Monday, October 31, 2011

After Weegee

The Forward today has a fascinating review of the book After Weegee by Daniel Morris. The author, David Kaufman, also mentions several other recent books on photojournalism. He starts by quoting an observation: "there are two kinds of photographers: 'Jewish and goyish.'" Among the Jews: Weegee, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank; that is "funky photographers." Non-Jews like Weston and Ansel Adams "go out in the woods."

One of the themes of Morris's book is a defense of photojournalism against the criticisms of Susan Sontag. At the core of the matter, according to Kaufman:
"For Morris, every picture tells a story because it is placed in a web of implication. The photojournalists he covers do not let their pictures drift. And because their subjects are social and political, their implications are both political and ethical. Morris sees these photographers’ identification with the urban poor as a secularized but nevertheless Jewish demand for justice. He can do this in part because the specific photographers he writes about do so. Despite what Sontag might claim, these guys do not have an interest in the status quo. They are interested — as secular Jews — in changing it.

"The photographers whom Morris discusses demonstrate their Yiddishkeit in still another way. Morris argues in several places that their documentary impulse follows the biblical injunction to remember. These photographers are witnesses and recorders. In a very real and basic way, their photo essays serve as Yizkor books."
I've heard lectures about Jews in modern photography, but none of the content seemed to make any point about what they might have had in common or whether their Jewish identity was related to their artistic choices. The idea expressed here is that the 20th century Jewish interest in social justice is reflected in these Jewish photographers. Their choices of subject matter made a difference by highlighting social inequality. Kaufman writes of the photographers discussed in the work: "because their subjects are social and political, their implications are both political and ethical. Morris sees these photographers’ identification with the urban poor as a secularized but nevertheless Jewish demand for justice."

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fanny Brice (October 29, 1891)

I remember listening to Fanny Brice on the radio as “Baby Snooks” when I was a small child. She seemed to mean more to my parents than just being the voice of a silly adult pretending to be a precocious baby. Brice, of course, was the subject of the musical "Funny Girl," but I've never seen it (sorry, can't stand Barbra S.)

So why was she so famous? For her comedy routines? For her notorious marriages and life style? Her criminal husband that she was more or less faithful to? Her influence on later female comedians?

According to Jewish Virtual Library:
"Born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1891, the third of four children of immigrant saloon-owners, Fania Borach decided early in life to become a performer. Historian Barbara Grossman notes that in an era in which entertainment was typically based on ethnic stereotypes -the drunken Irishman, the ignorant Pole, the Yiddish-accented greenhorn - Brice's 'Semitic looks' slotted her into Jewish roles. Despite her efforts to succeed as a serious actress and singer, Brice - who spoke no Yiddish - rose to stardom performing comedy with a Yiddish accent."

I suspect that she's nearly forgotten today, except to those who love the musical.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kibbutz Degania Alef founded (October 28, 1910)

This is what the pioneers wrote:
“On the 28th of October 1910, there arrived at Umm Juni, ten men and two women. We came to establish an independent settlement of Hebrew laborers, on national land, a collective settlement with neither exploiters nor exploited – a commune.”
Also from the Kibbutz website about the founding pioneers:
"The will to revive the people in the Land of Israel as a working people, returning to nature and to the tilling of the land, living from the fruits of its own labor with neither exploiters nor exploited, brought them to recognize that this could only be realized through communal living."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lee Krasner (October 27, 1908)

For a time Lee Krasner was mainly known as the wife of Jackson Pollock, but recently, finally, has been recognized for her own substantial accomplishment as an artist. Image: Krasner's "Portrait in Green," 1966.

Krasner was raised in an observant Jewish immigrant family in New York, educated at public schools and institutions that provided such wide opportunity to immigrant children – Cooper Union, National Institute of Design, the WPA. Recognition came late: a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was six months after her death at age 76.

Roberto Benigni (October 27, 1952)

Not everyone agrees with me, but I loved the movie "Life is Beautiful." I saw it before it was widely released, so I had no pre-formed ideas about it -- in fact, I didn't even know it was going to be about the Holocaust. And my reaction was to feel as if it showed me the horrors through a new lens, offering a perspective that was valuable and amazingly fresh after so many other treatments of the imponderable subject. The negative reaction of others to this film has always therefore puzzled me.

I also admire Begnini's other films that I've seen.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Leon Trotsky (October 26, 1879)

There were definitely a lot of non-Jewish Jews at one time who regarded Lev Davidovich Bronstein, a.k.a. Leon Trotsky, as a hero. I think they belonged to an earlier generation. Is anyone still fighting about whether Lenin or Trotsky was right about whatever they disagreed about? Search me.

I chose the image above for its seeming hero worship. It's from a site called Deviant Art. The site mostly has rather strange, sci-fi type imagery.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Martin Gilbert (October 25, 1936)

Martin Gilbert's books and atlases are indispensable for studying Jewish history, so I think he's a hero no matter what his personal religious views or practices.

Gilbert is also the official biographer of Churchill. Some titles: Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction; Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship; and The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Georges Bizet (October 25, 1838)

Was Bizet Jewish? No. His wife and some of his collaborators, yes. About Bizet, however: "Many have claimed Georges Bizet himself was Jewish. Much has been made of his dramatic use of the augmented second — a melodic interval typical in Jewish music, but not so prominent in classical music — in this opera’s [Carmen's] ever-present motif for Fate. His ancestors may or may not have been converts, but the composer himself was baptized at the age of 2. Still, his attitude towards Christianity was far from respectful. As a student at the Conservatoire assigned to write a Mass, he submitted a short comic opera instead. When reprimanded, he offered to write a pagan service as a compromise. After Wagner published the odious essay 'Jews in Music,' he defended Wagner as a composer but dissociated himself from the antisemitic baggage. Many of Bizet’s collaborators were Jewish, and his wife was half-Jewish." *

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sarah Bernhardt (October 23, 1844)

Sarah Bernhardt's mother was Jewish. Probably. Bernhardt seems to have been brought up and lived her life as a Catholic. I'm not sure it's reasonable to count her as Jewish unless you have some unpleasant racial or racist theory in mind.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Laughing in the Darkness"

Tonight we saw the film "Laughing in the Darkness," a documentary about the life and work of Sholem Aleichem (IMDB entry here). The Michigan Theater showing was advertised among the beer taps on the bar at Red Hawk where we had dinner first -- I thought the juxtaposition was amusing so I took the photo above.

The film was very intense: it included interviews with a number of heavy hitters of Yiddish literary scholarship as well as with Bel Kaufman, Sholem Aleichem's granddaughter, now 100 years old. The development of Yiddish literature within the constantly changing environment of Jewish life in Eastern Europe was a predominant topic. A large collection of photos and a few moving pictures from shtetls and Russian cities provided very interesting visuals -- though sometimes the Ken Burns effect was exploded into a dizzying zoom around the street scenes and vivid faces of the subjects.

The end of the film summarized the continuing reaction to Sholem Aleichem's work in Soviet Russia, Israel, and the US. Interestingly, our friend Baruch, who was with us at the film, said that as a young man in the Soviet Union he read Sholem Aleichem in Russian translation, which was his only window on Jewish culture. This corresponded to the information in the film.

Of course the musical and movie of "Fiddler on the Roof" was noted as major evidence of recent American love of Sholem Aleichem. The scholars summarized how American Jews first turned their backs on Yiddish culture and the works of Sholem Aleichem and then revived their interest in a search for Jewish identity.

Art Buchwald (October 20, 1925)

Long ago, I read Art Buchwald's columns in the St.Louis Post Dispatch. He wrote amusing letters about his life in Paris. Later he wrote satiric columns from Washington. At the end of his life, he had a terrible illness which was expected to kill him, but he survived to write about one more interesting experience with humor and insight.

All that time, and I never knew he was Jewish. Maybe it wasn't that important to him.

A quote from Art Buchwald's “Hunting Down the Secular Humanists"
"...What makes them so dangerous is that Secular Humanists look just like you and me. Some of them could be your best friends without you knowing that they are Humanists. They could come into your house, play with your children, eat your food and even watch football with you on television, and you'd never know they have read Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, and Huckleberry Finn....
"No one is safe until Congress sets up an Anti-Secular Humanism Committee to get at the rot. Witnesses have to be called, and they have to name names.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Henri Bergson (October 18, 1859)

Henri Bergson was born to Jewish parents in France, but became an original non-Jewish moral philosopher (famous in his day, winning the Nobel Prize, now basically forgotten). He said he would have become a Catholic except for the persecution of Jews that he witnessed at the end of his life. He died in Paris – where he had lived his entire life -- in 1941. Although he was offered a sort of honorary non-Jewish status to protect him from the persecutions that were about to occur, he refused the "honor" and stood in line to get a Jewish identity card just a few days before his death. Maybe that makes him an unusual secular Jewish hero.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Arthur Miller (October 17, 1915)

Arthur Miller's autobiography Timebends chronicles his rather typical Jewish childhood and early education in New York and his development as one of the most highly regarded American playwrights. And he married Marilyn Monroe.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Nathanael West (October 17, 1903)

"In West, Jewishness is subtext or invisible." * Critics dispute the Jewishness of various themes and characters in West's novels (except for the antisemitic portrayals he sometimes produced). He changed his name and hid his Russian-Jewish immigrant background.

Miss Lonelyhearts is a novel about the writer of a newspaper advice column. The Day of the Locust is about Hollywood and the movie industry. To find a Jewish consciousness in West, some critics point out that Jews were involved in writing advice columns (Abraham Cahan's Bintel Brief...) and in running Hollywood. This is the kind of overinterpretation that I think of as wishful thinking.

I enjoyed these novels. However, I'm interested in the potential influence of his background on West even if he reacted by changing his name and becoming an antisemite. He's claimed as an American Jewish writer. I'm not sure what that means in his case.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Ralph Lauren (October 14, 1939)

When I feel like splurging on clothes, Lauren is my favorite brand. It’s a commonplace that Bronx-born Ralph Liftshitz morphed into the high priest of aging preppy fashion, and lots of serious fashion commentators like to speculate about how being Jewish specifically positioned him to get into the mind of American women who want to look classy (or whatever it is they want). I don't take that very seriously. I think attributing Jewish motives to every success is an exaggeration. I just like the clothes.

Of course his high-end fashion is not what I'm talking about:

-- image from current Ralph Lauren web magazine.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sacha Baron Cohen (October 13, 1971)

“In a rare interview as himself (and not one of his characters) Sacha told NPR’s Terry Gross that he didn’t believe that the people Borat encountered agreed with his racist statements just to be polite, and even if that was their motivation, he was concerned."

Sacha Baron Cohen's travesties of racists from many countries have fooled Americans into making some amazingly racist statements, and his many assumed characters made him a popular comedian on TV a few years ago. He has a quite serious side as well, reflected in his work:
“‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference,’ Sacha, a Cambridge University history graduate said, quoting British historian Ian Kershaw. 'It’s that indifference that’s quite dangerous.'

"Sacha, through his satirical characters, and Erran [Baron Cohen], through his musical fusion, are pushing back against prejudice, which has played a powerful role shaping Baron Cohen family history. The two brothers are members of the fourth generation of Baron Cohens, which also includes their first cousins Ash, a Hollywood director of small-budget independent films such as Bang and This Girl’s Life, and Simon, a prominent Cambridge psychologist promulgating controversial theories about sex differences and the brain.” *

Lenny Bruce (October 13, 1925)

Censored! That was Lenny Bruce. His shocking language had an impact that is unimaginable in the current world where the bleeps on TV don’t even disguise which taboo word is coming out of the mouth of the speaker. Even if Lenny Bruce hadn't attacked public prudery, I doubt if the rigorous avoidance of this vocabulary would have survived. However, he seems to be widely acknowledged as the originator of blue blue monologues in respectable public arenas.

One of Lenny Bruce's memorable stand-up comedy routines was titled "Jewish and Goyish." Way ahead of Woody Allen he said:
Kool Aid is Goyish. Evaporated milk is Goyish, even if Jews invented it. All Drake's Cakes are Goyish. Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is Goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very Goyish. Instant potatoes - Goyish. Black cherry soda's very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is Goyish. Lime soda is very Goyish.

If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't even matter if you're Catholic; if you live in New York, you're Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you're going to be goyish even if you are Jewish. Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won't go near them. The Jack Paar Show is very Goyish.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What is Jewish Art?

In today's Tablet magazine -- "Seeing Double: A Jewish literature is easy to identify. But defining Jewish art is a task of Talmudic complexity, as a new book, Jewish Art, makes clear," a review by Adam Kirsch. The article includes a summary of some of the earlier writers who dealt with the question of what could or should make an artist "Jewish." Was it subject matter? The artist's personal history? And in some sense, did the designation suggest some hint of lack or respect for the artist as an artist?

Imagery and stereotypes about Jews are one focus of Jewish Art, written by Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver. Kirsch discusses, for example, the book's treatment of the use of Christian imagery in the World-War-II era paintings by Chagall, such as the one above.

Kirsch wrote: "For many 19th-century thinkers, the principle that Judaism was incapable of, or hostile to, visual beauty was taken for granted. In his passionately revisionist study The Artless Jew, Kalman P. Bland shows that this belief was shared by Gentiles hostile to Judaism, including Hegel and Wagner, as well as by Jews like Freud and Rosenzweig."

I found the ideas here thought-provoking, especially the discussion of the numerous abstract expressionist artists of Jewish origin. Kirsch wrote:"Perhaps, then, we would better off talking not about Jewish art, but about a Jewish way of seeing and talking and writing about art—one that situates paintings in a universe of Jewish discourse about the power and danger of the image. This concept restores primacy, in what feels like an authentically Jewish way, to the word and the interpreter, rather than leaving it with the image."

Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884)

As this Israeli stamp says, Eleanor Roosevelt was a defender of human rights. She was often ahead of her husband in championing badly-treated groups, especially Blacks, when they really needed respect and recognition from national leaders.

A review of a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt points out that early in her life, she was antisemitic, in keeping with her upper-class American background. She gradually changed her attitudes, as she did towards many minorities:
"By the time of the New Deal, she was coming around, risking criticism to meet with Jewish groups, supporting an array of Jewish causes and writing articles urging tolerance. 'It is the secret fear that the Jewish people are stronger or more able than those who still wield superior physical power over them, which brings about oppression,' she wrote in Liberty magazine. 'I believe that those nations which do not persecute are saved only by confidence in themselves and a feeling that they can still defend themselves and their own place in the world. Therefore, I am forced to the conclusion that the Jewish people though they may be in part responsible for the present situation are not as responsible as the other races who need to examine themselves and grapple with their own fears.'''

Monday, October 10, 2011

Harold Pinter (October 10, 1930)

Pinter, an English playwright and Nobel laureate, had Jewish parents, but like many English Jews, did not retain a public Jewish identity. According to Jewish Virtual Library, Joshua Cohen of Forward said, “Pinter is too much of a Modern to define himself as a Jew,” and that he “has downplayed his Judaism many times in conversation, and has consciously ignored it in his characterizations.” In what I see as an excess of pride, some Jewish critics have tried to assign Jewish sensibilities or motives to Pinter's writings. I am not convinced.

Pinter, sad to say, was not the only successful English Jewish intellectual to attack Israel and to assume as his own the left-wing attacks on Zionism and the defense of all Palestinians no matter what they did. I can only think about the caricature of this type of person in Howard Jacobson's book The Finkler Question.

Daniel Pearl (October 10, 1963)

The hideous execution of Daniel Pearl by Islamic extremists in February, 2002, is unforgettable. His affirmation of his Jewish identity just before the executioner acted makes him a tragic hero.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Alfred Dreyfus (October 9, 1859)

Alfred Dreyfus is an important figure in modern Jewish history, but he's actually more of a victim than a hero. The Dreyfus Affair, as the event came to be called, divided late-19th century Republican France. Someone had been passing military secrets from the French to the Germans, and one officer with access to the documents, Dreyfus, came under suspicion because he was a Jew. The evidence against him was dubious, but his race was enough to convict him. This was the era when hatred of Jews was a political position, with every effort on the part of the haters to make anti-Semitism respectable -- in fact, they had coined the term itself to justify their beliefs.

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

I wrote much more about the Dreyfus affair in connection with Emile Zola.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Yom Kippur (October 8, 2011)

Secular Jews at various times have handled Jewish holidays in various ways. 100 years ago, secular Jews of some persuasions in New York and Warsaw had Yom Kippur parties where they ate and drank, and where they especially ate not-kosher foods, as in the headline above from 1898. They sent a message to the others, didn't they?

Says Eddy Portnoy in Tablet magazine:
"What does one do, after all, when prayers and traditional customs no longer hold any meaning yet you still want to be part of a Jewish community? Eating with intention on a fast day allows you, in one fell swoop, to thumb your nose at the religious establishment and create a secular Jewish identity."
In Israel today, the whole country has shut down, without much push-back from the non-religious as far as I can tell. Said Haaretz yesterday: "Public opinion surveys over the past few years show most Jews in Israel observe Yom Kippur. A survey conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2009 found 26 percent of Israeli Jews who describe themselves as 'secular' or 'not religious' fast on Yom Kippur and 24 percent of them have attended prayers at a synagogue."

As for me: I'm aware today that it's Yom Kippur. I am not doing anything that I wouldn't do anyway. I neither purposely violate the spirit of the holiday nor do I do anything to uphold it. There have been years when I wasn't even aware of the holiday, and years when I was invited to "break the fast" dinners which I attended even though I wasn't fasting. I maintain a neutral attitude, I guess. You?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Diane Ackerman (October 7, 1948)

I enjoyed Diane Ackerman's World War II story of two quiet heros and how they used the Warsaw Zoo as a hiding place for Jewish and other refugees.

She recently wrote a very nice article for the New York Times about recent astronomical observations: Planets in the Sky with Diamonds. She said: "The past month has been a marvel in the planetary world. In addition to HD 85512b [an Earth-like planet that might harbor life], astronomers spotted a planet that may be fashioned entirely of diamond, a brilliant diadem set in the black velvet of space. For all we know, it has baguette moons in tow. And a few weeks later, planet hunters confirmed the discovery of Kepler-16b, a planet that circles two suns in the constellation Cygnus."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Marjorie Guthrie ( October 6, 1917)

By her own description, you might know Marjorie Guthrie as Woody Guthrie’s wife or as Arlo Guthrie’s mother – depending on your age. I've heard that she taught Woody some Yiddish folk songs, and I've always wanted to hear him sing them, but I don't know if any recordings are available.

Marjorie was a dancer with the Martha Graham company, using the stage name Marjorie Mazia. After Woody’s death Marjorie became an advocate for medical research on chronic disabling illnesses such as the one that had taken his life.

Her mother was a Yiddish poet, Aliza Waitzman Greenblatt, and she donated her mother's papers and important books to the National Yiddish Book Center.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Gertrude Berg (October 3, 1898)

Gertrude Berg created, wrote, and starred in a weekly situation comedy, The Goldbergs. First on radio, then TV, she acted Molly Goldberg, a Jewish-American mother. If all the stereotypes of the Jewish mother transferred to secular Jews, we have Molly Goldberg to thank. Thanks.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mahatma Gandhi (October 2, 1869)

How can Gandhi be anything but a hero? No matter what he specifically said about Jews and Hitler, or no matter how perverse antisemites might turn his thought or methods to unfortunate ends.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Walter Matthau ( October 1, 1920)

I have enjoyed a number of movies starring Walter Matthau, and admired him for the wide variety of roles he played, while as far as I know not playing himself (as many actors do). While he sometimes played Jewish characters -- including Albert Einstein -- his repertoire wasn't limited by his ethnicity. My favorite of his films is "Hopscotch."

As far as I know, he was in fact religiously observant, and outspoken against antisemites like Vanessa Redgrave when she denigrated Israel. I find him admirable.