HBO’s “The Plot Against America:” A Genuine Jersey Story

Steinberg

As we live day to day under the Damoclean Sword of the Coronavirus, we look for diversions.  Not every diversion, however, constitutes an escape.

Recently, I saw the first episode of the HBO Series, “The Plot Against America”.  It is a counter-factual dramatization in which a Jewish family, living in the former Newark Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic, becomes physically and financially endangered by the 1940 election of the Republican presidential candidate, aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, over the Democratic incumbent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, seeking a third term.

The dramatization is based upon a book by the same title, written by the renowned American Jewish author, Phillip Roth.  The family portrayed in the book and show IS the childhood family of Phillip Roth.

Now a program of this nature is highly likely to arouse strong sensitivities in me, both positive and negative, due to my status as a Jew, an historian, and a political figure.  I expected that, and the program did not disappoint.

An explanation to my readers as to my Jewish sensitivities is in order.  There are three ways in which a Jew can embrace the concept of “Jewishness:” as a religion, as an ethnic orientation, and as a supporter of Israel.  I embrace my Jewishness passionately in all three ways.  Due to my inclination to “think outside the box,” there are differences from other Jews in the way I embrace these three components.

I am an Orthodox Jew; yet unlike other Orthodox Jews, who limit their religious beliefs and observances to those of Orthodox rabbinical authorities, I also venerate the late Conservative Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  My Zionism can be defined as “Theodore Herzl” Secular Zionism, emphasizing the need for a Jewish State and a Jewish place of refuge in a highly antisemitic world.  I do not embrace the Modern Orthodox concept of the creation of Israel as “reishit tzemichat ge’ulateinu, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption,” a Messianic religious concept.

While I am a highly ethnic Jew, I do not adhere to the standard Democratic Party liberalism of most other American Jews, opting instead for a center-right, Independent, non-aligned politics.  While it is important to me that my endorsed presidential candidate be pro-Israel, I will not support a presidential candidate that is pro-Israel yet horrific for the USA.  That is why I have consistently refused to support Donald Trump.

One other humorous aspect distinguishing me from other Jews:  I am bored to death with Florida and can’t stand the place.  I am happily retired to Highland Park, New Jersey.

In a most serious vein, keep in mind that my Jewish sensitivities have become much more acute and painful since Saturday, October 28, 2018, the day of the Squirrel Hill massacre.  My family – my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and father didn’t just live in Squirrel Hill.  They WERE Squirrel Hill!!

Taking all this into account, there are three takeaways I derive from the first episode of “The Plot against America.”

  1. The show is an exaggeration of the political potency of the American Nazi Bund in the 1930s and early 1940s but most accurate in its description of the Bund’s sociological impact.

As an historian, I am always concerned about the fact that many Americans glean their most significant historical knowledge from television or movie dramatizations, rather than books.  This is a classic case of it.

The America First movement WAS a virtual majority movement prior to Pearl Harbor.  Yet it was not so extremist as to have as its principal 1940 GOP presidential candidate Charles Lindbergh.  And the American Nazi Bund movement did not have numbers significant enough to move America First in a Lindbergh direction.

Yet the American Nazi Bund was a powerful enough movement to have attracted widespread grassroots support among Germanic communities throughout America, enabling these American Nazis to stage massive rallies that often resulted in violent confrontations with nearby Jewish communities, such as Weequahic.

My late father, Melvin “Moshe” Steinberg often told me stories of the violent clashes that took place in the early 1940s at his high school, Taylor Allderdice, in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill.  A friend of my father, Phil Weiner, suffered serious head wounds in a violent confrontation.

Yet in New Jersey, we Jews could be grateful for the support against the Bund we received from one of New Jersey’s great non- Jewish political families.

From 1937 until 1941, the American Nazi Bund owned and operated Camp Nordland in Andover Township, Sussex County, New Jersey.  It was the site of major antisemitic rallies, one of which was jointly staged with the Ku Klux Klan.

The opposition to the Camp was led by Alfred Littel, a Republican State Senator and one-time Senate President.  Alfred Littell was the father of the late Senator Bob Littell, father-in-law of former NJ Republican Party Chairwoman Virginia Littell, and the grandfather of former Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose.  Ultimately, the efforts of Alfred Litell to close the camp were successful.

I have made many friends in my over four decades of involvement in New Jersey politics.  My friendship with Bob and Ginny Litell and Alison Litell McHose is one that I will always treasure.

  1.  The producers of this series deserve special kudos of their portrayal of Weequahic, at one time the jewel of Jewish life in New Jersey.

I have always believed most strongly that life in the urban Jewish communities in America was much stronger and more vibrant than the suburban communities which followed.  These urban communities were known for their synagogues, Jewish cultural institutions, Jewish civic organizations, and athletic leagues.  And the urban Jewish communities were bulwarks against the assimilationist pressures of American life.

Throughout the Twentieth Century, New Jersey urban political life was exemplified by the “Big Six” cities of Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Trenton and Camden.  Coincidentally, each of the Big Six had a major Jewish neighborhood area.

Of special nostalgia to me was the Jewish neighborhood of Parkside in Camden.  In 1957, a major branch of my extended Steinberg family moved from Pittsburgh to what was then Delaware Township, later to become Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  At that time, the elite of Jewish life in Camden County lived in Parkside.

The racial conflicts in the 1960s resulted, with the notable exception of Elizabeth, in the major displacement of the great New Jersey Jewish neighborhoods from the Big Six to their suburbs.  As a result of the Newark racial riots of 1967, the Jewish community of Weequahic fled almost overnight to the Essex County suburbs of West Orange, Livingston, and eventually, Short Hills.

Jewish life in these new Essex County suburban venues did thrive.  These new Jewish communities, however, will never have the intimacy, self-sufficiency, and cohesiveness of Weequahic.

A viewer of “The Plot Against America” will get a true sense of what I’m discussing.

  1.  Postscript:  Matty Feldman triumphs over Charles Lindbergh.

You won’t watch any discussion in “The Plot Against America” regarding the late Democratic Bergen County State Senator and Mayor of Teaneck Matthew “Matty “Feldman.  A native of Jersey City, Matty’s primary theater of operations against the Nazi Bund thugs was the Hudson County municipality of North Bergen, rather than Newark.  And any study of the conflict between New Jersey Jewry and the American Nazi Bund that doesn’t include the Matty Feldman story is seriously deficient.

My primary website, InsiderNJ, has published excellent columns on the leading New Jersey historical figures in various ethnic groups, recently most notably the Irish. I would hope that InsiderNJ doesn’t publish such a page on the New Jersey Jewish community.  It would lead to intense arguments!

Still, any ranking of the major Jewish leaders in New Jersey political history that did not include Matty in its top five would be sorely deficient.

At the University of North Carolina, Matty was a member of the boxing team.  His boxing talent was most beneficial in his successful efforts to “bust up” Nazi Bund rallies.

It is beyond the scope of this column to describe the highly successful political career of Matty Feldman.  Such a narrative merits a book, not just a column.  And that book could best be written by my colleague and distinguished journalist Charlie Stile, who covered Matty Feldman for the Bergen Record for many years.  Mr. Stile combines the erudite intellectualism of the New Journalism with the diligent work ethic of the old. At the time of Matty’s passing in 1994, Charlie described Matty’s performance in the North Bergen altercations against the Nazi Bund as “heckler, protester, and street fighter”.

As a Senior Policy Advisor on the New Jersey Assembly Republican Majority Staff, I had the good fortune to work with Matty on the legislation that became known as the New Jersey Holocaust Education Act.  Matty didn’t let our difference in political party membership get in the way of the passage of legislation in which he so deeply believed.

I last saw Matty at the ceremony for the gubernatorial signing of the Holocaust Education Act in April 1994 at the Statehouse in Trenton.  One week later, he passed away.  With the enactment of the Holocaust Education Act, Matty had won his final triumph over Charles Lindbergh.

I’ll be watching Episode 2 of HBO’s, “The Plot Against America” at 9:00 pm.

Alan J. Steinberg served as regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.

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