A New York Intellectual’s Jewish Question: Alfred Kazin’s Reflections on Jewishness and Writing


Alfred Kazin is known as one of the “New York Intellectuals.”  This group of pre and post War Jewish American thinkers – most of which were the children of immigrants – included brilliant budding minds such Irving Howe, Hannah Arendt, Leslie Fiedler, Saul Bellow, Paul Goodman, and Irving Kristol.   While they were all staunchly anti-Stalinist, most of them made it their task to bring Marxist or socialist thinking into the American context via literary criticism, journalism, and political theory.    What many scholars overlook, however, is their engagment with Judaism and Jewishness.

Howe, Bellow, Fiedler, and Kazin looked – in the most personal aspect of their work – to recover their Jewishness.  They didn’t praise the virtues of assimilation.  Each in their own way, saw something unique in Jewishness that they wanted to preserve.     Kazin’s case, in contrast to Bellow, Howe, and Fiedler, is very interesting because he left behind him meticulously detailed and incredibly reflective journals that stretch back to 1938 and end in the early 1990s – when he was diagnosed with cancer.  (Kazin was born in 1915 –  in a Jewish section of Brooklyn called Brownsville and died in Manhattan in 1998.)

His unique struggle is worth recounting because it demonstrates how important the past was for one of the most notable the New York Intellectuals. (Like Bellow and Howe, Kazin was obsessed with Jewishness and the meaning of what they inherited from their Jewish immigrant parents.)  I can only briefly touch on it here.

Most of the New York Intellectuals see their present in terms of their past.   While they may – at certain points in their careers – seem progressive, they are not willing to do away with – as many progressives would suggest in moving forward –  this memory of Jewishness.  Why? Because they think this memory contains the mystery of their Jewishness.   They see in this memory, as well, a kind of resistance to American culture or European culture.  For them, this resistance is definitive.  On the outside, Kazin tells us in one entry (which we will discuss below) they may seem like every other American; but beneath their American garments they are Jewish.   They retain their dialect.  The refuse to give it up.  For Kazin, this is remnant of what he calls “Jewish life.”

In the wake of the Holocaust, in 1946, Kazin begins an entry by looking back at his roots in Brownsville, New York.  Now that he is a recognized intellectual on the American scene (at the age of 31), he feels alienated from his home.  In this entry, he puts home into quotation marks and he shows a strong desire to figure out what happened to what Irving Howe called “The World of Our Fathers.”

Every time I go “home” on a Friday night to Brownsville, it all feels like a foreign country.   The old immigrant Jews remaining, my parents – all these old Jews are my parents! – may look like the inhabitants of the country where I live, but have stubbornly, slyly kept some rich difference in their speech.  Under the plastic aprons, the “Yenkee” dresses and suits, the Woolworth tchotchkes in the kitchen, the old, deeply resistant Jewish life goes on and on.

 Only their bodies are in America.  Their inner lives are still in the caverns of Russian memory and grief.  (51)

This read on immigrant Jewish life also resonates on the pages of Bernard Malamud’s novels and short stories.  It is stubborn.  But what is most astonishing  – for Kazin – is the shock he figures in the image of his dying mother.  She has the last word, it seems:

As always, Mama and Papa are stuck fast, unable to change, getting old.  They break my heart.   Mama, stooped from a lifetime bent over a sewing machine, looks a wreck, still weeps over Asya (a woman he was to marry, but which was broke up due to an affair he had).  Stares at me as if she no longer knew me.  “What happened? How could it have happened? What did you do, what did you do?” (A Lifetime in Every Burning Moment, from the journals of Alfred Kazin, 51)

While Mama was an orthodox Jew, his father was a “good socialist…for whom solidarity with the union is sacred”(51).

Kazin’s life is different.  He is a writer: “Writing is my life, the one steadiness I have”(53).  One would think that this transcends his Jewishness; after all, many writers would see writing as secular and as transcending religion.  But Kazin brings an experience he had with the famous photographer Henri Carrier-Bresson (who was the photographer for a piece that he wrote for an essay about the Brooklyn Bridge in Harpers Bazaar).   What they differed on – fundamentally – was their view of New York City.

Carrier-Bresson is an aristocratic radical – laughs, “I was official photographer for the Resistance” – is gently disdainful of the new mass housing projects crowing the view of the Lower East Side from the bridge….”It breathes!” Cartier says happily about the central promenade.  “See how it breathes!” With his devastating clarity and my zeal for these leftover streets, we bring home the Brooklyn Bridge sill anchored in the Iron Age, the “Swamp” district of leather factories, old gold assayers’ shops, dealers in perfumes and wines….But Paris is his world, New York is mine.  (53)

The contrast is brought out in a moment in Brownsville when Cassier-Bresson goes to snap a shot in Brownsville, home of a large Jewish community:

“The glories” are not much on evidence when Carier-Bresson insists that I show him Brownville, at the far end of Brooklyn.  Brownville, the road every other road in my life has had to cross…We walk about most of the morning and early afternoon in the cold…..Henri stops to snap some cute little boys, and a woman comes rushing out of the yard – a demented face, eyes rolling out of her head like a violently beating heart, screaming that she knows what we is doing, all right, couldn’t fool her.  “Are those your kids? I ask.  “Yah.” “Is your husband around?” Grins.  “I’se married to everybody.”  (54)

In this moment an African American community – which has moved into Brownsville – since he moved away, has overlapped with the Jewish community.  For Kazin, this is the New York Cartier-Bresson can’t understand.  He is too aristocratic.  He is Parisian.  Place is definitive of culture and character.

Kazin plays on this and points out that not all things French are far away from him and his Jewishness.  It is Blaise Pascal’s words on the Jews – which he “scribbled in his ‘night of vision’ and had “sewn into his coat” – that speak to Kazin thinks of Jewisheness, and, by extension a kind of blackness that he saw in Brownsville.  In these words, Kazin finds a “perfect transparency” about Jewishness which brings Kazin to his knees, literally, in a kind of Jewish religiosity:

In a style that already astonished me by its perfect transparency, he brought me to my knees – this in the universe of death that was the war world of the Jews:

 Advantages of the Jewish People: In this search the Jewish people at once attracts my attention by the number of wonderful and singular facts about them.

 I first see that they are a people wholly composed of brethren.   Being thus of all one flesh and members one of another, they constitute a powerful state of one family. This is unique. 

 This family, or people, is the most ancient within human knowledge, a fact which seems to me to inspire a peculiar veneration for it…if God had from all time revealed Himself to men, it is to these we must turn for knowledge of their tradition.  (58)

He calls this insight by Pascal the “gift of life” because “Pascal combined the greatest possible intelligence with the most acute need of God”(58).   In contrast to Pascal, Kazin slights Simone Weil – in her denunciation of Jewishenss and her rejection of the tradition – as deeply troubling.  Yet, at the same time, he admires her leaving – so to speak – the house of reigion:

Weil could not say, like many other a Jewish prophet, “Zeal for they house has consumed me.”  The Jews are not her house.  Neither was the world itself.  But zeal for divinity she absolutely believed in certainly consumed her.  In the ghastly trial of humanity that was Hitler’s war, she to would have been obliterated if her posthumously published notebooks had not revealed her, in all her excess, as a genius of spiritual life.  Representing noting and no one but herself, she was no more with the church than she was with the Jews. (61)

It is this contrast, between being a Jew and being, like Simone Weil, free of all religion that , that informs his central conflict with Jewishness.   At the end of his journals and near the very end of his life, Kazin (in 1995), returns to his reflection on Weil:

Simone Weil said that the only real question to be asked of another is “What are you going through?” And another even more fiercely independent Jew: “the Kingdom of God cometh not with observation.”  No, it doth not.  I know this as a critic of other people’s books, a tiresome moralist even tot myself of other people’s habits and choices, as a spectator; wandering New York all my life in constant amazement of people walking briskly alone talking to themselves, glowering as they sit fiercely alone on park benches, fiercely adopting attitudes as they talk to make a point, then just as surely drooping away from the make believe height as soon as the others are gone.  (340)

In the end, this lonesomeness is the defining trait of the writer and distinguishes him from the scientist.  It is language that is his servant and master, not God.  However, as we can see above, he reads this through the lens of reverence and suggests a rift between literature and science that echoes the rift between faith and reason (Jerusalem and Athens) that we see in Blaise Pascal and Soren Kierkegaard:

Science, seeking confirmation, proof, objective testing and proof, cannot avail itself of human loneliness, but literature can.  And this with language that is always failing and stumbling, breaking the writer’s heart with its mere approximateness ot thing in his mind.  Besides, language is always asserting its primitive authority, is a halting servant but can be a terrible master.   Science progresses over time, literature never.    (340)

What is fascinating about this statement is that the same thing can be said of his Jewishness and of Brownsville.  His place in New York, like the literature he loves, never progresses.  It is always “falling and stumbling” like a schlemiel.   And in back of his language one can hear his Jewish mother crying out in astonishment.   In the end, Kazin is alone with his words and yet…he knows he is a member of a Jewish family.   The Jewish question can be read in the tension between his Jewishness, his family, and his lonely passion for literature which he sees, in his last reflections, in the streets of New York.  In this he’s like a Jewish Walt Whitman.  He is  a schlemiel at heart whose home is somewhere between Brownsville and Manhattan, on the one hand, and between Weil and Pascal or Kazin and Bresson-Cartier, on the other.


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