Class of 1938
Milton Himmelfarb was a leading analyst of Jewish-American life whose essays on Judaism, politics and modernity were staples of Commentary magazine and other publications. He was an editor of The American Jewish Yearbook and a 40-year veteran of the American Jewish Committee, where he was director of information and research.
He belonged to a family of remarkably accomplished intellectuals whose roots were working class and liberal, but who became leading neoconservatives. His sister, Gertrude Himmelfarb, became a prolific historian noted for her defense of Victorian- era values. She married Irving Kristol, a future member of the CAG Hall of Fame who would become a founder of neoconservatism. The Kristols’ son — Milton Himmelfarb’s nephew — is William Kristol, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard, an influential conservative publication.
A droll, erudite man who spoke half a dozen languages, Himmelfarb was said to amuse himself by reading classical authors in the original Greek, and working out Kabbalistic alphabetic numerology problems with the help of a pocket calculator. He was best known, however, for his essays and for his penetrating observations. Asked what to call the grandchildren of intermarriage, he replied, “Christians.”
“Each Jew knows how thoroughly ordinary he is; yet taken together we seem caught up in things great and inexplicable,” he once wrote. “The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around us and to us.” Attempting to explain why Jews voted liberal even after attaining wealth, he wrote, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” a phrase that became part of the political lexicon.
What has been described as his most-cited essay appeared in Commentary in 1984. Entitled “No Hitler, No Holocaust,” it was critical of those who felt the Holocaust was more the result of sweeping socioeconomic forces and less the product of madmen. “Hitler willed and ordered the Holocaust, and was obeyed,” he wrote. “Traditions, tendencies, ideas, myths — none of these made Hitler murder the Jews. All that history, all those forces and influences could have been the same and Hitler could as easily, more easily, not have murdered the Jews.”
Himmelfarb was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 21, 1918, and raised in an Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking household. He attended Townsend Harris High School. Following his graduation with a B.A. from City College, he earned a degree in Hebrew literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and in 1942 — rejected from military service because of an ulcer — he was hired as a researcher by the American Jewish Committee. In 1959, while at the AJC, he was named editor of The American Jewish Yearbook, commissioning essays on subjects such as the effect on the Jewish population of birth control and intermarriage, neither of which he favored. In the 1960s, he started writing essays for Commentary magazine, an affiliate of the AJC. As a contributing editor, he wrote about 90 pieces.
In 1986, Himmelfarb was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. He was a visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and a visiting lecturer at Yale University.
His books of essays include “The Jews of Modernity” in 1973 and “Jews and Gentiles” in 2007, a collection edited by his sister, Gertrude.
Himmelfarb died of skin cancer on Jan. 4, 2006. He was 87.