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The conversion of Joel Kovel (Part 1)

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Joel Kovel, 8/22/2012

At the annual July 4 weekend picnic held in the Catskills by Michael Ratner and Karen Ranucci this year, Joel Kovel gave me stunning news at the beer table: he said that he had been baptized on Easter, at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem.

Born Jewish in Brooklyn in 1936, Kovel is a renowned radical scholar. His latest book, The Enemy of Nature, is an “eco-socialist” polemic against capitalism as the source of global warming. His book before that, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine, is a classic of Jewish anti-Zionism.

Kovel baptized
Kovel (r) just before baptism by the Rev Earl Kooperkamp, photo credit Peter Halleck

Because I take Kovel so seriously– and because the question of conversion is such a fascinating one; consider such influential figures as Heinrich Heine, Annie Dillard, Muriel Spark, and Bob Dylan –  I asked if I could interview him about his conversion. We met at his Upper West Side apartment on August 22; and I followed up with a short interview by phone on September 2. Our conversation is very long, so I have broken it into two parts. The second part will run in a couple of days.

Part I. The Aunt Betty Apocalypse

I want to put off the question of your actual conversion and ask you about your life progress to that point.

It’s a process more than anything, and it has been a long drawn-out one. It wasn’t like I was suddenly stunned like St Paul on the road to Damascus. On the other hand it was punctuated with a lot of intense spiritual moments and it took a long time to unfold.

So start by telling me about your religious background.

It was very conventional, although my family itself was not. My family was deeply riven by conflicts. However, from the outside it was a standard Ashkenazi Jewish family. Both my parents were born in the Ukraine, which was then part of Czarist Russia, both came here in the early years of the last century. My father was born in 1901, my mother in 1908, and they were both the eldest of their sibship, the eldest of five children. They came with their families, and they did the whole Lower East Side experience. Both were from working families, there was no wealth there. People in my family once tried to trace their roots, and they just disappeared. It’s just amazing how Jews from that part of the world just disappeared from view. There were no records, and they couldn’t go back beyond my grandparents. There must have been a lot of interesting things happening that we will never know.

I myself was the oldest child in fact of all my parents’ siblings. And I was the first member of the family born in the new world, in 1936, and I was lionized as such.

My parents were not particularly religious or pious, though my mother was more rooted in Jewish tradition than my father. My father was a very odd fellow and he went his own way, but there was no question that this was a Jewish family, and I was exposed to the conventions of the Jewish religion. I went to school on Wednesdays to learn the elements of the faith. We weren’t regular observers, but we went on high holidays and the like, and the culture was very straightforward: eastern European, Russian, Jewish. We settled in my own life in Brooklyn. My dad was a civil servant, he worked for the Internal Revenue Service, which gave him a job during the depression, and my mom had been a secretary to a popular Catholic writer, Fulton Oursler.

Their ambitions were modest, but much was made of me. I was the star. I was precocious and my dad was an amateur photographer, and there are hundreds of pictures of me, taken with his Leica. I have a younger brother, born when I was 4, and it was just the two of us.

What was not at all standard about my family were the sharp ideological divisions within it. That was my father’s doing. My mom was very conventional, she liked to fit in, but my dad was a contrarian, you’d have to say. He had dabbled in leftwing politics as a youth, then moved sharply to the right, and became a fanatical rightwinger, even a kind of fascist. It was really amazing. We were living in a neighborhood that was not only Jewish but largely Communist. My boyhood geography was Midwood, Flatbush, Avenue J, Ocean Parkway, Coney Island Avenue, and Ebbets Field, and my father would rant about the imminent Communist takeover of the U.S. It seemed plausible to me because everywhere I looked, there were Communists. Though they seemed like nice enough people.

On the whole I loved my surroundings and was happy in my upbringing. There was an incredibly rich and bright, intellectually-alive group of people at that school. One of my classmates was Alan Konigsberg, who is now known as Woody Allen. We ran a little ratpack.

I diverged in the sense that we moved to Long Island my last year of elementary school. I went to Baldwin High School, and I was bar mitzvahed in Baldwin. It was just part of the hegira of the upwardly-mobile Jews from the Lower East Side. My mom’s family had moved to the Bronx, my dad’s to Brooklyn.

I’m writing a memoir that touches on a lot of these matters. Over the years I became something of a public intellectual, and I have been identified with rather extreme views, and I think that my temperament, my emotional affiliation, is with the Old Testament prophets. I can see myself outside the gates of the city hurling imprecations at its waywardness. Of course I am also Lou Kovel’s son, and as extreme to the left as he was to the right, though my life has been much happier than his.

My Jewish background was completely unremarkable in terms of my faith and things of that sort, but I must say that it’s important to note that I never took to Judaism. Long before I had any ideological problems with it– I would go to the services, go to the Hebrew school, dutifully, but without any enthusiasm, and indeed as time went on with a certain degree of hostility. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with it, but because it bored me intensely.

I would say that I did not like it, and in contrast to my regular schooling in which I was an ace—I read voraciously—here I took the opposite view. I don’t like this, I don’t want to learn it, mainly because I wanted to be outside playing with my buddies, and I didn’t want to be cooped up in this room.

Well you were hardly alone in those feelings, Joel.

No but at one point, I think there was some distress on my mother’s part because of this. I was sent to a tutor, some kind of ultra orthodox rabbi. He was a horror. I couldn’t stand him. He started fulminating about how horrible Jesus Christ was. That he was a bastard, his parents weren’t even married. I thought, what do I care? But this was indicative of the fact that my parents cared enough to send me there, they were concerned that I was a religious slacker.

I was very much into being an American boy. Rooting for the Dodgers. Duke Snider was my hero. [Points at photo on the bookshelf] That’s 1950, Duke Snider–the fans giving him a birthday cake. Mickey Mantle, Willy Mays, and Duke Snider were our heroes. And he was our center fielder.

Meantime, there were many emotional conflicts in my family, conflicts which affected me. In my memoir I have a very long second chapter in which I detail some of this. Because I think it’s relevant for an in-depth understanding of what made me the kind of person I am. There was extreme divisiveness and anger and I remember both parents screaming at each other, I remember both my parents being violent toward me. Even though I was also lionized.

Physical violence?

Threats of same and in some instances I’m positive there was. I have a very stormy inner life and a very harsh conscience. I am extremely self critical. I can hear each parent criticizing me in their voice. On the other hand, I was anything but neglected.

There were three phases in my experience of Judaism. The first was childhood indifference and boredom. The next was a much worse event as an adolescent, which was I think very traumatic and sealed my fate in some ways.

I came from a good sized family. Each parent had four siblings, and there were many people from the old country, but I can guarantee you that the only one I truly loved was my Aunt Betty, and I knew she loved me. She was my father’s youngest sibling, and the model of a liberated woman. She went out and founded a business, and she was written up in the papers, a Jewish woman going into the world.  She had a visiting nurses service, her own little firm, and she had a son of her own who is now deceased.  And she and I were really close. I loved to be around her, she was very funny, and a model of all the strong women I’ve been drawn to in life.

And then she fell very ill. She had a horrible form of cancer. I was 16 when she started to decline. It was ovarian cancer, one of the worst, and it deformed her very much. She was a big strong person, and she had 6 months of the most hellish descent. It was an awful death. And I went to her funeral, and it was a secular funeral, because she had broken with the Jewish faith. She had never taught me to break with the Jewish faith, I don’t know where she stood on Zionism. I just knew she was an atheist and didn’t want to be part of the Jewish faith.

A horrible thing happened at the funeral. The service was at Riverside chapel near Grand Army Plaza, and it was miserable. A man spoke who didn’t know her at all, and mumbled some platitudes, then we went over to her house. I was a freshman at Yale, and I had come down for the funeral. I went to her house and stumbled around in the most desolate way, then I overheard these women’s voices behind me, three of them, and I listened to what they were saying. They were three of my aunts, I won’t identify them further, and they were saying in so many words, Betty was a bad person in life and a bad person in death, she had showed no sympathy to them, she had showed no respect for the Jewish faith, she didn’t give them the benefit of a proper Jewish funeral where they could mourn as Jews mourn. You see, all she did was die of cancer, a horrible death, and be buried as she wished. But it wasn’t good enough for them. She was 40 years old, and she was the light of my life in many ways, she was very bright, like my father.

How did you react to what they said?

Oh it was apocalyptic. It was a great thunderclap, as if the world was coming to an end. I was completely startled. I was barely 17 at the time.

Did you say anything?

Not directly. What I did was I left immediately, I bid a hasty goodbye, I said I had to get back to school and I went out.

Did you express your feelings to anyone in your family?

No. I understood she was their close relative, and they hated her because she wouldn’t accept their tribal identity. And I could not share that understanding with other members of my family. I didn’t. I should have.

But what happened to me as a result is that I sealed myself off from my family. From that moment on I was a superficially loyal and cooperative member of the family, but I said to myself on that day, I will have nothing to do with them in re the Jewish faith. I basically broke with Judaism at that point.

I’m not accusing you of unfairness, but-

Oh. I’m sure I was unfair. But who’s keeping score!

But weren’t there members of your family you could talk to about this who would agree and say, fuck them?

I considered it. But I said to myself there’s no one I could talk to about this. I saw the family as a whole with this tribal ethos. The only exception was my father, because he was off in his own wacky life. It could be that my father would have been upset. He did love his younger sister. She was like his kid sister, and he was very dour. You know that word saturnine? She was the only one who could kid around with him. He would kind of like it. I probably could have talked to my father about it. I wish now that I had spoken with him, about this and many other things, but there were barriers between us.

My father was not indifferent to spiritual matters, and he respected the Roman Catholic church. He did not respect the Jewish establishment. He became a follower of Elmer Berger and the American Council for Judaism. He was anti-Zionist, but anti-Zionist from a very different perspective from mine, because Zionist meant socialism and also divided loyalty to him. I respect that view. I don’t have that loyalty to the U.S. that he had, but I recognize the issues.

So let’s get back to your narrative; what about your Jewish identity at Yale?

I remained very conscious of Jewish identity, proudly conscious of it. I just thought we were the smartest people on the block and I was very into being smart. I was not aware at Yale that there was a strict 10 percent quota on Jews, and I was an outstanding student, and I loved it. I had these great friends, who included non-Jews, but many of them were Jews, and some became famous. One friend was Tom Cohen and his father Elliot Cohen founded Commentary. And I hung out in those circles, I had no trouble with that. It was the tribal clinging in-group sort of feeling, mediated not by religious faith but ethnic pride. Though I never had anything to do with Judaism at Yale, I went to services dutifully when I was home—Yom Kippur– but I went and didn’t even listen. I’m not proud of it, I wasn’t a conscious rebel, but it didn’t seem to matter that much. I never had a serious relationship with a Jewish girl although I was groomed to such. I was my family’s ticket to upper bourgeois life, by marrying a Jewish girl– but it never came close. My first wife was an Irish Catholic. And when we had the first baby, a boy, I refused to have him circumcised. That was 1963, appalling my mother, breaking off relations with them. She stormed out. When we were courting each other, my first wife and I, my mother was upset and Virginia’s mother was even more upset. My mother said, I only ask that you go to a rabbi in Riverdale, see if you can make a Jewish family of it. The guy was awful. He was a jerk, it was a nonstarter.

By those years, I was becoming rambunctious intellectually. I was not a Communist, but I was a rebel in another direction. I became a Reichian, interested in naturopathic modes. As a doctor I knew that hospitals were bad places, and I also felt that circumcision was a barbaric practice, and I was proud not to be a member of that tribe defined by laws of the foreskin. And I rationalized that feeling by saying, Why should I hurt my newborn, they howl. They don’t remember it, OK, but they howl.

And subsequent years did nothing to soften me from the shock at age 17. If there’s a hard unforgiving quality to me, I have to own up to it.

I never got over that [the Aunt Betty funeral]. Also in going to family events, I began feeling critical of their whole way of life, the things they value, the things they did.

I didn’t like the religion, but I didn’t think of an alternative religion. I thought of myself as part of a rising technical elite. I was a whiz in hard sciences and mathematics, but I turned away from that too, and went to medical school. I got involved in Reichianism. I identified with those radicals. Reich had been a communist. And I was going that way.

You never had it out with your family?

Never. I’m not proud of that. I should have. It was not my finest moment.

Never shared your feelings about the Aunt Betty incident?

No. I never told anybody till the principals were dead and I could share it. What happened to me—I’m not proud of it but that’s the way it was—is that those feelings were embellished with other fundamental differences, including the Israel thing, which took a long time to develop.

I mean, I took quite a long while to get there on Israel. I did not become a major anti-Zionist till the 80s. It’s not easy to explain. I didn’t like Israel, but I didn’t think of it as an abomination in part because I was very preoccupied with being an outstanding scientist and physician. When I started training in psychiatry, my medical internship was at Albert Einstein, which is part of Yeshiva University, of course a thoroughgoing Jewish school, and the chairman of the psychiatry department was Milton Rosenbaum, a definite Zionist, and a man I liked and respected a lot. He oversaw a mental health clinic in Jerusalem, and I didn’t think there was anything awful about that. Though as he aged—and he lived to be in his 90s–he became less and less Zionist. There was a certain degree of debate at Einstein, but it wasn’t intense. There was a very brilliant group, and I enjoyed being part of it. I would say this– it was very striking. I noticed that in 1967 prior to the war, there was a great deal of panic. I was 31. And I found myself being really frightened. I’m in no sense a Holocaust denier or indifferent, in fact in the 1980s I wrote an essay on the subject, I have studied the effect of the Holocaust and its causes in considerable depth. I’ve read many books. The Painted Bird. The White Hotel. Histories.

Night?

Not night.

It’s a good book.

But not by a good man. Woooo woo. [hand motions of distress] But I remember reading Exodus, and thinking, Let’s get them. [gungho hand gestures] I went for that Sabra mentality, Jews redefining themselves. But it wasn’t very intense, and there were contradictions around the edges. And yet when the press was talking about Holocaust 2 and the power of the Egyptian forces, I flipped and I was very frightened, and when the Zionist forces triumphed I felt a surge of pride, and you’ve read Peter Novick [The Holocaust in American Life]. He makes the point that the whole subject really congealed after the Six Day War. That wasn’t the case with me, I was aware of the Holocaust from 1948 on, I was reading that stuff.

But in any case, the very intense moment was actually a kind of catharsis for me, an emptying out, and what I thought was my moment of triumph, our moment as Jews triumphing over the pagans and hordes, actually turned out to be the crest of a wave that sort of subsided. I never took that attitude again.

So what was next?

Well by 1976, I met DeeDee [Halleck, Kovel’s second wife]. Deedee had a much more developed view of these things. By ’76, I was a recognized Marxist scholar, flaming red, going to Washington to smash the state, getting into trouble, and I still didn’t have a very strong Zionist critique, though I knew that there was something seriously wrong. And by ’80 with the Lebanon matter, that was a horror and I realized, this was very bad stuff. So I was late.

Give yourself a break.

I told you, I’m very hard on myself. It was another 27 years before I wrote Overcoming Zionism. But I became definitely anti-Zionist in the 80s.

And as for DeeDee it wasn’t something she had studied in great detail, but the instincts were all there. Her first marriage was seriously harmed when her first husband played at a benefit for Israel. She felt that was unacceptable, and it was part of their breaking apart. She had that attitude in the 70s. She came out of Antioch College, and the radical arts scene.

But you were a Yalieelite, and insulated from that?

I had the idea I was Marxist and antiwar, but then I went much further. Deedee gave me permission to do that. DeeDee is a very powerful woman, she was like my Aunt Betty.

DeeDee and I share a great deal. She was born in St Louis and grew up in Tennessee, and her father was an engineer and he took them to Cuba. Her parents were very liberal, Unitarians, and quite progressive in a good way. She actually went to the Highlander camp, led by Myles Horton. It was a half hour away from where she lived in Tennessee.

So I was expanding as a person, feeling my intellectual power, feeling that I had a contribution to make. But I postponed the anti-Zionist thing in part because my father had died in the mid-70s, he had terrible dementia, and my mom and I never got along, and we had quarrels about Israel. She was an ardent Zionist. Hadassah, you know– she was a chairperson of Hadassah in Nassau county. She was part of that very influential civil society, the small town fabric that Jews formed.

This is something very important. People say the Jewish organizations don’t represent the rank and file, but the fact is that these attitudes are all through Jewish life. They won’t boycott the settlements because my mother won’t boycott the settlements.

That very deeply informs my critique. It’s just not the rich big Jews. My mother Rose Kovel was part of it. In the last years of her life, in part because she and DeeDee had big arguments– once I took up with DeeDee I was a lost cause. I find that more and more as I get older, I get more and more passionate. The arc bends. And my wife has totally allowed it to happen, she’s not standing in the way. Everybody in my family thinks of me as this wild man, but not her.

Anyway, I just couldn’t stand the quarrels with my mother, and I knew I wasn’t going to change her mind. And we were on such bad terms for much of this time, that it restrained me from joining any anti-Zionist organization. I wrote a scholarly article in the 80s, about Marx on the Jewish question, but I didn’t go very public.

My rationalization was, I’m a very busy man, I’m also very deeply-involved in these leftwing causes. Why should I take on this one? I’m trying to stop nuclear war, I was very involved in antinuclear politics, and then I was going to Nicaragua all the time, doing anti-imperial politics. Well I was wrong.

It reminds me of Medea Benjamin being stopped by the Zionists in her family, and my own battles with my mother about this stuff. People muzzle themselves.

My mother got a little kinder and gentler. But I tell you what most held me back was my children from my first marriage– I didn’t want to storm out of my mother’s life and not have them see one another. We would have to terminate the relationship; instead, for the whole time our family made these ghastly trips to Florida to see her.

But for someone who has a reputation for taking on these struggles, I’m also able to pick and choose. Though once I decided in 2001, I said, Well that’s it. Once I set my mind on it, I said, I’m sorry, and I’m going to make up for lost time.

I feared that it meant the end of the relationship with my mother. I feared it for my children. DeeDee and I have a daughter, and my mother lionized our daughter. She’s a leftwing lawyer. And my mother had a good relationship with her. The rationalization was, I have all these things going, when mama’s gone, I’ll change.

When did your mother die?

1993.

So let’s get back to the main highway, the road to conversion.

Well I had already had a substantial encounter with Christianity at that point. And I wrote this book, History and Spirit [An Inquiry into the Philosophy of Liberation], it was published in 1991.

Growing up, Christians were just the Irish and the Italians in the next neighborhood over and we were taught to hate and fear them. Then I got to Yale and it was, Whoa! We’re not in Kansas anymore. My first afternoon, the guy next door said, let’s go for a walk. We see a store with a funny name, International Business Machines. He said, My dad works for them. Yes, and he became the president of IBM a year later. Albert Williams.

So you liked some Christians?

Yes, lots. And I can definitely say that there were two major things that happened in college, both interior, and temporary, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I felt there was something in me that I hadn’t had any sense of at all.

The first thing was that [the late English professor] Richard Sewall addressed the freshman class in Woolsey hall on September 3 or so. There were 1000 of us, and Sewall was a remarkable man, very very progressive faculty member, and from a high Protestant tradition. He starts talking, “I’m going to introduce you to Yale.” I’m just going to summarize. But he said, “What’s your greatest motivation as you go through school? It shouldn’t be success, but deeper things,” and he named three things. “The first one is hope, hope is very important, it’s something you can build on and open yourself to the future. The second is faith, faith isn’t necessarily in God, but you have to believe in something larger than yourself. But the greatest of these is love.”

Well as he spoke, I felt it. I was staggered, and I thought, Oh my god, what’s going on! I didn’t tell anybody about it. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was just boing boing boing boing. [Kovel hits his chest with his hand]. It wasn’t till quite a few years later that I realized he was talking about St. Paul and the message of First Corinthians. I had no frame of reference then, but it struck me like lightning nevertheless.

Then the second thing, my sophomore year in college, there was a rainy evening, and there was an arts movie theater I went to sometimes. I’d pay my 50 cents and watch a movie. That night it was Diary of a Country Priest [1951], by Robert Bresson. I’d just heard of it. Someone had told me it was worth seeing. Although at first I hated it. It was very dreary, nothing was happening. This priest was getting nowhere, stuck in rural France, scuffling here and there, general misery, and I thought, I should leave. But I stayed. And then I stayed and I started getting gripped by it. And then it turns out he has cancer and he’s going to die, and for the last half of the film, I sat there weeping. I thought, I don’t know why I’m weeping. Why am I weeping? He said at the end, “All is grace.”And it struck me dumb. What does that mean? It was Jesus of course, rejected and despised. But that never occurred to me.

Well it’s very important, these two incidents, both instances of epiphanies, but with totally different valence from the Aunt Betty epiphany. They seized me. And I want to say this about my conversion. It’s a much longer story than we can deal with in an hour or two, but it wasn’t at all like I was shopping for religion, it wasn’t like a menu that I chose from. I didn’t particularly want to be religious. The only religion I knew was the Judaism that I had no respect for, and this was happening to me, and in fact it happened very slowly. But those things somehow stayed with me, and the basic point was, I didn’t choose to do this, I feel I was chosen. Not because I’m special. I’m a human being and there is this opening in human beings, where this presence enters you, and that’s where it entered me. But I tell you, I didn’t do very much with it at first. It was a long time before I did very much with it. At Yale, I was preoccupied with being a bigshot smartest kid on campus, I was competitive beyond belief. I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. I just thought, it’s odd that this happened. But I had a visitation, and what does that mean?

There was a big turning point however, in the 1980s. I was in my 40s and successful, I was a rising academic shrink etc etc etc.

Clearly the training as a Freudian psychoanalyst is not conducive to spiritual development because everything gets picked apart, and the environment is 90 percent secular Jewish. There’s a lot in the history of psychoanalysis about the Judaizing of the profession. I have read a lot of it. But psychoanalysis was a method that foreclosed a lot of spiritual activity. It rather tended to reduce everything to an infantile thought process. And sometimes in a very dubious way, as I will take up in my memoir.

I will just say that September 12, 1973, I came into my analyst’s office in a rage—why? Because Allende had been overthrown, that was the other September 11. And I said, these bastards, see what they did. ‘Now Dr Kovel, what does this bring to mind about your father?’ Fuck my father. I didn’t say that, but that’s how I felt. I said, “Look at these gangsters, Kissinger,” and he said, “Dr Kovel you’re taking these things too literally, you’re not really analyzing it.”

Then the next month in 1973 came the Yom Kippur war. Well, I wasn’t on Israel’s side anymore. And all the analysts were agitated, saying “They’re going to get Israel again.” There are a number of instances like that.

What about seeking your spiritual nourishment inside Judaism?

I didn’t seek for it in Jewish life. It was foreclosed really. It seems like I thought these things through a lot. But I didn’t really. To use a crude metaphor, in some ways a religion is like a key that opens a lock, and we’re the lock, and I had in effect said to myself, that lock cannot be opened by the key of Judaism. But somehow that was not the case in terms of the successor religion, which was launched by two Jews, Jesus and Paul, who never knew each other. For some reason that was different.

The conversion of Joel Kovel (Part 2)

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fascinating. i want part 2..now!

At a recent Left Forum panel, Kovel said people of the left, including himself, lacked that faith that religious people like Martin Luther King had. King, unlike Kovel, et. al., believed that they could succeed at what they were trying to do. Also, if you’re interested in converting to a Protestant religion, becoming an Episcopalian is one that demands the least of the convert. Think about joining Trinity Church and replacing their vestry of capitalists… Read more »

Meh. He talks an awful lot about himself in glowing terms for a man supposedly very keen on ‘harsh self-criticism’. Despite what Sewell, at Yale, said about ulterior motives, the draw for Kovel always was ‘what’s in it for me?’. Everything resolves around his own psychodrama throughout the entire interview. His conversion to Christianity isn’t a path for something greater, it’s trying to satisfy his own inner demons and put them to rest. I view… Read more »

“My family was deeply riven by conflicts. However, from the outside it was a standard Ashkenazi Jewish family. “

Can’t resist. There’s a distinction?

Joel Kovel now comes to Mondoweiss hard on the heels of Brant Rosen. Kovel tells us that a Jewish thinker who rejects Zionism may find a way open to Christianity, Rosen that it is possible to reject Zionism and remain thoroughly Jewish. Though I must welcome Kovel to the beautiful Anglican faith (or mode of doubt, maybe?) I should say that by far the greater political value lies in Rosen’s message.