The Other New York Jewish Intellectuals (Reappraisals in Jewish Social and Intellectual History)

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I want to understand the patterns that underpin race thinking as well as those that lead to respect and responsibility for others. My work ranges across the history of existentialism, the critical philosophy of race anti-Jewish and anti-black , critical theories of anti-Semitism, and post-Holocaust French Jewish thought. This led to a more wide-ranging edited volume, Naming Race, Naming Racisms Routledge, , that focuses on key flashpoints and figures to explore how race and racism have been understood and articulated in the shifting historical contexts from the late-eighteenth century to the present.

It closes with an interview I did with Cornel West about black intellectuals in America today. Each chapter opens with a new interpretation of one of the major works of existentialism by leading intellectual historians, philosophers, literary critics, and religious studies scholars. The book historicizes the process of canonizing and systemizing a system of thought that was anti-systemic at its core. It provides a guide for undergraduates and graduate students wrestling anew with existentialism, while pushing scholars to rethink its borders and boundaries.

Applying the model of heroic defiance to all forms of commitment, even to democratic and fraternal obligations that had been conceived as guarantors of freedom, the independent radicals held themselves aloof from political accountability. To this day some Jewish intellectuals cannot distinguish between the totalitarian conformism that was demanded by the Comintern and the voluntary submission to communal priorities of a functioning Jew. If Anti-Communism was one axis of independence from both totalitarian dictates and democratic or fraternal responsibilities, modernism was the other.

Modernism was the arena in which the anti-social instincts, the philosophic pessimism, the disintegrating forces that bourgeois democracy feared and tried to stave off could be admitted and given play. A serious student of modern art and culture had to be prepared to follow this vision wherever it might lead, and it certainly led beyond the bounds of his Jewish home. However distant he might otherwise feel from T. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the other apostles of modernism, the American Jewish intellectual shared their contempt for the bourgeoisie, and for his own brand of it, the parochial Jewish community.

Yet far from tendering this minimalist position apologetically, Trilling made it the springboard of an attack on what he took to be its opposite, the contrived literature of Jewish self-realization of which Ludwig Lewisohn was then the best-known exponent. Trilling must have known that Lewisohn was but a mediocre writer even before he turned to Jewish themes, yet he used this poor book as the occasion for a wider offensive against affirmative Jewishness:.

It fostered a willingness to accept exclusion and even to intensify it, a willingness to be provincial and parochial. It is in part accountable for the fact that the Jewish social group on its middle and wealthy levels—that is, where there is enough leisure to allow a conscious consideration of social and spiritual problems—is now one of the most self-indulgent and self-admiring groups it is possible to imagine. In —! The answer is yes. Monitoring the news from London and Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow, Jerusalem and Washington, Jewish Frontier was the first American publication to report on the systematic murder of the Jews.

In fact, an attachment to the Jewish fate, as those intellectuals knew who assumed it, was not overly limiting, but on the contrary much too taxing, too extending. Only decades later did some of them suddenly discover the Jewish state, which had meanwhile transformed world politics and culture. The Jewish intellectuals prided themselves on being good sons—they did not deny their Jewish origins—and in their writings they accorded the world of their childhood at least as much warmth as it had offered them; but no reciprocal sustenance.

Sooner or later, however, youthful independence is expected to give way to maturity, sons are expected to become fathers in their turn. For the Jewish intellectuals this proved to be a very slow process. In the sphere of culture and the arts, maturity came sooner than in the sphere of politics.

The Jewish intellectuals joked about their use of the first-person plural pronoun when writing about America. But the query, our forests, Alfred? They all had to perform an audacious act of appropriation, to take a kind of responsibility for American culture, and to do so without necessarily relinquishing their identity as Jews. In scholarship, possession of American and English culture could be acquired through knowledge and authority. But in the creation of works of imaginative literature, a deeper self-disclosure was required, for without the release of the Jew in himself, a writer simply could not free his own voice.

Forcing the imagination is indisputably hard on literature, and few programmatic novels of any sort ever transcend the scaffolding of their intentions. These friends, the Crooms, are ineducable fellow-travelers, unable to face human limitations whether these take the form of simple mortality or the fact of human wickedness.

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In the course of the narrative Trilling brilliantly exposes the intellectual, moral, and political failures of liberals like the Crooms who destroy the good they claim to uphold. Indeed, something similar could be said of the early fiction of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. But both Bellow and Malamud later overcame this problem. Trilling might more accurately have observed that the literary imagination could not be forced in either direction, and that Jewish writers would seize the cultural initiative only when Jews themselves began to feel at home in America: literature may be autonomous in setting its own goals, but it can never be independent of its social and cultural sources.

And there is an irony here, for the very embourgeoisement that the young as opposed to the older Trilling and his fellows professed to find so repugnant was what made it possible for them to detach themselves without strain from the world of their parents and to join without guilt the literary chorus of anti-Babbittry and anti-Main Street. Their accelerating distaste for the Jewish community from which they had emerged was only the other side of that same process of acculturation, and every bit as parochial as the ethnocentricity they were attacking.

As the Jewish bourgeoisie tried to keep up with the Joneses, so they were trying to keep up with the T. Eliots, and both began to succeed at exactly the same time. On this score, it must be said that perhaps the majority of the New York intellectuals have never completed the transformation from sons into fathers. The story of those who did may one day be counted the truly remarkable achievement of the New York intellectuals as a whole.

The ones I am speaking of did not relinquish the Marxist club in order to go on smashing idols, as Mark Shechner puts it in his revealing image, but in order to smash the Marxist club itself, and with it the idol of the intellectual as righteous avenger or haloed outcast. Any number of modern Jewish intellectuals had found it possible to identify with the biblical Prophets as fellow outsiders, individualists, poets, voices of conscience, and above all, scourges of the rotten rich.

But Jewish civilization has survived through the ages thanks to the rabbis, who had, among their other distinctions, weeded out the few reliable Prophets from the many more false ones against whom they maintained a constant vigilance. Intellectuals themselves in their devotion to texts and ideas, the rabbis were also teachers, guides, indispensable links in a chain between past and future, servants of the community. Though opponents of neoconservatism accuse it of hard-heartedness, or selfish conceit, it seems rather to have been born of political penance.

The Other New York Jewish Intellectuals Reappraisals in Jewish Social and Intellectual History

The discipline of much neoconservative thought is rooted in self-examination on the part of those who lived long enough to see the consequences of their youthful enthusiasms. For another thing, the intellectuals had conveniently disregarded the will-to-power concealed in socialist prescription, as it is concealed in all systems that do not openly accredit competition.

Socialist intellectuals do not often admit that one of their great incentives for supporting state control of the source of supply and the regulation of the market is the power that accrues to them when businessmen are bridled. If we were to look for mean motives, of the kind intellectuals are quick to find in others, we would put them under suspicion for their insistence that the realm of ideas alone remain beyond the control of government, while other forms of ambition are to be forever chained.

Neoconservatives, having lost their faith in intellectual infallibility, tend to be correspondingly more respectful of other areas of initiative.

And what, finally, of the Jews? One of the greatest moral and intellectual failures of the New York intellectuals was their disregard of the Jewish fate, both before and during World War II and in the decades that followed. Curiously, though many other sectors of the American community—including the press, various levels of government, and Jewish organizations—have come under indictment in recent years for their apathy in the face of evil, if not for their passive complicity in it, no such accusations have been leveled against the group of whom the most might have been expected and from whom so little was forthcoming.

The intellectuals themselves have been uncharacteristically shy in reappraising this part of their past, but we need not take their silence completely at face value.

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Consider the strange case of Philip Rahv: although no one continued to insist so long or so stridently on his Marxism, or to demonstrate a greater lack of apparent interest in the disposition of the Jews, upon his death in Rahv left his money to the state of Israel. In trying to account for this strange leavetaking, William Barrett has recalled a glum conversation the two men had many years earlier about the lack of conviction of Americans.

Because by the time of his death no Communist land could be imagined as that better place, Israel was invoked as a lone last refuge of political idealism. There were indeed those who hoped, however belatedly, that a socialist Israel would somehow replace their lost ideal of a socialist Russia or a socialist America; they were bound to be disappointed once again.

Israel is not that place; no place is. Skip to main content. Main Menu Utility Menu Search. Books on Amazon. Gordon PE. The New Republic [Internet].

The Other New York Jewish Intellectuals by Carole S. Kessner (1994, Paperback)

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