Meyer Levin’s autobiographical commentary on Elliot E. Cohen’s article “Jewish Culture in America” (in last month’s COMMENTARY) will be of special interest. Though comparatively young, he has been a practicing “culture-maker” in the Jewish field for more than two decades, and many critics consider his novel The Old Bunch probably the best novel on the life of Jews in America as yet written.
From the observations of this magazine’s editor on Jewish culture in America, I conclude that a large number of American Jews are now developed far enough in their consciousness as Americans to consider themselves as Jews. Jewish culture is coming to be considered a good thing, and apparently many people feel there should be more of it.
Since I have spent much of my life knowingly and sometimes unknowingly working on this theme, I am of course in accord with the conclusions of Elliot Cohen’s article. At first I thought I might indulge in solemn theorizing on this subject, but as I began to spin out definitions in my mind, there were a great many intrusions. Most of them were in the nature of unpleasant memories of actual events involving frustration, wastage, confusion in my efforts to work creatively toward contributing to American Jewish culture. Finally I decided that a plain rye-bread account of the career of a culture-maker might be most helpful.
I will indulge in definition-making to this extent: it is my point of view that culture is the way of life of a people, and art is the formal expression of culture. In modern times, the art of writing is generally accepted as paramount in the crystallization of culture.
I am a writer who from his beginnings has tried to express himself as an American Jew. The editor of COMMENTARY knows me from the beginning; it is significant that my first serious work was published in the Menorah Journal, a magazine of Jewish culture. Just after that, and fresh put of college, I went to Europe, where I was strongly influenced by Marek Szwarc, a Polish-Jewish artist, and from Europe I went to Palestine. There were no Zionists in my family. I went to Palestine more or less by instinct. In 192,5, a young “born American” was an anomaly there.
In that post-collegiate year, I was trying to find my cultural roots. Some people are helped through history. I always considered that I had a very weak historical sense; schoolroom memory of teaching about the Greeks and Romans and the successions of kings in various European countries did not help me. I was able to find some reality in American history, and I discovered that France was a real place when Benjamin Franklin went there, and that the English were real people because we, the Americans, fought them; but there was no world before America. Many years later I found that when I linked up the Greeks as the people who tried to bring discus-throwing to the Jews of Jerusalem, they became real. In the end I discovered I had a good sense of history once I related the succession of kings in various European countries to the fate of the Jews in those countries, in those times. This may be a very narrow view, but the Jewish past was the key that worked for me.
When I was a young would-be writer just back from Europe and Palestine, and working again as a newspaperman in Chicago, I was not yet very clear on such cultural mechanisms within myself. I had very quickly received the impact of Europe, especially the echoes of Polish culture which were fusing with the childhood memories of a culture that most immigrant Jews suppressed before their American children; and, together with that, I had felt the open, strenuous creative force of Palestine’s new civilization.
I set out to write my first novel. I knew then, already, that it should best be “American” and not “Jewish” but I could not help letting an encounter with anti-Semitism get into it. According to my contemporary Ben Hecht (in A Guide for the Bedevilled), anti-Semitism could not be found in Chicago in the 1920’s, but it got itself into Reporter, which I wrote in 1926, in automatic response to my environment.
My second novel was also “American” because as a struggling young writer I had early discovered that the big-paying magazines were not interested in stories about Jews and that book publishers also were not excited about the sales prospects of such material. And like all writers I wanted to reach a big audience—not only for the money. So I wrote a novel about “American” youngsters by giving non-Jewish names to the characters I knew in my heart were Jewish kids, and by moving them from Chicago’s west side to a south side area that later became famous as Farrell territory. The book was called Frankie and Johnny, and had little success.
Then I went back to Palestine to live in a kibbutz, with the plan of writing a novel about modern life in Palestine. Even though it would be about Jews, I thought the material would compel an audience: I thought it would at least awaken a strong response in young American Jewry, my own generation. I felt that the positive surge of the new life in Palestine could not help but awaken a response in them if I could succeed in delivering even a small part of its impact.
By this time I was trying in a half-conscious way to synthesize the west side of Chicago with the glimmerings of Hasidic life that I had received from Szwarc in Paris, and with the new-old culture of Palestine. And with the appearance of my Palestine novel, Yehuda, I expected to be launched as a Jewish writer of significance to my fellow Jews. Ludwig Lewisohn was then having considerable success, and I had the idea that if I could get started in this way, I could continue as a writer predominantly concerned with Jewish life.
Of course nothing of the sort happened. Yehuda received an excellent press, sold about 3,000 copies, and was ignored even among Zionist circles. Only some years later I learned that a fringe of Zionist youth had been affected by it; they came to Palestine and settled in Ain Hashofet and told me, when I was in Palestine on a later visit, that Yehuda had been their torah for kibbutz life. That was one of the few gratifying moments in my life as a writer.
But when Yehuda appeared and touched off no response in the American Jewish community, I was left rather suspended. The lack of a responsive audience was as frustrating as the dearth of royalties. I worked for a while at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, fumbled around the theater in New York, gave marionette shows at Jewish community centers in an effort to make enough money to continue with my writing, only to find myself writing hack material in order to pay my marionette assistants.
I was haunted by the Hasidic tales I had read in Yiddish penny-editions in Szwarc’s studio in Paris. I translated and rewrote them, and again there was no audience. The book set off a small ripple among the high-class rabbis who could give the homely Hasidic tales a fashionable folklore setting but the book did not penetrate to the public.
I had now worked over, for myself, the most important contributory material from outside the American Jewish world. I had gone to Palestine for one phase of it, and to the direct past, in Poland, for the other. I was ready to try to integrate this in a big novel of American Jewish life which had been forming in my mind.
I went back to Chicago, worked three days a week as an editor of Esquire, and spent the rest of my time writing The Old Bunch.
For once, I had a pre-writing contract. But when I completed the first draft of the novel the publisher was disappointed. Why were all the characters Jews? Wouldn’t it be more typically American if the street-corner bunch consisted of a few Irish, an Italian or two, and maybe a Greek?
I found another publisher. This time I felt I would surely get enough response from American Jews to enable me to go on in my development as a writer. And since The Old Bunch was a big thick book I expected to sell enough copies to enable me to drop my job and live at last as a writer.
All the response I got from the Jewish community was in the form of a few sermons preached against the novel. I was invited to lunch by a member of the Anti-Defamation League and asked why I wrote such stuff about my own people. I painstakingly made a list of all the characters in the book and asked him to tell me which he considered “a shame for the Jews.” Among twenty main characters there was one that he didn’t like.
The book was not a big seller, though several years later a drugstore edition appeared, giving people the idea that I was a rich, successful author.
In the meantime the publisher of Esquire claimed that he had had to accede to pressure to cease publishing “radical Jewish writers” and that I was one of the writers so named. However, he published the remainder of material he had bought from me. He signed it Patterson Murphy. I believe this was mostly under the pressure of his own sense of humor.
There was nothing left but Hollywood. In Hollywood one did not write about Jews. There seems to be a lifting of this taboo just now, with the purchase of Gentleman’s Agreement and similar works, but in the 1930’s this was a forbidden subject in popular magazines and in the films.
Such an occasional best-seller with a Jewish background does not mean that there is an established market for the writer with Jewish material. Such books or stories do not open the field: each creates an atmosphere of saturation. Only a week ago I had the publisher of a “Jewish” best-seller turn down a book which he admitted was excellent and highly attractive because, as he said, he had “done his Jewish book” for the time being. It is for this reason that one never feels secure in planning one’s life as a writer about Jews. I suspect that there are many others like myself, who hesitate in their work when they think of the cold eye of the publisher awaiting them if they bring in another Jewish novel, and of the cold air from the unresponsive Jewish audience when, in spite of all this discouragement, the book is written and published.
The Yiddish writers did not have this unresponsiveness to contend with: David Pinski, Sholom Aleichem, Mendele could at least work with the assurance that they were wanted by their own people, that what they wrote was recognized as integral with the life of the community.
I can think of other writers in my category who have not written as much as they should have in their best years: Ludwig Lewisohn, Maurice Samuels, Daniel Fuchs, Irving Fineman—some continue to write, rather haltingly, and others stay in Hollywood. Perhaps they do not feel the problem as I feel it, but I suspect that much of my story is valid for other writers.
One trouble with being a Jewish writer in America is that the Jews won’t accept you until the Gentiles have made a fuss about you. On the other hand you cannot quite emerge as an American writer if you write about Jews in the way that you might if you wrote about Armenians or Irish. The Old Bunch, for instance, was never understood by critics as a story about America, though a similar work about the Irish in Chicago was considered as directly in the tradition.
So I passed the next few years earning a living by writing neat little stories for Collier’s about people named Smithers and Wooster. Then I gave way to my Jewish radical impulses and wrote a novel about a steel strike; it was about Poles, Irish, Negroes, and Mexicans, but it had a Jew in it. A publisher suggested that this novel would be more “typically American” and more promotable if this character (a liberal doctor) were not a Jew. I did not make the change; Citizens did not sell very many copies.
During the war, I got a job as a war correspondent with an agency interested in Jews; my chief assignment was to write about Jews in battle, and surviving Jews in Europe. In the last weeks of the war, I chased up and down the entire European front, trying to reach each concentration camp as our armies approached it. I became saturated with the tales of the survivors, and just after the war found an opportunity to make a film about them, and about Palestine.
I went to Palestine to make the film with Herbert Kline, and this time felt quite consciously that what I wrote and helped film would bring into American Jewish culture material from Europe and Palestine that was vitally necessary to the psyche of every Jew.
I have been back here for several months completing the film, and with it I brought a picture-book about Palestine. Now, in connection with the making of this book, I encountered a situation which repeated and epitomized to me the strangulatory experiences of my development as a creative worker in Jewish culture.
What I am going to say now may offend some people in various organizations. It may be injudicious on my part to do so, as I may have to come to them for assistance in cultural work in the future. But if I can open this situation to correction, their displeasure must be risked.
I needed some help in the publication of the picture-book on a scale that would enable it to reach a wide audience; this was a project that is legitimately the concern of more than one of these organizations, and their spokesmen readily admitted it was the sort of thing they should be doing. They were one and all enthusiastic about the material and each sent me to the other for the help I needed. For two months I was made to feel like a shnorrer, then one after another of these promotion experts advised me that the only person who could really see the project through was “the big boss.”
Now the “big boss” is a very, very busy man. It took me many weeks to get to see him. All the time, this book, whose publication all agreed was urgent, was on the shelf. Finally the “big boss” gave me a few moments of his valuable time, and informed me blandly that of course the various people who had sent me to him had been under a misconception, and I should really go back and see so-and-so, on such-and-such a committee.
Perhaps all of this sounds like a very special complaint. Unfortunately, it is too typical. The community is somehow separated from us by its little bosses and its big bosses, some of whom are specifically hired to stimulate the development of Jewish cultural efforts, especially between Palestine and America. Even when an artist has managed to do his work, and is eager to deliver it it for use, he is made to feel that he is a creature without dignity and with no place in the community. A sculptor cannot make monuments forever for his own back yard: he must have a community that will raise them up; and our plight in the other arts, while not as visibly demonstrable, is similar.
I found, among some organizations that deal with these cultural matters, a lack of aggressive imagination, and a good deal of professionalized evasiveness. More than once, I felt that it was no small wonder that so many creative writers, artists, and actors, when they finally experienced the urge to become active in the Jewish cause, were drawn to the extremist groups rather than to the central bodies. For there are people in the central bodies who make one feel unwanted and unwelcome.
With patience, of course, one sometimes gets through to a more understanding element. But a great deal gets choked on the way.
There is, for instance, a highly developed music in Palestine. Out of the great sums spent on speech-making, repetitive arguments, and full-page advertisements for the Palestine cause, it would take only a very little money to bring that music here, and we could have it on the air and on records, and it would make a highly positive contribution both to our cause and to our culture. But for this there is no budget.
What do I want with all this? I come to the same point Elliot Cohen’s article reached: that Jewish culture consciously assimilated is a good thing, but before we can assimilate it, we must first have it put into form, and for this, practical help is needed. I do not pretend to hope that our situation will change very quickly, and that the big Jewish temples will suddenly feature Jewish artists and Palestinian dancers and singers instead of Coulston Leigh lecturers in their halls. But discussion of this sort does add to understanding.
To prevent a few false conclusions: I do not feel that my own work has been lost. I do not feel that every “American of Jewish birth” who is creative must be exclusively or even partially “Jewishly” creative; I do not believe the material of Jewish life is every Jew’s only material for expression, nor do I feel that I am confined to Jewish material.
I believe that the American Jew should enrich himself from his Jewish as well as from his American sources. I believe he must draw from the sources of our life in the past, and in Palestine, as well as from the life around him. If he is creative, I believe he will do his best work when he has attained his cultural balance as a Jew. I feel that I have stumbled around for a long time in doing this, and that a sad lot of my creative time has been expended in doing peripheral jobs and money jobs which I might have been spared in a better developed community. I feel that I can now write rather freely as a Jew and as an American, or let us say as a person who knows something of what he is made of, and I hope the discussions here on Jewish culture and culture-makers will save a little time and a little grief for others and for myself in the future.