The Plot for America: Remembering Joachim Prinz, the Civil Rights Leader and Confidante of Martin Luther King
Joachim Prinz, a German refugee and influential Newark rabbi, was a Civil Rights leader and confidante of Martin Luther King. But after he denounced Jewish leaders for abandoning the cause, he’s been all but ignored by history.
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.
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