Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mel Brooks (June 28, 1926)

From the Moment Magazine seminar: 
“I’m part of the generation that changed their name so they’d get hired. I went from Kaminsky to Brooks. My mother’s name was Brookman. But I couldn’t fit Brookman on the drums. I was a drummer. So I got as far as Brook and then put on an 's.' There was a lot of comedy when I was a little kid, street corner comics. We couldn’t own railroads, so prize fighting and comedy were open to us. We’re still comedians. Maybe because Jews cried for so long, it was time to laugh. Who knows? 
"I started in the Borscht Belt with terrible jokes. The first joke I ever wrote, I think, was, 'You can’t keep Jews in jail, they eat lox.' I’ve seen Jews come through an awful lot in my life, especially the Holocaust. In the Army, I suffered a lot of anti-Semitism. Sometimes, I suffered a lot of curiosity from southerners: 'Mel, what’s a Jew? What do you people eat?' 
"There’s much less stigma attached to being Jewish today than there used to be. But it’s still an excuse for gathering hate and anti-Semitism. What can we offer the world? We can still offer what Maimonides and Moses laid down. We can offer the law of human behavior. We astonishingly were one of the first cultures to create this thing called law, what is right and what is wrong, based on the tenets of the Old Testament. And, if they want something tasty, we can certainly offer matzoh brei.”

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bloomsday: June 16

James Joyce's character Leopold Bloom spent June 16, 1904, in Dublin, Ireland. It took Joyce 700 pages to chronicle what he did, ate, drank, imagined, and thought on that one day. On June 16 in various venues (especially Dublin) lovers of literature, of Ulysses specifically, and also of strong drink celebrate the anniversary of that day -- Bloomsday.

Just How Jewish was Bloom? -- a story from the Irish Times by Cormac Ó Gráda -- explores the history of the Jewish community that Leopold Bloom somewhat belonged to. The author describes the immigrant community of Litvak Jews who were the most numerous members of that community, and explores Joyce's possible sources for his descriptions of that community and some of its other inhabitants. The conclusion:
"Despite the huge literature on the Jewish content of Ulysses, and Joyce's reputation for being fastidious - indeed obsessive - about context and geography while writing it, it is hard not to conclude that his portrait of Leopold Bloom owed more to information garnered during his time in Trieste (1904-1919) than to first-hand contacts with Irish Jews before leaving Dublin at the age of 22. The very different character of Trieste Jewry - more urbane, more cosmopolitan, more middle-class, more integrated than their Dublin brethren - would have suited both Joyce and Bloom well."
Though he may be the most famous Irish Jew ever, only Bloom's father, not his mother was Jewish, and Bloom himself did not practice the Jewish religion. In literary terms, though, this isn't as important as his self-identification and the view of Joyce about him. According to the article:
"Joyce's ear for the varieties of Dublin English and his eye for Dublin foibles and characters make Ulysses a rich source for the historian of Ireland and its capital city. The same cannot be said for his account of Irish Jewry. Joyce's depiction of the petty racist jibes inflicted on Bloom by the 'Citizen' and others is vivid and credible. But had Bloom stepped from the written page into the real-life Little Jerusalem of Joyce's day, his mixed parentage and his marrying out would have ensured him a rather cold welcome also from the Litvak community ... ."
Finally: "None of this, of course, detracts from the genius of James Joyce or Ulysses."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Anne Frank (June 12, 1929)

Anne Frank has become not only a hero, but an emblem of what was lost. I don't have anything to add to the vast amounts that have been written about her. A moment of silent thought, only.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mordechai Kaplan (June 11, 1881)

Mordechai Kaplan was the inventor of Reconstructionist Judaism. He was the first rabbi to introduce Bat Mitzvah, thus finding a way to improve equality for women in Judaism. "He came to see Judaism not as a religion, but as a civilization, characterized not only by beliefs and practices, but by language, culture, literature, ethics, art, history, social organization, symbols, and customs." -- from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Levine and his Flying Machine (June 4, 1927)

On June 4, 1927, Charles Levine and his pilot Chamberlain flew a small plane (above) across the Atlantic. They weren't the first -- that was Lindbergh, of course, a few weeks earlier. They were still briefly a sensation, and Levine was celebrated as a "Hebrew Ace." From the Yiddish Radio Project:
"In the weeks following Levine's triumph, the Jewish-American community was in a state of rapture as across the sea one of its own was received by European dignitaries from Hindenburg to Mussolini. On Manhattan's Lower East Side, the Jews spoke of little else. 
"'The anti-Semites in Germany and the anti-Semites around the world will have to take their hats off to Levine the Jew,' pronounced the New York Yiddish daily newspaper Der Tog. 'No longer will we be obliged to prove that Jews are as capable and strong on the field of physical bravery as on the field of intellectual achievements.' 
"Within a month a half-dozen songs had been written in Levine's honor. The transatlantic flyer was seen as heralding the advent of the modern Jewish hero: independent, courageous, and proud."
I first heard one of the songs on a Klezmer disk by Kapelye, but you can hear a contemporary recording: "Levine mit Zayn Flayin Mashin" by Charles Cohen, sung in a combination of Yiddish and English, and also read the lyrics and a translation of the Yiddish portion.

Levine came to a very bad end -- when he flew, he was very rich, and paid all the expenses of the exotic and unusual voyage. Soon after he not only lost his money but involved himself in dubious schemes, even spending time in near-homelessness and even in jail.