To the Hebrew Poet Nathan Alterman, a Jew at a U.S. Political Convention Is Akin to an Old Man at a Nursery School

May 14, 2020 | Shalom Carmy
About the author: Shalom Carmy teaches Bible and Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University and is an affiliated scholar at the university’s Cardozo law school. He is also the editor emeritus of Tradition, a journal of Orthodox thought.

The poet, essayist, and playwright Nathan Alterman (1910–1970) was read widely in Mandate Palestine and Israel in his own day, and remains so today. In 1952 he came to the U.S. to observe the presidential campaigns of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson and even composed a poem about the two parties’ conventions, which he found to be exotic and even amusing. He focused his attention on the political habits of the Jews he met there, writes Shalom Carmy:

Alterman saw [the American Jew] shouting and cheering and valiantly trying to fit in. Yet there is something about him that doesn’t quite fit, an element of preoccupation or distance. Whence does this discomfort stem? Perhaps the American Jew is insecure because of his loyalty to his people, and particularly his Zionism. He dreads the suspicion that Gentile Americans will think that concern for his people means a lackluster commitment to America.

Yet Alterman doesn’t buy this analysis. Advocacy and boosterism for one’s ethnic group is typically American. Many Irish Americans have been militant for the Irish cause against Great Britain. Slavic-American neighborhoods in postwar America expected their politicians to fight against the Soviet enslavement of Eastern Europe, at least rhetorically if not in concrete actions. Precisely in this respect, the Jew is like other Americans.

No, says Alterman, the difference is this: the Jew may yell “I like Ike” and pump his fist and blow his whistle, but his real question is whether “Ike likes me.” This, he judges, is why the Jew looks like an outsider at the party, or, in the poet’s striking phrase, like an old man in a nursery school.

Carmy finds this position persuasive, but only after refining it somewhat:

[All] those who like Ike also want to be liked by Ike. But the ordinary American in the crowd doesn’t dwell on the difference between liking Ike and being liked by him. He cheers his candidate, and the candidate beams back at him. They are two sides of the same coin, sharing an unconscious but powerfully felt Americanism. Where the Jew differs, according to Alterman, is that in liking Ike (or Adlai) he can’t let go of his anxiety about Ike’s attitude to him. He is reflective, and to a degree anxious, where other citizens are largely confident in their reciprocal regard.

Read more on First Things:

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register Already a subscriber? Sign in now