Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic Novels

will-eisner

 

Welcome to With Great Chutzpah Comes Great Responsibilityyour every other week dose of Jews and comics.

I have never written an article on Will Eisner before.  How the heck can someone write an every-other-week column about Jews and comics for over a year and without ever having written about Eisner?  Because I was scared, I was scarred I wouldn’t do him justice.  One could receive a doctorate degree simply for studying Eisner and how his work shaped comics.  How could I attempt to compete with legit scholars on his work?  I may not have read every single autobiography (although I have read many) about Eisner, but I have certainly read most of his work and I am deeply connected to it.  When I sat down to write this column, I realized that I too could write a book about Eisner because his work is so influential on me.

Eisner was born to an Austro-Hungarian Jewish father, first generation off the boat, and a Romanian mother, literally born on a boat heading to the US.  His father was a Viennese painter who had to give up his dreams during the depression to work in furniture decoration.  Eisner’s mother was illiterate, but had “peasant smarts,” Eisner has said.  She taught him the value of money.  This conflict between artistic talent and understanding the value of the dollar is one of the things that sets Eisner apart from his contemporaries.

Eisner grew up in the Bronx and attendedDeWitt Clinton High School with other comic Yids such as Stan LeeBob Kane andBill Finger.  Eisner was one of the few early Jewish creators who never changed his name.  When the comic industry was first poppin’ off, Eisner along with editor Jerry Iger started their own studio to create material for other publishers.  Creatively named the Eisner & Iger Studio, it made a lot of the material used in the early days of the industry, and it made a lot of money.  The studio also helped create the assembly line method of creating comics that is still used today (writer to penciler to inker).  Two years later, when he was given the chance to write The Spirit, a sixteen-page newspaper insert, Eisner sold the studio for $20,000.  In today’s market that is Scrooge McDuck money.  It should be noted, even though Eisner was one of the creators who made craploads of money in the early days of the industry, he is rarely spoken of as a shark who took advantage of others, unlike his successful peers.  The Spirit was the first weekly comic-book insert for a national newspaper syndicate… and during a period when most creators were screwed out of their creations, this clever businessman retained full ownership of The Spirit.

eisner spirit Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic Novels

Eisner left the industry when The Spiritended in 1952, and he found success as a commercial illustrator.  (He still used sequential art during this period, but used it to make instructional material for different clients.)  He made his great return to the comic industry in 1978 with A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories, one of the first graphic novels.  Eisner always had a distaste towards superhero comics which he felt were one-dimensional.  He wanted to create “sequential art” that could gain the same respect as other art forms.  Partially due to his previous financial success, Eisner was able to create semi-autobiographical graphic novels which he then attempted to sell to “park avenue publisher[s].”  He used the term graphic novel in order to sound more fancy.  Deemed “the father of the graphic novel,” Eisner spent his later life trying to gain sequential art the respect it deserved, and he did it by writing what he knew, and what interested him the most- Jewish history.

“I understand Jews, and I like to write what I understand,” Eisner said.  “I’m part of a generation that was very conscious of our Jewishness, but we were not scholars.  As time went on, I developed a strong Jewish identity.  I read as much about Jewish things as I can.”  

Eisner spent his last 30 years writing tales about Jews and exposing anti-Semitism.  His work told tales of Ashkenazi Jewish life in America.  They were the stories of my parents and their parents.

(Although the Spirit’s Semitic background is often debated, this list will only focus on Eisner’s outwardly Jewish material.)

Top 4 Will Eisner Jewish Graphic Novels

A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories

contract with god will eisner Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic NovelsOf course, A Contract With God has to make the list.  This marked a monumental moment in comic history, leading to graphic novels infiltrating bookstores and libraries.  The book contains four stories which all take place on the Bronx streets Eisner grew up in.  The title story is about Frimme Hersch, a frum Hasidic Jew, who questions his faith when his daughter passes.  Similarly, Eisner lost a daughter.  Eisner was not brought up a religious dude, but his autobiography, Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics, states “He had been brought up to believe in a deity, but life had left him an agnostic grasping for faith.”  In the preface of A Contract With God, Eisner writes that “[t]he creation of this story was an exercise in personal agony.  My only daughter, Alice, had died of Leukemia eight years before the publication of this book.  My grief was still raw.  My heart still bled.  In fact, I could not even then bring myself to discuss the loss. I made Frimme Hersh’s daughter an ‘adopted child.’  But his anguish was mine.  His argument with God was also mine.”  A Contract With Godshould be on any list of important modern Jewish works.  Although the title story is the most intense, the other Bronx tales also give great insight into our history. 

The Dreamer

the dreamer will eisner Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic NovelsI love this comic.  I have read so many thick books about the birth of the comic industry, most very repetitive and long winded.  The Dreamer, in less than fifty five pages, gives the experience of what it was like for Eisner during the dawn of the industry.  As anyone who reads my columns knows, if we are talking about the early comic industry we are talking about Jewish history, period.  The tale stars such characters as Ken Corn (Bob Kane), Jack King (hmmmmm, wonder who this could be) and Jimmy Samson (Jerry Iger). 

Fagin The Jew

fagin the Jew will eisner Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic NovelsI was an English major during my undergrad years.  It always infuriated me how anti-Semitic “classic literature” is, and how much my classmates tried to avoid acknowledging it (and often denied it).  This especially rang true for the works of HemingwayF. Scott. Fitzgerald andCharles Dickens.  Throughout Oliver Twist, Dickens refers to the villainous Fagin as “the Jew.”  In Dicken’s novel, Fagin is a “grotesque” “miser” who takes advantage of kids to hoard his wealth.  Eisner’s graphic novel is told from the perspective of Fagin.  The story shows that Fagin’s father was killed by Anti-Semites when Fagin was young.  Fagin is shaped by the hardship he went through due to his Jewish and lower-class background.  In order to survive, Fagin is forced to resort to crime.  When Fagin’s cohort, Bill Sikes, murders his girlfriend, it draws attention to Fagin, and he is arrested and sentenced to be hanged.  Immediately before the hanging, Fagin helps Oliver attain the information he needs to better his life.  This was one of my first exposures to Eisner, and I fell in love with how he weaved Jewish history with issues of assimilation and Jewish pride while breaking down a classic stereotype.   

The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

the plot will eisner Top 4 WILL EISNER Jewish Graphic NovelsEisner’s final graphic novel, released posthumously in 2005, was also his first non-fiction work.  It traces the history of one of the most anti-Semitic myths of all time, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  The Protocols, first published in 1905, has been used consistently as propaganda to justify anti-Semitism.  Although it had been shown to be a bullcrapped forgery numerous times, to this day anti-Semites latch onto the ideas in The Protocols, continuing the myth that Jews are involved in an evil conspiracy to control the world.  Similar to Fagin, this book breaks down stereotypes and shows how damaging they can be.   

Additional reading: everything else.  

Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero by Danny Fingeroth

From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books by Arie Kaplan 

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerald Jones

The Will Eisner Companion by N. C. Christopher Couch  and Stephen Weiner 

Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics by Michael Schumacher

Cover image-  Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist

Jay Deitcher, LMSW(@mrdeitcher) is an educator on comic history and runs successful Free Comic Book Day events yearly. He is the information superhighway. You can see a listing of his incredible articles at JayDeitcher.com.
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“The Fat Jew” Stars in 2 TV Shows

 BY HANNAH HAYES

30-year-old Josh Ostrovsky became Instagram sensation as The Fat Jew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

uesday June 24th, the New York Post announced the Instagram sensation comic, “The Fat Jew”, will be writing and starring in two television shows.

This 30-year-old comedian has been cashing in on his Instagram photos with quirky captions that have gone viral. With his fan base rapidly expanding, two major television channels bought scripts New York native, Josh Ostrovsky, wrote for two shows.

Ostrovsky said, “Some people say, do one thing and do it well. I say, do many things and do them very mediocrely.”

Since he joined the photo sharing sot Instagram in 2012, Ostrovsky has accumulated nearly a half million followers. At 6 feet 2 inches and 250 pounds, he is known to his fans as “The Fat Jew”. His following began to surge after a video of him giving homeless people “SoulCycle” lessons on parked Citi Bikes went viral last summer.

Ostrovsky currently resides in the Chelsea area of New York City. He graduated from SUNY Albany after being kicked out of Skidmore University and dropping out of NYU.  In addition to the new television shows, Ostrovsky also just signed a book deal, and is already brushing soldiers with celebrities. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, he was seen in the company of Busta Rhymes and Justin Bieber.

New York comedian Scott Rogowsky commented about Ostrovsky to the Post saying, “He’s a cultural icon; funny just naturally emanates from his sweat glands. It’s his musk.”

Ostrovsky banks on his internet fame. He makes up to $2,500 for each of his sponsored Instagram photo post that includes his unconventional signature captions.

“There’s this sense of discovery with him, like, ‘Oh my God, you’re real.’ People come up to him and just grab his hair,” said entertainment reporter Ben Lyons.

Ostrovsky’s father was a radiologist and mother was a nutritionist mother; they raised him and his younger brother in New York City. As a child he attended the Trevor Day School on the Upper West Side and said he “wanted to go into event planning and do tasteful floral arrangements.” He showed this passion of his when he helped planned his March “autumn” themed bar mitzvah.

During summer camp, Ostrovsky developed his alter ego known as “The Fat Jew”. “It came out of a counselor I had who was super fat and identified himself as ‘a fat Jew,’” he explained.

In college, Ostrovsky dabbled in “performance art”.  It wasn’t until after he graduated and returned to NYC that he actually began getting paid for it. He would make money by hosting parties and filming himself acting like a fool at them.

Ostrovsky expressed that he believes he may need to put on more weight, uin order to live up to his “Fat Jew” persona.

“This little Puerto Rican girl ran up to me on Houston Street and was like, ‘You’re not as fat as I thought you were. You need to go right now and get fat,’” he told the Post. “I’m really trying to go for that young Gandolfini look, where I’m fat but taut. But I might just go right now and start drinking Nutella.”

 

 

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Bagels Are Jewish. But Schmear? Not So Much

By Dafna Arad

(Haaretz) — In the popular American imagination, cream cheese is inextricably linked to the old Jewish man selling it in a deli. But in fact, cream cheese is not an Eastern European product brought to America by Jewish immigrants, but a homegrown American product developed by a non-Jew. Oh, and Philadelphia cream cheese is really from New York.

Cream cheese’s non-Jewish past was uncovered by Rabbi Jeffrey Marx, leader of a Santa Monica synagogue for the past 28 years, and ever since his research was published, a sought-after speaker and radio interviewee whose infectious passion for the subject makes a listener hunger for a bite of New York cheesecake. “People laugh when they hear what I’m going to talk about,” says Marx. “’Cream cheese? What’s so interesting about that?’” But it’s a wonderful way to tell the story of Jewish immigration to America, he says. Although Jews didn’t bring cream cheese from Europe, they adopted it as soon as they could afford it. In a reverse cultural process, Jews took it from the Yankees and Protestants, made it Jewish and returned it to America, Marx explains.

For years, Jewish historians in America have been trying to answer the question of how Eastern European immigrants came off the boat penniless and within a generation had entered the comfortable middle class, Marx continues. How did they do this so quickly, or is that just a legend? He decided to investigate the story of two brothers who came from Lithuania, Joseph and Isaac Breakstone, distant relatives of his, who opened a dairy in America. In the course of Marx’s research, he was told by various descendants of the brothers that it was they who originally brought cream cheese to America. Inspired to look further, he investigated and found out that this was not correct. “So I decided to write a footnote about cream cheese to say where it actually was invented. Six years later, the footnote was a whole article. In the process, I learned about cheese-making, about factory design, about the cheese market in the nineteenth century and how cream cheese was considered a fancy product for the upper class.”

His careful tracing of the history of cream cheese reveals much about technological progress and social change in the latter half of the nineteenth century, processes that forever changed American culture and the dairy industry. Marx was born in 1953 in Connecticut. He is related to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and the fourth in a line of Reform rabbis.

A British delicacy

In his article, “The Days Had Come of Curds and Cream: The Origins and Development of Cream Cheese in America, 1870-1880,” published in the international scholarly journal “Food, Culture and Society,” Marx argues that cream cheese has its roots in the British dessert “consisting of pure cream curdled with rennet (the dried fourth stomach of a young, unweaned calf), sweetened with sugar and flavored with rosewater” that was popular with the upper classes during the Tudor Era (1485-1603). “Cream cheese, like most food products, was not invented but, rather, developed over time,” writes Marx.

In the years that followed, cheeses made from a combination of cream and whole milk became increasingly popular in Britain. “The English colonists to America brought with them a taste for these cheeses and the knowledge of how to make them,” Marx writes. Basic recipes appeared in American encyclopedias, magazines and cookbooks, most of which were published in Philadelphia, which was known for its dairies. At first cream cheese was produced on small farms by expert cheese-makers, and was an expensive product that easily spoiled. In the absence of a means to keep it chilled long enough – even the fastest horse-drawn wagon took a day and a half to reach New York – it didn’t get much beyond Philadelphia. But with the advent of railroads and steamships and more advanced means of refrigeration, the picture changed dramatically. By 1847, the newspapers announced that cream cheese from Philadelphia had come to the New York market. “It is round, generally from six to ten inches in diameter, and about one inch thick.”

Rags to riches

Marx shines a spotlight on the people who developed cream cheese into the product we know today. Prominent among them is William Alfred Lawrence (1842-1911), who added a higher fat content. After losing his father at a young age, Lawrence became a poor farm worker in Chester, New York. In 1861, his fortunes improved when the farmer’s daughter fell in love with him. They married and he took over and later inherited the farm. Having learned about cheese-making, in the 1870s he sold the farm and went into factory production of Neufchatel cheese after purchasing a failing plant from a French businessman. Lawrence came into the cheese business at the right time. There was manufacturing technology, exporting services, refrigeration techniques and a market for “fancy cheese.” Few workers were required and a reliable product was assured. Cheese dealers preferred to pay more to work with a factory rather than having to run back and forth to a lot of small farms. There were substantial profits to be made in manufacturing thousands of kilograms of cheese per year.

At the time, there was growing demand in American cities for fresh products directly from the farm, as well as in Europe for American cheeses. By 1870, 800 new cheese factories had opened in the state of New York. The middle and upper classes liked to eat “fancy cheeses” – Stilton, cheddar, brie, camembert, gruyere and Neufchatel – to feel rich. There was a growing interest in French cuisine, with French cookbooks being published and the first French restaurants opening. The papers gave extensive coverage to the lavish galas of wealthy New Yorkers where elaborate cheese trays were served, and the nouveau riche sought to replicate this at home.

Quality was highly variable. “Americans had no idea what real Neufchatel was,” says Marx. Whereas in France the ripening process took weeks, in America this was dispensed with so that the cheese could be shipped the day it was made so as to reap more profits. And despite the questionable quality, people just wanted more.

In 1873, a fancy delicatessen in New York City known for selling products that costs five times more than anywhere else asked Lawrence to come up with a new rich cheese that it could sell. After doing some research, Lawrence took Neufchatel and added cream and salt, packaged the new product in squares (a new shape that helped maximize profit) and gave it the not-so-innovative name of “cream cheese.” This opened the door for the fat content to be increased from 4 to 6 percent. And in the decades that followed, the process accelerated, with technology eventually enabling cream cheese to stabilize at 33 percent fat, giving it that smooth texture and slightly sweet taste. But in the beginning, Lawrence struggled with the complicated process of adding fat to the cheese, and with packaging such a soft cheese. It wasn’t very suitable for exporting either. Luckily for him, it became the most prestigious cheese on the local market, though he soon found that everyone was trying to copy him. To set himself apart he came up with a modest logo, a profile of a cow, and began distributing the first branded cream cheese throughout the United States. He purchased another factory, and as the technology advanced, before long he was producing more cheese than the market demanded.

It’s all in the marketing

Alvah Reynolds, a New York distributor, helped market the product for Lawrence. He packaged the cheese in aluminum foil and re-branded it as “Philadelphia Cream Cheese” even though it was made in New York. “It’s like calling something champagne. Philadelphia was considered to be the place where the best cheese was made, the best butter, the crème de la crème,” Marx explains. Reynolds designed a new logo and added the phrase “Beware of Imitations.” The marketing campaign was so successful that Lawrence could barely keep up with demand. In 1903 the Phoenix Company bought the Philadelphia trademark and in 1928 they merged with the food giant Kraft. As the brand grew and changed hands, Lawrence, the poor farm boy, grew up to own race cars and race horses and three beautiful homes.

In his article, Marx cites the oft-told tale of how Lawrence allegedly eavesdropped on Neufchatel manufacturer Charles Green as he described his cheese-making process, but not hearing clearly, mistakenly added too much cream, thus leading to the invention of cream cheese. However, Marx explains that the whole process was well-planned and cream was not accidentally added, and that prior to his research, most encyclopedia entries about cream cheese, even in the most reputable publications, repeated this unfounded story.

Marx acknowledges that cream cheese is not all that popular in Israel.

“I really don’t remember seeing cream cheese here in 1978, the year that I lived in Israel. You prefer lighter cheeses, like cottage cheese. Maybe that will be my next research topic – Why did cream cheese never really take off in Israel? And why don’t you find the cultural phenomenon of a bagel and lox with cream cheese here?”

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A Six-Year-Old Orthodox Boy and His Barbie Dolls

From a Babysitter, Lessons on Gender and Judaism

By Roz Warren

 

You may wonder what a 6-year-old boy is doing with Barbies in the first place. They belonged to his mom. She’d hung on to them, no doubt hoping to pass them along to a daughter. But Hanina is her thirdthrough son and last child, so they ended up his.

Hanina’s Barbies participate in the same activities as his action figures: They explore. They fight battles. They act out Torah stories. After all, Hanina is an Orthodox Jew.

When my own son became a teenager who needed independence and space rather than moment-to-moment mothering, I filled the void this left in my heart by babysitting. Because I am a secular, atheist Jew and Hanina is religious, caring for him for the past six years has meant, among other things, learning what it means to live a Torah-centered life. Hanina, the son of an eminent Torah scholar, has always been happy to instruct me.

Today, Hanina informed me, the Barbies, once coifed and dressed, would take part in a contest in which Ken would choose “the most beautiful one” to marry. (Hanina, I‘m guessing, has been learning about Queen Esther at school.)

“Beauty isn’t everything,” I pointed out. “When it comes to getting married, you also want a partner who is nice, kind and intelligent.”

Hanina picked up Ken, who then addressed the prettiest Barbie. “You are beautiful,” Ken told her. “And you look nice and kind and intelligent. If you win the contest I will marry you.”

The winner, Hanina told me, would get an additional prize: “When she dies, she will get to be buried in this lovely coffin!” He showed me a beautiful hand-painted wooden box that his Aunt Nancy gave him recently.

Wedded bliss plus a lovely coffin? Weirdest “Bachelor” reality show ever.

Along with one chosen by Ken, Hanina owns a total of four hand-me-down Barbies.

“Do they have names?” I asked.

“They are all named Barbie,” Hanina said.

Although actually, one is named Zombie Barbie, because Hanina, when he was younger, colored in her eyes and mouth with a blue pen, with alarming results.

It’s unlikely that Zombie Barbie will be winning any beauty contests.

Hanina explained the contest rules. After we did their hair and dressed them up, Ken would choose the best Barbie and marry her.

“The loser,” Hanina said, “will go to the guillotine.”

“Really?” I asked Hanina. “Isn’t that a little harsh?”

“Those are the rules,” he replied.

We brought the Barbies to the bathroom salon, where we set to work “dolling them up.” We soaked their hair, combed it out, then created the best hairstyle for each, after which they would go under a hairdryer made from a Dixie cup.

Once their hair was done, it was time to dress them.

“They have to be tznius,” Hanina said.

Like Hanina, I am a Jew. But because I’m a secular Jew, tznius is a word I was unfamiliar with. Not for the first time, Hanina took the opportunity to instruct me.

“Their bodies must be covered,” he explained. “Including their legs and arms and shoulders.” Because Hanina is an Orthodox Jew, his Barbies, too, must be Orthodox. Tznius, I gathered, is the term for the modest way that Hanina’s mother, and the other women in their community, dress.

Hanina evaluated the available Barbie clothing, almost all of which leaves Barbies legs, arms or shoulders exposed. But tznius could be accomplished, we decided, with the use of elegant shawls made from toilet paper.

Once all the contestants were glamorously but modestly dressed, they were propped up against the bathroom wall and Ken was called upon to judge. First he picked the loser. To my surprise, it wasn’t Zombie Barbie, but one of the others.

Everyone proceeded from the salon to the wedding site, which is Hanina’s bedroom.

I picked up Loser Barbie and tried to argue her case.

“I don’t want to have my head chopped off,” she protested. “I want to go to the wedding.”

“Those are the rules,” Hanina told her. “And the beheading is part of the wedding.”

The guillotine turned out to be the small blue suitcase in which the dolls and their wardrobe are stored. Hanina matter-of-factly put Loser Barbie in place, then slammed down the lid so that her head would drop into the suitcase.

When it didn’t, he handed her to me: “Can you help me with this?”

I pulled off Barbie’s head and handed it back to him.

“Oh, no! I’ve been decapitated,” Newly Headless Barbie exclaimed. “I hate it when that happens.” After a pause, I asked, “Say, Hanina, what’s that in your hand?”

“A head!” Hanina said.

“Uh, I could really use a head,” Decapitated Barbie said. “Would you give me that head?”

“No!”

“Please?”

Hanina took Barbie from me, put her inside the suitcase, headless, and closed the lid.

“Can I at least be buried in that beautiful coffin?” Barbie asked him from inside the suitcase.

“No,” Hanina said. “That’s for the winner.”

Hanina decided that Zombie Barbie could be the rabbi, after which Ken finally chose his bride, a Barbie with long blond hair who wears a frothy purple-and-pink frock that reaches to the floor, thus ensuring tznius.

“Thank you!” she exclaimed. “I love you.” She leaned toward Ken, making kissy-face noises.

“Yuck!” Hanina exclaimed, pulling Ken out of her reach.

“They don’t kiss?” I asked.

“Not on the lips!” Hanina said. “That’s gross.”

“What about after they’re married?”

“No,” Hanina said. “It’s gross.”

So that’s the kind of marriage it was going to be.

Rabbi Zombie Barbie quickly performed the ceremony. Then a couple of the troll dolls that Hanina also inherited from his mother got the suitcase guillotine treatment. (Their heads don’t come off, so we just pretended.)

“Is this still part of the wedding ceremony?” I asked.

Hanina nodded.

“This is a very unusual wedding,” I said.

Once married, Ken and Barbie adopted a small stuffed koala and decided to honeymoon in the basement, where Hanina and I moved on to another favorite game in which I played the role of Haman’s daughter. I made the dire mistake of dumping big heaps of (pretend) garbage on the head of my evil father, gleefully played by Hanina.

There is no role for Barbie or the suitcase guillotine in this game, which is probably just as well.

Roz Warren writes for The New York Times and the Funny Times.

 
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The Secret Jewish History of Tupac Shakur

Was Bad Boy Rapper Just a Nice Jewish Son?

 

By Seth Rogovoy

 

Challah Out: The late Tupac Shakur was gunned down in 1996.

 

 

This is not some off-the-wall, crass attempt to cash in on the controversial legend of Shakur. Among the musical’s producers is Afeni Shakur, Tupac Shakur’s mother, a former member of the Black Panthers. Afeni Shakur is nothing if not protective of her son’s creative legacy; his brief but astounding career on the rap charts made him one of the best-selling recording artists of his time. In other words, she’s not doing it for the money.

 

There’s something else going on here, and it just may be that finally the stars have aligned to present Tupac Shakur — the man whose music former Vice President Dan Quayle said “has no place in our society”; a convicted felon who in a few years was in and out of prison and court for a variety of violent crimes; a man accused of being the perpetrator of several shootings who was himself gunned down in an infamous drive-by that has never been solved — as what he may really have been: a nice Jewish boy who loved his mother.

 

Tupac Amaru Shakur was born in East Harlem on June 16, 1971, to parents who preached a violent form of black nationalism. Despite chronic poverty, Shakur’s mother made sure he always had access to a well-rounded education, especially in the performing arts.

 

From a young age, Shakur was drawn to the stage: He performed in a production of “A Raisin in the Sun” by Harlem’s 127th Street Repertory Ensemble at the Apollo Theater at age 12. At age 15, his family moved to Baltimore, where he attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, studying acting, poetry, jazz and violin, performing in productions of Shakespeare, and playing the role of the Mouse King in the ballet “The Nutcracker.”

 

In other words, Quayle’s public enemy number one — the gangster-in-chief who threatened the very foundations of American civilization — got his show business start as a violin-toting, Shakespeare-quoting ballerina.

 

At age 17, Shakur and his family moved to the Bay Area. Here, Shakur, already an aspiring rapper, met the woman who would prove integral to his career and artistic development. Leila Steinberg was the daughter of a Mexican-Turkish activist mother and a Polish-Jewish criminal defense attorney who ran a spoken-word poetry workshop called the Microphone Sessions in Oakland, California. Steinberg was raised, as she put it, “surrounded by the workings of the justice system and took a front row seat at the personal tragedies and socio-economic pressures that turn so many at-risk youths into hardened felons.” In Shakur, she clearly saw the very embodiment of her life’s work: a real-world blend of urban street life, political activism, cultural literacy, and natural talent, with the charisma of a born star. The two hit it off, and Shakur moved in with Steinberg’s husband and two children, with Steinberg serving as a mentor and manager until the point where his career required more professional oversight. The two remained close friends until the end of Shakur’s short life.

 

Shakur released his debut album, “2Pacalypse Now,” in late 1991. It remained his most political and socially conscious album — the work of a nascent, would-be prophet — with songs mostly about and addressed to black America, unflinching portrayals of racism, police brutality, poverty and teen pregnancy (as in the infamous “Brenda’s Got a Baby”), but songs that didn’t let his listeners off the hook for their complicity in the dire situations he depicts. The album undoubtedly received its biggest boost when rock-critic-in-chief Quayle condemned it saying, “There’s no reason for a record like this to be released.”

 

Shakur only recorded four more albums over the next five years, but they were all multi-million sellers that made him the biggest name in hip-hop. He wore the cloak of a gangster or thug, but was really more a pavement prophet, rapping about the prison of ghetto life in “Trapped” and likening that life to one of slow genocide in “Words of Wisdom,” in which he calls on his people to “break the chains” that enslave them. One of his most brutal portrayals of poverty and the cycle of violence it breeds,“Troublesome 96,” even samples the melody of “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, perhaps a subtle call for a kind of urban Zionism to solve the social and political ills of black life in America.

 

But perhaps the most endearing and enduring moments of Shakur’s career occurred in 1994 when he recorded “Dear Mama,” a soft, sweet soul ballad, over which he intoned a tribute to his mother, Afeni Shakur. The narrator is reflective, looking back on a hardscrabble youth from a position of newfound comfort, and paying tribute to the maternal devotion that got him through the most difficult of times:

 

“Pour out some liquor and I reminisce, cause through the drama/ I can always depend on my mama… When I was sick as a little kid/ To keep me happy there’s no limit to the things you did/ And all my childhood memories/ Are full of all the sweet things you did for me… You are appreciated/ Dontcha know we love ya?”

 

The emotion and imagery Shakur uses in “Dear Mama” are resonant of a well-known early 20th-century song in which someone who grew up in poverty and scratched out a life of success looks back over a lifetime and pays tribute to the woman who made it all possible. I speak, of course, of “My Yiddishe Momme”:

 

“Of things I should be thankful for, I’ve had a goodly share/ And as I sit here in the comfort of a cozy chair/ My fancy takes me to a humble East Side tenement/ Three flights up in the rear,/ To where my childhood days were spent… / It wasn’t much like paradise but amid the dirt and all/ There sat the sweetest angel/ One that I fondly call/ A Yiddishe Momme.”

 

Widely considered Shakur’s greatest single hit (the song sold seven million copies at the time of release) and one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever, “Dear Mama” was one of 25 songs that in 2010 were added to the National Recording Registry — a list of sound recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.” That same year saw the very first Yiddish recording ever inducted into the registry, “Fon der Choope (From the Wedding)” by Abe Elenkrig’s Yidishe Orchestra. Somewhere, Shakur was smiling.

 

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Do Jews Need to Know Everything About Judiasm

By JENNIFER LIPMAN
  
 

Given the level of hostility directed at Jews, including the virulent anti-Semitism from some quarters, do we have a choice but to be ambassadors?

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A Jewish man wraps teffilin at the Central Synagogue in Havana.Photo: BENNY LEVIN PHOTOGRAPHY
 
There’s little more tedious than a person who only cares about one thing. A golf bore, for example, or a pedant whose preoccupation with grammar dominates every conversation. The more partisan folk on twitter, whose every bleat is about praising their chosen party’s political agenda, attacking the opposition or dismissing anyone who dares point to a hole in the argument.After all, the greatest political commentators draw on art and science to discuss the legislative process. The best presenters are founts of information about subjects reaching far and wide. The teachers we remember fondly might have been experts in their field, but they could look beyond it too.And yet, perhaps because so much is done within the parameters of 140 characters these days, it’s easy to pigeonhole. We assume the right-wing armchair pundit will always support the policies of his party, or that the football fan will only ever have a conversation about where their team is in the league. We – led, inevitably, by the media’s example – view people in terms of set categories: wife and mother, actor, doctor, victim, feminist. When, of course, it is often possible to be several of those at the same time.

The other night, at a comedy event, my heart sank. It had come up. You know, the elephant in the room. Judaism, and the Jewish state, in this case both, wrapped together in one neat parcel. The event had nothing to do with either, and the comments were not particularly contentious, but still my heart sank. I felt the gazes of those I was with, who know that I am Jewish, turn to me to see how I’d react to the jokes.

And it’s happened, so many times. That moment when the presenter, comedian, or lecturer utters those dreaded words, “Think of the Jews, for example.” And, inevitably, it feels like he’s talking to you.

And of course, you dread the truly opinionated and angry; the people for whom the discovery that you have a religious leaning is an invitation to debate fundamentalism. But more than that, my heart sinks because of the expectation that I’m some kind of spokesperson for my faith. That I’m different, and that I know different things.

Because the sense seems to be – once you’re defined in people’s minds as particularly one thing, in this case, Jewish –that you can speak for the many. That you’ll have a proper, educated view on that article in the paper, that you’ll know whether a jokey aside mentioning a Jew was a joke or something more sinister. That you have an opinion on anything to do with these matters, and that you always want to share it.

Invariably, you are called upon to have a take on everything from that haredi man who wrapped himself in a plastic bag while flying over a cemetery, to the Jewish plot-line in the latest hit TV series. There’s the assumption that you know all the reasons behind kashrut, or exactly what Genesis Chapter 19 says and what it means.

Of course, most of the time the questions are good-natured. And it happens with most issues; meat eaters assume every vegetarian is a standard-bearer for every other non-carnivore out there, while feminists are expected to be up to speed on every misogynistic advert out there. It’s natural – we always want the expert view, the perspective from someone in the know.

Yet there are times when you long for the option of taking a backseat in the discussion. As proud as I am of my Jewish heritage and identity, I don’t always want to be the flag bearer for it. I’m many things – Jew, woman, daughter, sister, wife, arachnophobe, vegetarian, West Wing fan; but at the same time, I’m also just me. Occasionally, I want to not feel the pressure to answer the questions, or have to form an opinion, as I can when any other issue comes up.

After all, simply being Jewish, even proudly so, doesn’t make you an expert. Confronted with a particularly probing question, one to which I have no considered view, occasionally I want to say I just don’t know. The problem is – can I? Can any of us? Coming from a minority, we surely have a responsibility to speak up every time we get asked, however trivial the matter. Every time we have the chance to engage with someone interested, explain something perceived as unusual or different, or even to correct a misconception, shouldn’t we jump at it?

Given the level of hostility directed at Jews, including the virulent anti-Semitism from some quarters, do we have a choice but to be ambassadors? With so much misinformation out there about Jews and our practices, how can we justify keeping schtum?

For if we fail to engage with the innocent questions, what happens when the truly vile ones come up? Yet another question to which I suspect I have no expert answer.

Jennifer Lipman is a writer living in London. She tweets on @jenlipman. She is the former Comment Editor of The Jewish Chronicle and has written for a number of British newspapers and online publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times.
jenniferlipman.wordpress.com
 

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HOW SAMMY DAVIS JR. BECAME THE GREAT JEWISH ENTERTAINER

Daughter’s Memoir Accentuates the Positive

By Dan Epstein

The Accidental Jew: Sammy Davis Jr. converted to Judaism after a near-fatal car accident.

● Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father
By Tracey Davis and Nina Bunche Pierce
Running Press, 208 pages, $30

‘Even when my own people would complain to me about racism,” Sammy Davis Jr. told his daughter shortly before the end of his life, “I would always say, ‘You got it easy. I’m a short, ugly, one-eyed black Jew. What do you think it’s like for me?’”

It was a riff that Davis regularly recycled for laughs — but as was so often the case for the multi-talented entertainer, there was considerable truth and pain behind the punch line. Indeed, truth, pain and laughter are all prominent themes in “Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father,” a sumptuously illustrated book by Davis’s daughter Tracey (with collaborator Nina Bunche Pierce) that looks back on his career through the prism of their final months together.

As Ms. Davis recounted in her previous book, 1996’s “Sammy Davis Jr.: My Father,” it wasn’t easy growing up as the daughter of one of the world’s most in-demand song-and-dance men, a workaholic father who tried to make up for his lengthy absences with lavish expenditures and extravagant gestures. Here, however, she makes a conscious effort to leave the bitterness and baggage behind, savoring instead the memories of the conversations she shared with her father in 1990 while he was losing his battle with throat cancer. It was during this period, she writes, that “my father became particularly nostalgic about the past,” and seemed to particularly relish the chance to revisit and reflect upon his struggles and accomplishments with his once-estranged daughter (then pregnant with his first grandson) as his audience.

Though Ms. Davis did not record their conversations, she does her best to reconstruct them from memory here, and they touch chiefly (and often all-too-briefly) upon the major bullet points of her father’s biography: learning the showbiz ropes as a child with his father in the Will Mastin Trio; being verbally and physically abused by white soldiers while serving in the United States Army during World War II; his postwar rise to fame; his decades-long friendship with Frank Sinatra; his near-fatal car accident that caused him to lose an eye; his post-accident conversion to Judaism; the heady days in Las Vegas with “The Rat Pack”; the controversy over his interracial marriage to Swedish actress May Britt (Tracey’s mother) in 1960; their 1968 divorce; and his 1970 marriage to dancer Altovise Gore, whom he met during his Tony-nominated Broadway turn in “Golden Boy.”

Absent (perhaps understandably so) are the more tawdry and salacious aspects of Davis’s life, like his affair with actress Lola Falana, his penchant for “swinging” in the non-musical sense, or his involvement with Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. Davis’s drug use and alcoholism are, likewise, only lightly touched upon here. Aside from some pointed digs at her stepmother — whom Ms. Davis claims was such a raging alcoholic that her father locked her out of his wing at their Beverly Hills mansion during his final months — family drama is largely kept at bay, as well.

As such, little in “Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father” will come as any sort of revelation to longtime fans of the entertainer. And while the 100-plus photographs included here amply attest to Davis’s striking charisma — as well as to his innate ability to lend pizazz to even the stiffest of occasions, such as his 1971 appointment by former President Nixon to the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity (to which Sammy un-ironically sported a peace medallion) — their placement in the book often seems haphazard, and their captions frustratingly sparse. Ms. Davis is solid enough at fleshing out her father’s reminiscences with historical and cultural context, but she’s on shakier ground when ruminating on the bigger picture, offering up shallow epiphanies like, “I looked around at the plush garden oasis my pop worked so hard for, and thought, ‘Wow, my father really is a megastar.’”

Still, for all its flaws, “Sammy Davis Jr.: A Personal Journey with My Father” is sweetly intimate and often quite engaging. The affection that Ms. Davis and her father had for each other rings loud and true, as does her father’s passion for living; his deep sadness at losing his ability to perform — which he quite clearly held tantamount to losing his life — is heartbreakingly palpable. The writing of this book obviously provided Ms. Davis with another chance to commune with her father’s spirit, and it’s hard to fault her for wanting to do that. Even through decades-old conversations, the wit and charm of Sammy Davis Jr. remain as winning as ever, and readers will come away feeling as if they’ve spent some quality time with the man. Even if they don’t learn much new from the experience, they’ll be entertained — and that’s exactly the way Sammy would want it.

Dan Epstein is the author of “Stars and Strikes:Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76.”

 
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Gefilte Fish “a la Mexicana”

Persian “matzah ball” soup made with chickpea-flour dumplings. Tender smoked brisket. Gefilte fish “a la Mexicana” in a bright-red, chile-laced sauce. These are just a few examples of the startling diversity of cooking in the Jewish diaspora.

At “More Than Matzah Balls: Food and Cooking in Jewish Culture,” Joan Nathan, the cookbook author and Jewish recipe maven, spoke with three chefs from very different walks of life: Pati Jinich, the host of TV show “Pati’s Mexican Table” and a Mexican native; Louisa Shafia, author of the cookbook “The New Persian Kitchen” and the daughter of an Iranian Muslim and a Jew from Philadelphia; and Ari White, a Texan whose Eastern European family has been smoking Texas-style barbecue for three generations.

In the course of an hour-long conversation, each chef introduced herself and talked a little bit about her family history.

“People won’t believe that there is Mexican Jewish cooking,” said Jinich, whose Austrian and Polish grandparents fled European anti-Semitism to settle in Mexico. Growing up, she said, the Mexican-Ashkenazi fusion food cooked in her home seemed natural to her, and she never realized that such cuisine was really a union of two distinct styles. Each Friday night, Jinich’s grandmother prepared two types of gefilte fish for Shabbat dinner: the traditional European white version, as well as the aforementioned Mexican variation, which was served warm in a spicy tomato sauce; gribenes were eaten on griddled corn tortillas.

“That’s a real treat in Mexico,” Jinich said.

Just across the border from Jinich—and around the same time—another exiled Eastern European Jewish family was busy adapting its native recipes to a new locale. Ari White, who has made a successful pop-up kosher food business, The Wandering ‘Que, out of his family’s barbecue recipes, grew up in the border town of El Paso, where his family settled in 1910. White is third in a line of male smokers: his grandfather, accustomed to eating the smoked and cured meats of his homeland, began using Texas-style wood-fired smokers to cook everything from brisket to turkey to lamb, and flavored his dishes with the fiery rubs and sweet sauces used by native Texans. Later, White’s father continued the tradition.

“A holiday was defined by my father standing outside, tending his smoker,” White said.

Over on the east coast, Louisa Shafia grew up in a hybrid household. Her Iranian father, longing for the Persian dishes of his former life, schooled her Philly-born Jewish mother on all the classics: colorful, flavorful legume-heavy stews and pilafs enlivened by fruits such as molasses and fresh herbs such as dill and mint. But on the high holidays, Shafia’s mother whipped up all the Ashkenazi classics. In Shafia’s world, Persian food and Jewish food were totally distinct, and it wasn’t until researching her cookbook that she discovered a rich tradition of Iranian Judaism which relied on staple foods such as the aforementioned “matzah ball” soup.

“I literally didn’t know that there were Iranian Jews when I was growing up,” Shafia recalled.

Naturally, at an event taking place so close to Passover, the conversation eventually turned towards the seder table. After each chef shared her favorite holiday treat, Nathan explained what would be gracing her own table, and her choice echoed the diversity of flavors explored over the course of the evening.

“Five kinds of charoset,” she said. “To represent each corner of the Jewish diaspora.” 

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TALKING TO THE RABBIS ABOUT SEX

By Leah Vincent

An ultra-Orthodox bride at her Jerusalem wedding in 2014. / Getty Images

This past Sunday, I spoke about sexuality and modesty in front of a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Both professionally and personally, it was a profound moment for me, a formerly ultra-Orthodox woman, to sit there and name experiences that the ultra-Orthodox community hasn’t wanted to hear. To say aloud: I was raped, to say aloud: modesty can breed vulnerability to sexual assault, to say aloud: all girls deserve sex education. And to have these rabbis — some of whom were surprisingly open to these ideas — carefully listen to me articulate these silenced realities.

At this event, five former ultra-Orthodox Jews met with four ultra-Orthodox rabbis and one Orthodox woman in an optimistic but perhaps quixotic attempt to build bridges of communication between these two communities.

Tensions have risen between the two, as former ultra-Orthodox Jews have grown to be a bold voice for justice around issues of sex abuse, negligence in education, forced marriages, oppression of personal choice, removal of children from deviating parents and abusive treatment of deviating teens, in their communities of origin.

Former ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t speak with a unified voice, but our diverse perspectives are perceptive and essential — and troubling for the ultra-Orthodox world, which has often viewed them as an affront to their way of life. There is little constructive conversation between the two groups, for a number of reasons, including — as I, a former ultra-Orthodox Jew, have experienced — a tendency for the ultra-Orthodox community to attack the veracity and mental health of any former ultra-Orthodox Jew who publicly tells their story.

Still, I agreed to assist Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, the Orthodox rabbi who organized and moderated this event, and to speak there as a participant. On that evening, the eleven of us involved put aside our theological disparities and powerful emotions to try and take a step towards naming and then addressing social problems within ultra-Orthodoxy — which we all agree, despite our differences, need to be faced.

As we spoke, I was surprised to hear some of the complexity that underlies the actions of these ultra-Orthodox rabbis. I’ve often encountered their views as black-and-white attitudes, but in the candid conversations at this event, I heard an unexpected complexity of motivations, and expressions of compassion and awareness, that gave me more hope that there are opportunities for change and cooperation.

Some critics of ultra-Orthodoxy have scoffed at this project. They’re mistrustful of the rabbis, angry that my peers and I would attempt to engage these people, some of whom have been associated with forces that have caused us pain. This is a classic dilemma of social change movements: Do we engage directly with the entrenched establishment, pulling them in to work on solutions — or are the costs too high and the outcomes too unlikely to make the effort worth it? I believe the issues are pressing enough that we must use every tool we’ve got — including engagement.

A lot of things were accomplished at this event, some visible, some not yet, but one important achievement is that we put names to faces, which can be a powerful way to bring conversations from yelling past each other to a more constructive volume.

For these ultra-Orthodox rabbis to have the willingness to sit at the table with five former ultra-Orthodox Jews, and to display a degree of willingness to listen to their ideas for reform and more importantly help implement our suggestions, is a significant and valuable statement. It doesn’t negate my general anger and cynicism to state that I’m grateful for this gesture.

Yes, emphatically, this is a dismally low bar. But when you consider where we’re starting from, it feels like a leap as high as Everest. And yes, emphatically, this thimble-sized achievement is laughable relative to the size of our problems. But there’s no silver bullet for complex social change. There are only tiny steps, stumbling ahead, hopefully encouraging others forward on their own paths, until a great mass of us create a wave moving in the direction of justice and tolerance.

In our conversation at this event, it became obvious that some ultra-Orthodox rabbis, feeling a duty to the expectations of their communities, may fear that taking a strong stand for idealistic solutions may cost them some credibility. It’s a disappointing dynamic, but it also illuminates that insiders to the ultra-Orthodox community who feel powerless may not realize how much power they actually hold in their hands — how much one small statement, or one small action, can start to shift the intricate ecosystem of communal life. And it is the same for those on the outside — one small step can inspire others, change a dynamic, and together we can make a significant leap forward.

 

 

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A Little Gay Jewish Boy: “Life Is a Cabaret?”

By Robert Levithan
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I have spent most of my adult life distancing myself from my Jewish identity. On many levels this isn’t that surprising: My father’s family had a history of ‘passing’ as gentile in order to secure employment denied Jews in early 20th Century America. From them I internalized the model of assimilation: Do not have a Jewish accent; do not have a New York accent; be American first, Jew second. Act the part (“Life is a Cabaret?”).

I grew up blond and blue-eyed in Suburbia. I went to Temple, not Synagogue. We were Liberal Reform Jews. Our Rabbi was a freedom rider in Mississippi. The town I lived in was a racially diverse bedroom community for New York City. We were living the post WW II American Dream.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out how close the Holocaust came to my home — both of my maternal grandparents had lost siblings and nieces and nephews to the Nazis.

I was born six years after the liberation of the death camps. In our New Jersey suburb where we were amongst the first wave of Jews in the neighborhood, no one spoke of the Holocaust. Rather, WW II was framed as the great experience of my parents’ youth. It was in part a romantic tale: They met while both stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia, introduced through the mail and set up on a blind date by my mother’s friend and my father’s sister who were at Hunter College together in NYC. They eloped eight days later. My Mother left the Nursing Corps when she became pregnant with my oldest brother who was born while my paratrooper Dad was stationed in the South Pacific as part of the occupation of Japan. They were American idealists fighting for their country.

Perhaps, unconsciously, I carried my family’s shadow — the unexpressed was affecting me. In 4th grade I decided to write a report on Hitler and got permission to use the school library to do ‘research’ which in those days, at that age, meant reading encyclopedias. I recall being allowed this special privilege, and I also remember not actually ever writing the report — and — what was oddest, not being held accountable for it. I now have an image of my teacher and her colleagues looking sadly at the little Jewish boy dealing with his tragic heritage.

My Bar Mitzvah was the last stand of my attempt at being properly Jewish: I had actually been hoping for a transcendent experience. Instead, I realized it was a performance.

I also remember that on my fourteenth birthday a year to the day later, a Sunday, waiting all day for something to happen, but no one in my family did anything to celebrate my birthday. I made a choice that day: I would not rely on my family or anyone else for my happiness — it was all up to me. I would find my own way to grace. Naively, I thought the past was that easily left behind. From that point on, I chose to perform as the most ‘normal’ boy in the world. So, it was not accidental that I left that confused Jewish boy behind. I became an excellent performer. Fast forward to April 24, 2014:

Sitting ringside opening night at Studio 54/The Kit Kat Club for the brilliant revival of Cabaret, I found myself spooked by this early glimpse of Nazism’s rise, and when, at the end the Emcee stands there in a ragged striped prison uniform with a yellow star and a pink triangle, I couldn’t help but think: “That’s ME!”

It’s still true that there are many places on the planet where people would kill me for my sexuality and many where my religious heritage (although I’m not a practicing Jew) could lead to persecution, banishment and a (less likely) death sentence — in the 21st Century!

I imagine that AIDS is like the Holocaust for young gay boys and men. It’s something that came before their time and often they feel it didn’t really affect them. However, like me, many feel the collective weight that their tribe still carries — HIV/AIDS is the threat that awaits them. Sex no longer equals death for gay men in the U.S. and Europe and many other places, but when coming out to parents, particularly unenlightened parents, the first thing most guys hear is, “you’ll get AIDS.”

In order to survive living with HIV for more than thirty years, I chose amongst other strategies to be completely out about my status, just as I was completely out about being gay. My internalized prejudice continued, however with my internalized anti-Semitism. I have spent the last decade slowly embracing my Jewish heritage and finding my true pride in my historical lineage. Now, I’m taking yet another step in writing about it as I believe that speaking and writing can transform our demons into little schmoos who no longer have us pinned to the wall in fear or loathing, but become friends from the past with whom we can sit down and have tea.

In order to be fully integrated as a gay man, an AIDS activist and a teacher/therapist, I must make peace with all my parts. The little gay Jewish boy that I was, supports the man I am today, free-range agnostic, AIDS elder, proponent of vital aging and living fully and lustily. Shalom!

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