Sinkoff, Nancy. “From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History”, Wayne State University Press, 2021.
The First Comprehensive Biography of Lucy Dawidowicz
Nancy Sinkoff’s “From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History” is the first comprehensive biography of Lucy Dawidowicz (1915-1990). After World War II, Dawidowicz was a household both because of her scholarship and her political views. Dawidowicz, like many other New York intellectuals, had been a youthful communist, became an FDR democrat and then later championed neoconservatism. Sinkoff argues that Dawidowicz’s rightward shift came from having lived in prewar Poland, then seeing the Holocaust take place but from from New York City and working with displaced persons in postwar Germany. Sinkoff bases her work on over forty-five archival collections and she chronicles Dawidowicz’s life as a look at the major events and issues of twentieth-century Jewish life.
The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 is the story of Dawidowicz’s childhood, adolescence, and college years when she was an immigrant daughter living in New York City. Part 2 is about Dawidowicz’s formative European years in Poland, New York City and Germany. Part 3 tells how Dawidowicz became an American while Polish Jewish civilization was still deep in her heart. It also explores when and how Dawidowicz became the voice of East European Jewry for the American Jews. In Part 4, we see the division between Dawidowicz’s European-inflected diaspora nationalist modern Jewish identity and the changing definition of American liberalism from the late 1960s onward and the emergence of neoconservatism. There is also an interpretation of Dawidowicz’s memoir “From that Place and Time” and an appendix of thirty-one previously unpublished letters that show the reach of her work and person.
Because of Dawidowicz’s right-wing politics, sex, and commitment to Jewish particularism in an East European Jewish key have caused her to be neglected by scholars. She stood out among the Jewish New York intellectuals of the last century declaring that a “sense of Jewish history and destiny is what every Jew who cares about the survival of his people feels in his bones.” She cared deeply about the future of Jewish life, particularly in the wake of the destruction of Jewish civilization in Europe. She f challenged the arguments of Hannah Arendt and several historians and rejected contentions that the Holocaust was what she called The War Against the Jews.
Because of fate, Dawidowicz was a witness to the last days of Yiddish culture in Eastern Europe. She spent a year in her early twenties as a researcher and translator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna — a year that ended just as the Nazis invaded Poland. Her life’s work was shaped by her immersion in the religion, culture, and thought of Eastern European Jewish civilization.
In “The Golden Tradition”, her first book, she wrote a collection of source materials exemplifying the ideas, politics, intellectual currents, and everyday life in that vanished Jewish world. She challenged the view that Yiddish culture could survive as a secular movement outside the cultural envelope of Eastern Europe and she was determined to preserve its legacy. She spent a year in Europe after the war, helping salvage thousands of Jewish books which otherwise would likely have been lost.
In the decades when she worked for the American Jewish Committee, it believed that human-rights legislation was the best way to protect the interests of Jews. Dawidowicz disagreed and urged advocacy for the specific interests of the Jewish community as well. When the AJC favored a Holocaust memorial that would recall “outrages against humanity,” she argued that it should record “the decimation of Jews.” “Only the parochial Jews worried about what Hitlerism meant for Jewish survival. The universalists regarded Hitler as the last stage of imperialist capitalism.”
This book shows her intellectual path as a journey to neoconservatism but it risks diminishing her forthright independence as a thinker. Unlike many neoconservative intellectuals, however, her values were came out of the Jewish culture of prewar Vilna, and the devastation of that culture by the Nazi Party.
Sinkoff gives profound insight into the American Jewish psyche by chronicling its diverse cultural proclivities and political sensibilities. She uses Dawidowicz to tell a larger story: the rise of Jewish political conservatism as a powerful force in American life from its roots in Yiddish progressive circles in New York. Sinkoff shows how American Jewish politics came to be bound by memory and trauma of the gone world of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe.
Dawidowicz’s life and career is a capsule of much of the Jewish experience since the time of World War II. She has angered the American Jewish community over the past seventy years. Often ignored by historians because she was a woman, Dawidowicz regains her rightful place in American Jewish history with this book. We see her as a study of contradictions— a bold female voice who rejected the “special pleading” of second-wave feminism, a dedicatee to Yiddish but rejected it as a basis for Jewish life. She was a frustrating, consternating political thinker who moved from far left in the 1930s to neoconservative in the 1980s.
Nancy Sinkoff ‘s biography. is well written and an information-filled look at t an important person and her growth and development and place in Jewish letters.