Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cesar Chavez (March 31, 1927)

I include Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers of America, as a hero because I admire his fight for the rights of workers. This is a fight that Jewish labor leaders contributed to for a long time, and one that I hope idealistic secular Jews haven't forgotten. Unfortunately Chavez is dead and farm workers are still suffering. And in quite a few states, seemingly established labor rights for many workers, not just farm workers -- such as collective bargaining -- are in danger.

Barney Frank (March 31, 1940)

Barney Frank has been in the US House of Representatives since 1981. He says “I'm used to being in the minority. I'm a left-handed gay Jew. I've never felt, automatically, a member of any majority.”

He also says lots of other things that are both right and clever. A few from his website:
  • “Gay people have a different role than other minority groups…Very few black kids have ever had to worry about telling their parents that they were black.”
  • “I don’t begrudge Ronald Reagan an occasional nap. We must understand it’s not the dozing off of Ronald Reagan that causes us problems. Its what he does on those moments when he’s awake.”
  • “Ronald Reagan believes in the free market like some people believe in unicorns.”
  • “In the business I am in, sometimes you get credit for the sun shining and sometimes you get blamed when it rains.”
  • "If this is a Christian nation, how come some poor Jew has to get up at 5:30 in the morning to preside over the House of Representatives?"
  • “There are rules of excessive civility around here to which I generally subscribe. You do need a certain amount of courtliness in the system. But that, in itself, can become a form of abuse. There are limits to when you restrain yourself from calling a fool a fool.”

Marge Piercy (March 31, 1936)

Marge Piercy's novel He, She, and It is about a golem-type entity in a computer some time in the near future. Many of its characters have a Jewish or Israeli identity, and the action takes place in partly-destroyed world after "the Two Week War a terrorist had launched with a nuclear device that had burned Jerusalem off the map, a conflagration of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons that had set the oilfields aflame and destroyed the entire region." I find the use of golem motifs in modern fiction to be very intriguing, and this is one of my favorite examples.

Piercy's other novels also often have interesting secular Jewish characters, such as City of Darkness, City of Light about the French Revolution and Gone to Soldiers about World War II. I'm very fond of the way she puts Jewish characters in the books naturally, without dedicating the book to Jewish themes and concerns. In fact, she might be one of the best writers when it comes to integrating characters who just happen to be assimilated Jews into an ordinary plot.

The only book by Piercy that disappointed me was Pesach for the Rest of Us, which talks about alternative Seders, but which I found rather disorganized and lacking in focus. This one, to my knowledge, is her only explicit Jewish book.

Overall, she's a really excellent secular Jewish author-hero!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Moses Maimonides (March 30, 1135)

Maimonides was a radical thinker in medieval Judaism. According to Kenneth Seeskin writing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
"His philosophic masterpiece, the Guide of the Perplexed, is a sustained treatment of Jewish thought and practice that seeks to resolve the conflict between religious knowledge and secular." He influenced many subsequent philosophers, including "Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton."
I'm no philosopher, but I recognize that some grasp of Maimonides' thought is necessary if one is to follow a historic discussion of the development of Jewish philosophy, and the argument over which approaches are valid. According to the previously cited article:
"Judaism ... is based on a particular philosophy. Maimonides (GP 1.71) takes this to mean that before Plato and Aristotle introduced science and philosophy to the Greeks, the patriarchs introduced it to Israel. To someone who asks why we have no explicit record of their philosophy, Maimonides answers that any record of such teaching was destroyed when Israel went into exile and suffered persecution. So despite the appearance of a split between Jerusalem and Athens, Maimonides thinks there is only one tradition worth preserving: that which affirms the truth."

"He makes this point in the Introduction to the Guide when he says that what Jewish tradition taught under the guise of ma'aseh bereishit (the account of the beginning) is what Greeks thinkers taught as physics, while what Jewish tradition taught under the guise of ma'aseh merkavah (the account of [Ezekiel's] chariot) is what Greek thinkers taught under the guise of metaphysics. In short, Jewish tradition has always been philosophical. The problem is that these subjects are too difficult for the average worshipper to grasp and must be expressed as parables or metaphors that the educated few will interpret at one level and the average worshipper at another."
Beginning in Maimonides' own lifetime, religious Jews were disturbed by the way he seemed to go to the brink of disbelief (if I understand correctly -- they often used the term "Aristotelian" for this edge). But as a disbeliever, despite my lack of philosophical sophistication, I find him very appealing for this clarity. As the article states: "For an atheist, Maimonides' philosophy shows us what happens if you remove all anthropomorphic content from your conception of God: you remove all content of any kind. In the end, you are left with a God whose essence is unknowable and indescribable Of what possible value is such a conception either to philosophy or religion?"

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Workmen’s Circle

The first convention of the Workman’s Circle took place in New York on March 29-30, 1901. The Workmen’s Circle, founded as a local organization in 1892 and made national in 1900, was (and to some extent still may be) a secular Jewish organization, originally a labor organization that promoted the use of Yiddish. Peak membership: 87,000 in 1925. Again, an example of the Jewish commitment to the labor movement that I mentioned yesterday.

The Workmen's Circle page of the American Jewish Historical society explains that the organization:
"was established as a social and cultural Jewish labor fraternal order. Its purpose was to provide members with mutual aid and health and death benefits and to support the labor and socialist movements of the world. Historically, the Workmen’s Circle was closely tied to Jewish unions, the Yiddish labor press, and the Socialist Party. The Circle was highly dedicated to raising the education levels of members and bringing social change in America. Workmen’s Circle functions provided a place for Jewish radicals of different ideals to mingle. ..."

"The Workmen’s Circle, dedicated to the promotion of progressive Yiddish culture, established a wide array of cultural activities including the publication of books, adult education and singing and drama clubs. It also promoted Jewish education for young people by opening afternoon schools for Jewish children in 1916. In addition, the Workmen’s Circle established homes for the aged, camps, Yiddish theater clubs, and several choirs."
Clearly, the Workmen's Circle was an organization dedicated to secular Jewish life and values. If it had a presence in St.Louis when I was growing up there, I was completely unaware of it, however.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wisconsin Labor vs. the Triangle Fire

I think of labor rights and unionizing as a Jewish issue as well as an American issue. Today I read an op-ed in the Forward that makes that point. It begins:

"It’s a remarkable coincidence that the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire follows so closely on the heels of the great Wisconsin labor awakening. Like the yearly coincidence of Purim and St. Patrick’s Day, with their overlapping themes of national redemption and drunken revelry, the Wisconsin-Triangle convergence raises a host of fundamental questions about the nature of our society and the mutual obligations of individual and community."

"Here are a few: Has a century of progress made unions and collective bargaining obsolete? Is it really progress when we eliminate workplace disasters by eliminating workplaces? Can we say we’ve learned the lessons of the Triangle tragedy if half of us have learned that rich and poor alike deserve equal access to health care and parental leave, while the other half want to bring back the good old days when workers knew their place and owners were free to run their businesses as they wished without interference from pesky regulators and unions?"

The commemorations of the Triangle Fire, where 100 years ago yesterday 146 young women workers died because they were locked in a dangerous workplace, are reminding people (including me) that labor rights have been a humanitarian and ethical issue for a long time. We seem to be regressing. Maybe workplace safety -- the main issue highlighted by the tragic fire -- continues to receive a commitment even from the worst of the Wisconsin, Ohio, and other Tea Party governors. (Maybe not?) But the right to fair wages and above all the right to bargain, once thought established, is eroding fast.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Leonard Nimoy (March 26, 1931)

Above all, the multi-talented Leonard Nimoy gave the Priestly Blessing (fingers in a V) to Star Trek. Did he also propose that Spock say Live Long and Prosper? Did he help invent the memorable character from another planet who was very intelligent, perfectly saw how earthlings were irrational, but never quite felt at home or nativized? You get my point.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Harry Houdini (March 24, 1874)

Houdini was born in Hungary as Erik Weisz; his father was a Rabbi. He remade himself into a magician, escape artist, and famous daredevil.  His Jewish identity is sometimes forgotten, but here is a summary:
"Houdini has attracted many explainers, but few have grappled well with what can be seen as the two sides of the escape artist’s Jewish identity. The first is well-known: his popular death-defying theatrical acts, which represented freedom from his father’s financial failure as well as a more general liberation from the limitations immigrant Jewish life. But there is also Houdini’s less-known second act as a debunker of a mystical group known as the Spiritualists, a crusade that shared much with Emma Goldman’s fiery political tirades and that proved the boundaries of Jewish entertainers in the face of American anti-Semitism." -- From Tablet Magazine
Houdini’s death on October 31, 1926, started a lot of odd and superstitious nonsense – especially in view of his campaign against spiritualism. Maybe one of the strangest things I know about this concerns one of his last meals. This odd bit of trivia appeared in a narrative of an elderly woman, the widow of Dr. Daniel Cohn, who treated Houdini in a Detroit hospital during his last illness. Years after the event she wrote about Houdini's deathbed conversations with her husband:
"One evening while talking about his favorite foods, he said, 'I have a yen for Farmer's Chop Suey.' Farmer's Chop Suey, a dish familiar to most Jewish families, is made of chopped raw vegetables combined with sour cream. Daniel walked to a nearby delicatessen, returned with two portions and while they were eating, Houdini reminisced about his life. 'If I die, ' he said, 'don't be surprised if phony spiritualists declare a national holiday!' His disagreements with spiritualists had taken the form of many public battles." -- From Houdini and my Husband

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Israeli Folk Dancing

Without giving it much thought, I always assumed that Israeli folk dancing was eternal, and came to Israel with the Zionist immigrants from Eastern Europe. Wrong! If you want to know the brief history of Israeli folk dance read this article in the Forward: "From Zero to 4,678 in 80 Short Years: The Surprising History Of Israeli Folk Dancing"

A few highlights: The first Israeli folk dance was “Hora Agadati,” created in 1924 in Tel Aviv. "'Mayim Mayim,' by far the world’s most popular Israeli folk dance ... was created by German-trained dancer Else Dublon in 1937 to celebrate finding a water source on a kibbutz." And New York’s Israeli Dance Institute is celebrating 60 years of folk dancing this spring.

Like so many aspects of Israeli culture, folk dancing celebrated the new Jewish freedom and new Jewish body image, according to one of the authors cited in the article. This confirms my not-so-erroneous association of Israeli folk dance with the secular Jewish-Israeli culture that emerged in the mid-20th century.

Moacyr Scliar (March 23, 1937)

Moacyr Scliar, author of The Centaur in the Garden and other works of fiction, just died on February 27. I think his works, often in the style of South-American magical realism but usually about Jewish identity and life there, deserve to be better known than they are.

Scliar’s obituary in the New York Times summarized his life thus: “Moacyr Jaime Scliar was born ... in Porto Alegre [Brazil]. His parents, who emigrated from Bessarabia in 1919, gave him a Brazilian Indian name in a nod to their new cultural surroundings. After attending both Yiddish and Roman Catholic schools, he obtained a medical degree in 1962 and practiced in the public health service until retiring in 1987.”

The centaur in his book belongs to a family of Russian immigrants to Brazil, like Scliar himself: “’At home, you speak Yiddish, eat gefilte fish and celebrate Shabbat,’ he told the Yiddish Book Center in 2003. ‘But in the streets, you have soccer, samba and Portuguese. After a while you feel like a centaur.’”

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happy Purim!

Purim was a secular as well as a religious holiday in the Shtetls of Eastern Europe. Men got drunk, and women competed to send the best food platters and baskets to their friends and relatives. Yes, these customs have a religious origin: but I say they became secular – and fun.

Sholom Aleichem wrote a story that illustrates this point. “Two Shalachmones or A Purim Scandal” tells of two ill-treated maids in his imaginary town, Kasrilevka. On Purim, the two of them meet, each carrying a basket of sweets to the other’s employers.

The smaller of their platters contained a hamantash and other pastries. The second platter contained: “a fine slice of strudel, two big sugar cookies, a large honey teigl, two cushion cakes stamped with a fish on both sides and filled with tiny sweet farfel, and two large slabs of a poppy seed confection, black and glistening, mixed with ground nuts and glazed with honey. Besides all this, there lay on the plate, smiling up at them, a round, golden sweet-smelling orange that wafted its delicious odor right into their nostrils.”

Tempted by the foods on their platters, and resentful of their employers, the two messengers stopped to chat while they ate up most of the items that they were supposed to deliver: beginning with the hamantash. The two families took offense at the disgraceful state of the platters that they therefore received. Their former friendship dissolved in quarrels and resentment until they realized what had occurred.

Bringing gifts of food to friends is a custom still observed among religious Jews. I don't do much for Purim myself, but I think people still manage to have fun. I'm fascinated by another way that Jewish Purim customs were secularized: some of the pre-Lent revelry in Renaissance Venice was influenced by the costumed and masked Purim celebrations in the Ghetto.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Philip Roth (March 19, 1933)

Do you think that no one should give a bad impression of Jews, ever, even in fiction? Then you must really think Roth is an antihero for his famous/infamous portrayal of Portnoy. I'm not sure, but I think Philip Roth is outliving his era of influence and being admired. When he was young he wrote a book called The Great American Novel. That didn't work. Now he seems to be writing only about the disabilities of old age, and I don't want to read it. Some time I'll get around to rereading Portnoy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jerry Lewis (March 16, 1926)

Yes, he’s Jewish. His birth name is Joseph Levitch and he was born in New Jersey. So we Jews don’t just get to claim highbrow comedians like Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. But is Jerry Lewis secular? Is he a hero (if you are not French)? I don't know, he's not high on my list.

Yiddish Theater

I don't know much about the Yiddish Theater, since I do not understand Yiddish beyond a few well-known expressions. Of course I'm aware that the Yiddish Theater played a big role in secular Jewish New York for many years, and that only a few survivors remain from its famous actors. In today's New York Times I read the obituary of one of these -- Shifra Lerer, "who was discovered at age 5 in Argentina by the great Yiddish actor Boris Thomashefsky and went on to become a winsome and wide-ranging trouper of the Yiddish theater for the next 90 years."

In the two articles (here and here) about her in today's times, I learned quite a few things about these actors and about Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, where the theatrical alliance maintains a special section for those who worked in Yiddish theater in New York. Though I do know about the accomplishments of Thomashefsky, I knew almost none of the other names that were mentioned: Charles Malins, Chana Lipton, Isaak and Lola Feld, Mina Bern, Zypora Spaisman. It's sad that this is a lost artistic endeavor, but I fear that nothing can bring it to life it for me: not only the actors and the language are lost, but the conventions of that era and theatrical style no longer appeal to any but experts, I suspect.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 15, 1933)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is definitely one of my all-time heroic people. Her struggle to become a lawyer when women were scarcely tolerated in the field, her personal triumphs over many difficulties, her legal accomplishments, and her outlook as a Supreme Court Justice all have my highest admiration. Did Jewish values help to inspire her to overcome prejudice and barriers? I'd like to think so.

Jennifer 8. Lee (March 15, 1976)

You don't have to be Jewish to be a secular Jewish hero! Here's an example: Jennifer 8. Lee, a Chinese-American woman, wrote The Fortune Cookie Chronicles in which she explored the social history and cultural aspects of Chinese restaurants in America. One chapter is titled "Why Chow Mein is the Chosen Food of the Chosen People" and discusses the American-Jewish love of Chinese restaurants and Chinese food. Her claim: "Chinese food is the ethnic cuisine of the American Jew since they identify with it much more than the Eastern European food of their immigrant ancestors."

I've followed up what she says with additional reading about the subject, and it's very interesting and amusing to learn that by the end of the 19th century, Jewish religious authorities were complaining because Chinese restaurants were contributing to the secularization of American Jewish life. Yay!

The Founding of Zingerman's: Jewish Food becomes Secular

Zingerman’s Deli, still on Detroit Street here in Ann Arbor, and expanding, was founded March 15, 1982 by Paul Saginaw, Michael Monahan, and Ari Weinzweig. A recent book by Ari Weinzweig is on bacon – his self-image as promoted in lectures and writings is that he’s transgressive. But Zingerman’s appeal is that it’s supposed to make you think of an old-fashioned Jewish deli while promoting a variety of gourmet foods for 21st century cooks and epicures.

I used to shop at Zingerman's much more than I do now. For me it has very little nostalgia, compared to the Jewish delis of St.Louis where I grew up, and where my father shopped for corned beef and half-sour pickles. (In my earliest childhood, the pickles were actually in a barrel, but that's an aside.) I do like the bakery -- the photos are from a Thanksgiving visit on a day when they sell 20,000 loaves of bread.

Yes, Zingerman's has a certain resonance for the secular Jews who like the idea of Jewish food subtly invading the general American diet. After all, bagels did that so long ago that no one even knows where they came from. My brother buys bagels at the open-air market in Galway, Ireland, from a local baker who lives in a nearby village -- and seems to think they are mainstream American. How invaded can you get?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Diane Arbus (March 14, 1923)

Diane Arbus is known for photos that make normal people look abnormal, as well as for directly photographing abnormal people. I find her disturbing and fascinating. Here's her photo of "The Jewish Giant" with his parents. I just don't know what to say about Arbus as a secular Jew, but as far as I know, that's exactly who she was.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879)

According to an exhibit at the partially reconstructed New Synagogue of Berlin, which we saw in 2005, Einstein only ever once entered this building  – to play in a concert on his violin. He was resolutely secular and never belonged to any synagogue. Needless to say, this was of no interest to the Nazis, who hounded him out of Germany with a price on his head. 

The exhibit we saw, along with many other celebrations, marked the centennial of his great 1905 physics papers. Now the Germans claim him, and well they might, as he's one of the greatest scientists ever, as well as a humanitarian leader.

Of interest in the aspect of secular Jewish identity: although Einstein evidently stopped believing in God at around age 12, he was a proponent of the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine and an active Zionist fundraiser. He contributed to developing the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Charles Krauthammer (March 13, 1950)

Charles Krauthammer is definitely an antihero! But he's a very prominent example of the neoconservative Jewish influence in Washington politics.

Here's an example. In his column on January 21, 2011 – about the Republican vote to repeal the health care law from last year – he wrote “Everything begins with repeal.” Why? He believes the Republican’s phony numbers criticizing the OMB. He’s on the wrong (usually Republican) side of everything no matter how stupid. At least he’s not a secular Jew: he appears to be religious.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Adolph Simon Ochs (March 12, 1858)

Adolph Ochs was the publisher of the New York Times which he purchased in 1896 from its earlier owners. Let’s face it, the New York Times is THE paper for secular Jews, as well as the overall newspaper of record for our country. So I think it's appropriate to memorialize the Jewish founder of the family that runs it.

Ochs was a practicing, not a secular Jew, married to Effie Wise, daughter of Reform Jewish leader Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Ochs’ descendants, through his daughter Iphigene Bertha Ochs and her husband Arthur Hays Sulzberger, controlled the paper for most of the following century. Their descendant Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. became publisher of the New York Times in 1992 after working his way through a number of lower positions. He was named chairman of The New York Times Company on October 16, 1997, and continues in that position.

Friday, March 11, 2011

International Day of Awesomeness

Yesterday was the International Day of Awesomeness. I celebrate all my awesome heroic figures that I have commemorated on this blog!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bobby Fischer (March 9, 1943)

Chess once had enormous meaning to Jewish intellectuals in their efforts to become something new and different. At least to some of them – for example, recall the role of chess in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Bobby Fischer’s genius at chess was undoubtedly of great importance to this older generation of secular-Jewish chess fans.

The extremely troubled life of Bobby Fischer and his search for religion (and his other personal searches) took place at the same time that chess was becoming less and less interesting to a lot of people including Jews. I think they found new ways to be secular while applying their intelligence.

Here’s a personal note: during his radical years in St.Louis long before he met my mother, my father belonged to a cohort of various people including Bobby Fischer’s mother. He thought she was untrustworthy.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Antisemitism in High Fashion

A lot of Europeans still seem to hate us Jews. John Galliano the fashion designer is the most recent. Like many others, he seems to need a lot of drink and drugs to become really nasty and antisemitic, at least to do so in public. So some people are bound to say Jews are just touchy if they think it's real antisemitism. I think that many things inhibit sober antisemites, but in vino veritas and all that. After all, Galliano's outburst was vile enough to break the law in France, though I'll be surprised if he ever goes to trial since he's left the country and seems to be a British citizen.

Linda Grant, a writer who has covered both high fashion and antisemitism, wrote a very enlightening article in the Guardian, "Galliano and the taste for transgression." She pointed out that Galliano's strong suit is transgression, and thus:

"If you are breaker of taboos, then antisemitism is only another taboo, no different from any other. It's the saying of the unsayable. It has become the last frontier for those demanding freedom of speech, for whom everything, even the Holocaust, is fair game. Is Galliano an actual antisemite who hates Jews? Who knows what passes through his mind, but by invoking the name of Hitler and gloating about the gas chambers, he is only doing what others have always paid him to do: shock."

"Fashion's obsession with transgression, its demand that Galliano shock us even more each season, has played its own part in the drunken bar rant. It has lost sight of women, of our desire to dress well and to be beautiful. It has given us the increasingly desperate and exhausted tactic of taboo-busting instead of our wish to cover our imperfect bodies as pleasingly as we can."

Other writers on the Galliano affair have chosen different approaches, for example providing long lists of Jewish fashion designers and trend-setters as an alternative for Jewish women who loved what Gallino produced but now have to reject it if they wish to maintain their self-respect. I think Linda Grant has the best approach: personally I can't imagine why anyone wants to follow the trends or dictates of such designers even if they are not in the least antisemitic.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Georges Perec (March 7, 1936)

Perec was once asked why he didn't write about his personal experience as a child of Holocaust victims -- as a preschooler, he was hidden during World War II and later raised by an aunt and uncle. He referred to his famous and extraordinary work La Disparition (translation: The Disappearance; English title, A Void), a work in which the letter "e" never appears (which is as difficult in his native French as it would be in English, maybe moreso). He said approximately "If a mother could disappear, a letter could disappear." That is, he wrote very obliquely about his experience as a child sent away from Paris and told to forget who he was. Only in one book did he write a bit about his total lack of memory of those early years, and thus his painful amnesia about his parents.

Perec belonged to a group called Oulipo that experimented with language and form in very avant garde ways. But in the background, he seems to have dwelt on his mother's disappearance. After the war, his family applied for benefits for this orphan. They could not get a death certificate: his mother had disappeared into the camps. However, they received a "Certificate de Disparition." When I learned this, I was stunned to see how much this experimental literature was connected to his terrible reality.

I love the playfulness of Oulipo, which included a number of other famous writers, and met in a cafe near the campus of the University of Paris where I have eaten lunch. I'm fascinated by the development of his philosophy, and by the way Perec stuck to writing despite only modest success until nearly the end of his short life. I think that he exemplifies the way that French intellectuals repress any difference between themselves and some sort of ideal Frenchness -- including the way they must avoid any overt Jewishness, even American-style secular Jewishness. It's very different from the way American Jewish intellectuals have developed. But above all, I'm fascinated by the way he still felt that his Jewish identity was at his core, somehow.

Note: I wrote this from memory, and don't own a copy of any of the books where I read his biography. I could be misremembering.

“South Pacific”

The World Premeire of “South Pacific” was March 7, 1949.

“You’ve got to be taught to hate” is one of the most powerful songs in this anti-racist musical. I can only imagine how audiences might have taken the message so soon after World War II and during the era when racism in the US was still overt and cruel. (The 1949 New York Times review by Brooks Atkinson didn’t actually respond to these themes – just mentioned the picturesque island natives and the song “Some Enchanted Evening.” Oh well.)

Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist, had a Jewish grandfather; Richard Rodgers, the composer was Jewish; whatever their religion, I think the theme of this musical resonates with both Jews and non-Jews.

For more see this review.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cecil Roth (March 5, 1899)

One small detail from a book by Cecil Roth that sticks in my mind is his description of searching antiquarian booksellers in Italy and finding incredibly valuable and sometimes unique sources of history for the books he wrote. This brought home to me what a pioneer he was in the field of Jewish history, and how times have so completely changed in the course of a century.

I have enjoyed every book by Cecil Roth that I have read, including his biographies of Dona Gracia Nasi and her nephew the Duke of Naxos, his biography of Menassah ben Israel, several of his histories of the Jews in specific cities of Italy, and others. I am aware that he was instrumental in making Jewish history part of respectable mainstream history in the refined atmosphere of British academia. And I've bought a biography of him, but I haven't read it yet, so I can't say much more. For anyone who appreciates having systematic Jewish historical books he's definitely a hero.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Giorgio Bassani (March 4, 1916)

When I think of the tragedy of the Italian Jews (in the context of the entire Holocaust tragedy), one of the most vivid portrayals of the event for me is Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The film based on it also contributes to my inner understanding of the fate of the Italian Jewish community.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kurt Weill (March 2, 1900)

When I think of the legendary atmosphere of 1920s Berlin, Kurt Weill’s music echoes in my head – as sung by his then-wife Lotte Lenya. The Three Penny Opera, Mahagonny, and his other German works are among my favorite 20th century musicals. Against the rising Nazi threat, they defy and also create a brilliant counter-culture.

Then Weill and Lenya, driven out of Germany, became a force in American popular music. His American musical theater successes include Lady in the Dark (collaborators Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin) and One Touch of Venus (with collaborators S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash). An amazing body of work!

Like so many composers of the era, Weill’s music had great appeal for a wide audience, not at all limited by his ethnic background. Nevertheless, his roots were Jewish and he appears to have remained loyal to them, whatever his actual religious beliefs. Weill’s father was a cantor. Further, he worked for Zionism and Jewish relief causes during World War II. (Note: Weill’s Berlin collaborator Bertolt Brecht and his wife, singer Lotte Lenya, were not Jewish.)

Source: Kurt Weill Foundation