Uneasy in Zion: Klein as Journalist

A.M. Klein, Beyond Sambation: Selected Essays and Editorials, 1928-1955, edited by M.W. Steinberg and Usher Caplan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. xxxi, 541. $29.95.

A reviewer who is a lapsed white anglo-saxon protestant must face his own temerity in taking on a book as intensely Jewish as Beyond Sambation: Selected Essays and Editorials, 1928-1955 by Abraham Moses Klein. Certainly in turning its pages I felt some of the same sense of incipient panic I remember from my first visit to a synagogue: so much there that was humanly familiar, but so much that seemed alien—a crowded, noisy, pungent, claustrophobic world, heavy with history and ritual, which left me a fascinated but baffled outsider. Is Beyond Sambation foreign territory for the gentile reader? That forbiddingly obscure part of the title suggests that even the Editors are ambivalent, though they make considerable efforts in their introduction, notes and glossary to render the "essays and editorials" accessible to all. Surely it is more than mere ecumenical bias to believe that Klein the journalist, like Klein the poet, must be protected from exclusive possession by a Jewish audience. After all, he was as "Canadian" as he was "Jewish" in his own estimation, and saw not a "divided loyalty" but a fruitful union in those two attributes (321-3).

     Of course it is true that these short one-, two- or three-page pieces of newspaper writing, the bulk of them prepared under the pressure of deadlines in the two decades of Klein's service as editor and chief columnist for the weekly Canadian Jewish Chronicle, were aimed at an immediate Jewish readership. But Klein knew, it seems, that his audience was by no means as homogeneous in their cultural and religious background and in their values and social and political attitudes as the crudities of anti-semitism might suggest. Klein himself was a man of strong ideas and convictions about Jewry, its past, present and future. For him, the Jewish heritage was not a set of outgrown habits to be reviewed nostalgically or preserved mainly for the sake of shared community. It was the vital fuel of a modern drive for self-realization, and even survival, in the midst of a terrifying contemporary recapitulation and culmination of the whole history of Jewish oppression. As a journalist he was a teacher and a preacher, enthusiastic and determined, always ready to clarify and explain, in his tenacious efforts to bring the letter and the spirit of Judaism alive before his readers: the importance and meaning of holy days, language, ceremonies and rituals, the legendary and historical worthies of the faith along with its recent heroes. His columns re-vitalized the calendar, not only celebrating the traditional religious occasions but showing how the archetypal events of Jewish history were being repeated in the contemporary world: Chanukah, Passover, Purim and Shevuoth, modern as well as ancient tales of exodus, exile and suffering, torment and triumph, with perhaps at long last a symbolic return of the gathered tribes back across the legendary raging river of Sambation.

     For of course, too, as well as being a teacher of traditional Judaic culture, Klein was a preacher in the cause of Zion, an early and ardent supporter of the need for a Jewish state in Palestine. But again, he knew even his Jewish readers were not all at one with him, and he felt it necessary to spell out clearly and forcefully what he meant by Zionism. This he did persuasively, over and over again.

     So it is that, whatever he intended, Klein's writings about Jewry speak eloquently to gentile as well as to Jew, to the ignorant and to the learned, to the unconverted as well as to the believer and supporter. Although I can hardly claim that Klein's teaching has brought me to that Jewish faith whose heritage he laid out so richly and vigorously in his journalism, I admit that his preaching would have made a Zionist of me — a Zionist of his kind — in the two long and troubled decades leading up to the founding of "The New Jewish State" (318-21) in 1948. By that time, indeed even before the first euphoria passed, before "the great wave of joy which swept over world Jewry" (309) had subsided, the political realities of nationhood were making the idealistic dream disturbingly mundane and complicated. How long could Klein have retained his relatively peaceable vision of Zionism, which led him in 1947 to repudiate in anger and anguish the terrorism of the Jewish underground army in Palestine—the young "Menachem Beigin and his henchmen" who "sit in their hideouts, proud of their past, and planning a future more hideous still" (308)?

     In many ways this book is about K.M. Klein's developing conception of Zionism. The entire contents are framed by the Editors between two illuminating and definitive pieces, one dating to the late 1920's, the other from the early 1950's. Himself a young man, Klein held up for readers of The Judaean, the monthly magazine of Canadian Young Judaea, which he edited from 1928 to 1932, the ideal of "cultural Zionism," a continuing and unifying identity for Jews everywhere, though as yet they are still without a Homeland — a culture "singularly Jewish and yet remarkably cosmopolitan" to be preserved and nourished in thought and spirit. The promised land, he argued in 1928, should be thought of less in economic, financial and agricultural terms, less as a "real estate scheme," and more as a "cultural centre." "What Athens was to Greece, Rome to the Empire, Paris to the world of Louis XIV, London to literary England, that Jerusalem, figuratively speaking, is to be to the Diaspora." (4-5) The older Klein, from his post-War perspective, the ugly facts of Nazi Germany and the Final Solution to the Jewish problem fully revealed, can still return to this ideal, celebrating the enforced cultural cosmopolitanism of the two thousand year Diaspora which, by the founding of the state of Israel, triumphant political Zionism has finally ended: "Behold, the floors of that home, they are carpeted with many strands, its walls, they are tapestried with the skills and weavings of the far-flung world! To Israel, microcosm, cosmos is brought, the knowledge of the world! Thus at that place where other peoples end, this one again begins!" (473)

     Between these two phases of Klein's Zionism came the bitter history of the Holocaust and Klein's growing recognition that a Homeland, with an economic, financial and political reality, was an urgently and desperately needed life-saving sanctuary for European refugees, and a bastion of nationhood from which the cause of Jews around the world could be dignified and championed—using armed force if necessary, though in the future Klein foresaw this nation would be the "exception" in which the "moral" and the "militarist", "might" and "right", would be reconciled under "wise generalship" (318).

     In these years his essays and editorials wage increasingly fierce verbal war against the enemies of his vision of Jewry, enemies who could be Jews as well as gentiles. They could be the municiple councillors of "the good City of Quebec," whose interest in creating parks ironically seemed to be stimulated by the "futile quest" of the Jewish community to find a site for a synagogue which would be acceptable to them ("Quebec City Gets Another Park" 190). They could be Jews like Lessing Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck, founder of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, who feared that the creation of a Homeland would damage the position of American Jews (though, as Klein points out, "the position of the Irish-American in New York is not rendered 'precarious' by the existence of Eire" 193). Or they could be the abhorred Nazi inventors of genocide: how understandable yet painful it is to hear this peaceful and gentle-mannered poet rejoicing in the "expiring agonies" of the "hangman Heydrich" (151), craving to see "the bodies of Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, and all their blood-stained henchmen, hanging from trees, stiff with rigor mortis" (201), and attacking with ferocious sarcasm the commutation of Ilse Koch's life sentence to four years — she the Nazi "Lady with a Lamp," the "Mistress of Buchenwald": could it be that "an error was made, that Frau Koch fashioned herself only four and not twenty lampshades; and therefore the penalty is reduced pro tanto?" (328)

     To read through this book page by page is to recognize how fully Klein exposed himself to the raw flow of events during two decades and more in which the plight of European Jews dreadfully worsened, how fully he entered into and became identified with that fate, in the way a genuine writer must who chooses to pitch his imaginative energy into the daily task of finding words to cope with a reality dreadful beyond words. For twenty centuries of Jewish history, Klein wrote, ". . . our ancestors were engaged either in literature or in suffering." (317) This volume demonstrates how for a poet these two activities became one and the same. The impression of an energetically, intensely, even obsessively committed spirit, compelled and exacerbated to the limit of endurance, that emerges from Klein's articles, some written as late as 1955, makes the seemingly abrupt silence that set in, for the last twenty years of his life, both more startling at first, and yet perhaps easier to understand upon reflection. As he observed soberly at the mid-point in his career as a journalist, in 1943, after discussing the "latest reports" of the "Sodom wickedness and Gomorrah iniquity of the Nazi regime," "We are all Hamlets now: 'The time is out of joint. O cursed spite/ That ever we were born to set it right!" (187-8)

     The considerable scholarly effort of the Editors in bringing this volume into being has obviously been a labour of love — we should be grateful to them for rescuing this writing from the journal files — but like most such labours it is not without its blind spots. First, the element of editorial subjectivity has entered this project as it did so extensively in the editing of the "collected" poems. The editors observe that they have printed about one-tenth of all the available material, excluding (for a separate volume) the specifically literary pieces and (altogether) an unstated remaining amount of journalism of the kind represented here. The reader has no way of checking the nature of editorial preference or pursuing other items of historical or literary concern except by resorting to the original newspaper sources. But since the Editors presumably read all the essays and editorials in making their selection, could they not have listed (at the sacrifice of a few pages of this text) the titles and topics in the reservoir from which they drew? Second, they have said nothing about the newspapers for which Klein wrote and the readership which he addressed — surely an area of knowledge necessary for a full appreciation of Klein's motives, obligations, restrictions and challenges as a journalist. And third, a sin of commission: Editor M.W. Steinberg, who initialled the "Introduction," accuses Klein of "timidity," of "unwillingness or unreadiness to live in Israel," a "step" which the "whole bent of his life, the essence of it expressed in his writings," indicated he should take; and in the "Undelivered Memorial Address" the Editor reads only the message that the "Diaspora, . . . the conditions that prompted great Jewish creativity in scattered lands, is dead." (xv-xvi) Should I add effrontery to temerity by suggesting that Professor Steinberg's idea of Zionism differs from Klein's — where does Klein ever argue that the only proper place for a brave Canadian Jew to live is Israel? — and that he has misread the "Address" which not only celebrates the amazing achievements of dispersed Jewry but which ends with a vision of the resurrected spirit of the "Diaspora": "His body we have lowered into the grave, but his spirit, now in our own lives made more free, now summoned to tasks easier than any of those he has already vanquished, now for constructiveness and not simply for survival 'bound in the bond of the living'—his spirit shall prevail!" (477)

     A small part of the prose of this volume is as eloquent and powerful as anything Klein ever wrote — I think especially of the magnificient "Address" from which I have just quoted. Most, though full of a remarkable verbal and intellectual energy and variety, is more ephemeral, intended to be read once only, dependent now upon our interest in the parade of events to which it responds, the grim history of this grim century's middle years, and upon our desire to know more about a writer we value for his poetry and fiction. The parallels between the creative writing and the journalism are innumerable and profound. Reading Beyond Sambation is at times entertaining and amusing — an aspect this review has perhaps unfairly overlooked; more often it is an ordeal. But no serious reader of Klein's poetry and fiction will want to avoid the experience.

F.W. Watt