I plan to quote a good many of the sentences in “Jewish Culture in America” in what I am writing on Hellenistic Judaism and its art, especially the protest against the isolation of cultures: “People continually ask whether a cultural product is ‘Jewish’ or ‘American,’ seeming to assume that these two traditions are mutually exclusive.” The contrast would have point, perhaps, if we were comparing life in a New England village in 1820 with life in a Polish ghetto at the same time (although New England was so steeped in the Old Testament that it frequently out-Jewed the Jews), but Mr. Cohen’s feeling is completely right that after people have been living together the question becomes increasingly artificial. The idea applies to the Jews of Hellenistic Egypt and Rome as well as to those in the Bronx, because it formulates a basic and unalterable factor in civilization. True, when the rabbis bring up a boy on the Talmud and Midrash he is not brought up on Shakespeare and Whitehead. But every decade—as Milton Klonsky pointed out in his dramatic picture of the life of Jewish boys in Brooklyn (COMMENTARY, May 1947), with its grand but unchangeable zedas and their keen little grandsons—the little Jewish boy is harder to keep to the Talmud. The living organism takes as nourishment whatever is available.



To me as a goy it seems a pity that the Jewish boys I teach at Yale for the most part know the Jewish traditions as little as the goyim know their own. I am far from believing that all Jews should eat kosher, or that all Gentiles should take communion: but it seems too bad that both should grow up in ignorance of what meant so much in the past. Perhaps we are now going through a necessary stage wherein old traditions must be rejected to free us from their tyranny and allow us later to return to them with detached minds to recover what in them has permanent value. Perhaps too, when that happens, a truly Jewish-Christian culture will emerge, not in the sense in which the term is now being misused, to conceal the mutual antagonism of Judaism and Christianity through two millennia, but in the sense that Jews and Christians will each fertilize the other anew and consciously. This cannot be done if Jews either build up their walls of separation, or try to deny the long centuries of Talmudic dominance, “the pleasure and joy of Jewish living.” Jews cannot, in other words, reduce their tradition to the religion of the prophets, that is, essentially, to liberal Christianity. Jews today are so amazingly interested in cultural things, they “both as creators and audience swarm the concert halls, the theaters, the publishing houses, the movies, in numbers far beyond any decent populational proportion,” not because of Amos or Hosea, but because the craving for scholarship and ideas was instilled into every Jewish boy.

That Jews in America can return to the life of the zedas is unthinkable, and, at least from the point of view of a goy, entirely undesirable. There are enough walls between us without rebuilding the “fence” which those old men constructed “around their heads.” But the alternatives are clear: the Jews are so disproportionately interested in literature, scholarship, and the arts (and, I should add, the sciences) because they are “racially” different, or because something in their own culture of the past centuries had unique conditioning values. I see no possible third explanation, and I agree with the general trend in rejecting the “racial” distinctiveness as nonsense. Accordingly, as an old-line American, I want to see put into our melting pot as much as we can get of the values of that old rabbinic conditioning.

Just now the Jews are doing this by contributing their disproportional stint to our productivity in all fields, and by supporting what good appears from anywhere; but they are coasting on the impetus of the past. To make Jewish-Christian civilization permanent and real, Jews in the inner circles must devote themselves wholeheartedly to try to find the matrix of Jewish life through the ages, and to make it an integral part of all our lives by first making it an integral part of their own. I suspect that they will find that the basic attitude of Judaism is correct: it is not doctrine or ideas which are most important but a disciplined way of life.



+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link