Monday, December 30, 2013

TUNE IN: The Beatles all these years, Volume I by Mark Lewisohn

Seeing the Beatles being introduced to Americans on the Ed Sullivan Show is still a vivid memory. Mark Lewisohn has written an history from the group's genesis to just before their meteoric rise on the new pop music scene. This cumbersome book is really only for the dedicated fan because the 800 + pages are filled with just too much minutia about the four men from Liverpool to be that important.  The book's organizational skeleton can seen as the Beatles' teenage formation, honing their skills in Hamburg, Stuart Sutcliffe's relationship with the group, their relationship with Brian Epstein, the firing of drummer Pete Best and his replacement Ringo Starr (Richy Starkey), being rejected by every major recording studio including George Martin at EMI, the machinations that led George Martin's reassessment of the group, their first hit record, the relationship to their music publisher Dick James, with the book's ending with being on the verge of their second hit record.

The members of the group were typical of post WWII youth who were swept up by and swooned over the new American musical phenomenon called 'rock and roll'.  Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Chuck Berry and Little Richard gained a great following and became heroes in the UK. The name 'Beatles' was inspired by the 'Crickets' when John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe came up with a double entendre.  The book made a point of telling that the name was unique because English groups were usually known as the lead singer and his back-up (like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes etc)

The group put in many hours of playing time in Hamburg, Germany, thus honing their skills as musicians and as a band; the long hours required to stay awake inspired drug use; the neighborhood where they played was a lair of hedonism with the Beatles seeking out its pleasures.  One learns that Stuart Sutcliffe was really a talented artist and not much of a musician but his close friendship with John Lennon stalled his departure from the group.  He marries Astrid Kirchherr from Hamburg, a photographer and his tragic, untimely death shocked the group.

All evidence points to the sacking of Pete Best as a result of his poor performance as a drummer.  He can't seem to keep consistent time nor beat, either slowing down or speeding up, thus compromising the music of the group.  The Beatles wait until they have a manager (to do the dirty job of firing) and the Music Producer's assessment that his play is unacceptable for recording before he is formally severed from the group.

Jewish Brian Epstein discovers the group when he makes good on his business promise to customers that NEMS (North East Music Stores) will procure any record requested.  Although he has trouble finding the Beatles' first coarse recording of  "My Bonnie" from a Hamburg distributor, Epstein is taken in by the sound.  He visits the local group at the famed Cavern Club and falls in love with the group and offers his services to manage them.  Although pejoratives about being Jewish are common, the stereotype about Jews having a flair with money convinces the Beatles that he is a good choice. One learns about real Jewish ethics in Mr. Epstein's business philosophy that he learned from his father and Grandfather: "The fair deal is the right deal!"  As a matter of fact, one sees clearly that Epstein steered clear of any impropriety or accusation of taking advantage of the group.  His fees for services were under market value at 10 percent not to exceed 25 percent (when others were charging between 30 and 50 percent!).

Although George Martin was in charge of comedy records (helping Peter Sellers' career) at EMI and originally passed over the Beatles'  'My Bonnie' demo, behind the scenes office politics required him to record some songs with the Beatles. He did not like "Love me do" because he really did not like the harmonica drawl, nevertheless, he gave the Beatles a better look after the recording started to rise on the pop charts.  Martin's discretion, integrity and originality, willing to experiment with new sounds made him a perfect fit with the Beatles.  Not only was he an accomplished musician with an ear and eye for talent but he was also the perfect sounding board for the group.  He was used as the ax on Pete Best. When hearing Pete's effort on their Demo he would require a replacement drummer for future recordings.

Another Jewish figure that played prominently in the Beatles early success is Dick James (Isaac Vapnick) their music publisher.  He also did the unusual and changed the way business has been done since 1900.  In the past the publisher owned the rights to the sheet music, not the author/artist.  The songwriter earned a small royalty on each sheet music sold.  James saw the great potential of the Beatles and not wanting to eventually lose their business he changed protocol and offered Lennon, McCartney and Epstein a partnership in his business so that not only would the songwriters earn a royalty but would split company profits 50-50.  This eventually created a wealth gap between John and Paul on the one hand with George and Ringo on the other.

I would only recommend this book to the avid fan willing to plow through so much information. The notion that there are two other volumes to continue this saga boggles my mind.  Mr. Lewisohn, nevertheless, utilizes the tools of the historian constantly verifying and cross referencing information with corroborating sources thus making this contribution a very accurate record.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Torah, Chazal & Science by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman

This volume displays the virtuosity and mastery of halacha and science by its author.  Its theme forcefully argues that Torah is a legitimate source of knowledge with its own independent system needing no confirmation from the outside.  The book addresses a new popular literature that attempts to square scientific theories with the Torah and when those theories seem to conflict then the Torah is explained allegorically to fit the theories. 

Some interesting discussions come out of this major contribution.  Rabbi Meiselman elaborates on the approach of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik of Boston ZTz"L pertaining to the Tradition and how the age of the universe and the story of Genesis are irreconcilable. He discusses the esoteric nature of the 6 days of creation and the flood story making the scientific theories irrelevant.  For Rabbi Soloveitchik, the scientists overstep their bounds when entering cosmology.

He also explains that the tradents of tradition can not be assailed as the Rambam would classify such disparaging talk as heretical.  The Mesorah, tradition, can only be studied through the chain of authorities implying that well known personages of antiquity would only be viewed out of curiosity.  For Rabbi Soloveitchik, Philo and Josephus mean little to the Halachic tradition.  The relatively newly found Talmudic exegete, Meiri means little and the respected thinker and leader, Don Isaac Abravanel may be interesting only as a Tanach exegete but certainly not as an expert in Talmudic exegesis because they are not found in the chain of the teaching tradition.

Rabbi Meiselman distills what true Torah teaching is all about. He's concerned about what the Kiruv (outreach) movement has popularized.  Torah is not comparative literature, or any type of apologetic. Torah has its own beauty and attraction and one need not revert to fancy tricks, or manipulations or "wow!" moments.  One only is to teach simply and clearly according to the Torah's own system of logic.

This volumes dismisses the approach of many that the Rambam accommodates Greek philosophy and permits allegory when there is a conflict with current philosophic trends.  Rabbi Meiselman demonstrates conclusively that the Rambam accepts Chazal's definitive statements and rejects the philosophy.  The Rambam applies strict rules when interpreting allegorically. He also shows that the Rambam's son, Rabbi Avraham is well aligned with his father about applying allegory.

Rabbi Meiselman demonstrates his deep understanding of the sources of the Mesorah when he declares that one may not go beyond the simple meaning of the text.  When the Torah says the world was created in six days, he shows that there is no conflict even according to the science because the frame of reference of each are distinct from one another.

A major theme of the book is "emunas chachomim," having trust that the sages of the tradition were not simple ancients that can be dismissed when science or technologies change.  One must appreciate that Chazal are bearers of a Divine tradition, a source of absolute truth.  When Chazal make a definitive statement about reality one must accept it without questions.  One must surrender to the authority of the Mesorah, the written and the oral.

This book touches on an old problem.  It is not dissimilar to the conflict that occurred during the early Enlightenment period when there arose the desire to be accepted by the outside and accommodate contemporary expressions and etiquette into the traditional world. Rabbi Meiselman quotes his revered uncle, Rabbi Soloveitchik, saying the Jewish people need not have an inferiority complex about truth and knowledge.  He explains that the true scientist understands the limits of empirical science.  The Torah is the blueprint of the world; therefore, science needs to be reconciled with the Torah and not the other way around.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Jewish Enlightenment by Shmuel Finer

This volume studies the beginning of the Enlightenment as it affects the Jewish community emerging into the modernity of Central Europe.  Moses Mendelssohn, Naftali Herz Wessely, David Friedlander, and Isaac Euchel are highlighted in this very informative text.  The author puts force a thesis that the adherents of modernity attempt to break the power of the "rabbinic elite" by suggesting changes to the educational curricula and how the "rabbinic elite" react and fight back.  [I am not sure the author uses this term, "rabbinic elite" in a neutral way or gives away his attitude toward some very famous and great rabbis like Landau and Emden.]

With the fall of feudalism, modernity ushers in personal autonomy; Voltaire strikes hard against the Church and monarchy with his Reason and the independent press is exploited as a tool to communicate beyond any church or government.  The Jewish community in Germany emerges from the ghetto with activists promoting emancipation, and tolerance attempting to join the common ground of contemporary general culture as observant Jews.

Mendelssohn comes off as a traditional Jew with no interest in innovating new ways. He is depicted as a commanding silent figure all the while believing that the East European Jew is too obscurantist.  Finer astutely points out that Mendelssohn believed in 'tolerance' in this new age.  He believes the rabbinic ban is completely inappropriate in an age of personal autonomy.  For example, Mendelssohn does not seem to be put off by Solomon Maimon's non-observance and certainly does not believe that he should be excommunicated.  He supports the liberal notion of tolerance.  Nevertheless, Mendelssohn prefers not to be an activist but rather the sage philosopher and most famed Jew of the era.

His student, Naftali Herz Wessely makes the sparks fly by independently calling for a new curriculum for Jewish schools:  traditional Torah Talmud study coupled with the rigors of modern science and contemporary language and etiquette.  Wessely's criticism stings implying that the traditional Jew is backward in need of some training to be of modern worth.  Rabbi David Tevele delivers a fiery sermon denouncing any innovation.  Moreover, the rabbi rejects Wessely's premise that a traditional Jewish education precludes one from being a worthy modern human being.

The traditional rabbis rally around Tevele denouncing Wessely as a heretic!  The hyperbole come fast and furious, forcing the rabbis to eventually articulate their traditional position.  The shock, however, of an independent voice in the Torah community is initially dumbfounding!  The rabbis refuse to engage Wessely directly who is stunned at their ferocious response of heresy.  Wessely a traditional observant Jew, can not understand what could be so terrible about his program.

Friedlander eventually breaks from traditional observance becoming a radical reformer and ultimately an apostate.  Isaac Euchel directs the Jewish Enlightenment press, pressing for changes until the Jewish enlightenment loses its support to assimilation.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

How Children Fail by John Holt

This book resonated with me personally because I experienced first hand the fear and terror that is often created in the classroom by people who perhaps mean well but do the opposite of actually teaching.  Holt observed that the traditional classroom is not an area of free inquiry and discovery, but rather a place where the child sits in fear of not knowing the correct answers.  He observed that most schools are answer driven instead of discovery oriented for the student.

Most classrooms are controlled by what the teacher envisions and determines to be what is good for the student.  Holt favors, however, a child centered classroom according to the child's level of inquiry. He shows in many instances all a child needs is a little bit of more time to contemplate without any fear.  Patience is required to allow those gears of thinking and processing to work in the mind of a young student.  Most schools, Holt claims, are geared toward the very brilliant student that does not need time to do figuring.  The consequences of such an atmosphere for many breed contempt for school.

I shall relate two poignant personal instances that had calamitous effects on my school experience that my parents worried whether I would ever recover to be a successful student.  These two instances emotionally shut me down to the extent that my parents were concerned about my shyness and timidity.  Thankfully, due to our move to the West Coast, and a very enthusiastic, sensitive and caring third grade teacher, I came out of my shell.

The first instance happened in first grade during a reading specialist session.  My class waited patiently for our spelling tests to be distributed.  The teacher would call out a name, and that person would rise from their desk and walk up to the teacher's desk to be greeted with some congratulatory comment with the test placed in one's hand.  I had not noticed anything untoward, as my name was called.  I rose and approached the teacher's desk, putting out my hand with a big smile on my face as my teacher offered my test to me.  I took the test into my hand, however, the teacher did not let go. Expecting some congratulations, I received, instead, a stern reprimand: "Gentlemen do not wear their sweaters around their waists!  If you think you are a gentleman, YOU WILL go back to your seat and return to receive your test as a gentleman!!"  I was so dumbfounded, so stunned I did not understand that she wanted me to untie the sleeves of my sweater that were around my waist and come back to the desk.  I returned to my seat completely embarrassed and sat down.  Everyone waited in deafening silence.  I did not know what do!  Some kind girl whispered to me to remove the sweater and go back up to the teacher!  I obeyed my neighbor's whisper, shedding the sweater and approached the teacher blanched with trembling fear.  She gave me my perfect score test with a smile, saying, "That's better, that's a gentleman!"  I was damaged...

The other instance happened in the second grade.  My teacher was an old angry spinster who always demanded quiet.  When one of the more popular students, an actual teacher's pet got yelled at, I knew the year would not go well.  It happened in late November, toward the end of the day, my teacher was up to her old tricks yelling for quiet and demanded that no one say a word!  She snapped at her pet practically bringing her favorite to tears.  I felt bad for my fellow student, yet I had my own problem at that moment: I needed to relieve myself.  I sat in fear knowing that the teacher demanded that nobody say a word - to me meaning one could not even ask to go to the lavatory.  So I kept looking at the clock hoping I could last until the bell would ring all the while holding in that which needed to come out.  My calculations fell short.  The bell would not ring until well after my teacher discovered the puddle under my desk.  "YOU MUST BE SICK! go to the nurse right now!" was her reaction and I removed my tearful self from the room and headed for the main office that housed the nurse's station.  I sat there until the bell rang and then was dismissed to go catch my bus home all the time crying.  When my brother asked why I was crying, someone offered a reason, "he's obviously crying because President Kennedy was shot!"  I did not offer a correction as the reason for my crying since at least I now had a legitimate reason and not an embarrassing one upon which to rely.  The day President Kennedy was assassinated will always be remembered as a national humiliation, but for me it was also a personal humiliation...

I remember that after my third grade year, my parents celebrated with a swim party.  My third grade teacher was invited with her family.  I felt quite embarrassed that my teacher came to our house.  It wasn't until years later that my parents explained to me that they wanted to express their appreciation to her for helping me have a successful year.  They explained that I was very shy and timid after living in New York and that they were frightened that I would never come out of my 'shell'.  They were grateful that my teacher took a special interest in my development and enabled me to have a very successful year.

She created a safe, enthusiastic atmosphere of discovery and friendship; there was no fear, no apprehension, no embarrassment: it was of the classroom John Holt had advocated.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sabbatai Sevi: the mystical messiah by Gershom Scholem

This volume is a magisterial effort that exhibits the master craftsman at his craft.  If one is interested in understanding what a professional historian does, Sabbatai Sevi: The mystical Messiah is a perfect example.  Scholem reviews all the different accounts reporting on the rise and fall of Sabbatai Sevi showing his command of languages from Hebrew, German, English and French.  He shows his power of analysis of each source, exposing bias, some sympathetic, some hostile and some curious about the subject!  He enjoys dismissing Henrich Graetz based on the sources. Scholem tells the story of hope and anticipation of the Jewish Messiah by sifting through the labyrinths of mystical codes and ecsoterica of Lurianic Kabbala.

Scholem's thesis seems to be that by the end of the Medieval period the religious world was steeped in the esoteric world of mysticism (more so than Maimonides' rationalism and almost negation of Mysticism) to the extent that a pretender and his marketeer could fool practically the entire nation.  According to Scholem, virtually the entire Jewish world was swept up by the marvelous events surrounding Sabbatai's appearance.  How else could vociferous rabbinic opposition be drowned out by the wave of excitement.  The desire for messianic relief was so great that one's faith was challenged when voicing opposition.

Early on Sabbatai was recognized exhibiting odd behavior before he rose to prominence.  His behavior reflected extreme mood swings of elation and ecstasy on the one hand and melancholia on the other. These episodes gave rise to antinomian practice, either ignoring or blatantly violating Jewish law.  The rabbinic ban was imposed on him (although curiously without much effect).  Nathan of Gaza, a fellow mystic then becomes his John the Baptist and Paul of Taursis all wrapped into one person.  Nathan begins prophesying and interpreting Sabbatai's odd behavior as illustrious signs of future events.  He calls for preparation of the 'Kingdom of Heaven' much like John the Baptist.  He proclaims Sabbatai as the Messiah much like Paul did about Jesus.

What is fascinating about this tragedy in Modern Jewish History is the determination to believe that he was the Messiah.  Even after his apostasy, large segments are not satisfied that he failed.  Nathan even explains that his apostasy was part of a divine plan.  Even with his death, people are reluctant to give up hope or faith.  Only after the death of Nathan, his prophet does the Jewish world begin to feel the depression of their mistake.

A few rabbis, like Sasportas, and Samuel Halevi were steadfast in their disbelief.  Some gloated to say "I told you so" and some were diplomatic in tending to their flock to help heal the open wounds of despair. One is told that the great aged rav at the time who's classic commentary on the Code of Jewish law, known as the TAZ was a believer.  He died before Sabbatai's conversion to Islam.

Today, perhaps because of the embarrassment of this tragedy most of us are unaware of how influential this movement was.  The Jewish world would like to forget Sabbatai Sevi.  Reading about Sabbatai Sevi, however, enables one to reflect on the rise of Hasidism and the fears of Messianism as reflected in the concept of Hasidic lore.  One may gain a better appreciation of the Vilna Gaon' s opposition, that perhaps instead of being preoccupied with the Kabbalah and the coming of the Messiah (like so many are today) one should fix times for old fashioned Torah Study stressing the rationality of Jewish practice and law.  That one should keep in mind that Misnagged (Those who oppose)  idea of the coming of the messiah:  that he will come late on a Friday afternoon, when one's household is frantically preparing for the arrival of the Sabbath oblivious to everything going on in the world so that observance of Shabbos can be ideally accomplished according to the Torah law and Halacha.

May we usher in his coming when we least expect it speedily in our days.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The French Enlightenment and Jews: origins of modern antisemitism by Arthur Hertzberg

With the age of Reason in full swing the question of Jewish Emancipation comes to the forefront of discussions in this major contribution to Modern Jewish History by Professor Arthur Hertzberg.  The men of the Enlightenment seem to fall into two categories: those that support Jewish Emancipation because Reason dictates it and those that argue against Jewish Emancipation because in their reasoning the Jews are exceptionally immoral and base and do not deserve to be counted among men, let alone to be emancipated.  Leading the charge against Jewish Emancipation is the age's seminal figure Voltaire.

In this volume one gets a clear picture of the differences between the Sephardic Jewish community essentially situated in the south that is granted emancipation first and the Ashkenazic Jewish community situated in the Alsace-Lorraine district in the north east.  The Sephardic community comes to France basically as converts to Catholicism and eventually quietly return to their original Jewish faith. Their assimilation includes giving up their autonomous Jewish court system and submitting to the authority of the State's justice system.  Their occupation is essentially international trade from which the State directly benefits.  They are not the hated moneylenders. Their dress, their language and occupation differ little from their gentile neighbors.  The lacking of the elements of obscurantism hasten the Sephardic Jewish community's emancipation.

The Ashkenazim, however, were an autonomous Yiddish speaking community with their own court and policing systems.  Their essential occupations were banking, money-lending, petty trade and commerce.  Most were poor, with the exceptional successful court Jewish purveyor.  The charges against them of obscurantism and backwardness were easy to obstruct emancipation.

Voltaire leads the attack against the Jews.  No matter how one interprets his attitude, Mr. Hertzberg shows that his contemporaries viewed him as the enemy of the Jews.  Most of the arguments in favor of Jewish Emancipation have to rebut his charges that the Jews are a morally incorrigible base element. Voltaire's charges are reminiscent of the ancient Greek and Roman charges before the advent of Christianity against the Jews being strange and separatist.

The Sephardic Jew, Isaac Pinto responds point by point to Voltaire and shows that Voltaire obviously has little experience with the Southern Sephardic Jews because they resemble nothing like those Jews in Alsace-Lorraine.  Voltaire seems not to notice.

Henri Gregorie, the Catholic priest forcefully argues that whatever faults the Jews might have, the blame lies with Christendom.  Years of persecution inure the Jews against the dominant culture. They should not be blamed for their aloof corruptness against the gentile because it is the gentile that is guilty of tormenting the Jews.  Once the Jews are to be treated as men, they will improve their moral standing. This argument is similar to the one Wilhem Von Dohm wrote at the behest of Moses Mendelssohn.  (Mendelssohn was concerned at the rhetoric because the assumption of Jewish moral corruption was so misleading that it cast aspersions against the entire Jewish people.)  Clearly, as a result of Voltaire's vitriol, the defenders of the Jews have to resort to false assumptions to show how Voltaire erred miserably.

Ironically, the Ashkenazim argue to retain their separatist ways of autonomous living.  They cannot, however, demand equality and retain their autonomy.  The forces of Reason eventually enable Jewish emancipation and the Jews join society as Frenchmen.  Nevertheless, the charge of obscurantism is permanently pressed against the fabric of Jewish culture and becomes the bedrock of any modern antisemitism.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Devil in The White City by Erik Larson

If one is interested in a history of Chicago this is a great read.  Its strong narrative details the construction of the World Exhibition commemorating Columbus' discovery of America in the late 19th century.  As the narrative reveals the machinations of building the expo, one reads of the heinous deeds of a serial killer sociopath who easily dispatches his victims and converts them to cadavers and articulated skeletons profiting from them by conveying them to medical schools.

One is introduced to the leading citizens of the city: Montgomery Ward, Marshall Fields and Bertha and Potter Palmer.  Daniel Burnham is the lead architect and Frederick Olmstead is the lead landscaper, the one who did New York's Central Park.

George Ferris constructs the first successful Ferris Wheel and the bicycle becomes an everyday vehicle with equally sized wheels compared to the original design of an over sized front wheel.  Westinghouse gains the lighting contract over General Electric and converts the light bulbs to alternating current.

The reader is introduced to the famous Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show.  As a matter of fact, Cody, a consummate showman, denied a concession for fear of attracting the wrong type of crowd does very well. By procuring a nearby sight, Cody along with Anny Oakley and hundreds of Native Americans do not have to share profits and as a result, Cody becomes very wealthy without being a part of the World's Fair.  The organizers of the fair underestimate the attraction of the old wild west frontier, now an extinct way of life.

As one reads about the civic rivalry between New York and Chicago, one gets a glimpse of the most twisted monster of a man.  He easily gains the confidence of young women and lures them to his castle only to snuff out their lives and their children for no real reason except a thirst for killing and a desire for added profit.

Mr. Larson delivers a well constructed book of story telling and history in this nonfiction record of the 1895 Columbian World's Fair at Chicago IL.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Frederick Douglas by Philip S. Foner

This biography introduces one of the greatest American personalities in American history.  Mr. Douglas, a former slave becomes one of the most articulate spokesmen for the abolitionist movement. He becomes a foremost activist for the causes of abolition, negro suffrage , women's suffrage and other civil rights.  He speaks out against the colonization movement, the demand for the black populace to go back to Africa because white America can not seem to amalgamate black people into white society.

One striking feature of this bio is that the author records the observations of Karl Marx, founder of Socialism/Communism.  Marx was keenly observing what was going on during the Civil War because he was sure that the economic revolution would be triggered by the overwhelming work force of newly emancipated slaves!  Although what Marx predicted did not come to fruition, nevertheless the upheaval and struggle for black rights is well detailed here.

Mr Douglas has his fans among white society.  At first he aligns with William Lloyd Garrison in the cause for abolition.  Garrison turns on Douglas because Douglas questions Garrison's need for radicalism.  Mr. Douglas gains a following in England and is joined by the white Julia Griffiths who becomes indispensable in cranking out his periodicals and newsletters.  Speculation about their relationship creates a stir and is used to attack him.  Some claim that perhaps Griffiths edited and tutored Douglas because his articulation of ideas and his oratory are too fantastic to believe originating from a former slave.  Mr. Douglas feels compelled to write his own memoir to stop the speculation about his integrity.  Griffiths ends up leaving him so as to not upset the equilibrium of his family.  Curiously, after his wife dies, he marries an educated white women to the chagrin of the black community.  He, nevertheless, explains that he always believed in humanism and has always been colorblind.

The book details the nightmare of Reconstruction, the hatred of blacks and the murderous activities of the Ku Klux Klan.  And throughout the entire period, Frederick Douglas is constantly agitating not only for the betterment of his people but also for women's rights.  He shows courage to speak out.  Newspapers throughout the USA testify to his amazing oratory skill by following his career as a lecturer and adult educator.

The book teaches us how the Republican party was originally the party of choice for the black man and Frederick Douglas was steadfast in his support of it.  The Democratic party represents Southern interests and prejudice.  Not until after the Grant administration does the Republican party seem to abandon the black man's plight and align with big business ignoring past pledges.

This is an inspiring, excellent introduction to the origins of the politics of Black America and of one of its greatest spokesmen.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

This strong narrative documents the career of William Dodd, a historian by vocation in the role of the American Ambassador to Nazi Germany in the beginning of Hitler's rise in the 1930's.  It also follows the promiscuous behavior of his daughter, Martha as she is first lured by the seductive nature of the nationalistic momentum of the German people following their leader and then romantically linked to a Soviet spy.

Dodd is given a mandate directly from President Roosevelt to represent the values of the USA in stark contrast to what was happening in Germany.  The lengthy reports being submitted by the Consul General about the violent attacks on Jews become politically sensitive because the USA does not want to interrupt domestic issues.  What makes this a very interesting read is that Dodd himself and his daughter have genteel antisemitic tendencies and initially can identify with Germany's irritation of their "Jewish problem".  What unfolds in this narrative is, however, Dodd's evolution starting out as a neutral diplomat and turning into a tough social critic of Germany, rejecting Nazi terror and brutality.

The title is a double entendre because it refers to the section of Berlin in which houses the Zoo and where the Ambassador lives and where much of his political activities occur.  Moreover, it reveals the brutal nature of the Nazis as beasts.  The reader is introduced to the cast of brutal characters: Hermann Goering, Josef Goebels, Heinrich Himmler and Hitler himself.  In Dodd"s only meeting with Hitler, he experiences Hitler's flash temper with his piercing stare.  As time goes on, Dodd becomes more and more revolted and repulsed by the violent nature of the regime.

One gets a glimpse of harsh American politics through the developing opposition to him as Ambassador because he refuses to temper the truth about Nazism.  His own antisemitism wanes as a result of his constant witnessing of innocent people being beaten.  At first seeing Jews being beaten, his (and his daughter's) immediate reaction supposes justification and reason.  When an American is beaten, however, by mistake, the Ambassador must lodge a complaint.  These events go unreported back home in the USA.  Dodd eventually is eased out of his position because of his refusal of doctoring and tempering the truth.

Dodd goes down in history as an honest reflection of American values of justice and seeking the truth. His daughter, however, is more embarrassing than a reflection of American values.  She is seen as being seduced by Nazi men and then by a Soviet.   One of her first loves is the first commander of the Gestapo, Rudolph Diels.  Diels comes off human and actually is out maneuvered by Himmler who takes over as Gestapo chief. She enjoys the wild hedonism of the Nazis and falls in love with a Soviet diplomat who is a spy.   Nevertheless, she too, transforms into a critic of the Nazi regime.  The brutality is too much to stomach.

The book ends at the beginning of the end for European Jewry and thus is a heartbreaking read.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

Mr. Goldhagen analyzes the perpetrators of the Holocaust in this compelling study.  He studies the least Nazi indoctrinated group: police battalions and finds some chilling facts about the group.  The alacrity with which the shooters killed and the brutality inflicted on the innocent victims and lack of moral concern or dissent from the killings put the Germans in a different category of antisemitism. Mr. Goldhagen claims only an "eliminationist" antisemitism could have produced an efficient killing apparatus to have killed so many people without serious dissent or without moral outrage.  Mr. Goldhagen challenges the previous studies that gloss over the lack of moral outrage and shows that the real problem was not even the lack of moral outrage but rather the alacrity and enthusiasm with which the task was carried out!  He shows that those few who opted out of being the shooters did so not out of moral principle but rather out of squeamishness; in principle they were convinced that Jews should be destroyed.

The traditional German defense that was brought out and introduced in the Eichmann trial of "only following orders" is completely destroyed in this study.  There is evidence that photos were proudly sent home picturing the actual shootings.  There is evidence that wives supported husbands in the field of killing operations.  The author shows that the program was so large requiring so many people to perpetrate the murders that there could not have been any serious coercion.  The evidence does not support any serious argument in Germany against killing the Jews.

Churchmen calling out against the evil like Karl Barth are unique and not the rule.  The opposite seems to be true that the Church allowed the spewing of hatred and only a few Churchmen called out against it.  Only a few voices remind that "Pauline love" precludes hatred of the Jews. Those voices fall on deaf ears.

Mr. Goldhagen studies the concept of the labor camp (not killing centers) and concludes that the exploitation of slave labor had little positive economic effects or advantages.  The labor camp, the author asserts served as an outlet for orgiastic terror and brutality.

The author argues that Germany went through long stages of indoctrination toward antisemitism but only with Hitler's racial and eliminationist tendencies do the German people become inured to persecution of the Jews and agree enthusiastically to carry out his plan and wishes.

I would like to offer that eliminationist tendencies in hating Jews do not start with Germany.  Biblical exegesis from Nachmanides shows that the ancient Pharaoh wanted to eliminate the Israelites and could not call for their destruction for fear of the immediate moral outcry.  Rather, Pharaoh gradually introduces an incremental persecution program when eventually everyone in the country sees the necessity of casting the male infants into the Nile without moral outrage.  Additionally, the Biblical character of Haman hates Mordecai the Jew and hence forth desires to eliminate the entire Jewish nation.

Additionally, the concept of willing executioners is also not necessarily originating with Germany but perhaps has its origin in ancient Egypt too.  Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik comments that the killing of the first born that culminates in the 10 plagues recited at the Passover Seder represents the concept of willing perpetrators.  The Rav explains that the first born in antiquity was the basic administrator of the family.  Striking down the first born meant that he had to punished for the complicity in the persecution of the Israelites.  Egypt was a country with willing executioners.

I do not seek to minimize the uniqueness or minimize the gravity of the Holocaust because the German efficiency and scope of murder is so great. I point out, nevertheless that the single concepts of eliminating the Jews and being complicit in persecuting them are old themes. The event of the Holocaust is uniquely German because as Mr. Goldhagen argues the brutality coupled with alacrity in killing creates a whole new strand of Jew hatred.

ISRAEL VS. IRAN The Shadow War by Yaakov Katz and Yoaz Hendel

In order to understand what is happening between Israel and its neighbors, this book is a good primer. Katz, a military corespondent for the Jerusalem Post and Hendel, a military historian at Bar Ilan Unversity effectively discuss that last twenty years of the political tension and war between Israel and its neighbors concluding that Israel is in a proxy war with Iran.

The immediate neighbors of Israel are essentially being armed by Iran.  In the north, in Lebanon, Israel must contend with Hezbollah,  a Shi'ite military organization that constantly threatens Israel through rhetoric with heaving its arsenal of rockets down on Israel's north periodically.  Its main supplier is Iran.

Hamas, a terrorist organization that took over the Gaza strip, is constantly struggling with Fatah for control of the West Bank threatens Israel from the Southwest.  It is supplied secretly by Iran even though culturally Hamas is Sunni and Iran is Shi'ite.

Syria's ruling party, although not an immediate threat to Israel at this time because it is in midst of a civil war, nevertheless receives its weapons and support from Iran.

As Iran continues to march toward building a nuclear arsenal, Israel has had to make adjustments. The authors contend that Israel has adapted its army to the new conditions of a proxy war with a possible showdown by reworking its armed forces into a more commando style fighting force and utilizing high technology as opposed to a conventional army that is protected by a superior air force.  In the past, Israel has prided its army as fundamentally based on the civilian reservist who during war is called up to fight.  Now, the army does not rely on the reserve but relies on the commando concept of preemptive and surgical strikes with electronic warfare.

The ultimate gambit must include Israel's successful preparation for any serious counter strike from her immediate neighbors or from Iran itself.  Military planners must include a program to absorb the massive retaliation bound to occur from a very vocal and animated opponent.

This book is a very sobering, chilling read of history, strategic possibilities and military scenarios.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Irving Thalberg: boy wonder to producer prince by Mark A. Vieira

Irving Thalberg who died in 1937 at age 38 was a trailblazer in the film industry and helped build MGM into the successful film corporation that it is.  His fragility, his work ethic and eye for quality set him apart from the other producers in the formative years of Hollywood. His ability to lead effectively and his innate modestly put him in a different league to the extent that Louis B. Mayer sought to strip him of his power.

Irving Thalberg was not expected to live beyond twenty years old because he was diagnosed with a weak heart - a blue baby.  His mother determined to prove the doctors wrong oversaw his successful childhood, raised a voracious reader. Thalberg did not go to college,however, he was better read than most graduates.  Knowing perhaps that his life would be cut short, he accelerated his plans to produce over 400 movies.  He was unstoppable, putting in long hours in determining each project.  He was responsible for the concept of the "Star" celebrity and created and nurtured the careers of such famous personas as Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and his wife Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, and Clark Gable etc.  When the world had enough of the humor of the Marx brothers and were considered 'has beens', it was Thalberg who reinvented them and gave them their profitable hit movie "A Night at The Opera".

Groucho Marx explained the difference and the trouble he and his brothers were having.  Their humor and previous movies were similar to their zany vaudeville acts that lacked a story line.  After two movies that flopped, Thalberg approached them to make a movie on his terms.  He told them that a movie is a vehicle to tell a story and not just a series of gags.  The brothers signed a contract but were not used to being subservient to anyone.  On one occasion when the Marx brothers were waiting for Thalberg in his office over an hour for a scheduled meeting, the brothers stripped and roasted marshmallows in Thalberg's fireplace.  Although appalled by their behavior, Thalberg was never late again!  Groucho marveled at Thalberg's ability to understand what was funny without laughing!  He convinced the brothers the need of a story line with a romance and that formula created the hit of "Night at the Opera" and revitalized their career.

Thalberg observed Germany in the 1930's and had strong opinions against Hitler but not fascism.  He hated communism.  He was convinced that Hitler, although brutal as he was would pass.  When confronted with the possibility of the destruction the Jewish people, Thalberg almost with prescience responded that the Jews will survive not matter what happens to them.

This book is a contribution to the history of Hollywood during its formative years.  It shows that the producer had complete control over a film.  Thalberg was never interested in his name on the credits because his ego did not require "stardom".  In this regard he was modest in not promoting himself. His ego, however, required him to dominate others so that his productions reflected his imprint.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Well by Chaim Grade

This novel is a profound cacophony of Jewish life in Vilna that culminates with a visit of the famed Chafets Chaim, Israel Meir HaKohen Kagan.  The book on the surface revolves around a water well in the Jewish section of the city of Vilna (Vilnius) that needs repair but no one wants to step forward and raise the necessary funds.  The reader is introduced to a cast of descriptive characters only found in a Yiddish novel.

The translation is almost too literal and thus loses some of Yiddish's lyrical rhythm, nevertheless, as one reads this beautiful story of Jewish life and values with its trials and tribulations and challenges to the Almighty one understands the book's value as a testimony to the wisdom of Jewish tradition.

It is a book of loss and tragedy, about a couple who lost young children and about a couple who are left childless.  It is a book of Jewish politics, the Zionists vs. the Non-Zionists.  It is a book of apostasy with some who no longer believe in the miracles of the Bible but, nevertheless, need to rewrite the stories.  The climax of the book is so sad when the greatest Jew of that generation, the Chafets Chaim refuses to give the childless couple a blessing because "Nowadays,  no one knows how children will turn out!"

The Well is really a story of redemption because ultimately beyond the logic, beyond the social cacophony, the well is indeed repaired!  The person least expected to raise the funds is successful after visiting a rabbinical conference.  There is a wonderful celebration that all can draw "water with joy from the wells of redemption..."

This story will make one cry and laugh, an incredible satisfying read, a clear testimony to Chaim Grade's genius.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Brothers Ashkenazi by I. J. Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer's older brother, Israel Joshua wrote a very gritty tragic novel about Jewish Lodz, Poland's manufacturing center.

Fundamentally, its a Jewish story of the effects of assimilation, how expectations of acceptance never accompany the Jew when he sheds his Jewish ways. It is a story of Divine Providence about two disparate brothers; one a prodigy always scheming and plotting driven by raw ambition and the other a happy go lucky hulking simple spirit who seems to find good fortune at his every turn.

The blessing of these fraternal twins given by the family's Hasidic rabbi at their Bris, circumcision does not include "'God fearing", a clear foreboding of the adoption of gentility at the expense of their Jewish ways.

The Brothers Ashkenazi is a description of the intersection of conflicting values.  It describes the lure of the emancipated outside world affecting the Hasidic and non Hasidic Jewish communities.  It is the story of the conflict between capitalism and Marxism, the bosses vs. the workers and role many Jews played in the struggle for freedom under the capitalist's vise, yet exposing the Bolsheviks no better and just as oppressive. The book describes the irrationality of the Anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe.

In a climactic scene of grief when Max Ashkenazi cries out against his brother's reflexive response of punching an Anti-Semite resulting in Yakuv's murder - Max concludes that the Jew's survival has never been the adoption of "the hands of Esav" but rather the "voice of Jacob", a biblical reference to Isaac's response to his son's deception, "The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esav!"  Biblical Jacob's identity is revealed by his voice, whereas Esav's identity is seen by how he uses his hands.   Jewish survival depends on "intellect" not physical prowess.  Singer argues through the protagonist that whenever the Jews adopt the ways of the gentile, he disappears.  Assimilation destroys.

Singer's narrative style is rhythmic and lyrical, I can only imagine how much more pleasurable it would be to read in its original Yiddish.  It is a novel that constantly refers to Jewish traditions and cultural references in contradistinction to the hostile Polish world.  There is a realism to this novel that makes it incredibly authentic.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Squelched by T.V. LoCicero

This slim volume is really a continuation of and an explanation of the fate of the excellent study Murder in the Synagogue also by T. V. LoCicero.  Anyone who has read Murder in the Synagogue would have expected a wide audience and best seller status because of its topic, caliber of writing and reporting.  Surprisingly, the book was stalled and then halted after the author received promising reviews and expectations from the publisher.  He subsequently heard from a congregant of that fateful synagogue that a prominent member of the synagogue community proudly announced to a group of friends that he "squelched" the book.  Mr. LoCicero details the mishaps and misstatements of his publisher fudging its way through an unsatisfying explanation of the book's failure.

The book's picture of people of influence and power rings true; it reminds me of my life as a community rabbi when my job was threatened for speaking the truth.  "Rabbi, if you continue to explain your view, there are people in this town who can ruin you!  I would watch out if I were you!!" Or alternatively, it reminds me of the help I received: "Rabbi, there seems to be some misplaced anger directed toward you- we'll just send a letter ..." and the anger dissipated and disappeared miraculously! In the first case as a fiery young rabbi I responded with "How dare you threaten a rabbi! I will serve the entire community and not just a few of the elite!"  And in the second case, I marveled at the power this man's pen!

Every community has its 'melech', king.  The role of the king is to fight and defend and unfortunately for Mr. LoCicero the king misunderstood his very well thought out book that analyzed a dangerous crank as a threat to the community and supposedly snuffed out the "threat" as a king is expected to do.

If the book is true, and there is little evidence to deny this fine written memoir, I believe here the king and his council were wrong!  The rabbi's widow even praised the book.  The synagogue could have grown in many ways as a result of a best seller depending on the leadership of the synagogue.

Since Mr. LoCicero has brought Murder in the Synagogue back into print, I believe it to be a very worthwhile read and recommend his writing.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: Architect of Torah Judaism for the Modern World by Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman

Rabbi Klugman delivers a veritable argument that Rabbi Hirsch's approach to the challenges of a free society wracked with assimilation is actually adopted today by virtually all Torah communities in the West.

Rabbi Hirsch becomes famous with his initial anonymous publication of The Nineteen Letters, a dialogue between a Yeshiva student and Collegian.  It is a forceful statement that one need not forego a Torah education for a secular education; that a Torah education is not obscurantist.  Rabbi Hirsch understands the pressures to conform with the destruction of the Ghetto walls.  He eloquently presents the case for a Torah lifestyle.

His major fight was with Reformers and with Wissenschaft.  He saw these two trends within the Jewish community as an anathema to a true Torah lifestyle.  He understood that Reform was complete assimilation and the Science of Judaism founded by Zunz was simple heresy.

Although Abraham Geiger initially respected the contribution of The Nineteen Letters, he disparaged Rabbi Hirsch as atavistic.  Rabbi Hirsch adamantly argued that Reforms were completely unnecessary because the Torah was not meant for one period or era but rather was for all time and thus fit any time period.  Hirsch's favorite word in the context of Torah was 'truth'.  Truth is timeless.

What is very clear from Rabbi Hirsch is that Reform Judaism was agenda driven.  Any subject deemed atavistic would have to be excised.  It was completely subjective and although in the beginning there was an effort to conform with Halakhic principles, subsequently all such efforts were dropped.

Rabbi Hirsch broke with his student Graetz, the first major Jewish historian and challenged Zechariah Frankel, the Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary head because he saw their agenda in trying to gain the respect of the outside gentile world.  He saw great obvious mistakes in Graetz's scholarship, but more important he uncovered his bias against traditional Judaism.  He challenged Frankel to state whether he believed in the concept of "Torah is from Heaven" never getting a response.  Rabbi Hirsch could only conclude that these scholars were creating a new category and new definition of Judaism.  Instead of defining Judaism based on the Torah and its oral traditions, these historians were creating a definition based on culture, and its inevitable expansion.

Not a typical Artscroll publication, this contribution is well documented, footnoted and researched, heavily relying on the scholarship of Isaac and Mordechai Breuer.  If one is interested in understanding the defense of traditional Judaism in the 19th century this is a must read.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I read this book because Neal Gabler mentions it in his work about Hollywood and the Jewish movie moguls.  The lead character, Monroe Stahr is said to be based on the real life figure of Irving Thalberg, the wunderkind of the Movies in the 1930's.

This book is an unfinished novel; Fitzgerald died in the course of writing it. He finished 6 chapters and left notes and an outline.  The publisher Charles Scribner's Son published the six chapters and included the outline with the publisher's reconstruction of the possible conclusion of the narrative.

Not only does this contribution show a great writer, but also describes a sympathetic, sensitive character of the producer Stahr.  It is a clear inside view of how Hollywood produced a movie in the 1930's.  Fitzgerald also worked as a Hollywood screenwriter.

One sees the raw absolute power of the producer in a film in those days.  There is a profound scene in the book when the protagonist, Stahr crashes in on a film production crew in progress and announces to the director, writer and celebrity actor that he (producer) is shelving the project because 'its not working!'  Shocked at the announcement, the three key players protest: How can you shelve a production that has already cost $50,000?!  Stahr responds and explains clearly that after completion, when the film flops at the box office there will be a much greater loss of money.  Better to cut the losses then to continue wasting money.  The film can always be revived at a later date.  Stahr makes a comment about only wanting to produce quality films.  In a master stroke of manipulation, Stahr is able to solicit from the production staff what can be changed to his satisfaction.  He is able to explain what he wants in the film and the director, screenwriter and star are willing to make the changes so that the production continues and is not scrapped.

One learns that not producing a film would have terrible consequences for the director, screenwriter and actor.  They need their names promoted.  If a film is not produced then their careers become stalled or worse ended!  The producer has complete control over the lives of the production crew.

This unfinished novel is a fine study of power and leadership.

An empire of their own: how the jews invented Hollywood by Neal Gabler

If one had to use one word to describe the relationship between the Jewish community and the United States of America, it would be ‘assimilation’.  The Jewish immigrant in this country profited well in certain unchartered industries of this great country but at the expense of his Jewish identity.  The Jewish garment industry gave rise to the secular labor unions; publishing Hebrew literature grew into publishing generic adult education, and the Jewish owned retail dry goods- department  stores developed into the general trend in fashion, are just a few industries where Jewish people distinguished themselves.  The entertainment industry as it manifests itself in motion pictures is an outstanding example of Jewish success in a field that the Jewish immigrant entered on the ground floor and created an industry and quintessential image of America.  It is a clear example of the trend toward assimilation – that great pressure to “become American” and shed that perceived as obscure baggage of unique Jewish Identity.

The great production companies, MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, and RKO were all Jewish companies responsible for creating the typical American movie experience.  They created a “recession proof” industry because they understood that a picture was an idyllic escape from the drudgery and harsh realities from which the movie goer lived.

This fascinating study describes the big personalities of Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zucker, Jack and Harry Warner, Samuel Goldwyn (Goldfish) and how they created feel good pictures.  It is the story of the short life (37years) of Irving Thalberg, the genius in producing over 400 films of quality.  One gets a glimpse of their rabbis, Edgar Magnin, and Max Nussbaum, two Reform rabbis who did not demand any Jewish observance.  The only difference between the two rabbis, was perhaps one was more Zionistic (Nussbaum fled Germany to escape the Nazi clutches.)

Because the nature of the control of production of a picture was absolute, one understands the natural reaction against management and the rise of labor and the leftist influences in Hollywood according to Mr. Gabler.  One sees the confusion and lack of clarity in speaking out against Hitler by the movie moguls because of his position against Stalin and the Communists!  Very few films were made with a message against Hitler’s fascism and those that were made did not mention the Jewish plight explicitly.  Somehow the moguls did not want the world to think WWII had a Jewish problem.

The ease of turning in those who dabbled with the Communist Party USA and creating a black list uncovers the naked insecurity of the Jewish immigrant movie moguls and uncovers the lack of confidence in Constitutional Rights and guarantees of free speech and political opinions.

The most poignant comment, however, came from producer, Jack Warner on his deathbed, after a life of complete “Americanism” confusing his daughter, telling her surprisingly “Marry a Jew!”  When asked why,  Warner explained, ‘Because they – goyim (gentiles) hate us! – they'll end up shouting ‘you're a dirty Kike!’

Neal Gabler’s worthwhile study documents as Mr. Warner asserted that assimilation does not work!

Run Silent, Run Deep by Commander Edward L. Beach

Growing up, my father would recommend  great war motion pictures. One of the great ones, he recommended and was viewed often in our home was the 1950’s hit Run Silent Run Deep with heavy weights Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster (it was a film in which comedian Don Rickles had his movie debut), a submarine drama during WWII.

My father trying to motivate me to read, suggesting perhaps that such a drama in print would keep my attention, placed the Reader’s Digest condensed version upon which the film is loosely based in front of me.  At the time, however, I enjoyed watching movies or playing ball and lacked the motivation to pick up the book.  Reading was very difficult for me in those days.

I finally took out the complete version from the library. Although the book is nothing like the film, my father was correct in his original suggestion:  it kept my attention!

I learned an important feature about being in the Navy and Submarine duty specifically: the tasks on ship require technical training.  Navy life is not simple soldiering.  Each task on a Submarine for example, requires a serious education.  The Navy is always on the cutting edge of technology.  For example, shooting a torpedo at a zig zagging Destroyer requires geometric calculation which requires skill and training.

The climax of the book is completely different than the film.  The book ends with a shocking assault against Japanese survivors of their sinking ship.  Commander Richardson deliberately plows his submarine into the remaining life rafts and life boats precluding any possibility of rescue.  Richardson is racked with guilt for committing murder – however, war becomes a justification and vengeance for Japanese atrocities seem to assuage the protagonist’s guilt.  I believe had this been a true event today, such a commander would have been court-martialed  instead of receiving the Medal of Honor as the protagonist does in the book!

The book is an engaging fast read about a "cat and mouse" game in the Pacific theater after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the battle at Mid Way Island.

The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner

Eric Foner’s study of the downfall of slavery in America, The Fiery Trial, is an outstanding contribution to the evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s thinking toward the black man in America.  Mr. Foner shows the early simple racism of Lincoln, one not conceiving of an American future for Black Americans yet all the time believing slavery to be an absolute wrong.  Lincoln grows as his experience brings him in contact with very impressive people like Frederick Douglass and learns ultimately that colonization is not an option and black suffrage the serious possibility.

Abraham Lincoln is lionized in American history as the great emancipator.  What is little known is that he is also a product of his environment which meant prejudice against non-white people.  He is known to tell “darky” jokes even in the midst of wanting to see the destruction of slavery.  Lincoln is on record saying that he does not believe that the races are equal and sees Whites superior.  Lincoln is an avid supporter of colonizing blacks voluntarily to Africa as a follow up to the destruction of the institution of slavery even after the famed proclamation is published because he does not see a positive future for Black Americans.  The idea of integration seems an anathema to him.

The constant sharp criticism of the great abolitionists (people Lincoln never identified with) and the obvious facts on the ground of massive slaves escaping and fleeing to Union forces who claimed America legitimately their homeland, not Africa changed Lincoln’s thinking about his own racism. He is the first to call them citizens and advocates suffrage to “at least the most intelligent”.

What was clear from this study is that a 19th century understanding of being against slavery dis not necessarily imply racial equality! The social fabric of 19th century America was very much racist across the North and the South and that the real problem was not the destruction of Slavery but rather what to do with an unwanted free work force.  Had Lincoln continued to deal with reconstruction, Mr. Foner leaves the possibility open that we would have had a different outcome, one much more positive than what transpired.  Unfortunately, Lincoln’s successor, Johnson was an avid racist and put forth reconstruction policies that negated the existence of Black Americans.

Most movies, even Steven Spielberg’s impressive production about Lincoln portray him simplistically liberal.  However, Professor Foner delivers a much more accurate, complex picture of a man in slow social transition.  Not only does he evolve socially but also Mr. Foner shows how Mr. Lincoln evolves religiously from at first being a self-professing skeptic into a believer thinking that God is behind the profound human events surrounding the Civil War.

In learning about Mr. Lincoln, choose this book over any movie!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel by John Guy

For one investigating the early signs in favor of the concept of separation of Church and State, John Guy's excellent critical study of the the life and death of England's Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket is a fruitful beginning.  The story of Becket has fascinated people for centuries because it is the story of meritocracy, the rise of a middle class Londoner to the post of Chancellor, very close to the King of England and then to the highest post in Catholic England, Archbishop at Canterbury.  His story is infamous because his murder takes place in the Cathedral.

The politics of Henry II are intricate, however, he himself is bald in his grab for land and power.  As a king of divine right, he tests the limits of his control of the Church by expropriating lands, monies and appointments.  Christendom at his time is split in controversy with a competing anti-pope so that the papacy of Rome must deal delicately with Henry constantly courting his fealty and support.

Becket is complex, initially seen as a loyal subject of the king but clearly transforms himself into a penitent loyal to the Church.  He surprises Henry with his lectures of Church autonomy and the limits to what a king can and cannot do.

One sees the waffling of a papacy instead of steadfast support of Becket's position because the Pope does not want to alienate the powerful King of England.

I enjoyed Mr. Guy's critical eye in his evaluation of the hagiography, able to see hyperbole and sift through the sources to find the truth about the main characters of this episode in England's history.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

How To Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

This old book allows one to digest the meaning of reading.  Although written with a condescending tone and sets of "rules", the book is helpful in sorting out the different ways one navigates through various types of reading.  Highly opinionated, Adler and Van Doren attempt to explain reading that is rarely done at school.

Elementary reading that is negotiating the words of a sentence to come up with some intelligible idea, action or thought was the only discussion I can remember being taught in my formal education.  For me, the negotiation came so difficult that as a result I did not put in much time to master it.  I would be rather playing ball than figuring out a story line.  When my father would coach me and say "you don't have to read every word. Just read for the ideas", I could never understand conceptually what my father was talking about!  My own advancement in reading came years later after I was married coming out a theater complaining "how come at the movies I have instant understanding yet with a book I don't?"

Through self discovery, I have come to realize that reading is an active search and not a passive repose.  One must actively search for purpose and meaning on the page because each author is communicating an action, thought or idea.  Good writing which is organized with topics and theses makes reading easier than one might think because the author is painting a scene.  If one is actively seeking that scene, one will be successful.

How to Read a Book is a good reminder of how to read analytically; it reminds one to read with the unity of the book in mind and reminds one to ask questions of the author that need to be answered.

I wonder why reading in school rarely is discussed beyond the elementary stages.  When one gets to high school teachers make demands on students that require skill in reading that have not been taught.  I am not sure in my own case that had my teachers taught reading analytically that I would have been successful.  Help for me came from a book on mechanics of reading: Faster Reading Self Taught by Harry Shefter.  Such a book mapped out a page conceptually and I was able to improve by searching for topic sentences and thinking that I was watching a picture.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger

This novel published in 1934, profoundly and accurately describes the brutal control of Germany by the National Socialists (Nazis).  It predicts the program of destroying the Jewish people that eventually becomes known as the Holocaust. What is chilling about this novel are the feelings of dread that a typical Jewish family experience during the gradual Nazi takeover of the country.

The story revolves around a family who have been sustained by a successful discount furniture concern. One brother runs the business, one is a scientist and one is a scholar dilettante.  Each person becomes entangled with the dreadful web of Nazi persecution.  The store must "Germanize" because Jewish owned businesses were outlawed (Note that in real life the famed Warburg bank had to change its name to continue doing business)  The scientist must close down his laboratory and the scholar must flee.

The social pressure to conform and contort the truth toward Nazi doctrines is chilling. The power grab and its assertion over the people is crushing.  When a son of one of the Oppermanns delivers a lecture that ultimately argues in Germany's favor but puts forth initial arguments that fault Germany, he is immediately silenced, rebuked and demanded to be punished; his freedom of speech squelched.  His teacher's outburst is totally irrational jumping to the conclusion that the lecture rejected Germany's glorious past when in fact it did not.  The boy becomes more and more socially isolated as his classmates become indoctrinated and cling to Nazi propaganda and outlook.

What comes out of this novel is the frightening realization of those whose family settled in Germany for generations are homeless.  What is one to do when one is unjustly accused of betrayal of his home?  The physical abuse of the Jewish people is maddening because those drunk with power negate truth and justice.  Terror and brute force become the vehicles for power. The brothers struggle for survival with little prospects.  Zionism and the quest for Palestine become an acute solution for some but most can't come to terms that Germany is not a welcome place anymore.

I personally can not imagine my rights of citizenship arbitrarily stripped.  Prescient in 1934, this book inadvertently underscores the role of the State of Israel as a refuge for those homeless. It is an outstanding accurate description and expression of the despair of Germany's Jewish community.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes by John Rosengren

This new volume comes to me as gift from my 10th grade Bible class (knowing my proclivity towards baseball) and brings to light some aspects of Hank Greenberg that actually show a tragic disconnect.  The book is divided into basically his youth, his playing years, his baseball management years and his family life after baseball.

Hank was a superstar.  He was a ball player that loved knocking in runs; he valued the RBI statistic over home runs.  He was a crowd 'pleaser'; often hitting in clutch situations and winning ball games.  Hank appreciated his Jewish status as inspiring Jewish kids and he took to heart the antisemitism of the thirties and the rise of Hitler.  He absorbed much verbal abuse for being Jewish. He would say that every homer was a hit against Hitler.  He respected his parents wish not to play on the High Holy days.  On the morning of Rosh HaShanah, he went to synagogue but played in the afternoon,  On Yom Kippur, however, he sat out games in observance of the holiest day of the year.  He was very conscious of being a prominent Jew in the Major Leagues.

When Greenberg was general manager of the Cleveland Indians he alienated some great players by demanding pay cuts.  Al Rosen, for example, decided to quit baseball instead of taking a cut in salary,  feeling that Greenberg was unnecessarily harsh with him.  (Rosen, so ensconced in the Jewish community at the time, did not need baseball to succeed and was offered some great opportunities.)  Pitching great Bob Feller was also asked to take a cut.  One sees that Greenberg was insensitive to the players and eventually was let go as a result of his not getting along with the players.

The greatest disconnect, however, was his relationship to his Judaism and how he related that identity to his three children.  After serving in the Pacific theater of WWII, he became disillusioned with organized religion and did not frequent the synagogue.  He did not communicate his religion to his children to the chagrin of his daughter who was embarrassed about not knowing about Judaism.  He replied that he did not believe in organized religion!  His sons, in going to Yale, put down "Congregationalist" for their religion, as that was the religious auspices of the university!  His advocacy for the State of Israel was absolute, however, even alienating his daughter in law who identified with Palestinian causes.  He demanded observance of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement by going to the planetarium!  What a confused soul!

Someone who intuitively understood his responsibility as a Jewish sports hero could not even pass on a Jewish identity to his children!  A sad disconnect.  As Peter Levine so eloquently has stated, Baseball and other sports were merely vehicles for the immigrant generation to assimilate.  Hank Greenberg's assimilation was so complete he passed on to his children an absolute American identity without a Jewish conscience.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Lone Samurai by William Scott Wilson

This volume reveals the salient features of probably the most celebrated and talented Samurai of Japanese history: Miyamoto Musashi.  This legendary figure has been the subject of nonfiction, fiction and films because his accomplishments are astounding and worth noting.

To appreciate Musashi, one must understand the feudal structure of Japan in the pre-modern period and see how this great personage developed into the independent figure of heroic proportions.  In feudal Japan there is a martial class of samurai that are retained by a local authority.  The lowest class, the farmer perhaps may break out of his lowly class by becoming a samurai, however, in general, one's class is cast.  Musashi is self taught and one never really understands which clan retains his services, thus being a Ronin, an independent.  He learns the art of swordsmanship alone without a teacher, preferring the two sword method of a short and long sword.  In samurai culture, to be a samurai means being challenged to bouts, the only way by which one gains a reputation of worth.  Musashi's career as a Samurai is sixty individual bouts and 4 battlefield campaigns.  He loses to no one!  His mastery of the sword is so skilled that after he turns 30 years old he matures and shows his determination not to kill his opponents.  With commanding presence, he counters the ability of his opponents to strike with authority.  As a result of his resolute determination his opponents concede the match: he cannot be beaten.

Musashi's life, however, is much more sophisticated then only being a skilled swordsman.  He becomes a truth seeker and delves into art and calligraphy.  He becomes a noted artist with keen insight and philosophizes about the martial arts.  He writes a magnum opus: The Book of Five Rings that explain that the purpose of a fight is to win at all costs, thus including all advantages.  For example, he shows the ways of psychology.  In one bout, Musashi deliberately arrives late on the scene knowing that his opponent will be irritated even angry.  When his opponent unsheathes his sword and casts away the scabbard into the sea, Musashi declares victory by saying "you have already lost because only a loser would no longer need his scabbard!"

He understands the need to be independent and he establishes his own dojo with only a select few students. He breaks with the Samurai notion that a good death is the goal.  Musashi believes in life so one may continue to serve.

This book is worthwhile for the introduction to one of the great personalities of world history.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Only Game in Town (volume 1): Baseball stars of the 1930s and 1940s talk about the game they loved by Fay Vincent

Former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent collects the memories of some of the great players of the bygone era before and after WWII, making a very readable history of baseball.  What stands out about this book are the testimonies of some of the players of events that have already been told before.  One gains a different perspective from listening to different voices.

For example, Eldon Auker tells of his Baseball 'all star' trip to Japan after the season in 1939 that included Moe Berg.  Now Moe Berg had a reputation of being very smart, and Auker tells how he did not fit in because he was so mysterious.  A Princeton graduate, Berg surprised everyone by being fluent in Japanese and became the interpreter.  Auker tells how Berg was very popular among the Japanese because he could speak their language.  Berg would slip away from the team and take pictures all over the country.  He even stays longer in the country so he could travel the country side.  Auker tells how nobody on the American team suspected that Berg was gathering intelligence for the US government.  As it turned out Moe Berg took pictures of almost the entire War complex of Japan that proved to be very useful after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  The catcher was a spy!

Bob Feller, Cleveland pitcher who pitched with velocity approaching 100 mph, tells how famed black home run hitter, Josh Gibson could not hit a curve ball!  Feller tells of the days of barnstorming (exhibition games) with the Negro Leagues and pitching against the great Black players.  He questions the claim that Josh Gibson would have made it to the Major Leagues.  Feller says adamantly that Gibson hit nothing off of him because he served up Gibson "with that big, what we called elliptical snake", a tough curve ball. Feller was close to some of the Negro players and claims that the racial rivalry only took place in the stands among fans and not among players.  Buck O'Neil's claim of the blacks winning their fair share against Feller's teams is questioned by Bob.  Claiming to have the score books as proof, Feller submits that the claim was more publicity to gain more attendance for a bigger share of money than the truth.

John "Buck" O'Neil explains the difference between Jackie Robinson and other Black players and he claims that is the reason Robinson was chosen to break the color barrier.  Robinson was a cut above the rest.  O'Neil explains the difference when his team was traveling in the South barnstorming to make money.  The bus came to a filling station for refueling.  After putting the hose in the gas tank, Robinson goes toward the restroom that is marked "Whites Only".  The attendant calls out to Jackie, "Where are you goin', boy!" and Robinson replies, "to use the restroom."  The attendant says sternly, "you can't go there" and Robinson without missing a beat tells his teammates to take the gasoline hose out of the bus.  The attendant immediately realizes that he will lose a big sale of close to a hundred gallons of gasoline!  With due consideration of seconds the attendant concedes and stops the hose from coming out of the tank and permits Mr. Robinson in using the facilities by saying "but don't be long!" O'Neil interprets this scene as a manifestation of the difference between Robinson and the rest of his team: While his teammates including Buck O'Neil are resigned to prejudice, Robinson is not willing to accept the status quo.  Jackie Robinson is seen as a fighter of prejudice.

The scene of Hank Greenberg going into the Chicago White sox locker room in his underwear with a baseball bat to confront the people who hurled anti-semitic barbs against him during the game, met with frozen Sox players is mentioned twice from different people.

Ralph Kiner credits Greenberg with his success as a Home run hitter.  Greenberg was willing to tutor Kiner when Greenberg was traded to Pittsburgh.

This is an excellent example of an oral history project.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A.G. Spaulding and the rise of Baseball by Peter Levine

I still remember my Spaulding outfielder's mitt with which I roamed Center Field in High School.  I remember the choices when I needed a mitt: Rawlings, MacGregor, Wilson (the 2000 model was very popular). There was never any real question as to which mitt to buy.  There is something special about a Spaulding.  It has been always associated with ball play.  The "pinky" used for stick-ball in my vocabulary is always called a "Spauldeen".  The Spaulding brand is practically synonymous with Baseball.  So, I bought a Spaulding.

Historian Peter Levine investigates the founder of the Sporting Goods company and concludes that Albert Goodwin Spaulding successfully grew professional Baseball from a pastoral country game into a urbanized sport.  Mr. Levine shows how the USA grew to an economic power house after the Civil War through its cities and how Baseball rose out of that rural country and was brought to the cities.  Spaulding successfully brings a pastoral existence to the hustle and bustle of the cities!

Spaulding was a very success pitcher and gained his fame as a result.  He was, however, more than a ballplayer, he was a visionary.  He saw the potential of this great pastoral game as a vehicle of recreation and business.  As a variety of teams formed and traveled throughout America for exhibitions, Spaulding conceived of a league and an organization which eventually was fixed in big cities.

Spaulding by nature was a salesman, indeed a "pitch man" and developed a catalog of sporting items first of baseball equipment and then many more outdoor equipment.  He successfully exploited the transition of a pastoral game to an urban business.  This slim volume is worth the read to gain an understanding of how Baseball gained popularity and became the "national pastime" but really all along was developed into a business with the capitalistic ambition that characterized America in the late 19th century.  Mr. Levine includes a discussion of the creation of the famed "reserve clause" that essentially meant that teams owned their players and players could not act as their own agents.  This was a collusion of owners that would not change until after Curt Flood challenged the clause in 1969.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

From Ellis Island to Ebbetts Field by Peter Levine

This volume explores the assimilation of the American Jewish community through the vehicle of Sports.  The book discusses boxing, football, basketball, and baseball, all the professional sports and their Jewish adherents in the first half of the 20th century. Personages like Barney Ross, Sid Luckman or Marshal Goldberg, Dolph Schayes, and Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax are highlighted.

There is a very moving scene of return when Barney Ross comes back to his old neighborhood in Chicago and is called up to the Reading of the Torah.  His rabbi recognizes his errant member and warmly says "you've come back!" and even though Ross' return is not back to a Torah lifestyle, nevertheless, his Jewish identity is not shorn. 

Greenberg struggled with the dilemma of playing on the High Holidays receiving some sort of rabbinical permission for the New Year but personally chose to sit out the game on the Day of Atonement.  By the time Sandy Koufax comes around the choice is not novel but nevertheless inspiring to most Jewish Americans.  Professor Levine intimates that Koufax might have had a tinge of self hatred since in his personal life he never identified with the Jewish community or with Jewish causes.  It took him years to come to terms that he was a hero to most Jewish kids.  Koufax always wanted to be remembered as a Ballplayer not a Jewish Ballplayer!

Levine's thesis is simple: Sports were a vehicle to become American and when the Jewish community came of age, came out of the immigrant experience and were accepted as Americans the novelty and plethora of Jewish sports figures waned. In almost each case Levine's thesis rings true!  Sports help one assimilate it does not help one develop a Torah lifestyle.

This book is excellent scholarship very readable and very insightful about how the Jewish community came of age.

Unquiet by Joseph Gollomb

An excellent selection of historical fiction about life on the Lower East Side of New York City is Unquiet by Joseph Gollomb.  Gollomb met success as Hollywood screenwriter, however, before mastering his craft as a writer he penned an authentic, if not autobiographical novel in 1935 about an immigrant Jewish family trying to succeed in the ghetto of the famed East Side of downtown Manhattan.

The story begins in Vilno where the pious antecedents live with the emerging winds of socialist  revolution sweeping Tzarist Russia.  The emigre family of 5 course their way through the labyrinth of life that takes them to the Jewish section of Manhattan to a rude introduction of poverty and squalor.  The heroic efforts of father and mother to eek out a living and provide a good life for their three children remind me of my own grandparents.  The book describes the filth and debauchery of the ghetto and how in spite of the negative environment, the family members persevere to achieve an education and an assimilation to American life.  The book is a discussion of the social ills that manifest a minority existence, an existence of not only class distinction between the rich and poor but also the hatred of Antisemitism.

Rachel Levitt, the mother struggles to calm her excitable husband who has trouble making a living.  Her whole existence is that of a wise, insightful selfless person.  She identifies with the world view of Socialism that the poor should not be exploited but cannot accept that her pious orthodox father and rabbinical brother are on the dark side of humanity.

Her oldest son, David the real protagonist struggles with his familial obligations over his desire  to lead an independent life.  He longs to be a writer and reporter, to assimilate into real society, however, his parents impress upon the need for practicality and push for a degree in teaching that would provide a steady income.  Along the way, one learns of the class differences between the heavily Jewish populated commuter school of City College of New York and the privileged private school of Columbia University. One lives through David's adventures and tragedies, his moments of love and despair.  Ultimately, David comes to terms with his situation that family obligation trumps his personal happiness and can't free himself from his family and neighborhood.

Judaism plays no role in this story except in a cultural way.  The Jewish ghetto is just another section of a diverse city with Italian, Irish and Chinese neighborhoods.  When David meets and falls in love with a non-Jewish girl, their is no explicit discussion of religious/cultural differences, however, there is tacit concern for the differences between the rich and poor.  Only when the protagonist's father dies and there is a funeral does the reader understand that there are serious differences between downtown Jews and uptown Non-Jews.

The story's title is disturbing because the immigrant experience is a highly pressurized existence that demands Americanization without the dispelling of one's cultural identity.  David's soul is "unquiet" because he is never master of his own life: support of family takes precedent over one's personal 'selfish' desires.

This is an outstanding volume, an authentic voice of the assimilating Jewish American.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Belle Boyd: in camp and in prison - Edited with Introduction and notes by Curitis Carroll Davis

In reading about 19th century, Civil War era Jewry (Isaac Leeser and Judah P. Benjamin), the regional attitudes toward slavery etc, I noticed the mention of a notorious spy, Belle Boyd.  With my curiosity piqued, I found a book about the spy.

Her memoir of the war years is a fascinating read about Southern gentry, values and culture attempting to justify secession.  Ms. Boyd (who becomes Mrs. Hardinge) is an articulate voice of the Confederate demand for freedom to continue the values and culture of the South and a constant critic of Northern bullying and brutality.  According to her memoir, after the Union conquest of her hometown, she and her mother are accosted at their home by belligerent Union soldiers who verbally disrespecting them demand entry to be fed and quartered.  Ms. Boyd demands a minimum of courtesy which is not forthcoming and requests that the soldiers stand down or she will defend herself, her mother and her home!  The first belligerent soldier steps threateningly toward the threshold and Boyd pulls a small derringer from concealment and mortally wounds the soldier.  She is hauled into custody and the following investigation aquits her with the Union commanding officer commending Ms. Boyd's conduct saying that he would have done the same.  Later, she overhears conversations of Yankee positions that she gallantly, courageously conveys to the Headquarters of Confederate General 'Stonewall' Jackson.  That information is vital to Jackson's routing of Union forces and Belle Boyd is instantly famous in the Confederacy.

The most interesting element of this memoir for me was Ms. Boyd's attitude toward slavery.  Although it is clear that she believed in white supremacy (very common in the South- e.g. she does not believe a loyal black servant that warns her of the Union pursuit of her) she seemed to acknowledge that slavery would be short lived.  This assertion is similar to Judah P. Benjamin's attitude.  Perhaps, this may not be a true attitude but rather a politically necessary attitude because the Confederacy was lobbying for British recognition and support.  The British outlawed slavery in the 1830's.  Ms. Boyd's memoir was directed to a British audience.  In downplaying the institution of slavery and stressing State's rights and freedom from a central federal government, Boyd makes the case for supporting the Southern way of life.

From this memoir, one can deduce a well educated, and  outgoing personality who would not be abused and the demand for refined Southern gentleman values.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Isaac Leeser and the making of American Judaism by Lance J. Sussman

Lance J. Sussman's study of Isaac Leeser's life introduces Leeser as a visionary of American Jewry and ardent defender of "Shulchan Aruch" Orthodoxy against Reform.

The life of Reverend Isaac Leeser was really an adumbration of the present structure of American Judaism.  Leeser sensed correctly the needs of the emerging Jewish community of the USA.  He understood the need for Jewish education for children and adults, the need for a structure that would unify the greater Jewish community; he saw the need for a Jewish press and the need for a Jewish ministry of rabbis.  Leeser also experienced the common present-day tension between congregation and minister over expectations and salary negotiations.

Leeser was the first to preach in English on a regular basis on the Sabbath to the chagrin of his congregation.  His decision was solely to enable understanding and not to encourage a reform to synagogue practice. (At the same time in Europe, the permission of preaching in the vernacular was being discussed because of the concern that perhaps such a practice was assimilation in disguise)  Leeser was not a Talmudist; he concentrated on Biblical exegesis and philosophic ideas.  He started a school in his home that peaked at 16 students but failed since he could not convince his synagogue (Mikvah Israel of Philadelphia) of the necessity.  Eventually, Rebecca Gratz initiated the first Jewish Sunday School system with the support of Leeser.

In the first quarter of the 19th century there was a dearth of ordained rabbis (Leeser was not an ordained rabbi, but rather a Ba'al Tefillah, one conversant in leading the prayers and was engaged as a Hazzan).  The reverend help found the advanced school for the training of rabbis called the Maimonides school -unfortunately, it too was short lived due to lack of funding.  In order to educate (without the vehicle of schools) Leeser founded the first Jewish publication society and edited The Occidental: the Jewish Advocate, a periodical that commented on the current Jewish issues and events.

With the growth of more and more synagogues since immigration rose exponentially, Leeser saw the need to communicate and organize with other Jewish communities.  He saw the need of a present day Orthodox Union.  He translated the Torah and prayer book into English.  His prayer book could be seen  through the 1940's!

As a former congregational rabbi, I could relate to the Hazzan's grief when he failed to persuade his congregation of the need for a school or that he wanted to preach (without their permission) on a particular topic.  His salary negotiations, I could recognize as authentic.

The author points out that there is some discrepancy about labeling Leeser Orthodox.  Some say that he really was the progenitor of Conservative Judaism because he seemed to accept integrating into the larger society and seemed accepting of Zunz's scientific methods.  Leeser was clearly Orthodox, however, according Sussman because he never turned away from the authority of Jewish law and its Shulcan Aruch.  He constantly attempts at proving that the Rabbinic understanding (as in Rashi's Peshat) was undoubtedly correct.

Dayschool Education, a Rabbinate with its own school, a Press,  a federation or Union were issues that Isaac Leeser fought for and lost in his lifetime, however, all of those ideas comprise the make-up of present day American Jewry.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Judah P. Benjamin - The Jewish Confederate by Eli N. Evans

This fascinating study of the 'brains of the Confederacy' puts Benjamin in a Jewish context.  A man who served as Secretary of War, Secretary of State and Attorney General of the Confederacy, Mr. Evans writes an excellent study about a person clearly uncomfortable about being Jewish; at one point he complains about his name: 'you might as well have written JEW across my forehead!'  Nonetheless, Benjamin is unable to shake the label or the pejoratives that are heaped upon him in an Anti-Jewish environment, yet remained loyal and trusted to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  One is introduced to a driven, industrious individual who perseveres against adversity and overcomes missteps and reversals. He is the epitome of discretion in absorbing the abuse that should have be lodged against Jefferson Davis.

Benjamin born in the West Indies when it was an English Colony moved to Charleston  SC as a child with his family.  There in Charleston, his family was clearly not Shabbos observant keeping their store open on Saturday to the chagrin of an observant Jewish community.  His father was an advocate for Reform in the Jewish community.  At 14 yrs, he attended two years at Yale but mysteriously dropped out under a cloud of moral turpitude, never disclosed.  Separating from his father, his family moved to New Orleans where he apprenticed with a lawyer and came to know the influential political apparatus of the city.  He married into a influential Creole Catholic family to a wife who notoriously lacked fidelity.  His acquaintance with the lead of the political machine enabled him to be elected Senator of Louisiana, the first acknowledged Jewish Senator of Congress (David Yulee technically may be considered the first Senator (from Florida) however, he never acknowledged his Judaism converting to Catholicism and denying his past.)

With a perpetual smile on his face he showed great competence at Law and was a standout public speaker. The issue of Slavery, he held as a necessary economic vehicle and not an immoral principal, however, with the understanding that the institution would eventually be abolished.  Benjamin resented the Federal Government's interfering with the States' rights.

During the Civil War, Benjamin served where he was asked: first as Secretary of War until the Generals resented his lack of military background, then Secretary of State and then Attorney General because despite the vitriol heaped on him, Jefferson Davis relied on him!  The Confederate Generals hated him and spewed antisemitic epitaphs conveniently not fully understanding that Benjamin was only the extension of the policies of the President!

He fled to England at the Civil War's end knowing that he would be tried for treason and put to death.  He successfully claimed British citizenship through his birthplace and successfully passed the bar and became a highly successful barrister making the grade of "Queen's Counsel".  In England, he never mentioned his role in the Civil War with the understanding that whatever he would say would be misinterpreted and that he would be maltreated in any event.

There is evidence that he read Jewish periodicals and maintained Jewish friends in Richmond, VA , however, he personally seemed to lack any affinity toward the Jewish tradition except that he conspicuously did not become an apostate like Yulee.  He was buried in a Catholic cemetery outside of Paris by his daughter.

This book is thoughtfully well written, an excellent introduction to the Civil War and the Jews of the South.