My Day: “Maniac”

How many people can say that they watched all ten episodes of the Netflix bleak comedic series, “Maniac”?  How many have even heard of it?

Big name stars:  Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, Justin Theroux, Sally Field.

Genre:  Weird

General Subject Matters:  Mental Health and the Nature of Reality

My take:  Emma Stone and Jonah Hill have serious problems.  Hill is a member of a very prominent family, but he is the outcast, the boy diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Emma Stone’s actions led to her younger sister’s death and she has been compensating with drugs, while her father’s reaction has been to leave his house and camp out in the back yard in a mechanical mini-trailer (actually, mini-mini-mini trailer) from which he communicates by electronic codes.  They both want help.  They don’t know each other, but have by coincidence run into each other several times.  They live in very different worlds.

The place is New York City. The time?  Hard to say…..in some ways, it’s the past, in someways, the present, in some ways, an alternative present.  It’s a time when little mechanical robotic toy-like things sweep up the trash and dog poop,  And when you can get an Ad-buddy, to keep you from being lonely.  The Ad-buddy will accompany you wherever you want to go; all you have to do is listen to them read you ads consistently.

Emma and Jonah (I will keep referring to them that way) have the opportunity to participate in a drug trial run by an enormous pharmaceutical research outfit (this seems to be one of many trials run there simultaneously).  The premise of the trial is to see if, by taking three pills (A, B and C), the subjects can work through all of their mental conflicts, and be able to cleanse their brains without the need for any therapy.  Their progress is read by a computer (as they lapse into dream-like states) named G.R.T.A. (pronounced Greta).

Greta was the brainchild of a bright, but totally wacky doctor, Justin Theroux. Theroux’s mother, Sally Field, is a well known pop-psychologist (author, TV star, etc.), with whom Justin has not spoken for seven years, about whom he only has the worst to say.  Nevertheless, in building Greta, Justin and his #1 sidekick, have given Greta the brain of Sally Fields (whose character is, of course, named Greta).

This reality is pretty weird, you must admit, but it gets weirder has the test goes into operation, and as with each pill each subject’s dreams are portrayed.  Interestingly, when the first pill is taken, Emma and Jonah have identical dreams (one where they are married, have to deliver a pet ring-tailed lemur to the daughter of a woman who has just died, and run afoul of the New York Fish and Wildlife Department; another, where they are married but separated, but show up together in an enormous house for a party (Sally Field is the totally nutty hostess; she isn’t Greta yet), where the main goal seems to be to locate and steal the original of the “famous lost chapter” of Don Quixote.  Feeling that they must have some connection, they are surprised when in future dreams, they have nothing to do with each other (such as when Emma is a guide for her sister in the wilds of medieval Europe, or when Jonah befriends and then accidentally kills an alien creature who has come to save (or is it to destroy?) mankind.

Things get wackier when Greta the computer becomes depressed and wants only to understand herself, and the Sally Fields Greta is unable to cure her, so that the decision has to be made to abort the entire test program before Greta the computer does something unredeemable.  It is here that things get really nutty, and you don’t know if you are watching dreams, or if you are back in reality.  I won’t tell you how it all resolves.

Some of Maniac is extraordinarily clever, some of it fascinates, some of it drags, and some of it could have been left out entirely.  If there is a second season (it was meant to be one-season show), I will probably watch it.  If there isn’t, I won’t really care.

Oh, yeah…..the acting is good.  The show is wacky.

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My Day: “Palestine at the Crossroads” by Ladislas Farago

This book was published in 1937.  Farago, a Hungarian born Jewish (sort of) journalist who had been reporting the Italian invasion of Ethiopia decided to take a little time and roam around Palestine, a place he had longed to see, to examine the ongoing controversy between the Arabs, the Jews and the British.  This book is the result of what I think was a few months traveling, where Farago did have the opportunity to look at a lot of Palestine, and to take advantage of his position as one of the few journalists who expressed any interest in the area at that time.

I picked this book off the shelf by chance.  Just like I had previously picked up Lowell Thomas’ “India: Land of the Black Pagoda”, about which I wrote a week or so ago.  Thomas’ book was written in 1930, and the two books shared some interesting characteristics:  (1) both were journals of a trip, and neither looked like it had been the subject of extensive editing or fact checking, (2) these books were certainly the product, if not of colonial thinking (Thomas as American, Farago Hungarian), of the belief of what I might call “white man’s burden” – that it was only natural that the British (in both cases) were colonial masters of lands populated by people not yet ready (talk about a euphemism!) for self government, (3) as these were the days before political correctness, either author could use any derogatory term of description they wanted of any ethnic or religious group, and (4) the lands they were reporting were much, much different than they are today.

Palestine, of course, was under the British Mandate, as proclaimed by the League of Nations.  Farago makes it clear, however, that it was not by accident that the Brits became the mandate holders, both because it was the British who defeated the Ottoman Turks in the area in World War I (making promises, somewhat contradictory, to Jews and Arabs alike), and because the control of this area was important to the British Empire (should it be Empire or empire?) and its control of routes to India and the Far East.   There was apparently competition for the area from the Italians of Mussolini, and the British certainly did not want that.  And there was fear that at some point, access to the Suez Canal may be threatened, and the British were toying with the idea of a second canal, to run from around Gaza City to Aqaba on the Red Sea.  I was not aware of that.

Some things haven’t changed.  Arab Palestine and Jewish Palestine had relatively few connections.  When in Tel Aviv (then a town of about 30,000), Farago forgot he was in an Arab country.  And when in Arab villages, he forgot he was in a Jewish country.  There was much danger.  He viewed a number of Jewish settlements which were peaceful during the day, but guarded, isolated camps at night – he was at one when there was an Arab attack, and he explained the way the settlers were organized to defend their outposts, even if the British police (often local Arabs) took a while to arrive.  He pointed out that the Arabs generally had many, many weapons that were distributed from Saudi Arabia for the most part, while the Jews had many fewer at that time because of controls placed on them by the British.

Tel Aviv then was separate from Jaffa, of course, and Jaffa was Arab.  The major port of Palestine was Haifa, which was booming.  It made sense to build more port facilities at Jaffa (if you came there by boat, you’d be brought in by small boat), but the Arabs did not want to have the port expanded for fear that it would bring Jews to Jaffa.

Farago understood the industrial and agricultural improvements being made by the Jews, and didn’t understand why the Arabs rejected them.  Of course, the Arabs (some were Bedouins, some were native Palestinians, some were from other Arab areas who had come to Palestine to work with/for the British were looking for a large Arab nation (Farago showed the difference between a proposed pan-Arab nation, which would include Arabs of all religions, and a pan-Islamic nation, which would be home base only for Muslim Arabs), and not looking to share space with the Jews (although some Arabs were proposing to permit existing Jewish towns and settlements to stay, but to stop any further immigration), irrespective of the possibility of Arabs being helped by the Jewish economic improvements.  Nothing has changed here.  He also goes into the structure of Arab leadership – the two (or sometimes three) families which were clearly the leadership families (the Husseinis, and the Nashashibis – their origins and the origin of their rivalries) and how the Husseinis won first place.  He talks about Herbert Samuel, the first Jewish and first Governor General of the British who thought that being fair and treating people equally was the way to go.  During his time, just after the World War ended, the Nashashibis were the stronger family, so Samuel made a Husseini the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.  This became rather problematic when al-Husseini allied himself with the Nazis during World War II.

Much of the book takes place in Jerusalem, a dangerous city occupied by 50,000 Jews, and about 40,000 Arabs, a city which is hard to get to, as the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was extraordinarily risky, with attack and ambush after attack and ambush.  He takes a trip to Amman to meet with the leaders of Transjordan; Amman, now a city of about 4 million, had fewer than 10,000 residents in 1935.  He found Abdullah very reasonable – except when it came to the Jews.

Are there areas where Farago did not go?  Yes. He didn’t go anywhere in the Negev; it’s possible that you couldn’t get there.  He did not go to Nazareth; apparently, non-Arabs were not allowed there.

Other things were also happening.  There was a curfew – in certain Arab areas only.  There were the kibbutzim, which then were in their incipient stages – with people living very primitively, and children living in the baby houses.  Farago didn’t seem to have a problem with the baby houses, but he didn’t think the children of the kibbutz were being educated very well.  He thought they were as dumb as the Arabs (his thoughts, not mine).  He wrote about the overwhelming power of the Histadrut (the Jewish labor organization which controlled the job and the health care markets), and what happened to Jewish immigrants who did not want to be part of the Histadrut.  He wrote of environmental battles – burning down forests as an act of war.  He talked about a fascinating man named Pinchas Rutenberg, who among other things was the prime developer of electricity in Palestine.  He talked about the origin of the Haganah; he did not mention the Irgun.  David Ben-Gurion gets only a little attention, as does Chaim Weizmann and Vladimir Jabotinsky.  He takes a trip to Tiberias, which he finds particularly impressive (interesting, huh?) and the Lake of the Galilee.  He talks about night time drinks in the bar of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

The book is interesting to be sure, but it has its limitations. I can’t speak to his descriptions of the Arabs, but his descriptions of the various Jewish groupings contain a lot of incorrect statements, the educational failure of the kibbutz being just one.  He talks about the religiosity of Tel Aviv (maybe this is fact in 1937, but I doubt it) and how everyone in Tel Aviv goes to the synagogue on Friday nights dressed to the 9s, but how Saturday is a day for recreation, not religion – this makes no sense.  He tells of how one morning he is asked to help make a minyan – this service seems to be one of the weirdest things he has ever witnessed.  Jewish marriages are all failing because spouses always have different ideas and get frustrated.  And on and on.  This, along with his pejorative and generalized comments about all ethnic groups, does bring into question a lot of other things that Farago reports.  This is not a book to win awards for accuracy.  But does it give a good picture of Palestine in 1937?  I think it probably does.  And because we don’t read too much today of this type of contemporary reporting, I think it is a book worth reading.

 

 

My Day: A Star is Born..

I am going to add to this mini-review if I see any of the three earlier versions of “A Star is Born”.  But until then…..

This film shows great talent from Lady Gaga, and great talent from Bradley Cooper.  I knew that Gaga (whose name I really dislike) was talented, and I knew that Cooper acted well, but I didn’t know he had such a powerful voice or that he could play (not play at, but play) the guitar.  I thought both performances were exceptional and that, as a couple, they were pretty credible.  The best scenes, I thought, were the music scenes, and I am someone who does not generally like that sort of music.

So what did I think of the film?  Not that much.  First, it’s such a simplistic story – someone is a star who gets hooked on alcohol and drugs, and fails miserably, and someone else is a nobody who gets “discovered” and becomes a big star very quickly, and they happen to be married.  Sad, sure, but very simple.

What do you add to the story?  Cooper’s character has an older brother who acts as his manager and with whom is he an overly strong love and hate relationship.  That’s not very interesting and doesn’t add much to the story line.  And the Cooper character has an old friend who dropped out of the booze scene and now lives a suburban life in Memphis – Brad (and Gaga) spend a little time with him.  But then he drops out of the picture.  What does that add?  Finally, Gaga gets an English agent who is convinced that her success will only continue if she runs away from Brad.  And bad things happen.

So, there’s good music, and a poor, tried but not true story line, and – to make it worse – the film drags on for more than two hours.  For the talent and the music, I’d recommend it.  But not for anything else.

My Day: “India: the Land of the Black Pagoda” by Lowell Thomas

Lowell Thomas wrote “India: the Land of the Black Pagoda” in 1930, when he was in his late 30s.  According to Wikipedia, this was his 14th published book, and he had 43 more to go.  He sure spent a lot of time at his typewriter.

But before this book was written, he wasn’t sitting in his office.  He was traveling in India with an Indian based friend for two years.  And he wrote a very flowery description of their trip, ending at the mysterious Black Pagoda of Karnak, built in the 13th century.  But the journey to Karnak, which started as they entered India at its southernmost point via a small boat from Ceylon, was certainly not straightforward, as they wandered here and there, back and forth.

A lot can be learned from this book (much of which may not be as factual as it should be),  Most importantly, you see (even if you have never been to India) some of the enormous differences between the India of the late 1920s and the India of today.  And secondly, you learn how differently Americans (or to put it more accurately, Anglo-Saxons) viewed the subcontinent then, or perhaps how much differently they felt they could (should?) express their impressions and feelings.

It’s not necessarily that Thomas looked down on the Indian population, it’s more that he, like many others in many other places at the time (think Nazi Germany, think the United States), viewed people in terms of generalities (whether it was by describing generic racial characteristics, or generic caste characteristics) more than as individuals.  This was clearly an era before political correctness took hold.

Lowell Thomas’ India was indeed a strange place, filled with people with odd habits and odder beliefs.  And it was a land of great variety, with Hindus and Muslims, and Christians and Jews.  It was a land of a noble history, and a present that did not live up to its history.  And most of all, it was ruled by the British.

You do get a smattering of the history of British colonialism – how a grateful Indian rajah permitted an English business enterprise to engage in commerce; this was the start of the mammoth British East Indian Company, which eventually ruled the subcontinent until it faced a mutiny in the 1850s.  After the mutiny was put down by the English, the English stayed, giving its government control over the land the East India Company formerly ruled.  And, although the bulk of the governmental workers were Indian natives, the English military and the English civil service controlled everything, forming one more caste in a caste-ridden society.

Yet the British are not the only colonial masters of India.  There are the French, who remained in Pondichery.  There were the Portuguese in Goa.  The Dutch, defeated by the English, were gone.  And, though not colonial masters and in fact rather downtrodden and seemingly watching their society disintegrate, there were the Jews of Cochin.

There were the Hindus and the Muslims, and there was Mahatma Gandhi, who somehow thought an independent country could thrive with the two groups living together harmoniously.  And the poet Tagore, a Hindu who thought that the two groups would clash, and that the Muslims, the minority but the more determined, would win out and rule independent India.  And what did Thomas himself think in this period where the British were toying with Indian independence.  He thought the British would turn the government over to the Indians, but that the Indians would need the British to stick around and help out, and that the British form of helping out would be to remain in control.

Part of the problem was the climate.  No one could be active and efficient in the Indian climate.  That is, unless they could return to England from time to time, and unless, while remaining in India, they could spend their evenings at their exclusive, formal and very fancy clubs, play polo on the weekends, and vacation in the dozens of segregated (in various ways) “hill stations” scattered all around the country.  Otherwise, it was too hot during the day, and too insect infested at night.

You visit the newer Indian cities.  Such as Calcutta, created to be the home of the East India Company in the late 18th century, and Britain’s colonial capital until the early 20th century.  And such as New Delhi, situated in the heart of old Delhi, still under construction in 1930, and to which the British colonial government would soon move and which remains today the Indian capital.  And such as the areas of the British-designed irrigation canals, which turned empty wastelands into fertile agricultural areas.

You go to Goa and Cochin and Pondichery, where you see Portuguese and Jewish and French societies that seem to have little to do (certainly in dress, language and general customs) with the remainder of the country.  You visit cities with large Christian populations, where the bones of St. Thomas are said to have been buried, where large Catholic churches had been built.

And you see the remains of Moghul India, starting with the Taj Mahal, but going well beyond, and attend Hindu rituals along the Ganges in Benares, and in Puna at the Festival of Jagganath.  You examine the clerics, the hardscrapple workers, the remote villages, the women of various castes and types.  You visit Bangalore when it was only a resort, and Kashmir before it became the most contested part of the Indian subcontinent and was the beautiful entry to Nepal and Bhutan and the Himalayas.  You meet mystics, and poets, and highwaymen, and civil servants.  You hear of massacres and revolts, and see their consequences.

It’s quite a trip.  But it’s a 1930 trip, seen through 1930 Anglo-Saxon eyes.  You coudn’t replicate it if you wanted to.

Is it worth reading?  Well, it’s interesting and not difficult and sort of fun.  But it’s also very outdated, very Anglo-centric, and often very maddening.

 

My Day: One More Book – “The Nazis Next Door”

Just when you think you know everything…….

OK, I knew that a lot of Nazis wound up in Latin America after World War II.  And I knew that Wernher von Braun, the mastermind of Hitler’s V-2 rockets, came to America and became perhaps the most prominent scientist in our own rocket and space programs.  But there was a lot I did not know.  And Eric Lichtblau in “The Nazis Next Door” (2014) lays much of it out.

Here goes:

After World War II and the complete surrender of Germany, when the Nuremberg trials were being organized, when Nazis were being arrested and eliminated from European governments, and when Jews and political prisoners were still in camps, the United States military was letting high ranking Nazis into America, usually in violation of all of our immigration laws.  “Project Paperclip” was an official program of the Defense Department which brought 1600 Nazi scientists to America (like von Braun, and like Arthur Rudolph, the well respected founder of the study of the health of man in space).  Similarly, the CIA brought hundreds of high level Nazis to the country because they were “anti-Communists” with contacts in Europe; they were needed as spies.

And then what happened?  Some of the scientists did yeoman duty for the United States and never had to account for their Nazi pasts.  Others were failures in the U.S., and still never were called to account.  A few of the CIA spies might have been of some help to us, but most were not.

And it seems that they were, for a long time, forgotten.  Until there was an Office of Special Investigations founded at the Justice Department, after which a talented group of lawyers began uncovering the existence of Nazis in the United States – in the government of the United States.  And as time went by, the office was treated by many as an unwanted step-child, until Cong. Elizabeth Holtzman took up the cause.

The DOJ succceses were mixed.  Some Nazis died unscathed.  Some were hounded and tried, but some trials were cut short by the CIA, stating that secrecy must be maintained.  Some Nazis outwitted the prosecutors.  And some people were targeted incorrectly.

Lichtblau has done a good job ferreting out the backgrounds of the Nazis admitted to America and especially their wartime activities and their later activities in America (and how surprised their children were when their stories emerged).  He describes the origins of the admission programs, and of the incipience and growth of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations.  Then he goes through the investigations and trials.  You want to know what happened to Arthur Rudolph?  Or how about Tom Soobzokov (never heard of him, huh?), or Ivan the Terrible?  The stories are fascinating, and Lichtblau writes very well.  But beyond fascination……..the story of “The Nazis Next Door” is tragic, and frightening, and shows how fragile our country is (as if we did not know that already).

 

 

My Day: “Behind Enemy Lines” and “Sacred Trash” and another book I did not finish.

Quick review of two books I have recently read and recommend and one I could not finish:

Marthe Cohn’s “Behind Enemy Lines” – how can a Jewish young girl from French Lorraine, caught in World War II and removed, with her family, deeper into France, decide to return to Lorraine and use her perfect German and “Aryan” looks to infiltrate behind German lines and become a source of troop movement information for Allied troops, and after the war ends, how can she (by that time a nurse) then decide to go back into the maelstrom and join the French troops in Indonesia as a combat nurse, and – after all that adventure – still a relatively young woman, come to the United States married to an American soldier, and take up a presumably relatively quietly life in California where she still lives in her late 90s?  Fascinating and hard to believe (but true) story, well written and well worth looking at.

Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s “Sacred Trash: the Lost and Found Word of the Cairo Geniza”:  the story not only of the 12th century storeroom discovered in an old synagogue in the medieval quarter of Cairo, but of the documents discovered there that range through the centuries and over several continents, and the many scholars – Egyptian, German and most of all British and American, including best known Solomon Schechter – who devoted their careers to geniza research.  Quite a story of Cairo and Egyptian society, of Jewish life generally over the ages, of the value of going through your attic, and of the brilliant characters (and they were characters) who brought all of this to light.  Read it if you can.

Now, what about the book I couldn’t finish?  First, I want to make it clear it was not because of any problem with the book, which I recommend to anyone interested in what it has to say.  The book is “The Reluctant Parting” by William and Mary Professor Julie Galambush.  The jacket states “How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book”.  Galambush is a Jewish convert from Christianity (she had actually been a minister), who knows the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament well.  I read through the first part of her book, where she describes the origins of Christianity when it was a Jewish sect, and the writings of the Gospels (to the extent we know the history of the writing), putting them in context with the Roman Empire, and the general messianic end-of-world feelings sweeping the countryside.  The second, and longer, part of the book, goes through the New Testament book by book, showing the relationship between the words, the author’s story, and the Jewish world of the time.  As I said, interesting for anyone interested.  The details of the New Testament are not my thing, however, and I just couldn’t stick with it.  You might be able to.

 

My Day: The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Last night, we went to the first production of Theater J’s 2018-2019 season, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane”, a unique combination of story and music, a one person show starring pianist Mona Golabek acting out the life of her mother, pianist Lisa Jura, who escaped Vienna in 1938 on a Kindertransport.   She went to England as a 14 year old, and after a lonely few months, was placed with a Mrs. Cohen, with whom she stayed until the end of the war. All of this was set forth in Golabek’s book, The Children of Willesden Lane, which first appeared about 15 years ago.

On Willesden Lane, a residential street in North London, Mrs. Cohen ran a “hostel” in her large house that was the temporary home of 18 children who came to England to escape the war.  There, on a piano in the basement, Lisa Jura was able to hone her considerable skills and receive the encouragement to try for a place at the Royal Academy. She was accepted and completed the piano performance course there, she received a visa to come to the United States, where she married a former French resistance fighter and spent the rest of her life. The play, adapted form the book by Hershey Felder, tells the story of Jura’s time with her family in Vienna and then alone and with her fellow refugee teenagers in England.  The sole performer is Mona Golabek’s daughter; she narrates the story and she plays the piano.

In many ways, it’s a bravura performance.  You hear Grieg, and Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and Debussy and Scriabin and even a little “You’re a Grand Old Flag” – but each piece is, of course, interrupted and never completed, which to me was a bit unsettling to me.  I don’t like turning off music before it reaches its ending.  And while the story is of obvious interest and fascination, the dialogue itself is fairly simplistic for the most part. And Mona Golabek has a tale to tell, but she may not be the best vehicle to tell that tale.

But that is not to say that I didn’t find the performance fulfilling and worthwhile.  Quite something, considering Mona Golabek was talking about her mother.  But perhaps this is also the problem – I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been better with someone else playing the role of  narrator.  And that brought be back to the night before, when we saw “Marie and Rosetta” at Mosaic, where they had a “double” playing and shadowing the actors.  What if Golabek played the piano in “The Pianist” and another actor was the narrator.  The emotions would be different, of course, but I think that perhaps the show would work better, would take on its own identity.

I don’t know.  I don’t want to be too critical – this is very good theater and an important story.  But it just seems to me that there is a way to make it better. And I also don’t imagine that everyone would agree with me.  I recommend the show.  Go see it and decide.

My Day: Marie Wright and Rosetta Tharpe

Mosaic Theater began its 4th season with a remarkable effort by four female African-American performers in George Brant’s “Marie and Rosetta”.  [Full disclosure:  Brant is neither African-American or female].  It’s the story of gospel/rock and roll singer Rosetta Tharpe, and her young “partner”, Marie Wright.  Tharpe was a very real musical talent; frankly, I don’t know if the playwright created Marie Wright, or if she is/was real, as well.  Maybe someone will let me know.

So, I never heard of Rosetta Tharpe, or if I have ever heard of her, she didn’t stay long in my memory bank.  But she was, for a while, a prominent musical star, who found her way from Arkansas to Philadelphia and became first a gospel, and then a commercial sensation, before fading into obscurity and then reappearing posthumously as an important figure in American musical history.  She left the church bound gospel world to bring her music to Tommy Dorsey and Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington and others, one of the first to restyle gospel music for a broader audience.  She influenced many of the most popular rock and roll artists of the second half of the 20th century.  While achieving acclaim from the public, she displeased many conservative church goers.

The story line shows Rosetta Tharpe bringing young Marie Wright, whom she picked out of a quartet, to travel with her, accompany her, and sing with her.  Wright is excited, to be sure, but unsure if she wants to be identified too closely with Tharpe, risking offending her pastor husband among others.  She joins Tharpe, she separates from her husband, she loses her mother and two children in a house fire, and she returns to the church.  Tharpe continues her own career, but before long is felled first by diabetes and a debilitating stroke, and then by a second stroke, dying at 58.

OK, that’s the story line.  But the story of the play is more in the performers.  Roz White, as Rosetta Tharpe, brings a beautiful, rich and unbelievably powerful voice to her character, and Ayana Reed as Marie Wright has an unbelievable range and an extraordinarily winning stage presence.  But wait……..there’s more.  Both of these characters are also first class musicians – Rosetta on the guitar and Marie on the piano.  And director Sandra Holloway had the brilliant idea to have first class musicians shadow the two performers, one sitting at the piano (Ronnette Harrison) and one with a guitar (Barbara Gaskins), providing the accompaniment for the show.  Sounds clumsy?  Not at all, almost like a marionette show where you see the string pullers along with the puppets.  But in this case, you can’t tell who is pulling the strings and who is being controlled.  It is that seamless.

A great start to Mosaic’s fourth season.

My Day: Hasia Diner on American Jewish Immigration

Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish history at New York University, was the Day of Learning Scholar on Labor Day (Sept 3) for the Foundation for Jewish Studies, of which I am vice-president.  She gave four separate lectures; I wrote down the particular thoughts that I found most interesting.  There were 47 of them.  I think my notes are pretty accurate.

1. The United States today has the same percentage of immigrants as the country did during the early part of the 20th century.  This is a second transformative period for the country.

2. For Italian immigrants, men outnumbered women.  For Irish immigrants, women outnumbered men.  For Jewish immigrants, the number of males and females were pretty well the same, although they didn’t always come at the same time – often men came first, and then brought their wives over.

3.  There are false narratives associated with Jewish immigration.  First, that pogroms and other violence were the prime reasons for immigration.  Second, that names were changed by officials at Ellis Island.

4.  Jews left Europe primarily for economic reasons because of (a) population growth, (b) change from home production to industrial production, (c) spread of railroads, mail, underwater cables.  Generally, information flow.

5.  The earliest immigration and by percentage the greatest immigration came from Lithuania, because it was the poorest Jewish population, the most overpopulated, and close to railroads and ports.  Lithuanian emigration started in the 1860; immigration from the Ukraine, for example, did not start until the 1910s.  Some Lithuanian Jews went to other places – like South Africa, but also like the Ukraine.

6.  Age of immigrating Jews:  25% under 14, 50% between 15 and 39, 25% over 40.

7.  As Irish women got jobs as housekeepers, Jewish women got jobs in the garment industry.

8.  The poorest Jews did not immigrate; they could not afford to.  The wealthiest didn’t immigrate; there was no reason for them to.  Working class Jews immigrated.  If the poorest Jews, did not immigrate, why are there so many family stories about arriving penniless?  Because they spent all their money to get here.

9.  1/3 of European Jews and Italians left their homes; 1/4 of Irish.

10.  The only study Diner knows about which studied the personal characteristics of those who emigrated was conducted in Norway, in one town.  It found that the emigrants were hard to handle, the deviants, the risk takers.

11.  The most traditional Jews stayed home.  Rabbis sermonized against moving to a trayf land.  The least observant didn’t necessarily immigrate, either; they often left home and moved to the big cities (there was a big increase in city population, and small communities were becoming depopulated).

12.  Immigrants were a big source of money sent back home, so immigration was often good for parents who stayed home.  (Studies in Ireland showed that 1/3 of the money at home came from immigrant remittances.)  When money came home, it liberated the recipients from control of the community welfare agencies.  Remittances also made it possible for other family members to emigrate.

13. Of all European immigrants, 3/5 came to the United States.  Of Jewish immigrants, it was 90%.

14.  The more immigration that took place, the more additional immigration was encouraged, as people came to join people they knew who had already immigrated.

15.  Jewish immigrants were helped by HIAS and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).

16. The United States was never anti-Jewish.  It was more anti-Catholic, and anti-Radical.  Talk about immigrant “races” started in the 1870s.  The concept that certain “races” were mentally inferior, alcoholics, criminals.  Eugenics became the science of the day; “race” was really referring to “ethnicity”.

17.  Yes, Jews were active radicals, but so were other immigrant groups, as well.

18.  On American forms, Jews were always characterized as “white”, whether the question was of “race” or “color’.

19.  Only about 2% of potential immigrants were returned to Europe for health or other reasons.  Typically, clearance through Ellis Island took about 3 hours.  There were some deported during the Red Scare – but it was just a few thousand.

20.  Historians can’t rely too heavily on memoirs; they tend to get distorted for many reasons.  The same is true for census data which is based on self reporting.  In addition, immigrants often lied on immigration forms – lied about age, occupation, etc.  There was no requirement for most of this period for corroborating documentation.  Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuznets did a large study of comparing Russian emigration records and American immigration records of 1905, which showed this.

21.  When immigration was basically shut down in the 1920s by Congress, immigration of southern blacks coming north started.  Largely became northern industry had jobs and needed workers.  Similarly, Jewish immigration in significant numbers to Palestine didn’t start until the 1920s, when Jews could no longer immigrate to the US.

22.  Jews in Europe were often middlemen – bringing goods from the farmer or manufacturer to the point of distribution.  But when serfdom was abolished and railroads reached to more places, middlemen jobs were no longer so important.  At the same time, Jewish births were increasing, and early life deaths decreasing.

23.  Originally, the United States had no laws restricting immigrants, and no documentation required of immigrants.  Whoever came and wanted to stay could (although a few states did have anti-pauper laws).

24.  The Constitution gives Congress power over “naturalization”.  In the 1790s, a procedure was established requiring a 2 year residency before one could apply for citizenship, as long as you were free, white, and ___________.  No real laws were passed until the 1880s.

25.  In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.  No more Chinese could enter the country and those already here could not return if they left.

26.  In 1875, the Supreme Court ruled that individual states could not impose immigration taxes.  In 1885, Congress passed a law forbidding indenture or contract labor.  (But there was no enforcement mechanism)

27.  In 1891, the Bureau of Immigration was established, and in 1892 Ellis Island and certain other immigration centers were open (Galveston opened in 1906).  They began to keep records.  Immigrants were often classified by their names (e.g., if you were named Sullivan, you’d be Irish, no matter where you came from).  Immigrants did have to fill out papers, but they weren’t filled out until you reached the U.S., and weren’t checked against anything at first.

28. Because many names had been written in Hebrew/Yiddish or Russia/Cyrillic script, they were spelled in English script for the first time at the immigration letters. Hence, the difference between spellings of the same name.  Various German Jewish organizations  (Hilfverein) were helping Jewish immigrants enter the country, which is why so many names were Germanized (e.g., Rozenblit – in Poland – became Rosenblatt in the US.

29.  In 1892 (?), Congress passed a law prohibiting immigration of convicts, lunatics, idiots or paupers.  In the 1890s, the Immigration Restriction League arose, suggesting there be a literacy test for immigrants (in any language) – it was not passed until 1917, when it also prohibited anarchists.

30.  After 1907, immigrants could not have infectious diseases, or physical or mental disability.  The law that was passed in 1917 (over veto of Pres. Wilson) lists all the undesirables – including political radicals, prostitutes, and all illiterates over the age of 16 (designed against Irish and Italians).  Concern of certain groups destabilizing American society, particularly as ethnic groups already in the United States were beginning to align with their home countries while World War I was raging in Europe.

31.  In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which put a numerical limit on immigrants from various countries, with the Department of Labor setting the numbers, but with overall quotas of 3% of those numbers of particular groups already in the country according to the 1910 census.  (No quotas on anyone from Western Hemisphere, and no admission of Asians) In 1924, modified down to 2% of those in the country as of 1890 census.

32.  These laws also required that prospective immigrants first get visas from consulate offices in their country of origin, along with documentation to prove the accuracy of their background information.  So if you did not have such documentation, or could not get to a consulate, you were left out.  And there were very long waiting lists – in some places, many years.

33.  There was never a “Jewish” quota.  Everything was by country of origin.  But it wasn’t really country of origin, because some of these “countries” didn’t exist in 1890.  Take Poland as an example, which was then in the Russian empire.  So, the government hired all sorts of experts, and the determinations were very complicated, and designed to discourage immigration in general.  For really the first time, the concept of illegal immigration arose.

34.  Because immigration from the western hemisphere was unrestricted, Jews often went to Canada or Mexico, Cuba or Argentina.  Organizations in those places helped them immigrate to the U.S. where, according to the law they were illegal, but they got in and faded into society.  In 1936, there was apparently a law passed that allowed those in the country to go to Canada, reapply, and enter legally

35.  The term “Melting Pot” came into use about 1900 – in part because of Zangwell’s book.

36.  Jewish organizations opposed immigration restrictions generally, on the theory that anything keeping “them” out, could later be used to keep “us” out.

37.  total Jewish immigration 1820-1920 was about 3 million.  (Italians went to S. America as well; Irish to British commonwealth)

38. 1860-1880 time of German Jewish immigration.  It’s the German Jews who set the pattern for American Jewish life.  Between 1820-1870, 250,000 Jews came.  They were “German” but there was no Germany until 1871.  Jews from Moravia, Bohemia, Hungary, etc. all were considered German because they spoke German.  Also, western Poland (Silesia, Posnan), which had been Polish but were taken over by Prussia; many here spoke Yiddish, not German, and lived like in Eastern Europe.  1/6 of the Jews who came during this period came from east of the Elbe River.

39.  These “German Jews” had been middlemen, but the economy was declining; they were mainly young men, who came and started out as peddlers.  This became the nuclear of Jewish shop owners and the garment industry, and some not only sold, but bought old rags.  Most of them were not the German Jews who had been completely Germanized; they were the least Germanized.  They became more Germanized once they got here.

40.  Chain migration.  First the men, then wives, children, parents, siblings, etc.

41. In some places during this period, the number of Jews allowed to marry was limited, so people came here to find a spouse.

42.  The emancipation of Jews in Europe did not lessen Jewish immigration here.

43.  The first rabbi immigrated here in 1840, but there were very few rabbis who came to America.  Those who did come had been influenced by reform in German practice.  But they were unable to interest many in their own customs and practices, and soon it was decided that America must train its own rabbis.  The leaders of Reform Judaism in Germany had no reason to come here.  American Reform grew first in the midwest in part because there was no other form of Judaism established there to provide competition.

44.  Many early American reform congregations bought old churches (often German Jewish women’s organizations raised the money).  The churches were not built for separate sex seating, had no reading stand, and had  a choir loft.

45.  The biggest years for Jewish immigration were  1910-1914.  World War I (1914) and the Russian Revolution (1917) disrupted immigration, as people were stranded.  If a husband came in 1913, his wife might not be able to come for another 10 years.  Much family disruption.  This is why there were so many husbands who disappeared during the 1920s.  There were so many that the National Council of Jewish Women hired Pinkerton Detectives to search them out; this was not successful. A Jewish desertion bureau was also formed.  This was not so much because the wives longed for their husbands, but because they wanted child support.

46.  As compared to other immigrant groups, a greater percentage of Jews stayed in New York City.  This was in large part because of the jobs available in the garment industry.

47.  Very few Jews came because of pogroms, or had ever seen a pogrom.  But after immigration was cut off, organizations who opposed the new immigration restrictions needed arguments to reopen the immigration gates.  And the danger that people would be killed during pogroms was a good issue to make people sympathize with the situation that Jews found themselves in.

47.

My Day: V.S. Naipaul and Me

No, we never met.  Naipaul passed away a few weeks ago.  I read the obituaries – great writer, nasty guy.  OK, that’s true with a lot of writers, it seems.  (And a lot of politicians, but that’s another story).

Last year, when I tried to read a book by as many recent Nobel Literature Prize winners as I could, I read a book by Naipaul, “Half a Life”.  I don’t think it’s one of his best known; but it was the one I found when I rummaged through a used book store.  And I remember that I liked it, although I can’t say that the plot embedded itself very deep in me.  Nor did the plot of “A Bend in the River”, which I just completed.

Now, I can’t say much about the arc of Naipaul’s writing, since these are the only two of his books I have written.  All I can say is that these two books are quite similar, even though “A Bend in the River” was first published in 1979, and “Half a Life” in 2001.

We are dealing with colonial societies, with protagonists who aren’t at home anywhere.  They either never knew their ethnic homeland (“Bend”) or left it at a rather young age (“Life”).  Both were of Indian descent, the one born in East Africa.  Both spent some time in London, but couldn’t quite feel comfortable, even when they had succeeded in their lives to an extent that one would think that comfort was just around the corner.  Both spent time in Africa when colonial rule was overturned, and things becoming more and more dangerous for everyone, and especially for non-black natives.  Each made friends with others who were in similar situations.  Yes the world, for Naipaul in these books, is dangerous, uncomfortable, unsatisfying, changing.  And we are not on the path to better times.  The human condition, at least for the Naipaul characters, major and minor, is not a good one.

“Half a Life” is the story of an Indian of unusual, multi-caste family background who escapes India and goes to London for university, which he does not complete, but who becomes a writer who cannot maintain success, and who marriages a Portuguese African woman, and lives 18 years with her in Africa before he just decides he can’t do it any more; he must live his own life.  “A Bend in the Road” follows an Indian East African who moves to a central African country to run a store, eventually leaves to go to England and, for reasons of his own, returns to Africa and gets caught in revolutionary times.

Are all V.S. Naipaul books like this?