“Why would you want to live in Israel?” Irving Howe asked me, his voice rising in bemusement.
It was 1981, and we were at Leo’s Coffee Shop on Madison Avenue near 86th Street. I was two years out of Sarah Lawrence College, struggling to be a poet in New York City, but enveloped in my quest for Jewish identity, as I had been pretty much my whole life.
My first trip to Israel—two intense weeks—had made me obsessed with the country and confused about my place: was it in Israel or in New York? I was certain that Irving would have an answer for me.
Pressing him for a more satisfying response, I countered, “What do I, an American Jew, have other than the religion and worship? You had something—a Yiddish culture as a way to be an American Jew. In Israel, I can be Jewish just by smelling the sea.”
He sighed and looked toward the ceiling. “In America, you will have what we have had for thousands of years: a sense of homelessness, searching for home; that is what it means to be a Jew.” It was as if it didn’t occur to him that this gnawing sense of homelessness—apparently quite satisfying for him—might not be enough for me.
But the truth was that he had so much more than homelessness. He was brought up at a time he chronicled in his groundbreaking 1976 book, World of Our Fathers, a time of rich Jewish culture in America—yiddishkeit that infused everything in his daily life, his language, his values, his culture, his comrades—an era that belonged to an earlier part of the twentieth century. It was an era that I could only read about in books written by or edited by—or translated from the Yiddish by—Irving and his ilk.
Israel to him was a place to which he had a strong connection—through its literature and much more—but his Jewish place was perhaps more situated in the South Bronx of his childhood, the Yiddish literature that he helped to popularize through translation, and the social/political milieu of earlier decades when he founded this magazine. It was amid the turmoil of the socialist and communist movements heavily populated by Eastern European Jewish immigrants—and where a Woody Allen joke (“I had heard that Commentary and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery”) could cause urban movie audiences to laugh knowingly, because the cultural bearings were so ingrained in Jews of a certain era and ZIP code spread.
But that political era was ending, and American Jewry was indeed slipping more into a time that would become less political and more parochial, perhaps in tune with the political and social climate overall. With the isms dying, so, too, was the Jewish intellectual political environment into which one could grow—or find a home.
This left the synagogue as the logical home for an American Jew. But for me, that address didn’t fill my yearning. It still doesn’t, even though I decided to join a synagogue ...
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