From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History

Here are some excerpts from this 2020 book:

Given their rush to acculturate, it is no wonder that the New York intellectuals were enthralled with Hannah Arendt. Arriving in New York during their cosmopolitan peak, she perfectly represented their aspirations and values in numerous ways. Born in 1906 in Hanover, Germany, Arendt studied at the Universities of Marburg, Freiburg, and Heidelberg, writing a dissertation on the concept of love in St. Augustine’s thought. Fleeing Germany after Hitler came to power, she went to Paris, where she did social work for Youth Aliyah, and in 1941 escaped to the United States, where she was granted entry through a limited visa program for German intellectuals. She quickly mastered English and within two years was writing for a host of English-language journals, both Jewish and general, including Jewish Social Studies, Partisan Review, and The Nation.22 Working as research director of the Conference on Jewish Relations and as chief editor of Schocken Books from 1945 to 1951, she was also associated in varying capacities with Salo W. Baron’s Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. But Arendt’s passion was for the intellectual life of reading, writing, and teaching.23 Writing for Partisan Review was the union card necessary to being considered a New York intellectual, and Arendt, though a late arrival and female, was soon welcomed into what Norman Podhoretz called “The Family.”24 Her pathbreaking book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, founded a whole school of thinking that viewed Nazism and Soviet communism as analogous forms of state terror and secured her place among the New York intellectuals. The book touched a particular chord, outlining the threat to individual freedom posed by these two monstrous twentieth-century state systems whose bureaucracies institutionalized state terror in the form of the Nazi death camp or the Gulag. Arendt became a fixture in the academy, teaching at Princeton University, the University of Chicago, Wesleyan University, and the New School for Social Research.
Literate, engaged with politics and high culture, and herself a product of the modern German culture so coveted by the New York intellectuals, Arendt personified the cosmopolitan ideal in which Jewishness and universal culture were a seamless whole. Richard Wolin, assessing Arendt’s protean German-Jewish identity, has remarked that the ferocity of attachments and attacks on Arendt illustrates the “profound intellectual magnetism she must have exuded.”25 Steven Aschheim has explained that her appeal reflected “her capacity to integrate Jewish matters into the eye of the storm of world history, to make them explanatory factors in the great catastrophes of twentieth-century history”—and in so doing, to provide “a kind of dignity and importance to a previously marginalized, even derided, existence.”26
As a German-Jewish cosmopolitan intellectual, Arendt commanded intellectual and cultural “capital” for the East European Jewish New York intellectuals. Yet these factors alone do not explain the ease with which she was accepted by them. Arendt also possessed a kind of sexual agency or power that captivated many of these male intellectuals; she had “feminine” or “sexual” capital.27 In New York Jew, Alfred Kazin wrote evocatively of his friendship with Hannah and her husband, Heinrich Blücher, recalling his first meeting with them at a Commentary dinner in the fall of 1947, where he had been “enthralled [by Hannah], by no means unerotically.”28 Richard Cook, Kazin’s biographer, remarked that “Kazin was crazy about her, even in an erotic sense,” and that he described how “he blushed with pleasure holding her arm on the subway.”29 Kazin told his young fiancée, Ann Birstein, whom he once abandoned in the balcony of a lecture hall so he could sit in the orchestra with the object of his infatuation, that he could not love her if she did not love Arendt.30 Diana Trilling recalled that Arendt was attracted to her husband, Lionel Trilling, and “made believe that I did not exist even when we were a few feet apart, staring into each other’s faces.”31 Irving Howe, looking back in his autobiography, recalled that “While far from ‘good-looking’ in any commonplace way, Hannah Arendt was a remarkably attractive person, with her razored gestures, imperial eye, dangling cigarette.” He noted, too, that Arendt “made an especially strong impression on intellectuals—those who, as mere Americans, were dazzled by the immensities of German philosophy.”

“But I always suspected that she impressed people less through her thought than the style of her thinking. She bristled with intellectual charm, as if to reduce everyone in sight to an alert discipleship. Her voice would shift register abruptly, now stern and admonitory, now slyly tender in gossip. Whatever room she was in Hannah filled through the largeness of her will; indeed, she always seemed larger than her setting. Rarely have I met a writer with so acute an awareness of the power to overwhelm.”32

Her allure resulted in two marriages and what we now know was a lifelong love affair with her philosophy professor at Heidelburg, Martin Heidegger.33 Arendt’s sexual confidence could be felt by men and women in her circle.34
Then came Eichmann in Jerusalem. The book’s publication in 1963 and the controversy it enflamed were part of the process by which the cosmopolitan New York intellectuals began a reassessment of Jewish concerns and, in some cases, a renewed commitment to them. To many of the New York intellectuals of Jewish origin, Eichmann in Jerusalem constituted a perverse moral inversion: the absolution of an arch-Nazi and a crude blaming of his victims. Arendt’s accusation that the Jewish communal leadership had aided the Nazis—when coupled with her German-Jewish dismissal of the East European Jewish background of the defense attorneys and her damning side comments about the irritations of modern Hebrew and the foreign quality of Israeli society—seemed to give the lie to Arendt’s claim that her book was merely a trial report. Clearly it was much more: a referendum on Jewish history and identity.35 For the New York intellectuals, the book challenged their universalist assumptions and punctured their long-held fantasies of the superiority of German culture.
Arendt and Dawidowicz represented the two streams of the same historical-cultural process by which Ashkenazic Jewry—western and eastern, respectively—had negotiated its entry into the modern world. Symbolizing opposing positions on the relationship between universalism and Jewish particularism, they triggered different receptions among the New York intellectuals as they grappled with the major existential and political questions facing western Jewry in the twentieth century. Dan Diner has categorized Arendt’s perspective on the destruction of European Jewry as part of a “Western Jewish narrative,” which took the individual and her break with community and tradition as a starting point.36 The “Eastern Jewish narrative,” in contrast, was constructed upon a basis of collective, national experience that assumed the existence of and ties to a people. Gershon Hundert described the worldview that shaped this narrative as a mentalité. Polish Jewry was secure in itself and experienced “elemental continuities that persist[ed] from the early modern period almost to the present.”

Enter Lucy S. Dawidowicz as the personification of this “Eastern Jewish narrative.” With their turn toward Jewish particularist concerns, the New York intellectuals discovered Dawidowicz and the world of their fathers: not the world of Berlin but rather that of Warsaw, Łódź, Minsk, and Vilna or of one of the hundreds of market towns, shtetlakh, that defined the Jewish landscape of Eastern Europe. In the voluminous literature on the Eichmann controversy, Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945, published twelve years after Arendt’s book, generally falls out of the historiography on the New York intellectuals. Yet it was a signal text in their reconceptualization of the balance between universalism and particularism.
Dawidowicz was unknown to the New York intellectuals in their cosmopolitan peak in part because of her age. Born in 1915, she was only fifteen years old when Partisan Review first appeared.38 Moreover, she only briefly shared their fervor for universalism. And she was not considered an object of sexual desire. The immigrant sons distanced themselves not only from the cultural world of their fathers but also from the domestic world of their mothers.39
Whereas Arendt represented the unattainable German-Jewish ideal, intellectually and sexually, Dawidowicz initially represented the attainable, but unattractive, East European archetype. Maleness and male sexuality were the tickets of admission to the New York intellectuals’ group.40 Only the comeliest women gained entry into the group—Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Diana Trilling, and, much later, Susan Sontag—and then only one woman at a time. As Norman Podhoretz commented in Making It, there could be only one “Dark Lady” of American letters, and she had to be “clean, learned, good-looking, capable of writing family-type criticism as well as fiction with a strong trace of naughtiness.”41 Dawidowicz lacked the academic pedigree, the universalist bona fides, and the requisite “feminine capital” to be accepted into the inner circle.42 She herself felt insecure about her physical attractiveness. Her private papers reveal her disparaging comments about her own looks, height, and general lack of sexual appeal.43 Dawidowicz married at thirty-three, late by the standards of the time. Her husband, Szymon, was twenty years her senior, and while she adored him, and the few letters between them express ardor, Dawidowicz kept a strong wall between her personal life and her scholarship. With no public sexual allure, she could not captivate the attention of the male New York intellectuals.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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