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December 2, 2020 5:52 am

Waldo Frank and Jewish Friendship With Minorities

avatar by Harold Brackman

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

Waldo Frank grew up on New York’s affluent Upper West Side before moving to pre-World War I Europe, and then returning to New York in 1914. He co-edited Seven Arts, a voice of America’s young intellectuals. In 1919, he wrote Our America to interpret the US to “young France.” There followed Virgin Spain (1926), which began his love affair with the Spanish-speaking world, to which he sought to build bridges for American Jews.

At that time, philosopher Horace Kallen was popularizing cultural pluralism, emphasizing European “immigrant gifts” to American culture. The difference was that Kallen’s multicultural vision did not include African-Americans or Hispanics. Frank’s did.

Frank had been disillusioned by World War I. During the 1920s, he called for a new American Renaissance with a revolutionary Freudian morality. He criticized the “materialism” of both “Puritan” old-stock Americans and successful American Jews. After a severe illness and intense reading of Spinoza and religious mystics, he discovered his Jewish roots, becoming not exactly a Zionist, but a supporter of blueprints for Jewish statehood.

During the 1930s, Frank tried to reconcile communism with his Jewish values. He clashed in the Saturday Evening Post with judge Jerome Frank (no relation), who urged Jews to quietly disappear into the American background. During World War II, Waldo Frank sounded an early warning about the Holocaust.

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Frank’s formative encounter with multiculturalism had come earlier — after 1920 — when he met aspiring African-American writer Jean Toomer. Toomer was born into a mixed-race family prominent during post-Civil War Reconstruction. The Frank-Toomer relationship reflected the Harlem Renaissance’s Jazz Age iconoclasm about race. Frank and Toomer bonded like brothers across the color line, visiting South Carolina’s Sea Islands together in 1922 with the intention of writing parallel novels about African-American life.

Toomer’s novel, Cane (1923), became a classic of modernist fiction. It featured a character, Fernie May Rosen, the child of an African-American mother and Jewish father, whose nose was “aquiline, Semitic,” and of whom the narrator remarks: “at first sight of her I felt as if I heard the voice of a cantor sing.” Cane made Toomer a celebrity of the Harlem Renaissance.

Frank had helped edit Toomer’s book and arranged a meeting for him with his own publisher, Horace Liveright, a patron of Jewish and African-American writers. Toomer in turn enriched Frank’s writing and worldview. But their friendship ended in 1923 when Toomer had an affair with Frank’s wife.

From the 1920s on, Frank wrote prolifically along three vectors: he continued to promote African-American and Jewish friendship, cultural outreach to Latin America, and deeper understanding between Americans and aspirations for Jewish renewal in Israel.

Frank visited the exiled Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1937 and during World War II was sent on a State Department mission to Argentina. There, he was mugged by pro-Axis thugs. He remained an influential anti-fascist.

In 1942, the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain lauded Frank for emphasizing “the necessity for the Jews of rediscovering [their] strength and reawakening the spirit of Israel.” According to Maritain, Frank “helped the Gentile world to become less ignominious, and Christians to become aware of their own duties.”

American Jews would be better off today had Frank (who died in 1967) left behind more disciples to carry on his multicultural legacy — which was not straitjacketed by identity politics like today’s versions of multiculturalism.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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