It was in New Paltz, where I began teaching in 1965 at the State University that I learned that there were ways of being Jewish other than Orthodox practice. Jay Bloom, a colleague in economics, who would along with his wife, Judi Zuckerman Bloom, become our very good friends, taught us mostly by example, but soon also by long and wide-ranging conversation and intellectual arguments about “how to be Jewish.” None of the four of us were believers by conventional definition, but I don’t think any one of us would be uncomfortable were we characterized as having faith in “something” – something we couldn’t name, an alertness, perhaps, to another dimension of being that is not empirically provable — something that promotes the possibility of goodness, and stands in the place of an interventionist deity.
The Blooms were deeply knowledgeable about Judaism and Jewish history. Judi was the daughter of Arthur J. Zuckerman, the author of Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900, and the Director of Hillel at CCNY for many years. She had been raised in a household saturated in things Jewish. Jay, who was president for a time of the Hillel chapter at City College, also knew a good deal about Jewish philosophy even before meeting Judi. He learned lots more as he became her fiancé and husband, and Arthur Zuckerman’s son-in-law.
Well before this time I had become an avid reader of American Jewish writers, including, of course, Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, a trio once characterized by Bellow, not without some disparagement, as “the Hart, Schaffner and Marx” of American Jewish letters. These three writers and many others including, Edward Lewis Wallant, Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and Joseph Heller, provided my first bridge into the world of the Blooms, and into the joint decision to build a Jewish Study Group of four or five families — to which most of us still belong fifty years later.
At this point in my teaching, I began to notice in the books we used for courses, including “Western Ideas and Institutions,” a near absence of Jews. Little by little. I began to use Jewish material in classes and found it more and more appropriate to do so. Indeed, in my modern American history offerings I came to agree with Professor Steven J. Whitfield’s observation, in his perceptive book, In Search of American Jewish Culture, that 20th century American culture and the culture of the sons and daughters of East European Jewish immigrants were inextricably intertwined. For me this meant that my offerings in U.S. history would not only continue to include the contributions, and multiple mutual influences of African-Americans and women and other earlier overlooked groups, but also the important role and impact of Jewish involvement. In doing this, I discovered that I was swimming against the current of Jewish exclusion from the conversation about the new constructs of multi-culturalism. My response? Full steam ahead!
And that’s how I found myself in Deborah Dash Moore’s courses at YIVO. In her seminar on Jewish Labor I did a “term paper” on Jewish Socialists. The hypothesis that directed my research was stimulated by a student in my class at New Paltz on Post-Civil War America. We were talking about industrialization and the labor movements it spawned, when he asked about the motivations of people who become active in movements for social justice.
The question resonated quite directly with me, I think, because my earlier research on slavery and abolitionism had had virtually the same focus: “What animated abolitionists and led them to take political and even physical risks in pursuit of justice?” In the books I wrote trying to answer to that question, The New York Abolitionists: A Case Study of Political Radicalism (1970) and Abolitionism: A New Perspective (1972), I argued that many abolitionists, out of a moral vision deeply infused with religious values, had not only called for an end to slavery, but advocated for political and economic equality for freed blacks, a radical position that imagined a very different United States.
The paper I wrote in the seminar reached a comparable, if tentative, conclusion about the Jewish socialists. Even as I leaned over backward to avoid putting the socialists into a procrustean bed, it appeared to me that their activism grew out of a moral vision, similar to that of the abolitionists, a vision shaped by religious values, however secularized. Deborah returned my paper saying, “There’s a book in this.” Nice to hear, but scary too.
I worried about being seen as an interloper. I had heard that American Jewish Studies and its practitioners were often treated as junior partners within the larger field of Jewish Studies. How much more resistance would there be to my crossing over then, with only a degree in American History? Deborah Dash Moore, who in all probability experienced some of the bias against American Jewish Studies, strongly encouraged me to take the leap. She told me that in the basement archives of YIVO there were file drawers filled with transcripts of interviews, done about 20 years earlier, with Jewish immigrant socialists. In Yiddish.
Would the Yiddish I learned from my alte-zayde thirty years earlier serve me now? Well, yes and no. I could tell by reading the transcripts, in most cases, which of them would be relevant for my research. Many dozen. I took copies of the transcripts to my mother-in- law, herself an immigrant, who came to New York at age fourteen, from Raciaz, Poland. Together we refined my very rough and incomplete translations. It was a labor of love for both of us and an exercise in deepening personal connection.
I was also excited about the possibility of interviewing surviving activists, something that had been impossible, of course, with the nineteenth-century abolitionists. A dozen former socialists not only talked with me at length, but made me feel welcome in their homes, and by their warmth and openness allowed me to share, if only vicariously, in a variety of intense social and political experiences. Out of all this came The Prophetic Minority: Immigrant Jewish Socialists, 1880-1920 (1985). Doing that book moved me, after twenty years of teaching American Studies, to reinvigorate a Jewish Studies minor, which was on life-support at SUNY New Paltz. I had enough hutzpah to “appoint” myself Director.
Deborah continued to be influential in my scholarship and in my life. She was teaching at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, just across the Hudson River, from New Paltz, and our paths crossed more or less regularly. In 1986, Irving Levine, who worked at the American Jewish Committee, had read Deborah’s At Home in America and approached her about doing a book on the Brownsville Boys Club (BBC), a group of “sixty-something” men who had remained friends since their teen-age years. She could not take on the project, but recommended me. I was in scholar-author heaven.
A Brownsville boy myself, although younger and never a member of the BBC, I looked forward to interviewing these men who when boys, as young as fourteen, had been kicked out of their schoolyard play area, and organized a club to campaign among storekeepers, landlords, community leaders, and politicians, for space to play basketball. Their project grew well beyond basketball. Seeing what they could accomplish when organized and committed, the boys created an association with the aim of providing a place not only for sports, but as importantly, for social solidarity and education for neighborhood youth, even as the area shifted, in the 1950s and 1960s from Jewish in ethnic composition to African-American. My interviews and research culminated in The Nurturing Neighborhood: The Brownsville Boys Club and Jewish Community in Urban America (1990).
My original title was “Street Corner Jews,” an allusion to William Foote Whyte’s observer-participant study, Street Corner Society (1943) and Alfred Kazin’s in-your-face New York Jew (1978). But some of the “boys” unfamiliar with the scholarly literature and the games we writers sometimes play, felt demeaned by the phrase. I was reluctant to go with TheNurturing Neighborhood. But that title did characterize my analysis of working-class Jewish youth whose idealism and moral vision moved them to activism for social good in an urban setting. The book was generally received by critics as a reliable account of neighborhood life, adolescent culture, American ethnicity, and generational change, which demonstrated links between the Old World culture of the parents and the New World culture of their children.
While I was working on The Nurturing Neighborhood, the resuscitated SUNY New Paltz Jewish Studies program caught the attention of Louis Resnick, a local philanthropist who wanted, he told the college president, to see even more things “Jewish” at New Paltz. I wrote a proposal which moved Mr. Resnick to make a generous gift, enough to endow an ongoing lecture series under my coordination. For twenty-nine years now. the series which is international in its scope, has featured academics, writers, playwrights, and musicians – all of whom have helped me continue my education in Jewish Studies. But it all started with Deborah Dash Moore’s seminar and my first two “Jewish” books, The PropheticMinority and The Nurturing Neighborhood.
These books garnered a moderate amount of positive attention in the appropriate journals, and I sensed no resistance to my having crossed over. On the contrary, Henry Feingold, a respected senior scholar in American Jewish History, invited me to participate in an ambitious project sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society: a five-volume history of the Jewish people in America. I was fortunate enough to be asked to write the third volume, A Time for Building (1992), covering what Moses Rischin, the doyen of American Jewish History, called the “block-buster period,” 1880-1920.
I felt I had arrived. This feeling was reinforced after I wrote an essay for Reviews in American History (RAH) sharply critical of Arthur Hertzberg’s The Jews in America. Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter: A History (1989). I was especially tough on his conclusion that “American Jewish history will soon end, and become part of American memory as a whole,” and ended by saying that we are still without a satisfactory short and accessible history of American Jewry. Stanley Kutler, the editor of RAH, in response to my complaint urged me to write “the missing book.”
Perhaps it was bashert (destiny) but not too long thereafter Henry Y.K. Lee, the editor of Johns Hopkins University Press, publisher of The Jewish People in America, asked me to do a one-volume analytical narrative on Jews in America. That became Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America (1997), part synthesis, part packed with the results of my own research and reading. By the time Tradition Transformed was published, I was beginning spade work for a biography of Irving Howe, a man it seemed to me whose political values were at least partly shaped by an ethno-religious cultural milieu. Howe, a democratic socialist, famously identified as a “partial Jew.”
Rereading Irving Howe’s work was mostly a joy, and an experience in time travel, particularly as I read the many articles he wrote in the 1950s and 60s for Partisan Review, Commentary, The New York Review of Books and Dissent. But I began to hesitate as I faced the prospect of having to go through the mounds of writing (not yet digitalized) Howe put out as a journalist early in his career working for radical newspapers like Labor Action, and New International. And because Howe saved none of his correspondence, I would have to track down his letters scattered across the country in twenty-seven different archives. I would also have to reread the twenty-nine books he wrote or edited, and interview his contemporaries (forty men and women, it turned out). At fifty-seven with a full-time teaching load, did I have the stamina to do it?
More important, did I have the imagination, the saychel (common sense). the capability of mind, to wrestle with one of the leading American intellectuals of the post-war period? Added to these questions were Mark Twain’s admonition that a person’s real life is known only to themselves, Freud’s warning that whoever turns biographer commits oneself to lies, and more recently, Janet Malcolm’s characterization of the biographer as a “professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers… and triumphantly bearing his loot away.”[i] My enthusiasm for the Howe biography was waning. But I attended a conference of the American Jewish Historical Society in 1996 and was turned around. Scholars made me feel welcome — as an equal, and that was revitalizing. More important, I think, were the genuine encouragement and support I received for the Howe project from many colleagues — including and especially, Jeffrey Gurock, Beth Wenger, Jeffrey Shandler, Pam Nadel, Daniel Soyer, and of course Deborah Dash Moore.
Writing the biography turned out to be such an exciting and enriching experience, that soon after I went forward with another, on Howard Fast, one of the most inexhaustible Jewish writers in American history, and for fourteen years, the “face of Communism” in the United States. Fast less known, and even less read today, despite his Citizen Tom Paine, My Glorious Brothers, and Spartacus, was nonetheless worth exploring.
Fast, after all, in 1947 and again during the fifties, refused to “name names.” He was, after several trials, convicted of Contempt of Congress and served three months in prison. His courage in this regard was not the only thing that made him interesting to me. By the time Fast died in 2002, he had published over 100 books, many with Jewish content, and he was someone whose social justice activism might have grown in part out of Jewish values. That turned out to be true. But Fast, who had correspondence with activists (several Jewish) in many different countries, and traveled to the World Peace Conference in Paris in 1949 where he met important Soviet Communists, failed to expose and denounce the antisemitism rampant in the Soviet Union, about which he had intimate and early knowledge. That he chose loyalty to Stalin and to the Party, and betrayed fellow Jews, certainly complicated the question of his Jewish identity. Dealing with that complexity in Fast’s politics and writing, as it spun itself out over many years of study, was sometimes perplexing to me, but always stimulating, and in the end a very satisfying experience.
It has been a thrill for me to see those essays and reviews published in, among other journals and magazines, American Jewish History, American Jewish Archives, Haaretz — and The Forward — today not quite what it looked like sitting folded beside my alte-zayde as he tried to teach me Yiddish seventy years ago.
So, I end near where I began. The prize-winning novelist Dara Horn said not too long ago about the creative imagination that “It is a group effort.” I think that applies as much to good historical research and writing as it does to art and literature. I could not have done my work in Jewish history and biography, had it not been for the early giants in Jewish Studies and American Studies whose shoulders I tried to reach; and as important, had it not been for the energetic, stimulating community of scholars, young and old, who have nurtured my interest in the field of Jewish Studies every step of the way.
Gerald Sorin, Distinguished Professor of American and Jewish Studies, at SUNY New Paltz since 1965, has taught at the University of Utrecht and at Nijmegen, as a Fulbright Fellow. Chair of the History Department and Director of the Jewish Studies Program until 1996, Sorin founded and continues to direct the Resnick Institute for the Study of Jewish Life. He is the author of eight books, including Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane. and innumerable articles. In 1994 he was awarded the State University’s highest rank– Distinguished University Professor. His new book on Saul Bellow will soon be published.