Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 16, 2014

Blood, spirit, the family, and soil: a response to Israel Shamir

Filed under: Jewish question,right-left convergence,Russia — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

US Jews are divided on the Ukraine, as they were divided on Palestine. Friends of Palestine, people with a strong anti-imperialist record and sound knowledge of East European history – Noam Chomsky and Stephen F. Cohen — recognised and renounced the US attempt to sustain their hegemony by keeping brazen Russia down. A subset of people, Gilad Atzmon aptly called AZZ (anti-zionist zionists), Trots and other faux-Leftist shills for NATO like Louis Proyect – called for American intervention and brayed for Russian blood.

That was a paragraph in an articled titled “The Fateful Triangle: Russia, Ukraine and the Jews”  from the inimitable Israel Shamir, a frequent contributor to what I would describe as the conspiracist sphere of the Internet. These are websites that see wicked plots everywhere and in Shamir’s case, those spun by Jews.

Israel Shamir

One of the most objectionable parts of Shamir’s paragraph was the reference to me as a “US Jew”. How in the world did I earn that designation? After getting bar mitzvahed in 1958, I stopped attending synagogue. I would have stopped sooner but I was under my observant father’s thumb. I guess that Shamir is referring to my “blood” but if that were the basis for his attribution, then I would claim to be Turkish rather than Jewish since I descend from the Khazars, a Turkic tribe that adopted Judaism in the 8th century AD mostly for economic reasons. But then there’s the question of where the Khazars came from. They were probably Mongols at some point and before that who knows? Not to put too fine a point on it, my “blood” probably can be traced back to the African sub-Saharan regions, where the rest of the human race comes from. For someone who is used to thinking in class terms and hopes for a worldwide socialist system in which national identity becomes as outdated as religion and other mystifications, it is jarring to encounter someone so deep into racial distinctions as Shamir. What an odd duck.

Beside the business about “blood”, Shamir also has a thing about “spirit”: “Communism won in the East – not because the East was backward, but because the East was the most spiritual part of the planet, less ruined by modernity and alienation.”

Gosh, it’s been a long time since I heard anybody blather on about the “spiritual”. Back in 1966, just before I joined the Trotskyist movement, I used to buy LSD from a neighbor in my Hoboken tenement who went on to become a top guy in the Hare Krishna movement. Eventually his old habits returned, as he became a coke addict and a gun nut. In “Monkey on a Stick”, a fine history of the Hare Krishnas, authors John Hubner and Lindsay Gruson describe my old supplier driving around downtown Berkeley blasting out the windows of car dealers with an M-16. And all along, even now, old Hans Dutta describes himself as very “spiritual”. As for me, I am having none of it.

If you can believe the Wikipedia entry on Shamir (much of it sounds like it was describing a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel), you’ll learn that he converted to Orthodox Christianity somewhere along the line. I wonder if this means that he goes to Church on Sunday morning. What a waste of time. Homer Simpson had that right. It is a much better use of your time to be watching football games on Sunday. I suspect his Orthodoxy shapes his views on the burning social questions of the day. Like Maoist cult leader Bob Avakian in the early 70s, Shamir doesn’t want the gays dividing the working class. He concluded that a French bill to legalize gay marriage and adoption bill amounted to a “neoliberal attack on the French family”. Frankly, I would vote for any bill that undermined the nuclear family but then again I am more influenced by Engels than the Holy Bible.

Some on the left are agitated by what they regard as Israel Shamir’s anti-Semitism. I tend not to worry so much about this since the Jews haven’t faced what they call an “existential threat” since the 1930s. For me, Shamir’s crude and stupid musings on world Jewry are much more of a social gaffe, akin to peeing on a toilet seat. I am disappointed to see so many people accepting him into polite society on the leftwing of the Internet, but maybe sitting down in someone’s pee doesn’t bother them so much.

Mostly, the people today who have the most to fear are immigrants not Jews, especially those of color who are being attacked by neo-Nazis throughout Europe. As a socialist, I support open borders. As long as capital is free to cross borders, so are workers. Plus, speaking as a New Yorker, this city would be a lot less interesting without the steady influx of immigrants. Shamir feels otherwise, killing two birds with one stone: “The middle-class Gay International (a term of Joseph Massad) is on the forefront of support for immigration: one can explain it by their compassion, but one can also explain it by their own interests of having a pool of cheap and available sexual partners.” Yes, that makes perfect sense. The Gay International needs more kids from El Salvador–desperately trying to survive–because its hunger for sex partners is insatiable. What amazing social commentary from the 21st century’s De Tocqueville.

So, we see a pattern developing. If anything, Shamir is consistent. First there is blood, and then there is spirit, followed by the sacrosanct family unit, and topped off by soil. Blood, spirit, the holy family, and soil: a potent combination and far preferable to the epicene and deracinated socialist doctrines that are eroding mankind.

One can understand the appeal of blood, spirit, the family and the soil to large sectors of the left. We are living in a period when the idea of joining forces between the left and the right is quite seductive. Ralph Nader has organized a conference in Washington that brings together his own brand of anti-globalization activism and those of the Rand Paul flavor. Somehow, this siren song is lost on me. I didn’t even resort to Odysseus’s trick of stuffing my ears with bee’s wax. I must have had some kind of genetic disposition against the siren song of a Rand Paul, a character whose bad hairdo and insistence that shopkeepers have the right to exclude Blacks is reason enough to hate him.

I suppose I should say a few words on the Shamir article itself and his accusation of me as a shill for NATO. In an email exchange with Shamir, he clarified his thinking. It was not as if I ever backed American military intervention but it was more a question of backing the EuroMaidan protests. His logic is that if you are critical of Russia, you automatically become a shill for NATO. This methodology has been around for quite some time. Despite his rather problematic stance on the blood and soil stuff, he also is capable of speaking as a kind of paleo-Stalinist:

By 1933, with the capitalist world deeply mired in a devastating economic crisis, unemployment was declared abolished, and remained so for the next five and a half decades, until socialism, itself, was abolished. The Communists produced social security more robust than provided even by Scandinavian-style social democracy, but achieved with fewer resources and a lower level of development and in spite of the unflagging efforts of the capitalist world to see to it that socialism failed. Soviet socialism was, and remains, a model for humanity – of what can be achieved outside the confines and contradictions of capitalism.

I should add that the mixture of paleo-Stalinism and the blood/soil/family stuff might not be that surprising given that the Communist Party in Russia has straddled Red and Brown positions for a number of years. I doubt that they will ever return to power with such a program but they seem content to campaign around such themes no matter how few Russians buy it. For the Brown crap, the pin-headed Russian can go straight to the rightwing nationalist parties. There will always be nostalgia for “the good old days” of the USSR but I suspect that for those who take their Marxism seriously, it will not be on the basis of describing Stalin’s USSR as a “model for humanity”. The Communist movement collapsed largely because of its investment in such a fiction and like Humpty-Dumpty there is nothing that will put it back together again. I suspect that Shamir writes a lot of outrageous stuff in order to get attention. Howard Stern has the same approach, but unlike Shamir, he is intentionally funny while Shamir is just funny.

To wrap things up, let me say a word or two about the main points in Shamir’s article. He makes the case that Putin is a good friend of the Jews and of Israel, even to the point of being friendly with Masha Gessen, a “Jewish Lesbian Putin-hater”. (Apparently Shamir is as obsessed with peoples’ sexual orientation as he is with their blood quotient.) Somehow, I doubt that Putin is friendly with a woman who wrote a blistering attack on him in “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” but let’s leave it at that.

After much more smoke-blowing about the Jews, Shamir gets to his main point, namely that global Jewry has a hard core (including me) that is part of a vast conspiracy to undermine Mother Russia and its good-hearted allies:  “Enemies of Putin in Russia, Ukraine, Europe and US do support Israel and are hostile to Palestine, to Syria of Bashar, to Venezuela of Chavez.” Well, I only speak for myself but I am quite capable of being opposed to the Baathists and supportive of the Chavistas at the same time, having written 28 articles over the years on behalf of Hugo Chavez’s movement as opposed to Shamir who has written none. He is more interested in writing about Jewzuela than Venezuela.

In terms of Syria and Palestine being litmus tests, this is a useful reminder of where things really stand. Based on Shamir’s criterion, 83 percent of the Palestinians would be considered “NATO shills” as well. So I am in good company.

Palestinians in Palestine still overwhelmingly against Assad

June 4, 2014 by Talal Alyan

As Assad opts for a modest 88.7% win for his third term, the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey reaffirms that the self-designated liberator of Palestine continues to be flatly rejected by Palestinian in Palestine. The survey found that 83% of Palestinians under occupation consider Bashar Al Assad “unfavorable”, 65% of which regard him as “very unfavorable”

Read full article http://beyondcompromise.com/2014/06/04/palestinians-in-palestine-still-overwhelmingly-against-assad/

 

April 21, 2014

The return of Stefan Zweig

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Jewish question,literature,war — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Counterpunch April 21, 2014

Madness and War

The Return of Stefan Zweig

by LOUIS PROYECT

When a publicist from IFC invited me to a press screening of Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise” (the film opens Friday in NY), I could not resist. Leconte was one of my favorite directors and I considered his “Ridicule” a masterpiece. Since IFC described “A Promise” as a tale about a young man of humble origins taking up a clerical post in a German steel factory at the beginning of WWI, it sounded as if Leconte had returned to the concerns of “Ridicule”, a film that pitted a minor aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France against the snobbery and authoritarianism of Louis XIV’s court. It seemed all the more promising (no pun intended) given the screenplay’s origins as a Stefan Zweig novella titled “Journey into the Past”. I was aware that there was something of a Stefan Zweig revival afoot, reflected by Wes Anderson’s homage to him in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and new editions of his fiction and nonfiction work from both New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press, a boutique publisher specializing in fine literature.

This much I knew about Stefan Zweig. He was the quintessential fin de siècle author from the quintessential fin de siècle city—Vienna. He was a pacifist who opposed WWI and a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He was also connected to a wide range of intellectuals and public figures, ranging from the Zionist Theodor Herzl to Richard Strauss, the German composer who had an ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich but who stood by Zweig when it came to including his librettist’s name in a programme. He was particularly close to Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler and Romain Rolland, three other key figures from fin de siècle Vienna. After relocating to Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide together. Like fellow Jew Walter Benjamin, he succumbed to despair.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/21/the-return-of-stefan-zweig/

October 11, 2013

Why the Ruling Class Feared Camp Kinderland

Filed under: anti-Communism,Counterpunch,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 12:31 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition October 11-13, 2013
Learning the Spirit of Rebellion at Commie Camp
by LOUIS PROYECT

This is a follow-up to the July 1947 PM article about my hometown titled “Utopia in the Catskills” that appeared on the September 30 CounterPunch. Like the PM article, the documentary “Commie Camp“ that showed at the Tribeca Theater in New York last June celebrates the leftist subculture of resort areas within geographical and financial reach of working class Jews in the 30s and 40s—in this instance the children’s summer camps favored typically by those working in the garment district.

Among the powerful trade unions that existed in that period, none had a more openly Communist leadership than the furrier’s union. I have vivid memories of visiting relatives in Flatbush who worked in this trade in the mid-50s when I was 10 years old or so. I innocently tuned in “Amos and Andy” on their television (we did not yet have one of our own at home) and was instructed by the man of the house, a furrier, to turn it off since it was racist. It was the first time in my life that anybody had ever acknowledged that racism existed, let alone spoke against it.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/10/11/why-the-ruling-class-feared-camp-kinderland/

September 28, 2013

Utopia in the Catskills

Filed under: Catskills,farming,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

In assembling still photos to be included in a video I am doing on a trip up to my hometown in the Catskills in August, I could find nothing on the net that showed Woodridge in its prime. A visit to the Sullivan County Historical Museum in Hurleyville turned up the intriguing first page of a PM article dated July 20, 1947 with the title “Utopia in the Catskills”. I eventually tracked down the full print version at the New York Historical Society that I scanned in for the results below. PM was a leftist newspaper with heavy Communist Party participation that was published out of NYC from 1940 to 1948 and funded by Chicago millionaire Marshall Field III, a scion of the Montgomery-Field department stores. They don’t make millionaires the way they used to.

In a nutshell, the article was as much of a find for me as the Ark of the Covenant was for Indiana Jones. It told me who I was and where I came from.

The title of the article refers to the strong left sympathies in the village and the importance of co-op’s. My grandfather Louis, who died around the time that this article was written, was president of the Workman’s Circle that is referred to in the article as follows:

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives.

There are lots more that I can say about this article but do not want to interrupt the flow with my observations. As you read through it, you can find my elaborations on both personal and historical matters by clicking various links, starting with a longer introduction on Woodridge and the left here.

PM July 20, 1947

Utopia in the Catskills

Story and Photos by Croswell Bowen

railway_stationThe station platform at Woodridge, which opens on to the town’s main street, is extra large to accommodate summer population of 30,000

Refugees who wanted to be farmers made Woodridge, N.Y., into a prosperous farm-resort town with five co-ops

West of the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie and Highland, beyond the Shawangunk (pronounced shongum) Mountains toward the Alleghany Plateau is the rocky, hilly country of Tom Quick, the Indian killer, and the now virtually extinct Irish tanners, The New York, Ontario, and Western Railroad threads its way among the foothills and mountains of the Catskills and these days its Diesel locomotives sound foghornlike warnings when they come to road crossings and towns.

Twice a day passenger trains stop at the town of Woodridge (population 300 in winter, 30,000 in summer), which looks like most of the other combination farm and resort country towns which sprinkle the Catskill Mountains.

Actually, Woodridge is unique among the neighboring communities, because it possesses five highly successful consumer co-operatives, owned and operated by their members. Three of the five comprise one large intercounty co-operative association. All five are loosely connected with national co-operative groups which furnish over a billion dollars in services and goods to more than 2,500,000 member-owners throughout the United States each year. In practice, the Woodridge co-ops follow along the lines of the Rochdale pioneers. The prices are competitive, that is, in the same range as nonco-op establishments. But the co-op members realize savings through a system of rebates or dividends paid out of what in nonco-op businesses is chalked up as profit and loss to the consumer. In the co-ops the profit is returned to members after small sums are set aside for reserve. Most of the citizens of Woodridge have small chicken farms and take summer boarders. If you were such a citizen, would, in Woodridge, have your farm and buildings insured at the Associated Co-operative Insurance Companies.

fogelson

co-op2
You would stop to buy your groceries from the Mountain Resort Owners’ & Farmers’ Co-op_Inc. If you needed extra beds or mattresses or window shades or garden furniture, this co-op would also supply you.

After this, you would drive your pick-up truck to the feed division of the Inter-County Farmers’ Co-operative Association Inc. for a few sacks of chicken feed. You might stop and chat with young Joe Cohen, the manager of the feed co-op. about poultry and end up taking a gallon of a new kind of disinfectant.

The friendly village

In another building, you’d drop off a crate of eggs at Inter-County’s egg co-op where eggs are processed, packed, shipped, and sometimes put into cold storage. Upstairs in Inter-County’s farm machinery co-op, you’d look over the new poultry equipment and other accessories, and perhaps end up buying a new tire. Leaving town, you’d remember you needed some gas and stop again at the grocery co-op and fill her up.

joe cohen new

Lou YoungThis is Louis Young, the father of SDS leader Allen Young who later on became a pivotal figure in the gay liberation movement. More on Allen here.

egg candlingThe women candled eggs while the men packed them. Not everything was up to date in 1947. It took Betty Friedan to shake things up.

packing new

packing 2 new

When you drive west through Ellenville past Spring Glen on Route 209 a sign tells you that you are entering Woodridge, The Friendly Village. This is not a Chamber of Commerce exaggeration. The summer population of the town, although mostly Jewish, includes a diversified group of nationalities. There are Negro entertainers and household servants, Puerto-Rican, Moslem, Indian, Cuban and Lascar [Indian sailors, an archaic term] hotel workers. A few of the old-time Irish settlers from the Irish tanner days are still there. Everybody gets along. Anybody can check into any hotel regardless of his race or creed.

Max Schwartz, owner-proprietor of The Actors Inn, a restaurant and bar, boasts that “nobody who lands in this town goes hungry or bedless if he’s broke. And we help him get a job if he’s willing to work.” We’re supposed to be a kosher restaurant,” jolly Mrs. Schwartz, his wife, says, “but we got ham for the gentiles and, my heavens, I’ve even had to learn how to get up curry and rice with lamb for the Moslems. And very, very hot stuff for the Puerto Ricans. We’re a regular United Nations restaurant.”

sam katzowitz

Sam Katzowitz, Mayor of Woodridge, sums up the town’s inter-racial  equilibrium somewhat more wryly. Recently, he was asked if the town elections shaped up along the conventional Republican and Democratic lines or were other factors present?

ethel katzowitz

In the Majority

“If you have in mind,” he said, “is there any anti-Semitism here, the answer is no. And, for a very simple reason. Jews in Woodridge are in the majority. But we treat the gentiles pretty good. I guess you might say we’re mostly all liberals.”

“Like liberals everywhere else,” he adds, “we don’t necessarily agree. We have our arguments, too.”

Political discussion in Woodridge is at a very sophisticated level. In any store, on any corner, you can hear talk of the relative merits of the Socialist Party or Communist Party in the trade union movement. The “Russian question” touches off explosive viewpoints.

The character of the town, the co-ops, and the high incidence of liberals were not indigenous to up-state hill country. This Utopia in the Catskills has evolved from a chain of events that occurred in Europe as well as locally during the past 50 years.

During the last half of the past century, the land around Woodridge (or Centerville station, as it was called until 1915) was inhabited mostly by Irish immigrants. The iron-muscled men of Galway and Cork and Mayo and Killarney cut down the tall hemlock trees and hauled them to tanneries which constituted the main industry of the Catskills.

The pay was bad and the work was hard. To eke out a living, they tried to do a little farming, a cow, a pig and some chickens. But the soil is rocky and sometimes solid rock is only a few inches below the top soil. Toward the turn of the century the tanning industry had changed and the hemlocks mostly cut down. The early Irish settlers died off and the young folks went to the cities.

During the 90s, Jews fleeing the terrible pogroms taking place in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and the Balkans, were arriving in the United States. Many had been farmers in the old country and wanted to be farmers in the new country.

The land in the Catskills was cheap. Much of it was abandoned. Some say the Polish and Lithuanian Jews bought the land because it reminded them of their native countryside. The deciding factor, however, was more probably that the prices of the farms suited what little money these early refugees had salvaged from their old-world homes.

Many of the early Jewish settlers were helped with money and advice by the Baron De Hirsch Fund. De Hirsch, a wealthy Hungarian railroad builder, believed that Jewish colonization was the answer to the terrible pogroms sweeping Europe. He also helped settle Jews in Palestine.

Unite the workers

Another influence among the Jews who settled in the region of what is now Woodridge was the Workman’s Circle. (http://circle.org/) This Jewish organization, called in Yiddish Der Arbeiter Ring, had been formed on New York’s Essex Street in the flat of Sam Greenberg, a cloakmaker. His aim was to “unite by a ring of friendship every worker in the land and with many links unite the workers of every land.”

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives. There were “Sunday schools” for children; dramatic and choral groups for elders.

But the settlers around Woodridge as well as in other parts of the Catskills did not prosper. The few natives left in the region did not welcome the strange-speaking newcomers.

The settlers found it as hard to farm the land as the Irish who’d perished before them. To help make ends meet they began taking in boarders. Mostly, the Jewish farmers took fellow Jews in from New York City. This was logical. They had friends in the city and these friends had other friends.

Jews who came into the farm homes in the Catskills found respite from the toil of the New York sweatshops. They knew they would find no discrimination. And further, the meals at the farmhouse were in compliance with the dietary laws of their religion. In this way the region became one of the great resort centers of the East.

Almost prohibitive

About the time of the first World War, the new farmer-hotelkeepers discovered they couldn’t get any fire insurance on their places. If a farmer took in one hoarder even for one week, be was charged a “hotel rate” for every room in his house, regardless of whether he rented it out. The hotel rate made the farmers’ insurance almost prohibitive.

The result was that the farmer-hotelkeepers organized their own insurance co– operative and on April 1913, the first policy was written. Each member put up a certain sum of money and at the end of the year, they were assessed a sum of money to pay as premiums. The insurance Department of the State of New York was puzzled by the new kind of insurance company and for a time the organizers, Philip Thomas and Victor S. Kogan had a hard time operating within laws which had been put on the books to cover oldline insurance companies that worked entirely for profits.

But the company grew and grew so that today it has 35 million dollars worth of insurance in force and 2300 policy-holders. On October 31, 1940, George N. Jamison, Superintendent of the Department of Insurance of the State of New York, addressed 1000 policyholders of the Associated Co-operative Insurance Co., the first sizeable policyholders meeting he’d ever heard about. “This,” he said, is a real policyholders’ meeting. We in the Department know your directors have rendered service to the community, one which in holders could go nowhere else to obtain. The co-operative deserves the praise for performing this function.

The insurance co-operative at Woodridge owns its own fireproof building today. Its 24 directors are elected for terms of three years. It saves its policyholders from 20 to 80 per cent of the cost of insurance in the nonco-op companies. The next big co-operative in Woodridge was organized in 1938. Twenty members put up $25 to form the Inter-County feed and grain co-operative. Today there are 400 members and the co-operative does business in Sullivan, Ulster and Orange Counties. New members are accepted after a probationary period of six months “to see if the hi suer is co-operatively minded and to make sure he is nut a disrupter.”

As the feed and grain co-operative grew its scope has been enlarged to include a farm machinery co-operative and an egg co-operative.. The gross business is a million and a quarter dollars. Feed and grain accounts for $1,100,000; farm machinery for $50,000; and egg storage and marketing for $50,000. Most of the members are poultry men. Lately, many GIs with Gl loans are becoming members.

The most recent co-operative to come into being in Woodridge is the Mountain Resort Owners and Farmers’ Co-operative. It was organized in 1944 when scarce hardware and grocery items were turned on the black market and the hotelkeepers had to pay premium prices or do without merchandise. Two hundred and fifty shareholders, each owning one share, put up $25. A building, railroad siding and warehouse were purchased for $4000. They are worth $10,000 today. Last year the gross business was $55, 000. This year it will gross $75,000. Gum sells for three cents a pack, motor oil for 15 cents a quart and $1.25 window shades sell for 81 cents. Its officers are a president, secretary-treasurer, and a board of directors of nine. A paid full-time manager handles the actual operation of the business. We asked all the people in key jobs in the co-operatives how they accounted for their success. All said virtually the same thing: “We try to sell the best merchandise at the lowest prices. We stick strictly to business and avoid political quarrels that might divide and disrupt us.”

July 31, 2013

Lost interview with Frank Krasnovsky

Filed under: anarchism,Jewish question,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

(Received from Paul Buhle who is indicated as PB in the interview below.)

This is an interview made in Seattle, c.2000, with a leader of the local SWP going way back (his wife left him in the 60s and formed the Freedom Socialist Party, which still exists), it was incomplete because I loaned the tape to a friend who was going to do a full transcription and… lost it.

Among subjects of interest: the anarchist and Yiddish connections in LA, the paucity of Jews among steelworkers (he claimed to be one of about 3 in the US), local Trotskyist activities, and so on

43Index:

Tape 1 (Sides 1-2): Family history and Yiddish background in Los Angeles, general remarks about Jewishness and SWP

Tape 2: (Sides 3-4) Attempts by Trotskyists to put revolution on the agenda, versus the Habonim-Zionists, Communists, Social Democrats; Yipsels versus Norman Thomas and struggle within the Socialist Party. Shift to Seattle and struggles in the 1940s of the 1940s for racial equality and other issues.

Tape 3 (Sides 5-6) Backstairs struggle of union in later years and the nature of the steelmaking trade; struggle to maintain the Seattle SWP, especially leadership role of Clara, Dick Frazier and himself. Surviving McCarthyite period, door-to-door organizing activities. Attempting to recruit CP members, especially after 1956 revelations.

Tape 4 (Sides 7-8)  Trotskyists and the Cuban Revolution; the degeneration of theory in the SWP, in regards the Russian situation, and the role of James Cannon in later years. Other groups including the Cochranites. Failure to recruit from and relate to the New Left.

Tape 5 (Sides 9-10) Attempts to reorganize in tune for the 1960s. Problem of Clara becoming a leader precipitating fight within branch on semi-valid grounds of Dick Frazier. Recalling the campus anti-war movement in Seattle with Frank’s son one of the leaders, and George Arthur the other leader.

Interview with Frank Krasnowsky (Yiddish folksinger and theater impresario, Seattle), with Paul Buhle May, 1996

PB: Let’s talk about your parents

FK : My mother was a Jewish and Yiddish anarchist, my father was an old Wobbly named Harry Paxton Howard. My mother was born in 1896 in Byeloruss, came to the US around 1904; my father comes from an old old American family, probably connected..Harry told her, probably connected to General Howard. He was probably from a wealthy family, but his father rebelled against his family and became a hermit–we used to look around and see if some hermit was his father–and my father was a Wobbly agitator in Chicago. I was named for Frank Little, the Wobbly lynched during World War One.

PB: Were your mother’s family political at all?

FK: Some were religious, some radical. My grandfather  had a falling out with my mother when she married Harry Paxton Howard. She was already an atheist anyway. He actually disowned her for a while.  But they were very fond of each other anyway.

She went to work in the garment trade at 8, she could pass for 12. The family was in a rough situation and she was the oldest daughter. He also brought his own mother with him,  she lived to be 110. She died about 1945, just before he died. He still couldn’t speak English, she told people she would learn it pretty soon. Who figures at 60 and living in a Jewish community that she would have to learn a new language? But she could read and write in Yiddish, which gives the lie, as far as I’m concerned, to stories about Jewish girls not being able to read. They learned to read and write because their parents snuck it in.

One of the things I’m reading about in Yiddish is that girls used to get these novels. There’s almost no record in the middle of the nineteenth century of novels in Yiddish, they were published in just one edition. A lot of these stories were romance written by women, and just disappeared.

My mother’s parent’s came to escape the pogroms. I don’t know what her father did in Russia. Here he ran a fish store. He was lower middle class, like most of the Jewish business in Chicago. I don’t know what part of Chicago.

PB: Your father and mother met in Chicago?

FK: Probably thru the IWW or the garment workers. My mother knew Emma Goldman and went to meetings of the anarchists there. They had a nice torrid little romance as most people had at a young age. They also went to the theater together. When they left the US in 1917, to help the Russian revolution, she was already 21. That’s how I wound up with my name, Krasnowsky. They wanted to travel thru Sibera at the time of Kolchok’s Army. But after they arrived in Japan, where my mother was pregnant [they couldn't travel further]. They met hundreds of other Jews trying to get back. My father learned Russian on the trip over. They used my mother’s name because they couldn’t get in with the name Howard.

When they got to Yokohama–they stayed in Japan for 4 years, I was born there–and my father edited RUSSIA TODAY or NEW RUSSIA. He translated it from Russian to English, a straight Soviet publication.

PB: As Wobblies, they had communist leanings?

FK: This was THE revolution. It took a little while [before they become disillusioned]. Emma Goldman told  Helen Richter, my mother’s friend: do what you want to do. No one was persecuting the anarchists as a whole.

PB: Your father?

FK: He soon had a deep hatred of the Communists in China. And he wrote for the PEKING REVIEW, he was politically at the left wing of the Kuomintang if anything. He would have been in China until 1939 or 1940. We were in Japan until 1922, I was born in 1921, and then he was deported, after the Japanese longshoremen’s strike. He was always convinced that the Japanese were spying on him.

Then he went to Shanghai, where he and my mother didn’t get along–he was pretty much of a snot–and my mother came back to the States. My grandfather had to put up $1000, that was 1923. About the same time as the Japanese earthquake, which is why we got in.

This a story about bureaucracies, she came in to Vancouver Island about a month early. They looked at it and said, you’re not supposed to come in, you’re on next month’s quota. So they finally made a decision to send her back to China and have her come back. She had never become a US citizen and as an anarchist was opposed. But then the earthquake hit and they had to use all the ships for that, so they put her up in a hotel for the month.

Then we came back to Chicago and stayed back with my grandfather. I remember he was very fond of me. My mother worked in the garment industry. Then she was blacklisted in about 1927, the big garment strikes. At the same time some doctor said there was something wrong with my sister’s heart. So we came to Pomona, actually Ontario, California, where there was an attempted to build an anarchist colony. There we stayed for a couple months before my mother decided it was easier working in a factory. These people had a farm and they tried to make it over, but they had no equipment, it was muddy….I remember living there and taking the bus to school. Then we came to Los Angeles and stayed with cousins. That would be 1927. We lived in Boyle Heights.

Some of our relatives were CPers, some were very religious, but my mother was a sort of a center person, people grouped around her. Her anarchism wasn’t political, my sister said, she just loved everyone. But she read every anarchist writer. She was very brilliant. Both of my mothers’ sisters, Dora and Sadie, grouped around her and took her politics, those who stayed in Chicago did not.

Los Angeles had one of the top leaders of the anarchist movement, Tom Bell, and a Yiddish anarchist group, the Kropotkin circle. These people were all in the Arbeter Ring. We always had a socialist environment, it was a family sort of thing. The split with the Communists came earlier in LA.

It was strongly social democratic but one of the strongest branches was the anarchist branch, #413. They had a camp, and I went to the camp every year. I didn’t have any money but everyone supported one another. Everyone was a parent, all the children were close.

PB: Was there Yiddish content?

FK: Always. During  the year we went to Yiddish school after public school, and in the summer we had Yiddish classes.

PB: Did you ever resent having  to go?

FK: I accepted it. I didn’t like the Yiddish school after school, you wanted to play, but it wasn’t really that bad. My Yiddish didn’t get too good but I could read and write Yiddish years later. And we had some very fine teachers. I guess in a sense it was a kind of babysitting for parents who worked in the garment industry.

During the thirties, they were bringing in some very fine people [new from Europe]. To get into the US you had to have a job. Most of them were socialists, and some of them were real professors.

We also put on plays, a lot of things that were really well run. I remember the “Gericht,” the court, the kids would judge whether the person was guilty. It was a case of you decide and what should the punisment be? A kid writes on the toilets, so what to do? We decided to make him wash the walls.

PB: What was political there?

FK: We had the Young Circle League, the YCL. It became the Young People’s Socialistic League in the ‘thirties. There we had had a steady education on socialism. We had read the MANIFESTO, SOCIALISM UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, these were basic for us kids in highschool. And we had an old social democrat that used to talk to us all the time.

The children were not treated like something in the way. I can remember sitting at a Mayday camp. If you had something to say, people would listen patiently, as if you were one of the adults. My mother would be very favorable if she liked it, she could also disagree. We were all involved in some kind of politics.

There were wars going on in the world, there were problems in schools like the ROTC. Our branch had an SWP [Trotskyist] entry, and Dave Weiss [later a trotskyist theoretician] was our counselor at camp. We loved him because he would always tell wonderful stories. We would lie there in bed at night hoping he would read and he wold tell us a story about his life or read from DUNT ESK, or NIZE BABY or by Abe Gross. I used one of his stories a lot later as an audition piece. He also spoke a beautiful Yiddish.

PB: How much was Yiddish used?

FK: The kids didn’t speak to each other in Yiddish but they spoke to the adults in Yiddish. We also put on plays in Yiddish. There was also a difference of about 5 years. The older group all spoke fluent Yiddish, ours was more on the zubrokene: we were the young ones, they were the old ones. They stayed in the Young Circle League til they were 23 or 24. Our whole group went into Yipsel, around 1937. And we all left with the Trotskyists.

PB: Had you been aware of another world of semi-Yiddishsts on the Left? Were they different in class or any social way.

FK: We knew the Communist world. They weren’t different at all socially. But we were not compromisers, even the social democrats in Los Angeles had a rule that you couldn’t vote for capitalist parties whereas the Communists were supporting Roosevelt and Democrats. But my mother used to speak about the “Roosevelt Anarchists.”

One of the big political influences on me was my mother, that’s probably the reason I was more tolerant than others. The CP had control of the ILGWU here, for a while, and others decided to put up a fight. We didn’t like Dave Dubinsky either, but Rose Pesotta came out to organize the anarchists against the Communists. We were sitting in the house, and there was this big discussion, against the compromise of Dubinsky and of the Communists. And after the whole discussion my mother leaned forward and said, about Dubinsky, “David means well.” She never attributed the policy to something personal. She thought the same thing about the Communists, but they were worse to us than Dubinsky.

What happened in the Soviet Union more and more bothered us. The story of the Stalin Hitler Act made us cry, even though Trotsky had predicted it. The Anarchists could say I told you so, but we were hoping that it wouldn’t happen.

PB: What was the size of the Communists compared to social democrats or anarchists?

FK: The Communists were probably 3 or 4 to one of ours. The Arbeter Ring just have had 500-800 people and the IWO might have had 2000 or more.

Every one one of the kids in the Young Circle League

were socialists of all kinds; but we did have cousins and aunts that were in the CP. They were very defensive [toward us].

PB: Let’s talk about the questions of Jewishness in later years, in the Socialist Workers Party

FK:  We had to make an American party, that was one of the things that hung too heavy, that didn’t help it too much. That was involved in the actual Marxist analysis of the ethnic question, [fear of] being a middle class group. They ignored, somehow, the idea that this working class was really a proletarian group [of ethnics].

One of the things in the SWP is that they looked–there’s a statement in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO that the middle class would come over the provide leadership to the working class–they looked at the Jews in that sense. Middle class Jews in the SWP were always treated like they were great intellectuals, but the working class Jews never got anywhere. Quite a few of them were in the factories. So the SWP was oriented to workers in general and not to Jewish workers, and toward blacks in a different way; but the funny thing was that so many of their members were Jewish, but that they were not oriented to the Jewish community

In Seattle we had a branch of about 30, and unlike other branches, it was not predominantly Jewish, but on the executive board 4 our of 5 people were Jews.

PB: What does that tell you?

FK: The Jews did have a big socialist background. The big Israeli attack against communists and Marx is really against the diaspora Jews, not Marxism; all these years you didn’t know you were supporting an anti-semitic? Also the vanguard, the messianic idea, was important: you grew up believing that you had to make it, to have an important career. All of that was part.

When Comedy Went to School

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,Film,humor,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

Although I am sure that just about everybody will be as enchanted by “When Comedy went to School”—a documentary on stand-up comedians of the Borscht Belt that opens today at the IFC in NY—as me, I have a particular connection to the film as someone who lived in the midst of the resort area in its heyday. The film will give you much more of an insight into this yeasty slice of Jewish life than any fictional film like “Dirty Dancing” can.

A WSJ interview with Robert Klein (it is behind a paywall but can be read through Google News on a search for the article’s title “Borscht Belt, Behind the Scenes”), the film’s narrator and veteran stand-up comic who launched his career in the Catskills, mentions him working at the Alamac Hotel as a lifeguard. My mother was very close to the family who owned the hotel in my hometown and connected me to Kenny Gottlieb, a busboy who worked there. Kenny, who was an opera-loving Amherst student, turned me on to Weiser’s bookstore in N.Y. that was owned by his uncle Sam. Weiser’s was devoted to occult religions and as such was a shrine for Beat poets who went there to gather material on Plotinus, Gnosticism, St. John of the Cross et al. It was after my own visits to Weiser’s in my teens that I decided to become a religion major at Bard College as a latecomer to the beat generation. (Through Google’s long tentacles, I learned that Kenny died in 2009 after flying his Cessna into a hillside in Napa, California.)

Despite the Borscht Belt’s rural location, the “townies” were always absorbing New York’s cultural influences from the young men and women who worked in the hotels. It was at the New Roxy, my friend Eli’s hotel where Rodney Dangerfield used to perform as Jack Roy, where I made contact with Don the lifeguard. I have vivid memories of chatting with Don, who looked like James Dean and screwed half the women who stayed there over the summer, about what he was reading at the time. He turned me on to Genet. I was also turned on to Panamanian Red that I bought from Freddy the waiter. It cost $15 an ounce back in 1961 and one shared joint could put four people on their ass.

Screen shot 2013-07-31 at 12.05.58 PM

You get a flavor of the affinity between the comedians who worked there and the burgeoning bohemian scene from Sandy Hackett, who reminisces about his dad Buddy in the film. It turns out that Buddy and Lenny Bruce, who both got started performing in the Catskills, were roommates in New York. If you knew anything about their respective public personae, it is a little bit like hearing that Charlie Parker and James Brown were roommates. The two comedians lived in a cheap studio apartment in the Village, where they covered the floor with sand in which they planted a beach umbrella. Women were invited up to smoke a joint and enjoy a faux day at the ocean.

For me one of the great pleasures of the film was watching the 87-year-old Jerry Lewis and the 91-year-old Sid Caesar holding forth on their early days in the Catskills in the 30s and 40s. By 1958, the two were king of the motion picture and television respectively. If you went to a premiere of a Martin and Lewis comedy, you’d expect to stand on a line to buy tickets that went around the block. Around the same time Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” had a bigger audience share on NBC than Seinfeld. For my money, Caesar’s show was ten times hipper than Seinfeld’s (Seinfeld’s career was also launched in the Catskill’s but at a time when it was on the decline.) It was on the “Show of Shows” where I saw him leading the cast in a parody of what was obviously a Kurosawa movie long before I knew that Kurosawa existed.

Screen shot 2013-07-31 at 11.45.12 AM

At this point, it is worth including the panels above are from my abortive memoir done with Harvey Pekar even though his widow has warned me that I do not have her permission to do so. The shrill and vindictive woman obviously understands nothing about “fair use” laws.

Mel Brooks was among the writers for “The Show of Shows”. Some years later Woody Allen wrote for Sid Caesar TV specials. Both men got started in the Catskills. In a Wikipedia article on Borscht Belt humor, Brooks is included as an example of puns, one of the four dominant characteristics:

  • Bad luck: “When I was a kid, I was breast-fed by my father.” (Dangerfield)
  • Puns: “Sire, the peasants are revolting!” “You said it. They stink on ice.” (Harvey Korman as Count de Money (Monet) and Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI, in History of the World Part I)
  • Physical complaints and ailments (often relating to bowels and cramping): “My doctor said I was in terrible shape. I told him, ‘I want a second opinion.’ He said, ‘All right, you’re ugly too!’” “I told my doctor, ‘This morning when I got up and saw myself in the mirror, I looked awful! What’s wrong with me?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know, but your eyesight is perfect!’” (Dangerfield)
  • Aggravating relatives and nagging wives: “My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” (Dangerfield). “Take my wife—please!” (Henny Youngman); “My wife drowned in the pool because she was wearing so much jewelry.” (Rickles); “My wife ain’t too bright. One day our car got stolen. I said to her, ‘Did you get a look at the guy?’ She said, ‘No, but I got the license number.’” (Dangerfield) “This morning the doorbell rang. I said ‘Who is it?’ He said ‘It’s the Boston strangler.’ I said ‘It’s for you dear!’” (Youngman)

I don’t care much for the sexist junk about wives but all the rest of it rings a bell and was certainly an influence on my own sense of humor. The Wikipedia summary, however, does not mention what for me is the crowing element of Borscht Belt humor: self-deprecation. Although he was only part of the Catskills in the eleventh hour, Woody Allen was a master of self-deprecation. A typical Allen joke from this period: “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

Some say that brevity is the soul of wit. For me it is self-deprecation. While I am the target of deprecators near and far, I always beat them to the punch. In order to make my posts on the most abstruse topics palatable to the average radical, I try to thrown in a few jokes like the chopped meat surrounding a pill given to a pet dog.

When I was in the early stages of writing the text for the memoir I did with Pekar, I told him that it would be filled with jokes. I said that it would be in the spirit of the stand-up comedians I used to hear when I was a teen in the Catskills. Too bad it will never see the light of day except for these “fair use” samples. That’s her loss financially and mine creatively. But most of all, it is a loss to her late husband’s legacy that matters less to her than her petty feud with me.

May 3, 2013

Voices of the Mizrahim

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,zionism — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

In doing background research for an article on the Jews of the Maghreb (North Africa), I learned of the existence of a 2002 documentary on Iraqi Jews titled “Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection”. Among Jews, the term Mizrahim (Hebrew for Oriental) is applied to those from North Africa and the Middle East, in contrast to the European Ashkenazis who constitute the ruling elite of Israel.

In some ways the term that makes the most sense is Arab Jews, one that is embraced by Ella Shohat, an Iraqi Jew who is featured in “Forget Baghdad”. Her story, and the story of four elderly Jewish ex-members of the Iraqi Communist Party, is a reminder of the destructive character of Israel’s creation. Not only did it represent a nakba (disaster) for the Palestinian people, it also forced a people deeply rooted in their respective Arab countries to become assimilated into a culture that regarded them as inferiors.

While by no means an attack on the Zionist entity, the 1964 Israeli film “Sallah Shabati” does a fairly decent job of dramatizing the plight of new Mizrahim immigrants. You can rent the DVD “Forget Baghdad” from Netflix while “Sallah Shabati” is a bit harder to get your hands on (I took a copy out from Columbia University’s film library, but Amazon.com has new copies for sale at $15.64). After seeing them side-by-side, you can only conclude that the Mizrahim would have been better off where they came from, a claim that obviously applies to the Ashkenazim as well.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/03/voices-of-the-mizrahim/

October 7, 2012

Jewish high holidays

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

For most of last week an odd looking truck was parked in front of my building with loudspeakers blaring music nearly nonstop. It was pretty much identical to the one that showed up in Bahia, Brazil some time ago:

These Lubavitcher Hasidim really have no intention of converting gentiles to Judaism. Their Chabad outreach activities mostly target prodigal sons. I say sons since the teenage boys who go out as missionaries are not really interested in talking to Jewish women who have lost their religion, as R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe put it, but men like me.

At least three times last week I was accosted by one of the boys, who were young enough to be my grandsons, and asked, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” The first two times I walked past without an acknowledgment but on the third pass I replied mostly out of curiosity to see how he would react: “Ethnically but not religiously.” He followed up: “Was your mother Jewish?” In Judaism, this qualifies you to be a Jew. This means that someone like the late actor and exemplary liberal Paul Newman did not qualify because his dad was Jewish rather than his mother. Does all this sound kind of stupid and backward? Guess what, you’re right.

Establishing that I had the right bloodlines, the youth—fresh-faced, wearing braces on his teeth, and a broad-brimmed Borsalino on his head—invited me to wave a date palm (lulav) in one hand and a citron (etrog), a sort of overgrown lemon, in the other while he recited a prayer. I begged off and went on my way for a jog in Central Park.

This is one of the key rituals of the high holiday of Sukkot and here’s an expert explaining it:

This sort of instruction was what I heard from my rabbi for the three or so years leading up to my bar mitzvah in 1958. Half our time was spent learning Hebrew but only phonetically. You could read a bunch of Hebrew words (going from right to left on the page) but had no idea of what you were saying. For us boys, this was necessary in order to recite our Bar Mitzvah speech, a torture for most especially me since it involved not only memorizing the words but using the proper “tune”. I can’t carry a tune to save my life (although I have a great ear.) Here’s pretty much what I went through back then in front of the Synagogue:

The Coen brothers, having went through all this nonsense themselves, made a typically snide movie called “A Serious Man” that was almost enough to drive me back into the arms of Judaism but not quite enough.

The other half of our instruction consisted of learning about Jewish holidays much in the manner of the Youtube clip above but with even less clarity. It must be understood that the very nature of Sukkot (or Sukkos) defies comprehension, most of all by a 12 year old not entirely sold on the god business to begin with. The Wiki on the holiday states:

The sukkah is intended as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Throughout the holiday, meals are eaten inside the sukkah and some people sleep there as well. On each day of the holiday, members of the household recite a blessing over the lulav and etrog.

The Osdoby’s lived down the street from us in our little shtetl in the Catskills. Ben, the patriarch, was a pilot during WWII and president of our synagogue. He was one of the few Jews in town that took the trouble to build a sukkah although I doubt he slept in it. There were a lot of things that mystified me about my religion but I doubt that anything came close to the shanties, the overgrown lemon, and the date palm all of which I would regard as fairly primitive by the time I got to college. Years later, as things turned out, the very fact that it was primitive stood in its favor even though there was little to connect modern-day Judaism with, for example, fertility rites among the Yanomami.

When I was working on my mother’s house to put it up for sale after she had relocated to a nearby nursing home, I stopped by to chat with Ben Osdoby, a man who I had always found intimidating when I was a schoolboy. Like my father, he was a WWII veteran whose amiability was left on the battlefields of Europe. I was on a much more even keel with him now that I had become a 60 year old man (and only wished that my father had lived to Ben’s age so I could have had the same kind of conversation.) Ben complained bitterly about how our little village had been taken over by the Satmar sect and especially how the local synagogue that he had been so devoted to was now Satmar as well. The Satmars had become more and more intrusive in these little villages in the Borscht Belt, especially with their push to incorporate eruv boundaries. The eruv was a cable that ran from telephone pole to telephone pole outlining areas where Satmars could bend the Sabbath rules. Just as is the case in Israel, the ultra-orthodox sometimes collide with the orthodox over prerogatives even if they are united in sticking it to the Palestinians.

Sukkot had more to do with fertility rites than the flight from Egypt that it celebrated, something that most archaeologists, including Israelis, think never happened. Kolel, a reform Judaism website, offers this take on the high holiday:

Meanwhile, on the week we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, and I don’t know about you, but I feel rather self-conscious about taking the central symbols of this holiday: a citron (lemon-like fruit) and a palm branch together with branches of myrtle and willow and shaking them. In discussing the ‘reasons for the mitzvot’ Barry Holtz has written in his wonderful book, Finding Our Way

The breast (or womb)-like etrog and the phallic lulav are probably vestiges of an ancient (pagan?) fertility rite, which makes sense since the Sukkot holiday and final harvest marks the beginning of the critical rainy season in the land of Israel. The Talmud makes this explicit: the waving ceremony in the Temple was to restrain harmful winds (Sukkah 37b-38a). Shaking the lulav is obviously an ancient and ‘primitive’ ritual– and therein may lie some of its transformative power, but as a highly rational, twenty-first century modern Jew, I have trouble performing acts that are so obviously rooted in sympathetic magic (shaking the lulav even sounds like rain!).

For the past four years since my mother’s death, I have been going to Yizkor services during Yom Kippur, the most solemn of Jewish high holidays. Needless to say, I never would have considered going unless a very old friend suggested it. His Judaism, like mine, consists solely of going to this service each year. Yizkor is the occasion when you pay tribute to a dead relative (the word is Hebrew for remembrance), including the recitation of Kaddish, the prayer that Allen Ginsberg commemorated in one of his more memorable poems for his dead schizophrenic and Communist mother:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on
the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking,
talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues
shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm–and your memory in my head three years after–
And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud–wept, realizing
how we suffer–
And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember,
prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of An-
swers–and my own imagination of a withered leaf–at dawn–
Dreaming back thru life, Your time–and mine accelerating toward Apoca-
lypse,
the final moment–the flower burning in the Day–and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom
Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed–
like a poem in the dark–escaped back to Oblivion–
No more to say, and nothing to weep for but the Beings in the Dream,
trapped in its disappearance,
sighing, screaming with it, buying and selling pieces of phantom, worship-
ping each other,
worshipping the God included in it all–longing or inevitability?–while it
lasts, a Vision–anything more?

Ginsberg’s poem is actually very closely related to the main theme of a Yizkor service, namely the inevitability of death and the need to accept it. The service was conducted mostly in English, a function of it being held in a Reform Synagogue. This year I paid closer attention to the words than I had in the past, no doubt a function of having reached the ripe old age (if not overripe–bordering on fecundity) of 67. Death is no longer an abstraction as it was for me 30 or 40 years ago.

There were a number of readings that the female Rabbi led in the service, half of which I would guess did not originate in the Bible. Most were in the spirit of Ecclesiastes I, the verse that included the words Hemingway borrowed for one of his masterpieces:

“Vanity[a] of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place where it arose.
The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
All the rivers run into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full;
To the place from which the rivers come,
There they return again.
All things are full of labor;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.

An acquaintance of mine at Bard College named Fred Feldman became a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts. Unlike most philosophy professors, Fred seems to view philosophy as a tool for understanding the real problems of life as opposed to the shenanigans that goes on in most faculties in the name of linguistic analysis. It might surprise some of my regular readers, but Marxism does not have the answers to everything—particularly the eternal mysteries of life and death.

In 1992 Fred came out with a book titled “Confrontations with the Reaper”, a title that conjures up one of the most famous in cinema:

If you go to his website, you will find a list of articles that include some that reflect a very Yizkor-like preoccupation with death. Apparently the subject has been on his mind for a while. His tone is reassuring in a way that will be familiar to those who have read the Epicurean philosophers. Michael V. Fox has argued that Ecclesiastes was influenced by the Epicureans, hence the “earth abides forever” acceptance of death’s inevitability. Feldman writes in “The Termination Thesis”:

The Termination Thesis (or “TT”) is the view that people go out of existence when they die. Lots of philosophers seem to believe it. Epicurus, for example, apparently makes use of TT in his efforts to show that it is irrational to fear death. He says, “as long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.” Lucretius says pretty much the same thing, but in many more words and more poetically: “Death therefore to us is nothing, concerns us not a jot, since the nature of the mind is proved to be mortal; . . . when we shall be no more, when there shall have been a separation of body and soul, out of both of which we are each formed into a single being, to us, you may be sure, who then shall be no more, nothing whatever can happen to excite sensation.”

A considerably clearer and more economical statement of TT can be found in L. W. Sumner’s “A Matter of Life and Death.” Sumner says, “The death of a person is the end of that person; before death he is and after death he is not. To die is therefore to cease to exist.”

Of course, these words are much more of a consolation to a philosophy professor or his readers than they would be to a citizen of the Congo trying to figure out where his next meal is coming from or how he or she can dodge a bullet or machete from a militia plaguing the nation.

Oddly enough, despite my advanced age, I have been brooding a lot less about death than I have in years. I guess I went through the same kind of phase that Feldman went through but kept it to myself. For the longest time, when I woke up in the middle of the night, I would immediately begin to think dark thoughts about dying. How would it come? Cancer? Heart disease?

For some reason these dark thoughts have disappeared like a brush fire that has burned itself out. In its place there is a deep calm and sense of satisfaction attached to being in the prime of life, at least intellectually and politically. With reasonably good health and a fairly secure financial situation, I look forward to the next 10 or 15 years of life as I put my shoulder to the wheel of the world historical movement that can abolish the conditions that led humanity to look in the first place for consolation from a god that did not exist.

June 5, 2012

Thoughts on the passing of Earl Shorris

Filed under: conservatism,Jewish question,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:23 am

Earl Shorris

The NY Times obituary on Earl Shorris is an admiring tribute to an exceptional human being:

Earl Shorris, a social critic and author whose interviews with prison inmates for a book inspired him to start a now nationally recognized educational program that introduces the poor and the unschooled to Plato, Kant and Tolstoy, died on May 27 in New York. He was 75.

The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son Anthony said.

Mr. Shorris, who wrote a dozen books during the first 35 years of his career, many sharply critical of Western culture as sliding toward plutocracy and materialism, became best known in his final years for founding the Clemente Course in the Humanities. Established in 1995 with 25 students at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in the East Village of Manhattan, the program offers the disadvantaged a 10-month curriculum of philosophy, history, art, literature and logic. It earned Mr. Shorris the National Humanities Medal, presented to him in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

Read full obit

I held Shorris in the highest esteem as both a principled left-liberal and a master essayist. As a literary genre, the personal essay’s first and greatest exponent was Michel Montaigne who always proceeded from the personal to the universal. Another master of the form is Philip Lopate whose essay on taking his incontinent aging father to a Chinese restaurant evolves into a transcendent meditation on fatherhood and death.

Earl Shorris’s last essay before his death appeared in Harper’s, a magazine that he has had a long association with. It is the quintessential personal essay titled “American vespers: The ebbing of the body politic” that begins with his latest hospitalization for the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that would shortly kill him and ending with commentary on another cancer, the military-industrial complex that is killing America.

In the middle of the night, when the hospital is in its deepest dusk, a confusing loneliness sets in. If there is no motion in the room, no sound, no sense of life in the pallid darkness, the little tremblings stop: in the perfect stillness, hope subsides; death presents itself in the guise of an analgesic. As if she knew this about the night, Sasha Stanton appeared carrying a small cup of lemon ice. It was the first food I had eaten in some days, and I took it not for hunger but for company.

Death was growing inside me. It defies the mind, like magic, for it was only death because of what had been described as the immortality metastasizing within. I was overcome by a kind of attraction to it. Nothing else had ever beckoned so! Not even the love of my wife or the faces of my sons.

Like a sonata in one movement, the piece shifts gradually toward a look at the “body politic”, with cancer a perfect metaphor for the state of things in 2012. I first heard such a metaphor from Joel Kovel, who in a talk on ecology at the Brecht Forum about 20 years ago described unregulated capitalist growth as a metastasizing tumor. Shorris writes:

Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance. All the oxygen flowed to a smaller and smaller section of the body politic. The history is brief and unquestionable: close to toppling, the society momentarily pulled itself upright, and then became even less ethical, less balanced, more endangered than ever as a lawless financial system came back from death, and like a foolish patient after a heart bypass operation, continued in its old ways. With no ethical component to national politics, President Obama could deliver his 2011 State of the Union speech without ever mentioning the word “poverty,” although one in every five American children lived in poverty. Without a commitment to Hutcheson’s idea of the greatest good, which is at the core of the original American philosophy in Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence, this may no longer be the brilliant experiment. If happiness is for the few and it produces unemployment approaching that of the Great Depression, then the shadow of evening is here.

Death is the moment when evening passes into night. I know. There is no surprise, and it often comes after a long sickness that is worse than death. When I died, I died of many things: the failing systems; the weakening of age; the exhaustion of the long war against dying. Finally, I succumbed to the lack of ethics in a California hospital, killed by filth and neglect.

I have wished for many years to be a physician to my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. And I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her.

No nation is forever.

The NY Times obit neglected to mention perhaps Shorris’s best-known and most controversial books, “Jews Without Mercy”. Written in 1971, it was the first open challenge to Jewish neoconservatives written by somebody not connected to the hard left.

Today I took the book out of the Columbia University library and scanned in the first chapter titled “Apology to Mr. Singer, Slayer of Chickens, May He Rest in Peace.” Like all of his other essays, it starts with the personal:

You were decorated with blood and feathers, praying and killing in the back room of a store on an empty block in a failed section of the town. The butcher pointed to you as if you were an advertisement. He asked if the boy wanted to watch Mr. Singer do his work. I declined to step behind the counter and through the unpainted wooden gate that led to your slaughterhouse. My grandmother laughed. She knew chickens, she knew children.

She prepared chickens in the tiny kitchen of her apartment, reaching into the hollow cavity to remove the liver, heart, and kidneys; tearing the fat from the flesh; and depositing the yellow clumps in a saucepan. She burned the feet in the fire of the stove, blackening the ends of the truncated toes. While the chicken soaked in salt water she spoke of you: You dassn’t be afraid of Mr. Singer. He’s a very learned man. When the Rabbi has a question, you know where he goes? To Mr. Singer!

This has a special meaning for me since I used to watch a Mr. Singer at work when I was a young boy. There was a ritual kosher chicken slaughterhouse in the back yard below my apartment in upstate NY and I used to watch the shochit in awe and wonder—this was before my parents bought their first TV. From my memoir scheduled to be released in August 2065:

Before long Shorris transforms himself into a kind of shochet, slicing the throats of the neocons:

Many of the converts have told of the journey across the political spectrum, although not with the detail or the honesty of Norman Podhoretz. Most of the others have begun with rationalization rather than confession, attempting to hide their newfound preference for vulgarity. Almost all of them have said that it is because they are Jewish that they have become neoconservatives. They speak for each other; they help each other with grants, consulting fees, and introductions to money and power. It is a close camaraderie for all but Daniel Bell, who resigned as coeditor of The Public Interest after he and Irving Kristol founded the magazine, and who was given into the hands of Michael Novak in the July 1981 issue of Commentary to be drummed out of the corps as one whose “imagination still operates within a Marxian horizon.” Novak, a Polish Catholic and the publicist of “ethnic interests,” the new euphemism for racism, delivered the coup de grace earlier in the same paragraph: “Bell is said to have quipped that he is a liberal in politics, a socialist in economics, and a conservative in culture. The single most systematic strength in his thinking—and simultaneously, the single most glaring weakness—is that the socialist in him frequently overwhelms both the liberal and the conservative.” The club is warm and supportive, but it is restricted. Daniel Bell, the best mind among the neoconservatives, cannot be considered a neoconservative: He simply could not bring himself to trade ethics for vulgarity.

Returning to the NY Times obit, I was appreciative of Earl Shorris’s efforts on behalf of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities while feeling queasy about its funding from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, like so many of Bard’s philanthropic efforts. The Clemente center benefits poor Latinos, a program with the same good intentions as Bard’s Prison Initiative that allows prisoners to earn a BA while incarcerated.

If I ever had gotten to know Shorris, I would have like to ask him about Soros’s impact on the poor people of Hungary whose homes were foreclosed in the tens of thousands after the Central Bank suffered huge losses because of Soros’s insider trading. After watching the documentary “Pink Ribbons Inc.”, I am more skeptical of deep-pocketed foundations than ever, I’m afraid.

There’s something about these programs that reminds me of George Bush ‘41’s “thousand points of light”. With American higher education going down the tubes, what real value is there in setting up Potemkin Villages that show off George Soros’s good will?

Ultimately, the worldview of the left-liberal, including the best of them like Gore Vidal or Earl Shorris, is moralistic and does not consider the possibility that “mercy” is not the solution to the nation’s problems but a radical restructuring of the economy so that everybody comes into the world on an equal footing.

December 26, 2011

A festival of lights–or blood?

Filed under: Jewish question,religion — louisproyect @ 6:21 pm

http://thebusysignal.com/2010/12/01/rethinking-hanukkah-the-dark-history-of-the-festival-of-lights/

Rethinking Hanukkah: The Dark History of the Festival of Lights
2010 December 1

by J.A. Myerson

OK, so: there’s a civil war. On one side is a group of reformers, who break from divine-right totalitarianism to design a society based on reason, philosophy, comity with national neighbors and religious moderation. On the other is a violent group of devout fanatics who engage in terrorist warfare in their quest to institute religious law that includes ritual sacrifice and compulsory infant genital mutilation. Which side are you on?

And if the second group defeats the first, returns the land to theocratic despotism, institutes a program of imperial conquest and declares the abolition of secular thought, isolating itself from the rest of the civilized world for a century, do you celebrate their victory?

Easy answers, surely, if this scenario were situated in the Muslim world of the 21st century. But, starting tonight, a great many Jews the world over, including—or perhaps especially—secular American Jews, will light candles and sing prayers in observance of Hanukkah, which commemorates the historical incident aforementioned. The sectarian factions were traditionalist Jews and their Hellenized brethren. The location was Jerusalem. The year was 165 BCE.

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