Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bernard Lewis (May 31, 1916)

I was shocked when I learned that Bernard Lewis had been successfully discredited by Arab propaganda, so currently scholars are shamed if they refer to his works. I've read and learned much from many of his books, heard him speak on TV shows, and always understood that  he was a pioneer in studying the Arab world.

In response to Edward Said’s claim that Lewis couldn’t properly do scholarship on the Arab world, Lewis said “If westerners cannot legitimately study the history of Africa or the Middle East, then only fish can study marine biology.” Edward Said, of course, was a skillful anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propagandist, who no doubt led the efforts against Lewis. Sad!

Fouad Ajami, another scholar of the Arab world, says: “Bernard Lewis is the great Orientalist of our time, and we shan’t see the likes of him again.”

 Ajami, "a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute ... born and raised in Lebanon, describes himself as a 'self-appointed disciple' of Lewis. The two have been close since Ajami’s days at Princeton some 35 years ago and Ajami gushes freely about his mentor. 'His ability to track Islam’s journey over the 70 years of his career and really see the deeper currents of Islam—that is his genius. He is able to bridge the gap between scholarship and modern affairs and make a seamless connection between the past and the present.'" -- quotes from Moment Magazine, "The Revered and Reviled Bernard Lewis"

Monday, May 21, 2012

Andrei Sakharov (May 21, 1921)

Sakharov was a very famous Soviet-era Russian physicist and human rights activist, who died in 1989. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

From an essay by Sakharov:
"In this pamphlet, advanced for discussion by its readers, the author has set himself the goal to present, with the greatest conviction and frankness, two theses that are supported by many people in the world. These are: 
"[1] The division of mankind threatens it with destruction... Only universal cooperation under conditions of intellectual freedom and the lofty moral ideals of socialism and labor, accompanied by the elimination of dogmatism and pressure of the concealed interests of ruling classes, will preserve civilization... 
"[2] The second basic thesis is that intellectual freedom is essential to human society -- freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such a trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economics and culture." -- (from the New York Times, 22 July 1968, quoted in American Institute of Physics biography)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Is there such a thing as Jewish fiction?

Moment magazine this month includes answers by 17 authors to this question: "Is there such a thing as Jewish fiction?" Every answer is somewhat different -- though very few simply think there is NO such thing as Jewish fiction. Some of the respondents, naturally, think "Jewish Fiction" is a more important category than others do. Some define "Jewish Fiction" as any fiction by Jews, any fiction about Jews, or any fiction written in a Jewish language (like Hebrew). Some think "Jewish Fiction" deals with Jewish types of concerns, such as being an outsider, or with Jewish ethics or even Jewish humor. Religion plays a minor role in most of the definitions.

I liked this statement by Israeli author Etgar Keret:
"It’s not like everybody who was circumcised necessarily writes Jewish fiction, but there are some elements that you can often find in Jewish writing but that are rare when it comes to Israeli writing. What I feel is very deeply Jewish is reflexiveness. Traditionally, the diaspora Jew always carries two identities: his national identity and his Jewish identity. This has allowed him always to be both an insider and an outsider; if he was American he could live his life as an American but could always use the other Jewish tier to look at his actions and the people around him from the outside. In that sense, I think the most “Jewish writer” active now in Israel is Sayeed Kashua, who is an Israeli Arab, because as an Israeli Arab he keeps this kind of two-tier thinking tradition, having both the Israeli national identity and this other identity of being an Arab."

This Symposium is worth reading!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Two Deaths

Two men of great accomplishment have died: Maurice Sendak (who was 83) and Vidal Sassoon (84).

Sendak is of course widely admired for his wildly imaginative stories and illustrations. My favorites: In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak had a strong and public Jewish identity, having been born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents who lost many relatives in the Holocaust. The surreal buildings in Night Kitchen were recognizable as part of the Brooklyn skyline of his childhood. And, he said, the Wild Things were recognizable as relatives who would gather around his bedside when he was sick. His characters, such as Max in Wild Things and Micky in Night Kitchen, were both surreal and real; his New York Times obituary today included this quote:
“My God, Max would be what now, 48?” Mr. Sendak said. “He’s still unmarried, he’s living in Brooklyn. He’s a computer maven. He’s totally ungifted. He wears a wolf suit when he’s at home with his mother!” You don’t have to agree with that assessment — I bet Max became a marine biologist and resembles Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws” — to find it terrific.
Vidal Sassoon's Jewish identity was more obscure -- but I'm sorry to say, that seems normal for a British Jew. His parents were poor Sephardic immigrants. I'm interested in the fact that his life was the subject of a movie (maybe I'll see it some time).

Sassoon's fame as a hairdresser to the rich and famous and as a creator of high-end hair products (that eventually sunk to a lower end) doesn't seem very Jewish at all. But he was more than just another quietly Jewish Brit: he fought in the Israeli independence war. He said:
My mother was the strongest Zionist; she used to have Zionistic meetings in the house. I had to stand on the corner to make sure only two people went in at a time, in case we caused a ruckus because it was before Britain left Palestine. An Israeli Palmach officer came to London to talk to us; he said as soon as Britain moved out of Palestine, which was expected in May, there would be a war. By July many of us were there already, and I was in the Israeli army, two months training, the toughest training I’ve ever had in my life. And then we walked one night through the Arab lines to the northern Kibbutzim, and the action started. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life; I felt so good that after 2,000 years of butchery and barbaric behavior against the Jews, “Never again” had become the slogan.
I admire Sassoon for his invention of wash and wear hair styles, replacing painful curlers and other barbaric customs with a blow dryer. I also admire him for having been a Zionist fighter.

Update: the Forward has an excellent obit here: "Vidal: A Jewish Soldier of the Hair Salons Remembering the Struggles of Vidal Sassoon." And Tablet has another: "Vidal Sassoon, Streetfighter."