Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People edited by Leo W. Schwartz

This book is a great survey of Jewish History written by some major Jewish historians of the mid 20th century.  Each person distinguished in his field of study: The Biblical Age is written by Yehezkel Kaufmann of Hebrew University, The Hellenistic Age is written by Ralph Marcus of the University of Chicago, and the Talmudic Age is written by Gerson D. Cohen of Columbia University (eventually associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary of America - the rabbinical school for Conservative Judaism).  Abraham S. Halkin of the City College of New York (now known as the City University of New York) wrote the essay on the Judeo-Islamic Age and Cecil Roth of Oxford University penned the contribution of the European Age.  The volume is concluded with a major contribution from Salo Baron of Columbia University called the Modern Age.

What I find remarkable about this volume was the common legacy that Profs. Halkin and Roth had to say about the Jewish people.  They both echo the same message that the Jewish people are unique: they are an ancient people that have held fast to their literature and steadfastly held on to their faith. The ancient Talmudic tradition, its unique curricula and manner of study has kept the Jewish people alive.  Through their ancient literature and studies, the Jewish people have been able to adapt to new situations and withstand the vicissitudes of history. And although the majority of Modern Jewish people do not study the Talmud, nevertheless, those that do color the Jewish nation with its authentic values.  Even the most secular Jew turns to the ancient literature to find inspiration.

I was impressed that Salo Baron could level a criticism against a fellow historian as being "annoyingly too objective" !  Reading Abraham Halkin's contribution, however, triggered my memory of him teaching me as a visiting professor at the University of California when I took his course about the Judeo-Islamic age.  I remember his sage like presence, soft eyes and kindly smile.  He inspired me in my own path to find and safeguard my heritage.  I once went to see him at his office and asked him if he could answer a religious/moral question that I had.  He was eager to help me understand.  I asked him about the commandment to destroy Amalek, that I didn't understand it.  He put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a traditional yarmulke and donned it.  He grabbed a Pentateuch readily available on his office shelf and swiftly flipped to the relevant page and read the verse out loud to me.  "It's Geschribben!" he commented and then said to me ever so kindly, "Now, what don't you understand?"  For me it was an amazing moment.  The simplicity of a decree of scripture all depended on whether or not one accepted the book's authority.  If one does not accept the book's authority, then the commandment is unintelligible. If one, however, accepts the the authority of the book, then the commandment is easily understood.

I also remember the first time I saw the professor at the orthodox synagogue in Berkeley.  He was called to the Torah and instead of saying the blessings and proceeding to listen to the Torah reader's rendition, Prof. Halkin asked quietly the reader, "I usually read for myself, do you have any objections if I read?"  Everyone in the congregation was taken aback.  Never had anyone volunteered to read their own Aliyah!  So he read, and he read perfectly!  He pronounced every Dagesh Hazak, every Mapik Heh, every Kamatz Katan, every guttural consonant.  It was truly an extraordinary experience and as a result Prof. Halkin became the official Torah Reader during his visiting appointment at the request of the congregation.

Even though this volume was published in 1956, it represents the best secular scholarship of its day and still worth reading.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Contemporary Relevance of History by Salo W. Baron

This is a short series of essays on the different approaches that the professional historian may take under his wing. I would like to mention just two points that Mr. Baron makes when discussing the researching and writing of history with the addition of my own thoughts.

The critical historical method: the comparison of different sources and accepting only that fact that has corroborating evidence has certain limits.  Mr. Baron points out that the method is only efficient or relevant during periods of ample written evidence.  He points out that when studying cultures or societies that rely heavily on oral transmissions or societies that rely on memory and the written evidence is often vary scarce, the research is difficult since no corroborating evidence can be analyzed.

This means that studying the ancient Jewish world, for example, during the time of a functioning Sanhedrin when oral transmissions were forbidden to write down, research is difficult.  For example, first century historian, Josephus writing for essentially a Roman audience inevitably must be compared to much later Talmudic sources because the Jewish world at the time of Josephus was functioning and firing on Oral cylinders.  The Roman world values written histories, whereas the Jewish world does not.  If the sources agree, then the historian is confident of the facts.  If, however, they do not agree, then the researcher has a quandary because there are so many possibilities to explain the differences, with no way to verify data.  Any re-creation or construction is basically founded on sand.

Secondly, Mr. Baron makes a very strong case that history (and certainly Jewish history) should be analyzed through a religious social lens.  Although he goes through many approaches: Psychohistory, Quantitative History, Social history, Secular State history etc., he shows that religion has played the most profound effect on civilization even in the most secular environments.  He shows that even at the height of the Enlightenment with the founding of a country that is the most secular in nature, with the greatest separation of Church/State (USA), religion, nevertheless, plays an incredibly dominant role in the animation of its people.

Mr. Baron was not known to be a religious nor observant Jew, nevertheless, he observed the theocracy that preoccupied the individual psyche of most of the world's inhabitants during every major epic and civilization.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

All Shook Up: How Rock 'N' Roll Changed America by Glenn C. Altschuler

This volume chronicles the rise of the musical phenomenon, Rock and Roll of the 1950's and how it meshed with concurrent social trends of civil unrest, disobedience and the 'generation gap' of the coming turbulent times of the 1960's.  Prof. Altschuler explains that the genre of Rock and Roll reflects the emerging unrest of post WWII youth, a more affluent youth completely distinct from its veteran, depression era experienced parents.

Sex, race relations, and rebellion comprised the elements of Rock and Roll according to the author.  Mr. Altschuler explained a social evolution unfolds with Rock and Roll.  Rock and Rock originated in the Black community, known as Rhythm and Blues and implied explicit sexual expression in the music. It attracted young white males and Sam Phillips of Sun Records commented "if I had a white boy to sing these songs, I'd make a billion.."  Elvis Presley presented himself and became the transition bringing Black music to a craving white crowd.  Elvis' blatant sexual gyrations during his performances struck a chord with audiences: girls screamed desire for him, boys craved to be like him and parents were reviled, feared and were shaken by him.

Little Richard and Chuck Berry, black artists enthused audiences with their clearly sensual movements, yet threatened the status quo of segregation by appealing to mixed crowds.  Buddy Holly played at the famed Apollo theater in the Black section of New York's Harlem with many in the audience expecting to see a black artist yet were shocked at seeing a white one!  Jerry Lee Lewis pounded on the piano even with his feet evoking almost violent orgiastic experiences.  Rock and Roll manifested a breakout of the social and sexual repression of the 1940's and early 1950's.

By end of the '50s music producers cropped, edited and sanitized Rock and Roll so that mainstream vehicles and venues like American Bandstand with Dick Clark, The Steve Allen Show and the perennial powerhouse, The Ed Sullivan Show could exhibit Rock and Roll headliners without fear of negative repercussions.  Even Elvis Presley's agent Tom Parker understood the need for sanitizing Rock and Roll.  He forced Elvis to take a hiatus from singing and made movies that sanitized his image. Into the early '60s, Rock and Roll became dominated by innocuous love and romance songs by the smash English group the Beatles.  The only American groups to come close were Dianna Ross and the Supremes also singing about love and the adolescent group, the Beach Boys singing about surfing.

The book also discusses the corruption in the music industry.  It highlights the rise of and fall of pioneering DJ from Cleveland, Alan Freed taking money to spin records.  It shows the shrewd business sense of Dick Clark staying clear of getting caught, although it seems clear from the evidence that Clark benefited from music producers in the form of at least gifts and travels.

Rock and Roll seems to have met the test of time.  Well into the 1980's, Bruce Springsteen fooled the political spectrum with his "Born in the USA" by waving an American flag.  Conservative and liberal pundits alike identified with the song to represent an authentic truly American composition.  As a result, one may come to believe that Rock and Roll is here to stay!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

Professor David Hackett Fischer's excellent history of the turning point of the American Revolutionary war brings out some important salient features of not only General Washington but also the emerging values of the nascent new country.  Besides his great leadership, one reads about the grand ideas and values of the Enlightenment that the leaders and founding fathers steadfastly hold up.

The book chronicled in detail Washington's crossing the Delaware river with the cover of night to make a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, NJ. After the abysmal showing in New York when the Continental Army was in constant retreat and the British leadership thought they had the insurrection practically quelled, moreover, with the Continental Congress beginning to regret Washington's commission as leader, the general devised a plan that exploited the element of surprise and capitalized on his army's 'celerity'.  The battles at Trenton and Princeton were routs, exercising swift movements and classic flanking maneuvers knowing that the British regulars enjoyed intimidating and overwhelming its enemies with direct assaults. The fight continued with the 'forage wars', the British seeking out of fodder for their cavalry's horses - something as important then as oil is today for a mobilized army.  The Americans successfully prosecuted a guerrilla war, quickly attacking  to inflict major damage and just as swiftly withdrawing and disappearing into the wilderness keeping casualties at a minimum.  At that point, with little cavalry horses left, many on the side of the British began to understand that winning such a war and putting down the 'insurrection' would be very difficult.

Mr. Fischer debunks the iconic painting of Washington in a boat crossing the icy river, one foot raised with right hand resting on his thigh as an impossibility.  The instability of such a position would have cast the general overboard.  The painting, nevertheless, captures Washington's regal and noble countenance to which all who knew Washington testified.  Washington's resolute determination to win and personal courage in battle were indeed awesome and inspiring to all those who witnessed them.

The author contrasts the ways of the British and Americans wage war.  For the British, war is a question of honor and manhood with certain expectations of the vanquished.  For the British, if one one would not surrender at their request, then there was no obligation to quarter or sustain prisoners. There were countless events of absolute ferocious brutality on their part.  The Americans, however, wage war simply to win. Taking the basic call from John Adams and specifically the example of George Washington, the Americans show magnanimity, generosity and humanity - something attested to by the British themselves.  The British General Howe was autocratic and did not accept advice from his war council.  Washington, on the other hand, presided at his war council by consensus and encouraged opinions.  The contrasts seem to reflect the different style of governments - a Monarchy vs. a free Republic.

The author concludes that some contemporary critics of today who think that America is not a noble enterprise are wrong.  One need only to see Washington and the founding fathers as extraordinary people who created a country that reflects the generous ideas of the Enlightenment to set the record straight.