 1987. My father wrote about their move in the New Republic because, needless to say, if you’re an intellectual, you don’t just move from one city to another, as tens of millions of Americans do each year. You have to analyze and explain the significance of your move. Also needless to say, my father being my father, his article is witty and ironic. He described it as “a deep, sociological explanation of why my wife and I have decided to leave New York City and take up residence in Washington, D.C. (no one seems to credit the more obvious reasons; two children and three grandchildren).” And being from my father, the article is a perceptive and interesting—even deep—piece on New York and Washington, and American politics and culture in 1987.
But in fact, my parents said privately at the time that one of the main reasons for the move is that they thought it would help them stay younger and fresher in spirit. And recently, my mother, reflecting on the move, commented on how true that had turned out to be. Of course they enjoyed old friends of their generation, but they also very much appreciated their mostly younger friends in Washington, and they enjoyed making new ones. They treated people 25 or 50 years younger as equals and were happy to talk with them and learn from them.
And my mother was interested in even younger interlocutors; as a friend put it in an email, she “was always interested in cultural dispatches from our kids’ generation.” My wife Susan and I, my sister Liz Nelson and her husband Caleb, my cousins, and our friends all remember family gatherings and other occasions with my mother quizzing grandchildren and great-nieces and great-nephews and the children of friends on various issues of manners and morals among the younger generation.
All this helped keep my mother young in spirit. My mother, known all her life as Bea, studied the past and respected the past. But she didn’t live in the past. She lived in the present. Her intellectual curiosity, even in very old age, was impressive. She wanted to learn about things she didn’t already know, and she was willing to revisit old views as well. She decided in her 90s, for example, correcting an earlier judgment of hers, that she preferred Trollope to Dickens. (I’ll add she also thought Trollope’s novels too long and that they could have used some editing. Of course, as a historian she knew why he didn’t accept such editing—he was paid by the word.)
Many of the recent published obituaries and appreciations of my mother naturally focus on her achievements, the views she expressed, the writings she has left us. But what made those achievements possible was an aspect of her character not immediately obvious, one Susan the other day aptly called her “fearlessness.” It involved an element of rebellion, of freethinking, of willingness to challenge orthodoxy and conventional wisdom.
One gets a sense of this in a private memoir of her parents that my mother wrote for our family. In the course of praising her parents for supporting her educational aspirations while young, she explains how remarkable it was that her parents gave my mother the same Hebrew education as a girl that her brother Milton received. My mother continues: “Like my brother, I went on to the Jewish Theological Seminary (while attending Brooklyn College). This was entirely my decision—itself an anomaly, because by this time, at the ripe age of sixteen, I was a budding Trotskyite. I cannot now quite comprehend how I managed to accommodate Trotskyism and Zionism, Marxism and respect for Judaism—but that is another subject.” I must say that it would have been very interesting if my mother had written on that subject.
She offered this detail as well: “Even for a boy, the JTS was a daring, almost heretical choice; the fact that my brother went there had to be concealed from my orthodox grandfather, who took a dim view of that Conservative institution (‘Schechter’s Seminary,’ as it was known). But for a girl, from that family and in those circumstances, it was even more remarkable. The small additional expenses—carfare for the subway trip from Brooklyn College to Manhattan several days a week, a modest supper in a cafeteria, the registration fee each term (like my brother, I was on a scholarship)—were not insignificant in those trying times…”
My mother meant this as praise for her parents’ encouragement of her. But it also provides, in her understated and modest way, a window into her own character. And it was the character, as well of course as the force of her mind, that led her to be willing to challenge and indeed overturn conventional views of thinkers like Lord Acton and John Stuart Mill, to rethink and bring alive a host of Victorian minds, and others from different eras as well, and to address so many issues in fresh ways. I’ve always been struck by the fact that my mother actually rethought in print her own earlier views of Edmund Burke and Mill, publishing new articles that explicitly challenged and corrected her previous ones. This is a combination of courage and modesty rare among academics and intellectuals—and the rest of us, too.
My mother has a reputation, well justified, as a kind of defender of Victorian morality—or better put, which is how she did put it, of Victorian manners and morals. But her defenses were complicated and qualified. My mother was not moralistic; I dare say she believed morality is too important to be left to the moralists. Nor was she excessively nostalgic for a past whose flaws and limitations she was well aware of. It’s just that, unlike some of our contemporaries, she was also well aware of the flaws and limitations of the present.
Another way to say this perhaps is that my mother combined high standards with a worldly understanding of the way people are. Or one could say that to an unusual degree, in her public work and her private life, my mother sought to reconcile conservative standards with liberal tolerance.
One thing she had no use for were various forms of illiberalism. We discussed near the end of her life, more than once, whether the once elevated term “liberal” could be brought back in light of the recent decadence of liberalism and the current degeneration of conservatism. She was open to the idea and encouraged those of us who were younger to explore it. So that’s an assignment from her to us.
If my mother was a subtle and refined thinker, whose life and writings show that moral strength and intellectual curiosity can go hand in hand, she was also a modest, kind, and gracious person, as so many emails and phone calls from friends have confirmed over the last few days.
Here is one of those emails, from one of my cousins:
I am so sad hearing this news. Bea was such an important figure in my life and it’s hard to comprehend that she is gone. I admired her tremendously and when I was younger was always a bit intimidated by her; she was brilliant and learned and all the things that I aspired to be. But as I got older, I went beyond admiring her and came to really love her, because she was always so kind and gracious. To me, that is what was most remarkable about her and far more rare than her brilliance. She took an interest in everything I was doing, no matter how trivial. I loved visiting her in Washington and discussing books and politics and the general decline of pretty much everything….She’ll always be a model for me of how to think, how to act, and how to age gracefully.
In 2011, my mother published her final book (though there were articles and essays and collections of essays still to come). It was a study of British attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, from Cromwell to Churchill. Her brother and her husband had died in recent years; many of her own views were out of favor then (as now); she was not thrilled about the direction in which our politics or culture or society seemed to be going. And she was about to turn 90. She might have been permitted a certain pessimism, or world-weariness.
And yet she concluded the epilogue to the book in this way:
My brother, Milton Himmelfarb, in one of his last essays, reflected on the question, “What do I believe?” He concluded by quoting the Israeli anthem Hatikvah, “Our hope is not lost.” Those words, he reminds us, were an answer to the contemporaries of Ezekiel, who, more than two-and-a-half millennia ago, had despaired, “Our hope is lost.” “Hope,” my brother observes, “is a Jewish virtue.”
As we mourn her death and our loss, I think my mother would want us to keep that in mind: Hope is a Jewish virtue.
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