Not surprisingly, the first Jewish genealogical society of the postwar era was founded in New York about a year after World Of Our Fathers was published, an era that also saw the arrival of the first major works on Jewish genealogy — Dan Rottenberg’s Finding Our Fathers (1977) and Arthur Kurzweil’s From Generation to Generation (1980). World Of Our Fathers deserves to be remembered as a pioneering study that helped to kindle the current mass interest in our Jewish roots. Lauded by the New York Times Book Review as a “great book” when it first came out, it deserves to be remembered as such, and remains no less impressive upon second reading. ♦
Like Fiddler On The Roof, the musical that had premiered only a few years before, World Of Our Fathers offered an unapologetic look backwards in what McLuhan called the rearview mirror. Also like Fiddler, it signaled to a fully integrated generation of American Jews that they need no longer turn a cold shoulder on the past; that it was safe to reclaim their collective shtetl and immigrant background without fear of being marginalized as “greeners.”
Howe’s dual talents as cultural anthropologist and literary critic reached a peak in his massive (more than 700 pages) masterwork, World Of Our Fathers. Usually celebrated as a tough political fighter in a regional intellectual arena that he shared with the likes of Norman Podhoretz, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy and others, Howe seemed content to put aside his boxing gloves and offer the reader a gentle, inviting bath of sweet nostalgia.
Part of Howe’s apartness, of course, was his love and encyclopedic knowledge of Yiddish literature, a factor that certainly spurred his return to his Jewish identity. If he has claim to another fifteen minutes of fame beyond World Of Our Fathers, it is because he commissioned the translation of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story from Yiddish into English, making the once-obscure Singer — who would win a Nobel prize and become the world’s most famous Yiddish writer — accessible to an English-speaking readership for the first time. The story was Gimpel the Fool and the translator was Saul Bellow.
World of our fathers
Irving Howe,Kenneth Libo
Snippet view - 1983