Struggle for Jewish Renewal
UDWIG, OF COURSE, HAD not sat idle while awaiting publication of The American Jew and the reviews that were to follow. New ideas for literary studies appear in his notebook entries for October and December, with particular interest in the last half century, planning through the use of a chronological history of literary output to discuss “each decade and its Coloration!”1 Professionally, he joined some two hundred members of the New England College English Association at a conference hosted by Brandeis on October 28, and shared his thoughts as part of several panels discussing freshman composition courses, the role of the humanities in the curriculum, and the teaching of Moby-Dick.2 As the head of his department, Ludwig greeted the conference’s many guests, among them Thornton Wilder, whom he found at once “flexible and volatile,” losing himself “in [the] subtleties of his [own] discourse … and freez[ing] within … at the mention of anyone else’s work”—yet, still “a delightful companion.” More enjoyable was his evening with an old New York friend, the actor Joseph Schildkraut, with whom he had years earlier shared a serious interest in the Yiddish theater. “We reminisced about our common ventures and adventures nearly thirty years ago.”3 Hollywood had taken its toll on him, “faded and wan” Ludwig noted with sadness, “his art somewhat impaired by the long damned years,” though “still truly distinguished.”4
This common theme of disparagement of popular culture, sentiment, and thought, long a well-practiced trait, saw equal application in Ludwig’s narrowing literary tastes. Bored with many of his contemporaries’ efforts, or angered by the nihilism that had passed for progressive thinking throughout the last several decades, he found himself returning to more classic texts “whenever I have no direct objective or task.” This judgment had not gone unnoticed by recent reviewers of The Magic Word. “No one can read these studies without being stimulated by the genuine respect for human values that inspires whatever Mr. Lewisohn writes,” the New York Herald Tribune critic wrote, “even when it seems most wrongheaded,” as in Ludwig’s “champion[ing] of the individual” against “the collectivistic heresies of our time” toward which the reviewer apparently had less of a quarrel.5 The New York Times noted how Ludwig had “maintain[ed] his amateur standing” by having dismissed the work of such highly regarded contemporary writers as Wallace Stevens and Delmore Schwartz, though “the book has values to recommend it,” not the least of them its ability to communicate “ably and persuasively … important ideas about literature” which others, literary scholars and philosophers alike, could not “bring to [such] a wide audience.”6 Coming at The Magic Word from a curious perspective (lumping Ludwig with Eliot, Dreiser, Mencken, and others), George Seldes, in a general attack against the elder generation, thought them too narrowly focused upon producing highly artistic work to have much impact on the generally deplorable standards of the popular media, now largely catering to the adolescent.7
Ludwig had heard it all before. He could not please the critics, nor did he wish to any longer. Instead, he chose to disregard, as much as possible, these contradictory critiques, focusing rather on what mattered most. Feeling “terribly unrefreshed right now,” for reasons beyond these unenthusiastic notices (exhaustion, money, Jim), he awaited the response to The American Jew. “Ah, if the little book were to make some sort of a stir it would do me so much good.”8 When two weeks later he could record that it had made “a stir in the Jewish world,” he spoke of it as a mixed blessing. Exhausted by public appearances to discuss the text or to listen to sermons about it preached in New York and Boston, he thought of how much more could have been gained by mere quiet reflection than by creating these many open forums. Such, he concluded, was not the way to redemption—certainly not for himself. “Result of all this promotional and other clamor, that one almost ceases to have an interior life.” So, too, for those in attendance at these events, as he now testily reflected:
This business of “discussion” is a most filthy habit. What is needed is quietude, tranquil reflection upon a heard or read word—the incorporation [of] the word in the soul. Not, of all things, hectic and superficial disputatiousness nor display by members of the audience of their cleverness or self-conceived originality or vulgar combativeness. The way is not communicated thus. From soul to soul—from being to being. That is why the Hasidic saints insisted that the Rebbe should be Torah or, at most, speak Torah, never preach or argue. And the Maggid, the wandering preacher, took for granted that God is righteous and man sinful and called man to teshuvah—to return and repentance. And the joke is that these people—these unmodern people were instinctively great psychologists and knew, without being told, that so and only so could the way be communicated.
“Must guard myself a little more against this busy-ness to meditate.… Must get rid of this itch and urge to write another book from among the several I have in mind.” If he wanted to show this “way” as a “cure for the sins of the world,” he too would have to seek the quiet of a more contemplative life.9
But within the Jewish community, two camps quickly pitched their tents and gathered their minyans. Joseph Blau, himself once a victim of the notion that a Jew could not teach English and now a professor of religion at Columbia University, expressed the dominant criticism of Ludwig’s position. In it, he saw a failure of nerve. It was not the Enlightenment itself, as idea, that had demanded the self-liquidation of those who differed from the majority culture, but the majority’s failure to carry to completion the force of true liberation. All social dislocation stemmed not from the Jews’ needs, but from forces unleashed by the majority itself against them. The Holocaust, in this analysis, was the result of the larger culture’s “suffering from failure of nerve, and … making of the Jews a scapegoat for its own failure.” To voluntarily move in concert with these shortcomings was itself a tragically nostalgic “return to Jewish medievalism” and to the ghetto as “a safe refuge from the buffetings of the world,” erroneously promoted by individuals “who had no first-hand experience of ghetto life.” For them, “tired of thinking their way through the problems of the modern world … the cultural uniformity of the ghetto began to look attractive,” whether in America or Israel. Their program, according to Blau, was to negate the “enlightened standard of culture” that had led Jews to select out of their “religious heritage those universalistic elements which were closest to the cosmopolitan idea of enlightenment,” and in their place, reimpose the particularism of a squalid past. Those proposing such “a world ghetto reconstituted by our own efforts” included not only Ludwig, but Will Herberg, Emil Fackenheim, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, some of the leading voices of that and subsequent years. In their stead, Blau invoked Herzl, Wise, Solomon Schechter, and Mordecai Kaplan, calling upon Jews to recapture their nerve in this transitional period, a “time for the reassertion of prophetic universalism.”10
A month later, perhaps in response, Heschel published a review of The American Jew in which he praised Ludwig as “one of the very few Jews in America who has been ringing the alarm” to awaken the community to the danger of its own extinction by assent. Whole-heartedly and without apology to those who, failing to incorporate the “cataclysmic experience” of the post-Enlightenment period, still hold to the notion that “conformity with the temper of the modern age is the standard of right thinking and believing,” Ludwig “goes to the root of things.” But for those to whom “such incorporation … is a most painful process, since that cataclysmic experience necessarily shatters the forms and categories to which [their] minds have been accustomed,” Ludwig’s “wholeheartedness is not intelligible.” To those “afraid to face the ultimate problems of Jewish existence,” Ludwig’s “being ahead of the times is unjudicious.” But make no mistake, Heschel asserted, “the experience of our age is going to remodel some of our basic concepts.” If “most of our spokesmen are modern in their outlook,” it is they who will need to revise their thinking. “The modern age is an age of confusion, an age in which the greatest horrors of human history have taken place. Those spokesmen seem to forget that.”
Ludwig’s analysis, Heschel realized, was most troubling because it was “neither half-hearted nor modern,” but rather, demanding of his fellow Jews that they break out of the galuth, the exile, into which they had sent themselves in their headlong pursuit of conformity and self-denying acceptance. It was their unequivocal task to recognize that the “deep metaphysical anxiety [which] stirs the Western world” had been made infinitely more so by “a specific Jewish experience that cries to heaven, that cries to our minds. Some of us have hermetically closed minds,” Heschel wrote in countering the universalists who dared not admit that Jews were different from others because of their unique experience before God and in history. “They see what they know, but they do not know what they see. But there are others,” he continued in speaking of Ludwig, “who hear the supreme cry. Once their souls have tasted the dismay, they cannot remain calm. They are caught in that painful process of an experience which is in search of a mind to comprehend it.” The American Jew was “a record of that process,” filled with “challenging ideas [as] boldly Lewisohn attacks problems which most Jewish leaders fear to face. Again he bears testimony to an experience as he has been doing for more than twenty years, most of the time as an only witness. And this is indeed the task of a Jew: to be present and bear witness. But how few are present? How few Jews bear witness?” How many would hear the “deep within Lewisohn … call to [the] deep within every Jew?”11
Two days before the year ended, Ludwig proudly assessed The American Jew’s impact in a letter to Spiro. With “sermons, letters, messages all over the country, [and] a few remarkable reviews in the American world, too,” the book had accomplished much of what he had hoped, stirring “the yiddische gas [the Jewish street] very deeply.” Now that the initial exhaustion of promotion had passed and the effect of his work had become known, it had proven a “joyful noise.” Most appreciated of all voices were those “from men like [Nahum] Glatzer and Heschel and many lesser luminaries [who] make me feel that the book is a gut [good] Jewish deed—eine gute judische Tat von bleibendem Wert [a good Jewish deed (mitzvah) of enduring value].” Was there anything more that he could ask? Only that Brandeis itself not have “repressed everything in the book that contradicts its policies,” believing its creation of a Jewish Studies program a sufficient enough act.12
The last weeks of 1950 had been hectic but satisfying. It seemed that he was more in demand now than ever before. The American Jew had sold two thousand copies before publication and another hundred each week since—not inconsequential for a book of its kind, and certainly sufficient enough to send Ludwig back onto the lecture circuit. So, too, had Brandeis’s fundraising efforts. Between the two, he had spoken twice in New Jersey and twice in New York City as the semester was drawing to a close amid final exams to be graded and meetings to be attended. While in New York “on a single free evening,” Ludwig stopped at the 92nd Street Y to hear T. S. Eliot give a reading. “Packed house. Mostly Jews,” as he had once noted at an Eliot reading in Europe. They came and listened, curious, interested. But of what consequence to them? And of what consequence to them when they came to hear his own talks or purchased his books? “I admit the significance of the fact that he has made this impression on the thoughtful people of his time,” Ludwig noted in his diary; but “What, I wonder, does he make of the circumstance that the people who read and hear him … do not heed him at all, that the vast majority of them remain the shallow ‘free thinkers’ that they have always been. He has an audience but no disciples,” a situation not unlike Ludwig’s own, he must surely have thought.
Other voices had found more responsive ears among those more willing to pay homage and allegiance to ideas worn thin by the political realities upon which their analysts looked blindly. These Ludwig had found wanting, “shallow” responses to the tragedies out of which they had grown. Camus’s works, born of the war and its aftermath, were “Magnificently done. What a writer!” Ludwig freely acknowledged. “But what boundless misery, what drab desolation … and ultimate conclusion of the whole existentialist movement.” Where was the enlightenment that was needed, where the wider and deeper vision for a lost and suffering humanity? “What spiritual grime,” Ludwig exclaimed, angry that such brilliant talent had left “all ultimate questions unconfronted. It confines its inquiry to certain strictly limited phenomena. It leaves out both history and the universe. Nostalgie de la boue [Homesick for the muck]. It peers at a puddle and makes statements concerning the ocean.”
So it was again on the world’s stage, “the monstrous world-war-political situation since the intrusion of China in the Korean War … the whole phantastic and disastrous picture with nowhere even dimly in sight one wise or historically guided spirit.” It was all so familiar, different players, a different theater, a new surrender—but not without its connection to the past, the failure of nerve once again that had brought with it the death of six million of his people, and would again exact a heavy and lasting cost upon the soul of the West until the ultimate collapse of this second “Beast.” And when it came, it would not necessarily be as a result of opposition from without, but from the inherent decay that followed such disregard for the spirit of goodness at play in the universe—an end for which the Christian West could claim no credit, as it still could not for righting the wrongs of the last war for which it held a measure of responsibility still awaiting its confession.
What would be said, what replied if one were to say: You could have smitten Hitler in 1933–1938; you—the Christian world—could have destroyed the anti-Christ almost effortlessly. You would not; you did not. Thence came inevitably the Russian alliance; thence came your having to make common cause with the second incarnation of anti-Christ, with (if you like) the second horn of the Beast of the Apocalypse. So your Christlessness—on which you insist to this day by arms to Arabs and none to Israel, by a failure to punish the Nazi murderers and half admitting Western Germany to the family of nations before the German crime against the Jewish people has been expiated—so your Christlessness is your inherent punishment and is coming upon you. You will probably prevail in the end, in the long run, because you are demonstrably decenter and nearer to the God of history—though light-years away—than your adversaries. But it will cost monstrous agonies—the monstrous agonies that (seeing you had the light and called it darkness) are an answer to your monstrous sins. What would be said? Useless to say it. No one would print it. Oh yes, someone might—someone obscure and already considered crack-pot before.
He would hold his own counsel, that he might not lose the audience he had for that part of his vision he believed of some possible acceptance. For this moment, among his other blessings, he would count the continuing ability to find even a limited reception. “End of another secular year,” Ludwig wrote in separating his two worlds. “And again, thank God, I can say that for us it has been a good year and again I do pray that things may remain as they are.” Jim had “improved in steadiness and mental balance.” Teaching was pleasant enough. Brandeis had proven to be worth the effort to push for change, and life with Louise continued to be all that his previous marriages had failed to be. If money was still a problem, “it is an outer thing. It does not go to the heart or soul.”13 In matters of real consequence his personal life was the best it had ever been, even if the outer world continued its decline.
“So begins the second half of this portentous 20th century,” Ludwig wrote on New Year’s Day 1951. “A dreadful age in which to live, to have lived; also an overwhelmingly fascinating one,” he assessed the morning after having downed the half-pint bottle of Hennessey he had brought to the Savage’s dinner party “ostensibly as a gift.” The evening had been “very charming, very gentle and sweet,” satisfying all of Louise’s “genteel instincts,” though he “would have preferred a slightly rowdier atmosphere.” Too “sweet and torpid” a setting, the liquor “did me no good.” It was an occasion to loosen the inner reins, but the reserve of others had disappointed his plans. The next day he would write of the Rilke correspondence with which he had chosen to start this second half century, that it was “certainly one of the major achievements and monuments of this age.… But Rilke does cloy after some hours. Too perfect. Too constantly mellifluous. Exquisite and profound at nearly every moment. But did he never, never, as our slang saying goes, let down his hair?” It was an era that required it of everyone on occasion, an opening-up time in which to allow the artifice and masks to be set aside, that something less dramatically serious might have its run, or that the deeply insightful moment might seize the inner self and move it beyond the usual, as in those flashing instances of religious ecstasy, of being moved out of one’s static role in the universe and thereby be graced with a vision of the larger picture and its life source. That morning, the effect of the previous night’s liquor’s failure behind him, Ludwig thought of those assembled, of the past half century’s ongoing tragedies, of those placed in his hands to mold as their teacher—and in thinking about all of this and of his own life’s path, recalled such a moment, a mystical experience in the classical sense, one beyond the ability to truly be verbalized, transforming and enlightening and redeeming, leaving him with a profound sadness that so many others were still dwelling amid the shadows of this world alone.
Most people, above all, most of the younger people are confused, perturbed, afraid. That is the core of the tragedy. The will that might redeem is paralyzed. But whence is that will to come if its source, if God, be forgotten. Last night, as I was dressing to go out, I had one of the clearest insights into the so-ness of things of my life. Not, of course, to be put into words—not for words, beyond all words. The best I can say is this: I knew that the category of causality in man is the fruit of the tree of this universe. Through it God wants man to know Him. We shall see our Redeemer. V’ani yedathi goali chai. Only I didn’t think it or know it. I saw it. Saw.14
The first weeks of the new year sent Ludwig back into the everyday world that was now his, focused largely around the needs of university life. With students away for their midyear break, Ludwig found himself once again defending the need for a language requirement as the Humanities Committee met on January 6. Sadly, he reflected, there was also the need to institute remedial English courses, though Brandeis’s students were among the nation’s best educated.15 He had interest, as well, in preparing an anthology of French prose for the students at Brandeis and elsewhere. “Doubtless the experience is common,” Ludwig wrote Richard Thornton of Ginn, a textbook publisher, explaining that the ability to pay “right attention to texts of any kind” was fast disappearing with the abandonment of Latin. “To mend the decay of classical studies is hopeless,” he assured Thornton, but there was a “substitute for training of that kind which combines linguistic and intellectual attention”—a supplementary nonfiction text in French for the more advanced student. The selections would be chosen carefully “for their universal and their immediate applicability,” including “La misere de l’homme sans Dieu” (“The misery of man without God”) and Jules Lemaître’s “Des advantages attaches a la professon de revolutionnaire” (“Of the advantages attached to the profession of revolutionary”). “In brief, the notion of the book amuses me because it ought to be a very civilizing influence here and now, calculated to gladden the human heart.” Apparently Thornton did not concur, and the book was never written.16
On January 8, Ludwig and Louise traveled to New York on a week-long fundraising trip. When not occupied with business, they visited old friends or attended the theater, including Christopher Fry’s production of Jean Anouilh’s Ring Around the Moon, described by Ludwig as “a frail, at moments silly but ingratiating take off on the ‘mauve decade,’ on the innocent, oh so innocent world before 1914.” The time in New York proved nostalgic as his thoughts returned, as with the play, to earlier years. Dinner with Titus brought joy and sadness—“dear Edward, alas, showing signs of age and looking quite fragile”—as did “thoroughly good times with old chaverim [friends, in the sense of Zionist brothers].” New acquaintances spiced his days in the city, bringing confirmation and insights to complement his politicized vision of the world. Dinner with Sigajski, visiting from Russia, “half grand seigneur, half charlatan,” revealed stories of the black market in American currency “that plunges deep into generally unknown aspects of life within the Soviet Union.”
But as he reflected on his visit, it was the past that most occupied his thoughts, with remembrances of once close friends now gone. Carl Van Doren had died the previous summer, “a fine frustrated spirit, beguiled and bedeviled by that poor, wretched liberalism.” Perhaps if he had had some ability to celebrate life he would have been happier. Regrettably, he hadn’t. Nor had he been able to look beyond whatever it was that Ludwig had said or written that had so terribly offended him that he had ended all contact (though Ludwig never knew exactly what it was). “I had the feeling that he wanted and chose to be irritated. So, sorrowfully, I let it go at that.”
He thought also of Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose poetry he had so greatly admired and had so often made a gift of for his own Edna. This “immortal lyricist” had proven to be a gracious person, but was now suffering the near obscurity he himself knew all too well. The moment in literature belonged neither to the ethnic outsider nor to the feminine voice. But he was certain that in the latter case, it would turn. “I swear,” he asserted with deepest conviction, that although Millay was “now (at this moment) squeezed down in the current anthologies (of Oscar Williams and his dark-brow brethren),” she was “sure to re-assume (she and Elinor Wylie) her station with Sappho and the rest.”
Of the many he thought of now gone, Sinclair Lewis, “dead at 65 in utter isolation in Rome,” was the saddest. “A wretched life in spite of so much fame and success.” Their friendship, based largely on Ludwig’s mentorship in the early years after the Great War, had withered in the 1930s as liquor assumed control. Memories were now of “Red” Lewis in Vienna and Paris, “drunken and ribald (vulgarly ribald) out of sheer despair … putting on a show” in public, or of his being thrown out by Ludwig from his Rue Schoelcher apartment, “drunkenly insulting” his other guest, the wife of Jewish writer Elmer Rice, telling her to “Go back to the Ghetto where you belong.” Though Lewis was “friendly and suave … at our next meeting,” the irreparable had been done. Would that Lewis’s vision of life’s deeper questions had matched his notable talent, Ludwig tragically assessed. “So much talent, but so little knowledge, awareness, searching. No meditative power; no sense of art, mystery, God. Bone-deep flippancy and consequently despair. The coarse brashness of a village free-thinker. No reverence. Self-deification on the Momus level. The Nobel prize gave him, in addition, a sense of guilt and inadequacy and he slithered around in both life and letters more foolishly than ever. But ‘Babbitt’ will stand and parts, at least, of ‘Arrowsmith.’”17
“The crowding of the days and weeks continues,” Ludwig complained to his diary on February 1, annoyed that even “when there is a lull the bad rhythm is still in one’s bones.” It had not been this way in Europe. What was it about America that did not allow for the peaceful life he had known there? True, he had lived on his writing, allowing him the luxury of arranging time as he wished. But there was more at work than that. “There was, despite all public miseries, a deeper quietude at the core of all sane lives in Vienna and Paris at that time, which I was able to share.” Not so here in America, where “there is an infinitude of going and coming and talking and meeting and palavering, all of which is wholly dispensable—would be wholly dispensable, did not taut nerves and subtle fears and small substitute ambitions drive people on.”
The previous night’s experience was a case in point. Playing Brandeis representative (“Abe Sachar was busy elsewhere”) at a local synagogue’s “annual ‘good will’ dinner” honoring the retiring president of Boston University, Ludwig had found himself seated among fifteen hundred others. “All Boston—as we used to say: tout Paris—was there. Mayor, judges, all newspaper editors in chief, managers of football and baseball clubs (Socks? Red Socks?), broadfaced bruiser faces,” a sprinkling of professors and local clergy. It was all such an empty exercise, made so by the feigned friendship between Jew and Gentile. Not that the parties’ sincerity toward one another was questionable (for he did not question their honest attempts at bridge-building, “within today’s framework in America”), but there was an obvious post-Holocaust lack of “trust [in] the goodwill of these gentiles toward them even while they hear their asseverations of brotherhood.” He was not at all certain they were yet ready to commit to its deeper and broader requirements. How sad that these Jews “in a kind of twisted hope utter their own … and feed them filet mignon at today’s prices.” Rising to speak on the heels of the brotherhood speech of Boston College’s graduate school dean, a “simple Catholic priest” by his own reckoning, Ludwig repeated in Hebrew the phrase and source of Jesus’ golden rule, and added, with a touch of conscious sarcasm, “that if all Christians were Christians and all Jews were Jews, all this would be unnecessary and we’d all be home reading a good book.” But even that was a “futile,” empty gesture, for how many really listened to what he was saying, or understood the emphasis he had placed upon the words he had chosen?18
Lunching the next day with Louis Ginzberg, world-renowned rabbinical scholar from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ludwig came away with a sense of confirmation for the route he had taken in his own spiritual journey, away from the shallow world of empty handshakes without inner change. Not that Ginzberg’s focus upon the rabbinic could ever be Ludwig’s. “He has passed his life wholly absorbed in the noblest and most disinterested occupations,” Ludwig observed, his admiration allayed with a mild critique. “A certain dryness (I suppose) has kept him from doubt, conflict, the rendings of creativity. May he live to 120.” But for Ludwig, Buber and Heschel and neo-Hasidism held the answers he needed. “Where else … I joked, could a poor am-ha-aretz [Jewishly uneducated] and Baal Teshuvah [returning Jew] like me go, when all was said and done. This amused him no end,” Ludwig recorded, “and he insisted that he would relay this observation at the seminary.”19
Ludwig, however, was still far too upset by the state of the world to be similarly amused, and by the continuing blindness of vision and shallowness of thought around him. “I am not necessarily ‘right,’ ” he admitted, but those, particularly on the political Left, who attacked his ideas (“Max Lerner is a good example”) were not yet “in the place where I stand,” beyond “the clichés (of thought or expression) of the popular dominant pseudo-philosophies and, above all, sociologies of recent decades.… The cleavage is at a deep level … as they build their cosmologies by deliberately leaving out salient facts.” Not that he agreed with all of America’s foreign policy “or that I love Senator McCarthy … [as] people in that frame of mind always defensively assume.” Yet if he remained unequivocally against the “hysteria and nervousness” that had emerged from the ongoing witch-hunt in Washington and had quickly spread throughout the country, he saw “reasons for both.” The situation was as grave as it ever had been, the stakes as high as those raised by Hitler a few short years earlier. Where, on the general world stage, was the difference between the one fascist threat and the other? “The danger is great and present and there is too great an area of psychological enemy territory in our midst and Stalinism is the enemy of the human race, of God and good and I was right, wholly right, when I welcomed the Hitler-Stalin pact as creating a clear and clean situation and not dividing those whom the devil had united.”20
Not that the socialists were alone in misdirecting the future, though “all socialist techniques lead—as we now know—to centralization, unfreedom, brutalization of man.” The capitalists and labor unionists, as well, were “wholly evil as things have turned out. That is, both operate on the principle of the beast of prey and not of the image of God.” Invoking the memory of Amos’s prophetic call for social justice, he concluded that the call had been rendered silent by responses that were not in keeping with the demand of God’s prophet. “Lo zeh ha derech—this is not the way!”
Certainly, not for the new State of Israel. “The kvuzoth [kibbutzes] are not prophetic-Messianic … not the secularist ones which belong to the pagan world even in Eretz Yisrael [Land of Israel]. They are chutz laaretz [alien].” For there to be true social justice in Israel, he wrote in his diary that February, it “must be pursued … by other ways and other motivations.” When men like Thomas Mann are “stricken with utter blindness—utter,” it was understandable, for his background was devoid of this prophetic thrust. “But Jews, Jews ought to know better. How sadly right my contention of the de-judaization of post-emancipatory Jewry.” Instead of finding expression in their own traditions, out of which the emptier secular forms had come, so many had seized upon “forms of secularist utopianism as substitutes for zedakah [charity], for chesed v’emeth [righteousness and truth], for personal teshuvah [renewal], for life as an imitatis Dei [imitation of God].” These other man-made messianisms, in Germany, in Russia, and now in England (“as Orwell foresaw”) and elsewhere, “have led man to utter ruin.”
For Ludwig, the Jewish tradition alone could offer a viable alternative to those legitimate human concerns, out of which such unfavorable solutions had arisen. “The burning question of the present and the future is the religious question—the question: how individual life and corporate life (politics) is to be moralized, is to be spiritualized.” He had written about this now for some years, most recently in The American Jew. But this was read, if at all, mostly by Jews and a handful of Christian clergy. Perhaps he should write again for the general press, though what assurance had he that it would be read? “Of what avail to write unless the thing is read?” He could not depend on its having the results he hoped for. If only there were others to help carry on his work. For the first time, he was admitting to himself that he had grown too tired to carry on alone.
I am old and often tired and closed in by duties and circumstances and disappointments, which I seem unable (to my shame) wholly to conquer. Why are there not a few disciples around who will proclaim my truth, the necessary truth of this hour of history, with the energy of youth? None. Not one. So dreadful is the poverty of spirit in this time and land. To be sure, a few young rabbis and rabbinical students write me their letters of moved adherence. That is not effectual. I need around me a group (Jewish and Christian) of young men … who would agitate and teach and write.
He had done all that he could. Even “Christ [had] saved only isolated individuals—never an ethnic or political body.” Something greater than any one person was needed. In the past, the Jews had been saved by their adherence to God’s teachings, as had some who had followed their revision for the Gentiles. But who now was open to this divine path? If “the covenant saved one whole people up to now,” Ludwig worried, “God help us from now on.”21
Certainly the evidence from history was not encouraging. Malcolm Hay’s history of the Church’s culpability in the long career of anti-Semitism, The Foot of Pride, which Ludwig was now reading “off and on,” was demonstration of the truth that Christ himself “was not able to save even his Church,” that its persecution of Jews “invalidates the Messianic claim,” that it had operated for “2000 years without any effect.” Rather “the Hitler-Stalin pagan revolution came out of the very bosom of Christendom” and, in one form or another, could still count many millions in the West who adhered to this “neo-pagan tyranny because, by virtue of their godlessness and their uncurbed aggressive instincts … [they] have nowhere to go, nowhere to lay their heads.” Without the biblical sense of history, of progress toward an era of social justice divinely sanctioned and ordained according to the moral order thereby established, “we have no basis for meaning.” And without this meaning to life, only disorder can follow, and worse.
Ludwig’s ongoing criticism of his own people lay in their abandonment of this prophetic vision in favor “of all types of 20th century scientific or even pseudo-scientific Utopianism.” So insidious had it become that it lay at the heart of “the merciless secularism of so much of modern Judaism [and] Zionism.” No wonder that so many had abandoned both, or had turned to other religions in “an act of despair … a valid phenomenon to be expected at this moment of history. What have we in Judaism today to meet it? How many rabbis ask themselves this question?” Certainly not those he saw “enforcing the Shulcan Aruch [traditional code of behavior].… God help the poor Jewish people!” Nor those who would completely abandon it by transforming this “religious people into a political party with all that goes with it.”22 Nor yet those others who “profess to believe in the preservation of the Halakha [Jewish law] through re-interpretation” according to a set of external secular criteria, like the “ineffable fools in the Reconstructionist [who] babble ‘democratic,’ ‘authoritarian,’ etc.”23
Each of these groups, since the appearance of The American Jew, had attacked him for taking one of the other positions in opposition to their own. Each had “mis-read my book,” even as Spiro had, in trying to defend Ludwig. Perhaps he could explain his position to Spiro as one that sought to recapture the original intent of the rabbis. “I appeal to the text which is before you,” he instructed his closest friend, hoping at least once to clear up the misconception that he was advocating a turn by all Jews to Orthodoxy. Rather, he had wished to present the Kierkegaardian “Either-Or” that confronts all who aspire to religious faith.24 For though he could admire those Jews who held to traditional practices identified with Orthodoxy, he knew with absolute certainty that he could not adhere to them himself. Nor would he ever strive to, or advocate such a goal for others, given the life he and they had lived since their youth. Rather, he stood with the rabbis who centuries earlier had maintained that a person’s way to God would be lit by those few mitzvot (religious deeds) he did fulfill. It was to this limited idea, to this more realistic goal, with its ever evolving content, that he pointed as the key to a fulfilling and continuing Jewish life for himself and the Jewish people.25
If he could demand kosher food for Jewish patients at Mount Sinai Hospital, and follow this pleading by lunching on a ham sandwich, it was not out of hypocrisy, but with a realization of the importance of the one and the shortcomings of the other.26 “The Jewish people became a people by virtue of a book both divine and human,” a book whose constant study required of its students “the right kavanah, the right intention, the right attention fixed upon the immortal and transcendent.” This, Ludwig had recently maintained in a Congress Weekly article, was “the highest function of such a creature as man in such a world as the present.” However much or little its instructions were followed, “even remote and alienated Jews … do not sit long at a single table before in some sense they begin to discuss Torah, to ‘speak’ Torah, to immerse themselves in some aspect of the character and destiny of Israel by adducing Torah, remembering Torah, commenting on Torah.”27 Thus, alone, could Jews find some direction, give some form to their lives. As he had written in The American Jew, this Torah
has been the instrumentality of preserving the Jewish people across the ages. It has been the form which has resisted the onslaughts of the ages. It has been the indestructible vessel which has carried the Jewish people through the raging fires of its destiny. And it was able to fulfill this function because it set apart the form of Jewish life from other forms of life, precisely as the form of any culture or the form of a work of art set these off from other cultures and from other works of art. Formlessness is easily destroyed. It is form that endures. This is a common and universal experience. Form is hard; formlessness is brittle. So when Jews totally abandon the forms of Jewish life they are vulnerable by every gust and thrust of the world without; they are at the mercy of every vagrant whim and impulse. The end, as all men know, is destruction and degradation, loss and humiliation.28
It was in this sense of a Torah of combined divine and human origin, of the encounter at Sinai which thereafter gave form and meaning to the Jewish people, that he had been speaking in his book, his articles, and his lectures over the last years. For Spiro, who had “defensively mis-read” The American Jew, he drew the clear distinction between himself and the traditionalists with whom he had been, and would continue to be, erroneously identified. “I never use the word Orthodox normatively, only descriptively; I deny the authority of the Shulcan aruch; I demand new halachoth [laws] based upon new interpretations according to the principles of hermeneutics established by the sages. I want and hope for an organic development within Israel (the people and the State) of a Judaism for us and our children. What I negate is the false and non-organic changes produced since the pseudo-emancipation by sociological pressures and demonstrably false teachings.”29
Change was needed, as much for the continuing development of the Jewish people as for its resistance to the dissolution threatening it. Such change had always been central to the people’s way of being in the world, a way growing from “within outward,”30 not from the imposition of some passing and alien conformity upon a set of eternal truths. Without these permanent truths of morality and encounter with the divine in history, there could be no Jewish people. Without their affirmation in some demonstrable way of the traditions spawned by them over the centuries, all that the Jews had endured “for the sake of Heaven” would lose its meaning. And without some sense of the universality of this authored morality and its binding quality upon all peoples, the entire human experience would rightly devolve into a mere empty thrashing about in a cold and dark and uncaring universe. To this crushing vision of a meaningless human enterprise, its effects manifested in recent history with such devastating force, he could give neither credence nor quarter of any sort. So if there was to be a Jewish people, it would be so only under the banner of a living Torah, born of the Sinai experience, molded by human experience, but shaped always within the limits and by the guidelines entrusted to mankind by the eternal source from which its teachings derived. As he asked Spiro that February,
What meaning, what pertinence have all these discussions and all these goings on unless the Torah is a Torah M’Sinai [from Sinai]? What are we babbling for if the meeting of God and Israel within history is a delusion? What are we living for and dying for and what did our martyrs die for if the nihilists are right? If man (as Henry Mencken used to say) is only an excema on a third-rate planet’s crust, how do you account for man, for language, music, mathematics, for moral good and evil, for the continuous miracle of Israel’s death and re-birth—for history. Either—Or! None of our words and none of our strivings have any meaning and we are fools and idiots to indulge in them if God (not the God of the philosophers but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) is not the living God who operates within history and whom we shall grasp by some act of cognition somewhere somehow, who will not let the soul fall a blinded and befooled—befooled thing. The essence not only of Judaism but of humanity—the faith without which man cannot remain human, is in that single sentence of Job: v’ani yadathi goali chai. Either—Or. It is that or pagan Epicureanism plus Hitler (if you feel like it) plus Stalin (if you feel like it) plus the death of all values, since values can be validated ultimately only through God’s will.31
“Too much speaking, far, far too much,” he noted in his diary on March 1. He needed the tranquility that still eluded him. He needed the time to pursue other things which neither financial exigencies—“Damn! I so loathe having to watch spending. Always have”—nor the demands upon his energies for his people’s sake would allow. “This cannot be futile,” he pondered after returning from yet one more synagogue appearance. “I wish it left me with a more fulfilled feeling. Why doesn’t it? Very intricate. But I am grateful to God for using me thus. But why did He give me these other hankerings,” among them an interest in writing “that long hard book Literature in the 20th Century”? It was certain that, “at the present rate of activity, I’ll simply not have the time.” Perhaps it was for the best. Who would benefit from a book selling a few thousand copies? Certainly not he who would have to watch his work be “systematically cried down by American criticism,” grown empty with the passing of its best voices, as with most of the literary world he had come to value throughout a lifetime. Though André Gide, now dead at eighty-one, “was, of course, not really my man interiorly,” Ludwig mourned his passing. “I suppose one dislikes a derangement in one’s steady intellectual landscape. Thence the sense of loss which I experience. A few more casualties and there will be nothing left in the way of reading to which I can look forward. Yes, that’s it. The great are falling silent. So the silence increases.” Perhaps it was best to take his place among them. On this day, the anniversary of his father’s birth and death, he would recite the Kaddish, the traditional prayer in praise of God’s greatness and dominion, and turn his thoughts elsewhere.32
“The thing goes on,” Ludwig noted in frustration on March 20. “Therefore no writing. Therefore no interior life.” He had lost track of the number of lectures he had given that month, including three in Miami, one from the pulpit of New York’s Community Church the previous Sunday, and another scheduled for the Keren Kayemeth (a Zionist group) that night—and all because he needed the money at a time in his life when, if he “had the station in American letters to which I am entitled,” he could simply teach his classes and “write what I had a mind to write and sell that and—call it a day.” But the “brutal facts” were other than this, “and April threatens to be as heavy.”33 What time and energy he had left were already being sought by JPS for a translation of Max Brod’s Unambo.34 Ludwig wanted to say no, hoping to do his own creative work, but the offer of a thousand dollars was difficult to dismiss. A month later he would accept.35
The promising note in all this was an invitation to lecture in South Africa that August and September, a trip that had been postponed several times in the past. In place of his usual fees, he had requested that the Zionist Federation there pay his and Louise’s passage to Paris for a week and to Israel for three, before arriving in South Africa. The federation seemed amenable, and Ludwig had written with further detailed terms. Yet, “all the while I don’t believe in it because I don’t feel equal to it.” Though his health was still unchanged, he felt “tired—tired to the marrow, tired to the depth of the soul … more introverted than ever.” Perhaps to return to Paris and Israel at the expense of six weeks of exhausting lecturing, only to rush back to Brandeis to begin another year of teaching, was too great a cost. Besides, “I want to be at least invited and, if necessary financed … by the [Jewish] Agency or the [Hebrew] University.” It was unconscionable that “every minor bureaucrat of the Z.O.A.” was being sent, expenses paid, while he and others of his stature were not. “Jews ought to know better.” If such outrageous behavior continued, if the “low-grade politicians (Zionist and philanthropic)” and the “lay gedolim [big shots]” did not finally realize what was owed, then one day he would address this issue privately, “for the instruction of Jews in times to come, that they let their true leaders languish and elevate to power a scoundrel like Silver and loud nonentities … like I. Goldstein.” He wasn’t bitter, he maintained. So many Jews held him in high regard. “But it is surely not wrong to have a decent regard for one’s moral dignity and also, at my age, for the limitations of strength.”36
What, then, might he wish to write if conditions permitted? “Something very simple—a sort of stock-taking—with these headings: What do I (man, a man, der Mensch) need to know? What do I (ein Mensch … der Mensch) need to have?” To the first he would answer, not the latest technological creations, as “admirable [and] excellent as they are,” but only those “things, values, results which make life meaningful and precious,” around which God is central. “I need to know that God is and is mindful of man and is the vindicator of my values. Otherwise life is without meaning or value.” To the second question, what possessions one required, Ludwig listed “Food, shelter, clothing, a few symbolical objects to make the shelter mine, primarily books.” He had enjoyed the luxuries that had come into his life, but the cost had been high. “Perhaps [I] should have long ago settled in a cheap Southern village and merely written, merely created and lived on what that would bring in, however little at times and if, sometimes, it was too little, tried to have a vegetable garden and raised a few chickens.” Nor did he need the state. “The law of God suffices.” Whenever the state came calling, “it has forced me to violate my conscience and the law of God and the teaching of religion.” He realized that others had championed a stateless world, but they had done so based upon the wrong assumptions. He had not. “Ah yes, that would be a fine essay to write.”37
By mid-April, Ludwig was feeling “a general malaise” which he hoped Passover among the Spiros in Burlington, Vermont, might cure. “Various circumstances” had brought it—Jim’s being stopped for speeding, Max Lerner’s organizing of a lecture series to memorialize the Jewish socialist Harold Laskie, boredom (“the great enemy at my age”), and, most disheartening, news from Marie Syrkin that her freshman humanities class had protested the contents of her course for having “too much Jewishness.” Here were students who had come to Brandeis “because the absence of anti-Jewish tension on this campus enables them to pretend to themselves that they are undifferentiated Americans.… Betrayal, self-betrayal,” he added with sadness. “If it led to security, one might commiserate the poor, frightened creatures. It doesn’t. Not even that.”38
Passover with the Spiros brought the relief he had sought, though not the rest. Deeply committed to the Jewish world, the two young men of the family had won more of his time than he had planned to allowed them. Most troubling was Spiro’s youngest son, Herzl, Ludwig’s own godchild, only sixteen but already a national figure in the Zionist youth organization, Young Judea. In the course of an evening’s conversation, he talked on about the “underprivileged” of America. The concern was not without merit, Ludwig granted, but was it proper for Jews, given their longstanding ill-treatment by the Gentiles, to dissipate themselves over such issues in a world where no one else ever seemed concerned for the Jews’ well-being? To Ludwig, Herzl Spiro stood as a symbol of all those now-dead young Jewish socialists of Europe whose search for justice was without reciprocation by those among whom or for whom they had struggled. He could not help thinking such concerns were misplaced, or, at best, premature.
Beyond the child I saw suddenly all the generous-hearted Jewish youths who had worn out their hearts—from even the young Marx and Lasalle on through all the Jewish socialist leaders in Europe, on to Gustav Landauer etc. etc., over this very thing—this very thing—this economic inequality (which is NOT only economic) through the decades and decades. And what did they get in return: Auschwitz. That is no exaggeration, no overstatement. For, if Christendom or, if one likes, the Western Democracies had not looked determinedly the other way in the early days of Hitler, if they had spontaneously moved to crush him in November 1938—there would have been no Auschwitz. I said this. I implored the child to see that this “social conscience” business of his was an escape and an avoidance of his one and only responsibility—his responsibility toward the authentic survival of the Jewish people. Some day, some day, when Christendom will have come to its senses … it may be possible to look into the matter of social cooperation again.39
An invitation to speak at the “religious embassy week” of the University of Maine on May 1 tested Ludwig’s remaining capacity for interaction of any kind outside the Jewish world. Eighteen hundred were gathered to hear him, clergy and laymen, “all evidently stirred and troubled and wide-eyed over my ‘message,’” though he spoke of only what he had so often in the past—“that the history of man in recent decades proves overwhelmingly that to try to hear God’s voice and obey His laws and not the laws of unredeemed man, is the one practical problem before homo supposedly sapiens. If he doesn’t do that … he’s damned.” There should have been nothing surprising in his talk, but so many were astonished by his forthright analysis bordering on condemnation, particularly the Catholic priests who appeared amazed “to hear a Jew say that.” As he had done on earlier occasions, he quoted Jesus’ Jewish statements found in the Gospel (this time using Matthew 20), giving their Hebrew translation, and leaving “the priests astonished and half incredulous.” Ludwig was himself half surprised. “More learned than the Protestant … ministers [who] were moved and said I had helped them in the exercise of their ministry,” these priests “should have been able to tell themselves all I said.”40
Ludwig had found it all somewhat amusing in a cynically predictable way, a sign that his patience with the niceties of intergroup discourse was running thin at this time in his life. Writing to Louise, who had returned to Des Moines to visit again with her seriously ailing aunt, Ludwig told her how he had been “scrupulously polite and even conciliatory, but did not spare Christendom’s relation to the will of God during recent decades.” He realized how it must have sounded to those whom he shocked (and possibly offended), but he had grown “so indifferent at heart” even if he wished he hadn’t. “Calloused over completely. Not—as I tell you—a nice person at all.” Still, he had spoken well and with the desired effect. “All listened to me and, of course, the place hummed.” Whatever need he had for meaningful human contact would have to be fulfilled in other ways. As always, it would come from the woman in his life. “Miss you dreadfully and love you so much,” he ended his letter to Louise. “That, evidently, is my one bond to humanity.”41
There were, of course, other, though weaker, bonds, largely through memories and his continuing concern for literature. The receipt of Thomas Mann’s latest novel, which, though flawed and with “a few inner contradictions intellectually” and yet still “dawn fresh,” had left him wondering what he would do once Mann stopped writing. “How sovereign that imagination,” Ludwig thought with wonderment. “What an artist. What an artist … [and] they expect me to go on about [a] Scott Fitzgerald revival. How?” he asked, though he was unwilling to dismiss him out-of-hand. He had, after all, found some of Hemingway palatable a few years earlier. “Yes I will re-read some S.F. and try to be fair.”42
The experience only deepened his conviction. Rereading The Great Gatsby and much of Tender Is the Night, he found Fitzgerald “a pleasant, pitiful, little talent—an adolescent yearner after bigger and better drunken parties, often ending his paragraphs with a nostalgic melodious twist—nostalgia after wealth, more champagne, mere glitter, the Ritz, the Waldorf.” Worse still, “the contemporary American young seem to identify themselves with this—this.” If only they could have seen how the “bisque figurines” of Scott and Zelda, whom he first met at a Broadway opening in 1921, had ended their days together in “the horror of moral deliquescence into which both had fallen at Antibes,” where he saw them again many years later. They had drowned their unhappiness as Lewis and many others had, “hopeless devotees of the cheapest form of forgetfulness … incapable of meditation, vigilance, development from within—from ever deeper sources of being.” How could such shallowness produce “even minor masters”? For all their shortcomings, even those in France “struggling only on the bitter road of existentialism” were serious artists and “self-sustaining personalities.”
What was it about America that destroys? he asked, wishing not to condemn it “as others do who have suffered far less than I.” “We are free, prosperous, essentially decent … and S.F. had everything in his favor.” Why did he have so strong an attraction for the mire? “Nostalgie de la boue? Whence? Why?” And why this attraction among the young in America where Fitzgerald is “revived and the rage,” while only in Europe were Ludwig’s older books continuing to be published, most recently For Ever Wilt Thou Love in Norwegian and Crump in Danish? He had no solid answers, only annoyance, though he was not without his own link to the “boue” afflicting the generations to which he, too, was linked, past and future. Aware of the “feigned hopefulness” with which he carried himself, he attributed this “horrible state of being” to “unproductiveness and poverty. I have no time to meditate or write because I lecture, lecture, lecture … and yet have no money.” Feeling “fed up, irritable, bored, icy within,” he chose to look no further for the moment.43
The beauty of spring alone began to heal the malaise into which he had sunk. “I am impelled to pronounce the appropriate beracha [blessing],” Ludwig wrote amid the budding of ornamental and fruit trees dotting the Brandeis campus. “The beauty is healing and consoling [and] I need all the healing and consoling I can get. I’m jangled and frightfully tired—innerlich [spiritually], moralement [morally].” Where, he wondered, had he found the “animation” still to teach and to lecture and to appear on television for Brandeis?44
On May 30, Ludwig recorded the arrival of another birthday with a note of acceptance for the life from which this continuing energy still emerged. “No change in fate or feeling which, at this time, at this period, is good—altogether good,” though, as he reminded himself, “the ineradicable irks and disappointments the same too.” He was determined to “learn even a little better to live with them, seeing that I cannot wholly expel them nor repress [them], which would be bad, nor deny them”45—among them, the report in the previous day’s Justice, “Anti-Semitism Breaks Out in Boston Area,”46 and his own need for a creative outlet that would have to remain on hold while the Brod translation (“No stylist. Good second-rater”) was being worked on.47 As consolation, at least, he would be going south to Atlanta and New Orleans for the university. “Not bad as a veil … between me and my unfulfilled purposes.… One functions in that station to which God has called one,” he concluded on his sixty-ninth birthday, before promising himself that “I will, I must, later this summer try to write.… Meanwhile I hope very much that the magazine Judaism, which has been announced by Bob Gordis, who asked me to be contributing editor, will really come into being. There are such important things to be said.”
In particular, Ludwig felt the need to respond to Blau’s “furious review” of The American Jew and its claim that he, along with Buber, Fackenheim, and Herberg, represented the West’s “loss of nerve” in its Jewish incarnation. Such “slogans” could not pass without a response, for beneath their use lay their users’ “metaphysical hopelessness,” their vision of a “bleak and empty universe, their misère sans Dieu [misery without God],” freely chosen by them. This choice was beyond Ludwig’s understanding. “To glory in hopelessness, degradation, annihilation,” was this not the true loss? “A profound and searching piece is here to be written on the defeatism (moral and spiritual) which set in at a certain historic moment.… I can understand a man being a materialist nihilist in tears. But brashly, triumphantly, to dedicate himself and all humanity to the dust?… That essay (and others) needs to be written.”48
But they would have to wait, as spring brought with it Ludwig’s trip homeward, back to the South of his youth, offering him yet another opportunity to reflect and comment on the world about him, what was lost, what had been retained. “My old affection for the South—its climate, vegetation, aspect, atmosphere, ways—made this agreeable,” he wrote upon his return in mid-June. So, too, did those people of surprising “intelligence and charm” he had met, and the many others who, without ever having seen Brandeis, were “put[ting] heart and effort into a project of purely ideal, quite non-utilitarian character.” It was such a startlingly refreshing contrast to the “conspicuous evils of the world,” and while “almost no one notices, yet it, too, is part of the picture of man.”49
On the day before summer began, he and Louise returned to the North Shore seaside resort of Magnolia, Massachusetts, where they had spent some time the previous year, settling into “a quite good pension in a mansion of, say 1900, within direct view of the sea.” Ludwig found the large room with a view of the water preferable to the more expensive accommodations they had occupied in a big hotel on their last visit. Though the beach was “not first-rate,” he enjoyed the surf, “the only contact with nature I relish,” giving him “a great elemental feeling in addition to the sense of physical invigoration.” Ludwig and Louise were both nursing heavy colds when they arrived, and should have delayed their departure, he noted later, but the maid was already gone, the rugs had been sent to the cleaners, and the university dining hall had been closed until fall. Their decision to travel against doctor’s orders had proven curative. On the third day he had begun dictating the Brod translation to Louise (they had dearly missed the collaborative efforts of the Goethe volumes), and working from 10:00 A.M. until 1:30 P.M. over a twenty-four-day period, he had completed the work, immediately sending it off to Roger Straus, who was co-publishing with JPS.50 Grayzel, having received a copy, wrote Ludwig in wonderment at the speed with which the book had been translated. “You must have worked hard at it and steadily,” he complimented Ludwig, not realizing that so many years in the business had helped him to perfect his craft.51
Ludwig, in fact, disliked much of what he was translating (“quite graceless and pretentious in heavy chunks”), though he could find parts to credit. On the whole, he thought it “a solid and thoughtful delineation of the Jewish-Arabic war, of the life of the yishuv, our community, during that war, as well as of landscape, atmosphere, character.” Yet the writing was stilted and worse, “a second-rate application of the German literary tradition.” Moreover, that it was “not written in Hebrew” seemed “a tragic circumstance … [for] the first important novel out of Israel.” In writing to Straus and Grayzel, Ludwig would not be quite as forthright in his criticism as he had been in his diary, believing, for political reasons, that it was important to publish the book at “this moment of various speculations” concerning the future of the State. So precarious did Israel seem that even the assassination of an Arab leader, Abdullah of Jordan, drew concern for the “ill circumstance” that might befall it.52 To his publishers, Ludwig merely spoke of having “tried to mitigate somewhat” the manuscript’s faults, adding qualified praise for showing “sporadically real power and also here and there depth. It is, at least unlike (forgive me) most contemporary American fictions, the work of an adult of 1951, not of an adolescent of 1931.”53
While in Magnolia, Aaron Gurwitsch (professor of philosophy at Brandeis) and his wife stayed at the Lewisohns’ hotel. “A powerful and just, though not uneccentric mind,” Ludwig noted in his diary. Their many talks each day solidified their friendship, offering Ludwig the intellectual soul mate he could not find among the others at Brandeis whose intelligence he respected but whose ideas he could not consent to. Gurwitsch was “the only one in our faculty group with which I can communicate directly and without the interposition of several cultural and historic veils and the distortions of certain current—in the broader sense—assumptions of what, as I’m fond of saying in jest, just plainly isn’t so. Like everything in Max Lerner’s mind, for instance.” Ludwig now felt more isolated than ever at Brandeis, even from his closest friends, the few like Marie Syrkin “who can not quite yet get rid of that odd emotional involvement with the socialist utopian dream, fairly vehement (because troubled and shaken) once or twice.”
For those moments away from wife, friends, and translation, Ludwig had brought a great stack of reading, some old favorites, others new works in fields of interest—history, linguistics, social thought, and religion. Kafka’s Trial proved particularly upsetting—“almost unbearable statements of the predicament of man, of modern man, of man in a peculiarly evil age—statements which stab with their trivial sordidness in which are sheathed tragic horrors.” To compensate, he read Gabriel Marcel and Nicholas Berdyayev, the one a Catholic theologian, “intensely thought and felt,” the other “a great spirit and a great thinker crippled by the inner compulsion of surveying the universe as illustration [of] Christian Trinitarianism.” Buber’s Paths in Utopia, with its “Revisionist Socialism,” was well intended, an attempt “to whitewash socialism from the filth of sovietism—to show that that was an aberration and why,” but Ludwig came away wondering why Buber had not gone deeper into the cause of this aberration, “to the point of recognizing that all forms of socialism are vitiated by two radical errors: failure to recognize the priority of the spirit, [and] failure to recognize those human traits which intensify sin with ever added concentration of power.” At best, the state was “a necessary evil, to be minimized and curbed by as complete a separation of State and Society as can be achieved.” As an example of the proper role of the state, Ludwig spoke of the collection of taxes for the purpose of providing its citizenry with education, “but it should have no control of the kind and content of education. There should be as many kinds of schools as there are Weltanschaungen [worldviews] within society.”
Most “profitable” among the books brought along was a recent study of Western literary history, complete with copious bibliographies. Ludwig was anxious to use these in building the Brandeis library. More importantly, he was already planning the graduate courses in literature he was likely to teach during the 1952–53 academic year, courses on genre and theory, for which Warren’s The Study of Literature offered a full survey of all schools and issues.54 He would, however, have to supplement even this fine work with a discussion of the Jew in Western literature, about which there had been “99–9/10% negation” in treatments of the subject. Even when included, as in Henry James’s discussion of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, her “noble and visionary insight” was spoken of “as an aberration both trivial and sordid,” an attitude repeated too often. “A paper might some day be written for Judaism,” he mused during his early-summer retreat.55
A concert in Ipswich at the now-abandoned Crane mansion, a “fine replica of a rococo chateau,” left Ludwig thinking not only of how little music he had time to listen to these past years (it having been so central a part of his life with Thelma), but also of how his own tastes had changed, away from the lyricism of Mozart to the “manly, precise and deeply satisfactory” work of Bach. So, too, in literature, he thought. “In brief: the lyrist had better avoid images, figures of speech. Doubtless an overstatement,” he reflected self-critically, but a “line of thought and research” worth pursuing.56 Certainly, it had proven a failure in Henri Mondor’s writing of a biography of Stéphane Mallarmé which he was “now plowing [his] way through,” all eight hundred pages of it. “The stuff is there—all the letters and documents. But what an ass this Mondor is with his avuncular coyness and reeking sentimentality!”57
More annoying still was his being dragged back into public debate against a onetime friend and former ally of Zionism. Dorothy Thompson had published a letter in the New York Times during the last days of Ludwig’s rest that simply could not go unanswered. Returning from the Middle East and appalled at the lack of knowledge among Americans about the region and the U.S. government’s actions there, she had taken the initiative to establish the American Friends of the Middle East, a group whose stated purpose was “to see to it that the problems and achievements of other Middle Eastern states [than Israel] are not totally ignored.” What “backwardness” existed among the Arab states, she claimed, was the result of centuries of Ottoman and European domination, now exacerbated by the presence of a more progressive Israeli state, imposed by European Jews and held up as a derisive measure of comparison, though its achievements had come because of a massive capital infusion from Jews and others from abroad in the face of continuing Arab opposition, and despite the further disabling of all those Palestinians forced to flee during the recent war.58
Ludwig had no patience with such misrepresentation, particularly from someone who until recently had been fully aware and supportive of the Zionists and their attempt to create a refuge from age-old anti-Semitism, of which Nazism, against which Thompson had fought, was only the latest manifestation. Ludwig wrote how he had been pleased in 1944 to publish, in the New Palestine, “a handsome Christian affirmation of Zionist principles and aspirations by Miss Thompson.” Now that the war against Germany and its allies was won and the goal of a Jewish state for the Holocaust’s remnant was accomplished, she was attacking what she had for so many years herself advocated. He suggested that she review the events that had led to the Palestinians’ flight (much of it at their own leaders’ behest, with promises of quick return and the looting of Jewish property following conquest). He acknowledged that much capital had come from Jews and others outside of Israel, but not for reasons given by her. Rather, the ingathering of Jews from Europe nearly impoverished world Jewry, which had as well to assist in the creation of a viable economy and society within the new state. “Did she expect the Jews of the world, after Majdanek and Auschwitz, not to contribute of their material goods and their moral influence to the redemption of their remnants? What opinion,” he asked pointedly, “would she or any other Christian have had of them had they not done so?” Thompson’s reproach attacked the very heart of this “singular moral effort.” Could it be, Ludwig asked, that her American Friends of the Middle East was not all that neutral in its assessment, not all that friendly to all of the Middle East, and “really not one of the many melancholy by-products of an emotional hostility, recently acquired, against the Jewish people and the State of Israel”?59
“Going home on August 2,” Ludwig noted in his diary the following day, July 30. “A very good vacation … [but] always a pleasure to go home, of course.” More than enough work awaited his arrival, but he was leaving refreshed, renewed, and with resolute “determin[ation] to meditate and pray more this fall and winter.” He would find the peaceful inactivity he needed or carve it out of his too busy life. Even the quiet of a good book and the creative act of writing, however personal the ideas put forth, were too filled with the clatter of the outside world. He wanted, instead, to be alone with his thoughts, awaiting the incursion of the spiritual buried beneath the rush of each day. “Too much reading, even the best, deadens the interior life; swathes it, persuades it from activity and yet falsely soothes the conscience, the mind being, apparently, so worthily employed. The article or two to be written for Judaism will compel close reflection. But even that isn’t it. Meditation and prayer to be fruitful must have no active goal. We must sink into the utterly unuseful in any mortal sense to attain even a moment of inner purity. We must pray to achieve that. Such is the meaning of kavanah.”60
It was “really delightful to be home again,” Ludwig recorded a week after settling back into their Brandeis apartment. Without students, the campus was nearly silent and park-like, particularly in the evening when he and Louise sat on the lawn opposite the library and looked off into “a dim half moon,” the “chug of a train” heard from somewhere off in the distance. The coming academic year promised to be more than amply engaging as the campus, “expanding rather wildly,” would welcome its third new class and a host of new scholars, so many of whom were already persons of note in their fields—among them Nahum Glatzer (whom Ludwig was responsible for attracting) in Judaica, and Abraham Maslow in psychology. “If we keep up this standard of faculty quality we are bound to make our mark,” sufficiently so to be able to offer Sachar the vote of confidence he had now come to seek from him.61
There would be, as well, a weekly lecture series of international scope on “Religion and Modern Man,” with Ludwig chairing sessions presenting Jacques Maritain, Paul Tillich, Buber, and others beginning in mid-October. In his own address for the series, “Religion and Literature,” he hoped “to show that literature is religious … in its own nature [as] it seeks to grasp and express the ineffable.” It was out of the experience of this ineffableness that literature was born, a combination of “the self plus language plus that third force which the ancients and Milton called the Muse,” an admission to which “in quite modern times—not universally—there has been a resistance.” Had he not in his own way resisted as well, misidentifying this force in the past with the many women in his life?
With three courses to teach—Shakespeare, Theory of Literature, and Faust, to which would be added the guidance of honors papers62—essays, lectures, and departmental and university-wide administrative responsibilities, there would be little or no time “to push out any attempt at creative, imaginative work.” But suddenly he didn’t care, realizing that perhaps he was “half-consciously predetermin[ing]” this lack of creative time; nor did he really care even “to inquire.” Who would read his creative output anyway? “There would be silence,” he felt certain. He had other audiences, readers of letters to the Times (“a filthy anti-Israel letter” to which he wrote “with studious moderation a reply … all things considered, my duty”) and students, undergraduate and adult, who allowed him to satisfy his “scholarly interests and, indeed, passions, and this liking for teaching … being good at it.”63
Before all of this was to begin again, Ludwig had one final summer obligation to fulfill, his annual commitment to lecture at several B’nai B’rith institutes. This year’s trip would take him back to the South once again, with stops in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Arkansas.64 He was excited, more so than in previous years, looking forward to the land he once more felt close to after a decades-long absence. “The South! Felt the old magic again,” he wrote upon returning home to Brandeis, “the same old melancholy in the very sunshine” which, he was more convinced than ever, “the younger Southern writers from Faulkner up and down have not caught,” neither its “peculiar magic, [nor] the inner music.”
With Grayzel, he had left by train on August 18, stopping in Washington to pick up several staff members of the Anti-Defamation League, “various good men of exemplary ignorance and historical backwardness.” Wherever they spoke, their audiences sat “with great intentness,” many declaring it to have been “an unforgettable experience.” In Mississippi he was honored with a dinner party “as a Southerner and American writer, which touched me very much.” Some knew “a good many of my books,” but so many others lacked even the most basic Jewish education. How could it be expected, as the Israelis argued, that these people should emigrate immediately? “These people must first be brought to Sinai; they are not even yet a dor ha-midbar [a generation of the desert]. At least, today, it can be said that many desire to go to the foot of the mountain and hear the word.”
It was an experience he had had before, in other parts of America, with reactions often as heartening. These were his people whom he was bringing closer to their heritage and their God, people from large communities and small hamlets, “lost groups of a few families,” each coming “with a sincere, Oh, deeply sincere yearning to be somehow, for their own and their children’s sake, re-allied to their Judaism.” They had come to him “with a great inner need … exposed to nothing but the mechanistic fallacies of their world—to the spiritual horrors of this outwardly beautiful civilization.” Home once again, remembering the faces of those whose lives he had touched, he thought, “What more, for the day, hour, year, could we ask?”65