Quick Takes: Two Books, an Opera, a Record and more…..

Book 1. “The Jews of Saint Petersburg” by Mikhail Beizer (and Martin Gilbert), published by JPS in 1989. We are planning to be in St. Petersburg in 2011 and, knowing that St. Petersburg was not a history with an age-old Jewish past, I wondered what there was to see. I stumbled upon this book, hesitated before laying out $10 at a used book store to buy it, but decided to splurge.

Boy, am I glad I did. The book concentrates on the Jewish activity in the city during the second half of the nineteenth century down through the first three decades of the twentieth and, it turns out, there was a tremendous amount of activity – merchants, scholars, rebels, and even the Lubavitcher rebbe. The book is primarily divided into six chapters, each a (largely) walking tour, where you pass buildings that, notwithstanding what they might be today, do have a Jewish history – this one was a school, a certain organization was headquartered here, this was a publishing house, a famous poet or author or rabbi lived here. The end of the 19th century, when the Pale no longer confined the Jews, saw a vast increase in the population in the then-capital of the country. followed by excited activity on so many lines when it appeared possible that a progressive, diverse, tolerant Russia might develop, only to be stopped in its tracks by Stalinist era persecutions and paranoia. Whether we will be able to take advantage of the book’s contents when we get to St. Petersburg is of course still an open question, but the book is a treasure.

Book 2. Eleanor Clift’s “Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment” is a short book telling the story of the women’s suffrage movement in 19th and 20th century America, the story of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cary Chapman Catt, and Alice Paul. Much stands out – the ties between the post-Civil War movement for racial equality and why gender equality was put on such a back burner. The relationship between women working during World War I for democracy and coming home to realize that they had no role in America’s political life. The fact that Europe was much earlier than the United States in granting women suffrage. The determination with which the suffragette movement attacked their goal – marches, demonstrations, speeches, civil disobedience, prison hunger strikes and more. Divisions within the movement between the organizers and the demonstrators, the radicals and the moderates. Personality clashes. The degree of initial opposition from virtually all American office holders. The ambiguity of Woodrow Wilson. Female suffrage as a states’ rights issue, and how the west was so much ahead of the rest of the country. How the political winds shifted – how long it took, and how abruptly it finally happened.

The opera. My daughter and I headed south and west last weekend, going to Charlottesville to see “Don Giovanni”, part of the Ashlawn Opera Festival. Held in the beautiful Paramount Theater, it was a very nice performance, with strong voices, good musicians, and (I have to say), a rather mediocre (at best) set. We also had a chance to explore the UVA campus a bit, wander the several used books shops and vintage clothing shops and generally enjoy this unique, attractive and very livable city.

The record. While wandering through Charlottesville, while my daughter was vintage clothes shopping, I thumbed my way through the LPs at the vintage store, finding, for $3, a copy of “The Harvard Lampoon Tabernacle Chois Sings at Leningrad Stadium”. If you were at Harvard or Radcliffe in the early 1960s, this would mean something to you, but we are a rather small group and, if you ask me, this shop was very lucky to find someone willing (in fact, anxious) to spend $3 on this rare record.

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