by Bennett Muraskin
THE MENORAH JOURNAL, founded in 1915, was the leading English-language Jewish intellectual and literary journal of its era. Unfortunately, it was never fully appreciated by the secular Jewish movement of its day, and its impact on Jewish intellectual life continues to be neglected by the American Jewish community as a whole.
The Journal had its roots in the Menorah Society, founded by sixteen Jewish students at Harvard University in 1906. Inspired by the humanist philosophers William James and George Santayana, and repelled by anti-Semitic prejudice, these students banded together to explore humanistic values within Judaism and promote the growth of a secular Jewish culture in English.
Interest at other campuses led to the formation of the Intercollegiate Menorah Association in 1913, the first Jewish student organization of its kind. At its peak during the 1920s, the Menorah Association had members at eighty colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada.
In its very first issue, the Journal announced its dedication to “the fostering of the Jewish ‘humanities’ as a spur to human service.” The leading figures behind the publication were Henry Hurwitz (1886-1961), who served as editor for most of the Journal‘s existence; Harry Wolfson (1887-1974), a historian and philosopher who wrote studies of Spinoza and Philo; and Horace Kallen (1882-1972), best known for his advocacy of “cultural pluralism” in opposition to the “melting pot.”
The Menorah Journal appealed primarily to young, college-educated, second-generation Jews who wanted to establish a Jewish cultural identity in the English language while participating fully in American intellectual life. Its contributors were a virtual Who’s Who of American Jewish writers, poets and scholars, with a smattering of Europeans, and reflected a kaleidoscope of opinions and interests. In its very first year, Louis Brandeis wrote an appreciation of his Jewish heritage in “Our Richest Inheritance.”
Mordecai Kaplan appeared in 1920 with “A Program for the Reconstruction of Judaism,” two years before putting his radical religious ideas into practice by forming the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York. German Jewish philosopher Fritz Mauthner wrote “In Defense of Skepticism” in 1924, and in the following year, Morris Raphael Cohen, a prominent philosopher and legendary City College professor, wrote “The Intellectual Love of God,” espousing, like Spinoza, his belief in God as a force of nature. The great American Jewish historian, Salo Baron, wrote “Ghetto and Emancipation” in 1928 and first espoused his critique of the “lachrymose view of Jewish history.” In 1930, the Journal published the first chapter of communist writer Mike Gold’s classic autobiography, Jews Without Money. Historian Lucy Dawidowicz’s stirring account, “The Epic of the Warsaw Ghetto,” appeared in 1950.
Although the Journal was not focused on Yiddish culture, it did not neglect it. Maurice Samuel, author of The World of Sholem Aleichem (1943), was a frequent contributor. A 1928 article, “The Fate of Yiddish in America,” claimed that the language was in decline, but this did not deter publication of descriptions of life on the Jewish Lower East Side, where Yiddish was pervasive, or of translated Yiddish stories by I.L. Peretz in 1937 and I.B. Singer in 1962. Translations of Yiddish poems by Solomon Yehoash, Zalman Schneor and Itzik Manger, among others, also appeared.
The Menorah Journal recognized the renaissance of Hebrew by publishing an article by Chaim Bialik in 1930, as well as his poetry and that of Saul Tchernichovsky. Canada’s great Jewish poet, A.M. Klein, who wrote in English, was also a contributor.
In keeping with its ecumenical outlook, the Journal also published non-Jewish intellectuals. Randolph Bourne’s “Toward a Transnational America” (1916) called for the preservation of immigrant cultures, and Lewis Mumford’s “A Search for True Community” (1922) warned that narrow nationalism posed a threat to the survival of Jewish and other minority cultures in their diasporas. Both Bourne and Mumford were among their era’s most respected social critics.
Typically about one hundred pages in length, The Menorah Journal regularly published excellent reproductions of artworks by the likes of Marc Chagall, William Gropper, William Meyerowitz, Elie Nadelman, Lionel S. Reiss, Max Weber and many other leading Jewish artists, as well as historical portraits and photographs.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION dealt The Menorah Journal a blow from which it never really recovered. Financial problems caused it to reduce its schedule from a monthly to a quarterly, but the real problem was political: Jewish intellectuals moved sharply to the left, leaving the Journal with a diminished constituency. With the economy in shambles and unemployment and hunger affecting millions of Americans, the Journal appeared too staid and bourgeois. Its preoccupation with Jewish culture and the role of Jews in American society could not compete with the attraction of labor struggles and revolutionary politics.
In 1931, a core of key editors and writers, including Elliot Cohen, Herbert Solow and Felix Morrow, abandoned the publication after feuding with Henry Hurwitz over its political direction. They joined the Communist Party and began writing for its literary journal, New Masses. Although the ex-Menorah writers eventually abandoned the Communist Party in 1934 over its sectarian politics and disruptive tactics, they moved ever further left into the Trotskyist camp and, as pure internationalists, no longer concerned themselves with questions of Jewish identity. The one exception was Elliot Cohen, who in 1945 became editor of Commentary, the journal established by the American Jewish Committee. Originally, Commentary fulfilled a function similar to that of the Menorah Journal in its heyday, providing a forum for secular Jewish intellectuals seeking to explore their identity, but it lapsed into strident anti-communism in the 1950s and became the intellectual bastion of neoconservatism by the early 1970s.
After World War II, Zionism replaced socialism as the great pole of attraction for Jewish intellectuals, but Hurwitz had no use for either. He became more religious, aligning the Menorah Journal with the American Council for Judaism, an offshoot of Reform Judaism that considered Jews to be exclusively a religious group. It aggressively opposed all manifestations of Jewish nationalism, especially Zionism. Hurwitz proposed the creation of a Menorah College for Jewish Culture and Social Science to counter the influence of Zionist nationalism with a “religious cultural interpretation” of Jewish life. It never got off the drawing board. In later years, Hurwitz gave religious scholars Jacob Agus and Emanuel Rackman a forum, while criticizing Jewish secularism.
Hurwitz, who was dogmatically anti-Zionist, advocated what he called “Zakkaian Judaism” — named for Yohanan ben Zakkai, the rabbi who opposed resistance against Rome, escaped the besieged city of Jerusalem in 72 CE and convinced the Roman emperor to allow him to establish a rabbinic academy. These actions have been credited with enabling Judaism to survive without national sovereignty. Although this concept was clearly out of step with the postwar momentum toward establishing a Jewish state in Israel, the issues that Hurwitz raised about the negative role of Zionism in shifting the priorities of the American Jewish community away from its internal development remain relevant today. He affirmed that Jewish life had flourished outside of Israel in the past and could do so in North America.
Consistent with this perspective, Hurwitz devoted many articles in the postwar Journal to questioning Zionism and the concept of a Jewish state. In 1945, Hannah Arendt wrote “Zionism Reconsidered,” in which she criticized the Zionist movement for accepting anti-Semitism as an inevitable gentile affliction and exploiting it to increase Jewish immigration to Palestine. Arendt predicted that the establishment of a Jewish state would provoke Arab enmity and force Israel to depend on U.S. support for its survival. Articles of this type cost the journal financial support and subscribers, but Hurwitz was not one to back down. Hans Kohn’s 1958 contribution, “Zionism and the Jewish National Idea,” treated Zionism as a manifestation of ethnic nationalism that violated the universal ideals of Judaism and endangered Jewish survival by devaluing the Jewish experience outside of Israel.
The Menorah Journal folded soon after Hurwitz’s death in 1961 and met an inglorious end. In one of its last issues, he disgraced himself by refusing to take a stand against Jim Crow and in favor of the civil rights movement on the grounds that these were not “Jewish” issues. Nevertheless, the Journal ‘s true legacy is its pluralistic view of Judaism and its commitment to democratic values within a Jewish cultural context. The following comment from Marvin Lowenthal, a historian with close ties to the Journal, best captures its spirit. It originally appeared in his 1925 essay aptly titled, “On Jewish Humanism.”
For a Jew, absorption in the Jewish experience as a means of acquiring a humanistic attitude offers peculiar advantages. Because it is the experience of his [sic] own people, because he himself, no matter how far he may think he is from being a Jew, relived fragments of it and shared it as a living thing and not a matter of books, records and monuments. Because of all this he can more quickly and sympathetically enter into the Jewish experience of the past . . . The cry for justice, the search for social adjustments, the sense and hope of an international unit to be ultimately set over petty patriotisms, and side by side with these, a burning loyalty to a group — these are, even if imperfectly, shared in every Jew’s individual life. When he encounters these humanizing elements in Jewish culture, they are not something foreign to be digested as best one can, but something native that will simply bring to flower what is already living within him.
Bennett Muraskin, our contributing writer, is author of Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, among other books. This article appeared in the September-October 2003 edition of Jewish Currents.