Exploration of the relationship between Jews and America is far from complete, at least among Jewish conservatives, who do not rely on their religious traditions as explicitly as do some among the Christian right. There has been some speculation in Jewish circles that the reason Jews in America have prospered is because both Judaism and the United States are founded upon ideas: Judaism, this theory contends, is based on monotheism as America is based on freedom. Though perhaps true, this contention is only a partial explanation of either Judaism or America. Of all the major world religions, few could be said to be more rooted in history and memory than Judaism. The history of the Jews is, after all, a history of the relationship of a people with its God and of the conviction that God has prepared a place for His chosen people. To reduce the ritual order and historical consciousness of the Jewish religion to a bland devotion is a disservice, and to minimize the importance of America’s concrete history in the development of its political institutions, which grew out of a definite Common Law tradition, is likewise a distortion of the record. Such an understanding of Judaism and America opens the way for ideology; a zealous attachment to abstract principles leads one to occlude the historical perspective.
Jacob Neusner’s book is a collection of previously published articles that discusses the usual topics of conservative interest: education, culture, the role of religion in American life, etc. Neusner is conscious of the allure of ideology to those who ignore the teachings of their faith; in Conservative, American & Jewish, he reflects on the lack of religiosity among Jewish neoconservatives and faults other Jewish conservatives (especially those connected with the journal Commentary) for treating religion instrumentally, concluding that for this reason their conservatism remains unfulfilled.
Feder sounds a similar note in his new collection of columns, concentrating not so much on the neoconservatives as on the Jewish liberals who have forfeited true faith for the lures of false gods. For Jews, following the Zeitgeist should not be a sign of piety; rather their witness is meant to be countercultural, giving evidence of a higher order. In a meditation on the meaning of Yom Kippur to Jews living in a secular culture, Feder speaks of the concern Judaism has for both the individual and the community. Individuals are responsible for their own actions, surely; yet the larger culture needs reformation as well, for although it is a composite of the discrete actions of its members, it has an existence apart from them. To preserve a culture from death, conversion of both the individual and the nation is required.
While convinced of the generally beneficial effects of a free market and democracy, Feder does not base a conservative philosophy on these phenomena, which in the long history of humanity are ephemeral. Instead, he proposes a conservatism that is “God-centered, premised on a passion to nurture the best in human nature, which flows from our acceptance of divine injunctions. It is based on the ethical worldview of the patriarchs and prophets, grounded in the heritage of a people who first taught humanity to think in moral terms.” This is an authentic conservatism, confronting the status quo and all the sins to which humanity is heir while holding up to it the ethical standards that arise from a concrete tradition. These standards are society’s proper measure. While Feder sometimes descends into the ranks of the “statistic conservatives,” who are content to lament our decline by quoting the latest figures of abortions and broken families, his view of reality is grounded in sound premises regarding human nature and the source of its fulfillment.
Morrie Ryskind’s autobiography is by contrast an entertaining romp through the Broadway and Hollywood of the 1930’s and 1940’s, where everyone seemed to know everyone else and anticommunism was the only criterion for conservative status. Although raised in a Jewish home where he learned Yiddish as a first language and was given a classical education (he gave his high school commencement address in Greek), Ryskind seems to have borne some resemblance to the Jewish neoconservatives of a later era in his lack of interest in religion. Of course, I Shot An Elephant is not meant to be a theological treatise or statement of belief, but rather the story of an influential popular writer in a time when conservatives still had some say in the nation’s cultural institutions. Ryskind is a great storyteller, and his autobiography is filled with accounts of his encounters with Ira and George Gershwin, the Marx Brothers, and other notables of the stage and screen. After some early successes at publishing light verse in Francis P. Adams’ famous Herald column, “The Conning Tower,” and an uncompleted stint at the Columbia School of Journalism, Ryskind made his life as a humorist and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for the musical Of Thee I Sing.
Ryskind left Hollywood in 1948 after testifying for the House Un-American Activities Committee against the “Hollywood Ten,” finding his services in the increasingly left-leaning industry no longer in demand. He began a new career as a political columnist and fulltime supporter of Republican causes, starting with Taft in 1948 and continuing through 1980; indeed, the book closes with the visit the newly elected Ronald Reagan paid Ryskind just before his inauguration. Ryskind seems always to have been in the know, and as a result we get his observations on the political events and personalities of the last half-century, all suffused with a sharp wit and a ready appreciation for the ironies of life.
From Neusner, as befits a scholar, we get less wit than wisdom. His essays are written with an understanding eye toward the past, and it is clear that his faith is the lens through which he views the world. In one of his most penetrating essays—”Can Humanity Forget What It Knows?”—Neusner reflects on the very real possibility that even our advanced industrial society can lose whole realms of knowledge for no other reason than neglect and loss of purpose. As a counterpoint to our present methods of transmitting knowledge, Neusner presents the Talmud, a relatively compact guide to life that is centered around the discovery of truth and its passage from one generation to the next. We in the West have forgotten how to teach, and so our learning has become gradually irrelevant while the skills and knowledge painfully acquired over the centuries recede into an inaccessible past. The primary purpose of the institutions entrusted with teaching is to preserve and convey knowledge already gained to the next generation, not to generate “knowledge” that cannot be readily integrated into the existing cultural context.
Neusner, Feder, and Ryskind are three proud Americans who do not think that being a “real” Jew involves a disdain for their country and a preference for Israel. As Feder and Neusner point out, America has been good to the Jews—perhaps too good, since the soft tyranny of American consumerism threatens to commodify every aspect of Jewish culture capable of being transformed into profit and to discard the rest.
[Conservative, American & Jewish: I Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way, by Jacob Neusner (Lafayette, Louisiana: Huntington House) 232 pp., $9.99]
[A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America, by Don Feder (Lafayette, Louisiana: Huntington House) 238 pp., $9.99]
[I Shot an Elephant in My Pajamas: The Morrie Ryskind Story, by Morrie Ryskind, with John H. Roberts (Lafayette, Louisiana: Huntington House) 238 pp., $12.99]
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