It is quite a claim, but a plausible one nonetheless. According to The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Center for the Media of the Jewish People, Commentary, a monthly journal published in New York City, has been the “most influential” Jewish publication since the appearance of the first Jewish newspaper in Amsterdam in the 17th century.
Nathan Abrams, the author of Commentary Magazine 1945-59, almost agrees with that assessment, allowing that it was “one of the most influential” magazines of our times during that period.
Although its circulation was relatively limited, Commentary was a “must read” for American conservatives, often sharpening the national debate on a wide array of political and cultural issues. Commentary was also a voice for many young and upcoming writers and intellectuals, ranging from Philip Roth and James Baldwin to Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Irving Howe.
Widely considered a beacon of the neo-conservative movement, Commentary was immensely influential, far surpassing smaller periodicals such as Partisan Review and Dissent.
Yet strangely enough, as Abrams – a British academic – points out, it has never been the object of a monograph or book, at least until now. With this meticulously researched and felicitously written volume, the gap has been admirably filled.
Commentary’s guiding spirit was its first editor, Elliot Ettelson Cohen, who was born in Iowa in 1899 and raised in Mobile, Ala., the son of a small dry goods merchant.
The youngest freshman in Yale University’s history, Cohen majored in psychology and philosophy. As an undergraduate, he joined the Menorah Society, an association of intercollegiate clubs for Jewish university students formed in 1906 in reaction to anti-Semitism. Burning with a passion for writing, he edited the Menorah Journal, which, as Abrams observes, he fashioned into the template of Commentary.
Cohen also had his heart set on being a professor of English at Yale, but his hopes were dashed when one of his teachers told him, “Mr. Cohen, you are a very competent young man, but it is hard for me to imagine a Hebrew teaching… at Yale.” Having been rejected, he turned to literary journalism as a freelance writer.
A liberal, Cohen became a Marxist and a Trotskyist during the Depression, joining a host of Communist-front organizations. But for reasons cited by Abrams, he moved away from communism, finding lifelong salvation in true-blue conservatism.
In 1934, with his wife pregnant with their first child, Cohen took a position as director of public information of the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. He disliked the job, but it enabled him to form relationships that would be of use to him later in his career.
A monthly, Commentary was founded by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a major organization that was established earlier in the century to counter anti-Semitism and fight for the rights of Jews. The AJC envisaged a magazine of the highest quality whose content would range from the universal to the Jewish.
Cohen was hired in December 1944, taking a pay cut to be its founding editor. Several months later, he brought out the inaugural edition, which featured articles on, among other topics, the prospects for rebuilding Jewish communities in war-ravaged Europe, the new United Nations, the decline of the American theatre, the recent British elections and anti-Jewish demagogues in the United States.
The articles, studies in universalism, were written by such luminaries as the historian Salo Baron and the art critic Harold Rosenberg. They were heavily edited, in his usual intrusive style, by Cohen, who was determined to avoid parochialism.
Although he was primarily concerned with politics, Cohen felt he had a responsibility to publish features on the general state of culture, as well as short stories by such emerging voices as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was intensely interested in the Holocaust, a subject generally downplayed before 1960. And so Commentary was the first U.S. magazine to print excerpts from The Diary of Anne Frank.
A byproduct of Cohen’s interest in the Holocaust was his fixation with American anti-Semitism and race hatred. This, in turn, engaged him in the African-American struggle for civil rights. In this respect, Cohen was following the lead of the AJC, which believed that Jewish rights could only be protected when the rights of all other citizens were defended.
With the passage of time, however, Commentary, strangely enough, began to link the civil rights struggle with communism.
Cohen’s anti-communism reached “obsessive levels,” Abrams notes. He considered it his prime obligation to expose what he thought was the greatest threat to human freedom – totalitarian communism. To him, the Soviet Union was as evil as Nazi Germany. Only U.S. military might could stop the tide of communism. Almost every article in Commentary “was refracted through the prism of the Cold War,” and ironically, Cohen marginalized writers who dissented from his view.
Cohen promoted a bolder concept of Jewishness. As Abrams puts it, “Cohen did not want a culture born of apologetics, separatism or mediocrity… He rejected defensiveness and victim status [and] called for a positive approach to Jewish history.”
Since Cohen was not a Zionist, Commentary’s early coverage of Zionism was distant and even embarrassed. But after the proclamation of Israeli statehood, his attitude mellowed and his editorial direction changed.
He now carried more articles on Zionism and Israel and argued that the Jewish state was essential in the U.S. campaign to contain Soviet expansionism in the Middle East, and that the United States should be more supportive of Israel.
Its focus on the Holocaust notwithstanding, Commentary supported West Germany’s integration into the western alliance. Cohen believed that “the future of western democratic civilization” rested on the new Germany, and that Jews should be “realistic” about it.
Abrams has no problem with Cohen’s position, but claims that Commentary tended to be “apologetic” when reporting on outbursts of anti-Semitism in West Germany and public approval of the return of former Nazis or collaborators to influential jobs.
By 1951, Commentary’s circulation had risen to 20,000 from 4,000 in 1945. (It stands at 27,000 today.) Abrams says that Cohen’s “blend of cosmopolitanism, cultural sophistication, anti-communism, energy and open Jewishness” was appealing.
Time, in a gushing piece, described it as “one of the best magazines in the United States,” and the New York Post opined that, in anyone else’s hands, it “might have become just one more of the tediously sectarian magazines which are produced in the hundreds.”
Yet, as the 1950s wore on, Commentary lost its impetus and readership dwindled, due in part to its “boring predictability,” Abrams writes.
Cohen, who had always suffered from depression and would ultimately commit suicide, was hospitalized in 1956, and a bruising succession struggle ensued.
Norman Podhoretz, a young scholar of English literature from Brooklyn whom Commentary discovered in 1952, replaced Cohen and reigned supreme until his retirement in 1995.
Podhoretz – whose son, John, will succeed incumbent Neal Kozodoy as editor next year – abandoned Cohen’s hardline anti-communism, but eventually, Commentary became a bastion of neo-conservatism, thus coming full circle.