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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

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Joachim Prinz speaking at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. (Courtesy Lucie Prinz)
altJoachim Prinz and other Civil Rights leaders at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington.
National Archives

Prinz’s second wife, Hilde, whom he predeceased by six years and with whom he by all accounts, including his own, enjoyed a wonderful marriage, is also not spared. In his recollection of their honeymoon on a freighter bound for Italy, Prinz offers the following passage, which, as always, offers an exalted literary reference in connection with the act of coitus: “Hilde, young and pretty and I, young and handsome, spent a fantastic time on the boat which, of course, had much influence on the sex, helped along by the movement of the ocean. It reminded us of the poem dealing with the waves of the sea and the movement of the heart.”

Such evidence of Prinz’s taste for great sex and great writing—best experienced in mutual climax—might explain the fact that he alone among America’s leading rabbis was a very early admirer of Newark’s most notorious Jewish son, Philip Roth. While Roth’s sensational debut works, Goodbye Columbus in 1959 and, a decade later, Portnoy’s Complaint, earned him the immediate scorn of America’s most prestigious rabbis, and Roth’s name became synonymous with a particularly shmutzig form of Jewish self-loathing, Prinz was energetically promoting him. Prinz sponsored Roth’s first trip to Israel, in 1963, as part of the “Encounters” conferences that he organized as president of the American Jewish Congress, at which Roth appeared on a panel with Leslie Fiedler and the celebrated Israeli writer Aharon Megged.

History has not been terribly kind to Joachim Prinz; he has all but been forgotten, and he has not been the subject of a single scholarly study or biography. But his support of Philip Roth at the dawn of his literary career, utterly unique among his clerical contemporaries, has not gone unrewarded, resulting in his exposure to a vastly larger popular readership than that ever enjoyed by a rabbi, let alone a Jewish historian.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz emerges as the great Jewish hero and main opponent of the nefarious Jewish quisling of America’s fascist President Lindbergh, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, toward the end of Roth’s counter-historical novel, The Plot Against America. While Bengelsdorf is a fictional character, all the other rabbis who appear in the novel are historical figures, including Prinz’s most prominent colleagues in the Newark rabbinate. But, as is always the case in Roth’s writings, his portrait of these rabbis is more than a bit miserable—except for that of Joachim Prinz, who is the only one of the lot to stand up both to the Lindbergh Administration and to Rabbi Bengelsdorf, whose daughter’s wedding, alone among Newark’s rabbis, he boycotts. Roth writes, “Rabbi Prinz’s authority among Jews throughout the city, in the wider Jewish community, and among scholars and theologians of every religion had far exceeded his elder colleagues, and it is he alone of the rabbis leading the city’s tree wealthiest congregations who never flinched in his opposition to Lindbergh.”

And so when, in the novel, Newark’s Jews fear a pogrom, similar to those spreading like prairie fires across America, it is Prinz who rises to their defense by establishing the government-sanctioned Committee of Concerned Jewish Citizens—in unofficial tandem with his friend Longy Zwillman’s creation of an illicit Jewish militia that roams the Jew-lined streets of Weequahic and Clinton Hill. (Zwillman was in fact a member of B’nai Abraham, and Prinz officiated at his mob cohorts’ weddings and at Zwillman’s funeral.) The novel’s young protagonist imagines the murderous flood of anti-Semitic violence that would have overcome Newark’s Jews were it not for Prinz:

a nightmarish vision of America’s anti-Semitic fury roaring Eastward and surging onto Liberty Avenue straight into our alleyway and on up our back stairs like the water of a flood, had it not been for the sturdy barrier presented by the gleaming bay haunches of the horses of the Newark Police force, whose strength and speed and beauty Newark’s preeminent rabbi, the nobly named Prinz, had caused to materialize at the end of our street.

While ostensibly fictional, Roth’s projection of Prinz’s role in his nightmarish vision of the fate of Newark’s Jews in fascist America is perfectly consistent with the historical record of Prinz’s career, which Roth knew well. Indeed, the theme of one of Prinz’s earliest sermons at B’nai Abraham was a fierce denunciation of American fascism, during which he aimed particularly sharp jabs at Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and their racist acolytes. Alas, rabbis of Prinz’s intellectual caliber, clarity of vision, and courage survive today almost only in the world of fiction.

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This articles is slightly distorted. Let’s take the case of Newark. The remaining Jews in Newark fled for their lives following the afro-american riots in 1967. Some of the riots had an unmistakable anti-Semitic undertone. There was a feeling among many Jews that although they supported the civil rights movement there was little or no reciprocity from the Afro-American community for issues that were important to American Jews such as support for Israel. This remains true to this day where there is very little support for Israel from Afro-Americans even though Israel is the only Western country who actively brought Africans into their country and have provided them with support ever since (more or less successfully) and many Arab countries are extremely racist.

Carl, there is nothing more that can be added. You covered it precisely. Thank you.

Lucie Prinz says:

Thank you Alan for this wonderful, lively and completely accurate story about my father. You caught his fervor, his passions (of all sorts) and his love of life which he translated into his support for those who did good works. He harnessed his talents for public speaking both in his sermons and in speeches like the one at the March on Washington in the service of causes that were often unpopular and, in Germany dangerous to espouse. When I thanked Philip Roth for his portrayal of my father in THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, he said: “I only gave him the words he would have spoken in real life.”
He taught his children to stand up to the forces of bigotry and injustice whenever we encounter them. This is his legacy to us and it continues to inform our lives.
And, by the way, what a wonderful web site. I’m a new fan.

Thank you, Tablet and Allan Nadler – Your article was magnificent and compelling personal, Zionist, civil rights, Jewish and American story. It stirred legacy reminders for young and old of our powerful, authentic and complex Jewish “Tikun Olam” roots and wings. May the life, ideals, complexities and accomplishments of Yoachim Prinz z”l be an inspiration and blessing in our continuous fight against the assimilation of our Jewish identity and values.

Prinz and his Wise mentor were consistently self aggrandizing. Self righteous egomaniacs loom large in their lifetime with radio access and publicity. The most interesting nugget in this obituary is Eichmann’s presence at Prinz’ farewell. Eichmann is remembered by history.

ina baron (nee Fisch) says:

When B’nai Abraham was in its final years in Newark, I was fortunate enough to teach at its Hebrew School. And yes, The elder Rabbi Prinz, was an egomaniac. I wish we had some egomaniacs just like Rabbi Prinz now…when we need him again.

yankel says:

That remark by “Prince”– especially the quip about Eichmann — is truly beneath contempt, and undeserving of a response. Rabbis Steven Wise and Prinz, of blessed memory — and, I may add Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, z”l (also an egomaniac)– did more to advance Zionism in America than anyone other than Justice Louis Brandeis. Shame on you, “prince.” This is a magnificent and well-earned tribute to a great man egomaniac or not.

Great piece, Allan. And with a lot of laughs. What a figure.

In trying to understand both Berlin and Hoboken, NJ during the years 1936 – 1937 – this article was ‘manna’ from heaven for me personally ! And, I thank Mr. Nadler for putting it together. I think it is important to remember that Rabbi Prinz was a German through and through based on the quote: , “Ámerika, hast du es besser?” By that I mean his attention to detail and confidence in what he what he thought and believed.

JackieFour says:

How ironic that Prinz thought racism in the USA worse than in Germany.

Dave Boxthorn says:

“Influential Newark rabbi”

That says it all.

Dave Bosthorn,
It says what all ?
What kind of silly, cynical remark is that ?
Newark was a major Jewish community before the racial unrest and riots. It had more than 60 synagogues and produced many important Jewish scholars and writers, Philip Roth only the most famous among them. Prinz was also the president of the American Jewish Congress for many years, and a national Jewish leader.
I can only imagine you’re the worst kind of provincial New Yorker; one who believes the only Jewish world that matters, ends on the Hudson and East Rivers. This fascinating tribute to a major Jewish leader, instead of opening your vistas, manages only to evoke your blindness. Thank you Tablet, and Rabbi Nadler, for a lovely and well-deserved tribute to an inspiring, and sadly neglected, Jewish hero.

joymars says:

Glen Beck’s persecution of George Soros has been met with late and tepid response from the Jewish community. Why? Because Beck and his like-minded American fascists (sure, he’s trying to co-opt that word by using it indiscriminately and inappropriately on HIS detractors, but those who know its definition are not fooled) — all of them are PRO-Israel.

Funny about that — how fascism can hide in all kinds of funny places. But because Beck and his lot are so successful at this, the likes of the Koch Brothers are able to wage their war against real democracy, and no one from the Jewish community says a word about it.

I wonder what Prinz would make our weird present-day dichotomies. I think he would have made the correct distinctions and spoken out loud and clear against the manipulation of the masses. We need such a voice of honesty and clarity now.

dr. zhid lovsky says:

“Prinz’s activism was widely criticized, and it must be said not entirely unreasonably”

how so? it would seem to be the opposite.

Mr. Nadler does it again. He’s a wonderful writer, and deep inside is a heart of gold that comes off with the well chosen words that he uses.

yehudah says:

yet again nadler skillfully gives his readers a fascinating lesson in jewish history

I wonder what Prinz would make of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. I don’t have to wonder. He would condemn the inhumanity without regard to its popularity. Too bad he isn’t around to help save Israel from itself.

Daniel Winter says:

Um, “…survive today almost only in the world of fiction.” Really? There’s one Rabbi like this currently alive in the carbon-based world? Where? There’s no “almost” about it.

Herbert Charles Beim says:

I was priveledged to hear Rabbi Prinze speak many times at his B’nai Abraham venue. As an orthodox youngster, we tended to give less credence to Conservative/Reform views. But no one of us would contend that Joachim Prinze was not a compelling advocater for the the Jewish people. The audience at B’nai Abraham was always filled with well over a thousand people and everyone listened with rapt attention. I still remember his “new thesis” of antisemitism post WWII all these many years later. He contended that it was no longer a problem for Jews but something that the larger community should be obliged to solve. Whatever one thinks of him there is no doubt that he was one of the most fomidable personages of his generation.

Philip says:

`…save Israel from itself.` Anybody can criticize israel. Anybody does. The Judenrat is still acepting members.

Gabriel ben A. says:

Simply said; it is for the likes of rabbi Prinz I became a Jew.
I’m sorry so many of my lander jump at the opportunity to criticize and condemn his heart-felt and intellectually astute activism. My dear neo-conservatives (such a nice name for neo-racists), a thought experiment: If German fascism was not anti-Semitic, say, they just wanted Poland and a nice chuck of White Russia, and the concentration camps were an equal extermination opportunity, directed to the loyal opposition: socialists, democrats,dissidents, outsiders, but not Jews in particular, would that have been OK? Please feel free to consider this a test question, and answer for and against.

lamicofritz says:

Dear Mr. Nadler, this was an outstandingly informative piece of journalism about a person all but forgotten by those who do not live in close range of Newark Jewry, thank you very much! I’d be interested to ask how Prinz and A.J. Heschel- both radically engaged in the fight for equal rights-connected? Do you have any information on this?

Thank you for this article. The Jewish Women’s Archive recently launched a new online curriculum — Living the Legacy — on Jews and the Civil Rights Movement(http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy). Rabbi Prinz is featured in the lesson plan on the March on Washington: http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy. If you’re interested in his story, please check out this educational resource.

Allan Nadler says:

Although it is not my practice to intervene in comment-discussions on my writings, there are two questions that have been raised that I should like to address:

“Zhid lovksy” wonders why I wrote that the neo-Conservative criticisms of Rabbi Prinz were “not entirely unreasonable” and suggests it was just the opposite. I chose my words carefully here. For all of my admiration of Rabbi Prinz, and it is great, in the aftermath of the Newark riots, he did seem to have a blind spot for the Jewish community’s best interests when it came to his passion — a wonderful passion as I hope I made clear — for human rights. His analogies between the deep south’s treatment of blacks and the Holocaust — although clearly rhetorical in nature — also rankled many Jewish thinkers like Norman Podhoretz and Milton Himmelfarb, as I say, “not unreasonably.” I take no sides here. Prinz in my eyes was a great hero, but he wasn’t perfect.

The other question is more intriguing and merits a serious study; namely the relationship between Heschel and Prinz. Heschel is very well remembered for marching in Selma with Dr. King. He is the Jewish face of the civil rights movement. But he was a prophetic figure; by inclination a mystic. In many respects, Prinz was the very opposite. He had no interest whatever in Jewish mysticism; he was a determined pragmatist and a political thinker. His book, The Dilemma of the Modern Jew is a masterpiece of non-theological thinking about the condition of American Jewry in the 1970′s (I wish it were re-printed; it is a truly great book). In this work, and in his many essays published in the AJC Bi-Weekly, Prinz expressed a deterministic conception of Jewish identity, but one rooted in historical and political reality, not in the kind of metaphysics that Heschel was so enamored of. So, two great rabbis, working from diametrically different angles, for the same great cause: civil rights for American blacks.

Allan Nadler

Ernest Holzmann says:

THANK YOU, Dr. Nadler, for wrting with passion and clarity!

Dani Levi says:

Allan Nadler writes:
“His book, The Dilemma of the Modern Jew is a masterpiece of non-theological thinking about the condition of American Jewry in the 1970′s (I wish it were re-printed; it is a truly great book)”

Why does Nextbook not publish this book? Please.

I would read it.

Steve says:

If Prinz was a so dedicated Zionist why did he not go on Aliya or even preach Aliya to his congregants?

Jews have died for blacks but blacks have never died for Jews. Often it is blacks killing Jews.

There is something so distorted in the way Jews view themselves that they have to help people they deem “the underdog” although they have not yet achieved parity or acceptance by non-Jews. What possesses a Zuckerburg to donate 100 mil to Newark to help black children but not ten mil to help Jews or Israel. Most American Jews are anti-Israel believing our enemies version of Occupied Palestine.

The biggest enemy Jews face is themselves and their fractionalization that the Nazis exploited so well in Europe and Moslems, blacks and anti-Jews exploit so well today. We truly are “The Perfect Enemy” and in spite of all our wealth and fantastic contributions in making this country great we just don’t like each other. I am not embarrassed or ashamed of being a Jew. I am a strong Jew but embarrassed and ashamed of all the weak Jews like Rabbi Michael Lerner and his ilk.

Bill Levy

lamicofritz says:

Dear Mr. Nadler, thank you for your answer to my question. Looking forward to an essay on this epic yarn Heschel/ Prinz fighting for American blacks. The two make quite a contrast: the pure of heart mystic and the master orator-womanizer, the Hasid and the very rational Yecke. Add Dr. Martin Luther King with his very human mix of faith and rhetoric gift as well as others strong drives and hope some gifted narrator will soon accept the challenge of retelling this story. In the meantime, again thank you for your comment on the reply.
Friedrich Lersch

virginia says:

In the latest Plot against America is being hatched by the current version of th Klu Klux Klan which the morfed into Southern respectability by becoming the White Citizen Council which Proved so shamefulThat they changed it to the Conservative Citizen Council. Then they became even more respectable because the were “consevative” while still retaining all that bigotry’ Never forget their leader David Duke who went to eastern Europe to stir up trouble’ He traded in his white sheets for his Gestapo uniform

try reading wir juden

you might get a different perspective

Jay R. Hodes MD says:

I attended Bnai Abraham Hebrew school from age 9 until my Bar Mitvah. Later, Dr. Prinz officiated at my wedding. I clearly remember that day. He and I were sitting on a bench in the boys’ gym locker room, waiting for the wedding ceremony to begin. Young boys, naked or only with towels around their waists, were laughing and chasing each other about. On the other side of the door were relatives and friends awaiting my entrance. The contrast was unreal, and I was almost paralyzed with anxiety. Dr. Prince must have sensed it, because he turned and asked me, “Jay, are you sure you want to go through with this?” I gulped, gathered myself, and heard myself say, “Yes.” I will never forget his intuitive presence at that moment. He was one of the great men in my life.

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I’ve said that least 1236624 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

stop making prinz into a  hero   which he  wasnt   i found  him  downright arrogant

so typical of our german jewish  bretheren   they could cxare less about there dirt poor brothers of the shtetls

they saved their own asses pretty good in the  30s  while the soul of judaica  died in the   ovens       spare me prinz

Stone Cold says:

I was one of many of Dr. Prinz’s congregants — just a kid the; he officiated at my Bar Mitzvah — that often confused him with God. That’s how powerful an impression he made. Dr. Prinz’s sorrow over the first signs of Jewish abandonment of the quest for justice for African Americans was remarkably farsighted. Today, the major secular and religious branches of the Jewish-Establishment have no programs that focus on our African-American fellow citizens; instead, they have gone with the most au currant politically-correct fashion and support a bogus “civil rights” movement for illegal Mexican aliens who have no right to here and who steal jobs and drop wages for the most vulnerable American, African Americans among them. I suspect he would be anguished about making a choice, but I have no doubt he would follow the admonitions in the Talmud and seek justice first for those bound to one by ties of kinship, community and nation.

Nice article, except that it skips how Prinz wanted to be a Nazi collaborator in Germany before he was expelled. Prinz said:

“Everyone in Germany knew that only the Zionists could responsibly represent the Jews in dealings with the Nazi government. We all felt sure that one day the government would arrange a round table conference with the Jews, at which –after the riots and atrocities of the revolution had passed– the new status of German Jewry could be considered. The government announced very solemnly that there was no country in the world which tried to solve the Jewish problem as seriously as did Germany. Solution of the Jewish question? It was our Zionist dream! We never denied the existence of the Jewish question! Dissimilation? It was our own appeal!”

Joachim Prinz, ‘Zionism under the Nazi Government’, Young Zionist (London, November 1937), p. 18.

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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

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