Originally published by Jewish Ideas Daily in May 2010. Revised and expanded.
Ludwig Lewisohn is nearly forgotten today, but in his day he was a literary celebrity. He was so well-known, in fact, that his marital scandals—multiple divorces, accusation of bigamy, flight to Europe with a 20-years-younger woman, second wedding interrupted by an hysterical jilted lover—made national headlines. Through it all he kept writing, publishing 35 books by the time of his death in 1955. A passionate champion of Zionism and sexual freedom, Lewisohn was equally zealous to promote “Jewish self-realization.” His novel The Island Within (1928), based on Lewisohn’s own Jewish reawakening, was a polemical summons for American Jews to return to their “native tradition.”
Born in Germany in 1882 to “Jews of unmixed blood” (in his own words), Lewisohn was raised as a Methodist in Charleston, South Carolina. After being told by his graduate advisor at Columbia “how terribly hard it is for a man of Jewish birth to get a good position,” he abandoned his dream of becoming an English professor and became a writer instead—novelist, critic, autobiographer. A journey to Palestine in 1925, taken on the advice of Chaim Weitzmann, caused him to embark upon “the great study” of Jewish civilization, and among the first fruits was The Island Within.
The novel leads one Jewish family through four generations to an overwhelming question: “Why not, since one was a Jew and had to live Jewishly, get—in vulgar but sensible parlance—the maximum good out of one’s Jewishness, one’s racial poetry, one’s ancestral history?” The Levy family story begins in Vilna in 1840 with a melamed or Hebrew-school teacher who has a “dark secret.” Despite belonging “to the order of the learned and the holy,” he is “dry of heart,” with neither glow nor fervor to his prayers. Mendel longs for the forbidden knowledge of nature and geometry.
When he is offered a job as a traveling agent for a rich and secularized brandy distiller, Mendel accepts in order to have the means to give his wife a velvet dress and “maybe in time a silver menorah for the Sabbath!” The job leaves him no time for reading and study, however, and he grows nostalgic for “his little school, for the icy evenings in the library of the synagogue, for the warmer contacts and argumentative exercises of the beth hamidrash.” Worse yet, his son Ephraim leaves yeshivah, “the Talmudic university,” shaves off his earlocks, discards the “long coat of the orthodox,” adopts the latest German fashions, and goes to work for the distiller, marrying his daughter and rising to become his “right-hand man.” Ephraim sees no reason to regret his actions. “Were not new Jewish voices coming out of the west?” he asks. “Could not one be a European and a Jew?”
The pattern is set by which the Levys slough off the Jewish religion. The first half of The Island Within chronicles the first 75 years of the process. Ephraim’s son Jacob immigrates to the U.S. and establishes a thriving furniture business, becoming more German than American, because German culture signified the romance of modernity: “But this, too, was, though he did not know it, a kind of Americanization.” It is his son Arthur—Ephraim’s grandson, Mendel’s great-grandson—who is the first thoroughly American, the first thoroughly modern, man in the family. His very name represents how far the Levys have progressed in abandoning their “ancestral consciousness.”
The second half of the novel is devoted to Arthur’s story. A cool and aloof rationalist, Arthur trains to become a Freudian psychiatrist, imbued with the highest principles of science and morality. He quits the staff of a Hospital for the Insane over the abuse of patients (“God — damn — interfering — KIKES,” a colleague seethes upon learning of his complaints); he opens a private practice in New York. Around 1918 or 1919, Arthur Levy meets Elizabeth Knight at his cousin’s apartment. A beautiful young journalist who is active in the suffrage movement, she is the daughter of a Campbellite preacher. Elizabeth describes herself as a “lost soul.” Arthur should run like the wind, but instead he marries her. They have a child together before he finally admits to himself that theirs is a mésalliance.
The problem, as Arthur explains to Elizabeth, is that they belong to different kinds:
While Elizabeth lives in a “stream of tradition that is native to [her],” Arthur has nothing of the sort. His family has succeeded in uprooting him from Jewish tradition—and not only him, but an entire population, which had sought the “protective mimicry” of blending in with their Christian neighbors rather than leading Jewish lives. “Jews like himself who denied any tradition or character of their own,” he reflects, “were really trying to do a thing that was unhuman, that no one else was trying to do.”
And so Arthur “goes back to the Jews,” although neither he nor Lewisohn are clear on just what the going back involves. He separates from Elizabeth, and decides to accompany a fact-finding commission to Rumania “to investigate the condition of the Jewish communities there,” but after that? Will he undertake to master a Jewish language? Study the Talmud? Emigrate to Palestine? His plans are unclear. Stephen S. Wise called Lewisohn’s novel an answer to the assimilationist ideology of the melting pot (an early anticipation of multiculturalism’s “salad bowl” of ethnic identities), but other than the simple act of identification, his return to the Jews is entirely negative, a mere rejection of his long effort to assimilate into the Christian majority and deny the fact of his Jewishness. “I didn’t have to resurrect the Jew,” Arthur tells his wife. “I just put away a pretense—a stubborn, hard, protective pretense.”
His brother-in-law makes a far more promising choice. After briefly leaving his wife and daughter, Eli returns and asks to be taken back. But only if Hazel agrees to “move to a Jewish neighborhood” and “have some more children” and “be a Jewish wife same as her mother or mine.” If she promises to do that, she will never have again anything to complain about him. “And I want my children to be brought up as observant Jews, same as I was,” he adds, “no matter what they believe.” Hazel even suggests that they “join a nice congregation.”
When it was published in 1928, The Island Within seemed like a revolutionary document. The New York Times book reviewer John Chamberlain wondered if it were the best novel of the decade. That would be the decade of The Age of Innocence, An American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and The Sound and the Fury. No matter how interesting it is in the history of Jewish ideas, though, the honest truth is that The Island Within is not much of a novel.
Lewisohn starts each new section of the book with a sermonic essay written in the tones of a pundit (“Big business and the theory of cultural solidarity, Henry Ford and Nordic supremacy, have always been united on the ground of practical politics”). And though it contains many interesting sociological details of Jewish life in America before the Great Depression, for much of its length The Island Within is a narrative only in the sense that one stage of the family history follows an earlier in chronological order.
Finally there is the style. Lewisohn’s deepest literary influences were the German romantics, and they show. His central terms are vague evocations of deep, nearly inarticulate feeling. His celebrations of sexual fulfillment and the nobility of “creative expression” are embarrassingly ornate, as if Lewisohn consigned them to the decorative arts. As Alfred Kazin astutely said in On Native Grounds, Lewisohn’s rhetoric was “self-indulgent” and carried “to the point of self-ridicule.” It is difficult to wade through the oracular dicta to reach the good sense at the heart of his thinking.
And even as a significant moment in the history of Jewish “return,” The Island Within is ultimately disappointing. Lewisohn could not imagine moving to a Jewish neighborhood, joining a nice congregation, and asking his wife—one of them, at least—to be a Jewish mother. Half a century after Lewisohn’s novel was published, thousands of young American Jews would arrive at crossroads similar to that of Arthur Levy’s, rediscovering and celebrating their ethnic origins as part of a nationwide search for “roots.” Most had never heard of Lewisohn, although he might have taught them (if nothing else) that their happiness depended upon reenrolling in the Jewish people. For what to do next, however, they would have to consult another source.