Saturday, April 30, 2011

Alice B. Toklas (April 30, 1877)

In 1933 the not-yet famous Gertrude Stein wrote the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, saying she waited for Alice to write it herself, and finally gave up and did it for her. They had been together since 1907 and Stein sometimes referred to Alice as her wife. The Autobiography was Gertrude's first big success as a writer -- before that she had mainly been an influence on a generation of writers in Paris.

One of Gertrude Stein’s most often paraphrased statements was about Alice’s birthplace, Oakland, CA: when you get there, there’s no there there.

After Gertrude Stein died Stein’s family disowned Alice and took all their possessions (gay marriage didn’t exist, the “real” family got everything). To support herself, Alice wrote a cookbook memorializing the foods the two of them had enjoyed together. Alice had a second round of fame in the 1960s, shortly before her death, because of the recipe she included for cannabis brownies.

There’s every reason to believe that Gertrude and Alice observed no religion whatsoever but also never repudiated their Jewish roots: Secular. Jews.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Elena Kagan (April 28, 1960)

Kagan hasn't been on the Supreme Court for very long -- I'm hoping that her presence will be a force for good things. Several decisions pending right now are very important. But it's really too early to say what her legacy will be.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Armenian Genocide (April 24, 1915)

April 24, 1915, was the start of a long series of violent persecutions of Turkish Armenians. Modern Turkish governments have been reluctant to acknowledge what their predecessors did, but there is little controversy among mainstream historians that this was a genocide, including death marches and mass murders.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Richard Holbrooke (April 24, 1941)

Obituaries for Richard Holbrooke (who died in December, 2010) depicted a career diplomat who made a difference, especially for his role in the Dayton Peace Accords ending the war in Bosnia. Holbrooke was raised as a Quaker; his parents were totally assimilated Jews who had fled from Hitler. While never religious, he says he “never had any doubt about my background, my parents never disguised it.”

The following statements strike me as an impressive collection:
  • Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Holbrooke's death was "a big loss for the American people."
  • Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said: "His services will be long remembered. The best tribute to him is to reiterate our resolve to root out extremism and usher in peace."
  • The Anti Defamation League statement said: “He was proud of his Jewish identity and he was a good friend of the state of Israel. His death is a loss to the world, to America, and to the Jewish people,”
  • And Holbrooke himself said “When I joined the foreign service in 1962, my grandmother was still alive; she was Swiss-Jewish, not German-Jewish, and she said, ‘How can you be a diplomat? Jews can’t possibly succeed in the diplomatic world; it’s not possible.’ I said to my grandmother something like, ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’ It never occurred to me.”

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Freedom Riders: 50 years ago

If you want to read about heroism in Americans, here's a very good article:

Remembering the Freedom Rides

In one town, "members of the Ku Klux Klan ... set fire to one bus and beat riders on the other with pipes, chains and bats." At every stop, menacing crowds threatened the nonviolent freedom riders with beatings and worse. Although their idealism hadn't prepared them for the level of near-lethal attacks, they persisted, and eventually, succeeded in creating a better America. The article describes the freedom rides as well as a number of memorials that now stand along the route their buses took 50 years ago.

Jewish Daily Forward founded on April 22, 1897

The Forward, or Forverts, was a secular Jewish paper, dedicated to the huge immigrant community of Yiddish-speaking Jews in the US around 100 years ago.

In their own words:
"The Forverts is a legendary name in American journalism and Jewish life. Launched as a Yiddish-language newspaper on April 22, 1897, the Forverts(Jewish Daily Forward) fought for social justice, helped generations of immigrants to enter American life, broke some of the most significant news stories of the century, and eloquently defended democracy and Jewish rights. Under the leadership of its founding editor, the charismatic Abraham Cahan, the Forverts embodied the voice of the Jewish immigrant."
"By the early 1930s the Forverts had become one of America's premier metropolitan dailies, with a nationwide circulation topping 275,000 and influence that reached around the world and into the Oval Office. Thousands more listened regularly to the Forward's Yiddish-language radio station, WEVD. The newspaper's editorial staff included, at one time or another, nearly every major luminary in the then-thriving world of Yiddish literature, from the beloved "poet of the sweatshops," Morris Rosenfeld, to Sholem Asch, Avrom Reisin, and the future Nobel laureates Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel. " -- From the Forward Online
And the Forward is still going strong on the web! 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Max Weinreich (April 22, 1894)

Weinreich, a Yiddish scholar, founded YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut — Yiddish Scientific Institute) in Vilna in 1925. When he fled the Holocaust he moved YIVO to New York. He was in many ways a pioneer of secular Jewish identity in Yiddish culture.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Heroic Resistance in China

In a New York Times op-ed yesterday titled "Dangerous Arts," Salman Rushdie summarized the situation of outspoken artists and writers in China today, especially Ai Weiwei, who disappeared and appeared to have been arrested by Chinese authorities April 4. Rushdie (himself the target of a terrible campaign from Iran that lasted decades) says "The disappearance is made worse by reports that Mr. Ai has started to 'confess.' His release is a matter of extreme urgency and the governments of the free world have a clear duty in this matter."

Rushdie reminds us of historic persecutions of brave and outspoken artists, not mentioning his own experience:

"The lives of artists are more fragile than their creations. The poet Ovid was exiled by Augustus to a little hell-hole on the Black Sea called Tomis, but his poetry has outlasted the Roman Empire. Osip Mandelstam died in a Stalinist work camp, but his poetry has outlived the Soviet Union. Federico García Lorca was killed by the thugs of Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco, but his poetry has survived that tyrannical regime."

"We can perhaps bet on art to win over tyrants. It is the world’s artists, particularly those courageous enough to stand up against authoritarianism, for whom we need to be concerned, and for whose safety we must fight...."

"When artists venture into politics the risks to reputation and integrity are ever-present. But outside the free world, where criticism of power is at best difficult and at worst all but impossible, creative figures like Mr. Ai and his colleagues are often the only ones with the courage to speak truth against the lies of tyrants. We needed the samizdat truth-tellers to reveal the ugliness of the Soviet Union. Today the government of China has become the world’s greatest threat to freedom of speech, and so we need Ai Weiwei, Liao Yiwu and Liu Xiaobo."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Passover (April 18-26, 2011)

Passover is a holiday for all Jews. I've read that more Jews in America participate in a Seder than in any other Jewish ritual. The Haggadah -- which can be rewritten to reflect a huge variety of philosophies, including secular ones -- tells us that all Jews came out of Egypt and then stood with the former Egyptian slaves when Moses delivered the law. Who knows, maybe we believe it in some secular way or another.

I can think of a number of reasons why Passover appeals to secular Jews like me. First, Passover is a family holiday, celebrated at home. The rabbis and other synagogue authorities don't play a role. Their dismissal of secular Jews as  not being real Jews, or their wish to change secular Jews into ones who act more like them, can't reach you at your own dining table. Also, they can't bore you to death.

Passover appeals to secular Americans because it commemorates freedom from tyranny and the values of a free society. For religious Jews, it may have additional meanings, but the value of freedom resonates for many secular Jews and other Americans as well. For example, recent feminists have added some details to their Seders that put women's rights into the spotlight. The Seder's flexible nature allows one to have independent ideas, to be as religious or irreligious as one likes, to choose elements of tradition, and also to maintain a Jewish identity. Of course this also depends on one's guest list or host's ideas too -- I don't mean to imply that this is an exercise in giving offense.

Passover has fantastic food traditions. The challenge of giving up bread and other leavened foods inspired cooks for generations. The holiday falls at the most food-deprived time of year in Eastern Europe where most American Jews originate. However, the importance of the holiday meant that poor people were supplied with food or money, and that people of modest means saved up some luxury items from the previous growing season. Insight into history of Jews in other times and environments is embedded in the food traditions.

Some secular Jews may give up bread, but you don't have to do so to enjoy the joyful and generous foodways of the holiday. My father, who was an inventive secular Jew, always bought a few rye breads from the local Jewish bakery before it closed for Passover, and stowed them in the freezer so he wouldn't have to give up anything. The holiday wasn't originally held at a time when food was scarce, but that was the case in the Shtetls -- giving up bread was a really serious sacrifice in my father's childhood. I view the holiday as a time to think about the old days, when food was less abundant, as well as about other traditions -- see Passover in my food blog.

My father also maintained that a Seder should last no more than 10 minutes. An Israeli expert making suggestions for broadening tradition at secular Israelis' Seders almost agrees. He pointed out that the Haggadah became longer and longer over the centuries stating: "In the ninth century, the Haggadah could be read in 20 minutes."

Passover's appeal to secular Jews reminds me of something that I heard at a seminar about Jewish languages a few weeks ago. Being secular (whether in the context of language or another context) is done within the context of a religion. When you are a secular Jew, that means you are some kind of Jew, not a nothing. The speaker, Anita Norich, pointed out that some people said that in the Yugoslav war, the battle was between those who didn't go to church and those who didn't go to the mosque. I'm a Jew who doesn't go to synagogue, but like many others, I celebrate Passover at home in my own way.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Leo Frank (April 17, 1884)

Leo Frank was lynched in Marietta, Georgia, on August 17, 1915, the only Jew to be lynched in America. The fact that he was a prominent, college-educated, northern-born Jew in this Southern town had clearly contributed to the injustice of his arrest and the sentiment at his trial. Jurors in fact had openly expressed their hatred of him.

A mob first kidnapped Frank from jail. “Townsfolk were proudly photographed beneath Frank's swinging corpse, pictures still valued today by their descendants.”

From Jewish Virtual Library:
"Southern Jewish historians note that Atlanta Jewry has still not fully recovered from the trauma of the Leo Frank case, and that the Temple bombing of the early 1960s simply reopened those wounds. Another legacy of the case is that, to help defend Frank, B'nai B'rith created its (now-independent) Anti-Defamation League. In 1986, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles finally granted Leo Frank a posthumous pardon, not on the grounds that they thought him innocent, but because his lynching deprived him of his right to further appeal."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Charlie Chaplin (April 16,1889)

The notion that Chaplin was Jewish seems to have originated with the Nazis, who hated his politics. His parents seem to have been British vaudeville performers but not Jewish. So his film “The Great Dictator” was a masterpiece of anti-Nazi sentiments but that can, I think, make him a hero to secular Jews.

Google has already celebrated Chaplin's birthday with a Chaplin-style YouTube video.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452)

There really isn’t any Jewish content to the work of Leonardo, and I don’t know of any substantial interaction with the small Jewish communities that lived in Italy in his time. However, I’m a big fan, and I have a large collection of parodies of Mona Lisa, so here he is!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743)

Thomas Jefferson, as one of the founding fathers of the United States, represents the development of a welcoming society where civil rights were extended to a much greater number of people than in earlier times. No doubt from a 21st century perspective it’s too bad he didn’t include women and didn’t adequately condemn slavery, but he made a very important contribution to the way Americans are now able to live.

Jefferson’s views as a Deist also make him appealing to me as a secular Jew: he most emphatically did not intend to insist on Christian belief or practice in the new society. Deists belived that a god was not necessary for understanding the physical universe, but that the laws of science served adequately. The universe for them was a smoothly functioning machine that worked without interference from god. I think this is a highly compatible view for a secular Jew.

Needless to say there are trends in modern America that make me worry about the gifts that Jefferson gave us.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Joseph Pulitzer (April 10, 1847)

Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary. His father was a Hungarian grain merchant of Magyar-Jewish origin, and his mother was a German Roman Catholic. As a young man, he volunteered with a recruiter in Germany to go to the US and fight for the Union in the Civil War. Eventually he became the owner of a German-language newspaper in St. Louis, which had a large German community. By 1878, he had mastered the English language, American journalism, and had become owner of the St.Louis Post-Dispatch. Ultimately he also owned newspapers in New York and founded the Pulitzer Prizes.

When I was growing up in St.Louis, we still had a sense of civic pride in living in a city with such an excellent newspaper – I think it still has an outstanding reputation. So Pulitzer, though his family long since had abandoned any Jewish identity, had a sort of heroic status for us. A full biography is here.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Tom Lehrer (April 9, 1928)

Tom Lehrer said: “I used to think atheists were arrogant but now I am one and I like it."

It's been many years since Lehrer performed and recorded his amazing original satires, but they are just as wonderful now as they ever were. Just listen to them!

Songs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ilan Stavans (April 7, 1961)

Ilan Stavans was born in Mexico City where he grew up in a multi lingual environment: Yiddish, Spanish, Hebrew, later English. He has published essays, books, and critical editions in a variety of areas of literary studies, particularly in Latin American literature and “Spanglish,” language of New York and other homes of Latino immigrants. Last fall, I heard him lecture and had a very brief conversation with him, where I mentioned that his anthologies had introduced me to the fiction of Latin American Jews, and that I was also interested in their cooking. He said as a child he had no idea that the latkes with mole that his family ate were different than the latkes eaten by other Jews for Hanukkah.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Walter Winchell (April 7, 1897)

I remember the staccato sound of Winchell’s broadcasts from my early childhood, but never listened to what was said. Only when I read the counter-factual history The Plot Against America by Philip Roth did I learn that Winchell was Jewish. In Roth's strange version of history, Charles Lindbergh becomes president and makes a pact with the Nazis just before World War II. The book deals with the effect on the Jews of America, particularly one family in New Jersey with a close resemblance to Roth's own. Winchell becomes the hero of the book -- which as far as I know is beyond anything in his real life.

Why Winchell? Roth explained:
“I chose Walter Winchell to lead the political opposition to Lindbergh because, to begin with, the real Walter Winchell hated Lindbergh and along with people like the columnist Dorothy Thompson and Roosevelt's interior secretary, Harold Ickes, attacked him as pro-Nazi from the moment he became the voice of the America First version of nonintervention. Needless to say, Winchell was never a candidate for president, as I have him being in my book. But then neither did Lindbergh become president. I chose Winchell to lead the political opposition because Winchell was the outsize social creature he was -- as Mayor La Guardia says in his eulogy over Winchell's body (in this book only), ‘Walter is too loud, Walter talks too fast, Walter says too much, and yet, by comparison, Walter's vulgarity is something great, and Lindbergh's decorum is hideous.'’'
“What it comes down to is that I wanted Lindbergh opposed not by a saint but by a gossip columnist, the most famous gossip columnist in the country, gross and cheap without apology, whose enemies considered him a loudmouth Jew. Winchell was to gossip what Lindbergh was to flight: the record-breaking pioneer.” – “The Story Behind 'The Plot Against America'” by Roth

Monday, April 4, 2011


Here is a list of a few authors that I enormously like and enjoy although their works have no direct relevance to my project on defining secular Jewish identity. My choice of heroic figures is very broad, but not infinitely so!
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Jane Austen
  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • Martin Cruz Smith (though he did occasionally have a Jewish character in the Renko books)
  • Iain Pears (though there was a Jewish character in Dream of Scipio)
  • Jorge Amado
  • Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Julia Child
  • Tony Hillerman
  • Robert Parker

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Emile Zola (April 2, 1840)

The Dreyfus Affair divided late-19th century Republican France. Someone had been passing military secrets from the French to the Germans, and one officer with access to the documents, Dreyfus, came under suspicion because he was a Jew. The evidence against him was dubious, but his race was enough to convict him. This was the era when hatred of Jews was a political position, with every effort on the part of the haters to make anti-Semitism respectable -- in fact, they had coined the term itself to justify their beliefs.

After Dreyfus was convicted and sent to Devil's Island, evidence against another officer came to light. A major cover-up followed this discovery, including falsification of documents and widespread conspiracy to change facts and create contradictory evidence. The guilty man, Esterhazy, was the perfect opposite of Dreyfus. His family were old European nobility, he was politically right wing, and he appealed to the anti-Semites. His trial was politically charged; after five minutes of deliberation, the judges declared him innocent, and crowds in the streets cried "Long live the Army!" "Long live France!" and "Death to the Jews!" *

Zola published his famous essay "J'accuse" on January 13, 1898, immediately following Esterhazy's trial. Zola's text presented in detail both the false charges against Dreyfus, the weakness of these charges, and the way they had been falsified. The article is in the form of a letter to the President of the Republic, under the pretense that the President was unaware of the vast injustice that had just occurred.

The initial process that led to the injustice he characterized as "hunting for the 'dirty Jews,' which dishonors our time." He also summarized the creation of a false defense for Esterhazy, who initially was ready to concede that he was the spy. He indites the military, the government, and the press for supporting the injustices.

Near the beginning of "J'accuse," Zola said "The truth I will say, because I promised to say it, if justice, regularly seized, did not do it, full and whole. My duty is to speak, I do not want to be an accomplice. My nights would be haunted by the specter of innocence that suffer there, through the most dreadful of tortures, for a crime it did not commit."

"J'accuse" means "I accuse" -- Zola accused the French of mocking justice in their persecution of Dreyfus. He characterized the initial events as follows: "the instructions were made thus, as in a 15th century tale, shrouded in mystery, with a savage complication of circumstances, all based on only one childish charge, this idiotic affair, which was not only a vulgar treason, but was also the most impudent of hoaxes, because the famously delivered secrets were almost all without value. If I insist, it is that the kernel is here, from whence the true crime will later emerge, the terrible denial of justice from which France is sick."

Eloquently, Zola continued with the facts and with his accusation: "That a man could be condemned for this act, is a wonder of iniquity. I defy decent people to read it, without their hearts leaping in indignation and shouting their revolt, while thinking of the unwarranted suffering, over there, on Devil's Island."

Zola concluded with a series of accusations, each beginning with the words "I accuse." He named all those who conspired to condemn an innocent man and exonerate a guilty one for the worst possible reasons, and those who were complicit with the conspirators.

Finally, he ended with these words:
"While proclaiming these charges, I am not unaware of subjecting myself to articles 30 and 31 of the press law of July 29, 1881, which punishes the offense of slander. And it is voluntarily that I expose myself."

"As for the people I accuse, I do not know them, I never saw them, I have against them neither resentment nor hatred. They are for me only entities, spirits of social evil. And the act I accomplished here is only a revolutionary mean for hastening the explosion of truth and justice."

"I have only one passion, that of the light, in the name of humanity which has suffered so and is entitled to happiness. My ignited protest is nothing more than the cry of my heart. That one thus dares to translate for me into court bases and that the investigation takes place at the great day!"

"I am waiting."

"Please accept, Mr. President, the assurance of my deep respect."
Indeed, Zola was tried in court, and had to go into exile as a result of his heroic defense of Dreyfus. I'm a big fan of Zola's novels, but it is this commitment to truth at great risk that makes him a hero.

After a 12 year ordeal, Dreyfus received a pardon in 1906. Zola did not live to see it, having died in 1902. The French right never gave up their political commitment to Dreyfus's guilt. Evidence meant nothing to them: it was a matter of conviction and faith to condemn a Jew.

*p. 228, Gregor Dallas, Metro Stop Paris, 2008. Reading this book inspired me to look at "J'accuse."