On the Front Lines in a Chang­ing Jew­ish World: Col­lect­ed Writ­ings, 1988 – 2013

  • Review
By – May 1, 2015

Over the 25 years cov­ered by this book, Michael Kotzkin served in key posi­tions with the Jew­ish Fed­er­a­tion of Met­ro­pol­i­tan Chica­go and thus found him­self both lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly at the cen­ter of Amer­i­can-Jew­ish life. This vol­ume is a col­lec­tion of essays, speech­es, let­ters, and oth­er writ­ings from that peri­od which, in his Pref­ace, Yos­si Klein Hale­vi char­ac­ter­izes as dis­patch­es from the front line in the war for Jew­ish legitimacy.”

Kotzkin cov­ers a vast range of issues and shares many fas­ci­nat­ing expe­ri­ences. Rather than pre­sent­ing these episodes in chrono­log­i­cal order, he has divid­ed his mem­oir into eight sec­tions, each devot­ed to a sep­a­rate top­ic. After a brief intro­duc­tion in which he shares some of his per­son­al back­ground, Kotzkin describes sev­er­al of his vis­its to the Old World,” where Jew­ish life once flour­ished. Many of these vis­its were of an offi­cial nature and his descrip­tions reflect this. The most touch­ing essay, how­ev­er, describes a fam­i­ly vis­it to Odessa and recalls life in that for­mer­ly very Jew­ish city with warmth, sen­si­tiv­i­ty, and deeply per­son­al references.

The next two sec­tions are devot­ed to The Ter­ror­ist Threat at Home and Abroad” and Anti-Semi­tism Old and New: From Far­rakhan to Dele­git­imiza­tion.” Here Kotzkin makes the point that Jew­ish vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty seems increas­ing­ly hard to come by”; instead, pub­lic opin­ion tends to por­tray Israelis more as vic­tim­iz­ers than as vic­tims.” He wor­ries about the grow­ing pres­ence of anti-Semi­tism on col­lege cam­pus­es but sees the great­est threat to the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty as com­ing not from anti-semi­tism but from the assim­i­la­tion made eas­i­er by our being more wide­ly accept­ed.” His response to these prob­lems is to bet­ter defend Israel and the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the media as well as increase — and improve — Jew­ish stud­ies pro­grams in col­leges and elsewhere.

As a Chicagoan, Kotzkin is espe­cial­ly con­scious of Louis Far­rakhan and the Nation of Islam, and he describes the grow­ing alien­ation between the Jew­ish and African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties and, by exten­sion, between Jew­ish and Protes­tant orga­ni­za­tions. On the oth­er hand, he wel­comes the increas­ing­ly close ties which have devel­oped between the Roman Catholic Church and its insti­tu­tions and exten­sive­ly prais­es Joseph Car­di­nal Bernadin, with whom he has estab­lished a warm per­son­al rela­tion­ship and whom he accom­pa­nied on a pil­grim­age to Israel.

The penul­ti­mate sec­tion of the book is devot­ed to Fram­ing the Com­mu­nal Agen­da and Advanc­ing Jew­ish Peo­ple­hood,” while the final sec­tion con­tains essays reflect­ing on the influ­ence of lit­er­a­ture, film and dra­ma and such influ­en­tial fig­ures as Roth, Bel­low, and others.

In his Post­script, Kotzkin asks Where to now?” Sad­ly, his vision of the future of the Amer­i­can-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty is prob­lem­at­ic, par­tic­u­lar­ly regard­ing Israel; he believes that the sense of a uni­fied com­mu­ni­ty is break­ing down,” espe­cial­ly among the younger generation.

Relat­ed Content:

Read Michael C. Kotz­in’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

Rad­i­cal Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 1)

Rad­i­cal Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 2)

Amer­i­can Jew­ish Writ­ers and Israel

Peter L. Roth­holz head­ed his own Man­hat­tan-based pub­lic rela­tions agency and taught at the Busi­ness and Lib­er­al Arts (BALA) pro­gram at Queens Col­lege. He lives in East Hamp­ton, NY and San­ta Mon­i­ca, CA and is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Jew­ish publications.

Discussion Questions