The Arty Semite

A ‘Wondering Jew’ at City College

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of City College of New York Library

Almost every institution of learning can boast legendary teachers, and “Reflections of a Wondering Jew,” recently reprinted by Transaction Publishers, shows that City College professor Morris Raphael Cohen, who died in 1947, is one such legend.

Cohen’s 1950 posthumously compiled collection of articles displays the philosophy professor and legal theorist at his most informal and charming. Born in 1880 in Minsk, Belarus, Cohen earned a Harvard PhD in philosophy, but as a Jew, he could only find a job teaching mathematics in 1906. Not until 1912 was Cohen appointed to CCNY’s philosophy department, in what his daughter Leonora Cohen Rosenfield later called “for a Jew, a precedent-shattering event.”

Cohen stayed at City College until 1938, producing key texts such as “A Preface to Logic,” reprinted in the 1970s by Dover Publications and “An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method,” available from Hackett Publishing.

In “Reflections of a Wondering Jew” Cohen slates Freud’s 1939 “Moses and Monotheism” as a “work which has so little solid foundation,” adding in professorial fashion: “The facts of history refuse to fit into any simple preconceived hypothesis no matter how plausible or intriguing.”

In 1940, Cohen reviewed a volume of academic articles published in honor of the eccentric apostate Paul Philip Levertoff (born Feivel Levtov, the father of poet Denise Levertov). Cohen dismissed the notion expressed by a colleague of Levertoff’s, that Europe’s Jews were suffering because of “their hatred for the countries that have ravaged them.” On the contrary, Cohen asked rhetorically, “Have not Jews given their life’s work and their very blood for the benefit of countries like Russia and Germany which persecuted them?”

Cohen reserved his harshest dismissal for “The Answer: The Jew And The World, Past, Present And Future,” a 1939 tome by Ludwig Lewisohn which he called “contemptible” for, at a time of “misfortune” for German Jewry, pouring “scorn upon them,” with a “humorless and rigid sense of self-importance that is so often found in [Lewisohn’] native Prussia.”

More positively, in a 1938 speech about Yiddish, Cohen pays tribute to Mendele Moykher Sforim and singles out Abraham Cahan’s writings for the Arbeiter Zeitung (Workers’ News) for special praise. A feisty polemicist with fierce loyalties, Cohen is indeed a writer to remember.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sigmund Freud, Paul Philip Levertoff, Morris Raphael Cohen, Mendele Moykher Sforim, Ludwig Lewisohn, Leonora Cohen Rosenfield, Denise Levertov, City College, Abraham Cahan

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.