Monday, June 27, 2011

Elaine Brown

Happy birthday to my sister Elaine! She's a hero because she can stand on her head and because she reads all my blogs. My earliest memory is waiting with my aunt and uncle in the park across from the hospital where she was born while my father picked up my mother and my brand new sister.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Emma Goldman (June 27, 1869)

Emma Goldman's powerful critical and analytic skills and her speaking ability (in several languages) allowed her to be an effective leader of disaffected workers. There's no doubt that her leadership was important to them, but I find her radical ideas go a bit too far for my views.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Israeli History

I grapple with the question of how the idealism of the Zionists has become the difficult situation of the current Israelis, and how propaganda to delegitimize Israel and accept only a pro-palestinian narrative has muddied the wathers of history. An article in the current Ha'aretz presents a useful summary about how the past is relevant to the present. "A still-relevant miracle" by Fania Oz-Salzberger makes the point that "Today's Israel -- depending on your preference, a regional superpower, a fast-tracking start-up nation or the bane of the Middle East -- germinated in a process so swift, dramatic and inventive, that it defies comparison with any other nation-building module in modern times."

Key quote:
"Is Israel's pre-state miracle relevant, in any way, to its present-day economic miracle - or to its less-than-miraculous political inability to attain peace with the Palestinians and Syria?

"I believe it is deeply relevant. Not for the sake of triumphalism. Not in order to reiterate, for the umpteenth time, that post-Holocaust Jews played their meager historical cards far better than pre-Nakba Palestinians. Today's Palestinians have a right to claim the sovereign state that their grandfathers threw to the winds, although the lines of division will differ a great deal from the old UN partition map.

"But no historical narrative upholding Palestinian hopes and suffering can dispense with Jewish hopes and suffering. Zionism was an authentic national movement, and any attempt to demonize it (and denounce the State of Israel ) while otherwise "having nothing against" the Jewish people (and disclaiming anti-Semitism ) is a historical non sequitur. Only a serious engagement with the human energies, accomplishments and failures of the pre-Israeli Zionist movement can explain the tenacity, success and shortcomings of Israel. Israelis, in particular, must shun the politics of despair sometimes heard in political discourse. Existential panic and cynicism have never been part of the Zionist ethos. Sowing seeds in dry soil, peace-seeking self-defense, hoping and building - these were the true hallmarks of Israel's grassroots founders."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sailing to Gaza

Howard Jacobson has written a really penetrating explanation about what's wrong with the Gaza Flotilla -- even though the participants claim "good intentions." On CNN: "Why Alice Walker Shouldn't Sail to Gaza."

Best quote:
"Even before the deed, Alice Walker has her language of outraged moral purity prepared -- 'but if they insist on attacking us, wounding us, even murdering us...' The Israeli response is thus already an act of unprovoked murder, no matter that the flotilla is by its very essence a provocation. Whatever its cargo, by luring the Israeli military into action which can be represented as brutal, the flotilla is engaged in an entirely political act. To call it by any other name is the grossest hypocrisy.

"Alice Walker might be feeling good about herself, but by giving the Palestinians the same old false comfort we've been doling out for more than half a century, and by allowing the Israelis to dismiss it as yet another act of misguided and uncomprehending adventurism -- further evidence that its fears go unheeded - her political gesture only worsens the situation. The parties to this conflict need to be brought together not divided: but those who speak disingenuously of love will engender only further hatred."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dianne Feinstein (June 22, 1933)

Diane Feinstein, a politician and Senator from California, is a purely secular Jew, having never practiced the religion nor (as far as I can tell) discussed it much in her public life. Her political accomplishments are impressive!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905)

Sartre -- "the best known European public intellectual of the twentieth century" -- was the author of a classic on the topic of antisemitism, Anti-Semite and Jew. This work was "a blistering criticism of French complicity in the Holocaust" and "the first of many works analyzing moral responsibility for oppression."

I find Sartre's analysis very insightful and helpful in my life: that antisemitism isn't based on any objective facts about Jews or features of Jews, and thus can't be refuted by rational arguments. His description of the mental processes and ethical weaknesses of antisemites unfortunately continues to apply to many individuals today as well as it did when he wrote.

A summary:
"Sartre’s analysis works particularly well at diagnosing attitudes of racial superiority. An anti-Semite bases his self-image on the fact that he is not-a-Jew, but in so doing, he becomes dependent upon the Jewish other from whom he claims total independence. Ultimately, the racist receives no satisfaction from domination because he solicits recognition from someone he denigrates."
Quotes from "Sartre's Political Philosophy."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Jacques Offenbach (June 20, 1819)

Chances are that you can hum at least one melody by Jacques Offenbach. Probably you can whistle the iconic tune that signifies naughty 19th century Paris: the Can-Can -- if you can whistle. Maybe you know the Barcarole from The Tales of Hoffman. Maybe you can sing a song from one of his many other operettas (he's credited with inventing the operetta form). In all, he wrote over 100 musical works for the stage.

Offenbach was born into a Jewish family in Cologne, Germany, but made his name in Paris as a performer (cello) and composer. When he married, he converted to Catholicism. Despite his German accent and Jewish heritage, he created the musical voice of his era in Paris. This is especially true for his work La Vie Parisiennne. In it, according to the description by the American Symphony Orchestra: "Offenbach holds up the mirror to his times... . And what does his mirror reflect? The excitement, the giddiness that Paris inspires in its visitors. The work's theme is simple: everyone wants to go to Paris, live in Paris, love in Paris."

Recently, Bartlett Sher, director of a recent production of Tales of Hoffman at the Met in New York commented on Offenbach's sense of being an outsider. An article on the Met web page explains how at the end of his life, Offenbach determined to write a serious opera -- "and chose the fantastical and often enigmatic stories of German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann as his material. As a creator of light entertainment, Offenbach longed to find a place in the world of high art. As a German Jew living in Paris, he was an outsider in another way—just like the protagonist of ... Les Contes d’Hoffmann."

“Why, so late in his career, did Offenbach feel this need to be accepted?” asked Sher... "That led me to consider Offenbach’s sense of being Jewish and an outsider. Whatever group he was in, he always appears as an outsider who never feels like he belongs, never feels like he’s connected."

Sher compared Hoffman to Franz Kafka: "another German Jew, living in Prague. In both E.T.A. Hoffmann and Kafka’s work, sinister, shadowy powers haunt the lead characters. And in each of Hoffmann’s tales that make up the opera’s three acts, the protagonist tries to break into what seems to be a closed world." Sher explains: "It’s a matter of how an artist can feel accepted and rejected at the same time."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lillian Hellman (June 20, 1905)

Lillian Hellman's parents were German Jews, who lived in New Orleans at the time of her birth, and later moved the family to New York. Hellman's plays have little or nothing of Jewish themes, though her extreme left-wing political views give her something in common with other secular Jews of her era. The controversies over whether her claims to have been an anti-Nazi spy are problematic, though her account of these possibly fictitious events are a good read!

About her Jewish identity (or lack of it) here is the explanation in article in the Jewish Women's Archive:
"The importance of Judaism and Jewish culture in Hellman’s life is ambiguous. She rarely wrote about Jewish themes in her plays and certainly never from the stance of an observant Jew. To the extent that leftist intellectual liberalism has been marked by a Jewish presence, Hellman fits into that tradition comfortably. In her memoirs, she addresses her Jewish heritage as part of a cultural background. Even here, she notes that the fact of her Jewishness didn’t fully hit her until she was confronted with antisemitism in the national socialism of Germany during a trip there in 1929. Being a woman and being a southerner seemed more important texts of identity for Hellman than being Jewish. In interviews, she remarked that southern Jews tended to downplay their Jewishness. If one only read Hellman’s plays, one would not necessarily guess that she was Jewish. And, while her memoirs do address this part of her identity, it is clear that Jewish life was not central to her sense of self, at least the self that was an artist and the self that she constructed in her memoirs. Indeed, Meyer Levin felt that Hellman was instrumental in blocking the production of his dramatization of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl because Levin’s play was 'too Jewish' in its depiction of Jewish religious practices and in its articulation of Anne Frank’s Zionist sympathies."
I find this description to be too insistent -- its attitude seems to imply that she had an obligation to have a strong Jewish identity. I think she accomplished a great deal, and I admire her. And I think there's room for a fully secular Jewish life without being Jewish.

Friday, June 17, 2011

“The Golem” Computer

“The Golem” computer was dedicated at Weizmann Institute on June 17, 1965. The dedication ceremony for this new marvel of technology included a lecture by Gershom Scholem on the history of the Golem and parallels to the computer.

One quote from the very long comparison:
What makes the Golem work? In both cases it is energy. In the old Golem it was the energy of speech, in the new one it is electronic energy. In the case of the Kabbalists it was the Shem ha-Mephorash, the fully-interpreted and expressed and differentiated name of God. Now, it is still differentiation according to a given system and interpretation of signs and ciphers which makes the Golem work.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bloomsday (June 16, 1904)

Why did James Joyce, the quintessential Irishman, make his quintessential outsider a secular Jew, Leopold Bloom? Are Jews generally quintessential outsiders in 20th Century literature? I have nothing but questions. Yes, I know he had a professional relationship with Italo Svevo, an Italian Jew, while living in Trieste. Yes, I know that a Jew is a good candidate for alienation. But still...

For the 100th anniversary a few years ago, I read Ulysses, and really enjoyed it. Yes, Joyce is a hero.

Monday, June 13, 2011

French Secular Intellectual Jews

In the Forward this week is an interesting article: "Building a Collective Consciousness on a National Scale: Jewish Historian Pierre Nora Defined What’s Quintessentially French." This article by Benjamin Ivry reviews a new biography of Nora by François Dosse. Nora, Ivry explains, is an important writer and editor for major French publishers and a member of l’Académie Française, and he has played a major role in French intellectual life. His most famous accomplishment was as editor of the series titled “Lieux de Mémoire” from the publisher Gallimard.

Nora's linked French and Jewish identities and his relationships with many other prominent French-Jewish intellectuals are interestingly explored in the article. A key passage:
"Pierre Nora has, over the decades, labored mightily to keep Jewish thought and history at the center of French intellectual life. Among his earliest publishing successes was 'Archives,' a series of annotated historical source material launched in the early 1960s and including, among dozens of titles, volumes on the Dreyfus Affair and on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and a 1986 volume, 'Mémoires Juives.' Translated as 'Jewish Memories' and published in 1991 by the University of California Press, the volume assembles accounts of little-known European Jews who had moved to France. By commissioning and publishing these books, Nora made it possible for French readers to follow his historical experience. And his focus was not only on world leaders or people of action; in the world of Nora’s 'Archives' series, intellectuals also play a prominent role."

In connection with the recent ugly affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his French defenders, it's been noted that Jews are disproportionately represented among French public intellectuals. (See "So, You're a French Intellectual, Eh?") The really offensive statements by the likes of Bernard-Henri Levi and others left me very uncomfortable. This article doesn't mention any of that, but in what it says, makes me feel more positive.

The review concludes: "As chairman of the international association Liberté pour l’Histoire (Freedom for History), Nora, who will be 80 in November, continues to defend historians’ freedom of expression against political intervention. His massive contributions to French thought, as instigator and enabler as well as author, make him a unique figure on Europe’s intellectual landscape."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Weegee (June 12, 1899)

Weegee, a New York newspaper photographer, was born Usher Fellig in Austrian Gallicia, and immigrated with his family to the Lower East Side of New York as a child. His images were impressive because he often found a different way to illustrate reality, especially dramatic moments such as fires or accidents.

A summary of his accomplishments:
"Weegee’s work tended to champion the underdog, whether within the Jewish community or among the African-Americans in Harlem. 'He shows the common person with a sense of dignity and empathy for humanity. And he treated the criminals in the same non-discriminatory way,' says Howard Greenberg, owner of the prestigious Howard Greenberg Gallery which specialises in street photography.

"The city’s Yiddish theatre scene which was flourishing at the time, also shaped the photographer’s work. ...

"Weegee was attracted to anything bizarre and extreme. “He got the images of weird New York unlike anyone else. With his use of the open flash, he froze moments where the elements of the photograph took on a surrealist look, such as the street scene where a mannequin looks like a dead body,” says Greenberg." -- from Weegee's New Yorkers in The Jewish Chronicle.
During his New York years, Weegee was recognized for the quality and uniqueness of his work; he was featured by the Museum of Modern art and in other exhibits. After World War II Weegee moved to Hollywood and worked in film, for which he's less well known than for his New York photos. He died in 1968.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928)

I once saw an exhibit at the Skirball Center in L.A. about In the Night Kitchen; they showed the milk-carton landscape juxtaposed with Sendak’s native Brooklyn skyline. And I was made aware, this is a Jewish writer when I’ve only thought I was reading imaginary children’s stories. In Where the Wild Things Are, writes Illan Stavans, “Jewishness is implied … Max inhabits his own universe; he resists outside authority; he arrives in alien lands but assimilates the inhabitants’ culture so well that he becomes a leader. Most of all, he longs for a return to his origins, the only place he feels truly at home.” (In “Vilde Khaye,” Pakn Treger, Fall, 2010, number 62, p. 16-19)

Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915)

I love Saul Bellow's books. He is so famous I need not say more.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Natalie Portman (June 9, 1981)

Natalie Portman has been in some really good movies!

Since she's originally Israeli -- born in Jerusalem -- I guess she's probably a secular Jew, though she told the Jewish Chronicle she was following Jewish superstitions in not finding out in advance if her baby (coming soon now) is a boy or a girl: "I'm Jewish and I think in Judaism, there's a lot of superstition around not doing too much before the baby comes."

She also told another interviewer: "I've always tried to stay away from playing Jews... I get like 20 Holocaust scripts a month, but I hate the genre."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords (June 8, 1970)

Gabrielle Giffords is still struggling to recover from the horrifying assassination attempt last January; her assailant has recently been found incompetent to be tried. The forces in society that inspired his presumably insane attack haven't changed in 6 months either. Here's what I wrote at the time of the attack: Gabrielle Giffords.

Monday, June 6, 2011


The holiday of Shavout begins this evening. The LA Times ran a very interesting article about foods for the holiday: "Shavout: A Feast for Body and Soul." One of my interests as a secular Jew is the history of foods for Jewish holidays and celebrations -- and also cooking and eating them. Shavout, a grain-and-fruit-harvest festival, has an especially rich tradition of foods and complex history of what and why people chose them.

In Biblical times, bread was the main food for Shavout. After the Temple fell, Rabbinic scholars shifted the significance of the holiday to a celebration of the giving of the Torah: "Searching through the Bible like employees at a 'CSI' crime lab, they found clues that proved to them that the ancient harvest festival had actually coincided with a crucial 'spiritual harvest' as well: What the Israelites 'reaped' at Shavuot was the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai."

Still later, the Shavout food tradition morphed again, and dairy foods appeared as the centerpiece of the holiday table. As a secular Jew, I enjoy the complicated explanations for why this is the tradition (as well as liking to eat them). For example, it's said that the Jews waiting for Moses didn't know about dietary laws until the Torah was delivered. To celebrate, they had to make a kosher meal -- but had no time for kosher slaughter that had just been explained to them. What to do? Eat blintzes.

I also like the more historic explanations, such as those in the L.A. Times article.

Jason Isaacs (June 6, 1963)

You may know the actor Jason Isaacs only through his most famous role: Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. How interesting that a Jewish actor should play the one character with what I would call serious meaning for secular Jews. Malfoy of course is a wizard aristocrat who – along with arch-villain Lord Voldemort – is obsessed with “pure blood.”

If there is any political allegory in the Harry Potter books, it lies in the way author J.K.Rowling (as well as the writers of the film scripts) dealt with the snobbery and fixations of wizards like Malfoy and how their obsession lures them into the worst evil and power madness. The entire treatment points to the way that English aristocratic obsessions have affected English Jews, as well as darker hints about a comparison to the Nazis. Isaacs' creation of the Malfoy role has seemingly underscored this comparison. I can't help comparing the Malfoy theme with themes of English-Jewish life, as presented by authors like Linda Grant and Howard Jacobson.

Isaacs has had many other roles as well as Malfoy. For example, he played Maurice in the film "Good." In the film, according to an article in the Forward, Maurice is a secular Jewish psychiatrist in pre-war Nazi Germany. "He’s the film’s moral center, despite the fact that — or perhaps because — Maurice is a secular Jew (who doesn’t like Jews) who is also an unapologetic bon vivant. As a self-proclaimed 'Jewish man who does almost nothing Jewish in his life,' Issacs said he could relate."

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gertrude Stein in the News

Two current art exhibits in the San Francisco Bay area feature Gertrude Stein. A review titled "Modern Is Modern Is ..." in today's New York Times explores her efforts to be a pop-star-hero. I find this very interesting, as it explores what it might mean for her to be a hero:
[The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas] became a best seller in the United States, the land to which Stein, after 30 years in Europe, maintained a vehemently patriotic attachment. And she became what she had long desperately wanted to be: a cultural hero, a pop star.

For better and for worse the pop-star Stein ... is the one people have an easy time loving: the funny, feisty, bohemian mover and shaker who looks like a butch Buddha and is good for a quotation or two.

But if we accept that Stein as our hero, what do lose? We lose Stein the great writer. And we lose the truth about the history of which she was a part.

The two remarkable Stein-related exhibitions, just a few blocks apart, try to restore some of that truth by approaching her from two angles: as an art patron in one case, and as a social personality in the other. Both shows seriously question Stein’s own solitary-genius account of herself in these roles.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926)

OK, Allen Ginsberg was a Buddhist by faith and practice. Somehow he still belongs to secular Judaism, at least considering that his poem "Kaddish" is dedicated to his mother, Naomi Ginsberg (1894—1956). Really, doesn't writing about your Jewish mother make you a hero?
" I walk toward the Lower East Side—where you walked 50 years ago, little girl—from Russia, eating the first poisonous tomatoes of America—frightened on the dock—
then struggling in the crowds of Orchard Street toward what?—toward Newark—
toward candy store, first home-made sodas of the century, hand-churned ice cream in backroom on musty brownfloor boards—
Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and learning to be mad, in a dream—what is this life?"

I heard Ginsberg read the poem once. His readings were powerful, emotional. I respect the way he used all his experiences, all his religions, in poetry.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June 1938: Comic Book History

June 1938 was the date on the first Superman comic, price 10 cents. Its creators were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who like many super-hero creators were both Jewish. There's lots of speculation and insightful writing about why Jews create super hero literature, but I'll let that alone.

More famous Jewish comic-book authors Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four comic series in 1961 for Marvel Comics; their creations included Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and X-Men.