Jews worldwide grapple with issues—anti-Semitism, assimilation, secularism, and more.
Philip Rahv, the storied editor of Partisan Review, belonged to “the world of our fathers,” to use the title of Irving Howe’s magisterial study of Eastern European Jews in America. From our current perspective, it’s more like the world of our grandfathers or great grandfathers.
Yet men like Rahv and Howe—the New York intellectuals who came of age in the 1930s—still have something urgent to tell readers today, as I argue in The Secular Rabbi: Philip Rahv and Partisan Review (Liverpool UP, 2021). Their writings are of general interest, addressing, as they do, the full range of literary, historical, political, social, and cultural issues of the 20th century. But more saliently, Rahv’s story dramatizes matters that are front and center in our lives today.
Proximity to water is an appropriate way to view Philip Rahv, an immigrant who crossed the Atlantic at age 14 to reach US soil; then several years later was brought to Palestine by his mother, returning alone to resettle permanently as an American at age 16.
Marc Chagall was not religious, the images of rabbis in his work notwithstanding. Some twenty years older than Philip Rahv, he too was born in Russia, Vitebsk in his case. He left Russia for Paris in 1922, the same year Rahv immigrated to the United States.
Philip Rahv realized what might be called the American dream story for immigrants. But things were different then. He appeared on the New York intellectual scene when Marxist philosophy seemed to provide answers to an America visibly weakened by the Depression, and to a Russia presumably strengthened by the communist revolutions.