Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Etta Cone (November 30, 1870)

Etta Cone collected her first Matisse and Picasso paintings during a trip to Paris in 1905. The Matisse shown above was one of many in her immense lifetime collection, now on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art. At the time of the first modern art purchase, she was under the influence of the Stein family: Gertrude and her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife Sally, all of them intense art patrons and collectors. She had an intense friendship with Gertrude Stein (who knows how intense?) which was excised from history later, probably to please Alice B. Toklas.

Throughout her life, Etta Cone and her sister Claribel Cone (whom I wrote about earlier this month) continued to create an amazing collection of modern art, though she handled it in a very modest and private way. In The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone, author Mary Gabriel documents the somewhat unequal relationship of the two Cone sisters, who are now recognized as visionaries in the early appreciation of modern art.

Though not religious, and not active in Baltimore's Jewish community, Etta had some vague Jewish identity, and once wrote to Gertrude Stein: “Happy New Year to you, you heathen." *

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835)

Samuel Langhorne Clemens -- that's Mark Twain to most of us --belongs on my list of heroes for two reasons:
  • First, because Huckleberry Finn so perfectly highlights what is wrong with bigotry.
  • Second because upon meeting the famous Jewish author he (allegedly) said: “I wanted to meet you because I'm told that I'm the American Sholom Aleichem.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Stefan Zweig (Nov. 28, 1881)

Stefan Zweig's autobiography The World of Yesterday depicts the vanished world of Vienna 100 years ago. Jews were a major factor in the intellectual life in that famous era, and he describes it with painful awareness that the Nazis had destroyed everything he cherished. He also documents his experiences as a pacifist during World War I, and other elements of his life as a highly successful and rewarded author. Soon after writing the book, in exile, deprived of his success and of the Europe he had valued, he and his wife committed suicide in despair.

I've read some of his stories, the autobiography, and his novel “Beware of Pity.” The latter explored an interesting side of what it meant to be Jewish at the time, through depiction of a Jew who has tried to repudiate his background, but suffers for his pretensions. The focus of the book is on a rather unimaginative officer who can't resist an overdeveloped sense of honor. Zweig's works can at times seem dated, but at times also offer really interesting insights into the past. Recently, a number of his books have been republished and readership, which declined for many years, has increased.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Leonard Woolf (November 25, 1880)

From a review of a biography of Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning in the Guardian:
"The centre of the mystery is why Virginia Stephen, who shared the conventional, mild anti-semitism of pre-Great War, upper-middle-class England, married 'a penniless Jew' who looked like an Old Testament prophet. ...

"There is a good deal to be learnt about multiculturalism from examining Woolf's early life, for the Woolfs were assimilated to the extent that his father was a QC and Leonard was educated at St Paul's and Trinity, Cambridge, where he was elected to the Apostles, the secret society then in its golden age, including as members GE Moore, Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes.

"Though part of the English establishment, Leonard maintained a relatively uncomplicated Jewish identity (perhaps by refusing to take personally anti-semitic remarks made by TS Eliot, Harold Nicolson and his wife). This had nothing to do with the religion of his fathers, for he was, like his fellow Apostles, a militant atheist. His grandfather, Benjamin, had already discarded Orthodoxy in favour of the Reform movement and joined a Mayfair synagogue."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jews and Vegetarians

Today's Forward has an article about Jewish vegetarianism, going back to “The Theory of Vegetarianism” published in Russia in 1884 by I.B. Levinsohn. Later, Yiddish activists even wrote and sang ”The Vegetarian Hymn.”

The main subject of the article is a vegetarian advocate named Fania Lewando, who wrote “Vegetarish-Dietisher Kokhbukh,” that is, “Vegetarian Dietetic Cookbook.” The book was published in Vilna in 1938; it's taken a long time, but along with some of the original colorful illustrations, a translation of the work is scheduled for publication next spring.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

George Eliot (November 22, 1819)

George Eliot (real name: Mary Anne Evans) was author of a book that should be fascinating to modern, secular Jews: Daniel Deronda. I found the novel readable and intriguing and, it seemed to me, ahead of its time. The Jewish elements in the novel still seem controversial now, as they did when it was published in 1876. Eliot's interest in Jews and the beginnings of Zionism extended beyond the book; she later wrote an essay against antisemitism. Daniel Deronda was made into a mini-series that was shown on Masterpiece Theater several years ago.

According to a review in the Guardian:
"Deronda was the first of Eliot's novels to be set in her own period, the late 19th century, and in it she took on what was a highly unusual contemporary theme: the position of Jews in British and European society and their likely prospects. The eponymous hero is an idealistic young aristocrat who comes to the rescue of a young Jewish woman and in his attempts to help her find her family is drawn steadily deeper into the Jewish community and the ferment of early Zionist politics.

"Their appearance in the book was as unwelcome to some of her readers as it is to some of the characters. While the novel's Lady Mallinger bemoans Daniel's 'going mad in this way about the Jews,' Eliot's friend John Blackwood noted upon publication: 'The Jews should be the most interesting people in the world, but even her magic pen cannot at once make them a popular element in a Novel.' Many years later, FR Leavis called for the Jewish sections of the novel to be cut out completely, leaving a country-house romance to be called Gwendolen Harleth, after the fatally self-absorbed gentile who falls for Deronda."
In the novel, the character named Mordecai is particularly interesting. Mordecai, according to the Guardian article is a "visionary intellectual." He is "a complex character with both sympathetic and unsympathetic sides and reveals a sometimes overwhelmingly detailed fascination with the minutiae of Judaism, its religious practices, culture and literature. The fact that Daniel becomes Mordecai's disciple and agrees to carry on his work to seek a homeland for the Jews after his death -- an idea presumably as baffling to Eliot's readers as it is to most of the book's gentile characters -- also shows a real commitment to the subject by the author."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jewish Book Month (November 21-December 21, 2011)

Jewish Book Month has been celebrated the month before Chanukkah since 1940. When I think about Jewish books, one institution that comes to mind is the National Yiddish Book Center, and its founder Aaron Lansky. The photo above is from my visit there in 2003.

From the Center's website:
"In 1980, when Aaron Lansky issued his first public appeal for old Yiddish books, it was estimated that only 70,000 Yiddish volumes were extant and recoverable. He rescued that many within six months. Today the National Yiddish Book Center’s collection totals over a million volumes, with the core collection stored in our state-of-the-art repository and 11,000 titles available online from our Virtual Yiddish Library. The Book Center also sponsors public events, internships and a wide range of cultural and educational programs designed to 'open up' the treasures of Yiddish culture for a new generation."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Myla Goldberg (November 19, 1971)

I read Goldberg’s novel Bee Season for two different book clubs – both liked it! Her use of Jewish material in a very strange context was interesting. About her identity as a Jewish American she said:
“The diversity and vitality of American Jewish practice today means that I can be a secular humanist married to a non-Jewish atheist and still be part of a vibrant Jewish community that embraces my family. For such a long-lived, established religion, Judaism has remained steadfastly and impressively committed to its founding spirit of questioning, which has led to our current freedoms in belief, philosophy and practice. On a spiritual level, that means that eschewing a traditional deistic God concept in favor of a humanistic one hasn’t made me a pariah: I can derive inspiration and meaning from the limitless potential of collective humanity and still feel welcome within the larger Jewish community. Though my Jewish identity informs my writing, it does not define my writing, nor do I feel the need to put a label on myself to find readers, as previous generations of Jewish writers may have felt compelled to do. I find the whole Chosen People thing outdated and distasteful, nor do I think that we have a monopoly on any particular set of values, but there are some fantastic ideas contained in Judaism that we can and should offer in our engagement with the world. We find ourselves in an extraordinary place and time in Jewish history, with unprecedented freedom to define who we are and who we wish to be. We should strive to engage the world with the same qualities of open mindedness and empathy that have led to our own success.” – Moment Magazine Symposium on what it means to be Jewish

Friday, November 18, 2011

Naomi Chazan (November 18, 1946)

Naomi Chazan, former Israeli Knesset member and outspoken human rights activist is currently the head of the New Israel Fund, an organization dedicated to promoting equality and social justice for all Israelis. Through grassroots organizations, NIF leads many efforts to keep Israel a multi-ethnic, tolerant, democratic society in the face of many trends to the contrary.

One of her recent causes is fighting the boycott law, which would institute punishments for Israelis who engage in a boycott of the settlements. She wrote: “The Boycott Law is in some ways the most problematic in terms of basic rights in a democratic society. It touches on fundamental freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of association and certainly also freedom to protest. The law rules out any possibility of protest. From the point of view of democracy, this is a wrong that almost beggars description. Every person who, for reasons of conscience, does not buy products made in the settlements becomes a criminal. What have we come to? At the constitutional level, we are simply starting to unravel the last of the rules of the game. It’s not a flashing yellow light anymore − it’s very red.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pierre Nora (November 17, 1931)

Pierre Nora 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. I wrote about him here: French Secular Intellectual Jews.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lee Strasberg (November 17, 1901)

Lee Strasberg, actor, director, and coach to many famous stars, was one of the founders of the Group Theater with Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford in 1931. He later headed the Actor's Studio. From the Actors' Studio history:
In 1948, Lee Strasberg was asked by Elia Kazan to join the Studio as one of its teachers and in 1951 he became its Artistic Director, a position he maintained until his death in 1982. Strasberg’s deep understanding of the Stanislavski System and the reformulations of Vakhtangov, together with his own personal discoveries and improvements on the acting process, provided the foundation on which the Actors Studio based its work.

At the same time the work of Elia Kazan as a theatre and film director demonstrated in the most powerful way the extraordinary results of the deep and personal process of acting espoused by the Actors Studio.
Strasberg's family immigrated to New York early in his life. His first acting experience was in the Yiddish theater, and he is well-known as a director and as the influential leader of the Actors' Studio and its predecessor the and the most important American proponent of method acting. He was also important for his influence on Hollywood actors -- especially on Marilyn Monroe; the photo above shows them together.

According to an article in the Jerusalem Post, Kazan, in his autobiography, wrote that Strasberg "carried with him the aura of a prophet, a magician, a witch doctor, a psychoanalyst, and a feared father of a Jewish home.... [H]e was the force that held the thirty-odd members of the theatre together, and made them 'permanent.'"

Monday, November 14, 2011

Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900)

Aaron Copland's music created a special mythological America. He wrote of farms, cowboys on the frontier, Lincoln, and "the common man." He borrowed tunes from 19th century American music, New York jazz, and Mexican folk music for use in symphonies and ballets that seem overwhelmingly American. Maybe he defined what American sounds like.

Critic Robert Goldblum writes:
"Aaron Copland grew up in the cramped quarters of Brooklyn, the child of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, but in his music he lit out for the territory. The architecture of city life — Deco skyscrapers and imposing Beaux-Arts museums — defined his early life, but in his music he sought sanctuary in the prairie."
According to a PBS story: "As a spokesman for the advancement of indigenous American music, Copland made great strides in liberating it from European influence."

Understanding how Copland transformed himself is mysterious.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Claribel Cone (November 14, 1864)

Sisters Claribel and Etta Cone of Baltimore were friends of Gertrude Stein -- the three are shown in the photo at right. The Cones had an independent income from a family business, but Claribel worked as a medical doctor and successful researcher. According to the Jewish Women's Archive:
First in her class [at the Women’s Medical College of Baltimore], she graduated in 1890 and undertook postgraduate study at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She won one of five internships at the Philadelphia Blockley Hospital for the Insane. On returning to Baltimore in 1893, Claribel Cone announced that she preferred medical research and teaching to clinical practice. She secured a position as a lecturer in hygiene at the Women’s Medical College of Baltimore. Appointed full professor in 1895, she taught pathology at the college until it closed in 1910.
From Gertrude and her brother Leo, Claribel and Etta Cone learned about the breathtaking modern art that was being produced in Paris a century ago, and became splendid collectors with amazing taste. They were quite friendly with some of the artists of the era as well, especially Matisse. Their collections are now in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Cone sisters' lives and accomplishments as collectors are documented in Mary Gabriel's book The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone. Gabriel emphasizes their originality and imaginative recognition of the great artists of their time, and makes the case that being women caused them to be overlooked by history (as did Gertrude Stein's dismissal of them in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas).

The same article mentions "Though described by a nephew as a “freethinker,” Claribel Cone was quite conscious of her identity as a Jew."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Barbara Boxer (November 11, 1940)

Barbara Boxer doesn't play up her Jewish identity, but also doesn't hide it. For me, she's a highly admirable figure because of her consistent stands on many issues that matter. If being Jewish motivates her consistent support of high-quality Supreme Court nominees (like Sotomayor), drives her to favor individual liberties and feminism, or makes her get high marks from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, that's great. But I'm not sure it really makes sense to judge cause and effect like that. I wish Judaism caused everyone to agree with me politically but it doesn't seem to work that way, does it Eric Cantor?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jacob Epstein (November 10, 1880)

Jacob Epstein, born and brought up in New York, became a thoroughly British avant-garde sculptor, a leader in 20th century modern art. His work appears in every collection from his era -- here, "The Rock Drill" from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Epstein and two other early 20th century giants inspired the following limerick:
I don't like the family Stein,
There is Gert, and there's Ep, and there's Ein,
Gert's poems are bunk,
Ep's statues are junk,
And nobody understands Ein.
I've already written about Gert and Ein!

To be serious about Epstein here is a summary from the Courtauld Institute:
"Jacob Epstein ... was born in America, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who ran a successful business on the lower East side of New York. He spent the formative years of his childhood drawing the exotic, down-at-heels crowds which gathered from all over the world in the city’s poorer districts. Throughout his life, he remained fascinated by the variety of human races and traditions, looking to distant countries for his artistic inspiration.

"The caricature of Epstein as iconoclast, wreaking havoc on traditional art, scarcely fits his own explanation of his work. Repeatedly, he asserted his enormous respect for tradition. Only, his definition of tradition departed from the norm, in that he rejected the development of European art since the Renaissance."

Karl Shapiro (November 10, 1913)

Here, from the Poetry Foundation website, is part of a poem by Karl Shapiro:

I Am an Atheist Who Says His Prayers
I am an atheist who says his prayers.

I am an anarchist, and a full professor at that. I take the loyalty oath.

I am a deviate. I fondle and contribute, backscuttle and brown, father of three.

I stand high in the community. My name is in Who’s Who. People argue about my modesty.

I drink my share and yours and never have enough. I free-load officially and unofficially.

A physical coward, I take on all intellectuals, established poets, popes, rabbis, chiefs of staff.

I am a mystic. I will take an oath that I have seen the Virgin. Under the dry pandanus, to the scratching of kangaroo rats, I achieve psychic onanism. My tree of nerves electrocutes itself.

I uphold the image of America and force my luck. I write my own ticket to oblivion.

I am of the race wrecked by success. The audience brings me news of my death. I write out of boredom, despise solemnity. The wrong reason is good enough for me.

I am of the race of the prematurely desperate. In poverty of comfort I lay gunpowder plots. I lapse my insurance.

I am the Babbitt metal of the future. I never read more than half of a book. But that half I read forever.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Neil Gaiman ( November 10, 1960)

I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman and his weird myth-based world, especially of the books American Gods and Anansi Boys. I would say there's nothing at all noticeably Jewish about any work of his that I've read, but I have read in various sources that he identifies with his Jewish ancestors.

Gaiman was brought up in England. His parents were not practicing Jews; rather, they were Scientologists. However, Gaiman emphatically says he's not a scientologist. He immigrated to the US some time ago, and lives in Minnesota.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Gaiman elaborated on his background:
"It was when Gaiman was 12 that he first came across a seam of mythology unlike anything his childhood collections of Greek and Roman tales had yet exposed him to. That was the year he got to be 'really Jewish', as he puts it. For this pre-bar mitzvah year, he was sent each weekend to stay with observant cousins in Wembley. 'I had this wonderful bar mitzvah teacher. He was a cantor, Reb Meyer Lev. He was very, very into all of the stories of Jewish mythology. I was the kind of kid who, given the opportunity, would derail the stuff I was meant to be learning and get him on to mythological subjects. And he, bless him, would always go there.

"'Which meant that in my mid-twenties, when I was writing myths and writing comics, I suddenly discovered that I knew all this incredibly obscure stuff, I mean way beyond imagining, and it was marvellous. And I'd write stuff, and people'd come up to me, and say, OK, the thing about Adam having three wives - marvellous stuff.'"
And from another interview:
"Gaiman acknowledges there is little that is particularly Jewish about his life in the United States. 'For me, the funny and the weird thing about being Jewish in the US is that in America they only have room to put you in one box or another. So, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show gets to be Jewish, I'm English and so that puts me in the English box.'

"But he does think that Judaism features in his writing, 'because fundamentally the perspective on almost all of my fiction, particularly something big in Sandman, is 'outsidery'; being part of a culture but also being part of the 'other'."
Very interesting!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

S. An-Sky (November 8, 1863)

S. An-Sky, born Shloyme Zanvel Rappaport, was a writer, photographer, and collector of Shtetl history, folklore, and artifacts. His most famous work is the folk-based play "The Dybbuck," which is still performed and re-interpreted.

In 1912-1914 An-Sky visited Jewish towns in Russia, taking photos, collecting stories, looking at synagogue record books, and generally preserving the culture that has subsequently been destroyed.

The photo shows a scene from the 1920 performance of the Dybbuck by the Vilna Jewish Theatre Group.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Natalie Zemon Davis (November 8, 1928)

Natalie Zemon Davis is a historian who changed history as we see it. Instead of writing about boring powerful white rich men, she looked at the lives of highly ordinary people -- before that became the norm. Or to put it another way "she has been especially concerned to get at the lives and values of peasants, artisans, and women, and to analyze their relation to other social groups and to power, property, and authority." *

I've really enjoyed several of Davis's books about a variety of topics, especially Women on the Margins, which includes a chapter on Gluckl of Hamlin, the first Jewish woman to write an autobiography. Davis's book The Return of Martin Guerre, which she wrote in the 1980s, was made into a well-known French movie with Gérard Depardieu. Besides writing, she has been a feminist activist and an advocate for women in academia.

The Jewish Women's archive characterizes Davis as what I would think of as an ideal secular Jew: "While Davis’s work has not been centered on Jewish issues, she has explored Jewish subjects in her research and cited her Jewish background as a factor shaping her identity as a historian. She recalled that feelings of being an outsider in the majority culture prompted her curiosity about social construction and identity. As a Jew and a woman, Davis gravitated toward exposing and bringing to life the histories of those groups often suppressed in traditional historical narratives."

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ruth Handler (November 4, 1916)

Ruth Handler was brought up in a Jewish family in Denver. She and her husband had a toy furniture business during World War II. After the war, the Handlers "took their two teenagers -- Barbara and Ken -- on a trip to Europe .... There, they saw a doll that looked like an adult woman, vastly different from the baby dolls most little girls owned. Ruth was inspired. Three years later, Mattel's version, Barbie, would debut, with a wardrobe of outfits that could be purchased separately. In 1960, the Handlers took Mattel public, with a valuation of $10 million ($60.3 million in 2003 dollars). It was on its way to the Fortune 500, and Barbie quickly became an icon, with ever-changing wardrobe and career options that mirrored women's changing aspirations." --From

In the photo: my Mona Lisa Barbie. This is my first -- and last -- Barbie doll in my whole life. I guess. Unless they make a Leonardo Ken with a paintbrush or something. Tablet magazine recently wrote up these art-inspired Barbie dolls that appeal to adults, not pre-teens. They say: "Though she was an immediate hit, Barbie was long maligned by intellectuals for her anatomical and political incorrectness. But now Handler’s creation is finally enjoying a post-modernist, post-feminist bump. The doll who has been toyed with by so many artists—sometimes lovingly, sometimes sadistically—is now a museum piece. The original 1959 Barbie Teen Age Fashion Model, known as Barbie No. 1, was recently acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which will feature her (and Ken) in its upcoming show 'California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.'"

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hero or Anti-Hero?

It's been a year since I published the first birthday commemoration on this blog. Before that, there were a few introductory posts. While thinking about the approximately 300 individuals I have written about, I've developed my ideas about who might be meaningful to secular Jews like me. I've also identified quite a few additional subjects for future blog posts. In a few cases, I have thought of more to say about those I discussed in the last year. I will not repost any entries unless I want to add something to them, however.

So this blog will continue until I run out of heroic figures -- and anti-heroic ones.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sholem Asch (November 1, 1880)

Prolific and sometimes controversial, Asch is one of many Yiddish writers that I've never read. His earlier works appear to depict many social and economic levels of pre-World War I Jewry, though he is said to have had little real sympathy for the poor and for political movements that were attempting to create a better life for them. Later, just as the Nazis were coming to power, his exploration of the life of Jesus and early Christianity were intensely disliked by his Jewish audience. The Forward, where he had published before, refused to accept any more of his works. I read about him in the YIVO encyclopedia.