by Jonathan D. Sarna, Brandeis University
Nineteen hundred years ago, one of the great sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba, took part in a profound debate with another sage, Rabbi Tarfon over the relative merits of study and scholarship vs. practice, meaning engagement or communal activism. Rabbi Tarfon was a greater believer in the latter. “The day is short and the work is great,” he taught. “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”(Avot 2:20-21) Rabbi Akiba, by contrast, emphasized the former, the importance of scholarship and study. “Study,” he argued “leads to practice” (T.B. Kiddushin 40b).
Murray Friedman zichrono levracha, of blessed memory, was both a scholar and a practictioner. David Harris, executive director of AJC, perceptively referred to him as “a front-line soldier in the trenches but also an ivory tower scholar.” To Murray, these were not contradictory but rather entirely reinforcing identities.”[Jewish Exponent 5/26/2005]
Nothing in Murray Friedman’s background particularly prepared him for this dual role. He was born almost exactly 80 years ago (September 15, 1926), the son of a poor peddler “who never earned more than 35 or 40 dollars a week”. He grew up in a tenement in Williamsburg; the rent, he recalled, was $38 a month. As a teenager, like so many men of his generation, he went off to war; he fought in WWII. Somewhat unusually for a Jew, he served in the marines. His friend, Ed Newman, claimed that his lifelong discipline, his orderly habits, and his always mirror-shined shoes reflected the Marines’ ethos.
After the war, thanks to the GI Bill, Murray went to college; this was really the beginning of his scholarly career. He attended Brooklyn College, NYU, and finally, Georgetown, where he completed his Ph.D. in 1958 entitled “VOYAGE OF A LIBERAL: WENDELL L. WILLKIE.” Scholarship, however, was not Murray’s sole pursuit in those years; he was also a social activist, applying his scholarly wisdom to communal affairs. He worked first as a housing official charged with cleaning up and improving a section of Washington DC. He then moved on to the Ant-Defamation League in Richmond, VA, where for five critical years following the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which mandated school desegregation, he tried to mediate between different forces at work in the South: Blacks, Whites, Jews; Northerners, Southerners, and so forth. Years later, he wrote a revealing memoir of his time in Richmond where he applied all of the tools of scholarship—complete with 27 footnotes—to help make sense of what he had lived through during those tumultuous times.
The challenge of Richmond prepared Murray for bigger and better things, and led to his appointment as Middle Atlantic States Director of the American Jewish Committee based here in Philadelphia, a position he would hold for an astonishing 43 years. [If that is not a record for the AJC, it must certainly come close] He was particularly proud of his early success in opening up the top echelons of local power in this city to Jews and other minorities—a project called “Executive Suite.” What he did, in the best traditions of social science, was to commission a survey of the hiring practices of Philadelphia’s larges businesses. He then invited the directors of these banks, businesses, and law firms to private discussions, behind closed doors, with AJC leaders to discuss what were delicately termed the “unflattering results” of the survey—of 530 top-level executive positions here in 1965, exactly 3 were held by Jews [WSJ, Oct 26, 1966]. Murray once described to me with great irony how the corporate titans at these private meetings expressed “astonishment” at the survey’s revelation that so few Jews sat in their executive suites—who knew? They thanked him profusely for letting them know in so private and diplomatic a fashion, and promised to right the wrong as soon as possible. Each side inwardly winked and in short order the barriers in Philadelphia came tumbling down. Murray forthwith became a local legend, esp when the Wall Street Journal printed a front-page article on his achievement in 1966. The AJC also persuaded key civic organizations not to meet at business clubs that had religious or racial bars to membership, and most of those barriers quickly fell as well.
At the same time as he pushed for Jewish equality, Murray also became involved in civil rights for African Americans here in Philadelphia; the two causes were frequently linked. He pushed for equal employment and the appointment of more Blacks to managerial positions and he helped to craft the Philadelphia school desegregation plan. He also promoted scholarship on racial issues. Case Study of A Riot, published by the American Jewish Committee, was the first major study of Black riots in the 1960s; it was a prescient analysis of the North Philadelphia riot of 1964, and Murray had much to do with it. He remained active in the civil rights field for many years, winning appointment as vice chairman of the U.S.Commission on Civil Rights from 1986-1989. The Wall Street Journal described him at that time, I think correctly, as a “moderate and a mediator” (although not everyone on the Civil Rights Commission at that time agreed).
“We all must accept the fact that racially motivated violence and discrimination occur all too frequently in our society,” Murray wrote during his tenure. “And it is vital that such occurrences be met with the full force of the law.” At the same time, he insisted that “it is important for us to assess the distance we’ve traveled and recognize the transformation that has occurred in the attitudes of Americans since the 1950s.” In good scholarly fashion, he backed up both assertions with appropriate data and he felt that he balanced both sides of the issue.
Having spent so many years of his life on the frontlines of the civil rights movement, Murray was personally pained by what he would later described as the collapse of the Black-Jewish alliance. He devoted his best known book to that very subject. It was entitled, memorably, What Went Wrong? It remains the starting point for much subsequent scholarship.
As he watched African Americans assert their racial identity, Murray became more and more interested in ethnic identity for Jews, and for other ethnic groups as well. He helped to establish the Jewish Free University and the Philadelphia Jewish Archives; he introduced a course at La Salle entitled “The Search for Roots in American Life;” and most importantly, he promoted the study of Philadelphia Jewish history. For the tercentenary of the founding of Philadelphia by William Penn, celebrated in 1982, he organized a series of lectures that became, in published form, the first major scholarly study of Jewish Life in Philadelphia, 1830-1940—a volume of major historical significance. Among the 16 fine articles in that book was Maxwell Whitemen’s seminal piece entitled “The Philadelphia Group”—one of the most influential articles ever published on Philadelphia Jewish history. Though focused on the Jewish leaders of Philadelphia from Isaac Leeser to Cyrus Adler, the article defined a Philadelphia Jewish ethos that Murray himself embraced. The “Philadelphia Group”—people like Moses Dropsie and Mayer Sulzberger, and Cyrus Adler—were all scholars as well as doers. They wrote prolifically on a range of subjects both Jewish and general, and they worked to improve American society generally and the American Jewish community in particular. Murray consciously followed in their footsteps.
Jewish Life in Philadelphia was followed by two subsequent books on Philadelphia Jewish history bringing the story down to the present. The volumes, taken together, underscored the significance of Philadelphia, not just in the early period of American Jewish history, through the era of Andrew Jackson (the subject of an earlier book by Ed Wolf and Max Whiteman), but all the way down to the close of the twentieth century. Every historian who has subsequently worked on Philadelphia Jewish history (myself included) stands in Murray’s debt. That he managed to produce this important body of scholarship while carrying out his other duties for the American Jewish Committee is at once a mystery and a miracle.
The Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, created in 1990 as a collaboration between the AJC and Temple University, institutionalized and carried forward Murray’s interest in American Jewish history. The time had come, he believed, to shift the Jewish communal agenda in America away from antisemitism and external threats to Jewish life toward a greater focus on the internal life of the Jewish community. The center, with modest funding, attempted to do just that. And while it did not convert everybody, it has managed to accomplish an astonishing amount: it has offered research grants to graduate students, sponsored a volume on women and American Judaism, a volume on the history of Commentary magazine, two books on the Soviet Jewry movement, a path-breaking 3-volume textbook in American Jewish history for school children, a forthcoming volume on Jews and business, and much, much more. Indeed, Murray had a genius for taking inchoate academic ideas—some of them mine—and turning them into well-defined conferences and books. He, ably assisted by Nancy Isserman, managed to shepherd more scholarly projects to completion, with less money and staff, than anybody I have ever known. Over and over again, his dogged persistence and unwavering faith in his friends and associates made the seemingly impossible happen. Project after project—each one inevitably underfunded—was brought to a successful conclusion.
As the years passed, Murray came increasingly under the sway of neo-conservative thinkers—many of them friends of his from way back in his childhood. Having himself risen out of poverty, and having seen America itself improve in so many ways, he recoiled from those who scorned this country and spelled its name with a “k.” “I am so grateful to this country for making it possible for me and so many others to find fulfillment,” he wrote in remarks he prepared for delivery at his funeral. “This is the greatest country in the world, especially if you play by its rules: work hard, educate your children and live a bourgeois life. Three cheers,” he concluded, “for the alleged boring bourgeois ethos.”
In this spirit, in 1981, Murray published a celebrated article in Commentary entitled “A New Direction for American Jews.” Attacking the “old and now largely discredited liberal agenda,” he called for a “forthright stand on issues of national defense” and a strong military; and he rejected what he called the Jewish community’s “ideological bias [which] systematically favors governmental over private-sector solutions, and systematically discounts what people can do to solve their problems by dint of their own struggle.” He followed this broadside up with a well-written book entitled The Utopian Dilemma: American Judaism and Public Policy, where he argued that Jewish support of liberal causes ran counter to Jewish interests in America and in Israel, and called for a better balance between universalism and particularism. This became Murray’s dominant interest in his last years. Indeed, the final book that he wrote, published just days before he died, was entitled THE NEOCONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION: JEWISH INTELLECTUALS AND THE SHAPING OF PUBLIC POLICY. In it, he sought both to enhance the study of American Jewish conservatism and to shift the community in a more conservative direction. He called for a new vision, “that will strengthen democracy at home and abroad, increase the social and economic well=being of all Americans, and set an example for the rest of the world.” [We are not quite there yet, but it is a noble vision and expresses the values that Murray held most dear.]
Even as his politics shifted over time, Murray never became a fanatic, and never stopped talking to friends of his across the political spectrum. “I have attempted,” he explained in a letter to me back in 1984, “to seek changes in policies and tactics but without losing touch with those I disagree with.” That was his philosophy—very different from those who shifted their politics and wrote tell-all books about their “ex-friends.” Murray, by contrast, he maintained an astonishingly wide range of friendships with people of all ages and persuasions. He obliterated all considerations of age and status and treated everyone as an equal. [I can attest to this personally; when we first met I was half his age, but he always treated me as a colleague and friend.] Indeed, as I suspect many here know from their own personal experiences, he was a great friend: warm-hearted, loyal, and devoted. Many disagreed with him and still loved him. He was also a great bridge-builder: he built bridges among people whom he thought should know one other; he built bridges between the academy and the community, he built bridges between Jews and non-Jews, he built bridges between scholars and lay leaders. He even built bridges between the seemingly incompatible visions of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba, for as we have seen, he embraced scholarship and communal activism at one and the same time.
A man of enormous energy who worked, literally, to the very day of his death, Murray Friedman left behind him a rich and enduring legacy: ideas, books, institutions, programs, friends, loving family. Our world is a better world, the Jewish community is a stronger community, and Philadelphia is a finer city, for his having lived among us. May his memory be for a blessing. Yehe zikhro baruch.
Thank you very much.