Irving Howe and Secular Jewishness: An Elegy

By Alexander, Edward | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Irving Howe and Secular Jewishness: An Elegy


Alexander, Edward, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


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. …

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