A New Read on Jewish Life
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I went to Jewish day school until 8th grade. Sex education was less likely to appear on the syllabus than Iberian pork cookery. Then I went to a secular high school, where sex ed consisted of one lecture for freshmen, taught by the football coach, involving the canonical image of a condom being rolled on over a banana, along with lots of threats about dying of AIDS. The ’80s, of course, were the Just Say No era, so we got weird mixed messages about how we shouldn’t have sex at all but if we did we should use condoms. (Just like the coach in Mean Girls: “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die! Don’t have sex in the missionary position! Don’t have sex standing up! Just don’t do it, OK? Promise? OK, now everybody take some rubbers!”) I also recall something about the coach’s toddler once setting the table with sanitary napkins.
Today, what constitutes effective sex education is pretty clear. “Abstinence-only” and “abstinence until marriage” programs don’t work as well as comprehensive ones; the latter provide actual, factual information about pregnancy and AIDS prevention. According to the American Psychological Association, good programs also “promote condom use for those who are sexually active, educate about the importance of early identification and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and teach sexual communication skills are the most effective in keeping sexually active adolescents disease-free.” Research shows that talking about condoms, oy a mechaya, does not make kids have sex. “On the contrary,” notes the APA, “evidence suggests that such programs actually increase the number of adolescents who abstain from sex and also delay the onset of first sexual intercourse. Furthermore, these programs decrease the likelihood of unprotected sex and increase condom use among those having sex for the first time.”
“Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable,” T.S. Eliot announced in 1933 to his audience at the University of Virginia. Eliot was no fascist, but he was willing to deliver his sentence about Jews during a high tide of anti-Semitic feeling, the year of the Nazi seizure of power. Eliot’s anti-Semitic note blended smoothly with his praise of intolerance. In his Virginia lectures, which later became After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, he railed against a modern world “worm-eaten with liberalism.” Impossibly enough, Eliot yearned for an orthodoxy that could impose moral law on a nation homogeneous in “race” and manners.
Many miles north of Virginia, also in 1933, a Jewish toddler named Harold Bloom was learning to talk in his mother’s kitchen in the East Bronx. Seven years later, at age 10, he would discover in the Melrose branch of the Bronx Public Library two poets who burned with the heretical romantic flame that Eliot detested: Hart Crane and William Blake. That same year he read Moby-Dick and exulted with Melville’s doom-eager Ahab. (Meanwhile, oceans away, the Germans and Japanese were setting fire to the globe.) In high school he plunged into Faulkner’s cauldron of Gothic torments and marveled at how the Southern master raised shlock to the status of high art. In college at Cornell, Bloom studied with M.H. Abrams, who had begun to rehabilitate the Romantic poets against the wishes of Eliot. But when Bloom arrived at Yale graduate school, he entered a den of Eliotic orthodoxy. The lions of New Criticism glowered at the Yiddish-speaking proletarian from the Bronx.
As it turns out, Cleveland does rock.
Last night, the injury-plagued Cavaliers, led by head coach David Blatt and four-time league MVP LeBron James, crushed the injury-plagued Atlanta Hawks 118-88, and booked a ticket to the NBA Finals, which begin June 4. It’s the organization’s second-ever trip to the championship series, and the first since James brought the team to the finals in 2007, when they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
There is something undeniably humorous about Canary Mission, the new website in which unnamed people accuse unknown people of unmentionable crimes. Not intentionally so, of course. The website aims to “expose individuals and groups that are anti-Freedom, anti-American, and anti-Semitic,” which The Forward made clear in an article Wednesday. To that end, it posts photographs, short biographies, and social media information of various pro-Palestinian, pro-boycotting-Israel, and anti-Zionist campus activists. You know, so they can be flamed on Twitter. Or blackballed at their McKinsey interviews.
But, if anything, the site makes pro-Israel activism—or at least anti-anti-Israel activism—look ridiculous. And it’s not just because it capitalizes “Freedom,” as if it’s a sports drink.
Today, George Carlin’s list of the seven words you can’t say on television—shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits—barely elicits a yawn. Most of us are inured to what was once quaintly called “salty language.” But in that same monologue, Carlin noted, “There are no bad words. [There are] bad thoughts, bad intentions.” And that wisdom is timeless. So on the anniversary of this historic performance, here are six times words actually shocked me, and one time they didn’t. (Warning: This essay contains salty language.)
1. In 2012, I was shocked when Sarah Silverman offered to scissor Sheldon Adelson if he’d donate $100 million to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign instead of Mitt Romney’s. Part of the shock came from Silverman’s sweet delivery, part from the unasked-for visual of Silverman grinding her crotchal region against the antediluvian fluorescent-haired billionaire’s, and part from Silverman’s helpful attempt to demo scissoring on her very small dog. The word “scissor” is, of course, not inherently dirty. In context, though, it was more gobsmackingly horrifying (and funnier) than any four-letter word could ever be. As Carlin put it, “Words are all we have really…thoughts are fluid. Woo-woo-woo. But then we assign a word to that thought—click!” Scissoring suddenly clicked. Joltingly.
What happens when you turn 100? You get a letter from the President, you gum a little cake, maybe you talk to your grandchildren—the ones who are still alive, anyway.
And if you’re Herman Wouk, the author of massively best-selling works of mid-century fiction such as The Winds of War and Marjorie Morningstar, who turns 100 today? You commemorate your own centenary birthday by publishing Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100 Year Old Author, a forthcoming memoir that focuses on Wouk’s World War II service in the Navy, which will also contain reflections on his abiding Jewish faith, a recurring theme in all of his work.
On December 5, 1962, comedian Lenny Bruce, who by that time had been blacklisted at clubs around the U.S., performed at the Gate of Horn club in Chicago. Bruce, then 37, was a large influence on a 25-year-old George Carlin who was in the audience that day. At one point during the show, a reportedly plain clothes cop stood up and said, “show’s over ladies and gentleman, everybody have a seat.” According to Carlin, the police began to check the IDs of the audience members so they could catch underage attendees at Bruce’s racy show, and get the club in trouble.
“I was good and juiced by the time they go to [me,]” said Carlin. And when it was his turn to hand over ID, Carlin told the authorities, “I don’t believe in ID.”
During his political career, Léon Blum—who served three short terms as French prime minister between 1936 and 1947—was derided by his detractors as “a woman,” a “weak Jew,” and even a traitor. Meanwhile, he was worshiped by many French workers, grateful to him for introducing the 40-hour work week, vacation time, and other legislation from his Socialist agenda. According to sociologist Pierre Birnbaum, author of the new biography Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist, none of these characterizations captures the complexity of this under-appreciated figure.
The Bandung Conference, whose 60th anniversary was celebrated last month, was the first-ever large-scale gathering of Asian and African leaders in the post-colonial period, a meeting that was historic for its symbolism as well as for the resolutions it produced. Malcolm X attended and reminisced about his time in Java in a famous speech years later. “At Bandung all the nations came together, the dark nations from Africa and Asia. … Some were communists, some were socialists, some were capitalists—despite their economic and political differences, they came together. All of them were black, brown, red, or yellow.” The conference produced a document, The Final Communiqué in Bandung, signed by all participating nations, linking the fight against imperialism and racism to the fight for universal human rights, and set in motion the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement.
On Friday, April 24, of this year, representatives from 77 countries gathered again in Bandung for the memorial Asia-Africa Conference (AAC). Java, in Indonesia, is the most populated island on Earth, with 140 million people crammed into a space the size of Pennsylvania. Bandung, a mid-sized city in West Java, is the historic vacation-home of wealthy Jakartans, who would flee the polluted capital on the weekends. But now, as any taxi driver will tell you, the traffic—and pollution—is as bad there as anywhere else in Java. For the opening of the conference, the government banned road traffic. Instead clusters of Indonesians, many dressed in red and white, the national colors, wandered toward the center of town, under the watchful eye of guards with submachine guns and crowd-control equipment. Posters with the face of Indonesia’s legendary post-colonial leader Sukarno whipped at them in the wind, from every street sign and lamppost. “It’s a historic day,” a plainclothes police officer named Aje offered to me. “We’re all very proud of this city.”
“The German Refugee,” originally published in 1963 under the title “The Refugee,” is one of my favorite stories by Bernard Malamud. Set in New York in 1939, it’s told through the eyes of Martin Goldberg, a “poor student” who tutors German refugees. Among Goldberg’s pupils is Oskar Gassner, “the Berlin critic and journalist,” who arrives in America one month before Kristallnacht. Back in Germany Gassner leaves a non-Jewish wife of 27 years, whose mother, he says, is a “dreadful anti-Semite”; he intimates that his wife did not wish to leave and they parted, “amicably.” Goldberg spends much of the summer of 1939 trying to help his charge overcome writer’s block, and Gassner finally manages to compose a lecture in September 1939, after Germany invades Poland. He successfully delivers it at the Institute for Public Studies, and two days later he commits suicide, leaving his possessions to his tutor. Goldberg finds a “thin packet of letters from [Gassner’s] wife and an airmail letter of recent date from his mother-in-law.” The mother-in-law writes that her daughter, after Oskar Gassner “abandons her,” was “converted to Judaism by a fervent rabbi.” Gassner’s wife was subsequently taken “together with the other Jews” and driven in a truck to a border town in recently occupied Poland. “There,” reads the letter from Stettin forming the last line of Malamud’s story, “it is rumored, [the wife] is shot in the head and topples into an open ditch with the naked Jewish men, their wives and children, some Polish soldiers, and a handful of Gypsies.”
The ending of Malamud’s story was the first thing that leapt to mind when I recently learned, while preparing to teach Arthur Miller to a predominantly Catholic student audience, about the 50th anniversary of the first production of his Incident at Vichy. On May 7, 1965, the play closed after 32 performances, spread out over six months, at ANTA Washington Square Theater. Staged by Harold Clurman for the Lincoln Center, Incident at Vichy was not a great critical or commercial success.
Actress and comedienne Anne Meara died on Saturday, May 23 in Manhattan. She was 85.
Meara was born in Brooklyn on September 20, 1929, the only child to Edward Meara, a lawyer, and Mary Dempsey, who committed suicide two years before Anne hit her teens. When Meara was 18 she spent a year as part of the New School’s Dramatic Workshop, an experience that ignited her desire for a career in the performing arts.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the country’s foreign minister and communications minister, fired Nissim Ben-Shitrit from the position of director-general of the Foreign Ministry, a position into which he had been appointed by Avigdor Lieberman, the former Israeli foreign minister. Netanyahu then replaced Ben-Shitrit with Dore Gold, a long-time political ally who served under him as foreign policy adviser during his first term as Prime Minister in 1996. Gold has acted as Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser since December 2013, billing around 200,000 shekels a year, reports Haaretz.
Here’s the New York Times on the appointment of the “hawkish” Gold:
Oh, wit. Your bite can be so luscious, especially in the land of Jeopardy!
On yesterday’s episode, Alex Trebek posed the following question to his three contestants, including defending champion Choyon Manjrekar:
A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no?
Well, actually, no. Of all the canonical shows of the American musical theater, there is probably none more internationally beloved, more emotionally universal, more instantly iconic than Fiddler on the Roof. You know this, I know this, Martians know this—at least, if they’ve ever been to a Jewish wedding. (Believe me, if there is intelligent life on Mars, they all have a synagogue they won’t set foot in.) So enduring and mythic are the proportions Fiddler has taken in the spiritual life and cultural heritage of modern Jews—American Jews in particular—that it almost seems to have sprung from a sort of collective unconscious of the ages, like the Talmud or even the Bible, composed by some nameless, divinely-inspired author; or depending how seriously you take the orthodoxy of Anatevka, by the fiery finger of God himself.
Before Jon Stewart became the liberal lion of late-night satirical news who tore through bow-tie clad CNN hosts with rhetorical ease, he cut his teeth as host of MTV’s The Jon Stewart Show, which ran for less than two years on the network. For the final episode, which aired on June 23, 1995, Stewart invited late night legend David Letterman, who had hosted the 67th Academy Awards just months before. (Forrest Gump won best picture, in case you were wondering.)
After the The Jon Stewart Show ended, Letterman actually signed Stewart to a contract with his Worldwide Pants company. Stewart would go on to serve as a guest host for Tom Snyder, and start his own show called Where’s Elvis This Week?, before taking over for Craig Kilborn as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show in 1999. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The great peculiarity of the PEN-and-Charlie Hebdo controversy earlier this month was a combination of ostensible agreement on values (freedom of speech, sympathy for the victims of the January attentat in Paris, anti-racism, sympathy for the immigrant masses, and condemnation of terror: staples of PEN orthodoxy), and spectacular disagreement on facts. The protesters, most of them, wanted the world to know that, in regard to press freedoms, their commitments were absolute. Willingly they would defend the right even of Nazis to say whatever terrible things Nazis might say, as the ACLU once did in Illinois. But they honestly believed that Charlie Hebdo is a reactionary magazine, racist against blacks and bigoted against Muslims, obsessively anti-Islamic, intent on bullying the immigrant masses in France. A dreadful magazine. Nazi-like, even—therefore, a magazine not even remotely worthy of an award from PEN. On these points the protesters were adamant. Only, why?
Originating as it does from a cold climate, Eastern European Jewish cuisine is almost inconceivable without hearty, meaty dishes like brisket, cholent, and chopped liver. Today’s recipes, with their emphasis on fresh, locally sourced vegetables, can seem alien by comparison, goyish even. But Ashkenazi cooking hasn’t always been synonymous with flesh.
In 1938, chef and health-food expert Fania Lewando published The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook, a volume of over 400 recipes—everything from entrees and sauces to desserts and drinks—containing not an iota of meat or fish. Now, for the first time, the book is available in English, a milchig Bible for a new generation.
This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and their Jewish Lives series.
The fall of France and invasion by Germany left the country in disarray. When the Germans broke through, Blum was in London consulting with British allies. What he heard worried him: “I do not understand English. I confess this infirmity. What is called the gift of tongues is common among Jews. I have the opposite gift: an inability to learn any foreign language.” On returning to France, he found the political class in a panic owing to the rapid advance of German armor. As the government withdrew from Paris to Tours, Blum traveled by automobile to Montluçon, where his friend Marx Dormoy was mayor. Then, as the debacle continued to unfold, he threw caution to the winds and decided to return to Paris on June 11, 1940. He made his way across the forest of Fontainebleau, which he knew well from having toured it frequently by bicycle, only to find the capital deserted. The Chamber of Deputies was as “empty” as a “tomb,” utterly abandoned. After one last visit to his apartment, where he stood a moment among his books and other familiar possessions, he again departed for the provinces, joining the steady stream of bicycles, automobiles laden with suitcases and mattresses, and horse-drawn wagons and carts of every description, all of which the Germans regularly strafed. Blum rejoined the government, which had meanwhile taken refuge in Bordeaux, as during World War I.
Yesterday, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published a wide-ranging interview with President Obama on the Middle East. Naturally, much of the ensuing commentary has focused on the president’s defense of his Iran diplomacy and his administration’s handling of the fight against ISIS. But in poring over Obama’s comments on these big ticket issues, one of the president’s more remarkable statements has largely been overlooked: his equation of denying Israel’s right to exist with anti-Semitism.
In the latter part of their conversation, Obama and Goldberg turned to the subject of Israel. The president began by making a spirited case against those in the pro-Israel community who equate his criticisms of Israeli policy with an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic outlook. “I completely reject that,” he said. On the contrary, the president argued, by standing up for the shared liberal values of the U.S. and Israel—and pointing out when either falls short—he is ensuring both countries will endure and thrive. “I want Israel, in the same way that I want the United States, to embody the Judeo-Christian and, ultimately then, what I believe are human or universal values that have led to progress over a millennium,” he said. “I want Israel to embody these values because Israel is aligned with us in that fight for what I believe to be true.”
The longest stretch I get to listen to music these days is on Sunday morning, when I make pancakes for a certain toddler who seems to recoil when I try to play anything I love from Radiohead or Bettye Lavette in the living room. Happily, I make those pancakes in the kitchen, and before I measure out even a teaspoon of flour, I turn the radio on to WKCR to hear some gospel. This weekend things will be a bit different, not just because it’s Shavuot—I’ll be at my sister’s in Jersey, natch, where I don’t control the audio—but also because Memorial Day is upon us.
Here’s a playlist in honor of the American soldiers who have given their lives in seemingly countless wars: