Iphigene Sulzberger Reconciled Jewishness and Intermarriage

Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, who died at age 97 in 1990, has a place in American Jewish history. Her grandfather, Isaac M. Wise, founded the first Jewish seminary in the U.S., the Hebrew Union College. Her father, Adolph Ochs, bought the Times in 1896 and made it the great paper it is. Today the Times publisher is her grandson, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.

In 1976, when Mrs. Sulzberger was in her mid-80s, she granted an interview to the American Jewish Committee. The interviewer (the late Elliott M. Sanger, of WQXR), asked her about Jewish stuff.

Q. How important do you think the survival of Israel is to the security of the Jews in this country?

A. I don’t know. I don’t suppose it really basically would affect the survival.

Q. Well—survival I think is a very strong word.

A. It will arouse anti-Semitism in some sides and in other sides it’ll react the other way, depending on the type of person. At the time of Hitler I know there were people who thought, well, he had a good point.

Q. Yes, that the Jews had it coming to them.

A. And of course it’s always easier to hate than to understand, you don’t need to use your your brains.

Q. That’s right. The next question is one that you, I think, have had some experience with and I don’t know whether you wish to answer it. How do you respond to your children’s marrying someone of a different faith?

A. It depends on the person they marry. Some of them I’m just delighted with and one in particular I wasn’t so pleased, but that was purely the individual..

Q. It had nothing to do with the religion?

A. No….

Q. What difference has it made that you are Jewish?

A. My father always said if he hadn’t been a Jew he would have had more difficulty making a success in life because he felt the pressure that was brought upon him to prove himself and also the lack of social diversion had helped him… It’s made me more tolerant, more understanding of people who suffered against prejudice… I don’t want to let down my ancestors. Because I feel that people over the years have sacrificed so much for their tradition and their place. Nothing on the face of the earth would ever make me convert…

A few comments. Mrs. Sulzberger was an assimilating German Jew, and a very worldly woman. You will note that the interviewer tries to push her into chauvinistic statements about Israel and Jewishness, and she refuses to go there. Indeed, her husband, former Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was at times an anti-Zionist. Two things she says make me smile. First is her comment that her father was a success because of the Jewish absence of “social diversion.” Then there is her take on intermarriage. She shows that you can love your Jewishness and also love your assimilation, love your non-Jewish relatives.

There used to be a word for this attitude in Jewish culture: liberal.

(The transcript is at the NYPL’s Jewish Division)