Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Potemkin Village of Soviet Yiddish Nationalism

Posted by dianamuir on November 28, 2012
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On the night of August 12, 1952, a group of Yiddish writers was executed on Joseph Stalin’s orders for the crime of writing while Jewish.  The executions, remembered as the Night of the Murdered Poets, were the tragic culmination of the grand romance between Jewish intellectuals and Marxism.  Author Nathan Englander now has a new play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, based on a short story he wrote about the murders.  He imagines the 27 imprisoned writers in a Russian prison cell, caught between the Marxist promise of a brotherhood of workers, liberating the oppressed to create a bright new world, and the reality of Soviet Communism.  In Englander, the murdered writers have found their bard.

In Marxist theory, national identity is a shallow, ephemeral phenomenon.  Nation-states, a modern invention created by self-interested capitalists and politicians to manipulate the masses, will evanesce with the coming of the Marxist utopia.  In reality, Lenin and others in the Socialist International exploited the Tsarist empire’s national liberation movements, which were, struggling for self-determination, in order to bring about the revolution.

When the revolution came in 1917, the victorious Bolsheviks announced that each of the peoples oppressed by the Tsars would have a sovereign nation-state; these states would form a union of equals building the Marxist future—a Soviet Union.  Each liberated nation would have the right to its own schools, newspapers, and even national theaters in its own language.  The catch was that all these cultural institutions would have to be “national in form, socialist in content.”  And the structures of self-government were hollow: in reality, all power was held by the Communist Party Central Committee.

Nevertheless, the 1920s saw the flourishing of a remarkable Jewish cultural nation within the Soviet Union.  Jewish schools taught Marxist doctrine in Yiddish—but not Hebrew or Jewish texts.  There were government-supported Yiddish newspapers, publishing houses, even a Yiddish National Theater—but all the stories they told were correctly Marxist.  To the extent that Jewishness is defined as having a positive relationship with God, Torah, Jewish tradition, or Israel, Yiddish-speaking Soviet Jewish nationalism was intensely anti-Jewish.

The dedicated Jewish Marxists of the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, carried out an aggressive secularization campaign.  Breadcrumbs were added to town water supplies at Passover.  Stores were opened and synagogues closed on the Sabbath.  These and other anti-religious measures were sometimes enforced by thugs, sometimes by such legal techniques as requisitioning a synagogue for use as a worker’s committee room.  There were campaigns of intimidation against parents who might have tried to teach their children Hebrew and Torah.

Yet, until 1928, Jewish prayer and practice were, technically, legal.  Some observers—even some secular Yiddishists—looked at the Potemkin village of a flourishing, Yiddish-speaking Soviet Jewish nation and thought it real.  Thus, the Yiddish poet Dovid Hofshteyn returned from Palestine to Russia in 1926, and a number of Marxist intellectuals returned from other countries.  The last of the well-known returnees was novelist and poet Dovid Bergelson, who went home to Russia in 1934.  He is undoubtedly part of the inspiration for Englander’s character Moishe Bretzky, compellingly played by Daniel Oreskes, who has some of the play’s sharpest and funniest lines.  Bretsky must account to himself for having so loved the Yiddish-speaking Jewish world of Russia that he returned to it even though he knew Communism for the fraud that it had become.

By 1928, Russia had become a totalitarian state controlled by Joseph Stalin, who, though born a Georgian, was dedicated to the imposition of Russian culture on the entire Soviet empire.  Englander ratchets up the pressure on his Yiddish writers by putting an important proposition into the mouth of a Stalinist functionary, chillingly played by Byron Jennings as a man who is simply doing his job.  Part of that job is believing the anti-Semitic lies he is required to tell.  In order for a lie to have power, he explains, it has to be believed.

The Yiddish writers murdered by Stalin were not dissidents or anti-Communist activists.  Some were men like Vasily Korinsky, persuasively played by Chip Zein, who worked to build the Marxist dream, and, at some point, began to lie to himself about Marxist reality.  Yet, at the point when it became necessary for good Russian Communists to believe in a nefarious international Jewish conspiracy, it also became necessary for Jewish Marxists to confront the truth about the world they had helped create.  Englander has written both Korinsky and Bretsky so well that playgoers may squirm with the uncomfortable self-recognition.

The 27th man of the play’s title, played by Noah Robbins, captures hearts as a youth so filled with ideas that he can hardly write fast enough to get them all down.  But at the heart of the story is the character of Yevgeny Zunser—acted by Ron Rifkin, who doesn’t so much play an aging Yiddish writer as inhabit one.  Here is a man who once watched an entire Jewish civilization go up in the smoke of a burnt offering to the anti-Semitic ideology of Nazism; now he is slated to become a victim of Stalin’s decision to annihilate the world’s largest surviving Jewish community.  Knowing this, he behaves with humanity, moral intelligence, and unshakable dignity.

By 1928, Stalin had enough control so that he could end the pretense of Communist support for the self-determination of peoples within the Soviet Union.  This was a Russian empire, and Stalin was determined that its peoples of would become Russian or be extinguished.  He intended to deport the Jews to an empty patch of ground along the trans-Siberian railway, a plan stopped only by his death in 1952.

The play’s staging and set are starkly perfect and, in the final scene, achieve a fearsome power.  This is compelling theater, and was especially on a night when another intensely anti-Jewish government was shooting at Jews.  But, unlike the Yiddish writers, Israel’s Jews are not helpless victims of a totalitarian regime; they live in a democracy and defend themselves with a citizen army.

Jewish Ideas Daily, Nov. 28, 2012

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Nathan Englander’s Twenty-Seventh Man

Posted by dianamuir on November 18, 2012
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The twenty-seven men are Nathan Englander’s evocation of the Yiddish writers executed by Joseph Stalin in 1952 on the infamous Night of the Murdered Poets.   Executed for the crime of writing while Jewish, they were sentenced in a Russian show trial held as part of the Stalinist decision to annihilate Jewish culture in the Soviet Union.   Stalin’s planned mass deportation of Jews to an empty patch of ground along the trans-Siberian railway was halted by Stalin’s death in 1952, but the great Yiddish writers were already dead.


The Twenty-Seventh Man was one Englander’s first published stories, he has turned it into riveting drama that challenges the mind as it engages the heart.


Daniel Oreskes, Ron Rifkin, Noah Robbins and Chip Zien are a compelling cast.  Robbins captures hearts as a youth whose head is so bursting with ideas that he can hardly write fast enough to get them all down.   Ron Rifkin doesn’t so much play an aging Yiddish writer as he inhabits one.   Through him we experience the pain of watching the Jewish world go up in the smoke of a burnt offering to an anti-Semitic ideology.


Rifkin’s pain feels as authentic as his ability to pronounce the letter “chet”.    It probably is.   He was born to parents who had immigrated to New York from that vanished world.


The Yiddish writers Stalin murdered were not dissidents or anti-Communist  activists.    Some were men who had dreamed the Marxist dream and worked to build the Revolution.   Jewish Marxism in its infinite ideological varieties attracted more Jews than any other political movement because it made two irresistible promises.  To a people suffering from bone-grinding poverty, Marxism promised a good life.   And to a people suffering from violent and oppressive anti-Semitism, Marxism offered universal brotherhood.   Very few had the prescience to see Marxist promises as the fool’s paradise they would prove to be.


But in a season when the last of the unreconstructed Stalinist Jewish intellectuals, Eric Hobsbawm, has just died safely in his bed in England, it is not inappropriate to ask at what point Russian Jewish intellectuals ought to have woken up from the Marxist dream and seen the Communist regime for what it was.   When the Party turned on Lenin?   During the Great Purge of 1936?   At the signing of the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler in 1939?     Englander is devastatingly incisive best when he asks his characters to account for their loyalty to Stalin.


Then he ratchets up the pressure by putting an important proposition into the mouth of a Stalinist functionary: in order for a lie to have power, you have to believe in it.


When it became necessary for Russian Communists in good standing to believe in an evil international Jewish conspiracy, it also became necessary for Jewish Communists confront the truth about anti-Semitism.    They face us, waiting for death sentences to be meted out not because they have betrayed the Party, but simply because they are Jews.   We watch them confront the fact that they have betrayed themselves by believing in a great lie about an international Marxist brotherhood that rose above differences of race and ethnicity.   Only to discover that their comrades were capable of murderous Jew-hatred.


This is compelling theater.   And it was especially evocative on this night, with Hamas firing rockets at civilian targets in Israel.   The irrational Jew-hatred of Soviet Russia, the irrational Jew hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamas-controlled Gaza, the murder of Jews simply for being Jewish.


The staging and set were starkly perfect, until the final scene, when it achieved stunningly splendid realism.


When it ended, we held our breath.    How could we applaud barbarity?    Then the lights came up and the pre-opening crowd roared our approval.

At the Public Theater in New York


Criticizing the Critics

Puzzled this morning by Charles Isherwood’s review.    The audience I saw it with was absolutely rapt.   None of the rustling, shifting, noisiness that began half-way through David Manet’s Anarchist on Saturday night.

Maybe Isherwood also saw both plays and put this sentence in the worng review,  ” a sense of dreary stasis slowly envelops the play as the academic arguments drag on. You feel as if you’re slowly sinking into a kind of literary quicksand,…”    Now that is how the audience at the Mamet play felt.

The audience at Englander’s “Twenty-Seventh Man” was rapt.   Sometimes amused or shocked.   But absolutely riveted.   Does it matter that critics sit in the front rows, and don’t experience the focused tension of the audience.

Or is it just that Isherwood is  bored with dramatic tension that revolves around the plight of a people.


A Critic with Insight

The most interesting review that I’ve seen is by writing in Vol.1Brooklyn.


Edward Rothstein on Identity museums

Posted by dianamuir on November 16, 2012
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November 14, 2012

Within the framework of today’s “politically correct” society, the notion of the traditional museum as we’ve come to know it – a cold, looming temple of glass-cased collections from an antiquated, imperial past – has given way to a proliferation of museums designed to celebrate the shared experiences of a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group.

But as New York Times Critic at Large Edward Rothstein argued in an eye-opening presentation at the School of Media and Public Affairs’ Jack Morton Auditorium Tuesday night, these “identity museums,” whether they focus on Asian Americans, Jewish Americans or other groups, are creating a distorted cultural narrative that is far from black and white marble.

Dr. Rothstein’s lecture–co-sponsored by the Judaic Studies and Museum Studies programs and made possible by the Dr. Munr Kazmir Fund of the Program in Judaic Studies with the support of the Office of the Provost, the Dean’s Office and the School of Media and Public Affairs–was especially timely as the most important African American museum is set to open on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall in 2015.

In his introduction of Dr. Rothstein, School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno quoted from Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit’s blog.

“Whatever their ambitions or contents, museums loom large these days, beckoning us with all manner of innovative, interactive exhibitions, imaginative public programming, seductive gift shops and enticing restaurants,” Dr. Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies , professor of history and director the Judaic Studies program and its new M.A. in Jewish Cultural Arts, wrote. “At a time when many of us are more apt to keep company with our digital appurtenances than with one another, the contemporary museum is the latter-day equivalent of the public square or commons. It brings us together — and out of the house.”

It is that universal quality, according to Dr. Rothstein, that is at risk of being skewed by identity politics as this new genre of museum has evolved in recent decades. While identity museums have righted many wrongs in striving to paint an inclusive, multicultural portrait of the hyphenate-American experience, their tendency to overlook sometimes great differences within these sweeping labels to fit the archetypal narrative of overcoming oppression detracts from their effectiveness.

“[These groups are] defining identity not by intrinsic cohesion, but by the opposition [they] faced,” Dr. Rothstein said. The National Museum of the American Indian here in Washington, for example, seems to lump together vastly diverse tribes’ history and culture to communicate an overarching theme of “shared difficulties in confronting non-tribal modernity,” he said. “Exploration of anything more refined would be [considered] offensive.”

In an auditorium crowded with museum and Judaic studies students and members of both the D.C. community and the museum community, including representatives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Smithsonian, Dr. Rothstein raised nuanced issues and thought-provoking questions of museums’ optimal role in society and how we as a culture might go about reconciling the “air of wonder” the great Enlightenment museums provide with the visitor-centric experience touted by modern identity museums, though both genres have their shortcomings.

And he should know: As critic at large for the New York Times, Dr. Rothstein’s regular museum coverage has taken him everywhere from Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of the Arts to Fort Mitchell, Ky.’s museum of ventriloquism. He is co-author of “Visions of Utopia” and the author of “Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics.” He has been chief music critic of the New York Times and music critic for The New Republic. A graduate of Yale University, Dr. Rothstein holds a doctorate from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and a master’s in English literature from Columbia University, and did graduate work in mathematics at Brandeis University.

Dr. Rothstein’s lecture Tuesday night was the culmination of a “mini-residency” on campus, which included a series of workshops for students and faculty in Columbian College and SMPA about the fate of cultural journalism and the role of the contemporary museum.

For Dr.Joselit, hosting speakers like Dr. Rothstein plays an important part in the university’s commitment to multidisciplinary exchange and the arts.

“Presenting our students and faculty with the opportunity to interact and engage with Edward Rothstein, one of the preeminent cultural critics of our time, adds so very much to campus life,” Dr. Joselit said. “Whether we’ve been a longtime member of the arts community or are just beginning to contemplate the possibility of a career in the arts, Mr. Rothstein’s mini-residency enriches us all.”


George Washington Today, Nov. 14, 2012


Jacob’s Sons in the Bishop’s Palace

Posted by dianamuir on November 14, 2012
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The current Baron Rothschild is one of the British philanthropists backing a new museum of Christianity in Britain, built around Jacob and His Twelve Sons, a dazzling series of thirteen Baroque paintings, each over eight feet tall.  His interest in the project was undoubtedly sparked by the remarkable connection between these paintings and the history of Jews in Britain.

Francisco de Zurbarán’s paintings were already a century old in September 1745, when a Jacobite army supporting the Catholic pretender to the British throne soundly trounced British regulars at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh.  Londoners panicked and there was a run on the Bank of England. Among the most prominent financiers in the kingdom was a Jew named Sampson Gideon, who regularly floated enormous loans on behalf of His Majesty’s government.  Gideon reportedly stabilized the government’s credit by quickly raising the staggering sum of £1,700,000.  That translates to an estimated £24 billion ($38 billion) today.

Gideon was the son of a Jewish immigrant who had become a successful merchant in the West Indies trade despite the legal disadvantages he faced.  As an immigrant, he could not buy real estate, trade with the colonies, or own a share in a British trading ship, and he had to pay the higher customs fees charged to foreigners.  He could have been naturalized only if he had been willing to become a Christian.

Because he was born in Britain, Sampson Gideon possessed most—though not all—of the rights of an Englishman.  Jews, Catholics, and non-Anglican Protestants could not attend university, work as an attorney, be appointed to any public office, hold an officer’s commission, or sit in Parliament.  Gideon wanted these rights, along with the social acceptance that would have come naturally to an Anglican of his standing.

His father had already changed the family name from the Sephardi Abudiente to the more British-sounding Gideon.  Sampson Gideon married a Christian woman; their children were baptized.  He resigned his membership in the Jewish community, and purchased a landed estate with a country house for his son to inherit.  He arranged to have the son, a fifteen-year-old Anglican schoolboy, made Sir Sampson, sent the boy to Eton, and negotiated his marriage to the daughter of Sir John Eardley Wilmot, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas.  He secured his daughter’s marriage to Viscount Gage with a dowry that is the equivalent of £77 million ($122 million) today.

When Parliament passed the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753, they undoubtedly had Sampson Gideon’s remarkable success in mind: England wanted more men of his worth.  The “Jew Bill” permitted Jews to petition Parliament for a private Act of Naturalization, waiving the requirement that they receive “the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.”  Some supported the Bill as a reasonable extension of the Toleration Act of 1689, and some argued that naturalization would encourage Jews to convert to Christianity, but most quite frankly argued that encouraging rich Jewish merchants to settle in Britain would be good for the economy.  The Bill passed without a great deal of debate.

Getting a private Act through Parliament was such an expensive undertaking that a mere handful of the 8,000 Jews then living in England could possibly have taken advantage of the Jew Bill.  The Jew Bill was the 18th-century equivalent of modern laws in the United States, Canada, and other countries that offer citizenship to substantial investors.  But in the end the Jew Bill was of no use even to the wealthy.  It sparked an enormous outpouring of anti-Semitic sentiment and was quickly repealed.

Richard Trevor, Bishop of Durham and, therefore, a member of the House of Lords, was among the Jew Bill’s strong supporters.  The fight for Jewish civil rights would continue for another century, ending in 1858, when Lionel de Rothschild took his seat in Parliament with a modified oath that that ended “so help me, Jehovah.”  But in 1756 the Bishop of Durham found a way to make a very public statement of his support for Jewish naturalization.

A series of paintings by the Spanish Baroque artist Francisco de Zurbarán came onto the market from the estate of James Mendez.  Mendez, a successful financier, was the son of Fernando Mendez, a Sephardi Jew who came to England as the personal physician of Catherine of Braganza, the future Queen of England following her marriage to Charles II.  Mendez’s wealthy grandchildren were rapidly assimilating into the Anglican gentry and may have decided to sell Jacob and His Twelve Sons precisely because the paintings were too Jewish.

Art historians speculate that the Zurbarán paintings were commissioned for a Catholic foundation in Spanish America, and captured in the Atlantic by British privateers who sold them in England.

The Bishop was able to purchase only eleven sons.  Benjamin was sold separately, but the Bishop had a copy made.  To showcase the paintings, Bishop Trevor had the Long Dining Room at his official residence, Auckland Castle, enlarged and remodeled, in a princely gesture of public support for English Jews.

Auckland Castle itself has just been purchased by financier Jonathan Ruffer, an art collector, philanthropist, and committed Christian who plans to turn the historic Bishop’s Palace into a museum that will tell the story Christianity in Britain.  Since the Christian story cannot be told without the story of Christianity’s Jewish origins, Zurbarán’s magnificent paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons will be at the heart of the collection.

But the story of Britain’s Christians is as ambiguous as the story of Britain’s Jews.  After centuries of identifying as a Christian and Protestant nation, Britain has become a land filled with cherished, historic church buildings that attract almost no worshippers.  Men like James Mendez and Sampson Gideon, with their Anglican grandchildren, may have been as typical of the Jewish community of their era as the proudly Jewish Rothschilds.  (Sampson Gideon’s Christian son changed his name to Eardley, served as an elected member of Parliament for over three decades, and was created Baron Eardley.)

As for Gideon himself, he left £1,000 to London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue in his will.  He had paid his dues to the community every year under the name “Almoni Peloni” (a variant of “ploni almoni,” the biblical equivalent of “John Doe”).  And he was buried as a Jew.

Published Nov. 14, 2012

Posted by dianamuir on November 13, 2012
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MeasuringWorth is the most valuable resource on the internet.   But nothing can make assigning contemporary values to historic transactions simple.

In a recent article, I wanted to assign a modern value to a £40,000.00 eighteenth century dowry and a £1,700,000.00 loan floated by a private banker to stop a crises in the London financial markets on behalf of the Bank of England during the Jacobite Revolt of 1745.

For the dowry, I chose to use the economic status value.

For the loan, I used the calculation for economic power and economic cost, which give the same result.

Perfect?  Of course not.  But a powerful way to give sums of money from long ago meaning for modern readers.

Turkish Supersessionism at MorGabriel

Posted by dianamuir on November 09, 2012
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A small Syriac population survived the genocide of Christians in 1915 near the ancient (397 CE) monastery of Mor Gabriel.      Under the liberal policies announced by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) in 2002, others returned from the diaspora and began ot rebuild.

Turkey appears to find the presence of this small minority intolerable.  The disposession of the indigenous Syriac Christians goes forward mostly by law suit.

Muslims who wish to expel Syriacs form the monastery claim that it was built on top of a mosque.   There is no evidence for this claim and the mosque would have to have been built centuries before the birth of Muhammad to predate a monastery that dates from the year 397.

Biggest house in the village – when immigrants make good

Posted by dianamuir on November 08, 2012
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The dream of many, perhaps most, immigrants to the United States and other wealthy countries has long been to get rich, return home and build the biggest house in the village.

Tahar ben Jalloun’s novel “A Palace in the Old Village” is a poignant reflection on the pain of immigration shown in the story of an immigrant who returned home to the old village and built a palace, only to discover that his children and grandchildren would not join him in it; they preferred to stay in France.

Here are some of the  houses built by immigrants who made it, and showed it off by building the biggest house in the old village.

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Emily Wither photo

This  house was under construction in July 2012 in Betar/Batir, a farming  village  on the ancient road from Jerusalem to the coast.  It is being built by a Palestinian Arab who earned the funds ot build it as an immigrant to the Unites States.  It is part of a dramatic building boom  in Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories, a kind of competition among emigres who have built comfortable lives in the West,  “And every one of them wants to build a house that’s better than the next,” back in the old village.


The Chinese, of course, do things like this on a grand scale.



This house, known as the Ruishi Lou  was built in 1923  by a villager named Huang Bixiu whom made good in Hong Kong.  It is 28 meters tall and yet it is less astonishing than the fact that it is embedded in a landscape of similar houses  that sprawls across Guangdong Province in south China.

Hundreds of these tower houses were  built to show off the wealth of sons of the village who had immigrated not only to Hong Kong, but to North and South America and made good.   Some are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, some are inhabited by distant relatives of the builders, some have crumbled into ruins.  It is not clear that any became the permanent homes of the children and grandchildren of the emigrants who built them.  The descendants of those men and women appear to be living in the far away countries where the money was made.


Jaripo is a village in the Mexican state of  Michoacan.   The youth of Jaripo began heading north to work in the fields of California, by the 1960’s the river had become a flood, and by the 1980’s they were bring home enough money on their annual visits to renovate and paint the modest adobe houses they had grown up in.  The story of the town and its emigrants is told in Sam Quinones book Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream.    But also in this  Youtube love song to the village, showing the beautifully renovated church, plaza and houses paid for by children who grew up and moved away.

The building boom is over now, fewer emigrants return for Christmas, and only a handful returned to live out their retirement years in the houses they renovated, proving that it is easier to dream of going home, than it is to leave your American children and grandchildren and go back to the old country.



Two granddaughters of Jaripo, home for the holidays.


The Philippines sends  huge numbers of workers around the globe  as  guest workers or immigrants.    Mabini Batangas is known locally as “Little Italy” because  “Large stone houses — often with brand-new vehicles in their driveways — cover the district, even though the narrow streets can barely accommodate more than one car at a time.”  They are paid for with money earned working in Italy.

Houses in Mabini Batangas, Philippines.

Dreams of immigrants…

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