Academic journal article American Jewish History

A Tale of Two Critics

Academic journal article American Jewish History

A Tale of Two Critics

Article excerpt

How can the study of history be enlisted to explore the possibilities of an authentically Jewish collective life in the United States? Here was a society that was Christian though the state itself was not, a refuge where the contours of freedom were dramatically expanded even as millions of coreligionists were being tortured and massacred during the 1930s and 1940s. How responsibilities were weighed, even as Jews sought to give shape and meaning to the promise of American life, has been examined from numerous angles. A profile of two intellectuals whose editorial careers and critical legacy were so alike may suggest the consequences of divergent Jewishness.

One was an active Zionist who worked for the eventual termination of the Diaspora, where he remained. He put an exceptionally keen intelligence and a cosmopolitan sensibility in the service of communal purpose. The other came to typify the independent thinker at home in several cultures. But he settled in an America that his radicalism was intended to alter. Their lives began in utter obscurity in Tsarist Russia around the turn of the century. Indeed, to make the comparison more taut, they were born with the same surname: Greenberg. In the 1920s both came to the United States, which is where this tale of two critics truly begins and where their careers would flourish. Both were autodidacts, and polyglot as well. As editors and critics, they addressed distinct coteries of readers. Neither was a systematic thinker.

Both were inescapably affected by the historical course of a century transformed by two events occurring in the same week in 1917: 1) the Bolshevik Revolution, which not only led to the formation of a Soviet state in their own homeland but also provoked in part the rise of Nazism and thus the Second World War and the Holocaust; and 2) the Balfour Declaration, which promised a national homeland in Palestine to the Jewish people. Amid the cataclysms of the 1930s and 1940s, these two men produced their most exigent writing, and their responses are among the political and ethical indices that public intellectuals have bequeathed in diagnosing such crises. Though both of these figures lived in New York, it is unclear if they ever met one another. Neither of them wrote an autobiography or became the subject of a biography. But their careers reveal the character of Jewish thought in the United States, which offered a vigor and allure too powerful for the imperatives of Zionist return to match.

Hayim Greenberg exemplified what was most decent, humane and idealistic in the minority subculture that Jews had created. But his reputation is cursed by oblivion. Even Zionist historians tend to ignore him; no biography exists even in Hebrew. When the first collection of Greenberg's essays, The Inner Eye, appeared posthumously in 1953, its publisher did not disclose who picked his "selected essays." Not only was the design of the book (plus its sequel 11 years later) so nondescript as to discourage purchasers and other readers, "no jacket required" was the policy of his thrifty publisher. Needless to say, the two volumes were barely noticed. Though an academic press reprinted many of the essays in a 1968 anthology, no extra credit is granted for guessing whether these volumes are still available in bookstores. Though the Times obituary ran 10 paragraphs and highlighted his organizational commitments, the intellectual achievements of "Dr." Hayim Greenberg were ignored. So evanescent is his legacy that one scholar gallantly proposed to rescue Greenberg from "unpersonhood,"(1) as though he had fallen down the memory hole.

He was born in 1889 in Todoristi, a Bessarabian village, and was something of a child prodigy, attaching himself so quickly to Zionism that by the age of 17 he had already attended one of its international conventions. With no formal religious or secular education, Greenberg invented himself as an orator, a polemicist, and an essayist on philosophical (especially ethical) and literary topics. …

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