A Lost World?

The Golden Tradition.
by Lucy S. Dawidowicz.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 502 pp. $8.95.

The Golden Tradition is an anthology of autobiographical writings and biographical sketches of Eastern European Jews, covering the period from the middle of the 18th century to just before the outbreak of World War II. To speak simply of “autobiography” or “biography,” however, is to give a wrong idea of the nature of the anthology; for the extracts are not chosen to reveal the personal histories of the contributors, or the details of the everyday life of the groups to which they belonged, but rather to exemplify and illuminate the variety of the intellectual crosscurrents which agitated the masses of the Jews within the Pale of Settlement, as well as the minority who managed to escape from the Pale to metropolitan centers like Odesssa and St. Petersburg.

The book (which, incidentally, has been most handsomely produced by the publishers) contains also a long, informative, and closely argued historical introduction by its editor, Lucy S. Dawidowicz. Together with its accounts of the major phases of Jewish intellectual development, Mrs. Dawidowicz’s introduction describes the changing social circumstances which the various religious, cultural, and political movements both reflected and in turn affected. She discusses the established rabbinic orthodoxy which ruled the lives of so many until the very end; the challenge to that orthodoxy made during the latter half of the 18th century by Hasidic Judaism on the one hand and the Haskalah or Enlightenment from the West on the other; the emergence of schools of secular historians and imaginative writers in Yiddish and Hebrew; the tendencies toward Russification and assimilation to which some of the wealthier and more highly educated were the first to succumb; the development of the Zionist movement and of revolutionary socialism among the masses; the emigrations and the attempts by organized Jewry to take part in the short-lived parliaments that preceded the revolution in Russia and followed upon World War I in Poland, Lithuania, and elsewhere.

The introduction, as can be seen even from the outline I have just given, covers a great deal of ground in its ninety pages; and perhaps it suffers from being overcrowded with names which will be unfamiliar to many of the readers for whom the book is presumably intended. On the other hand, it could be said that this crowdedness is in itself the most striking proof of the case that Mrs. Dawidowicz is arguing. For her introduction, and the anthology as a whole, are more than a collection of facts and documents for their own sake, more than a keeping of the records, important though that aspect of the work must be. As historian and anthologist, Mrs. Dawidowicz wishes to show decisively that “East European Jewry was not, as the sentimentalists see it, forever frozen in utter piety and utter poverty,” and she also wishes to make her readers feel that precisely because of the community’s intellectual variety and vitality, its representatives can still, in conducting their debates with one another, speak to us today. “East European Jewry,” she writes, “was cruelly cut down. But vital elements of its culture survive. Perhaps we, heirs of that culture, can continue its tradition of conserving Jewish identity by fusing the old and the new.” In other words, the reader would be doing less than justice to the seriousness with which the anthology has been conceived and executed if he does not ask himself just how relevant the arguments, hopes, expectations, and exhortations recorded in these pages really are to his own life. Can he use them, draw sustenance from them? And if so, of what kind could it be?

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The anthology certainly brings together impressive evidence of the range of the intellectual ideas and possibilities which the Jews of Eastern Europe tried to live by, in spite of all the disadvantages they labored under: their poverty, their imprisonment within the Pale, the ever-present threat or reality of violence with which they were confronted, their powerlessness in the hands of a government whose savage authoritarianism was tempered only by corruption and inefficiency, and whose arbitrariness never basically affected its persistent, implacable hostility to the Jews and the Jewish religion. Of course there is plenty of evidence within the anthology, either directly or to be read between the lines, of frustration, boredom, and fear; of a paralyzing, and paralyzed, provincialism; of a sectarian zealotry that did not hesitate to call in the Tsarist police to settle doctrinal disputes; of the development of the habits of informing, cringing, prevaricating.

Under such circumstances, these responses were predictable. What could never have been predicted, what remains unique, were the efforts that were made so unremittingly by so many to rise above their circumstances, or at least to try to escape in the imagination from them. The fantasy and high-spiritedness of Hasidic legend; the absorption of the mitnagdim in Talmudic scholarship; the pathetically stiff, abstract, ignorant, hopeful invocations of “the heavenly daughter, Enlightenment” on the part of the early maskilim; the development of journals and institutions of historical scholarship; the energetic attempts made by people who were losing or had already lost their religious faith to work out some kind of rationale for the loyalty they yet retained to the community from which they sprang—all these are movingly illustrated within the anthology. The paradoxical effect that the anthology had on me as a whole, in fact, was to bring the people and the urgency of their intellectual ambitions somewhat closer, even while the movements and ideas of which they speak and to which they devoted their lives became in a sense more remote than they had been before.

Perhaps I can best indicate what I mean by speaking of the late, secular movements mentioned in the last paragraph. Zionism is the most striking example of these, but there were also the cultural nationalism or autonomism upheld by Simon Dubnow, the great historian, and the particular separatist variety of revolutionary socialism that flourished among the Bundists. (Plekhanov’s famous gibe was that the Bundists were merely “Zionists who are afraid of getting seasick.”) The strife between these three groups was perhaps as violent as that which had taken place a generation and more previously between Hasidim, mitnagdim, and maskilim. But from the point of view of today, one can say that the later disputants had more in common, both positively and negatively, than they themselves could possibly have realized.

Negatively, they shared a loss in the belief in God, in the religious mission of Jewry, in the meaningfulness of Jewish suffering and privation. However, if one reads the most impressive works to have emerged from members of these groups—Dubnow’s History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, say, or Chaim Weizmann’s Autobiography—one is bound to feel that even rationalists like Weizmann and Dubnow, men so given to a rather disdainful, mordant skepticism and empiricism, derived an enormous part of their moral and intellectual strength from their closeness to the masses to whom religious faith was an unquestioned reality, still; that the totality of their involvement with the Jewish destiny, and their conviction of its transcendent importance, were drawn from the living evidence all around them of the community’s own involvement with itself, its own conviction of its importance in the ultimate scheme of things.

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Nothing comparable to that organically functioning religious-national community, united by belief, language, and immemorial experience, exists today. To say this is not, I hope, to slight the historical significance of the reassertion of Jewish sovereignty in Israel, or the strength and self-consciousness of the Jewish community in the United States, or the intensity of the longing among the remaining Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe to keep in touch with their kinfolk elsewhere. Nor is it to regard as unimportant and inconsequential those cultural traits and predispositions which (as I can confirm from my own experience) the descendants of East European Jews still have in common in countries as distant from one another as the United States, South Africa, England, and Israel, and which can range from tastes in food and jokes to intellectual aptitudes and political inclinations. (It seems to me something of a myth that the Israelis of East European descent are all that much unlike their contemporaries in the galut.) But to speak of the difference between these bonds and continuities and the community which once existed in Eastern Europe is to be confronted with an abyss which a book like The Golden Tradition does not really enable me, intellectually, to cross.

“Western Jews,” Mrs. Dawidowicz writes—and in context this is a reference to the French and German Jews—“could not resist the lures of enlightenment, emancipation, and the opportunity to enter the larger society. They rushed to embrace it, though emancipation often turned out to. be a mirage and enlightenment a dead end. . . . Eastern Europe was different, and East European Jews responded differently to enlightenment and emancipation.” But did they really? Was the ability and willingness of the masses of East European Jews to resist the “lure” of emancipation ever seriously put to the test within the Tsar’s domains? Weren’t the many hundreds of thousands of Jews who forsook Russia and Poland for the United States and elsewhere seeking enlightenment and emancipation, however inarticulately and unknowingly? Weren’t they trying to enter a larger society—the modern world, in fact? Have the overwhelming majority of their descendants shown themselves any the less eager to penetrate the societies in which they find themselves than the French and German Jews once were?

It is of course one of the most terrible ironies of history that the Holocaust which brought to an end the centuries of Jewish communal existence in Eastern Europe should have originated in the “modern” and “emancipated” West toward which so many of the Jews in the East had hopefully turned. It was the country of Voltaire (himself a violent anti-Semite) and Rousseau in which the power of political anti-Semitism was first revealed; and that of Kant, Schiller, and Goethe which brought racial mass-slaughter on a hitherto unknown scale to the “backward” East. Yet it does seem as though this has hardly affected the profound attachment of most Jews in the English-speaking countries, and indeed of most Jews of European origin in Israel, to the intellectual inheritances of the Enlightenment: to modernity, to liberalism, to “progressive” political views, to agnosticism and atheism. Perhaps one can even say that the disaster has had the not altogether surprising effect of making their attachment to these large, vague ideas or attitudes deeper than it was before, and of making them less eager than ever to look back.

At the same time, to those who do look back, the community from which their parents and grandparents came appears quite unlike anything they can even conceive of existing today: it appears so singular in its religious and social morphology as to be even more distant from them than the past of the countries in which they now live. So the task of bringing together the old and the new, of which Mrs. Dawidowicz speaks, is an immensely problematic one—perhaps an impossible one without the aid of religious belief. But I can’t close without adding two things. The first is simply that the old and the new will certainly not be brought together in any form if the English-speaking heirs of East European Jewry are allowed to remain totally ignorant of the past. The second is to say again that though many of the debates and arguments in the anthology may seem remote, the people who conduct them never do. Most readers of COMMENTARY who go through this book will recognize in it not just the great names, from Solomon Maimon to Leon Trotsky, but also, I think, something of themselves and their friends.

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