For nearly the whole of its history, “Israel” defined itself as a religious community, the community of Judaism. To be an Israelite meant to know God through the Torah and to accept the dominion of God’s laws set forth therein. No one had problems defining who is a Jew or what it means to be a Jew. But in the age of the Enlightenment and beyond, Jews experimented with the possibility of giving up Judaism but remaining “Jewish” in an ethnic and cultural sense. A wide range of choices presented themselves, but the main ones in Europe and the United States have involved a Jewish nationalit—the Jews are a people, one people, and should form a state, with Hebrew as its secular language—in the form of Zionism; and a Jewish political culture, whereby the Jews form a component of international socialism, conducting their front of the cosmopolitan class struggle in the Yiddish language. People whom John Updike calls “post-Jews” worked out a neutral, non-sectarian, secular bourgeois culture, involving devotion to literature, music, and left-wing politics (radical chic in its extreme form), principally realized by post-Jews among other post-Jews.
Zionism achieved all of its goals, making it the most successful political movement in modern times. In Europe, Jewish socialism joined to Yiddishism perished in the Soviet Union’s totalitarian culture, which wrote its own epitaph by murdering the great Yiddish poets in a single night in Stalin’s last great atrocity. In the other countries of Eastern Europe, the Jewish socialists died along with everyone else in the holocaust. But what became of Jewish secularism in the United States?
The story of socialism as the post-Jewish medium is embodied in the life of one man, Irving Howe, a Trotskyite, a literary critic of considerable standing, and a major voice in the description of the culture and literature of the Yiddish language. His story, and the story of the ex-Jewish Jews who practiced socialism, in all of its convolutions—Howe was a powerful opponent of American involvement in World War II so long as the Soviets had their pact with the Germans — captures an entire generation in its exodus from Judaism.
In a gem of a book, Edward Alexander tells the story. His
Irving Howe exemplifies the New York Jewish intellectuals of the second generation beyond immigration, but because of his personal gifts, he not only exemplifies his age but also defines it for us and sets the standard by which others of his time are to be assessed. And in this definitive account of a consequential Jew of a certain time, Alexander has shown how the life of a significant intellectual should be written. He identifies what counts, and describes and analyzes that. But Alexander also says what he thinks about the man in his context—and in ours. He underscores the lessons that Howe has left for us, both positive and negative.
Alexander’s subtitle bears his message: socialist, critic, Jew. The son of immigrants, Irving Horenstein redefined himself several times. Like many other Jews who became socialists (also communists and New Deal Democrats), he de-judaized himself by changing his name. Like many of his exceptional intelligence, Howe was first a socialist and then a critic. But in the end, he turned out to be a Jew of a certain kind. As a socialist, he took an intensely hostile position on the “special pleading” of the Jews, following the Communist Party line requiring the party faithful to endorse Stalin’s alliance with Hitler against “capitalism.” Howe’s far-left isolationism led him to dismiss or to ignore the German war against the Jews, long after the world knew better. He trivialized and ignored the earlier reports of the holocaust, then well under way, recalling the impatience of other ex-Jews with “your petty Jewish suffering.” Had his life ended with the war, Horenstein/Howe would have deserved oblivion.
But two further chapters were yet to be written. In the second, he made himself a premier literary critic of his day. Here he attained the heights of moral authority. In Alexander’s words,
Despite his Marxist beginnings, he was contemptuous of schemes for reducing literature and ideas to their supposed determinants in gender, class, and race. Instead, he relentlessly called us back to what Cynthia Ozick has called the great Judaic concerns of Dickens and Tolstoy and George Eliot: the nature and consequences of conduct, the forces and attitudes that give life meaning and direction, the struggle to make something human of our lives even in the midst of social injustices and frustrating circumstances, and the inevitability of old age, sickness, and death.
The most compelling chapter in Howe’s life, and Alexander’s most successful expositions, concern Howe as literary critic. (Calling distinctively and emblematically Jewish the perfectly universal human concerns Ozick lists, however, may have puzzled Dickens, Tolstoy, and Eliot.)
But Howe defined for himself a Jewish identity as well. It had two components: devotion to the Yiddish culture of the immigrant generation, and left-wing readings of Israeli policy. Howe’s World of Our Fathers portrayed the power and humanity of Yiddish culture, its literature and its mores, and won a vast audience for the immigrant Jewishness that his generation was to bury. That single work certainly wins a place for Howe in the record of the American Jewish culture of the day: It was by far the most eloquent and influential memorial to the thousand- year culture that was to wash up and be smashed on American shores.
His other Jewish engagement turned Howe into a spokesman for the far-left critique of the state of Israel, especially in its struggle to survive in an ocean of Arab hostility. Howe climbed the high moral ground in his rejection of Zionism and the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Alexander notes, “His creed of secular Jewishness was deeply influenced by both his literary sensibility and his socialism.” The apologist for Trotsky in the 1930’s and 1940’s ended up an apologist for Arafat in the I980’s. The Yiddishist/non-Zionist spoke for a declining generation. The future would honor the Yiddishism, but the left, at least, would take as its inheritance the denial of Zionism and of its affirmation, through the state of Israel, of the Jews’ enduring life as a people. Alexander’s life of Howe writes the epitaph of the final generation of the Jewish left, the socialists and communists who accomplished their goals only to find themselves repudiated by Jews (Alexander among them) who stood for other choices.
Howe stands for the ultimate vacuity of secular Jewishness, which overtakes Jews who abandon Judaism but wish to continue within the Jewish fold. Time has made its judgment on the two centuries of experimentation with that possibility: The secular option endures for a generation. The grandchildren of secular Jews rarely continue within the Jewish community, though for entirely subjective and personal reasons, they may continue to regard themselves as “Jewish”—a term lacking all meaning when deprived of its soul in God.
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