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Christians and Jews at Harvard

The delicate relationship between two distinct cultures that helped shape America’s leading university

Martin Peretz
July 11, 2023

Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

I was 20 when I came to Harvard as a graduate student. From there, I stayed on as a teaching fellow and then as an instructor. When that title phased out, I became an assistant professor, and then a lecturer. I never became a full professor, but I was a permanent fixture. Almost from the beginning, I was a Harvard patriot. Harvard didn’t need my patriotism, but I didn’t care. I was taking a social leap into the domain of ruling Protestant America.

Harvard College was founded in 1636 “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.” In 1959, in an America where Protestantism was still the Establishment to aspire to, if you were any combination of intellectual, ambitious, and upwardly mobile, it was the place you wanted to be. Harvard fascinated me. In the center of Memorial Hall, in the north of Harvard Yard, there is a lobby with a monument that lists the names of the Harvard men who died on the Union side in the Civil War. The Confederate dead, and there were many, do not have their names chiseled in stone because Harvard was a Union school and the memory of the war was fresh when they put it up. The Second World War memorial on the wall in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard lists Adolf Sannwald, a graduate student who became a Nazi, as an “enemy casualty.” So a Nazi was let in but not a Confederate. The old rules were oblique but rigidly followed.

Harvard had a kind of indifference to its Americanness then: Europe was still everything, Cambridge and Oxford were the colleges, Britain was the culture. American bounty was ignored. Four Mark Rothko murals hung until they were battered and faded in the dining room of Holyoke Center, a large and absurdly ugly brutalist building just off Harvard Square; now they’re in the Fogg Museum, which at the time had a great collection of 19th-century American painting—Winslow Homers, George Innesses, Frederic Edwin Churches—all rolled up in the attic. Harvard had an indifference to its wealth, too, which was substantial but somehow assumed. My friend Roger Rosenblatt studied literature at Harvard and got fellowship after fellowship. But eventually there was a fellowship he needed that wasn’t going to come through. One of Roger’s instructors said to him, apologetically, “Well, Rog, looks like you’ll have to dip into capital.” It was assumed a Harvard student would have capital to dip into.

The undergraduate houses in those days were class based, on the model of Oxford and Cambridge. Eliot House was for the upper class, the place for boys from Groton or St. Paul’s. If you’d been to Andover or Exeter, it was Lowell House. People from New York City public schools, the few there were, went to Adams House. Winthrop House was far away by the river and for the lower classes. It was like a map of the class structure, but it wasn’t axiomatic. For example, FDR had also lived in Adams House, though that was earlier, and so had John Reed, who is buried in Red Square. Alan Graubard, a very Jewish friend of mine, lived in Eliot House and was called “Mr. Israel” by his house master, John H. Finley Jr., a classicist descended from prominent Episcopalian ministers and public servants. Finley used the nickname not to be unkind—he was a friendly man—but probably in desperation at forgetting Alan’s name.

Harvard was a Protestant stronghold in an otherwise very Catholic city. Down Brattle Street, in the very center of West Cambridge, there stood a Unitarian church, a Congregationalist church, an Armenian church and, on one side of Longfellow Park, the Quaker meeting house. There was a Mormon church on the other side of the park, and if you were there on a Sunday morning, you’d see the two different groups—the Quakers, who were old, and the Mormons, who were young, big, buff, and blond—leering at each other in distaste.

Boston was Catholic, too—sometimes nutcase Catholic. There was a priest called Father Feeney who ran an organization named the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. On Sunday mornings, he and the Harvard students he had converted would walk from Adams House to the Boston Common with placards and crucifixes and Feeney would preach against the Jews. His favorite topic was the vaccine for polio, which was developed by Jews and, he said, killed Christian children. It was a blood libel like the one that started the Kishinev pogrom and brought out the Jewish toughs from Roxbury and Mattapan. The college students would go over to the Common to watch the fights.

Harvard’s 300 years of Protestant inheritance was in its last, most overripe stages. The old forms were increasingly minoritarian; most of the culture was actually decadent. A young man, part of a group that used to go down to New York to see Andy Warhol, died the first or second year I was there from a drug overdose. But it wasn’t the kind of thing you ever talked about. Eventually, though, the rumors of rampant marijuana use in the houses became so loud even the masters had to hear them.

A distinguished sociologist, George Homans, and I were appointed to investigate these rumors in Kirkland House. We knew that they were true before we even started and George said, “We’re going to have to tell Charles very gently.” He was referring to master of Kirkland, Charles Taylor, an undistinguished professor of history and man of a passing era we both liked. We went into the master’s office for tea, biscuits, and sherry, like they used to serve at Harvard, and before we could say anything he proclaimed: “If I find out that there is marijuana [he pronounced it with the j] in this house, I will cut my throat.” That brought us both up short, so George took over. He began, and began, and began again, and finally the master, who could see what was coming but needed a lifeline, said, “You’re not going to tell me, are you, that so and so does pot?”

So and so was a lovely, shy, handsome African American boy in Kirkland House. He always wore a suit and tie to breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a time when other undergraduates were meeting the jacket and tie requirement by omitting the shirt. Here was the master’s escape hatch, the one reverent Black boy in a house of 300 transgressors. We couldn’t let him take it. We told him we didn’t really know the names of the people who smoked, but our estimate as to how many was 10% of the house. The master took a long breath and said, “I don’t think we should do anything about it.” Which was right: There was nothing to be done.

Another time, I was a teaching fellow to William Yandell Elliott, a big, voluble man with a loud voice, who was an adviser to several presidents and a tutor of Henry Kissinger, famous even then. As members of the teaching staff, we had to write reports about the lectures, and we’d meet for lunch once a week to review at the Signet Society, the old social club in Cambridge. Once I came in late and he yelled, “Peretz, my field n*****, could write a better brief than you just did!” Sometimes I can think of the right thing to say in the moment: “Then why isn’t he here?”

Not all of the Protestant elite were like Elliott, who was a dinosaur even then. American colleges were becoming more competitive as they started to become breeding grounds for the experts who would administer the growing federal government and build the weapons to win the Cold War. This was the reason more Jews were getting into Harvard, where before there had been quotas imposed on admission in the name of “social cohesion.” Perhaps with this in mind, Jewish students and even faculty were very quiet about being Jewish.

My Ph.D. supervisor was Adam Ulam: a conservative and a patriot who cast a cold eye on international issues. For our sessions, we would meet at Hazens, a cheap cafeteria where he saw students and dated the prefaces to his books. Adam wasn’t afraid of being thought a right-winger. But he was afraid of being thought a Jew. He came from Lodz, the same Polish city as Richard Pipes, the one open Zionist on the history faculty. The Pipes and Ulam families apparently knew each other in the old country, but at Harvard they barely spoke because Adam was pretending that he was a Polish Protestant, which he did so effectively that even I didn’t know he was Jewish until much later.

Once I was at a formal dinner at Kirkland House, sitting with Louis Hartz, the eminent political scientist who wrote The Liberal Tradition in America. He was actually crazy—he’d been in an insane asylum, and he’d end up there again—but he was also, as Norman Mailer says, “crazy family good.” That night, he said to me, “I’m glad to be sitting with you. You’re a real Jew.” I said this was true, and he said, “My father was a cantor in Cleveland, and look at us now. We are so intimidated. We’re talking very quietly because Jews are expected to talk loudly.” Then, suddenly, he raised his voice: “Now George Homans over there is not lowering his voice!” George Homans was a very decent man and a serious scholar in the new field of behavioral sociology and his uncle was Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of presidents. George had a picture on his office wall of his uncle holding him on his lap. As Louis’ voice boomed out and George looked over to see who was talking about him, I hissed at Louis, as quietly as I could, “Be quiet! Be quiet! Be quiet!”

Then there was a whole other cohort of Jews at Harvard, a social type I recognized but had never known. These were the assimilated upper-class Jews, most of whom were German. They weren’t afraid or aspirational but simply established. The divide with Yiddish Jews went back to Europe. Under the Napoleonic Code, German Jews were gradually allowed into society by the princes and then made full citizens, in a way they never were in the Russian Empire. The deal Napoleon offered was this: They could be citizens in the lands where they lived, but they couldn’t have another loyalty; their religion was their religion, but first they were citizens. They took the deal, found success in Europe on those terms, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought that value system to America. People like Felix Adler founded institutions like the Ethical Culture School that transmitted their worldview and funneled their children into Harvard.

Politically, they were much more moderate than the people I came from: German and French society was much less messily ethnic than the cities of Eastern Europe and the differences in heritage showed. They’d been in America longer, they’d seen capitalism work for them, and they’d lost interest in socialism or even social democracy and had become welfare-state liberals. When Franklin Roosevelt needed experts and intellectuals to help him fight the Great Depression, they were among the major architects of the New Deal. After the Second World War, they helped construct the postwar order of individuals over ethnicities: ideas I first encountered in propaganda terms, a family of man.

They wanted to help new Jewish arrivals, but they were embarrassed by our Yiddishkeit: It was too old-fashioned, too anti-modern, and too unassimilated. Jacob Schiff, a Jewish German financier, raised money to send the masses of Yiddish immigrants flooding into Boston, New York, and Philadelphia on to the Midwest and West, so as not to overburden the psyches of the cities with too many unassimilated Jewish immigrants. Schiff was not a self-hating Jew. He was the epitome of what a rich Jewish liberal should be: generous, conscientious, a supporter of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the 92nd Street Y. His granddaughter Dorothy owned The New York Post, where she published Max Lerner. And yet there was a divide between people like us and people like the Schiffs that only deepened after the war. A significant number of established American Jews opposed Israel on the grounds that once you gave a nation to the Jews, you were putting a false ethnic category in the Kantian universalist, individual, ethical firmament. The Sulzbergers, who owned The New York Times, were worried it would call the patriotism of American Jews into doubt, and so supported the American Council for Judaism, a committee of socially prominent financiers and public intellectuals who rejected Zionism—and fought it.

This ideological dispute aside, several German Jews of that ilk became important to my career, none more so than David Riesman. David was “our” Alexis de Tocqueville, a star. Americans were moving to suburbs, using interstate highways and homeownership loans financed by the federal government. Corporations were growing to cater to their tastes. The Soviet Union’s aggression was being challenged—not through scientific or administrative expertise but by encouraging people to buy things to keep the economy humming. Herbert Marcuse called this sublimating capitalism, sham democracy. Max Lerner thought that America was flexible enough that nothing would change its pluralist character. David and the other German Jews at Harvard weren’t as committed to causes. They were more scientific: They thought America was undergoing a tectonic shift, and they wanted to examine it and understand it. And be in it.

In 1950, with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, David had published the bestselling work of sociology in American history. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character asked a big question—how did this new society shape the values of its citizens?—and answered it in a methodological way, with sociological research. David and his colleagues went out and talked to people in the middle- and upper-middle classes who worked in the new corporate, information, and government sectors—people with the money and influence to set the tone for the future. He got a clear read on their predicament: Modern society allowed more freedom and created more anxiety; it allowed more choice and created less confidence about how to choose. As a result, people were more likely to behave not as real individuals but as members of a crowd. But David thought the phenomenon on balance was a liberating one because the market that created the confusion also offered a way out: People could escape from the contradictions it created by focusing on all the new choices it offered.

David’s diagnosis mirrored his own life. He’d grown up wealthy in Philadelphia, and his mother was one of those people who supported Schiff ’s program to send Jews out West. He clerked for Louis Brandeis (in his first interview for the position he told Brandeis that Zionism was Jewish fascism), became a lawyer, got bored, and switched to sociology to explore popular culture. He loved it, I think, because it loosened him from the strictures of his background. For David, there were never risks in being unrooted by modernity: The risks were all in the other direction. And if there is an intellectual criticism of The Lonely Crowd, it’s that it has no sustained focus on older identities and the roles they still played in the lives of Americans. Women, who were playing such a huge role in the social changes that were happening, are not considered in any great detail, nor is the working class. The book is all about the mobile middle- and upper-middle classes, the creation of the contemporary consumer by the market and the state.

This was the same with David’s intellectual cohort of psychoanalysts who studied personality formation in modern society: Erich Fromm at New York University, and Erik Erikson and Robert Coles at Harvard. They were all Jews who didn’t identify as such and for whom the modern sphere was all there was. Erikson developed a whole theory of stages for how modern people moved through their lives. But there was a part of his own life he never talked about: His real name was Erik Homburger, his mother and stepfather lived in Israel (his biological father, a gentile Dane, abandoned his Jewish mother before his birth), and he’d been bar mitzvahed. In a 1975 review of Life History and the Historical Moment, Marshall Berman writes of “his repudiation of his stepfather, whose Jewish name he should normally bear” and “the cosmic chutzpah of his claim to be ‘Erik Erikson,’ his own father, in the most literal sense a self-made man.” Erikson confessed it all to me over lunch one Saturday at the Riesmans, a few years after I came to Harvard. His mother had died at a great age, and he had gone to Haifa for the funeral. But there was never a mention of the word “Jew.”

These people were so different from me that we were almost speaking separate languages. But their work was what let me find my place at Harvard.

The Harvard social studies program was founded in 1960 and had, as its first set of teachers, a remarkable group: Stanley Hoffman, Alexander Gerschenkron, Barrington Moore Jr. None of them were my intimates, but they were professional friends who had an influence on me. Erik Erikson and Nathan Glazer came on board later, and Michael Walzer was the chair for a while after that. Even though he was not active in the program and was politically less radical than the rest, David was the guiding light, and his study of the American character exemplified what social studies was meant to do.

Following the method of The Lonely Crowd, Harvard undergraduates used specific social science methodologies to answer broad questions about society. Sophomore tutorial went through classics of theory: de Tocqueville, Weber, Durkheim, Marx, and Freud. Junior tutorial broadened the terrain to maybe 15 subjects—nationalism, industrial society, the experiences of women, etcetera. Senior year was when students chose a subject for a thesis that ranged from the specific (multiparty exceptions in one-party dictatorships) to the theoretical (Marx and Freud: community and individual). The social studies premise was a radical one: Serious thinkers were asking 19- to 22-year-olds to see society through theory and metrics, which is not the way young people, even the most intelligent ones, see the world. It was that disconnect that gave me my Harvard opportunity: being the human glue in an otherwise intensely clinical program.

There was a whole other cohort of Jews at Harvard, a social type I recognized but had never known. These were the assimilated upper-class Jews, most of whom were German. They weren’t afraid or aspirational but simply established.

It began with a crisis. I was in the middle of my Ph.D. thesis with Adam Ulam when one day I was asked out to lunch by the political theorist Judith Shklar. Judith—who knew Yiddish but was still no fun to talk to—began with some pleasantries and then came out with this: “You’re a very smart man, but you really don’t want to be here.” I was shocked, but she continued: “You’ve never come to a faculty seminar directed at graduate students.” I said, “Well I have other things to do besides being a graduate student”—I was working on a political campaign, among other things—and she said, “That’s what’s wrong with you. You should really leave graduate school.”

She was terribly intimidating, with a chin that went up and down almost like there was a rubber band holding it together. The chin moved again and the mouth told me I should go see the chairman of the government department to discuss leaving.

Instead, I went to Louis Hartz and asked him if I should drop out. “Hey, you’re very bright. Maybe you won’t be a professor, maybe you’ll do something else. Who cares?” I was glad Louie was in my corner. But I still wasn’t sure what to do. Judith was right about my problem: I wasn’t a Harvard scholar, and I wanted to stay.

Help came from an unexpected quarter: Barrington Moore Jr., an odd but brilliant Marcuse acolyte. He more or less founded comparative sociology, which mapped out convergences between history and sociology to understand patterns of political change. He was also extremely rich because his grandfather was J.P. Morgan’s private attorney—an adherent of the working class whose most troubled times were when the motor on his yacht was not working. He had watched me teach a seminar and, after deciding that he saw something there, he made me an early version of what became my deal with Harvard: Leave me alone, I’ll be a lecturer forever.

Lecturing meant teaching, and Moore was right: I was a teacher—it came as naturally as talking. My class, a seminar really, was called “Problems of Postindustrial Society.” My style was Max’s—active, engaged, intense, personal—but my intellectual lodestar was Herbert. My opening announcement to students was “Freud plus Marx equals truth”: an invitation to take the rigor of the methodologies and then to personalize them, to question the bloodlessness of the universalist Kantian worldview.

I’d ditched the suits I used to wear at Brandeis and grown a beard. I wore glasses. I didn’t go in much for lecturing—the lecture just always turned into an exchange. I prepared for each class, always seriously. But once I got there, I didn’t think much about how I ran it: I just ran it, and it worked. And a few years later I started running the social studies program, choosing the 15 to 20 people who got in every year when the program was still small.

Word got around about my freshman seminar and later that I was the person to see if you were interested in social studies. Relationships built from there, and being just a couple of years older than the students helped bridge the status divide. I didn’t seek them out; they knew who I was and they came, all different people, because social studies was a program that attracted all types.

Before the Second World War, there were few women. Harvard was all men, Radcliffe was tiny by comparison, and men and women students rarely mixed. This changed a little after the war. But even 20 years later, the women I had in my seminar were really pioneers.

Sherry Turkle, a “nice Jewish girl” from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and not at all elite, was one of my first firsts. She told me she spent her first college break in the Brooklyn Public Library reading Marx for my course. He was talking about sheep, and because she hadn’t had a serious high school education, she had no idea what sheep had to do with anything. She did know that when she got back to class, everybody would speak. I would keep the bottom from falling out of the conversation and eventually tie it all together … to sheep, key to Marx’s argument about peasants shifting property from communal to private ownership. After she graduated, I put her in touch with David Riesman who became her Ph.D. mentor in sociology. Another of my early female students was Nancy Rosenblum, who quite quickly showed an astonishing aptitude for political theory. She was in the same class as Sherry, and they were a dynamic duo.

I wrote hundreds of recommendations for my students over the years. Of Tom Williamson, a defensive lineman on the football team and the son of a Black army officer who commanded white troops, I wrote: “My letter must be couched in superlatives [since] … in seven years of teaching at Harvard College, I have not yet encountered a student as bright, as serious, and warmly imaginative as he.” Other bright students I didn’t like as much. Michael Kazin, the son of Alfred Kazin, the literary critic who worked with the Partisan Review crowd, was always chafing beneath the father-son comparison: He went activist Left as a sort of response and stayed there.

Rick Hertzberg, who would go on to run The New Republic, was a born journalist. Rick’s father, Sidney, was a son of immigrant garment workers in the Bronx and lived his life as a peripatetic journalist and activist of the small-d democratic Left; he edited and wrote for smaller weeklies like the New Leader and The New Republic, as well as mass magazines like Time and Fortune. Rick’s mother, Hazel, a distant relative of Walt Whitman, was a nice Protestant girl from a respectable Flatbush neighborhood who was radicalized to socialism and pacifism. Rick grew up prizing empathy above all other virtues, and so naturally he became an old-fashioned social democrat. He and I met in 1962 when I became a faculty adviser to the Harvard-Radcliffe Liberal Union of which he was president. At that point, I was more Left than Rick was, mostly because of Herbert, and we made it a habit to argue over it at Hazens.

Because this was Harvard, a lot of the students were still financial or aristocratic legacies. Richard Rockefeller was a wonderful boy. His father was David Rockefeller Sr., and so he could have run Standard Oil if he wanted. But Richard had too good an idea of his father’s life—the interminable meetings, the self-importance—to want that for himself. He became a doctor but died young when he crashed the single-engine plane he was piloting home from his father’s 99th birthday celebration. I always liked him. I also taught Donald Graham, whose mother owned The Washington Post. He was going into the newspaper business, no question. But he was intellectually curious and wanted to learn as much as he could before he started.

I met the inheritor with the clearest sense of purpose in the 1965 freshman seminar: Al Gore. He was the one student I had who really will go down in the history books. But Al was not one of the “dazzlers” when he was in my class: He had ideas, but he always held them to the test of empirics. He and his ally in class, Don Gilligan, whose father was a Democratic congressman from Ohio, would try to make the conversation relate to real life.

Al’s father, Albert Gore Sr., was a senator from Tennessee, a “hail-fellow-well-met” kind of guy who was enough of a bullshit artist to get himself elected senator. But when he got to Washington he turned out to be a real mensch, doing all the right things—supporting civil rights, opposing Vietnam—at real political risk. Al had been raised in the penthouse of the Fairfax Hotel, five blocks from the White House; he sat in Vice President Richard Nixon’s lap while Nixon presided over the Senate. He had a sense of duty about leadership, and when he got to Harvard, he ran for freshman student government council and was elected president. But he wasn’t ambitious so much as he was diligent and polite to a fault. He called me Mr. Peretz for half the year. He was also religious, a Southern Baptist, truly a believing man.

Between the students and the teachers, social studies was close to a lot of intellectual loci. And by virtue of these people’s intellectual connections, it was close to a lot of power loci, so the students who got entranced by ideas were starting to feel that their ideas could matter. McGeorge Bundy, the institutional shepherd of the social studies department, had left Harvard and was national security adviser in the White House. John Kenneth Galbraith, teaching economics at Harvard, had become the president’s ambassador to India. Arthur Schlesinger, who had graduated from Harvard and taught there for the past decade and a half, was the half-resident intellectual in the White House. Michael Harrington, not a Harvard man but a Left intellectual, had written the book on poverty, The Other America. It had been read by President Johnson, who was taking the ideas in the book seriously.

So the field felt wide open—for things much more radical than what these people were talking about. In fact, there was an undercurrent of conflict in the program: David Riesman was a sociological centrist, and Barrington Moore and increasing numbers of students were not. Al’s class was an interesting one, not only because of the usual theorizing but because of what it showed about the way the university was changing. The class radicals took it upon themselves to sway the one conservative, James Truesdale Kilbreth III, whose family had been at Harvard for generations. Jamie, of the old aristocracy but growing disillusioned with its hypocrisies, began his conversion that year. Soon after he would take his cohort’s shrug at its inheritance to the next logical stage: revolt.

Unlike many of my students, I wasn’t a real radical. But outside of the seminar, Left activism was becoming my reality, too.

This article is excerpted from “The Controversialist: Arguments With Everyone, Left Right and Center,” by Martin Peretz, published by Wicked Son.

Martin Peretz was Editor-in-Chief of The New Republic for 36 years and taught social theory at Harvard University for nearly half a century.