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Archive for the ‘Jews’ Category

To the Vitamin-D-deprived,

Last year, Norman Podhoretz, neocon pioneer and Commentary editor from 1960 to 1995, published the tauntingly titled book Why Are Jews Liberal?. He might have come to different conclusions (or even a subtler question) had he more closely read Michael Staub’s Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America. In that nuanced 2002 study, Staub skillfully untangles the complex and fierce political debates that divided Jewish communal leaders and intellectuals from the 1940s into the 70s and 80s, whether over the “Jewishness” of social radicalism, the connections between Zionism and the civil rights movement, or the impact of the sexual revolution.

Staub, professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY, is also the author of  Voices of Persuasion: Politics of Representation in 1930s America (1994), and the editor of the indispensable sourcebook The Jewish 1960s, a collection of readings ranging from the Holocaust to Soviet Jewry.

What projects, large or small, academic or non-academic, are you working on now? And/or what projects have you recently completed?
I am now finishing a book, Madness is Civilization: When the Diagnosis was Social, 1948-1980, to be published by the University of Chicago Press sometime late in 2011. It’s an intellectual and cultural history of anti-psychiatry in the postwar U.S., with chapters on the roots of anti-psychiatry already in the 1940s and 1950s, on the work and influence of R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman and Thomas Szasz in the 1960s, and on radical and feminist therapy and popular psychology in the 1970s.

What non-digital resource would you recommend
The guide to the Underground Press Collection.

What digital resource would you recommend?
The Chadwyck Periodicals Archive Online Collection.

What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Turn your problems into your solutions. When you run into interpretive difficulties, use that as a clue to the more complex argument you need to be making.

What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
The inspiration for my dissertation began with a class I never took. While an undergraduate at Hampshire College, Prof. Barry O’Connell (at Amherst) mentioned to me a course he had offered the year before on Depression-era culture. I asked for the syllabus. Some years later as a grad student in American Civilization at Brown, I developed my own undergraduate seminar on the Great Depression based on Barry’s class. This in turn led to my teaching Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book I had not previously read. The students may have been baffled, but I was totally intrigued. And I started to formulate my dissertation on documentary and ethnographic expression during the 1930s and writers’ struggles to experiment with form and style to convey to readers the perspectives of the dispossessed.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
No good can come from trying to hit a moving target. Do not begin a project by thinking about what the marketplace can bear—or what might sell. By the time the manuscript is done and ready for publication, all will have moved on and changed.

How does your teaching connect to your research?
I teach literature and writing in an undergraduate English program, but my research is in American history. In many respects, I consider myself fortunate to be able to move between different disciplines when I teach and when I write. Occasionally there is overlap, for example when I had the chance to co-teach a course on Holocaust history and literature, and was able to draw on Torn at the Roots—which reperiodizes the evolution of Holocaust consciousness in America—and The Jewish 1960s.

What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, an early classic of the New Journalism and a remarkable retelling of the American twentieth century. It’s also an oral history, a fact-based literary genre with which I have long been fascinated.

What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man, a chillingly plausible account of a person subjected to what euphemistically is known as extraordinary rendition.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
A lack of passion.

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Dear sunscreen appliers,

The Lazy Scholar is happy to return to these webpages after a protracted journey through the land of end-of-semester labor—paper grading and dissertation prospecting, to be precise. There are still some seniors milling (and drinking) around campus, biding their time until commencement. But so far, I haven’t spotted any yearbooks—that tried and true token of upward academic mobility.

If I remember correctly from my own bright college years, I didn’t get my yearbook until many weeks after graduation, too late to have friends fill up its pages with earnest remembrances and congratulations. I know I got more use out of my high school yearbook, but all I can think about right now is that weird color section inserted by the printers to commemorate all the important events and hit movies from the previous year. That color insert (here’s one energetic promo) also sadly exposes how generic most yearbooks actually are—they typically reveal less about any single place and time than they do about the art and sometimes artlessness of nostalgia.

To prove, and complicate, my point, the digital archive fortunately overflows with scanned yearbook collections. So, in classic yearbook fashion, I offer you this list of class notables.

Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Leiber and Stoller Song

By 1901, University of North Carolina’s students renamed their yearbook from the stodgy Hellenian to the downright silly Yackety Yack. That sense of humor can also be detected in the 1911 volume, which features cartoons beneath every class photo. Herbert Ray Ray (yes, Ray Ray) was evidently something of a cad, to judge by his portrait (right), which features girls hollering to him from a seminary. Other students didn’t fare quite so well: Harry Meyer Solomon‘s entry imagines him as an aged and balding king, with a requisite hooked “Hebrew” nose. John Harris meanwhile is nicknamed “Fatty John,” weighing in at 185 pounds (apparently it was standard to list everyone’s weight).

Most Haunting Mascot

The eerie owl of the Hinakaga, yearbook of Carroll College, Wisconsin.

Best Dressed

Duke’s 1950 Chanticleer features this photo of their famed blue devil. He would have no place in the trippy yearbooks of the 70s, edged out by artsy photojournalism and images of long-haired hippies.  And don’t forget quasi-Buddhism. The 1975 Chanticleer features one spread devoted to Desire, one to Becoming, and another to Sensation.

Most Industrious

The students pictured in The Aggie, yearbook of the University of Minnesota Northwest Agricultural School.

Most Likely to Excite Fans of The Office

University of Scranton yearbooks galore.

Most Optimistic

The Crispus Attucks school was founded in Indianapolis in 1927 as an all-black high school, but began admitting white students in 1967. The spread below comes from the 1972 volume.

Runners Up

The Owl and The Panther Prints, yearbooks of Western University of Pennsylvania and University of Pittsburgh.

The Key, high school yearbook of Marysville, Ohio.

There are more superlatives to designate, but I’m afraid my own search for lost time has come to an end. But if you have any other yearbook links to share, please add them to the comments section.

Yours in pomp and circumstance,

Stephen

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To the domestically-inclined,

Break out your horseradish everybody! Passover is officially here, bringing with it gefilte fish, chocolate-covered matzo, brisket, and all the other healthy treats you’ve come to associate with the feast of the unleavened bread. In truth, perverse as it might sound, I do look forward to Passover every year, I suppose because it’s a family-centered, home-bound holiday, unlike Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Plus, I kind of like matzo. You know, until day four, when I start screaming at anyone in a twenty-foot radius eating a croissant. 

For the digital scholar, unfortunately, there is no single archive that provides a wealth of Passover-related ephemera, so I’ve had to cast a wide net. For starters, you can get your holiday off to a good start listening to a genuinely catchy album by Julliard and Jewish Theological Seminary grad Gladys Gewirtz. Digitized by FAU’s Judaica Sound Archives, Gewirtz’s Seder Party encourages us all to become “Seder Paraders,” and includes piano accompaniment by Long Island dentist Len Meinwald. (No joke, he continued to record into the eighties!) My favorite song, though, has to be, “Let’s Go Shopping,” an ode to the Passover grocery experience.

Marketers have known for a while that Passover shopping is, indeed, big business. The Reform Advocate reported in 1909 you could see ads for “Chad-Ghadye Ketchup,” named for the popular Passover song. Still Maxwell House has gone down in advertising history for the sheer chutzpah of their now-ubiquitous haggadah. Click here for some scans of an early edition, proclaiming their instant coffee the “Cantors’ Choice for every day enjoyment.” Manischewitz, too, knew a good act to get in on, producing a Yiddish/English pamphlet of Tempting Kosher Dishes for Passover, digitized by the incredible National Yiddish Book Center.  Their product line-up hasn’t changed much since then.

Truly, though, you’ve never seen Mr. Peanut looking so jaunty in that top-hat as he does in 46 Ways To Better Passover Meals brought to you by Planter’s Peanut Oil. (But eaters beware : the kosher status of peanut oil is a still a source of rabbinic debate!). 

Not all Passover publications are quite so product-placement-heavy. The Internet also hides a countless array of Haggadot. For a sampling, here is one from 1883, one from 1908, one from 1910, and one from the 1920s.

Last but not least, video-lovers can curl out on their couch and watch this rather remarkable footage from the 1969 Freedom Seder, organized by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in a black church on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assasination. And you can thank another underappreciated digital resource, my parents, forwarding me Martha Stewart’s tour of the Streit’s Matzoh Factory.

Yours in recline, 

Stephen

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Hanukkah Caroling

Dear holiday lovers,

In case you’ve lost track of your  candle-lighting, tonight’s the sixth night of Hanukkah—a.k.a. the Festival of Lights, a.k.a. the Jewish Christmas, a.k.a. an excuse to eat oily, fried foods. Hanukkah sometimes felt like a hard holiday to get into as a kid. I loved the eight days of presents and the chocolate coins, but I didn’t understand the whole Maccabees story and not-so-secretly coveted our neighbors’ Christmas tree. There was, of course, no Charlie Brown Hanukkah special, with a misshapen menorah in place of that scraggly bush. Even in my elementary school choir, we were forced to sing “We wish you a happy Hanukkah” to the tune of “We wish you a merry Christmas,” trading figgy pudding for potato latkes. Honestly.

Of course, Adam Sandler long ago called everyone’s attention to the derth of good Hanukkah tunes. Little did he know there was a veritable smorgasbord of Hanukkah songs just waiting to be sung poorly. Thanks to the wonderful Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University, now you can listen to two albums of the 1950s Tell Me About Chanukah! and Hanukkah The Feast Of Lights. Check out their full listing of Hanukkah albums and their holiday mix. (Click the covers below to listen!)

Not to be outdone, the wonderful Idelsohn Society (your source for reissues of the Barry Sisters and offensive “Jewface” recordings) has their own Hanukkah mix, with tracks by Milton Berle and Woody Guthrie. You can see the full album listing here (scroll down…) and listen below.

And last but not least, don’t forget about Tom Lehrer’s kitschy classic, “Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” sung here by Lehrer himself, here by Brandeis U’s Jewish Fella A Capella, and here by a glee club.

Yours in Hanukkah cheer,

Stephen

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Rabbis, Incompetent and Feisty

To the always already caffeine dependent,

The nominations are in! No, not for the Oscars or the Golden Globes, but the awards we’ve all been waiting for: The Independent Spirit Awards. Let the office pools begin! In all honesty, while I tired of televised award ceremonies long ago, the ISA’s—or is it the Indies? the Spirits?—past winners are oddly in line with the types of films I tend to enjoy: artsy, clever to a fault, vaguely alienating. You know, fun. Which is why I’m pleased, at least, to see that Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest, A Serious Man, will receive the Robert Altman Award, in recognition of its director, casting director, and acting ensemble.

If you haven’t seen it yet (and why not?), the film follows the steep downward spiral of Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered physics professors in 1960s Minnesota. Besides the generous use of Jefferson Airplane and perfect set design, I found particularly uncanny its portrayal of suburban Judaism at the dawn of the counterculture, with its enthusiastic though largely out-of-touch rabbis and a general hollowness in the face of genuine spiritual searching. I wish I could say such anomie no longer characterized many synagogues today, but alas, the empty sermons felt eerily reminiscent of the Long Island synagogue I attended as a child, and some of the services I’ve attended as an adult.

The search for meaningful spiritual connection is, of course, nothing new among American Jews. Just take a case in point from the late nineteenth century (how do you like that segue?!): the  archives of Isaac Mayer Wise on the American Jewish Archives site. Unveiled earlier this year, the collection showcases essays, books, photographs, and letters of the Bohemian-born Rabbi Wise, who was one of the founding leaders of American Reform Judaism. And he wasn’t a bad dresser either.

Wise seemed particularly concerned about the place of Jews within a Christian nation–an issue he strikes on most clearly in his lecture “The Wandering Jew.” But Wise also weighed in on larger political debates, like temperance, arguing that a pint of beer was hardly a sin. And he wrote some passionate love letters to his wife. In one from 1876, he wrote,  “Now I have my regular hours in which to write to you. I write to you in the afternoon and immediately after dinner. This hour ought to remain kiss hour in our memories not including the other kisstime—right after dinner… If you laugh at me, Selma, for being so stingy about the kissing I shall laugh at you for being so much in love that you wrote eight ardent loveletters in a week… Your letters, my wonderful Selma, are really perfect. They show the highness of your soul and the nobleness of your heart.” Read the full translation here.

Sagely yours,

Stephen

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