Abba Hillel Silver, Man of the Zionist Hour

The forgotten story of the arrogant, overbearing egotist who, with one speech, united the American Jewish community behind the Zionist idea and helped secure the Jewish future
Abba Hillel Silver, Man of the Zionist Hour
Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver speaks at the 1948 Republican Convention. Photo by Leonard Mccombe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
 
Observation
Allan Arkush
Dec. 11 2013 10:38PM

Dateline: Washington, March 1948

A scant two months before Israel’s declaration of independence, it seemed the U.S. might retreat from supporting the United Nations plan to partition Palestine into two states. American Zionist leaders were desperate to reach President Truman, who refused to meet with them. So they turned to Eddie Jacobson, the president’s old business partner from Missouri, for whom the door to the Oval Office was always open. But, despite Jacobson’s plea that the president meet with Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Organization, Truman wouldn’t budge. Then his friend tried a final ploy:

I happened to rest my eyes on a beautiful model of a statue of Andrew Jackson. . . . I then found myself saying to the President, almost word for word: “Harry, all your life you have had a hero. You are probably the best-read man in America on the life of Andrew Jackson. . . . Well, Harry, I too have a hero, a man I never met but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived. . . . I am talking about Chaim Weizmann.”

Truman kept silent for a bit, then looked Jacobson straight in the eye and grumbled: “You win, you bald-headed sonuvabitch, I will see him.”

The President’s session with Weizmann proved immensely important, effectively halting the opponents of Jewish statehood. And Jacobson remains to this day something of a folk-hero for many American Jews—despite the fact that Weizmann wasn’t really his hero (he later admitted that what he told Truman was a spur-of-the-moment fabrication). But if American Jews are in search of a true Zionist hero, a champion who deserves to be not only remembered but celebrated, they need only look to Abba Hillel Silver, a Reform rabbi and Zionist leader who is today all but forgotten.

 

Silver’s life story—he was born in 1893 and died 50 years ago this past Thanksgiving—doesn’t fit neatly into the familiar picture of American Jewish history. Serving for decades as the rabbi of “The Temple,” a prestigious Reform congregation in Cleveland that observed the Sabbath on Sunday, he was not descended from old-line German-Jewish stock, as would befit the occupant of such a post, but a Lithuanian-born immigrant. Only fifteen years before being hired at The Temple, he was living on New York’s Lower East Side as a nine-year-old boy sporting sidecurls and speaking Yiddish. And yet he became an exceptionally successful congregational rabbi as well as a very reputable scholar.

Even more atypically, Silver was not someone whose greatness was evident at first glance—or at first hearing. To watch him in a video documentary or in one of the brief clips that have made their way onto YouTube is not necessarily to admire him. He seems stiff, artificial, almost preposterously pompous. One isn’t surprised to learn from his biographer, Marc Lee Raphael, that some people “found him arrogant, overbearing, domineering, egotistical, contemptuous, and an enemy of anyone who dared oppose him or one of his ideas.” His most readily available piece of writing, a speech delivered in August 1943 and reprinted in Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, may seem, on a quick reading, rather run of the mill.

In fact, it was anything but. As we shall see, this same speech, perhaps Silver’s single most powerful, most consequential, and most immediately effective act of public persuasion, exemplifies to a high degree the indisputable greatness of the man.

Today, in the aftermath of innumerable attacks on the American Jews for their failure to come to the aid of their European brethren during the Holocaust, it is easy to picture the community of that time as downright indifferent to the Jewish fate. And indeed many Jews, understandably fixated on America’s role in the wider war, may have preferred to remain ignorant or in denial of the specifically Jewish catastrophe. But by no means all: by 1943, activists in the Jewish community were acutely aware of the devastation that was taking place in Europe and wracked by their own inability to stop it.

This was particularly true of America’s Zionists, who a year earlier, in May 1942, had responded to the plight of European Jewry with a dramatic new initiative. Spurred by David Ben-Gurion and others, prominently including Abba Hillel Silver, 600 delegates from the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Hadassah, and religious and labor-Zionist parties declared at a conference in New York that the postwar order envisioned by President Roosevelt—an order to be built on “foundations of peace, justice, and equality”—could not be realized without a solution to the wrenching problem of “Jewish homelessness.” Calling on the British Mandatory power to open the gates of Palestine to desperate Jewish refugees, the delegates then dropped their earlier reticence on the subject of actual Jewish statehood, insisting in the conference’s final plank “that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.”

The next step was to mobilize the entire American Jewish community behind this Zionist initiative, which would come to be known (after the hotel where the conference was held) as the “Biltmore Program.” In that monumental endeavor, Silver’s role was pivotal.

It also marked something of a personal turnabout. True, he had been a Zionist throughout his adult life and even earlier. In 1904, at the age of eleven, he was one of the co-founders of the Lower East Side’s Dr. Herzl Zion Club. But upon reaching maturity he had shifted his allegiance from political Zionism to “cultural Zionism,” a movement focused on solving not the problem of the Jews—i.e., statelessness—but the “problem of Judaism.” In 1917, explaining his position to a skeptical hiring committee at The Temple, he had articulated his commitment to the creation of a “spiritual and cultural center in Palestine” that would “galvanize Jewish life the world over.” Then and later, he would repeatedly assert that “the political thrust of Zionism is for me secondary.”

Only in the dire circumstances of the Nazi era did Silver come to understand that there would be no achieving Zionism’s cultural and spiritual aims without Jewish political independence—whereupon he tirelessly threw himself into helping to promote that overriding end. The chance came to form a united front on the issue came in August 1943, fifteen months after the Biltmore conference, as delegates representing virtually all of American Jewry assembled at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.

 

A significant majority at the Waldorf conference were affiliated with Zionist organizations, thus improving the odds of obtaining a full-throated call for a Jewish state. Still, there was strong opposition to be overcome. Judge Joseph M. Proskauer, influential president of the non-Zionist American Jewish Committee, was pushing for a watered-down resolution demanding removal of the British-imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine but omitting any mention of statehood. Several prominent Zionists were of similar mind. Even Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, co-chair with Silver of the American Zionist Emergency Council, had cold feet; as Raphael writes, Wise “explicitly urged the delegates not to adopt the Biltmore program’s final plank.”

Silver himself had not been allotted speaking time at the Waldorf conference, but the militantly Zionist delegates of the American Jewish Congress had arranged to send him to the platform. No audio recording exists of the speech he proceeded to deliver—which may be just as well since we’ve lost the taste for his style of high public oratory. On this occasion, however, his words, which were in no sense overblown, are sufficient in themselves to convey their profound impact on those listening.

“The reconstitution of the Jewish people as a nation in its homeland,” Silver declared,

is not a playful political conceit of ours. . . . It is the cry of despair of a people driven to the wall, fighting for its very life. . . . . From the infested, typhus-ridden ghetto of Warsaw, from the death-block of Nazi-occupied lands where myriads of our people are awaiting execution by the slow or the quick method, from a hundred concentration camps which befoul the map of Europe . . . comes the cry: “Enough, there must be a final end to all this, a sure and certain end!”

How long is it to last? Are we forever to live a homeless people on the world’s crumbs of sympathy?. . . Should not all this be compensated for finally and at long last with the re-establishment of a free Jewish Commonwealth?

Is not this historic justice, and is this world today not reaching out so desperately and so pathetically for a new world order of justice?. . . Are we not deserving of it?

Are we going to take counsel here of fear of what this one or that one might say, of how our actions are likely to be misinterpreted; or are we to take counsel of our inner moral convictions, of our faith, of our history, of our achievements, and go forward in faith?

In the judgment of the Israeli historian Ofer Schiff, these words of Silver’s, which “overwhelmed the hundreds of delegates at the congress and brought many of them to tears,” reflect “the principled, American democratic meaning that Silver lent to the demand for the establishment of a national home.” I’m not so sure. It’s true that, in earlier speeches, Silver had explicitly linked the creation of a Jewish state to the overall American war aim of fostering a new world order. But there is a simpler explanation for why he electrified his audience at the Waldorf: he made them feel the agony of the Jews caught in Hitler’s web, preparing them for the climactic moment when he would hammer home the only logical answer to their kinsmen’s desperate predicament:

We cannot truly rescue the Jews of Europe unless we have free immigration into Palestine. We cannot have free immigration into Palestine unless our political rights are recognized there. Our political rights cannot be recognized there unless our historic connection with the country is acknowledged and our right to rebuild our national home is reaffirmed. These are inseparable links in the chain. The whole chain breaks if one of the links is missing. Do not beguile yourselves. Do not let anyone beguile you. . . .

The speech won the day. Weeping delegates rose to sing Hatikvah, over and over again, and then resoundingly moved to endorse the resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth. Rabbi Elmer Berger, the director of the newly formed American Council for Judaism—an anti-Zionist rump of the Reform movement—tried to make light of the event. (“No one could say that in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1943, the Jewish ‘people’ had asked for a Jewish state.”) But Tamar de Sola Pool, the president of Hadassah, better understood what had been accomplished:

We have now won over not merely individuals; we now have at our side whole national organizations with thousands and hundreds of thousands of members. . . . They are now flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. All that we stand for, all that we struggle for, has become for them, too an integral ideal.

 

Uniting the great majority of American Jews behind the Biltmore program did not, of course, bring that program to fruition. In the aftermath of the conference, the Zionists’ major task, in the words of Rabbi Israel Goldstein, the new president of the ZOA, was to “win the wholehearted approval of the American Government and people.”

The effort to obtain that approval, and then to sustain it, is not the most exciting part of the Zionist saga during those years, but it is nonetheless of central importance. After World War II, had the American government not become involved in the Palestine question and done what it did for the Zionist movement, a Jewish state would most likely never have come into being.

Ronald and Allis Radosh have made this abundantly clear in their recent A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, a book in which Abba Hillel Silver naturally plays a major role. The Radoshes do not dwell at length, however, on the crucial work performed by Silver in the period prior to the Truman administration. It was in those few years that he laid the basis for what was to come.

 

Right after the Waldorf-Astoria conference, writes Rabbi Leon I. Feuer, Silver’s Washington deputy, “Dr. Silver asked me (drafted me would be more accurate) to take a year’s leave of absence from my Toledo congregation, which generously consented, to take charge of the office of the Emergency Council which was to be opened in Washington and which would have to become the focus of our activities.” Before settling in the capital, Feuer spent some weeks in New York City organizing roughly 150 “active and enthusiastic local committees” dedicated to mobilizing Jewish opinion and action around the country. The extraordinary labors these activists would perform made them, for Feuer, some of “the unsung heroes of the struggle for the founding of Israel.”

Once in Washington, Feuer put together a core team that, under Silver’s leadership, strove

a) to inform and educate congressmen and other government officials and such other persons outside of government—reporters, editors, former government officials—who might be able to exert some influence on American policy, about the urgency of the Jewish situation in Europe as well as about the justice and legality of the Zionist cause; b) to develop as much opposition as we could in the same quarters to the [1939] British White Paper [reneging on the Balfour Declaration and strangling Jewish immigration to Palestine]; c) and finally to focus our efforts either on the introduction and passage through Congress of a resolution expressing opposition to the British White Paper, or to go the whole way and try to put the Congress on record as favoring the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine after the war.

Feuer’s 1976 reminiscence, The Birth of the Jewish Lobby [sic!], gives due credit to Silver’s inspirational role but doesn’t say enough about the extent of his direct involvement in day-to-day affairs during this formative period. That story appears in an earlier book by Feuer, A Personal Memoir (1967). There he recalls how, “during the hectic period of the 1940s, when he was leading the Zionist campaign for American support,” Silver “was compelled to spend nearly every week from Monday to Thursday in New York and Washington.” He would then return home to Cleveland almost every weekend “to meet with his confirmation class, which he disliked missing, and to occupy his pulpit on Sunday mornings.”

Silver’s devotion to the task was, Feuer tells us, “simply indescribable.” He “traveled constantly, addressed literally hundreds of meetings, interviewed scores of prominent personages, and fought like a tiger to make the cause and his judgment of events prevail.” Feuer had known Silver and looked up to him from the time he was a teenager; his recollections of the man, if not exactly lyrical, help us not only to see him better but to understand the kind of admiration he was capable of exciting in the right company.

 

Harry Truman was not among that company. In fact, he couldn’t stand Silver, and his refusal to meet with him in early 1948 is one of the reasons why the Zionist leaders, at the end of the day, required the services of Eddie Jacobson. But the great leader of American Zionism deserves to be better remembered than Truman’s admittedly helpful buddy.

He also deserves to be better remembered than another man with whom he might be more appropriately compared: Judah Magnes. The California-born Magnes was one of a number of Reform rabbis who had broken early with the movement’s anti-Zionist outlook. An associate rabbi for a time at New York’s Temple Emanu-El, and a leader of American Jewry in the 1910s, Magnes had left the U.S. in 1922 for Palestine, where he became president of the newly founded Hebrew University.

Like Silver, Magnes was above all a cultural Zionist. He differed with Silver, however, in seeing the political thrust of Zionism as not merely secondary but altogether expendable. “I should be willing,” he announced after the murderous anti-Jewish Arab riots of 1929, “to yield the Jewish ‘State’ and the Jewish ‘majority’” in favor of a bi-national, Jewish-Arab government. Under such a regime, he believed, it would be possible to create “a spiritual and intellectual center for Judaism and the Jewish people” without depriving the Arabs of Palestine of their legitimate rights.

This was a position from which Magnes never deviated. Nothing that happened subsequently, either in Europe or in Palestine, led him to reassess his view. During World War II, he led the opposition to the Biltmore program; after the war, he lobbied actively in Washington against the establishment of a Jewish state. As late as May 1948, after Eddie Jacobson had done his work, he was still urging President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall to replace the UN partition plan with a UN trusteeship over all of Palestine.

Magnes was not benighted; perhaps worse, he was an idealist. “Obstinate and single-minded,” in the words of the historian Arthur Goren, he was “a preacher turned political man who refused to accept the dichotomy between the moral and the real worlds.” This last aspect of his character, indeed, is what has made him a latter-day object of admiration among some Jewish intellectuals disaffected from the state of Israel and the Zionist cause. One shudders to imagine how things might have unfolded had Magnes possessed the talents and influence of Silver, a no less obstinate and single-minded preacher-turned-politician. Fortunately, he did not.

At a time of great crisis, Abba Hillel Silver saw very clearly that the immediate imperative was Jewish independence, and that in the absence of this, all dreams of Jewish cultural renewal in Palestine, let alone the fates of untold numbers of Jewish survivors and refugees, would go forfeit. He set aside everything else—everything—in order to fight tooth and nail for that overriding imperative. Only after independence had been won did he return to his earlier preoccupations as a rabbi and scholar, concerning himself in his later years with what he never ceased to see as Zionism’s task of preserving “the integrity of our spiritual heritage,” and transmitting it to the rest of the world.

________________

Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University and senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.

More about: Chaim Weizmann, Foreign Policy, Harry Truman, Israel, Jewish State, Nazism, Palestine, Zionism

 

A Woman Who Fired the Torches

Why Jewish girls are named after the fierce prophetess Deborah.

A Woman Who Fired the Torches
An engraving of Deborah by the French artist Gustave Doré. Wikiart.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Jan. 29 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


Most epics involve heroic men leaving women to pursue adventure, victory, and conquest. Odysseus leaves his wife Penelope and the enchantress Circe, Aeneas leaves Dido, Homer’s Iliad is set in motion first by the theft of a woman, Helen, and then by an argument over the female spoils of war that erupts between the warlord Agamemnon and his mercenary Achilles, the poem’s hero.

But what does any of this have to do with Torah? It has to do with the haftarah for this week’s portion of Beshalah (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16), which concerns the military exploits of the prophetess Deborah. The story appears in the biblical book of Judges, a peculiar work that I often think of as a collection of absurdist parables. But this particular reading (Judges 4:4 – 5:31) is different. It strikes me as a mock-epic, and it never ceases to amaze me with its command of that form—and with its fine savagery.

The climax of the Iliad, the greatest heroic story ever told, is the confrontation between Achilles and the opposing general Hector. Having finally tracked him down, Achilles pursues Hector in Homeric lines thrillingly translated by Christopher Logue:

And Achilles went for him, fast, sure of his speed
as the wild mountain hawk, the quickest thing on wings,
launching smoothly, swooping down on a cringing dove
and the dove flits out from under, the hawk screaming
over the quarry, plunging over and over, his fury
driving him down to beak and tear his kill—

And then, in the translation by Robert Fitzgerald,

The two men ran, pursuer and pursued
And he who fled was noble, he behind
A greater man by far. They ran full speed
And not for bull’s hide or a ritual beast
Or any prize that men compete for: no,
But for the life of Hector, tamer of horses.

That’s the sort of story—a story about men in battle, and about horses—that we have reason to think we’re going to be getting here in the book of Judges. But not this time:

And Deborah was a prophet woman,
A woman who fired the torches,
She judged over Israel at that time:
And she sat under a date tree, Deborah,
From the heights to Beit El at Mount Ephraim
And the children of Israel went up to her for judgment.

And she sent and called for Barak son of Avinoam
From Kedesh in Naftali and said to him,
Did not the Lord God of Israel command,
Go and draw men from Mount Tabor
And take with you ten-thousand men
From the sons of Naftali and sons of Zebulun?
And I will draw for you to the river Kishon
Sisrah, the warlord of Yavin, and his chariots
With his multitude and put him in the palm of your hand.

And Barak said to her, If you go with me I’ll go
And if you don’t go with me I won’t go.
And she said, Go I shall indeed go with you
But your fame will not be found on the path you’re set on,
For in a woman’s hand the Lord will deliver Sisrah.
And Deborah rose and went with Barak to Kedesh
And Barak called up Zebulun and Naftali at Kedesh
And he went up with ten-thousand men at his heels
And Deborah went up with him.

This haftarah plays with your expectations by carrying on about Barak and his ten-thousand men. True, you’re told upfront that this is an odd sort of epic: the prophet is a woman, and the hero whom she summons hasn’t the guts to make a move without her. And then she tells him that a woman will be the one who does in Sisrah, which makes you think Deborah herself, who’s leading the action, will be the vanquisher. In  just a few lines we’ll be in the heat of battle, but first there’s a lull as the focus returns to Barak and his ten-thousand men, whom he marches up the hill and promptly marches down again (rather like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme). Finally the battle starts and—surprise—this isn’t a war story after all:

And they told Sisrah that Barak son of Avinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor:
And Sisrah called up all his infantry,
nine-hundred steel chariots,
And all the people who were with him from Haroshet Goyim
To the river Kishon. And Deborah said to Barak, now rise
For this is the day the Lord has put Sisrah in your hand
Will not the Lord go out before you!

And Barak came down from Mount Tabor
With ten-thousand men behind him,
And God stampeded Sisrah and all his chariots and all his camp
At sword point before Barak
And Sisrah got down off his chariot and fled on foot.
And Barak chased after the chariots and the camp up to Haroshet Hagoyim
And the entire camp of Sisrah fell at sword point, there was not a single one left.

Who’s doing the fighting here isn’t Barak; it’s the Lord, and the fight is over before you know it. Bang! The mighty host is routed and wiped out to the last man. Sisrah is fleeing, and Barak is after him, and now we devotees of the epic are waiting for the climax, the heroic confrontation, Achilles and Hector, the sweaty clinch as two superwarriors go at it mano a mano. Instead, as befits a mock-epic, we have a war waged by women against women.

And Sisrah fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Haver the Kenite
For there was peace between Yavin king of Hatzor
And the house of Haver the Kenite.

And Yael went out to face Sisrah
And said to him, Turn my lord, turn to my house, don’t be afraid
And he turned to her into the tent
And she covered him with a blanket.
And he said to her, Please let me drink
A little water, for I’ve been thirsty,
And she opened the sack of milk
And let him drink and covered him over.
And he said to her, Stand at the tent opening
And should a man come and ask you, saying, Is anyone there?
You can say there is no one.

And Yael the wife of Haver took the tent peg
And put the hammer in her hand
And she came to him softly
And stuck the peg in his brow
Till it went through to the ground,
And he’d been dozing and weary and he died.
And here Barak was chasing after Sisrah
And Yael came out to face him
And she said to him, Go
and I’ll show you the man you seek.
And he came to her and here was Sisrah
Dropped dead with the peg in his brow

Deborah has called up the charge. Sisrah in his abject flight has stumbled across the tent of Yael who, echoing Abraham’s words to the angels in Genesis (18:2-5) and acting the perfect hostess, not to mention a wicked witch in a fairy tale, entreats him to come inside. He asks for water and she gives him milk—which, the rabbis note in their commentary, is a soporific and which to my ear has a maternal ring; she gives him a glass of milk and covers him up, as if putting a baby to sleep. You can almost see her switching off the nightlight as she creeps out of the room. Then she’s back with the tent peg—has there ever been a phallic object less heroic?—and she puts it through his brow so far that it goes into the ground.

What I always find at once the most barbaric and most refined touch is the song at the end, which moves from praising the heroic glories of the Lord, to Sisrah’s dramatic encounter with Yael,  to the homely details of a domestic scene in which Sisrah’s mother is depicted waiting impatiently for her son’s triumphal return from battle.

Blessed of all women be Yael
Wife of Haver the Kenite,
Blessed of all women of the tent:
He asked for water, she gave him milk,
In the cup for great guests she offered him cream.
Her hand to the tent peg she reached
And her right hand to the workman’s blow
And battered Sisrah, wiped out his head,
And crushed and went through his brow.
Between her legs he knelt and fell
Where he knelt, there he fell, lost.

Through the window spying and wailing
Sisrah’s mother at the lintel,
Why does his chariot dally and not come,
Why does the rattle of his chariots tarry?
The wisest of her ladies will console
And even she repeats what they prattle.
For will they not find and divide spoils,
A maidenhead or two for each fellow?
The trove of the colors shall go to Sisrah
The trove of colors that are embroidered,
Colors embroidered on both sides for their necks in spoils.

So shall all your foes be lost, Lord,
And His adorers as the sun coming out in full force.
And the land was quiet for forty years.

This song, sung by Deborah herself, is the triumphant cry of one woman over another. You think your son is sharing our daughters with his men, you think he’s getting the best of our needlework? Think again, honey! And then, from the wrenching close-up of Sisrah’s mother and her ladies-in-waiting, fantasizing about Sisrah’s expected haul of pretty baubles, the song abruptly shifts register, the camera pulls back, and we’re given a panoramic shot of the Lord’s armies rising like the sun itself.

I always look forward to this haftarah, and I always find it stomach-churning. David rejoicing over the fall of Goliath is as nothing compared with Deborah exalting Yael and jeering at Sisrah’s mother. Besides, when David beheads the giant Goliath, you take comfort in the victory of a lean and ascetic youth armed only with his slingshot over the gargantuan and heavily armored professional warrior. Where in this story is the moral uplift? The Lord doesn’t need armies, He doesn’t need swords, He doesn’t even need Jews. If He’s decided against you, He’ll find some friendly lady of another tribe to offer you a drink of water, and while you’re wiping the milk from your upper lip, there’ll be a tiny pain at your temple and so long, Achilles.

And there’s just the point. As this mock-epic shows most graphically, the Lord of hosts doesn’t need heroes. And a horse, as Psalm 33 puts it, is a vain thing for deliverance. That is the moral of this tale: it’s not about the horses. Deborah knows that, Barak does not. That’s why Jewish girls are named after her, and Jewish boys are named after prophets, not warriors.

More about: Book of Judges, Deborah, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?

Is the tech term, as in computer hacker, connected with the verb hakn, meaning to chop?

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?
Members of Anonymous, the internet hacking collective. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
Jan. 28 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be addressed to philologos AT mosaicmagazine.com.


Mosaic reader Max J. Katz writes:

I am interested in the etymology of “hacker” as it is used in computer technology to mean variously an expert, gamester, or someone who maliciously intrudes upon someone else’s computer to change or manipulate it. In particular, I wonder whether there is a connection with the Yiddish verb hakn, meaning to chop.

There is an extensive literature on the history of “hacker”—and also extensive disagreement. One thing there is no argument about is that the term was first used for computer buffs in the early 1960s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally, it seems, a hacker at MIT was not specifically a lover of computers and their programs; rather, he was anyone who was more passionate about an extra-curricular hobby than about his academic studies. The earliest documentation of the word denoting such students dates to the late 1950s, when members of an MIT model-railroad club used it for themselves.

From this point on, the questions take over. Were the first program hackers out from the start to gain control of other people’s computers for nefarious purposes, or were they simply digital fun-lovers whose pranks meant no harm? If the latter, should the meaning of “hacker” be revised to rid it of the negative connotations that have colored it strongly since the 1980s, so that it once again refers to all programming enthusiasts and not just the criminally minded? And if so, what should criminal hackers be called? (Among the terms suggested have been “computer vandals,” “crackers,” and “white-hat hackers” as opposed to “black-hat hackers.”)

And finally: what is the etymology of “hacker”?

The dominant theory is that the word came from “to hack” in its sense of to cut or to chop. According to University of California computer scientist Brian Harvey, a member of the first hacker generation:

Popular opinion at MIT posited that there are two kinds of students, tools and hackers. A “tool” is someone who attends class regularly, is always to be found in the library when no class is meeting, and gets straight A’s. A “hacker” is the opposite: someone who never goes to class, who sleeps all day, and who spends the night pursing recreational activities rather than studying. There was thought to be no middle ground.

The hacker, in other words, has no patience for the traditional ways of doing things, such as using tools in an accepted manner. He takes what comes to hand and chops away with it. The only connection with Yiddish would be that “to hack” and hakn are close cognates, belonging to a group of words that also includes German hacken, to cut, chop, or cleave, and Dutch hakke, a hoe. Some of us know the Yiddish verb hakn from the Yinglish idiom “to hock a cheinik,” that is, “to bang a teakettle” or rattle away verbally at someone.

The problem with this is that both “hack” and “hacker” have numerous other meanings in American slang that could equally have influenced students at MIT. Many of these also stem from hack in its meaning of chop, while others go back to hackney, a 14th-century English word that originally designated an old nag or worn-out horse, and subsequently, shortened to hack, came to refer to a dilapidated old car or carriage, a cab, a driver earning his livelihood from such a vehicle, or anyone making a living from dull or unworthy work.

Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a given meaning of “to hack,” “hack,” or “hacker” derives from the hack=chop or hackney line of words or has been produced by an interaction between them. Here are a few of these meanings:

Hack: Someone working at a job for which he is insufficiently skilled, trained, or motivated.

Hack it: To cope successfully with a difficult situation, often by improvised means.

Hacker: An amateur tennis or golf player with a clumsy swing, and by extension, any inept beginner or practitioner.

 Hack:  An athlete who routinely fouls other athletes. Also, an unfair play in football or other sports.

Hack:   Someone who spoils someone else’s art work by drawing on it.

 Hack:   An ugly or nasty solution to a problem.

Hack:    To cut off another driver and speed away.

Hack: To steal a joke from a comedian.

To complicate matters further, while any of these usages might have contributed to MIT’s “hacker,” it is also possible, the date of first appearance being uncertain, that some were the results of it. It’s one of those etymological questions that will probably never have a clear answer. And just to add, for Mr. Katz’s benefit, one more unlikely possibility with a Yiddish angle, consider this:

In the debate over whether computer hackers are or are not intrinsically objectionable figures, those who claim they are not have had recourse to the analogy of a locksmith. Just as picking locks, they contend, can be used for both bad ends like burglary and good ones like letting someone into a house he is locked out of, so computer hacking has its positive sides, too.

A lock in Yiddish is a shlisl. And what’s a lock pick? I won’t ask you to hold your breaths. It’s a hakshlisl. 

More about: Arts & Culture, Language, Philologos, Yiddish

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women

What drove the great writer to employ a “harem” of translators? A new film tells much, but not all.

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women
Courtesy The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
 
Observation
Jan. 21 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


Writers have their way with the world until they depart from it, and then they are at the mercy of those who interpret them. This mischievous turnabout would have appealed to Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), possibly the most prolific and certainly the most famous Yiddish writer of the 20th century, whose reputation is now in the hands of types he once turned into fiction. But if The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a new documentary movie by the Israeli directors Asaf Galay and Shaul Betser, is any portent, the afterlife of this particular writer may be graced by the same improbable good fortune he enjoyed on earth.

In explaining the genesis of his project, Galay tells us that, as a devoted reader of Singer in Hebrew and English, he was struck by the sheer number of the master’s translators. He counted 48 names before stopping—a figure high enough to tweak his imagination, especially since almost all were women. Among these women are the several “muses” featured in Galay’s movie as talking heads and/or in vintage footage. As it happens, notoriety had long since attached itself to those whom Singer called “his harem,” implying that his lady translators were also at his sexual behest. Interviewing some of these women, Galay found them perfectly ready to embroider the legend, if not to clarify which of the harem’s two parties was at the mercy of the other.

Isaac Singer came to New York from Warsaw in 1936, armed with a freshly published copy of his debut novel, Satan in Goray, but clueless in English and still in the literary shadow of his older brother Israel Joshua, who had sponsored his passage. It was to distinguish himself from the already famous I.J. that Isaac adopted the pen-name Bashevis, after his mother. But sibling rivalry wasn’t the only obstacle in his path. He also suffered from the loss of his natural readership, most of which had been left behind in Europe—an artistic challenge that would become still greater after World War II erased Polish Jewry almost in its entirety. Although he had steady work at the Yiddish daily Forverts (“Forward”), it could not make up for the loss of his formative world and consumer base. For a time, he considered himself “lost in America”—the English title of his fictionalized accounts of this period in his life.

Indeed, language was more important to Bashevis than to any Yiddish prose writer since Sholem Aleichem, whom he resembled in his command of the monologue and first-person narrative forms. Whereas others sought to prove that they could write in Yiddish about anything under the sun—and did—Bashevis felt that true literature was organically bound to its sources. On the rare occasion when he theorized about the literary process, he would make fun of the notion that Yiddish writers could evoke a milieu from which Yiddish itself was absent. How could they describe work in an American engineering firm, or the experience of shopping in an American department store, if the language was not actually spoken in those places?

This take on the relation of language to literature meant that he would have to confine his own writing either to the European past or to those immigrant Jewish enclaves of New York or Miami where Yiddish was still in use. In fact, his fiction never strayed from the world with which he was most intimately familiar.

All the more strange, then, that he came to be known mostly in translation—and that he himself would recruit translators wholesale, the way Microsoft recruits programmers. If his art lay in the specificities of Yiddish, he would regularly and incongruously instruct later translators to work off of earlier English translations—and told at least one of them not to bother learning Yiddish in the first place. In the movie, Janet Hadda, one of his biographers, explains this nonchalance as stemming from his raw desire for fame, his wish to be read globally, just the way he himself was able to devour fiction originating in many languages other than his own.

Indeed, Muses is most valuable in exploring this connection between Singer’s seduction of translators and his seduction of a worldwide readership.

 

On the former seduction, thankfully, the movie resists the temptation to reduce Singer to a lecherous predator, or to play his unsuccessful flirtations strictly for laughs, or, even more obviously, to transform itself into a feminist tract. At its New York premiere two weeks ago, an invited panelist suggested that the “muses” may have lent themselves to exploitation. To this, Galay responded that none had voiced any such complaint; to the contrary, all spoke of Singer with affection.

Interviewed for the film, some of the now-mature women who once worked with him express puzzlement at the suggestion that their younger selves would have agreed to sexual relations with this elderly man. Others insist on discretion, or are frankly amused, as if to say, “Me, exploited? By this pixie?” The film owes much of its buoyancy and humor to these interviewees, who are as idiosyncratic as many a character in Singer’s fiction; some of them inspired it.

Still, although for the most part Muses skirts the darker themes with which modern Yiddish literature is often associated—breakup and cultural dislocation, persecution, destruction—its fairly lighthearted treatment does not extend to the author’s relations with his family, including his son Israel, who became one of his Hebrew translators, and his granddaughter Meirav, who has taken partial charge of his legacy. But no one at all familiar with Singer’s fiction, much of it drawn from biographical and autobiographical material, could be surprised by the devastation that he left in his wake.

In the novel Enemies, the protagonist’s dilemmas with his several wives bear a striking resemblance to the dilemmas of his creator. When Isaac married Alma Haimann in 1940, both were already married: in leaving Poland for America, he had abandoned his common-law wife Runya and their young son. Though the couple had separated earlier, the wife clearly expected him to sponsor their immigration to the States; after mother and son moved to Palestine, she expected him to join her there. He did neither.

As for Alma, in marrying Isaac she abandoned not only her husband but their two children; in the film, her niece’s account of this episode is told without rancor, but a haunting photograph of the young children may be the documentary’s most disturbing moment. In transferring her loyalty to Isaac, Alma also bore his infidelities, which included a regular mistress and a number of casual ones. The documentary treats this couple and their situation with greater sympathy than the author extends to analogous characters in his work.

 

Intentionally or not, Muses seems to draw a distinction between those who depended on Isaac materially or emotionally and others who simply enjoyed the frisson of closeness with a great writer. The former suffered and felt betrayed; the latter were mainly unscarred. But the focus on his translators lets us in on more than how this writer affected the people around him. It invites us to consider whether, and how, his attitude toward the women he shuffled about, exchanging one for the next in succession, corresponded to his indifference to precise translation, and perhaps to something deeper as well.

With colleagues and students, and with my brother David Roskies, who also teaches Yiddish literature, I’ve often joined in the exercise of comparing the Yiddish original of a Bashevis story or novel with its English translation, just to see how the alteration affects the outcome. Occasionally we speculate about the reasons for a specific change: simplification for a non-Jewish readership?; the felt need to replace an optimistic ending with a tragic one? But the testimony of his translators in Muses hints at something else—that he was almost spiteful in his resistance to the idea of a perfectly finished work. Just as the conflicted male protagonist of a typical Bashevis work is left dangling at the end of his story, arbitrariness seems a principle of the art itself. The spirit of the author stands behind those endings as though he were saying, “Really, what difference does it make?”

And there is still more to be said. One of Bashevis’s tales of childhood (from the series In My Father’s Court) describes him, as a still-traditional Jewish boy in long caftan and earlocks, on a visit to his older brother I.J. in an artists’ atelier. There he comes upon nude models and other young women who smile condescendingly at his covered head and sidecurls—for they, too, have recently crossed over to impiety from the observant Jewish homes of their parents.

In real life, many of Bashevis’s fellow Jews who traversed this same divide would try in various ways and by various means to reconcile the two sides. But the young man who emerged from that boy in the Warsaw atelier never believed in the negotiation. For him, leaving the world of Jewish religious containment, known today as haredi, meant consignment to a world of moral indifference in which a man might just as well give in to his lusts: for women, for fame, and for stories that take their own direction or none. Even as his distrust of a binding love between man and woman finds a correlative in his suspicion of perfectly realized works of art, his unfaithfulness to both his women and his works seems like a surrender to the moral arbitrariness of life itself. If one no longer believed in the Perfect God and His Torah, what reason to seek perfection elsewhere?

Not that Muses makes any of this explicit. But its cheerful, generous tone does finally give way to a certain anxiety about its subject. The primary cause of anxiety is Isaac’s treatment of the people who relied on him, especially his family; next comes his treatment of the translators, none of whom he ever wanted to hold on to; ultimately, though, there is his distrust of, or disdain for, the artistic endeavor itself, and what that might signify. If he clowned a little for his American interviewers and for Swedish royalty when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was as if to let them know, and to remind himself, that in becoming a Yiddish writer in a world without Yiddish, he had lost faith in the ultimate value of the word, or the Word. For all his thirst for acclaim and veneration, his negligent indifference to translation affirmed that the modern writer was to be trusted no more than, and perhaps less than, modern man.

More about: Arts & Culture, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish literature

 

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?

The liberal way of life is remarkably fragile. Is the West willing to fight for it?

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?
Mourners carry the coffin of Franck Brinsolaro, one of two French police officers killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo. AP Photo/Francois Mori.
 
Observation
Jan. 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Simon Gordon, a former Tikvah Fellow, is a policy adviser at the embassy of Israel in London. The views expressed here are his own.


Last week, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were not the only journalists targeted for affronting Muslim doctrine. Raif Badawi, founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, who was convicted of blasphemy by a Saudi court in 2012 and later resentenced, more harshly, to ten years’ imprisonment, a fine of 1 million riyals, and 1,000 lashes, received his first flogging two days after the massacre in Paris. Although the Saudi regime joined the worldwide condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French cartoonists wouldn’t have fared much better had they made the Gulf state their publishing base. The only difference was the lack of official imprimatur on their execution: they were murdered by Islamist vigilantes, not an Islamist judiciary.

Neither the criminalization of blasphemy in Muslim countries nor the murder of blasphemers in Europe by Islamists is a new phenomenon. On the contrary: from Pakistan to Algeria via Iran and Egypt, blasphemy laws are rigorously enforced. Even in free countries, ever since Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, dissenters have had to fear for their lives. But the coincidence of last week’s events is noteworthy for what it reveals not only about the state of Islamism in the world today but about the state of liberal democracy. Briefly: rather than the West exporting liberal democracy to the Middle East, as many had fantasized during the late lamented “Arab Spring,” it is the Middle East that is exporting Islamism to the free world.

The brutal reach of Islamism is now global. In the last four weeks alone, we have seen a lone jihadist take ten hostages in Sydney, Australia, leaving three dead; Taliban gunmen slaughter 132 children in a Pakistani school; and, at the same time as the attacks in France, Boko Haram massacre perhaps as many as 2,000 in the Nigerian city of Baga. This is to say nothing of the ongoing ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Islamic State; or the continued persecution of Christians in not only Syria and Iraq but Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and Libya—all at the hands of Islamist terror groups or acquiescent governments.

With depressing predictability, the rise in Islamism has also intensified terror against Jews. The attack on the HyperCacher supermarket in Vincennes, in which four Jews were murdered, was merely the latest in a long series of such assaults, amidst a climate of anti-Semitism that is contributing to the slow exodus of Europe’s largest Jewish community.

A month ago, three assailants broke into the home of a Jewish couple in the Paris suburb of Créteil and raped the nineteen-year old wife, telling them, “It’s because you’re Jewish.” During Israel’s war with Hamas over the summer, Jewish shops were smashed and firebombed in Sarcelles, Jewish worshippers were besieged in a synagogue in Paris’s 11th district, and pro-Palestinian rallies were punctuated by cries of “Mort aux juifs,” death to the Jews. Three years ago, Mohamed Merah murdered four, including three children, in a killing spree at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse. According to France’s Ministry of the Interior, French Jews, who make up 1 percent of the population, were the victims of 40 percent of the terror attacks in 2013.

French Jews have not been the sole victims. Across the border in Belgium, the situation is little better, with Mehdi Nemmouche shooting four dead in an attack six months ago on Brussels’ Jewish Museum. Nor is the problem unique to Jews in the Diaspora—as November’s vicious knife murders of Jews at prayer in Jerusalem testify. As even the British Guardian, no friend of Israel, noted at the time, the prospect of synagogues in the Jewish state needing to be protected by armed guards in the manner of so many synagogues in the Diaspora is “a bleak thought for a country established to be a safe haven.”

 

The ascendancy of Islamism, affecting different continents and countries of profoundly different cultures, and taking place in spite of—or as a result of—the withdrawal of Western troops from the Middle East, gives the lie to axioms that have undergirded much of the discourse on terrorism over the past decade. Above all, the prevalent idea that Islamist attacks are a response to Western interference or military adventurism is now revealed as supremely narcissistic—a hubristic exaggeration of the influence of the West and underestimation of its attackers. As both the rise of IS and the attacks in Paris attest, the free world is not dictating events but reacting to them: the agenda is being set by the Islamists.

No less highlighted by the terror attacks is the extent to which Islamism is a unified ideology, seeking to impose its principles no matter the cultural or religious surroundings in which it finds itself. It is not merely the terror networks themselves, or their funding networks, that are global—although the Kouachi brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo murders were graduates of a study-abroad program on murder in Yemen, and al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, Hamas, and others continue to find willing sponsors in oil-rich Gulf states and clandestine donors in Europe. Rather, it is the ideology represented by groups like IS—the commitment to exclusionary, imperialist theocracy—that is attracting adherents from Sydney to East London and providing the base of doctrine and belief on which the attacks are predicated.

In embedding itself as a cultural phenomenon within liberal democracies, Islamism has already succeeded in limiting the liberties that citizens of free countries take for granted and subtly changing their way of life. For all of the Je Suis Charlie hashtags and rallies, writers, politicians, and contributors to social media will remain much more reluctant openly to criticize or satirize Islam or Muslim figures than they are to lampoon those of other faiths.

Indeed, after the Paris attacks and the firebombing of  the Hamburger Morgenpost four days later for daring to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the likely prospect is for an even greater degree of caution about causing offense to Muslims. For their part, Jews in France and elsewhere in Europe will continue to fear to wear kippot and other religious symbols openly, and may well feel more compelled to conceal their identities. In this respect, the Islamists have already attained a victory.

 

The spread of Islamism into the heartland of liberal democracy, and its influence on liberal culture, thus demand a thorough recalibration of attitudes. The notion that changing foreign policy, or redoubling domestic efforts to integrate the marginalized, or frankly appeasing Islamist demands will end the reign of terror is misguided not only because it underestimates the appeal of the Islamist worldview and the determination of its adherents. It is misguided because it overestimates the strength of liberal democracy.

The encroachment on civil liberties through anti-terror legislation is often said—not without reason—to threaten the very liberal ideals that it seeks to protect. But at the same time, the consequences of abandoning intrusive intelligence-gathering could well be worse—in terms of the potential loss not just of human life but of the liberal way of life. If politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens have already modified their behavior in response to terror attacks and the threat of violence on the street, how would they react if the scale of terrorism were increased ten or twentyfold? Would they still be tweeting #JeSuisCharlie?

Indeed, the low-level surveillance state already implemented by governments around the world signals an implicit repudiation of the complacent idea that Islamism is a fringe issue, that the West is so dominant as to be essentially impregnable, or that the progressivist vision of liberal democracy must endure because any regress is unthinkable. The truth, as millions have discovered to their cost in recent years, is that progress toward liberal democracy is far from assured, and that states can quite easily fail.

The fragility of liberal democracy, and the price of losing it, are perhaps most appreciated in France. As a people who have been through two monarchies, two empires, two foreign occupations (including one home-grown fascist government), in addition to five republics in the centuries following a much-celebrated but immensely bloody revolution, the French are more conscious than most Western nations of how easy it is for systems of government to change or fall, and more convinced that liberty is something that must be maintained and fought for rather than taken for granted or bargained slowly away.

Does this mean that, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, France will seize the opportunity to lead a reawakening of the liberal democratic West? Will a country long depressed by persistent economic malaise, deeply disillusioned with its leadership, and troubled by the disconnection between its self-perceived geopolitical importance and its actual, peripheral profile take the lead in shaping the Western world’s response to terror and confidence in its ideals?

Unfortunately, there are reasons for doubt. But time will tell, and there’s precious little of it.

More about: Charlie Hebdo, European Jewry, France, Islamism, liberal democracy