Wednesday, December 30, 2015

East of Eden by I. J. Singer

This Yiddish novel should not be confused with John Steinbeck's novel although the Biblical reference is the same. Singer's novel is set in Poland and Russia, not the Salinas Valley.  Singer's theme is the great transformation of Eastern European Jewry from a very religious, traditional parochial God fearing community to a God hating, collectivist internationalism of Marxism that swept Russia.

Historians ask what happened to that very religious community?  What was the attractive nature of communism that swept so many Jews away from their Torah lifestyle?  Singer creates an authentic answer through the medium of a family saga that begins in abject poverty from one of the small Jewish villages, Shtetles in Poland not far from Warsaw and ends with disillusionment in Soviet Russia.

This is a gritty novel of indentured servitude, lack of education, simple faith, simple heresy.  It is a story of seduction in both the sensual world and the world of ideas.  It is a story of being seduced by the new promises of "liberation" only to be disappointed that there is no utopian society.  It is a story of desire, the desire to be Jewish or not to be Jewish!

I J Singer always promises a climatic ending and this novel delivers a powerful message against Communism and the collective society that strips one of one's personal autonomy.  Truly a great novelist, his contribution is highly recommended!

The Golden Age: Shtetl: a new history of Jewish life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

This is a lively well researched, well written history of 18th and 19th century Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement.  It is a lesson that teaches the truth about "the Fiddler on the Roof".  It clarifies exactly what was a Shettle.  It is certainly more than an "Anatevka"!  Professor Petrovsky-Shtern teaches us that most of our understanding of Shtetl life has been falsely idealized and simplified through that famous Broadway show and movie.  He sets the reader straight with copious evidence of the vibrant life and close relationships between the Jews and the Polish gentry and the Polish peasantry.  He reminds us that the Jewish settlement in Pale was a majority culture that was not afraid to stand up and fight back, a community that did not play the victim!

 He shows the evidence of the Jewish trade, Jewish monopolies, and Jewish middlemen to protect the Polish Gentry's investments.  It's a life of feudalism that is advantageous for the Jewish community between the Polish upper class and peasantry.

He shows that with industrialization that comes with the partitions of Poland, the Jewish people are now at a loss on how to relate to a centralized government that views the community as a project to ameliorate. After so many years of independence and autonomy the Jewish community struggles to maintain the status quo unsuccessfully.  Industrialization destroys the Shettle economy and trade and forces the Jewish people to find work in the big cities.  The centralized state smashes the autonomy of the Jewish community!

The Professor's style is rhythmic and lively exhibiting much research and learning.   This is a very excellent, readable textbook on Jewish life in Modern Eastern Europe.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881 by Israel Bartal

This excellent history of modern Eastern European Jewry explains the original conditions of the Jewish people when they were an isolated majority and how the community deteriorated with the indulgence of partitions and interactions of the central states of Austria, Russia and Poland. It is a story of the end of a golden age of Shtetl life with the commencement of the industrial revolution of Russia which forced the townspeople into the big cities.

Modernity for the eastern European Jewry means the change from an agrarian feudal society where the Jews fit in as middlemen and brokers for the Polish gentry to an industrialized capitalism that broke the feudalism.  It is the change of being communally independent to being subservient to the central state of Russian or Austrian or Polish countries.

One reads about the successful Jewish revolution of Hasidism that overwhelmed the entire Ukraine with the lone Lithuanian opposition of the community led by the Vilna Gaon.  What becomes clear is that although the opposition is vigorous and strident, it nevertheless, is a failure.  Hasidism even makes strongholds in Lithuania.  Only the modern yeshiva that follows the approach of the Vilna Gaon becomes the dominant educational vehicle that is transplanted in America.

The Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment makes its way to Eastern Europe and the maskilim, its advocates become very optimistic about the possible reforms and freedoms that seem destined to be visited upon the Jewish people. They become practically agents of the regimes, propaganda machines to convince the people to adopt the various themes of the enlightenment.  The adoption of the Russian language, dropping of Yiddish, integrating secular education is the agenda of changes.

Hasidism is ravaged by the ideologies of the late 19th century: Communism, Socialism, Zionism, Capitalism because of the innate optimism of the Jewish people.  The Central state makes demands that squelch the autonomy of the Jewish community and the hostility of the Russian Orthodox and Polish Catholic churches remain constant.

Ultimately the program to integrate the Jewish community as a Russian minority is a failure.  The Jewish people do not assimilate well since for so many years the community functioned autonomously.  This failure translates into violent attacks, pogroms against the Jews all over Russia! The pogroms marks a watershed, the beginning of the greatest migration of Jewish history mostly to the USA, a  place where most Eastern European Jews experience true emancipation and freedom for the first time.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

John Lennon and the Jews by Ze'ev Maghen

This book is a great apology in the spirit of the great Jewish apologies like Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy's Kuzari.  It is an exegesis, a rationale to be a willing practicing Jew.  The book is a personal screed as a response to a conversation the author had at an airport with Hari Krishna who actually were Jewish Israelis.  Their dismissal of Judaism pained the author and he himself was at a loss on how to respond to their arguments. This book is his deliberate well thought out response why one should retain acting Jewish according to the ancient traditions.

It is written as a "rampage" with much gusto and passion. There is a lot of yelling!  John Lennon's song Imagine is eviscerated as an unworkable paradigm for living.  Mr. Maghen name drops, waxes philosophic by quoting from almost every real and pop philosopher for the last 2000 years.  His breadth of knowledge is breathtaking.

This type of book seems like a yawn from it cover, however, it is very entertaining and meaningful!  If one has ever experienced a polemical discussion or would like a reasoned justification for Judaism in a very contemporary style taking from American and Israeli culture of the past 50 decades, I recommend this book.  It is the type of book that one picks it with some skepticism, and ends up becoming engrossed by it!

The Fish that Ate the Whale by Rich Cohen

This is a biography of Sam Zemurray, a Russian Jewish immigrant who became 'the banana man'.  Mr. Zemurray is objectively an outstanding success, a clear exhibit of the fulfillment of the American dream about one who started with nothing and gained fantastic financial success.  This book is a story, a history of the "Banana Republic", how business and government clash and collude to manipulate people and events.  It is a story of hot wars and cold wars, of revolutions and tyrannies.

The author is ambivalent about the protagonist.  Clearly the author is impressed with Mr. Zemurray's accomplishments - from a generation with drive and determination, vision to see real opportunities when no one else sees them.  As the details emerge, however, about mercenaries, social manipulation and crude crass and bald power the author becomes dismayed.  He shows the urge to criticize the protagonist's shortcomings - the disappointment of not raising a Jewish family or Jewish legacy even though Zemurray is instrumental in helping found the Jewish State of Israel through his fantastic philanthropy practically anonymously.

What seems clear to the author is that the example of United Fruit Corp. represents the worst of what America can be.  I found his analysis to be akin to 'monday morning quarterbacking' using hindsight and contemporary values from the Left to excoriate Zemurray.  Zemurray is depicted as fearless doer!  He is a tough Jew, not one to tremble at the sight of a challenge. His shear determination is limitless.

I found it fascinating that the author linked the murder of Huey Long with Zemurray which cast the 'banana man' as a very shadowy figure.  Chaim Weizmann, however, shows the generous side of Zemurray telling how copiously and effectively he gave to Zionist causes.  Tulane University owes much to Mr. Zemurray because it was one of his profound philanthropies.

I agree with the author about Zemurray not leaving a personal Jewish legacy - none of his surviving offspring practice Judaism but rather identify themselves as Christians.  One may conclude that the freedom of the USA and the relative quiet from Anti-Semitism contributes to such assimilation.  The priority and desire of a Jewish education, however, is probably more important in establishing a Jewish future and legacy, something that clearly did not occur to Mr. Zemurray.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

This account of the first flyers and makers of airplanes is a great example of ambition, observation and study.  The author is a master at telling the true story.  The Wright brothers are an example that a college education is not necessary in gaining success.  Ambition, curiosity and the ability to read are really the components of success.

The brothers showed great curiosity and sought out information from all the available resources at the time.  They received information from the Smithsonian Institution and they read all that was available by the German pioneer in gliders, Otto Lilienthal and made friends with other scientists like Octave Chanute.  The brothers showed patience in observing the different birds and how each one differed from the other; how some soared and some plummeted at great speed with out losing control of their ability to regain altitude.  They were patient in taking notes and making diagrams of the different wings of each species of birds.  They took note of the different ways the birds tilted or warped their wings in flight making turns seem effortlessly.

Studying birds took some 4 years before the brother decided to test the effect of gliding in the air like birds.  They discovered that previous calculations made by the other pioneers were erroneous and they made their own adjustments.  They chose Kitty Hawk on the coast of the Carolinas because of the constant steady winds there.  Launching their glider into the wind to study the wind's effects enabled the brothers to create rudders to control the flight.

There seems so have been somewhat of a race as to whom would be the first flyer and the brothers were very wary of letting others into their circle of knowledge.  Their sister, Katherine was a booster along with their preacher father.  There was an representative of the marketing firm of Flint and Co. by the name of Harte Berg who represented the brothers in Europe.  Being patriotic Americans, the Wright brothers wanted the US government to have first crack at purchasing their airplanes, however when the US government turned them down flat they took their assets to Europe.  It was unclear why the US turned them down.  It was possible that since so much investment was made by Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian that turned into a colossal failure, the US gave up any hope of man's ability to fly.

The brothers created an engine with dual propellers and made their historic short flight in 1903. The next ten years great strides and improvements were implemented. They gave great demonstrations in France to large crowds and became a worldwide sensation that was covered by every major news outlet in the world!  Only after these exhibition flights could they interest their home government.

Although the brothers profited from their invention, they did not earn the fantastic wealth of some of the great entrepreneurs of that day.  And although there was always a lawsuit against someone who violated the Wright brothers' patents they did not seem greedy to get rich but rather only took that which struck them as their fair share.

The Wright brothers were not country bumpkins.  They were well self taught, great readers of literature and history.  They lived by the high moral standards set by their religious father.  For example, they never worked on their Sunday Sabbath.  Wilbur was perhaps more articulate than Orville but they lived by the code of a very close knit family.

This book is another example set by Mr. McCullough that the USA has been home to great exceptionalism where ambition, curiosity and thirst for knowledge produce great results.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Judaism's Encounter with American Sports by Jeffrey S. Gurock

Historian, Jeffrey Gurock of Yeshiva University delivers a fascinating study of the intersection of the Jewish community and American Sports.  Unlike Peter Levine's study that highlights some famous Jews using sports to assimilate and demonstrating his thesis that sports are a means toward becoming truly American, Prof. Gurock studies the communal responses of the seemingly mass exodus from synagogue to gymnasium in the USA.  

After a brief background chapter discussing the interface and clash between the physical culture of Greece and Mitzva culture or Divine covenantal culture of Judea, Prof. Gurock shows the cultural crisis that affected the immigrant generations of the late 19th century through the early 20th century. In order to show that one is truly American, the lure of sports was too easy to pass up.  In droves do the new Americans hit the gym, playgrounds and ball fields.  Prof. Gurock highlights the tensions among the rabbinate on how to attract those playing sports back into the synagogue.  Rabbi Herbert Goldstein in one of the first rabbis to advocate for a synagogue complex that incorporates sports.  Mordecai Kaplan is one uncomfortable with the violation of what he views as 'holy space' with the profane.  One reads of the rise the independent JCC movement and the ensuing disputes between synagogue life and secular Jewish life.

One reads of the eventual 'Yeshiva League' and the incorporation of sports at the modern Orthodox flag ship Yeshiva University.  One learns of the struggles with sports by 'segregationist' Orthodox yeshivos that really do not want to integrate a sports program but nevertheless, their more enlightened leadership understands the great pull that sports has on an American youngster and certain compromises are made.  Red lines are drawn, however, when female athletes and spectators begin to encroach on the male dominated pastimes.  Halachic issues of intermingling and immodesty preclude the segregationists from joining sporting events.

Prof. Gurock's critical skills as historian come out when he discusses the phenomenal rise of High School phenom Tamir Goodman, a person deemed by Sports Illustrated as a "Jewish Jordan"!  Goodman's rise is highlighted at the YU Sarachek Tournament where he gets much attention - too much attention for his yeshiva and the administration becomes threatened by the overtaking of basketball interest at the school instead of Torah Scholarship!  Goodman transfers to a gentile school for his last year of High School with the understanding that the University of Maryland will make accommodations for his Torah observance.  When time comes to sign, the University reneges on the deal.  Goodman gets an offer to play for Towson U.  but there too although he makes the team no accommodations are made and he gets very little playing time and much attention due to an altercation with his coach.  The family claims 'anti-Semitism' and the University claims that Goodman did not meet expectations for Division I ball.  As a representative of the University said, 'comprises are made for real talent!' Goodman goes to Israel and signs with a big league Israeli professional team but ultimately is sent down to the minors!  Mr. Gurock concludes based on the evidence that the Unviersity version is reasonable since ultimately Mr. Goodman could not compete on the pro level.

Tamir Goodman is, nevertheless, representative of how far the Jewish community has integrated sports, and how far America has accepted Jewish Americans without losing a complete Torah observant identity.  Sandy Koufax may have given American Jews a proud excuse that it is ok to give up work and go the synagogue on the one Holiest day of the year but the idea that a completely Torah Observant Jew would be accepted in the world of Sports shows the true tolerance and kindness of  a nation.

Throughout the book, Prof Gurock includes himself as Scholar/Jewish Athlete and peppers his study with personal insight that makes the book a more intimate look into the lives of Jewish athletes.