"A Melancholy Offering Tendered with Esteem": Gershom Scholem and Lucy S. Dawidowicz on Nathan Birnbaum, an Unexpected Conversation
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"A Melancholy Offering Tendered with Esteem":
Gershom Scholem and Lucy S. Dawidowicz on Nathan Birnbaum, an Unexpected Conversation

In February 1963, employed in the research division of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Lucy S. Dawidowicz (née Schildkret, 1915– 90) published a Hebrew article in its Israeli cultural journal Amot (Evaluations).1 Her article, "Revolution and Tradition: The Jewish Labor Movement in America," treated the issue that would consume her throughout her career: the relationship of Jewish tradition and values to modern Jewish politics.2 Not yet a public figure, Dawidowicz would soon play a singular role in the postwar representation of East European Jewry for the Anglophone world with the publication of The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe (1967) and The War against the Jews, 1933–1945 (1975).3 Little known is that Dawidowicz's engagement [End Page 409] with Jewish political vulnerability was not her only intellectual preoccupation. Reared in an immigrant, working-class home, educated at the prestigious Hunter High School and College—both single-sex in those years—as well as in the Yiddishist Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute's supplementary schools (Yid. shules), she also continuously wrestled with the viability of secular Yiddishism in the construction of modern Jewish identity.4 Her engagement with the existential question of Jewish survival brought her to the writings of Nathan Birnbaum (1864–1936) and, in turn, to Gershom Scholem (1897–1972) as his interlocutor.

In 1964 Dawidowicz wrote to Scholem to ask him to clarify a point he had made in his 1963 Hebrew essay in Amot, "On the Possibility of Mysticism in Our Time," regarding Birnbaum's evolution from secular Yiddishist nationalist to ardent Orthodox Jew.5 Their subsequent correspondence not only reveals the beginnings of a friendship but also illustrates the existence and significance of a transnational Jewish intellectual community that shared personal, even familial, connections, exchanged scholarly insights, and discussed political strategies, all the while grappling with fundamental issues of Jewish survival, physical as well as cultural, in the postwar period. Historians of American Jewry have tended to sequester the American Jewish encounter with modernity from that of their European counterparts, but New York's significance lay in its being the largest diasporic Jewish community in the postwar years, not merely the largest American Jewish community.6 Its vast community of secular Jewish intellectuals included many European emigrés, such as Hannah Arendt, Salo W. Baron, Philip Friedman, Max Weinreich, and [End Page 410] Raphael Mahler, among others—let alone the cohorts of rabbinic figures who represented a broad spectrum from Reform to ultra-Orthodox7 and those of Hebrew and Yiddish writers. They saw themselves as Jewish intellectuals living in America, not simply as American Jews.8

Moreover, Dawidowicz's and Scholem's extant literary tracks affirm the nexus between the genres of the letter and of the highbrow cultural journal—so central to the transnational republika sifrutit of the secularizing Jewish intelligentsia from the late eighteenth century forward—as forums for the sustenance of that intellectual community.9 Indeed, the AJC funded Amot, a self-consciously highbrow bimonthly Hebrew literary magazine modeled after Commentary, the most influential English-language monthly in the postwar years, and Commentario, the AJC's Latin American office's Spanish journal, to encourage the metanational bonds between Israeli and Western Hemisphere diaspora Jewry. Shlomo Grodzensky (1904–72), Amot's editor—a Lithuanian-born poet who had lived in New York City, where he wrote for Yidisher kempfer (The Jewish fighter), a Labor Zionist periodical, prior to immigrating to Israel in 1950—embodied this postwar Jewish transnationalism. Amot's editorial board, which showcased the country's Ashkenazic cultural and literary elite including Gershom Scholem, Leah Goldberg, Natan Rotenstreich, and Dov Sadan, affirmed the Jewish bonds between Israel and the diaspora, informing its readership that "we aspire that this journal's horizon be Jewish and not just 'Israeli.'"10

Dawidowicz's and Scholem's first literary encounter took place in Commentary, reverberated in the pages of Amot, and continued in their private letters.11 There are five extant letters, in English, between the two, the [End Page 411] first dated February 11, 1963, and...


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