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Brooklyn Bridge, 1982: Kristol grew up in Brooklyn when it was a poor neighbourhood, very different from today's gentrified borough

"Is there such a thing as a ‘neo' gene?" With this query Irving Kristol opens his 1995 essay, "An Autobiographical Memoir." His life, he recalls, has been a series of such "neo's": neo-Marxist, neo-Trotskyite, neo-socialist, neo-liberal, and, finally, neo-conservative. "No ideology or philosophy," he explains, "has ever been able to encompass all of reality to my satisfaction. There was always a degree of detachment qualifying my commitment."

But there is an exception. One "neo" has been "permanent" throughout his life, Kristol writes, and was "probably at the root of all the others." In his religious views (although not, he notes parenthetically, in his religious observance), he has always been "neo-orthodox."

This is a remarkable testament by the "godfather of neoconservatism." The political lineage of neoconservatism is well known, from its beginnings in a dissident Trotskyism and on to its various mutations in the 1970s and 80s and its emergence as a distinctive political and cultural orientation. In Kristol's case, less well known is the existence of the religious gene, the neo-orthodox gene — which is to say, Judaism — not as an appendage or by-product of the other neo's but as a permanent feature of his life, indeed at the root of all the others.

Kristol's memoir is an invitation to inquire into that missing gene, and his own writings provide the best avenue into such an inquiry. His many reflections on Jewish religion and theology, the relation of Jews to secular society and culture, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and the contemporary situation of Israel are memorable in themselves. They are also memorable for the light they shed on neoconservatism, giving a spiritual and moral dimension to the mundane issues of politics, economics, or foreign affairs. Finally, they remind us of a Kristol who is more than the godfather of neoconservatism in its familiar guise, more far-ranging and spirited, more perceptive and more provocative.

Kristol confesses that his neo-orthodoxy is "something of a puzzle" even to him. His Jewish family, he recalls, was Orthodox in the sense common in his Brooklyn neighborhood. His father attended services on the High Holy Days and his mother kept a kosher kitchen but (like many if not most women in that milieu) was rarely seen in the synagogue. As a child, he went to the local Hebrew school two afternoons a week and Sunday mornings, learning to read the prayer book and Bible by translating the Hebrew into Yiddish, although he knew neither language. (At home, his parents spoke Yiddish to each other and English to the children, so his bar-mitzvah speech, delivered in Yiddish, had to be memorised.) In school, the rabbi enforced classroom discipline by a strong slap in the face and taught the children to fear Gentiles and to spit when passing a church. "If ever there was a regimen that might have provoked rebelliousness," he reflects, "this was it."

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December 7th, 2014
6:12 AM
Don, you could be right. I'm from NY (though Manh, not Bkln), and only semi-Jewish, but I remember a subtext among my Jewish friends, and especially their parents, that the Christian world, with its political power, social acceptance, seductive blonde women, delightful holidays (with their irresistible hallucinatory blend of Bible, paganism, and commerce - bunnies! elves! Jesus! Sales!), and alcohol, presented such a fearsome temptation, that to avoid being completely overwhelmed they had to take "us vs them" to new heights. Add that to the very American addiction to a good-guy/bad-guy mythos, where the actions of a "good guy" can only be good (regardless of what the action is) and contrariwise for "bad guys", and you get a toxic stew that, in my old granny's words, can only be "bad for the Jews." Just read up on the Ramopo Hasids and you'll see what I mean.

Avi Opincar
December 4th, 2014
8:12 AM
Since Torah's direct treatment of pharmaceutical science is less than scant, and its dilation upon moral duty comparatively abundant, one should well argue that Torah, according to even its own lights, was more in the business of promoting humanity's sacred obligation to care for the sick, and less in that of spelling out cost-effective recipes for safe well-tolerated asthma medications. So, given that Irving "Born Theotropic" Kristol publicly schlepped major nachas from his familiarity with Judaism, and claimed "neo-orthodox" street cred, to boot, it's quite wacky that Kristol seems at the same time to have feigned total ignorance of "Torah Umadda," Centrist Orthodoxy's elegant, and hardly secret, synthesis of Torah and mundane knowledge, including science. Perhaps only a guy possessed by such eerie ambitions might try to pull off something like that while expecting no one to notice what he was up to, and for his core readership to prove so reliably in the thrall of a childlike gullibility as to never, ever poke fun at his weirdo castigation of science's secularism, and of scientists' refusal to pronounce the human soul, and the existence of the World to Come, as directly observable and quantifiable matters of empirical fact. One can then but hope for Kristol's sake that, as he goes about enjoying the very best that his present destination has to offer, he's spending rather more time with Rav Esriel Hildesheimer than with Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, or Billy Graham, if for no other reason than that the food is probably a lot better. B'hatzlacha, Irving!

Don Phillipson
December 3rd, 2014
2:12 PM
I was struck by Kristol's memory of Brooklyn in the 1930s: "In school, the rabbi . . . taught the children to fear Gentiles and to spit when passing a church." Was this typical of American Jewry at this date? Nothing similar comes to mind in accounts of contemporary French, German or English Jewry. Is extremism a special characteristic of Brooklyn Jews?

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