A Conversation with IRVING HOWE

NOVAK, WILLIAM

A Conversation with IRVING HOWE William Novak Irving Howe's new book, World of Our Fathers (which is reviewed elsewhere in this issue) has just been published to critical acclaim. The book is a...

...My expression of concern for Israel was not new personally, although this was the time I chose to make it public...
...I really can't write in Yiddish, and Yiddish writers would vouch for that...
...The sense of what the Jewish community means by liberalism is becoming a little more conservative, a little more cautious...
...We have to remember that a good many of these people were observant, and that the histories tend to be written by people like myself who are secularists...
...Still, World of Our Fathers is likely to stand as one of Howe's two or three most significant contributions to American and Jewish culture...
...The images that you get from people like Harry Golden are, well, pretty golden...
...And then we slowly but surely began to part company...
...Even with their strong socialist tradition...
...Sex would rear its head, and that's something Jewish parents found very hard to cope with, often ignoring it...
...The street really was the enemy of the home...
...The magazine is read and known all over America...
...A great many were in between...
...The original scheme was that the book would be half its present size...
...Do you agree that it has...
...don't think it's putting it too strongly to suggest that the positions you're taking have been in eclipse lately...
...But support for Israel is a much more crucial matter...
...moment is too cautious, I realize you don't want to become ideologically predictable in the style that I've just criticized, and that seems to me good...
...My sense of it is that, for many of us on both sides of that debate, what was really at stake was that the book, for good or bad, was forcing us into a confrontation with the fact of being Jewish which for various reasons chiefly our aspirations to worldliness we had suppressed...
...And were there also Jewish street gangs...
...And one to which many Americans perhaps most can respond...
...I find this development distressing...
...I've now been working with Eliezer Greenberg for more than 20 years on various anthologies of Yiddish literature in translation...
...The idea of gathering statistics on wages, or housing conditions . . . the economic part of the book is, accordingly, one of its weaker sides...
...One of the better sources for this subject, by the way, is Eddie Cantor's autobiography...
...Can't you find liberal viewpoints advocated in moment...
...Only minorities were totally religious or totally radical...
...It was not always easy to make the case that Israel was an exception...
...And I've willy-nilly become a kind of Yiddish writer myself a Yiddish writer who writes in English...
...For example, the particular milieu with which I've been associated in American literary-intellectual life, the New York intellectual community, is something that one cannot understand apart from a grasp of the East European immigrant Jewish experience...
...The Yiddish press and the Yiddish world in general had only a very rudimentary sense of statistics and economics...
...You decide at which point one or the other is more important...
...I'd like to believe so, but don't see much reason to make that assumption...
...Yet in the absence of significant opposition, the increasingly strident conservatism of Commentary comes to be seen as representative of the political and cultural outlook of the American Jews...
...The people who came over at first were not among the most cultured Jews...
...One of the things that upset me was the discovery of how bad things were in the 1880's and 1890's...
...People like mc were impressed by Israel's democratic nature...
...They had the equipment to attack it...
...If you will undertake that task, you will be performing a major service...
...I'm somewhat disappointed...
...We tried to discover whether the Jewish connections with liberalism were coming to an end...
...I've never been a Zionist in any ideological sense, and I'm not one now, but it's perfectly clear that for me and many other people, the sense of concern for Israel has increased very sharply over the past decade...
...You'll remember that the debate over that book had a ferocity, an intensity, that I can't remember experiencing since the late '30's in the debates over Stalinism...
...It took about seven years to write, although during most of that time I was doing other things...
...Commentary is widely regarded as representing the point of view of American Jews...
...don't think it was a new position for you, but it was one that you hadn't made publicly before, and I believe that it liberated many Jews, especially intellectuals, to talk about this subject more openly...
...It has become a magazine of ideological position-taking, and sometimes it seems that each issue is more rigid and extreme than the previous one...
...They understood, even if they couldn't put it into words, that the street was the agency that would take their kids away from them, and so they resisted the street...
...Well, mother is home...
...I don't think, as some people do, that it runs directly against the Jewish interest...
...One example is affirmative action...
...But I've become a sort of cousin to them and a friend to a number of them...
...And sometimes it seems to conflict with the basic principles of liberalism...
...But you must be ready to speak out...
...I feel a very strong kinship with them, mostly through Greenberg, but also with others, such as the late Jacob Glatstein...
...These things, in my opinion, existed not only for their own sake, but also to fight the street...
...Except for your translations from the Yiddish, this is your first Jewish book...
...One wants to know what makes one different from, say, other American intellectuals who are gentiles, professors of English...
...Currently, we're doing still another one on Soviet Yiddish writers...
...The Bundists, for instance, who became the leadership of the Jewish trade unions, did not come until later...
...I use the word "liberalism" pretty loosely to include my sense of socialist politics as well...
...Still, yours was no ordinary book, and you bit off quite a mouthful in starting to work on it...
...I tried to understand the phenomenon a couple of years ago in an article I wrote for Dissent with Bernard Rosenberg...
...On economic matters, for instance, there was never enough...
...Jewish liberalism is not dead, it just lacks an adequate articulation...
...We shared an interest both from Jewish and general political premises in polemicizing against the New Left, or against its excesses...
...In the name of attacking the New Left, it soon began to take all kinds of swipes against liberal views...
...Another reason, of course, for my increased sense of Jewishness is through my increasing interest in Israel...
...I was a longtime contributor to Commentary, and during the late '60's my personal and political relations with its editor, Norman Pod-horetz, were quite close...
...Irving Howe, who has been editor of Dissent during the two decades of that magazine's existence, has published countless books, articles and anthologies on politics, culture and literature...
...One of the things that struck me as interesting was the tension between home and street...
...I draw a pretty sharp line of difference in the book between the two periods...
...That's a good question, but it isn't easy to answer...
...in order to gain some sense of what happened to them later on...
...Many people have a picture of the Lower East Side as a warm, colorful and happy place...
...If you want to scream and yell, you should feel free to scream and yell...
...But the distinction which we're inclined to make between observant and non-observant is probably overdrawn...
...There were many people writing for the Forward in its early years who were really sociologists, although they wouldn't have used that word...
...It was intellectually helpless...
...There seems to be a general concensus that American Jewry has veered dramatically to the right in recent years...
...But of sympathy for any sort of insurgency, of tolerance for youthful error, of a recognition, say, that together with intellectual excess there is an urgent claim to justice in the women's movement you will find little of this in Commentary...
...Is this a true image...
...By now, of course, what I'm saying would hardly be contested by Commentary itself...
...Then you had Fein's piece on corruption in the Jewish community...
...In the first issue you carried an attack on the New Jewish Right, and that was good as far as it went...
...If they gave their kids to the schools, they couldn't also keep them off the streets...
...Eddie Cantor in his youth was very close to being a juvenile delinquent...
...It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of Commentary in American Jewish life...
...I don't know if we can define national interests any more convincingly than the guys in the State Department who want to help the Arabs...
...But the Jewish community rarely has, or should have, only one point of view...
...The image of women working applies mostly to younger women, most often before they were married...
...It was the so-called alienated intellectuals, those whom rabbis find convenient to scorn, who really launched a major attack on this book...
...The book is a broad and sweeping account of the lives of those European Jews who emigrated to America and settled in New York's Lower East Side around the turn of the century...
...But now we are developing a more articulate and more sophisticated understanding of self-interest...
...One of the delightful sections of your book is the part about the lives of children...
...the intelligentsia did not come until later, after the turn of the century...
...But the piece lacked sufficient combative spirit to arouse attention...
...I think that the argument from democracy is much more effective than some argument about strategic interests...
...is merely faddish and foolish...
...And yet at every moment one is aware that one is different...
...Once you start arguing in terms of geopolitical considerations, in so-called sophisticated terms...
...The Jewish Daily Forward was an absolute gold mine...
...He didn't flinch and the cutting was infinitesimal...
...I'd like to turn the discussion to the Jewish community of New York in our own time...
...I don't think they are so sharply in conflict...
...Resistance to the street means staying away from vulgarity and danger the famous joke: "You'll go downstairs, catch cold, and I'll die...
...Yes, but they're linked...
...And that seems to me highly unfortunate...
...Yes, although they tended to be less violent than their gentile counterparts...
...the book could easily have been three or four times longer...
...Immigrant parents were shy, even puritanical, on this whole subject...
...All of life is full of conflicts of values...
...So the book was a kind of summa for me, a bringing together of a whole range of interests and experiences...
...But one has to look for them...
...The magazine has not yet made clear where it stands politically...
...Many of the immigrants who came over, in both periods, were a little observant and also a little radical, or half religious and half socialist...
...So the problem was that you had loo much source material...
...Howe's home in New York...
...But I think there's something else, too...
...Do you think that this emerging conservatism has had much of an impact...
...Then that's a game that we could also lose...
...It was widely quoted and commented upon, and I get the impression that at that moment you entered into the discussion with and on behalf of the American Jewish community in a way that represented a new direction for you...
...After the establishment of the State, though, my anti-Zionism became moderated into non-Zionism...
...In 1973 you wrote an article for New York Magazine entitled "Thinking the Unthinkable About Israel...
...And that's another way I was moved toward the book...
...What were the major sources for your research...
...People could speak freely there...
...Sometimes, of course, the Commentary ideologists strike their targets at center, since there is much in our intellectual and cultural life that Jewish parents found it hard to' cope with sex____with necking on the roof or in the park...
...The liberal position on foreign policy states that America should be devoted to the support of democracy and democratic norms wherever possible...
...There's no question about it...
...If there were a political candidate with whom I agreed on most domestic political issues but who was weak on Israel, then I would not find it possible to support him...
...I'll put it this way: my interest in Jewish things on a cultural level has steadily increased...
...Mother would say, "Don't go down and become a bum...
...And how does that liberalism "affect the issues that face Jews today...
...I hadn't assumed that it was such a warm, carefree place to begin with...
...When I say this, my friends in the Yiddish movement, including Yiddish writers, become angry, and I suspect this is not because they think I'm telling a lie, but because they fear that it's the truth, which is a painful thing...
...I was glad to see it, but felt that it needed much more elaboration and sustained detail...
...Has there ever been a time for American Jewry when liberalism and self-interest were so sharply in conflict...
...The older I become, the more it is clear to me that things which have previously seemed disparate or unconnected are very deeply connected...
...Even if the gentiles don't like it...
...many of those ideas were quite wrong...
...But they were trapped...
...The hope of greater diversity and debate among American Jewish intellectuals, in time spreading into the larger community, was one reason for welcoming the appearance of moment...
...Then you've got a problem, and you've got to use your brains...
...I don't think it's so difficult...
...I had to gradually reject some of the ideas from the socialism of my youth with regard to Zionism...
...Then we have a clear and unambiguous argument in support of Israel...
...You're asking me to be in touch with the deepest motives of my life, and there's no reason to suppose that I'm any more successful at that than other people are...
...And has moment lived up to your hopes...
...By and large the tradition of liberalism is in harmony with the general positions of Jews...
...You have to remember that their socialism was pretty elementary, and it usually sufficed to say that the workers were suffering...
...Nothing not culture, not the women's movement, not the school reformers, not even the latest movie seems exempt from this ideological inspection...
...What one increasingly finds in Commentary is an assault on everything in contemporary politics and culture that is distasteful to conservative ideology...
...Music lessons, reading, Hebrew school all helped...
...but my editor was willing to accept it when it came in at 1,300 manuscript pages...
...And I should mention that although I supported McGovern last time, it turned out that his record on Israel was nothing to boast about...
...don't think you answered the question...
...Most writing about the Lower East Side tends to blur the distinction, which I think is very important, if perhaps exaggerated a little in the book, between the early period, 1880-1904, and the later period, starting in 1905...
...But how did they fight the street if the parents were working...
...How did you come to write this book...
...Do you have a way of synthesizing a liberal outlook on foreign affairs with strong American support of Israel...
...As one gets older, one is more and more drawn to ask oneself about sources, about the basis of one's life, to search for "roots," if you'll pardon my use of that cant expression...
...You cannot understand it only in those terms, but you have to understand the world out of which these people came...
...It's rather fuzzy...
...The issues raised by the Arendt book were so explosive that it turned us back to the Holocaust and from there to the basic facts of Jewish identity...
...The debate over the book was among American intellectuals...
...But it is difficult to see how a secular Jewish community could abandon its commitment to liberalism...
...We've seen the rise of a very sharp and clear articulation of what has been called Jewish neo-Con-servatism, and this has been reflected most prominently in the pages of Commentary...
...Although the other kids on the street were mostly Jewish, they were thought to be less refined...
...It brought together my interest in Yiddish literature, in socialism in America, which to a large extent also means Jewish socialism, and my interest in the whole nature of the life that I've lived, the past out of which I've come the experience of the East European immigrant Jews...
...We must never underestimate the shrewdness of our not terribly well educated parents and grandparents...
...Correct...
...But right now the fact of Commentary's influence within the Jewish community must be recognized, and if you want to make your mark as a voice of Jewish liberalism otherwise, by the way, I hardly see that you have much reason for existence then you will have to become more outspoken...
...If I had known then what I know now I would never have undertaken it, because of its size...
...We used a number of sources, and the most important of these was the Yiddish press, which was enormously helpful but not always entirely accurate...
...they didn't know how to cope with it...
...Yes, that was important...
...Of course...
...It was the culmination of a great many different interests and experiences...
...And this necessarily forced a confrontation with some of my earlier assumptions...
...Yes, and here, whatever strong disagreements I've had with Norman Podhoretz, I do share with him a very strong sentiment against what might be called Jewish repressiveness, or Jewish gentility...
...For me socialism meant Marxism, and it was in direct opposition or so I thought to Zionism...
...Leonard Fein was an active voice for Jewish liberalism for the past several years, and you and your friends over at Response spoke for an intelligent and responsible Jewish left...
...Do you think that things will soon start to shift back...
...So I suppose from all of that my book emerged, from some kind of effort at self-discovery...
...They had an eye for sociological generalizations, and they provided a vast amount of stuff...
...But it's clear that the last remnants of that experience, and of Yiddish, the language of that experience, are coming to an end...
...Necking on the roof or in the park parents didn't know how to handle this...
...Exactly...
...It's hard to say if this was consciously expressed or understood...
...Well, on some items there was no end to source material, although on others we weren't able to find enough...
...I think for many of us a crucial turning point was the furious debate that occurred in New York intellectual life over Hannah Arendt's book on the Eichmann trial (Eichmann in Jerusalem...
...You told me, in retrospect, how the book came to be written...
...There can be no question that it has...
...But I want to know how this book came out of the Irving Howe whose primary interests seem to be literary criticism and American politics...
...I agree with Leonard Fein's article in Midstream a few years back "which argued that it's possible to support affirmative action in a way that does not conflict with Jewish self-interest...
...The conversation took place in November at Mr...
...How Jewish were the Jews of the Lower East Side...
...Sometimes the kids would listen...
...During the 1960's, liberals worked to reduce the power of the American Empire, and sought to reduce adventurism in foreign policy...
...The 'Eighties and 'Nineties were like the opening years of the pioneer period in American life, years of terrible suffering, cultural deprivation...
...And it was something else...
...And moral values...
...And the conclusions we reached were that the identification itself was not coming to an end, but that the content of that identification is changing...
...This is one of the strongest reasons for American support of Israel, and in that sense there is a harmony between liberalism and Jewish self-interest...
...So I assumed that when Fein and you began moment there would be an ambitious statement of Jewish liberalism...
...I wanted to attack the New Left from the perspective of democratic socialism and liberalism, und it began to seem to me that under Norman's editorship incidentally, he's a very skillful editor, highly competent that Commentary was moving increasingly toward a conservative position...
...And there are some things about street gangs in the Yiddish press...
...As other scholars have pointed out, the Jews who came in the 1880's and '90's had lost touch with their culture, and there was a serious rupture between the immigrant life of the end of the last century and life back in Eastern Europe . . . and what happens in the early years of the 20th century is a partial re-integration of East European Jewish culture and American culture...
...the interesting thing is that the Jewish community barely reacted to the debate...
...The schools offered the same threat, of course, but there the parents were willing to pay the price...
...But I do know that when we argue in terms of democratic values...
...I think the article's effectiveness depended upon the sense of horror that many people had that a second act of the Holocaust might take place in Israel...
...There's always the temptation to ignore the extent to which many of them were religious...
...I began to feel that more and more I was dealing with a lost world...
...The street was really the great Americanizing agency...

Vol. 1 • March 1976 • No. 8


 
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