Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Allan Sherman (November 30, 1924)

Allan Sherman was born in Chicago, and enjoyed a long career as a TV writer, comic songwriter, and performer of Yiddishy parodies. In the sixties he had a major hit LP (remember those?) with satiric songs called "My son the Folksinger."

His best-known song begins:

Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh,
Here I am at Camp Grenada
Camp is very entertaining
and they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining.

Clearly a hero to all Jews.

I. J. Singer (November 30, 1893)

Israel Joshua Singer was a successful and widely-read writer before his younger brother I. B. Singer became known as the defining writer of the Yiddish world. The older brother was eventually eclipsed by the younger. I. J. Singer worked as correspondent for the Jewish Daily Forward beginning in 1921; he eventually obtained work there for his brother.

I. J. Singer's novel The Brothers Ashkenazi is a painful book to read, at least I found it so, as it stresses the stark realities of life in Poland between the wars. If I remember correctly, The Family Carnovsky – about German Jews -- is even more painful! Like many Yiddish writers, he's important if you are trying to develop an understanding of Jews in Eastern Europe before the War.

Abbie Hoffman (November 30, 1936)

Abbie Hoffman was a high-profile counterculture and New Left figure in the 1960s, now all but forgotten. He espoused a kind of anarchy, especially in the “Yippie” movement, which he founded with Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner. 

Why were so many Jews in the 60s counterculture? (“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Identity,” November 11, 2010). A recent New York Times article about the new Jewish Museum in Philadelphia brings up this question. The museum, it points out, has a focus is “on particular Jews, their migrations, their political positions, their achievements, their enjoyments of American possibilities — all social or material aspects of identity. This is one reason so much of the final gallery is given over to the ’60s counterculture, to feminism and to political protest: the emphasis, here as elsewhere, is on civil rights (though there is little exploration of why so many Jews were drawn to the counterculture).”

Abbie Hoffman was certainly part of the counterculture as well as political action of the time, perhaps most famously as a member of the Chicago Seven. The Seven were tried for conspiracy and inciting to riot at the Democratic National Convention of 1968. All the defendants were acquitted of conspiracy; some including Hoffman were convicted of other crimes, but the convictions were eventually reversed.

His best quote: “Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn't agree on lunch." He also said: “I don’t know whether I’m innocent or I’m guilty.”

It’s hard to remember how important all this seemed at the time.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah is the most secularly accessible of Jewish holidays. For one thing, it was invented, some say, in a secular way – imitating the habits of the Hellenists in proclaiming a festival to celebrate a military victory, instead of getting the holiday directly from God. For another thing, it provides an alternative to secular Christmas: we have candles, they have trees. Even in the shtetl, it was kind of secular – a chance to gamble and give treats to the kids, maybe.

American Jews might see the Hanukkah story as a reinforcement of American values – religious freedom, standing up to tyranny, self-determination. We are free to ignore the elements of religious fanaticism in the actual Maccabee family as presented in the sources: they were rejected as part of the Jewish canon a long time ago anyway. And skeptics among us naturally can deal with the miracle of 8 days of oil in a variety of ways.

The Maccabees have always provided lots of ambiguity – something for anyone. Here are eight ways various people have seen Judah Maccabee as a hero – one for each night of Hanukkah.

1)   Judah Maccabee, freedom fighter. Judah Maccabee’s commitment illustrates the importance of following one’s own conscience. As American Jews in the 20th century I think we learned this one in Jewish schools from Conservative to Reform to Secular.
2)   Judah Maccabee, defender of the Jewish state. The Israelis have their own view of Judah the heroic soldier. In modern Israel, he not only stands for American-style freedom, but also for defending the Jewishness of the Jewish state:
“For modern Zionists, no group in Jewish history was better suited for the role of heroes than that band of irregulars whose guerilla war against the imperial rulers (in this case, Greek-speaking Hellenists based in Syria) ended in victory and national liberation – the Maccabees.” From “A Zionist Hanukkah
3)   Judah Maccabee, military genius. This is another one that seems appealing to Israelis. It definitely comes right out of the original sources. For Jews of practically any persuasion, the idea that the small, underpowered Jewish fighters could defeat the well-equipped regular armies of one of the world’s biggest empires has evident appeal.
4)   Judah Maccabee, religious leader struggling against defilers of pure Judaism. This one is a little anti-heroic for secular Jews like me. If you look closely at the actual motives of the Maccabee family, they wanted everyone to be a more orthodox Jew. The Temple needed purification after the battle – but there were also questions about how pure the prior practices had been, before the fight began. The Maccabees threw out the corrupted hereditary priests who had held power before the battle.
5)   Judah Maccabee, martyr for his cause. Remember, he died before the oil miracle took place. Another not-too-secular aspect of our hero.
6)   Judah Maccabee, anti-assimilationist and anti-Hellenizer. The Hasmoneans, another name for the Maccabee faction, did not like the introduction of Hellenistic political structure, art, literature, and outlook into their own culture. They especially and most famously opposed Jews who capitulated to adding pagan cult objects and practices into the Temple rituals. The Hasmoneans weren’t the most fanatic anti-Hellenizers (that would be the isolationist Qumram sects), but they were obviously very opposed to much assimilation with the tempting Hellenistic ways. Since secular Jews in modern western countries are mainly assimilationists, we do a little glossing over here. Anyway, no one  has made us worship the emperor recently.
7)   Judah Maccabee, warrior for God. In Medieval and Renaissance Christian art, many artists included him as a kind of generic Biblical military hero and symbol of Christian triumphalism --  the Old Testament prefiguring the New Testament. Not a popular view with Jews.
8)   Judah Maccabee, hero of Handel’s Oratorio. Handel dedicated his magnificent treatment of the Book of Maccabees to a military victory by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, celebrating his triumph over the recent Jacobite rebellion. England at the time had a very small Jewish community, but they were active patrons of the arts, and quickly made this work a favorite of theirs, and commissioned more Handel works. Check Youtube to hear the beautiful aria:
“See, the conqu'ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.”

Monday, November 29, 2010

Rahm Emanuel (November 29, 1959)

Hero or anti-hero? You decide. Or maybe it's too soon to tell.

Joel Coen (November 29, 1954)

The Coen Brothers: Joel Coen (born November 29, 1954) and Ethan Coen (born September 21, 1957) have made some pretty spectacular movies. Ethan at Princeton University wrote a senior thesis entitled: "Two Views of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy" – but that’s not how they qualify as being models of secular Jewishness.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jon Stewart (November 28, 1962)

Of all the heroic and anti-heroic figures in my calendar, Jon Stewart needs the least said about him. His view of the news may keep our insane political scene just a little more rational, because he sees the poisonous humor in so much that is being done to us. His TV personality incorporates his identity as a secular Jew. What could be more heroic to someone like me?

Just don't miss The Daily Show.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (November 28, 1908)

From an obituary – November 2009 – in the Forward: “Like Emile Durkheim, the great sociologist whose mantle he picked up and wore very comfortably, Lévi-Strauss was a Jew. But in neither case, nor in those of many other Jewish social thinkers, is it easy to find explicit Jewish references in their lives or work.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Here I am, surrounded by family, smelling the ritual foods cooking, and beginning my thankful day. One can be thankful without a formal, giving deity, after all, just as one can be moral without the threat of eternal punishment. (That could be a theme for another time.)

In my last post, I talked about the long history that led up to this beautiful day of enjoyment of food and relationships. The result of evolving this holiday from a celebration of gratitude to the Pilgrims' demanding and fanatical god to a celebration of our excellent society is my favorite holiday.




A theocracy of their own was the goal of the Pilgrims in whose honor we supposedly celebrate Thanksgiving. They wanted to create a state where they dictated belief and behavior, instead of living in one where someone else dictated -- or worse yet, one where lots of choices were available. Fortunately for us, America instead ended up as the most pluralistic society ever known -- and the most friendly to Jews, whether believers or not.

Thanksgiving is no longer a holiday of hero worship at all. Who wants to make a detailed study of the fight against starvation and against the nearly-decimated Indian tribes? In any case, the local native Americans had died in large numbers from Western diseases a few years before the Pilgrims stepped onto Plymouth Rock. In short, Thanksgiving has morphed into something that scarcely resembles its beginnings. And why we choose to celebrate this particular band of fanatics is lost in historic this and that.

Like Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving centers around a ritual meal. In fact, it almost mirrors Jewish holidays: we almost died (for Jewish holidays it's "they tried to kill us"); we survived; let's eat. Also like Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving doesn't fall on the same date every year. It has a completely different schedule from Jewish holidays or others -- it can come a few days before Hanukkah or almost a month earlier. So if you love things to be complicated, there's more for you in Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Baruch Spinoza (November 24, 1632)

Spinoza, according to Rebecca Goldstein, was the first person to live without a religious affiliation – that is, to live openly in European society as neither a Catholic, a Protestant, nor a Jew. After he was excommunicated for life by the Jewish community, he did not convert to Christianity (which Goldstein points out, would have been a good career move for him). Instead, he lived on his own terms as a philosopher.

Goldstein’s book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity presents a full portrait of Spinoza along with her reminiscences of how he was presented to her all-girls Orthodox Jewish school a generation ago. She betrays Spinoza, she says, because she wrote for a Jewish book series – and above all, Spinoza did not consider himself a Jew.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Operation Moses (November 21, 1984)

Operation Moses was “a three-way collaboration between the Mossad, the CIA and Sudanese State Security (SSS) to smuggle nearly 8,000 Falash Mura [Ethiopian Jews] out of refugee camps in Sudan in a massive airlift to Israel.” (Jerusalem Post) The operation lasted several months, beginning on November 21, 1984.

A few years ago, I heard an Israeli pilot who participated in the rescue describe the terrified Ethiopian Jews, whose experience was in back-country villages, as they saw a plane for the first time. “We had to fly under the radar,” he explained. “We didn’t really have the complete permission of the Sudanese government.” The Israeli soldiers coaxed or forced them to enter the planes – which kept their engines running in order to fly out again as quickly as possible. Our friend showed us a video of the fire-spitting engines, the open cargo doors, and the terrified refugees holding hands as they were led into the plane.

I'm aware that not all of my fellow secular Jews think that it's worth while to rescue the Ethiopian Jews from starvation and persecution, but my friend the pilot is a hero to me.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Isaac Bashevis Singer (November 21, 1902)

I. B. Singer is the only Yiddish-writing Nobel prize winner. He was also a hands-on participant in translating his work into English, and consciously became a literary voice for the lost culture of Eastern European Jews. He wrote about their religion, their superstitions, their peculiarities, and their lives, and for me this makes him heroic even if he spun too good a tale. My father vastly preferred the more political and realistic works of his brother I.J. Singer.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Benoît B. Mandelbrot (November 20,1924)

Benoit Mandelbrot, who died last month, was a pioneer in mathematics and its applications, and also a nearly mythical public figure. For example, one of his recent obituaries stated:
“He is best known for art based on his work.”
Among more mathematically educated individuals than those referenced in the quote, Mandelbrot is known for his original work on fractal geometry, which he described and named. His book The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1982) remains a very important classic.

I met Mandelbrot and his wife while accompanying my husband at a number of conferences about the applications of his work. I found his reminiscences of how he fled the Nazis in wartime France especially fascinating; as I’m not a mathematician or scientist, I am only a bystander in understanding his great contribution.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Really Outnumbered

I just glanced over the new study on Jewish population in the United States. Jews are only .9% of the population here in Michigan; 2.1% of the total US population (6,543,820). The study is published by the North American Jewish Data Bank, a joint project of The Jewish Federations of North America and the University of Connecticut, and is available for download here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Felix Frankfurter (November 15, 1882)

Frankfurter was a Supreme Court justice from 1939 to 1962, replacing Brandeis, the first Jew to serve on the court. Today, with three Jewish justices, it’s hard to see how the two were both symbolic and significant as Jewish members of the court.

Frankfurter viewed being Jewish as "an accident of birth" – though he was influenced by Brandeis to support Zionism, in particular in support of the British Balfour Declaration of 1918 commiting to the development of a Jewish homeland in Israel. Frankfurter helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Louis D. Brandeis (November 13, 1856)

Brandeis was the first Jew ever appointed to the Supreme Court – in a day when anti-Jewish sentiment was much more common than at present. President Wilson’s choice to appoint him was frankly and openly contested because people didn’t want a Jew to serve.

Brandis’s parents, Jewish immigrants from Prague to Louisville, were secular Jews -- the family celebrated Christmas and other non-Jewish holidays. They were supporters of Lincoln and of abolishing slavery, and had to flee north during the Civil War, while many southern Jews actively supported the South.

Brandeis became a leader in defining civil rights and other liberal commitments while on the Supreme Court from 1916-1939. His support of Zionism was extremely important in the American context.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Constant Jewish Book Fair

"Non-Jewish authors are jealous of us because we still have the Jewish book fair in these times of declining interest in books," said the moderator of a panel of authors this week at one of the events of the Ann Arbor Jewish Book Festival. Simultaneously in November -- Jewish Book Month -- Jewish Community Centers all over North America hold book fairs like ours. New books and authors are featured, but many classics and general interest Jewish books are also normally for sale. A central organization offers an opportunity around 6 months earlier when volunteers and professionals from the local book fair committees can hear short sample talks, and select the authors who will travel a circuit of book fair events in November.

Jews love books. The most religious Jews spend their lives minutely studying the Torah, Talmud, and commentaries on them. The Israelis have a museum called "The Shrine of the Book," which is not a religious shrine, but a display of archaeological finds, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls. The least religious Jews, like me, preserve this tradition by a more general love of books, Jewish or not. Many attend these book fairs. Jewish life in a sense is a constant Jewish Book Fair.

Yesterday I attended a book talk by a professor of history on the subject of war, diplomacy, and intrigue during World War I as it affected the potential for a Jewish State in Palestine. My estimate: around 60 to 70 people were present, and they seemed fascinated by an erudite talk of over an hour in length. The panel of authors that I mentioned, a talk by Joan Nathan about Jewish food in France in her latest book, the author of a thriller about the Temple Mount, and many others have been attracting sizeable audiences for our two-week festival. Enough sponsors are available to allow all talks to be free to anyone who wants to attend.

Books are our thing! We Jews of all persuasions write them and we read them all the time. I think the author of a book is something of a hero to any Jewish person.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sad Day

Nov. 9, 1938, Nazis and others attacked Jewish synagogues and businesses in Germany, an event known as Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass. Commemorations of the event attempt to put it in historical perspective, in the trajectory from November 9, 1918, when the defeated German Kaiser abdicated through November 9, 1923, when Hitler was arrested after his first attempt to seize power, and forward to November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and which, according to the New York Times, now has much more attention from German memorialists.

The Times on the commemoration of 1938 and 1989:
If there is one way that Nov. 9 unites these two narratives, it is in the fear that time is slowly diminishing the memories of both events. At the gathering hosted by the mayor to commemorate the wall’s coming down, several people who lived in Berlin when it was divided said they were worried that the next generation would forget what they lived through.

Twentieth century German history dominates all Jewish history before and afterwards, in many narratives. For many people, it's difficult to see previous or subsequent Jewish events without comparison or other consciousness of the Holocaust -- which in some sense started on Kristallnacht.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Mumbai Massacre

Two years ago this month, terrorists murdered 170 people in Mumbai, India. Most of the deaths occurred at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, one of the most upscale in Mumbai. While the terrorists chose the hotel for its symbolic value, most of the victims seemed relatively randomly selected. In addition, the terrorists sought out the Chabad House, where victims were selected not at random, but because they were Jewish.

The actual attack took place November 26, 2008, but in the Jewish calendar, this week is the anniversary of the deaths of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg and the other Jews killed in the attack.  Last night I attended a memorial held by the local Chabad rabbi's wife; the dominant theme was the way these two victims welcomed Jews who were traveling in the noisy, dirty, challenging city, and committed their lives to the Chabad ideology. I appreciate the meaning of the Jewish victims as martyrs for the Chabad cause; however, to me and probably to other secular Jews, the event has an extended and profound meaning, reminding us that any Jew is vulnerable to not-in-the-least dormant anti-Jewish hatred that proliferates in our world.

This week President and Mrs. Obama are the first heads of state to stay at the hotel in the 2 years since the attack, and among other things are commemorating the victims. For international diplomacy, the event has a different meaning than for Jews, of course. Obama's statement: "By striking the places where our countries and people come together those who perpetrated these horrific attacks hoped to drive us apart . . . (but) today the United States and India are working together more closely than ever to keep our people safe." (L.A. Times)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bernard-Henri Lévy: November 5, 1948

Bernard-Henri Lévy was born on November 5, 1948. A French Public Intellectual he appears on ultra-intellectual French TV shows and is so well known he’s just called BHL. He doesn't seem to make it into internationally compiled lists of everyone's favorite public intellectual -- at best this is because he is a kind of a buffoon.

French worship of their BHL hasn’t affected American indifference to him. From Publisher’s Weekly review of his book (now out of print) Who Killed Daniel Pearl?
“The author's moments of gonzo journalism are thrilling, as when he penetrates a forbidden madrasa (seminary) by posing as ‘a special representative of the French president.’ The earlier passages of the book, which take some literary license in describing what Pearl must have felt, is alone worth the price of admission. This book is a controversial bestseller in France, where Levy has long been a leading philosopher and writer. Here, interest in Pearl and the larger issues makes this both fascinating and essential, even if you don't quite buy it all, and a credit to the investigative reporter whose work it seeks to honor.”
So I'd say that most Americans who have heard of him at all don't have much respect for his French pretensions.

I chose to celebrate Lévy's birthday because I was reminded of him when I recently read two Jewish-themed novels about public intellectuals: one British and one American. First is the character Finkler in Harold Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. Finkler has a lot in common with Lévy. Finkler's public reputation was built on a large collection of successful, and pretentious, self-help/philosophy books beginning with The Existentialist in the Kitchen and The Little Book of Household Stoicism. His work-in-progress was The Glass Half Empty: Schopenhauer for Teen Binge Drinkers. BHL's books seem as ridiculous as these made-up titles. Many social phenomena, especially Jewish ones, were parodied in Finkler. The contradictions of Finkler's status as a public intellectual who leads Jewish anti-Zionists and self haters plays a big role in the book.

The second fictional public intellectual who ponders his Judaism is the character Cass Seltzer in Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Seltzer is a more sympathetic character, but in his role as a public intellectual he also finds quite a bit of contradiction with his personal wish to be taken seriously as a philosopher and philosophy professor. The issues I have with the hollowness of Lévy and his lack of any academic stature whatsoever are more thoughtfully explored in Goldstein's book.

Lévy in sum isn't anywhere near as interesting than these fictitious public intellectuals. For example, Lévy's book American Vertigo described a trip he made to the United States with a translator to interpret our difficult and to-him-unknown language and a chauffer because he can't drive a car. Total immersion, no? I can't tell you how banal and without insight I found this work. (I read the pre-book -publication version in the Atlantic which was one of the reasons I didn't resubscribe to it.) His reputation is described thus:
"A philosopher who’s never taught the subject in any university, a journalist who creates a cocktail mingling the true, the possible, and the totally false, a patch-work filmmaker, a writer without a real literary oeuvre, he is the icon of a media-driven society in which simple appearance weighs more than the substance of things. BHL is thus first and foremost a great communicator, the PR man of the only product he really knows how to sell: himself." From In These Times "The Lies of BHL."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chaim Weizmann: November 2, 1874

Chaim Weizmann, first President of Israel, was born November 2, 1874 in Motol, a village near Pinsk (at that time part of Russia). From his youth he combined science with political activism -- Zionism --and became a leader in the foundation of the State of Israel. His passport, I learned recently, is number 1 -- as you can see in the above photo (click on photo to see larger version).

Weizmann's scientific and technological accomplishments won him wide recognition and reward in his adopted country of England. His diplomacy and influence on high-level public figures in Europe and the US was essential in pre-state Israeli negotiations. His influence on Truman was especially important in the last stages of the founding of Israel.

Weizmann was among the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and of the Weizmann Institute for Science in Rehovot, Israel. The photo shows his grave, located near his home on the Rehovot campus.

Weizmann was outstanding in an entirely secular academic discipline (chemistry), in Jewish political representation, and in visionary creation of institutions. I suppose that secular Jews who have decided to reject the entire Zionist enterprise retroactively might find him an anti-hero. I find him a remarkable combination of admirable leadership for Jewish purposes and secular accomplishments.

In any case, Weizmann doesn't seem to be a hero to the ultra Orthodox sector today. On our flight to Israel to visit the Weizmann Institute in 2006, about 1/3 of the other passengers seemed to be Haredi -- ultra-orthodox Jews in 18th century clothes. They used up a lot of bin space for their hatboxes: Haredi men wear black felt hats. The young man sitting next to us kept his hat at his feet. He told us he was a seminary student in Jeruslam, originally from LA.

I said "My husband is a visiting scientist at the Weizmann Institute."

He said "What's that?"

I said "A science institute in Rehovot. It's named for Chaim Weizmann."

He said "Who's that?"

We said "He was the first President of Israel, and an important figure in the Zionist movement in the first half of the 20th century. He was also an important chemist who worked in England, so he had lots of contacts there that were important to Zionism."

He said "That's great." We understand that the ultra Orthodox in yeshivas aren't allowed to learn about history, basic mathematics, literature, or any other subject except religion. This really shows how far they go. It's like an American who had never heard of George Washington.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Election Day

Election Day falls on November 2, 2010 -- tomorrow. The old joke is that Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans -- this is probably just as good a bon mot about secular as of religious Jews, maybe moreso. Large numbers of Jews of all religious persuasions have run for political office and served in the Senate, the House, and various state and local offices, having gained the trust of electorates who are mainly not Jewish at all. In the US Senate and on the Supreme Court, Jews are very well-represented at the moment. (Some of these individuals will be listed on their birthdays as I proceed with this calendar.)

Meanwhile, as I understand it, my fellow secular Jews will vote tomorrow in large numbers, predominantly for liberal-leaning Democrats. And we'll maintain our enthusiasm for the country where we have been privileged to participate on such equal terms. Unlike the court Jews who led such a precarious existence in earlier political situations. We hope.

Of course Jews are also represented on the other side of the political spectrum. At another time, I'll discuss the political neocons and anti-heroes like Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter.