Yesterday, Congress confirmed Antony Blinken to the position of secretary of state. Ruth R. Wisse recalls how, nearly 40 years ago, she became acquainted with his grandfather, M.H. Blinken, who had read an article Wisse had written that mentioned his father, Meir Blinken (or Blinkin), “a Yiddish writer of short fiction, quite well known in New York in the 1910s.” M.H. had attempted to convince Wisse to produce a translation of some of Meir’s work—something “he needed . . . for his sons and grandchildren who would otherwise never understand where they came from.” Reflecting on four generations of Blinkens, Wisse is brought to mind of the short story “Four Generations, Four Wills” by the great Yiddish author Y.L. Peretz:
The patriarch Reb Eliezer leaves a Yiddish handwritten will, brief and judicious, taking for granted that his family will act in its spirit. His son Benjamin’s greater business success calls for a much longer formalized Yiddish document that spells out all his expectations of responsible succession that can no longer be assumed. His successor wills—in Polish—that a telegram should summon his only son from Paris and bequeaths a large sum to the Society for Assisting the Poor that is to feature the donor’s family name. Finally, the Parisian son writes an unsigned note taking his leave of the world.
How sharply this tale of deterioration contrasts with the Blinken saga, as though to highlight the difference between the Jewish experience in Poland and in America! Here the first generation was similarly followed by a son’s rise to wealth—but the subsequent generations rose ever higher in personal fulfilment and public service. As against Peretz’s version, Maurice Henry’s three sons . . . served in the military, married, and raised families, and under the Clinton administration, two of the brothers became U.S. ambassadors, Donald to Hungary, and Alan to Belgium. Now Donald’s son Antony, of the fourth generation, may he enjoy long years, has been nominated to be Joseph Biden’s secretary of state. How indeed has America proved to be the goldene medine, the golden land of Jewish immigrant dreams.
Yet is that how Peretz would have seen it, or M. H. himself? What about the golden chain of Jewish tradition? Was it just as a shelf showpiece that Maurice wanted his father’s stories translated, or did he hope that it would help his family to remain Jews? Does American success require the death of Jewishness, or does the Jewish story prove that religious freedom, ethnic pluralism, and democratic association inspire minorities to thrive?