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.