Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Food can be funny

Anything – even hunger -- can be funny in Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s sprawling satire of early Soviet times, The Little Golden Calf. Bumbling bureaucrats, resource shortages, redistribution of possessions, and redefined relationships on all levels provided the two writers ample opportunities for broad humor. The novel is episodic: more or less centered around an informal group of con men and opportunistic thieves who take to the road in a car called the Antelope-Gnu. Published in 1936, and now somewhat culturally a bit alien, the novel is still full of really funny scenes.

Some chapters in The Little Golden Calf consist of sketches involving other people besides the road trippers -- people who are about to come in contact with the main group. One such diversion is titled “Vasisualy Lokhankin and His Role in the Russian Revolution” (The Little Golden Calf, transl. Fisher, p. 170 -177) It begins: “At exactly four-forty in the afternoon, Vasisualy Lokhankin went on a hunger strike.”

Vasisualy’s cause was simple: his wife Varvara had just told him she was leaving him with her lover, Pitburdukov. He says she can’t: “One person can’t leave another person if the other person loves her.” Varvara’s response: “She can too.” He vowed not to eat until she comes back, not “for a whole day. A week. A year. … I’ll lie here just like this, in my suspenders, until I die.”

She began to walk away: “I’m leaving. Farewell, Vaisisualy I’m leaving your booklet of bread vouchers on the table.” Now things are clearer even to a 21st century American: food was rationed, but he was going on a hunger strike. As she walked toward the door, he ripped up the booklet and shouted “Save me!” She began to take him seriously: “Don’t you dare keep on this hunger strike! … This is stupid Vaisisualy. This is rebellious individualism.”

He replied, “You don’t fully comprehend the meaning of individualism, or of the intelligentsia in general.” In response, she took off her hat “and quickly made an open-faced sandwich with eggplant caviar, muttering ‘crazed animal,’ ‘tyrant,’ and ‘private property owner’ all the while.”

She demanded that he eat the sandwich. He refused. “Taking advantage of the hunger-striker’s momentarily open mouth, Varvara deftly shoved the open-faced sandwich into the aperture between his little pharaonic beard and trim Moscow-style mustache.” He spits it out. “Eat, you good-for-nothing!... You intellectual!”

Wait a minute, 21st century reader. How did such political jargon get into a quarrel between a couple as they are splitting up? What’s really behind this? Lokhankin’s next gesture, while brushing the crumbs out of his beard, was to lie back down on the couch: “He really did not want to part with his wife. As well as a multitude of shortcomings, Varvara had two key advantages: a large white bosom and a job. Vasisualy himself had never worked anywhere. Work would have kept him from thinking about the significance of the Russian intelligentsia, a social group of which he considered himself a member. Thus Lohankin’s extensive ponderings all came back to the same pleasant and deeply personal theme: ‘Vasisualy Lokhankin and his significance,’ ‘Lokhankin and the tragedy of Russian liberalism,’ ‘Lokhankin and his role in the Russian Revolution.’”

Later that evening, Varvara’s lover Ptiburdukov arrived, determined to convince her to leave despite the hunger strike. She explained: “There he is! Just lying there! Animal! Vile private property owner! The thing is that this feudal landlord, this serf-owner, has gone on a hunger strike because I want to leave him.” She tried and again failed to force the now-stale eggplant-caviar sandwich on him: “Eat, you vile man. Eat, you serf-owner.”

The next morning, he said: “There, now the sharp pains in the stomach have started. … And then there’ll be scurvy caused by malnutrition, with loss of hair and teeth.” Wait a minute, modern reader! We are picking up a reference to the real results of real starvation; such starvation had been widespread during the growing pains of the Soviet system a few years before this publication.

Ptiburdukov’s brother, a doctor, was called in for a visit. His recommendation: “the patient didn’t need to adhere to any particular diet. He could eat everything. Soup, for example, or meatballs, or compote. He could also have bread, vegetables, and fruits. Fish was also a possibility. He could smoke, within reason, of course. He wouldn’t recommend that the patient start drinking, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to introduce a shot of good port into his system... the doctor didn’t really understand the Lokhankins’ spiritual drama. Puffing up importantly and treading heavily in his boots, he left, declaring in parting that the patient was also not prohibited from bathing in the ocean or riding a bicycle.”

How do we read this? Surely we are being told that the doctor is not only not understanding the family drama, but also not understanding what foods would be available even if the “patient” were not on a hunger strike.

As time passed, the hunger strike continued. Varvara continued to stay in the apartment with her husband instead of running away. But one night she awakened from a bad dream about the doctor and discovered Vasisualy “standing in front of the open cupboard of the buffet, his back to the bed, chomping loudly. … Having ravaged an entire jar of preserves, he carefully took the lid off the pot, plunged his fingers into the cold borscht, and extracted a piece of meat from it. Even if Varvara had caught her husband at this game during the happiest days of their marriage, Vasisualy would’ve had a bad time of it. Now, however, his fate was sealed.”

She left him for good. “Lokhankin suffered openly and majestically. He luxuriated in his woe… His great sorrow gave him the chance to devote even more thought to the significance of the Russian intelligentsia, as well as to the tragedy of Russian liberalism.”

I wrote this for my food blog, but have posted it here as the final Odessa post.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Saul Alinsky (January 30, 1909)

In general, I'm not repeating the posts from last year, but Saul Alinsky is in the news again, thanks to Newt Gingrich, who refers to him often, claiming that he had a strong influence on Obama. See Gingrich’s Anti-Semitic Dog Whistle: Saul Alinsky in the Forward for an extreme interpretation of Gingrich's actions -- probably too extreme! Or the most recent Gail Collins column in the New York Times:
"Maybe, despite his blah debate performances in Florida, Newt will do well in this week’s primary, and go on to win the nomination, become president and build lots of moon colonies while saving America from Shariah law and the corrosive effects of the writing of Saul Alinsky."
As I wrote last year, Saul Alinsky was a founder of modern community organizing. He wrote several books on the subject, and was the head of an influential community organization in Chicago. The commitment to social justice that inspired many secular Jews in the past -- and still does, I would say -- is among my greatest criteria for choosing my heroes.

I consider it to their credit that Obama and Hillary Clinton were associated with Alinsky's group. The fact that extreme right wing nuts find that alarming just makes me like Alinsky (and Obama and Clinton) better. Hillary Clinton received a job offer from Alinsky in 1968 when she was in college; she turned it down, though she wrote her senior thesis about him. Obama worked for an offshoot of Alinsky's group; however, Alinsky had died by the time Obama arrived in Chicago.

Alinsky, according to Marian Wright Edelman, the Children's Defense Fund leader, "was brilliant. He was working for underdogs. He was trying to empower communities, which we still need to do. He spoke plainly. He had his outrageous side, but he also had his pragmatic side. Both Hillary and Barack reflect that understanding of community-organizing strategy. Both just know how to leverage power." (Quote from "For Clinton and Obama, a Common Ideological Touchstone," Washington Post, March 25, 2007.)

I don't ordinarily use Wikipedia, but I found it interesting regarding his view of his Jewish background. According to what I found there, Alinsky considered himself to be a devout Jew until the age of 12, after which time he began to fear that his parents would force him to become a rabbi. "I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit. . . . But I'll tell you one thing about religious identity," he added. "Whenever anyone asks me my religion, I always say—and always will say—Jewish."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Odessa Wrap Up

Exactly a century ago, in 1912 Leon Trotsky was living in Vienna publishing a paper called Pravda – his Pravda folded in April, 1912; for Trotsky it was a year of rivalry with Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Trotsky, born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, lived in Odessa during his school years, from age 9 until around 16; in his autobiography he describes how the cultural atmosphere affected him, such as inspiring him to become a fan of Italian opera. In 1896, Trotsky committed to work towards revolution; by 1898 he was sent to Siberia. Several historians find Trotsky's Jewish-Odessa background relevant to his later life. Having surveyed several other famous Odessans, I thought I should mention him, the most revolutionary of the nonconformists from there.

Evidently, 1912 was an interesting year in Odessa. In Tales of Old Odessa by Roshanna Sylvester, events and conditions in 1912 often features in her narrative. Here are a few examples:

"I.P. fon-Kliugel'gen, head of the local investigative police squad, declared in 1912 that more than thirty thousand 'suspicious characters' lurked in Odessa. While 'shady types' could be found 'in every quarter of the city,' the chief inspector continued, they lived 'primarily in Moldavanka,' where on some blocks 'ever single resident is a criminal.' Moldavanka -- if even a tiny fraction of the stories were true it was unsavory terrain, a quarter filled with dark alleys, filthy streets, crumbling buildings, and violence." (p. 48)

"Old Free Port was one of Odessa's most important avenues, having until the mid-nineteenth century marked the edge of the city limits. In 1912, Old Free Port was the site of 'a mass of charities and other civic establishments that follow each other endlessly around it.' ... the Sretenskii Philanthropic Society.., the city almshouse, the foundling home, the Massovskii night shelter, more than a dozen schools, the civic auditorium, a children's clinic and other such establishments." (p. 50)

"In his 1913 guide to the city, Grigorii Moskvich wrote that the dream of the'essential Odessan' was to strike it rich and immediately acquire a house, a carriage, and eveything else he needed in order to 'transform himself (by appearance, of course) into an impeccable British gentleman or blue-blooded Viennese aristocrat." (p. 106)

"... in the fall of 1912 ... Odessans were treated to an unusual entertainment event involving fifty-five 'Somalians' who arrived in town for a month-long engagement at the club Oginski. Even though Odessans were used to a great deal of diversity in their cosmopolitan city, the presence of the Somalians added to the mix an element of racial difference to which they wre less accustomed." (p. 126)

All the examples play up the wide social variety in the city, including character of the many neighborhoods, inner-city and suburbs; the contrast between those who saw themselves as intellectuals or as westernized Europeans and those who were still Russian; differences between the rich and the poor, and variance between the honest and the criminal. The short era between the 1905 violence and the drastic end of Tsarist times was a fascinating one in the city.

The books I read about Odessa continue the story through World War I, the Russian Revolution, the early Soviet era, and World War II. The large and assimilated Jewish community continued to be productive until the Nazi takeover during the war. The Nazis put the Romanians in charge of the city and in charge of the liquidation of the Jewish community, which was done quite efficiently, as documented in Charles King's book Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams.

As for my reading project, I enjoyed the rewards of reading the historic background before trying to read the famous works of fiction by Odessa authors Babel, Jabotinsky, Ilf, and Petrov. I also feel as if I received some new insights into a sort of experiment in old Russia – what would shtetl Jews have done differently if given more freedom within their native land? The answer is they responded pretty much the way they did when they immigrated to other places, especially to the US. It’s pretty clear that the old regime in Russia didn’t have the potential to sustain a free society within its severe limitations. And I really don’t understand all the things that happened in Russia later. However, I liked my exploration of the Odessa community a century ago and the writers that emerged from it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ilya Ilf and the Twelve Chairs

"In Soviet Russia the insane asylum is the only place a normal person can live. Everywhere else is worse than bedlam. Nope, I can't live with those Bolsheviks. I'd rather live here, with the regular crazies. At least they aren't building socialism. And they feed you here, too." (The Little Golden Calf, transl. Fisher, p. 217)
Ilya Ilf (Ilya Arnoldovich Fainzilberg), co-author of the comic novel Twelve Chairs and its sequel, The Little Golden Calf, was born in the assimilated Jewish community of Odessa in 1897. A century ago, he was 15 years old, a student in an Odessa technical school from which he graduated in 1913. Needless to say, the Revolution had a major role in his formation as a satiric novelist of the deficiencies and ironies of life under the emerging new Soviet system.

His writing career began in Moscow. He teamed up with Evgeny Petrov, also an Odessan, though not Jewish. Both Ilf-Petrov novels are highly amusing send-ups of the emerging political paradoxes in the new Soviet Union – they also reverberate when you think about news from 1990s of how these disfunctional habits or forced actions were dissolved after the fall of Communism.

A passage from The Little Golden Calf illustrates the authors' attitude by explaining why one of the two con men in the novel became a con man. "The Revolution of 1917 drove Koreyko off the velvet couch." He began by noticing that good stuff was up for grabs -- "gold, valuables, magnificent furniture, paintings and carpets, fur coats... ."

He stole. However, he was soon arrested. After serving his time he realised that his goal "would requre secrecy, slow and steady action, and the cover of darkness." He began impersonating an employee of the Requisistions Department, and later teamed up with Ostap Bender, who had also been the center of the earlier Ilf-Petrov novel The Twelve Chairs.

The authors describe the age in which these con men operated:
"In those restless times, nothing made by human hands worked as well as it had before: buildings didn't protect you from the cold, food didn't make you full, electricity was only turned on for massive round-ups of deserters and looters, plumbing only provided running water to the first floor, and trams didn't run at all. At the same time, the elements turned meaner and more dangerous: the winters were colder than before, the wind was stronger, and the chill that used to make a person take to his bed for three days now took those same three days to kil him stone dead. Young men who had no steady employment stolled the streets in groups..." (p. 83)
The central character of both books, Ostap Bender, is considered to be a prototype of an Odessa con man; in both books and in the film The Twelve Chairs he's a delightful character. In the version of The Twelve Chairs directed by Mel Brooks in 1970 Frank Langella is Bender and Dom DeLuise is the opportunistic priest. Some images from the film:

A struggle over the first chair --
which didn't contain the family jewels.

Finally, in the presence of the last chair,
Bender and the rightful claimant of the jewels are first at the buffet.

The final chair.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Isaac Babel's Odessa Tales

Isaac Babel was the creator of famous stories about the thieves and rogues of Odessa and still more famous tales about the Russian Revolution. Babel was born in the Jewish Moldavanka district of Odessa in 1894. His grandfather was a victim of the 1905 pogroms which accompanied the failed revolution.

While educational opportunities were more open in Odessa than elsewhere, there were quotas on the number of Jewish students in Odessa's universities and on Jewish enrollment at all Russian institutions of higher learning. Babel was unable to enroll at the University of Odessa, so left in 1911 to further his education in Kiev. In 1913 he published his first story “Old Shloyme.”

Like Jabotinsky’s novel (which I wrote about yesterday), Babel’s stories are mined for historic details by social historians writing about the city and about the Revolution. "More than anyone else, Isaac Babel popularized the image of Odessa as a city of swashbuckling Jewish swindlers and sinners, who all at once embodied the physical strength, revelry, and wit for which Odessa was famous. The larger-than-life Jewish gangster emerged as the prevailing icon of Odessa in Soviet culture, and he was depcted in stark contrast to the stereotypically passive shtetl Jew of Eastern Europe..." (Jarrod Tanny, City of Rogues and Schnorrers, location 78 Kindle ed.)

Odessa historians especially cite Babel's rogue character Benya Krick the hooligan. Babel captured the atmosphere of contrasting poverty and wealth in the stories that took place before the Revolution, and captured the utter disorganization of the various revolutionary forces whose power shifted constantly and who killed one another ruthlessly. As historian Charles King says, "While Vladimir Jabotinsky was busy trying to create a fighting force for Palestine, his fellow Odessan was sitting on a horse in a Cossack cavalry regiment. It was an unlikely place for a Jew, to say the least." (Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, p. 183)

Babel’s Odessa stories and war stories are episodic and often broken off in what might be the middle of a longer development of character and plot – but the stories are about chaotic times with limited commitments; sometimes it seems as if only choppy stories can do justice to the unpredictable lives and times depicted. Or maybe Babel was just a little ahead of Hemmingway as a stylist, I don’t know -- he was a very near contemporary.

For example a story in the collection Benya Krik, the Gangster, is titled “In the Basement.” It begins: “As a boy I was given to lying. It was all due to reading.” The narrator's imagination combined with what he reads makes him well-liked, as he embellishes the historic narratives that he reads. His schoomate, the son of a rich man, finds him likable and invites him to his suburban villa.

The wealth and possessions of the friend’s family are vast: “His father … was one of those men who were making Odessa another Marseille or Naples. There was in him the mettle of the Odessa merchant of the old days.” And the villa was pure luxury, close to a beach with carefully tended flower gardens. Guests play cards, women come and go with “diamonds clapped on everywhere;” their host sits in a chair facing the sea and reads The Manchester Guardien.

The narrator, in contrast, came from a “destitute and freakish family.” His grandfather makes clever inventions, and his uncle is a successful rogue, but they live in a slum. However, he describes his feckless relatives to his schoolmate as widely traveled and accomplished, and invites the friend back to visit his hovel. The ensuing disaster is mitigated slightly by the efforts of his Aunt Bobka, who bakes a jam strudel and a poppy-seed cake, and helps him bribe his crazy and unmanageable uncle and grandfather to stay away. Obviously, it doesn’t work – they come back drunk and hurling Jewish curses and Russian obscenities. In the end, we readers have seen the two most extreme sides of Odessa Jewry.

Babel’s stories were widely read in the early Soviet era; then he fell out of favor and eventually died in prison.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Writers and Revolutionaries in Odessa

The frontier-like atmosphere of Odessa appealed to creative Jewish writers, as well as to aspiring businessmen. Mendele (Yiddish writer Shalom Yakov Abramovitch) lived there from 1881 until he died in 1917. Odessa was home to Sholem Aleichem for a short time in the 1890s. Bialik, who wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, lived there later, leaving in 1921. The free and assimilated atmosphere and active cultural scene before World War I and the Russian Revolution was clearly condusive to creativity.

Odessa was the birthplace of several noted Jewish authors whose assimilated background contributed to their writing style. I’ve been sampling translations of three writers of Russian-language works of fiction: Vladimir Jabotinsky, Isaac Babel, and Ilya Ilf. Despite similar origins in Odessa’s Russianized Jewish community, their works almost seem designed to illuminate the various political and artistic routes open to writers of their time and place.

This post is about Vladimir Jabotinsky, mainly known as a dissident Zionist leader who favored armed struggle over the more peaceful approach of the mainstream. Jabotinsky was born in Odessa in 1880 and attended Russian schools, which Jews were allowed to do there. He became a Zionist and journalist and activist. During World War I, he and Trumpeldor (another Zionist hero) founded a Jewish military unit, the Jewish Legion, to fight for the British.

Much later, Jabotinsky returned to his calling as a writer with the novel The Five. (First published in 1936.) The narrator of The Five, like Jabotinsky, was a traveling journalist who wrote popular newspaper articles. The book is in the form of a memoir of a family with five children, obviously depicted carefully to represent typical Jewish characters in Odessa. It begins just before the crucial events of 1905 including the Potemkin, which had already been made famous by Eisenstein’s film (as I wrote yesterday) by the time Jabotinsky wrote the book. It mentions the war with Japan, which seems to have a rather small impact on the family. I think Jabotinsky expects the reader to fill in the impact of these major events, which at this long remove is hardto do.

Whatever else it is, The Five is above all a political novel. The narrator not only describes the family, he experiences a number of revelations about Odessa life and politics –all of which one sees are there partly to advance Jabotinsky’s perspective from decades later. The narrator travels, and while abroad, first hears “the use of the words Bolshevikand Menshevik, terms that were still little known in Russia outside the underground.” He notices a “rigid hierarchy in degrees of revolutionary orthodoxy … The Plekhanovites apologized to the Leninists, the Social Revolutionaries to the Marxists, the Bundists to all the rest, the Social Zionists of various stripes to the Bundists; simple Zionists were generally considered to be out of bounds and didn’t even attempt to beg forgiveness.” (p.100-101)

Although political, The Five is also very good and amazingly readable. The very typical characters are very believable. I think it would be read more widely if Odessa at that time were better known, but it’s too full of obscure cultural references to authors, poets, plays (like a quote from Chekov’s “Cherry Orchard,” which was new the year the book’s events take place).

For example, the first chapter takes place in the Odessa Opera House – which I only heard of in my recent reading of histories of the city; it also refers to a number of operas and singers that were popular then. Anotherchapter takes place in cafes on the most famous street in the city (also described by historians).

In the end, the five children of the central family meet very sad fates because there’s really nothing else possible for them. In a way, the father – a grain dealer who came from Zhitomir and overcame his Jewish accent and culture – is more comfortable in his skin than any of his assimilated children; the mother is the anchor of everyone in the family, but her life becomes sadder and sadder until the narrator calls her Niobe, the mother from a Greek myth, who defied the gods and was punished by the death of all her children.

One son tries everything non-religiously spiritual: from Yoga breathing exercises to keeping kosher (instead of eating sausages at a café) to vegetarianism. One daughter chooses a purely bourgoise marriage; the other joins the underground. Another son becomes a philosophical gangster, who says “the initial stages of mass assimilation are very difficult.” (p. 170)

At the end, the surviving youngest son, who was always a paragon in school, decides against Zionism – which is supposed to be the obvious solution by that point – and determines that he’ll convert to Christianity. I suspect the reader in the 1930s already knows how that’s going to work for him. By then, the Russian Revolution had devastated the Odessa Jewish community, along with so much of the territory.

It’s interesting that this novel was virtually unknown when published in Russian (well, ok, in 1936 it was bound to be obscured by what was happening there). It made little impact in a Hebrew translation (well, ok, a lot was going on in pre-state Israel too). And the first English translation only appeared in 2005, by which time it had become fairly opaque to most readers.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sergei Eisenstein (January 23, 1898)

Sergei Eisenstein grew up in Latvia and St. Petersberg, and became an important early-Soviet film maker.

"Battleship Potemkin," about the 1905 Odessa uprising, is his most famous film. It especially memorialized the image of the landmark stairway that links the upper city of Odessa to the lower port area. Above all, the film is remembered for the image of a baby carriage rolling out-of-control down these stairs. The scene has been visually quoted in subsequent movies, notably in The Untouchables in a shootout between Eliot Ness (Kevin Kostner) and Al Capone's henchmen.

Charles King's history of Odessa states:
"Today it is almost impossible to separate our understanding of 1905 from the way in which the events were mythologized twenty years later. All of the key images, in fact, come from the skillful hands of one man, Sergei Eisenstein, the master of early Soviet cinematography. Through his 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, Odessa became the tocsin that heralded the coming of revolution, ground zero for the emergence of triumphant Bolshevism, and by extension the truest birthplace of the Soviet Union." (Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, p. 189)
Among other changes, Eisenstein left out the vicious pogrom that occurred during the events of 1905 in Odessa. He located the violence and heroism on the famous stairway, assigning this to a central role in the uprising. In fact most of the violence occurred elsewhere, and was mainly directed at Jews. The permanence of the imagery comes from Eisenstein's imagination.

Eisenstein's mother was Russian Orthodox, but his father was Jewish, which maybe made him especially representative of the new Soviet citizen to whom religion didn't matter. Or not.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Not-so-religious Jew sees Jerusalem

In the New York times: an interesting perspective on visiting Jerusalem titled "Lost in Jerusalem." It reminded me of my several visits there under varying circumstances -- above, my photo of a lunch at a well-known hotel just outside the Old City.

The author's explanation:
"... last fall, my friend Theodore Ross — author of the forthcoming book 'Am I a Jew?' — suggested I see Jerusalem. And suddenly feeling life calling my bluff, I booked a flight. I’d spend six December days in the holiest place on the planet and, surrounded by the Old City’s 500-year-old stone walls and legions of Christians, Jews and Muslims, I would be the lone unbeliever, walking a tightrope between belonging and individualism, observing not necessarily my faith but the faithful."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Danny Kaye (January 18, 1913)

My whole family loved Danny Kaye movies, especially my father. I remember our going to see "The Court Jester" and "Hans Christian Andersen." We also watched TV programs where he appeared. Quite a hero!

I read somewhere, but can't find it, that the Hollywood entrepreneurs made Danny Kaye dye his dark hair blonde and suppress some of the Jewishness that might have been in his personality in order to make him more popular.  This seems rather paranoid, since the Marx Brothers were dark-haired, very Jewish, and totally accepted.

I wouldn't be willing to claim that his humor was Jewish, but it's possible, since you can argue that Jewish humor became American humor in a lot of ways. I do know that Danny Kaye visited Israel in 1956 and other times, where he was insanely popular.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Clement Greenberg (January 16, 1909)

Clement Greenberg was an influential art critic. His early essays included “Avant-Garde and Kitsch ” (1939), “Towards a New Laocoon ” (1940), “Abstract Art ” (1944), and “The Decline of Cubism” (1948). In the 1950s he became a champion of abstract expressionism and its followers, writing about Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, David Smith, and Helen Frankenthaler. He published works in Partisan Review, the Nation, and Commentary.

While he appears not to have much talked about his Jewish origins, Greenberg’s ideas were important to the Jewish Museum in New York in the 1960s, when “many in the emerging art world were Jews — artists like Mark Rothko and Diane Arbus, the dealer Leo Castelli, the critic Clement Greenberg (though not Rauschenberg and Johns) — and the museum made it its mission to champion their work.” *

I first became aware of Greenberg’s role in 2008 when I saw the exhibit “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976,” which was organized by the Jewish Museum and shown at the St. Louis art museum. The exhibit described the rivalry between Greenberg and another critic, Harold Rosenberg, and traced public opinion of expressionism and related art movements by showing clippings from Life magazine and other popular culture treatments of abstract art.

Here are two photos I took at the exhibit in St.Louis three years ago:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Odessa Mama

Chicago-based Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, whose song "Ach! Odessa" I posted from Youtube yesterday, included recent Russian immigrants. Singing in Russian rather than Yiddish they represent a rather different tradition from the old New York klezmer bands. Mostly, klezmer as it became popular a few decades ago focused on songs that hark back to the pre-Soviet-era Jewish immigrant music. Odessa developed Yiddish culture into a new and special thing, Russian tinged with Yiddish, and never very known to Americans. So here's a taste.

Odessa definitely had its own klezmer music before the Revolution. As Odessa humor and culture spilled over into twentieth century Russia, klezmer was part of the mix (as I read in City of Rogues and Schnorrers by Jarrod Tanny). As a legacy of Soviet Odessa, the song has lots of interesting things about it: the CD notes say it is "drawn from that same colorful period in Odessa's history when the new conditions of Socialism were infused into the thriving Jewish world of trade, talent, and the underworld."  Further, according to the notes, the spoken introduction is based on a story by Isaac Babel, who wrote quite a lot about Odessa, his native city.

"Odessa Mama, dear old town of mine," say the lyrics. "Ach! Odessa -- a pearl upon the sea... you have known so much grief... Ach! Odessa -- not just a town -- a bride! ... barges full of gray mullet ... Kostya delivered to Odessa ... And the lowlife would rise from their seats. When he would enter the tavern."

A real combination of nostalgia and crime from Odessa.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ach! Odessa

I'm still reading about Odessa, not ready to write much, but here's a song.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Kurt Tucholsky (January 9, 1890)

Kurt Tucholsky was a journalist and fiction writer in the exciting atmosphere of Berlin in the pre-Nazi era, when a kind of Jewish intellectualism and freedom seemed too good to be true -- and was. He wrote all kinds of stuff under various pen names (even Kaspar Hauser), and led a mixed-up and difficult life. He's remembered vividly and loved by current Berliners, even very young ones.

On a visit to Berlin a few years ago, we saw a street named after him, and we ate at Cafe Tucholsky, where the walls are covered with photos and memorabilia from his life there. As far as I can tell, he has little traction with Americans of any age.

Some of his works have been translated recently, and he's getting some attention from English speakers. Here's a quote from an anti-war poem in an article titled "I wish I had met Kurt Tucholsky"
"Lord God! If you’re really up there as we’ve been taught
Come down from Heaven or send your son.
Tear off the banners, the helmets and the medals
And tell the nations of the earth how we’ve suffered,
How we were wiped out by hunger, lice, shrapnel, and lies.
In your name, the preachers have led us to our graves.
Come down now and explain why they lied.
Those of us who have knees are kneeling before you. Listen to us.
Drive us back under the ground, but first give us an answer."

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Odessa 100 years ago

In 1912, Odessa was still a very new city: it had only existed for a little more than a century, and surprisingly, was dominated by Jews -- most of them secular. In recruiting a founding population the Russians had lifted the restrictions on both Jews and foreigners, and both arrived in large numbers, looking for opportunities that weren’t available in older and more rigid places. Odessa’s Jewish population had “played a pivotal role in the creation of Odessa’s dominant culture. Indeed … a secularized Jewish culture in a very real sense became the dominant culture.” (Sylvester, Tales of Old Odessa: Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves, p. 5)

The vast majority of Jews in Russia a century ago lived under severe restrictions. Not so in Odessa. A third of its population of over half a million were Jews. Most spoke Russian; however, Yiddish from the Pale of Settlement and the eastern Austrian provinces, where most had come from, influenced the Odessa dialect which included many Yiddish words.

A large number of Jewish children in Odessa attended Russian schools. Jews were a majority of doctors and lawyers. Jewish members of a new middle class founded businesses and banks, played the stock exchange, went out to eat, listened to klezmer in taverns, and enjoyed (or pretended to enjoy) Italian opera in the city’s stylish opera house. Jewish journalists wrote both satire and serious articles in a number of newspapers, and Jewish fiction writers created a legacy of stories, leaving a nice record for modern scholars.

In Odessa, Jewish women aspired to be ladies with more freedom than they had enjoyed elsewhere – they dressed up to attend musical and theatrical performances, to drink coffee in the many cafes, and to eat in the European-style restaurants. Some worked as teachers or nurses; many led a pampered life.

And the Jews did all these things side by side with the non-Jews of the city.

A Jewish underworld was another widely noted presence in the city, especially in Moldavanka, the impoverished and overcrowded lower-class Jewish district. Odessan Jews thrived as thieves, con men, white slavers (who kidnapped young women and sent them to nearby Turkey or as far as Brazil), forgers, counterfeiters, fences of stolen goods, and other criminal types. The Jewish underworld fit well into the colorful and overheated atmosphere of the busy and multi-ethnic port city. Of course most Jews from Moldavanka worked at miserable but honest jobs: for example, they unloaded freight at the docks, provided household service, and worked in shops.

While Odessan Jews enjoyed freedom to worship in the city’s synagogues, they often dropped more committed religious practices, shocking visitors from villages by their casual attitudes towards dietary laws and Sabbath observances.

 I’m currently at the beginning of what I hope is an ambitious project about Odessa and eventually other cities. So far, I’m reading:
• Charles King, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams
• Roshanna P. Sylvester, Tales of Old Odessa: Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves
• Jarrod Tanny, City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa
• Steven Zipperstein, The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History, 1794-1881

 Coming soon: Jewish writers and revolutionaries in Odessa a century ago.

Monday, January 2, 2012

André Aciman (January 2, 1951)

I've enjoyed one or two books and articles by André Aciman, and once heard him do a reading of Proust (I think) as part of a concert. His book Out of Egypt is both a personal memoir and a history of the end of Jewish life in his native Egypt, written with both chilling realism and delightful humor. He's both a scholar and an interesting writer on many subjects, not just on Jewish subjects. Here's a quote from him that I found somewhere: "I am a provisional, uncertain Jew. I am a Jew who loves Judaism provided it’s on the opposite shore, provided others practice it and leave me to pursue my romance of assimilation, which I woo with the assiduity of a suitor who is determined to remain a bachelor."

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Happy New Year!

My new goal for this blog in 2012: to read about cities where communities of assimilated or secular Jews have lived. Each city is different; sometimes a newly founded community took an unexpected direction. Sometimes new ideas would emerge in a long-established community.

A few preliminary examples: Odessa was founded at the end of the 19th century. From the start it was a very culturally and socially open place, where Jews and many others found economic and educational opportunities. This “New Russia” on the Black Sea always contrasted to Old Russia where Jews were severely restricted in every way. The Odessa Jews became successful and increasingly assimilated, though they kept a Jewish identity for the most part. Despite several pogroms in the 1800s, Jews towards the end of the  century were sure that persecution and antisemitism would soon end. I’ve been reading some very interesting books about this community, and will have much more to report.

Vitebsk and Vilna, in contrast, were traditional cities in the heart of the repressive Pale of Settlement. Despite the limitations, Vitebsk was the original home of several innovative 20th century artists. And Vilna, famous for its religious center, was also the site of the founding of YIVO, which continues today in New York as an outstanding secular Jewish institution. Again, I’m aware of some interesting studies of these communities and their progeny, and hope to explore them.

Venice, in 1515, invented the Ghetto so that they could admit Jews without actually living alongside them. The Venetian Ghetto became a lively place with a strong life of its own, especially famous for Purim parties and as a halfway stop for secret Jews escaping from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. I've read quite a bit, and hope to review some of the more amusing anecdotes about this community.

Berlin allowed virtually no Jews in the 18th century (Moses Mendelssohn needed a special exception to live there). However, when the situation opened up a bit, Berlin became a center of secular Jewish culture and was home to a number of interesting writers and thinkers. This fascinating era lasted from around 1800 until the Nazis solved the “problem.” German Jewish intellectual circles in Berlin are fascinating to read about, and I also have a reading list for this.

So my plan is that I’m going to learn more about these cities and I hope many others, thus exploring a different approach to the almanach of birthday celebrations that I’ve done so far. I still have a few more birthdays each month, as well as these new avenues for reading and writing.