Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), founding editor of the Yiddish Forverts.
We present here the twelfth chapter from the memoirs-in-progress of the renowned scholar and author Ruth R. Wisse. Earlier chapters can be found here. Further installments will appear over the next months.
My father’s parting words to me were peculiar. Seized by pain, he had been diagnosed with kidney stones and scheduled for emergency surgery on the first day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah 1975. Because of his weak heart, his cardiologist was scheduled to be present as well. I accompanied our parents to the hospital and stayed in the room as the nurse poked needles into his veins. Everything happened so fast I was sure that after the operation I’d find him restored to health.
Thanks to sedatives, his pain must have subsided. Just before they transferred him to a gurney and wheeled him into surgery, he smiled at me and asked, “Vos vet zayn mit di goldene keyt?”
The problem here is not merely translating from the Yiddish but straining to understand the point of the question, “What will happen to the Golden Chain?”
Di goldene keyt was the quarterly literary journal founded in Tel Aviv by the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever in 1948. My parents were among its original supporters, contributing more than the annual subscription fee. But “The Golden Chain” was also the title of a mighty drama by Y.L. Peretz (1852-1915) that had brought the phrase into common use. Its four acts portray four generations of a rabbinic dynasty, each representing a different approach to leading the Jewish people in modern times. Sutzkever’s appropriation of the term for his publication signified his intention of adding new links to that great Jewish chain of transmission.
Was Father asking about the fate of the journal, about the corresponding fate of the Jewish people, or about our family? Why put this question to me when he was about to undergo surgery? Pricked to annoyance by this paternal appeal, his dim-witted daughter said: “If there’s enough interest in the journal it will survive and if not, it will fail.” I could have said, “If you’re concerned, I’ll write Sutzkever tomorrow assuring him of our continuing support.” I should have stroked the hand that wasn’t attached to the intravenous tube and reassured him that he could count on his children and grandchildren to preserve and to strengthen the golden chain, But I declined to give more assurance than I could guarantee—maybe because I still wanted him to secure our future and balked at assuming the burdens his question implied.
So the one time my father called me to duty, I refused to answer. He died during the operation.
On the anniversary of his death, a Canadian Yiddish paper referred to the late Leo Roskies as a gezelshaftlekher tuer, one active in community affairs. My mother, fierce guardian of language and reputation alike, reared up at the phrase without indicating what she would have liked to see in its stead. In fact, she had always encouraged us to learn from his example that a stellar reputation was superior to wealth. Shem tov k’even tov (a good name is a priceless gem).
My father had provided or found employment for refugees who arrived after the war, and anonymously funded people who needed his help. Thérèse Casgrain, a leading figure in the New Democratic party, attended his funeral to offer, on behalf of Quebec labor, appreciation for his management of Huntingdon Woolen Mills, which had never experienced a strike in the years he negotiated with the union. Representatives of the many charities and institutions he supported had similarly good reason to join us in mourning Father’s passing. My younger brother David recalls that as the funeral procession drove past on its way to the cemetery, students of the Jewish People’s School that we had all attended, and on whose board our father had been a permanent member, stood outside in tribute.
As our family was leaving the gravesite, I was motioned over by a wealthy member of the local Jewish community whom I had been surprised to see at the burial. He handed me a slip of paper and said, “You are chairman of McGill’s Jewish Studies program, and next week a building at the Hebrew University is being dedicated in my name. Here is the tribute I want you to send.” Vulgar as this was (if also a source of amusement to my colleagues), the incident remains my most vivid memory of the day. It bore in on me my inability to share it with Father, who would have reminded me of the man’s generosity or some other extenuating circumstance and urged me not to condemn him out of hand. Leo Roskies never needed to look down on another man in order to appear bigger than he himself was. Modesty was the cardinal feature of his authority—and the quality I came most to associate with true leadership.
In high school I had wanted to head every group of which I was a member, but over the years this ambition had subsided to the point that I became reluctant to assume any such tasks. A scholar-teacher has better things to do with her time, I thought, than chairing a department, pleading with deans, and defending budgets. Although never temperamentally a follower, I was nonetheless happiest in an academic department with an entrepreneurial, ambitious chairman, in a synagogue with a strong congregational rabbi, and in a country headed by whoever most resembled Winston Churchill.
Still, if you tend to speak up forcefully, people assume you are a candidate for leadership. In the early 1970s, after attending the second annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), I was invited to join its board, and then, once it had run through likelier candidates, to chair the program committee for the annual conferences, and in time to preside over the organization itself. (Lest you infer a quota system at work, Jane Gerber had preceded me as the first female president.) Genuinely reluctant to assume administrative responsibility for anything more than my program at McGill, I nonetheless yielded to Arnold Band, a founder and former president of AJS who undertook to persuade me that (a) no one else could do the job and (b) it did not require much doing.
Some of my interventions as president worked well, as when I corrected the under-representation of history at the annual conferences by asking several senior scholars to organize panels in this area. I made no headway, however, in promoting greater use of Hebrew or getting scholars to send complimentary copies of their books to the National Library of Israel. Nor could I persuade the feminist professors to place greater priority on furthering their academic disciplines than on promoting the women’s movement within the AJS, or stop efforts at politicization by American Friends of Peace Now. Once the founding generation passed from the scene, it was only a matter of time before the organization would trend more or less in lockstep with the rest of the academy.
Since I had joined AJS only in its second year, I was not privy to what had gone into its creation. When asked, “Who is a Jewish-studies scholar?,” its founding president Leon Jick had apparently answered in a string of negatives: neither an anti-Semitic propagandist nor a scholar without Hebrew language, nor a Bible teacher in a fundamentalist Christian seminary, nor a yeshiva rabbi whose “a-priori commitments severely limit the range of problems or alternatives that [he is] able to consider.”
The last of these was the real sticking point. Among the original members were former beneficiaries of a religious education who were eager to free academic Jewish studies from any association with the practice of Judaism. I thought this insecurity explained their eagerness to gain acceptance into the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). When our application was repeatedly turned down, their acute disappointment made me realize how much they still needed to prove their academic credentials.
Coming from Canada, I could not have cared less for acceptance by a body that was to me irrelevant. Having no exalted regard for universities in general, I did not crave any imprimatur. But in this I was short-sighted: the AJS was right to fight for inclusion among its peers. By the time this recognition finally arrived in 1985, the work we’d done to satisfy the criteria of ACLS had benefited us as an organization.
The only conflicts I recall from the early years were of the intramural kind. When it was proposed that an editorial board be formed for AJS Review, the association’s newly founded annual journal, the list of recommended candidates included a professor notorious for his vendettas and abuses of influence. Almost all of the other AJS board members were either his friends or in some way at risk of his reprisal. With no such threat hanging over me, I strongly opposed giving him even a smidgen of authority. In vain: he was voted in over my objections. By the time I returned home from the conference, a letter had arrived from him comparing me with Hitler. It made me laugh. Less amusing was the realization that he’d had an informer at the meeting.
There were lighter occasions for laughter. Each annual conference in the early years honored a senior scholar who had taught one or more of the association’s founders. These men tended to be as diminutive in height as they were mighty in knowledge. Until he spoke at the dinner in his honor, I had never encountered Harry Wolfson, Harvard’s formidable, Lithuanian-born and Yiddish-accented authority in Jewish (and early Christian, and Islamic) philosophy; for most of his talk, I couldn’t figure out who were the tchoitchfodders he kept referring to. (See how well you do.) During another speaker’s talk, I noticed some waiters behind the glass window gesturing others to come have a look at what was going on in the dining hall. Glancing around for the object of their amusement, I beheld a legion of academics asleep in their seats.
The first doctrinal issue I recall arising at the AJS involved the Hanukkah candles that we would light collectively whenever the conference coincided with that holiday. The year a woman was asked to light them was the last time we ever did so together, or recited communally the blessing after meals.
No one had ever considered Jewish studies the exclusive preserve of Jewish males, or for that matter of Jews, and as I’ve noted, the founders were determined to distinguish themselves from ex-seminarians. Still, the almost uniform profile of the membership in its early years was what made it natural to include certain Jewish rituals. Rather than debating the issue, eliminating these rituals had now become the simplest way to prevent the emergence of factionalism. Thereafter, adherence to kosher food remained the only institutional vestige of Jewishness.
I regretted the lost warmth of communal blessings. Like the AJS founders, I had considered the introduction of Jewish studies into higher education to be a final step in the normalization of Jews in America. That this was becoming a reality was confirmed when Charles Berlin, the executive director who ran the AJS single-handedly, concluded that our annual conference had outgrown the facilities of Brandeis and Harvard and approached Boston’s Copley Plaza hotel to explore the benefits of a multi-year contract. The hotel manager, in making his pitch to our board, explained that they were renovating its rooms with high-quality products—from ashtrays to curtains—and were looking for “your kind of people.”
The irony was not lost on those around the table, several wearing skullcaps, who knew that the hotel had once altogether excluded “our kind of people.” But the management was as good as its word. Though the conference was held every year from Sunday to Tuesday in the week before Christmas, only at its conclusion was the decorated seasonal tree set up in the lobby. Whenever I saw that tree being installed at checkout time, I took it as silent acknowledgement of our welcome as valued guests: normalization had made us commercially viable.
As in all such conferences, the quality at ours was uneven. But these Sunday-Tuesday gatherings were also a time for seeing old friends, talking with colleagues and students late into the night, and, in later years, enjoying the presentations given by my own graduate students. One regular pleasure was the Montreal-to-Boston drive with my friend Gita Rotenberg, who would show up at my house after the end of what was invariably the shortest Sabbath of the year with sandwiches for the 250-mile trip that it was my job to complete before her mandatory viewing of Saturday Night Live.
A rabbi’s daughter who had grown up in the Conservative movement, Gita knew many of the conference attendees since childhood, so on the return trip we would review what we had learned, struggling to curtail l’shon ha-ra—defined as “scandal mongering.” We would also indulge in some private Christmas caroling, courtesy of Gita’s American public schooling and mine in a Montreal Protestant high school. One year we were joined by a scholar-rabbi who objected to our Christian songfest; it was the last time we offered anyone a ride.
At first I experienced no tension between the typical elements of a Jewish-studies program, or a typical AJS conference, and standard academic categories. I simply assumed that relevant aspects of Jewish history, Jewish religion and thought, Jewish languages and culture, would be and were already being integrated without difficulty into the sphere of the humanities and social sciences.
By the 1980s, however, the atmosphere in the academy had decisively changed. The AJS was still in its infancy when Arab anti-Zionism began penetrating the universities in the mid-1970s. As the trickle of Palestinian protesters became a well-funded initiative that would eventually give birth to the Boycott, Divest from, and Sanction Israel (BDS) movement and then merge with the grievance coalition of “intersectionality,” Jews ceased to be a neutral constituency on campus, and Jewish studies came under strain.
One might have expected Jewish academics, especially those teaching Jewish subjects, to provide an intellectual and academic framework for explicating and defending the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel. The growing campus assault called for rebuttal and correction, with Jewish studies leading the way. After all, virtually every academic discipline—archaeology, cartography, economics, geography, history, linguistics, literature, politics, psychology, religion, sociology, theology—possessed tools for substantiating the Jewish right to the Jewish homeland and, conversely, for demonstrating the falsity of its denial.
In the 1930s there had been no professors of Jewish studies to resist anti-Semitism’s advance. Would their presence now make a difference? Distressingly, it didn’t seem so. The few who countered the attacks, like Alvin Rosenfeld at the University of Indiana or Tammy Rossman-Benjamin and Leila Beckwith in the University of California system, showed that effective leadership could make straight both the record and the Jewish backbone. As an organization, however, the AJS simply acquiesced in silence. Professors who did finally start to organize for Israel came from elsewhere than its ranks.
Thus, instead of reinforcing the best practices of traditional education while generating fresh approaches, as I’d expected, the expansion of Jewish studies—which did also give rise to much fine scholarship and spirited teaching—witnessed a decline in Jewish moral confidence. For the most part, younger scholars followed academic trends, including those openly hostile to Judaism, while senior scholars shirked their duty behind the excuse of academic neutrality.
In my active years I had tried to lure senior professors to AJS conferences for the luster conferred by their presence; once it hurt to attend, I joined the ranks of absentees. I was not missed.
In the biblical book of Esther, the ever-vigilant Mordecai warns the young queen that if she fails to intercede with the king on behalf of her people, “relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source” (emphasis added). And so it was that one morning in 1992, the phone rang in Montreal and on the line was a stranger’s voice saying (I am transcribing from vivid memory): “This is Zalman Bernstein and I’m speaking from Jerusalem. You don’t know me. I want to talk to you, but this call is costing me a fucking fortune and I can’t stand being overcharged. I’ll give you my number. Call me back, I’ll reimburse you.”
Naturally, I dialed the number. For this call I was to be compensated beyond reckoning.
Zalman, né Sanford, was unlike anyone I knew. My family was in textiles, some of our friends were in business; but financial services—making money by investing money profitably—was as strange to me as alchemy, and Zalman was unusual even among his peers. He had launched his investment firm with full-page ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal that featured the single word Bernstein in the center of an otherwise blank page. Everyone had stories to tell about this man whose intelligence and brashness had earned him a fortune while providing steady and ample returns to his firm’s clients.
The legend really took off in the late 1970s when Sanford himself underwent a transformation. In one among many received versions, he had gone one afternoon to Lincoln Square Synagogue near his office to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer, for his recently deceased father. He was then Sandy to his friends, a man about town. After the service, being a pay-as-you-go kind of guy, he asked the rabbi how much he owed. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, himself no shrinking violet, replied, “You don’t have enough money to pay what you owe.” Bernstein: “Do you know who I am?” The rabbi said he didn’t, but did Zalman know what a synagogue was?
The upshot of this showdown was that Sandy began studying privately with Rabbi Riskin, and because the rabbi would not tolerate the obscenities that his pupil could not suppress, they settled on an $180 fine for every verbal offense. There are different variants of this urban legend, including one by Rabbi Riskin himself who sets the initial encounter in a crowded lecture hall where Sandy stood up and, as a sign of his bona fides, opened his shirt to reveal his late father’s ritual fringes. But all end with Sanford becoming Zalman and thenceforth living in accordance with Jewish religious law. Such a Jew is known as a ba’al t’shuvah, one who has returned to Judaism and to active membership in the Jewish people.
I was drawn to this man from the moment I heard his raspy voice. Without exaggeration, I had never met anyone so focused on results and so little concerned about the impression he made in achieving them. His red suspenders, habitual profanity, and impatience with anyone who underperformed were foreign to the religious community he joined, but he did not expect to lead by example; he expected to lead so effectively that people would overlook or excuse his example.
A half-dozen years after that first visit to Rabbi Riskin’s synagogue, Zalman brought together several distinguished business friends to establish a foundation he called Avi Chai, My Father Lives (an allusion to Genesis 45:3). Handing over control of his company to trusted associates, he conducted his philanthropy by the same standards that had made him his fortune. Rabbi David Hartman once complained that men headed organizations so that they could make the mistakes they could not afford to make in their businesses; Zalman brought the best investment practices to his philanthropic ventures. Rather than soliciting applications, his “trustee-driven” foundation identified and vetted the projects it intended to support and the persons who might carry them out. Trustees were expected to drive themselves almost as hard as the founder drove himself.
I never learned what prompted Zalman to invite me to join the Avi Chai board as its sixth inductee. My own hope was that, after too many years of idly worrying about the Jews and Israel, I would now in the 1990s have a chance to “get something done.” The mission of Avi Chai was to perpetuate (I would have said, reinforce) the Jewish people, Judaism, and the centrality of the state of Israel. To achieve this in North America, the foundation promoted “understanding, appreciation, and practice of Jewish traditions, customs, and laws”—in a word, education. In Israel, it encouraged Jews from different backgrounds and dispositions to understand and appreciate each other. The initials LRP, shorthand for literacy, religious purposefulness, and peoplehood, became the standard for assessing how well we were advancing our aims.
The first thing I learned was that financial support, even when rooted in solid intentions and combined with genuine effort, did not necessarily produce good results. One challenge was pointed out to me by Roger Hertog, who was Zalman’s closest business associate and who, after the latter’s death, would become chairman of the Tikvah Fund (another of the foundations established by Zalman). American philanthropy, Roger said, was essentially liberal in its assumptions of how a society could be changed through, in effect, strategic engineering. Foundations like Ford and MacArthur had actually reversed the intentions of their conservative benefactors. The traditionalist objectives of our venture were thus at odds with the conventional methods of achieving them.
In fact, at the time I joined the board, Zalman and I were the only ones who voted for conservative political candidates, and I’m not even certain about him. Of course our foundation was prevented by law from directly engaging in politics, but somehow, of the two political directions, only conservatism was deemed to be “political” while liberal causes were perceived to be merely benevolent. We were moving against a powerful current.
One project: the head of an advertising agency who shared our goals invited several young Jews in his firm to brainstorm with us about how to “promote awareness of Jewish holidays and rituals through advertising in the Jewish and general media.” After we trustees had outlined the general concept, I asked the agency’s young staffers to tell us which holidays or items of Jewish practice they thought could be effectively promoted in a broad campaign.
Instead of answering, the agency’s staffers balked at the very notion that there was anything in Jewishness they would endorse, that is, designate as a value. In other words, they responded not as professionals to a client but as Jews who could not accept any normative, much less prescriptive, goal. “Choice” was the ultimate modern value, and here we were suggesting that it was better for Jews to live as Jews!
Too late, we realized that we would have done much better with a Gentile firm. But even had we gone that route, the reaction of these young adults persuaded me that our campaign would probably be perceived by the Jews we were trying to reach—people just like them—as unwelcome coercion.
Another project: sooner or later, everyone in advocacy thinks of persuading filmmakers to take up their cause. When the subject came up at Avi Chai, I thought of David Brandes, who had written and produced a fine Jewish film, The Quarrel, based on a story by the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. Brandes, a practicing Jew, was then working in Hollywood. We invited him to organize a study group of Jews in film who wanted to learn more about their heritage with an eye to incorporating parts of what they learned into their own creative work.
Brandes helped organize two such groups: one of well-established insiders and another for younger people who had recently come to work in film and television and welcomed the social opportunity of getting together. Our expectations for this initiative were unusually modest: a local rabbi or scholar would lead monthly discussions about Jewish sources in the hope that deeper knowledge would create greater Jewish self-confidence.
We received nice reports about the monthly meetings, and when I met with the participants to discuss a work of Yiddish literature I found them interesting and receptive. But their study circles continued for only so long as we supplied the resources, and as far as I know, not a single project ever resulted from them.
By contrast, when Avi Chai later undertook similar initiatives in Israel, they resulted in high-quality films. Among the most successful have been those that humanize the image of Ḥaredim, the so-called ultra-Orthodox whom many Israelis, religious and secular alike, have long resented for their low participation rates in the workforce and the exemption they enjoy from national service. Israeli productions funded by Avi Chai, like the film Ushpizin and the television series Shtissel, have eventually been imported into America. The lesson is that a sovereign majority may have the self-confidence to do what an insecure minority cannot.
A third project: after several years of experimenting, the Avi Chai board determined that we could achieve our aims in North America best by investing primarily in Jewish elementary and high schools. Reliable data showed that students attending these schools, and especially those attending them for the longest period, were also likeliest to follow the Jewish way of life. Similar claims for the lasting influence of Jewish camping were also amply confirmed by the data; in this area as well, Avi Chai invested significantly.
Education had been all along the mainstay of Jewish life in the diaspora, but the high cost of American day-school tuition had made it, in one wag’s formula, “the most effective form of Jewish birth control.” And cost was only part of the problem in sustaining high-quality Jewish education in an open, culturally competitive society. Once we concentrated on this area, the Avi Chai staff made considerable headway through initiatives like matching grants and loan programs for the construction or expansion of buildings, training teachers and principals and mentoring new teachers, setting standards for various subjects and improving curricular materials, and encouraging modest experiments in online and distance learning.
The national scope of our efforts was unusual in a field where most people supported only their local schools. Therefore, at the point where Avi Chai, in conformity with the terms of Zalman’s bequest, began preparing to spend down, its North American executive director, Yossi Prager, helped to consolidate a central day-school organization to ensure continuing national oversight in the field.
Originally, rather than dividing the foundation’s work between North America and Israel, Zalman had determined that an expanded American-Israeli board should jointly oversee projects on both continents, thus embodying the model of a united Jewry. That he and his wife Mem moved to Jerusalem in 1989 gave the Israeli agenda greater credibility. But the two branches sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of the same issue.
In education, for example, we in North America sought financial support from the U.S. or local government to cover at least part of the costs of general education in day schools, whereas Israelis were often trying to rid their schools of interference by a government that paid the piper and expected to call the tune. In Israel, the exigencies of self-defense called for national conscription; until recently, North Americans had barely if at all introduced their children to the very concept of Jewish self-defense. By far, however, the greatest contrast between Jews in their own country and those in the diaspora was the contrast between leadership by a democratically elected government and leadership by a voluntary elite that had seized—or failed to seize—the reins.
The American model applied equally to the former Soviet Union, which Avi Chai added to its philanthropic roster thanks to George Rohr, a new trustee who urged us to extend our work to the world’s third-largest Jewish community. New initiatives were designed for a population that had been deprived of Jewish culture for 70 years, and what was achieved there proved that independent foundations could indeed be more limber than ponderous government.
My respect for Zalman and for those who succeeded him only grew after he succumbed to lymphoma in 1999. His philanthropic heirs—Mem Bernstein, Arthur Fried, and Roger Hertog—were modest like my father if with far greater resources at their command. I also came to appreciate several other philanthropic leaders who provided more intellectual leadership than the academics and professional pundits they hired. Their efforts in no way compensated for the collapse of Jewish morale in the universities, but they built where others tried to destroy or silently bowed to the destroyers.
The less I wanted to take on organizational leadership, the more I honored those who did. In 1981, Midge Decter founded the Committee for the Free World to fight for political and economic freedom at home and abroad. She drew up a statement and invited intellectuals and academics to sign it: signing made you a member. What a boon it was for a Montreal provincial like me to attend annual conferences of this international body in New York or Washington and mingle with the people who were fighting Communism, which I considered the most urgent international threat.
When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, I happened to be in Russia at a training program for European Jewish leaders. At dinner, I proposed a toast to President Reagan and to the Committee for the Free World for helping to bring down “the evil empire.” Once that blessed event occurred, Midge, defying every convention of foundation life, declared mission accomplished and shut down the operation.
No such definitive victories could be claimed in the ongoing Arab war against Israel. Andrea Levin, upon taking over CAMERA—the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America—in the mid-1980s, greatly expanded its work, putting together a team of researchers to monitor the media and correct the disinformation they spread. As I was then doing my own daily tracking of media coverage of Israel and often writing and lecturing on anti-Semitism, I knew how grim this labor could be. Above my desk I pasted the Polish proverb, “It is a terrible thing to swim upstream in a filthy river.” But since someone had to do it, I could not thank Andrea enough for building this indispensable organization.
The same holds true for a number of other remarkable women and men who have created political, legal, media, and eventually, even academic organizations to counter the multi-pronged war against Israel and the Jews.
In 1991, on one of my trips to New York, the historian Lucy Dawidowicz introduced me to one such person, Seth Lipsky, who had recently become the editor of the English-language Forward, a venerable Jewish newspaper whose original, Yiddish version had been founded in 1897.
After working for twenty years at the Wall Street Journal, Seth wanted to run his own paper; with the backing of some bold investors, he assumed leadership of this Jewish weekly with the determination to dwarf the coverage and slanted interpretation of the Jews on offer in the New York Times. Not that the Times was anti-Semitic in the fascist or Soviet mode, but its liberal opposition to Jewish religious civilization and to the political sovereignty of the Jewish people was no less fanatical for that. Seth’s paper would provide an antidote to the daily poison that Times readers were swallowing.
Since he had come to this work without a strong background in Jewish learning, Lucy undertook to cull from the archives of the Yiddish daily Forverts a pick of “what happened this day 50 and 75 years ago” as a means of supplying both him and his readers with a crash course in modern and American Jewish history. She considered him the best newspaperman to enter Jewish journalism since Abraham Cahan had founded the paper.
Indeed, by the 1920s Cahan had built the Yiddish daily Forverts into the largest-circulation foreign-language newspaper in America. Despite the Marxist slogan he kept on the masthead, “Workers of the world unite: You have nothing to lose but your chains,” Cahan attracted readers by familiarizing them with America while supplying news of events in Europe. He was an early anti-Communist back when socialists were among the fiercest opponents of Stalin’s Russia. In 1921, when the Soviet Union established the Yiddish daily Freiheit as its American beachhead, Cahan’s daily supplied its most effective opposition. A conscientious newspaperman, Cahan also visited Palestine for himself in 1926, and what he witnessed there made him drop his earlier hostility to the Zionist project.
Cahan’s Forverts had indisputably slowed the drift of American Jews into pro-Soviet ranks, and Seth now intended to do the same against the leftism of his day. As Cahan’s ideal successor, he hired young writers and created a culture of muscular journalism that I doubt any professional school ever rivaled. At one time or another his staffers included Jeffrey Goldberg, Ben Smith, Ira Stoll, Jonathan Rosen, Alana Newhouse, Jonathan Mahler, and Philip Gourevitch, to name only those who then forged their own careers in journalism. For a time, I submitted a bi-monthly column that ran simultaneously in the Canadian Jewish News.
Seth’s long-term intention was to turn the paper back into a daily. But in 2000 he was outmaneuvered by those who instead intended to revert to the Jewish leftism that Cahan had outgrown eight decades earlier. Seth himself went on to found the New York daily Sun, and, when that proved unsustainable, a pared-down version of it as an editorial website.
Ever since Seth’s ouster at the Forward, I’ve called it the Backward. (The Yiddish Forverts, by contrast, stays mostly informative and clear of political provocation.) In 2018, with the demise of its print edition (it is now available only online), its current editor boasted in one and the same breath of the publication’s “fearless” independence and of being personally congratulated for her editorial achievements by—you guessed it—the New York Times.
Y.L. Peretz—the author of the aforementioned Di goldene keyt—was much troubled by the challenges of Jewish leadership. Drawing on his personal experience as an employee of the Warsaw Jewish community who was also its leading Jewish intellectual after hours, he wrote a story, “Revelation,” exposing the predicament of the genius who undertakes to guide a people.
It goes like this. Rabbi Naḥman of Bratslav has just been “revealed,” that is, recognized and installed by his ḥasidic followers as their leader. But as they prepare to celebrate his assumption of authority, he abruptly leaves their company. They come upon him in a state of dejection. Distressed, they entreat him to rejoin them, and he complies—it is the Sabbath, after all, when gloom is prohibited. By way of explanation, he offers them the tale of the billy goat who is a stouter version of the sacrificial lamb.
This goat feeds on special soil that makes its horns grow so luxuriant and strong that when unfurled they reach the moon—an act the goat is in the habit of performing periodically, hooking the horns over the lower tip of the moon’s crescent to ask, “Isn’t it time for the messiah to come?” The moon then relays this question to a star, which passes it to another, and so on all the way to the Throne of Glory. Only a sigh is ever heard in response, but the goat perseveres because “such questionings can cumulatively have their effect. . . . ” (Peretz loved to trail off his sentences with ellipses.)
One day, a Jew strolling on the outskirts of town catches sight of the goat’s splendid horns and asks for a sliver to carve himself a snuff box. The goat obligingly bends down, and the resulting snuff box becomes the envy of the synagogue. One after another, Jews come asking for a piece and then another and the goat obliges them all, with the obvious consequence. . . .
The story saddens the Ḥasidim, but in the same spirit that Rabbi Naḥman returned to his congregation, Peretz ends his story with the assurance that it all ended well.
Peretz, Rabbi Naḥman, and the parabolic billy goat are all at the service of the Jewish people. They might prefer to advance its claims in lone inspirational releases of creative genius, but a people needs plainer satisfaction of the kind that comes though snuff boxes or accessible stories. Rare and precious are the writer-intellectuals and others who assume responsibility for Jewish leadership and never yield to its frustrations. I wrote a book about Peretz, who reminded us of our divine reach and of all the good that is already within our grasp.