Milton Himmelfarb passed away this week in his eighty-eighth year. A contributor to FIRST THINGS and many other magazines, particularly Commentary, he was a longtime veteran of the American Jewish Committee. An editor of Jewish yearbooks, author of The Jews of Modernity (1973), a Reagan appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, brother of the famous historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, he had a distinguished career as an analyst of Jewish affairs.
But what he was, really, was a wordsmith and a coiner of phrases. "Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans," he once observed, and the line has remained in the American political lexicon ever since.
He had a gift for the memorable image: "Each Jew knows how thoroughly ordinary he is; yet taken together we seem caught up in things great and inexplicable," he noted, "The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around us and to us."
When asked what to call the grandchildren of intermarriage, he quipped, "Christians."
Trying to explain the impact of Leo Strauss, he wrote: "There are many excellent teachers. They have students. Strauss had disciples."
"The trouble is not that religion in general has too small a role in American public life or American life simply," he wrote in FIRST THINGS in March 1991. "The trouble is that a particular religion has too great a rolepaganism, the de facto established religion."
The powerful phrase "No Hitler, No Holocaust" began as the title of one of his classic essays in Commentary, and it was Milton Himmelfarb who first coined the phrase "argumentum ad Hitlerum" to describe the easy and false analogies that swirl around political debate.
To mark his passing, Commentary has made available online a number of his classic essays, including "No Hitler, No Holocaust" (March 1984), "The Topless Tower of Babylon" (December 1970), and "The Vanishing Jews" (September 1963).
But perhaps the best reading now is the moving essay he wrote after his father's death, "Going to Shul" (April 1966): "Although we have been born when it is hard to believe in immortality, the Kaddish helps us to believe, a little. I know that it makes me think of my father often, more than forty times a week; and it will keep reminding me of him after I have stopped saying the Kaddish daily, when I hear someone else say it and I make the appropriate response. To think of my father, to recall him, is to hold off his mortalityand because ritual is eloquent, to hold it off still one generation further. Where has Daddy gone? To shul, to say Kaddish for Grandpa. By doing what allows my children to ask this question and receive this answer, I also allow myself to hope that my own mortality will similarly be delayed."
For Washingtonians, Marion Barry is a gift that just keeps on giving. For a few years, while he was in jail for drug possession, the city muddled on as best it could. After he was released on parole and elected to a fourth term as mayor, things brightened up again until his bankrupting of the city finally brought a change of administration. But it is really his third appearance in D.C. politics, as a city councilman, that makes him an archetypal ethnic American politician. The man is his own myth.
Doubt me? Take a look at this: Barry was robbed at gunpoint on Monday, according to the Washington Post. "There is a sort of an unwritten code in Washington, among the underworld and the hustlers and these other guys, that I am their friend," Barry told a news conference the next day. "I was a little hurt that this betrayal did happen."
Now, I would have thought that's as open as American politics gets. But what makes it even better is that the police department just as openly agreed with Barry's assessment. "D.C. police, who are battling a recent spike in holdups, said they were shocked that someone would knowingly rob a former mayor in his apartment. They have no suspects." the Post reported. (I love that droll "They have no suspects.") Meanwhile, "I was very surprised, especially in the fact that the individuals knew who Mr. Barry was, and they went ahead and robbed him anyway," Police Commander Joel Maupin mourned. "It shows that people don't care who you arethey just want what you have."
Well, yes, it does show that, and more besides. Perhaps America has never had a truly great political novel because, with characters like Marion Barry, who needs fiction?