Monday, February 28, 2011

Paul Krugman (February 28, 1953)

Economics Nobelist Krugman’s NYT column and associated blog are widely influential – he was voted “Most Influential left-of-center European thinker” (Social Europe Journal) even though he’s not European. He refers to his “current role as public intellectual” – that is, a writer for the general public. And says:
"The great thing about the column is that it more or less forces me to keep learning new tricks, to keep scoping out areas I’d never thought much about before. Then it forces me to find a way to talk about those areas in plain English." (The Joy of Research)
I read Krugman's blog and column every day, and find his insights into the whole political sphere, especially with regard to economic affairs, quite important in figuring out what's happening.  Sometimes he’s ironic about being Jewish -- and his point of view as an outsider who understands what’s going on is fun to read, especially when he reminds his readers of how he predicted one mess or another that the government is getting itself into. His first triumph was understanding Enron before anyone else did.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Jewish Ireland

Later today we are going to Ireland, so I have looked up the Irish Jewish community. As I suspected, the three most famous Irish Jews are Leopold Bloom, Robert Briscoe who was Lord Mayor of Dublin during my early years, and Chaim Herzog, who grew up in Ireland and ultimately was President of Israel. And this is diagnostic. Bloom is fiction. Briscoe is real and unusual. Herzog, like many Irish Jews, was a Zionist. And left Ireland.

I have no idea if I'll get to the Jewish museum in Dublin, as it's only open a few hours per week.

Note: my planned birthday/event posts are queued up and will continue along with any reports on my trip.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

George Frideric Handel (February 23, 1685)

Handel's Oratorio Judah Maccabee was first performed in England in 1746. Handel dedicated this magnificent treatment of the Macabee story 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. So why not continue to consider Handel a hero to Jewish music lovers?

Rebecca Goldstein (February 23, 1950)

Rebecca Goldstein, a novelist and philosopher, writes novels of complex Jewish identity, intertwining many ideas and both secular Jewish and religious themes. She herself is a secular Jew, though she was raised Orthodox. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is an especially good example with its description of Public Intellectuals and egocentric academic types alongside Hassidim, who also struggle to create their identity. Besides her novels, I loved her memoir Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006).

A recent review of philosopher-novelists described Goldstein thus:
Goldstein, whose latest novel is “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” treats philosophical questions with unabashed directness in her fiction, often featuring debates or dialogues among characters who are themselves philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. Still, she says that part of her empathizes with [Iris] Murdoch’s wish to keep the loose subjectivity of the novel at a safe remove from the philosopher’s search for hard truth. It’s a “huge source of inner conflict,” she told me. “I come from a hard-core analytic background: philosophy of science, mathematical logic. I believe in the ideal of objectivity.” But she has become convinced over the years of what you might call the psychology of philosophy: that how we tackle intellectual problems depends critically on who we are as individuals, and is as much a function of temperament as cognition. Embedding a philosophical debate in richly imagined human stories conveys a key aspect of intellectual life. You don’t just understand a conceptual problem, she says: “You feel the problem.” The Philosophical Novel by James Ryerson

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

George Washington (February 22, 1732)

In Reform Jewish Sunday School we learned about George Washington's letter to the Jewish congreation at Newport, in which he explicitly avows the equal rights of Jews to worship and to be citizens of the new country. Even as children we were made to understand how this was a major change in European attitudes, as important to the often persecuted Jewish minority as the invention of democratic government. In the history of American freedom of religion this is an important document, and by implication it is also a foundation for freedom to abstain from religious practice -- not a given in earlier societies either.

Echoing a letter from the Newport congregation leader, Washington wrote to them:
"All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."
For more details see this article.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Greek Antisemitism

Worldwide, hatred of Jews is indisputably on the rise.

Sometimes this sad trend is disguised as criticism of Israel or integrated with anti-Israeli sentiment, but alas, it's often just the same old Jew hatred that's been with us since the ancient Greeks. Now the modern Greeks are indulging, writes the L.A.Times:

"... Athens, one of the last European capitals to commemorate those who perished at the hands of Nazi forces, finally has a Holocaust memorial.

"But since its dedication in May, synagogues have been targeted, Jewish cemeteries desecrated, Holocaust monuments elsewhere in Greece vandalized and the Jewish Museum of Greece, in the capital, defaced with swastikas. What's more, an alarming chunk of Athenians in November supported the election of a neo-Nazi candidate to the capital's city council."

The article, Anti-Semitism flares in Greece details a frightening number of nakedly antisemitic statements by prominent politicians, honors going to perpetrators of formerly unacceptable anti-Jewish books, and tolerated acts of violence against Jews. Needless to say, I recall that the Greeks persecuted the large and longlasting Greek Jewish communities beginning in the 1920s, and then stood by as Kurt Waldheim sent them all to the camps. The article explains: "Such beliefs aren't new. Nor are they just Greek. What's different in Greece is the level of tolerance for anti-Semitism."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sholem Aleichem (February 18, 1859)

Sholem Aleichem may be one of the best-known Yiddish writers from Eastern Europe. His character Tevye the milkman became the hero of the American musical "Fiddler on the Roof," which among other things periodically gives high school drama students in Middle America an opportunity to imitate a Yiddish accent in their Senior Class Performance. (Please spare me.)

For many readers, Sholem Aleichem's stories define life in the Russian or Polish Shtetls where their ancestors came from; since his perspective is secular even though his characters are nearly always religious in some way, he's an important source of identity information to both secular and religious Jews.

Sholem Aleichem was born before the Russians adopted the current calendar, so his birthdate is also given as March 2. Of course his name actually means "Hello" or "Peace" -- his real name was Sholem Rabinowitz.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Harold Arlen (February 15, 1905)

Harold Arlen wrote “Over the Rainbow.” From Tablet Magazine:
"Call that land Oz, if you’d like. Or call it Israel. (For that matter, call it Miami Beach or Shaker Heights or the Upper West Side.) Anyway you slice it, the story “Over the Rainbow” tells is the oldest Jewish story of them all: "There’s no place like home."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Art Spiegelman (February 15, 1948)

The author of Maus needs no further description.

Linda Grant (February 15, 1951)

Linda Grant has written several books that I find fascinating, especially:
I enjoyed all of them, especially because of her perspective as a British Jew, which is just different enough from my American Jewish viewpoint to be really enlightening. Her new novel, We Had It So Good is about to be published. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Jack Benny (February 14, 1894 – but always 39 years old)

Here is an interesting characterization of Benny's TV persona:
"'Human' is a key word, for the Benny persona defied sub-categorization. Benny had shed his Jewish identity along with his Jewish name on his way from vaudeville to radio. The character he and his writers sustained on the airwaves for four decades had no ethnicity or religion.
"He had no strongly defined sexuality either, despite his boasts about mythical romantic success with glamorous female movie stars and his occasional brief dates with working-class women. In minimizing his ethnicity and sexuality, the Benny character managed to transcend those categories rather than deny them. Beneath his quickly lifted arrogant facade lurked an American Everyperson" (Jack Benny)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809)

Abraham Lincoln's lifelong objection to slavery and his success in abolishing it make him a hero to anyone who shares my values.

Lincoln also acted once in a way that directly affected Jewish people in America. In December 1862, General Grant issued an order expelling all Jews from the territories under his command. An appeal to Lincoln resulted in the order being rescinded. For details, see Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress: Order No. 11.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Judy Blume (February 12, 1938)

I admit that I  haven't read any books by Judy Blume, but I am very aware of her importance to young girls, at least in the past, and of the frequent efforts to ban her books. Her own website says: "Judy is a longtime advocate of intellectual freedom. Finding herself at the center of an organized book banning campaign in the 1980's she began to reach out to other writers, as well as teachers and librarians, who were under fire. Since then, she has worked tirelessly with the National Coalition Against Censorship to protect the freedom to read."

Judy Blume grew up as a secular Jew: "Blume has described her childhood home as culturally Jewish rather than religious. Her father had six brothers and sisters, almost all of whom died while Judy was growing up, and she has said, "a lot of my philosophy came from growing up in a family that was always sitting Shiva.'" (Judy Blume)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Another List just published "The 50 Most Essential Works Of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years" by Jason Diamond. The list begins with The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and continues pretty predictably with books by Proust, Philip Roth, Arthur Miller, J.D.Salinger, Bellow, Ozick, Chabon... . Of course the first test when you read such a list: how many have you even heard of? And more important: how many have you read. I have read around half of the 50 books on the list, and heard of most of them, and I think it's pretty good, even the inclusion of Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. And Updike's Bech.

Is it really more than 100 years since Sholem Aleichem and I.L.Peretz published anything good? Maybe so. Am I the only person who doesn't find Henry Roth's Call it Sleep very readable? Maybe so.

Marc Tracy writing at Tablet magazine comments: "What is most interesting to me about [this list], ... Jason places a premium on how essential a work was to literature and culture at large rather than specifically to Jewish culture."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812)

Dickens' best-known Jewish character is Fagin, the detestable thief and corrupter of Oliver Twist. He based the character loosely on the notorious Ikey Solomon, who was transported to Australia after a high-profile life of crime. A fascinating story in itself.

Why would I list Dickens here if his most famous Jewish character is so defaming of Jews? Well, interestingly, after he wrote the book Dickens received a letter from a Jewish woman who complained about his stereotyping of Jews, and he actually regretted his excess, and wrote a more likable (though less famous) character to make up for it. I've read the exchange of letters in which Dickens became much more sympathetic to Jews, who were not really well-liked in his time, and I appreciate how he was open-minded to changing his views. Unfortunately, the character he wrote in atonement is nowhere near as memorable as Fagin.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

YWHA founded: February 6, 1902

“On February 6, 1902 Bella Epstein Unterberg held a meeting in her New York City home to discuss the founding of the first Young Women's Hebrew Association. At the meeting, at which she was unanimously elected president of the new association, a decision was made to establish a sister organization to the YMHA, a community center dedicated to the uplift—both social and spiritual—of young Jewish women.” --

The YWHA, predecessor to the Jewish Community Center, was a central feature of the life of my aunts, my mother, and their friends in the 1920s. It offered them a social life and also many classes and informal situations in which to learn to be "real" Americans and to forget the immigrant ways of their parents. It did not encourage them to become non-Jews or even to drop out of religious life, but ultimately the philosophy of assimilation changed much in the Jewish community. It's ironic that they went to the "Y" to forget Yiddish, and now Jewish people go to the successor JCC to learn Yiddish and undo some of the assimilation.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Betty Friedan (February 4, 1921)

Betty Friedan followed an essentially conventional secular Jewish path typical of her generation. First, Jewish leftism. Next, academic leftism -- graduate work in psychology with Erik Erikson. As a young woman, an interval of domesticity. Authorship of the very successful and popular book The Feminine Mystique. Finally: lifelong leadership of the emerging second wave of Feminism. A lot has been written about her exact impact on feminism, which is interesting but not really part of my story.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Felix Mendelssohn (February 3, 1809)

I hesitate to put Felix Mendelssohn in this list, because he was a Christian all his life. Jews claim him because his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn was a famous Jewish advocate of a certain type of assimilation -- but a believer and an observant Jew all the same.

I don't want to make this into a list of people who can somehow someway be claimed as Jews; my motive isn't to prove something about Jewishness. Mendelssohn was such a great composer I'm tempted to include him anyway, though it's a stretch to call him any kind of Jew other than racial.

In fact, looking over my list of heroic people -- that is, the ones whose values seem to me to support a positive secular Jewish point of view -- I realize that I'm often in opposition to the Jewish listers who are obsessed simply with who was Jewish or had Jewish ancestors. I value as a major positive characteristic that a person would have taken away a certain moral and ethical philosophy while rejecting, ignoring, or neglecting Jewish practice and belief. I hold this up as a virtue: a secular Jewish virtue. I also do not have anything against the practice of Jewish ritual, but I do not regret when someone decides not to.

Maybe my overall listing looks chaotic, but this is what I think is behind it.

Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874)

Here she is, larger than life, painted by Picasso. Gertrude Stein was a model secular Jewish woman of her time: and it's interesting to have a model so early. She practiced no religion, but seemed to have no hangups about who she was or what her background was. She was also a model of an avant-garde lifestyle in Paris in the early 20th century.

Stein almost became a medical doctor, worked with William James, dropped out of that plan, joined her brother in Paris, learned to appreciate modern art before it was trendy, collected paintings, collected artist friends, collected writer friends, and influenced Hemingway (most famously). Her writing was never understood or successful until she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and then she was a sensation. I like her for every one of those things.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ayn Rand (February 2, 1905)

Rand was born Alyssa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her right-wing philosophy included a rejection of any religion, including that of her family. I hate to claim her for secular Jewishness, but there it is.

Paul Krugman’s favorite quote about her: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Muriel Spark (February 1, 1918)

Muriel Spark referred to herself as having “Gentile Jewishness” – though her works had Catholic themes, she acknowledged her Jewish background. Irony.