My Day: Cry It Out

“Cry It Out” is a 90 minute play we saw this week at the Studio that depicted the travails of new mothers.  Port Washington, New York.  Three mothers of infants.  One is a lawyer, up for partner at a big firm, wondering whether she should go back to work at all.  One is a working class woman, whose husband’s best job was at a pizza house, and who is living with her hated, alcoholic mother-in-law; this mother has no choice, but to go back to work.  The third is a wealthy career woman, a jewelry designer, about to ink a nationwide deal with Barney’s; she never quit working.  The lawyer and the working class mother get along, and neither gets along with the jewelry designer.  Each has her own distinct set of problems, with money, or the lack of it, not making anyone happy.  The only thing they have in common is that their husbands don’t understand them, and don’t seem necessary for their lives.  Clearly, a woman’s play.

I appreciate that new mothers are under a great deal of strain.  I thought some of the lines were cute, and that the acting, though spotty, was professional.  The lawyer mom didn’t seem like a lawyer, the working class mom spoke with an accent much too heavy for any part of Long Island, and no one could be as stiff and rude as the designing mother.  Yet, for all that, the play was watchable.  Was it memorable?  Obviously, time will tell.


My Day: David Ives and Broken Elastic

David Ives is a very talented playwright and adapter.  I think I first came across him when I saw “Venus in Furs”, which is an extraordinarily clever show about a young woman who answers a call to be a model (I think, a model) and gets more than she bargained for.  I have also seen one or two old French comedies that he has adapted for the stage at the Shakespeare Theatre.  They were clever and terrific.  I also have seen “The New Jerusalem”, his more serious play about Baruch Spinoza, which I enjoyed watching, but about which I objected the significant changes made to the actual history of Spinoza and his excommunication.

This past week, I saw Ives’ newest, an effort entitled “The Panties, the Partner and the Profit”.  Not a very good title, right?  Well, not a very good play, I am afraid. We saw it in previews at Shakespeare.

One act. 90 minutes.  Three scenes.  One family.  Three generations.  Three times.

First (1950s) in Boston, when her panties fall to the ground after the elastic pops on July 4 in the middle of Boston Common.  She lives with her volatile husband (think “The Honeymooners”), low on funds and needing to rent out some spare rooms.  Her escapade on the Commons brings potential tenants, and those selected change the genetic pool of the next generation.

Second (1980s) in New York, where the son of the Panties Lady and the male tenant is about to be made partner in a Wall Street investment company, when his mother and his non-father arrive from Boston for a visit, and he has an unfortunately incident with his older patron/mistress, and all hell breaks loose. (Like a Michael Douglas master of the world film)

Third, (the future) in California where his wealthy daughter lolls in her trendy beach side home, is visited by her former tiger-sister who has now decided to give away their wealth, a wayward surfer-rabbi (I forgot his family connection already), a homeless hippie (who turns out to be the descendant of the Boston father and the female tenant, and a guy who is carting out all of the furniture to give it to the poor.  (Reminds me of a poor-man’s “The Skin of Our Teeth”) They await the call of Gabriel and the end of the world. I won’t tell you if the world ends, but the play does.

David Ives:  you can do better than this.


My Day: Maimonides and the Zohar

Ok, these are two separate subjects.  Two lectures I attended, one sponsored by the Haberman Institute of Jewish Studies, and one by Adas Israel.

First, Daniel Matt of the Graduate Theological Union of the University of California at Berkeley, an expert on Kabbalah and the Zohar.  He was a scholar in residence at Adas Israel last month, which meant he spoke four times; I heard three of them.  (I had also heard him two years ago when he did a Day of Learning for the Foundation for Jewish Studies, the predecessor of the Haberman Institute.)

I cannot begin to understand the Zohar (Matt has spent twenty years or so studying it, and has translated all nine (I think – nine) volumes of it from Aramaic to English.  When he spoke two years ago for the Foundation, he talked about one of the principal elements of the Zohar, the emanations of God, which is way beyond either my intellectual or my spiritual capacity.  This time, he avoided that and talked about a number of things including a conception of God, which was almost pantheistic, in which God is found in every element of the world.  I can get that, but it leads me to another problem in Jewish theology – how can you have a God who is present in this way, but who also participated in the Biblical story – talking to Adam and Moses and the Prophets, leading the Israelites out of Egypt and parting the Reed Sea, and promising the land of Israel to the Jews?

(One story:  The Zohar was written in 15th century Spain by Moses de Leon, but Moses de Leon said that he had found the manuscript and that it had been written in the 2nd century in Palestine by Shimon bar Yochai, giving it credence it would otherwise not have.  Apparently, it was Moses’ widow who refuted the Fake News.)

Last night, I heard Northwestern Professor Kenneth Sheeskin talking about Maimonides and monotheism.  His premise was the Maimonides thought that Judaism was an intellectual exercise, that only the first two commandments were supremely important (all should be followed), and that any anthropomorphic pictures of God (in any way) was a grievous error.  I have the same problem with Maimonides that I have with the Zohar.  If God is so un-anthropomorphic, so impossible to perceive or categorize…….how can you explain the biblical narrative.  For that matter, who did Maimonides think wrote the Bible?

(One story:  The Mishnah Torah is an exposition on the Talmud.  But was it meant to replace the Talmud?  This is one of the reasons other rabbis did not like Maimonides – they were afraid he was giving himself too much credit and centrality)

I’d like to ask both of these scholars this question – will I get the chance?

My Day: Leonard Bernstein, a Bit Oddly

It was the Tuesday concert at Epiphany Church, but it was clearly unusual because, in addition to a tenor and a pianist, a narrator came onto the stage to give a lecture.  The subject was straightforward:  “A Simple and Modest Affair: the Origin and Sources of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms”.  When you opened the program, though, things got a little mysterious:  “Today’s program features a lecture by Carl Yaffe, including musical illustrations from the Bernstein Piano Trio, On the Town, Candide, West Side Story and The Skin of Our Teeth.”  No mention of the psalms.

Carl Yaffe (and the musicians Peter Joshua Burroughs and Carlos Cesar Rodriguez) are on the faculty of the Levine School.  Yaffe teaches music theory and history.  He has a wonderful speaking voice, enunciates very well, and clearly knows his business.  His speaking is a bit too formal, he could use a little humor, he may have overestimated his audience (of course, perhaps I underestimate the audience), and his conception of the program was a bit unclear.

The idea was to provide some information as to how the Chichester Psalms was created, and that was quite interesting.  But he didn’t stick to that, and talked about much else involving Bernstein, all interesting, but without programmatic form.  The musicians were terrific, but they were really there only to provide snippets to support the talk.

Bernstein was asked to compose something for the Chichester Cathedral based on psalms.  He chose several psalms. composed some music, and restructured some music he had written for earlier pieces, including for a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth”, which was never completed.  In fact, a lot of Bernstein’s music was lifted from earlier works, which is of interest, but then Yaffe went on a diversion to talk about other composers who did the same thing (including Handel in his “Messiah”).

We got a few examples of parts of the Chichester Psalms, heard some music composed for the piece, but not used in it, learned a little about the Hebrew that Bernstein used, and how unique that was for western choral music, but also heard about the origin of The West Side Story (Jews and Catholics), and also heard a piece that Bernstein wrote, which had only been performed once before and had never been published (used here with the approval of the Bernstein estate) – it was a cute song, a man singing to a woman he found attractive – promising her all sorts of life-long commitments, big and little, with each stanza ending with something like “Do you wanna have a date?”

So, the hour was nice, of some interest, but unsatisfying.  I think that, with a little more careful planning, Yaffe could have done better.

My Day: The Jews of Vienna

Yesterday, there was a special program sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Studies, honoring its founder, the late Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman, who passed away at age 98 a little over a year ago.  The Foundation announced a rebranding:  its new name is the Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies.

Rabbi Haberman was a native of Vienna – he came to this country after the Austrian Anschluss with Germany in 1938 to attend rabbinical school in Cincinnati.  A feature of yesterday’s program was a lecture by University of Maryland professor Marsha Rozenblit on the history of the Jews of Vienna prior to World War II.

Highlights (for me):

  1.  Before 1848, Jews were not allowed to live in Vienna.  This was a decision that was permitted in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Vienna took advantage of it.  This does not mean that there weren’t Jews there, though, as it was possible for wealthy Jews to buy their ways in, apparently.  In fact, the main synagogue (the only one still in existence) in Vienna was built in the 1820’s and financed by approximately 30 families.
  2. In 1848, after the revolution, all restrictions were removed, and Jews began to move into Vienna from other parts of the Empire – especially from Galicia (Poland) and Hungary.  At the time of World War I, there were about 175,000 Jews in Vienna and this moved up to 200,000 after the war.  Jews were never more than about 8 or 9 percent of the Viennese population, which was a smaller percentage than the Jews of, say, Budapest (25%) or Berlin or Warsaw.  It was easy to move to Vienna after the railroads were built – as easy as it is to get to Vienna from other places of central Europe as it is today.
  3. The Jews of Vienna never became factory workers like the Jews of many other European (and American) cities.  They became merchants and professionals, and entered finance and entertainment.  They were by and large not in the military or the government, although there were exceptions.
  4. Antisemitism was very active in Vienna, although there was no legal discrimination at all.  Karl Lueger and the Christian Democrats were the leading political party in the city, and their platform was particularly anti-Jewish, although this was when the vote was restricted to certain classes and did not include women.  Once there was universal suffrage, the Socialists became the power in the city; the Socialists were not antisemitic.
  5. After World War II, the Christian Democrats became powerful again, and started a one-party system, mainly to keep the Nazis from power.  The Jews supported the Christian Democrats because they were anti-Nazi, even though they were anti-Semitic.  None of this affected Jewish life, until the Anschluss in 1938.
  6. 75% of the Jews of Vienna were able to leave after the German unification – a high percentage, and they left very quickly.  Not like in Germany, where they had 5 or 6 years to figure out what to do.  Before 1924, they could come to the United States, as there were no immigration restrictions here until then.
  7. At all times, the Jewish community of Vienna was an immigrant community – at its highest between the war, only 25 percent of the Jewish population was born in the city, and they were by and large first generation.
  8. There was a book written (in the ’20s?), which presumed that Vienna expelled the Jews (just out of town, not out of life), and which showed a very boring Vienna, so boring in fact, that, at the end of the book, the Jews were invited back in.

These were the highlights for me, I think.  If I remember others, I will add them in.


My Day: Marian Piotrowski

Over the weekend, I read Marian Piotrowski’s “Adventures of a Polish Prisoner”, published in 1943, the memoir of a Polish journalist living in France at the start of the Second World War, who joined a Polish legion to fight the Germans and was taken prisoner by the Germans.  An interesting account, I decided to write a short review.  But first, I Googled the book to look at other reviews and learn a little more about the author and, lo and behold, I discovered that I had read and reviewed the book in 2014.  I thought part of it seemed familiar.

My 2014 review said everything I would say today, and probably said it better, so if you interested, Google my review or search it on this blog.

My Day: Monthly Job Stats

So, I never quite understand them. They don’t take into account people not in the market to get a job, and does not only mean the old and sick and those raising their children, but anybody who just wants to be a beach or ski bum for a while. Second, it’s never been clear to me how it handles part time work, or sporadic workers, or self-employed but not too busy folks, or people who have more than one job. Third, it says nothing about the quality of the jobs. So, for me, this is an imperfect measurement. This holds true both for the measurement of jobs added and for the unemployment rate.

Putting all these limitations aside, and assuming that these measurements are tolerably accurate, one thing seems clear: if unemployment is low (over at least a moderate period of time), it is hard to add a lot of jobs. This is the case on an overall basis, and us only exacerbated when you compare job openings with the qualifications of job seekers. So you can’t expect companies to build large factories, for example, unless they are going to entice workers from other sectors of the economy. This takes you to long term solutions like education, vocational training and, yes, immigration. It takes you to a national jobs policy. Something we do not have.

My Day: Alfred Kazin’s “An American Procession”

I don’t know much about Alfred Kazin.  I don’t even know how to pronounce his name.  But I have owned for some time now two books he wrote – A Walker in the City and New York Jew. I’ve read neither.

Recently, though, I came across another of Kazin’s books, An American Procession, published in 1984.  I decided to read it completely out of any context  – with no real feel for the author at all.

The book is a book of literary criticism, a field about which I know nothing.  It is a long book – about 400 pages, but the pages are each filled with words in small print.  Perhaps, it’s more like a typical 600 page book. It’s not easy reading, either.  The writing does not really flow smoothly, there are a number of references to things I know, and there also seems to be a lot of repetition – I read a sentence which makes a specific point and my reaction is “I knew that……I saw it 100 pages ago”.

But those are nits.  The important thing is what the book attempts to do.  Kazin speaks to a series of well known American writers, starting with Ralph Waldo Emerson and ending with Ernest Hemingway.  The book was interesting to me because he does three things (as I see it) with regard to each writer he discusses:  he gives important biographical material, he talks about the people who influenced the writer and those whom the writer influenced, and he relates everything to what was going on in American at the time – historically, sociologically, and intellectually.  So, for each other these authors (some of whom I have read, and some of whom I have not, but all of whom I certainly know something about), I now have much more context in which to appreciate them.

Geographically, he starts with New England writers (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Melville), and then moves down the coast (Poe, Whitman), before moving to the Midwest (Dreiser, Twain) and further west (Hemingway) and south (Faulkner).  He talks of the writers who left the United States for Europe (James, Eliot, Pound), of those who died much too young (Stephen Crane) as well as those who died simply too young.  He spoke of those who had trouble with friendships, those who were generally bitter, lonely or unhappy people (Hawthorne, Dickinson, Hemingway), those who started out on top of the world, but did not stay there (Twain, Emerson).

Generally, it seems to me that most of these writers reflected their times, but didn’t quite fit in, or didn’t fit in at all.  They were bright and engaged, but something was always out of sync, and they hoped to fix themselves, or at least explain themselves as they wrote.

I will probably hang on to the book as a reference, if I read any of these authors from now on.  On the other hand, why?  After all, we have Wikipedia.

My Day: The Funerals of George H.W. Bush (some thoughts)

I have watched the two funerals of President Bush – yesterday in DC and today in Houston, and want to share a few thoughts:

In the Jewish world, funerals are rather simple affairs.  Prayers are minimal – anyone can preside (usually, but not necessarily, a rabbi and/or cantor), caskets are simple pine boxes (in Israel bodies are laid directly into the ground without caskets).  All are equal in death, it is said; this is not the time to show off.  (Of course not every Jewish funeral meets this “accepted” standards.)

I would assume that, in the world of Episcopalians, things are different.  And I accept that, and have no problem with it.

But there are extremes, aren’t there?  And so my questions:

  1.  Why was it necessary for President Bush to have two separate funerals?  Isn’t one funeral enough (perhaps followed by a memorial service (or even services)?  Is this normal for a president?  Is it normal for anyone?
  2. What are the nature of the funeral services (assuming, for now, that two separate services are appropriate)?  The funeral service in Houston, preceding the burial, took place in St. Mark’s Cathedral and was, I assume, a standard upscale Episcopal service, with a few added wrinkles for a former president.
  3. But what about the service in Washington?  Yes, it was at the National Cathedral, an Episcopal church, I understand that.  But it seems to me that the Washington service is as much a state affair, as a private religious affair.  After all, think of all the federal money that went into this funeral and the surrounding activities (come to think of it, I have no idea what portions of a president’s funeral are covered by public funds, and what are covered by private funds, or what the full amount if federal funding is – I should find out).
  4. As a state service (at least partially), it seems to me that questions of the appropriateness of specific religious content should be up for discussion.
  5. There were clear differences in the religiosity of the Washington and Houston funerals – no question about it.  The Houston funeral was a religious service; the DC funeral partially religious and partially state.  The speakers (all of whom did an excellent job) avoided any sectarian specificity.  That would include Jon Meacham, Bryan Mulroney, Alan Simpson, and of course George W. Bush.  They might have made reference to the spiritual beliefs of the late President, but they did not pontificate themselves.  Not so with the clerics from the National Cathedral and Reverend Levenson from Houston (who also participated in Washington).
  6. I didn’t have problem with the Christian elements of the service per se – the music, the recitations, etc.  Music is non-sectarian by its nature, and the recitations can be ignored if a guest chooses to do so.  But I recall a couple of remarks by the clerical speakers that rubbed me as inappropriate.  Two, as a matter of fact.  One was a reference by Rev. Levenson was that the best way to lead a life, one which we should all strive for, is to emulate the life and teachings of Jesus (at least that is how I heard it).  The other, by one of the local prelates (I do not remember who it was), simply assumed that everyone in the audience was Christian.
  7. Someone suggested that there is not only in this country the question of “white privilege”, but also the question of “Christian privilege”.  Assumptions are made without thought.  Obviously the audience included atheists, and non-Christians of various persuasions – Jewish, Muslim and so forth.  I just don’t think that evangelizing or assuming that all are members of the largest club in the area are appropriate for a state sponsored and state recognized even

That’s it.



My Day: Enrico Fermi

I started my day at my twice monthly breakfast meeting at Congregation Beth El.  The topic today was Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, based on the book by David Schwartz, The Last Man Who Knew Everything.  I haven’t read the book myself.

What I learned is that Fermi was a child prodigy, largely self taught, who became a major figure in Italian physics circles, teaching and experimenting.  Non-political, he left Italy in 1938 because his Jewish wife was living under threat during the fascist regime of Mussolini.  They came to the US after he got a position at Columbia.  He was then in his late 30s, but only lived to 53, when he died after an operation for stomach cancer.  He won the Nobel Prize for Physics.

One of a number of scientists involved in creating energy by splitting the atom, he became interested in the potential for development of an atomic weapon, which would involve creating a chain reaction, after a visit from Werner Heisenberg in 1939, whom he tried to persuade to emigrate to the US.  Heisenberg told him he owed his fidelity to his native Germany, which scared Fermi.  In 1942, Fermi showed that a chain reaction could take place, thus starting the race to create a weapon of mass destruction before the Germans succeeded in the same task.

The role of other physicists, such as Leo Szilard and Robert Oppenheimer, was also discussed this morning, as well as the development of secret facilities not only in connection with the Manhattan project in Chicago, but in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Hanford and other places.  Also the dim future of the nuclear power industry in the United States after the failure of Fukushima in 2011.

Interesting conversation – and how do so many of my breakfast companions know so much about the bomb and nuclear physics?