Eating Kosher Ivy; Jews as Literary Intellectuals

Article excerpt

This essay considers the place of the Jewish literary intellectual, the Diaspora of Jewish public intellectuals from New York urban culture to the American universities, and the consequent transformation of public intellectuals into literary intellectuals. The beginning section, entitled "Situating Myself," discusses my own diaspora from a suburban enclave into the academic world and how I, like many Jews, have been a not always comfortable guest in the house of English Literature.

"Eating Kosher Ivy" considers the discomfort Jews felt with New Criticism and its emphasis on an ideal gentile reader, and the importance of the work of Leslie Fiedler in freeing Jews from the shackles of New Criticism. It stresses the work of important Jewish scholars who emphasized representation rather than aesthetics and proposed major synthesizing visions of how literary periods functioned in terms of history and philosophy. The role of Jews as public intellectuals is considered at a time when Jews were still having difficulties finding a place in prestigious universities, especially those in the Ivy League. Jewish Studies was a way for scholars to rediscover themselves both as Jews and public intellectuals.

I. Situating Myself

In the 1940s and early 1950s when I was growing up in a Long Island community that was one third Jewish, the Holocaust was a repressed subject among Jews who were often quite assimilated but, with the long shadow cast by events in Europe, wary of the gentile world -- sometimes even more so than their parents. I was bar-mitzvahed in a synagogue in Rockville Centre, Long Island suburb; it was the first temple there, and my maternal grandparents were instrumental in establishing it. I remember that much was made of my maternal grandfather and grandmother not only as Jewish elders but as community elders. For they played a role in the suburb's community affairs before moving back to Manhattan after the war. My grandfather knew not a word of Hebrew or Yiddish and, as were all my grandparents, was born in this country. If my memory is correct, the Holocaust was barely mentioned in the Conservative religious school I attended three times a week until my bar mitzvah at age 13.

Why was the Holocaust a suppressed subject? Did assimilated American Jews feel they had something to be ashamed of because they did not prevent the destruction of their European counterparts? Did they fear provoking American antisemitism by special pleading? Was it that my parents' generation thought that children's sensibilities could not deal with the horrors of genocide?

Jewish silence during and after the war mirrored the much more striking silence, ineffectuality, and complicity of the American community that, despite the Nuremberg trials and the gruesome pictures in Life Magazine and newsreels, chose to repress how they were helpless onlookers or even tacit if unwilling accomplices. We now know how much the American political leadership knew and how little they did about it. The atrocities committed on blacks in these years, particularly in the South, rightfully focused attention on civil rights, but there was surprising little linkage to the wartime persecution of Jews, notwithstanding the prominence of Jews in the Civil Rights movement in the '50s and '60s.

My mother's family was quite comfortable. They had moved to Long Island in the early years of the twentieth century. My father's family, once reasonably comfortable in the luggage business, got by after the Depression. They moved to Rockville Centre to open a dry cleaning business, one of many not very successful enterprises, and my mother's parents brought them business. My father was (I suspect, barely) acceptable as an eligible Jewish male. Awkward family pictures show my mother's parents and my father's mother -- my father's father died before I was born -- looking as if the two families belonged to different communities. Bar mitzvahed but not really educated in Jewish religious practices, my father became a Certified Public Accountant and a temple member and did reasonably well economically, but he never had the elegance of my mother's parents. …