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‘Commentary’ Opens Its Archives

Here’s what you should read

Yair Rosenberg
June 06, 2014

On the eve of the holiday of Shavuot, on which Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah, a very different sort of Jewish textual heritage was made available to the public. Commentary Magazine dropped its paywall and opened its archives to the Internet’s readers. “Every visitor to our site will have free access to 8 pieces every month—whether blog items or magazine articles,” announced editor John Podhoretz. After reaching that limit, readers must subscribe to view more.

For students of both American and Jewish history, the Commentary archives offer a veritable treasure trove. Since its founding in 1945, the venerable Jewish magazine has transformed from a vanguard of the American left to a bastion of the neoconservative right—from publishing Hannah Arendt and Gore Vidal to printing scathing critiques of their work. As a consequence, its contents have been inextricably tied up with the evolution of the American left, center, and right. But the magazine’s mark has been far from limited to politics. Philip Roth’s early fiction appeared there, as did his defense of his writings about Jews. So did the criticism of Susan Sontag and a young David Brooks, and the work of distinguished scholars like Samuel Huntington and James Q. Wilson. Decades of Jewish religious and communal self-reflection were–and continue to be–published in Commentary‘s pages.

But with such a rich literary history to explore, what should one read? Here are just a few pieces to get you started:

To Save the Jewish Homeland: There is Still Time — Hannah Arendt’s provocative plea for Jewish-Arab binationalism in Palestine in 1948 warned against the “pseudo-sovereignty of a Jewish state.” Just weeks later, Israel would declare statehood, against her admonitions.

Indicting American Jews — In this 1983 essay, scholar Lucy Dawidowicz makes an extended argument against the claim that American Jews were passive in the face of the extermination of their European brethren during the Holocaust. New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier was so offended by Dawidowicz’s position that he commissioned but then refused to print a piece by her that argued along similar lines. The debate rages to this day among historians of American Jewry.

Envy; or, Yiddish in America — This novella by Cynthia Ozick, about a Yiddish author’s fruitless search for an English translator to rescue his works from obscurity, first appeared in Commentary in November 1969.

Joining the Jackals — In 1981, Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, America’s former ambassador to the United Nations, excoriated the Carter administration’s foreign policy in the wake of Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan. In particular, Moynihan took aim at Carter’s perceived tendency to blame America for the world’s ills, and to give in to the anti-Western antics of bad actors in international forums like the U.N., notably with regard to Israel.

Adam and Eve on Delancey Street — This 1949 essay by noted Jewish-American author Isaac Rosenfeld, which graphically argued that Judaism’s kosher laws were rooted in sexual taboos, is deemed the magazine’s “most controversial piece ever” by Podhoretz, its current editor. Readers at the time were even more pointed in their judgments, with one irate rabbi labeling the piece “filthy and pornographic.”

What other articles deserve mention? Leave your nominations in the comments.

With thanks to John Podhoretz, Alana Newhouse, Ron Kampeas, Marc Tracy, and Yousef Munayyer.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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