Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Charles Reznikoff (August 30, 1894)

Reznikoff is a very obscure poet whose works I ought to read (except I never read poetry).

I recently read this about his work Holocaust:
"Published just a year before his death in 1976, Holocaust was Reznikoff's last book. It, too, draws on court records, this time The Trials of the Major War Criminals at Nuremberg and the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. The literal, matter-of-fact style that Reznikoff uses in the poem is not accidental; it is a conscious technical choice. The horrors of the death camps are placed starkly before us in the words of the survivors, and the poet's selection process denies the reader the opportunity to look away. It also deprives us of any sense of catharsis; these things happened and no good came of them."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lewis Black (August 30, 1948)

Lewis Black is a stand-up comedian and social commentator who often appears on The Daily Show. He's noisy and unapologetic and has penetrating insights. It's hard to quote him, because even if you remember every word verbatim, you miss his shouting when you repeat what he said.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Joann Sfar (August 28, 1971)

Joann Sfar, French graphic novelist (The Rabbi’s Cat) and film maker (Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life), questions authority, though he’s evidently conventionally religious. So also does the cat in his tale. Suddenly able to speak, the cat demands to learn Jewish law, have a bar mitzvah, and study Kabbalah. He has long disputes with his owner, the rabbi, and the rabbi's own master rabbi -- who says a talking philosophical cat should be drowned. It's a very funny book, with beautiful drawings of North Africa in some former time, where the rabbi and his daughter live.

In an interview several years ago, Sfar said:
“My rabbi is not a modern guy. He’s very old-fashioned. He’s not an intellectual—his relationship with religion is very down-to-earth. He doesn’t really care about God’s existence. He just cares about what he has to do every day. I like the idea of his coming back from Paris and saying that he doesn’t know if there’s a God or not, and then he goes to pray. Many people forget about this relationship to religion as a daily practice. But I’ve always preferred the sayings of my grandma to the dictates of my grand rabbin.”
I hope to see Sfar's new documentary on French singer Serge Gainsbourg, whom I've heard of but never have known anything about.

Update: New York Times review of the film is here.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Man Ray (August 27, 1890)

Man Ray, the fascinating surrealist photographer and artist, was born Emmanuel Radnitzky, and raised in a Jewish home in New York. In keeping with his modernist-Dada-surrealist identity, he shortened the name to Man Ray.

“A conflicted identity … was central to an artist who yearned to escape the limitations of his Russian Jewish immigrant past.”*

Man Ray was close buddies with Marcel Duchamp. Both developed new ways to see the world that still open my eyes when I look at them!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918)

Did Leonard Bernstein introduce me to classical music when I was a child? I don't remember watching his famous TV shows. In fact, my development as a classical music lover actually came from my father, who listened always to the classical music station and the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts.

Bernstein, I remember for West Side Story. I doubt if I even noticed that he was Jewish when I was listening to it during high school. And I couldn't say if his music had a particularly noticeable Jewish identity. He wrote Jeremiah (1943), Age of Anxiety (1949), Kaddish (1963), Dybbuk (1974) – as well as a mass.

Howard Jacobson (August 25, 1942)

Howard Jacobson won the 2010 Booker Prize for The Finkler Question. I thought it was a very enjoyable and powerful book, exploring the way that English Jews (and by extension others) create self-hatred. The most extreme of these do so by joining the haters of Israel. The novel is a satire, and one of the most satirically enlightening characters is a non-Jew who wants to be a Jew, not for the religion but for the most superficial cultural aspects.

Various Jewish points of view are illustrated -- with several degrees of irony -- by various characters. However, the characters are fully realized, not just tokens of each intellectual or personality type. I especially remember one question, asked by an elderly character who had a firm secular Jewish identity and did not hate himself. He asked whether the anti-Israel Jew thought that the deaths of his family in the Holocaust were justified retroactively by the acts of Israelis that the self-hater was deploring.

I haven't read any of Jacobson's other books, but they are on my list.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899)

-- today's google logo for Borges's birthday

"If Borges were shown to be definitively, halachically, Jewish, he would be hailed as one of the great Jewish writers of the last century. And not just a writer who was Jewish, but a writer whose obsessions with the Holocaust and the Kabbalah prefigure two of contemporary Jewry’s most important concerns," wrote Daniel Schifrin.

The reality is that despite Borges's interest in Jewish themes, and despite the possibility that his ancestors were secret Jews, neither Borges nor other researchers (some of them being malicious antisemites, some simply interested scholars) could demonstrate that he was actually of Jewish descent. “It has not displeased me to think of myself as Jewish,” Borges wrote. But based on the available evidence, he wasn't.

Looking for a Jewish angle to Borges is tempting, but actually, I think it's a distraction from actually trying to read and appreciate what he wrote. The question of his distant ancestry is really peripheral to the way he used big themes in writing very interesting (though to me difficult) stories. In a way, I feel as if the case of Borges is kind of a warning to anyone who tries to find too much Jewishness in famous and accomplished people. A warning to me.

The book Jorge Luis Borges: On Mysticism (eds. Maria Kodama and Suzanne Jill Levine) strikes me as offering many examples of stories that both are and are not Jewish in theme. Each story turns on a variety of experiences and characterizations. Whichever mystic or traditional religious metaphor or device Borges picks, each story seems to have a life of its own -- not necessarily based in Jewishness or any other specific source. Sometimes there's a Jewish theme combined with one or more others, as in "The Zahir" about a mysterious object with vastly different embodiment in various cultures. A character in this story was like "Talmudists and Confucians" because she "sought to make every action irreproachably correct."

Because of its title and central surrealist device, the story "The Aleph" especially tempts critics to make a Jewish interpretation which I don't really think is essential to reading the fiction. Actually, I think Borges kind of warns the reader by the varied role of poetry that takes place in the story itself. One character is an appreciator and critic of other men's verse and also a poet himself. In his cellar he has something called "an Aleph... one of the points in space that contain all points." (p. 35) It's also the "microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists, our proverbial friend the multum in parvo, made flesh!" (p. 36; multum in parvo means much in little) And if you can't see the Aleph, says the poet/critic, that doesn't invalidate what he says.

Just at the moment when the narrator of the story -- whose name is Borges -- becomes convinced that the poet/critic is a madman, who actually has no such thing in his cellar, he sees The Aleph for himself. Of course it's difficult for him to describe the mystical experience (though there is quite a long passage doing that). In the end, the poet/critic of the tale wins a prize for poetry while the narrator is left to try to grasp what he had experienced, including to explicate the Hebrew and Kabbalistic interpretation of the letter Aleph.

But here's the thing: you don't need to make out Borges as having a Jewish identity to find a way to read this story. I think it's an interesting route to follow, but it's also a dead end.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sergey Brin (August 21, 1973)

Google co-founder Brin came from Russia with his parents as a youth. I like following him on Google+ the latest of many google products that I enjoy using.

He's also an arbiter of one of the most important concepts I can think of:
“'Evil is what Sergey says is evil,' explained Eric Schmidt, the chief executive officer, in 2002."*

Friday, August 19, 2011

Salamone Rossi (August 19, 1570)

Rossi wrote both secular and Jewish music during his career in Mantua, Italy, where a Jewish community thrived (as much as any Jewish community could thrive in the era of the invention of the Ghetto and shrinking tolerance.) He wrote the first known polyphonic (multi-voice) settings of Jewish texts. He was twice given an exemption from the regulation that Jews had to wear a distinguishing badge.

The hypothesis that Salamone Rossi was born on August 19, 1570, comes from a possible code hidden in his first published collection, the Canzonette (1589). He may have died in the sack of Mantua and destruction of its Ghetto in 1630 – there is no evidence of his composing after 1628.


“On August 20, 1920, WWJ (then called 8MK) became the first news radio in the country. It was also the first radio station to broadcast religious sermons and sports.” See this article for details.

The news on radio enabled many Jewish immigrants to become aware of their world when they were often not literate – a force in assimilation that isn’t often remembered. My father talked about a seemingly well-educated friend of the older generation who was educated by radio but couldn’t read.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Roman Vishniac (August 19, 1897)

Vishniac was accomplished in several fields, but is most known for his photos of Jews in Eastern Europe between the wars. His book A Vanished World and Children of a Vanished World are especially important in preserving a visual record of lost communities. For more details see this article.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Madonna (August 16, 1958)

Madonna [Ciccone] the pop singer and sort-of-diva wouldn't have anything to do with Jewishness except for dabbling in a debased version of Kabbalah. I've heard really terrible things about the cynical and manipulative tactics of the L.A. Kabbalah center where movie stars go for some kind of metaphysical thrills. But I'll stop now.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Other August 15 Events

Amazing how many things happened on this date!
  • The first refugees from Nazi Germany arrived in the Shanghai Ghetto on August 15, 1938. Many more arrived between November 1938 (after Kristallnacht) and June, 1941. The story of this temporary community and how it survived is an interesting one.
  • The right-wing and thus at times antisemitic festival of the Virgin Mary is celebrated in France on August 15.
  • It's Evelyn's birthday -- happy birthday!
  • It's Julia Child's birthday too, August 15, 1912. No Jewish content here, but she's definitely a hero of mine.
  • Hollywood premiere of the Judy Garland "Wizard of Oz" -- August 15, 1939. Jewish content? It's a stretch, but some attribute the theme of "Over the Rainbow" to Jewish longings in the lyricist Harburg and musician Arlen.

Leonard Baskin (Aug. 15, 1922)

Baskin is an American sculptor and painter. He designed the Holocaust Memorial that stands on the University of Michigan campus in Raoul Wallenberg plaza on the site of the oldest Jewish cemetery in town (now destroyed).

The text at the base of the statue reads:
In memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
In memory of the millions more destroyed by prejudice
and hatred during World War II.
In memory of those righteous and courageous few who risked
their lives to save the victims of Nazism.
May this memorial inspire us to resist tyranny and inhumanity
wherever and whenever they threaten.
MARCH 13, 1994

Baskin is well-known as an illustrator. One of my favorites is a Haggadah.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Stephen Breyer (August 15, 1938)

Breyer: another Jewish Supreme Court justice. He's a pretty quiet one, but he votes on the good side a lot.

Napoléon Bonaparte (August 15, 1769)

Perhaps heroic. Perhaps anti-heroic. Beethoven for example, dedicated and un-dedicated the Eroica symphony to his hero/then anti-hero.

Perhaps heroic to Jews: Napoleon “restored” the Sanhedrin; more importantly he freed the Jews from the Ghetto literally tearing down the physical Ghetto gates in several Italian cities; he also extended civil rights to many Jewish populations in France, Italy, and Eastern Europe.

Perhaps anti-heroic: he became a boogie man for Jews in Eastern Europe – his name frightened little children for at least a century after he died.

Needless to say, conflicting views of Napoleon are not limited to a Jewish perspective.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Felix Adler (August 13, 1851)

Adler founded the Ethical Culture Society in 1876. His father was a rabbi, but he became a totally secular Jew and I guess you could say he tried to create an organized religion that didn't have an actual faith, to accommodate his beliefs. Personally I'm just as dubious about organized religion as I am about the content.

Ethical Culture Societies still exist.

Friday, August 12, 2011

George Soros (August 12, 1930)

For right wing demagogues and antisemites (like Glen Beck or Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad) Soros is a stand-in for the old stereotype of the International Jewish Financier who controls the world. His position on Israel also creates doubt among some Jews: “Soros has been strongly criticized in some Jewish circles over his calls for increased U.S. engagement in the Middle East peace process and his strong criticism of Israeli policies. In recent months, some pro-Israel advocates and pundits have slammed J Street for accpeting his money and then lying about doing so.” -- http://forward.com/articles/133080/

Can anyone so rich be well-liked? I guess not.

“The Night of the Murdered Poets” (August 12, 1952)

“The Night of the Murdered Poets” is the name sometimes given to a Stalinist massacre of thirteen Soviet citizens, several of them poets and writers. All were supporters of the Communist regime, but that didn't matter. They were taken away, tried, and executed -- probably because they were Jewish; at least that was one of the reasons. Their names: Peretz Markish, David Hofstein, Leib Kvitko, Itzik Feffer, David Bergelson, Solomon Lozovsky, Boris Shimeliovich, Benjamin Zuskin, Joseph Yuzefovich, Leon Talmy, Ilya Vatenberg, Chaika Ostrovskaya, and Emilia Teumin.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

David Brooks (August 11, 1961)

David Brooks -- anti hero!!! Especially for his wanton and careless use of science to score points in his political arguments.

Or to cite a current review of his work: "His views are right of center but often moderate. He represents a gentle and somewhat eclectic brand of conservatism—he is, for example, pro-choice and fond of President Obama—and, not surprisingly, he is sometimes dismissed by mainstream Republicans. "

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Alfred Döblin (August 10, 1878)

Alfred Döblin is the author of Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand about the Jews in Berlin between the wars.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tisha b’Av (August 8, 2011)

On Tisha b’Av, which falls today in this year's Jewish calendar, religious Jews mourn the fall of both Temples in Jerusalem, and many other misfortunes that have happened to the Jewish people. They read the Book of Job, in some traditions while seated on the floor in mourning garb. I therefore choose today to mention the Book of Job, which I find the most powerful and challenging book of the Bible. Though the message of the book is essentially religious, the questions it poses are as deeply disturbing to a non-religious person like me as I imagine they would be to a thoughtful religious person.

Although music is not traditional for Tisha b'Av, the Forward offered a wonderful selection of music from a variety of times and places: Music for the 9th of Av: On Jerusalem, Exile and Homelessness – Forward Thinking – Forward.com. Suggestions include several musical arrangements of Psalm 137, "By the waters of Babylon," songs about Jerusalem, songs about homelessness, and songs about persecution.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pissarro Exhibit

In the New York Times: a review of an article and slide show about an exhibit of paintings by Pissarro: Populating the Landscape With Idealism.

Pissarro was a powerful influence on the Impressionists, but very much an outsider in France:
"He was born thousands of miles away from Europe in 1830, on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, then a Danish colony. His father was a dry-goods merchant from Bordeaux, his mother a Caribbean-born daughter of French parents. Both sides of the family were Sephardic Jews. Pissarro himself chose to remain a Danish citizen all his life.

"Even on St. Thomas his status was outside the norm. His parents were unmarried when he was born, bringing censure from Jews on the island. As a child he went to a local Moravian school with Afro-Caribbean children, where he spoke English instead of French."
He was also a political outsider, "deeply immersed in revolutionary politics, specifically in anarchist thinking that espoused a radically egalitarian, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian society."

His attitude towards others was generous:
"Pissarro’s idealism was insistent. Because he wanted his projection of a better future to be realized, he tried to work it out in the present, through his own practice of ethical generosity, firm in the face of political censorship (he was closely watched by the French police because of his anarchist ties), anti-Semitism (he forgave this in Degas) and professional isolation as an artist who was neither born French nor had French citizenship...."
Above all, Pissarro was a fabulous artist. I've not seen the reviewed exhibit, but I love his paintings that I've seen in Paris, Chicago, and a number of other places.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Raoul Wallenberg (August 4, 1912)

Here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Wallenberg is a well-known figure because he studied at the University of Michigan from 1931-1935. Raoul Wallenberg Plaza on campus includes a plaque that reads: "Here we honor Raould Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat whose heroic actions to save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews in 1944 are a contrast to the collaboration and silence which dominated Europe. A 1935 graduate of the University of Michigan College of Architecture, Raoul Wallenberg was taken captive by Soviet forces at the end of World War II, disappearing from sight but not from memory."

The Holocaust Memorial in Raoul Wallenberg Plaza, by Leonard Baskin:

As a member of a prominent Swedish family, Wallenberg became a partner in a firm with a Hungarian Jewish owner, and obtained various international jobs. While on assignment to a bank in Haifa in the mid-1930s, he met Jews who were fleeing from the early Nazi persecutions. Wallenberg had a distant Jewish ancestor, but his humanitarian commitments seem more universal than that.

In 1944, Wallenberg went to Budapest to try to save Jews from Nazi death camps. He succeeded in saving tens of thousands who were about to be deported, by issuing them certificates that said they were Swedish. For this he has been honored in many places.

At the end of the war, Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviets, and deported to Moscow. His fate was for a long time unknown, the subject of Soviet lies and evasions. The best guess seems to be that he was executed in Russia in 1947. See this article for more details.

Barack Obama (August 4, 1961)

Hero or anti-hero? I expected so much of Obama, but he's much more conservative than I ever expected, and hasn't stood up to the extraordinary Republican evils. As I write and schedule this, I don't know what will be the result of the showdown over the debt ceiling. But I don't need to know that to feel somewhat betrayed by this seeming hero.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Catch-22 is Fifty Years Old

I was especially interested in this article -- "The Awful Truth of Catch-22" --exploring the meaning of Heller's novel. Summary of the author's point:
"I think Heller's argument was not with war or with death but with God. That the novel is less about the death of Snowden than "the death of God," as that theological tendency was known back then. That what the novel is really about is theodicy. Theodicy being of course the subcategory of theology which attempts (and studies the attempts) to reconcile human suffering, cruelty, and evil with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God. Heller doesn't think it can be done."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Shimon Peres (August 2, 1923)

Shimon Peres connects Israel today to its foundation in 1948 – he’s been in politics from the beginning, is now the President of Israel (as distinct from Prime Minister). Born on Degania Alef the first Kibbutz – and what could better represent secular Judaism of the Israeli variety than a Kibbutz?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ramblin' Jack Elliott (August 1, 1931)

A few years ago, I saw a documentary film about the life of Ramblin' Jack Elliot, American folk singer -- The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack.

I learned that his birth name was Elliot Charles Adnopoz, and that he grew up Jewish in Brooklyn and then recreated his folk music identity so people thought he was maybe a cowboy or a country boy or anything but what he was. He learned from Woody Guthrie, and from his wanderings around the country. I also learned about his extensive influence on American folk music, including on Bob Dylan, and began to wonder why so many Jews participated in the folk music revival as collectors, singers, and other innovators. I wonder. But I can't think of any but the most trite and sterotyped answers about Jews as semi-outsiders.