How do you say kaddish for a magazine that lived to be 100 years old?
Because that is precisely what many fans of The New Republic are doing, as well as engaging in the more of-this-world-ly act of cancelling their subscriptions.
By now, everyone in the literary world and blogosphere is aware of what has happened: in the wake of new owner Chris Hughes’ reorganization plan for the venerable magazine, there was a wave of departures, editor Franklin Foer; Leon Wieseltier, its literary editor since 1983; and 28 of The New Republic’s staff and editors. They include such luminaries as Adam Kirsch, Jeffrey Rosen, Judith Shulevitz, Paul Berman and Sean Wilentz.
Of course, it is premature to say that The New Republic has died. Its current owner and editor have assured the public that it will continue, albeit in a different form and, no doubt, with different priorities. But the departure of those editors and writers has signified nothing less than the gutting of the magazine, and it is therefore more than excusable to imagine its demise.
That this happens within weeks of the magazine’s celebration of its centennial year is more than ironic; it is tragic. The departure of those editors has done to The New Republic what even the notorious Stephen Glass scandal couldn’t do: serious, perhaps irreparable damage.
And why should the literary world be hearing kaddish at this particular time? It is because Jews have a particularly powerful reason to be sitting shiva for The New Republic.
The truth is that The New Republic was the only secular (by which I mean, not published under Jewish auspices) magazine in America that could be depended upon to take Jewish issues seriously. Many of the aforementioned departed writers have made significant contributions to American Jewish life and letters.
Adam Kirsch maintains a regular column of Talmud study, wrote a compelling biography of Benjamin Disraeli, and regularly contributes to Jewish intellectual discourse. Judith Shulevitz has written a gorgeous paean to the Jewish Sabbath entitled The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. Sean Wilentz writes extensively on Jewish influences in popular culture. Paul Berman wrote Terror and Liberalism, perhaps the most effective expose of the fascistic roots of current Islamic radicalism.
Nary a Jewish lightweight among them.
But the two people who were most responsible for the Jewish accent of The New Republic were former publisher and editor, Martin Peretz, and its now-departed literary editor, Leon Wieseltier. In fact, it was primarily through Peretz and Wieseltier’s “Jewish” writings that I first became a fan of The New Republic.
A “fan?” That is putting it too lightly, I fear. “Enamored” is more like it. As a long-time reader and writer for Jewish magazines, I was certainly accustomed to finding more-than-credible, even dazzling coverage of the Jewish world from within their covers. (Moment magazine, under the watchful editorial eye and vision of the late, lamented Leonard Fein, was probably the best).
But to have stumbled upon such full-throated defenses of Jews, Judaism and the state of Israel within The New Republic – particularly at a time when other liberal magazines had deemed such allegiances to be parochial, if not outright primitive – was nothing less than redemptive for me. I admit it: I fell in love. I became a New Republic groupie, to the extent that I often quoted Peretz and Wieseltier in my rabbinical sermons and teachings as much as, say, Maimonides. OK, probably more.
One of these days, someone will compile a “New Republic’s Greatest Jewish Moments” anthology. Those clippings sit in my files, yellowing but often read. A treasure trove: Peretz’s article on Israel’s 1982 incursion into Beirut, “Lebanon Eyewitness,” (TNR, August 2, 1982) which defended Israel’s actions and which lambasted the media coverage of that war.
Re-read it, and just substitute “Gaza” for “Beirut,” and you will bask in its (sad) contemporary relevance.
Or Peretz’s back page essays on Joseph and Moses – what other editor of a major liberal magazine would have engaged in such acts of Torah? Or his tender assessment of the spiritual power of Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur
Or the entire special issue on Zionism at 100, published on the hundredth anniversary of the 1898 Zionist Congress in Basel. Check out the essay “The God That Did Not Fail”
And from the pen of Leon Wieseltier? Where do I start? A short list of my favorites: On the rise of Meir Kahane; his piece on the inauguration of the United States Holocaust Museum; his essay “Hitler Is Dead” on the ongoing nature of Jewish fears; his assessment of the internal struggles around the war in Gaza.
Wieseltier found room in The New Republic’s pages for his translations of previously unpublished poetry of Yehuda Amichai , an extraordinarily valuable Jewish literary achievement.
So, what are we mourning? We are mourning the apparent end of a journalistic vision that offered a vigorous defense of the needs of the Jewish people. The New Republic was the only liberal magazine critical enough of liberalism to stand up for Israel and Zionism, even and especially when many liberals had abandoned the Jewish state.
And The New Republic had the scars to prove it. Critics from the left found The New Republic’s intellectual defense of Israel and its hardheaded view of the nuclear threat from Iran to be, at the very least, vexing. They were fast and free with their insults.
No doubt the departing editors and writers will find other havens for their thoughts and words. The tradition of American Jewish public intellectual fervor will not go gently into that good night (with apologies to Dylan Thomas). We might even hope for something like “The Newer Republic.”
But, as for now, this hurts us. We cannot expect that The New Republic will continue the literate, measured intellectual defense of Israel that had previously graced its pages.
And that is truly a loss. Yitgadal v’yitkadash: the custom of Kaddish might have originated as a way of concluding a time of study, and only gradually have become associated with death. (Wieseltier has, of course, written about this in his magisterial book Kaddish, with its cover reminiscent of both the Beatles’ “White Album” and the white shroud of death).
We are, in fact, concluding a time of study and learning, an era of study and learning. We can only hope that Chris Hughes’ wisdom will allow that era to continue, in its own way.
Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, NJ, and the author of numerous books on Jewish thought.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is a noted author and prize winning columnist. He regularly blogs at Martini Judaism: for those who want to be shaken and stirred. He serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida. His new book, The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary, will be released in April.