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In the Realm of Literature, a Definition of the 'Other'

June 18, 2009 By:
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A decade ago, Carole S. Kessner published an eye-opening book called The "Other" New York Jewish Intellectuals. Her thesis was that while writers like Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe and Philip Rahv were known and respected in intellectual circles worldwide, there existed at the same time another group of New York-based Jewish writers, who were not so widely known but just as deserving of attention.

This less recognized group included Maurice Samuel, Marie Syrkin, Charles Reznikoff, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin and Will Herberg, who didn't appear in the pages of Partisan Review, like their counterparts, but rather chose to publish in places like Jewish Frontier and Menorah Journal. This was what separated the two groups; the fault line rested on their attitude toward their Jewishness.

In her introduction to The "Other" New York Jewish Intellectuals, Kessner noted that the better-known intellectuals -- Trilling, Howe, Alfred Kazan -- "defined themselves Jewishly through their alienation from their Jewishness." People like Syrkin and Weiss-Rosmarin didn't feel such ambivalence. Nor did they "lust" for entry into the American mainstream as did their more famous counterparts; they also "cared about the destiny and fate of their own people."

For the most part, the subjects in Kessner's first book were committed Zionists, who put concern for Judaism and Israel above all other concerns, where individuals like Trilling and his wife Diana took their greatest pleasure from arguing over the intricacies of left-wing politics.

The "Other" New York Jewish Intellectuals was actually a collection of essays -- one devoted to each of these "shadow" figures -- with an introduction by Kessner, who also served as editor of the enterprise. Though devoted to stirring up interest in all these marginalized individuals, Kessner clearly had a favorite among the pack: Marie Syrkin. She made no bones about it; she knew her personally, looked up to her as a mentor and spent decades working on a biography, titled Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self, which was recently published by Brandeis University Press.

As Kessner has demonstrated in all her writings about her idol, Syrkin's life was a fascinating one, filled with incident and great drama. Born in Switzerland, she was the only child of the Zionist theorist Nachman Syrkin, and Bassya Osnos, herself a pioneering feminist and socialist Zionist who died when her daughter was in her teens.

The Syrkins didn't make it to the United States till 1908. By then, Marie was fluent in a number of languages, as the family had traveled throughout Europe, spending periods of time in Germany, France and Vilna. Marie attended the Manhattan public schools, and then earned both a B.A. and M.A. in English literature from Cornell University.

Professionally, she wrote poetry, and did translations from both the Hebrew and the Yiddish. At the same time, she taught for two decades in a New York City high school and wrote a book about the American school system called Your School, Your Children, which appeared in the mid-1940s.

Like the "other" intellectuals in her crowd, she spent much of the 1930s and '40s reporting on the persecution of Europe's Jews. Perhaps her most famous book came out of this experience, Blessed Is the Match, which detailed the various Jewish resistance movements that rose up against the Nazis. She also worked at the end of the war to bring young people from the Displaced Persons camps to the United States as Hillel scholars.

She wrote many books about Zionism and Israel, including one about her father, and several about her close friend Golda Meir. During the post-World War II years, she acted as the editor of Jewish Frontier. She also began teaching English literature at the newly established Brandeis University, where -- irony of ironies -- she held the floor with those more famous New York Jewish intellectuals, who were also offered jobs there and so began their long academic careers.

Syrkin's personal life was as turbulent as some of the intellectual spats she entered into. Her first marriage to fellow "other" intellectual Maurice Samuel was annulled; her second to biochemist Aaron Bodansky ended in divorce. She married poet Charles Reznikoff, another of Kessner's lesser-known figures, in 1930. He died in 1976, and she lived on for another 13 years.

This bald outline of Syrkin's eventful life doesn't give one any sense of the spirit and fire that Kessner captures in her detailed biography. It is both a tribute to its subject and filled with rigorous analysis. One thing it isn't is hagiography. Syrkin was one of the great figures in 20th-century American Jewish life, as Kessner's book makes clear.

Let's hope many readers make their way to it, and also become acquainted with Syrkin's voluminous writings.

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