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Irving Howe and secular Jewishness: an elegy.

It's as hard to return to old-fashioned words as to sad synagogues, those thresholds of faith. You know exactly where they are. Troubled, you can still hear their undertones. Sometimes you come close and look longingly at them through the windowpanes.

You who still take your ease in the shadow of biblical trees, O sing me the cool solace of all you remember, all that you know.

Jacob Glatstein, "Without Gifts"(1)

The last letter Irving Howe wrote to me was dated April 30, 1993, five days before his death. He reported in it that 1992 had been a terrible year for him because of three operations in rapid succession, but that he was now much improved. But what he mainly wanted to tell me was that he had been living for the four preceding months with the splendid young leaders of the Warsaw Uprising.(2)

Irving was referring to the then recently published 700-page book of memoirs of Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. At first sight it may appear unremarkable that Howe should have been, in his last days, imaginatively immersed in the heroic armed defense, mainly by Zionist socialists, of the ghetto. But one must remember that this is the same Irving Howe who had, at least as early as 1953, committed himself to the salvage of Yiddish literature partly because its great themes were "the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness"(3) and who had often commented acerbically on Zionist impatience with Yiddish literature precisely because of its antiheroic bent. Howe's sympathetic involvement, during his last months, in the memoirs of a Zionist hero, was a sign not only of his intellectual flexibility but also a reminder of what he had once, ruefully, said to me about the values of the Yiddish tradition. They would, he thought, sustain him for the rest of his life, but they could not (and perhaps should not) be prolonged beyond that. "One of the arts of life," he used to say, "is to know how to end."(4)

This last letter from Irving prompted me to go back to the first one he sent me, in 1972, an unsolicited response to the first piece I ever wrote on a Jewish subject, an essay on Chaim Grade in Judaism magazine.(5) He expressed wonder not only that Grade's story "My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner" hadn't attracted more attention but that the Treasury of Yiddish Stories, the anthology in which it appeared in English in 1953, was never reviewed in any American literary journal. He also recalled, without explicitly endorsing, the saying of a friend that "In the warmest of hearts there's always a cold spot for the Jews.'"(6) The parochialism and unearned condescension toward Yiddish literature (especially among Jewish critics) was among the few literary offenses that could ruffle Irving's sweetness of temper. He told me, in a letter of 1983, how Lionel Trilling, when he heard that Howe was working on Yiddish literature, expressed his "suspicion" of Yiddish literature. The remark pained and also enraged Howe, who never forgave Trilling for it, especially since the Columbia professor was entirely ignorant of the subject. Nevertheless, he and Trilling did become friends.(7)

Irving's ability to recognize, over the years, the dangers in the Jewish tradition of passivity and his ability to befriend ideological opponents were but two of the signs of his extraordinary disinterestedness. It was this quality which, combined with his acuteness of insight, his profound life-wisdom, his uncanny gift for le mot juste, his supple and lucid prose, and his unerring literary tact, made him the greatest critic (and not just "literary" critic) of our age. When Matthew Arnold in 1865 called disinterestedness the sine qua non of the critic, he defined it as "a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches . . . steadily refusing to lend itself to . . . ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas."(8)

Whether he wrote of literature or Jewish quandaries or politics (a realm in which he made many serious mistakes), Irving disdained the sectarian approach, which says "let us all stick to each other, and back each other up, since we are all in the same movement."

Probably no socialist thinker, with the possible exception of George Orwell, aroused - by his unvarnished, often unfashionable honesty - more hatred among other socialists than did Irving Howe. Who but he, among socialists, would have said that the reason why American Jewish workers never swerved from support of Roosevelt despite his administration's "shameful" record in helping to save or admit Jewish refugees from Hitler was that his domestic policies "seemed like a partial realization of their old socialist program"? What other Jewish radical could write that "Rebelling against the parochialism of traditional Jewish life, the Jewish radicals improvised a parochialism of their own - but with this difference: they called it 'universalism.'"(9) What other Marxist could so perfectly encapsulate the absurdity of the current academic breed of Marxists as Howe did when he called them people who, having replaced the old-fashioned goal of taking over the government with the new one of taking over the English Department, had "gone to the universities to die in comfort"?(10) He also pointed to the paradox whereby Marxist literary theorists now write in a prose of such "stupefying . . . opacity"(11) that it is incomprehensible to the common reader; and he recommended that they "speak in English, a language that for some time served criticism well."(12) Even Howe's well-known dislike of Menachem Begin had an element of socialist self-criticism in it. He saw Begin as the worst kind of reactionary because he brought his bad old socialist habits to his bad new Herut principles.(13) One wonders that Howe, so familiar from his youth with the ugly habits of many socialists, should have been as surprised as he was when, as he put it, "some of [the New Left] spokesmen wanted not just to refute my opinions . . . but also to erase, to eliminate, to 'smash' people like me."(14) Irving never, to be sure, wavered in his conviction that socialism is a worthy (if also a lost) cause. This tenacity was disturbing to many of his admirers. About fourteen years ago, I heard I. B. Singer groan: "A wonderful man, Irving Howe. He's done so much for Yiddish literature and for me. But he's not a youngster anymore, and still, still with this socialist meshugas! "Like Orwell before him, Howe would reiterate, as much in grief as in justification: "Good causes attract poor advocates."

He was equally free of the constricting spirit of sect and party in literary matters. His very first teaching stint was at my own school, the University of Washington, to which he came, as he described himself decades later, "green and nervous," in the summer of 1952. The department was then divided between the disciples of Vernon Parrington, most of them leftish, committed social democrats (or even communists) and the New Critics, under the sway of the formalist methods developed by T. S. Eliot and the reactionary Southern Agrarian critics. Howe found himself drawn to the latter group rather than to his "natural" allies. He told the most eminent of the New Critics in Seattle, Robert B. Heilman, that he had experienced not only from Heilman but from nearly all the New Critics he had known a generosity of spirit he would rarely meet with again.(15) I myself must have benefited from Howe's own largeness of spirit towards opponents: he sometimes called me his "favorite reactionary." Once, shortly after his father had died late in 1977, I was in New York to visit my own father, who was hospitalized not far from Irving's apartment. "Come over," he said, "and let's talk about life and death - no politics."

Although I can hardly imagine teaching literature or thinking about Jewish life without resorting to Irving Howe's work, it is the memory of his sweetness, moral refinement, delicacy, or what he liked to call edelkeit that I treasure most. One could see this best in his devotion to his own parents, whose moral image plays an important role in his writing. The finishing touch to his demolition of Kate Millett's inane book Sexual Politics is the sketch of his mother and father sharing years of trouble and affection during the Depression, working for slave wages in the garment center, helping one another, in shop, subways, and home, through dreadful years. "Was my mother a drudge in subordination to the 'master group'? No more a drudge than my father who used to come home with hands and feet blistered from his job as presser. Was she a 'sexual object'? I would never have thought to ask, but now, in the shadow of decades, I should like to think that at least sometimes she was."(16) This affection was reciprocated by his parents, sometimes perhaps even to excess. I once had to collect Howe from his Seattle hotel room to deliver him to a lecture he was to give at the university, and we were delayed by a phone call. Irving listened for awhile, with rising impatience, and then said: "For God's sake, Pop, I'm 56 years old; you don't have to remind me to put on rubbers when it's raining."

One of Howe's central ideas, to be discussed later in this essay, was that a religious faith apparently abandoned could exercise a far more powerful hold over a man than new, secular faiths adopted. Howe was not, in any accepted sense of the term, a religious man, yet I recall how once, when we were going (at his request) to Sabbath services at Seattle's Sephardic Bikur Cholim Congregation, he blurted out: "Tell me, Eddie, do you believe in God?" The question was entirely earnest, without a hint of irony or condescension; neither was it a prelude to debate or even discussion. But it was still, in his heart of hearts, the preeminent question. What answer he himself gave to it we cannot know. But it seems clear that for him as for the Yiddish writers he revered, the old faith, even the partial or minimal Judaism that he inherited, was finally a far more imperious presence than such new creeds as socialism. He wrote that a good part of his book World of Our Fathers was no more than an extension of what he knew about his own father and the immigrant Jewish values and feelings he represented. Though he could see what was parochial in these values and feelings, "they also formed the firmest moral norms I would ever encounter. Again and again I would 'fail' my father. . . . But his solidarity never wavered, and I came to feel that it was a solidarity more than familial, deriving from some unexpressed sense of what a Jew owed his son. Reading Mani Leib's sonnets and Moishe Leib [Halpern]'s poems, I learned to value that solidarity. Reading those sonnets and poems I learned where I had come from and how I was likely to end."(17)

This discovery of origins, this reconquest of Jewishness was begun relatively late in Howe's career. Before the Second World War, as he admitted in his autobiography, he had been indifferent to Jewishness and, indeed, to the Jews. During the 1930s and 1940s Howe, like Lionel Trilling and Philip Rahv, was primarily interested in the fate of the Soviet Union, and in the progress of socialism in America, not in the little difficulties the Jews were having in Europe and Palestine. The Jewish intellectuals who did concern themselves with the Jews during those years - such writers as Hayim Greenberg, Marie Syrkin, Ben Halpern, Ludwig Lewisohn, Maurice Samuel(18) - would have laughed at anybody who predicted, let us say in 1942, that Irving Howe would one day become a Jewish literary hero writing books that would become standard barmitzvah presents. "In the years before the war," Howe confessed, "people like me tended to subordinate our sense of Jewishness to cosmopolitan culture and socialist politics. We did not think well or deeply on the matter of Jewishness - you might say we avoided thinking about it. . . . Jewishness did not form part of a conscious commitment, it was not regarded as a major component of the culture I wanted to make my own, and I felt no particular responsibility for its survival or renewal."(19) Like his comrades in the Trotskyite movement, Howe argued strongly against American participation in the war against Hitler, taking the position that this was a war between two imperial and capitalist systems. He did serve over three years in the U.S. Army and later referred to his political position towards the war as a "deep error." Nevertheless, as Midge Decter (his one-time editor at Harper's) remarked in a hostile essay, "for a Jew, any Jew, to have proclaimed World War II merely a war between two 'imperialisms' . . . had to have been a significant and haunting act. . . . Mr. Howe had taken himself beyond the cultural, and personal, identity given him by his birth into an immigrant Jewish family."(20)

According to William Phillips, longtime editor of Partisan Review, Howe "was haunted by the question of why our intellectual community . . . had paid so little attention to the Holocaust in the early 1940s. . . . He wanted to know why we had failed to respond more strongly to the gravity of events. He asked me why we had written and talked so little about the Holocaust at the time it was taking place."(21) At the time it was taking place, of course, and even for a time after the war, Howe and his closest colleagues had no taste for and little interest in Judaism as a religion. They did not then acknowledge themselves as part of an American Jewish community, since socialist dogma stipulated (erroneously, of course) that class loyalties and class conflicts were decisive and superseded differences between Gentile and Jew. Nevertheless, starting in about 1947, Howe's attempt to grapple with the Holocaust led him to reconsider what it meant to be Jewish, even though he later admitted that if American socialism had not "reached an impasse in the postwar years," he might have continued to think of himself as "a cosmopolitan activist of Jewish origin, rather than a Jewish intellectual with cosmopolitan tastes."(22)

A crucial turning point for him was Harold Rosenberg's rebuttal of Jean- Paul Sartre's Reflexions sur la question juive, which had appeared serially in Partisan Review and Commentary in 1946 and 1947. Sartre had argued that the Jews have no history, that "the sole tie that binds them is the hostility and disdain of the societies which surround them."(23) This thesis, which can be traced back to Spinoza, alleges that anti-Semitism itself creates Jewish consciousness, Jewish peoplehood, and Jewish persistence. The thesis, as writers ranging from Hannah Arendt to Robert Alter, have pointed out, fails to explain why other people in the ancient Near East who suffered misfortunes similar to those of the Jews interpreted those misfortunes as proof that their national god had failed them and chose to surrender their religious loyalties in order to assimilate into the surrounding cultures. The Jews, also conquered, banished, and persecuted, chose to cling to their religion and national identity in exile. The real question, therefore, should have been not how anti-Semitism created Jewish consciousness but, on the contrary, what inner compulsion led the Jews, unlike other unfortunate nations, to remain loyal to their god - to God - despite persecution. Rosenberg answered the question by arguing that two thousand years of statelessness and powerlessness did not annul a people's history or its right to survive. Howe was impressed by the way in which Rosenberg demonstrated that the Jews "had lived in the narrow spaces of an autonomous history and a self-affirmed tradition"(24) and had survived because of an inner necessity derived from collective memory.

Although Howe saw that Rosenberg, like Sartre, failed to weigh the significance of the emerging state of Israel - a powerful declaration of the Jewish people's will to live - he felt that Rosenberg, in his "insistence upon the integrity of the inner history of the Jews, despite the absence of governments, armies, and diplomacies," spoke for him and other "partial Jews," who believed that, without being a race or a nation or a religious community, Jews could nevertheless remain together as a people (in Rosenberg's words) "in a net of memory and expectation." But, in the very moment of identification with Rosenberg's affirmation of a Jewish identity rooted in history rather than religion, Howe introduced a devil's advocate into the midst of his most cherished belief. He conjectured that, had Sartre troubled to reply to Rosenberg, "he could have raised the question of whether the present historical condition of the Jews would long permit them to claim or keep ties with their 'ultimate beginnings.'" There might be a net of memory and expectation, but "what if the net grows increasingly full of holes?"(25)

Although Howe tended to associate secular Jewishness, the creed he now adopted, with Polish Jewry between the two world wars, and with the immigrant quarters in America, its history may be traced back to a much earlier time. Writing about nineteenth century European Jewry, Arendt, in her study of anti-Semitism, had described a new Jewish type defined not by nationality or religion but by certain psychological attributes and reactions, the sum total of which was supposed to constitute "Jewishness." She even foresaw the political direction that this perversion of Judaism would take: ". . . without faith in chosenness, which charged one specific people with the redemption of the world, Messianic hope evaporated into the dim cloud of general philanthropy and universalism which became so characteristic of specifically Jewish political enthusiasm."(26) (Arendt thus preceded Howe in pointing out that universalism is the specifically Jewish form of parochialism.)

Howe was too intelligent and honest a man to scant the problems bound to afflict Jews who did not believe in Judaism as a religion. Like Arendt, he saw the danger inherent in separating the concept of chosenness from the messianic hope. In World of Our Fathers he wrote that "A good portion of what was best in Jewish life, as also what was worst, derived from this secularized messianism as it passed on from generation to generation. The intense moral seriousness . . . was shadowed by a streak of madness, the purity of messianic yearning by an apocalyptic frenzy."(27) Even when he was lured into participating in one of Michael Lerner's grotesque jamborees designed to demonstrate that Torah follows an arrow-straight course from Sinai to the left wing of the Democratic Party, Howe would stand back and declare that there is no sanction in Jewish religion for liberal politics. "To claim there is a connection," he said in 1989, "can lead to parochial sentimentalism or ethnic vanity."(28) Neither did he conceal from himself the amorphous quality of this secular faith. "The very term 'Jewishness,'" he acknowledged, "suggests, of course, a certain vagueness, pointing to the diffusion of a cultural heritage. When one speaks of Judaism or the Jewish religion, it is to invoke a coherent tradition of belief and custom; when one speaks of 'Jewishness,' it is to invoke a spectrum of styles and symbols, a range of cultural memories, no longer as ordered or weighty as once they were yet still able to affect experience."(29)

In the late forties, Howe's feelings of "Jewishness" were strong but shapeless; in order to lend them coherence, in order to provide for secular Jews a substitute for Torah, he hit upon the idea of establishing what we might call an objective body of sacred texts for the creed of secular Jewishness. These sacred texts would be the stories, poems, and essays of that most secular body of Jewish writing, Yiddish literature. Editing and translating this body of literature would become a major of activity of Howe for the remainder of his life. "This wasn't, of course, a very forthright way of confronting my own troubled sense of Jewishness, but that was the way I took. Sometimes you have to make roundabout journeys without quite knowing where they will lead to."(30) One might add, too, that in order to make a return journey you must first leave.

For someone grappling with the implications of the Holocaust, Yiddish was a natural (although not inevitable) place to turn. It was the language of the majority of the victims of Nazism. As a character in Cynthia Ozick's story "Envy; or, Yiddish in America" (1969) laments: "A little while ago there were twelve million people . . . who lived inside this tongue, and now what is left? A language that never had a territory except Jewish mouths, and half the Jewish mouths on earth already stopped up with German worms."(31) But Yiddish was also the language of many of Stalin's victims, most particularly the Soviet Union's Jewish writers. If misgivings over his failure to attend to the fate of European Jewry led Howe to Yiddish literature, so too did his guilty awareness that an entire "generation of gifted Yiddish novelists and poets came to its end in the prison cells or labor camps"(32) of the state whose "experiment" in transforming human nature had been the primary magnet drawing Howe's attention away from the little problems of the Jews in the thirties and forties.

Yiddish literature had begun, in the mid-nineteenth century, as an intensely secular enterprise, a result of the disintegration of the traditional world of East European Judaism. Its only religious aspect was what Howe liked to call the "religious intensity"(33) with which its practitioners turned to the idea of secular expression. Isaac Bashevis Singer recalls how, when he was a young man in Warsaw in the twenties, religious Jews "considered all the secular writers to be heretics, all unbelievers - they really were too, most of them. To become a literat was to them almost as bad as becoming a meshumed, one who forsakes the faith. My father used to say that secular writers like Peretz were leading the Jews to heresy. He said everything they wrote was against God. Even though Peretz wrote in a religious vein, my father called his writing 'sweetened poison,' but poison nevertheless. And from his point of view, he was right."(34) But in the aftermath of the Holocaust this largely secular literature could easily take on a religious aspect. Traditionally, in the bilingual Jewish cultural household, Hebrew had been the sacred tongue, Yiddish the mameloshen or vernacular; but now Yiddish became for many the "dead" language of martyrdom while Hebrew was being used for, among other things, purchasing unkosher meat in Tel-Aviv. As Jacob Glatstein, whose poetry Howe championed above that of all other post-Holocaust Yiddish poets, wrote: "Poet, take the faintest Yiddish speech,/fill it with faith, make it holy again."(35)

In retrospect, we might view Zionism and Yiddishism as competitors for the loyalty of those who have, in this century, believed that Jewish life could be perpetuated in secular form; the Zionists insisted that this miracle could take place only in the Land of Israel, the Yiddishists believed it could happen in the Diaspora. For Howe, Zionism was not a serious option because he had little taste for nationalism and he "wasn't one of those who danced in the streets when Ben Gurion made his famous pronouncement that the Jews, like other peoples, now had a state of their own." What he himself called his ingrained "biases" - cosmopolitan socialism - kept him from such vulgar joy as might accrue from images of "a sunny paradise with stem pioneers on kibbutzim, rows of young trees, and the best hospitals in the world."(36) It is also dismaying to recall that Howe had nothing whatever to say about the new state of Israel in 1948. Indeed, one may scan the pages of Partisan Review, edited by William Phillips and Philip Rahv (formerly known as William Litvinsky and Ivan Greenbaum) for 1947-49 without finding a single discussion of the most momentous event in modern Jewish history.

In what sense, then, was Yiddish literature a seminal source for the creed of secular Jewishness? Howe first undertook to tell its "brief and tragic history" in his lengthy introduction to A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, a crucial document in his intellectual history because it is the first public expression of his "reconquest" of Jewishness. It is at once a celebration and a mourning. The survival of Yiddish over the centuries, he says, "reflects the miracle of Jewish survival itself." Yet Yiddish literature itself began at an ending, and this long before the Holocaust. Yiddish literature deals with the shtetl when Jewish life there still has a culture and an inner world of its own but is under fierce attack from modernizing and external influences. "Yiddish reaches its climax of expressive power," he asserts, "as the world it portrays begins to come apart."(37) So intrigued was Howe by this phenomenon that he would later come close to making it a touchstone of value in literature. In his introduction to Jewish-American Stories he says that in both Southern regional writing and American-Jewish writing, "a subculture finds its voice and its passion at exactly the moment it approaches disintegration."(38) Yiddish literature flourished, he argued, in the historical interim between the dominance of religion and the ascendance of nationality; hence Yiddish literature "became a central means of collective expression for the East European Jews, fulfilling some of the functions of both religion and the idea of nationality."(39) Unwittingly, perhaps, Howe here suggests the eventual triumph of Zionism - for which he had very little affection in 1953 - over Yiddishism; or at least he intimates that once Yiddish had served the purpose of keeping Hebrew alive in a kind of warm storage over the centuries it would retreat and leave the two real adversaries - religion and nationalism - to contend against one another.

At the same time (as noted in the beginning of this essay) Howe praised Yiddish literature and the culture it reflected most warmly for the very characteristics that made the opposing camp of secular Jews, the Zionists, reject it. "The virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured - these, finally, are the great themes of Yiddish literature."(40) Howe does not take up the question of whether pride in powerlessness is justified when there was no alternative to it. To a Zionist writer like Hillel Halkin, of course, it seems the obvious question: "We Jews have been unique among the peoples of the earth," says Halkin, "for having lifted our hands against no one; yet is it not belaboring the obvious to point out that being so downtrodden ourselves, there was no one to lift them against? . . . It makes as much sense to take pride in such a record, or to attribute it to our superior moral instincts, as it does for a man starving for lack of money to buy food to boast of his self-control in keeping thin."(41) Writing at a time when the young state of Israel had already for five years been under what would prove a permanent state of siege by the Arab nations, Howe defiantly set the sacred texts of Yiddish literature in opposition to the imperatives of Zionism: "the prevalence of this [antiheroic] theme may also help explain why Zionists have been tempted to look with impatience upon Yiddish literature. In the nature of their effort, the Zionists desired to retrieve - or improvise - an image of Jewish heroism; and in doing so they could not help finding large portions of Yiddish literature an impediment. The fact that Yiddish literature had to assume the burden of sustaining a national sense of identity did not therefore make it amenable to the needs of a national ideology."(42)

Among the founding fathers of Yiddish literature, the figure most immediate to Howe's own concerns and sensibility was I. L. Peretz, the Polish writer who believed in and strove for Jewish national revival - a mainly cultural revival in Poland, not a political one in Palestine. Peretz, like Howe after him, was strongly opposed to religious orthodoxy: "Pious Jews are a suppressing majority. To the pious Jew everything is holy. The pettiest law recorded in Hebrew lore, the most insignificant and foolish custom - the entire Diasporal rope that winds from generation to generation around his neck and throttles and almost chokes him out of his breath - he regards as holy!" And yet Peretz was reluctant to undermine the foundations of traditional faith. "Yet one must confess - tragic as it may be and strange as it may sound - that this shortening of breath, this opiating of the Jewish life-pulse, has greatly helped the Jews to withstand and to endure the coal-black and blood-red times of the Inquisition, the massacres, and the like periods of woe that no other nation could survive. . . ."(43)

Howe was like Peretz in searching for a secular version of Jewishness which would not only stiffen the Jews' collective wish to survive, despite the price to be paid for survival, but also the individual's will to live and to adhere to an ethical code. He was attracted to George Eliot, the English novelist, for example, partly because, though she was deemed the first great godless writer of English fiction, "her 'godlessness' . . . kept prompting her to search for equivalents to belief that would give moral weight to human existence."(44) One should not confuse Howe's frequent disparagement of organized religious life or the virtual absence of synagogues, yeshivas, and rabbis from World of Our Fathers with a contempt for religion itself. His complaint that "the temples grew in size and there was much busywork and eloquence, but God seldom figured as a dominant presence"(45) is not the snarl of an atheist. He could chide socialists for their obtuse disregard for the unexpected difficulties that the weakening of religious belief, a development to which socialists had greatly contributed, brought to the lives of skeptics. "No matter how alien we remain to the religious outlook, we must ask ourselves whether the malaise of this time isn't partly a consequence of that despairing emptiness which followed the breakup in the nineteenth century of traditional religious systems; whether the nihilism every sensitive person feels encompassing his life like a spiritual smog isn't itself a kind of inverted religious aspiration . . . and whether the sense of disorientation that afflicts us isn't due to the difficulties of keeping alive a high civilization without a sustaining belief. . . ."(46)

Peretz was not a praying Jew; he rarely went to a synagogue; he never put on prayer-shawl and tefillin at home. Maurice Samuel wrote of him that "Peretz paid no attention to the dietary laws, and he never made the benediction before eating a piece of fruit or drinking a glass of water - or of brandy. But what the benediction before food and the grace after it meant to a Chassid, he alone makes the non-Chassid understand. . . . If we who resemble him in these matters want to understand with what intimate joy they were invested for the Chassidim, we shall do best to go to Peretz."(47) Convinced that large portions of the Jewish community in Poland were turning away from religion to a secular European perspective, Peretz sought (like George Eliot) to establish, through literature, worldly equivalents for values that the religious tradition, in his view, no longer could sustain.

Howe singled out, as a revealing instance of both the promise and the limits of Peretz's secular Jewishness, the story called "If Not Higher." In it an anti-Hasidic Litvak, skeptical of claims that the great Hasidic rabbi of Nemirov disappears during the penitential season before Rosh Hashanah to intercede in heaven for the Jewish people, hides himself under the rebbe's bed to observe his rival. He discovers that at the time when the rebbe's followers suppose him to be ascending to heaven to conciliate the invisible powers he is in fact, in the guise of a peasant, felling a tree to supply a sick woman with firewood. While he lights the fire for her, he recites the penitential prayers. Witnessing this, the Litvak is "converted" to Hasidism. The rebbe really has been ascending to heaven, "if not higher." That is, he impresses the doubting Litvak as a saint after all, but a secular saint, whose religion is justified because it inspires him to selfless ethical behavior. Howe interprets the story as "a parable of [Peretz's] own literary situation," making the Litvak a persona of Peretz himself, who can say nearly everything in favor of Hasidism - it is conducive to joy, to morality, to Jewish survival - everything except that it is true. "From Hasidism," Howe concludes, "Peretz tried to extract its life-strength, without finally crediting its source. The attempt was impossible. . . ." Yet Peretz was able to transform Hasidic material into "fascinating parables of a dilemma that was not his alone."(48) It was the dilemma of Howe himself and, so he believed, of growing numbers of Jews no longer willing to credit or be controlled by religious tradition. But if Peretz's attempt to substitute literature for religion was "impossible," how much more so Howe's attempt, given an audience of Jews without Jewish memories (and, of course, without Yiddish)? At the very outset of his project to establish Yiddish literature as the spiritual source of secular Jewishness, Howe sounded a note of skepticism.

Peretz's ambivalent relation to Hasidic materials and Hasidic faith became for Howe the paradigmatic emblem of late nineteenth-century writers (gentile as well as Jewish) convinced of the utility of a faith they no longer believed in. "He had abandoned strict faith, yet it must be remembered - this is perhaps the single overriding fact in the experience of Yiddish writers at the end of the nineteenth century - that faith abandoned could still be a far more imperious presence than new creeds adopted. Like such Western writers as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, he found himself enabled to draw upon traditional faiths and feelings precisely through the act of denying them intellectually; indeed, the greatest influence on the work of such writers is the rich entanglement of images, symbols, language, and ceremonies associated with a discarded belief."(49) Yiddish literature flourished in an age of equipoise that could never come again. Had haskalah and Zionism and socialism not encouraged secularism among Eastern European Jews, Yiddish literature could not have developed or survived. But if secularism had succeeded in obliterating traditional faith and rabbinical authority, Yiddish literature would have withered and died, or - a subject I shall turn to shortly - "evolved" prematurely into something like American Jewish writing in the Yiddish language. Instead, there was a "wonderful interregnum" in which "the opposing impulses of faith and skepticism stand poised, locked in opposition yet sharing a community of culture. This interregnum, which began about the middle of the nineteenth century and has not yet come to an end, found its setting in czarist Russia, Poland between wars, and in various points of Western exile and immigration, notably the United States."(50) The sacred texts of secular Jewishness to which Howe directed American Jewry in his volumes of translated stories, poems, and essays were redolent not of a self-confident golden age but of a precariously balanced one, with the forces of permanence and progression represented in creative tension: "You could denounce religion as superstition and worse, but the Yom Kippur service shook the heart, and the voices of the Talmud lured the mind. You could decry the secular writers as apostates and worse, but no one with a scrap of Yiddish could resist Mendele's acrid satires or Sholom Aleichem's sadly ironic stories."(51)

But if the great Yiddish writers like Peretz already stood at one considerable remove from the faith which they celebrated without crediting, and Yiddish literature was itself a major break within, even from, the Jewish tradition, could modern Jews derive strength and identity from that faith by reading the Yiddish writers?(52) That Howe himself did we cannot doubt, despite his protestations that he would not let his work in Yiddish literature "become an unearned substitute for a defined Jewishness - especially at a moment when undefined Jewishness was too readily becoming a substitute for traditional Judaism." He was strongly attracted to the idea of a Jewishness split away from yet dependent upon traditional Judaism, and the poems and stories helped him to renew his bond with his father as he embodied immigrant Jewishness. He claimed to have no thought of making his work in Yiddish a basis for some program that younger Jews might follow, especially those younger Jews "pinched into the narrowing sector of Jewish secularism."(53) Yet, given the permanently problematic condition of American Jewish life, the increasing unlikelihood either of a full return to religious faith or of a total abandonment of Jewish identification, who can doubt that Howe for a long time thought of his numerous volumes of Yiddish translations as offering a third way of being Jewish, neither religious nor nationalistic?

And why not? By now, as Jacob Neusner and others have pointed out, we have had two generations of American Jews educated in a Jewishness as far removed from their own immediate experience as Yiddish culture is. The Jewishness based on the European Jewish experience of the Holocaust and the Jewishness based on the Israeli Jewish experience of a constant burden of struggle against relentless enemies have been tried, and found wanting - if the epidemic proportion of intermarriage between Jews and unconverted gentiles and the suicidally low birthrate of Jews may be taken as valid indications of a people's loss of the will to live.(54) We have also had, in the past quarter-century, the proliferation of Jewish Studies programs at the universities. Since, as Alvin Rosenfeld has pointed out,(55) these programs have developed on campuses at a time when a large portion of American Jewry is in the process of disappearing, the question of their relation to the constituency that often supports them financially and politically is a pressing and delicate one. Although scholars of Jewish Studies profess purely academic rather than parochial aims, everybody knows that funding of Jewish Studies programs often comes from people who expect these programs somehow to solve the national and cultural problems of the Jewish students who form a large segment of their clientele. But the problems have proliferated even faster than the programs. (Perhaps it should come as no surprise that studying about Jews and Jewish history and culture does not produce Jews: we don't hire chemists when we require cooks, or mineralogists where masons and carpenters are needed.) In such circumstances, Howe might have been forgiven for thinking, even if he never quite said, that Yiddish literature was as good a basis for secular Jewishness as any other.

Once upon a time, of course, American Jews did not require books to nourish the roots of secular Jewishness and connect them with their past. They had brought these from the old country, or they had parents who had brought them. Howe's most ambitious Jewish book, World of Our Fathers, celebrated the code of menshlichkeit in the immigrant Jewish milieu as a rich and complicated ethic, "a persuasion that human existence is a deeply serious matter for which all of us are finally accountable." He acknowledged that "We cannot be our fathers, we cannot live like our mothers, but we may look to their experience for images of rectitude and purifies of devotion."(56) Nevertheless, he observed, very little of what had held the immigrant Jews together - customs, traditions, language - had been able to survive much beyond a century; American society, by the very lure of its receptiveness, induced the Jews to surrender their collective self.

If, in Howe's mind, Yiddish literature flourished, paradoxically, by depicting a traditional, religious society on the verge of disintegration, then American-Jewish literature found its voice in depicting the immigrant milieu, which is to say the society based upon secular Jewishness, on the verge of its disintegration. In his introduction to Jewish-American Stories, Howe argued that the distinctive note of second-generation Jewish writers in this country was "the continued power of origins, the ineradicable stamp of New York or Chicago slums, even upon grandsons and granddaughters who may never have lived in or seen them. But is that not an essential aspect of the Jewish experience? - the way the past grips and forms us and will not allow us to escape even when we desperately want to."(57)

But if Yiddish writers were at one large remove from Jewish tradition, then American Jewish writers who began with the secularized culture of Yiddish could have only the most feeble relationship with Jewish tradition in its fullness. Nevertheless, just as the Hasidic faith that Peretz cast aside had a more powerful hold over him than the secular faiths he adopted, so did the "broken and crippled" tradition of Yiddish and secular Jewishness still display enormous power over writers apparently ready, even eager to shake it off. This did not mean that every Jewish writer who made gestures in this direction was authentic. Howe saw the need, even when dealing with what might be called an imitation of an imitation, to enforce distinctions and uphold standards. Philip Roth, for example, wrote out of "a thin personal culture," which meant either that he came "at the end of a tradition which can no longer nourish his imagination or that he has . . . chosen to tear himself away from that tradition."(58) The spiritually anemic middle-class American Jews who were responsible for the travesty of Sholem Aleichem called Fiddler on the Roof were compounding their guilt for losing touch with their past by indulging in unearned nostalgia. Their popularization of Sholem Aleichem showed that Yiddish culture in this country was declining not from neglect, nor hostility, nor even ignorance, but from love and (a highly significant choice of word) "tampering."(59) Of all the American Jewish writers of the last few decades, Saul Bellow was for Howe not only the most gifted but the most serious, and the most Jewish in his seriousness. He wrote in a style that drew heavily from the Yiddish in intonation and rhythm, and showed a more confident and authoritative relation to Yiddish than most other American Jewish writers. "In him alone, or almost alone, the tradition of immigrant Jewishness, minus the Schmaltz and schmutz the decades have stuccoed onto it, survives with a stern dignity."(60) If, by the 1980s, there were no young writers in Yiddish, there were very few writing in English who were capable of much more than revisiting the old neighborhoods and the old Bolshevist politics.(61) In the very volume where he sought to make a case for the American-Jewish writers as a kind of regional sub-division of American literature, Howe declared that "My own view is that American Jewish fiction has probably moved past its high point. Insofar as this body of writing draws heavily from the immigrant experience, it must suffer a depletion of resources, a thinning-out of materials and memories. . . ."(62)

That is to say, the younger practitioners of American-Jewish literature could not sustain themselves on the shards of secular Jewishness. And what of Irving Howe himself? One of the sternest, most heroic aspects of his character was his insistence that Jewish authenticity "means not to claim more than one has a right to." He never claimed to be more than "a partial Jew." He knew that, with his usual talent for attaching himself to lost causes, he had moved close to the Yiddish milieu just when it was nearing its end and that his own relationship with secular Jewishness was a reenactment of the relationship that had existed between the secular Jewishness of the Yiddish writers and traditional Judaism. Secular Jewishness had served him well (though not better than he served it), and "helped me get through my time," but whatever his initial hopes for the work in editing English traditions of Yiddish literature might have been, he eventually "stopped pretending that this tradition could provide answers to the questions young people asked."(63) In July 1977, shortly after the death of his long-time collaborator on the Yiddish volumes, Eliezer Greenberg, Howe wrote to me that Greenberg's death had severed his link with the world of Yiddish culture, and that he didn't much care for whatever new Jewish world was coming into view.(64)

Soon he even admitted that the competing party in secular Jewishness had vanquished his own. "When the writer Hillel Halkin sent from Israel a powerful book arguing that the Jews in the West now had only two long- range choices if they wished to remain Jews - religion and Israel, faith and nationhood - I searched for arguments with which to answer him. But finally I gave it up, since it seemed clear that the perspective from which I lived as 'a partial Jew' had reached a historical dead end and there, at ease or not, I would have to remain."(65)

This does not mean that the party to which he appears to have conceded victory is itself out of danger - by no means. Halkin himself, in the very book that convinced Howe of the obsolescence of his enterprise, had expressed the fear (already widespread among American Zionist thinkers like Maurice Samuel and Ludwig Lewisohn from the thirties onward) that the state of the Jews might one day be ruled, intellectually and politically, by Hebrew-speaking Gentiles, who would not merely outgrow but throw away their religious past: "I do not believe," Halkin wrote, "that a polity of Israelis who are not culturally Jews, whose roots in this land go no deeper than thirty years and no wider than the boundaries of an arid nation-state, has a future in the Middle East for very long. In one way or another . . . it will be blown away like chaff as though it never were, leaving neither Jews nor Israelis behind it."(66) In a recent essay in Commentary, he observed that the hatred for Judaism of a very large segment of Israeli intellectuals, including many who set the tone for the present government, has now become a hatred of Zionism itself.(67) Another shrewd Israeli writer, Daniel Elazar, recently observed that "the non- or anti-Zionists within the Israeli peace camp . . . see in the goals and values of Zionism, as in those of Judaism much more generally, their bete noire." Secular Jewishness in its Zionist incarnation, he argues, had once upon a time offered its adherents tasks and challenges equivalent to those of religious Judaism and, for a time, even more compelling. "But," Elazar continued, "as those tasks have been completed and challenges overcome, it has gone the way of every other secular movement in Jewish life that has made secularism its Jewish end." That is to say, it no longer suffices to motivate people to postpone the pursuit of happiness in favor of larger and distinctively Jewish aims. The debate over the so-called "peace process," according to Elazar, has sharpened and exacerbated the split "between those [Israeli] Jews who seek normalcy and those who feel in some way obligated or bound by their Jewishness. . . . Normalcy may be good for Jews but, left alone to unfold, will end the Jewish state as such."(68)

None of this should be taken to mean that Irving Howe despaired prematurely over the fate of his version of secular Jewishness, only - only! - that the overall situation of the Jews may be even more desperate than he imagined. The shopworn state of Zionism should not excuse those who now invoke Irving Howe as a prophet of secular Jewishness(69) in the Diaspora from facing up to the fact that its most brilliant expositor, the man who endowed it with a special twilight beauty, ceased to believe in it long before he died.


1. The Selected Poems of Jacob Glatstein, trans. Ruth Whitman (New York: October House, 1972), p. 109.

2. Letter to the author, 30 April 1993. Regrettably, I am unable to quote directly from Howe's letters in my possession because his literary executor refuses permission to do so.

3. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg (New York: Viking, 1953), p. 38.

4. A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Biography (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 264.

5. "A Dialogue of the Mind with Itself: Chaim Grade's Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner," JUDAISM 84 (Fall 1972): 392-404.

6. Letter to the author, undated.

7. Letter to the author, 2 June 1983. See A Margin of Hope, p. 265.

8. "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," in Essays in Criticism: First Series.

9. World of Our Fathers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), pp. 392, 291.

10. "The Treason of the Critics," New Republic, 12 June 1989, 31.

11. "The Value of the Canon," New Republic, 18 February 1991, 42.

12. "The Treason of the Critics," 31.

13. Letter to the author, 18 July 1977.

14. A Margin of Hope, p. 314.

15. Letter to Robert B. Heilman, 21 March 1991.

16. The Critical Point (New York: Horizon Press, 1973), p. 232.

17. A Margin of Hope, p. 269.

18. See, on this group, The 'Other' New York Jewish Intellectuals, ed. Carole S. Kessner (New York: New York University Press), 1994.

19. A Margin of Hope, p. 251.

20. Midge Decter, "Socialism and Its Irresponsibilities: The Case of Irving Howe," Commentary 74 (December 1982): 27.

21. William Phillips, "A Skeptic and a Believer," Forward, 14 May 1993.

22. A Margin of Hope, pp. 275-76.

23. Quoted by Howe in A Margin of Hope, p. 254.

24. A Margin of Hope, p. 255.

25. A Margin of Hope, p. 256-57.

26. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 3 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1951), III, p. 74.

27. World of Our Fathers, p. 646.

28. Edward Rothstein, "Broken Vessel," New Republic, 6 March 1989, 19.

29. Introduction to Jewish-American Stories (New York: New American Library, 1977), pp. 9-10.

30. A Margin of Hope, p. 260.

31. Cynthia Ozick, "Envy; or, Yiddish in America," Commentary 48 (November 1969): 44.

32. Ashes Out of Hope: Fiction by Soviet- Yiddish Writers, ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg (New York: Schocken, 1977), p. 1.

33. Voices from the Yiddish: Essays, Memoirs, Diaries, ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), p. 2.

34. Joel Blocker and Richard Elman, "An Interview with Isaac Bashevis Singer," Commentary, 36 (November 1963), 368.

35. "In a Ghetto," Selected Poems of Glatstein, p. 110.

36. A Margin of Hope, p. 276-77.

37. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, pp. 21, 28.

38. Jewish-American Stories, p. 3.

39. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, p. 30.

40. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, p. 38.

41. Hillel Halkin, Letters to An American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1977), p. 94.

42. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, p. 39.

43. Quoted in Charles Madison, Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), pp. 107-08.

44. Selected Writings: 1950-1990 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), p. 350.

45. A Margin of Hope, p. 278.

46. The Critical Point, pp. 16, 27.

47. Maurice Samuel, Prince of the Ghetto (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1948), pp. 178-79.

48. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, p. 58.

49. Selected Stories: I. L. Peretz ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg (New York: Schocken, 1974), p. 10.

50. A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 10.

51. Voices from the Yiddish, p. 5.

52. To some extent, Christians had already experimented with the idea of literature as a substitute for religion. As early as 1841, John Henry Newman wrote derisively that "a literary religion is . . . little to be depended upon; it looks well in fair weather, but its doctrines are opinions, and, when called to suffer for them, it slips them between its folios, or burns them at its hearth." Nevertheless, Matthew Arnold, almost forty years later in "The Study of Poetry," insisted that "The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry."

53. A Margin of Hope, pp. 267-69.

54. See Jacob Neusner, "Jewish Secularism in Retreat," Jewish Spectator (Winter 1994-95), 25-29.

55. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, "The Aims of Jewish Studies," in Moshe Davis, ed., Teaching Jewish Civilization: A Global Approach to Higher Education (New York: New York University Press, 1995), 44.

56. World of Our Fathers, p. 645.

57. Jewish-American Stories, p. 6.

58. The Critical Point, p. 147.

59. "Tevye on Broadway," Commentary 38 (November 1964), 75.

60. The Critical Point, p. 135.

61. See, on this subject, Cynthia Ozick: "Nothing is less original, by now, than, say, Parisian or New York novelists 'of Jewish extraction' who write as if they had never heard of a Jewish idea, especially if, as is likely, they never have. . . . It becomes increasingly tedious to read about these hopelessly limited and parochial characters in so-called Jewish fiction whose Jewish connections appear solely in the form of neighborhood origin or played-out imitative sentence structure or superannuated exhausted Bolshevik leaning." - Metaphor and Memory (New York: Knopf, 1989), p. 234.

62. Jewish-American Stories, p. 16.

63. A Margin of Hope, pp. 280-82.

64. Letter to the author, 18 July 1977.

65. A Margin of Hope, p. 281.

66. Letters to An American Jewish Friend, 199-200.

67. "Israel Against Itself," Commentary 98 (November 1994). He might have cited as evidence the recent study days at Tel Aviv and Haifa universities in which professors have laid out the conditions for Israel's "survival." These include nullifying the Law of Return, replacing the Israeli flag with another that does not have a Magen David, substituting for the hatikvah a national anthem that also expresses the aspirations of the Arabs, canceling the definition of Israel as the "state of the Jewish nation" and defining it instead as a state of Israeli citizens, and so forth.

68. "The Peace Process & the Jewishness of the Jewish State," Congress Monthly 61 (November/December 1994), 3-4. The first sentence quoted from Elazar's original essay did not appear in the version printed in Congress Monthly, but was quoted in Halkin's Commentary essay.

69. See, for example, the clownish novelist Mordecai Richler in his recent memoir This Year in Jerusalem (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1994). He "refutes" the Zionist thesis of Halkin by listing prominent Jews who, by virtue of living in the Diaspora, are supposed to demonstrate that this is where the Jewish future lies. Among his exemplars of Diasporism and secular Jewishness is Irving Howe.

EDWARD ALEXANDER is Professor of English at the University of Washington. His latest book is The Jewish Wars: Reflections By One of the Belligerents (Southern Illinois University Press). He is writing a book about Irving Howe. This essay is adapted from a lecture originally delivered at the 18th Annual Rabbi Louis Feinberg Memorial Lecture in the University of Cincinnati Judaic Studies Program, April 1995, which was first published in the Program's Feinberg Publication Series.
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Author:Alexander, Edward
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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