Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist

A just-reissued classic explores an unfamiliar realm of Jewish experience—and is a great American tale besides.

Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the Jewish Defense League, stands in the midst of protestors in Washington, March 20, 1977. AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi.

Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the Jewish Defense League, stands in the midst of protestors in Washington, March 20, 1977. AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi.

Observation
Nov. 18 2014
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 


For anyone interested in modern Israel, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (2013), by Yossi Klein Halevi, has been widely praised as essential reading (though some reviewers, including Ruth Wisse in Mosaic, have offered cooler appraisals). In my own generally positive review of the book, I expressed the hope that its success might win some attention for Halevi’s first two works, both of them autobiographical narratives that I find more engrossing than last year’s sprawling epic of the socialist left and the religious right in the Jewish state.

Now the first of those earlier books, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist (1995), has been republished with a new foreword by the author. In it, the American-born and -raised Halevi tells the story of his youth in the 1960s and 70s as the son of a Holocaust survivor; his activist participation in the movement to free Soviet Jewry; his involvement in and break with the extremist Jewish Defense League (JDL); and his eventual emigration from the United States to make his home in Israel.

“My father lived in a hole,” Memoirs begins, in a dark parody of the opening line of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. But the childhood tales on which Halevi was raised were not the stuff of Middle Earth fantasy but the dire chronicle of his father’s escape from Nazi cattle cars and the year he spent with two other Jews huddled in a six-by-eight-foot pit dug in the forest. After the war, having left Hungary and made his way to Brooklyn, where he married and where Halevi was born in 1953, the father sought to impart the truths his son would need to know in order to negotiate a world eternally hostile to Jews. “The most innocent details of our lives,” the boy learns, “contained awesome lessons for survival.” Among these lessons: the ever-suspect nature of Gentiles and the persistence, even if sometimes disguised, of their hatred.

This “Planet of the Jews,” as Halevi calls it, was the shadow opposite of the great mainstream, suburbanizing world of American Jewry in the 1950s and 60s; indeed, that world was the real target of his father’s contempt. To him, these truly “American” Jews were the comfortable and the complacent, anxious only when it came to preserving their still-fragile place in American society. During the war, they “didn’t try to save the relatives they’d left behind in Europe because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves with a noisy rescue campaign, jeopardize their assimilation into America.” After the war, they were the Jews “who were embarrassed to be ‘too’ Jewish, who laughed when a Yiddish word was mentioned in a joke as if that were itself the punch line, who turned an identity we’d been martyred for into vaudeville.”

“An identity we’d been martyred for.” With the emphasis on that “we,” Halevi writes that he internalized the severe conclusions of his father’s experience as if they and that experience were his own. “Though born in America, I was no American Jew. I would never assimilate, become a spectator to Jewish suffering.”

And so the conundrum of Halevi’s youth—and the central rift described in Memoirs—was how to reconcile his father’s view of the world with the incommensurately different reality of postwar America. His father’s “main teaching” was “to know the world without illusion.” Yet postwar America, seen without illusion, looked to be exceedingly hospitable to its Jews. Even his father insisted on the country’s fundamental goodness, its exceptional character. But his pre-adolescent son could not accept the contradiction. “My father’s love for America,” he writes of his boyhood convictions, “was a classic case of Jewish self-delusion, of refusing to see the world as it is.” Not for this youngster the mistake of Jewish naiveté that had doomed European Jews in the war. And so the son set out to find menace and threat, and to confront it boldly.

 

As became increasingly apparent during the 1960s, there was in fact a major Jewish population in danger of destruction. Not America’s, and not Israel’s (or at least so it would seem in the victorious wake of the Six-Day War), but the millions trapped in the Soviet Union and subject to an insidious campaign of persecution. Here was a crisis suited to Halevi’s youthful understanding of Jewish history. His early involvement in the movement to free Soviet Jews was, as for other young activists of the time, a signal of his distance from an American Jewish mainstream that was inveterately slow to act, uneasy about dramatic protest politics, and highly trusting of American administrations, especially Democratic ones, to make the right policy decisions.

All of twelve years old, Halevi became active in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ). Memoirs describes his encounters with Jacob Birnbaum, the founder of the vanguard youth organization, Glenn Richter, its indefatigable organizer, and Shlomo Carlebach, its de-facto bard, and portrays the group’s early marches and demonstrations. Yet by the early 1970s he had become hungry for redder meat, and soon discovered it in Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League.

Unlike SSSJ, with its civil-rights model of peaceful demonstrations and consciousness-raising, the JDL was temperamentally of a piece with the apocalyptic 1970s politics of the Weather Underground and Black Panthers. In their campaign of direct and often violent action on behalf of Soviet Jews, JDLers attacked the Soviet consulate in New York, disrupted concerts and performances by visiting Soviet artists, and engaged in acts of terrorism like exploding a pipe bomb outside Aeroflot’s Manhattan office. In a case that haunts this book, a JDL smoke bomb thrown into the office of the impresario Sol Hurok, who promoted concerts by visiting Soviet performers, took the life of a Jewish secretary by smoke inhalation.

Halevi’s personal claim to JDL fame was his own brainchild: organizing a sit-in not in New York but in Moscow itself. Not yet twenty, he and seven other young Jewish activists managed to get into the Soviet Union during Passover 1973 with the intention of occupying the Moscow emigration office. Their hope was to create a public embarrassment for the Soviets and for Washington at a time when some American congressmen and Jewish leaders were questioning the need to pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a crucial piece of legislation that would make normal American trade relations with the Soviet Union conditional on the Kremlin’s granting exit visas to its citizens. Halevi’s recounting of this dangerous venture and its outcome is the book’s most riveting episode.

The later portions of Memoirs go on to describe Halevi’s disillusionment with Kahane and break with the JDL. As the 1970s proceed, we see him sliding into shiftless nihilism, depression, and drugs. The final chapters, rather than pointing to a single event that would signal his emergence from his father’s shadow and his youthful demons, are instead an accretion of various episodes that, without reaching a definitive conclusion, bring us to a sense of cautious uplift. Chief among the episodes are his father’s death, his relationship with a charming New England WASP who converts to Judaism and becomes his wife, and their decision to move to Israel. Attending Thanksgiving dinner at his future wife’s family home in Greenwich, Connecticut, Halevi is surprised to find how little he feels an outsider, and delivers a little encomium to America:

Somehow, I belonged in this house’s history. America had created the neutral ground on which Lynn and I could so effortlessly join, allowed a Christian girl to bring home a boy named Yossi without creating a family scandal. America had not only given equality to the Jews but to Judaism, which Lynn could explore with simple curiosity, ignoring the stigma of centuries. America had let me heal, let me work out my inherited trauma, and be as angry as I wanted, even at America itself.

 

It is instructive to read Memoirs alongside David Horowitz’s Radical Son (1997), another fine memoir of the American 1960s. Horowitz, too, tells of a burdened childhood, in this case as the son of Communists; of involvement in radical politics (the New Left and the Black Panthers); and of a final break with the left. Each of these two similar political journeys turns on the relationship between a father and a son. In each, the abstracting urgency of a grand ideological struggle slowly gives way to the realities of personal loneliness, individual moral choice, and the possibility of connection. And each describes a slow acceptance of the fundamental beneficence of America.

Both memoirs, for all their protagonists’ youthful anti-Americanism, are thus also quintessentially American stories. The new edition of Halevi’s Memoirs bears the subtitle, “The Story of a Transformation,” but the original subtitle, “An American Story,” was more accurate. As Halevi himself acknowledges, even his involvement in the JDL was, ironically, an expression of his inescapable Americanness:

The JDL offered me entry into both the danger zone of Jewish history and the fun house of America, allowed me to become at once my father’s contemporary and a Yippie. Indeed, the JDL was the most fully American of any Jewish organization, for it tested, without anxiety, the limits of American tolerance toward Jews. We relied on the basic restraint of the police even as we provoked them, trusted in the protection of the American government even as we threatened its interests.

But there is more to Halevi’s book than this. In his foreword to the new edition of Memoirs, Halevi tells us that when he began to write the book in the early 1970s, at the age of nineteen, he intended it as “a defense of Jewish militancy,” but that “[a]fter abandoning the project and then returning to it two decades later, what emerged was a repudiation, rather than a celebration, of Jewish rage.”

In truth, the value of the book derives from neither of these impulses. Most American Jews today, going about their business while a genocidally inclined Iran acquires nuclear capability with the blandest of rebukes from the American president most of them voted for, hardly require a brief against Jewish militancy. Rather, the significance of Memoirs lies elsewhere.

First, it explores a realm of American Jewish experience unfamiliar to many: Orthodox, still working-class in an era of expanding Jewish affluence, and oppositional in a more than merely gestural way to the mainstream synthesis of American Jewish identity achieved by the children and grandchildren of the great wave of Eastern European immigrants.

In some ways, then, Memoirs is still quite cognate with the classic “World of Our Fathers” trajectory of American Jewish experience: immigration, Americanization, and generational conflict of the kind chronicled in, for instance, Isaac Rosenfeld’s mid-century autobiographical novel Passage from Home (1946). But Halevi’s story deals with the second half of the 20th century, and with the foundational realities of Israel and the Holocaust. More than a mere updating of the classic story, it shifts that story in new directions.

And that is its second, and greater, significance. Memoirs departs from the assumptions that still shape much of American Jewish writing and the cultural understandings of American Jews. It is decidedly and even profoundly an American story, but its trajectory points toward Israel. Indeed, to the extent that it is a story about transcending Jewish rage, that rage becomes resolved not in America but in the only place on the globe where such resolution can fully occur—and where the burdens of minority consciousness can be finally laid aside.

The results of this process can be seen in Halevi’s second book, which is a kind of unacknowledged sequel to Memoirs. In At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (2001), Halevi explains that only after becoming an Israeli and living in a majority-Jewish society was he able to engage undefensively with the spiritual beauty of Judaism’s sister religions.

My point here is not that Memoirs is a Zionist book, but that it is both an American and a Zionist book, a work of Jewish American writing that bids America a grateful farewell. This stance is unlikely to displace the central tendency of mainstream American Jewish literature, whose arc extends from Ellis Island to suburbia to, these days, the fictionalized shtetls of the postmodern imagination. Yet it is interesting that the novelist David Bezmozgis, himself one of those Soviet Jews on whose behalf the young Halevi fought in the late 1960s and early 70s, should recently have asserted that the current mode of American Jewish writing may altogether be reaching a point of exhaustion, and that future vitality and distinctiveness are more likely to be found through a long-deferred engagement with Israel.

If Bezmozgis is correct, then Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist is not just a chronicle of the past but advance notice of things to come.

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More about: American Jewish literature, Jewish Defense League, Meir Kahane, Yossi Klein Halevi