Jewish Culture…and the American Bicentennial/
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Jewish Culture…and the American Bicentennial/

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When the JTA editor discussed with me coverage of the Jewish Welfare Board’s first (last Friday) night’s session of its Conference on Jewish Cultural Arts, we also discussed how best to handle the session since its panelists were not normally associated with Jewish affairs.

We tried for a separate interview but it didn’t work. However, it being a subject of intense interest and concern to the Jewish community. I was sent by the editor to the first night’s panel and found the auditorium of the Ninety-Second Street “Y” pretty well filled.

Dore Schary, who chaired the evening and helped organize the conference, does have a record of identification with Jewish causes. However, the others,. Professor Richard Gilman, Professor of Drama at Yale; Alfred Kazin, author and Professor of English at Hunter; Arthur Miller, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and author of “Death of a Salesman,” and Barbara Tuchman, historian and also Pulitzer Prize winner, all do not. However, what we anticipated was that the first session would come a cropper.

To start with Gilman read a paper which seemed like a series of one-liners and in-jokes, with references to Hadassah and Commentary. He said Jewish cultural experience “is there.” Like Matterhorn. I suppose, and what–has to be climbed? He referred to the activity of Jews in many of the visual arts, identified them as “Pop” art. He also said the Jewish artist and intellectual is identified with a “bourgeois” structure but at the same time injected a “supernatural” element, which gave his point of view a profundity his approach unfortunately, and with otherwise best intentions; did not have.


Kazin, who said he was “proud of religious right,” seemed to identify his Jewishness with his immigrant parents who came from Russia. It does not signify depth in the conference subject to know that the Puritan forefathers came armed with an awareness of Hebrew, or that the candlesticks, in the Touro Synagogue were made in Paul Revere’s shop.

Kazin, who probably received an extra-curricular education in the alcoves of the lunchroom in City College in the thirties (as did I). should perhaps know that quoting Mark Twain about the Jews, or Emerson or Thoreau about some related condition, leaves a more identified Jew with the feeling that external quotes do not a Jew make. It’s like women saying men cannot write of their feelings and problems, or Blacks saying the same of whites.

Nowhere in his paper did Kazin refer to having been Bar Mitzvahed. While that rite of passage is not the sum total of Jewishness, it is a good base and acquaints a young Jew with some of its heritage. Kazin spoke of the Jewish artist’s capacity to create dreams, as in Hollywood, and it was difficult to tell whether he thought this a creative force. When he ended his statement with an expression that there was a moral confusion among Jews, he seemed to be projecting his own condition.


Miller made several personal references; about having lived in the same neighborhood of the Y (Harlem?) and as a young boy thought, since everybody in the neighborhood was Jewish that the same applied elsewhere. He invoked his own theatrical discipline as to what was Jewish but that, too, was anecdotal.

However, touched by the German experience, about which he wrote in “Incident At Vichy,” he asked Heinrich Boll. German Nobel Laureate in Literature, how the absence of Jews in Germany affects its creativity. Boll replied that what was missing was the “pursuit of the final truth.”

This, of course, is a literary concept and could be applied to almost any people, but Miller precoursed it with his own feeling that, in Jewish culture, there is “danger” around us and that “the last days are here.” Somehow, too, he equated this with a search for power. What power, Jewish power?

Mrs. Tuchman was a whole lot gentler with the subject and as an historian could find no Jewish culture in the United States before 1880. Although she made reference to Israel and the Holocaust she confessed to an uncertainty about being able to define Jewish culture and said it had a definite relation to the general culture in which it variously or individually resided.


Schary said written questions would be entertained after the intermission and that was when the cropper came. The question which upset the gentle pursuit of Jewish culture was: How can you organize a Conference on Jewish Culture with people who know so little about it? Schary defined the question as rude but had sufficient presence of mind to advise the asker that this was the first session and that the remainder of the conference included people more closely identified with the Jewish scene. He said there was a balance and it was yet to come.

Mrs. Tuchman asked to answer the question but it didn’t quite come off. She realized it and asked the questioner to come forward and explain what she/he meant by Jewish culture. But the asker remained anonymous.

While my editor and I had not anticipated this precisely, we did feel that this distinguished group might be somewhat distant from the subject. And we sought a clue, a key on how to resolve this, with a view to having such distinguished thinkers and creators involved in Jewish affairs. We came up with the word Yiddishkeit. While there was no mention made of Babel, Buber, or Isaac Bashevis Singer or Achad Haam, there was talk of Phil Roth from Miller and Saul Bellow from Kazin.

A young friend of mine, who is not Jewish but inclines with interest in its culture, insisted on attending. Later, I asked, “Do you know Miller’s Death of a Salesman?” The reply was, “Know it? I lived it.”

We in our hearts knew that the protagonist of the play Willy Loman was a landsman and everybody else’s father or uncle, because there is in Miller a kind of Yiddishkeit which found expression in that play, a compassion for the inhuman condition of man and sympathy for the wife who says Attention Must Be Paid.


Yiddishkeit is in Miller as accumulated phenomenon, in the same way Einstein (whom they forgot to mention) could not have created his equation without Newton; Newton, his gravity notion without Galileo; and Galileo without Ptolemy. Jewish culture is historical, it is religious, it is

It has no roots in the American experience but has contributed to it. It is not a series of one-liners but a whole compendium which has to be examined and re-examined as the Jews in the past did because they wanted to survive and pass that survival on. It is also a prescient force which anticipates doom and because we have been the first victims in history.

We are veterans of this historic struggle and can give to the American bicentennial, to the American civilization which Kazin teaches, not only its particularity but its universality. But first, we have to re-learn it ourselves and begin with–Genesis. (With Murray Zuckoff)

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