Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Jerusalem Day (May 31, 2011)

The Israelis celebrate their capital and its long historical significance on May 31 this year. To celebrate, here is the oldest Zionist poem by Judah Halevi, who probably died soon after arriving in Jerusalem in the twelfth century.
My Heart is in the East by Judah Halevi
My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west--
How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain--
Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary

UPDATE: The Israelis have a lot of controversy over Jerusalem Day, based of course in the controversy over Jerusalem itself. See, for example,
Jerusalem Day celebrations will not cover up the city's rot and discrimination: Jerusalem Day is an 'artificial celebration'; Jerusalem is the most ultra-Orthodox city, the most Arab, plagued by negative migration. By Yossi Sarid

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Linda Grant: "We Had It So Good"

Time goes by. You're young and have no serious plans. You establish something: a marriage? A job? A life? Suddenly you are aging, or just plain old. Strangers clearly see that you aren't you. But you know you are really the same person you have always been.

Fleeting perceptions that current reality isn't reality are indescribable. But in her latest novel We Had It So Good Linda Grant perfectly captures this sense of time flying by, of change and permanence in conflict. She describes Stephen Newman, her main character in the 1950s: a child in Los Angeles playing in his father's fur-storage business. It's the 60s/70s: Stephen goes to England on a Rhodes scholarship, meets a group of hippie types, is "sent down" from Oxford for making LSD in a research lab. He lives in a "squat." Before he can think, years pass and he and his wife -- one of the girls from the group -- have a beautiful house, children, and a better-than-middle class lifestyle. His wife becomes a psychoanalyst; he becomes a BBC producer. How has he stayed in England so long?

Stephen, the displaced American, has a Jewish immigrant father who came through Ellis Island and a Cuban mother who regrets the way her native land must have changed. His main sense of them is of their great love for him: the English girls he meets have no similar family memory. His mother never goes back to Cuba, but his father at age 90 takes him on a trip to the village in Poland where he lived 80 years before; eventually his father shares a long-concealed truth about his origins and the story he's always told, but not with Stephen, rather with his wife.

Historic events that we readers recognize take their toll. It's the 90s: a man that Stephen once met on the way to be a Rhodes scholar is President of the US. It's the 00s: he thinks his friends have all escaped the terrorist bombing on the London tube, but his daughter is devastated by its effect on her secret lover. His friend from hippie days is a very rich man thanks to an investment guy in New York that never loses money. At the end of the book we can see what's coming to him. We can see so much.

Linda Grant -- already one of my "heroes" -- does it all through her wonderful characterization of Stephen, his wife, their friends, their two children, their parents, and the world that they live in. The whirl of time flying by is remarkably portrayed. Her book When I Lived in Modern Times captured a historical moment effectively and vividly, and she's now done it again.

Friday, May 27, 2011

David Liss: "The Ethical Assassin"

The Ethical Assassin by David Liss is a suspense novel in which a naive character, 17-year-old Lemul Altick suddenly finds himself threatened by bizarre criminals and corrupt policemen in the heat and misery of 1980s Florida. Lem -- whose name is coincidentally the same as Swift's Lemuel Gulliver -- grows up and learns a great deal in his strange voyage of saving himself from a variety of dangers. He learns to deal with strange circumstances, with dishonest employers in his job selling encyclopedias door-to-door, with bullying from his age peers and others, and with ambiguity about which people he can believe or trust. It's not quite as excellent as some novels in this style (like by Graham Greene) but it's good.

The "ethical assassin" of the title is a stealthy, weird-looking, and mysterious character named Melford who offers long discourses on veganism and saving animals from human cruelty. Melford insists on the ethical imperative of his views; his persuasiveness pulls in Lem and at least one other character. Despite all the discussion of the wrongs of eating meat, food in the sense that I usually write about it hardly plays a role in this book.

Lem, attempting to skip meat thanks to Melford's discourses, dislikes the dairy-free bowl of oatmeal that's his only choice at an IHOP; he eats fruit when his hunger tempts him otherwise, and he also resists temptation from a girl who tries to lure him to eat a hamburger -- but this book is truly not about food in the style of many works of detective fiction. Melford's obsession with the ethics of eating meat plays a large role in the unfolding suspense -- making the discussions relevant without (in my opinion) turning this into a philosophic novel. It would in fact be perverse to read this as a tract about "meat is murder" though some of the amazon.com reviewers did read it this way. It's about a bizarre character whose quirk is animal rights.

Lem Altick, like the central characters in Liss's other novels, is a Jew. For Lem, being Jewish has no stated religious or ethical content, it's just one of many taunts from the bullies of his school days and his experiences in the narrative. The extent to which Jewishness has no meaning for Lem is a bit extreme. In Liss's other books, which are set in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the key Jewish characters (the ones who have to get themselves out of dangerous and strange situations) are not practicing their religion; they nevertheless are very conscious of its meaning and customs and how it affects the lives of their Jewish relatives. For Lem, it's nothing but another reason to pick on him, like being overweight (which he had been a few years before).

Since the publication of The Ethical Assassin, Liss has returned to publishing historical fiction, and also seems to be collaborating on some graphic novels. I've read the rest of his novels to date, and liked them. I would judge this the weakest though it's a good read. The historical content of the others gives them a greater depth than this one; the variety of really oddball characters in this one doesn't make up for this lack of depth. I'm looking forward to Liss's new historical novel, scheduled to appear in August.

I wrote this review for my food blog -- "The Ethical Assassin"

Henry Kissinger (May 27, 1923)

Of course I never liked Kissinger's role in the Nixon administration and the Viet Nam war, but recent revelations have made him seem worse than he did before. Consider this excerpt from a recent New York Times article, "In Tapes, Nixon Rails About Jews and Blacks" --
An indication of Nixon’s complex relationship with Jews came the afternoon Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, came to visit on March 1, 1973. The tapes capture Meir offering warm and effusive thanks to Nixon for the way he had treated her and Israel.

But moments after she left, Nixon and Mr. Kissinger were brutally dismissive in response to requests that the United States press the Soviet Union to permit Jews to emigrate and escape persecution there.

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Operation Solomon (May 24, 1991)

Operation Solomon was the name given to the rescue of 14,324 Ethiopian Jews by Israeli forces on May 24, 1991. After much negotiation with Ethiopian authorities (and payment of a large sum of money), the Israelis were allowed a very limited time to evacuate the Jewish-Ethiopian refugees from small backwards villages who were waiting to immigrate to Israel. El Al jumbo jets and Hercules C-130s flew in and out of Ethiopia non-stop for 36 hours. This was an even bigger effort than Operation Moses a few years earlier, which flew around 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

In my opinion, despite many setbacks, the Israelis' ongoing commitment to these immigrants is also heroic. I have seen early childhood programs, education for young mothers, and other efforts to assimilate them into modern life. Clearly there are many problems, but I respect the efforts.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Charles Aznavour (May 22, 1924)

Charles Aznavour, the famous French singer and actor, was born in Paris to Armenian immigrant parents fleeing from Turkey. He grew up in the Marais, the Jewish neighborhood. He said: "'All my childhood friends are Jews. … I was brought up among them. I finished up having the same gestures, the same way of talking, the same way of joking. During the German occupation, I was arrested several times for being Jewish. Shall we say, I don't have a very Catholic appearance. They'd take me to the command post. I'd show my baptism certificate, but they didn't believe me. They'd make me take down my trousers. As I tell my friends, I am the only Ashkenazi goy in France.'" See "Aznavour, The Last Chanteur"

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Al Franken (May 21, 1951)

Now that he’s in politics it’s probably not possible to know if he’s a secular Jew. But he’s surely a hero to secular Jews for bringing humor and politics together in a most unusual way.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Bob Dylan (May 24, 1941)

I really don't see how Bob Dylan, much as I like his music, can mean much as a Jew when he can't seem to make up his mind what religion to be. I think I decided this when I heard his Christmas album a couple of years ago. I thought it was terribly unmusical, really a travesty on his early work. As a reviewer in Intelligent Life Magazine put it: "As he wheezed through “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, he sounded more than ever like a croaking drone."

I agree with the Intelligent Life summary of Dylan:
"He has spent a lifetime defying expectations. When the fans wanted him to remain a folkie, he went electric. When they prized his presumed atheism, he went Christian. When they turn up hoping for folk anthems, he gives them the blues. Inside the old man, a sullen teenager is still trying to get out. As he said himself: forever young."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Michael Chabon (May 24, 1963)

--Michael Chabon on the Simpsons

"I saw my first golem in 1968, in Flushing, New York, shortly before my fifth birthday," Michael Chabon wrote in "Golems I Have Known...A Trickster's Memoir." The last sentence of this essay is: "And, naturally, I'm still telling lies." In the essay, Chabon describes his direct encounters with clay statues created by possibly practicing Kabbalists -- and also claims to be related to Rabbi Loewe of Prague, most famous golem creator. He also describes the progress of his awareness of both the Holocaust and the American civil rights struggle through his experiences with various people during his youth: these things are knit together in the memoir.

Chabon explains that a golem is among other things (and especially for modern or post-moderns) a metaphor for artistic and literary creation. Originally, the kabbalists made golems as an imitation of god's work creating Adam, also from clay. God animated the inert clay Adam; thus, the rabbis pretended or imitated him in the incantations they used over their statues. Of course the legends had it that they were sometimes successful, and the statues really came to life. After a childhood of encounters with golems, Chabon used the story of Rabbi Loewe and his golem in his Pulitzer-prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The Holocaust played a role in that book, as it did in the memoir.

I'm a big fan of Chabon. Besides Kavalier & Clay, I loved his book The Yiddish Policemen's Union, an alternate, comic, ironic history of the Jews in the twentieth century where settlement in Alaska takes place instead of the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. His playful treatment of Jewish history and identity really appeals to me. I'm especially amused by the fact that the essay, which ends "I'm still telling lies" has been attacked for being false.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940)

Joseph Brodsky is one of the many modern Russian-Jewish-emigre poets whose works I have not read. He's special to me because for a short time he was a poet in residence at the University of Michigan and lived less than a block from my house. I never knowingly saw him. He did not like it much in our town. In a poem about Ann Arbor he wrote:
“In the country of dentists, whose daughters order clothes /
from London catalogues, . . . /
I, whose mouth houses ruins /
more total than the Parthenon’s, /
a spy, an interloper, /
the fifth column of a rotten civilization..." -- From a New Yorker review of Brodsky: A Literary Life, May 23, 2011
On the complex question of Brodsky’s Jewishness:
“In one sense, Brodsky is unequivocal on this subject: ‘I’m a Jew. One hundred percent. You can’t be more Jewish than I am,’ he told an interviewer. Yet he was typical of his Soviet Jewish generation in having absolutely no knowledge of Judaism—apparently he did not even read the Bible until he was in his twenties—and his understanding of Jewishness seems to have been passive and minimal. ‘When anybody asked what my ethnic background was, I of course answered Jewish,’ he explained, ‘but that didn’t happen often. There was really no need to ask. I can’t say a Russian r.’ Brodsky saw Jewishness in terms of such details of speech and appearance, like his prominent nose and pale skin. It could also be a cause of (fairly minor) discrimination: He recalled being teased by classmates and having his application to the Naval Academy rejected because of anti-Semitism.” From Another review of the same book, "Nowhere Man" by Adam Kirsch.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912)

Terkel was a prize-winning author and radio broadcast personality who spoke for the common man by interviewing many of them. He described himself in many interviews at the end of his very long life (1912-2008)

About religion he said: “I happen to be an agnostic. You know what an agnostic is, don't you? A cowardly atheist. I, myself, don't believe in any afterlife. I do believe in this life, and what you do in this life is what it's all about.” -- from an NPR broadcast.

About his background he said, “My mother came from Bialystock, near the Russo-Polish border, a very cosmopolitan town decimated by the Nazis. My father came from a suburb [and was] a tailor.”

And about whether his Jewish background influenced him: “Of course it has. That’s a baby’s question. Of course it played a tremendous role. My father voted for [Socialist Party candidate] Eugene V. Debs for president. Of course, there’s anti-Semitism. Of course, there’s anti-everything. There’s always nativism. At the moment, it seems to be more [about] color, than anything else.” – from an article in the Jewish Journal.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Madeleine Albright (May 15, 1937)

Madeleine Albright never knew that her parents were Jewish until hearings were being held for her appointment as Secretary of State. Or at least that's what she said. She had no Jewish identity whatsoever, though seemed more gracious about discovering one. The public was nevertheless content to view her as Jewish, showing something about what that means. Does that make her a secular Jew? I'm not sure.

She told Time magazine in 2006 “I have a somewhat confused religious background.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mark Zuckerberg (May 14, 1984)

Do you think founding Facebook makes Zuckerberg into a hero? Or do you think Facebook policies make him an anti-hero? My list wouldn't be complete without this current center of public interest. I’m a Facebook user, but I’m really not that interested in gossip about the founder, movies about the founder, or whatever about the founder.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Zalkind Hourwitz

I recently read A Jew in the French Revolution: The Life of Zalkind Hourwitz. In it, the author, Frances Malino, analyzes the effect of the French Revolution on the various Jewish communities in France at the time. By careful scholarship on Hourwitz's participation in the Revolution, she clarifies the Revolutionary-era issues of the nature of citizenship, the full meaning of the "rights of man" and who was entitled to these rights, and how civil liberties such as voting could be assigned or withheld. Hourwitz, a self-educated Polish Jew who arrived in France just before the Revolution, makes a perfect example for exploring these issues. His views foreshadowed the famous revolutionary formulation that "it is necessary to refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals." (Clermont-Tonnerre, cited by Malino p. 81)

The questions of Jewish participation in French civic life first arose during the initial meetings of the Estates General at the end of the French monarchy, and continued until Napoleon took over and created a new definition of the Jewish community. Throughout Hourwitz played a serious role. At the center of the debate was the conflict between the existing autonomous Jewish communities in France -- which paid collective taxes, were run by rabbis, and often suppressed the wishes of their members -- and individual Jews who wanted to be independent without giving up their faith. (It's amazing how different this was from the simultaneous recognition of the rights of Jews in the United States, for whom an autonomous community without individual rights would have been unthinkable, and who received the rights of citizens under the constitution without debate.)

A contest in Metz -- home to one of the poorest and most despised autonomous Jewish communities -- was Hourwitz's first appearance in the intellectual life of France. Although he was a recent immigrant with somewhat limited skills, he wrote an essay to answer the contest question: how could the Jews of France be made more useful and happier? His essay, an "Apology for the Jews," won the prize jointly with the Abbe Grégoire and another entrant. Both of them had far more prestige and higher formal qualifications.

His simple answer to the question was: “The means to make the Jews happy and useful? Here it is, cease to make them unhappy and useless, in giving them, or rather returning to them, the rights of citizenship.” (Malino p. 18)

Hourwitz, born in 1751 near Lublin, immigrated to France in around 1787. He lived there until his death in 1812; after years of participation in French civic life, taking the citizens' oath, serving in the national guard, and engaging with the experts in the continuing debate over the rights of Jews and other issues, he finally was allowed to become a citizen in the later part of the Revolutionary era. Besides his prize-wining “Apology” for the Jews, he also worked for the Biblioteque Nationale and wrote several books on language and linguistics.

Hourwitz was always faithful to his ideals: his Jewish identity and the revolutionary principals of equality and liberty. For much of his life he was a poor and disfranchised alien and often had to make a living selling old clothes. He managed to obtain and keep the respect of his revolutionary colleagues who were eligible to vote and often served in the Revolutionary government. Above all, he was a survivor during the time when many fell to the guillotine.

The ability of modern Jews to make the choice to be secular or religious was first being explored by Hourwitz and his contemporaries, so the book touches on issues that are important to my efforts here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918)

Feynman was an undisputed genius in physics and other sciences, with many solid accomplishments and a Nobel Prize. People who watched the hearings investigating the Challenger disaster are unlikely to forget the way he convinced everyone that there was a real cause being hidden by NASA: the O-rings that didn't stand up to take-off conditions.

Sometimes I wonder why Feynman had to write books like Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, inventing a clever, quirky, irreverent persona to go with these solid accomplishments. Bongo drums. Lock picking. Rejecting Japanese because different people had to use different levels of language. All kinds of bad-boy stuff. (A really good read!)

Feynman's self-characterization includes being a secular Jew: completely non-believing and non-observant. When he was applying to college in 1939, anti-Jewish quotas in Ivy League schools meant he couldn't get in to many if them, despite his obvious gifts -- he received his education at MIT. Perhaps his flamboyant self-image later in his books owes something to having been rejected earlier. Perhaps not.

Mort Sahl (May 11, 1927)

Does anyone remember Mort Sahl? He's credited in some places with inventing stand-up comedy. Someone invented it? Who knew? I thought it was invented by Jews in the Catskills long before he was born. Well, I include him because he was such a model of hipness when I was impressionable.

Irving Berlin (May 11, 1888)

Jews, the cultural athletes, seem to define everything. And when you bring up the subject don’t forget the Jew who wrote the songs that define so much that's American: “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” “Puttin on the Ritz,” and “In your Easter Bonnet.” Hundreds more, of course.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Daniel Bell (May 10, 1919)

At the time of Daniel Bell's death in January of this year, I learned quite a bit about his influence and accomplishments, of which I had little prior awareness. He was a member of a circle of American Jewish intellectuals including Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, and Nathan Glazer.

According to his obituary in the New York Times, Bell had the religious trajectory typical of many intellectual Jews in his generation: he became a nonbeliever and a socialist at the time of his Bar Mitzvah, and later became part of a secular Marxist leftist Jewish circle at City College of New York including Kristol, Howe, and Glazer.

The Times Literary Supplement (London) ranked two of Bell’s books, “The End of Ideology” and the “Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” among the 100 most influential books since World War II. He was a leader in liberal and left-wing thought for many years, and participated in active discussions of ideology as the prominent associates of his youth moved far to the right.

From his obituary:

"Indeed, for all the ideological wars he had witnessed, Mr. Bell disdained labels, particularly as they were applied to him. Over the years he would offer his own political profile, declaring what he called his 'triune' view of himself: 'a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture.'"

Monday, May 9, 2011

Israel Independence Day

Israel's Independence Day falls on various dates, according to the Jewish calendar: 5 Iyer, this year, today May 9. The official declaration of a Jewish state was May 14, 1948.

After more than 60 years, many Jews feel conflicted about issues to do with Israel. Many things have changed; public opinion has changed. Israel has become a touchstone for anti-Jewish hatred, on the rise again. In 1948, much was different.

I can only imagine the range of emotions that were felt in 1948 by American Jews who were still dealing with the full revelation of the Holocaust. In trying to imagine what the state of Israel meant to them, I find insight in this poem by Karl Shapiro:

When I think of the liberation of Palestine,
When my eye conceives the great black English line
Spanning world news of two thousand years,
My heart leaps forward like a hungry dog,
My heart is thrown back in its tangled chain,
My soul is hangdog in a Western chair.

When I think of the battle for Zion I hear
The drop of chains, the starting forth of feet,
And I remain chained in a Western chair.
My blood beats like a bird against a wall,
I feel the weight of prisons in my skull
Falling away; my forebears stare through stone.

When I see the name of Israel high in print
The fences crumble in my flesh;
I sink Deep in a Western chair and rest my soul.
I look the stranger clear to the blue depths
Of his unclouded eye. I say my name
Aloud for the first time unconsciously.

Speak of the tillage of a million heads
No more. Speak of the evil myth no more
Of one who harried Jesus on his way
Saying, Go faster. Speak no more
Of the Yellow badge, secta nefaria.
Speak only the name of the living land.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mordecai Anielewicz: Died May 8, 1943

Mordecai Anielewicz died May 8, 1943 in the final stages of the Warsaw Ghetto, whose defense he helped to organize. His exact date of birth and probably his exact religious feelings are unknown. But he’s a hero to anyone Jewish for leading the struggle against the Nazis, who elsewhere encountered so little opposition.

Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote shortly before his death and the fall of the ghetto:
"It is impossible to put into words what we have been through. One thing is clear, what happened exceeded our boldest dreams. The Germans ran twice from the ghetto. One of our companies held out for 40 minutes and another for more than 6 hours. The mine set in the 'brushmakers' area exploded. Several of our companies attacked the dispersing Germans. Our losses in manpower are minimal. That is also an achievement. Y. [Yechiel] fell. He fell a hero, at the machine-gun. I feel that great things are happening and what we dared do is of great, enormous importance...."

"It is impossible to describe the conditions under which the Jews of the ghetto are now living. Only a few will be able to hold out. The remainder will die sooner or later. Their fate is decided. In almost all the hiding places in which thousands are concealing themselves it is not possible to light a candle for lack of air."

"...The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle." -- Letter of April 23, 1943

Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Mona in the Promised Land" Published May 7, 1996

Author Gish Jen published the novel Mona in the Promised Land on May 7, 1996. Mona, the title character, is the daughter of two Chinese immigrants, but she decides to become Jewish, as most of her friends are. Mona's parents have already bought a home in a Jewish suburb because they think that Chinese are the “new Jews” and that by sending their children to the schools there they will give them a better education. It's a very funny and also insightful book.

Jen’s birth name was Lillian, but she renamed herself Gish in honor of Lillian Gish – another reason to like her! I can't find Gish Jen's birthday, though she appears to have been born in 1955.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sigmund Freud (May 6, 1856)

From time to time in recent years I’ve read articles saying how important Freud still is, how influential, how pervasively his thought colors our culture. Then the authors or journalists writing the articles suggest that no one reads his works or follows his example as a psychoanalyst any more. For one thing, health insurance companies no longer accept resposibility for endless 1-hour sessions on the couch. If anyone has a couch. Some studies may show that a "talking cure" is still effective, but it's so much more costly than a pill, they all point out, that no one cares if it's better or not.

Freudian thought and philosophy, as I understand them, reflect his nonreligious Jewish identity – he created a way of thinking about the human mind for the 20th century. Maybe Freud is a model secular Jew. Suppose that Freud did change some of the jokes in his famous joke book, and take out the Yiddish punch lines and make them supposedly more universal -- at least I heard a lecture that demonstrated this. So what?

I once visited Freud’s house in Vienna – now a museum – and was impressed by the old films that were being shown, in which the Nazis marched down the very street where his home stood. The film included the voice of his daughter describing how the family felt when they saw the storm troops marching and their fellow citizens applauding and adoring them including all that adoration meant. The Nazis in fact classified all psychoanalysis as Jewish aberration, and tried to remake a pure Nazi version. Freud had to flee. His couch is not in the museum in Vienna, it's in London where he was exiled. Anti-Jewish Freud hating is more subtle now but far from nonexistent.

None of this changes Freud's accomplishment, especially his central influence on early 20th century European writers. When I try to understand his importance, my admiration rises. However, Freud is neither anti-hero nor to me. I just don’t think about him very often, any more than I think about Marx -- coincidentally separate in birthday by only one day.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Karl Marx (May 5, 1818)

Hero or antihero? I really don’t think about Marx much, and I don’t know if he can be held responsible for the 20th century excesses done in his name. He was a definite Jewish antisemite, which makes me lean towards antihero.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Amos Oz (May 4, 1939)

Amos Oz is one of my favorite Israeli authors. His autobiographical work A Tale of Love and Darkness clarified my understanding of the history of Israel. His work in favor of a peaceful solution to the violence and ill-will between Israelis and Palestinians is idealistic -- maybe too idealistic for my analysis of the increasingly bad situation.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Golda Meir (May 3, 1898)

Golda Meir started out the same as many of our grandmothers or great-grandmothers: she came to the United States with her parents, seeking a better life. But she became an American-style activist. Then she became a committed Zionist, moved on to Israel, and became a political leader and head of state. Hero!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day

Today is Holocaust memorial day in Israel. The editorial in Haaretz reminds readers of the moral lessons of the Holocaust as well as the lessons Israelis have learned about having a strong state of one's own.

"One [moral] lesson must be that such horrors can arise within a purportedly enlightened society, even one with a democratic government, and that it is perilous to overlook worrying signs - such as incipient indications of nationalism or damages caused by racism - that presage a descent down a slippery slope with all the attendant consequences.

"From this standpoint, there is reason for concern in Israel. From one Holocaust Remembrance Day to the next, our society has deteriorated, as seen in the appearance of worrying indications of hatred of foreigners and the oppression of the 'other,' along with palpable cracks in the resilience of democratic governance here. This must be of concern to each Israeli every day of the year, but on Holocaust Remembrance Day, it takes on special significance." -- Israel should have learned the Holocaust's lessons of nationalism

This suggestion can apply anywhere in any democracy, I think. And I believe that one can honor the 6,000,000 while still trying to see a broader lesson in the horrors of those events.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Joseph Heller (May 1, 1923)

Catch 22 is Heller’s most famous book, and the one that will probably be best remembered. His characters are vivid, as is his description of the futility felt by soldiers in a war. It was famous, but did anyone learn anything about futility? Can one learn?  

Good as Gold is a book about New York Jews that I think has already been forgotten, because who can follow a satire about Henry Kissinger and the Nixon era any more?

May Day

What did the labor movement mean to Jews in the first half of the 20th century? Jewish Socialists, International Labor activists, Communists, Yiddish socialists, Russian Jews, the Bundt -- so many secularizing Jews were leftists who saw May 1 as the international day to celebrate labor. Now much is forgotten, and we don’t even remember it on May 1.