Two Jewish magazines I read regularly celebrated their 70th anniversaries this fall with special editions. Jewish Currents on the left and Commentary on the right—a true literary Odd Couple—put out compelling issues that look back to World War II and ahead 50 years.
Both issues are keepers. Jewish Currents, which calls itself “a progressive, secular voice,” recalled Jewish resistance during World War II, drawing from its decades of articles on the topic, along with sidebars highlighting women fighters partisans and leaders. The reporting adds up to painful but action-oriented reading, as Jews recognized their mortal danger and took whatever steps they could to fight back.
In his thoughtful introduction, “Remember Jews Who Fought Back,” editor Lawrence Bush explores the myth of Jewish passivity and the Jewish Currents’ role in publicizing another narrative. He outlines reasons why commemoration of Jewish resistance “was displaced,” pointing to the USSR’s smothering of Jewish identity and involvement in the war; McCarthyism in the U.S. and the fear of marking the leading role of leftwing Jews in the resistance; “the Zionist struggle to establish the State of Israel;” and finally the opposition of religious Jews to a secular commemoration of the Holocaust.
Bush also provides lessons to be learned from looking back.
The articles fall into four categories: resistance in the ghettos, resistance in the camps and killing fields, resistance in the forests and countryside, and reflections on Jewish resistance. Heavily illustrated with photos from these locations, and of survivors after the war, every word of the issue is essential reading in grasping how Jews took control of their fates with courage and imagination. Even in their deaths, they dragged Nazis down with them. One eye-opening essay reprints the farewell letters written by Jewish members of the Manouchian Group, part of the Communist resistance in France. I never knew that “Nazi custom” allowed those about to be executed to write a final letter. They are all unbearable to read, and this one, from Szlama Grzywac, a 35-year old Polish Jew, shows a sense of prophecy:
At three o’clock today I go before the firing squad. I’ve kept my calm up to the last minute, as befits a Jewish worker.
I die, but you’ll never forget me.
If any of my family members are alive, tell them about me.
I die, but you live. I send you my best wishes. I bid farewell to you and to all my friends.
Courage, courage, and more courage.
A better future isn’t far off.
I kiss you a thousand times. I embrace all my friends.
Bush is exactly right in his introduction when he says, “These articles represent one of the most proud and enduring contributions our magazine has made to Jewish culture since 1946—a contribution that has continued to unfold in subsequent decades.”
Commentary, in contrast, peers a half-century ahead with its symposium on the theme of “The Jewish Future: What will be the condition of the Jewish community 50 years from now?.” Editor John Podhoretz begins with a survey of the restrictions on American Jews in 1945, then segues into the current level of freedom and influence. Like Bush, he gives the long view of the magazine’s social role, noting, “Commentary seeks to remain a vital contributor to the American scene 70 years after the publication of its first issue by reflecting, and evangelizing for, the Jewish people’s ancient dedication to intellectual seriousness.”
Seventy contributors pitched in with short essays, in alphabetic rather than any thematic order. Expected voices such as Morton Klein, Alan Dershowitz, Joseph Lieberman, Richard Joel, William Kristol and Ruth Messinger contribute earnest thinking. The more sprightly pieces use a sci-fi flair to break up the heavy going. Moshe Koppel, a professor of computer science at Bar-Ilan University, speculated on the end of Jewish communities outside of Israel, with persecution driving Jews from Europe and assimilation achieving the same goal in the United States. He wrote from a 2065 perspective,
These days the last remaining unassimilated Jews in the United States belong to several dozen Hasidic sects currently in litigation over the Satmar brand and a chain of messianic mega-shuls in the South founded by a philo-Semitic evangelical denomination that converted to Judaism en masse via an enterprising Chabad rabbi.
Bret Stephens, author and Wall Street Journal columnist, had a grim speculative view, writing, “As for historic Palestine, all the remains of the Jewish population is a small religious community in the historic town of Safed, under the formal protection of the Shiite Alliance of Galilee and the Beqaa.”
As much as Commentary syncs up with my personal politics, the anniversary issue left me looking for more. While all of them are distinguished, most contributors were predictable in their inclusion in the issue; I would have liked a view from emerging or outlier Jewish communities, such as crypto-Jews from Texas and New Mexico, women rabbis, singer Kinky Friedman, writer-provocateur Tuvia Tenenbom (author of I Sleep in Hitler’s Room), black Jewish intellectual MaNishtana, and anybody to jolt me out of the comfortable view—but then, that’s why I also subscribe to the Forward, home of all things outlying. I would especially like to hear what Lawrence Bush would see in his crystal ball.
Podhoretz finally draws some conclusions in a closing essay that hits on the themes of optimism, transformation, prophecy and unknowability. His recap pulls the issue back from a sense of randomness. In one way, he circles back to agree with the themes of Jewish Currents, of Jewish self-assertion in perilous times. Podhoretz says, “For two millennia, Jews were acted upon. Now our future is in our hands, both here and in Israel.”