Jewish Journal


March 20, 2003

American Identity

Arthur Hertzberg memoir reflects on a world in which achievement is measured in "texts not towers."


"A Jew in America: My Life and a People's Struggle for Identity" by Arthur Hertzberg (HarperSanFrancisco, $29.95).

Pride in American Jewish life, from the ivory towers to the country club greens, has centered on "Making It," as longtime Commentary Editor-in-Chief Norman Podhoretz unabashedly titled his 1968 memoir. More recently, popular oversized books like "Great Jewish Men" and "Great Jewish Women" adorn coffee tables and assure us that, though we disembarked from refugee ships, we have arrived. For the last 50 years, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg has railed that we ought to busy ourselves less with how many of us sit in the Senate or nab Nobel Prizes -- and more with how many can read a page of Talmud. Hertzberg notes that Podhoretz's memoir includes not a single reference to the Holocaust and that we have "made it" to a better than 50 percent intermarriage rate.

Hertzberg's views clash with the Jewish establishment where Hebrew is a foreign language, though increasingly less so, and have made him unpopular in much of the organized Jewish community. His 1989 book, "The Jews in America," was soundly panned in most Jewish periodicals because it challenged this culture of success. Yet, Hertzberg is unequivocally correct. If we have something to offer ourselves and, by extension, America, it is our texts, not our towers. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis counseled a young Shlomo Bardin, in goading him to build the institution that became the Brandeis-Bardin Institute: a learned Jew in greater harmony with his identity produces a better American. It is not coincidence that Bardin had Hertzberg speak at the groundbreaking for the House of the Book, which Bardin hoped to make the centerpiece of a Jewish preparatory high school.

Hertzberg has written not his autobiography but an important and moving memoir. Autobiography, such as "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin," is a near complete history of one's existence, a total view of the man. Memoir concerns itself with themes that rise within that life. Hertzberg has given us not an account of his personal travails but the detailed road of his religious, political and intellectual journeys.

And the book is an inspiration -- for in the realm of right and wrong Hertzberg simply never compromises. For example, in the spring of 1950 while Hertzberg was a congregational rabbi in Nashville, the Nashville Banner printed a front-page announcement that Sen. Joseph McCarthy would soon come to town to investigate the radicals in the area. Hertzberg's name was mentioned as one he intended to summon. Hertzberg called the local leader he knew to be the instigator of the visit and told him that at the hearing he would denounce segregation as morally reprehensible, "and I would ask Sen. McCarthy whether such views 'proved' that I was a communist." McCarthy's office announced, a few days later, that the senator could not find time to hold this hearing.

Similarly, in the aftermath of the Camp David accords in 1980, Hertzberg was invited by the government of Egypt to give a lecture at their diplomatic training college in Cairo. Though Camp David had supposedly connected progress on solving the Palestinian issue with returning the Sinai to Egypt, in talks there with leading Egyptians, Hertzberg learned what the real deal had been: "The Egyptians were promised the return of every inch of territory they had lost. The Israelis had been willing to agree to this because Menachem Begin and his associates did not regard the Sinai as part of the 'undivided land of Israel.' Begin's reward was that the Egyptians, in effect, allowed him to do as he pleased in regard with the Palestinians."

Hertzberg knew that he would have to put on record what he had learned in Cairo. So he sent his essay to The New Republic where it languished on Martin Peretz's desk. Unbeknownst to Hertzberg, Peretz, the owner-editor, had become an Israeli hard-liner. After several weeks, Hertzberg telephoned an old acquaintance, Robert Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books, who published the piece immediately, and Hertzberg's long essays began to appear regularly in that august journal. For Hertzberg, more often than not, doing the right thing for its own sake, has led incidentally to reward.

Hertzberg's long presence on the political and religious scene offers a doorway into the major events that have affected Jews since the 1940s. He strode with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., sparred with Golda Meir and huddled with Henry Kissinger. His life offers a microcosm of the history of American Jews and their search for a meaningful identity.

For in its heart, "A Jew in America" is a deeply religious work. Hertzberg wrestles with God and early on finds his footing as a Conservative rabbi in a suburban New Jersey synagogue where he remained for three decades. From the pulpit, the podium and the printed page he has been unwilling to cede our great tradition either to fundamentalism or secularization.

Everywhere Hertzberg follows in his parents' footsteps. He writes on the first page of this book: "My parents had not come to America to forget their ancestors, who had been writing commentaries on the Talmud and Kabbalah for centuries. My father was a rabbi and a Chasid who was profoundly learned in classic Jewish texts. My mother kept an open house for the hungry and hopeless even in the years when she had little with which to feed her children. Growing up in such a home, I have never ceased feeling inadequate -- I have not attained the learning of my father or the charity of my mother -- but I am ever more aware that I have always looked at the world through their eyes."

Standing on one foot, this is Hertzberg's life -- all the rest is elegant commentary.  

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