Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ben Kingsley (December 31, 1943)

The actor Ben Kinglsey has a very mixed background, which has allowed him to take on roles with a huge variety of ethnic identities, including Gandhi, an Iranian immigrant to LA (in "House of Sand and Fog") and Otto Frank, father of Ann Frank.

 He just did it again, playing Georges Méliès
the film maker in the new film “Hugo” (image at right). I loved "Hugo," and I think he’s an amazing actor.

Of his life and ethnic identity, Kingsley said:
“I think one in four of the students at my school was Jewish. Every single one of my friends was Jewish. My mother was half-Jewish, so I felt a part of exotic, cosmopolitan Manchester.” 
He described his parents:
“'My mother was basically an abandoned child. She wasn't brought up by her own mother, who was, to put it mildly, extremely difficult. If we were trying to be really kind we would call her "a character". Murderous. Terrifying. So my mum had no role model in terms of maternal instinct and intuition.' “His grandmother was an East End rag trader who fell pregnant by a Jewish immigrant. When he ran away back to Russia she became virulently anti-Semitic. Kingsley once said that when he portrayed 'great heroic Jews and heroic dark people' such as Simon Wiesenthal and Gandhi he was 'sticking two fingers up' at her. So it must have been difficult for this fearsome matriarch when her daughter married a young man of Indian descent. 
 “Rahimtulla Bhanji, Kingsley's father, was a Gujarati like Gandhi, but was brought up in Kenya, the son of a spice trader. He came to England to study medicine before going on to work as a GP in Yorkshire, where his second son, Krishna Pandit Bhanji, the future Ben Kingsley, was born.” -- quotes from "The dark family secret that drove Ben Kingsley to success"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Stan Lee (December 28, 1922)

Jewish comic-book author Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber) co-created the Fantastic Four comic series in 1961 for Marvel Comics. He's responsible for Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and X-Men. Surely that makes him a hero to a lot of comic readers!

Like Jewish popular music composers, Jewish comic book creators made an enormous contribution to their field. The first tabloid-sized funny paper reprints appeared in 1934, published by an unemployed Jewish novelty salesman named Max Gaines (née Max Ginzberg) and Harry L. Wildenberg, who worked at Eastern Color Printing; their idea took off. The next big thing in comic books -- Superman -- was invented by artists who also happened to be Jewish. I have not seen a credible explanation for either phenomenon, though I found a history of their role that attempts to explain the role of Jews throughout comic history up to Mad magazine. The last paragraph reads:
MAD's conversion from a comic book to a bimonthly magazine marked the end the Golden Age of comic books, which, for its creators, was like a drama in two acts. In act one, Jews seeking to escape poverty invented a new genre that melded popular art and storytelling, and projected Jewish (and adolescent) power fantasies onto their "all-American" superhero creations. During the shorter second act, the five-year reign of EC Comics was marked by an overriding concern about morality, sometimes emanating from a Jewish sensibility. In the words of The X-Men creator Stan Lee: "To me you can wrap all of Judaism up in one sentence, and that is, 'Do not do unto others...' All I tried to do in my stories was show that there's some innate goodness in the human condition. And there's always going to be evil; we should always be fighting evil."

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Tonight's latke dinner with Elaine and Larry. We had leg of lamb, latkes, and for dessert, lemon layer cake.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Yasmin Levy (December 23, 1975)

Yasmin Levy is a charismatic singer of Israeli and Ladino songs. I thoroughly enjoyed a concert she gave a few years ago. I especially remember her sing-along version of the very dramatic song “Adio Kerido.”

Levy’s inspiration partly comes from her father Yitzhak Levy, thus described at her website:
“Born in Turkey in 1919, he worked as both a composer and cantor. After the creation of the State of Israel, Yitzhak was appointed head of the Ladino department at Israel's national radio station. His life's work was devoted to the collection and preservation of the songs of Sephardic Jews: these songs had been passed down orally from generation to generation over a period in excess of 500 years. During his lifetime he published four books containing Sephardic romances and another ten volumes of liturgical songs. He also recorded many of these same songs for the national radio.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Hanukkah!

It's the first night of Hanukah, and time for secular Jews like me to light candles, and maybe think about Judah Maccabee, as I said in my earlier post.

Andrei Codrescu (December 20, 1946)

I’ve always enjoyed Andrei Codrescu’s commentaries on All Things Considered, especially when he contrasted his youth under communist rule to his adulthood as an American poet and academic. Though I think the title of his poetry magazine, Exquisite Corpse, is delightful, I've never actually seen a copy.

For the Moment Magazine symposium on what it means to be Jewish he said:
“My family fled Hungarian-occupied Transylvania to escape the Nazis to Romania, where I was born after the war. Being a poet, I work with language, which is something we Jews are very good at. We have survived by means of a book, the perpetuation of one language and the invention of another. Hebrew words still maintain a potent link to the sacred, just as Yiddish, our other language, keeps us rooted to the bitter ironies of the human world. Of course, any language can connect to the divine under the ministrations of a poet, but there is something in our use of it that transcends both education and prayer. We offer the world a model of survival for thousands of years without a bureaucratic state (until Israel) or an official language. We are a shining and tragic example of what happens to the powerless when the powerful need scapegoats, and we provide at the same time a model for existence through learning and community. We possess a stubborn sense of justice born out of being the perennial subjects of injustice. Our moral history consists largely of reflection on the laws of men and the Law of God, a subject of existential urgency to all humans.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

Italo Svevo (December 19, 1861)

Italo Svevo was the pen name of a Jewish businessman and novelist from Trieste named Ettore Schmitz. When we were in Ireland an Irish/English friend, discussing Leopold Bloom, wondered if James Joyce knew any Irish Jews. I said I didn’t know, but he did know Italo Svevo in Trieste. Svevo first employed Joyce as an English tutor, but became his friend.

Svevo's most famous novel is The Confessions of Zeno. When first published, it received little recognition, but is now admired for its early use of psychoanalysis and Freudian thought in fiction. Joyce's influence helped to make it better known and respected. I read it long ago.

From an article in the Guardian about the story of Svevo:
"What gives the story its piquancy is the way Svevo's very acquiescence in his apparent destiny as a businessman brought about his rebirth as a writer. With the expansion of his father-in-law's firm, he began travelling to London on business. Feeling the need to improve his English, he hired a young Irishman in Trieste to tutor him. James Joyce at this point was 25 and more or less unknown, but his words of praise to his middle-aged pupil, who had diffidently handed him his two long-forgotten novels, were enough to regalvanise Svevo's literary ambitions. And many years later, when The Confessions of Zeno was completed, it was Joyce - now famous - who engineered the triumphant French publication that finally brought Svevo the recognition he deserved; a wonderfully old-fashioned ending for a story involving two such uncompromising modernists.

"Zeno, like his creator, is a compulsive renouncer - most comically of cigarettes, but of other pleasures, too. The secret of the happiness he derives from his various relationships lies in the way he is constantly giving up (in his mind at least) one for another. In the charmingly devious byways of his psyche, the problem of the transitoriness of pleasure is resolved by incorporating the idea of its destruction into the experience of the pleasure itself. Enjoyment and valediction are miraculously suspended there together, at least for a period."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hanukkah Starts in Two Days

Hanukkah is the most secularly accessible of Jewish holidays, I wrote last year. I liked this post so much I've decided to re-issue it this year. 

To begin: Hanukkah was invented, some say, in a secular way – imitating the habits of the Hellenists in proclaiming a festival to celebrate a military victory, instead of getting the holiday directly from God. For another thing, it provides an alternative to secular Christmas: we have candles, they have trees. Even in the shtetl, it was kind of secular – a chance to gamble and give treats to the kids, maybe. 

American Jews might see the Hanukkah story as a reinforcement of American values – religious freedom, standing up to tyranny, self-determination. We are free to ignore the elements of religious fanaticism in the actual Maccabee family as presented in the sources: they were rejected as part of the Jewish canon a long time ago anyway. And skeptics among us naturally can deal with the miracle of 8 days of oil in a variety of ways.

The Maccabees have always provided lots of ambiguity – something for anyone. Here are eight ways various people have seen Judah Maccabee as a hero – one for each night of Hanukkah.

1)   Judah Maccabee, freedom fighter. Judah Maccabee’s commitment illustrates the importance of following one’s own conscience. As American Jews in the 20th century I think we learned this one in Jewish schools from Conservative to Reform to Secular.
2)   Judah Maccabee, defender of the Jewish state. The Israelis have their own view of Judah the heroic soldier. In modern Israel, he not only stands for American-style freedom, but also for defending the Jewishness of the Jewish state:
“For modern Zionists, no group in Jewish history was better suited for the role of heroes than that band of irregulars whose guerilla war against the imperial rulers (in this case, Greek-speaking Hellenists based in Syria) ended in victory and national liberation – the Maccabees.” From “A Zionist Hanukkah
3)   Judah Maccabee, military genius. This is another one that seems appealing to Israelis. It definitely comes right out of the original sources. For Jews of practically any persuasion, the idea that the small, underpowered Jewish fighters could defeat the well-equipped regular armies of one of the world’s biggest empires has evident appeal.
4)   Judah Maccabee, religious leader struggling against defilers of pure Judaism. This one is a little anti-heroic for secular Jews like me. If you look closely at the actual motives of the Maccabee family, they wanted everyone to be a more orthodox Jew. The Temple needed purification after the battle – but there were also questions about how pure the prior practices had been, before the fight began. The Maccabees threw out the corrupted hereditary priests who had held power before the battle.
5)   Judah Maccabee, martyr for his cause. Remember, he died before the oil miracle took place. Another not-too-secular aspect of our hero.
6)   Judah Maccabee, anti-assimilationist and anti-Hellenizer. The Hasmoneans, another name for the Maccabee faction, did not like the introduction of Hellenistic political structure, art, literature, and outlook into their own culture. They especially and most famously opposed Jews who capitulated to adding pagan cult objects and practices into the Temple rituals. The Hasmoneans weren’t the most fanatic anti-Hellenizers (that would be the isolationist Qumram sects), but they were obviously very opposed to much assimilation with the tempting Hellenistic ways. Since secular Jews in modern western countries are mainly assimilationists, we do a little glossing over here. Anyway, no one  has made us worship the emperor recently.
7)   Judah Maccabee, warrior for God. In Medieval and Renaissance Christian art, many artists included him as a kind of generic Biblical military hero and symbol of Christian triumphalism --  the Old Testament prefiguring the New Testament. Not a popular view with Jews.

8)   Judah Maccabee, hero of Handel’s Oratorio. Handel dedicated his magnificent treatment of the Book of Maccabees to a military victory by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, celebrating his triumph over the recent Jacobite rebellion. England at the time had a very small Jewish community, but they were active patrons of the arts, and quickly made this work a favorite of theirs, and commissioned more Handel works. Check Youtube to hear the beautiful aria:

“See, the conqu'ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hyman Feldman (December 15, 1905)

Last year I wrote a fairly long post about my father, Hyman Feldman, on his birthday. This year, I'll just post a photo of my father in front of our Chevrolet that he drove from around 1950 until 1960.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Wandering Jew

Interesting article by André Aciman: "Convivencia: A plaintive Gypsy song, possibly of Ladino origin, is hybridized and reinterpreted, then viewed on the Internet, where roots and homelands blur." Aciman's writings on Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish wanderings in the twentieth and now twenty-first century are always fascinating.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Helen Frankenthaler (December 12, 1928)

Helen Frankenthaler was a central figure in the New York School of painting, a movement that emerged in the early 1950s. She was involved with the art critic Clement Greenberg, and later married and divorced the painter Robert Motherwell.

Frankenthaler's background was Jewish and intellectual. Her father was a New York State Supreme Court judge, and she grew up on New York’s Upper East Side. According to the Jewish Women's Archive, "Frankenthaler absorbed the privileged background of a cultured and progressive Jewish family that encouraged all three daughters to prepare themselves for professional careers."

Frankenthaler was widely recognized when she was in her early twenties, especially for a work titled Mountains and Sea (shown above). "The color field painting that came to prominence during the later 1950s and 1960s, by Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Dzubas, and Jules Olitski, among many others, can be said to have had its origin at that moment." In an art world that discriminated against women, she managed to create and maintain a distinctive reputation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas by Jewish Songwriters

One subject that intrigues me is the high number of Jews in American popular music. Of course there are books about this subject, which I haven't read, and might get around to reading some time. Meanwhile, there's Tablet magazine and it's continued coverage of popular culture.

Today: a list of Christmas songs by Jews, reprinted from 2009: "Have Yourself a Jewish Little Christmas: The top 10 Christmas Songs written by Jews" by Marc Tracy.

Here's the bare-bones list from bottom to "White Christmas" (for details see the original article) --

10. “The Christmas Waltz”
9. “Silver Bells"
8. “Winter Wonderland”
7. “Santa Baby”
6. “Sleigh Ride”
5. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
4. “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”
3. “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”
2. “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”)
1. “White Christmas”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Delmore Schwartz (December 8, 1913)

From the indispensable Tablet Magazine:
"Schwartz ... became a central figure in the emerging group of New York intellectuals who would come into their own in the 1940s, but his writing was palpably different from theirs. Most of them were Jewish, but they showed little interest in their Jewishness, except for their urge to leave it behind. Marxist theory and the appeal of Western culture helped make them universalists, quickening their flight from their immigrant beginnings. Their facility with ideas typically made them critics rather than poets or novelists. Personal writing held little appeal for them, at least until they began to look back years later. During the Depression it seemed an indulgence, even an embarrassment. It could only drag them back to the poverty and, as they saw it, the cultural poverty of their family backgrounds.

"For Delmore Schwartz, what lay behind him was everything. His family history, and especially his Jewishness, was the medium that would help him fathom the enigma of who he was. His most ambitious work was a failed book-length autobiographical poem called Genesis. No writer believed less in the Emersonian vision of personal freedom, with its faith in the individual’s power of self-making. In one of his short plays, titled Shenandoah, Schwartz derided the notion that “a man/ Creates his life ex nihilo.” Instead, he took up Freud’s exploration of the family romance, which fed his own bleak sense that family was destiny. He never tired of musing on the cultural contradictions of his own name and the burden it placed on him. In Shenandoah, the mock-tragic verse play, his 25-year-old alter ego, Shenandoah Fish, is transported back to the scene of his own bris, the moment when he, at eight days old, received his impossible name. He blames his parents for their eagerness to gain a foothold in the gentile world while at the same time being tone deaf to its language and culture. The incongruous name came to stand for his divided being, at once comically native and ethnic."

Sammy Davis Jr. (December 8, 1925)

I don't really know anything about Sammy Davis, Jr. except that he belonged to the "Rat Pack," Las Vegas entertainment circle with Frank Sinatra at the center, and he converted to Judaism for what appear to have been not-very-religious reasons. He was also a Republican at times, so evidently he didn't convert in a totally cultural way.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ira Gershwin (December 6, 1896)

George and Ira Gershwin

Ira Gershwin was the lyricist for many of his famous brother George's songs. He also collaboraed with Kurt Weill and Moss Hart on Lady in the Dark, with Jerome Kern, and with Harold Arlen. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for Of Thee I Sing.

George and Ira Gershwin were raised as Jews in New York, but though their Jewishness is widely known and always included in their biographies, I've found nothing indicating that they recognized direct Jewish influence or inspiration for their work. Why were so many Jews successful in creating the American brand of theater music and so many popular songs of the early and mid-20th century? I've also never seen a plausible explanation. It just happened!

Marty Peretz (December 6, 1938)

Here's a real antihero! As far as I’m concerned the following sentence from GAWKER summarizes this guy: “Martin Peretz is an obscenely wealthy moral cripple who owns the New Republic.”

Peretz married a very rich woman when he was in his 20s, and bought influence and access to power in various ways, eventually using the New Republic to further his ends. While he did hire accomplished left-wing editors to run the magazine, his contribution seems to have mainly been curmudgeonly comment becoming more and more grumpy and neocon over the years. I can’t imagine why three or four major publications devoted huge amounts of space to him in December and January of last year, but they did. Hero or anti-hero? Who cares. Secular Jew? Yes, but who cares? What’s so great about buying your way into fame and influence?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gershom Scholem (December 5, 1897)

Gershom Scholem was a scholar of Jewish mysticism. In one of his books he said that you could study the history of Jewish mystics and the Kabbalah without being religious yourself, and this was his approach. I find it memorable. His numerous books and articles, based on his wide knowledge of history and languages, made an enormous difference in the perception and scholarship of Jewish history and culture. I have read and enjoyed many of them, most famous of which is his long biography Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah.

Before Scholem's works were published, scholars were in a weird kind of denial about Jewish mystics, because the scholars themselves were trying to invent a sort of sanitized history of Judaism, making it respectable to the rational 19th century views they themselves held. (Maybe this is an exaggeration, but there's a grain of truth in it. Anyway I find many of those pre-Scholem scholars deadly dull!) He founded the entire field of study of Jewish mystics, and his books are fundamental.

Scholem's autobiography, From Berlin to Jerusalem: Memories of My Youth, tells the really compelling story of how he became a scholar of Jewish mysticism as well as being an early Zionist and one of the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As an adolescent, he found life in Germany uncomfortable and untenable because of the anti-Jewish climate throughout the society, especially in academia, and he committed himself to earn a doctorate and then go to Jerusalem. Obviously he wrote after the Holocaust, so he had hindsight, but the foresight that he demonstrated was clearly unusual and penetrating. His friendship with Walter Benjamin was full of contradictions, as Benjamin wasn't as forward-looking.

Calvin Trillin (December 5, 1935)

Calvin Trillin does some of the funniest food writing I've ever encountered, while still really talking about food. Although he refers to his Jewish background from time to time, I've never thought about him as a particularly Jewish writer. Like me, he's from the Midwest, although unlike me, he's a very-long-term resident of New York and his writing is quite New York-centered, especially when he's reminding the New Yorkers that the rest of the country exists. I loved his books about his wife Alice and the way she tried to get him not to eat 12 meals a day, or however many it was.

An interviewer from Forward once asked him "Would you say yours is a Jewish sense of humor?"

Trillin answered: "All of me is Jewish. You get a lot of theories about Jews deflecting pain through humor. I don’t know about that. I think there is sort of an irony built into the faith. Even in the Talmud where they argue 'maybe' and 'but on the other hand,' that I always found funny."

In the same interview, he described how he discovered he could be funny: "We were studying that section of the Bible where it says, 'If I forget thee o Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning and let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.' I was kind of a shy little boy. I think I was in the sixth grade, and I suddenly got up and said, 'If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning,' and I had my right hand dangling by my side. And then I said, 'Wet my tongue kweave to duh woof of my mouf.' That won me over to comedy, and, if you can have an epiphany in a non-Christian school, I had an epiphany."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Arny Feldman

Happy Birthday to my brother Arny! I remember the day he was born, a bleak, cold day in December, and how happy my father was.