Monday, January 31, 2011

Philip Glass (January 31, 1937)

What's Jewish about Philip Glass? Probably nothing except his Lithuanian-Jewish ancestors, but I don't really know. I very much like his music, though, and find it amusing that he wrote an opera about Einstein. And he performed with Allen Ginsberg, having written music for the poem “The Wichita Vortex Sutra." Glass is currently writing an opera based on a Kafka story, The Trial, and has written one based on another of his stories. So he associates with a variety of my secular Jewish heroes.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (January 30, 1882)

It’s hard to grasp what a hero Roosevelt was to the Jews of his era. When he was elected, Jews were virtually all recent immigrants, eager to live the American Dream. The Depression threatened their future, and they (along with so many other Americans) felt that he gave it back to them.

My parents lived through the Great Depression, and they never forgot it for long. A couple of years ago, I tried to summarize what they taught me as a result of that experience -- which very much harks back to their feelings of what Roosevelt saved everyone from.

In the past 10 years [I wrote in 2008], the collective behavior of the American people was against every lesson they taught me from the Depression experience. Specifically, many borrowed huge amounts and thought it was fine to owe more than their houses were worth. They were sure home values would never decrease.

Journalists have mentioned lessons learned and forgotten from the Great Depression; not all their specifics match my memories, though. Here are the five lessons that I think my parents conveyed:
  1. Don't Waste. Save Money. Avoid Debt. Don't buy inessentials or luxuries. Use your car until you save enough cash for a new one. Only losers borrow to buy clothing and furniture. Don't throw away anything that you can use. Eat everything on your plate. Use every leftover. If you don't play with a toy any more, another child should have it. Hand-me-down clothes and used furniture are fine; when you are done with them, pass them on to someone else. If you live beyond your means, you will regret it. Your house might drop in value so you might lose it when you can't make the payments. (I thought this was the one thing that would never happen again. Ouch.)
  2. Be Grateful. If someone hires you, thank them. Don't complain if they underpay you or mistreat you -- a job is a job. If someone gives you an ugly hand-me-down that doesn't fit you, say thank you. Don't complain.
  3. Fear the Future. You might lose your job, your house, your health. Pessimism rules. Stay away from dramatic political statements or actions that can affect your getting a job (a lesson reinforced in the early 50s by McCarthyism, but activists were blacklisted earlier as well).
  4. Rely on Education. Skills are better than investments in material goods or property. A salaried profession is better than self-employment or owning a store. Working for the government is secure and desirable.
  5. Vote Democratic. See fear and gratitude. And remember FDR!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saul Alinsky (January 30, 1909)

Saul Alinsky was a founder of modern community organizing. He wrote several books on the subject, and was the head of an influential community organization in Chicago. The commitment to social justice that inspired many secular Jews in the past -- and still does, I would say -- is among my greatest criteria for choosing my heroes.

I consider it to their credit that Obama and Hillary Clinton were associated with Alinsky's group. The fact that extreme right wing nuts find that alarming just makes me like him (and them) better. Hillary Clinton received a job offer from Alinsky in 1968 when she was in college; she turned it down, though she wrote her senior thesis about him. Obama worked for an offshoot of Alinsky's group; however, Alinsky had died by the time Obama arrived in Chicago.

Alinsky, according to Marian Wright Edelman, the Children's Defense Fund leader, "was brilliant. He was working for underdogs. He was trying to empower communities, which we still need to do. He spoke plainly. He had his outrageous side, but he also had his pragmatic side. Both Hillary and Barack reflect that understanding of community-organizing strategy. Both just know how to leverage power." (Quote from "For Clinton and Obama, a Common Ideological Touchstone," Washington Post, March 25, 2007.)

I don't ordinarily use Wikipedia, but I found it interesting regarding his view of his Jewish background. According to what I found there, Alinsky considered himself to be a devout Jew until the age of 12, after which time he began to fear that his parents would force him to become a rabbi. "I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit. . . . But I'll tell you one thing about religious identity," he added. "Whenever anyone asks me my religion, I always say—and always will say—Jewish."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jerome Kern (January 27, 1885)

Would you say any of these famous songs are Jewish? -- "The Way You Look Tonight," "All The Things You Are," "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,"  "I Won't Dance," "The Last Time I Saw Paris." What about "Old Man River," as sung by Paul Robeson? Like so many of the most popular songs of the middle of the 20th century, Jerome Kern's music seems to define an American idiom. Some people go so far as to say the only really successful non-Jewish composer of the era was Cole Porter. All the explanations I've seen for this phenomenon seemed rather circular to me. But what American (secular Jew or any other stripe) could fail to love this music? Not me.

Maybe this is only a story: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein considered creating a musical based on the life of Marco Polo. Hammerstein said to Kern, “Here is a story laid in China about an Italian and told by Irishman. What kind of music are you going to write?” Kern replied, “It’ll be good Jewish music.”

For more on Jews in popular American music see "Jews & Musical Theatre: Jews hand a hand in writing nearly all the great musicals of the 1930s and '40s" and "Songs of Songs: What are the 100 greatest Jewish songs ever?"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

First Fleet arrives in Australia, January 26, 1788

Among the convicts on the first convict ship to Botany Bay near modern-day Sydney were many Jews – they can be identified because at their trials they took the oath on the Old Testament. Esther Abrahams (whose exact birthdate is unknown) may be the best-known of these Jewish convicts. She had been convicted of stealing a piece of lace, and therefore was deported on the ship. In Australia, she lived with and later married George Johnston, who was a prominent politician in the colony, and she is considered the First Lady of Australia. 

The role of Jews, especially Jewish convicts, in the colonial history of Australia is interesting – they were known to be Jews but had little religious life during the early years. The best known is Ikey Solomon, a colorful rascal who escaped prison in England (where I think he faced the death penalty) and paid his way to Australia to join his also-convicted wife. I read the original pamphlet (early 1800s) about his anti-social exploits in the Australian National Library. Quite a story!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jules Feiffer (January 26, 1929)

Humor is a big part of Jewish life and I think it's deeply embedded in secular Judaism as I embrace and invent it. Feiffer, a nonbeliver, was one of the inventors of the kind of Jewish humor I grew up with. The book of his that I remember was titled Sick, Sick, Sick. I'm afraid to check if this memory is accurate.

Jewish humor, Jewish jokes, laughter through tears, self-deprecation, and a general vision encompassing humor have been Jewish for centuries. In fact, I wonder when that started. New Yorkers would like to take credit – I give them Feiffer, but I deny any implication that they invented humor.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Paul Newman (January 26, 1925)

Paul Newman studied at Lee Strasberg’s Actor's Studio, which gave him a start in his career as an actor. Son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, he evidently seemed perfect for his role in Exodus – just Jewish enough to be a convincing hero in a blockbuster film about the founding of Israel. I think of him often when buying cookies, salsa, or spaghetti sauce, thanks to his late-life success founding Newman’s Own, the food corporation – from which the profits all really do go to charitable endeavors. And can't help also thinking of him when I imagine the Israeli pioneers at the time of the Israeli War of Independence. Just can't help it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sherwin Wine (January 25, 1928)

Sherwin Wine probably would have liked to be recognized as the head of the secular Jewish Sanhedrin. (In case you aren’t familiar with the Sanhedrin: it was the priestly ruling body in ancient Israel, as well as the historically-conscious name of a body of Jewish leaders installed by Napoleon. So it means an official ruling body of Jews – which obviously no secular Jews would recognize if it tried to come back today.)

Actually Sherwin Wine founded Humanistic Judaism as a movement in 1963. He also organized The Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969. The Society's mission is “to mobilize people to celebrate Jewish identity and culture consistent with a humanistic philosophy of life.” Based in his congregation, The Birmingham Temple, in Birmingham MI, he was the movement’s leader until his death a few years ago, but there are lots of other parallel atheist or secular Jewish organizers and organizations.

Personally, I'm a non-organizational secluar Jew. I've met people who belong to the Birmingham Temple, and  I find it interesting that he ordained other rabbis of secular Judaism, but in fact, I have more difficulty understanding organized secular Judaism than I have understanding organized religious Judaism. I don't know why you need the temple model to assemble and celebrate culture as opposed to performing religious rituals. My problem.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

George Burns (January 20, 1896)

With or without Gracie Allen, who can forget how funny George Burns could be with a straight face. He appears to have been a non-observant Jew -- that's great. Even greater: for many people he's actually God.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tu B'Shevat

In Israel, Tu B'Shevat is one of the successfully secularlized Jewish holidays that the Israeli people have developed from minor religious festivals. In Israel, even in January, spring is coming and it makes sense to think about planting trees -- unlike here, when the ground is deeply frozen and tree planting is impossible. The ancient tree-planting customs of the holiday transferred perfectly to the agricultural and reforestation commitments of the Israeli pioneers.

Besides planting trees, the Israelis celebrate by eating a wide variety of tree fruit, such as dates and raisins -- a practice introduced in the seventeenth century by one of the mystic rabbis who lived in Safed, Israel. Much earlier, the holiday had been established to set a date for taxation of trees by age -- there was a prohibition against eating fruit from trees under three years old, and this set the date when a tree's aging began. Therefore this was the perfect moment to plant a tree so it would be the maximum age allowed.

When I attended a Tu B'Shevat party during my one long stay in Israel, I realized how many things separate secular American and secular Israeli Jews. I'm aware that American religious Jews have tried to link the traditions of this holiday to environmental issues and responsibility, but that seems forced to me. And American environmentalism contrasts deeply to Israeli interest in agricultural development. Despite having made the desert bloom (and planted all those forests) the Israelis aren't really that committed to the types of environmental preservation that Americans maintain. For example, recently I read about how they are mining their sand dunes for building materials and destroying a beautiful desert environment at Arava.

Some of this history comes from "The Lesson of Tu B’Shvat: A Judaism for Every Season"

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why is "Blood Libel" an Offensive Accusation?

I have been trying to figure out why it seems excessive and inappropriate that Sarah Palin used the term "Blood Libel" to categorize the recent discussion of her rhetoric and campaign materials. I think it's because that term has not become a common metaphor, and therefore it really evokes a strong comparison to Jewish history and especially evokes the thought of murdered Jews or Jews driven from their homes with nowhere to go. This is an offensive thing to do. It shames Jews to remember the pain of their ancestors.

If Palin had said her critics were trying to crucify her, it wouldn't have been as strong, because that's a pretty over-used metaphor. The term "Blood Libel" is so unfamiliar that many newspapers have included long explanations in articles about it, consulted with specialists in Medieval Jewish history, or even dedicated entire articles to explaining it. Maybe it's occasionally been used in an extended sense from its historic one, but not commonly, agree the experts.

(Need I elaborate that the term refers to an ancient accusation from around the 12th century? That the specific blood libel accusation was that Jews kill Christian children and use their blood in unspeakable rituals? Or in some cases, the accusation that Jews stole consecrated communion wafers which were equivalent to Christ's body, and tortured them? And that these accusations almost always triggered large and violent public action against them? And that the accusers were often cynical? And that the official position of the church was that Jews didn't do that? And that the church's official position was often ignored by firebrand priests? And that goal was often to create antisemitic violence? And so on? No, I don't need to explain that.)

Quite a few of the newspapers explained that Palin's choice of words was offensive to Jews. My first thought was that the writers were underestimating most Christians, who would surely be offended too, if they understood what she said. Then I rethought. Being a vulnerable minority leaves even the best-treated people in the best democracy in the world a bit on edge, so maybe it is only offensive to Jews. I don't think this is an issue of being oversensitive, just over-informed about history. And as I say, Palin chose an accusation that must evoke historical consciousness, because it hasn't become just another thing that everyone says when you accuse them and they think it's a bad rap.

What about the fact that Palin put a target on the map to show her dislike of Gabrielle Giffords, a Jewish representative, who called her out for it during the campaign? A coincidence. Note to self: it's a coincidence.

I think this is why it's so painful for Jews to be reminded by Sarah Palin of how vulnerable they used to be. I give her credit here: I think she's only thinking of herself and didn't actually intend to create an implicit threat to Jews. In fact, I think she really was just engaging in a self-centered effort to deflect attention from criticism of her choices and turn the discussion to what a martyr she is, and how any criticism of her speech is equivalent to threatening her freedom of same. So any fleeting sense that the Tea Party and the extreme conservative Republicans are a threat to Jews must be an overreaction. Right? Right.

P.S. The Jewish community I'm really worried about is in Tunisia, not Tucson.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933)

Another Public Intellectual whom I associate with the New York Review of Books. Whatever I read by her seems to have bored me, so I haven’t read much. My bad.

Ruth Reichl (January 16, 1948)

Reichl’s most impressive accomplishment was popularizing a certain type of California cuisine around 30 to 40 years ago, but she’s also done a lot of very wonderful other food journalism. I loved every one of her autobiographical volumes, and enjoyed her various book talks and other lectures that I’ve attended. I was impressed by the way her first autobiography, Tender at the Bone, made it clear that she was brought up in a New York Jewish family without directly saying so. Loving food writers as I do, she's a hero to me despite having presided over the decline of Gourmet. Maybe because she did.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Martin Luther King (January 15, 1929)

King is a leader widely admired, at least by anyone I would care to have anything to do with. I heard him speak several times, and I remember him with respect and gratitude for his accomplishments.

Many Jews participated in the Civil Rights Movement during the years when King was developing the American version of nonviolent action. Along with King, I remember other heros – Jewish and non-Jewish – such as Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, who disappeared on June 21, 1964, and who, like King, were murdered for their commitment to equal rights.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Osip Mandelstam (January 15,1891)

Russian poetry is pretty much acknowledged to be inaccessible to English readers, and there are so many Russian poets – I’m innocent of even trying to read them. Insights about Mandelstam for me are at best hearsay.

Mandelstam was born in Warsaw into the Jewish upper class, and managed to be educated in elite Russian schools as well as in Germany and France; he became known as a poet before the Revolution, and after the Revolution was alternately revered and persecuted. The fate of Jews in Soviet Russia is bitter; many tried to be loyal and fit into what is perhaps the most secular society ever devised, but the authorities under Stalin always found a flaw in their approach. Mandelstam died in exile.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sophie Tucker (13 January 1886)

I only remember Sophie Tucker as a legendary figure that people might have mentioned when I was a child. I really had no idea of what she did or why she was “the last of the red-hot mamas.” A quick web browse tells me that she seems to have broken down a variety of barriers – a Jewish immigrant woman singing comic songs, jazz, blues, and various other types of songs. She also seems to have been an early advocate of recognition of fat women  with songs like "I Don't Want to Be Thin," and "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love." And a union organizer in an organization that preceded Actor’s Equity.

No clear answer about the red-hot mamas.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords (June 8, 1970)

Gabrielle Giffords' birthday isn't for several months, but the horrifying assassination attempt on her life and the shooter's successful assassination of a federal judge and murder of several other people puts her in the news right now. The facts of her Jewish identity and synagogue membership -- and possible antisemitism of the assassin -- add to the horror.

Right wingers have repeatedly -- and nearly explicitly -- called for such assassinations. They are now saying they have no responsibility for this event because the shooter was mentally unbalanced. I don't know why anyone would expect any logical thought from them on the issue: for example, realizing that calls for assassinations are likely to be first heeded by the mentally unstable. I hope that responsiveness to their rhetoric doesn't spread to the slightly saner tiers of the population.

A large number of commentators have expressed their horror and fears for the future much better than I can. For example, Paul Krugman concluded his NYT column today thus:
"The purveyors of hate have been treated with respect, even deference, by the G.O.P. establishment. As David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, has put it, 'Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.'
"So will the Arizona massacre make our discourse less toxic? It’s really up to G.O.P. leaders. Will they accept the reality of what’s happening to America, and take a stand against eliminationist rhetoric? Or will they try to dismiss the massacre as the mere act of a deranged individual, and go on as before?
"If Arizona promotes some real soul-searching, it could prove a turning point. If it doesn’t, Saturday’s atrocity will be just the beginning."

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Word on Golems in Science Fiction and other Fiction

I'm fascinated by the way the Jewish legend of the Golem has been adopted in modern literature, and in connection with Karel Capek's birthday today, I've put together a list of some of the works where golems of various sorts have appeared:
  • Anthony, Piers: Golem in the Gears
  • Borges, Jorge Luis: Dreamtigers
  • Brin, David: Kiln People
  • Chabon, Michael: Kavalier and Clay
  • Davidson, Avram: “The Golem”
  • Dick, Phillip: The Cosmic Puppets
  • Hamill, Pete: Snow in August
  • Handler, Daniel: Watch Your Mouth
  • Isler, Alan: The Bacon Fancier
  • Lem, Stanislav: The Golem
  • Mieville, China: Iron Council
  • Mulisch, Harry: The Procedure
  • Piercy, Marge: He, She, and It
  • Pratchett, Terry: Feet of Clay
  • Rosenbaum, Thane: The Golems of Gotham
  • Stroud, Jonathan: The Golem’s Eye
  • Sturm, James: The Golem’s Mighty Swing
Other, more obscure books with "Golem" in the title appear in a keyword search at ABE books, and other places. I have read some of these, and plan to read more, out of curiosity about how this legend has fit so well into a modern genre, and in fact how it fictionally prefigured a whole area of modern technology.

Karel Capek (January 9, 1890)

Capek was a Czech writer. In his most famous play, RUR, he invented the modern sci-fi idea of a robot. Moreover, he invented the word ROBOT.  Capek, not himself Jewish, credited the Jewish legend of the Golem -- associated with Prague -- as one source for his imagining of the robot.

Isaac Asimov (born January 2, 1920) expanded on Capek's idea of robots in a number of his works. I think of the legend of the Golem, which appears in a vast number of 20th century works of fiction, as a Jewish contribution to general literature, along with many others.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hayyim Nahman Bialik (January 9, 1873)

Bialik’s Hebrew poetry and editing contributed to the development of modern Hebrew, as well as to the creation of the Israeli identity. During a key part of his life, he lived and worked in Odessa in a Jewish intellectual community that was a precursor of modern secular Jewish thought.

I'm not a big reader of poetry, so I won't repeat a lot of stuff about his poems. Just note that "In the City of Slaughter" about a pogrom in Kishinev in 1903 is a powerful and influential work. The poem expresses Bialik's first-hand indignation and horror at the destruction of a small Jewish community, to which he traveled to see the effects. Sadly, the most chilling fact about the poem that resonates today is that the death toll was 47 -- needless to say, the 20th century taught us all that racists could kill a much larger number than that.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday Night

Shabbat – the first Friday in January and every other Friday in the year, most secular Jews in the USA do not light candles. They do not like to remember how in childhood they may have had at least one year of compusory attendance at services if they were brought up in the Reform tradition (like me). If they were brought up Orthodox what they are avoiding is 24 hours of not driving, not turning on lights, not running hot water (because it would make the flame go on in the water heater) and all kinds of other observances. A few secular Jews have created non-religious congregations where (as one person put it) they gather on Saturday morning to NOT pray and NOT read the Torah. But mostly it's a non-event.

BUT in Israel, secular Jews have made a Friday night dinner a time when families and friends gather for a meal. They have made it a secular holiday, in keeping with their secular Jewish state. (This may be changing, but I'm not sure what the eventual result will be.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

In Tsarist Times

Anecdote about a Jewish-Russian scholar, Daniel Khvolson, who lived in Tsarist times and converted to Christianity:
Asked "Did you convert out of conviction?"
Khvolson answered: "Yes, out of the conviction that it was better to be a professor in Petersberg than a Melamed in Shipshiok."
(Quoted in Klier, John D. "State policies and the Conversion of Jews in Imperial Russia, in Geraci & Khodarkovsky, Of Religion and Empire, Ithaca NY, 2001, p. 108.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Kodachrome: the end of the line

I read a lot of articles about the final days of developing Kodachrome film; the last developing lab went out of business at the end of 2010.

The Forward has managed to give this news item a Jewish slant, writing: "This groundbreaking innovation, which forever changed the face of photography, was invented by two Jewish musicians. Kodachrome was created by Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes (known together within Kodak as “God and Man”) in 1935."

Does every news story have a Jewish slant?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Isaac Asimov (January 2, 1920)

Asimov generally said his Jewish background was of no significance in his huge body of science fiction. He never denied his Jewish identity. And critics and admirers often find Jewish themes or content there – which he didn’t deny either. There are many theories about the intersections of Jewish identity, fantasy, and science fiction. Interesting.

Asimov wrote an introduction to an anthology titled Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction (ed. Jack Dann). His intro title is “Why Me?” and he says the reason he was chosen is “I am suspected of being Jewish.” Further, he said, he knew Yiddish and insisted on eating mustard, not butter, on a corned beef sandwich. After several other suggestions of why he was asked to write the intro, Asimov concluded “I am Jewish enough.”

The volume contains stories by Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, and many others – whom Asimov notes often wrote under a pen name to conceal their identity, while he always used his original, and Jewish-sounding name.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Alberto Gerchunoff (January 1, 1883)

Gerchunoff was a Russian/Ukranian-born writer who emigrated to Argentina in 1890 as a small child; his family moved there under sponsorship of a project to settle Eastern European Jews on the Argentine frontier. In his adopted country, Gerchunoff became a journalist and novelist; he was recognized as an important cultural figure. Borges noted his “elegant turn of phrase” in both prose and conversation according to the Enclopedia of Latin American and Carribean Literature. His most famous stories depict Jewish life in the cowboy villages where he grew up, titled The Jewish Gauchos. His insight into the lives of these essentially forgotten people is exciting.

Alfred Stieglitz (January 1, 1864)

Stieglitz was a photographer and promoter of photography as an art form in itself. In 1902 he was one of the founders of Photo-Secession, which stressed craftsmanship in photography. In the famous Gallery 291, along with Edward Steichen, he advanced the careers of other artists and photographers, including very famously Georgia O’Keeffe, who became his second wife. Like many of the early photographers in his group, he was an essentially secular Jew of German descent.

J.D. Salinger (January 1, 1919)

J.D.Salinger, the notoriously reclusive author, had a Jewish father and Catholic mother, but he thought that his mother was Jewish until after his Bar Mitzvah. I first read Catcher in the Rye when I was in junior high school and I wouldn’t have said it had any Jewish content (still don’t see it unless being an outsider is uniquely Jewish). However, Fanny and Zooey and other stories about them (which my friend Olga and I read in old library copies of the New Yorker shortly before its book publication) depict a Jewish family with Jewish Angst, so I guess that makes him a secular Jewish author. Full disclosure: I have no New York connections or background, so things that are so newyorky just don’t really seem to have a direct connection to my life.