Dorothy Day: Previously Unpublished 1933 Essay ‘Our Brothers, The Jews’ Published for First Time

Dorothy Day, 1925
Dorothy Day, 1925

Fr. Charles Gallagher has discovered a previously unpublished essay by Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day, which lay in a correspondence file in the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University. I’m stunned!

Dorothy Day was a lay Catholic woman with radical politics, a deeply rooted faith, and a phenomenal amount of courage. She co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin in the 1930s.

The manuscript titled Our Brothers, The Jews was written in autumn 1933. It is published for the first time in the November 2009 issue of America magazine.

Five years before Adolph Hitler became “The Fuhrer,” when he was still chancellor of a coalition government and head of the Nazi party with the Nazis holding a third of the seats in the Reichstag, Dorothy Day called to account Catholics who supported and fostered Hitler’s hate-based political agenda in the U.S.

Her point of view was very unpopular at the time. So unpopular in fact that she had a hard time getting her essay published anywhere. (America magazine rejected it when she submitted it to them in 1933.) But race-baiting and Jew-hating was on the rise in the U.S. and Catholic speakers in Brooklyn, near where the Catholic Worker was based, were drawing cheering crowds when they excoriated Jews.

“She keenly foresaw the dynamic that five years later would lead to the rise of Brooklyn’s powerful Christian Front movement and its quasi-terrorist anti-Semitic plot, which was scuppered only by a spectacular set of arrests in early 1940 by J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Day’s warning about how Catholics ought to deal with Hitler rested on two of the main pillars of her faith—scriptural reflection and concern for social justice. Her deep beliefs rested on an apostolic zeal that held out the possibility for all men and women to be fully integrated into the mystical body of Christ,” the editor’s note concludes.

Here’s an excerpt from Day’s essay:

For Catholics—or for anyone—to stand up in the public squares and center their hatred against Jews is to sidestep the issue before the public today. It is easier to fight the Jew than it is to fight for social justice—that is what it comes down to. One can be sure of applause. One can find a bright glow of superiority very warming on a cold night. If those same men were to fight for Catholic principles of social justice they would be shied away from by Catholics as radicals; they would be heckled by Communists as authors of confusion; they would be hurt by the uncomprehending indifference of the mass of people.

God made us all. We are all members or potential members of the mystical body of Christ. We don’t want to extirpate people; we want to go after ideas. As St. Paul said, “we are not fighting flesh and blood but principalities and powers.”

Read the whole essay here.

The discovery of this Day manuscript is astonishing–for its historical resonance and insight into social activism. Day’s examination of hate politics from the perspective of her deeply rooted Catholicism provides us with clues for today. It forces the question: How do we bring scriptural reflection and the concerns of social justice to bear on the Tea-Partyers, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and others who use hate as a political strategy to gain power?

I was particularly touched by the comments of one contemporary reader of Day’s article who wrote, “I am an 80 -year- old Jew who lived thru the 30s in New York, and my hard heart is melted at seeing for the first time that we had such a beloved advocate. Is that what makes a saint?”

Indeed, Dorothy Day is on the path to official canonization in the Catholic Church (read my article on that here), but papal process is not what makes her a saint. Her prophetic stance rooted in faith and the response of an 80-year-old Jewish woman are.

Avivah Zornberg on Joseph and His Brothers

zornbergAvivah Gottlieb Zornberg is one of my very favorite biblical scholars. She’s got a new book out called The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. I studied with Zornberg at the Hebrew College in Boston for a week and it was transformational. It took a few days before the rest of the class realized I wasn’t Jewish and then they were fascinated by why I would be there. Apparently, they were mostly familiar with Christians who wanted to convert them rather than those who wanted to join with them to study scripture.

This section from Zornberg’s essay on Joseph and his Brothers and the trauma that happens in families has resonance for me as I enter Holy Week:

Only by turning towards one’s wound – the wound of reality – only from within that wound – can the event become accessible. ‘Shelterless,’ vulnerable, ‘answerless’, language must ‘pass through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech.’ For the testimonial power of language to work, however, a listening Other is required. ‘The history of a trauma …. can only take place through the listening of another.’ For Joseph, does such a healing moment occur?

I suggest that it does occur, but in a fragmentary, suspended manner. The moment of healing is precipitated by Judah, as he breaks through the line of his brothers (‘And Judah came close to him …’ [44:18]) and speaks with passion into Joseph’s ears. This speech, a long, poignant account of the history of the bereaved father, has the ultimate effect of  making Joseph break down: ‘And Joseph could no longer restrain himself …’ (45:1) A long silence, the silence of survival, collapses, and Joseph gives his sole testimony to the past: ‘“I am Joseph your brother whom you sold to Egypt.”’ (45:3) These are the only words in which Joseph ever bears witness to that day in the pit. With them, there begins the passage through answerlessness, through the exile of the word.

Read her whole essay here.