Economists measure economic change and journalists describe political change, but who captures moral change? Who captures the shifts in manners, values, and mores, how each era defines what is admirable and what is disgraceful? Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died at 97 last night, made this her central concern. She was a physician for the national soul.
Himmelfarb was born in 1922 and grew up with her parents and brother in a one-bedroom apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Her parents immigrated from Russia and spoke Yiddish at home. Her father cut glass and sold engraved saucers and jars to department stores, going bankrupt a few times during the Depression. She made it into Brooklyn College, where she amassed enough credits to have majored in history, economics, and philosophy, while taking the subway at night up to the Jewish Theological Seminary and earning a simultaneous degree there. At a Trotskyite gathering, she met her husband, Irving Kristol.