Edmund Wilson's 'Jewish Ambassador'
In 1956 Jacob Landau, an electrical engineer and the proprietor of Bob's Tavern in Bogota, New Jersey, read Edmund Wilson's recently published A Piece of My Mind. Especially moved by the essays "The Jews" and "The Messiah at the Seder," he impetuously wrote the author a fan letter. In this letter, which unfortunately has not survived, Landau also referred to Wilson's essay "The Author at Sixty," where Wilson mentions his father's law offices above a liquor dealer in Red Bank, New Jersey. Landau informed Wilson that a professor lived above Bob's Tavern, only he wasn't much of a drinker. The letter concluded with an invitation to Wilson to stop by for a drink at Bob's. Wilson replied with a brief note, thanking Landau for the letter and vaguely agreeing to visit Bob's if he was ever in the neighborhood.
The exchange might have ended here had not Landau written Wilson another letter two years later in which he corrected a mistake in Hebrew that he had discovered in one of Wilson's articles. Wilson hastened to reply that the error was in fact a misprint. His curiosity piqued, he added that he hadn't known that, in addition to running a tavern, Landau was also a Hebrew scholar. Thus was begun a correspondence which would last until Wilson's death in 1972. Over 100 letters and cards have survived, dating from 1956 to 1969. This epistolary friendship remained a source of immense pride and pleasure for Landau until his own death at the age of 95 in 1990.
Jacob Landau was my great-uncle, the eldest of a family of six children. During his long lifetime he operated repair shops for electrical motors and time switches in Louisville, Kentucky, where he grew up, in Jersey City, New Jersey, and in Times Square in Manhattan. In 1926 he repaired the 14 electric time clocks which regulated the torch on the Statue of Liberty. He registered two patents and manufactured and marketed his inventions. After the repeal of Prohibition, his father-in-law bought a tavern, and he often tended bar. During World War II, when he could no longer get metal parts, he closed his repair shop and took a job as inspector at the Hoboken plant of Shulton's, the fragrance company, which, as part of the war effort, was making precision bombing parts for the Army and Navy. He and his wife Freda moved from Jersey City to Bogota in Bergen Co., and after the war he bought Bob's Tavern, which he ran until 1961. In addition, he made numerous clocks and contributed to horological journals. He was an amateur astronomer and enjoyed making telescopes and a three-dimensional representation of the solar system called an orrery. And at all times he read voraciously--books on clockmaking, engineering, science and mathematics, plus histories, biographies, memoirs, novels, stories, poems, and plays, and the literature closest to his heart: the sacred Jewish texts and scholarly commentaries.
In the last decade of his life, he was a faithful participant in Rabbi Louis J. Sigel's Talmud classes at Temple Emeth in Teaneck, N.J. As the rabbi has noted, Landau was like the scholars of old who earned their living in worldly pursuits and "spent their leisure hours pouring over Torah texts."
It was Jacob Landau's interest in Jewish learning that nourished and sustained the correspondence with Edmund Wilson. Like Wilson himself, Landau was comfortable in the role of instructor. Despite their different backgrounds, he and Wilson were in many senses kindred spirits. They were tenacious, masculine men, proud and sensitive, and both could be overbearing. Each refused to be pigeonholed, pursuing a variety of eclectic interests and livelihoods. They were energetic, iconoclastic, and fiercely independent, cherishing their freedom from established institutions. "I'm not a professor," Wilson corrected Landau in 1956. "I am neither a literary man nor a scholar," Landau wrote to Wilson in 1962. "I am a mechanic, a fairly good electrical mechanic...(I also operated a damn good tavern for 16 years and the fellows who patronized my bar are raising hell because I sold the place.)...now I fix clocks and am enjoying myself for the first time in 58 years, doing what I please when I want to."
Landau could be as outspoken as Wilson. "I'm not a yes-man," he often used to say. "I don't like Karl," he wrote to Wilson [(6/29/56)], referring to Wilson's portrayal of Marx in To the Finland Station. And on another occasion, he confessed to Wilson, "I am not a do-gooder and don't want to make the world a better place to live in. I like it the way it was." [(12/21/66)].
Wilson served as Landau's guide to contemporary literary culture. "I can't get over the immensity of your literary horizon," Landau wrote in an early letter (6/29/58). "Hecate County, the Scottsboro case (Yes, I lived in Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi), Scrolls of the Dead Sea (which I forced on the Episcopal minister, a very nice gentleman, can hold his liquor), and your plays." Through his correspondence with Wilson, Landau felt that he was participating in his own small way in American intellectual life. Wilson was Landau's personal window onto that life, and this was one reason why he was so eager to be helpful to Wilson, to answer his questions about Hebrew and about Judaism, and to find points of personal connection--their mutual acquaintance with the Millers, a prominent Louisville family, for example, and their enjoyment of Isaac Bashevis Singer's fiction. With his immigrant background, Landau felt intimately connected to the world which Singer described, and he was pleased to translate from the Yiddish at Wilson's request an article from the Forward in which Singer described his meeting with Wilson at Harvard. (See letter of 6/21/62.) Later that year (11/19/62), Landau met Singer at the Park Avenue Synagogue, and their discussion centered around Wilson.
Landau and Singer were both amazed that Wilson, a Gentile from an old, established American family, would be so interested in the Jews and in Hebrew learning. Landau was greatly impressed that Wilson had begun the study of Hebrew, an arduous language, at a relatively advanced age. [In his essay The Jews and in Patriotic Gore, Wilson persuasively argued that American Puritanism was greatly influenced by Biblical Judaism. In "The Need for Judaic Studies," Wilson proposed establishing Judaic Studies departments in universities. He placed the influence of Judaism in the mainstream of American culture. He was sympathetic towards Israel, and in his two books on the Dead Sea Scrolls he traced the origins of Christianity to Jewish sects of that era.]
As a Jew born in a small town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Landau was aware of himself as a member of a minority in predominantly Christian culture. In The Provincials, a book about the Jews of the American South, Eli Evans describes the pressure which Jews face, particularly in small Southern towns, as ambassadors of their religion to the Gentile community, a role which Evans calls "Mister Jew." Landau came of age in an urban center of a border state, which had a relatively large and established Jewish community. Still, he assumed both the privileges and the responsibility of fulfilling this role of "Jewish ambassador" for his entire life. He often makes reference to this in his letters to Wilson, for example: "I help my poor Christians. I am also teaching a Baptist ministerial student to read Hebrew." Gratified and flattered by Wilson's sympathy with and interest in Judaism, he was delighted to share his knowledge with such a brilliant, illustrious, and industrious correspondent. Reading the letters, one senses the tenacity with which he pursued the relationship, his disappointment, despite polite disclaimers about Wilson's valuable time, when his letters weren't answered ("I feel you are probably getting a little bored with me, for I can contribute nothing to your literary stature" [12/25/62]), and the irresistible attraction which fueled the correspondence ("Here I am again, uninvited, at your desk." [2/27/66]).
As a tavern owner, Landau was permitted to send alcoholic beverages across state lines, and it is typical of his impulsive generosity that, while he was still the proprietor of Bob's, he mailed Wilson frequent shipments of bourbon, Scotch, and wine, which Wilson always gratefully acknowledged. These gifts created a bond between the two men, and in return Wilson sent Landau autographed copies of his books, which were equally appreciated.
Of his many exchanges with Wilson, Jacob Landau referred most frequently in later years to their discussion of the Hebrew prayer, Hazak, hazak, venithazayk: Be strong, be strong, and thus let us strengthen ourselves. [See letters of 3/14/66, 3/20/66, 3/23/66, 5/30/66]) This prayer, which the entire congregation rises to say each time the reading of a book of the Torah is completed in the synagogue, is an exhortation to the community to be strong enough to observe the commandments of the Torah so that they in turn will be strengthened by obedience to God's law. Landau was immensely gratified that this prayer, whose meaning he elucidated to Wilson, was so important to Wilson that he directed it to be carved on his tombstone after his death.
Landau and Wilson met in person only once, in New York City, on January 31, 1966, "a very cold night, much snow on the ground," as Landau describes it in a letter to Mrs. Elena Wilson written after Wilson's death (1/10/74). The occasion was a reading featuring Wilson and Jean Stafford. Wilson and Landau sat and chatted and that Wilson poured him such a liberal drink of the Chivas the Y.M.H.A. customarily keeps backstage for nervous speakers that he had to say, "Easy, easy." The meeting between these two septuagenarians was one of cordiality and mutual respect, but the relationship had so long been nourished by ideas expressed with ink and paper, by mutual exchanges of books, and by gifts of whisky and books that it did not require personal encounters.