Putting my own and others’ sincere bicentenary panegyrics aside, Felix Mendelssohn wrote not just admittedly splendid works, but also sugary Victorian church schmaltz. More than simply belonging to an assimilated German Jewish family which baptized its children, Felix composed pieces which appear to stodgily embrace his newfound Christian identity, although some scholars continue to disagree to what extent this occurs.
Fortunately, “Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn” an authoritative new biography from Oxford University Press presents Felix’s sister as a welcome relief from today’s ongoing squabbles about Felix’s troublesome search for establishment (or goyish) approval. Like the other Victorian women creators Jane Welsh Carlyle, Dorothy Wordsworth and Christina Rossetti, Fanny Hensel expressed herself in intriguingly individualistic effusions intended for relatively private consumption. Intimate especially when compared to the public artworks produced by their more acclaimed male counterparts.
A brilliant new CD of Hensel’s pensive, affectionately nostalgic 13-movement piano suite “The Year” from Sony Classical characterizes each month in psychological depth, with a poetic postlude, a masterwork by any criterion. “Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn” by the eminent Mendelssohn expert R. Larry Todd deftly details how Fanny’s son Sebastian, in a family memoir, noted that while his father came from a “Christian-Teutonic” family, his mother was of “pure Jewish descent.” Fanny’s mother initially opposed her daughter’s marriage to a Catholic, feeling that “Catholicism always led to fanaticism and hypocrisy.”
Felix, who Todd points out simply lifted some of Fanny’s creations for his own use, may have been the most convinced Christian in the family, but as Sebastian Hensel pointed out, not the most convincing musician: Fanny was “equal in gifts and talent” to Felix. Small wonder that the famed Jewish portraitist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim included a 1842 painting of Hensel, now on view at New York’s Jewish Museum, among his series of Jewish notables and heroes.
Could it be that today’s listeners, by automatically accepting Felix Mendelssohn as a Jewish composer, may be swayed more by his posthumous banning by Nazis than by the inherent, often Christian, content of his apostate life and works? Might Fanny’s son have been right, and was Fanny as talented, as well as quite a bit more Jewish, than her more celebrated brother? Whatever our responses to such questions, lucky music lovers can happily now relish the output of both Mendelssohn siblings.
Listen to a lilting, typically intimate song by Fanny Hensel set to a poem by Heine, “Aus meinen Tränen sprießen.”
Watch American pianist Byron Schenkman play a tenderly introverted Hensel work at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
American Jews speak their own language. This is the thesis that Professor Sarah Bunin Benor is working under as she gathers up phrases and words for her project “Jewish English: Distinctive Lexicon.”
I spoke with Benor recently and she explained that while it is not like Yiddish or Ladino, American Jews have a specific vocabulary and unique linguistic ticks that make it distinctive. She compared it to Judeo-Greek.
The lexicon, which complements the recent Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity that she recently conducted with sociologist Steven M. Cohen, features phrases that come from biblical Hebrew, Israeli Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Aramaic, biblical literature, and liturgy. It also includes English phrases such as “nice Jewish boy” and “matzah pizza.”
Watch the Jewish senator from Minnesota shut down the Jewish senator from Connecticut:
Apart from historically being a nation of skeptics, France has been hampered in its literary appreciation of the Old Testament by the problem of translation. After a solid start in 1902 with the “Rabbinate Bible” overseen by then-Chief rabbi of France Zadoc Kahn with the assistance of such eminent 19th century scholars as Mayer Lambert and Lazare Isidor things have declined into squabbles among more recent Jewish translators like André Chouraqui and Henri Meschonnic, neither of whom embraced a “literal” approach to translation.
French readers duly have nothing as useful and compelling as “The JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes” to guide them, so it is all the more extraordinary that French poet Charles Juliet, 75, should now produce a thoughtful, candid mediation on Ecclesiastes, “Wisdom and Wounds” (Sagesse et Blessures; Bayard Éditions.
A friend of Samuel Beckett and Michel Leiris, among other literary eminences, Juliet explains why he sees the writer of Kohelet as a “false sage but genuine man,” and that Ecclesiastes’ textual beauty is not diminished by its narrator’s failures as a moral guide. In the second part of his essay, Juliet lauds the Taoist philosophy of Zhuangzi.
Juliet charges Kohelet with “snobbery” (forfanterie) and merely observing human suffering instead of trying to improve things. Juliet asserts that knowledge and wisdom (the latter requires self-knowledge) are not the same things, although Kohelet seems to think so. Juliet further scorns Kohelet’s misogyny and adds about his self-described wealth:
Generally, when one has money and power, the ego grows and we become severe, unfeeling, and the misery of others leaves us indifferent.
Juliet’s fresh observations are backed by a disappointing bibliography including only one Hebraist’s translation of Ecclesiastes (Meschonnic’s) and one Jewish commentary, by André Neher. Even so, given literary France’s time-honored anticlericalism, it is remarkable that Juliet’s intriguing new book exists at all.
Watch Charles Juliet describing his friend Samuel Beckett in 1989 here.
Watch Juliet describing the painting of Cézanne in this 2006 TV excerpt here.
Thanks, Orrin Hatch for the most publicized (first-ever?) Mormon-rendered Hanukkah Song. Conan’s self-proclaimed only Jew Max Weinberg returned the favor last night with a little ditty for the Mormon community to sing at Christmas time. Doubt they will though, since its purpose is to count all the ways in which the singers know nothing about Mormonism besides the names of celebrity Mormons like Katherine Heigl and Mitt Romney:
In a chilling ceremony in Moldova’s capital on December 14, Orthodox priest Anatol Cibric along with about 100 singing and banner-holding supporters ritually desecrated a public menorah, placing it at the feet of a statue of Stephan the Great.
Israel National News reported the priest’s words as:
Stephan the Great defended our country from all kinds of Zjids [a derogatory term for Jews], and now they come and put their menorah here. This is anarchy.
The capital of Moldova, Chişinău, is better known in Jewish history as Kishinev, site of some of the worst pogroms of the twentieth century. Romanian website Jurnal TV that posted the video reports that investigation by the authorities is pending.
Watch the video below.
The bewildering world of the interTweet gets stranger day-by-day. Tom Cokill, a self-avowed Roman Catholic, followed his twitter post about Leeds United’s glorious victory over Accrington Stanley, with a correction of Stephen Fry’s spelling of Hanukkah.
Herewith the tweet from Stephen Fry, read by millions daily:
Just emerged from fun hannukah party at the Chief Rabbi’s house. Latkes and lox and bagel and blintzes. Hurrah. 12:26 PM Dec 14th from Tweetie
Herewith Tom Cokill’s response, read by tens, at least:
@stephenfry its spelt chanukah, and I’m roman catholic!! 2:39 PM Dec 14th from UberTwitter in reply to stephenfry
Now Jewish things move more slowly in Britain than in America, but you know that the spelling of Hanukkah, Chanukah gag is a bit old, when Robert Siegel on NPR did four years earlier.
Still, it hasn’t stopped people’s delight in transliteration, even at book-length.
Still, when Sir Stephen tells you that there are options, there are options:
@TomCokill Er… you’ve been misinformed. It’s actually Hebrew of course, but there are at least 4 perfectly permissible English versions. 3:09 PM Dec 14th from Tweetie in reply to TomCokill
And Tom, thus corrected, can take solace from watching Leeds United against Carlisle in the final of the Northern section of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
Worthy mentions to Benjamin Ivry and David Fagin.
This weekend the “price tag” policy of extremist settlers got well and truly out of hand. Price tag is an attempt to demonstrate to law enforcement bodies that any action which interferes with settler interests will result in vandalism on highways and in Palestinian villages — and sometimes also harm to individual Palestinians.
On Friday the mosque in the West Bank village of Yasuf was vandalized and burned, apparently in reaction to the settlement freeze. A graffiti message read: “Price tag — greetings from Effi.” See articles about the attack here, here and here.
There has been a mass of reaction. There has been condemnation from various places, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres. Politicians have spoken of how they fear it could lead to an escalation in violence. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called it a “despicable crime.”
In settler and pro-settler circles the response has mostly been swift. The settler representative body, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, aka the Yesha Council condemned the attack. Lawmaker Uri Orbach of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party, penned an impassioned article condemning the attack and saying it is the wrong way for settlers to oppose the settlement freeze. He wrote: Will the bad fire end the freeze or deepen it?
But not everyone was so quick to condemn this action. Michael Ben-Ari, lawmaker for the far-right National Union party refused to do so.
What are you doing on Zamenhof Day? To the uninitiated, that means December 15, the birthday of Ludwik Łazarz Zamenhof (born Eliezer Samenhof in 1859) a Polish Jewish ophthalmologist and inventor of Esperanto, the most popular constructed language ever. Although opinions differ widely on how many people actually speak it today Wikipedia quotes the Universal Esperanto Association approvingly when it says on its website that speakers number in the hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions.
A rather more discreet presentation will take place in New York when The Universal Esperanto Association presents a symposium at The Church Center for the United Nations with featured speakers including Esther Schor, a Princeton University English professor, and author of “Emma Lazarus” (Schocken, 2006), a study of the acclaimed Jewish poet.
Also speaking will be writer Arika Okrent, a linguist (and devoted bagel baker) who compares Esperanto speakers to Trekkies who run around speaking the Klingon language as part of their everyday routine in “In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language” (Spiegel & Grau, 2009).
The link between Esperanto and “Star Trek” is strengthened by the famous cult 1965 sci-fi film “Incubus” starring the Canadian Jewish actor William Shatner, better known as Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. One of the very few full-length feature films made entirely in Esperanto its reemergence on YouTube and Netflix suggests that, despite its limited native audience, its niche earnestness has a broad, if ironic, appeal.
Despite the temptation to make light of the utopian aspirations of Zamenhof and his followers, they were born in a time of deadly serious antisemitic violence. Zamenhof, who also created a religious philosophy, Homaranismo based on teachings by Hillel, had three children, all of whom perished in the Holocaust. His youngest daughter Lidia, a fervent disciple of Esperanto as well as the Bahá’í Faith, to which she converted in the 1920s, was murdered at Treblinka.
For a typically irreverent review of “Incubus” on DVD watch Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
It may be a light unto a whole different set of nations but in the capital of China the Hanukkah lights are shining bright. At the Zhengyang archery tower at the south end of Tiananmen Square, Beijing, a (very large) Hanukkiah is being lit to commemorate another people at another time who threw off the yoke of oppression to march to freedom (or at least to potentially misguided self-determination).
For a space better known for tanks crushing students, it’s nice to know there’s a light of hope shining. Word on the tastiness of Chinese sofganiot has yet to escape official censors.
Hat tip to our man in Beijing, Nick Frisch, and his Hanukkah revellers.
The New York Daily News has provided a photo call of 50 (actually a few more) who they claim will be lighting the candles for Hanukkah this year.
After Adam Sandler’s outing of Jewish celebrities in his Hanukkah Song it didn’t seem as though there were many left to find, but the Big Apple tabloid claims that Sean Penn and Neve Campbell — among other celebrities, some more surprising than others — will be celebrating the festival of lights.
Hat tip to Benjamin Ivry and other surprised New Yorkers.
A fierce attack on J Street wasn’t the only notable element of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s address to the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism earlier in the week.
During the prepared portion of his remarks, Oren issued a surprising proclamation of a personal belief in a divine plan behind the creation of the State of Israel. He said:
A God who fixes laws throughout the physical space can also intercede through the course of human history. Perfectly logical. To believe in the God of history is to believe in the reason why a tiny remnant of [the Jewish] people, rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, returned to [Israel].
… To believe in a God who cares about history leads one to assume that there is a reason why, some 3,00 years ago, this obscure group of nomads, wandering somewhere around the Middle East, came up with these extraordinary notions of a single God, and the extraordinary notion of universal morality. And there’s a reason why that faith enabled that people to survive as a people when so many other peoples have vanished, in spite of expulsions, inquisitions, and massacres. And there’s a reason to believe why this people was given a land in which to realize its national destiny, and to understand why that people, bound by its faith, longed to return to that land, even when that people was exiled.
The remarks seemed well received by the audience. Oren, who says he grew up Conservative but now attends a Modern Orthodox synagogue, is the official representative of the Israeli government in Washington. Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence calls Israel the “birthplace of the Jewish people,” but does not describe the creation of the state as an act of God’s will.
“Greetz from US Peres! Good luck mr. president!” writes PivotStorm, a US bank clerk with a penchant for using the F-word. Kigbfre, a woman whose comment is accompanied by a picture of her showing cleavage, posts: “Hello, I like your video.” YouTube users have found what political lobbyists across Israel are dying for — a direct line to President Shimon Peres.
Peres, 86, launched his own YouTube channel this week. YouTube’s co-founder Chad Hurley joined him at the Presidential Residence for the occasion.
Peres is by no means the first world leader to take to YouTube. Other important subscribers include members of the British monarchy, who have their own channel. But there is something rather unique about Peres’ initiative. For many public figures, turning to technology is a means to an end, just a way of getting heard. But with Peres, it’s part of the message.
What would New York City be without its bagels and pizza? Jewish and Italian cuisines have given this city its most famous culinary staples. This Sunday, the Forward’s food columnist, Leah Koenig, will discuss the intersection of these two food cultures.
As it turns out, Rome is one of the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world. Even though, throughout history, its Jewish residents was often forced to live separately from the larger community, Jewish food found its way into the Italian culture at large. Today, you can walk into virtually any restaurant in Rome and order carciofi alla guidia, or Jewish-style artichokes.
Koenig, who writes the Forward’s monthly Ingredients column, will talk about the history of Roman-Jewish cooking and share with audience members Italian-Jewish Hanukkah recipes. Her presentation, “Culture in the Cucina: How Rome’s Jews are Cooking up the Past and Future,” presented by the Jewish Historical Society of New York, will take place at Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, 164 E. 68th Street at 2 p.m., Sunday, December 13. Admission is $5.
Utah Senator Orrin Hatch isn’t the only Mormon legislator with a soft spot for Jewish traditions.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s wife, Landra (née Gould), was raised Jewish, and the Reid family has a mezuzah on the doorpost of their Searchlight, Nev. home in honor of that heritage, a spokeswoman for Senator Reid confirmed. (Senator Hatch wears a mezuzah around his neck, as this Tablet music video shows.)
Both Senator Reid and his wife are converts to Mormonism; Hatch was born into the Mormon faith.
According to this New Yorker profile of the current Senate Majority Leader, Reid’s eventually close relationship with Landra’s parents got off to a rough start. Mr. Gould apparently tried to break up the couple because the Goulds “wanted their daughter to marry a Jewish boy,” according to Reid.
The New York Times got lots of attention for their attention to profiling lonely Jews — most recently, the few Jews in Montana.
But what about being the [only] Orthodox Jew at the nation’s most famous Catholic university, Notre Dame? It is apparently a struggle against constant misunderstanding, as an article in a local college paper makes clear.
“Sharratt said he feels a general ignorance pervades campus about what Judaism stands for,” the reporter notes — before going onto use Sharratt to explain the basics, like how ““there are laws on how to clip your fingernails, tie your shoes, dress, what to think about, what you should have on your mind, self-inspection, prayer, business dealings — there are 613 biblical commandments.”
More importantly, though, the article allows Sharratt to explain once and for all why he can’t go to Notre Dame football games — though during the last few years, who, of any faith, would want to?
Admirers of Israeli novelist Meir Shalev’s “A Pigeon and a Boy,” a tragic romance of two pigeon handlers, will recall the human drama inherent in birds. Even so, the degree to which the Glasgow-born Jewish writer Esther Woolfson is devoted to Corvidae, the bird family which includes crows, ravens, rooks, et al. may surprise some readers.
The author of “Corvus: a Life with Birds,” published in spring 2009 by Counterpoint, with a paperback edition forthcoming at the end of March, Woolfson was raised in an observant family. After Israel’s Six-Day War, Woolfson chose to study Chinese at the Hebrew University. After she returned to Scotland, several years ago, her family rescued a fledgling rook, whom they named Chicken and accepted as part of the mishpokhe:
On Friday evenings, she recognizes… the sound of Kiddush, the lighting of candles, the recitation of blessings (my one enduring nod towards the life spiritual)… and will express eager, vocal anticipation of the coming of Shabbat… or the cutting of the challah… Such frummers! Who’d have imagined!
Doves, a crow, a magpie, etc. were soon added. Woolfson’s musings in “Corvus,” reveal a strong, highly intelligent personality as found in nature writers like Gavin Maxwell, with willfulness triumphing over mere eccentricity. Woolfson notes that in the Book of Genesis, the “creation of birds preceded the creation of beasts.” Recognizing the various calls of her pet rook is made easier, explains Woolfson, by her experience as a teenager working at an Israeli kibbutz nursery, where a stern nanny-in-chief taught her how to interpret the cries of babies. As a Jew, she identifies with birds, deciding that Stalin’s term for Jews: “rootless cosmopolitans,” turns out to be a “pleasing enough designation, one that might have done for either of us, human or bird…because all of our lives are fissile, brittle, subject to contention and to storm.”
Woolfson’s new project is reportedly to teach her birds, already accustomed to hearing Chinese and Hebrew, the rudiments of Yiddish.
Listen to Woolfson read resonantly from “Corvus.”
Watch Woolfson and her beloved birds at home filmed by BBC Scotland.
Texas-born Patricia Highsmith has long attracted readers with her cunning grasp of criminal psychology in such suspenseful novels as “Strangers on a Train” (1950) and a series starring the villainous Tom Ripley, now perhaps best known for the Anthony Minghella film “The Talented Mr Ripley” with Matt Damon as the title Tom. But the full extent of Highsmith’s own iniquity is now revealed in “The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith,” a new biography by Joan Schenkar out December 8 from St. Martin’s Press.
“The Talented Miss Highsmith” focuses on unpublished material which reveals the novelist in later years to have been a raving “Jew-hater,” as Schenkar puts it, who talked for years about leaving her considerable fortune to the Intifada and concocted a 1988 radio script for broadcast in Germany about Yitzhak Shamir that Schenkar describes as an:
irrational work, poisoned by ethnic prejudices. It reads like a lost chapter from that toxic anthology of antisemitic canards, ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’
Highsmith wildly claimed that the novelist Amos Oz would “soon be murdered by Shamir’s government.” German media personalities rejected her text as something “so ghastly that it could be a Nazi text.” Previous books on Highsmith, like the highly readable “Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith” by Andrew Wilson from Bloomsbury USA (2004) do not hide the writer’s eccentricity, including her habit of traveling around Europe by train while concealing a half-dozen pet snails in her bra to deceive customs inspectors. Only Schenkar though, fully delves into Highsmith’s mania on the subjects of Jews and Israel. When American publisher Otto Penzler printed her 1983 novel “People Who Knock on the Door” he deleted the book’s dedication “To the Intifada” with the permission of her main Swiss publisher, Diogenes, angering Highsmith, who accused him of being a Jew, despite his Protestant roots.
Schenkar’s well-researched work cites many such incidents, adding up to a devastating portrait of an ugly, twisted soul from which emerged all those fascinating, entertaining and thankfully fictional murders.
Watch a 1982 British TV interview with Melvyn Bragg of The South Bank Show, in which Patricia Highsmith dismisses any notion of the “sanctity of human life” as a mere “mental attitude.”
If, when you think of Toronto, you think of white people living by a lake, siding with the redcoats and dodging the draft, you are way out of date. Yes their money has the queen’s head on it, but twenty first century Toronto has a thriving multiethnic cultural scene to go with their excellent healthcare, faultless public transportation and unsurprisingly effective ice hockey.
Over the past decade Toronto band Beyond the Pale (Not to be confused with metal band Beyond the Pale which has its own beauty but less impressive mandolin playing) are one of the bands who have stamped a distinctively north American sound onto their eastern European fusion of klezmer and Romany music. This week they are traveling to entertain les Quebecois, some anglo-Quebecois (chas vehalil) then ducking down into Obamaland through the beany reaches of eastern Massachusetts and south to the New York Workmen’s Circle — erstwhile home of this august publication — for their Sunday afternoon show.
Playing songs from their newish (July 2009) CD “Postcards” this week they’ll be making your toes tap, your head nod and your kishkes kish somewhere near you if you live on the North East coast of the American continent. If you live on the West Coast, you’ll have to wait until February but those shows, unlike the Workmen’s Circle show, will have no free latkes.
Watch Beyond the Pale in performance in 2007.
Things have gone from bad to worse for the Hasidic Jews living in New Square and a few other Hasidic enclaves near the Catskills.
A few weeks ago, we told you about the battle in Rockland County over a proposed kosher slaughterhouse that would be built less than a hundred feet from a residential neighborhood — a proposal that has not endeared the ultra-Orthodox Jews of New Square to their neighbors.
Now, though, the slaughterhouse issue is being overshadowed by anger over the way in which the ultra-Orthodox communities control the local school board. It turns out that the people who send their kids to public school are not happy about the school board being controlled by people who send their kids to private religious schools and who seem to be primarily interested in lowering their own taxes and increasing the amount of money going to special education programs.