Sunday, July 31, 2011

Primo Levi (July 31, 1919)

The importance of eyewitness documentation of the Jewish experiences of all the nightmares of the Holocaust becomes more important as time passes. Levi wrote some of the most unbearable and effective of these documents, testimony to his own experiences, and equally of literary value.

Friday, July 29, 2011

"The Ornament of the World"

The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal documents the transition in medieval Iberia from a multi-cultural society to a repressive culture that persecuted all but the most accepted Catholics. Beginning in the tenth century, small Islamic states provided an environment where both Jews and Christians had unusual rights to worship and to follow intellectual pursuits of their own choosing. And for a time, the re-conquering Christian kings established similarly tolerant states where Muslims and Jews enjoyed unusual rights. These rights were unusual in medieval times -- though of course not comparable to the rights of minorities in modern democracies.

Menocal concentrates on the achievements of the three communities in establishing written vernacular languages, preserving and disseminating Greek learning, advancing scientific and philosophic knowledge, and developing literary forms in Castilian, Arabic, and Hebrew. I find particularly interesting her exploration of the combination of secular and religious thought that developed in both Christian and Muslim enclaves, and subsequently was destroyed by religious fanaticism.

She writes, for example, of the Jews of Cordova in the twelfth century:
"The Jews understood themselves to be Andalusians and Cordobans, much as the German Jews of the late-nineteenth century -- Marx and Freud most prominent among them -- considered themselves Germans, or the American Jews in the second half of the twentieth century, who helped define the intellectual and literary qualities of their time, never thought twice about calling themselves Americans. But unlike many later European and American Jews, the Andalusian Jews had not had to abandon their orthodoxy to be fully a part of the body politic and culture of their place and time. The Jews of al-Andalus wre able to openly observe and eventually enrich their Judaic and Hebrew heritage and at the same time fully participat in the general cultural and intellectual scene. They could be the Cardozas and the Trillins [I fear that she means Lionel, not Calvin Trillin] and the Salks of their times because they were citizens of a relilgious polity -- or tather, of this particular religious polity. The Umayyads ... had created a universe of Musllims where piety and observance were not seen as inimical to an intellectual and 'secular' life and society." (p. 86-87)

She documents this duality of religious and secular thought and intellectual activity, as well as the political struggles between Islamic groups with different commitments to tolerance or intolerance, and then the fossilization of Christian thought that ended in the expulsion of Jews and Muslims and the totalitarian rule of the Inquisition. "As time went by," she wrote, "there was a growning sense of the showdown between faith and reason, to put the matter at its most blunt and simplistic..." (p. 207)

Judah Halevi, whom I wrote about a few days ago, was an important focus for some of her thoughts, as he participated in the most idealized environment for the combination of faith and philosophy, and wrote The Kuzari as a dialog exploring where this duality could lead. Then, of course, he concluded that his religious commitment could only require him to leave the open atmosphere of his home, which he found corrupting, and seek a different world by going to Jerusalem.

Menocal's book contains much more than I can possibly say here. The history of Convivencia (the name often given to the tolerant and open atmosphere of medieval Iberia, which disappeared when Ferdinand and Isabella created a united, monolithic Spain) is fascinating in its own right, not just because of its parallels to modern times, including the vexing question of Christianity vs. Islam or of the role of Jews in a non-Jewish society.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Amy Winehouse: Anti-Hero

So Amy Winehouse, who died this weekend at the age of 27, frequently called herself a “nice Jewish girl,” particularly "when she was questioned about her out-of-control persona." (At least according to an article a few months ago). No one accused her of being religious -- her famous work "Back to Black" was set partly in a cemetery full of crosses, anyway. I'm sure the death of any talented young person who throws away opportunities as she did is tragic. But really, what a shame to try to make something of her having been Jewish in some sense or other.

Arthur James Balfour (July 25, 1848)

Balfour was a British diplomat and the author of the extremely important Balfour Declaration of 1917. This declaration stated:
"His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

Friday, July 22, 2011

"Yehuda Halevi" by Hillel Halkin

Hillel Halkin's portrait of medieval poet Yehuda Halevi* depicts a deeply religious man. Halkin offers religious motives (as well as others) for his own interest in Halevi as well. Halkin presents an introduction to Halevi's poetry in his connection with the autobiography of the poet. He describes the situation of Jews in Muslim Spain in Halevi's lifetime. He gives an interpretation of Halevi's famous work The Kuzari -- "a defense of Judaism written in the form of a dialogue between a Khazar king and the rabbi who converts him." Altogether, I found the book challenging but very interesting, especially the study of the end of the poet's life.

Halevi's extraordinary commitment to traveling to Jerusalem, Halkin points out, was one of the signs of Halevi's faith. In around 1140, at close to 70 years old, Halevi left a safe life as a highly admired poet in the most sophisticated and luxurious environment available in his time. He chose to make the pilgrimage about which he had written. The long sea voyage to the east was arduous even if the traveler avoided pirates and storms. As he traveled, Halevi wrote a number of poems about his sea voyage.

Jerusalem, Halevi's destination, was ruled by brutal Crusaders, making the final steps of the voyage totally dangerous for a Jewish pilgrim. Halkin uses letters and documents from the Cairo Geniza to detail the final days and the death of Halevi in or near Jerusalem, as well as explaining Halevi's interpretation of Jewish tradition and law to show why he felt that he and his fellow Jews had an obligation to go there. Halkin also presents a brief overview of the influence Halevi had on subsequent Jewish writers down to our own day and to modern Zionism.

Halevi's poetry, Halkin points out, included both secular and religious poetry. While some authors stress the secular side of Jewish life in medieval Spain, Halkin stresses the dualism of this era. He writes:
"On the whole, secularism did not mean to Hebrew poets of Halevi's age... what it menas today. It implied not a rejection of religion, but the acceptance of another, parallel domanin of experience and an exploration of the tensions between the two. These tensions were considered natural because the human life was viewed dualistically, as the union of a mortal body and an immortal soul that collaborated at times and were in conflict at others. Each had its claims and responsibilities, and a poet cold, at different moments, take the side of either or both." (p. 101)
Halevi innovated poetic forms, introducing certain elements and themes from Arab poetry into both his religious and his secular works. Religious poetry was intended to be integrated into worship and the synagogue liturgy; secular poetry, whatever its subject matter, was not so intended. Dualism went further than that. The contrast to modern views is made most vividly.

*Hillel Halkin, Yehuda Halevi, Nextbook/Schocken, 2010

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Lucian Freud (died July 20, 2011)

Lucian Freud the renowned painter died last night at age 88. Born in Berlin, in 1922, he fled from the Nazis with his family, including his famous grandfather Sigmund Freud. He was educated in English schools, worked in England all his life, and was a naturalized English citizen. It's not clear to me if his roots in successful German and Austrian Jewish families were important in his work, which was extremely original and based in quite a few modern art ideas.

The New York Times obituary gives this biographical detail: "Mr. Freud was a bohemian of the old school. He set up his studios in squalid neighborhoods, developed a Byronic reputation as a rake and gambled recklessly ('debit stimulates me,' he once said). In 1948, he married Kitty Garman, the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein." Later, he divorced his wife and had many subsequent relationships.

Of his work the Times says: "Mr. Freud’s dingy studio became his artistic universe, a grim theater in which his subjects, stripped bare and therefore unidentifiable by class, thrust into contorted positions, submitted to the artist’s unblinking, merciless inspection."

Update: Forward has an article titled: Was There Anything Jewish About Lucian Freud? Quote: "Mainly, the Jewishness of Freud’s career exemplifies modern diasporic success: acculturation, secularism, national recognition and international acclaim."

Paul Wellstone (July 21, 1944)

Wellstone was a rare senator: truly progressive and oriented to the kind of human services and humane rule of law that I would ideally like to see implemented in our country. His death was a tragedy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Judy Chicago (July 20, 1939)

Judy Chicago: another Jewish feminist and artist. Her project of which I'm most aware is titled "The Dinner Party." Currently it's installed at the Brooklyn Museum, whose website notes:
"The Dinner Party, an important icon of 1970s feminist art and a milestone in twentieth-century art, is presented as the centerpiece around which the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is organized. The Dinner Party comprises a massive ceremonial banquet, arranged on a triangular table with a total of thirty-nine place settings, each commemorating an important woman from history. The settings consist of embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils, and china-painted porcelain plates with raised central motifs that are based on vulvar and butterfly forms and rendered in styles appropriate to the individual women being honored. The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the triangular table. This permanent installation is enhanced by rotating Herstory Gallery exhibitions relating to the 1,038 women honored at the table."*

Thomas Friedman (July 20, 1953)

He done us wrong. We believed him when he promoted the war in Iraq because his international affairs columns had been so insightful in the 90s. I thought his book about Israel-Arab relations was penetrating, as were his ideas about globalization before around 2001. That was then. And now I see him first as an anti-hero and also as a no-longer interesting or relevant commentator.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Religious feelings: hard wired?

Here's a penetrating article on the neuroscience of belief: "Science and religion: God didn't make man; man made gods" (L.A. Times, July 18, 2011)

It begins by quoting the song "Imagine" by John Lennon: ""no heaven … / no hell below us …/ and no religion too." But the article continues with a discussion of why our brains can't do that. Some of the obstacles:
Scientists have so far identified about 20 hard-wired, evolved "adaptations" as the building blocks of religion. Like attachment, they are mechanisms that underlie human interactions: Brain-imaging studies at the National Institutes of Health showed that when test subjects were read statements about religion and asked to agree or disagree, the same brain networks that process human social behavior — our ability to negotiate relationships with others — were engaged.

Among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce "out-group" hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies. Religion hijacks these traits. The rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, for example, or the doctrinal battles between Protestant and Catholic reflect our "groupish" tendencies.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bess Myerson (July 16, 1924)

Bess Myerson was the first Jewish Miss America in 1945. To date she is still the only Jewish Miss America.

Subsequently, she remained in the public eye, appearing on TV shows, writing a newspaper column, and participating in New York politics. My own memory is of her role as a consumer advocate, heading the New York city department of Consumer Affairs.

Her own summary:
“My Department of Consumer Affairs really fought for the consumer. We passed a consumer-protection act that really protected; we passed unit pricing; we raided supermarkets. With the help of an outstanding staff, we accomplished a great deal. And I campaigned for Hubert Humphrey for president in 1968, and for Senator Henry Jackson in his 1976 presidential bid, and for Senator Patrick Moynihan’s race in 1976. I’m a registered Democrat and I would say a moderate centrist, if we use labels. But, above all, I’m issue oriented. …”*

Friday, July 15, 2011

Jacques Derrida (July 15, 1930)

Derrida is known as a leading proponent of the very obscure deconstructionist philosophy. I heard a lecture by him in 2003, but I felt I couldn't understand anything he said. Of course I recognize that he's very famous as a philosopher; indeed, he's characterized as a media celebrity. I am inadequate.

When reading about Derrida's life, I learned about his reactions to antisemitism that he experienced, and his development of a broader secular philosophy. A native of a Jewish suburb of Algiers, at age 12 he experienced French fascism: the collaborating French officials in World War II expelled all the Jewish students from the school that he attended. He left North Africa to study in Paris in 1949, where he experienced antisemitism as well. He wrote to one French acquaintance: "French anti-Semites are only anti-Semitic with Jews whom they do not know personally.” To another: “As soon as an anti-Semite is intelligent, he no longer believes in his anti-Semitism.”

Derrida's philosophy was detached from anything as specific as religion, including Judaism:
“When Derrida was buried, his elder brother, René, wore a tallit at the suburban French cemetery and recited the Kaddish to himself inwardly, since Jacques had asked for no public prayers. This discreet, highly personal, yet emotionally and spiritually meaningful approach to recognizing Derrida’s Judaism seems emblematic of this complex, imperfect, yet valuably nuanced thinker.”*

Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892)

I've always found it challenging to understand exactly what Walter Benjamin did to deserve his highly admired status. Here's a paragraph from Tablet Magazine that deals with this challenge:
“It’s always been hard to pin Benjamin down. Aberrant Marxist, heretical Jew, maverick social theorist, deconstructive spirit—he has been many things to many people. It is equally hard to describe what he did, in part because Americans don’t really make intellectuals like him. Benjamin, whose most important work was written in Berlin during the ’20s and then in Paris during the ’30s, wasn’t just a book reviewer, although he wanted to be the best one in Germany. He was hardly a journalist, but a good deal of his considerable production was written for newspapers. He was not a philosopher, but he is treated like one. To use a quaint expression, he was a man of letters. Even that does not do him justice.”
Benjamin's friendships with other famous (but easier to understand) figures in pre-war Germany and his suicide while trying to flee from the Nazis create an aura for him -- as a result, he's he subject of an enormous number of recent books and studies. His relationship with Judaism fascinates many people, as it appears emblematic of the problem of secular Jews in the interwar era in Germany. Without any grounding in the religion, Jews seemed anyway to live in a social ghetto (before the establishment of the much more real ghettos etc). "As his friend Gershom Scholem, a product of a similar background, would note, it was quite normal for assimilated German Jews never to enter a Gentile home or invite a Gentile to theirs. Jewish identity was much more durable than Jewish belief."*

Hero? I guess so.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bastille Day

Bastille day signifies the liberation and emancipation of many individuals and groups as a result of the exuberant spirit of the French Revolution. Although the destruction of the Bastille Prison may not have special meaning for Jews, the result of both the revolution and the era of Napoleon was extraordinary change in the situation of Jews and Jewish communities throughout Europe. The debate about the inclusion of Jews in the "rights of men" included the immigrant Jewish spokesman Zalkind Hourwitz and the Abbe Grégoire. Their advocacy contributed to the creation of secular Judaism, as well as to the status and rights of Jewish individuals.

Jerry Rubin (July 14, 1938)

To Jerry Rubin belongs the credit for the watchword of the sixties political activist thought: “Never trust anyone over 30.”
UPDATE: This turns out to have been said by Jack Wineberg, a much less famous participant in the Free Speech Movement of 1964. I wonder if I'm the only one who misattributed this saying that's outlived its originator's fame.

Rubin was an activist in Berkeley when huge public opinion was turned toward the protests there. Today, secular Jews (and everyone else) may have forgotten the counterculture movement and the New Left, but they seemed a real part of a certain sort of Jewish life in the sixties.

Rubin was one of the Chicago Seven -- activists tried for conspiracy and inciting to riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Along with Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner, Rubin founded the Yippies. Later Rubin was known for becoming a respectable investor type, leaving many of his followers with a sense of betrayal or at least confusion.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Isaak Babel (July 13, 1894)

Babel was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and some of his most famous stories are about the Jewish underworld of Odessa. Babel was alternately the darling of Soviet literature in his early years; an outcast (the Soviet authorities executed him in 1940); and a rehabilitated hero in 1954. His work is fascinating as both Russian and Russian-Jewish history, and as well-crafted stories.

George Lang (July 13, 1924)

The New York Times last week published the obituary of George Lang, a cookbook author and an impressario of restaurants, most famously the Cafe des Artistes in New York, and the post-communist reincarnation of the historic restaurant Gundel in Budapest. Lang was born on July 13, 1924, in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, and died July 5 in New York. He originally studied music, and intended to be a musician. His first deviation from his plan was to be in the resistance in World War II after escaping from a Nazi prison camp. As a Jew, he had little choice but resistance, but by joining the fascist Arrow Cross militia was able to assist other Jews in hiding. His parents died in Auschwitz.

Lang escaped to New York and resumed his intended career as a musician, but eventually discovered his talent for designing and running restaurants and also for writing cookbooks. The Cuisine of Hungary is one of my favorite ethnic cookbooks, which the obituary says was the first Hungarian cookbook in English.

According to the Times:
"Mr. Lang often enjoyed constructing fantasy meals, including his last. The ideal final meal, he told The Village Voice in 2007, would include some of the great dishes from his restaurant career but above all his Hungarian favorites: fisherman’s soup, stuffed goose neck, sour cherry soup, layered cabbage, stuffed peppers, plum dumplings, pancakes with apple meringue, and whipped-cream strudel.

"'And then I will have what it takes to get to another world,' he said."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Amedeo Modigliani ( July 12, 1884)

Was Modigliani's Sephardic Jewish heritage important to him? His family belonged to the Sephardic elite: he was born in Livorno, Italy, a Sephardic center. Modigliani left home for the art world in Paris, where he received little recognition for his now-iconic paintings. At first he managed to live well, using family resources, but slowly descended into poverty, drug-taking, and desperation. He had been infected with TB since childhood, and became more and more ill, no doubt made worse by his bohemian environment. All the time, he continued to paint and create the works that he's now so respected for. Although Jewish advocates try to place his art in some kind of Jewish framework, I suspect that he was simply a secular Jew in the Paris art world.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Scopes Trial (July 10 to 21, 1925)

There's no particularly Jewish angle to the Scopes trial, but the fundamental issues of religious separation from government and academic freedom are of great interest to any secular citizen of the US, and to many others also who believe strongly in keeping religion out of government and its institutions.

Scopes, the teacher who defied the Tennessee anti-evolution law, was defended by the relatively new ACLU. The ACLU (which had been founded during World War I and renamed American Civil Liberties Union in 1920) had advertised that it would fund a challenge to the anti-evolution law; Scopes accepted the offer. Clarence Darrow defended Scopes's right to academic freedom in the public school system. It is said that the play "Inherit the Wind" has created a somewhat fictitious general idea of the trial in most people now, nearly 90 years later.

To me it's painful that this issue is not dead, but needs to be fought again and again, as discussed by Stephen Jay Gould in several books.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Franz Boas (July 9, 1858)

Boas was born in Minden, Westphalia, Germany. As a cultural outsider, he was one of the inventors of modern anthropology, study of outsiders.

"His liberal Jewish parents held a disdain for dogma, religious or otherwise. And as a result Boas was allowed to think for himself and pursue his own interests unhindered," wrote a rather mysterious website called NNDB. "It was Boas who gave modern anthropology its rigorous scientific methodology, patterned after the natural sciences, and it was Boas who originated the notion of 'culture' as learned behaviors. His emphasis on research first, followed by generalizations, stood in marked contrast to the British school of anthropology which emphasized the creation of grand theories (which were only after tested through field work)."

Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933)

I'm fascinated by Oliver Sacks' books, which are enlightening about the normal human mind through understanding of the damaged or exceptional human mind. His relationship with his Jewish background is complex, but whatever it is, I think he's a hero in my sense.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860)

Mahler is a complex figure -- his origins were Jewish but he converted to Catholicism, and much effort has been made to find his Jewish and non-Jewish identity reflected in his music. Here is what I find an interesting quote from an interview with Daniel Barenboim:
"... One only talks about Mahler’s Jewish origins, and the Klezmer music, and the psychoanalysis and all these things, but basically, without Wagner there would have been no Mahler. And the most interesting thing about Mahler is that he really had one foot in the past and one in the future, that he had one foot in Wagner and the other foot in Schönberg, and as such was a great transitional figure. ... So, in effect, the complexity of Mahler, and its greatest appeal to me, is that it is, in a way, the affirmation of three centuries of musical thinking. ...

"There is a very beautiful, very poetic, video document with Leonard Bernstein, called The Little Drummer Boy, where he talks all about the Jewish background, and all that, and that Mahler had this feeling of guilt of having been Jewish. It’s very lovely and it’s very poetic, but it doesn’t help to understand the music one bit, in my view, not one bit."

Abraham Cahan (July 7, 1860)

Founder of the secular Yiddish-language Forward, which is still in business over 100 years later, Cahan was its guiding force for generations. Further, he wrote stories and novels in English that are still readable and interesting to students. Though his purpose was to educate and Americanize his audience, his paper is now a source of information about the Jewish immigrant experience in New York and to some extent throughout the country.

Marc Chagall (July 7, 1887)

Where do you get your visual image of the shtetl, the place in which, perhaps, your ancestors lived a century or so ago? Chances are, a major contribution comes from the work of Marc Chagall and his lifelong reimagining of his home town, Vitebsk. That's all I feel the need to say: he's a hero to anyone who needs to imagine recent Jewish history through the lens of modernism.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Frida Kahlo de Rivera (July 6, 1907)

Above, Frida Kalho's painting "My Grandparents, My Parents, and I." This painting shows the relationship of Frida as a child to her ancestors; on her father's side, the grandparents were Jakob and Henriette Kaufmann, German-Hungarian Jews. Their son Wilhelm (Frida's father), born in 1872, had immigrated to Mexico and changed his name to Guillermo, but never lost his accent or love of German culture. Her mother, Matilde Calderon, had Latina and native-Mexican roots. Kalho's background and identity were mixed -- she was known for her Latina clothing and expressiveness, while more quietly reading Yiddish poetry and many other types of works.

According to reviewer Leslie Camhi writing in "Beyond Mexicanidad: The Other Roots of Frida Kalho's Identity" --
"The composition, painted in 1936 — during Germany’s implementation of the Nuremberg racial laws — closely follows the Nazi genealogical charts that by then had made their way into Mexico’s German immigrant community. But Kahlo, an ardent anti-fascist, adapted them to her own purposes. Among the work’s other sources are an obstetrical manual found in her library and a book by the Yiddish poet and Mexican immigrant Isaac Berliner, which Rivera had illustrated."
Kalho was far from a realist; this painting mixes surrealism and realism. She was little recognized in her lifetime other than as the wife of Diego Rivera, though surrealist painters André Breton and Marcel Duchamp helped arrange exhibits of her work in the United States and Europe. Her posthumous fame focuses mainly on the self-expressive and surrealist edge of her work, not on the identity part that's exceptionally captured in this genealogical and personally symbolic painting.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers (July 4, 1918)

For a while in the mid-20th century, Dear Abby and Dear Ann Landers, the two rival newspaper advice columns, dictated matters of morals, customs, and propriety. For example, which way should the toilet paper roll unfurl, from the top or the bottom? What's the best way to make meatloaf? Should you break up with your husband -- or reconcile? Do you need to seek professional help for your problems? They had opinions, advice, and referrals to various helping organizations. They received queries from the masses, they talked to the masses, and the masses said "yes." People talked about the issues they dealt with, and argued about their views. I think the place of the advice column was eventually replaced by Oprah and other TV deities. I suspect that currently there's a transition to web-based advice sources.

Ann and Abby, the two rival advice-givers were twins, born in Sioux City, Iowa, into a Jewish family. Esther Pauline Lederer (née Friedman) wrote as Ann Landers, and eventually used the name as her own. Her twin sister Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips wrote the Dear Abby column.

Did their Jewish background have anything to do with their success? Maybe, maybe not. Their predecessors included the famous "Bintel Brief" advice column in the Yiddish Daily Forward, but I have no idea if they were influenced by it. Are they heroes or anti heroes? Maybe some of each.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Michael Milken (July 4, 1946)

Now here's an anti-hero, you may think. Michael Milken was the "Junk Bond King" of 1980’s Wall Street. First he was widely acclaimed for his financial genius in inventing new investment instruments, and then was sent to jail because he crossed the line from vastly imaginative into actually illegal. He came out of jail still owning enough money to put him in world's top 500 richest people, and engaged in charitable endeavors. Now some people say he was really a financial genius who became the victim of injustice, and call him a hero.

And all the time, everyone knew he was Jewish.

Hero or anti-hero?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

André Kertész (July 2, 1894)

I've recently seen several exhibits of photos by André Kertész, and I marvel at his skill and imagination as a photographer. One of these was "On Reading," which included the image above. I saw this show at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh last year; the exhibit was reviewed when it showed in London: "Opening the book on modern photography." From the review:
"With his Leica camera in hand, André Kertész wandered city streets, photographing people going about their daily lives. It helped him, he felt, come to terms with being an outsider, first as a Jew in early 20th-century Hungary, then as a émigré in Paris between the wars, and then in New York.

"...Reading formed an integral part of Kertész’s own life. According to Colin Ford, a friend and founding head of the National Media Museum in Yorkshire: 'André’s father was a bookseller. From the age of six or seven, he used to pore over magazines.'

"His interest in reading was also inspired by his Jewish background and its culture of praying and learning — one of the images in the show is of a couple walking past a painting of an Orthodox boy studying.

Kertész never forgot his background. 'His life as a Jewish exile was part of his melancholia, creating the feeling that ‘I’m in a place where I wish I wasn’t, that I’m not home.’ There is a sense of loneliness and alienation throughout his pictures,' says Ford."

More recently, I saw "An Intuitive Eye: André Kertész Photographs 1914-1969" at the Detroit Institute of Arts. As in "On Reading" I was overawed by his mastery of light and shadow, and by the drama he puts into every photo.

I don't see anything specifically Jewish in his work or know about his religious commitments (which appear to have been private), though I am aware that many of the great early-20th century photographers were, in fact, Jewish. I see him, thus, as a secular Jewish hero.