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The Human Touch

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I was visiting in the studio of a well-known American painter, whose work hangs in the museums and who can write N. A. after his name, which means that he is a member of the National Academy. He has been called the American Millet and the people he is most fond of putting on canvas are simple, unlettered, earthy people, the type that wrests a living from the earth by sheer might and endurance, the type that lives and dies in pain and privation, inarticulate and uncomplaining. His people are tillers of the soil, fisher-folk, miner-folk, in short, the American peasant and the American peasant’s wife.

No man who came rightly by the name of Eugene Higgins could be Jewish and it is a curious reason which brings Eugene Higgins within the compass of the Jewish Daily Bulletin. We were standing before a picture which you may now see in the R.C.A. Building in the first municipal art exhibition. It is a canvas depicting a group of women, more resigned than frightened, at the entrance to a mine pit from which the bodies of miners caught in an explosion are being brought. The background is pastoral and peaceful, a background you associate with fat kine and wool-laden sheep rather than with mine shafts. And I was saying: “But these are Irish women and this is the Irish countryside; I didn’t know there were mines in Ireland?”

The scene is Pennsylvania; Mr. Higgins knows of no mines in Ireland. “Then why do the people look Irish?” Because they are the only people he knows.

“Once upon a time,” he said, “I thought I could get away from my race, but I found I couldn’t. Why should any man try to get away from his race; why should a Jew try to get away from his people? The best rule is: Stick to your people, stick to your race, it’s the only one you have.” All of which was said not as a counsel of perfection, but as a counsel of necessity. Mr. Higgins might have said, “I do this because I can do no other. I paint Irish people into American canvases because those are the people I know, those are the people I have in my blood. The advice, Be your race, is simply the counsel of the easiest way, and it is quoted because it is the terminal point in the thinking and in the work of a man who has tried other ways, which he has found wanting.


Now it is very curious that the same evening, at the home of a Jewish friend and one moreover to whom might have been attached, up to a short time ago, the tag of “professional Jew,” I heard words of another color. This man was saying that he thought it was a pity that a man of so large a stature as Arnold Zweig should make up his mind to go to Palestine to live and work and be embroiled, of necessity, in the internal Jewish squabbles that usually are in Palestine. The thing that adds a special piquancy of contradiction to this statement is that the sayer of these words was, and probably still is, a Zionist. Can it be said, we asked, that Palestine can be too small a place for a man like Arnold Zweig. He insisted on the point, saying that Zweig’s fright to Palestine might be compared with Bernard Shaw’s making up his mind to go to Ireland to live. Myself, I would find as little to regret in Shaw’s returning to Ireland to live as in Zweig’s making his home in Palestine; at the risk of sounding disloyal, I must say that I believe Ireland is a more beautiful and temperate place than Palestine, beside having the added advantage of proximity both to Europe and to America. As for the friend who was wringing his hands over Zweig’s submission to Palestine, we gave him this balm and comfort: that when Zweig becomes bored with Palestine, he can leave it–and make his home in Ireland. I believe that England has some kind of mandate over Ireland. And should Zweig make a good literary mouse-trap, the world will beat a track to his door, even in Palestine. It is true, however, that Ludwig Lewisohn, after trying to make an author’s living from Vienna, found it more convenient to move to Paris, and will shortly be under the necessity of making a lecture tour in America. The author of “The Case of Sergeant Grischa” may be moved by considerations other than that of having a convenient headquarters for the making of a living.


You take so many things for granted that when you’re asked to differentiate black from white, to tell what is the quality of black as against that of white, you are at a loss for words. It is so easy to say that two and two are four, but not to explain why they shouldn’t make five. The other evening I asked to explain–and to a good, if not intelligent, Jew too–the difference between a religious Jew and a racial Jew. This person could not understand how a man could be a Jew without being an observer of the religious rites and ceremonies. I steamed and sweated and fumed and spluttered, decanted on Jewishness as race and Jewishness as creed, spoke of passive and active Jewry, of nationalist Jewry that might even be anti-religious, as certain of the most self-consciously Jewish groups in Palestine are anti-religious. I spoke of the Communist Jew who was anti-religious versus the bourgeois Jew who was pro-religious, of the nationalistic Jew who might or might not be religious, and so on, but I fear very much that the object of all this explanation learned almost nothing by it, except, perhaps, that this business of being Jewish can be much complicated by concepts of the existence of which he had no idea. This man, well-intentioned as he is and more eager for understanding that he has the capacity for, reminds me of a Nazi who couldn’t understand a man being an Aryan and an anti-Protestant or anti-Catholic. Catholieism and Protestantism have had no more major prophets than you can count on the fingers of one hand, but Judaism has had enough to confuse the mind of a simple man who can manage to live at ease in the world because he has the gift of making his universe so much more simple than it is. It would be beyond the good-natured comprehension of this man to understand that a fellow-Jew might have put a bullet into the body of another Jew because they differed on some point of theology, sociology, international relations or the adjustment of a labor dispute, or whatever was the specific point of dispute between Dr. Arlosoroff and the man who siew him–if the slayer was a Jew.

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