jlink
Saturday, January 19, 2019

Published in 2002, Arthur Herzberg wrote “A Jew in America: My Life and A People’s Struggle for Identity.” Ordinarily, I would not review a book this old. But I make an exception here. I have to tell you how our shul library ended up with this book. Hertzberg is known for his “The Zionist Idea” (1959), an anthology of essays by others on Zionism, together with his own introduction. I ordered this book for the shul library from a Jewish bookstore. But instead they shipped me, by the same author, “A Jew in America”!

The author was a professor at Columbia for several decades and later at Dartmouth. (Full disclosure: He gave me a B at Columbia. Nevertheless, I forgave him and wrote this favorable review!) He was also a Conservative rabbi in Englewood for decades. He raised his children there before there was a day school.

Hertzberg was born in Poland in 1921. He came from a hasidic family and was a descendant of R. Elimelech of Lizhensk. He came to the U.S. as a 5-year-old. His aunt made two changes to his name. She could not bear to register him in kindergarten as “Abraham Herzberg,” so she Americanized his first name to “Arthur.” She also inserted a “t” into his last name, so it would be more easily pronounced. (He admits that he thinks of her every time he signs his name!)

He tells the story that at a very young age he was enrolled in kindergarten in the nearest public school. But he did not know how to explain to the teacher in English that he had to use the toilet and he was too much in awe of authority to simply walk out. He ended up soiling himself and was sent home in disgrace. He never went back to that school again. But he always suspected that he studied languages voraciously in high school and college so that he would never again find himself in that situation!

His father had come to the U.S. several years early to help set the family up. When he came to greet his family when they arrived in the U.S., Arthur’s grandmother, coming from Poland, leaned down to put her ear to Arthur’s father’s stomach. He had Americanized to some degree in the time he spent here, though he was still very observant. She was listening for the growling of pigs! She wanted to know how much pig he had, inevitably, eaten so far! (Meanwhile, Arthur’s mother sent his bar mitzvah picture, with an omitted father, to the grandfather in Poland. Arthur’s father was no longer wearing a caftan, and had an Americanized suit, and she did not want his grandfather in Poland to see this!)

The author played a part in every major story related to Israel. He was at the Biltmore Hotel in New York in 1942 and heard the conference decide that the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine had to be the centerpiece of the post-war program of American Jews and indeed of the Jews of the world. He went on a post-war visit to Israel as a military correspondent in 1949, and shares some insights into what caused the flight of the Arab refugees. He was involved in pressuring Israel to withdraw from Egypt in early 1957 on the condition of the establishment of an international U.N. force, which would never be withdrawn without the consent of Israel. He conveyed this message to Golda Meir who conveyed it to David Ben Gurion. Ben Gurion decided not to risk confrontation with an unfriendly American administration and withdrew.

Then 10 years later, Nasser ordered the international U.N. force to withdraw and they promptly complied! Golda Meir saw him again in 1967 and scolded him: “That was a very bad days’ work you did 10 years ago.”

Hertzberg heard that Nasser expected that the U.N. would forbid him from pushing the peacekeepers out. Nasser was blustering before the Arab world, expecting that he would be able to say that he wanted to fight Israel, but that while he wanted a fight, the U.N. had tied his hands. But the U.N. failed to remember its role in this script! The Six-Day War ensued.

He was an early supporter of the Peace Now movement, and he had several famous feuds with Golda Meir, but he later made peace with her.

A large part of the book deals with the Jews’ role in the modern world. Is the “melting pot” the correct model? Or alternatively cultural pluralism? But both of these models are obviously not satisfactory.

The author has tremendous respect for his roots of hasidic piety and learning and cannot understand why they are not valued in the secular world.

The key question for the author is “how to raise Jewish children to be themselves in a society that frowned on their otherness.” His conclusion he reserves for the last sentence: “I had become an American by refusing to assimilate.”

The book is endorsed by Henry Kissinger: “Arthur Hertzberg’s memoir is the very moving and inspiring journey of a man of conscience, courage and commitment to his spiritual identity.”

Hertzberg recalls the elder Mr. Kissinger stating to his son: “Heinz, how can I go to synagogue tonight after what everyone has read in the paper?” He decided to honor Henry before a Jewish organization so that Henry’s parents could see it in their lifetime. Henry’s parents were beaming!

I will end with three random points:

  1. Hertzberg writes: “We could not possibly make the case for the Jewish settlement in Palestine within the past century in the teeth of Arab resentment and resistance, without invoking the need of the Jews for a homeland of their own after 20 centuries of being persecuted in every country in Europe and to a substantial degree in the Muslim world. The basic argument for Zionism was that the Jews required an act of affirmative action to make their continued life possible.” Accordingly, Jews were asking of the world, and even of the Muslim Arab world, that it make some room for a Jewish commonwealth in a small piece of the large territory of the Middle East. (But then he continues, did we really have the right to oppose “affirmative action” for blacks and others who had suffered continuing injustice in Western societies?)
  2. In 1968, Yaacov Herzog and an Israeli military man named Levitsa met him in his office at Columbia University with their tale of woe. The Encyclopaedia Judaica project was on the verge of collapse. Before the Nazis had shut it down, Nahum Goldmann succeeded in having a partial edition published in Germany in 10 volumes (the last entry was “Lyra”). It was suggested that the Encyclopaedia Judaica be revived in English in the U.S. and that Arthur should find a new American publisher. An old friend of Arthur’s, Jeremiah Kaplan, had become the head of one of the major publishing companies, Macmillan. Macmillan agreed to fund the project with a $250,000 advance as long as Hertzberg agreed to be the final editor of all the copy. (Sixteen volumes were eventually published.) Hertzberg writes that he went to Jerusalem for three summers in a row to work on this project. He remembers that the food at the Hebrew University varied between bad and atrocious, but the gossip was superb!

(P.S. I looked at the Encyclopaedia Judaica and was expecting to find some statement about Hertzberg’s role. I was disappointed. He is only listed briefly as one of the consulting editors.)

  1. My favorite part of the book was that he recalls that his grandfather was a military censor in World War I. He would read correspondence between rabbis of different countries on matters of halacha, making sure that no military secrets would be embedded therein. But he could not resist writing in his own (unsigned) comments in the margins!

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected] He is happy to proofread books and articles and insert his comments anonymously.