By Nancy Sinkoff
Wayne State University Press, 2020, $34.99
Review by Roselyn Bell
Lucy Dawidowicz was not a feminist, nor was she Orthodox, yet much in her life experience and in her intellectual contributions will resonate with JOFA readers. She was often the only woman in a room filled with opinion-shaping men. She was sometimes given lesser recognition for her work than her contributions to a project deserved. She did not shy away from speaking her mind.
Until now, Dawidowicz has not received the sort of critical assessment that her scholarship and influence merit. With From Left to Right, Nancy Sinkoff, a professor of Jewish studies and history at Rutgers University, has given her the deeply researched and personally nuanced biography that she deserves. Sinkoff traces the arc of Dawidowicz’s transformation from a Bronx-born daughter of Eastern European immigrants, sent to Yiddish-speaking Sholom Aleichem shule and Camp Boiberik, to a member of the Young Communist League in college, to becoming a participant in the circle of New York intellectuals and a spokesperson for neoconservatism.
Although the title, From Left to Right, suggests a straightforward journey from one political pole to another, the path Sinkoff describes was shaped by Dawidowicz’s encounters with Eastern European Jewry during two pivotal episodes in her life. From 1938 to 1939 she was in Vilna as part of the YIVO Aspirantur, a fellowship in Yiddish, working in the YIVO archives. She barely made it out, as war broke out in September 1939. Having left behind friends and colleagues “on the precipice of catastrophe,” she would come to see herself as their voice. Seven years later, she returned to Europe under the auspices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to work with the survivors in displaced-persons camps in the American zone in Germany, recording their testimonies in a Yiddish newspaper. During this stay, she played a pivotal role in identifying and cataloguing books that had been in the YIVO library and had been plundered by the Nazis, and bringing the books “home” to YIVO in New York City—not without a provenance fight between New York and Jerusalem.
These two formative experiences led Dawidowicz to see herself as the “last witness” to the culture and history of Eastern European Jewish civilization, and to feel a calling to preserve its gems for contemporary American Jewry. At the suggestion of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in 1967 she published The Golden Tradition, an anthology of autobiographical writings translated from Russian, Polish, Yiddish, German, and Hebrew, which showcased the varieties of Jewish cultural, political, and religious life in prewar Eastern Europe.
In another act of fealty to those who perished, Dawidowicz taught one of the first university courses in Holocaust history at Stern College. In 1970 she came to occupy the first dedicated chair of Holocaust studies—a field that has grown exponentially since then. In this field, she found herself in the middle of numerous controversies—with Raul Hilberg, with Hannah Arendt, with Leslie Epstein. Most centrally, she fought against the universalistic interpretation of the Holocaust. Dawidowicz insisted on the specificity of the Holocaust to Jewish suffering, on the centrality of anti-Semitism to Hitler’s intentions, and the defense of the Judenrat as functioning in service to their community. Appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the commission to create a U.S. memorial to the Holocaust, she disagreed with the commission’s plans to include non-Jewish victims of Nazism and its location in Washington rather than in New York, where the largest number of survivors lived. She wrote “no” on the final report and resigned from the commission.
Dawidowicz’s views of Jewish history clearly influenced her political stances and were a part of what moved her “from left to right.” Her appreciation for the concept of dina d’malkhuta dina (“the law of the land is the law”), which she saw as the governing political principle of diasporic Jewish communities, led her to condemn the protest movements of the late 1960s and to move into the neoconservative camp. In researching Jewish economic history for an intended social history of American Jews, she came to appreciate the American Jewish businessman and the opportunities of capitalism. Sinkoff makes the argument that the Jewish neoconservatives and the “New York intellectuals” had their forerunners in the merchants and the maskilim of European Jewish history. There were many factors at work in Dawidowicz’s shift, of course, and Sinkoff offers a comprehensive view of the players, the arguments, and the zeitgeist.
A strength of this book is that it not only traces the personal journey of its biographical subject but also fills in the background of her mentors, her fellow travelers, and the organizational cultures in which she worked. As one who lived through a good part of the era described, I felt reminded, almost viscerally, of the tenor of those times. And so many of the issues that Dawidowicz addressed—such as the relationship between diaspora Jewry and Israel and American Jewry’s love-hate relationship with the evangelicals—are still very much with us.
Sinkoff has very thoroughly researched her subject, as shown by the extensive footnotes and selected letters that capture Dawidowicz’s voice. My favorite line, however, was one excised from a speech she intended to give to alumni of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical program: “Gentlemen,” she wrote but did not say, “you may be in trouble for talking overmuch with women.”
Ruthie Braffman Shulman
Ruthie Braffman Shulman served as a Devorah Scholar at the United Orthodox Synagogue in Houston, TX. There she held the role of Director of Education and