These days, the angel of death seems to be hovering above, swooping down more than usual – and not just via the coronavirus.
My fifth month of mourning my mother began with three blows: a favorite teacher, the Revolutionary War historian Bernard Bailyn, died at 97; a cherished colleague, Israeli legal expert and human rights activist Ruth Gavison , died at 75; and, most painfully, my father-in-law, Marcel Adams, died at 100. Thinking through their legacies highlights the levels of loss many are sustaining at this difficult time.
I studied with Bailyn in the 1980s, when he was in his 60s. I called him the Whirling Dervish of Widener, Harvard’s main library. He had the energy of someone half his age – and the wisdom of someone twice as old. His greatest book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, was already a classic. At an age when most people retire, he launched a multivolume project: The Peopling of North America.
To reduce this intellectual dynamo to two insights is like saying that computers add and subtract. Nevertheless, those two books are strikingly relevant to today’s culture wars – countering attempts to cancel American history.
The peopling of America analyzes America’s different peoples: various immigrant groups, natives, slaves. It doesn’t just acknowledge America’s diversity – it drives into it at 100 miles per hour. The dizzying varieties of America’s peoples enhances the magic Bailyn discovered in the 1960s, when he read the pamphlets America’s revolutionaries distributed. He concluded that a “republican ideology” made America a nation, generating the aspirational ideology that has kept it modernizing, democratizing, thriving.
Being in Bailyn’s seminar was occasionally terrifying, always edifying. His challenge to every lecture and paper, “So what?” warned us not to be antiquarians. History, he taught, doesn’t stop with uncovering interesting facts; it demands teasing out, thoughtful interpretation, milking the story’s significance.
While Bailyn taught me to pull insights by plunging deep into material, Ruth Gavison offered helpful frameworks for viewing the world.
This passionate liberal nationalist showed how to juggle pride in your heritage and respect for minorities, without sacrificing anyone’s liberty or dignity.
Resisting modern liberals’ drift toward “thin,” superficial universalistic identities, she championed the “thick,” layered identities Israel and Zionism fostered.
Embracing complexity, she fought for equal Israeli-Arab rights and a proud Israeli Judaism in the public sphere, opposing religious coercion while respecting some religious content, given Judaism’s multidimensionality.
Today, Bailyn and Gavison are flamboyantly politically incorrect. They didn’t cancel others because of disagreement or complexity. They understood liberal nationalism’s restorative powers. And without soft-pedaling the sins they saw, they never gave up on their respective countries or Western civilization, because we have no better framework for spreading freedom, healing wounds, repairing the world.
Bailyn and Gavison theorized about constructive liberal nationalism’s liberating powers; Marcel Adams lived them.
In his native Romania, before and during the Nazi years, autocracy, antisemitism, and bigotry risked squashing him. Spending seven years in Palestine/Israel from 1944 through 1951, and the rest of his 100 years in Canada, freed him.
In democracies offering liberty and dignity, he could become a devoted family man, a master builder of shopping centers, a proud Zionist, a generous philanthropist. His long happy life highlights the dangers of the current rebellion rejecting the core liberal values that have helped Western democracies progress.
While saluting Bailyn, Gavison, and Adams as public figures, inspiring teachers, and rousing symbols of critical values, I also mourn the loss of Marcel as a cherished father, father-in-law, and grandfather. Our shiva for him focused on the private Marcel we loved, not the public figure others knew – or thought they knew.
LIVING INTIMATELY through a second shiva in five months highlighted the different roles shiva plays, corresponding to people’s different spheres of influence. Many emails and phone calls celebrated the public person. But because both shivas occurred away from where the mourned ones lived most of their lives, few strangers appeared to share stories we didn’t know about our loved one’s life.I sat shiva for my mother in the Washington, DC, suburbs where both my brothers and my father live. As a family, we had great bonding time – days before the corona crisis exploded. Last week, because Canada now requires a two-week quarantine upon entry, we mourned Marcel in Jerusalem, separate from other close relatives.
Still, in March, when mourning in Washington 10,000 kilometers away from Jerusalem, I missed my community’s embrace. Five months later, my wife, children and I were swept up in the shiva’s “group hug.” Our fridge filled up, overflowing with tasty treats – and love. And every day, at 7:30 in the morning and 7:20 at night, 10 to 20 brave souls, defying any corona fears, magically appeared within minutes of each other to form our outdoors, socially distanced, deeply meaningful minyan.
When my mother died, it was upsetting to watch how this three-dimensional person, this full-feature film called Elaine Troy, was reduced to a series of snapshots – images, anecdotes, punch lines. True, some people are lucky enough to leave behind books, ideas, students, shopping centers or other public monuments. But, ultimately, our private monuments run deeper – our closest relationships, guiding values, defining deeds. We mourn most public figures with our heads – but loved ones with all our hearts. Jews don’t sit shiva for authors or teachers – only for parents, siblings, children.
That blessed obligation doesn’t negate the good public figures can accomplish. It simply teaches that a high-profile public life may make us rich or famous, but the rich private life truly makes us immortal.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .