A New Read on Jewish Life
Updated: 7 weeks 2 days ago
My husband quit and then started again and then quit again and finally took to smoking out of sight. Or so he thought. One day my very healthy athletic son-in-law came up to me in the garden and said in an ominous whisper , “Do you know that Herman is smoking? I saw him out the window.” “Yes,” I said. “I know.” A look of disgust came across his face. “He’ll die,” he said. “Yes,” I said. So will you, I thought but didn’t say. I also didn’t say that Herman had started smoking when he was in the Army on a troop ship headed for England in 1941 when he was eighteen. He smoked his way across the channel and landed on day two on a Normandy beach. He smoked all the way through the battle of the Bulge and up to entrance of Dachau. He and four other G.I.’s were in charge of a truck-sized decoding machine. They stood in the trenches and sent word back to the Generals of progress or disaster. All he ever said about the war was that he was dry because they had to keep the machine dry and also that he and his group carried a duffel bag of books with them. It contained Thomas Mann, Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories.
Herman smoked through medical school and internship and through a dozen personal hard things that made him sad but also made him strong. It wasn’t so easy to quit. He was not lacking in will power. He made it to college and became a physician out of grit despite an impoverished, difficult immigrant family that had been evicted onto the streets when he was 15. He learned to speak without a Brooklyn mixed Yiddish accent from the Saturday afternoon movies he watched each week. When I met him he spoke English like Clark Gable, and he was still in love with Katherine Hepburn. He supported his own family and sent his children all to school and graduate school. He cared intensely about his patients. He just had a hard time giving up the comfort of cigarettes.
Alan Grayson, the explosive, left-wing, Jewish Congressman from Central Florida, crashed and burned Tuesday in Florida’s Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. He leaves a typically problematic legacy for the national party leaders who came to despise him.
The immediate effect of Grayson’s scorched-earth campaign is likely to jeopardize the Democrats’ chances of winning control of the Senate in November. Palm Beach Congressman Patrick Murphy, the Senate primary winner, has been so damaged by Grayson that only a Hillary Clinton landslide is likely to enable him to take the seat from in-again incumbent Republican Senator Marco Rubio.
Has anyone in American politics had a more frustrating past couple years than Debbie Wasserman-Schultz? Obviously Jeb Bush hasn’t fared so well, and in some alternate universe Marco Rubio is within plausible striking distance of the White House.
But spare a thought for the Florida congresswoman and former head of the Democratic National Committee. Since mid-2014, she’s annoyed the right wing of her constituency in supporting the Iran nuclear deal, had a protracted falling out with Barack Obama, faced a plot to oust her as DNC chair, enraged left-wingers across the country for allegedly stacking the Democratic presidential primary process against Bernie Sanders, and was forced to resign as DNC head after Russian hackers’ published internal party emails the week before the Democratic convention, at which she was subsequently booed offstage.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that someone would research this. Growing up, as huge sports fans and as Jews, we were definitely aware of the few professional athletes who were Jewish. It was just common knowledge. Something you discover about a player because . . . well, there just aren’t that many of us in the world of professional sports. According to the U.S. Census, Jews make up about 2.2 percent of the U.S. population. Assuming that metric is accurate, Jews as a demographic group are underrepresented in pro sports. That fact leads to a joke every Jewish kid knows: What’s the shortest book ever written? Jewish Sports Legends.
Reading the newspaper recently about the latest Trumpism, I had the urge to call my father, a longtime Republican, to talk about it. The only problem is that my dad died 35 years ago.
Moments like this keep the wound of loss fresh. What makes it worse is that my father died in September, so the anniversary usually coincides with the High Holidays, a time when I’m already balancing my ambivalence about religion with my desire to hear the Kol Nidre.
Donald Trump’s head scratch-inducing trip to Mexico to meet with the country’s president, whom he’s very excited to talk with, feels like a tough pill to swallow. (Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has invited Clinton, as well.) And then there’ll be the “highly anticipated” speech about immigration following his visit, a media spectacle you won’t want to miss. And who knows what he’ll say.
It’s nearly autumn, and we’ve been downing Trump’s jagged hypocrisy for months now, but his political rhetoric still goes down like a tall glass of tacks. Trump, a clown who incites hatred, has maligned Mexicans, calling some of them rapists and criminals and drug runners and killers. He wants to deport America’s illegal immigrants, some 11 million of them. He wants Mexico to pay for a wall. Oh, but then there are reports he’s softening his stances on said deportations, leaving Trump “caught between appeasing his staunchest supporters and attempting to appeal to moderate Republicans and independent voters with a softer stance,” reports The Washington Post.
“What shall I cook? This problem, the concern of housewives the world over, is particularly acute in our country. The differences in climate and the necessary adjustments arising out of these differences compel the European housewife to make many drastic changes, particularly in her cooking.”
With these words, Dr. Erna Meyer introduced her cookbook, How to Cook in Palestine, which was published in Palestine in the mid-1930s in Hebrew, English, and German. “We housewives must take an attempt to free our kitchens from European customs which are not applicable to Palestine. We should wholeheartedly stand in favor of healthy Palestine cooking,” writes Meyer, urging new Jewish immigrants to Palestine to shed their European identity and reinvent themselves according to the Zionist ideology. “We should foster these ideas not merely because we are compelled to do so, but because we realize that this will help us more than anything else in becoming acclimatized to our old-new homeland.”
“People pay money to see others believe in themselves,” the rock musician Kim Gordon has said. More accurate to unpack the thought into two related ideas: first, that people pay money to see others engaged in the struggle to believe in themselves. (Whether it’s a rock star or an athlete, the possibility of failure is part of what draws us in.) And second, that people pay money to see others enjoying themselves—probably because the secret of how to do that becomes elusive after childhood.
This is part of Donald Trump’s popularity. He loves what he does, which is being in the public gaze. Even if that shouldn’t be the president’s main job description, and even from the perspective of a Trump hater, compared with Trump’s enjoyment of the spotlight, all of his competitors for the Republican nomination paled. People simply enjoy seeing him enjoy himself.
Today’s fruit, when one types “Nazi” into Google News, is a yarn about a swastika crop circle that a farmer discovered in England.
Apparently, a farmer in Wiltshire woke up and found that a massive swastika, measuring an estimated 150-180 feet in diameter, had been mowed onto his crop field. Shortly thereafter, the farmer met a local man named Hugh Newman, a 43-year-old “ancient mysteries researcher” who had seen a post on Facebook and visited the site of the “land art.” So he did what any person would do: He flew a drone over the field to capture footage of the symbol so closely associated with the Nazi Party and hate.
This truly is the Year of Women. Hillary is about to be elected the first female president of the United States (knock on wood). Straight men are starting to use the phrase “rape culture” unironically. And Huma Abedin, the once and future chief of staff to would-be president Hillary Clinton, is finally breaking up with her husband, disgraced former congressman (a phrase used so often it’s basically part of his legal first name) Anthony Weiner.
Why? Oh, I think you all know why. He’s allegedly been sexting—again—with a woman on the internet. This time (wonder of wonder, irony of ironies), his sexting partner is a 40-year-old divorcee who is an avowed Donald Trump and NRA fan who has repeatedly reportedly shared her support for both on the internet—that Wild West Weiner so woefully has repeatedly misunderstood how to use three times. Only this time, the offending photo—the straw that finally, publicly dissolved one of the most puzzling relationships in political history (rumor has it that the couple has been privately estranged for some time)—involved an image of the couple’s young son, Jordan.
No one saw the Yom Kippur War coming.
The Syrian and Egyptian attack on the Israeli-held Golan Heights and Sinai peninsula on Oct. 6, 1973, came as an unpleasant surprise to Israel’s intelligence and military command. The entire Israeli government was seized with a nearly fatal complacency that cost Prime Minister Golda Meir and the once-beloved Defense Minister Moshe Dayan their political careers, and it took nearly three weeks for Israel to neutralize the two invasion forces.
Sometimes guys will like my picture on Instagram or they might text me from time to time. Sometimes they even want to hang out with me and if I’m lucky, they’ll buy me dinner. But not one of them has ever bought me a billboard.
Last Sunday, Drake—looking as sweet as can be, if not a little overdressed in a tuxedo—presented Rihanna, his probably-girlfriend, with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the MTV Video Music Awards. And a few days prior to that interaction he had a billboard erected in her honor that read: “Congratulations to Rihanna from Drake and everyone at OVO” (his label and clothing brand).
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”: This phrase from Exodus is one of the best-known sayings in the Torah, and one that has done great harm to the reputation of Judaism over the ages. Taken on its own terms, the idea that an injury should be repaid in kind can be seen as an attempt to impose fairness and justice in criminal law. It’s easy to imagine that, in pre-biblical societies, the victim of an injury might retaliate by taking his attacker’s life; this would create a cycle of feuding and vengeance that go on for generations. By limiting the punishment for injury, by insisting that every injury be repaid in kind, the Torah seeks to take revenge out of the hands of individuals, to impose a standard that is immediately comprehensible as fair.
In 1977, Michael Bloomfield performed at McCabe’s guitar shop in Santa Monica, California. The man who, between 1965 and 1968, had been the future of blues music was settled in semiretirement. Late in the set, he played a blues riff and sang: “I’m glad I’m Jewish, I’m glad I’m Jewish. Hebrew to the bone, Lord, Lord, Lord.” The audience laughed and Bloomfield later refrained: Judaism “kept me strong all my life.”
The song is jokey in nature, but it poses the question: How does one talk about Michael Bloomfield without talking about him being Jewish? Just as one might ask: How can one talk about the man, whose melodic and furious playing set Bob Dylan’s music alight, without mentioning his fear of fame, heroin addiction, insomnia, and mental anguish?
You may have noticed that Cannes, Nice, and a dozen other beach towns in France have just now adopted regulations banning the Islamic “burkini,” or full-body female swimsuit, from their beaches. And, as a result, we are right now undergoing a new outbreak of the by-now traditional and even folkloric American consternation over France and its antipathy to certain kinds of Islamic attire—the American consternation that, for a dozen years now, has rested on a single unchanging and unexamined assumption, as if nothing has changed during all these years, and no new information has emerged.
The assumption is that France wants to regulate Islamic attire because the French are fundamentally biased against their Muslim minority. The French are frightened of the “Other.” They are unrepentant in their imperialist and colonialist hatreds for the peoples of North Africa. They are, in short, hopelessly racist. Worse: The French left is just as bad as the French right in these regards, and the Socialist Party, as exemplified lately by the prime minister, Manuel Valls, is especially bad.
Maybe I’m the wrong person to judge this since I don’t have to be sold on the benefits of condoms, but it seems to me that rapper Lil’ Dicky is a fantastic choice for a condom pitchman. And kudos to Trojan for signing him, and airing a pair of short commercials during Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards (which also featured Drake gushing his heart out to Rihanna). These spots, aimed at millennials, use humor and logic in the best of ways: to educate about safe sex.
In the ads, Dicky’s tone strikes a worthwhile balance, as if to say, “We all get down—and I would know, I’m a rapper-type—so be cool and do it right. Wrap it up, kids.” And Trojan was smart because the tone of his commercials reflect, in a sense, what he has already put forth in his music videos and songs: odd-man-out gets the hot girl. And guess what? He’s smart about it. Ohhh, snap!
You guys, our long wait is over. Barbra Streisand has finally—finally—made her preference for the next president of the United States known. In her first official email to potential campaign donors, Barbra has endorsed … drum roll, please … Libertarian Party candidate and (as far as I can tell) sole Libertarian Party member Gary Johnson!
No, I’m kidding! Obviously, it’s Hillary Clinton. I just wanted to toss a moment of suspense into what is probably the least surprising endorsement of all time, given Streisand’s outspoken liberalism and long-standing friendship with the Clintons. (Barbra was probably the most famous, and most emblematic, celebrity Lincoln Bedroom-guest during Bill’s administration, leading some, including me, to wonder if Prince Charles wasn’t the only leading world figure with a giant crush on our Barbra.) She supports Clinton because she doesn’t present herself—doll collection aside—as an unhinged, bigoted lunatic. (Hi, Trump voters! Feel free to work yourself into an unhinged, bigoted lather, because supporting Trump means that you are A-OK with a campaign chairman who, according to his ex-wife, is an anti-Semite, exemplified by her claim that he didn’t want their twin daughters to go to Los Angeles’ Archer School for Girls because he “didn’t want the girls going to school with Jews,” where they might grow up to be “whiny” brats. That’s the kind of “friend of Israel” you’re supporting!)
In 2005, Abigail Pogrebin published Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. The following is an excerpt from the chapter about actor Gene Wilder, the star of Willy Wonka and Young Frankenstein, who died on Monday at the age of 83 from complications with Alzheimer’s disease.
HE MENTIONS GILDA right away. I thought it was a subject I’d have to work up to, but I haven’t been inside his 18th century Connecticut home for 10 minutes before he tells me it was hers. She bought it to escape show business. It’s also where she was planning to recover. “Gilda and I moved back from California thinking that she was cancer-free,” Wilder says with his famously soft voice, “and then three weeks later she found out it had come back.” Despite the fact that he’s happily remarried for the fourth time to a hearing specialist named Karen, whom I hear him call “Shug”—as in “Sugar”—Gilda seems to accompany him like a spirit. “She’s buried out here,” he says, gesturing vaguely to the grounds.
Here’s a basic outline of my mental tapestry when I fly: What is the latest time I can arrive at the gate and still make my flight, so as to avoid the general flying public at all costs? Is there a smoking section at the airport? Does TSA worry about the spread of athletes foot at security? I mean, look at that dude’s feet over there! Gross, just stay away from me, man. Can I have the can, too?
What I don’t worry about is what to pack—because I just pack it all. Three-day weekend? I’ll need 7 pairs of drawers, give or take, right? Just in case? Flight delayed, I’ll wash the pesticides off an apple and bring it with to munch on at the gate. I’ve tried to join the pack-light club, but packing light is for losers with nostalgia for backpacking in their 20s. Which is why I can appreciate this recent exchange between the human beings who felt it necessary to have the finer, more important questions in life answered: you know, those about gefilte fish.
“I fall in the middle of ex-convict, parolee, Division I athlete, Ted Talk speaker, multilingual, hustler, and drug addict,” said Rami Matan Even-Esh, an American rapper who goes by Kosha Dillz. “But I eat and breathe hip-hop.”
Over the course of his eight-year career, Kosha, who began by competing in freestyle rap battles in Manhattan’s East Village, has put his Judaism front and center. On his latest album, What I Do All Day and Pickle, released July 15, the Jewish rapper from New Jersey spits rhymes in Spanish and Hebrew about anti-Semitism, addiction, high school wrestling, and hitting on women. And of course, there’s the humdrum of “what I do all day”—working out at 24 Hour Fitness, typing emails at Starbucks, going to Shabbat dinner, and “egg ‘n cheesin” at Denny’s.