Alfred Kazin: a Jew, an American, and a NYC Walker

I come from a few generations of New York Jews.

My father went to Brooklyn Tech and Columbia University. He was born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan. My mothers parents moved from the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, to Queens, and then to Long Island.

But we were the first in the family to move to Upstate New York. As a child – born and raised in the Adirondacks (my father was in the leather business, which was started by my grandfather who used to commute from Manhattan) – I was always fascinated with Jews in New York City (NYC).

I would travel back and forth with my parents to visit my grandparents and relatives. Every time I went, I became more and more fascinated. I had, if you will, a romantic relationship with New York City and with the migration of Jews to Long Beach and Long Island (my grandparents had a summer home in Long Beach and both my parents and my grandparents met at the Lido Beach Club in Long Beach. It was a place where Jewish entertainers and comedians came regularly to perform).

New York Jews gave birth to the American Schlemiel and sent it to Hollywood. Sholem Aleichem wrote his last book, Motl the Cantors Son, while he was living in NYC. The book, published after his death, told of the story of the European Schlemiel’s journey to New York City and discovering America (a continuation of the earlier book, The Further Adventures of Menachem-Mendl: New York, Warsaw, Vienna, Yehupetz). Aleichem’s migrating schlemiels were romantics, dreamers, who imagined a new and exciting life in America. Schlemiel characters popped up in Broadway, made a run in the Borsht Belt, and went west to Hollywood to become an American icon.

What I find interesting about post-WWII Jewish American writers from New York City, such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, is that they tended to imagine where I came from in the Adirondacks as a wild place, a place where Jews go wild and abandon their Jewishness. Philip Roth based his main character in American Pastoral, Swede, on David Shmukler, a Jewish Football Player who went to my high school.

Swede was not like other Jews, especially Jews from NYC. For Roth, he doesn’t even seem Jewish or even care about what it means to be Jewish. Swede is a Jew who was fully assimilated. His own offspring end up hating America and see it as a place to hate rather than as a place where dreams (of his immigrant father, who entered the leather business and became a success) come true.

I saw things from a different angle.

Unlike Bellow, Roth, or my parents, I was not a baby boomer. I was living far from my immigrant roots and I didn’t end up like the wild characters they imagined would be born in the Adirondacks. I wanted to know more about Jewishness, not less. I experienced what it was like to live in the American wild, but I didn’t want it.

This brought me to revisit the New York (Jewish) Intellectuals who were the children of immigrants. I have read and continue to think about and study people like Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin because I am curious about their relationship, as New York Jews, with their Jewishness. They lived between two worlds: between Europe (via their immigrant parents and the immigrant millieu they grew up in) and America.

Each of the paths Howe and Kazin chose is telling and gives much food for thought because their attempt to bridge their dreams and hopes with their origins is a struggle which, to my chagrin, has been lost to many Jewish Americans today. Some of my favorite Jewish American authors, today, do grapple with it, such as Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Shalom Auslander. It is my belief that if we go back to these original struggles of Howe and Kazin, we can better understand what may have been lost and why the struggle between a European past and an American future for Jews is worth digging up.

Reading A Walker in City recently, a book originally published in 1947, I was struck by some passages of Kazin about Jewishness that came to him while walking through this city. The motif of walking through this city is a romantic one.

During his excursions and movements through this city, memories and feelings flow back to him, which he considers and carefully weighs. What emotions and feelings compel him most and what do they reveal about who he really is or should be?

The epigraph of the book is from Walt Whitman’s famous poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings – on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river.

Whitman discovers the beauty of American as he crosses over on the ferry. He experiences a deep oneness with the immigrants, with sights, sounds and smells around him. The ride gives him an epiphany of America that many poets and writers after him took to heart. The ferry ride touched his heart and inspired this poem about what makes America a transcendental country.

Unlike Whitman, Kazin walks through the streets of the city as a child of Jewish Immigrants. He lives in Brownsville, Brooklyn. When he goes to Manhattan, he sees a much different world that the one he was born and raised in. Near the end of the book, Kazin recounts taking the El Train from Manhattan back to Brownsville. He has an epiphany in Manhattan before boarding the train, but the ephiphany is broken by “the cries of old Jewish women”:

Dusty particles of daylight fell between the tracks of the El; I had never seen anything so right; it was dusk, dusk everywhere in the lower city now all the way to Cooper Square and Bible House and Astor Place, where even the books and prints and sheet music on the stalls were dusty old, and as I went up the black stairs of the El station with the Gold Stripe silk stocking ad teasing my eye from step to step, only the cries of the old Jewish women selling salted pretzels near Union Square broke the spell (98).

These Jewish women “break the spell,” they remind him that he can’t have a Whitmanesque epiphany in Manhattan. Following this, he recounts his Jewish world and wonders about what “broke the spell.” What created the difference that broke up the unity of his vision?

“But why the long ride home at all? Why did they live there and we always in “Brunzvil”? Why were they there, and we always here? Why was it always them and us, Gentiles and us, alrightniks and us?”

From here he recounts the Jewish immigrant vision of Manhattan and the world:

Beyond Brownsville was all “the city,” that other land I could see for a day, but with every next day back on the block, back to the great wall behind the drugstore I relentlessly had to pound with a handball. Beyond the strange world of the Gentiles, all of them with flaxen hair, who hated Jews, especially poor Jews, had ugly names for us I could never read or hear without seeing Pilsudski’s knife cold against our throats. To be a Jew meant that one’s very right to existence was always being brought into question. Everyone knew this….It was what I always heard in the great Kol Nidre sung in the first evening hours of the Day of Atonement, had played on my violin for them Friday evenings in the dining room whenever I felt lost and wanted to show them how very much I loved them, knew them through and through, wouild suffer loyally for them. Jews were Jews; Gentiles were Gentiles. The line between them had been drawn for all time. What had my private walks into the city to do with anything! (99)

Following this, he recalls the day of his Bar Mitzvah and the recitation of the Shema (Hear O Israel) prayer (99-100). What is fascinating about his description is about he felt solitary and apart from his friends when he donned his phylactaries (tefillin) and said the prayer. Its a moment of existential apartness where he sits on the threshold and thinks about who he really is:

But early summer morning in Brownsville: the pigeons rasping in their cages, the kids too young for handball with a regulation black hard ball…the sun so fierce on the iron floor of the fire escape that I had to sit on the windowsill, my bottom prickly on the pebbled stone. Everything in sight looked half-dead…I listlessly picked up my little prayer book, too tired now to even finish the last blessings, and in an agony of surprise, as if I could distinctly hear great seas around me, read aloud to my self…I had never realized that this, this deepness, lay under the gloomy obscurities of Shabbes in our little wooden synagogue on Chester Street; that my miserable melamed with a few dried peas sticking to his underlip and ready to slap my hands at every mistake had known this. When your fathers provoked me! How many fathers I had! (101)

He recalls the Awe of God that he learned from all of these “fathers” and spends time alone with the text and his reflections rather than praying. He recalls the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur prayers, and experiences his unity with his people. “All went through the long catalogue” of sin “in unison, finding its enumeration, as I thought, a kind of purifying ecstasy, for they were summing up the whole earthly life in Brownsville”(102):

Our God, and God of Our Fathers,

Verily, we confess, we have sinned

We have trespassed

We have dealt treacherously

We have stolen

We have spoken slander

We have committed iniquity and have done wickedly

We have acked presumptuously

We have committed violence

We have said falsehood

We have counseled evil


Kazin says that “the voice that spoke in that prayer book seemed to come out of our very bowels. There was something grand and austere in it that confirmed everything I had felt in my bones about being a Jew: the fierce awareness of life to the depths, every day and in every hour: the commitment: the hunger”(102).

This is Kazin’s cosmic epiphany which is particular (to NYC) and universal (in terms of being a Jew and a member of a Jewish people in a long line of tradition).

Reflecting on this, he says that while this is true “there was no gladness in it”(103). He wanted to be a “good Jew” but wondered if there are really Jews “who lived beyond Brownsville?” Strangely enough, this leads him to want to find Hasidim, who find joy in Judaism.

I had read about Chassidim, “the great enthusiasts, dancers, walkers” – poor East European Jews, only poorest, but so full of the Lord that they danced before Him in joy. They were my people! But when you asked around, hoping there had been at least one Chassid somewhere among all your many prayer grandfathers and great grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers – surely there had been at least one….they shrugged their shoulders, said something about old-fashioned customs, mishegoyim, crazy ones, comfortably took another pinch of snuff, first in one nostril, then the nostril, sneezed heartily, and went back to their prayers. (104)

He took this thought of Joy in Judaism with him and hoped to meet “beautiful unmet Chassidim”(104). That joy gave him an orientation. He called it music: “Walking, I always knew how I felt by the music in my head”(104).

However, his book does not tell us about any Hasid he met who changed his life, as we see in a book like 9 1/2 Mystics.

Rather, the Chassidim seem to only exist in his head and in the books he takes with him on the Subway. To be sure, this is what happens to Hasidim through many Yiddish Haskalah writers (like Shalom Aleichem), through Martin Buber, or IB Singer. They all turn these real people into fictional motifs, into joyful thoughts. They were interested in returning and celebrating the joy of Judaism, they were into the idea of the Baal Teshuva who returned through the Hasidim (Kafka also had such an interest). Although they didn’t follow through with that idea, they made it central to their understanding of themselves as Modern Jews.

There is an aesthetic and an experience, here. Kazin is accounting for it in his walk and in his Jewish epiphany. But the threshold he sits on when he is thirteen and a Bar Mitzvah is the threshold between being Jewish and being American. The following passage after this one, demonstrating his walk (so to speak), is how, after he was fourteen, he started to learn more and more about America in his paper delivery route (from the newspapers and the places he went). But, in the end, he returns to that threshold in all his journeys through America. That seems to be the message. He will always be sitting there when he returns from his walks. Its the place where he, like a Baal Teshuva (Teshuva means return in Hebrew), returns.

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