When the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded, I knew that Philip Roth had not won.
A colleague condescended: “I never liked Roth,” a put-down to me, a Miltonist and teacher of Renaissance literature, who really doesn’t know better. A couple of decades ago, someone would have mentioned the more elegant, supposedly more disciplined and intellectual – and Nobel Prize-winning - Saul Bellow.
Roth, as the story goes, is Bellow’s vulgar counter-part, obsessed, with his body, and when he’s long enough distracted from that, the bodies of women. Woody Allen was a spermatozoa in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, and Roth – with a nod to Kafka – becomes a 155 pound “breast.” He’s the modern example of the celebratory, sometimes self-despising , Jew, and the Swedish judges, one can speculate, just find him uncouth.
Roth began his career masturbating in Portnoy’s Complaint. And then there is the persistent obsession of what he calls himself in Operation Shylock that “pervasive, engulfing, wearying topic…the Jews.” For the Nobel committee in Stockholm, Roth is undoubtedly not only too vulgar, but too vulgarly Jewish.
But saying that Roth is too Jewish is like saying the Leopold Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses is too Irish, or the London depicted in Eliot’s The Waste Land too English. Roth may not be Joyce or Eliot, but if the latter began to question our ideas of narrative and identity, Roth is their natural inheritor, and it’s not only in the boutique part of the college catalogue called “American Jewish Literature.”
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From its creation in 1918 to its unofficial adoption as anthem for the fallen of 9/11, “God Bless America” has had quite a history. Here are some of the highlights.
August 19, 1918 Cut from the finale of “Yip, Yip, Yaphank,” which opened at New York’s Century Theatre.
November 10, 1938 Radio premiere, on “The Kate Smith Hour.”
February 1939 Sheet music published amid a battle between Berlin and Smith over performance rights to the song.
June 1940 God Bless America Fund established by Berlin to distribute the song’s royalties to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.
January–October 1941 Banned from the airwaves, along with all songs licensed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, of which Berlin was a founding member. (Broadcasters believe that royalties paid to ASCAP composers were too high.)
February 5, 1941 Performed by Eleanor Roosevelt and 1,200 striking Leviton Manufacturing Co. workers at a union rally in Brooklyn.
1943 Film debut, in “This Is the Army,” in a scene featuring Ronald Reagan playing Johnny Jones and Kate Smith playing herself.
May-June 1963 Performed by Young African-American students at school segregation protests in Jackson, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La.
March 16, 1974 Sung and played on the piano by Richard Nixon at the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry House, in Nashville, Tenn.
January 22, 1982 Sung by anti-abortion marchers at “Right to Life Day” in Buffalo, N.Y.
June 17, 1986 Kate Smith died. The New York Times ran a correction a few days after publishing an initial obituary that claimed Smith had “introduced a new song written expressly for her by Irving Berlin.”
September 22, 1989 Irving Berlin died at 101.
1998 Served as the soundtrack to a propaganda video by the neo-Nazi group Aryan Nations.
September 21, 2001 Performed by Celine Dion in “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” a TV benefit concert for 9/11 victims.
November 5, 2008 Used as Oprah Winfrey’s entrance song for her TV special the day after Obama was elected president. (She yelled “Whoooooooo!” over the music.)
There is no shortage of Jewish contributions to the arts, even in the world of drag. Drag dates back to the days of Shakespeare, if not before, when women were not allowed to perform onstage and men would appear on their behalf in drag, or “dressed as girl.”
Today, of course, women perform onstage and beyond. But drag queens have stayed.
The latest Jewish contribution to the drag world is Jinkx Monsoon — the Seattle-based “narcoleptic Jewish drag queen” who recently won “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” And Jinkx isn’t the only one.
Take a look at this list of other prominent drag queens who prefer kosher lipstick:
In Harvey Fierstein’s three plays that make up the legendary Torch Song Trilogy, Virginia Ham is the stage name of Jewish drag queen and main character Arnold Beckoff. Originally played by Fierstein himself, the series of plays follow Beckoff’s life in 1970s New York and offered one of the first theatrical insights into gay life at the time. First produced in 1978 off-Broadway at the now iconic La MaMa Theatre in New York, the play moved to Broadway in 1982. Fierstein consequently won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Play and Best Actor in a Play. In 1988, Torch Song Trilogy became a film, also written for the screen by Fierstein.
The Kinsey Sicks
The Kinsey Sicks, so named for biologist Alfred Kinsey’s designation of level six (homosexual) on his famed Sexuality Rating Scale, is billed as “America’s Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet.” The comedic acapella group was founded by Irwin Keller and Ben Schatz, two former lawyers who were actively involved in the gay rights movement and in fighting the AIDS crisis.
The Kinsey Sicks are made up of four members who perform in drag: Winnie (Keller), Rachel (Schatz), Trixie (Jeff Manabat), and Trampolina (Spencer Brown). Keller and Schatz play their roles with a comedic Jewish flair (Winnie is said to be releasing a Passover cookbook shortly, delightfully entitled “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Chometz!”). The Kinsey Sicks have performed internationally and been recognized by high-profile nominations with the Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel awards, as well as their famed extended run at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross
The creation of Israeli-born, Jewish educator Amichai Lau-Lavie, the Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross is an elderly Jewish Orthodox widow to six husbands, an expert who teaches traditional Jewish rituals and traditions, “a personal soul-trainer to the ultra-orthodox elite (and elitists from all faiths and backgrounds).” Lau-Lavie designed the Rebbetzin to broaden the scope of the way Judaism was taught, to make it more modern and engaging.
Lau-Lavie has performed as the Rebbetzin, “the first lady of Judeo-Kitsch,” internationally.
Who was more Jewish — Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton? This question was the basis for squabbles between the married Hollywood superstars, according to Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s “Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century.” Taylor was a celebrated convert to Judaism, but Burton was proud of having a Jewish maternal grandfather in his native Wales. Burton further argued that the Welsh are the “Jews of Britain,” referring to ethnic stereotyping directed against his fellow Welshmen. By contrast, he told his wife, “You’re not Jewish at all. If there’s any Jew in this family, it’s me!”
Further evidence of Burton’s sympathy for Yiddishkeit is to be found in the newly published “Richard Burton Diaries.” (Yale University Press) Burton’s entry for June 6, 1967 reads that a friend had advised him that “war had broken out between Israel and Egypt and other Arab idiots.” On June 12, Burton noted with some hyperbole and underlinings, “The Israeli war is over. The Israelis completely destroyed the forces against them in 3 days with what seems a mopping-up action of two days… That clever idiot Nasser resigned and then ‘at the behest of his people’ returned to office 16 hours later.”
The controversial works of authors Maurice Herzog and Binjamin Wilkomirski are not the only cases of Jewish writers or subjects that have faced scrutiny for allegedly embellished projects. From inflated Holocaust tales to fake autobiographies, Jewish authors and subjects have been at the center of some of the most heated literary debates.
Earlier this year, Jonah Lehrer used previously published work for posts on The New Yorker website. Months later, an article by Tablet revealed that Lehrer had fabricated quotes by Bob Dylan for his book “Imagine.” Further examples of hoaxes involving Jewish writers include the following:
• Stephen Glass concocted both quotes and sources in the mid-1990s as a journalist at The New Republic. “Shattered Glass,” a film that recounts the affair, was released in 2003. Earlier that year, Glass published “The Fabulist,” a fictionalized account of his own scandal.
Iconic comic book artist and writer Joe Kubert spent most of his life drawing brawny super heroes, lionhearted jungle men and rampaging dinosaurs. But at age 75, Kubert began a journey back to his roots that led him to illustrate Warsaw Ghetto fighters, Holocaust survivors, and ethical mini-lessons for the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic movement. Kubert, who passed away August 12 in New Jersey at age 85, left behind an enormous fan base in the comic book world as well as a growing audience of admirers in the Jewish community.
“I’ve known and interviewed many older comic book artists, and I usually find that their abilities diminish after a certain age,” noted comics historian and publisher Craig Yoe. “But the amazing thing about Joe was that in his 70s and 80s he was at the top of his game, still constantly and passionately drawing new comics and graphic novels of the highest caliber.”
Kubert’s most recent phase was his immersion in his Jewish roots. While keeping up a heavy schedule of comic book illustration he began making time for a number of Jewish projects. He helped design “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust” for the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a traveling exhibit of 1940s political cartoons from American newspapers about the Jews in Nazi Europe, and served as a judge in a student cartooning contest. For the Lubavitch magazine “Moshiach Times” he drew a series of two-page adventures with moral lessons called “The Adventures of Yaakov and Isaac.” He also wrote and illustrated “Jew Gangster,” a graphic novel about the Jewish underworld figures of yesteryear.
I can think of three popular ideas about what God actually looks like: the bearded man wearing a white robe who sits on a cloud deciding when to make earthquakes and who sometimes shows up in a burning bush; George Burns in “Oh God!” and, long before he actually played God in “Bruce Almighty,” many of us believed that when we left this mortal coil it would indeed be the voice of Morgan Freeman welcoming us to the afterlife. But I’m of the very tiny minority that believes that when God speaks, he sounds just like David Rakoff did.
Rakoff, who passed away last night at the age of 47 after a battle with cancer, had a distinctly clever voice in his writing and his speech. He was the sort of writer who didn’t need to try and be funny; instead, it came out in his essays like quick flashes of color — albeit dark colors, since his humor could be described as “black.” He didn’t dwell on how witty or intelligent he was, he just kept producing works that proved he had these qualities in spades.
The Ohio-born Jewish entertainer Michael Feinstein opened on Broadway on March 18 in a musical review, “All About Me,” co-starring the Australian comedian Barry Humphries (better known as Dame Edna Everage). As Feinstein explains in his 1995 memoir, “Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life in Rhythm and Rhyme” (Hyperion), he has devoted his life to preserving and celebrating works by Tin Pan Alley composers, a great many of whom were Jewish. Feinstein’s reedy voice may be wispy, but his piano playing is charmingly fluent, when not overelaborate, in songs famous, forgotten and almost lost to posterity.