Sunday, March 25, 2012

Budapest Reading

I've been continuing with my project to read about cities that fostered a secular Jewish culture. Having read some about Odessa and Vienna, I've proceeded with Budapest. The three books I have read:

John Lukacs: Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture
Kati Marton: The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World
George Lang: Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen

Lukacs describes the golden age of Budapest accomplishment. As the twin of Vienna, Budapest grew from a small town to a major capital in the course of the late 19th century. The physical similarity and the intellectual similarity between the two cities is not a coincidence -- some of the same people even played a role in both cities (notably, Theodor Hertzl). In a way Budapest offered even more opportunity to middle class and poor but able residents and newcomers. For one thing, the nobility and gentry of Hungary – though powerful – were less dominant than Austrian upper classes in Vienna.

As Budapest grew it reflected the spirit of the emerging Hungarian nation – the use of the Hungarian language especially grew, while the use of German declined. Lukacs emphatically acknowledges the role of Jews, especially secular Jews, in the development of Hungarian culture. The Hungarian government invested heavily in expanding the school system, improving literacy rates, and making education accessible to all, including to the numerous Jewish families who immigrated from Hungarian regions and from other eastern European areas within the Austro-Hungarian empire seeking to better their lives in a more open and welcoming environment. This age of building a remarkable society full of opportunity and optimism began with the reforms of 1867, as in Vienna.

The Great Escape describes the lives of nine men whose personal accomplishment started within the society and the educational system that Lukacs documented. (She summarizes the background -- the two books are complements to one another.)

Marton asks the question: how did Budapest manage to produce such a large number of gifted physicists and creative people in the early 20th century? And how did it happen that all were Jews, mainly secular Jews, a few converts of convenience. In historic order, Marton describes the history of the Jewish community of Budapest, and then intertwines the nine stories. Every one of them did their stellar work outside of Hungary, thanks to persecutions by fascists in the 1920s and 30s and to the Nazis in the 1940s. One part of her story is that the amazing conditions that produced this renaissance were destroyed utterly and will never happen again, leaving Hungary without the promise it had a century ago.

She chose four physicists/mathematicians (Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, Leo Sziliard, Edward Teller); two photographers (Robert Capa, Andre Kertesz), two film directors (Andrew Korda, Michael Curtiz) and a writer (Arthur Koestler). She mentions others, and I can quickly think of several more such as mathematicians Paul Erdős (1913-1996), Gabor Szegö (1895 - 1985), and George Polya(1887-1985); George Lang (1924-2011), restauranteur and cookbook author; and George Katona (1901-1981), economist. In fact, once you start thinking about the contribution of Hungarian Jews you can really get carried away. Houdini! Tony Curtis!

I liked Marton’s discussion of Casablanca (directed by Curtiz) and the Hungarian echoes in it, as well as noting how many of the actors and others involved in making it also had Hugarian roots. She made an interesting point about the film makers and author (Korda, Curtiz, Koestler) having special understanding and sympathy for the danger to Jews and to freedom that came out in their works. She supports the idea that the threats and dangers of fascism in Hungary from the 1920s onward formed a particular point of view in these men, whether they were in science or in the humanities.

Lang's book is very different: he grew up in a village not far from Budapest. He could take the train to his violin lessons there as a young man. He was born soon after the golden age of education and opportunity for Jews ended, at just about the time that the antisemitic fascist regime took over Hungary. Lang lived in Budapest during the nightmare of Nazi occupation in World War II; his book includes the horrors of his work camp experience, the loss of his family, and his continuing persecution by the Russians/communists after the war. He tries to explain what made Hungarian Jews so loyal, optimistic, and willing to stay as their fate became more and more dismal, and to show how willingly even the friendly non-Jews blamed his fellow victims of repeated mistreatment and persecution.

With help from uncles who had left before the war, Lang escaped to New York; his nightmare turned into a kind of fantasy! He became a restaurant consultant; he invented many of the modern conventions of elegant 20th century restaurant dining, as well as meeting many celebrities. At the end of his life, he returned to Budapest to restore the glory of its most famous pre-World War I restaurant, Gundels.

This is only a summary of my recent reading. Many people including myself have wondered what were the conditions in Budapest in the early part of the 20th century that enabled so many Jewish Hungarians to become world-class scientists, film makers, actors, writers, and other creative types. One wonders if the improved opportunities and the educational system were enough.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Carl Reiner (March 20, 1922)

Carl Reiner was a writer for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca's famous "Show of Shows" at the dawn of TV. My father loved it! We watched too, though didn't get it quite as much as I think he did.

Reiner had (and I think still has) lots to say about his life and about the era. About the devastating McCarthy persecutions he says:“We didn’t know if they were after Communists, Jews, or just short people.”

With Mel Brooks, he invented the 2000 year old man.
The two comedians/comedy writers at first restricted performances to private groups of friends. Why? They were afraid to make fun of Jews in public. Finally, they did release it, and everyone loved it (that included me and my friends).

One follow-up:
"When they were finally convinced to record an album, Reiner showed it to Cary Grant, who brought copies before the Queen of England. Reiner crowed to Brooks, 'The biggest shiksa in the world loved it!' ” (See this)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Istanbul history and "The Dervish House"

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, though mainly a sci-fi story about technology in the near future of 2027, is also a political novel about Turkish history and its imagined future. The uneasy relationship between the remnant of Greek residents and the majority Turkish population is treated in an interesting way through several characters. Ethnic Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, and Jews all have at least a small role in the story. The city itself -- and the crumbling Dervish House of the title -- have big roles in the story.

The history of Turkish persecutions and population transfers in the 20th century, including the coup of 1980, is key to the personal history of several characters, especially a Greek economist who lives in the Dervish House along with several other main characters. Although at the beginning, he’s an old man who doesn’t go out much, he’s suddenly drawn into a very involved plot involving extremely futuristic nanoscience as well as complexity theory and several other trendy science topics. We learn slowly how his career was ruined years earlier by prejudicial treatment by his professional colleagues and the administration at Istanbul University, and how this one event makes him feel at least somewhat vindicated.

The economist’s understanding of a variety of theories enables him to figure out and help to pin down and stop a dangerous conspiracy. As he acts, we learn of his memories of his experiences in twentieth century Istanbul. Although he and his Greek and Jewish friends and family were extremely Turkish in their sense of identity, they were branded as disloyal, and exiled or worse. Both he and another character, an antiques dealer, also allow the author to present a capsule version of the presence of these minority groups in the longer history of the city.

Istanbul was on my list of cities with secular Jewish populations that I plan to study in the course of this year (so far, I’ve done some work on Odessa and Vienna). Earlier, when I looked into this subject, I didn’t find much about secular Jewish life in Istanbul. Jews seem to have remained relatively observant, or at least not to have called attention to any secular points of view as they did in several other cities. I didn’t expect to find such relevant ideas a Sci-Fi book (or whatever speculative fiction genre this book may belong to).

Overall, I found The Dervish House to be a good read for a number of reasons including the social, political, and science fiction, the careful use of historic detail, the convincing portraits of a wide range of characters, and a suspenseful plot.

I love the way he describes the city: I could often picture the places where actions occurred, based on my visits to Istanbul. I especially remember watching the ships on the Bosphorous (above) and seeing the bridge where some of the action takes place (top of post).

Ben Cohen (March 18, 1951)

Along with Jerry Greenfield (birthday March 14), Ben Cohen founded Ben and Jerry's ice cream. It's now owned by some big corporation, but I always loved the ice cream and admired the spirit of fanciful names and ice cream loaded with goodies. Cherry Garcia was always one of my favorites. It's sad that they are no longer natural and organic, but the ice cream still tastes very good to me.

Friday, March 16, 2012

David Liss (March 16, 1966)

I'm a big fan of the historical mystery novels -- mainly with Jewish characters of themes -- of David Liss. I've read all the ones depicted at right.

I was reading historic accounts of the Jewish communities of Amsterdam (in The Coffee Trader) and London (A Conspiracy of Paper) in the 17th and 18th century before he started to publish. I was delighted by his vivid characters, who considerably increased my ability to picture life in those times and places. His plots are good, and I especially appreciate his success at depicting the invention of stock markets and other economic innovations that were going on at the time, as well as of the conditions of life for Jews in those eras.

I'm a little less fond of The Whiskey Rebels, about the Whiskey Rebellion shortly after the American Revolution and the founding of the Federal Reserve system.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jerry Greenfield (March 14, 1951)

Along with Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield founded Ben and Jerry's ice cream. I have no idea of their Jewish identity or practice, but I did hear once that during the air raids in Tel Aviv in the first Iraq War, when people were truly terrified and much damage was done, if you were caught in a Ben and Jerry's your ice cream was free.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ezra Jack Keats (March 11, 1916)

Ezra Jack Keats was the author of “The Snowy Day,” a beautiful picture book about a little boy named Peter. This is considered the first children’s book to depict a black child as the main character without irony or making fun of him. I had always assumed that the author was himself black, but in fact, he was an eccentric Jewish illustrator. Some say that in 1962 when he wrote and illustrated the book it would not have been possible for a black author to have such a work published.

Keats's view of religion was interesting:
“When Keats did write about religion, he sought universality rather than Jewish specificity. In 1966 he illustrated a book called God Is in the Mountain, for which he created paintings to accompany a wide array of religious quotations from the Bhagavad-Gita and the Quran to Lao-tzu to Rabbi Hillel. ‘I am in every religion as a thread through a string of pearls,’ was one of his Hindu selections.

“Universality characterizes most of Keats’ work, a development some critics found problematic, most notably in his depiction of Peter, who became a recurring character for Keats. These critics felt that Peter had little African-American identity beyond the color of his skin. Keats’ response in 1965 in a letter to the editor of the Saturday Review addressing one critic: ‘Might I suggest armbands?’” *