Maybe Today’s Zionists Can Still Learn From Ludwig Lewisohn
Observers today love to analyze Israel-Diaspora tensions, but it would do both sides well to remember how integral American Jewish intellectuals once were to the trajectory of the Zionist movement.
There is much talk, maybe too much, about disagreements over settlements, the “Who is a Jew” controversy, and Israel’s new Nation State Law, etc. — but not enough consideration is given to the dearth of colorful leaders who once ignited the imaginations of young American Jews with the Zionist cause. I will focus here on one forgotten man: Jazz Age Zionist Ludwig Lewisohn (the subject of Ralph Melnick’s massive biography).
Born in Berlin in 1882, Lewisohn had parents — “Germans first and Jews afterwards” — who moved to South Carolina. Describing himself at age 15 as “an American, a Southerner, and a Christian,” young Ludwig soon left for Columbia University. His crushing blow came when a professor informed him that “a man of Jewish birth” had no chance of teaching English at a university.
“For the first time in my life,” he declared in his autobiography, Upstream, “my heart turned with grief and remorse to my brethren in exile all over the world.”
Additional disillusionment came during World War I, when teaching German at Ohio State; there, the university’s president questioned his loyalty. Lewisohn fled the “sex repression” and super-patriotism of Middle West America to New York’s Greenwich Village, where he was a drama critic for The Nation magazine, preaching a gospel of redeeming provincial American culture by marrying it with cosmopolitan Europe. He gravitated toward H. L. Mencken’s dystopian faith that Americans were an irredeemable “booboisie.”
Joining the rush of expatriates to Paris in 1925, he then visited Palestine. Later, returning to New York, he joined with the World Zionist Organization.
By 1926, Lewisohn’s semi-autobiographical succès de scandale, The Case of Mrs. Crump, was published in Paris, though it was partially banned in the US. Lewisohn rejected Israel Zangwill’s “melting pot” ideal for a Zionist-inflected “cultural pluralism.” A prolific translator of German works, he befriended African-American great Paul Robeson, earning the hatred of Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent.
Forgotten now, Lewisohn was important for challenging narrow attitudes toward sex and ethnicity, as he pioneered an intellectual roadmap to Zionism. His autobiographical novel, The Island Within (1928), was praised by Thomas Mann, Freud, Einstein and Bertrand Russell. But the story of fictional psychoanalyst, Arthur Levy, searching for his Hasidic roots — Lewisohn himself underwent a short analysis with Freud — never made it to Hollywood, which was not yet ready to explore its theme of antisemitism.
As the Nazis marched to power, Lewisohn presciently saw the danger in The Last Days of Shylock (1931). The only way out was Zionism, he concluded, and demanded that Jewish leadership, including Zionists, confront the Nazi threat with unflinching resolve.
For Lewisohn, Zionism was “a radical movement” of a people “on the march from homelessness to a home.” In 1950, he wrote, “We will not even leave our dead behind, Herzl wrote in his diaries. There will be a ship sailing to Eretz Yisrael carrying the bones of our fathers.”
A founding faculty member of Brandeis University, Lewisohn died in 1955. Growing up an American provincial, he matured into a cosmopolitan Zionist. Perhaps we can still learn from Ludwig Lewisohn’s journey today.
Historian Harold Brackman is co-author with Ephraim Isaac of ‘From Abraham to Obama: A History of Africans, African Americans, and Jews’ (Africa World Press, 2015).