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Interview with Dr. Julian E. Zelizer

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McKiernan Interviews
Interview with: Julian Zelizer
Interviewed by: Stephen McKiernan
Transcriber: Lynn Bijou
Date of interview: 24 June 2022
(Start of Interview)

SM: 00:04
Can you hear me?

JZ: 00:05
I can hear you just fine.

SM: 00:06
Okay, great. Well, Dr. Julian Zelizer. Thank you very much for agreeing to do the interview on your book, "Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Life of Radical Amazement," and that was an amazing book. Could you describe your, your early years, where you grew up, your early influences in your family and peers? Where you went to high school, and college, and-and how did you become interested in history?

JZ: 00:31
Sure. Well, thanks for having me. And I grew up in a place called [inaudible] New Jersey, which is a suburb in northern New Jersey. My mother was, still is a professor of sociology. While I was growing up, she taught at Barnard College. And after I went to college, she moved to Princeton. My father, Jerry Zelizer is a conservative rabbi, in [inaudible], that is where his synagogue was at a place called the Bay Shalom, and I was an only child. So, I grew up there. And I would add, since it is relevant, my father's father was also a rabbi in Columbus, Ohio. And his father, my great grandfather was a rabbi in, in eastern Europe. So, I grew up in [inaudible] and I went to, until eighth grade, a place called Solomon Schechter Day School, which was a Jewish Day School in Cranford, New Jersey, which was half Jewish Studies and half secular studies. And then I moved to [inaudible] Public High School, where I graduated in 1987. And in high school, I started to gain an interest in history. But, it was not anything I was planning to do. To be honest, I, it was just classes I enjoyed. But I was not someone who knew exactly where everything was going. And when I grew up, I did grow up going to synagogue, every week, our house was kosher, I was the rabbi son. It was very important to shaping my identity, in retrospect. Then I went to Brandeis University, between 1987 and 1991, where I started to really gain a focus of what interested me. In my junior year, I won a fellowship at Brandeis, through the Ford Foundation, they were providing fellowships to students who might be interested in academia. And they paid you a stipend, which I am sure was not that much, but at the time seemed like more money than I ever made. And over the course of the year, you have engaged in an in-depth research project and whatever your discipline was, and worked closely with a mentor. So, I started working on the history of liberalism in Massachusetts, during the 20th century with a historian named Jim Kloppenburg, an intellectual historian. And it was coming right after Michael Dukakis had locked to George H.W. Bush in 1988, which was the real first election I focused on in-depth. And I was just curious why the label of a Massachusetts liberal had been so damaging to Dukakis and, and I spent a year working on this project using original resources. And I just really started to enjoy that kind of work. And I continued with this my senior year as a senior thesis project that ended up being like 300 pages.

SM: 03:43

JZ: 03:45
And by the end, I knew I was either going to do history as an academic or journalism, one of the two, as a way to study politics. And I decided in my senior year that academia was the way to go for me, and I applied and I got into Johns Hopkins University. And I went straight from college to graduate school where I was there from 1991 to 1996, when I received my PhD in history working with someone named Luca Lamba.

SM: 04:19
Wow. What, your history of, of the rabbi background is, I was reading in your book that your grandfather received an award the same day Dr. King received an award at a function. Could you talk about that just briefly before we get into the main part of your book?

JZ: 04:36
Yeah, I mean, the fascinating part of working on this biography of Pashto was obviously there was an element of exploring my father and grandfather's world. Both of them went to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Abraham Joshua Heschel was a professor for most of his career, and to look back at the world of American Judaism in the 1950s and (19)60s, when my grandfather was a working rabbi, my father was studying and then become a rabbi. And I found these points of connection, which were really amazing. I was just looking by chance, at the program, I found all this old material. I think my father, I am not sure, but I think my father had found all these boxes of material when my grandfather passed away. And he asked me if I wanted them, I took them. And in it was the program for when my father graduated and was ordained as a rabbi. And I was just kind of thumbing through it. And it turned out that Heschel, a king was there to receive an honorary degree, and Heschel was obviously there as well. And my grandfather received an honorary degree as well, at that same moment-

SM: 04:58

JZ: 05:00
-in the program. So, there, everyone was in the room. And it is kind of just symbolic of this project and, and kind of how it was different from some of my other work.

SM: 06:07
Your father and grandfather so linked to history, and now you are linked to it. And now you are teaching it, and writing about it, which is exciting. When you look at the period, 1960 to 1975, what comes to mind as a historian, and as a scholar, who is written about this era in different ways?

JZ: 06:28
A lot of things I mean, certainly political turbulence, and social turbulence is what I instantly think of with a question like that. It was a very contentious 15 years, or however you want to demarcate the period, where some of the most fundamental elements of what America is about were being questioned. And they were being challenged from left and right. And that ranged from the way race relations were part of the history of this nation and racial inequality was so ingrained in the institutions and culture of the country, to what did the US do overseas? And what were these principles that politicians talked about when they deployed military force? And how did they compare with the reality on the ground? And those are just two of the questions. There were many others. How do we handle poverty in this country? What does the government, what is the role of the government in education? And it is just incredibly broad, and it culminates in (19)74, really, with a big question about political power and presidential power with the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon. So, it is just an incredibly tumultuous period, but not all in a bad way. And that is part of what I have learned, while studying, including writing this book, a lot of the questions were important ones that were being asked, and they really press the nation to think about its values, its aspects, its basic moral core, and what it was going to stand for, for the next few decades.

SM: 08:13
You know, the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel was, I mean his whole life, you can study a certain section, and just study that for the rest of your life. Because how did this person become who he became? And this is a kind of a general question, there will be other ones later in the interview, but the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel, I think, fits into the decade known as the (19)60s and early (19)70s, as a religious leader, an intellect, an author, a thinker, and one heck of an activist, extraordinaire. Your thoughts on his role as an icon of the (19)60s and his role in Judaism in general? And I will be asking more questions too.

JZ: 08:54
Sure, I mean, that is how the book starts, it actually starts with that framework. And I have, early in the book, one of the most iconic pictures of him, but also an iconic picture of the 1960s. It is a picture of March 21, 1965. It is one of the many marches that took place in Selma for voting rights. And this was a march where King called on religious leaders to come and, and march as a show of support from the religious community for the need for legislation to protect black American voting rights. And in that photo, which most American Jews, and many American Jews have seen at some point. King is marching alongside Heschel, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, some of the iconic civil rights leaders of the period, in both a moment of civic euphoria in some ways, and also, a scary moment. Because a few weeks earlier, the state authorities had beaten protesters simply for the act of protesting. And that picture is so important because it reflected not only activism in the 1960s, in this moment when so many Americans decided to take to the streets to demand social justice, but the role religion plays in that mobilization, something that is often forgotten. Religious leaders were integral to many of the progressive political movements of the period, and Heschel has come to embody that interconnection. So Heschel, as a civil rights activist, as an anti-Vietnam activist, as an activist who fought for the rights of Jews who are living in the Soviet Union, and much more, really does reflect some of the spirit of the 1960s. And, and a forgotten place of religion in that particular world. And simultaneously, and we will talk about it more. He was also a very important figure, which brought him to this place, in kind of being a public, religious intellectual, something we do not necessarily have any more, writing books that received widespread attention about theological questions. How do we think in the post-war period after the Holocaust, after the nuclear bomb about God, and a relationship of individuals to the divine?

SM: 11:32
Yeah, you did a great job in every aspect of his life, very beginning when he was young. Wherever you live, there was anti-Semitism, and he had to, he experienced that, he lived in poverty. The economics conditions are not good within his family. Could you talk a little bit about how this great rabbi who became an icon of the (19)60s were how he evolved from those very beginnings when he was in Warsaw, throughout through Europe before he came to the United States in Cincinnati.

JZ: 12:09
Yeah, I mean, he has an immigrant story, which is part of what fascinated me also about him to understand that trajectory. He grows up in Warsaw. He was born in 1907. And January 11, 1907, and, and he grows up in a family of very, that comes from very distinguished Hasidic rabbis. Hasidism is a sect of what today we would call Orthodox Judaism. But very traditional, but also very spirited. It was a kind of Jewish community that prayed with exuberance that devoted much of their life to studying the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and more. And he grows up in Warsaw being trained to be a rabbi, he is a prodigy, his family assumes he will continue with the tradition. And his father died when he is very young, and in 1916, as part of the influenza outbreak of the time and Heschel's just nine years old. But he continues with his training, his uncle trains him as a rabbi. But during these years in Warsaw, where he lives in, in the Jewish community, and is surrounded by Judaism, in terms of synagogues, and publications, he was always interested in the secular world, even as a young boy. He becomes fascinated with a group of kind of radical Yiddish, secular poet who works nearby. And I described a scene where he goes into their offices and asked if he could publish poetry with them. But ultimately, he leaves Warsaw, which is a big move for someone of his background, and he decides he wants to study at a university. So, he goes to Vilna, first, where he goes to, a high school, essentially, that trains him in secular education. And then he moves to Berlin, where he goes to the University of Berlin, and will work on ultimately a PhD in, in Philosophy. And he continues with his Jewish studies but by the 1930s, he is a guy who is still very religious, and religion is integral to how he thinks of the world. But he is also become deeply enmeshed in the highest intellectual circles of the world at that time, in Berlin at this university of philosophers, of other kinds of social scientists. And he writes his dissertation on the Hebrew prophets, and is fascinated with these figures who told the world that they could essentially hear God, and raged about everything that was bad in the country. He teaches at an adult education school in Frankfort, a very distinguished institution. But in 1938, he was kicked out of the country. He has been watching the Nazis rise to power and in 1938 the [inaudible] rounds up Jews who were not from Germany and expelled them, including him from the country. He goes back to Warsaw, he is able to escape. But ultimately in 1940, he receives a fellowship from the Hebrew Union College, which is a seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio training reformed Jews. And the head of it a guy named Julian Morgenstern, has a fellowship program where he is trying to rescue Jewish, Eastern European intellectuals. And he hears about Heschel, and he is one of the people who receives a fellowship, and comes to Cincinnati in 1940. So, his trajectory is one that always from a young age, mixed very intense Judaic study in the Hasidic tradition, combined with a fascination with the world of the secular, intellectual university.

SM: 16:11
Yeah, the thing is though, right away, you notice the connection between Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel, in terms of they both had deep desire for interfaith relationship in terms of social activism and the issues of the day, whether it be racism, the war in Vietnam, even Russian Jewry, which he was involved in, as well as dealing with the Catholic Church, and their-their historic treatment of Jews by saying that Jesus was-was, was killed by the Jews, these kinds of things. He was dealing with a lot of particular issues. He has got a lot of supporters, but he has got a lot of people that are challenging him, too. So, he, he is, he is one heck of a person in terms of history books. You have a quote, in the very beginning of the book, which is, you have already made references to several things. But, I am all over here. Your book is so good with respect to quotes. Wherever he lived, you got some quotes about what he said about certain conditions. And, I am trying to memorize them. So, if I ever make a speech, I can always refer to them because they are, they are unbelievable. This is one you have at the very beginning of the book. I just want to read it. And have you comment on it, commenting on it. "There is an evil, which most of us condone, and are even guilty of, indifference to evil." Dr. King was talking all about this too, indifference with something he could not stand. "We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved to the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference, indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself. It is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous, a silent justification it makes possible, and evil ripping us and expansion becoming the rule and being in turn accepted." Could you comment on that?

JZ: 18:16
Yeah, that is really, it is a, it is a very important quote in my mind to understanding some of what was driving Heschel. And it is a quote, it also resonated with King who spoke about indifference all the time, in the letter from Birmingham jail, King, famously lashed out, not against the open racists of the south. But he said, the preachers who were because they said they were being pragmatic, were not doing anything. They were the real danger, was the moderate who was more dangerous than the extremists because they allowed the extremists to continue And Heschel agreed with that. I mean, part of where this came from, was Heschel watching the Nazis rise to power. And ultimately, while he was in Cincinnati from 1940 to (19)45, watching the American political community do very little to save Jewish refugees, and even watching mainstream Jewish organizations be very timid in his mind, about making this a central issue and putting enough pressure on politicians. And it was that indifference, which terrified him and he, during the 1940s saw the cost of that indifference. It allowed Nazi Germany to literally ravage the Jewish community. It allowed, you know, the Nazis to ultimately kill many of his own family members, including his mother and three sisters, and the way in which indifference was so important in the Christian community, the Jewish community, to the heart that unfolded during the war would remain with them. And he would spend a lot of the rest of his career, talking about that, really attacking people who were not doing anything, attacking people who were sitting on the sidelines, even when they knew things were wrong. And not understanding that to not act was in some ways, becoming part of the problem, which is what that quote is about. And he talks a lot about this in the book that he publishes based on his dissertation on the Hebrew prophets. And, the Hebrew prophets were not indifferent. They were the opposite. They were people who were often considered. Often, some said they were drunk, or they were not psychologically stable, because they were walking around, screaming and raging about what everyone was accepting as normal poverty, inequality, violence, injustice. And he admired the prophets because they did not do that. They spent their whole life saying this is not acceptable. And so, I think once he reaches the 1960s, and he sees the different movements taking forth, it is almost inevitable for him, to not be indifferent, and to actually devote the last decade of his life to these political struggles.

SM: 21:15
You know, the prophets that you just mentioned, are throughout the book. I mean, in various issues in his life, what would the prophets do? And really, he was constantly thinking about them. And during the 1960s, in the part you talk about Selma and Washington and that era, and at the very end of the book, you know, the prophets are brought up in quotes over, and over, and over again, what would the prophets do? And, you know, I wanted to mention, too, that the books that he wrote, were amazing. I know that some of the people that were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and some of the people that were activists, like Father Barragan, Daniel Barragan, who I knew, looked up to Rabbi Heschel as a mentor. Because of the you know, this, making that religion was very important in dealing with the social issues, you know of our time, whether it be the nuclear bomb, the nuclear war in [inaudible], which is what the Berrigans were going after, and the Vietnam War. So, things like this, but it is the books, you know, these books, I have two of them. But the, the books were "The Sabbath Man is not Alone, God and Man is not Alone," "Man's Quest for God and God in Search of Man." Have you, did you have a chance to read all these books?

JZ: 22:36
Oh, yes, I read them several times. Some of them are difficult to really absorb. But I read them carefully. Because what I really started to understand as I wrote the book, was there was a clear connection between what he was writing and thinking about in the 1950s. And he is really writing about, in the Sabbath, he is writing about why religion in the modern world, "God in Search of Man," or "Man is not Alone," two other books that were famous works of his where he is talking about the relationship of the individual to God, and how the individual could open themselves up to ultimately hearing God's path of. I started to see, these are not separate from the world of activism that he ends up in, they are often treated that way. You know, first he was a writer and theologian, then he became an activist. But, when you read the book, and you read these books several times you kind of see the path that would ultimately lead him to find the activism so compelling. So, the Sabbath is an example. It is not obvious. But it is basically a book of why does the Sabbath matter? Why in the modern world of finance and consumption, should people take one day a week, which is Saturday for the Jewish people, and not do any work, not use any electricity, devote themselves basically, to prayer and introspection. And he writes about it, in terms of Jewish tradition, but he also tries to make an argument that this is an antidote to the rampant consumption that Americans were engaged in, it was a way to take control of part of the time that an individual experienced and separate it from, from that modern from that modern world. So, he is thinking about how to make the secular world a better place, through religious commitment. And in these other books, he is writing about how if someone is truly pious, if they devote themselves, to prayer, to committing, to engage in what Jews called the Mitzvoth, the good deeds that are obligated of every Jew. They, they ultimately become more spiritual, they become more pious, and they can hear what God is thinking and trying to communicate to them about the world and what is wrong in the world. And he ultimately thinks about this through the Hebrew prophets. But he thinks of it also in terms of what he has seen, from the activists all around, and including many religious activists, non-Jewish, from seeing Barragan, who are also forging these connections between their own religious slash theological beliefs, and the great issues of the day.

SM: 25:36
Throughout the book, when you are talking about those, not the books of Sabbath, but the Sabbath itself, that was a very important day for him. And what- -no matter where he was in his life, whether, whether he was in poverty, or whether he was, you know, in New York City, being a professor. I mean, it is a very important day, something, he would not want to do something on that day that had any effect on the Sabbath. And so that was very important. Could you talk about, you know, Cincinnati becomes an important part here. I was talking to somebody about this book, and they said, why did he come to Cincinnati? But could you talk about his time in Cincinnati, and then finally, his, his moving to New York City?

JZ: 25:45
It was. Yeah, so the Cincinnati years are quite important, although they were often overlooked. And they are from 1940 to 1945, again, he has brought here by Julian Morgenstern, who was the head of the Hebrew Union College. And he has brought on as a fellow, although they ultimately make him a faculty member. And it is a very difficult five years for him. First, he is living in a reformed seminary and reformed Judaism, basically was the effect of a branch of Judaism in the United States, and in Europe as well, that did not actually require practicing many of the traditions that more observant Jews thought were essential. So, the Sabbath, for example, a traditional Jew will not use electricity on the Sabbath, Heschel would, they will not drive a car, they won't go to a supermarket or store. But reformed Judaism was not quite as strict and allowed for all that. So, here Heschel spent five years living with these individuals who were being trained to be rabbis. But he saw, they did not keep kosher. None of, many of them could not read Hebrew. They did not have the practices or the knowledge that he thought were essential to being a rabbi. It was also during these years, that the Holocaust unfolds, then as I said, his mother and three sisters would all be killed during these years. So, he is all alone. He is living in this seminary, where kind of an oddity, and he does not really mesh with most of the students and faculty around him. And, he is listening to the events in Europe, and he is mourning as different family members perish. And it is during these years, finally, in Cincinnati, that he starts, just starts to engage in a little activism. He goes, for example, to Washington in 1943. Together with an orthodox rabbi in Cincinnati, and he participates in something called the "Rabbis March," which is a group of 400, traditional and observant rabbis again, what we call orthodox today, who marched through the streets of Washington, meet with members of Congress, they try to meet with the president unsuccessfully, to demand that the American political community does something about eastern European Jews. So, these are important years, and he is also gaining a sense of some of the differences of American Judaism as it was taking form, and what was still strong in different parts of Europe like Warsaw. And, he leaves in 1945, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which is in New York, it is a seminary, and it is also where conservative rabbis were being trained. They, a guy named Louis Finkelstein, who is the chancellor offers Heschel a full-time faculty position, in part because he thinks Heschel will be inspirational to conservative rabbis who are being trained because he has that knowledge. He has that background in Eastern European Judaism that was becoming more distant for younger generation of rabbinical students like my father.

SM: 26:40
It is really, I have a couple of quotes again from several parts of your book and I, it just reiterates what you have been saying about what he believed in, but the quotes are just wonderfully written, and wonderfully put together. "We affirm the principle of the separation of church and state, and we reject the separation of religion, and the human situation. And, and second one I want to quote here is "To be pious, to be a pious person meant creating a connection between spirituality and progressive politics, leading to battles against social injustice, and the militarism in the lived world." And the third one, final one, here, "He would, he wanted to repair the world by ending injustice, and injustice he saw in Europe, in his youth, and in his battles." This is, you are wording this basically, in America during the Civil Rights era, his desire to end the Vietnam War, that, this, his last years of his life when he, when he is in New York, it is amazing what he did. And, he is everywhere, he is going, he is giving a speech, or he is going to a protest, or he is, you know, going to try to get groups to interface together to work against an injustice someplace in the world. Can you talk about this, the importance at this particular time in the (19)60s of the interfaith connection that he was so involved in? And so Was Dr. King, and I, and I am a firm believer after reading this book, that if Dr. Heschel had not been here, in America, there would not have been a person like him to work with Dr. King. There were a lot of people that want to interfaith within his group, but to get your thoughts on this, on this real close connection between this interfaith effort?

JZ: 31:44
Yeah, I mean, there is a lot, of a lot of points there. On the first one, there was an interesting part of the book, and, you know, he is trying to find this balance between what is the role of religion and say, in the political world. And yet, as the first quote you read, says, he is not someone who is saying, you know, religion should guide public life, he is a believer in the separation of church and state. And so, there is always this question of what are the lines, and some of his critics would argue that sometimes they were turned off, by the way, he invoked religion, because it could lead to a kind of fervor, and, and kind of a dogmatic view of issues that isn't always best in politics. It was interesting to think of some of these debates and read them both in real time and retrospectively, but ultimately, he believed that religion just had an important role. And it was not simply that if you are religious, you will see, that you have to join, cause a and cause b, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, he has this other argument which is interwoven through much of his writing after 1945, where, if you have a society where religious questions which are ultimately, questions about ethics and morality, are no longer part of the conversation, no longer part of the lived experience of, of people, then secular society can become extraordinarily dangerous. And, he saw that part of how we ended up in a world where a Holocaust against Jews could happen, or where we could use technology, like the nuclear atomic bomb to just raise two cities was because spirituality had lost its place in modern society, and that these questions that gradually faded from what many people thought about and it led them to be hardened, it led them to be indifferent. And so, he was trying to kind of craft an argument about why religion, as someone who appreciated science, he appreciated modernity, he appreciated the consumer world, but he was trying to argue that even in that if we do not have this religious core, we are in danger, we will end up doing terrible things to, to each other. And he found this interfaith community when he engaged in activism on different issues that was like minded, and the interfaith element was quite important and it was really interesting, he really rejected religious leaders, Jewish or otherwise, who, you know, believed that religions had to stay separate, believed that the basic ritualistic differences between religions rendered any effort to work together as, as impossible. One example, a concrete example was between 1962 and 1965, the Vatican in Vatican two is revisiting a lot of its most controversial doctrines in the wake of WWII and the anti-colonialism. The church is trying to look at parts of the doctrine that had been used by forces of hatred, and anti-Semitism is one of it and, doctrine related to the idea that Jews need to be converted, or that all Jews are responsible for the death of Christ become what the Vatican is discussing, and Heschel is recruited as a secret liaison to the Vatican, to talk with Vatican officials, including the Pope, about these questions, and to lobby the Vatican to change its ways. Well many Orthodox Jews when they learn that this happened, it is ultimately revealed by the press that he was part of these discussions. They are furious with Heschel, they say, this kind of interfaith dialogue is not right, that you should not be discussing with Catholics or vice versa doctrine. There are two different religions, but Heschel railed against that way of thinking. And when he has involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement, it is the interfaith connections, which really drives what he does. And then finally, yes, by the end of his career, and by the time of his death in 1972, he was everywhere, it is kind of like a [inaudible] of American history at that point. And given where he started, just as a, in the Jewish community of Warsaw that this is a guy by the end of his life, presidents are aware of, Popes are aware of, the media will cover all the time, is really a mark of the kind of impact he was able to have.

SM: 36:55
Well, he had an influence on Dr. King, for sure. And, I learned something in your book about the fact that the group that Rabbi Heschel was involved with, the clergy concerned about the Vietnam War, or clergy and laity concerned about Vietnam were the ones that invited him to speak at Riverside Church in 1960. No, yeah, (19)67 against the Vietnam War. That is so historic, I never saw the connection. I thought Dr. King just came.

JZ: 37:29
Right. And I did not either, actually, I mean, I knew about that speech, it is one of the most important pieces, if you study the history of the Vietnam War, and the politics. King had been very reluctant to speak out against the war, in part because many civil rights leaders did not want him too, many supported the war. In (19)67, the Vietnam War is still popular. Many were scared that if they angered Lyndon Johnson on the war, he would, you know, essentially get back at them by withdrawing his support for civil rights. And King himself was really conflicted over what to do, he famously makes a speech at the Riverside Church where finally decides to, he cannot stand it any longer. And he makes a blistering speech about the war, about the cost of the war, about what it is doing, both to the Vietnamese and here in American society. And it is a turning point, because after that King is forever part of the anti-war movement. It gives the antiwar movement broader support in many ways, because they get connected to the civil rights movement. But the way, [inaudible] was an event organized by this group, that Heschel was part of, it was-

SM: 38:46

JZ: 38:46
-these religious leaders, who King was very comfortable with, he knew all of them, who invited him to speak at this event at the Riverside Church. And if you watch the old videos of it, I believe you can even see it online, Heschel is sitting there right next to him as King delivers this-

SM: 39:03

JZ: 39:03
historic speech. And again, I have seen it, I have heard it, I never like focused in on who organized this thing. So, it is really I think it is an important moment. And you can see the kind of effect Heschel and his cohorts are having by (19)67.

SM: 39:19
I wonder if even President Johnson saw that, or maybe he did, maybe he, because he was very upset with Dr. King. But, you did not hear him being upset with anybody else. But, he could have been upset with many of the others as well, who were there from different faiths. And I believe the minister there was Wyatt T. Walker, was not it? I believe that was, he was the minister at that church at that time. And I also want to bring up the fact that, the impact that Rabbi Heschel had on people from other faiths, his mentees, and they both said, they said this and I had all, they all came to my campus over the years. Daniel Barragan, Williamson Coffin, and Richard John Newhouse, and they were all they considered Rabbi Heschel, a mentor. And they were, my golly, they were powerful people themselves.

JZ: 40:13
So yeah, they did. You are talking about some of the most important figures of that decade. And, they really admired him. And for Heschel this was important because within his own community, he was pretty controversial. And even at the Jewish Theological Seminary, some would say he had more enemies or opponents than supporters. Some of this was because he was critical of American Judaism, including the way rabbis are being trained. He did not think they were learning enough theology. They were focused more on, on textual analysis and understanding Jewish law. He was an outspoken critic of the modern suburban synagogue, he would make all these speeches, where he would say that the synagogues being built around the country were beautiful, and they offered all kinds of services, but they were devoid of prayer, they were devoid of spirit, there was no reason people would remain attached to it. And this was a direct attack on what his colleagues were trying to do, including the famous guy named Mordecai Kaplan, whose, all his writing was about the centrality of the synagogue. So, he was controversial because of his thinking, because of the way he approached the rabid and, and he was also controversial politically, again, most mainstream religion supported the war in Vietnam as late as (19)67, and (19)68, including the rabbinical assembly, and I have a statement they released in (19)67, where they condemn this group that Heschel is part of. And Heschel is really the focus because he is the Jewish leader in this group, and say they disagree with it. And they do not think what he is doing is right. So, Heschel found a lot of comfort and solace in these connections that he made outside of the Jewish world where you would have people like John Bennett, or Barragan revering him and really admiring what he was doing. And I think psychologically, at that moment in his career, this was extremely important.

SM: 42:21
Well, the thing I noticed in the, in the book, you talk about the importance of memory; memory meant an awful lot to him. Here is this man who wrote all these great books, articles, you know, everything, taught students in the classroom. Yet he has this quote, Jewish said, or something that you put in the book, Jewish education to him, should foster Jewish memory. The vital sounds of Jewish education are not books, but the bearers of memories, those who engage with the spirit and bear witness, beware of that, which is, I cannot remember printing I am sorry about that. "Beware of that which has been passed down." Now obviously, throughout his life, he never could forget the Holocaust and every element of actions, even in the civil rights movement, when he saw the poverty and the terrible things happening to African Americans, they could not vote. They were being, they were being hanged. They were being denied their freedoms, treated as second class citizens. That memory of his he does not have to read a book for that, he witnessed it. And I think that is an important thing, too, that your memory is important. Any thoughts on that?

JZ: 43:43
No, I think it is, it is true. Ironically, I mean he, he tried to do some of this in his book, I think he was, he was not simply concerned with people won't remember the Holocaust, because in his lifetime, that was almost inconceivable. But he did talk, he talked, for example, when he was trying to garner support for the issue of Soviet Jewry, in the early (19)60s, when it was not really an issue. There was not a movement yet. He, he reminded people to think back to the 1940s, when so much of the American Jewish community established we did not do enough to put pressure on politicians. And he worried that by the (19)60s, a lot of the Jewish community was forgetting that, and forgetting the costs that could be incurred from that kind of, you know, forgetting of the past. But, he was also really worried that American Jews were no longer able to remember that world of eastern Europe that he saw it was so glorious, even with the anti-Semitism and even with what ultimately happened yet, slightly nostalgic look, or memory of the early 20th century in that world in which he was born and raised, and he wrote a book called "The Earth is the Lord's." It is one of his, it is his first book after the war. It is published in English. And it is called "The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe." And it is more, almost like a sermon or a eulogy than a book. It is a poem, all about the magic that he remembered in eastern Europe, where you had a world of Jews, who were focused on studying the Bible, studying the Torah, who devoted themselves to that over material concerns where he argued, every person regardless of wealth was equal, because knowledge was the commodity and everyone was allowed to devote themselves to that knowledge. And he talked about the enthusiasm and fervor of the Jewish community where he was raised. And of course, again, a lot of that was nostalgic, he did not talk about the immense poverty and suffering, he did not talk about some of the problems that led him to leave ultimately. But, the book is about memory. It is a plea that Americans-

SM: 46:06

JZ: 46:06
-use after the war, do not forget that world, which because of the war, was now literally being lost, not just in terms of memory, but physically.

SM: 46:15
Yeah, I, just about everything he touches is something you can learn from, you could get a young person, please read this book or please read about the life of Rabbi Heschel, and you will learn something about life. The rest of the interview, I want to concentrate on Rabbi Heschel and the (19)60s. Could you concentrate on, right now on Selma? In the book, you state that he, he was actually watching a program on the Holocaust on T.V. when they broke in and talked about what was going on in the south in Selma, and how they had beaten the protesters. And, John Lewis actually had his head cracked at that one. And, and he said, I got to go south. He could not, it was, just his reaction to what was happening in Selma. And of course, a couple days later, Dr. King organized another March, and he wanted to be part of it. Could you talk about that?

JZ: 47:19
Yeah so, so he has, he had been following the civil rights story for, for many years already. He was an avid watcher of the evening news, he would watch it every night, he read the newspapers. And, he said that in the process of revising the Hebrew prophets, his dissertation to be a book, he, then was changing, and he was seeing the connections between what he was writing about, and the protests that he was reading about. He gets involved in civil rights, years before the Selma march. The most important I will highlight is, in 1963, Martin Luther King invites Heschel to speak at a meeting in Chicago, of interfaith leaders on religion and race. And, Heschel gives one of the keynote speeches and I quote a lot of the speech in the book because it is really, it is quite powerful. Cornell West would later say that the speech he delivered in (19)63, is "One of the most, it is one of the best speeches by a white person on race since abolition," and one of the topics. And, he basically said in that speech, which King is watching, that you cannot be a religious person, if you are a racist, that race and religion cannot coexist in the same heart. And, he attacks religious leaders who are being indifferent, who are not seeing that they have to take on this problem in American life, and the speech is covered in the press. And it really puts him on the map in the civil rights community. And before (19)65, he continues to speak in interfaith gatherings about race and religion. He does some protests and activism on the street, in New York City, on issues of education and religion. But ultimately, it is in March (19)65 that this all picks up, and it starts on March 7 1965, that is the first march, Heschel's not there. That is called and remembered as Bloody Sunday because protesters are marching and when they are on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the authorities violently attack them, beat them, beat many of the protesters, including John Lewis, who is the head of a group called Snick, who has his head cracked open by a police baton. And, it is an important moment because the media covers it. And as you said, ABC News cuts away, they are showing the Sunday night movie, "Judgment at Nuremberg," a movie about the Holocaust, to show exactly what was taking place in the south. And, and Heschel is aware of this. He is watching this and he is following the news. And then, he gets this invitation to come to a subsequent march on March 21 where King's bringing religious leaders because the goal after Bloody Sunday, Lyndon Johnson, the president of the United States, has called on Congress, finally, he called on Congress to pass the Voting Rights bill. And so, the marches in Selma are an effort to build pressure on Congress on the administration to follow through with that promise. And then, Tim gets the invitation to go home on March 21. And he is very scared. He is truly frightened. Because going to Selma is not like a trip, I am got to get through part of a protest, Bloody Sunday shows the stakes were high that violence was a reality. And he and his family, he has a wife and daughter, are terrified. But, he decides that he has to go, he decides at this point, there is no turning back. And so, he ultimately goes, he travels there. He is picked up by Andrew Young, whose one of the important civil rights leaders who carries around a copy of the Prophet, and has read it religiously, and really admires Heschel. And then, Heschel participates in this march. And I recount kind of how the march unfolds, I found this amazing diary, where he jotted down notes about the experience that are in his archives. And it is an incredible experience for him. He feels the religious fervor from, from the event and he understands what activism can be in a new way. He famously said he felt like he "was praying with his leg," on-on that day. And he also meets, one last thing, a lot of younger Jews who were there who said they were not really religious ever, they had no connection to Judaism. But one young man who's a reformed Jew says to him, driving back to the airport, that because of that day, because of the march in Selma, and meeting and seeing Heschel who, at this point, he has changed physically, he literally looks like a prophet, he has a long white beard, his hair is overflowing, that because of that day, he understands the connection to the tradition in a very profound way. And I will add, Heschel's also horrified, he is, he is, he loves what he does, he loves the movement, but he also sees the ferocity of the, the racism as they march, they are surrounded by, you know, Alabamians, who, you know, holding up signs, with horrible racial epithets, and often anti-Semitic ones as well, they are often connected in the minds of the white racist, and he does not ever forget just how deeply rooted racism is in this country.

SM: 53:13
Yeah, you state in there often that he said at this time, "That racism is our most serious domestic evil," and he said, "It was easier for the children of Israel to cross the red sea than for a negro to cross certain university campuses," which is amazing. It is true. It is, you know.

JZ: 53:35
Something that King, I mean, King and him connect on, as other civil rights leaders do in seeing some of the commonalities behind the Jewish experience, and Jewish oppression and anti-Semitism with the Black American experience. And they did not see those two as separate causes, especially in the mid-1960s. And, you know, King would talk about Moses and Exodus and often use that story in his own, in his own speeches.

SM: 54:07
Well, his stature was certainly growing at this time, because you also state in the book that he was invited by President Kennedy to come and speak with him about the issues that were being faced in the area of race in America. And, he sent a note to Kennedy could you say when he said to him? [laughs]

JZ: 54:27
Yeah, I mean, this is about, about civil rights and I mean, I do not have the text in front of me. But he is really, if I remember correctly, really urging the president to implore religious leaders to make this an issue front and center.

SM: 54:48
He said, please, I got it here, "Please demand religious leaders, personal involvement, not just sound declarations."

JZ: 54:56
Yep. Yeah, he, he wants, again, it comes back to that theme of indifference even proposes, cannot remember the details of the proposal to, to Kennedy, you know, some kind of substantive action that leaders can take to commit themselves to these causes. He is frustrated with how many people are basically willing to do nothing, even religious leaders, he respects about questions like racism.

SM: 55:25
To show how Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel are on the same wavelength, around this time, you know, he was arrested in Birmingham, and then he wrote the letter to the Birmingham Jail. And you talk about this in your book, where King condemns the pragmatism and, incrementalism of white moderates describing them as, "a greater threat than racists extremists." And basically, what he is saying, people always say, [crosstalk] Well, wait, just wait, just wait. And Dr. King had this all the time, when he first became the new minister, in his first church. He talked about this, and they had just fired the previous minister, and because he was kind of an activist and kind of a radical in their eyes. And they looked at him and said, "What another one?" [laughs] That was early on in his career, but he was always dealing with these things. Could you talk about the, the, his involvement against the Vietnam War?

JZ: 56:29
Yes, so, this really becomes a central part of his activist career, even though we talk about civil rights. And it was quite important, it does not even come close to the amount of time and energy that he expended on the fight against Vietnam. And he starts in 1965, which I tried to convey, it is hard to convey to a moderate reader in the book, that the idea of really starting to organize against the war in 1965, was a pretty dramatic thing to do. I mean, there was not an anti-war movement to speak of. Those who were involved in anti-war activism were seen as really fringe and pretty radical. It did not have the kind of support civil rights was starting to garner by that time, but he gets involved with a small group that will ultimately be called clergy and laymen concerned about Vietnam. It starts as a group of religious leaders protesting government efforts to crack down on anti-war protests, but quickly it reforms and becomes a group of religious leaders who are critical of the war in, in Vietnam. And the group tries to position themselves as separate from the most radical parts of the anti-war movement. For example, they do not support avoiding the draft, they do not support burning draft cards. But they use religious language and rhetoric and also religious, organizational power, meaning all the membership lists of churches and synagogues to start to grow this organization and it grows. And one of the things they do, is every year, they go to Washington, they bring members to Washington as part of a mobilization that would take place in late January and early February in (19)67, (19)68, (19)69. They would have protests, they would have rallies, they would do kind of media events that reporters would focus on, they would meet with administration officials and legislators to keep putting pressure on Washington to bring the war to an end. And what they bring to the table, in these years when the anti-war movement still did not have mainstream support, was a kind of moral legitimacy that college students could not bring. They were not the hippies and the beatniks on the college campuses who could quickly be dismissed by some politicians as just radical students. These were respected religious leaders. And the group just keeps growing and, you know, by (19)69 and 1970, they were a very important, and known, and formidable part of the anti-war movement. And King increasingly becomes more radical as the years progressed, gradually more supportive of people who are refusing to be part of the draft and going to jail for doing so. He is very defensive of college students who are engaging in protests and says they have the right to do that. And some of his colleagues said that by the end of his life, he died in (19)72, the war was consuming him. He saw this as just an epic tragedy, that was emblem of what the United States was doing wrong, and its relations with the world, and also a tragedy for the American soldiers for the Vietnamese, who were dying, for something he did not think was necessary. He was not a pacifist. But this anti-war movement defined the last real seven years of his life.

SM: 1:00:18
You quoted here that he said Vietnam "is an ecumenical nightmare, for Christians, Jews, Buddhists are killing each other." And this organization he was belong to, and he was involved in it, is, was very upset with president too, in Vietnam and what they were doing to the Buddhists, themselves-

JZ: 1:00:37

SM: 1:00:37
-and other religious groups. So, not only are we talking about it, he used to say this, another quote, you put in the book, [inaudible] which was a manifestation of a world without God, well, here we are in Vietnam, the United States is supporting this temporary government, hopefully it would survive. But in reality, they were, you know, killing Buddhists. They were discriminating against Buddhists. Buddhists hated that, too. I mean, the government, and we were supporting them. So, it was, it was everything, you look at Vietnam, there is something wrong here. And it took religious leaders like Rabbi Heschel, and Dr. King and many others from different faiths to really, you know, have an impact on the world against this war. I guess we are near the end of our time here. I want to add one final, there is a quote in the book here, and I want you to just respond to it, you wrote this quote, and it was on page 230. And, and this was your quote, "What was so important about Heschel was not that he heroically risked his life. But then he became an emblem for a kind of moral heroism that inspired, and continued to inspire others long after his moment had passed. He serves as a reminder of the often-forgotten role that deep religious conviction held within progressive movements that bent the arc of the universe toward justice." Now, that is brilliantly written. But, any other thoughts on that?

JZ: 1:02:14
Look, it was my thoughts. I mean, the book is my thought, but it is a part of the history of religion in the United States that I think has gotten, it has been somewhat forgotten. I think, I say in the book that when people think of religion in politics, in 2022, or whenever they are reading the book, the major storyline, the major issue has been the religious right, and politics, the growth of- -your moral majority in the (19)70s, in the connection of religion, to the battle against reproductive rights and, and different kinds of schooling and more. But there was this whole world in the (19)60s, which I just found fascinating, where people like Heschel, were at the forefront, at the center of progressive political movements. And they did it not just as religious people who happen to agree with progressive causes, but as people whose religion in their minds, led them inevitably to partake in fight for social justice here in the United States, the connection was impossible to ignore. That is what Heschel reflected. And I think, whatever your politics kind of recovering that world today, is something that is extremely important. And thirdly, if you are someone involved in some of these causes, the way in which religion can be part of that conversation, part of that effort is an incredibly important lesson from his life, and one that we need to examine through him, and through other figures of the time.

SM: 1:02:43
Yep. I end all my interviews with a question and it is just a very fast, what word of advice would you give to future generations who are listening to this tape, 50 years from now? What word of advice would you give to them? Because the purpose of The Center for the Study of the (19)60s is not only to, you know, do to create research and scholarship materials and for students, faculty and national scholars, but to reach people who are yet unborn too, so that they never lose their, their history. But they are always thinking about where they are, where they are at right now. What advice would you give them?

JZ: 1:04:34
Well, if I am connecting my advice, to Heschel's story, it would be what we talked about earlier that it is important, whatever your religious perspective, to keep asking questions about our ethics, our morality, our basic values in society, and to never be indifferent to those kinds of questions, and to understand that we need to always ask those questions, if we are going to have a better country. We are going to have a better community. This was an insight that I derived from Heschel, which I think is incredibly powerful. And then if we do not ask those questions, we put ourselves down the path of a very bad road. And, and we cannot afford that.

SM: 1:05:25
Dr. Zelizer, thank you for a great interview. I am going to turn off the tape.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview

24 June 2022


Stephen McKiernan


Dr. Julian E. Zelizer

Biographical Text

Dr. Julian E. Zelizer is a Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a CNN Political Analyst and a regular guest on NPR’s "Here and Now." He authored and edited 22 books including, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (2015), the winner of the D.B. Hardeman Prize for the Best Book on Congress. Dr. Zelizer focuses on the area of the second half of the 20th century and the 21st century of American history. Dr. Zelizer has a Bachelor's degree from Brandeis University and he obtained a Ph.D. in History from Johns Hopkins University.





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Binghamton University Libraries

Digital Format


Date of Digitization

24 June 2022

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Interview Format


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Books; Rabbi; Religious leaders; People; World, Religion, Martin Luther King; Anti-war movement, Protest; Activism; Jewish life; Judaism; Cincinnati; War; Jews; Writing.


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Stephen McKiernan's collection of interviews includes more than two hundred interviews with prominent figures of the 1960s, which were collected between the mid-1990s and 2010s. The collection provides narratives of people who were actively involved in or witnessed events in the 1960s, an era which spurred profound cultural and… More

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“Interview with Dr. Julian E. Zelizer,” Digital Collections, accessed March 3, 2024,