From Left to Right: Lucy S. Daw­id­ow­icz, the New York Intel­lec­tu­als, and the Pol­i­tics of Jew­ish History

By – February 25, 2021

Lucy Daw­id­ow­icz stood out among the Jew­ish New York intel­lec­tu­als of the last cen­tu­ry. While Daniel Bell, Nathan Glaz­er, and Irv­ing Howe addressed social and polit­i­cal issues of the day, Daw­id­ow­icz declared 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 pas­sion­ate­ly about the future of Jew­ish life, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the wake of the destruc­tion of Jew­ish civ­i­liza­tion in Europe. She fear­less­ly chal­lenged the argu­ments of Han­nah Arendt and sev­er­al his­to­ri­ans, reject­ing con­tentions that the Holo­caust was any­thing oth­er than what she called The War Against the Jews. Nan­cy Sinkoff’s com­pelling biog­ra­phy presents a tex­tured, engag­ing por­trait of a his­to­ri­an and essay­ist fierce­ly devot­ed to her people.

Fate made Daw­id­ow­icz 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 which end­ed just as the Nazis invad­ed Poland. Her life’s work was shaped by that immer­sion in the reli­gion, cul­ture, and thought of East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish civilization.

The expe­ri­ence inspired her first major book, The Gold­en Tra­di­tion, a col­lec­tion of source mate­ri­als exem­pli­fy­ing the ideas, pol­i­tics, intel­lec­tu­al cur­rents, and every­day life in that van­ished world. Daw­id­ow­icz chal­lenged the view that Yid­dish cul­ture could sur­vive as a sec­u­lar move­ment out­side the cul­tur­al enve­lope of East­ern Europe, but 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, AJC believed that human-rights leg­is­la­tion was the best way to pro­tect the inter­ests of Jews. Daw­id­ow­icz dis­agreed, urg­ing advo­ca­cy for the spe­cif­ic inter­ests of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty as well. When AJC favored a Holo­caust memo­r­i­al that would recall out­rages against human­i­ty,” she argued that it should chron­i­cle the dec­i­ma­tion of Jews.” She lat­er wrote to the lib­er­al Rab­bi Eugene Borowitz, Only the parochial Jews wor­ried about what Hit­lerism meant for Jew­ish sur­vival. The uni­ver­sal­ists regard­ed Hitler as the last stage of impe­ri­al­ist capitalism.”

From Left to Right frames Dawidowicz’s intel­lec­tu­al path as a jour­ney to neo­con­ser­vatism. While that’s accu­rate, it risks dimin­ish­ing her forth­right inde­pen­dence as a thinker. She cer­tain­ly came to share many of the views of the neo­con­ser­v­a­tive intel­lec­tu­als of her time. Unlike many of them, how­ev­er, her val­ues were ground­ed in the Jew­ish cul­ture of pre­war Vil­na, and the dev­as­ta­tion of that cul­ture by the Nazi onslaught. This exten­sive­ly doc­u­ment­ed, sen­si­tive account of Lucy Dawidowicz’s life and work is a plea­sure to read. It’s also a wel­come oppor­tu­ni­ty to revis­it the thought of a bold intel­lec­tu­al whose val­ues still res­onate today.

Discussion Questions

In From Left to Right: Lucy S. Daw­id­ow­icz, the New York Intel­lec­tu­als, and the Pol­i­tics of Jew­ish His­to­ry, Nan­cy Sinkoff deliv­ers an excep­tion­al biog­ra­phy of Daw­id­ow­icz, one of the lead­ing Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als in the post­war years, who also helped pio­neered the field of Holo­caust stud­ies. In this cap­ti­vat­ing book, Sinkoff takes read­ers along Dawidowicz’s trans­for­ma­tion from a young com­mu­nist to a cham­pi­on of polit­i­cal neo­con­ser­vatism. Although Dawidowicz’s life is a mir­ror of the tur­bu­lent Jew­ish nar­ra­tives of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, her life and its impact have been woe­ful­ly under­ex­plored, in no small part because of both her gen­der and her per­spec­tives. Sinkoff’s well-researched and well-writ­ten biog­ra­phy for­tu­nate­ly cor­rects this error.