What One Should Learn on the Road of Ages

What compelling idea motivated Mr. Robert Nathan in writing his “Road of Ages”? Why did he seize upon such a colossal theme as that of a world-wide expulsion of Jews—a theme far more portentous than fantastic and one so tragic in its implications—and, having chosen this theme which to a sensitive Jew is what the Crucifixion and Passion is to a non-Jew, why did he proceed to treat it in the manner of a care-free boulevardier with a studied insouciance not a little suggestive of intellectual priggishness and condescension?

Is Mr. Robert Nathan perhaps another victim of the masochistic tendencies so marked among certain Jewish intellectuals hovering on the periphery of Jewish life, who love to stick burrs into their own Jewish skins so as to sample the exquisite pain of self-humiliation?

Out of his tremendous and awesome theme Mr. Nathan could squeeze only two ideas—neither of which is now or particularly significant: first, that the Jews on their long trek to the Gobi Desert whither they had been exiled present a very motley and polygot spectacle; and secondly, that the Jews, in spite of their common misfortune, continue to quarrel among themselves. The author cannot get over the fact that these Jews still persist in keeping alive their religious, social and economic differences in spite of the sad fate which overtook them. The climax of the book is reached in a bloody riot in which heads are smashed, men and women are trampled upon, and Jews kill Jews. The stupendous tragedy of a universal expulsion of his people which the author had evoked, wrings from his elegant pen nothing more profound than this trite satire.

But why should not Jews quarrel among themselves quite as much as any other people? Why should their reactions be different? Surely the fact that Jews have lived in exile for long centuries in the midst of insecurity and hostility and under continuous emotional strain and tension does not justify anyone in expecting to find among them a calmer outlook and greater poise and self-possession than among other peoples whose lives have moved in much quieter channels—peoples who never knew wandering, persecution and humiliation!

Is the American people a more united people than ours? Is not the American people—or for that matter, any modern people—divided and torn by conflicting social, political and economic interests? Has not the American people its full quota of reactionaries, conservatives, liberals and radicals in every department of its national life? Is the American people free from recurrent bloody economic s rife and riots? Was it not once rent by four bloody years of civil war? Do the 200 and more religious sects in Protestant Christianity bespeak a greater capacity for unity among non-Jews than among Jews—and unity in a religious communion, be it remembered, is far more likely than in a people —unless an artificial unity is forcibly imposed upon it by a powerful totalitarian dictatorship.

We Jews are a people. As soon as Mr. Nathan and his friends will digest this simple fact they will get over their surprised indignation when and if in the course of their literary meanderings they come upon evidences of disunity in our midst. When one bears in mind the variety of our backgrounds, cultures and languages, the different worlds we come from and belong to, the marvel is that we possess even that modicum of unity which we do somehow succeed in bringing into play when we are faced with problems of self-defense, of international relief or of local philanthropic activities in our respective communities.

Is it really desirable that we should have one organization to speak for the whole of Israel—living as we do in all parts of the world, among all sorts of peoples under differing political, social and economic conditions, where many Jewish communities are faced with problems quite unique to their own situations? A calm survey of our status will convince one that it is far better that we do not have one organization or one man to plan or to speak for us on all things.

The naive Jew as well as the naive non-Jew has always sought to give us the status of a unified religious denomination or of a fraternal lodge whose slogan is brotherly love—a status which is quite foreign to our real nature. The non-Jew will of course frequently judge us as a unit and will hold every Jew responsible for the acts of every other Jew. That is one of the grave disabilities of belonging to a minority people living in the midst of other peoples. But this should not lead us into acknowledging and accepting such a false status and definition. We will, then, not be forced to castigate ourselves publicly for failure to live up to an unreal and illusory image of ourselves….

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