From Hasidism to Marxism
by Isaac Deutscher
Verso, 176 pp., $17.95
Isaac Deutscher lived from 1907 to 1967, a period of Jewish history as eventful as any in the previous two thousand years. Born near Krakow to a family of Gerer Hasidim, he became one of the world’s foremost Marxist journalists and historians. This was a journey, as he himself understood it, from the Middle Ages to modernity, from dusty superstition to cutting-edge historical science. The Non-Jewish Jew, a collection of Deutscher’s essays on Jewish subjects that first appeared in 1968 and that has just been reissued by the radical publishing house Verso, begins with a biographical sketch by his widow, Tamara Deutscher, organized around the image of vaulting a historical gulf. “That gulf was so immense that it baffled and fascinated him,” she writes. “It both amazed and amused him” that his early memories belonged to the same person as his adult achievements. How did the boy “with a thick black crop of hair [and] curled sidelocks,” knocking timidly on the rabbi’s door to wake him for morning prayers, become the radical orator who addressed a crowd of 15,000 students at a Berkeley teach-in?
Practically the only source for Deutscher’s early life is this memoir, “The Education of a Jewish Child,” which quotes him extensively and seems to be his own authorized version. While it documents a journey away from Judaism, it is a text strikingly crowded with Jewish echoes. For instance, it tells the story of Isaac’s great-grandfather, a mitnaged (though the term is not used) whose “fanatic convictions” led him to prohibit his son from becoming a Hasid. The son, Isaac’s grandfather, was desperate to join the court of the Gerer Rebbe, but when he set out on the journey, his father moved heaven and earth to stop him, even calling in the Austrian police. This is very much like the story that Nachman of Bratslav told under the title “The Rabbi’s Son,” in which a father repeatedly thwarts his son’s efforts to join a Hasidic rebbe. At the end of that tale, we learn that the omens which appeared to support the father’s ban were actually the work of Satan and that the meeting, which never took place, would have brought about the coming of the Messiah.
The rebellion of Deutscher’s grandfather was archetypal, and so was his own. Indeed, his story reads like a classic maskil’s autobiography; he could be Salomon Maimon talking about Lithuania in the 1760s. Deutscher, too, was a talmudic prodigy who grew first disillusioned with his learning and finally contemptuous of it. At the age of 13, Tamara Deutscher writes, Isaac delivered a discourse about the kikayon, “a bird [that] is big and beautiful and unlike all other birds,” which appears once in 70 years and whose saliva has miraculous curative powers. The question the young Deutscher had to answer, drawing on a multitude of authorities, was whether this saliva was kosher—and he did this so impressively that he was immediately ordained a rabbi.