Friday, December 31, 2010

New Years Eve

The secular Jewish year begins at midnight between December 31 of last year and the first minute of the New Year. Even religious Jews call January 1 “Secular New Year.”

Are secular Jews as drunk as their fellow celebrators? Well, some of them still conform to the old stereotype of Jews drinking less than other Americans or other immigrants. We know when we are outclassed – by the Irish, say. Or the Poles.
Q. Why don’t Jews drink?
A. It dulls the pain.
Old joke.

Top 10 Lists

It's the end of the year, and everyone is publishing their "Top 10." Here are a few more that I find relevant to the spirit of "hero or anti-hero" --

How sees Jews

Here's another "Top 10" for the New Year: Top 10 Jews of Year - 2010 -- Jon Stewart, Elena Kagan, Ofer Merin, Michael Bloomberg, Ahuva Tomer, Peter Beinart, Mark Zuckerberg, Drake, Barbara Picower, Eric Cantor. Bonus: the 2010 Honorary Jew: Stephen Colbert -- "Just like Jon Stewart, but Catholic." If you don't know who they are, follow the link!

Some of these figure in my "hero or anti-hero" thoughts. Some not so much. Interesting list, though.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

How the Chinese See Jews

Newsweek has an interesting article about Chinese views of Jews. Chinese business writers and consultants (who personally may have never met a Jew) have been recommending Jews as business gurus and models, and especially writing about the Talmud as how-to-succeed in business manual. "The guides are like the Chinese equivalents of books such as Sun Tzu and the Art of Business."

The historic background to this trend is summarized in the article:
The Chinese perception of Jews as expert moneymakers does not have the religion-based antagonism that often accompanies the same stereotype elsewhere in the world, and probably had its start in the mid-19th century, when investors began flocking to China. Many of the first foreign real-estate tycoons, such as Silas Hardoon and the scions of the Sassoon family, were Jewish. Michael Kadoorie—who hails from a wealthy Jewish family that dates its China connection back to 19th-century Shanghai, and who’s made his fortune in power generators and hotels—currently ranks as the richest non-Chinese in greater China, with an estimated net worth of $5 billion.

The admiration for Judaism stems from a history that goes beyond business. About half of the dozen or so Westerners active in Mao Zedong’s China were Jewish, and that also led to increased interest in Jewish culture among Chinese intellectuals, says Xu Xin, professor of Jewish studies at Nanjing University. That’s resulted in mostly glowing portrayals of certain Jewish individuals in the official Chinese press.
The article suggests that Chinese views of Jews is mainly not as harmful as similar stereotyping in European history. I wonder.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

John von Neumann (December 28, 1903)

Von Neumann was a person of vast accomplishment in many fields. He was a mathematician with accomplishments in several areas; he worked on the Manhattan Project; he was an inventor of game theory and automata theory, a contributor to developing the first computer, a developer of computer science, and even a pioneer in weather forecasting. His influence was vast – for example, Benoit Mandlebrot studied with him at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, Where are you having dinner?

2010 was the year of the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice.
During the hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham asked Kagan: “Where were you on Christmas day?”
Kagan replied: “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

I’m very aware of the common meme that Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas because that’s the only kind of restaurant that’s open. It’s the subject of a song.
I even know the owners of a Chinese restaurant in Cleveland Heights who say that it’s their best day all year – and they believe that all the customers are Jewish. Personally, I’ve never eaten in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas, but I concede the point: it must be where all my fellow Jews spend the afternoon or evening (and then go to a movie).

Food writer Mimi Sheraton, writing in 1990, summarized the long-term Jewish love of Chinese food (which in fact continues for the rest of the year, not just at Christmas. She wrote:
The longstanding love affair Jews have had with Chinese food ... was a well-known fact of the restaurant business in Flatbush 50 years ago. Even many Jews who observed kosher dietary rules at home went to Chinese restaurants, and for those who were not kosher, Chinese was the traditional takeout fare on Sunday nights.

We can only guess at the reasons, ranging from historic speculations - such as, perhaps, one of the lost tribes of Israel having wandered through China - to more practical surmises like a shared taste for chicken soup, tea and dishes seasoned with garlic, celery and onion. It is also significant that Cantonese restaurants use no dairy products, a comforting fact even to Jews who are not kosher but are still unaccustomed to the flavor of butter and cream with meat.

References to Jews eating in Chinese restaurants go back as far as the late 19th century – yes, more than 100 years ago. In the 1920s, Jews ate in Chinese restaurants so frequently that a Yiddish paper ran an article titled “Who won the war between gefilte fish and chop suey?” I think most secular Jews have expanded their interests and explored restaurants of many other ethnic origins. And several generations of rejection of the dietary laws mean that one doesn’t even have a sense of transgression when eating moo-shu pork or shrimp-filled egg rolls: it seems perfectly natural.

Friday, December 24, 2010

I. F. Stone (December 24, 1907)

Izzy Stone was an independent left-wing journalist, who published his own “I. F. Stone’s Weekly” from 1952 until 1971 as well as articles in other publications and several books.

He described his early life: “I had become a radical in the ‘20s while in my teens, mostly through reading Jack London, Herbert Spencer, Kropotkin and Marx. I became a member of the Socialist Party and was elected to the New Jersey State Committee of the Socialist Party before I was old enough to vote. I did publicity for Norman Thomas in the 1928 campaign while a reporter on a small city daily, but soon drifted away from left-wing politics because of the sectarianism of the left. Moreover, I felt that party affiliation was incompatible with independent journalism, and I wanted to be free to help the unjustly treated, to defend everyone's civil liberty and to work for social reform without concern for leftist infighting.”

In the fifties, just as McCarthy was beginning his infamous investigations, Stone founded his Weekly. It became a welcome independent voice – often a solitary voice -- in that era of persecution of the left. He became one of the most respected figures for his original and penetrating views on many subjects, including challenges to government claims about nuclear testing and many others.

“I believe that no society is good and can be healthy without freedom for dissent and for creative independence,” he wrote in 1963. If you had to invent a secular Jewish hero in journalism and political analysis, you couldn’t make up a better one.

Quotes from The Official Website of I.F.Stone

Thursday, December 23, 2010

William Kristol (December 23, 1952)

Kristol is a neoconservative political analyst and commentator who happens (embarrassingly, if you ask me) to be Jewish. His credentials include founding the Weekly Standard, appearing on Fox News, and working for Dan Quayle. Definitely not my idea of a hero!! Tomorrow is the birthday of I.F.Stone, and I can't resist putting Kristol in as his antithesis.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Where am I ? I'm in St.Lucia in the Caribbean. Nothing to do with this blog but I'm posting about the trip at and

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Steven Spielberg (December 18, 1946)

Can you find Jewish content in Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T., Jurassic Park, or Back to the Future? What about Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Spielberg has made so many films I can’t begin to name them. Two that do have Jewish content: Munich and Schildler’s List. Spielberg’s generous support of Jewish oral and filmed history projects is where he’s really earned my respect.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Morris Dees, Jr. (December 16, 1936)

Morris Dees, Jr. is the co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Like many activist American Jews, he has lived his belief in social justice by founding the SPLC and leading its efforts for many years. Effective court cases pressed by SPLC lawyers, including Dees, have produced justice and thwarted some of the ugliest racism and prejudice our society manages to produce. Educational materials from SPLC seem to contribute to an effective improvement in tensions between various groups in some schools, and even to increasing tolerance of many minorities. The SPLC tracking of American hate groups is so important that even the government (which maybe should be doing its own work) relies on their research and observations. The organization that Dees created is thus of great importance to Jewish well-being as well as to that of many other groups.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hyman Feldman (December 15, 1905)

“Revolutionary” is a key theme that I think of when I try to characterize my father, Hyman Feldman. He had a strong interest in social and political justice, and he believed that social change for the better would happen through some kind of socialist revolution. His interest in education and science and his commitment to the family were equally strong. Although he hoped that revolution would some day change the things he disliked, he never during my lifetime actively paticipated even in non-violent political action – he said he’d learned his lesson from the McCarthy persecutions.

My father’s ideas on socialism were extremely well thought out. Frustratingly for me as a teenager, he didn’t see any need to rethink his views, but would react to any events or changes in the world by categorizing how the news fit into his existing framework. Yes, I thought he was rigid, though unlike many people with fixed views, he wasn’t negative about other people, and was tolerant of many things, and above all wouldn’t do harm to other people. My experience is that many people with such firm ideas often dismiss the rights or even the humanity of other people who don’t agree, and he never did that.

Wide reading in both his field of mathematics education and general history and culture characterized my father’s interests. At some point, for example, he recommended the novel The Brothers Ashkenazi by I.J.Singer, published around 1936. My father always said he preferred I.J. Singer to his more famous brother I.B. Singer. When I read the book, I could see why: I.J. is political and not nostalgic about mystic Jewish life in Europe.

In The Brothers Ashkenazi Singer makes an explicit comparison between Hassidic Jews around 1900 waiting for the Messiah and radicals waiting for the Revolution — which confirms some of my suspicions about Jewish revolutionaries. Singer’s description of the chaos of the Russian Revolution, which takes place at the end of the book and the end of his characters' lives, is very interesting – a bit parallel to a few of my father’s memories. Many of the themes of the book are quite relevant to understanding life as my father sometimes described it, recollecting his experiences with Germans and Poles and Czars.

Although he celebrated his birthday in December (due to circumstances of his immigrant status) .my father was actually born in the summer of 1905, probably in July. This puts his birthdate just in the middle of the Revolution of 1905 when peasants and others revolted unsuccessfully against the Tsar. I think it highly appropriate that my father, who openly or secretly believed in revolution all his life, was born during a revolution.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

George Mason ( December 11, 1725)

George Mason, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Adopted in 1776 by the Virginia Constitutional Convention, this document became the model for the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution and similar individual state documents. I admire  him for defining many of our constitutional rights, and in this context, especially appreciate the following:

Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Section 16. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Felix Nussbaum (December 11, 1904)

Felix Nussbaum began a successful career as a modern painter in the 1920s in Germany. Things did not go well for assimilated Jews like him. I first saw his works in a retrospective at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and was astounded that he's so little known. I think this painting "Self-portrait with Jewish Identity Card" expresses everything that I'm unable to say.

Nussbaum escaped from one concentration camp, and used his modernist vision to express much about what was happening. He died in Auschwitz around a year after he painted this work -- unfortunately he didn't escape a second time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Clarice Lispector (December 10, 1920)

From the review:

“What the legendary soccer player Pelé is to sport in Brazil, the author ‘Clarice’ is to that country's literary culture. Stunningly brilliant, beautiful and enigmatic, the daughter of Russian-Jewish émigrés achieved instant celebrity at the age of 23 with the publication of her debut novel Near to the Wild Heart. From that auspicious beginning in 1943, she emerged during the post-war decades as one of Latin America's greatest modernist writers and ambassadors of Brazilian culture and avant-garde thought.”

 Clarice Lispector, like many writers with a mingled heritage, wrote little directly about her background; although she attended a Yiddish-speaking school, she became highly acculturated into Brazilian life, and she married a Brazilian diplomat and also lived abroad. She's claimed as the voice of Brazilians, feminists, and so on. I suspect that those who see Jewishness in her work are associating Jewishness with Otherness and a sense of alienation. That happens a lot.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mark Kurlansky (December 7, 1948)

Mark Kurlansky is a wide-ranging writer, a few of whose works are especially enjoyable to a lover of Jewish culture like me. I especially enjoyed A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry and Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea – both are very interesting books about religion, ethics, and Jewish history. I also loved his books about food such as Salt and Cod.

I don't know about Kurlansky's personal beliefs or religious practices, but I think his works are helpful to a person creating a secular Jewish identity. I plan to read his latest work of fiction soon.

Noam Chomsky (December 7, 1928)

Chomsky hates Israel and loves Palestinian terrorists. Chomsky claims to be anti-Zionist, not anti-Jewish, but in the end it's hard to see what difference that makes. He encourages antisemitism whether he means to or not. For some secular Jews, this makes him a hero; for others, an anti-hero. It's tempting to consider his vast accomplishments in his field of linguistics, which I have no reason to think anyone disputes, but don't know firsthand. These accomplishments sometimes seem to give him a podium from which to encourage his fellow antisemites.

Another thing that's tempting  is to dismiss him as simply a self-hating Jew who has come to hate most other Jews during a long life of contrarian behavior. Way too many demonstrably self-hating Jews have the same attitude, that Palestinians can do no wrong, and that Israelis have no rights.

Chomsky probably tries to complicate the issues; some of his followers and imitators don't even bother. I think for a lot of them (and I can't know which as I don't see the insides of their minds) the reality is, they are indifferent to the Zionist project -- they just hate Jews.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Is God Dead? A New York Times Article

According to Sean Kelly, writing in today's New York Times, Nietzsche's view of the death of God can have many meanings. One, he says, " is that the social role that the Judeo-Christian God plays in our culture is radically different from the one he has traditionally played in prior epochs of the West."

The following description of this current and different social situation resonates with the way I see myself and other secular Jews in our society:’s religious believers feel strong social pressure to admit that someone who doesn’t share their religious belief might nevertheless be living a life worthy of their admiration. That is not to say that every religious believer accepts this constraint. But to the extent that they do not, then society now rightly condemns them as dangerous religious fanatics rather than sanctioning them as scions of the Church or mosque. God is dead, therefore, in a very particular sense. He no longer plays his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live.
I think that the global view of plural "right" ways doesn't always include those who are religiously unobservant or unbelieving, but it can be extended that far. And this is important to me.

The New Antisemitism

Writing in The Nation, Jonathan Schell puts Glenn Beck's recent attack on George Soros in perspective. He provides a long and interesting analysis of classic antisemitism. Specifically of the Soros attack, Schell writes:
But not until the attacks on Soros did Beck's crackpot vision of a grand conspiracy acquire a human face—as it happens, a Jewish one. Like the Protocols, Beck's presentation—titled The Puppet Master?—discovers a single malevolent force operating behind the scenes to control history. While horror-film music plays and clips of history's disasters are shown on the screen, a voice intones, "Eighty years ago, George Soros was born. Little did the world know then, economies would collapse, currencies would become worthless, elections would be stolen, regimes would fall. And one billionaire would find himself coincidentally at the center of it all." Going on to accuse Soros of creating a shadow government, the show states that this "greatly resembles" similar organizations "he has created in other countries," supposedly "before instigating a coup" (among the countries are Czechoslovakia, Georgia and Ukraine). Thus, Beck falsely charges that Soros instigated coups abroad while also implying that he plans to carry out one in the United States. (What Soros has actually done is give support, through his Open Society Foundations, to democracy movements in many countries.)
In a novel and especially vile (and also false) twist, Beck, while heaping the classic anti-Semitic slurs on Soros, insinuates that Soros, a Holocaust survivor, is himself anti-Semitic. Beck, who denies that he is an anti-Semite, accuses Soros of having had to "go over and take the lands from the people, his Jewish friends and neighbors, who were being sent to the gas chambers" when he was a boy in Hungary during World War II. (In reality, as Michael Kaufman reveals in his book Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire, Soros's Christian protector was ordered to inventory the estate of a Jewish aristocrat who had escaped Hungary. He brought Soros, 13 at the time, with him. Soros wandered the estate and rode a horse. He never took any lands or anything else from Holocaust victims or anyone else.) In a perverse way, the libel is a perfect complement to the history of anti-Semitism: now the Jew is found to be guilty of, on top of all of history's other evils, his own people's persecution.
The article is well worth reading.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Abbe Grégoire (December 4, 1750)

Abbe Gregoire wrote about why blacks and Jews should be equal citizens in Revolutionary France. The consequence of his writing and activism was to create a new society where Jews were free to do what they wanted religiously, and were recognized as citizens with the same civil rights as Christians. This was truly revolutionary! The consequences were complicated, and of course the changes were backed out when the revolution was defeated. Nevertheless, his contribution to the rights of Jews to determine their own religious destiny is significant.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fire in Haifa

The tragedy of death and destruction by wild fire in Israel is deeply distressing. The Israeli government is humiliated because they had to ask the international community for aid in fighting the fire -- this too is deeply distressing. Why should they not be afforded help when their government has so often volunteered to help in other countries' emergencies?

Thursday, December 2, 2010


My goal in this blog is an exploration of questions of identity -- how can a person like me (and I assume many others) have a strong Jewish identity without believing in the religion? Who can influence me, inspire me, serve as a model? How have selected individuals approached these issues?

Identity has lots of consequences, including who one chooses as a hero. Here is an interesting essay about religion, politics, and identity: KEEP YOUR IDENTITY SMALL by Paul Graham.

His most important point:
I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people's identities.
He concludes: "The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hanukkah Again

In today's New York Times, another way to look at Hanukkah from the author of The Finkler Question:
Hanukkah, Rekindled by Howard Jacobson
Hanukkah, Rekindled

Why it’s so hard to get excited about a holiday with the Hasmoneans.

Jacobson looks at things a little differently than I do (see my post from a few days ago, Happy Hanukkah!), but he's also wondering how the Maccabees can be heroes to Jews today.

Sarah Silverman (December 1, 1970)

Sarah Silverman invented/led the Jewish grandmother-in-Florida voting action in 2008 election, where she encouraged young Obama supporters to go visit Bubby and convince her that she shouldn’t vote Republican. Although Silverman has the same birthday as Woody Allen, I will resist making any comparison about gender, generation, or taste.

Woody Allen (December 1, 1935)

Woody Allen defined Jewish humor for many non-Jews, and perhaps extended the concept for Jews. Is it funny when his alter-ego character converts to Christianity and then – in order to be consistent with his new faith – buys a jar of mayonnaise and a package of Wonder bread? Discuss.