Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ben Kingsley (December 31, 1943)

The actor Ben Kinglsey has a very mixed background, which has allowed him to take on roles with a huge variety of ethnic identities, including Gandhi, an Iranian immigrant to LA (in "House of Sand and Fog") and Otto Frank, father of Ann Frank.

 He just did it again, playing Georges Méliès
the film maker in the new film “Hugo” (image at right). I loved "Hugo," and I think he’s an amazing actor.

Of his life and ethnic identity, Kingsley said:
“I think one in four of the students at my school was Jewish. Every single one of my friends was Jewish. My mother was half-Jewish, so I felt a part of exotic, cosmopolitan Manchester.” 
He described his parents:
“'My mother was basically an abandoned child. She wasn't brought up by her own mother, who was, to put it mildly, extremely difficult. If we were trying to be really kind we would call her "a character". Murderous. Terrifying. So my mum had no role model in terms of maternal instinct and intuition.' “His grandmother was an East End rag trader who fell pregnant by a Jewish immigrant. When he ran away back to Russia she became virulently anti-Semitic. Kingsley once said that when he portrayed 'great heroic Jews and heroic dark people' such as Simon Wiesenthal and Gandhi he was 'sticking two fingers up' at her. So it must have been difficult for this fearsome matriarch when her daughter married a young man of Indian descent. 
 “Rahimtulla Bhanji, Kingsley's father, was a Gujarati like Gandhi, but was brought up in Kenya, the son of a spice trader. He came to England to study medicine before going on to work as a GP in Yorkshire, where his second son, Krishna Pandit Bhanji, the future Ben Kingsley, was born.” -- quotes from "The dark family secret that drove Ben Kingsley to success"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Stan Lee (December 28, 1922)

Jewish comic-book author Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber) co-created the Fantastic Four comic series in 1961 for Marvel Comics. He's responsible for Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and X-Men. Surely that makes him a hero to a lot of comic readers!

Like Jewish popular music composers, Jewish comic book creators made an enormous contribution to their field. The first tabloid-sized funny paper reprints appeared in 1934, published by an unemployed Jewish novelty salesman named Max Gaines (née Max Ginzberg) and Harry L. Wildenberg, who worked at Eastern Color Printing; their idea took off. The next big thing in comic books -- Superman -- was invented by artists who also happened to be Jewish. I have not seen a credible explanation for either phenomenon, though I found a history of their role that attempts to explain the role of Jews throughout comic history up to Mad magazine. The last paragraph reads:
MAD's conversion from a comic book to a bimonthly magazine marked the end the Golden Age of comic books, which, for its creators, was like a drama in two acts. In act one, Jews seeking to escape poverty invented a new genre that melded popular art and storytelling, and projected Jewish (and adolescent) power fantasies onto their "all-American" superhero creations. During the shorter second act, the five-year reign of EC Comics was marked by an overriding concern about morality, sometimes emanating from a Jewish sensibility. In the words of The X-Men creator Stan Lee: "To me you can wrap all of Judaism up in one sentence, and that is, 'Do not do unto others...' All I tried to do in my stories was show that there's some innate goodness in the human condition. And there's always going to be evil; we should always be fighting evil."

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Tonight's latke dinner with Elaine and Larry. We had leg of lamb, latkes, and for dessert, lemon layer cake.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Yasmin Levy (December 23, 1975)

Yasmin Levy is a charismatic singer of Israeli and Ladino songs. I thoroughly enjoyed a concert she gave a few years ago. I especially remember her sing-along version of the very dramatic song “Adio Kerido.”

Levy’s inspiration partly comes from her father Yitzhak Levy, thus described at her website:
“Born in Turkey in 1919, he worked as both a composer and cantor. After the creation of the State of Israel, Yitzhak was appointed head of the Ladino department at Israel's national radio station. His life's work was devoted to the collection and preservation of the songs of Sephardic Jews: these songs had been passed down orally from generation to generation over a period in excess of 500 years. During his lifetime he published four books containing Sephardic romances and another ten volumes of liturgical songs. He also recorded many of these same songs for the national radio.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Hanukkah!

It's the first night of Hanukah, and time for secular Jews like me to light candles, and maybe think about Judah Maccabee, as I said in my earlier post.

Andrei Codrescu (December 20, 1946)

I’ve always enjoyed Andrei Codrescu’s commentaries on All Things Considered, especially when he contrasted his youth under communist rule to his adulthood as an American poet and academic. Though I think the title of his poetry magazine, Exquisite Corpse, is delightful, I've never actually seen a copy.

For the Moment Magazine symposium on what it means to be Jewish he said:
“My family fled Hungarian-occupied Transylvania to escape the Nazis to Romania, where I was born after the war. Being a poet, I work with language, which is something we Jews are very good at. We have survived by means of a book, the perpetuation of one language and the invention of another. Hebrew words still maintain a potent link to the sacred, just as Yiddish, our other language, keeps us rooted to the bitter ironies of the human world. Of course, any language can connect to the divine under the ministrations of a poet, but there is something in our use of it that transcends both education and prayer. We offer the world a model of survival for thousands of years without a bureaucratic state (until Israel) or an official language. We are a shining and tragic example of what happens to the powerless when the powerful need scapegoats, and we provide at the same time a model for existence through learning and community. We possess a stubborn sense of justice born out of being the perennial subjects of injustice. Our moral history consists largely of reflection on the laws of men and the Law of God, a subject of existential urgency to all humans.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

Italo Svevo (December 19, 1861)

Italo Svevo was the pen name of a Jewish businessman and novelist from Trieste named Ettore Schmitz. When we were in Ireland an Irish/English friend, discussing Leopold Bloom, wondered if James Joyce knew any Irish Jews. I said I didn’t know, but he did know Italo Svevo in Trieste. Svevo first employed Joyce as an English tutor, but became his friend.

Svevo's most famous novel is The Confessions of Zeno. When first published, it received little recognition, but is now admired for its early use of psychoanalysis and Freudian thought in fiction. Joyce's influence helped to make it better known and respected. I read it long ago.

From an article in the Guardian about the story of Svevo:
"What gives the story its piquancy is the way Svevo's very acquiescence in his apparent destiny as a businessman brought about his rebirth as a writer. With the expansion of his father-in-law's firm, he began travelling to London on business. Feeling the need to improve his English, he hired a young Irishman in Trieste to tutor him. James Joyce at this point was 25 and more or less unknown, but his words of praise to his middle-aged pupil, who had diffidently handed him his two long-forgotten novels, were enough to regalvanise Svevo's literary ambitions. And many years later, when The Confessions of Zeno was completed, it was Joyce - now famous - who engineered the triumphant French publication that finally brought Svevo the recognition he deserved; a wonderfully old-fashioned ending for a story involving two such uncompromising modernists.

"Zeno, like his creator, is a compulsive renouncer - most comically of cigarettes, but of other pleasures, too. The secret of the happiness he derives from his various relationships lies in the way he is constantly giving up (in his mind at least) one for another. In the charmingly devious byways of his psyche, the problem of the transitoriness of pleasure is resolved by incorporating the idea of its destruction into the experience of the pleasure itself. Enjoyment and valediction are miraculously suspended there together, at least for a period."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hanukkah Starts in Two Days

Hanukkah is the most secularly accessible of Jewish holidays, I wrote last year. I liked this post so much I've decided to re-issue it this year. 

To begin: Hanukkah 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.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hyman Feldman (December 15, 1905)

Last year I wrote a fairly long post about my father, Hyman Feldman, on his birthday. This year, I'll just post a photo of my father in front of our Chevrolet that he drove from around 1950 until 1960.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Wandering Jew

Interesting article by André Aciman: "Convivencia: A plaintive Gypsy song, possibly of Ladino origin, is hybridized and reinterpreted, then viewed on the Internet, where roots and homelands blur." Aciman's writings on Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish wanderings in the twentieth and now twenty-first century are always fascinating.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Helen Frankenthaler (December 12, 1928)

Helen Frankenthaler was a central figure in the New York School of painting, a movement that emerged in the early 1950s. She was involved with the art critic Clement Greenberg, and later married and divorced the painter Robert Motherwell.

Frankenthaler's background was Jewish and intellectual. Her father was a New York State Supreme Court judge, and she grew up on New York’s Upper East Side. According to the Jewish Women's Archive, "Frankenthaler absorbed the privileged background of a cultured and progressive Jewish family that encouraged all three daughters to prepare themselves for professional careers."

Frankenthaler was widely recognized when she was in her early twenties, especially for a work titled Mountains and Sea (shown above). "The color field painting that came to prominence during the later 1950s and 1960s, by Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Dzubas, and Jules Olitski, among many others, can be said to have had its origin at that moment." In an art world that discriminated against women, she managed to create and maintain a distinctive reputation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas by Jewish Songwriters

One subject that intrigues me is the high number of Jews in American popular music. Of course there are books about this subject, which I haven't read, and might get around to reading some time. Meanwhile, there's Tablet magazine and it's continued coverage of popular culture.

Today: a list of Christmas songs by Jews, reprinted from 2009: "Have Yourself a Jewish Little Christmas: The top 10 Christmas Songs written by Jews" by Marc Tracy.

Here's the bare-bones list from bottom to "White Christmas" (for details see the original article) --

10. “The Christmas Waltz”
9. “Silver Bells"
8. “Winter Wonderland”
7. “Santa Baby”
6. “Sleigh Ride”
5. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
4. “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”
3. “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”
2. “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”)
1. “White Christmas”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Delmore Schwartz (December 8, 1913)

From the indispensable Tablet Magazine:
"Schwartz ... became a central figure in the emerging group of New York intellectuals who would come into their own in the 1940s, but his writing was palpably different from theirs. Most of them were Jewish, but they showed little interest in their Jewishness, except for their urge to leave it behind. Marxist theory and the appeal of Western culture helped make them universalists, quickening their flight from their immigrant beginnings. Their facility with ideas typically made them critics rather than poets or novelists. Personal writing held little appeal for them, at least until they began to look back years later. During the Depression it seemed an indulgence, even an embarrassment. It could only drag them back to the poverty and, as they saw it, the cultural poverty of their family backgrounds.

"For Delmore Schwartz, what lay behind him was everything. His family history, and especially his Jewishness, was the medium that would help him fathom the enigma of who he was. His most ambitious work was a failed book-length autobiographical poem called Genesis. No writer believed less in the Emersonian vision of personal freedom, with its faith in the individual’s power of self-making. In one of his short plays, titled Shenandoah, Schwartz derided the notion that “a man/ Creates his life ex nihilo.” Instead, he took up Freud’s exploration of the family romance, which fed his own bleak sense that family was destiny. He never tired of musing on the cultural contradictions of his own name and the burden it placed on him. In Shenandoah, the mock-tragic verse play, his 25-year-old alter ego, Shenandoah Fish, is transported back to the scene of his own bris, the moment when he, at eight days old, received his impossible name. He blames his parents for their eagerness to gain a foothold in the gentile world while at the same time being tone deaf to its language and culture. The incongruous name came to stand for his divided being, at once comically native and ethnic."

Sammy Davis Jr. (December 8, 1925)

I don't really know anything about Sammy Davis, Jr. except that he belonged to the "Rat Pack," Las Vegas entertainment circle with Frank Sinatra at the center, and he converted to Judaism for what appear to have been not-very-religious reasons. He was also a Republican at times, so evidently he didn't convert in a totally cultural way.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ira Gershwin (December 6, 1896)

George and Ira Gershwin

Ira Gershwin was the lyricist for many of his famous brother George's songs. He also collaboraed with Kurt Weill and Moss Hart on Lady in the Dark, with Jerome Kern, and with Harold Arlen. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for Of Thee I Sing.

George and Ira Gershwin were raised as Jews in New York, but though their Jewishness is widely known and always included in their biographies, I've found nothing indicating that they recognized direct Jewish influence or inspiration for their work. Why were so many Jews successful in creating the American brand of theater music and so many popular songs of the early and mid-20th century? I've also never seen a plausible explanation. It just happened!

Marty Peretz (December 6, 1938)

Here's a real antihero! As far as I’m concerned the following sentence from GAWKER summarizes this guy: “Martin Peretz is an obscenely wealthy moral cripple who owns the New Republic.”

Peretz married a very rich woman when he was in his 20s, and bought influence and access to power in various ways, eventually using the New Republic to further his ends. While he did hire accomplished left-wing editors to run the magazine, his contribution seems to have mainly been curmudgeonly comment becoming more and more grumpy and neocon over the years. I can’t imagine why three or four major publications devoted huge amounts of space to him in December and January of last year, but they did. Hero or anti-hero? Who cares. Secular Jew? Yes, but who cares? What’s so great about buying your way into fame and influence?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gershom Scholem (December 5, 1897)

Gershom Scholem was a scholar of Jewish mysticism. In one of his books he said that you could study the history of Jewish mystics and the Kabbalah without being religious yourself, and this was his approach. I find it memorable. His numerous books and articles, based on his wide knowledge of history and languages, made an enormous difference in the perception and scholarship of Jewish history and culture. I have read and enjoyed many of them, most famous of which is his long biography Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah.

Before Scholem's works were published, scholars were in a weird kind of denial about Jewish mystics, because the scholars themselves were trying to invent a sort of sanitized history of Judaism, making it respectable to the rational 19th century views they themselves held. (Maybe this is an exaggeration, but there's a grain of truth in it. Anyway I find many of those pre-Scholem scholars deadly dull!) He founded the entire field of study of Jewish mystics, and his books are fundamental.

Scholem's autobiography, From Berlin to Jerusalem: Memories of My Youth, tells the really compelling story of how he became a scholar of Jewish mysticism as well as being an early Zionist and one of the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As an adolescent, he found life in Germany uncomfortable and untenable because of the anti-Jewish climate throughout the society, especially in academia, and he committed himself to earn a doctorate and then go to Jerusalem. Obviously he wrote after the Holocaust, so he had hindsight, but the foresight that he demonstrated was clearly unusual and penetrating. His friendship with Walter Benjamin was full of contradictions, as Benjamin wasn't as forward-looking.

Calvin Trillin (December 5, 1935)

Calvin Trillin does some of the funniest food writing I've ever encountered, while still really talking about food. Although he refers to his Jewish background from time to time, I've never thought about him as a particularly Jewish writer. Like me, he's from the Midwest, although unlike me, he's a very-long-term resident of New York and his writing is quite New York-centered, especially when he's reminding the New Yorkers that the rest of the country exists. I loved his books about his wife Alice and the way she tried to get him not to eat 12 meals a day, or however many it was.

An interviewer from Forward once asked him "Would you say yours is a Jewish sense of humor?"

Trillin answered: "All of me is Jewish. You get a lot of theories about Jews deflecting pain through humor. I don’t know about that. I think there is sort of an irony built into the faith. Even in the Talmud where they argue 'maybe' and 'but on the other hand,' that I always found funny."

In the same interview, he described how he discovered he could be funny: "We were studying that section of the Bible where it says, 'If I forget thee o Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning and let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.' I was kind of a shy little boy. I think I was in the sixth grade, and I suddenly got up and said, 'If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning,' and I had my right hand dangling by my side. And then I said, 'Wet my tongue kweave to duh woof of my mouf.' That won me over to comedy, and, if you can have an epiphany in a non-Christian school, I had an epiphany."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Arny Feldman

Happy Birthday to my brother Arny! I remember the day he was born, a bleak, cold day in December, and how happy my father was.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Etta Cone (November 30, 1870)

Etta Cone collected her first Matisse and Picasso paintings during a trip to Paris in 1905. The Matisse shown above was one of many in her immense lifetime collection, now on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art. At the time of the first modern art purchase, she was under the influence of the Stein family: Gertrude and her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife Sally, all of them intense art patrons and collectors. She had an intense friendship with Gertrude Stein (who knows how intense?) which was excised from history later, probably to please Alice B. Toklas.

Throughout her life, Etta Cone and her sister Claribel Cone (whom I wrote about earlier this month) continued to create an amazing collection of modern art, though she handled it in a very modest and private way. In The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone, author Mary Gabriel documents the somewhat unequal relationship of the two Cone sisters, who are now recognized as visionaries in the early appreciation of modern art.

Though not religious, and not active in Baltimore's Jewish community, Etta had some vague Jewish identity, and once wrote to Gertrude Stein: “Happy New Year to you, you heathen." *

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835)

Samuel Langhorne Clemens -- that's Mark Twain to most of us --belongs on my list of heroes for two reasons:
  • First, because Huckleberry Finn so perfectly highlights what is wrong with bigotry.
  • Second because upon meeting the famous Jewish author he (allegedly) said: “I wanted to meet you because I'm told that I'm the American Sholom Aleichem.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Stefan Zweig (Nov. 28, 1881)

Stefan Zweig's autobiography The World of Yesterday depicts the vanished world of Vienna 100 years ago. Jews were a major factor in the intellectual life in that famous era, and he describes it with painful awareness that the Nazis had destroyed everything he cherished. He also documents his experiences as a pacifist during World War I, and other elements of his life as a highly successful and rewarded author. Soon after writing the book, in exile, deprived of his success and of the Europe he had valued, he and his wife committed suicide in despair.

I've read some of his stories, the autobiography, and his novel “Beware of Pity.” The latter explored an interesting side of what it meant to be Jewish at the time, through depiction of a Jew who has tried to repudiate his background, but suffers for his pretensions. The focus of the book is on a rather unimaginative officer who can't resist an overdeveloped sense of honor. Zweig's works can at times seem dated, but at times also offer really interesting insights into the past. Recently, a number of his books have been republished and readership, which declined for many years, has increased.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Leonard Woolf (November 25, 1880)

From a review of a biography of Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning in the Guardian:
"The centre of the mystery is why Virginia Stephen, who shared the conventional, mild anti-semitism of pre-Great War, upper-middle-class England, married 'a penniless Jew' who looked like an Old Testament prophet. ...

"There is a good deal to be learnt about multiculturalism from examining Woolf's early life, for the Woolfs were assimilated to the extent that his father was a QC and Leonard was educated at St Paul's and Trinity, Cambridge, where he was elected to the Apostles, the secret society then in its golden age, including as members GE Moore, Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes.

"Though part of the English establishment, Leonard maintained a relatively uncomplicated Jewish identity (perhaps by refusing to take personally anti-semitic remarks made by TS Eliot, Harold Nicolson and his wife). This had nothing to do with the religion of his fathers, for he was, like his fellow Apostles, a militant atheist. His grandfather, Benjamin, had already discarded Orthodoxy in favour of the Reform movement and joined a Mayfair synagogue."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jews and Vegetarians

Today's Forward has an article about Jewish vegetarianism, going back to “The Theory of Vegetarianism” published in Russia in 1884 by I.B. Levinsohn. Later, Yiddish activists even wrote and sang ”The Vegetarian Hymn.”

The main subject of the article is a vegetarian advocate named Fania Lewando, who wrote “Vegetarish-Dietisher Kokhbukh,” that is, “Vegetarian Dietetic Cookbook.” The book was published in Vilna in 1938; it's taken a long time, but along with some of the original colorful illustrations, a translation of the work is scheduled for publication next spring.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

George Eliot (November 22, 1819)

George Eliot (real name: Mary Anne Evans) was author of a book that should be fascinating to modern, secular Jews: Daniel Deronda. I found the novel readable and intriguing and, it seemed to me, ahead of its time. The Jewish elements in the novel still seem controversial now, as they did when it was published in 1876. Eliot's interest in Jews and the beginnings of Zionism extended beyond the book; she later wrote an essay against antisemitism. Daniel Deronda was made into a mini-series that was shown on Masterpiece Theater several years ago.

According to a review in the Guardian:
"Deronda was the first of Eliot's novels to be set in her own period, the late 19th century, and in it she took on what was a highly unusual contemporary theme: the position of Jews in British and European society and their likely prospects. The eponymous hero is an idealistic young aristocrat who comes to the rescue of a young Jewish woman and in his attempts to help her find her family is drawn steadily deeper into the Jewish community and the ferment of early Zionist politics.

"Their appearance in the book was as unwelcome to some of her readers as it is to some of the characters. While the novel's Lady Mallinger bemoans Daniel's 'going mad in this way about the Jews,' Eliot's friend John Blackwood noted upon publication: 'The Jews should be the most interesting people in the world, but even her magic pen cannot at once make them a popular element in a Novel.' Many years later, FR Leavis called for the Jewish sections of the novel to be cut out completely, leaving a country-house romance to be called Gwendolen Harleth, after the fatally self-absorbed gentile who falls for Deronda."
In the novel, the character named Mordecai is particularly interesting. Mordecai, according to the Guardian article is a "visionary intellectual." He is "a complex character with both sympathetic and unsympathetic sides and reveals a sometimes overwhelmingly detailed fascination with the minutiae of Judaism, its religious practices, culture and literature. The fact that Daniel becomes Mordecai's disciple and agrees to carry on his work to seek a homeland for the Jews after his death -- an idea presumably as baffling to Eliot's readers as it is to most of the book's gentile characters -- also shows a real commitment to the subject by the author."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jewish Book Month (November 21-December 21, 2011)

Jewish Book Month has been celebrated the month before Chanukkah since 1940. When I think about Jewish books, one institution that comes to mind is the National Yiddish Book Center, and its founder Aaron Lansky. The photo above is from my visit there in 2003.

From the Center's website:
"In 1980, when Aaron Lansky issued his first public appeal for old Yiddish books, it was estimated that only 70,000 Yiddish volumes were extant and recoverable. He rescued that many within six months. Today the National Yiddish Book Center’s collection totals over a million volumes, with the core collection stored in our state-of-the-art repository and 11,000 titles available online from our Virtual Yiddish Library. The Book Center also sponsors public events, internships and a wide range of cultural and educational programs designed to 'open up' the treasures of Yiddish culture for a new generation."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Myla Goldberg (November 19, 1971)

I read Goldberg’s novel Bee Season for two different book clubs – both liked it! Her use of Jewish material in a very strange context was interesting. About her identity as a Jewish American she said:
“The diversity and vitality of American Jewish practice today means that I can be a secular humanist married to a non-Jewish atheist and still be part of a vibrant Jewish community that embraces my family. For such a long-lived, established religion, Judaism has remained steadfastly and impressively committed to its founding spirit of questioning, which has led to our current freedoms in belief, philosophy and practice. On a spiritual level, that means that eschewing a traditional deistic God concept in favor of a humanistic one hasn’t made me a pariah: I can derive inspiration and meaning from the limitless potential of collective humanity and still feel welcome within the larger Jewish community. Though my Jewish identity informs my writing, it does not define my writing, nor do I feel the need to put a label on myself to find readers, as previous generations of Jewish writers may have felt compelled to do. I find the whole Chosen People thing outdated and distasteful, nor do I think that we have a monopoly on any particular set of values, but there are some fantastic ideas contained in Judaism that we can and should offer in our engagement with the world. We find ourselves in an extraordinary place and time in Jewish history, with unprecedented freedom to define who we are and who we wish to be. We should strive to engage the world with the same qualities of open mindedness and empathy that have led to our own success.” – Moment Magazine Symposium on what it means to be Jewish

Friday, November 18, 2011

Naomi Chazan (November 18, 1946)

Naomi Chazan, former Israeli Knesset member and outspoken human rights activist is currently the head of the New Israel Fund, an organization dedicated to promoting equality and social justice for all Israelis. Through grassroots organizations, NIF leads many efforts to keep Israel a multi-ethnic, tolerant, democratic society in the face of many trends to the contrary.

One of her recent causes is fighting the boycott law, which would institute punishments for Israelis who engage in a boycott of the settlements. She wrote: “The Boycott Law is in some ways the most problematic in terms of basic rights in a democratic society. It touches on fundamental freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of association and certainly also freedom to protest. The law rules out any possibility of protest. From the point of view of democracy, this is a wrong that almost beggars description. Every person who, for reasons of conscience, does not buy products made in the settlements becomes a criminal. What have we come to? At the constitutional level, we are simply starting to unravel the last of the rules of the game. It’s not a flashing yellow light anymore − it’s very red.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pierre Nora (November 17, 1931)

Pierre Nora is an important writer and editor for major French publishers and a member of l’Académie Française, and he has played a major role in French intellectual life. His most famous accomplishment was as editor of the series titled “Lieux de Mémoire” from the publisher Gallimard. I wrote about him here: French Secular Intellectual Jews.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lee Strasberg (November 17, 1901)

Lee Strasberg, actor, director, and coach to many famous stars, was one of the founders of the Group Theater with Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford in 1931. He later headed the Actor's Studio. From the Actors' Studio history:
In 1948, Lee Strasberg was asked by Elia Kazan to join the Studio as one of its teachers and in 1951 he became its Artistic Director, a position he maintained until his death in 1982. Strasberg’s deep understanding of the Stanislavski System and the reformulations of Vakhtangov, together with his own personal discoveries and improvements on the acting process, provided the foundation on which the Actors Studio based its work.

At the same time the work of Elia Kazan as a theatre and film director demonstrated in the most powerful way the extraordinary results of the deep and personal process of acting espoused by the Actors Studio.
Strasberg's family immigrated to New York early in his life. His first acting experience was in the Yiddish theater, and he is well-known as a director and as the influential leader of the Actors' Studio and its predecessor the and the most important American proponent of method acting. He was also important for his influence on Hollywood actors -- especially on Marilyn Monroe; the photo above shows them together.

According to an article in the Jerusalem Post, Kazan, in his autobiography, wrote that Strasberg "carried with him the aura of a prophet, a magician, a witch doctor, a psychoanalyst, and a feared father of a Jewish home.... [H]e was the force that held the thirty-odd members of the theatre together, and made them 'permanent.'"

Monday, November 14, 2011

Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900)

Aaron Copland's music created a special mythological America. He wrote of farms, cowboys on the frontier, Lincoln, and "the common man." He borrowed tunes from 19th century American music, New York jazz, and Mexican folk music for use in symphonies and ballets that seem overwhelmingly American. Maybe he defined what American sounds like.

Critic Robert Goldblum writes:
"Aaron Copland grew up in the cramped quarters of Brooklyn, the child of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, but in his music he lit out for the territory. The architecture of city life — Deco skyscrapers and imposing Beaux-Arts museums — defined his early life, but in his music he sought sanctuary in the prairie."
According to a PBS story: "As a spokesman for the advancement of indigenous American music, Copland made great strides in liberating it from European influence."

Understanding how Copland transformed himself is mysterious.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Claribel Cone (November 14, 1864)

Sisters Claribel and Etta Cone of Baltimore were friends of Gertrude Stein -- the three are shown in the photo at right. The Cones had an independent income from a family business, but Claribel worked as a medical doctor and successful researcher. According to the Jewish Women's Archive:
First in her class [at the Women’s Medical College of Baltimore], she graduated in 1890 and undertook postgraduate study at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She won one of five internships at the Philadelphia Blockley Hospital for the Insane. On returning to Baltimore in 1893, Claribel Cone announced that she preferred medical research and teaching to clinical practice. She secured a position as a lecturer in hygiene at the Women’s Medical College of Baltimore. Appointed full professor in 1895, she taught pathology at the college until it closed in 1910.
From Gertrude and her brother Leo, Claribel and Etta Cone learned about the breathtaking modern art that was being produced in Paris a century ago, and became splendid collectors with amazing taste. They were quite friendly with some of the artists of the era as well, especially Matisse. Their collections are now in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Cone sisters' lives and accomplishments as collectors are documented in Mary Gabriel's book The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone. Gabriel emphasizes their originality and imaginative recognition of the great artists of their time, and makes the case that being women caused them to be overlooked by history (as did Gertrude Stein's dismissal of them in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas).

The same article mentions "Though described by a nephew as a “freethinker,” Claribel Cone was quite conscious of her identity as a Jew."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Barbara Boxer (November 11, 1940)

Barbara Boxer doesn't play up her Jewish identity, but also doesn't hide it. For me, she's a highly admirable figure because of her consistent stands on many issues that matter. If being Jewish motivates her consistent support of high-quality Supreme Court nominees (like Sotomayor), drives her to favor individual liberties and feminism, or makes her get high marks from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, that's great. But I'm not sure it really makes sense to judge cause and effect like that. I wish Judaism caused everyone to agree with me politically but it doesn't seem to work that way, does it Eric Cantor?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jacob Epstein (November 10, 1880)

Jacob Epstein, born and brought up in New York, became a thoroughly British avant-garde sculptor, a leader in 20th century modern art. His work appears in every collection from his era -- here, "The Rock Drill" from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Epstein and two other early 20th century giants inspired the following limerick:
I don't like the family Stein,
There is Gert, and there's Ep, and there's Ein,
Gert's poems are bunk,
Ep's statues are junk,
And nobody understands Ein.
I've already written about Gert and Ein!

To be serious about Epstein here is a summary from the Courtauld Institute:
"Jacob Epstein ... was born in America, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who ran a successful business on the lower East side of New York. He spent the formative years of his childhood drawing the exotic, down-at-heels crowds which gathered from all over the world in the city’s poorer districts. Throughout his life, he remained fascinated by the variety of human races and traditions, looking to distant countries for his artistic inspiration.

"The caricature of Epstein as iconoclast, wreaking havoc on traditional art, scarcely fits his own explanation of his work. Repeatedly, he asserted his enormous respect for tradition. Only, his definition of tradition departed from the norm, in that he rejected the development of European art since the Renaissance."

Karl Shapiro (November 10, 1913)

Here, from the Poetry Foundation website, is part of a poem by Karl Shapiro:

I Am an Atheist Who Says His Prayers
I am an atheist who says his prayers.

I am an anarchist, and a full professor at that. I take the loyalty oath.

I am a deviate. I fondle and contribute, backscuttle and brown, father of three.

I stand high in the community. My name is in Who’s Who. People argue about my modesty.

I drink my share and yours and never have enough. I free-load officially and unofficially.

A physical coward, I take on all intellectuals, established poets, popes, rabbis, chiefs of staff.

I am a mystic. I will take an oath that I have seen the Virgin. Under the dry pandanus, to the scratching of kangaroo rats, I achieve psychic onanism. My tree of nerves electrocutes itself.

I uphold the image of America and force my luck. I write my own ticket to oblivion.

I am of the race wrecked by success. The audience brings me news of my death. I write out of boredom, despise solemnity. The wrong reason is good enough for me.

I am of the race of the prematurely desperate. In poverty of comfort I lay gunpowder plots. I lapse my insurance.

I am the Babbitt metal of the future. I never read more than half of a book. But that half I read forever.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Neil Gaiman ( November 10, 1960)

I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman and his weird myth-based world, especially of the books American Gods and Anansi Boys. I would say there's nothing at all noticeably Jewish about any work of his that I've read, but I have read in various sources that he identifies with his Jewish ancestors.

Gaiman was brought up in England. His parents were not practicing Jews; rather, they were Scientologists. However, Gaiman emphatically says he's not a scientologist. He immigrated to the US some time ago, and lives in Minnesota.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Gaiman elaborated on his background:
"It was when Gaiman was 12 that he first came across a seam of mythology unlike anything his childhood collections of Greek and Roman tales had yet exposed him to. That was the year he got to be 'really Jewish', as he puts it. For this pre-bar mitzvah year, he was sent each weekend to stay with observant cousins in Wembley. 'I had this wonderful bar mitzvah teacher. He was a cantor, Reb Meyer Lev. He was very, very into all of the stories of Jewish mythology. I was the kind of kid who, given the opportunity, would derail the stuff I was meant to be learning and get him on to mythological subjects. And he, bless him, would always go there.

"'Which meant that in my mid-twenties, when I was writing myths and writing comics, I suddenly discovered that I knew all this incredibly obscure stuff, I mean way beyond imagining, and it was marvellous. And I'd write stuff, and people'd come up to me, and say, OK, the thing about Adam having three wives - marvellous stuff.'"
And from another interview:
"Gaiman acknowledges there is little that is particularly Jewish about his life in the United States. 'For me, the funny and the weird thing about being Jewish in the US is that in America they only have room to put you in one box or another. So, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show gets to be Jewish, I'm English and so that puts me in the English box.'

"But he does think that Judaism features in his writing, 'because fundamentally the perspective on almost all of my fiction, particularly something big in Sandman, is 'outsidery'; being part of a culture but also being part of the 'other'."
Very interesting!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

S. An-Sky (November 8, 1863)

S. An-Sky, born Shloyme Zanvel Rappaport, was a writer, photographer, and collector of Shtetl history, folklore, and artifacts. His most famous work is the folk-based play "The Dybbuck," which is still performed and re-interpreted.

In 1912-1914 An-Sky visited Jewish towns in Russia, taking photos, collecting stories, looking at synagogue record books, and generally preserving the culture that has subsequently been destroyed.

The photo shows a scene from the 1920 performance of the Dybbuck by the Vilna Jewish Theatre Group.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Natalie Zemon Davis (November 8, 1928)

Natalie Zemon Davis is a historian who changed history as we see it. Instead of writing about boring powerful white rich men, she looked at the lives of highly ordinary people -- before that became the norm. Or to put it another way "she has been especially concerned to get at the lives and values of peasants, artisans, and women, and to analyze their relation to other social groups and to power, property, and authority." *

I've really enjoyed several of Davis's books about a variety of topics, especially Women on the Margins, which includes a chapter on Gluckl of Hamlin, the first Jewish woman to write an autobiography. Davis's book The Return of Martin Guerre, which she wrote in the 1980s, was made into a well-known French movie with Gérard Depardieu. Besides writing, she has been a feminist activist and an advocate for women in academia.

The Jewish Women's archive characterizes Davis as what I would think of as an ideal secular Jew: "While Davis’s work has not been centered on Jewish issues, she has explored Jewish subjects in her research and cited her Jewish background as a factor shaping her identity as a historian. She recalled that feelings of being an outsider in the majority culture prompted her curiosity about social construction and identity. As a Jew and a woman, Davis gravitated toward exposing and bringing to life the histories of those groups often suppressed in traditional historical narratives."

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ruth Handler (November 4, 1916)

Ruth Handler was brought up in a Jewish family in Denver. She and her husband had a toy furniture business during World War II. After the war, the Handlers "took their two teenagers -- Barbara and Ken -- on a trip to Europe .... There, they saw a doll that looked like an adult woman, vastly different from the baby dolls most little girls owned. Ruth was inspired. Three years later, Mattel's version, Barbie, would debut, with a wardrobe of outfits that could be purchased separately. In 1960, the Handlers took Mattel public, with a valuation of $10 million ($60.3 million in 2003 dollars). It was on its way to the Fortune 500, and Barbie quickly became an icon, with ever-changing wardrobe and career options that mirrored women's changing aspirations." --From

In the photo: my Mona Lisa Barbie. This is my first -- and last -- Barbie doll in my whole life. I guess. Unless they make a Leonardo Ken with a paintbrush or something. Tablet magazine recently wrote up these art-inspired Barbie dolls that appeal to adults, not pre-teens. They say: "Though she was an immediate hit, Barbie was long maligned by intellectuals for her anatomical and political incorrectness. But now Handler’s creation is finally enjoying a post-modernist, post-feminist bump. The doll who has been toyed with by so many artists—sometimes lovingly, sometimes sadistically—is now a museum piece. The original 1959 Barbie Teen Age Fashion Model, known as Barbie No. 1, was recently acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which will feature her (and Ken) in its upcoming show 'California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.'"

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hero or Anti-Hero?

It's been a year since I published the first birthday commemoration on this blog. Before that, there were a few introductory posts. While thinking about the approximately 300 individuals I have written about, I've developed my ideas about who might be meaningful to secular Jews like me. I've also identified quite a few additional subjects for future blog posts. In a few cases, I have thought of more to say about those I discussed in the last year. I will not repost any entries unless I want to add something to them, however.

So this blog will continue until I run out of heroic figures -- and anti-heroic ones.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sholem Asch (November 1, 1880)

Prolific and sometimes controversial, Asch is one of many Yiddish writers that I've never read. His earlier works appear to depict many social and economic levels of pre-World War I Jewry, though he is said to have had little real sympathy for the poor and for political movements that were attempting to create a better life for them. Later, just as the Nazis were coming to power, his exploration of the life of Jesus and early Christianity were intensely disliked by his Jewish audience. The Forward, where he had published before, refused to accept any more of his works. I read about him in the YIVO encyclopedia.

Monday, October 31, 2011

After Weegee

The Forward today has a fascinating review of the book After Weegee by Daniel Morris. The author, David Kaufman, also mentions several other recent books on photojournalism. He starts by quoting an observation: "there are two kinds of photographers: 'Jewish and goyish.'" Among the Jews: Weegee, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank; that is "funky photographers." Non-Jews like Weston and Ansel Adams "go out in the woods."

One of the themes of Morris's book is a defense of photojournalism against the criticisms of Susan Sontag. At the core of the matter, according to Kaufman:
"For Morris, every picture tells a story because it is placed in a web of implication. The photojournalists he covers do not let their pictures drift. And because their subjects are social and political, their implications are both political and ethical. Morris sees these photographers’ identification with the urban poor as a secularized but nevertheless Jewish demand for justice. He can do this in part because the specific photographers he writes about do so. Despite what Sontag might claim, these guys do not have an interest in the status quo. They are interested — as secular Jews — in changing it.

"The photographers whom Morris discusses demonstrate their Yiddishkeit in still another way. Morris argues in several places that their documentary impulse follows the biblical injunction to remember. These photographers are witnesses and recorders. In a very real and basic way, their photo essays serve as Yizkor books."
I've heard lectures about Jews in modern photography, but none of the content seemed to make any point about what they might have had in common or whether their Jewish identity was related to their artistic choices. The idea expressed here is that the 20th century Jewish interest in social justice is reflected in these Jewish photographers. Their choices of subject matter made a difference by highlighting social inequality. Kaufman writes of the photographers discussed in the work: "because their subjects are social and political, their implications are both political and ethical. Morris sees these photographers’ identification with the urban poor as a secularized but nevertheless Jewish demand for justice."

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fanny Brice (October 29, 1891)

I remember listening to Fanny Brice on the radio as “Baby Snooks” when I was a small child. She seemed to mean more to my parents than just being the voice of a silly adult pretending to be a precocious baby. Brice, of course, was the subject of the musical "Funny Girl," but I've never seen it (sorry, can't stand Barbra S.)

So why was she so famous? For her comedy routines? For her notorious marriages and life style? Her criminal husband that she was more or less faithful to? Her influence on later female comedians?

According to Jewish Virtual Library:
"Born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1891, the third of four children of immigrant saloon-owners, Fania Borach decided early in life to become a performer. Historian Barbara Grossman notes that in an era in which entertainment was typically based on ethnic stereotypes -the drunken Irishman, the ignorant Pole, the Yiddish-accented greenhorn - Brice's 'Semitic looks' slotted her into Jewish roles. Despite her efforts to succeed as a serious actress and singer, Brice - who spoke no Yiddish - rose to stardom performing comedy with a Yiddish accent."

I suspect that she's nearly forgotten today, except to those who love the musical.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kibbutz Degania Alef founded (October 28, 1910)

This is what the pioneers wrote:
“On the 28th of October 1910, there arrived at Umm Juni, ten men and two women. We came to establish an independent settlement of Hebrew laborers, on national land, a collective settlement with neither exploiters nor exploited – a commune.”
Also from the Kibbutz website about the founding pioneers:
"The will to revive the people in the Land of Israel as a working people, returning to nature and to the tilling of the land, living from the fruits of its own labor with neither exploiters nor exploited, brought them to recognize that this could only be realized through communal living."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lee Krasner (October 27, 1908)

For a time Lee Krasner was mainly known as the wife of Jackson Pollock, but recently, finally, has been recognized for her own substantial accomplishment as an artist. Image: Krasner's "Portrait in Green," 1966.

Krasner was raised in an observant Jewish immigrant family in New York, educated at public schools and institutions that provided such wide opportunity to immigrant children – Cooper Union, National Institute of Design, the WPA. Recognition came late: a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was six months after her death at age 76.

Roberto Benigni (October 27, 1952)

Not everyone agrees with me, but I loved the movie "Life is Beautiful." I saw it before it was widely released, so I had no pre-formed ideas about it -- in fact, I didn't even know it was going to be about the Holocaust. And my reaction was to feel as if it showed me the horrors through a new lens, offering a perspective that was valuable and amazingly fresh after so many other treatments of the imponderable subject. The negative reaction of others to this film has always therefore puzzled me.

I also admire Begnini's other films that I've seen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Leon Trotsky (October 26, 1879)

There were definitely a lot of non-Jewish Jews at one time who regarded Lev Davidovich Bronstein, a.k.a. Leon Trotsky, as a hero. I think they belonged to an earlier generation. Is anyone still fighting about whether Lenin or Trotsky was right about whatever they disagreed about? Search me.

I chose the image above for its seeming hero worship. It's from a site called Deviant Art. The site mostly has rather strange, sci-fi type imagery.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Martin Gilbert (October 25, 1936)

Martin Gilbert's books and atlases are indispensable for studying Jewish history, so I think he's a hero no matter what his personal religious views or practices.

Gilbert is also the official biographer of Churchill. Some titles: Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction; Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship; and The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Georges Bizet (October 25, 1838)

Was Bizet Jewish? No. His wife and some of his collaborators, yes. About Bizet, however: "Many have claimed Georges Bizet himself was Jewish. Much has been made of his dramatic use of the augmented second — a melodic interval typical in Jewish music, but not so prominent in classical music — in this opera’s [Carmen's] ever-present motif for Fate. His ancestors may or may not have been converts, but the composer himself was baptized at the age of 2. Still, his attitude towards Christianity was far from respectful. As a student at the Conservatoire assigned to write a Mass, he submitted a short comic opera instead. When reprimanded, he offered to write a pagan service as a compromise. After Wagner published the odious essay 'Jews in Music,' he defended Wagner as a composer but dissociated himself from the antisemitic baggage. Many of Bizet’s collaborators were Jewish, and his wife was half-Jewish." *

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sarah Bernhardt (October 23, 1844)

Sarah Bernhardt's mother was Jewish. Probably. Bernhardt seems to have been brought up and lived her life as a Catholic. I'm not sure it's reasonable to count her as Jewish unless you have some unpleasant racial or racist theory in mind.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Laughing in the Darkness"

Tonight we saw the film "Laughing in the Darkness," a documentary about the life and work of Sholem Aleichem (IMDB entry here). The Michigan Theater showing was advertised among the beer taps on the bar at Red Hawk where we had dinner first -- I thought the juxtaposition was amusing so I took the photo above.

The film was very intense: it included interviews with a number of heavy hitters of Yiddish literary scholarship as well as with Bel Kaufman, Sholem Aleichem's granddaughter, now 100 years old. The development of Yiddish literature within the constantly changing environment of Jewish life in Eastern Europe was a predominant topic. A large collection of photos and a few moving pictures from shtetls and Russian cities provided very interesting visuals -- though sometimes the Ken Burns effect was exploded into a dizzying zoom around the street scenes and vivid faces of the subjects.

The end of the film summarized the continuing reaction to Sholem Aleichem's work in Soviet Russia, Israel, and the US. Interestingly, our friend Baruch, who was with us at the film, said that as a young man in the Soviet Union he read Sholem Aleichem in Russian translation, which was his only window on Jewish culture. This corresponded to the information in the film.

Of course the musical and movie of "Fiddler on the Roof" was noted as major evidence of recent American love of Sholem Aleichem. The scholars summarized how American Jews first turned their backs on Yiddish culture and the works of Sholem Aleichem and then revived their interest in a search for Jewish identity.

Art Buchwald (October 20, 1925)

Long ago, I read Art Buchwald's columns in the St.Louis Post Dispatch. He wrote amusing letters about his life in Paris. Later he wrote satiric columns from Washington. At the end of his life, he had a terrible illness which was expected to kill him, but he survived to write about one more interesting experience with humor and insight.

All that time, and I never knew he was Jewish. Maybe it wasn't that important to him.

A quote from Art Buchwald's “Hunting Down the Secular Humanists"
"...What makes them so dangerous is that Secular Humanists look just like you and me. Some of them could be your best friends without you knowing that they are Humanists. They could come into your house, play with your children, eat your food and even watch football with you on television, and you'd never know they have read Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, and Huckleberry Finn....
"No one is safe until Congress sets up an Anti-Secular Humanism Committee to get at the rot. Witnesses have to be called, and they have to name names.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Henri Bergson (October 18, 1859)

Henri Bergson was born to Jewish parents in France, but became an original non-Jewish moral philosopher (famous in his day, winning the Nobel Prize, now basically forgotten). He said he would have become a Catholic except for the persecution of Jews that he witnessed at the end of his life. He died in Paris – where he had lived his entire life -- in 1941. Although he was offered a sort of honorary non-Jewish status to protect him from the persecutions that were about to occur, he refused the "honor" and stood in line to get a Jewish identity card just a few days before his death. Maybe that makes him an unusual secular Jewish hero.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Arthur Miller (October 17, 1915)

Arthur Miller's autobiography Timebends chronicles his rather typical Jewish childhood and early education in New York and his development as one of the most highly regarded American playwrights. And he married Marilyn Monroe.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Nathanael West (October 17, 1903)

"In West, Jewishness is subtext or invisible." * Critics dispute the Jewishness of various themes and characters in West's novels (except for the antisemitic portrayals he sometimes produced). He changed his name and hid his Russian-Jewish immigrant background.

Miss Lonelyhearts is a novel about the writer of a newspaper advice column. The Day of the Locust is about Hollywood and the movie industry. To find a Jewish consciousness in West, some critics point out that Jews were involved in writing advice columns (Abraham Cahan's Bintel Brief...) and in running Hollywood. This is the kind of overinterpretation that I think of as wishful thinking.

I enjoyed these novels. However, I'm interested in the potential influence of his background on West even if he reacted by changing his name and becoming an antisemite. He's claimed as an American Jewish writer. I'm not sure what that means in his case.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Ralph Lauren (October 14, 1939)

When I feel like splurging on clothes, Lauren is my favorite brand. It’s a commonplace that Bronx-born Ralph Liftshitz morphed into the high priest of aging preppy fashion, and lots of serious fashion commentators like to speculate about how being Jewish specifically positioned him to get into the mind of American women who want to look classy (or whatever it is they want). I don't take that very seriously. I think attributing Jewish motives to every success is an exaggeration. I just like the clothes.

Of course his high-end fashion is not what I'm talking about:

-- image from current Ralph Lauren web magazine.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sacha Baron Cohen (October 13, 1971)

“In a rare interview as himself (and not one of his characters) Sacha told NPR’s Terry Gross that he didn’t believe that the people Borat encountered agreed with his racist statements just to be polite, and even if that was their motivation, he was concerned."

Sacha Baron Cohen's travesties of racists from many countries have fooled Americans into making some amazingly racist statements, and his many assumed characters made him a popular comedian on TV a few years ago. He has a quite serious side as well, reflected in his work:
“‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference,’ Sacha, a Cambridge University history graduate said, quoting British historian Ian Kershaw. 'It’s that indifference that’s quite dangerous.'

"Sacha, through his satirical characters, and Erran [Baron Cohen], through his musical fusion, are pushing back against prejudice, which has played a powerful role shaping Baron Cohen family history. The two brothers are members of the fourth generation of Baron Cohens, which also includes their first cousins Ash, a Hollywood director of small-budget independent films such as Bang and This Girl’s Life, and Simon, a prominent Cambridge psychologist promulgating controversial theories about sex differences and the brain.” *

Lenny Bruce (October 13, 1925)

Censored! That was Lenny Bruce. His shocking language had an impact that is unimaginable in the current world where the bleeps on TV don’t even disguise which taboo word is coming out of the mouth of the speaker. Even if Lenny Bruce hadn't attacked public prudery, I doubt if the rigorous avoidance of this vocabulary would have survived. However, he seems to be widely acknowledged as the originator of blue blue monologues in respectable public arenas.

One of Lenny Bruce's memorable stand-up comedy routines was titled "Jewish and Goyish." Way ahead of Woody Allen he said:
Kool Aid is Goyish. Evaporated milk is Goyish, even if Jews invented it. All Drake's Cakes are Goyish. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is Goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very Goyish. Instant potatoes - Goyish. Black cherry soda's very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is Goyish. Lime soda is very Goyish.

If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't even matter if you're Catholic; if you live in New York, you're Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you're going to be goyish even if you are Jewish. Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won't go near them. The Jack Paar Show is very Goyish.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What is Jewish Art?

In today's Tablet magazine -- "Seeing Double: A Jewish literature is easy to identify. But defining Jewish art is a task of Talmudic complexity, as a new book, Jewish Art, makes clear," a review by Adam Kirsch. The article includes a summary of some of the earlier writers who dealt with the question of what could or should make an artist "Jewish." Was it subject matter? The artist's personal history? And in some sense, did the designation suggest some hint of lack or respect for the artist as an artist?

Imagery and stereotypes about Jews are one focus of Jewish Art, written by Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver. Kirsch discusses, for example, the book's treatment of the use of Christian imagery in the World-War-II era paintings by Chagall, such as the one above.

Kirsch wrote: "For many 19th-century thinkers, the principle that Judaism was incapable of, or hostile to, visual beauty was taken for granted. In his passionately revisionist study The Artless Jew, Kalman P. Bland shows that this belief was shared by Gentiles hostile to Judaism, including Hegel and Wagner, as well as by Jews like Freud and Rosenzweig."

I found the ideas here thought-provoking, especially the discussion of the numerous abstract expressionist artists of Jewish origin. Kirsch wrote:"Perhaps, then, we would better off talking not about Jewish art, but about a Jewish way of seeing and talking and writing about art—one that situates paintings in a universe of Jewish discourse about the power and danger of the image. This concept restores primacy, in what feels like an authentically Jewish way, to the word and the interpreter, rather than leaving it with the image."

Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884)

As this Israeli stamp says, Eleanor Roosevelt was a defender of human rights. She was often ahead of her husband in championing badly-treated groups, especially Blacks, when they really needed respect and recognition from national leaders.

A review of a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt points out that early in her life, she was antisemitic, in keeping with her upper-class American background. She gradually changed her attitudes, as she did towards many minorities:
"By the time of the New Deal, she was coming around, risking criticism to meet with Jewish groups, supporting an array of Jewish causes and writing articles urging tolerance. 'It is the secret fear that the Jewish people are stronger or more able than those who still wield superior physical power over them, which brings about oppression,' she wrote in Liberty magazine. 'I believe that those nations which do not persecute are saved only by confidence in themselves and a feeling that they can still defend themselves and their own place in the world. Therefore, I am forced to the conclusion that the Jewish people though they may be in part responsible for the present situation are not as responsible as the other races who need to examine themselves and grapple with their own fears.'''