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Friends and Politics, Part 2: Irving Howe. The prominent critic and I worked on Yiddish translations together, but a dispute over Israel and its Arab neighbors ruptured our relationship—until we reconnected over literature.

Ruth R. Wisse
March 08, 2011
Wayne Geist
Irving Howe in his office at City College, circa 1989.Wayne Geist
Wayne Geist
Irving Howe in his office at City College, circa 1989.Wayne Geist

Like my friendship with Saul Bellow, my association with Irving Howe was cemented by a mutual devotion to Yiddish, but it was buffeted by stronger political winds.

Irving came to me out of need, which put us on an even footing. This was unexpected, since I owed him a considerable professional debt: In 1969, when I was completing my doctorate at McGill University and teaching sections of the English literature survey course, I petitioned the English Department for permission to introduce courses on Yiddish literature under its aegis. When my colleagues asked how they could justify the inclusion of a subject with no obvious connection to theirs, I pointed out that not a single course in the university dealt with any aspect of Jewish history or culture. Jewish studies would have to start somehow and somewhere: Did they think I’d do better in the German Department? Invited to supply a syllabus, I proposed a course on the Yiddish short story that was based largely on Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg’s Treasury of Yiddish Stories; almost entirely on its own, it won over my department.

Howe describes in his memoirs the emotional-political pressures of the early 1950s that prompted him to seek refuge in this project of Yiddish translation. Because he read his native language only haltingly, he partnered with a Yiddish poet called “Leyzer” Greenberg, who selected the authors and read his choice of stories aloud until Irving hit on the ones that he liked. In this way, he later quipped, he got to know the lesser Yiddish writers much better than the great ones. As the “outside man” on the project, he conscripted translators from among fellow writers who still knew some Yiddish from home. When Saul Bellow agreed to translate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” Leyzer likewise read the story aloud to him, and Saul sat at the typewriter, translating it sentence by sentence as if taking dictation. The result was so good (if slightly bowdlerized) that Bashevis Singer never allowed Bellow to translate another story, lest Saul be credited for any share of his achievement.

But I digress: I was making the point that Howe and Greenberg’s anthology allowed me to introduce Yiddish literature at McGill. The two men published several more anthologies of Yiddish poetry, essays and stories, until Leyzer’s death in 1977 left Irving without a partner on a project he had come to depend on as the link to his Jewishness.

The most ideologically rigid of the New York Intellectuals, Irving did not change his affiliation over a lifetime. As his fellow leftists turned neo-conservative and their publications edged rightward, he alone remained a socialist, conflating his socialism with what he called Yiddishkayt (Jewishness), so that he could not abandon one without appearing to betray the other. When Jewishness began to matter more to him, he looked for ways to become part of it without compromising his socialist faith, and he’d found a highly creative avenue for this linkage in the transposition of Yiddish literary treasures into English. Leyzer’s death forced him to find a new collaborator on the Yiddish projects that constituted the Jewish portion of his life, and that was how he came to me.

Our first joint venture, The Best of Sholem Aleichem, was conceived when Marty Peretz approached Irving with the idea for this collection to be published by New Republic Books, and Irving—the one with experience—got us to sign away all the rights for $2,000. Irving had composed the introductions to the books he co-edited with Leyzer, but he and I decided to do ours in the form of letters, which we sent back and forth in the days when mail took several days for delivery. Leon Wieseltier, who saw the proofs of the book, asked me whether I noticed that whereas my letters responded to Irving’s by incorporating his comments, his never referred to anything I said. I had noticed it, but it was beneath my pride to show Irving that I cared. And I felt beholden to him. It was his reputation, not mine and not Sholem Aleichem’s, that got our book frontpage coverage in the New York Times Book Review.

We began work on the Sholem Aleichem anthology just as Irving’s most ambitious book, World of Our Fathers, was about to appear. Irving worried that the Times would assign the review of it to Harry Golden, whose work he had panned. Instead, he won the National Book Award, made the best-seller list, and got to tour the country for respectable fees. But fate seemed to conspire against his triumph. His marriage to Ariel Mack, to whom he dedicated this book, was then coming apart. When we started working on the book, he lived with her in a spacious apartment on Riverside Drive; by the time we began our second project, he was in a smaller apartment on the Upper East Side.

Domestic matters apart, I was under the impression that Irving felt more comfortable in smaller spaces. He seemed attracted to socialism because he considered it a losing cause in America, and to Yiddish for the same reason, interpreting it as the culture of what he called the “little man.” When he toured to promote his book, he complained that the well-heeled audiences at synagogues and Jewish community centers were nothing like the garment workers and union organizers whom he had so lovingly portrayed in his book. I pointed out that he had memorialized only those parts of the Lower East Side that had not endured in America. His audiences were made up of the synagogue-goers, Zionists, and immigrants who had made good. The ironies of this ought to have been cause for celebration, but, for Irving, they were instigators of regret.


I don’t think Irving would have dignified me as a “political adversary” in the first years that we worked together. Feminists may snigger, but I sensed that he felt protective toward me, trying to shield me from the battles he had been fighting since his teens and to which he now seemed condemned. He obviously enjoyed writing and teaching about literature more than duking it out politically, and he may have wanted to grant me the respite he could not allow himself. “Try to understand that I genuinely did not wish to get into a fight with you,” he wrote after he had treated me to a public putdown at a nasty conference on Jewish literature we had both attended in Berkeley, Calif.:

[This] was not because I dismissed you. It was … in part because I know that polemics exact a heavy price from you in pain and suffering, and I keep saying to myself that it would be best to avoid them. But also, to be honest, I don’t think you’re very good at political polemics, certainly not as good as you are in literary discussions; I feel it’s not your métier, that you force yourself to do it out of a sense of obligation (with attendant anxiety). But I don’t want [to] make it seem that it has been only my goodness of heart—though it’s there—which prompted me to refrain from public argument with you. I think you have no idea how aggressive and combative and provoking you can be, indeed were in San Francisco, and that this elicits strong responses in turn.

Admitting to “contradictory feelings in the matter,” he expressed satisfaction in our ability to remain collaborators and friends, “perhaps the best that can be done under the circumstances.” This was seductive. But though I shared some of his contradictory feelings, he did not have my number. His description of the anxious polemicist, including of her abrasiveness, seemed (then and now) truer of him than of me. In wanting to attain for the Jews the political unexceptionalism to which they were entitled, I was anxious about the outcome, not the process. As between the two of us, he was the one more often accused of harshness, while people were always saying (to my irritation) how nice I was despite my out-of-favor views.

Indeed, Irving and I drew very different conclusions from the Yiddish culture with which we were engaged together. Yiddish wit once observed that Jews had turned links (left) because they were denied their recht (rights). Irving saw some such connection between political weakness and moral strength. I, who was spared the fate of European Jewry by parents who brought me to Canada in 1940, could not romanticize the politics that had allowed my cohort to be turned into fertilizer. While I would not have chosen to be anything but a Jew, it was precisely the study of Yiddish that had taught me not only the dangers but also the corrupting potential of powerlessness. Whereas Sholem Aleichem fully recognized the deformities that poverty bred, and loved Jews despite the humiliation to which they were subject, some of his contemporaries considered weakness a sign of distinction and decried achievement and prosperity as such. I was also aware, from studying Yiddish, that prolonged repression had produced a rash of informers and converts to other faiths, who often outdid gentiles in malignity. Although Irving and I both admired Jewish resiliency, I had come to recognize Jewish political dependency—a corollary of exile—as a deeply flawed political ideal.


On November 10, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3379, defining Zionism as a form of racism. I was convinced that this charge, lifted straight from the Communist playbook of the 1930s, would greatly advance the Arab war against Israel. By transposing their rhetoric from “We will crush the Jewish State” to “The imperialist Jews are despoiling us,” Arab rulers had forged an anti-liberal alliance among despotisms, autocracies, and dictatorial regimes across the political spectrum. European anti-Semitism in the 1870s had cast the Jews, the beneficiaries of liberal democracy, as its conspiratorial exploiters, so that destroying them became a necessary defense against their alleged domination. By adding the trendy indictment of “racism” to the toxicology of anti-Jewishness, Arabs and Muslims would henceforth rally to their cause Marxists who picked up Stalin’s charge of Zionist-imperialism, internationalists who insisted that Jews should transcend their particularism, and rightists who could now turn the Holocaust indictment of racism against its victims. Talk about a big tent.

The fate of the Jews had not preoccupied Irving during the war or in its aftermath. As he wrote in his memoir, “I wasn’t one of those who danced in the streets when Ben Gurion made his famous pronouncement that the Jews, like other peoples, now had a state of their own.” Yet following the encirclement of Israel in 1967 and the extraordinary victory of the Six Day War, he came to see Israel as “one of the new redeeming events” in “this era of blood and shame.” This new appreciation for Israel prompted me to urge him to condemn the racist U.N. resolution on the grounds that only someone with his authority on the left could effectively counteract its distortions. His reply? “Ruthie, no one pays any attention to the United Nations.”

I understood his reluctance to engage a bloated international bureaucracy that lacked intellectual or moral credibility, but if the Arab-Soviet bloc had chosen the United Nations as its offensive platform, one could not ignore the aggression without forfeiting the war. Irving’s regrettable response brought to mind Saul Bellow’s much-quoted anecdote about his aunt who pronounced his intellectual friends “Smart, smart, but stupid.”


When students ask whether artistic and literary friendships can survive political differences, I suggest that it depends on the perceived political stakes at any given time. Dreyfusards had trouble fraternizing with anti-Dreyfusards when the liberality of the French Republic was at issue. Likewise, fascists with anti-fascists in the Weimar Republic. No civil-rights organizer would have enjoyed a beer with a white supremacist in the spring of 1965. Irving and I had no trouble overcoming our political rifts before the 1980s, but once anti-Israel terror and ideology began heating up, our incompatible responses to the crisis drove us apart. In article after article during those years, I tracked Arab and Muslim aggression that escalated after Anwar Sadat was assassinated for signing a peace treaty with Israel. I also tracked the tendency of some Jews to hold their so-called right-wing co-religionists responsible for the enmity that was leveled against the country of all Jews.

Irving moved from his earlier indifference to Zionism into Israel’s leftist camp, where he was warmly welcomed as an important American supporter. His attraction and subsequent marriage to Ilana Weiner, an intimate of these circles, was another effect and cause of this new alliance. The ostensible Israeli peace movements, Breira in the 1970s and Peace Now in its aftermath, claimed that if Israel took the option (breira, in Hebrew) of ceding territories to the Palestinians, it could bring peace now. I argued that this idea was based on an absolute fallacy: The war of 1967 had been launched by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan when the disputed territories had been in Arab hands. Given that Israel gained the disputed territories as a consequence of the Arab war against Israel, they could not retroactively have become its cause. One could legitimately promote the wisdom of ceding land—for demographic, strategic, or any other political advantage—but the idea that it would hasten “peace” was as misleading as when dangled by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1939, and for the same reasons.

In the May 1988 issue of Commentary, where I had been publishing for a dozen years, I set out these ideas, describing how the Arabs had recast their crime against Israel as Israeli oppression of Palestinians: “The obvious key to the success of Arab strategy is the presence, in the disputed territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River, of Palestinian Arabs, people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery. Indeed, if we were to measure reality by the degree to which we are exposed to it, no people in the world today would appear of greater substance or in a graver predicament.”

In my first draft of the piece, I had devoted considerable space to the real and palpable misery of Palestinian Arab society, applying to them Shylock’s rhetorical questions: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Whittled down in many revisions, the final version paired that “bleed” with “breed” to suggest that while reproduction and suffering were, indubitably, the condition of many refugee peoples, Palestinians had been encouraged to exploit their misery for bad political ends.

Commentary’s editors had always tried to instill in me the discipline of polemics without recourse to sarcasm or invective. By contrast, in place of any rebuttal to my article, the summer issue of Dissent carried a framed box labeled “Into the Depths:”

Each issue of Commentary strikes a new low in intellectual vulgarity and political reaction. In the May 1988 issue there appears an article, “Israel and the Intellectuals,” by Ruth R. Wisse, with the following sentence: “The obvious key to the success of Arab strategy is the presence in the disputed territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River, of Palestinian Arabs, people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery. Indeed, if we were to measure reality by the degree to which we are exposed to it, no people in the world today would appear of greater substance or in a graver predicament.” This remark, verging on or crossing into racism, is an instance of that dehumanization of the adversary that has been a curse of our century.

Not having spent my youth, as Irving had, among the Stalinists and Trotskyists in the fabled alcoves of City College, I had never experienced anything quite so tacky. Here was my erstwhile literary associate—a far better reader and writer than I considered myself—allowing me to be smeared in his magazine in the very terms that Arab propaganda targeted the Jewish people. Rather than counter the U.N. anti-Zionist resolution, his magazine was attacking me for doing what he would not. This richly substantiated my contention that the left redirected anti-Jewish assault against fellow Jews, but I could scarcely take satisfaction from an insight so damning to Irving and our friendship.

Sidney Hook, one of my all-time favorite polemicists, once urged me to follow his example of never letting even the slightest attack go unanswered, but I felt it beneath my dignity to defend against a defamation that reflected worse on the socialist journal than it did on me. Nonetheless, I ought to have replied; I ought to have turned the accusation back on my accusers. Not least of all because, since then, lazy anti-Israel agitators like Noam Chomsky and Stephen Walt have joined Arab hate-mongers in recycling this canard about me, and Google tosses up this quotation as Sea World caretakers throw food to their fish. On the two occasions when I was being considered for a government assignment, this was the only action or statement of mine that I was asked to justify or explain. And yet, at the time, Irving shrugged off the whole thing and affected surprise that I took offense at the anti-Jewish ammunition he had supplied.


Irving and I never collaborated again, but we drifted back together after his daughter Nina, whom I liked very much, moved to Montreal, and he became a joyful visiting grandfather. We had much to tell one another about literature, where our tastes coincided, and about the teaching of literature, headed in directions neither of us favored. Irving’s last letter to me was written the day before he died, when he thought he was recovering from the prolonged aftereffects of surgery. He asked about the logistics of my recent move to Harvard, since he was planning to teach at Yale the following year. He was tender and elegiac: “I sometimes ruefully think of Robert Frost’s lines: ‘No memory of having starred,/ Atones for later disregard/ Or keeps the end from being hard.’” His sudden death was the more lamentable for me because so much between us was left unresolved, and for him because I felt he had never allowed himself to acknowledge all that he had come to know.

Ruth R. Wisse, the author of the Nextbook Press book Jews and Power, is currently senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund.