A new biography shines a light on Marie Syrkin
A century ago, any Jew who considered himself a Zionist would be certain to know the name of Nachman Syrkin. To Syrkin, the founder of the Labor Zionist movement, the seemingly unattainable goal of a Jewish state could not be separated from the still more unattainable one of a perfectly just socialist society. By uniting these two utopias, Syrkin gave Zionism a moral urgency that inspired young Jews around the world in the early twentieth century. No wonder that in 1951, when Syrkin’s remains were transferred from New York, where he had died in 1924, to the shore of Lake Kinnereth, now part of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion addressed his grave with the words “hazonikha yitkayem,” “your vision will be fulfilled.” No less than Herzl or Ben Gurion himself, Syrkin contributed to the intellectual DNA of the Jewish State.
In a sense, then, Marie Syrkin, Nachman’s daughter, could consider herself Israel’s step-sister; and over the course of her long life, her relationship to Zionism and Israel was as close and tumultuous as any sibling rivalry. Today, when even her father’s name has faded among American Jews, it is not surprising that few people still know who Marie Syrkin was. But for much of the twentieth century, her life was inseparable from the story of American Zionism. Like Jackie Kennedy, she went through life burdened and elevated by the responsibilities of her quasi-sacred name; like Alma Mahler, she was loved by a series of gifted men.
But Syrkin’s Zionist milieu afforded few opportunities for their kind of glamour. One of the moving things about Carole Kessner’s new biography, Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self, is the contrast between Syrkin’s extraordinary pedigree and passion and her quite ordinary, even shabby circumstances. In the 1930s and 1940s, she commuted by subway from Riverdale to her job as a teacher at Textile High School in Manhattan, which she disliked but could not afford to give up. Then, during her sabbaticals and summer vacations, she would be off to Palestine to observe life in the Yishuv, or to Switzerland to report on the latest Zionist gathering for Jewish Frontier, the small magazine she helped to edit.
In August 1939, Syrkin was in Geneva as a delegate to the Twenty-First Zionist Congress, the last one before the Holocaust. She barely got out of Europe before the Second World War broke out; she was crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary when she heard about Germany’s invasion of Poland. A few days later, she was back at the chalkboard. Surely none of her students suspected that, in her spare time, their teacher was helping to make history.
But this combination of modesty and destiny was Marie Syrkin’s birthright. She was born in 1899 in Switzerland, where her parents had met two years before at the First Zionist Congress. While her mother, Bassya, was pregnant, Marie’s father later told her, “she would gaze longingly each day at a photograph of Theodor Herzl hoping that she would have a boy who would look like Herzl.” Though Nachman and Bassya were both trained as doctors, they devoted themselves full time to Zionism and revolution; like the lilies of the field, they gave no thought to what they would wear. Nachman Syrkin’s “personal needs,” one of his friends recalled, “were so modest that he could be said to be living on the absolute minimum possible to civilized man.” And he expected the same austerity from others. Marie remembered the scandal when a rumor reached him that “Comrade P. had eaten a good dinner in a restaurant” while on a mission to Vilna: “There was something undeniably base about eating in a restaurant while comrades . . . were munching wild strawberries.” No wonder, then, that some of Marie’s most vivid childhood memories had to do with her rare indulgences in cherry sodas or banana splits.
For the first nine years of her life, Marie followed her parents as they criss-crossed Europe and Russia, working for the cause. In 1908, the family finally put down roots, of a kind, in the Bronx, where Nachman had been hired to edit a Labor Zionist periodical. But any chance of stability vanished when Bassya died, of tuberculosis, in 1915. Marie was brought even deeper under her father’s charismatic spell—a recipe for conflict when, inevitably, she began to discover and be discovered by men. At eighteen, she eloped with Maurice Samuel, an ardent English Jew who would go on to have a prominent career as a Zionist and man of letters. But Nachman sued to have the marriage annulled, and Marie gave in to her father’s fury.
Kessner’s account of this tumultuous episode, drawing on Samuel’s love letters, is the dramatic high point of the book, as it seems to have been in Marie’s own life. Her next marriage, to a chemist named Aaron Bodansky, lacked the passion of her romance with Samuel, and the couple was soon divorced. Finally Marie found a suitable partner in Charles Reznikoff, the poet, whose idealism and reluctance to seek steady employment made him highly reminiscent of her father. Their marriage lasted from 1930 until Reznikoff’s death in 1976, mainly because the couple was content to live largely separate lives, often in different cities. While Reznikoff took long walks and composed his spare lyrics about New York City, Syrkin was traveling the world writing and polemicizing. After 1950, her home base was Boston, where she taught at newly founded Brandeis University.
The bulk of Kessner’s biography deals with the first half of Syrkin’s life, the most dramatic and the best documented period. We see Syrkin being squired to the Cotton Club by Vladimir Jabotinsky—surely one of the unlikeliest tableaux in Zionist history—and becoming fast friends with Golda Meir, whose biography she would write. As she ages, along with the State of Israel, Syrkin becomes less idealistic and more defensive about the Zionist cause. Kessner, who was Syrkin’s pupil and friend until her death in 1989, seems particularly haunted by the criticisms of post-Zionist historians like Benny Morris, who have helped to undo the heroic myths of Zionism in which Syrkin believed.
In general, Kessner’s intimacy with her subject is both the strength and the weakness of Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self. If not for their friendship, Syrkin’s life might never have been written. Yet Kessner is not an objective or experienced biographer, and the book has obvious shortcomings in both style and substance. It is best approached as a personal tribute rather than a work of scholarship—a successful attempt to restore Marie Syrkin to her modest but fascinating place in Jewish history.
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