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!