The Plot for America: Remembering Civil Rights Leader Joachim Prinz
The influential Newark rabbi was a confidante of Martin Luther King, but he’s been all but ignored by history
(Cecil W. Stoughton via John F. Kennedy Library)
As his personal correspondence from the late 1950s indicates, Prinz was the first rabbi to reach out to Martin Luther King Jr. When Prinz was installed as President of the American Jewish Congress at its May 1958 convention in Miami, King was—at Prinz’s insistence—the keynote speaker. It was the first time the civil rights leader had ever addressed a white audience south of the Mason-Dixon line. Less than two years later, King addressed an overflow crowd from Prinz’s pulpit at B’nai Abraham in Newark, New Jersey’s most prestigious Jewish pulpit.
Prinz’s activism was widely criticized, and it must be said not entirely unreasonably, by neo-conservative Jewish intellectuals such as Milton Himmelfarb and Norman Podhoretz, and even more so by many conservative members of his own congregation. These members were especially troubled by what they derided as his public Civil Rights “stunts”; when, for example, in 1960, he organized and led the picket line in front of Woolworth’s flagship Manhattan store on Fifth Avenue to protest the store’s segregated lunch counters in the South. Prinz, who helped the Jews of Berlin withstand the Nazis’ anti-Jewish boycotts, regularly used his bully pulpit as the president of the AJC to urge boycotts of several major national department stores: Woolworth’s, Kress’s, Kresge’s, and Grant’s among them, issuing a statement on March 25, 1960, that proclaimed in the name of the AJC, “We do not accept the thesis that businesses may solicit the patronage of Negro customers in all other departments and deny them the right to equal service in the consumption of food and beverage. … We therefore support the call [to boycott] and add our voice.”
While the large majority of American Jewish leaders were growing cold toward the cause due to the rise of radical black identity politics that were inflected with no small degree of anti-Semitism, Prinz’s commitment, and his sense of personal affinity with the black experience in America, never waned, even after he was held up at knife-point by a black hitch-hiker he picked up while driving to Shabbat services at B’nai Abraham. (Prinz loved to recall that upon first seeing the knife pointed at his throat, he solemnly informed his assailant, “Young man, I’ll have you know that I marched with Dr. King,” to which his assailant responded, “Look, man, I don’t give a fuck who your doctor is; just give me your damn money!”) and later mugged by an intruder in his own office at B’nai Abraham.
Largely because of his insistence on not abandoning the deteriorating city, B’nai Abraham remained the last of Newark’s major synagogues to relocate to the suburbs west of the city, finally moving in 1973 to Livingston, where it thrives to this day. Newark’s leading Reform Temple, B’nai Jeshurun, led by the highly respected Rabbi Ely Pilchik, had already relocated in 1968 to a magnificent, indeed ostentatious, new building on a hilltop overlooking the suburb of Short Hills, a grand structure that featured a soaring pointed steeple. A few of Prinz’s congregants decided that showing Prinz this impressive new building might help convince him that B’nai Abraham ought to abandon Newark for a glorious future in the suburbs. Upon driving by B’nai Jeshurun and gazing up at the synagogue’s towering steeple, Prinz quipped that this was “Pilchik’s final erection.”
Prinz was especially embittered by his fellow rabbis’ abandonment of the Civil Rights cause. He concluded his keynote address to the 1970 national convention of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly—although Prinz was trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, Germany, as a Conservative rabbi, he removed B’nai Abraham from the conservative movement, declaring the congregation, and himself, “independent”—by upbraiding the more than 250 rabbis present, and American Jews more generally, for having “retreated back into their own Jewish ghetto” abandoning what he continued to insist was an essentially Jewish moral cause:
Less and less do the lists of the peace movements and the movements of urban reform and those crying out against injustice and inequality for the Black community contain Jewish names. Most of the people, particularly you rabbis, have withdrawn into their comfortable ghettos. Instead of leading the people, you are following. Jews are among the most bigoted people in the world. Jewish leadership, instead of reprimanding them for it and cursing them up and down, as did the ancient Prophets, has followed their ranks.
Prinz’s identification with the plight of African Americans was inextricably bound with his own passionate, life-long commitment to Zionism. The earliest stirrings of black pride in America obviously touched a sensitive personal nerve in Prinz, whose road to Jewish religion and Zionism was a rocky one resisted by his grandfather, father, and hometown rabbi, just as civil rights was for many of the young black pioneers of the movement, who, especially in the deep south, rebelled against the long complacency of their elders. As he recalls in his memoir:
My Jewish emptiness, which was caused by the perfunctory and assimilationist Jewish attitude of my community, including my own father, left a void inside me that made me search for something to fill it. It was at that time that I began to discover that there was something in Jewish life that was new, but rejected by the vast majority of the Jewish people. It was the Zionist movement. I ordered Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State from our bookstore, since the library of the Jewish community did not carry it. I read it feverishly, including the last sentence: “If you will it, it will not be a fairy tale.” … In speaking with my rabbi about it he warned me against such a foolish idea that could only lead to a Jewish disaster and create … a betrayal of the German patriotism to which we were all wedded.
Prinz recalls his father having a slice of ham with breakfast each day and describes him as “a great patriot and believer in Germany … an assimilated Jew to whom Zionism was anathema, who was religiously very mixed up … but aware of my oratorical talents.” When his father lay ill, mistakenly believing that he was on his deathbed (the most Jewish thing about the elder Prinz appears to have been that he was seriously psychosomatic), he asked Joachim to take a solemn oath swearing never to become a rabbi. In one of the memoir’s very few examples of conceding to the beliefs, or even sensitivities, of another human being, Prinz, with fingers crossed behind his back, obliged, “knowing that I was lying to him.”
Prinz, like many other famous Central European Jewish intellectuals of the interwar era—from Franz Kafka to Gershom Scholem—bristled at and rebelled definitively against their fathers’ and grandfathers’ assimilation. The experience of ministering over the return of deeply alienated and assimilated German Jews to their Jewish roots during the Nazi era not only deepened Prinz’s Zionist convictions but also shaped his thinking about the one unshakable belief that permeated his preaching and writings for the remainder of his life—the idea of the “inescapable” nature of Jewish identity. Though they might be able physically to hide their national identity in a way America’s blacks could not, all Jews—no matter how determined or desperate to escape it—were bound together by an inescapable destiny.
Aside from his Jewish identity, there was another matter that Rabbi Prinz seemed, at least personally, to find utterly inescapable: the male sexual drive. In his memoirs, Prinz repeatedly expressed disdain for the idea of monogamy. In the course of his overly lengthy and explicit recollections of his premarital sexual adventures, including those with the woman who was to become his first wife, Lucie (whom Prinz offers was sexually “very well trained and far superior to me,” having “herself invented” certain coital techniques previously unknown to humankind), there is the following description of their adolescent loss of innocence, which even Woody Allen might find too absurd to keep in a script: “I remember the first time we slept together was after a long walk through the woods, and our bed was the field. The moon was shining brightly, the stars were above us, and I thought of Kant’s famous line in his Critique of Pure Reason in which he discussed the relationship of moon, stars and the moral conscience.”
Rahm Emanuel, who will become the first Jewish mayor of Chicago, shied away from discussing his religion during the campaign, but he couldn’t escape Jewish exceptionalism