Norman Podhoretz Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Battle over Ideas: Conversation with Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary; 4/6/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Mr. Podhoretz, welcome to Berkeley.

I am delighted to be here

How did your education on the streets of Brooklyn as a young person shape your character?

Some people would say it made me into the pugnacious, obnoxious person I became as an adult. Being a street kid in Brooklyn, which I very definitely was -- I was a good boy in school and a bad boy on the streets, and the member of a gang. Club Cherokee at the schoolyard in March, 1945; photo includes PodhoretzOf course, we weren't particularly criminal, just mischievous.

You had a jacket.

I had a red satin jacket with a logo which said Club Cherokee on it, and we were a typical Brooklyn gang of the l940s. The main desideratum was to be tough and not to back down from a fight. And to be a sissy, as people use to say, or a coward was probably the worst possible condition into which you could fall. So when I later got into political polemics I think that formation as the French would call it began to show itself, manifest itself in the intellectual area as well.

Early on when you were in school you came under the influence of a teacher, a woman who wanted to draw you out of your lower-class background and introduce you to a higher culture. Tell us a little about that.

This was a high school English teacher, N. Podhoretz: High School graduation, 1946and the faculty adviser to the student newspaper which I eventually became the editor of. And she thought I was very promising. She was of aristocratic background and she used to call me, just to get my goat, a "filthy little slum child," which was an exaggeration. I was of working-class immigrant Jewish [background]. My parents were immigrant Jews. My father was a milkman. She was a ferocious snob, and she thought I had a lot of talent. She desperately wanted me to win a scholarship to Harvard. In order to achieve that, she not only pressed me to do well academically but also she tried to teach me proper manners. There is an incident I write about in Making It, which was published back in 1968. She took me out to dinner. I didn't know which fork to use, how to use a napkin. She did this deliberately in order to humiliate me so that I would learn how important it was to master these arts and therefore be a fit candidate for admission into Harvard.

How did your Jewish heritage impact your later career?

My Jewish heritage is special in a certain sense because I had a much more intensive Jewish education than most American Jews of my generation. I was born here, in Brooklyn, and as I said, my parents were immigrants. Most kids like me had cursory Jewish educations. They would go to school, then to a rabbi, and then at thirteen they would have a Bar Mitzvah and that would be about it. In the years up to the Bar Mitzvah they would have learned nothing except how to do their thing by rote. Podhoretz in Kassel, Germay, 1954 But my father -- my parents were what you would call lapsed orthodox. If they were anything they were orthodox, but they were not in fact all that observant and they were in flight from the orthodoxy of their background back in Eastern Europe. But my father felt very strongly about Jewish culture and he insisted on my continuing my Jewish education, so while I was going to high school I went at night to a Hebrew high school where classes were conducted in Hebrew. Then later when I was going to Columbia -- I did not, despite my high-school teacher's ambitions, finally go to Harvard, but I went to Columbia, which was okay with her, by the way -- I went to the College of Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which was an academic course in Judaism and Jewish history and so on. So I knew Hebrew. There was a time when I spoke Hebrew fluently and I knew a lot of the sources and I was deeply involved intellectually in the Jewish heritage. It shaped me to the extent that it created in me a high regard for this heritage, unlike many of my friends at Columbia who thought there was nothing there and who thought I was crazy for wasting my time on it. Although I was never a passionate Zionist when I was young, later it turned me into a passionate defender of Israel when Israel came under assault, especially from the left, after 1967.

And did it also point you in the direction of understanding the resiliency of ethnicity in other groups?

That is a good point. Yes. When I became editor of Commentary in 1960, I was then thirty years old -- I used to publish segments of books before they came out, and I ran a series of pieces by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which later got collected into a book called Beyond the Melting Pot. The emphasis of those pieces was that the theory of America as a melting pot was highly exaggerated. They didn't say it was wrong, but that it was highly exaggerated. Ethnicity remained a significant factor, particularly in the political behavior of the various groups in this heterogeneous society. I hasten to say that this view of American pluralism was very different from the multiculturalism of today, which I oppose. Being as Jewish as I was in that sense did certainly give me a strong sense of how important the ethnic background of my own group was but also gave me a feel for the saliency of the ethnic background of other groups.

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