Page 118 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 22

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112
J
e w i s h
B
o o k
A
n n u a l
to communicate shining and original ideas. Master of the scin­
tillating phrase, the crushing epigram and the rounded period,
he stands solidly on his erudition and commitment. He is not
one to sacrifice his grandmother for an effect.
The intensity of his commitment also may explain the com­
pulsive character of much of his writing. An idea seizes him,
almost as he describes it or mystically personifies it in the open­
ing scene of
The Second Crucifixion,
and it is as a burning fire
in his bowels until he writes it out.
So strong is this compulsion that he regards
The Devil That
Failed,
that delightful tour de force which is absorbing and
authentic “entertainment,” as having been a “defection” from
“duty” (although he adds that he had such a good time writing
it that he has no regret).
In his sixty-ninth year he is entitled to be writing something
else which, as he says, would be “fun” to write. He wants to
write on the charm of Yiddish, on science and the layman, on
Jewish apostates. But he is consumed by a drive to reconstruct
the entire history of the trial of Mendel Beiliss, and in what
he calls his “fearsome Beiliss factory” he is laboring upon it.
One can be certain that the completed work will be more than
a journalistic description. It will be the definitive evocation of
an era, a recording for all time of the meaning of State-sponsored
anti-Semitism and State-sponsored persecution and pogrom,
within the context of his larger thesis.
“Probably the ablest Jewish intellectual of his generation in
America,” Lewisohn called him. Hence, his success as a polemi­
cist; logic and information undergird his brilliance of form and
his victims are decimated. On the lecture platform this capacity
for the instant retort perfect becomes a lethal weapon (“How
would you feel if you were an Arab, Mr. Samuel?” “How would
you
feel if you were a Jew, Rabbi Foster?”) and many an an­
tagonist has been destroyed by it. With his friend, Ludwig
Lewisohn, he shared a gift for shattering sarcasm. But he is
not always the vicious, murderous opponent. He can muster
inexhaustible reserves of patience in answering the innocent.
Like the Corinthians he is able to “suffer fools gladly.” But
only when they are summer fools. When, in the delightful
distinction which he records in
Certain People
they are “winter
fools” wrapped up in the heavy garments of their own preten­
tiousness and self-esteem, his compassion dissolves in an acid
bath of needle-sharp analysis. He especially enjoys taking on the
winter fools who wear academic robes: the Arnold Toynbees
and the Hannah Arendts. But in this role he does much more
than attack and refute. He is apologist as well; he uses his gift
for words to convey new insights and creative reinterpretations.
The Professor and the Fossil
is a devastating response to Toynbee