One day in the early 1980s I received a call from a man in Florida who introduced himself as the son of Meir Blinkin—or Blinken, according to 1904 United States immigration records. The father had been a Yiddish writer of short fiction, quite well known in New York in the 1910s; the son, who went by the initials M.H., wanted my help in publishing an edition of these stories in English translation. I had mentioned Blinken in an article that had caught his son’s attention. I explained to him that Meir Blinken appeared as a minor character in a book I was then writing about American Yiddish writers, but that its focus was on two specific poets and they were my primary interests.
The gentleman on the phone had a different view of what my priorities ought to be. He said we should speak again and suggested that in the meantime I might give the matter further thought. He would hire someone else to translate the work and handle the costs and process of publication. All he wanted from me was the choice of stories and an introduction that would situate Blinken in the literary context I was researching. He said he needed the book for his sons and grandchildren who would otherwise never understand where they came from. This was the bottom line: He needed the book, and I merely wanted to write about others.
Meir Blinken was unquestionably ripe for translation—much admired in his time, he remains readable still—but apart from the fact that their forebear was a talented Yiddish writer, what did his son expect his descendants to learn from the stories? Meir had come to America alone, one of thousands like him, to work and board in rented rooms until he earned the fares for his wife and two sons to join him. He had had medical training and found employment as a masseur. His writings suggested he knew at first hand the emotional fallout of that massive dislocation and its effects on marriage and sexuality. The best of the stories explored the rough no-man’s-land between men and women: A wife’s love blackens to hate when her husband wants her to abort the pregnancy she had been praying for; another wife lets herself be seduced as if sleepwalking through a plotted cliché.
It had been wintertime in Montreal when M.H. contacted me. When a huge gift box arrived from Florida with a month’s supply of oranges and grapefruit, I found myself singing “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no.” The following winter, on a trip to Florida, I visited him and his wife, Ethel, at their house in Palm Springs. By this time, I was grateful I had undertaken the task for the pleasure of getting to know him. He was more engaging than all the widows and children and friends of the literary circle that I had been interviewing for my book, and—though I refrained from telling him this—more intriguing to me than his father.
Maurice Henry Blinken (full name gleaned from his obituaries) was the very model of a self-made man. He had been brought to New York as one of the two children Meir had left behind in Russia and was orphaned at 15 when his father died. He attended New York University, graduated from its law school in 1924, and represented various companies before founding the Mite Corporation with his son Robert 30 years later. I believe the company that manufactured specialized industrial components and hardware products enjoyed annual sales in the range of $70 million by the time we met. But my host never alluded to any of this, nor did he really want to say any more about his father and that immigrant circle. Instead, he wanted to talk, and talk we did for hours, about the struggle for Israel and what he had contributed to its creation.
One of the aching questions that continues to hang over American Jewry is whether the community’s members could have done more to rescue their fellow Jews before and during the Second World War. My host had been one of the most creative in meeting the challenge. The British in Mandatory Palestine during the late 1930s and 1940s had been in some ways more discouraging to Jews than the twin evils of Germany and the Soviet Union, which joined forces in the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. Jews had no illusions about Nazi racism, and they had no right to expect anything of Communism, which had stamped out Jewish religion and criminalized Hebrew and Zionism as representations of Jewish peoplehood. But Britain was the bastion of democracy and was the liberal power that had issued the Balfour Declaration encouraging the reestablishment of the Jewish homeland in Palestine. Victorious in the First World War, Britain held the mandate for Palestine and was charged with keeping the peace. It was unaccountably cruel of the British to prevent Jews from entering their place of refuge and to oppose the Jews’ right to their ancestral land. But American Jewish leadership did not feel it could come out against Britain once England was leading the charge against Nazism.
One argument that the British used to justify their conduct was that the Land of Israel did not in any case have the natural resources to serve as the Jewish homeland. This is where M.H. came in. He helped to found the American Palestine Institute. Without blaming or accusing the British or entering into polemics, he commissioned from the respected American liberal economist Robert Nathan a feasibility study to show the economic potential of Palestine based on factual analysis. Palestine: Problem and Promise: An Economic Study, published in 1946, made the case for Zionism in circles where judgment was “most subject to distortion by strong emotional predilections.” It answered the question “Can Palestine support larger population?” in the affirmative, to the satisfaction of anyone genuinely open to persuasion.
I was happy to listen to Blinken expound on its findings about such features as arable land and sources of water and the potential for citrus and winter vegetable exports to counter the need for imported bread and meat. Nathan’s conclusion that it would be easier for Palestine “to support two million Jews than the present 600,000” persuaded many skeptics and was credited with furthering the Zionist cause. If, by the time of our meeting, the study had already been overshadowed in every respect by the remarkable reality of Israel, I was close enough in years and aware enough of this history to appreciate what a bold and important initiative it had proven to be.
M.H. was not looking for credit. He merely wanted to share with me the excitement of those years—perhaps regretting that his children did not. As our extended visit drew to a close, I noted that his pride in his three sons, Donald, Robert, and Alan, who were obviously distinguished citizens and admirable people, did not include any mention of their love and responsibility for the Jews. I felt that he was commissioning from me a work intended to impress them with their Jewishness. Our tradition insists on education—training through formal transference of knowledge, immersive ritual and repetition, ingenious pedagogic strategies like the Passover seder, and clinging to the Torah as a “tree of life”—because no such complex civilization can possibly survive, let alone flourish, without it. Yet the better part of an entire generation of American Jews had left this work undone. Being associated with Yiddish, I was always hearing parents like this one regret having failed to teach their children Yiddish and Yiddishkayt and concomitant regret at having failed to prevent their intermarriage or estrangement.
So I was delighted to have gotten to know M.H. Blinken and felt I had been given a walk-on part in his American saga. With his father, I had in common European birth and Yiddish speech; with M.H., I shared a passionate commitment to the security of Israel. But in age and acculturation I was closest to the sons. The project reminded me of the Yiddish master Y.L. Peretz’s preoccupation with the “golden chain” of Jewish tradition that he saw fraying as Polish Jewry turned modern. Writing between 1890 and 1915, when Jewish youth was acculturating, assimilating, or—when necessary—converting to Christianity at about the same pace as was happening in America (minus the need for conversion), Peretz turned from advocating necessary reforms to mourning their consequence.
Peretz lays out the sequence in the story “Four Generations, Four Wills.” The patriarch Reb Eliezer leaves a Yiddish handwritten will, brief and judicious, taking for granted that his family will act in its spirit. His son Benjamin’s greater business success calls for a much longer formalized Yiddish document that spells out all his expectations of responsible succession that can no longer be assumed. His successor wills—in Polish—that a telegram should summon his only son from Paris and bequeaths a large sum to the Society for Assisting the Poor that is to feature the donor’s family name. Finally, the Parisian son writes an unsigned note taking his leave of the world. Peretz is more polemicist than artist in revealing why this last of the line cannot go on living: “I have seen many lands, but not one of them was mine….I spoke many languages, but had no feeling for any one of them.” Given no responsibilities, taught no useful trade, and inducted into no loyalties, this young cosmopolite is the product of the emptiness that he embraces in ending his life.
How sharply this tale of deterioration contrasts with the Blinken saga, as though to highlight the difference between the Jewish experience in Poland and in America! Here the first generation was similarly followed by a son’s rise to wealth—but the subsequent generations rose ever higher in personal fulfilment and public service. As against Peretz’s version, Maurice Henry’s three sons attended Horace Mann High School and Harvard College, and each became wealthy and professionally competent on his own. They served in the military, married and raised families, and under the Clinton administration, two of the brothers became U.S. ambassadors, Donald to Hungary, and Alan to Belgium. Now Donald’s son Antony, of the fourth generation, may he enjoy long years, has been nominated to be Joseph Biden’s secretary of state. How indeed has America proved to be the goldene medine, the golden land of Jewish immigrant dreams.
Yet is that how Peretz would have seen it, or M. H. himself? What about the golden chain of Jewish tradition? Was it just as a shelf showpiece that Maurice wanted his father’s stories translated, or did he hope that it would help his family to remain Jews? Does American success require the death of Jewishness, or does the Jewish story prove that religious freedom, ethnic pluralism, and democratic association inspire minorities to thrive?
ABOUT A DOZEN years ago I was reminded again of the Blinkens when I saw reference to the American Palestine Institute’s feasibility study in a letter to the editor in this magazine from Maurice’s son Donald, who had been at one time a member of COMMENTARY’S Publication Committee and had served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary. The letter was in response to an article on Prime Minister Churchill’s ambiguous relationship to the Jews and had quoted him telling the House of Commons in 1946 that it would be “really too silly” to suppose that there was “room in Palestine for the great masses of Jews who wish to leave Europe, or that they could be absorbed in any period which it is now useful to contemplate.” Despite his lifelong philo-Semitism and unequivocal support of Zionism, Churchill did not do anything to allow Jewish immigration to Palestine when it would have saved hundreds of thousands, or even after the war to admit refugees. Ambassador Blinken writes in Churchill’s defense that his view was “universally perceived at the time,” and then he credits his father’s report with changing the perception. When it was submitted to the Anglo-American Commission on the Future of Palestine, it was unanimously endorsed, which helped lead to the surrender of the British Mandate in Palestine to the United Nations. “I believe that if Churchill had been in power in 1946 and had had access to the Nathan report,” Donald Blinken wrote, “he would have acted to open Palestine to Jewish immigration, giving meaningful substance to his continued support of the Zionist cause.”
This, a larger claim for the influence of his report than M.H. himself had ever made, was being offered in evidence on behalf of the British, not the Jews. The report itself had refrained from censuring British inaction only because it needed to win British support. Ambassador Blinken was citing it in defense of Churchill’s reputation, to shield Churchill from criticism of his failure to help save the Jews when he might have done so. A curious turnabout, since the war against Israel was then—in 2008—still gaining political and diplomatic ground.
Apart from Maurice and his wife, I never met other members of the Blinken family, but from all I learned about them, they were and are fine people and dedicated Americans. I read Vera and the Ambassador, the book Donald wrote with his eponymous wife, that begins with her account of her childhood in wartime Hungary and her family’s escape from Soviet occupation before arching into her return as wife of the U.S. ambassador and his tenure there between 1994 and 1998. His part of the book shows how fully he had come to understand and address Hungary’s predicament and needs.
Donald’s absorption in the fate of Hungary was almost outdone by his brother Alan’s involvement in Africa and then as U.S. ambassador to Belgium. Though both men were appointed to their posts by President Clinton as Democratic Party loyalists, I doubt any professional diplomat could have served with greater intelligence or sympathy. The same sense of responsibility their father had felt for the Jews and Israel his sons transferred to the countries in which they were posted, and to addressing the complex political issues those societies faced.
I therefore found it startling to find former Ambassador Alan Blinken, in a 2001 interview, giving the traditions of Americans and Jews less credence than he did those of Africa and Europe. Commenting on newly elected George W. Bush, he called “singularly frightening” the custom the president had introduced: “Isn’t it better to have somebody who really cares about America than somebody who opens his morning session in his cabinet office with a prayer meeting every morning? Even Catholic European countries wouldn’t dream of having a minister start the day off with a prayer meeting in his office.” Forget American presidential history; Alan Blinken seemed unaware that faithful Jews begin every day with prayer and when possible a prayer quorum, and unwilling to consider that perhaps the division of Europe between Hitler and Stalin was hastened because its leaders had ceased praying to God. His “singularly frightening” view suggests that the deracinating impulse Peretz feared has had some debilitating influence after all.
Which brings us to the fourth generation. The proposed appointment of Antony Blinken, son of Donald, as secretary of state in the Biden administration has so far drawn mostly favorable comment from Republicans who feared someone “worse” in that position and from Democrats who fear takeover by the left wing of their party. If this appointment represents the incoming president’s ability to chart his own political path, it may indeed mark an improvement over his party’s current radical drift. In addition, those who know Tony personally from his work on the Harvard Crimson and New Republic, as a talented amateur musician, and in his professional political life unfailingly describe a trustworthy and likable person.
As his record is now in full public view, I need not rehearse his service in various senior staff positions of the State Department, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and as national-security adviser to Vice President Biden in the Obama administration. Among Democrats, he was on the interventionist side against flagrant abusers of human rights, but he is also a committed internationalist, Europeanist, and, like his father, a Democratic Party loyalist. A major part of his record includes professional apologetics for what columnist Dan Senor in 2011 called the “most consistently one-sided diplomatic record against Israel of any American president in generations.” He defended and promoted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that eased the way for Iran to develop nuclear weapons, a preventive appeasement of Iran’s leaders after they had declared Israel a “one-bomb state.” Before the 2012 election, he tried to shore up the Jewish vote for Obama with the assurance that his administration was “working around the clock and around the world” to try to prevent Israel’s isolation at the United Nations. It was untrue then, and it proved particularly cynical when the Obama administration broke with established U.S. policy and refused to oppose anti-Israel resolutions in the Security Council at the tail end of his administration.
Though he bears the Blinken name, Antony grew up in a different family. After his parents divorced when he was nine, his mother remarried Samuel Pisar, a highly successful lawyer who had survived the war in multiple death and labor camps and became known through his writings and testimony as a Holocaust survivor in the mold of his friend Elie Wiesel. On the day President-elect Biden announced his nomination, Antony told this story:
My late stepfather, Samuel Pisar…was one of 900 children in his school in Bialystok, Poland, but the only one to survive the Holocaust after four years in concentration camps. At the end of the war, he made a break from a death march into the woods in Bavaria. From his hiding place, he heard a deep rumbling sound. It was a tank. But instead of the iron cross, he saw painted on its side a five pointed white star. He ran to the tank, the hatch opened, an African-American GI looked down at him. He got down on his knees and said the only three words that he knew in English that his mother taught him before the war, “God bless America.” That’s who we are. That’s what America represents to the world, however imperfectly.
Stirring. But neither in interviews nor at the moment of his nomination has Antony Blinken cited a parallel shaping story about his grandfather, who ingeniously contributed to Jewish self-emancipation and who persuaded others to join him in liberating the Jewish homeland. For his part, M.H. never stopped trying to shore up the strength of the two democracies. About the debacle of America’s foreign policy in Iran that facilitated the rise of the ayatollahs, he wrote in 1981, “The policies now in effect have brought us to a sorry pass of servility, obsequiousness, and impotence. By pandering to Arab ‘sensibilities’ we have only whetted their demands upon us, demands which are often arbitrary and capricious….” He advocated defensive cooperation between Israel and America in facing their common enemies.
M.H. knew that neither Churchill nor the Americans had come to the rescue of Jews, not even by bombing the death camps; he understood that Jews themselves would have to rebuild their home and refuge in Zion so that they could come to the rescue of others and through strategic alliances also strengthen America. His sons inherited their father’s talent for politics but did not share his singular investment in Israel’s security. His grandson was a senior official in an administration that was hostile to Israel and will be our most senior foreign-policy official in a new administration whose view of Israel is far from clear.
Jews remain the target of the worst enemies of civilization and hence the truest gauge of freedom. Peretz invented a family sequence to chart his vision of decline, the fate of the Jews inseparable from that of Poland. How this administration uses Antony Blinken and how he functions in its orbit will be the instructive culmination of the fascinating and telling American-Jewish family story to which I was first introduced by that unexpectedly meaningful phone call 40 years ago.
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