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July 13, 1973 - Image 48

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1973-07-13

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Arthur Cohen's Messianic Simon Stern: Arthur A. Cohen
Thematic NovelLeaves Puzzling Effect Supernaturalism

An imaginative messianic
plot, a resume of Jewish his-
t o r i c experiences, N e w
York's East Side under scru-
tiny, a vision of Spain to por-
tray the role of a Last Jew
in order to defy anti-Semitic
hopes and to indicate the
timelessness of Jewish ideal-
ism and the undying Jewish
spirit — these and scores of
chronicled events about Jews,
Jewry's sufferings, the Holo-
caust and many more items
are packed into a novel, "In
the Days of Simon Stern" by
Arthur A. Cohen. It is al-
ready a near-best seller pub-
lished by Random House and
it has excited reviewers and
readers, gaining a high-rated
The causes for such a suc-
cess by a former rabbinical
student may be summarized
as: its numerous intriguing
approaches to the dramatic
involving the human element
of guilt and rescue; its com-
plexity when the theological
is involved; its motivations
in the formulation of a plot
that is immersed in the entire
*- aura of Jewish history.
Simon Stern, the mystique
in the Cohen dramatic novel,
is an East Side New York
product. H i s parents h a d
come from Poland. Their
marriage is a uniquely novel
form of narrative in its own
right. Simon's mother was a
cook in the home of his
father's parents. They met at
a betrothal party for his
father, when a valuable dia-
mond of his mother-to-be fell
into the cake she had baked
and the bridegroom found it.
He broke his engagement
which was then being cele-
brated, located the girl of his
choice, after she had fled
from his parents home, re-
turned the valuable stone to
her, they were married, came
to this country — and the
elder Stern — his name was
really Sternguecker — star-
gazer — the immigration of-
ficial ordered it shortened—
settled down as a pietist and
a tailor.
He had come to this coun-
try with his bride under the
s p e 11 of a prophecy by a
stranger that he would sire
a messiah. Later, it passed
on to the son.
Simon's parents had hidden
their prize possessions, some
gold coins and a diamond, in
an old shoe, and when a beg-
gar came to their door in
their absence Simon gave
him the shoe. There was
wailing over the loss and Si-
mon felt need for atonement.
He set out to earn money and
a greater part of the first
portions of this novel de-
scribe how he had gained
wealth, how he kept hoard-
ing, until he possessed mil-
lions — later the sum rose
to $100,000,000.
That's a major part of the
narrative. We deal here with
a very rich man who soon
began to suffer from guilt.
His parents, a Polish man
and his daughter lived in a
t building that 'was acquired
by Simon. But there was not
sufficient protection in the
structure and in the proper
electrical connections and the
parents and the elder Pole
died in the fumes of a fire
the building and the girl
was crippled for life. There-
in is the guilt that plagued
the multimillionaire who kept

48 Friday, July 13, 1973

accumulating and hoarding
The Nazi terror soon at-
tracted his attention. Simon
went to a Madison Square
Garden mass meeting to hear
Chaim Weizmann. He was
moved to action — to do
some rescue work. Then be-
gan his initial task of organ-
izing the work of saving lives,
of settling the rescued from
Nazism in a large complex
in the Williamsburg area,
under direction of the Society
for the Rescue and the Res-
urrection of the Jews.
The drama develops here
as the narrative is recited
by the second hero in the
Cohen story, Nathan Gaza,
a blind survivor from the
Nazi death camps who was
brought to this country by
Simon Stern. Gaza is the
narrator of the entire story
as Simon's confidant. Other
survivors are involved. One
is a .man of guilt who had
himself terrorized the Nazi
victims in the German camp
as a tool of the SS and who
was getting vengence, when
Simon rejected him, by put-
ting the rehabilitation com-
plex on fire.
Scores of incidents are in-
terspersed in the story. The
confrontation with the man
who was a tool of the Nazis
occupies a great deal of the
tale. Simon's insistence upon
remaining in the Lower East
Side, refusing while the res-
cue work was in progress to
go Uptown, is another factor
in the story.
The guilt is . vital. During
one of his dreaming spells
Simon is visited by a strang-
er who relates to him the
story of the Last Jew. The
dream — accepted by Simon
Stern as a reality — is about
the last survivor among the
Spanish Marranos who keeps
observing the Sabbath and
all Jewish traditions. And be-
cause it is no longer pro-
hibited he no longer hides it.
That's when the Inquisition
gets after him — to make
certain that the glory of hav-
ing ended Jewish existence
is not disrupted. Don Rafael
Arturo Moyse Acosta of Ger-
ona is tortured. He finally
dies. But the classic portion
of the Cohen novel is the
speech — the final message
of the Last Jew delivered to
his fellow creatures, to the
mob witnessing his 'martyr-
dom. It is an expose of re-
ligious tyranny. It is an his-
toric indictment. It is the
portion in Cohen's "In the
Days of Simon Stern" that
may survive the entire novel.
Here it is:
"I am an ordinary man.
But I am an ardinary man
with an unordinary quality.
I am a Jew. Now that fact—
being a Jew—could be ordin-
ary, like being a man, but
it would require that you
permit it to be so. It cannot
be treated by you as some-
thing exceptional, ..bizarre,
suspicious, uncanny, or else
by regarding it as such you
oblige us ordinary men to
behave as though we were
very special. You make us
extraordinary . by ..deciding
that you cannot cope with us.
So much for you, but what
about God? Why does He not
rescue me? Why did He not
rescue all of my brothers
who, like me, have said no
to you? Why?

"I shall now tell you. Be-
cause He accepts your verdict.
No. More than that. He de-
cided upon it long before
you did. He decided we were
extraordinary from the very
start, as . witness . all our
prophets and teachers and
visionaries. Why rescue us?
Rescue poor people. Rescue
ordinary people. They need
rescue. Save them, Lord, be-
fore us. To rescue us is to
deny who we are, to make us
"And now, do you know
why Jesus died on the cross
and was rejected by the Jews?
It was because He asked God,
`Lord why have you forsaken
me?' Had He not spoken
these words He might well
have died—no less died—but
I will tell you something, all
the Jews would have believed
in Him. 'He is surely a Mes-
siah,' they would have said,
because He says nothing,
calls for nothing, asks for
nothing. He knows that God
is with Him. I know that God
is with me, now and forever.
You are not yet saved, but I
am ready to die.'
"Don Rafael Acosta closed
his mouth and died. died and
was buried, and in the after-
math of his death, there
came those who believed he
was their ransom and re-
deemer, and those people,
like our beloved Don Rafael,
were again called Jews"
The many factors of inter-
est in the Cohen novel are
not necessarily all as exciting
as this one. As a matter of
fact, there is much more
that is puzzling. Why the
glorification of a rich miser
into the role of a messiah?
How does the author justify
a minor incident of a speech
by Chaim Weizmann—which
is not so impressively related
in the novel — serve as an
inspiration, when a Weiz-
mann episode could indeed
have been transformed into
an exciting encouragement to
action? Wherein does the
farcical messiah justify all
the theological complexity?

Arthur A. Cohen, once hav-
ing studied under Dr. Morde-
cai M. Kaplan at the Jewish
Theological Seminary, e n -
tered into a dispute with his
revered teacher. Differing
with him in many theological
matters, especially with re-
lation to the Reconstructionist
movement that was founded
by Rabbi Kaplan, Cohen pro-
posed to discuss the differ-
ences. The emerging texts in
"If Not Now, When? Toward
a Reconstruction of the Jew-
ish People: Conversations
Between .Mordecai M. Kap-
lan and Arthur A. Cohen,"
published (by Schocken, will
prove especially challenging
to theologians. Rabbinic stu-
dents will 'be enchanted by
the scholarly theses. Lay
readers, too, will find a meas-
ure of inspiration in these
The conversations were
conducted in 1971. They were
held Sept. 10, Sept. 14, Sept.
17, Sept. 24, Sept. 25, Sept.
30, Oct. 1, Oct. 5 and were
concluded Oct. 7.
The extent of the talks, the
issues involving Jewry and
mankind, the problems that
influence Jewish existence,
the religious aspects and the
forms of worship — many
are the themes covered in
the conversations by t w o
mental giants.
In the preface by Cohen
and the epilogue by Prof.
Kaplan are incorporated in-
teresting observations on the
themes covered. Cohen indi-
cates that the conversations
had not "effected any great
change of mind, for mind is
a dimension of character and
mind changes as slowly as
character." And he adds:
":Mordecai Kaplan still mis-
understands my so-called
supernaturalism and I sus-
pect his social-psychological
naturalism. The fact that we
continue to have reservations
about each other's essential
docta does not obscure our
coming together in recogni-
tion of the severe crisis of
the Jewish people. J do not
think our conversations settle
• In the film version of the matter, but they do raise
solid questions and give voice
"Jesus Christ Superstar,"
to the primary issues."
which has been branded as
shockingly anti-Semitic, Pon-
Teacher pays honor to his
tius Pilate, portrayed as p u p i l in the epilogue, in
viewing the shouting multi- which Dr. Kaplan, quoting
tude that is clamoring for Prov. 27:17, "As iron sharp-
Jesus' death, says: "You ens iron, so does one man
Jews produce messiahs by sharpen the wits of another,"
the sackful."
"My intuition has been af-
In the Simon Stern story,
Arthur Cohen introduced an- firmed. That came about as
other messiah. Simon is a result of our having man-
hardly a messiah. He is a aged to build a bridge be-
mockery. He is a money- tween our contrasting atti-
lover who is hardly a credit tudes toward Judaism — the
to anyone. That's what supernaturalist vs. the na-
puzzles us. What's the build- turalist — the bridge being
up? What causes reviewers transnaturalist. So that when
to get so excited about the it came to formulating the
title of our conversations, I
suggested 'And If Not Now
Arthur Cohen is a brilliant When?' and he added: 'To-
writer. He is a superb story-
teller and his knowledge of
Jewish history and of the distinction. Which amazes
events of our time is un- this reviewer who knows the
matched. But his novel is terms resorted to, who has
filled with incidents, Hebrew enjoyed reading most of his
terms, references to occur- story and regretted being
rences 'of bygone times that bored by a portion of it: be-
need explaining. He doesn't cause it is stretched merci-
attain it for the average lessly.
This reviewer is 'annoyed
reader, and certainly not for
the non-Jewish reader. Yet, by the messiah theme. He
non-Jewish reviewers have recommends the Last Jew
given him top billing. Some portion as a classic. He is an
advance readers rate his admirer of Arthur Cohen, yet
novel above the most valued wishes he had toned down
works on the Holocaust that an exaggerated tale.
— P. S.
THE DETROIT JEWISH NUNS have already gained great



Mordecai Kaplan:
Naturalism Debate

approach to religion, which
accounts for Cohen's origin-
ally supernaturalist approach
and my own originally hu-
manist a p p r o a c h. He re-
garded the belief in God as
a result of individual con-
templation, whereas to me
the belief in 'God is the result
of collective action; hence,
his philosophical approach to
religion is in contrast with
mine, which is sociological.
To him, the goal is know-
ledge and self-understanding,
to me the goal is action."


ward the Reconstruction of
the Jewish People.'
"To such an extent have
my own wits been sharpened
as a result of our conversa-
tions that even their mo-
mentum has impelled me to
further sharpening. I believe
I have at last arrived at a
full understanding of the dif-
ference between philosophical

Additionally definitive is
Dr. Kaplan's assertion: "I
asked myself, 'At what point
does the Jewish collective
consciousness become t h e
Jewish collective conscience
with which the tetragram
ton YHWH is to be
Pied?' The answer, as de-
veloped in the course of the
dialogue is 'at the point at
which the Jewish collective
consciousness becomes aware
of the unchanging character
of the relationship between
God and Israel.' "

•■•■■ •••••• ■ •=1". ■ 041111110". ■■•■ •=1.10.1••• ■■■•■■ 1.1•11.1

111M1411 ■ 10i0 ■ 00

Boris Smolar's

'Between You
... and Me'

Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, JTA
(Copyright 1973, JTA Inc.)

MEET YOUR LEADER: Elmer L. Winter, the new
president of the American Jewish Committee, resides in
Milwaukee but his Jewish and civic activities are nation-

He is the president of Manpower, Inc.—the world's larg-
est temporary help and business-service firm—which has
630 offices in 34 countries. Through his "Youthpower" pro-
gram he has placed 70,000 young people in this country in
summer jobs with no charge for the service and has helped
many returning servicemen solve their job problems. His
firm has sponsored a national competition which offers
$10,000 in cash awards to those young people who use their
spare summer time to develop and conduct community
improvement programs.
His concern with improving employment of minorities
brought him awards from numerous quarters. He is a
member of the board of directors of the National Com-
mittee on Employment of Youth; also of the White House
Task Force on Employment and Economy of Youth.
An author of nine books, as well as a prize-winning
painter and sculptor, he is known for his wide intellectual
curiosity. He is always au-courant on developments in in-
ternational, national and Jewish affairs. He is proud of
Israel's accomplishments and contributions to Jewish life.
He is an honorary alumnus of the Hebrew University,
and a Fellow of Brandeis University. He is one of the top
leaders of the Milwaukee Jewish Welfare Fund.

HIS CREDO: Winter takes over leadership of the
American Jewish Committee in the belief that our coun-
try needs a replenishment of soul and conscience. It is
his opinion that the American Jewish Committee can serve
as a catalyst to help establish a new charter for America
—a charter, he says, that "will insure decency, fair play,
equality of opportunity and social justice to all." He stress ,"
that the AJCommittee owes no allegiance to any polity,
party or corporate interest.
The new AJCommittee president considers Jewish edu-
cation in this country as a matter of primary importance.
He urges AJCommittee members to become interested in
the "University Without Walls" which the Committee is
now forming and which will allow adults to pursue college-
level Jewish studies without attending classes. The Haifa
University is co-sponsoring this effort. The program will
start in the spring of 19'74.

STAND ON RUSSIA: Winter favors detente and ex-
pansion of trade relations between the United States and
the Soviet Union. However, he decries the loss of jobs,
trials and severe punishment which often follOws the filing
of an application by a Jew for an exit visa. Ile supports
Congressional action against granting Russia the "favored
nation status" in trade with the United States as long as
such harassment is practiced by Moscow.
He foresees an expanded role for the American Jew-
ish Committee in interpreting Israel's needs and policies
in the United States.

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