Author: Yitzchak Schwartz

“A Reform Which Has Stifled All Other Reforms:” Islam in the Nineteenth Century American Black Press

by guest contributor Daniel Joslyn

In recent years, a number of political movements have sought to forge a connection between black Americans and Middle-Eastern Arabs, particularly in relation to the oppression of the Palestinian people in Israel and Palestine and the oppression of African-Americans in the United States. A small body of scholarly literature has recently developed which links African-Americans and Arabs in the nineteenth century. Few scholars, however, have noted the strong currents of anti-Islamic thinking in nineteenth-century African-American public discourse. African historian Teshale Tibebu has even gone so far as to attribute “Islamophobia” to nineteenth-century African-American Protestants. When seeking to find common ground among historically oppressed groups today, many scholars and activists see such groups as being naturally aligned by virtue of their status as “others” to the West. The treatment of Islam in nineteenth-century African-American writing should lead us to question that assumption. It highlights the constructed nature of these alliances. More importantly, it reminds us that oppressed communities have often identified with identities other than their oppression.

Negative views of Islam can first be seen in some of the first major African-American radical newspapers. A September 8, 1838 article in the Colored American (a major African-American newspaper founded by abolitionists Philip Bell, Samuel Cornish and Charles Ray), entitled “Why always harping at the Church?,” offers a glimpse at attitudes towards Muslims and Islam during this period. In the article, the editors rhetorically ask why abolitionists attacked pro-slavery churches. They did so, they explained, because no true Christian would ever hold slaves: “Slavery is A GREAT SIN, A NATIONAL DISGRACE to any people or government who upholds it. This is acknowledged by all. If it is a sin and a shame for a Turk to hold his fellow in bondage, it is a hundred fold more sinful for a Christian minister.” According to these authors, the system of slavery in the United States was not morally worse than that in the Ottoman Empire because of any difference in how the enslaved were treated (though such a difference did exist). It was worse because of the moral condition of the country: less was to be expected of an empire so far from God as the Ottomans’. But for the United States, which had found and espoused the “true” religion of Christianity, to hold people in bondage was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.

After the Civil War, distaste for Muslims and Islam became a more common trope in the African-American press, reflecting emerging ideas about race and empire among both black and white thinkers. One paper that espoused such notions of Islam was the Christian Recorder, which from 1848 served as the organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the second-largest black denomination at that time. By the Civil War, the paper was, in the words of historian Mitch Kachun, “a vital cornerstone of the denomination, the black press, and widespread African American communities.” After the war, members of the African-American community relied on the newspaper for news, correspondence, and debates, as well as in helping people find their newly-freed family members.

Writers in the Christian Recorder generally disparaged Islam and “Mohametans.” An 1878 article titled “Can Turkey Be Reformed?,” for example, argued that the Turkish people could never successfully achieve westernizing reforms. Published in the October 19 edition of the paper, this article was excerpted from an article in the Penn Monthly, a respectable periodical which devoted itself to “Literature, Art, Science and Politics.” The author compares the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms to a (pacifist) Quaker attempting to reform an army. The author declares that “to reform an institution or a system of government means to bring it into a closer conformity with its own normative idea”—to distill a system to its essence. However, the Ottoman reforms—in which the government sought to allow Christians equal rights with Muslims and to establish non-sectarian schools—represented “the introduction of principles utterly alien to its very normative idea.” Islam, the author argued, was inherently un-Christian and uncivilized.

Even articles in the Recorder that were ostensibly complimentary toward Muslims reflected the notion that Islam was an inferior religion. In an article titled “Remarkable Negro Muslims,” published on December 16, 1875, the unnamed author briefly describes various well-known black Muslims, and discusses the achievements of Sheikh Omaru Al Hajj, an educated Muslim leader from modern-day Mali. Describing his conquests and conversions of surrounding tribes, the author goes on to note that “To the Mohammedans of Negro land… the struggle for the ascendancy of Islam is… a struggle between light and darkness, between knowledge and ignorance, between good and evil.” This praise of Islam is, however, tempered with criticism. While their intentions are good, the article goes on to qualify, these African Muslims do not realize that “their faith makes them utterly indifferent to the sufferings of any who stand in the way of the dissemination of the truth, and patient of any evils they may have to endure in order to insure the triumph of their cause.” The article thus depicts these Muslims as being made into zealots by their faith, as lesser people in need of Christianity.

Captain Edward Wilmot Blyden was a rare proponent of a more positive view of Islam in the nineteenth century black American press.

Characteristically brazen, Edward Wilmot Blyden, a scholar, emigrationist, and early pan-Africanist, is the only defender of Islam I have been able to find in the major nineteenth-century black presses of America. Even he, however, saw African Islam as merely paving the way for the inevitable conversion of Africa to Christianity. Before becoming a renowned scholar, professor of Arabic and one of the major designers of the University of Liberia’s curriculum, Blyden first came to Liberia as part of the over four hundred African-American missionaries to Africa in the nineteenth century. Like other black intellectuals at the time, Blyden, as Tibebu points out, felt a “black man’s burden” to “civilize” Africa. In 1878, Blyden lamented that “men whose character, position and literary ability make them the guide of thousands” kept attacking Muslims and Islam. He argued that Protestant writers’ contention that Islam was “a reform which has stifled all other reforms” was mere prejudice. Rather, he maintained, the prejudice of white missionaries towards African peoples was the reason Christianity had not yet taken over all of Africa. The “Arab Missionary,” Blyden wrote, “often of the very complexion of his hearer,” did not have the same troubles getting used to Africans. Arabs, according to Blyden, held no prejudice against color. The notion of Arabs as “color-blind” was another nineteenth-century trope in both white and black literature, which does not quite hold up to the historian’s gaze. According to Blyden, American missionaries and African-Americans did not understand that “whatever it may be in other lands, in Africa the work of Islam is preliminary and preparatory.” Out of Arab Islam would soon flower American Protestantism. More so than any other people on the continent, “African Mohammedans” were most “willing to have Christian schools in their towns, to have the Christian Scriptures circulated among them, and to share with Christians the work of reclaiming the pagan.”

This relatively muted support of Islam as a natural precursor to Christianity led many to attack Blyden in the press. For years after publishing this article, Blyden remained a controversial figure—mentioned in the paper over two hundred times—often with the intention of questioning his Christian convictions. In a characteristic January 12, 1888 piece, a Sierra Leonese missionary even wondered, “Has Dr. Blyden Gone Over to Mo[ha]met?” In response, Blyden and his few supporters kept repeating their mantra: they did not hate Christianity, nor had they given up on it. Islam would soon give way to American Protestant advances, for theirs was the purest form of Christianity, which held—in the words of a supporter of Blyden’s writing in the Recorder on December 7, 1887—“that God is no respector [sic] of persons, and that which teaches, ‘That whatsoever ye would, that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.’” Blyden’s God did not care about a person’s race, or the circumstances into which they were born, but about their actions and their beliefs. Even with these many assurances, however, the Christian Recorder and the larger African-American community found Blyden, and his lukewarm support of Islam, hard to swallow.

Historians often overlook the impact that religions have on how people view the world. Historians of African-Americans are no different, as Laurie Maffly-Capp discusses in her most recent book, Setting Down the Sacred Past. Some African-Americans sought to take part in American Protestant empire-building in the late nineteenth century, and many supported the basis of that empire: the superiority of American Protestantism to all other religions. Although they were a part of an oppressed community in the United States, many African-Americans may have identified less with the labels placed upon them by the society in which they lived—“colored,” “black,” “Negro”—than with the labels they chose for themselves, such as “Methodist,” “Christian,” “civilized.” Indeed, many nineteenth-century AME preachers saw their immense suffering, and that of their ancestors, as suggesting that African-Americans were the truest Christians, placed on earth to spread the Gospel and rid the world of heathenism. Such ideologies explain why African-American Christians so often supported both missionary and British colonial ventures into Africa. It was these self- directed identifications, rather than imposed labels such as “oppressed,” that often carried the most weight for and were most decisive for the decision-making of nineteenth-century black Americans. Looking at historical actors’ genuinely held beliefs about ethics, goodness, and the divine can help us as historians better understand and explain why they advocate or have advocated enacting violence on others.

Daniel Joslyn is a PhD student studying History at New York University. He is currently interested in histories of joy and emancipation in the United States, and the Ottoman Empire (though he’s figuring that one out slowly). He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Frederick Douglass’s Poetry, Prophesy and Reform: 1880-1895.” He holds that good history is good philosophy and good philosophy teaches us how to live.

An Anti-Anti-Lachrymose Approach to Jewish History?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

In his seminal 1928 essay, “Ghetto and Emancipation: Shall We Revise the Traditional View?,” historian Salo Wittmayer Baron argues against what he refers to in his later work as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” In the essay, Baron, at the time a young historian (albeit one with three doctorates), argues that his forbears in the Jewish academy, men such as Heinrich Graetz and Leopold Zunz, had overstated the extent of Jewish suffering in the premodern world. Although the Jews had faced certain disadvantages during the medieval and early modern periods, Baron argues, their status reflected that of a corporate community in a society of corporate communities, each with its own disadvantages and privileges. Baron would go on to become the most influential Jewish historian of the twentieth century, and perhaps even in the entire history of the field. His anti-lachrymose approach, codified in his own 18-volume “Social and Religious History of the Jews,” has framed the subsequent near-century of Jewish historical scholarship, leading scholars of Jewish history to focus on coexistence over conflict and on the positive over the negative in the Jewish past and Jewish-dominant-cultural relations.

Historian Salo Baron testifies at Adolph Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem.

Historian Salo Baron testifies at Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.

In the last decade, however, Baron’s model has come into question, as several scholars have argued that Jewish historians have gone too far in trying to paint a non-lachrymose picture of Jewish past. The first scholar I am aware of to explicitly challenge this model is historian David Engel. In his 2010 Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust, Engel tackles the question of why Jewish historians rarely incorporate the Holocaust into their narratives and theories of Jewish history. This remains the case even as it is central to German and European history and has generated the field of Holocaust Studies. Engel traces this puzzling reality to Baron’s anti-lachrymose model, which has resulted in Baron’s intellectual heirs painting the Holocaust as a “black box” in Jewish history, an aberration that they do not allow to color how they see the Jewish past before and after it. Indeed, Engel demonstrates, many Jewish historians are very frank about this and explicitly argue that the Holocaust ought not to color our non-lachrymose view of Jewish history, citing Baron as their inspiration. This is despite the fact that Baron himself urged—as both Engel and Baron’s biographer historian Robert Lieberlis note—that the Holocaust necessitated acknowledgement of the darker sides of the Jewish past.

In a 2012 essay, historian Steven Fine makes a similar argument for a less anti-lachrymose approach to Jewish history, specifically with reference to late antiquity. In the article “The Menorah and the Cross: Historiographical Reflections on a Recent Discovery from Laodicea on the Lycus,” Fine uses a column fragment found among the ruins of this ancient Roman city to question the anti-lachrymosity not just of Jewish history, but of late antique studies as well. The fragment features an etching of the menorah flanked by a palm frond and shofar, a common Jewish visual trope in the Roman Empire. Superimposed over the upper portion of the menorah is a large cross—evidence that at some point, in some reuse of this stone fragment, someone made an effort to Christianize it. Fine argues that this object speaks to a subject carefully avoided by most ancient Jewish and late antique historians, namely the violence that accompanied Christianization during this period. On the Jewish end, Fine traces this approach to Baron’s forceful arguments in his Social and Religious History for the goodwill between Christians and Jews in late antiquity, a perspective Fine sees as reflecting mid-twentieth century efforts to create a place for Jews in the American consensus.

The latest installment in this debate had the unlikely departure point of a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition, Jerusalem: Every People Under Heaven, 1000-1400, on which I worked as an intern in the planning stages, showcases the role of the city in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim visual arts of this period. Praise for the exhibition has been almost universal. In the weeks since it came down on January 8, a debate about its presentation of Jewish history has been ignited in an article published in the Jewish monthly Mosaic Magazine by Wall Street Journal and former New York Times critic-at-large Edward Rothstein. Rothstein is already well known to students of Jewish art history for his critical essay on Jewish museums’ curatorial approaches, published in Mosaic last year. In his essay on the Jerusalem show, Rothstein argues that its curators go too far in painting a picture of the city as a place of harmonious coexistence of Jewish Christian and Muslim cultures, especially with regard to Jews. Rothstein argues that although the exhibition assembles many artifacts that evoke the importance of Jerusalem in Jewish life, Jews were an extremely persecuted group during this period whose experience, especially in Jerusalem, dramatically undermines the exhibition’s narrative of diversity.

This page from a fourteenth-century illuminated Jewish prayerbook features a frame surrounding the plea from the Yom Kippur liturgy, “He who opens the Gates of Mercy” that evokes the gates of heaven and of the heavenly Jerusalem. Inasmuch as this work of art evokes a flourishing Jewish culture and Jewish longing for Jerusalem, however, it reflects the harsh realities of Jewish exile from the holy land.

In two responses to the article solicited by Mosaic, Fine and Robert Irwin, Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement, echo Rothstein’s assessment of the exhibition’s approach to its Jewish subject matter. Drawing from medieval traveler accounts, Irwin notes the obstacles Jews faced in the holy land during the middle ages and the difficulty many even had accessing Jerusalem. Fine traces the approach to art history evinced by Jerusalem to the work of eminent art historian Kurt Weitzmann, a dissident scholar who left Nazi Germany and settled at Princeton. In Fine’s reading, Weitzman’s 1979 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum  The Age of Spirituality was one of the first to depict a harmonious coexistence of differing religious communities during the late antique period in galleries showcasing “The Jewish Realm,” “he Christian Realm,” “The Classical Realm” and so forth. To what degree was Weitzmann’s harmonious understanding of late antiquity, then, influenced by his own reality in postwar New York and his longings for Wiemar Berlin, Fine asks? To Fine, both Weizman and Baron’s visions, as well as those of many of their proteges in the curatorial and Jewish-historical professions respectively, have been deeply colored by their desire to create a more tolerant and multicultural society in their own times.

The debate over the role of lachrymosity in Jewish history should hold a lot of interest for Jewish historians. Although its been several years since Fine and Engel’s critiques of the anti-lachrymose approach, I do not know of any scholars that have followed their lead and worked to construct a post-anti-lachrymose narrative. What would such a narrative look like? Thinking of my own area of American Jewish history, such an approach to things might lead us to ask more questions about how anti-Jewishness has impacted American Jews, their senses of community, religious lives, and senses of themselves. This is a kind of question that is rarely asked in the field—indeed, as organizer and writer Yotam Marom points out in a recent article, it is almost a taboo subject in Jewish public discourse in general. The possibilities for a less, if not anti anti-lachrymose, Jewish history are many. As tempting as it is in politically trying times to use the past as a role model, the actual picture is perhaps much more rich and nuanced, even as it perhaps raises some troubling questions and realities.

Towards an Intellectual History of the Alt-Right?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz
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Richard Spencer, a popular alt-right leader, leads the crowd in performing a Nazi salute at his National Policy Institute’s convention this past November (picture (c) Occupy Democrats)

As the alt-right has gained ascendance in American politics and cultural consciousness over the past 24 months, American intellectuals have been scrambling to try and understand its roots and what makes it tick. The media has even been at odds about how to refer to the movement. Most treatments of the alt-right in the news media have been more descriptive than interpretive, but a few very interesting articles have sought to explain the intellectual history and ideology of the movement.

In particular, two articles that I’ve come across stand out. The first is is piece that was published at the end of November in the Jewish online Tablet Magazine written by Jacob Siegel, a reporter for the Daily Beast. Siegel uses Paul Gottfried, a conservative intellectual and historian, as a window into alt-right ideology. A child of German-Jewish refugees, Gottfried is an ardent opponent of Nazism but argues, in much of his scholarship, that other, truer forms of fascism were actually quite successful and morally justified. “If someone were to ask me what distinguishes the right from the left,” Siegel quotes one of Gottfried’s books, “the difference that comes to mind most readily centers on equality. The left favors that principle, while the right regards it as an unhealthy obsession.” To Gottfried, since what he considers the economic failure of socialism the Western left has taken on equality as its raison d’etre. This orientation stymies actual progress and individual liberties, allowing what he calls the “therapeutic managerial state” to accumulate power unchecked by healthy nationalism. Siegel thus interprets Gottfried as a “Nietzschean American Nationalist.”
Gottfried is an erstwhile mentor of Richard Spencer, the most visible leader of the alt-right movement and head of its National Policy Institute. Gottfried has since parted ways with Spencer over the latter’s white nationalism. However, as Siegel discusses in this and another article, what figures like Gottfried reveal about the alt-right is that it is unique from many older nationalist and racialist movements in its embrace of grand historical theories, academic jargon and a keen interest in history and metahistory. It is also at once highly populist, with many of its leaders urging a white populist revolution, as well as, like he fascist movements figures like Gottfried and Spencer identify as their forbears, highly elitist and skeptical of democracy.
The white nationalist component of the alt-right is the subject of a longer article by historian Timothy Shenk that appeared last August in The Guardian. Interestingly, the Guardian has taken much more of a keen interest in the American alt-right and began reporting on the movement earlier than many American newspapers. Perhaps the threat of ethnic nationalism looms larger in Europe than in the United States. Shenk orients his article around Samuel Francis (d. 1995), a dissident conservative intellectual and journalist ousted from the conservative establishment for his racialist views. Like Gottfried, Francis, according to Shenk,  sees contemporary society as dominated by a managerial class that threatens the values of most Americans such as morality, nationalism and racial integrity. In his magnum opus, Leviathan and Its Enemies, posthumously-published by a team of editors that includes Gottfried, Francis argues that the Leviathan of the managerial state can be successfully bought down by a white national revolution.  If Gottfried advocates for a new right based in fascism and nationalism, Francis and his protege Jared Taylor, the founder of the online journal American Renaissanceare much more explicitly white supremacist. Much of the Alt-Right today in both Siegel and Shenk’s accounts see themselves at once as a Nietzschean, social-Darwinist vanguard as well as defenders of racial integrity in the United States.
What emerges from both of these articles is an understanding of the alt right that would suggest that its particular brand of right-wing thought is as much a product of intellectual trends developed in the name of left causes — Gramscian Marxism, Frankfurt school critiques of mass society, studies of therapeutic culture —  as much as it is of conservatism. Perhaps it should be unsurprising that the alt-right can tout a radical moral relativism to justify exclusionary nationalism; the origins of relativism in early twentieth century German thought were never far from various iterations of social Darwinism. What also emerges from these articles is an understanding of the alt right that places it, and American conservatism, firmly within American intellectual history.
This framing should make historians reevaluate a lot of the historiography on the right and conservatism written over the past decade. Historians who are part of the current wave of scholarship on the right generally focus on the rise of the Reagan Republicans in the mid-to-late twentieth century. They thus approach the movement as a social phenomena, rooted in popular racist backlash over civil rights on the one hand and corporate-backed efforts to restore pre-New Deal economic policies by popularizing free market economics. Most of these works frame themselves as a corrective to Richard Hofstadter’sconsensus” approach to American history. In his 1948 The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter argued that rather than class conflict agreement on central ideas such as individualism, free market and liberal democracy is what most characterized American politics and under-girded American success. Today’s historians of conservatism seek to disrupt the consensus narrative by exposing the prevalence of racism in American history and understanding conservative ideology as a force in American culture. However, they often  ultimately echo Hofstadter in seeing Americans who joined the republican coalition int the late 1960s-70s as dupes mislead by party elites keen on achieving economic gains.
What follows from the ascendancy of alt right is what many conservatives have been saying all along, namely that whether their critics on the left like their ideologies they indeed have very pronounced ideologies that lead them to take the political positions they do. These ideologies  do not exist in a vacuum either. They dialogue with critical theory and they exhibit nuanced continuities with once very popular ideas of social Darwinism and American nationalism.  In other words, our histories of conservatism may still be tilted  far too much towards Hofstadter consensus narrative: Rather than seeing conservatism in material terms as an aberration based on backlash to Civil Rights without an intellectual history, we ought to be much more explicit with regard to the roots of some conservative ideologies in very prominent , if troubling–and less easily brushed off as reactionary or ignorant– American intellectual traditions. These are intellectual traditions that we perhaps would like to believe long-extinct but the sympathy the alt-right has garnered from many corners suggests that they still occupy a trenchant place in the American national consciousness.  To grapple with and understand the alt-right and its ideas, we, as historians and as citizens, have to take a long hard look at their ideas and their context in our shared history.

Religion in Late-Nineteenth Century American Life?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

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Gilded Age America saw an uptick in the construction of spaces like Boston’s Trinity Church. They are often referenced as expressions of their builders’ wealth and status, but what can they tell us about their religious lives and ideas?

Henry Adams (1838-1918) returned home from his Grand Tour in 1860 and came of age in American elite society as the American bourgeoisie underwent the most profound cultural, social and intellectual shifts it had experienced since the Revolution. A prominent historian and writer, and a grandson of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, Adams’ posthumously published autobiography documented his experience of these changes. Among them he counted the disappearance of religion.

Of all the conditions of his youth which afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most. … The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived …. That the most powerful emotion of man, next to the sexual, should disappear, might be a personal defect of his own; but that the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew, should have solved all the problems of the universe so thoroughly as to have quite ceased making itself anxious about past or future  seemed to him the most curious social phenomenon he had to account for in a long life.—Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

The published claims of Adams and his contemporaries have led many historians of the late-nineteenth century to characterize the period as one of religious decline. This narrative is reflected in many foundational histories of the period, which see the Gilded Age as a time of secularization.  In his 1981 cultural history of late-late-nineteenth century antimodernism, historian T.J. Jackson Lears sees religion as taking on a primarily therapeutic rather than spiritual role during that time as Biblical Criticism, Darwinism and the social injustices wrought by industrial progress undermined religious authority. In The Feminization of American Culture (1977), Ann Douglas argues that the clergy became politically impotent as a result of the secularization of American life in the Gilded Age. Instead of focusing on politics, she argues, they turned their focus to the “feminine” arts and literature, abandoning efforts to speak to the American public on more pressing issues. Similarly, in his classic 1982 study of gilded age society and culture, historian Allen Trachtenberg references religion only as a source of division among the working classes and an arena of oppression for native Americans except for considering it marginally as an arena within the pursuit of culture and refinement. This narrative has deeply influenced more contemporary accounts of the period as well. In his 2003 cultural-economic history of the New York bourgeoisie, Sven Beckert only discusses religion in the context of arguing that the class transcended religious difference.

Many historians of the progressivism go even further in relegating religion at the sidelines of their narratives. Since the 1940s, historians of American religion have seen the social gospel, a late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century American religious movement that stressed social justice, as the progenitor of the progressive movement. Recent histories of the progressive era, however, do not consider religion as a force in the foundation of the progressive movement. Daniel T. Rodgers’1998 Atlantic Crossings, for example, which argues that American progressive movement was largely based on the importation of European ideas, does not consider the social gospel as a force in the movement. Many more recent works and textbooks on the progressive era similarly omit religion from their narratives. This can perhaps be partly explained by the fact that religion plays very little role in either of the two foundational studies of American progressivism, Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 Age of Reform and Robert Wiebe’s 1967 The Search for Order. More recent work on progressivism is reversing this trend. Ian Tyrell’s 2010 Reforming the World argues that American imperial expansion in the late-nineteenth century was an effort to “remake the world in terms of Protestant cultural values” that was inspired by progressive and social gospel politics. Most historians, however, continue to position religion as marginal in their work on American society and culture during the period.

This trend is unwittingly encouraged by the religious historical work on the period, which, since the 1970s, consists mainly of studies of the liberal and fundamentalist schism. Historians of American religion writing on the late-nineteenth century are primarily concerned with this period as the origins of fundamentalism. As a result, their work focuses on theologians’ reactions to scientific innovations such as Darwinism and Biblical criticism rather than religion’s place in the society and culture of the period.

How fair is this narrative of religious decline during the late nineteenth century? It is fair and accurate to argue that religion began to play a less vocal role in late nineteenth century bourgeois politics and that it occupied less time in the life of many bourgeois and working class individuals. As the historians cited above document, during this period many Americans Americans became more theologically liberal and embraced religious movements that demanded less time in Church and less restrictions outside of it. Religion certainly did not play the same kind of role it had in antebellum pro-slavery/ abolitionist politics. That said, according to sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s 2005 study of American religious demography, the combined population of people affiliated with the three largest Protestant denominations— Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists–  in 1890 was close to fifteen million, almost a quarter of the population. This was a large market share increase from 1870 when it was close to seven million and only about seventeen percent of the population—despite that Catholics were a much smaller percentage of the population then. Lears and Douglas’ arguments that religious liberalism was a symptom of secularization do not preclude that many individuals still chose to affiliate with religious denominations. Discounting religion entirely from any narrative of late-nineteenth century culture, then, would seem unwarranted. Religion was very relevant to that society, even if its role in society changed.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-5-50-59-pmHenry Adams’ first cousin, the Episcopalian minister Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), is an example of a figure that can open a window onto how religion functioned in late-nineteenth century American society. Brooks was a scion of one of the richest families in Boston. His Unitarian parents converted to Episcopalianism when he was a boy, and after graduating from Harvard, Brooks pursued ordination and eventually was asked to lead Boston’s Trinity Church. Brooks’, a theological liberal with strong evangelical leanings, was one of the most popular preachers of his age and his published sermons were bestsellers. When he died, the City Council of Boston sponsored a small book chronicling his years in the city. Brooks did indeed live in a time of secularization. However, he had an avid following and his ideas and the ideas of similarly popular religious figures who lived at the same time can serve as valuable sources on nineteenth century thought and culture.

Historians ought to follow the lead of historians like Douglas and Lears, who explore the function and impact religious live and religious ideas in American society as it became more secular. This is a project that few recent scholars have engaged with. Many of the few studies that do this are studies of material culture. Historian Peter Williams, for example, argues that the nineteenth century gospel of wealth had a corollary in the gospel of art, which saw the wealthy as having a duty to patronize the arts in religious institutions. In her Material Christianity (1998), religious studies scholar Colleen McDannell explores how Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery reflected religious ideas about landscape.

For historians of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century material culture, the religious nature of their corpus is hard to ignore. During that period, Americans erected many of the country’s largest churches and religious monuments and produced a great deal of religious paintings, prints and works of decorative art. Historians who use written sources also stand to gain a great deal from considering religious texts from this period more carefully in their work, if not to challenge narratives of secularization, at least to enrich our understanding of its inner life.

American Zionism: A Mass-Cultural Movement?

by guest contributor Kyle Stanton

Noah's book "Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the Years 1813-14 and 15." Wikimedia Commons.

Noah’s book “Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the Years 1813-14 and 15.” Wikimedia Commons.

Mordecai Noah was one of the first Jews to reach national prominence in America. A politician, newspaper publisher, and man of letters, Noah was notoriously dismissed from his post as Consul of Tunisia by Secretary of State James Monroe in 1815. Monroe cited Noah’s religion as having been a hindrance to his professional duties. The event spurred widespread public outrage and criticism from prominent politicians who saw it as an outright display of religious intolerance. A decade later, the Sephardic Jewish playwright entered the national spotlight again through his plan to offer persecuted European Jews a refuge on an island near Buffalo, New York. Although this plan had enthusiastic support from local Christians and some Jews at its inauguration, the project failed within days. Noah then devised plans to settle Palestine with Jews, once again earning himself large-scale notoriety, becoming one of the first American proto-Zionists.

Noah’s story reflects elements of both of the two dominant explanatory approaches taken by scholars to the relationship of America to proto-Zionism/Zionism. Scholars studying this relationship generally approach it either from the field of religious cultural history or the history of American public policy. Thus, the United States’ contemporary support for Israel can be characterized either by the philo-Semitic Protestant religious tradition, often referred to as Christian Zionism, or through a study of the public policy and diplomatic history of the United States. However, Noah’s story also hints at another, usually overlooked arena that has often fueled American support for Israel: pop culture. Noah received support largely from sympathetic Christians but he also drew support and clout on the basis of his role as a State Department functionary. By all accounts, however, much of the attention Noah’s schemes received was based on the celebrity they earned him and the intrigue they generated beyond the small ranks of dogmatic Christian Zionists.

The pop-cultural dimension of the American–Israel relationship is absent from both religious-cultural and public policy-based accounts of the subject.  Scholars who take the religious-cultural approach see the relationship as embedded in Christian Zionism, which in America is rooted in the religious tradition of premillennial dispensationalism. This eschatology maintains that Jesus will physically return to earth to bring his true followers to heaven before the rapture occurs. Jesus’s return is to be followed by a 1,000-year period of earthly peace. It differs on this point with the more mainstream postmillennialism, according to which the 1,000-year period of earthly peace is to take place before the Second Coming. Premillennial dispensationalists place an emphasis on a Jewish return to the Holy Land to trigger the cataclysmic Second Coming of Christ. This has been encouraged by the fact that some dispensationalists have seen Jews as being proto-Protestants due to their dogged resistance to Catholic conversion. The widespread circulation of the dispensationalist Scofield Reference Bible (first published in 1909) after World War I was particularly influential in transmitting premillennial beliefs in Anglophone countries.

A couple notable examples of religious-cultural approaches to the American relationship with Zionism are Fuad Sha’ban’s, For Zion’s Sake: The Judeo-Christian Tradition in American Culture and Stephen Spector’s Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism. While the two scholars of literature are far apart politically, they take similar approaches to the topic. They both argue that many Protestant Americans are inclined to be supportive of the State of Israel because of their evangelical thinking.  Shaban argues that this relationship has been made even more important to many evangelicals because they see America itself as representing a New Zion (Sha’ban, 14-19). These accounts are both compelling, but, like most works of the religious-cultural school, they never draw a direct line from these trends to American policy.

Scholars who take public policy approaches to the question of American Zionism generally see the latter as a result of special interests and focus on the political interactions between Congress, the State Department, the executive branch, and lobbyist groups. Many of these scholars see the State Department of the past as a foil to the current America-Israel relationship because of its perceived history of anti-Semitism. Certainly the case of Mordecai Noah provides can provide an opening salvo for this argument. They argue that the State Department should be a rigid guarantor of American interests without regards for back room politics and they urge the State Department to return to the strict protection of purely American interests. Some representatives of this realpolitik line of thinking like John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, George Ball, and Clifford Kiracofe, argue that the relationship between Israel and the United States is one which subverts domestic democracy, tarnishes America’s image in the world, and returns no tangible benefits. These studies largely focus on the political interactions between Congress, the State Department, the executive branch, and lobbyist groups. Many scholars may be understandably averse to discussing the influence of a particular ethnic or religious group’s lobby on American politics. However, these works generally provide a fierce criticism of both Jewish and Christian Zionist politics. They argue that organizations such as these stifle criticism and debate about American/Israeli relations and American foreign policy in the greater Middle East. In these analyses, members of Congress are not animated so much by a philo-Semitic Zionism as they are by campaign contributions. A major drawback of this approach is that it often delegates too much primacy to lobbyist groups on Capitol Hill.

Both of these approaches are helpful in understanding the American-Israeli relationship, and scholars are increasingly adopting elements of both in their analyses of the subject. For instance, Robert O. Smith persuasively argues that the Cartwright Petition of 1649 to have Jews readmitted to England was one of the first Zionist political actions, in that it was advocated by Messianic Puritans (Smith, 96). He uses this argument to highlight the Christian roots and incubation of the idea of Zionism, contextualizing the pre- and post-Herzlian political history of Zionism. Smith goes on to demonstrate the influence of Christian Zionist ideas on important actors in the political history of Zionism, from Lord Balfour to Ronald Reagan (although the impact of these ideas on Jews, who took ownership of Zionism by the end the nineteenth century, remains to explored).

However, in the era of mass consumption, the impact of novels and other works of literature for didactic or propaganda purposes should not be discounted. For instance, the scholarly attention paid to Leon Uris’s best-selling 1958 novel Exodus has been scant in comparison to its impact. More attention has been given to specifically Christian Zionist literature in this regard, such as Tim Lahaye’s best-selling Left Behind series of novels and Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. These works were the product of a growing confidence among pre-millennialists who saw in the Israeli military victory of 1967 a confirmation of their worldview. The growing acceptance of these beliefs in American society can be seen as a reflection of the Cold War threats of nuclear annihilation, which to many premillennial Christians further seemed to indicate that the end-times were near. These phenomena all led many members of mainstream American society to begin sharing a similar apocalyptic outlook with that of pre-millennial dispensationalists. However, most of those who were influenced by these ideas never became premillennialists themselves. Rather, these ideas impacted them as a part of popular culture of the day.

After World War II, newsreels featuring images of emaciated Holocaust survivors and victims were viewed by large audiences throughout the United States. While viewers of the images were shocked and horrified, no mass mobilization for a Jewish state materialized based on American’s knowledge of the Holocaust, even as Jewish organizations cautiously lobbied for the creation of a Jewish state behind closed doors. Similarly, there was not widespread support for Zionism on the part of American Christians between the end of the war and the Eichmann Trial, and it is unclear what exactly gave Zionism legitimacy in the state department after the war. Rather, it was only between Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948 and the 1967 war—after the appearance of major pop-cultural works that cast Zionism in a positive light—that the US saw growing popular enthusiasm for Israel and Zionism.

Kyle Stanton is a PhD student in history at the University at Albany-SUNY. His research interests include Judaic Studies, nationalism, and the history of tourism.

From American Jewish History to American Jewish Studies: Advice for a Complicated Relationship

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

In her 2000 Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies article on American Jewish history, historian Hasia Diner notes a new trend in the field in which a growing number of works were focusing on Jews’ self-understanding and self-presentation. Today, such works seem to have taken over the field, displacing older social and intellectual historical narratives and approaches. These works reflect approaches to social history that gained popularity during the 1990s, trends most frequently found in scholarship that identifies with ethnic or cultural studies. They generally seek to analyze a specific sub-culture, in this case American Jews, rather than situate the same within broader narratives of American cultural history. Research taking this approach in American Jewish Studies generally interests itself in how American Jews created a hybrid identity through processes of selectively acculturating into the middle class. Scholars working in this framework also have a strong interest in how American Jews resisted acculturation and American bourgeois norms. This approach bred important scholarship in the field. Today, however, it dominates the field to such an extent that it severely limits how American Jewish historians approach their subject matter.

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This monument to Religious Liberty was erected in Central Philadelphia in 1876 by the Independent Order of Bnai Britth.  It asserted its Jewish sponsors’ identity as patriotic citizens but it also served to publicly associate Judaism with values of religious liberty, reflecting liberal understandings of Judaism embedded in the intellectual climate of the time. It now stands outside the National Museum of American Jewish History on the Independence Mall (image via Wikipedia)

Since the Second World War, social-historical approaches have dominated American Jewish history. As historian Jeffrey Gurock documents in an article on the history of the American Jewish History journal (published under various titles from 1896 until the present), postwar scholars saw social history as a means of inserting Jews into the larger sweep of American history. A classic example of this kind of mid-century social historical work can be found in Moses Rischin‘s 1964 Promised City, a history of Jews in New York. Rischin’s book explores how the Eastern-European Jews of New York became acculturated into the American middle class. Like other practitioners of the new social history, he presents Jewish immigrants as having been full participants in creating American society despite the formidable obstacles they faced, a narrative that ultimately suggested, as Oscar Handlin puts it in his The Uprooted, that “immigrants were American history.” To answer his question, Rischin offers a detailed and carefully reconstructed description of this process that considers, among other things public school education, residential patterns, moves to second settlement areas and changes in occupational patterns.

The 2012, three-volume history of the Jews of New York City of Promises, on the other hand, asks a different kind of question, namely how did Jewish immigrants to America and their children create a new identity as American Jews that in turn led them to see themselves and their religion in new ways. The three books in the series accordingly look to how experiences such as immigration to New York, adjustment to American social realities, and so forth—the same historical vectors analyzed by Rischin—were experienced by New York’s Jews and how they came to think about their Judaism. Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer’s narrative of German Jews in New York during the mid-to-late nineteenth century in City of Promises’ second volume markedly differs from older works on this period. Polland and Soyer describe German Jewish immigrants to New York City as striving to simultaneously reconcile and integrate their identities as Jews with their newly-assumed identities as Americans. For example, they describe how upwardly mobile members of this group erected grand Moorish synagogues that at once inscribed their members status as prominent and wealthy Americans in the public sphere even as they articulated their Jewishness through such an unique and highly visible style that was popularly associated with eastern peoples.

City of Promises provides a fresh approach to a well-traversed subject, but its central framework, the notion of identity, seems limiting at times. The way in which Polland and Soyer’s volume approaches American-Jewish religion and religious thought is a good example of how this is the case. Polland and Soyer present Reform and its architecture as a means of reconciling American and Jewish identity,  but how did these developments relate to larger developments in American religion at the time?  Considering that Reform Judaism developed in the United States at the same time as a much larger liberal religious movement perhaps an intellectual historical approach would enrich our understanding of this period in American Jewish history.

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Social histories like Handlin’s The Uprooted sought to locate the exotic immigrants depicted on the original dust jacket as integral parts of, not outsiders to, American history. Identity and opposition, however, have only become interests in the field in the last twenty to thirty years.

In his 2006 Immigrant Jews and American Capitalism, economic historian Eli Lederhendler levels a more general critique of the identity paradigm, arguing that it often discourages historians from digging deeper and uncovering structural causes for the phenomenon they discuss. In particular, Lederhendler challenges the oft-repeated idea that Jewish participation in left-wing political and labor movements was a result of a deep, pre-immigration Jewish identification with left-wing politics. Rather, he argues that Jewish union politics ought to be understood primarily as an effort to achieve upward mobility. Lederhendler sees his approach as explaining why Jews so often left the labor movement once they achieved middle class status. I would add that American-Jewish historians might also be well-served to situate this history in the context of the intellectual-historical literature on American liberalism. Lederhendler sees the popularity of the identity-driven models of writing American Jewish history more as the result of the post-1960s development of a pan-American Jewish ethnic identity than of the way Jews in the early twentieth century actually identified themselves, which was far more multifarious. Lederhendler’s book has been well-received by many in the field, but few practitioners have responded to his challenge to move way from identity-driven approaches to American Jewish history.

Another related tendency in cultural studies-inflected works on American Jewish history that at times leads to a flattening of its subject matter is its celebration of opposition to integration into the American mainstream. The field of American Yiddish studies in particular often approaches Jews as an oppositional culture. The radical nature of some of the most prominent voices in the early twentieth century Yiddish press and Jewish mass politics renders this an immediately attractive approach.The most influential work in this vein likely remains Tony Michels’ 2009 A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York, which explores the unique socialist-Jewish identity forged by Jewish socialists in New York. Ultimately, the story ends in tragedy as Jews forsook radical politics and were absorbed into the middle class.However, Yiddish Studies over the course of the last twenty years engages almost exclusively with these radical and leftist elements in the Yiddish community. One only has to peruse the recent Oxford Bibliography of Yiddish to see that the study of Yiddish literature and social movements has ballooned since 2000, before which most of the studies cited in the bibliography are of a linguistic nature. 

In his All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism (2011), Daniel Katz traces the Jewish-dominated International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s (ILGWU) efforts to incorporate black and other racial minorities. He argues that the immigrant Jewish women of the ILGWU  espoused an early cultural pluralism and were forerunners of multiculturalism’s emergence on the American scene. Other work on Yiddish theater, literature and politics likewise stresses the Jews’ proletarian and outsider status in America. They suggest that American Jews’ history matters not only vis-àvis Jews and Americans, but in the history of multiculturalism and oppositional cultures at large. However, these studies leave unexplored the vast swaths of Yiddish language culture in the United States that were more accommodating to middle class norms. An intellectual historical approach might help clarify what exactly Yiddish socialists thought and how they fit into larger intellectual trends at the time, both Jewish and American.  

This last point reflects another problem engendered by the cultural studies approach’s dominance of American Jewish history, that there is less of much-needed, broader social and intellectual historical works being published in the field.  Scholarship in cultural studies often seeks to illuminate strands within the history of a group that are tied to its concerns of identity formation and resistance rather than present larger picture histories. However, in many areas of American Jewish history there is a dearth of such work—work that remains a necessary foundation for cultural studies scholarship.

For example, a great deal of recent scholarship looks to how Jews crafted a public and communal identity as white. They draw in particular on Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1999). In his The Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews and American Popular Song, American studies scholar Jeffrey Melnick finds Jewish involvement in jazz and blues, musical genres originating in African American contexts, as expressing Jews identification with black culture as well as their efforts to distance themselves from blackness. He argues that Jews performed black music so as to avoid being considered actually black. In his review of this book, social historian Andrew Heinze first notes that this book did not deliver on its promise to provide the “much-needed” history of “Jews and American popular song,” even as it did provide “an instructive analysis” of parts of that history. Heinze further notes that like Melnick’s monograph replicates a weakness of many works in whiteness studies more generally, that it assumes without sufficient evidence that Jews ever actually faced a significant threat of being characterized as “black” even as they were certainly considered less than “white.” Melnick thus infers broader claims from his readings of song lyrics and black and Jewish discourses about their music than may be warranted given the social and intellectual realities of the time. A stronger social history of Jewish-black relations would prove necessary before a historian could make such larger conclusions. Similarly, Aviva Ben Ur’s Sephardic Jews in America (2009) yields the the first discrete narrative of Sephardic-Jewish-American history. However, this monograph actually comprises a series of studies focusing on Sephardic identity in the United States. The book is an extremely strong scholarly contribution to the field and provides compelling “close readings” of facets of American-Sephardic history. Yet who will write the much-needed social and intellectual histories of topics like Sephardic Jews in America?

 

Censoring Early Modern Hebrew Texts: A Review of The Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop in the History of the Hebrew Book at the University of Pennsylvania

by Yitzchak Schwartz

Each year, The Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania brings together enthusiasts of the Hebrew book to study topics in Hebrew book history with leading scholars in the field. Housed at the Katz Center for Jewish Studies in downtown Philadelphia, the workshop is a rare event that brings scholars, professionals and laymen together for in-depth learning and conversation. Participants generally include academics, graduate students, book collectors and museum, library and auction house professionals. Topics range across various disciplines but the workshops are generally grounded in careful material study of books. Recent past topics have included the implications of processes of printing (misprints, for example) on Jewish law and late medieval Hebrew manuscript illumination.

A censored page from a 1546 edition of Isaac ben Moses Arama's commentary on the Bible Akedat Yitshak, The Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. A signature by the censor reads: "Revisto p[er] me Antonio Fran[cesco] Enrique Alessandria, 1688."

A censored page from a 1546 edition of Isaac ben Moses Arama’s commentary on the Bible Akedat Yitshak, The Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. A signature by the censor reads: “Revisto p[er] me Antonio Fran[cesco] Enrique Alessandria, 1688.”

This year’s workshop, held May 8-9, was led by Dr. Piet van Boxel and focused on the censorship of Jewish books during the early modern period. Professor van Boxel is Distinguished Professor at the Oxford University Oriental Institute and is the former Curator of Hebraica and Judaica Collections at the Oxford University Libraries. In 2009, he curated the landmark exhibition of the Bodleian Library’s Hebrew manuscripts Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures, which examined medieval Hebrew manuscripts as a site of cooperation and cultural exchange among  Jews and Christians. The exhibition brought together some of the highlights from the Bodleian’s collection of medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, which is the largest in the world, and a version of it traveled to the Jewish Museum in New York City in 2012-2013.

Over the two days of the workshop, Dr. van Boxel traced the history of censorship of Jewish books in the early modern Papal State. It has long been known that Jewish texts were censored during the early modern period, but the Church policy that informed this censorship and the realities of its implementation remain murky. Dr. van Boxel’s presentations aimed to elucidate both the theory and practice of early modern censorship of Jewish texts through research that draws on the history of the Catholic Church’s policies and examination of censored books housed in libraries around the world.

He began by discussing the infamous burning of the Talmud in Rome, which occurred during the Council of Trent in 1553. The 1553 burning was not the first time the Church had burned the Talmud: In 1244, after a disputation in Paris in which four Rabbis were forced to defend the Talmud against accusations that it contained blasphemous statements, twenty-four carriage loads of Talmudic manuscripts were burned. However, it represented a shift in Church policy: Prior to the Counter-Reformation, Jewish texts had for the most part been protected by the Papal decree. In particular, the bull Sicut Judaeis, issued by Pope Callixtus II (1065-1124) in 1120, states that suasion, not violence, is the only proper means to evangelize to Jews to and that it is forbidden to take their property as a means of encouraging conversion. The burning of the Talmud contradicted this Papal decree but was made possible, Van Boxel argues, because Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), the head of the Roman Inquisition, argued that the blasphemous teachings of the Talmud would lead Christians into the arms of Luther. Carafa used his power to compel local rulers and Bishops to collect copies of the Talmud and punish individuals who did not forfeit their copies. The books were collected and taken to Rome, where they were publicly burned.

Shortly after he burned the Talmud, Carafa planned to order the burning of other Jewish texts that contained blasphemous statements. However Pope Julius III (1487-1555) intervened and ordered that henceforth such texts merely be expurgated, that their blasphemous sections be blacked out by Church-appointed censors. Julius III’s decree made official Church policy harsher than it had been before the Council of Trent but van Boxel argues that the implementation of his decree was highly inconsistent and varied by location and by censor. At times censors, who were paid per book by Jewish communities, would expurgate a few lines at the beginning and end of a book and leave the rest. At other times they went far beyond protocol and blacked out words that had any association with blasphemous Jewish teachings.

Moreover, the professionalization of censorship necessitated the preservation of heretical portions of texts: Both the Church and Jewish communities created indices for expurgation, which excerpted heretical portions of Jewish and Christian texts to be expurgated. These were intended only for the eyes of censors but in the wrong hands they are veritable encyclopedias of heresy. The inconsistency of censorship also aided text’s survival in that many publishers, knowing that only some copies of a given edition of a book would be censored, continued to print texts in full. Other Christian and Jewish publishers collected all offending portions of texts they were printing on separate pages meant to be appended to the censored books, allowing their owners to dispose of these in the event of a censor visiting them and keep them otherwise.

One of the arguments Professor van Boxel made that I found most interesting was that because of the inconsistency of censorship very little if anything was lost to posterity because of it. Many uncensored copies of books survive today and it is hard to say if expurgation ever led to the complete disappearance of the original version of a text. I personally have often been taken by the romance of the notion that there might be countless early modern texts that vanished because of censorship, but that sentiment illustrates precisely what was so informative about the workshop: Equipped with a careful understanding of the process of censorship of Jewish books in the early modern period that penetrates the myths surrounding the subject, scholars can begin to consider this widespread phenomenon’s actual social and intellectual-historical implications.

Apes, Jews, and Others: a reading of Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” and Bernard Malamud’s “God’s Grace”

 

by guest contributor Yaelle Frohlich

On the surface, Franz Kafka’s short story “A Report to an Academy” (1917) and Bernard Malamud‘s last finished novel, God’s Grace (1982), appear quite different, but they each boast a striking similar feature: Both contain verbal apes who serve to drive home a point about the Jewish condition. Various readers —of Kafka’s piece, in particular—have described the device as a “grotesque” metaphor for otherness, depicting a world that is, in the words of literary scholar Matthew Powell, “eerily reminiscent of our own, yet not our own” (130). In other words, these riveting works achieve a literary version of the uncanny valley effect.

In “A Report to an Academy,” an ape named Red Peter describes his experience breaking into the human cultural scene. He recounts his capture on the “Gold Coast” and captivity among coarse sailors, during which he desperately seeks “a way out” of his impossible circumstances—a cage “too low for [him] to stand up in but too narrow for [him] to sit,” where he ends up “with knees bent and trembling all the time”(247). He successfully carries out an ingenious plan to imitate his human captors (the main requirements: boozing and spitting), and eventually wins enough human acceptance to land an entertainment career on Hamburg’s “variety stage” and acquire the education and “cultural level of an average European” (254).

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Interpretation of Red Peter in a recent adaption of “Report to the Academy” by Montreal’s Infinitheatre

The story never mentions Judaism or Jews by name. However, it was originally published in Martin Buber’s monthly German-language journal Der Jude, and is widely—and compellingly—interpreted as a critique of Jewish attempts to assimilate into non-Jewish, Western European society, as well as of that society’s prejudicial treatment of its minorities. Matthew Powell connects Kafka’s animal stories to his autobiography—both to Kafka’s failed relationship with a non-Jewish woman, whom he felt would never be able to understand him, as well as to his father Hermann’s lack of social acceptance among non-Jewish peers even in the aftermath of legal emancipation (137-138).

Metaphors for the Jewish experience are visible on every page of “A Report to an Academy”—from Red Peter’s alienation from his previous identity as an ape (plus the distance his associates maintain from him “to keep the image”; 245) to his internalization of anti-Semitic/ anti-ape stereotypes about crudity and materialism. Notably, he remarks that “only an ape could have thought of” the “utterly inappropriate” name Red Peter, which refers to the red scar leftover from his captors’ bullet. Katja Garloff interprets this wound as castration, but I think it is possible to read a circumcision motif into Red Peter’s “predilection” to pull down his pants to show people the wound, claiming proudly that “you would find nothing but a well-groomed fur and the scar made (246-247). Red Peter also states that “apes think with their bellies,” despite the fact that it is his sailor-mentor who teaches him that one should rub one’s belly with a grin after over-consuming schnapps (252).

But the most strikingly Jewish passages of the story describe Red Peter’s excruciating decision to excise his identity as an ape, in order to survive his brutal ordeal. Red Peter’s path is precarious, and his sailor-mentor—like European monarchs toward the Jews, sometimes even like God himself—is alternatingly cruel and benevolent; “sometimes indeed he would hold his burning pipe against my fur, until it began to smolder in some place I could not easily reach, but then he would himself extinguish it with his own kind, enormous hand” (252).

For Red Peter, self-effacement provides the “way out; right or left, or in any direction” that he seeks, despite finding “no attraction…in imitating humans,” and despite having no expectations of true “freedom”(249-253). He proclaims: “I could never have achieved what I have done had I been stubbornly set on clinging to my origins, to the remembrances of my youth. In fact, to give up being stubborn was the supreme commandment I laid upon myself; free ape as I was, I submitted myself to that yoke” (245). The language here, which alludes to the twin yokes of Heaven and Exile so poignant in traditional Jewish texts, recalls the painful choice facing Western European Jews: Which yoke was more burdensome to bear, that of tradition or integration?

In Malamud’s God’s Grace, the roles of man, ape, and Jew are reversed. Furthermore, unlike in Kafka’s story, the prominent role of Judaism is explicit. God’s Grace takes place in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. A nuclear war has destroyed the earth and all its inhabitants—apart from Calvin Cohn, a rabbinical student turned paleologist, who survives the war in a submarine, but, according to God, only due to a “marginal error” (5). Cohn discovers a surviving chimp child, Buz, and the two are marooned on an island, where they find more living chimps, along with a lone gorilla, George.

Cohn, as the sole human, finds himself in an unusual position of power. Like Red Peter’s sailor-mentor, he tries to remake the chimps, and this new world, in his own image—but with seemingly more refinement and goodwill. He humanizes the chimp community by giving them speech, and tries to provide them with a foundational Jewish education, ranging from traditional biblical exegesis to Kierkegaard and Freud.

Despite some authoritarian moves (like marrying the one female chimp on the island), Cohn’s intentions are good. But even the last Jew on Earth can’t catch a break; Buz has inherited his former trainer’s anti-Jewish prejudices, and Cohn becomes the chimps’ despised other—more for his Jewishness than for his being a Homo sapien. (For instance, the ape named Esau threatens to “break every Jewbone in [his] head,” while Cohn, like a fiddler on a roof, implores him to “try to reason together”(201).) At the novel’s close, Buz leads the chimps in an Oedipal rebellion against Cohn; after being Adam, Noah and Abraham, Cohn finds himself playing the role of Isaac in an animalistic, reverse Binding of Isaac orchestrated by his adopted ape son.

Ironically, despite the violent ending of God’s Grace, the novel closes more optimistically than “A Report to an Academy,” in which Red Peter enjoys a safe but lonely existence with a half-trained female chimp companion whose haunting presence (and implicit reminder of his ape identity) he can only half-stand. As D. Mesher notes , Malamud himself drew attention to his novel’s final, hopeful scene, in which “George the gorilla, wearing a mud-stained white yarmulke he had one day found in the woods, chant[s], “Sh’ma, Yisroel, the Lord our God is one,”” and recites “a long Kaddish for Calvin Cohn” (223).

I’ve found no definitive proof that Malamud read “A Report to an Academy,” but Kafka and Malamud’s stories explore flip sides of the modern Jewish experience. Kafka asks: What is the place of the Jew in society? While Malamud asks: What is the place of the Jewish idea in the world? The artists provide similar answers, but through very different mediums. Kafka paints a dark picture that suggests that only disfigurement, not liberating transformation, can result from identity denial. But Malamud’s message is a positive one: that the teachings of Judaism might shine forever—even in the absence of humanity, or of Jews, and in the silence—or indifference—of God.

Yaelle Frohlich is a PhD candidate in History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies at New York University. Her work focuses on diaspora Jewish perceptions of the Holy Land during the mid-nineteenth century. During the 2016-7 academic year, she will serve as a Public Humanities Fellow through the New York Council for the Humanities.