A Rabbi's Life
By AVIYA KUSHNER
Editor's note: Arthur
Hertzberg will accept the National Jewish Book Award in the category of Modern
Jewish Thought and Experience at the awards ceremony on Thursday, December
11th. The ceremony will be held at the Center for Jewish History, at 15 West
16th Street in New York City at 7:30pm, and will be open to the public.
A JEW IN AMERICA
My Life and a People's Struggle for Identity
By Arthur Hertzberg
480 pages. HarperSanFrancisco. $29.95.
For many American Jews, memory begins with the long lines of
Ellis Island or the squeaky pushcarts and kosher pickles of the Lower East
Side. But the patterns of the prominent rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s life and
thought start thousands of miles away from the sensory overload of New York
City. Hertzberg’s prizewinning memoir, A Jew in America, describes the long-gone
Chassidic courts of Poland, the country he lived in until age five. His father,
grandfather, and many of his relatives were prominent Chassidic thinkers, and
his grandfather and his four brothers were known as the “chumash” of Dinov—each
pious enough to represent one of the five books of Moses.
Growing up in Baltimore in the twenties and thirties,
Hertzberg kept hearing that he was related to these illustrious scholars. Although
he is not a Chassid today, he maintains a deep respect for Chassidic teachings.
The Talmud he learned with his father, he claims, has been the major text of
According to Hertzberg, text matters most to all American
Jews, no matter what their family history. Throughout the memoir, and in this
interview, Hertzberg makes a case for Jewish texts as the core of Jewish
identity. He thinks this should be true in today’s America, just as it was in
For those who are used to reading Hertzberg’s
often-controversial editorials on Israel, or who think of him as the leader of
the American Jewish Congress, or the major editor of Encyclopedia Judaica, this
book offers a chance to understand how all those roles fit together, and how
the history of the man affects his thinking. It’s also a meditation on what twentieth-century
American Jewry was all about.
Hertzberg records his impressions of Martin Luther King,
Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, among other luminaries, and he offers an insider’s
view on recent history—from the end of the Holocaust to civil rights to the
current situation in Israel. The eighty-three-year-old Rabbi Hertzberg recently
shared his thoughts on the book and the public and intellectual life described
Q: I was struck by
your frequent references to your Chassidic relatives—the rabbis of Poland. Why
did you emphasize your Chassidic ancestors so much in this book?
A: I think of them every day. My purpose is to have American
Jews look away from the success story with which they’ve cheered themselves up,
and to have them remember the classical tradition, whatever it is.
The decision I had to make as I wrote the book—and I took a
two-year break in the middle, in which I asked myself this—was: You are writing
a book which increases the distance between your life and that of most American
Jews. Most American Jews came from the lower middle classes, and therefore they
brought with them not a lot of Jewish culture. The American Jewish story starts
with Ellis Island, and the candy store in the Bronx.
I wrote this to actually represent my experience, which I
say bluntly, is different from that of most American Jews.
Q: Your memoir openly
discusses religious doubt, starting with your father’s comment to you on your
Bar-Mitzvah, that he knew you were “on your way to heresy.” Well, how can a
rabbi walk around with doubt?
A: How can a rabbi not live with doubt? The Bible itself is
a book of doubt. Lamentations starts with the line, “eichah yashva badad”—how have
you been allowed to sit alone, you widow Zion. If you read Lamentations,
especially the second chapter, it’s a straight-out questioning of how God
allowed this to happen.
The Bible is never about certainty. And a rabbi who has no
doubt is not a rabbi. My next book, in fact, is about the Talmud—how to read
the Talmud correctly. In it, I argue that the Talmud is about the constant
struggle to understand.
Q: Let’s turn to
current events. What do you think is the biggest problem now facing American
A: It’s not anti-Semitism, and it’s not the memory of the
Holocaust. The biggest problem is the one that I pose in this book—what are you
going to do to preserve a tradition that is the peculiar and unique culture
that Judaism inculcates?
The American Jewish community is not going to survive by
lining up against its common enemy. No culture survives by battling its
enemies. The only way a culture survives is by asserting its positives.
On campuses, and when I speak to the younger intelligentsia,
I am getting a hunger for the text—the authentic text for Jewish knowledge.
Q: You don’t think
anti-Semitism in America is a big problem?
A: It’s not entirely mythic, but it’s greatly exaggerated. I
have asked repeated classes of students—is there anything you feel has been
closed to you because you are Jewish? And for the past 25 years, the answer has
been no. We are living in an America in which an Orthodox Jew was the
ambassador to Cairo and kept a kosher home. America now, on Yom Kippur,
semi-shuts down, including government, because so many of the administrative
assistants are Jewish.
I think anti-Semitism is the meal ticket of the
organizations that fight it.
Q: Looking back at
your public life, as you did writing this book, what surprised you most?
A: In mid-career, I was at one and the same time the rabbi
of a major congregation, writing books, and teaching at Columbia. I didn’t
spend enough time with my children, and I didn’t give them the chance to
educate me. Fifteen years ago, when the grandchildren began to arrive, I
decided to rectify that. Now, when I get an all-important call, I sometimes say
that I’m having lunch with my granddaughter. And I do not apologize!
Bien sur, je regrette rien. [A quote of the French singer
Edith Piaf; Hertzberg laughs heartily.] I did what I felt I needed to do and
what I thought was right. I regret the fact that so much of this shortchanged
my own children.
But you don’t see that until you are old enough to
understand. My daughters are both the first readers of all my manuscripts—and
they are brilliant young middle-aged women. I’m breaking in my granddaughters
who are fifteen and fourteen to read my manuscripts.
Q: So is this book
A: That’s who this book was written for. I write to tell my
grandchildren where they come from, and what their grandparents were up to, and
I hope they will in their own way continue.
I invite anyone else to listen in.