Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 2, 2018

The Arab-Jew: Caught Between Warring Identities

Filed under: Counterpunch,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 2, 2018

Nearly five years ago I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “Voices of the Mizrahim” that discussed “Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection”, a documentary that featured four Jewish members of the Communist Party in Iraq who became part of the “population exchange” associated with the creation of the state of Israel.

All four never stopped feeling like Iraqis after becoming Israeli citizens. In addition to the four, the film includes commentary on the phenomenon of the “Arab Jew” by NYU professor Ella Shohat who was born to Jewish parents in Baghdad and has written eloquently about the problems of divided identity for over thirty years. (The film can now be seen on Vimeo for only $5 and is well worth it: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/forget).

A generous collection of her articles are now available from Pluto Press in On the Arab-Jew, Palestine and Other Displacements that is of enormous importance in understanding not only the tragedy of the post-1947 “population exchange” but the ethnic conflicts tearing apart the Middle East and North Africa today.

Continue reading

July 25, 2017

Menashe

Filed under: Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 4:01 pm

Opening in New York and Los Angeles on Friday (locations are here), “Menashe” is an extraordinary film on a number of levels. To start with, it is the first Yiddish-language film in nearly 70 years. The earlier films catered to Eastern European immigrants who were interested in being entertained just like English-speaking audiences but in their native language. As such, the plots were often fairly conventional with at least one Western that might remind you of “Johnny Guitar”.

Since the audience for “Menashe” will likely be people who do not speak Yiddish, there are subtitles. Indeed, the only people who speak and read Yiddish nowadays, except for scholars, are the Hasidic Jews who live in Brooklyn and who do not go to movies, watch television or even go on the Internet. As the Jewish version of the Salafist sect in the Muslim world, the Hasidim are authoritarian-minded religious zealots who live in an insular, male-dominated society.

As it happens, that is exactly the world that is portrayed in “Menashe”, which has a nonprofessional cast of Hasidim that took considerable risks in taking part in a film that while being respectful toward their traditions challenges some of their key practices. That indeed constitutes the central drama of the film. Menashe is a man in his late 30s who is attempting to raise his 10-year old son Rieven by himself after his wife has died. However, the sect he belongs to will not permit single parenting. A full year after her death, he is under intense pressure from his brother-in-law Eizek and religious authorities to turn Rieven over to Eizek.

While Rieven prefers his loving father to the cold and remote uncle, he is savvy enough to understand that Menashe can barely take care of himself, let alone keep their family going after the death of his mom. Since there are strictly segregated sex roles in Hasidic families, Menashe has little idea of how to do what his wife once did. So breakfast now for Rieven might consist of a piece of cake and a cola drink. When he is preparing a dinner for the day of his wife’s memorial, he has to call on a neighbor to find out how to make a kugel, an egg noodle dish that is a Hasidic staple and that he burns.

When Rieven tags along with his father for a male-only drinking and singing party, he is appalled to see his father down three shots of vodka in rapid succession and obviously become tipsy. When his father isn’t looking, Rieven grabs his cell phone and calls Eizek to be rescued from Menashe who lashes out as his son as a snitch the next day.

Like John Travolta’s Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever”, Menashe has a low-paying job as a clerk in a retail store—in his case a small supermarket owned by a fellow Hasid. He owes his landlord back payments on rent and is constantly hitting up his boss for loans. In the first hint that the film is not romanticizing Hasidic life, Menashe argues with his boss about selling unwashed lettuce to a Hasidic housewife, a violation of strict Jewish dietary laws. He is told that the store’s profits are more important than following scripture.

Throughout the film, there are other signs of fissure inside the tightly circumscribed Hasidic world. In a visit to Eizek to pick up his son, Eizek’s daughter is heard complaining about why she can’t go to college. There are also arguments about why Hasidic women cannot drive a car. These are disputes that are going on right now in Hasidic neighborhoods and as the case in Saudi Arabia, there are voices for reform pitted against the hardliners. Despite the film’s bold attempt to address these conflicts, its main purpose is to reveal the daily rhythms of Hasidic life from the recitations of prayers during mealtime to dates arranged by a matchmaker.

The film was directed by Joshua Weinstein, a secular Jew who has only made documentaries in the past. The script was co-written by Alex Lipschultz, a secular Jew like the director, and Musa Syeed, the son of Kashmiri immigrants.

The story of how the film originated is told in a January 18, 2017 Los Angeles Times article titled How did a Sundance filmmaker shoot a scripted movie in the insulated world of New York’s Hasidim? I urge you to read the entire article but this excerpt should give you an idea of the challenges that faced Weinstein:

Weinstein, who attended a Conservative Jewish day school in suburban New Jersey, knew little of these groups growing up. He makes his living as a cinematographer, often on far-flung documentaries. But as he walked through the Hasid-rich Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park earlier this week, he spoke of his inspiration for the movie. In 2014 he had just completed a series of difficult shoots involving subjects such as poor villages in India and end-of-life care in the U.S. A more humanist story, in his own backyard, seemed appealing.

Without even knowing what story he wanted to tell, he began hanging out in Borough Park, bringing his notepad to the streets, stores and synagogues of this bustling neighborhood, often wearing a large black yarmulke to blend in. (Thank God for hipster filmmaker beards.) He also connected with several members of different Hasidic communities who’d left but retained roots in it, and linked up with a Chabad-affiliated casting agent who could bridge two worlds.

Matters would soon go awry. Would-be performers would sign on and drop out, realizing that it wasn’t worth the fallout at their synagogue or children’s school. Even now, Weinstein has declined to reveal the names of nearly all the actors apart from Lustig, knowing they could face blowback from the tight-knit community.

Financing was tricky too — money came from sources in the larger Jewish community, but in dribs and drabs. Weinstein would shoot for a few days or weeks at a time, put down his camera, go back to his day job, raise money, and then return to production. (The film was shot over a period of nearly two years.)

Locations would also fall through, as some store owners would get cold feet, fearing negative communal publicity.

“That’s the supermarket we shot in,” Weinstein said, as he gestured to a large store on a major thoroughfare. “Well, one of them. We got kicked out of four supermarkets, I think. They all form one supermarket in the movie.”

Meanwhile, only a small percentage of the people who came in to read for parts had even seen movies — and even then they tend to be locally sourced “kosher” recordings, low-budget productions with spiritual messages. Some had honed their chops at so-called “Purim Spiels,” a kind of Hasidic Chitlin Circuit of seasonal skits centered on the springtime masquerade holiday. Still, those were big, broad comedies — not exactly useful for a lo-fi drama. Weinstein asked performers to enact stories or behaviors from their own lives, wrote scenes around them, then fit them into the script.

Key to the film was Lustig. A member of the Skver sect, the 38-year-old had stirred up minor celebrity — and controversy — in his community after posting a series of slapsticky home videos on YouTube. Weinstein met Lustig and was struck by his talent and back story. Lustig had moved to London when he married his wife, a Hasidic Brit, around 2000. His wife would die several years later, and Lustig returned to New York with his then-4-year-old son. Like the widower character he plays, a family member had sought to keep custody of his son. Weinstein heard the tale and built his movie around it. Then he convinced the Hasid to take a starring role.

“I don’t feel I’m being rebellious,” said Lustig, as he waited in the lobby at a pre-festival reception in Manhattan that evening, in his trademark beard and conservative garb. “I just think if someone has talent — if God gives you talent — because you’re a Jew you’re not allowed to use it? It doesn’t make sense.”

Ilan Halevi wrote an authoritative Marxist study titled “A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern, history of the Jews” that places the Hasidic movement in the context of economic and social dislocations of 19th century Europe:

There is one area where Hasidism not only did not challenge orthodoxy, but outbid the rabbinical discourse: the crucial area of the cleavage Jews and non-Jews. The eschatological justification of difference as essential. Difference was one of the constantly recurring themes of rabbinical Judaism: Separation (havdalah) was a key concept. God separated Israel from among the Nations and this extraction was of an ontological nature:

‘Like day from night, like the sacred from the profane.’ Talmudic law pushed the horror of the mixing of species to the prohibiting any grafting of vegetable species. Kabbalistic literature was full of such expressions of national pride and messianic particularism. But the intellectual practice of the Mediterranean Kabbala could, through exegesis, lead to heretical questionings of this basic distinction, which cannot simply be reduced to the divine guarantee of the ethnic superiority chosen group. The rabbinical caste, indeed, was dependent on it for relations with the princely rulers and the stratum of intermediaries. The weight of this dual relationship tempered the cosmological tribalism of the Law. It had even, under the tolerant Islam of the Abbassids, allowed this tribalism to harmonize its language with the surrounding civilization, which was itself fascinated by Greek Reason.”

Nothing like this, no modification of rabbinical ethnicism was at work in universe of the Hasidim: the fact was that the persecution of the community was occurring in conditions that were unique in the history of this Law. The de facto separation of the Shtetl from the surrounding society, a separation that was not only religious and social, but linguistic and spatial, found in this the theological weapons it needed to assert itself. While postponing to an indefinite future the hopes for a political messiah, Hasidism also expressed, by its outright denial of time and place, the historical subjectivism of the Shtetl which could later fuel the growth of Jewish nationalism.

The internal crisis of the Shtetl, whose roots are to be found in the crisis of Polish feudalism, was exacerbated and radically aggravated. The domain of Polish sovereignty was shrinking rapidly. A kingdom that had stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea grew smaller and smaller as around it tsarist Russia, the Hapsburg empire and the German states grew larger and larger. The Polish question became the European question and centuries-old Polish Jewry saw its territory carved up among several states Austria, which took Galicia, lightened the conditions of Jews there: but Russia, having seized the Ukraine and Byelorussia, oppressed them there, said Lenin, ‘more harshly than the Negroes’. The Napoleonic conquest, short as it may have been, precipitated the disintegration, inducing a general upheaval in the empires of the centre and east. Following the French occupation, the whole map of the region was transformed. The new frontier of Austria and Russia, which shared the whole of what remained of Poland in 1815, cut the Ashkenazi world in two, divided the dynasties of Hasidic rabbis, and determined new sub-problematics. The sociological unity of Ashkenazi Judaism was beginning to fracture.

These upheavals deepened in the 20th century and at their nadir plunged the Hasidic population into Hitler’s concentration camps, where they died alongside their secular relatives. After WWII came to an end, they relocated to America, led by their Rabbis. When they came here, not only were they in a state of shock but were not sure how they would relate to American society.

At first they did not adopt the familiar Hasidic garb. The men were clean shaven and both men and women wore normal clothing. The only thing that made them stand out were their tattoos, which they received in concentration camps. I recall seeing them up in the Catskill Mountains in the early ’50s. The assimilated Jews referred to them as “the refugees.” I remember how shocking the tattoos seemed to me at the time. No Jew was supposed to get a tattoo because it meant that you couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Jewish religious codes dictated that you had to leave the world in the same way that you came into it. The only tattooed Jews I knew were merchant marines who got them when they were on a drunken binge in some port.

Eventually the Hasidic leaders made an interesting decision which goes against the grain of the American melting pot. They decided to recreate the Hasidic world in urban New York. During the 1950s, when there was enormous pressure to assimilate, when xenophobia was at an all-time high under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and when anti-Semitism was expressed openly around the Rosenbergs trial, the Hasidim made the decision to reject American culture and society. They would create an enclave of everything that was “non-American” within the American heartland.

Not only did they decide to look non-American, they decided to reject the temptations of American success. Hasidic youth were directed not to go to college, since worldly temptations existed there. Also, during a time of enormous popularity for television and movies, they rejected both as impious. Most Hasidic families are tightly constrained by economic duress. When you have 10 to 12 children–a typical family size–and the breadwinner is a truck-driver or clerk like Menashe in a Hasidic-owned business, food and lodging expenses alone are onerous.

I have only gotten to know one Hasidic person in my life, and then only on a casual basis. This was Joe, a free-lance computer programmer I used to work with at Metropolitan Life. He had 9 kids and lived in a housing project. He said that it was extremely rare to see a Hasidic computer programmer like him because you generally needed a college education. He got into the field when this wasn’t necessary. He was a very likable guy with a sense of humor. He made no attempt to proselytize me. If anything, I was more of a nuisance to fellow employees because of my Trotskyist politics.

The Hasidim are a complex subject. On one hand they evoke admiration for their steadfast refusal to blend in. It was this stubborn “un-Americanism” that appealed to Philip Roth. One of the most memorable stories in “Goodbye Columbus” is about the resistance of assimilated Jews in a suburban town to the presence of a Hasidic yeshiva. The main character goes through an identity crisis/nervous breakdown in the course of the fight and decides to don a Hasidic black robe and parade through the town’s main street to everybody’s shock.

On the other hand, their exclusionism when mixed with power politics can lead to some highly toxic chauvinism. The clashes with blacks in Brooklyn and with Palestinians in the Mideast indicate how the historical pariah and underdog can become the oppressor given sufficient military and economic clout.

March 20, 2017

Where did I come from? The Khazar hypothesis

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 10:45 pm

When I was in high school, I always assumed that I was a Sephardic Jew since my last name was the same as the Spanish word for project (el proyecto). It was only years later that I discovered in a book of Jewish surnames put together by Czarist scribes that is available at the YIVO library in NYC (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, or Yiddish Scientific Institute) that the name was Yiddish for the counting house of a tax farmer, prevalent in the Slutsk district of Byelorussia in the 1860s.

A tax farmer was a court Jew historically, someone authorized to collect taxes for a monarch or other landed gentry for a percentage of the take. When I read Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question” shortly after joining the SWP, I was persuaded that my ancestors were like those described in the book—people who carried out financial transactions that were banned by the church. When a Christian banking class began to emerge in the late middle ages, the old-line Jewish bankers and tax collectors et al were banished from Spain, England and elsewhere. They headed east to Poland and Russia, where feudalism persisted. From various accounts, I have learned that the most vicious pogroms of the 19th century were carried out against tax collectors on estates owned by the Russian and Polish aristocracy who had little contact with the serfs they exploited.

The only alternative history of the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews is based on Khazaria, a Jewish kingdom that existed from 800 to 1000 AD. The most famous account of the kingdom is found in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe” that I read when it came out in 1976. Based on scholarship that the Jewish establishment, particularly those identifying with the Zionist project, dismissed as nonsense, the book argues that a Turkic-speaking nomadic people decided to adopt Judaism as a way of establishing an ethnic/religious identity that would serve as a firewall against Christianity to the West and Islam to the East.

Up until recently, I assumed that Khazaria was in the eastern regions of Turkey that they call Anatolia. But I was quite surprised that the kingdom was north of the Black Sea (Turkey lies to the south of the sea) in a geographical region largely occupied by Ukraine.

This I learned from reading in Paul Magocsi’s fascinating 894-page “A History of Ukraine”. In the chapter titled “The Slavs and the Khazars”, Magocsi describes the Jewish state as a place where the pagan Slavic peoples began to flourish under a regime that provided a stable, peaceful and tolerant environment for different faiths in the same manner that North African Muslim states around the same time provided a haven for Jews. Magocsi writes:

Living within the protective shadow of the Pax Khazaria, the Slavic tribes on Ukrainian lands were spared for a while the worst nomadic invasions from the east, and, as a result, between the seventh and ninth centuries they were able to expand their agricultural and trading activities. But despite such protection, some Slavic princes began to resent their vassal-like relationship to the Khazar rulers. For the longest time, however, the Slavs were not united, and no individual tribe had the strength to confront the Khazar Kaganate. Building up the necessary strength became a possibility only in the mid-ninth century, with a new development in the region of Kiev. This development combined local forces with a group of leaders from Scandinavia — the Varangians — and the result was the eventual consolidation of a new power known as Rus’. How did this new phenomenon arise? Or, to cite the opening passage of the Primary Chronicle, the most famous discussion of the subject, what was “the origin of the land of Rus’, [and of] the first princes of Kiev, and from what source did the land of Rus’ have its beginning?”

It was up to Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, to assemble an army to break the power of the Khazars and begin the process of creating a Christian empire over the territory once ruled by the Jews. Vladimir was a scion of the Viking royalty who had expanded their influence eastward over the nomadic Slavic tribes and the rest is history.

After reading Magocsi’s account, I decided to have a look at Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” that was published by Verso in 2009. As you might glean from the title, Sand rejects the notion that the Jews who came to live in Israel as part of the Zionist colonizing project had little biological ties to those who lived in Palestine in the time of Jesus. In a nutshell, he believes that the Khazar Jews continued to live in the same way as they always had but under Christian rule. You might ask yourself how they ended up speaking Yiddish, a language with obviously close relations to German. He says that this is a result of some German Jewish inflow into the area. Since the educated elites from Germany were socially superior to the native Jewish population, their language and liturgy eventually became hegemonic. I doubt if any of this will ever be resolved short of an exhaustive archaeological project that few Jewish scholars—mostly in sympathy with Zionist ideology—would bother to undertake. It is better to continue with the old time legends and myths about the Red Sea being parted, etc.

While most Ashkenazy Jews like Golda Meier or David Ben-Gurion would likely not make such a claim, it was doubtful that any of them would acknowledge being descendants of the Khazars who were Turkic converts to a faith that had one foot in traditional Jewish liturgy and the other in an alien culture that persists to this day, if you look carefully for it. Rejecting implicitly Abram Leon’s thesis that the Jews of Eastern Europe had fled from France, Germany and England, Sand writes:

At the center of the Jewish townlet stood the synagogue, with a double dome reminiscent of the Eastern pagoda. Jewish dress in Eastern Europe did not resemble that of the Jews of France or Germany. The yarmulke—also derived from a Turkic word—and the fur hat worn over it were more reminiscent of the people of the Caucasus and the horsemen of the steppes than of Talmudic scholars from Mainz or merchants from Worms. These garments, like the long silk caftan worn chiefly on the Sabbath, differed from clothing worn by the Belorussian or Ukrainian peasants. But any mention these features and others—from food to humor, from clothing to chants, connected to the specific cultural morphology of their daily life and their tory—scarcely interested the scholars who were occupied in inventing the eternal history of the “people of Israel.” They could not come to terms with the troublesome fact that there had never been a Jewish people’s culture, but only popular Yiddish culture that resembled the cultures of their neighbors much more than it did those of the Jewish communities of Western Europe or North Africa.

I was intrigued by the reference to yarmulke being derived from the Turkish. Wikipedia states that the word probably from the Turkish yağmurluk (“rainwear”), though it could also be from Medieval Latin almutia (“hood, cowl”).

In terms of the fur hat, that is probably a reference to the shtreimel worn by Satmar Hasidim. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is of Crimean Tatar origin, which is consistent with Sand’s account of how many Khazaris ended up in Crimea.

A Jew in a shtreimel

One of the more interesting discussions of the Khazarites can be found in “A History of the Jews”, written by Ilan Halevi who was a high-ranking Jewish member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. His discussion of the linguistic affinities between the long-gone Jewish state and other ethnicities is intriguing:

Some of these groups, however, took control, for considerable lengths of time, major communication centres, establishing around them short-quasi-states which entered into contact with the neighbouring empires in complex relationships of clientage and suzerainty, essentially on the imperial need for human barriers against the main body of the wave. For both Byzantium and Persia, the Ghassanid and Lakhmid Arab tribes had played this role of frontier guards against the tribes of the desert. It was against this background that there appeared, in the 6th century, on the west bank of the Caspian Sea, the kingdom of the Khazars. Originally the term “Khazar” did not describe a particular ethnic group: it was a sort generic name for all the Turco-Mongol peoples on the move in this region. It seems that the word itself derives from a Turkish root meaning “nomad” in which case it would be a Turkish equivalent of the Arabic bedu (Bedouin) describing, within a multi-tribal language, not an ethno-linguistic group, but a sociological category, the occupation and way of life of whole populations and even, at the extreme, a value system based on the specifity of this mode of organization. Thus, the Khazars were called Kaissak in the Urals, and Kazakh on the borders of China and Afghanistan where the Russian revolution would establish Kazakhstan; from their name would come the name of the Cossacks and the English word “Hussar”. But the Turcoman peoples of the Volga and the Caspian or the Crimea, whose own ethnic names were the Kalmyks and the Khirghiz, the Uzbeks and the Bashkirs, the Tatars called Tartars and many others, were, at the time of which we are speaking, Khazars on every criterion.

The only other linguistic item worth mentioning is that the king of the Khazars was called the Kagan. That’s the same name of the Supreme Court justice as well as many other Jews living in Brooklyn and elsewhere. If there was any justice in the world, the Zionists should have stayed out of the Middle East and come to Brooklyn instead—the real homeland of the Jews.

 

February 28, 2017

The Settlers; PS Jerusalem; The Last Laugh

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,zionism — louisproyect @ 11:30 pm

At first blush, the connection between two films about the loss of faith in Zionism and one about whether jokes can ever be made about the Holocaust might seem tenuous at best. However, without the Holocaust there would be no Israel. Furthermore, the director of that film, who is Jewish like the other two, might have something else in common. Once you begin joking about concentration camps, doesn’t that remove the sanctity that the state of Israel rests on? When British Labourite Naz Shah posted an image on FB of Israel superimposed on the USA, it was soon revealed that it was lifted from Norman Finkelstein’s website. Commenting on the controversy whether this image suggested that Jews be “transported” from Israel as they were to concentration camps, Finkelstein laughed at the comparison. The image was nothing but a light-hearted joke:

These sorts of jokes are a commonplace in the U.S. So, we have this joke: Why doesn’t Israel become the 51st state? Answer: Because then, it would only have two senators. As crazy as the discourse on Israel is in America, at least we still have a sense of humour.

“The Settlers”, which opens at the Film Forum on Friday, March 3rd, is as the title implies a close look at the settlements in the West Bank that cropped up after the Israeli victory in the six-day war of 1967. The settlements continued to grow under both Labour and Likud governments, no matter world opinion—least of all, the USA’s demand that they cease. For an understanding of American foreign policy, it is important to understand that actions count a lot more than words. When Obama said that Bashar al-Assad must step down, the blood-stained dictator must have figured out that this carried about as much weight as calling for a return to the 1967 borders.

The film is a mixture of archival footage of Israeli expansion into the West Bank and interviews with mostly elderly leaders of the land grab, who show about as much reflection on the injury done to Palestinians as a wolf does after consuming a rabbit. Maybe the wolf experiences great pangs of conscience.

The documentary shows Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook making a fiery speech to his ultra-religious followers a few days after Israel has defeated the Arab armies. He likens it to a biblical miracle and a mandate for creating a Greater Israel based on the ancient Judea and Samaria kingdoms. Today’s followers of Kook are even more ambitious. They envision a state that is bordered by two rivers: the Nile to the West and the Euphrates to the East. With Donald Trump in the White House and with the Democratic Party equally deferential to Zionist expansionism, who can say what Israel will look like a decade from now?

Kook was the founder of Gush Emunim, the fanatical ultraright vanguard of the settlement movement. His father was Rabbi Abraham Kook, who was the first Hasidic rabbi to connect the ancient theological belief in the Messiah with the modern Zionist project. He was the head of a sub-sect within the Lubavitcher sect that unlike their rivals in the quietist Satmars has been a virtual wing of the Likud Party and an abettor to its worst crimes.

As it happens, the shadow of the Kook family looms large over 20th century Jewish history. Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, was the nephew of Abraham Kook and a leader of the Revisionist movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and which bred Menachem Begin, who was Israel’s prime minister from 1977 to 1983 and a fanatical supporter of the settlements. To his credit, Bergson opposed the Zionist establishment during WWII, demanding that Jews be allowed into the USA without regard to the consequences of Zionist colonization. Even if Lenni Brenner remains one of Zionism’s sharpest critics, he respected Bergson’s efforts.

If Zvi Yehooda Kook provided the philosophical and political inspiration for the settlements, it was Rabbi Moshe Levinger who provided the muscle and the organizational skills. Shown strutting around with an Uzi or haranguing his followers to assault Arabs, Levenger led the Zionist incursion into Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, that is described in shocking detail in “The Settlers”. When Begin was prime minister, Levinger effectively became a pit bull unleashed by his master.

Director Shimon Dotan had unusual access to the elderly settlers who felt free to reveal their brazen disregard for Palestinian rights and their own self-justification based on biblical legends. A former Navy Seal in the IDF, Dotan moved to Canada in 1991 ostensibly for political reasons. When word got out that he was going to make a film about the settlements, the Internet became abuzz with stories about the plans of a “deep leftist” to make a film that might discredit them. While most of the film is devoted to allowing the settlers to hoist themselves on their own petards, there are several Israeli leftist academics who offer the sort of criticisms you might read in Haaretz. I was particularly impressed with Moshe Habertal, who is now a guest professor in the NYU Law School.

One wonders if Dotan and Habertal have ever been willing to grapple with the reality that is hinted at in this very powerful film but never articulated—namely the inexorable dynamic that leads Israel to create settlements beyond the 1967 borders in a lebensraum type permanent aggression against Arab peoples. That dynamic existed from the birth of the state despite its socialist pretensions. Someday an Israeli might make a film based on that premise but in the meantime, “The Settlers” will accelerate that process.

(“The Settlers” is on a double feature with “Ben Gurion: Epilogue” that I had a brief look at. It will be of less interest but might help to give you some insights into labor Zionism, a tendency that has about as much traction in Israel as Democratic Party liberalism has in the USA.)

“P.S. Jerusalem” is a virtual companion piece to “The Settlers” that opens at the Lincoln Plaza Theaters in New York on March 17. Directed by Danae Elon, the daughter of the late Amos Elon, it resembles a home movie that is distinguished by the honesty of the director and the willingness of her family to take part in what amounts to a much realer version of the sort of reality TV you can see on the Bravo Network, famous (or infamous) for shows like “Housewives of New Jersey” that has family members airing their feuds in front of millions of viewers.

Elon’s film is much less “dramatic” than the staged reality of Bravo’s shows but much rawer because the feelings expressed by Danae Elon and her husband Philippe—an Algerian Jew—could never be written in advance.

In 2010, Elon was living in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons when she decided to move back to Jerusalem, where she grew up. Pregnant at the time with her third son, who would be born in Israel and named after his grandfather, she felt irresistibly drawn to the “Jewish homeland” even though her father—a long time journalist at the liberal Haaretz and author of many books—had emigrated in disgust. In a 2002 article for the New York Review of Books titled “Israel and the Palestinians” that hews closely to the narrative of Dotan’s documentary, Elon ends on a note of despair:

The vast settlement project after 1967, aside from being grossly unjust, has been self-defeating and politically ruinous. “We’ve fed the heart on fantasies,/the heart’s grown brutal on the fare,” as William B. Yeats put it almost a century ago in a similar dead-end situation in Ireland. The settlement project has not provided more security but less. It may yet, I tremble at the thought, lead to results far more terrible than those we are now witnessing.

His daughter came to Israel with the same trepidations with her film is focused on exposing Jerusalem’s inequalities. She trains her cameras on Palestinians being expelled from their homes, rallies against the expulsions and the profanity-laced and often physical attacks by the sorts of people profiled in Dotan’s film.

It is a bit difficult to understand why anybody with her convictions would want to return to Israel knowing full well that it was no longer the labor Zionist fantasy her own father had abandoned. I even wonder if she went there with the prospects of making a film that would likely have dystopian undercurrents.

For the three years she was there, her husband did the best he could to fit in but not knowing Hebrew and being unable to find work as a photographer made that difficult. Towards the end, he became fed up. In a profoundly dramatic scene, he tells Danae that she has to decide between having a husband or living in Israel. Her yearnings for Jewish identity clash with his desire to live in a society that is not so cruel and racist. It took quite a bit of courage for the two to reveal the conflict that was tearing them apart.

Finally, there is “The Last Laugh” that opens on Friday, also at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. This is a documentary that examines the question of whether you can joke about the holocaust but more generally taboos in comedy.

With a survivor named Renee Firestone at the heart of the film passing judgement on the efforts of various comics to extract such humor (largely unsuccessfully), the consensus is if you are going to make such jokes they’d better be very good. One commentator makes a shrewd observation: if you are going to use the holocaust as the basis for a serious film or play, that is just as true. As someone who has seen one too many treacly holocaust films, I can attest to that.

The film has lined up a virtual who’s who of comics who have either tried to make comedy out of the holocaust or Nazis. At one point, Mel Brooks, one of the interviewees, admits that is one thing to make jokes about the Nazis in a film like “The Producers” but he could never find humor in Auschwitz. In recent years, that taboo has been broken as well. The film shows a segment from the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode when Larry David inadvertently invites a “survivor” to meet a friend of his father who was also a survivor. The man turns out to be a contestant in the reality TV show called “Survivor” where people compete on a desert island or some other rugged outpost in stunts such as foot races in an obstacle course. He tells the old man that he had it rougher than him on the show since he had to wear flip-flops while competing.

Although the film is focused on the holocaust, it is much more about the art of comedy. Listening to people like Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner and his father Mel discussing jokes analytically and soberly would be worth the price of admission since god knows that there is hardly anything to laugh at in films nowadays.

November 8, 2016

Birobidzhan

Filed under: art,Film,Jewish question,Stalinism,ussr — louisproyect @ 10:54 pm

Thirteen years ago I had the good fortune to review a documentary titled “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” by Klezmer musician Yale Strom that served as an introduction to the Jewish Autonomous Region of the USSR that Stalin declared in 1934. My review began:

When he was a young boy, Yale Strom noticed two “sidukah” (charity) boxes in his father’s shop. One was the omnipresent blue Jewish National Fund box intended for Israel that my own father kept in his fruit store. The other was targeted for Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin decreed in 1932. His curiosity about the lesser-known Jewish homeland became the seed for his documentary “L’Chayim Comrade Stalin,” now showing at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

 Based on interviews with current and past residents and archival material, including a altogether charming Soviet feature film of the period promoting settlement, the film not only sheds light on an under-documented aspect of Stalinist rule, it also inspires a variety of reactions to the “Jewish Question.” (Strom utilizes a graphic of these two words writ large in red repeatedly through the film as a kind of leitmotif.)

 Most of the older veterans of Birobidzhan make clear that the project tapped into youthful idealism. Combining a belief in communism with a desire to create a cultural homeland for the Jews, they came to the Siberian hinterland with great hopes. Despite the fact that anti-Semitism prompted Stalin to create the settlement in a geographically remote area, the settlers did not necessarily view this as a kind of internal exile. Stephen F. Cohen points out eloquently in his biography of Bukharin that Stalin’s despotic “revolution from above” did not preclude a kind of egalitarian zeal from bubbling to the surface. Despite repression, many people felt that they were on a great adventure to build a new society, including the Jews who came to Birobidzhan.

Clearly, Birobidzhan continues to grip the imagination of filmmakers, artists and scholars based on recent works I have had a chance to examine.

A few days after I reviewed “Finding Babel”, the film distribution company Seventh Art Releasing got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in watching “Birobidzhan”, a film made by Belgian director Guy-Marc Hinant in 2015. Hinant is also a poet and music producer specializing in the avant-garde. As such, it is clear that he approaches the material from a different angle than Yale Strom whose film was much more conventional despite sharing the same passionate engagement with the subject. Much of “Birobidzhan” consists of evocative images of the region that are not directly related to the history such as the blurred images of a speeding freight train or an ominous and unexplained burning field. As is the case with most art films, and this certainly qualifies as one, such devices are evaluated on the basis of whether they help to lend emotional weight to the film and Hinant succeeds on this basis.

Like Strom’s film, we see the efforts of the dwindling number of Jews still living in Birobidzhan today trying to reconstruct a Jewish identity both culturally and religiously. Unlike the Hebrew-speaking Zionist entity, the Jews of Birobidzhan are devoted to Yiddish, the language that was blessed by Stalin with official status. Watching young kids in a classroom learning to read and write Yiddish is a moving experience as is seeing a somewhat older group rehearsing a musical play in the local theater that looks like a production from Second Avenue in the 1920s, and finally a chorus of septuagenarian women singing “Hava Negila”, a song that we sang in Hebrew school in the late 1950s. It is worth noting that the song has an iconic status in Israel as it is the first modern folk song to use Hebrew lyrics and is as almost as well-known as the Israeli national anthem. Somehow it seems less threatening in this context.

In some ways, it would have been better for the Jews to have made Birobidzhan their homeland rather thn Israel since it truly was a land without people that could accommodate a people without land. The film notes that long before 1934, Jews were settling in the remote and desolate territory in Siberia simply to escape the anti-Semitism that persisted in the USSR after the October revolution. Unlike Israel, where Yiddish was practically banned as a language linked to the ghetto and victimhood, Birobidzhan was devoted to Yiddish culture and even created the Sholem Aleichem library that contained more than 35,000 Yiddish titles. During his campaign against “bourgeois nationalism”, Stalin had all but 4,000 of them burned.

When Stalin launched the great repression of the 1930s, Birobidzhan was swept into the bloody whirlpool. Like Isaac Babel, some of the leading intellectuals and journalists who had migrated to Birobidzhan were charged with supporting Leon Trotsky and executed, including Joseph Liberberg—the first chair of the Jewish Region’s Council of People’s Deputies. An article on Liberberg shows the promise of the early USSR:

The mid-1920s were an exciting time to be involved in Jewish culture in the fledgling Soviet Union, where—for the first time in history—Yiddish culture and scholarship received state support. Liberberg left his university to post to head a new Jewish culture department at the All-Ukrainian Ukrainian Academy of Science.

Liberberg along with Nokhem Shtif organized the Jewish division, a scholarly institution specializing in Jewish studies. The initiative for its creation came from high party circles who supported the work of scholarly institutions in minority cultures throughout the Soviet Union.

The department evolved into the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in 1929. This became the leading Jewish cultural institution in Ukraine and attracted scholars and cultural activists from around the Soviet Union and throughout the world. A charismatic and ambitious director, Liberberg was not afraid to employ people who had previously held non-communist political positions.

As director of Ukraine’s most elite Jewish cultural institution — the republic with more than 60% of the Soviet Union’s Jews — Liberberg found little time for his academic work. He did get around to publish An Economic and Social History of England in 1927, co-edit October Days: Materials on the History of the October Revolution, also in 1927, A Dictionary of Political Terminology and Foreign Words, in 1929, The Bibliological Miscellany, in 1930, and a later addendum to that volume.

When I think about the murder of people like Liberberg and Babel, I never regret my decision to have become a Trotskyist in 1967 no matter the sectarian baggage this entailed. “Birobidzhan” is a glimpse into a what truly might have been described as “A different world is possible”. With all of the terrible things that took place in the USSR, we should never forget that in its youth it was a symbol of freedom, social justice and the possibility of a life lived outside of capitalist exploitation.

Seventh Art has told me that the film should be available on home video in January 2017. My advice is to check http://www.7thart.com/films/Birobidzhan in a couple of months to see if it has become available.

The one thing that always struck me about those Whitney Biennial Exhibitions is that the conceptual art that dominated the show was missing a key ingredient: a concept. That has never been the case with my friend Yevgeniy Fiks who I regard as America’s most accomplished conceptual artist. As someone who tackles the big topics of our day–the persecution of gay people, Jewish identity, the legacy of the Soviet Union and the power of big corporations among them—Fiks has the eye and the hand that can render the concepts into memorable art.

Last Saturday I attended the opening for his show Pleshka-Birobidzhan, 2016 that imagines Stalin having created a Homosexual Autonomous Region after the fashion of Birobidzhan. (Pleshka is the word for an area where gays “cruised” in Russia. The Bolshoi pleshka was the most renowned.)

Fiks explains his goals on his website:

The exhibition Pleshka-Birobidzhan engages the relationship between identity, fiction, and history by recreating an oral story about a group of Soviet gay men who travelled from Moscow to Birobidzhan in 1934 into an art installation. The oral story is set in 1934 soon after homosexuality was recriminalized in the Soviet Union and after the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region, of which Birobidzhan became the capital, was established.

The exhibition reenacts this Soviet gay oral story in a series of artworks that comprises the exhibition. This includes a series of 17 collages titled Pleshka-Birobidzhan which starts the narration. The collages depict gay men at several gay cruising sites a.k.a. pleshkas in 1934 discussing the recriminalization of homosexuality under Stalin as a failure of the October Revolution, the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Far East, and a dream of a gay Soviet utopia. The collages also depict the journey of a group of disillusioned gay men in fear of persecution to Birobidzhan, where upon their arrival found themselves in the middle of the Gay and Lesbian Autonomous Region — which appeared to exist alongside and at times overlapped with of the Soviet Jewish Utopia there.

This is a brilliant concept that 30 seconds after entering the Station Independent Projects gallery at 138 Eldridge Street, Suite 2F had my head spinning over the connections between being gay and being Jewish. As the ultimate outsiders in Soviet society in its Stalinist phase, all the two groups sought was to live in peace and freedom in urban settings where tolerance was the norm. Even if the Jews made the best they could out of life in Birobidzhan, most certainly would have preferred to enjoy the life of “rootless cosmopolitans” as Stalin referred to them in the post-WWII purges.

Like Hitler, Stalin had an atavistic hatred of Jews and homosexuals that was part of the Great Russian backwardness that swept across the USSR in the late 1920s as the dictator was pushing for social norms having more to do with Czarism than the socialist dreams of the earlier period.

If you are based in NYC, I strongly urge you to visit the gallery since there is no substitute for seeing the works rather than images on the Internet. If you can’t do so, check out http://yevgeniyfiks.com/section/441807-Pleshka-Birobidzhan-2016.html for a sample of the work including this stunning collage that mixes what I assume to be idealized portraits of Jewish workers or farmers in Birobidzhan with a dancer I surmise to be Vaslav Nijinsky.

birobidzhan

This is not Fiks’s first engagement with Birobidzhan. Two years ago he had an exhibition titled “A Gift to Birobidzhan” that I wrote about here. An excerpt from the press release explains the concept:

In 2009, artist Yevgeniy Fiks originated a project called A Gift to Birobidzhan. Established in the Soviet Union in 1934 as the Autonomous Jewish Region of the USSR, Birobidzhan was for a time considered a rival to Israel. Although located in a remote area near China, Birobidzhan caught the world’s imagination. In 1936, two hundred works of art was collected in the United States by activists as the foundation for the Birobidzhan Art Museum. The collection included works by Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Hugo Gellert, Harry Gottlieb, and William Gropper among others. The collection was first exhibited in New York and Boston, and in late 1936, it was shipped to the Soviet Union. The collection never reached its final destination in Birobidzhan. By late 1937, Stalin had purged the leadership from Birobidzhan at which time the collection vanished into government or private hands.

Taking this microhistorical narrative as his starting point, Fiks invited 25 contemporary international artists to donate works of their choosing to the existing museum of Birobidzhan. After initially agreeing to exhibit and accept the works into its collection, the museum in Birobidzhan conditionally retracted the offer, in part to avoid confrontation with a conflicted past and the fact that Birobidzhan now consist of a small Jewish population. Granting Fiks the role of steward, the artists agreed to let Fiks store the collection until it could reach its intended destination.

A Gift to Birobidzhan of 2009 was an attempt to repeat and complete — seventy years later — the gesture of “a gift to Birobidzhan” in 1936. As of 2014, it remains still a rejected gift and a “state-less collection,” packed in boxes in Fiks’ apartment in the Lower East Side. A Gift to Birobidzhan evokes the utopian promise of Birobidzhan — a Socialist alternative to a Jewish state — as a point of departure for discussions on broad 20th century’s impossible territorial politics, identity, national self-determination, and a common “seeking of happiness.” At present, we find that many of the same questions from the early 20th century have resurfaced again.

You can take a virtual tour of “A Gift to Birobidzhan” here.

Finally, I should refer you to Masha Gessen’s newly published “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region”. Gessen, a lesbian, is the sister of Keith Gessen, an n+1 editor who along with Fiks was introduced to me by Thomas Campbell, an activist based in Russia close to the radical art movement.

Gessen, like Fiks and her brother, is an astute analyst of Russian society and politics as well as an emigre. This is an excerpt from the book that will once again remind you of why Stalin was one of the 20th century’s greatest criminals. Although Hitler killed far more people,  the overthrow of Soviet democracy made it all the more difficult for those of us trying to make a better world and consequently led to the deaths of millions in the Third World who could not count on true solidarity from a Kremlin far more interested in short-term deals with imperialism. If Russia has continued to live up to the ideals that Birobidzhan writer David Bergelson held dear, the world would look a lot more different today and a lot better.

The man who made Birobidzhan famous had the gift of knowing when to run. That he lived into his late sixties is testament to his outstanding survival instincts. On his sixty-eighth birthday, he was shot to death, a final victim of the century’s most productive executioner. He had been a writer who preferred to leave his stories ragged and open-ended, but his own life, which ended on what became known as the Night of the Murdered Poets, had a sinister rhyme and roundness to it.

David Bergelson was born on August 12, 1884, in the village of Okhrimovo, a Ukrainian shtetl so small there might be no record of it now if it were not for Bergelson’s association with it. Three and a half years before his birth, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a group of young revolutionaries that counted one Jew, a woman, among them. Five persons were hanged for the crime, but it was the Jews of Russia who bore the brunt of the national rage. After some years of acquiring greater rights and freedoms, as well as hope, the Jews found the law closing in on them, herding them back into the shtetlach. Pogroms swept through the Pale, brutalizing the enlightened modern Russian-speaking Jews along with their traditional parents. Into this bleak, dangerous world came the surprise ninth child of an older couple.

The parents were rich and pious. Bergelson’s father, a grain and timber merchant, spoke no Russian; he belonged to the last generation of Jews who could achieve wealth, success, and prominence entirely within the confines of the Yiddish-speaking world. His wife was younger and of a different sphere: a cultured woman, a reader. David Bergelson’s education was an unsuccessful attempt to merge his parents’ worlds. He was tutored by a maskil—a product of the Jewish enlightenment movement—who taught him to speak and write in Russian and Hebrew, in addition to his native Yiddish, but not, as the young Bergelson found out later, well enough to enable him to be admitted to an institution of higher learning. His father died when David was a little boy, his mother when he was fourteen, and David’s wanderings commenced. Losing one’s anchors—and any sense of home—is essential for developing an instinct for knowing when it’s time to run.

The teenager left the shtetl and stayed, by turns, with older siblings in the big cities of Kyiv, Warsaw, and Odessa, subsidizing their hospitality out of his share of the family inheritance. He had a home, and a family, only so long as he could pay for them. This is another good lesson. One always has to pay to belong, and to have a roof over one’s head.

One thing Bergelson seems to have always known about himself was that he was a writer. Any young writer must find his language, but rarely is the choice as literal—and as difficult—as it was for Jews writing in the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the cities between which Bergelson was moving, he was surrounded by Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian speech. His command of these languages ranged from poor to limited. Then there was Hebrew, the language of his father’s prayers and a new movement’s dreams; as a teenager, Bergelson went through a period of fascination with the work of Nachman Syrkin, the founder of Labor Zionism. (Syrkin himself wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, and English.) Bergelson tried writing in Hebrew and failed—it may be that his command of it was insufficient for writing, or it could be that the language, in his hands, did not lend itself to the modernism he was attempting. He switched to Russian, but this expansive language failed him, too, perhaps because he wanted to write stark, sparse prose and Russian demanded flowery vagueness. He finally found his voice in his long-dead father’s living language, Yiddish.

Full: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/59374/where-the-jews-arent-by-masha-gessen/9780805242461/

October 14, 2016

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: drugs,Fascism,Film,Jewish question,prison — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

If there is any justification at this point for continuing a Netflix membership, it is the opportunity to see Werner Herzog’s new documentary about volcanoes on October 28th, which will be opening the same day at the IFC Center in New York. Titled “Inside the Inferno” and produced by Netflix itself, it is echt Herzog and qualified on that basis alone for putting it on your must-see list.

The film is co-directed by Clive Oppenheimer who is one of the world’s leading volcanologists and a constant presence throughout the film as he visits villages near major active volcanoes around the world, including Vanuatu, a group of islands about 1000 miles east of northern Australia. Oppenheimer alternates with Herzog in interviewing village elders who maintain prescientific notions about spirits dwelling within the volcanoes. The co-directors have an uncanny ability to accept those beliefs in a respectful manner.

Speaking in terms of auteur theory, this documentary is obviously connected with Herzog’s major preoccupation—living at the edges of society and often in the face of some peril. If his “Grizzly Man” was an object lesson in getting too close to bears in the Alaskan wilderness, his latest is a reminder that scientists like Oppenheimer take as big a chance with their lives in their own pursuit.

In one of the more gripping scenes, we see the final moments of husband-and-wife volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft as an avalanche of lava comes pouring off Mount Unzen in Japan toward them on June 3, 1991. Herzog took considerable risks in making the film himself, at one point filming on the precipice of an active volcano that erupted as the cameras rolled, thankfully beneath life-threatening levels. As you would expect, the cinematography is breathtaking. If there is anything that evokes Inferno, it is the roiling crimson flames in the bowels of an active volcano.

The good Werner Herzog relates to volcanologists in more or less the same manner as he did to the computer scientists in “Lo and Behold” that pioneered the Internet. His interest is less in how volcanoes came to be in scientific terms but how they feel about what they are doing. With his raspy voice and quizzical tone, he is perfectly suited to playing the role of an interlocutor seeking deeper wisdom about the human condition.

As a perfect complement to its dazzling cinematography, “Into the Inferno” features a perfectly matched soundtrack consisting mostly of liturgical chorale music, including from the Russian Orthodoxy. When you hear “Dies Irae” as lava pours down the side of a mountain, the hair on your arms will stand up.

In a perfect Herzogian moment, the crew goes to North Korea where they film military cadets marching and singing on their way to Mount Paektu, an object of veneration by the family dynasty as a base for the revolution. When Herzog asks a North Korean volcanologist in his pricelessly raspy voice about the significance of the volcano, he replies in what can only be described as a quasi-religious tribute to the rulers of this sad but intriguing nation. You can’t escape feeling that there is not much difference between him and the chieftains in Vanuatu.

In the press notes, there’s an exchange with the 74-year old director who shows no sign of slowing down. It is about as revealing a look into his artistic psyche that can be imagined.

You recently said of yourself, “I’m a curious person. That’s the key to everything.” Given that you could have made a film about anything at this point in your career, why volcanoes?

There’s a long prehistory. In 1976, I made a film on La Soufrière, the volcano in the Caribbean that was about to explode. At that time I was not so interested in the volcano itself but in the attitude of one single poor farmer who had refused to be evacuated. Seventy-five thousand people were evacuated but he stayed behind. He was somehow defiant and had a different attitude toward death. And then the second part of the prehistory is the film I made ten years ago, Encounters at the End of the World. I was in Antarctica and up on Mount Erebus and that’s where I ran into Clive Oppenheimer, and we became friends and kept talking that we should do a film about volcanoes. And also what pushed it a little bit was his book Eruptions That Shook the World. So it was step by step into this film.

What was the most interesting thing about volcanoes that you learned as you were making Into the Inferno?

Scientifically, that the atmosphere that we are breathing was created by volcanoes. As far as I understand, the earth’s atmosphere was methane and it changed into what we are breathing today because of volcanic activity.

The most surprising thing about volcanoes?

That they’re more unpredictable than I would admit. We were in some danger in a volcano in Indonesia, which exploded only a few days after we were filming there, and seven farmers were killed pretty much where we had had our camera.

How did you feel when you heard that that had happened just a week after you’d been there?

What can I say? I just knew we were lucky. When you are working with the camera you believe you are safe, as if the camera is a perfect shield against all sorts of mishaps.

When I got the press release for “Trezoros”, the Ladino word for treasures, I hesitated about getting a screener since I tend to avoid holocaust type films:

Imagine a vibrant community of people getting along for centuries – Christians, Jews, others, – until the onset of WW II. Even under the Italians, the Greek Jews of Kastoria enjoyed a simple life. However, once the Italians left and the Nazi’s took over, Kastoria’s Jews became victim to the same fate as many of their fellow Jews in Eastern Europe. Of the 1000 Jews who were rounded up by the Nazi’s, only 26 returned and it marked the end of this community. Director Larry Russo’s family was impacted by this and his is one of many stories in this film.

Thank goodness I overcame my doubts that were largely influenced by the Spielbergian idiom that such films, either narrative or documentary, usually adopt because of their manipulative predictability.

What makes “Trezoros” so exceptional is its ability to tell the story of how Jews and Christians lived in complete harmony in Kastoria, Greece in the years before fascism. Kastoria was a small city near the border with Albania that incorporated the ethos of the Ottoman Empire that left its stamp on Greece from the period of its rule from the mid-15th century to the formation of the modern Greek state in 1832. Despite its imperial grip on subject peoples, the Ottoman rulers were much less interested in imposing religious and cultural orthodoxy as was the case with the British or lesser European colonial powers. In practice this meant that Christians, Jews and Muslims could live together in harmony as Mark Mazower pointed out in his “Salonica, City of Ghosts”.

Kastoria was virtually a pint-sized version of Salonica. Christians and Jews got along famously as the elderly Greek Orthodox citizens and Jewish survivors attested to director Larry Russo, who is descended from a Jewish family in Kastoria. The Jews of Kastoria were mostly shopkeepers or in the fur business, in other words the same kind of occupations they held in most of Europe with one difference, however. The Kastorian Jews came as a result of the Spanish expulsion during the Inquisition when they streamed eastward toward nations that were far more tolerant, especially those ruled by the Ottomans. These so-called Sephardic Jews did not speak Yiddish. Their native tongue was Ladino, a language close to Spanish that was written in Hebrew letters.

In a stunning display of vintage photographs and home movies that Russo dug up, we are brought back to Kastoria in its halcyon days. It brings Greece of the early 20th century alive in a way that I could not have dreamed possible. For example, we not only learn that Kastoria relied on a town crier, who happened to be a long-bearded Jew, but see him on his daily rounds. Amazing.

The harmony of Kastoria was broken by the rise of fascism but ironically not under Italian rule. Interviewees give the Italian fascist troops credit for not victimizing Jews. However, after Mussolini was overthrown, the Nazis took control of Greece including Kastoria. As this was the period following the Wannsee Conference with its “Final Solution”, it did not take long for the thousand Jews of Kastoria to be rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Among the survivors, we hear from brother and sister Beni Elias and his sister Lena Russo who is the director’s aunt. They speak with great dignity and emotion, not once forgetting how much they loved Kastoria.

“Trezoros” opens today at the Cinema Village in New York and I recommend it highly.

Finally, there is “Incarcerating US”, a documentary about how the “war on drugs” has resulted in a massive expansion of the prison population. It is available from Bullfrog Films, a distributor of leading edge documentaries and narrative films that makes them available at reduced rates to activist and grassroots groups. It can also be seen on VOD for $9.99 from the film’s website.

“Incarcerating US” would have the same audience as Ava Duvernay’s highly regarded “The Thirteenth” that premiered recently on Netflix. While her film is focused on the racism and economic exploitation inherent in the prison-industrial system, this one takes aim at the mandatory minimum sentences that were the legacy of a vain attempt to make America “drug-free”. As Richard Van Wickler, the astonishingly enlightened Superintendent of the Cheshire County (NH) Department of Corrections, points out, the net effect of the crackdown is only to encourage more crime as was the case during Prohibition. Without a ban on alcohol, there would be no Al Capone. Without a ban on drugs, there would be no Mexican drug cartels nor heroin overdoses that have become an epidemic in the USA. And most of all, there would be no victims of 5-year and upwards mandatory minimum sentences such as Tracy Syphax, an African-American man whose story about imprisonment and eventual redemption speaks volumes about the insanity of our drug laws.

Directed by Regan Hines, whose extremely powerful film is his first, it benefits from a very astute cast of interviewees consisting of critics of the drug laws and their victims. Among the critics is Eric Sterling, who as a young lawyer helped to draft the mandatory minimum laws in the 1980s. So shocked was he by how they victimized casual users, he resolved to overturn the laws, one of the primary goals of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation that he founded in 1989. We also hear from Julie Stewart who founded Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in 1991.

On the FAMM website, Stewart describes how she decided to become an activist. In 1990, she was public affairs director at the Cato Institute (a libertarian outfit that unlike most on the right is an opponent of the draconian drug laws) when her brother was arrested for growing marijuana in Washington State. The website states: “He pled guilty, and — though this was his first offense — was sentenced by a judge to five years in federal prison without parole. The judge criticized the punishment as too harsh, but said he had no choice because his hands were tied by the mandatory minimum sentencing laws Congress had passed.”

This essentially is what happened to my cousin Joel Proyect who spent close to five years in prison even though he never had been arrested ever before and even though he was the president of the Sullivan County Bar Association in August 1991, when the cops stormed the home he had built with his own hands in Parksville, NY. After he was sent to prison, I visited him on several occasions and used to keep up a steady correspondence. Here’s how the NY Times reported on his case nearly a year later:

NY Times, July 12, 1992
On Sunday; Tend a Garden, Pay the Price: A Legal Story
By MICHAEL WINERIP

SOUTH FALLSBURG, N.Y.— By all accounts, Joel Proyect is an enormously talented, humane man, a small-town lawyer who gave a great deal. He’s a recent vice president of the bar association, a legal guardian for children in family court.

He took court-assigned clients who could not afford lawyers. “One would think he is being paid thousands of dollars the way he represents indigent people,” said Tim Havas, a legal aid lawyer. When his neighbors, the Friedlanders, had a baby, Mr. Proyect plowed their driveway without being asked, so they could get home safely. He shoveled his pond so nearby kids could skate, though he doesn’t.

After he was divorced, Mr. Proyect, 50 years old, raised his two daughters until they went off to college. He banned TV and made the girls speak half an hour of French to him each day (he also speaks Spanish and Russian). He taught law at a local prison and community college.

It took nine years, but he built his magnificent wood and stone house himself, hammering every nail. He heats it with wood from his 30 acres, makes jam with blueberries from his bushes. He grew his own pot.

He’d smoked marijuana for 20 years. It was well known. “Everyone in the court system knew, judges, people at the bar association — they’d tease me,” he said. “I grew for myself and my girlfriend. If you came to my house I’d offer you beer or a joint, depending on your tastes.”

Last August, after scouting with helicopters, Federal agents raided Mr. Proyect. He thinks that the raid was initiated by a local police officer he’d had a run-in with in court.

You didn’t have to be Elliot Ness to catch Joel Proyect with pot. “They found some plants and I showed them where the rest were,” said Mr. Proyect. “I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t think it was that serious.” Growing pot is a misdemeanor under state law. There’s no evidence he ever sold any of it. But he was charged under Federal law. His house and 30 acres were forfeited to the government. On May 29 he was sentenced to five years in prison.

No one, not even the prosecutor, will say this is fair. Judge Vincent Broderick of Federal District Court said his hands were tied by a 1988 mandatory sentencing law. He says he hopes he is reversed on appeal.

Law-enforcement agents don’t have the resources to catch most of the truly venal drug offenders. So what the Government has done is to invoke strict mandatory sentences to serve as a deterrent. The law says anyone growing more than 100 pot plants serves a minimum of five years. Agents, with Mr. Proyect’s aid, found 110.

No reporters attended the sentencing, but the judge’s anger is plain from the transcript: “I’m very unhappy about imposing this sentence. I frankly would not impose it if I saw any way that, consistent with my oath, I could impose a different sentence.”

“I’ve had people before me constantly during the last three years charged with distributing dangerous drugs on the streets,” he said, “that I’ve been able to sentence to far less than I’m sentencing Mr. Proyect to.” The judge, a former New York City Police Commissioner, called mandatory sentencing “a vice” and allowed Mr. Proyect to remain free, pending appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Second District. “I would be delighted,” the judge said, “to have my brothers on the 17th floor of the Manhattan courthouse find I was in error.”

Ronald DePetris, Mr. Proyect’s lawyer, said that in 25 years, “this is the most unjust sentence I’ve seen.” Kerry Lawrence, the prosecutor, said the law required it. But did the sentence fit the crime? “No comment,” he said.

Mr. Proyect is using his freedom to make money. His legal fees are $115,000. The other day he came out of a bail hearing for a client charged with armed bank robbery. “The prosecutor’s offering him a plea of four years,” said Mr. Proyect. “He’ll serve less time than I will.”

He drove home. The Government is scheduled to evict him in two weeks. He has the option to buy his house back from the United States for $170,000 and says if he got a short sentence and is allowed to practice when he comes out, he could raise the money.

He says he used to smoke five joints a day. Now he has that many drinks. Like many of his generation who inhaled, Mr. Proyect believes pot is a safer drug than alcohol and misses it. He is angry that in a conservative era, when government is supposed to stay out of people’s personal lives, his has been invaded, though he harmed no one. “If I knew I was coming back to this,” he said, standing on his deck, “it wouldn’t be so bad. Everything you see is mine. I own that hill. I own that hill. Isn’t it beautiful? I say it without conceit. I didn’t build it, God did that.”

This fall, the brothers on the 17th floor will decide if Joel Proyect deserves this.

 

March 24, 2016

The meanings of Purim

Filed under: Jewish question,religion — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

Last night Nova, a PBS program, aired a show titled “Secrets of Noah’s Ark” that can be seen on Youtube:

I think most people who have taken religion, civilization or world history classes in college know that the book of Noah was “borrowed” from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a classic of Babylonian culture. When it was written, Babylon was the largest city in the world with 200,000 inhabitants. Today its ruins can be seen about 53 miles south of Baghdad.

There’s a reference to the city in the book of Genesis, the so-called Tower of Babel that was in all likelihood the ziggurat known as Etemenaki, a pyramid-like structure that was the centerpiece of Babylonian architecture. In the Old Testament, the tower was made by people who all spoke the same language. Because the builders supposedly aspired to have it reach the heavens, the deity got mad at them for being prideful, forced them to speak different languages, and then scattered them across the earth. There’s some uncertainty about the etymology of Babel since in Hebrew it means confusion–implying that the reference to Babylon is inaccurate. Whatever the case may be, scholars generally agree that the story had the Etemenaki in mind, the 300-foot-tall ziggurat in Babylon.

In 578 BC, the Judeans stopped paying tribute to the Babylonians who took retribution by marching off their elite to the city of Babylon, the so-called Babylonian exile—an event that is described as a calamity by official Judaism.

What makes the PBS Nova show interesting is its departure from this narrative. If you go to 40:00 of the Nova video, you will hear from archaeologist Cornelia Wunsch who states that the Jews did “reasonably well” there. Another scholar concurs with her, saying that very soon after being integrated in the city, “things got good”. They became “well ensconced in the Babylonian economy and did well.”

Another scholar looks at a written record that describes a Judean as having both a Jewish and a Babylonian identity, indeed the kind of status that would be enjoyed by Jews in the Middle East and North Africa for millennia. Part of the Judean culture involved writing the stories that would be collected into the Old Testament or what the Jews called the Tanakh.

Irving Finkel, a British scholar of the period, believes that it was not just the Epic of Gilgamesh that influenced the Judean scribes. He points to the story of King Sargon, who was placed in a basket of reeds on the water to save him from those who would prevent him from becoming a monarch. Surely this must have worked its way into the story of Moses.

As it happens, today is a Jewish holiday that is considered minor by religious authorities. Falling on the 14th day of Adar in the Hebrew calendar, which is March 24 in the Gregorian, Purim is considered to be on the same level as Hanukah and pretty much devoid of the piety of Passover or Yom Kippur. Like Hanukah, it is a nationalist tale of the plucky Jews fending off the gentiles.

This time it is not the Babylonians who are the bad guys but the Persians. Haman, the Viceroy of King Xerxes, has decided to kill all the Jews living in Persia after their leader Mordecai got on his wrong side. Queen Esther, a Jew who had married the King without him knowing her ethno-religious roots, interceded on her people’s behalf and convinced the King to execute Haman. As is generally the case in these brutal Old Testament stories, the King gives the Jews the green light to kill anybody they considered their enemy:

The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies. The day appointed for the Jews to do this in all the provinces of King Xerxes was the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar. (New International Version)

In the Wikipedia entry on Purim, we learn that some scholars believe that this story, like the ones alluded to above, was borrowed from Babylonian literature. Among them are Amnon Netzer and Shaul Shaked who argue that the names “Mordecai” and “Esther” are similar to those of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar (the same name of the Elaine May film that was crucified by critics but like “Heaven’s Gate” has gleaned more favorable reviews the older it gets.) Whether or not there is a Babylonian connection, few serious scholars believe that it is based on true events.

Sensing the contradictions of the Book of Esther, one Rabbi Irving Greenberg, went so far as to group Esther and Mordecai as assimilated Jews after the fashion of those who “did well” in the Babylonian exile:

Today, Purim is a quintessential Jewish holiday. To every little boy and girl who masquerades on Purim, Mordecai and Esther are arch-heroes of Jewishness. But a good case can be made that Mordecai and Esther, too, may have been quite integrated in Persian life and that Purim is the holiday brought to you by assimilated Jews.

What kind of Jews were Mordecai and Esther? Obviously, the answer has to be a speculation, and their record of saving the Jews speaks for itself. Still…

First, there is the matter of their names. Esther’s name probably is derived from Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess, and Mordecai’s name from Marduk, a Babylonian god. Equivalent names today might well be Mary and Christopher. Of course, committed Jews in open societies also adopted Gentile names. My parents, Orthodox Jews, wanted an Anglo-Saxon name for their little son, Yitzchak–so they named me Irving. But Christopher!

Then there is that Miss Persia contest. Esther was entered into a competition to become queen by marrying a Gentile king. Imagine that the president of the United States gets divorced and there is a nationwide beauty contest whose prize is marriage to the president. What kind of Jewish women would enter? Not likely Hasidic girls or graduates of Stern College [the women’s college of Yeshiva University].

In 2003 they made a film titled “The Book of Esther” that appears to be part of the Christian Zionist lexicon, at least based on the trailer. Unsurprisingly, it hardly garnered an audience even among Ted Cruz voters.

Of somewhat more interest is the 1960 epic titled “Esther and the King” that is a joint American-Italian production that starred Joan Collins as Esther. It was directed by Raoul Walsh, best known for action melodramas like “White Heat” that starred James Cagney as a gangster (you were expecting a bedroom farce?)

I might have a go at that film courtesy of Youtube:

The only other thing worth mentioning is that these Biblical sagas about heroes and heroines like the Maccabees and Esther were harmless when the Jews were living powerlessly in the shtetls of eastern Europe but when they took over Palestinian territory and set up a Zionist state, got their hands on F-16s and billions of dollars in American aid, such stories began to serve the racist and brutal policies that deepen each year. This report from +972 magazine says it all:

Two individual Arab-Palestinian men were assaulted by mobs of Jewish teens in Jerusalem last Thursday night. Both incidents involved victims who were set upon and beaten so severely that they had to be hospitalized. And in both cases the Israeli Hebrew media outlets that reported the story specified that at least some of the assailants were drunk and in costume. Thursday was Purim in Jerusalem. According to tradition, the festival is celebrated by dressing in costume and drinking to excess.

One of the incidents, reported in a short item by Walla! News, is described as a “suspected nationalist incident.” The Walla! report notes that some of the teens were drunk, that there were about 15 or 16 of them out celebrating the holiday raucously, in the middle of downtown, very late at night. Several people asked the loud celebrants to be quiet, including one young man in his 20s who happened to be an Arab. The teens assaulted him because he spoke Hebrew with an identifiable accent. “I don’t remember much,” he told the reporter. “It hurt a lot.”

 

April 20, 2015

Was Stalin anti-Semitic? A reply to Roland Boer

Filed under: Jewish question,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

boer

One of the oddest tendencies of Marxist intellectuals today is their admiration for Australian religion professor Roland Boer who received the Isaac Deutscher Prize in 2014 for his book “In the Veil of Tears”. The jury is made up of people whose intelligence I truly respect (despite such lapses as awarding a prize to Francis Wheen for his cynical biography of Karl Marx in 1999.) Others have gotten on the bandwagon, including Paul Le Blanc. Scott McLemee is also something of a fan although it is hard to figure out whether he takes him as seriously as Le Blanc, giving the impression that he reads Boer more for amusement than edification.

Maybe the Deutscher jury and Le Blanc have never visited Boer’s blog “Stalin’s Moustache”, as McLemee has. If it is supposed to be a joke (as McLemee suggests), it is not a very good one, especially when you run into an article titled Stalin’s “Anti-Semitism. Who knows? Maybe I don’t have a sense of humor. Is writing a response to Boer like writing an angry letter to Onion.com along the lines of  “How dare you publish an article claiming that Karl Marx was a secret admirer of the Mormon Church?” (Come to think of it, that’s not so far from Boer’s particular shtick, comic or not.)

Boer starts off by dismissing those who charged Stalin with anti-Semitism as not worth being taken seriously because they are “not favourably disposed to Stalin”. Frankly, it would be quite an exercise in cognitive dissonance to find someone “favourably disposed to Stalin” who also found him anti-Semitic unless of course it was someone like the bizarre Sendero Luminoso publicist Luis Quispe who tried to score points on the original Marxism mailing list by referring to me as a Jew or a Zionist every chance he got. Except for such cretins and their counterparts on the extreme right, anti-Semitism has very little traction among people with a modicum of civilized values.

Citing an eccentric Dutch scholar named Erik Van Slee, Boer makes the case that Stalin objected to his flunkies using the original Jewish surnames of party members being targeted in the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of 1948-1949. Furthermore, since Stalin told a Romanian Stalinist leader in 1949 that “racism leads to fascism”, how could he possibly be anti-Semitic? That’s some argument, isn’t it?

Decrying racism is pretty easy. When George Bush ’41 spoke at a celebration for signing the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday into law, he told the audience “We can learn about how a great vision and a great nation began to confront and nonviolently challenge institutional racism.” That’s the same George Bush who ran Willie Horton campaign ads that suggested a vote for Dukakis would unleash violent Black criminals on an innocent and god-fearing white America.

On the question of Stalin being opposed to using his adversary’s original Jewish surname, it is notable that Boer doesn’t even take the trouble to respond to the well-documented record of his doing exactly that. At the risk of losing my credibility by quoting someone who was not “favourably disposed” to Stalin, let me direct your attention to Leon Trotsky’s “Thermidor and anti-Semitism”, written in 1937.

Trotsky notes that nobody ever referred to him as Bronstein before he became persona non grata in the USSR, nor—for that matter—did party members refer to Stalin as Dzhugashvili. By the same token, when Zinoviev and Kamenev were in a bloc with Stalin, that’s the names they were referred to in the party press. But after they were put on trial as members of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, they became Radomislyski and Rozenfeld.

Moving ahead to the anti-cosmopolitan campaign that Boer would have us believe is pure as the driven snow, it is of course difficult to establish that it was openly directed against Jews but only if you also believe that stop-and-frisk police tactics are not specifically directed against minorities.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that Literaturnaya Gazeta took aim at an “evil and decadent story written by the homeless cosmopolitan Melnikov (Mehlman)” and the “cynical and impudent activities of B. Yakovlev (Holtzmann).” (The Jewish surnames were in the original.) Or maybe it was also a coincidence that some of the USSR’s best-known sports journalists were purged because they were Jewish. Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote:

It is not surprising therefore that the anti-patriotic cosmopolitans have laid their dirty hands on sporting literature … They are vagrants without passports, suspicious characters without any ancestry who work hard to put over the customs and tastes of the foreigners on Soviet athletes … It is high time to clean out all these enemies of the Socialist fatherland…

Not long after the anti-cosmopolitan campaign was launched, a “doctor’s plot” convinced many that anti-Semitism was a problem in the USSR but not Roland Boer apparently who wrote:

Or the ‘doctors plot’ of 1952-53 – in which leading doctors were suspected of seeking to assassinate government officials – is seen as an excuse for a widespread anti-Semitic purge and deportation, halted only because of Stalin’s death (we may thank Khrushchev for this piece of speculation). However, the only way such an assumption can work is that many doctors in the Soviet Union were Jewish; therefore the attack on doctors was anti-Semitic. Equally, even more doctors were Russian, but for some strange reason, the plot is not described as anti-Russian.

Does Boer think that his readers will not scrutinize his claim that “even more doctors were Russian”? To some extent this is true, because the people who read his idiotic blog would believe that Stalin walked on water. This was a typical comment from one of his fans (I hope it was not Paul Le Blanc or Scott McLemee using a fake name).

Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism in such strong terms as Stalin’s reply to the US-based Jewish News Agency? Did any other world leader of comparable stature denounce anti-Semitism as not only ‘an extreme form of racial chauvinism’, but as ‘the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism’?

I had no idea that cannibalism gave birth to anti-Semitism but let’s leave that aside for purposes of remaining tethered to the planet Earth.

What’s more important is to understand that of the nine doctors arrested, six were Jewish. In other words, it is irrelevant that maybe two-thirds of Soviet doctors were not Jewish. The reason anti-Semitism was detected in the “doctor’s plot” was the ethnic composition of those arrested. That Boer can pussyfoot around this reality shows that he has really absorbed the essence of Stalin’s politics—the mastery of the big lie.

The rest of Boer’s article is an attempt to prove that anti-Semitism could not exist in the USSR because the constitution banned it. There’s no argument that this is what it said. That was some great fucking constitution even if it was not worth the paper it was written on.

Finally, something should be said about one of Stalin’s boldest initiatives on behalf of Soviet Jews—at least nominally, the creation of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin gave the green light to in 1932. This was not a choice made by Russian Jews but one made by Stalin for them. It was consistent with his disregard for the rights of self-determination that Lenin decided to fight from his deathbed, dubbing Stalin a “vulgar Great-Russian bully”.

This was not Stalin’s last foray into Jewish nation building. In 1944 Stalin decided that the Jews had a case for building a state over the objections of the Arabs, the Palestinians foremost among them. In doing so, he became a “friend of the Jews” at least in the eyes of their Zionist leaders. You can read about this forgotten moment of history in a September 2014 Le Monde Diplomatique article titled The Forgotten Alliance by historian Michael Réal:

The USSR supplied people willing to settle in Palestine. In 1946 the Soviets allowed more than 150,000 Polish Jews to go to the British and American occupied zones in Germany, where they entered camps for displaced people. There were few alternatives to Palestine for Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps, or those with neither home nor family at the end of the war. Moscow deliberately exacerbated this problem, putting Britain, under strong pressure from the Zionist movement and the US, in a difficult situation. The US was unwilling to take these refugees in, but feared the impact on US public opinion of newsreels showing boats of illegal immigrants en route to Palestine being turned back by British forces.

Before 1948, the USSR directly or indirectly supported secret immigration operations organised by the Jewish Agency for Israel, sending Jews from eastern Europe, especially Romania and Bulgaria (66% of the Jews who arrived in Palestine between 1946 and 1948 came from there).

After 15 May 1948 and Israel’s declaration of independence, encouraging immigration became yet more urgent. Israel’s fledgling army needed recruits — so supplying the flow of migrants meant participating in the Israeli war effort. Between 1948 and 1951 more than 300,000 Jews from eastern Europe went to Israel — half of the total influx of migration during that period.

Moscow also supported Israel in another aspect of its demographic battle: the homogenisation of its population, which led to the departure — mainly through expulsion — of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. The USSR absolved Israel of responsibility and blamed the British. In 1948 the Soviet Union voted against UN resolution 194 on the possible return of Palestinian refugees.

Later on, the USSR would orient to the Arab states but by then it was too late. The damage had already been done. 

March 21, 2015

The Rise and the Fall of the Borscht Belt

Filed under: Catskills,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:59 pm

A while back FB friend Maxene Diamond Spindell, who posts a lot of interesting material to the Memories of the Catskills group, posted a ten minute excerpt from Peter Davis’s “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, a documentary made in 1986 that I saw when it first came out. Since I have my own “The Unrepentant Marxist Returns to the Catskills” video in the works, I was very interested to see the whole film and perhaps include some footage under the fair use provision.

As it turns out the film was not available from all the usual sources either online or as a DVD. Taking advantage of my retiree benefits from Columbia University, I ordered a VHS through BorrowDirect, an interlibrary service that most universities belong to. After I had the film digitized, I put it up on my Vimeo website for everyone to see. Hopefully I won’t get any intellectual property static over this especially since I emailed Peter Davis a week ago and got no reply.

I appealed to Davis as a fellow leftist. For those in the know, he was one of America’s top leftist documentary filmmakers of the past half-century with films like “Hearts and Minds” to his credit, the definitive Vietnam antiwar film in my view. His last film, “In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid”, was made in 1993.

His leftist orientation can be seen in “The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt”, although not in an obvious way. The film is a mixture of social history and nostalgic entertainment as we see both former vacationers and hotel owners and employees reminiscing about the Borscht Belt in its heyday. For regular readers of my blog, you are probably aware that I grew up in the area and included a good 20 or so pages about my background there in the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar.

As the term borscht implies, the people who worked and stayed in the hotels and bungalow colonies were almost all Jews. The “fall” in the title of Davis’s film refers to the tourist industry collapsing after Jews became wealthier and more assimilated. After moving from the garment industry cutting rooms to accounting firms, they could now afford vacations in Puerto Rico and no longer felt the need to be in a hotel that served kosher food.

My memories include both happy and sad moments. For example, I will never forget the wonderment I felt as a 10-year-old boy watching the Mighty Atom (née Joseph Greenstein) bend an iron bar across his nose at his Paramount Health Farm. On the other hand, I was turned off by the materialism of the hotel owners and small businessmen in the area whose life seemed to revolve around Cadillac convertibles and mink coats for their wives. In a piece about Harvey Pekar’s wonderful memoir “The Quitter”, I described one of those painful (but partly uplifting) moments:

One summer, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my mother wrangled tickets to see the legendary Jewish tenor Richard Tucker perform at the Concord Hotel. She brought me and her mother in the family car, a 1952 Studebaker that not only looked like crap but was burning oil. When we arrived at the entrance to the Concord, the fanciest hotel in the Catskills, you could see a plume of smoke trailing the car for about 50 feet. My mom turned the key over to a valet who I heard make some wisecrack about the jalopy to the other valets. Meanwhile, the guests at the hotel out for an evening stroll in their mink stoles stared at us as if we were from another planet. It did not help that my deaf grandma spoke so loud that you could hear her from the next county. All I wanted to do is put as much distance as I could from these yokels as I could. Now at the age of 64 I feel somehow proud of the fact that appearances meant nothing to my mother. Plus, Richard Tucker was in great form that night.

Within a week or so, I will begin making my own film about the Catskills that will include an interview I did with people at Lansman’s bungalow colony in Hurleyvile, including Maxene. I had found out about the colony in an article in the NY Times about people trying to keep the spirit of the Catskills alive:

Each colony has its own personality. At the woodsy and quiet Buffalo Colony, which has much larger, family-size units, there are gay and straight parents, and biological and adopted children of many races. Lansman’s, an 85-unit colony in Woodbourne, which was bought by former renters from back in its family-owned days, is still mostly Jewish. Stephanie Kreiner, president of the board there, said residents still play mah-jongg and attend Saturday evening entertainment in the casino. Spring Glen Woods, in Ellenville, N.Y., has residents from New Jersey, Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. “We want to bring it back to its heyday,” Ms. Schneider said.

It was of extraordinary interest to me that Peter Davis filmed at Lansman’s himself and found the same enchantment there that I did. I hope that in its own modest way my video can be called “The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Catskills”.

I say that out of respect for Cissie Blumberg, who owned the Olympic Hotel in Woodridge and hated the term Borscht Belt. Cissie was a die-hard Communist and like many other hotel owners and small businesspeople a product of the Great Depression. Even if the 1950s brought prosperity, these folks remembered what it meant to suffer under capitalism. One of the people I interviewed upstate was a Communist like Cissie and remains political to this day.

In an article I wrote a good fifteen years or so ago titled “Borscht Belt Reds” (it probably should have been titled Catskill Reds!)  that was prompted by a conference held at the Sunny Oaks hotel, one of the first in a series convened by Phil Brown, a sociology professor at Brown University and the son of hotel owners. The article ended:

After the conference was over, I phoned Cissie Blumberg, the author of “Remember the Catskills: Tales of a Recovering Hotelkeeper” and a leftist. Cissie is a woman of strong opinions and was boycotting the Sunny Oaks conference because she thought the term “Borscht Belt” was offensive. She had also had a number of spats with my mother over religious questions. The two wrote for the same local paper and my mother hoped that I would be able to calm her down. This was as much of a chance of me doing this as getting my strongly opinionated mother to calm down.

There’s a chapter in Cissie’s book titled “Just Causes”. She writes:

Not everything [about my father] was controversial or political. He was a prime organizer of the Credit Union, a moving force in the Hotelmen’s Federation, and an acknowledged leader in the Fire Insurance Company as a director and president of the board. He convinced our reluctant neighbors in Lake Huntington to utilize the WPA programs for construction of the first sewer system, and though not religious himself, actively led the small Jewish community in the building of its first synagogue.

I was in grade school when the Civil War broke out in Spain. My father used his talent for oratory on behalf of the Loyalists, long before the world recognized that conflict as the beginning of World War II.

Bob [her brother and my old 9th grade social studies teacher] accompanied him one night to a rally at the Nemerson Hotel in South Fallsburg to raise funds for the Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteers in Spain. As part of his address, our dad quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s famous words on the people and the Constitution: ‘Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they shall exercise their constitutional rights of amending it, or their revolutionary rights to dismember or overthrow it.’ Suddenly the resort’s casino, in which the meeting was being held, was plunged into darkness by its owner, Mr. Nemerson. ‘Rosenberg is talking Communist propaganda,’ thundered the angry hotel man. ‘But sir, that statement is a quote from Abraham Lincoln,’ replied a helper of my father’s. ‘Oh, Abraham Lincoln?’ The lights came on!”

March 16, 2015

The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Back in 2007 I wrote a piece titled “Jews and American Popular Culture” that was based on a lecture Paul Buhle gave to the Institute of Jewish History in New York occasioned by the publication of the 3-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture” he edited. As is often the case with Paul’s lectures, it was accompanied by a slide show that prompted this observation:

During the reception prior to the meeting, a slide show featured famous Jewish personalities, from Jerry Seinfeld to Sandy Koufax. One of them might not have been well-known to the audience but he certainly was to me. Around the same time I was spending my evenings hanging out with Barney Ross, I used to go see strong man Joseph Greenstein bend iron bars across his nose at his bungalow colony in my home town. Better known as the Mighty Atom, he was now in his 70s but still going strong. During his prime, he used to be able to prevent an airplane from taking off by holding it back with a cable. After performing his feats, he used to extol Jewish piety and the need to eat healthy (he wore his hair long like Samson.)

This prompted a query from Stanley Krauson: “Does anyone remember the name of Joseph Greenstein’s (The Mighty Atom) bungalow colony?”

I now have an answer to that question that took me eight years to the day to put together. But before I get to that, I should explain that soon after writing the article I shared my memories of the Mighty Atom  with Harvey Pekar, who was a houseguest one evening in 2008. As it turns out, Harvey and Paul had begun collaborating with each other on comic books revolving around Jews and the left, among other topics.

Harvey was very interested in the Mighty Atom story since he had been reading about Jewish professional strong men at the time. (He was an amateur strong man himself with an appetite for brawling in high school seemingly at odds with his shy and retiring demeanor.) He also was fascinated by my recollections of life in the SWP that were pretty atypical. For example, I had a relationship at one point with a woman in the Houston branch who had been a topless dancer.

Harvey was so fascinated by my tales that he gave me a ring and proposed that we do a comic book memoir that would be published by Random House. To make a long and sad story short, he died before the book was published and his widow Joyce Brabner decided to dump the memoir because she did not think it should be part of the Harvey Pekar legacy. She has never admitted as such but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Here is a page devoted to my encounter with the Mighty Atom:

mighty atom

Now, getting to Stanley Krauson’s question, the identity of the Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony can be found in Ed Spielman’s “The Mighty Atom: The Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein; Biography of a Superhuman“, a book that I took out from the Columbia Library recently. It was the Panoramic Health Farm, a small colony about a mile from my father’s fruit store. Ironically, although the Mighty Atom sang the praises of vegetables, I wouldn’t go near them. Who knows? Maybe it was a defense mechanism against my father. I should advise you that Spielman’s narrative has a Paul Bunyanesque quality, no doubt a function of his own desire to put together a biography with “wow factor”, plus the Mighty Atom’s (nee Joseph Greenstein) sideshow/circus background leading him to embellish what was likely a remarkable life to begin with. In any case, I did see a man about as old as me at the time bending an iron bar across his nose. You don’t see that every day. Below are passages from Ed Spielman’s book. I am sure that there is more than a grain of truth in these tales.

The Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony:

In the late 1940s, the Atom took savings of $18,000 and founded a health resort where he could put his ideas into action. Where better to advocate health and vitality than in bucolic surroundings, far from the noise and dirt of the city? In upstate Woodridge, New York, he purchased a seventy-acre tract of land with a twenty-three room hotel, four apartments, and two bungalows and established his Panoramic Health Farm. The plan was that he would run the place all summer until Labor Day, when he and Leah would take their traveling lecturemobile south for the winter. Leah had her doubts about an entire hotel being a simple husband-and-wife operation. With his usual enthusiasm, Joe approached the idea as if it were nothing more difficult than a mom-and-pop candy store. He was not to be dissuaded. He put down the cash and took title.

Of panoramic view there was plenty, of water there was none. A week after he took over, the sole spring went dry. The seller (who had paid $7,000 for the place a few years before) had neglected to mention the periodic problem.

After several weeks of carting water from town in barrels and cans, Joe went to the library to research the problem. He found reference to individuals who did nothing more for a living than discover water for such unfortunates as himself. These “dowsers” were supposedly gifted with the ability to sniff out H2O with nothing more than a divining rod.

In Pennsylvania, he found just such a pair of “water smellers.” Dressed in black, and possessed of an appropriately mysterious manner, the pair immediately made him suspicious. Instead of your everyday divining rod, they did their dowsing with an upended pliers. At last, they stopped at a miserable patch of weeds and pronounced with finality that they had found water. As the pliers were jiggling with wild and spastic enthusiasm, he took them at their word. They returned to Pennsylvania, his cash in their pocket.

He called the local well driller, a Sicilian who arrived on the scene with well-founded cynicism, as in the very place where the dowsers had predicted water, he had already dug a dry well for the previous owner.

Now out a couple of hundred dollars for a pair of sham water smellers, and a good chunk of his life’s savings for the health farm itself, Joe nevertheless did not despair. He would find water . . . or throw himself off the nearest bridge. Somehow, a wet death seemed almost pleasant under the circumstances.

He took a large flat rock and a sixteen-pound sledgehammer, placed the rock on the ground in various locations of the property, and smacked it soundly with the hammer. He reasoned that if there were water below somewhere, there might be an underground echo or other indication. He found an area that responded. The more he hit the rock, the more he became convinced that this was the spot. Immediately, he summoned the well driller.

“Here?” The man was not encouraging. “Are you kiddin’? I already drilled right here, too. I didn’t find enough water to rinse out my mouth.”

Joe could not be dissuaded, and after signing a contract guaranteeing payment, he told the man to go to work. The bits were sunk into the ground, and there was nothing. The driller looked at Joe blankly. “Dig deeper,” Joe ordered, and gave him more money. Nothing. “Deeper!” He doled out the cash from the piggy bank.

At last came a gathering gushing sound, and a geyser of water sprayed high into the air coming up at the rate of seventy gallons a minute. The little Sicilian crossed himself.

“How did you know?”

Joe shrugged.

“Mister Atom”—the man pointed heavenward—”you got some-body upstairs.”

With a bit of borrowing and some juggling of finances, Joe fitted a pump on the site, made a small lake, stocked it with fish, and put two boats on it. He enlarged the approach road, constructed another two-story guest house, and built a pool. He was working seventeen hours a day and by now his investment had gotten out of hand, about $55,000 out of hand. He began alternating one week at the Panoramic, one week of pitching night and day to try to pay the previous week’s bills.

The Panoramic Health Farm was no mom-and-pop candy store; the clientele was an eccentric and demanding bunch. For the first time in her life, Leah started visiting doctors. The diagnoses were the same: overwork.

After a decade, rather than have the Panoramic Health Farm kill them, Joe sold out for such a disastrously low figure that he needn’t have drilled for water; he ended taking a bath in his own money. He gladly returned full-time to the life of a pitchman.

In August of 1938, a German Day rally had drawn a turnout of forty thousand wildly cheering spectators for a parade of two thousand uniformed Nazis. Not in Munich but in Yaphank, Long Island. Joe Greenstein’s anti-Nazi battles had begun as soon as Hitler’s supporters had attempted to sink American roots. He had an idea of what was coming. “Throughout time, for the Jews it never changes. Fight to live. There is no alternative.” The Nazi was a creature of the streets, and there Joe lowered himself to meet them.

The Mighty Atom takes on the Nazis:

He revised and augmented his lectures. In addition to his discourse on clean living, he talked of current events. Pinned to his metal-covered board of 2-inch pine was a caricature of a pig wearing a swastika arm band. The head of the pig was that of Adolf Hitler. After a few choice comments about the German in question, the Atom would take a twenty-penny spike in his hand and smack it through the Nazi pig’s heart. The crowd cheered its approval, but certain others didn’t think it quite so funny.

About forty years later, Norman Jacobs, Joe’s son-in-law, remembered an incident of that time. “I was sitting in their Park Place kitchen with my wife Mary and Leah, when we heard a wild commotion outside. We looked out the window to find Pop mixing it up with four men in the alley. I started out the door to help, but Leah ordered me to stay put. ‘Pop will take care of it. But you . . . she warned, ‘if you go out, you’ll get hurt.'”

When the sounds of battle had subsided, the family went into the alleyway where they found the first combatant sprawled unconscious, his arm and leg broken. The second assailant was discovered in a garbage can, head and legs down, having been folded up and deposited like a discarded sandwich, the can cover neatly on top of him. The third man fled. Joe sat atop the fourth bruiser, putting the finishing touches on him.

The Mighty Atom had spent the afternoon making one of his anti-Hitler speeches; the Nazi quartet had followed him home and waylaid him in the alley. “Who are they, Pop?” Leah asked him.

Joe got to his feet, brushed off his pants, and surveyed the men in the alley. “Nobody,” he said.

There were dispiriting moments on mornings when he considered the number of well-organized Nazi goons that he might have to go up against that afternoon. At these times there was a passage in the Bible that revitalized him. His was the same secret weapon with which Joshua and Israel had overcome the terrifying horde arrayed against them:

. . . I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine angel shall go before thee…

—Exodus XXIII:22: 23

Shortly after a huge Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in February, 1939, the Mighty Atom found himself walking through Manhattan’s Yorkville German section on a business matter. He stopped in his tracks at a sign in bold letters posted on a building’s second floor: “NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED!”

He stared at it for a while before inquiring of a passerby, “What the hell is that?” He was informed that a Nazi Bund meeting was being conducted upstairs. He went across the street to a paint store, where with a three-dollar deposit, he rented an 18-foot ladder. Back he came and opened it beneath the sign. Returning across the street, this time to a sporting-goods store, he purchased a Louisville slugger baseball bat—a “Hank Greenberg Model.” He parked it in the doorway beneath the sign.

He went up the ladder, tore the sign down, and tossed it into the gutter. The operation had not gone unnoticed. Several of the Nazis looked out aghast from the second-floor window. The action which followed was in the best tradition of a Popeye cartoon. Before the Atom could climb down from his high perch, the entire Bund assembly had come charging down the stairs into the street.

The Mighty Atom was shaken off his ladder, but he came up bat in hand. They came at him singly and in numbers, frontally and encircling; all to no avail. “It wasn’t a fight,” Joe said later, “it was a pleasure.” He sent eighteen of them to the hospital in various stages of extreme disrepair. He sustained a black eye.

Hauled into court on a charge of aggravated assault, mass mayhem, and so forth, a bedraggled but surprisingly cheerful Joe Greenstein stood meekly and alone before the bench, his only compatriot the “mouse” under his eye. A white-haired judge looked solemnly down as the charge was read. The jurist could hardly believe that the mild, little man before him could have perpetrated such an assault. Then, he surveyed the victims before him, a veritable parade of broken joints, purple contusions, and awkwardly plastered and wired limbs. The battered Aryans filled half the courtroom.

“You mean this little man . . . did that . . . to all of them?” the judge inquired in disbelief.

“Yes, Your Honor,” nodded an eyewitness police sergeant. “Them that ain’t still in the hospital.”

The judge turned his attention to the defendant. “Mr. Greenstein, these are serious charges. Do you have anything to say?”

“Yessir, Judge.” The Atom brightened. “Every time I swung the bat it was a home run!”

Quietly, the judge inquired of the sergeant what had provoked such a clash. “Them’re Nazis, Your Honor,” the officer whispered. “They went after him.”

“NOT GUILTY! CASE DISMISSED!” The judge banged his gavel.

“But, Your Honor . . .” the Bund’s lawyer protested. “I said, case dismissed.” The gavel boomed again with finality, and the judge retired to his chambers.

Photos from Spielman’s book:

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.42 AMThe young Mighty Atom

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.05.11 AMThe Mighty Atom stops an airplane tied to his hair from taking off

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.08 AMThe Mighty Atom pulls a fire engine

 

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