2. The “Triple Immersion”: A Singular Moment in Modern Jewish Intellectual History?
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46 Chapter 2 The “Triple Immersion”: A Singular Moment in Modern Jewish Intellectual History? Alan T. Levenson Migration, exile, and refugee existence constitute major themes in modern Jewish history.1 The delineation of these phenomena, however, poses challenges . Take, for instance, sociologist Lewis Coser’s attempt at differentiation: “Immigrants leave their country for the most part voluntarily to make a permanent change of residence. . . . Exiles, in contrast, are forced to leave, yet hope, at least in the beginning, to return to their country of birth. . . . The great majority of the refugee intellectuals I deal with here, most of them Jewish, decided from the beginning to make this country their new permanent home. They were thus more like immigrants . . . although some of them can more properly be considered—­ and considered themselves to be exiles.”2 Did eastern European Jews leave for America for greater economic opportunity or in fear of their physical safety? Were they immigrants or exiles? What all such terms share, it seems to me, is a fundamentally binary conception. “Ploni,” the Jewish Everyman , starts at place A and moves, voluntarily or involuntarily, to place B. This narrative arc existed from the Haskalah forward, and one could argue that it forms the backbone of both Solomon Maimon’s intellectual autobiography Lebensgeschichte and the Hollywood version of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The process of getting from A to B could be traumatic, involving at a minimum illegal border crossings, a two-­ week steamship trip, and intrusive inspectors at Ellis Island.3 Since even these brief passages left an indelible impression, what are we to say of intermediate destinations that span years of a given lifetime? The following essay focuses on individual instances in which three sites played a formative role and not only two sites. I want to revisit the biographies of four figures who surely qualify as twentieth-­ century giants in the Jewish The “Triple Immersion”    47 intellectual firmament: Joseph Soloveitchik (1903–­ 93), Jacob Katz (1904–­ 98), Nehama Leibowitz (1905–­ 97), and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–­ 72). I argue that these figures, all of whom began life in traditional Jewish environments ,4 spent several formative years in Germany during the German-­ Jewish renaissance of the 1920s where they received their PhDs and, eventually, acclimated to a third intellectual context, whether in Israel or the United States. These figures experienced what might be called a “triple immersion.” A fuller inquiry into this phenomenon would need to include secular figures such as Chaim Weizmann (1874–­ 1952) and Nahum Goldman (1895–­ 1982), as well as additional Orthodox figures such as Yehiel Weinberg, Hayyim Heller, and Isaac Hutner, all of whom began life in a traditional Jewish environment, studied in Germany, and moved on when the Nazis seized power. My hope is that this limited inquiry will stimulate some more reflection on what I consider a coherent phenomenon. I argue that this series of intellectual encounters constituted a phenomenon that deeply fructified Jewish intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century. This triple immersion deserves more attention than it has received , despite a very readable book by Hillel Goldberg, and despite the fact that several beneficiaries of this triple immersion dwelt on this phenomenon in their autobiographies.5 Goldberg’s Between Slobodka and Berlin failed to ignite a broader conversation on this issue, possibly because Slobodka does not serve as an adequate metonym for the eastern European experience. Intimately linked with the Musar movement, Slobodka differed greatly from Soloveitchik ’s Pruzana, Katz’s Magyargenz, the Leibowitz siblings’ Riga, or the Warsaw of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Additionally, Berlin did not serve as the final destination for the figures in Goldberg’s book. Their most profound accomplishments took place in their final destinations—­ whether Israel or the United States. I want to distinguish this group not only from such indelibly German-­ Jewish figures Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, Gerhard (Gershom) Scholem , and Fritz (Yitzhak) Baer but also from the many East European Jews (Ostjuden),6 who lived through the Weimar years (especially in Berlin), made major contributions to Jewish culture, but neither matriculated at German universities nor fully immersed themselves in German cultural life as did the four figures discussed here. That long and distinguished list would include Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Shimon Rawidowicz,Yosef Micah Berdischevky , Meir Berlin, and Simon Dubnov. This “triple immersion,” for lack of a better phrase, provides one key for understanding the emergence of a generation of giants. My geographical standard is, admittedly, somewhat arbitrary. Posen, for...

Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Germany -- History.
  • Germany -- Emigration and immigration.
  • Jews, German -- Foreign countries.
  • Jews, German, in literature.
  • Germany -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
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