A Clarion Call
Consider the gauntlet thrown. This inaugural issue of Shibboleth is meant as the opening salvo of what may prove to be a long, dangerous offensive against one of the worrisome trends of our generation. We, the Editors, see a problem with our peers: Jewish complacency.
Ours is a generation where Jews are accepted at levels of society we had only dreamed of before. Great Jewish minds abound throughout academia, literature, and the arts, and yet their voices are less and less Jewish voices, and the issues they address are more and more seldom uniquely Jewish issues. At Yale University, where Jewish students amount to a staggering twenty-three percent of the undergraduate population, only a small fraction pursue any kind of Jewish endeavor (ritual, intellectual, artistic, political) that explores their being as Jews in some degree of depth.
In the last century, figures such as Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Isaac Rosenfeld, and Lionel Trilling achieved renown far beyond the Jewish world for their literary, critical, and philosophical work. What’s more, they did so without forgoing a uniquely Jewish perspective. Love the New York Intellectuals or hate them, our day and age has nothing analogous to such a vibrant culture of debate about the deep questions of Jewish identity. If the Jewish public intellectual is one of the unique creations of 20th century American society, the dawn of the 21st century finds that figure in precipitous decline – or perhaps fallen entirely.
Central to any intellectual circle is its journal. Periodicals such as The Partisan Review, Commentary, and Dissent were once known for their distinctly Jewish mix of left-leaning politics and existential angst. But just as the writers have deteriorated, so too have the organs of their thought. In the May 12, 2009, issue of the intercollegiate Jewish magazine New Voices, Josh Nathan-Kazis quotes Israeli intellectual Bernard Avishai on the possibility of a successor to Commentary, which he claims past its prime after the 1960s:
Avishai says that a Jewish successor to Commentary has been elusive. Today, he sees little use for a Jewish magazine. “I think that American Jews have made it, they’ve assimilated, they’re in the elites of America, and their natural place is to contribute to the big, multi-voiced conversation of American liberalism,” he says. More damningly, Avishai suggest that the writers just aren’t there anymore. “The Jewish world has been suburbanized, the younger generation has become intellectually flattened,” he says. “Their parents had already made it. Volvos picked them up and took them to soccer practice. What kind of life is that for a tortured intellectual? They went to Ivy League schools and knew that their fate was to go to Goldman Sachs. They were already not trying to make it, but trying to ride the momentum of their parents’ privilege.”
Perhaps many young American Jews agree that nowadays “there is little use for a Jewish magazine.” Perhaps they are content to “ride the momentum of their parents’ privilege.” But we aren’t. While we cannot hope to single-handedly recapture the spirit of the Great Jewish Magazine on our first try (whatever our mothers tell us), we can proffer the thoughts of a few Jews who deeply believe in a Jewish intellectual life. In Shibboleth, we have sought to create a forum for Jewish intellectual discourse at Yale and a magazine that reflects that discourse. We may not be Bellow or Howe, but we feel that articles such as Joshua Price’s discussion of how Nietzsche came to be translated into Yiddish or Shai Kamin’s critical appraisal of Hebrew school education have something real to say about Jewish culture and ideas. We offer them to you, our readers, in the hope that there are some still willing to listen.
Editors in Chief