5774: Top 10 Jewish entertainment moments


SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum announces Scarlett Johansson as the company's first-ever global brand ambassador on Jan. 10, 2014 in New York City. Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SodaStream)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow and the power couple Beyonce and Jay-Z (we’re not kidding) are among those who made news on the Jewish entertainment scene in 5774. Here are some of the top moments from the Jewish year soon to depart.

Scarlett tells Oxfam, pop off: Actress Scarlett Johansson got an earful from the international aid organization Oxfam for promoting SodaStream, which has a factory in the West Bank. Johansson responded by dumping Oxfam (where she was an “ambassador”) rather than SodaStream (where she is a paid spokeswoman). Johansson accused the British charity of supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and praised the Israeli manufacturer of home soda makers for providing good jobs for Palestinians.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow attends Hollywood Unites for the 4th Biennial Stand Up for Cancer (SU2C), at the Dolby Theatre, Sept. 5, 2014 in Hollywood, Calif. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Gwyneth at the mikvah?:After consciously uncoupling from hubby Chris Martin (of Coldplay fame), Gwyneth Paltrow decided to consciously recouple with her Jewish heritage and reportedly isconverting to Judaism. She proudly comes from a long line of rabbis on her father’s side (some of whom shared her interest in kabbalah). Key question: Will she revive the Paltrovich family name?

Bey, Jay-Z visit Anne Frank’s house:It’s been a rough year for the first couple of hip-hop, but the superstar sweethearts proved they know what counts when their trip to Amsterdam included a long, pensive visit to the Anne Frank Museum (documented on Instagram). And unlikeJustin Bieber, Beyonce managed to sign the guest book without suggesting that Anne Frank would’ve been a fan (a Bey-liever?). Classy lady.

Jewish Bachelorette to inmarry (kinda):In a major cultural breakthrough, “The Bachelorette” had its first Jewish contestant, Andi Dorfman. And in a moment that warmed the hearts of Jewish continuity advocates everywhere, Andi chose Jew-ish (albeit New Testament-tweeting) bachelor Josh Murray. Truly a match made in heaven — or at least Hollywood.

In the beginning, and then: First, Darren Aronofsky brought back the blockbuster biblical epic with “Noah.” Then Ridley Scott teased us with a trailer for his upcoming “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” So, logically, the next one is Leviticus, right? Can’t wait to see how they dramatize the section on ritual uncleanliness.

Sarah Silverman thanks “my Jews”:When her Emmy was announced for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special, the raunchy comedian dashed up the stairs barefoot and opened by thanking “my Jews at CAA,” referring to the mega-agency that represents her and what seems like half of Hollywood. Emmy bonus: Billy Crystal’s heartfelt tribute to Robin Williams, where he recounted Williams kibitzing with Crystal’s Jewish relatives and pretending to be Jewish himself.

Director Mel Brooks speaks onstage at the 2014 AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Jane Fonda at the Dolby Theatre, June 5, 2014 in Hollywood, Calif. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI)

God declares: Jewish humor is dead:Well, not God, but Mel Brooks, who is as close as one gets to divinity in Jewish comedy. Brooks said that in a world in which we all read, watch and hear the same things, Jewish humor is no longer any different than any other kind of comedy. Somewhere, Bialystock and Bloom are crying.

The Baby Biggs bris: Actor Jason Biggs and wife Jenny Mollen proudly announcedthe circumcision of son Sid with the words, “Today was not a good day to be Sid’s penis” and a couple of Instagram photos (don’t worry, no gore). Biggs, who is not Jewish (though he describeshimself on Twitter as “The Jewiest looking non-Jew”), claims that the ceremony, which featured a mohel, brachot and a tallis-wrapped family, was not a bris. Uh huh. And what did you say happened to that pie?

The Gaza Twitter war: While war raged between Hamas and Israel, celebrities began taking sides. Stars like Howard Stern and the late Joan Rivers stood with Israel, while Penelope Cruz and Brian Eno slammed the Jewish state’s military operation in Gaza. But the political battlefield of Middle East politics can be a dangerous place, causing more than a few celebs (such as Cruz, Javier Bardem and Rihanna) to retreat, ultimately into anodyne messages of peace and goodwill.

Miss Margalit: Maggie Gyllenhaal discovered her real birth name is Margalit — something even her mother didn’t remember. She also earned rave reviews playing an Anglo-Israeli businesswoman on the Sundance channel miniseries “The Honourable Woman.”



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Deceptively successful and very Jewish

JNS.org – Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle.

Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics.

“Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America, published the year Berle died in 2002. “His success came about because early television sets were mostly sold in wealthier urban areas, with Jews and gentile urbanites accustomed to and appreciative of Jewish humor. So Berle’s quick talking, his high-speed jokes, his dressing in outlandish costumes, and his sprinkling of Yiddishisms all played well. Ironically, it was Berle’s success with those urban audiences that propelled the sales of televisions around the nation.”

Epstein explains that once televisions reached the rural areas of America, viewers “took a look at [Berle] and said he spoke so fast they couldn’t understand him, and that he wasn’t funny, and [they asked], ‘What was that foreign language?’”

“That is why Berle’s television career was meteoric,” Epstein tells JNS.org. “It burned brightly but briefly.”

Berle’s close friend Lou Zigman, a Los Angeles-based labor lawyer and Brooklyn native, disagrees with Epstein’s use of the word “meteoric,” arguing that Berle never burned out like a meteor does. Berle kept performing, assisting other comics, giving to charities, and spreading Jewish culture until his death, and he was even performing card tricks as a hospital patient at age 90, according to Zigman.

“I asked Milton how come all the gentiles knew Yiddish humor,” Zigman tells JNS.org. “He answered that the great majority of comedians and writers in those early years were Jewish. That’s why it spread, and our culture spread, all over the country.”

At age 5, Berle won an amateur talent contest and appeared as a child actor in silent films. He became a vaudevillian at age 12 in a revival of the musical comedy Florodora in Atlantic City, N.J., and was hired by producer Jack White in 1933 to star in Poppin’ the Cork, a musical comedy about the repeal of Prohibition. From 1934–36, Berle was heard frequently on The Rudy Vallee Hour radio show and attracted publicity as a regular on The Gillette Original Community Sing, a Sunday night comedy-variety radio program broadcast on CBS. Then came the Milton Berle Show, a variety format he would revive for his television debut.

That debut was Texaco Star Theatre, which began in September 1948 on ABC and continued until June 1949. The show became the first-ever “appointment television”—a program prompting viewers to adjust their schedules to watch it at a specific time. Berle’s autobiography notes that in Detroit, “an investigation took place when the water levels took a drastic drop in the reservoirs on Tuesday nights between 9 and 9:05. It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the Texaco Star Theatrebefore going to the bathroom.”

According to Artie Butler, Berle’s friend and a well-known composer/arranger, Berle had a Jewish sense of comedic wit. At age 16, Butler met Berle while filling in for his piano player at the Town and Country Club in Brooklyn.

“Milton was a mensch, a lovely man, a giving man,” Butler tells JNS.org. “He had a New York, garment district, Stage Deli, vaudeville-based Jewish sensibility, the theatrical yiddishkeit (Jewishness), but not in Yiddish. I asked him where he got his first laugh. He told me he was a chorus boy in one of Ziegfeld’s musicals, a hoofer. Every night his mother was there in the audience. He was purposefully out of step with the other dancers and [producer Florenz] Ziegfeld himself told him after the show to keep doing that, that it got a lot of laughs.”

Berle assisted popular comics including Fred Travalena, Ruth Buzzi, John Ritter, Marla Gibbs, Lily Tomlin, Dick Shawn, and Will Smith. Butler says young comedians sought Berle’s advice because he was a pioneer.

“Every comic including David Brenner and Rodney Dangerfield wanted to hear the stories about how Milton worked in the Catskill (Mountains) at Grossingers and The Concord, and how he worked the Jewish audiences,” says Butler. “Milton told them they were rough audiences and he had to learn how to finesse them.”

What would “Mr. Television” think of today’s programming?

“I think Berle wouldn’t much like current television,” Epstein says. “He was a believer in live comedy, in working hard for the joke. I don’t think he would have appreciated current subject matter or language either. It just wasn’t his style.”

In 1947, Berle founded the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, Calif. Other founding members included Jimmy Durante, George Jessel, Robert Taylor and Bing Crosby. The private show-business club is famous its celebrity roasts, in which club members are mocked by their friends in good fun.

But occasionally, Berle’s life took on a more serious note. He risked his new-found TV stardom at its zenith to challengeTexaco Star Theatre when its corporate sponsor, the gas giant Texaco, tried to prevent black performers from appearing on the show.

“I remember clashing with the advertising agency and the sponsor over my signing The Four Step Brothers (a black dance group) for an appearance on the show,” Berle writes in his autobiography. “The only thing I could figure out was that there was an objection to black performers on the show, but I couldn’t even find out who was objecting. ‘We just don’t like them,’ I was told, but who the hell was ‘we’? Because I was riding high in 1950, I sent out the word: ‘If they don’t go on, I don’t go on.’ At ten minutes of eight—ten minutes before showtime—I got permission for The Step Brothers to appear. If I broke the color-line policy or not, I don’t know, but later on I had no trouble booking Bill Robinson or Lena Horne.”

Berle “deserves credit” for taking a stand on integration in the context of The Texaco Star Theatre, says Epstein.

“His whole television career depended on that show,” Epstein tells JNS.org. “This was six years before Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation. Berle invited the black singer Pearl Bailey. He also invited Señor Wences, a Sephardic Jewish ventriloquist who spoke with a thick accent. I’m not sure too many people of the era given the stakes would have had as guests a black singer and a Sephardic Jew who used his hand as a puppet.”

Berle never forgot his Jewish upbringing. He hosted the first charity telethon, for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, in 1949. A permanent fixture at charity benefits in the Hollywood area, he was instrumental in raising millions for charitable causes and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for making the greatest number of charity performances by a show-business professional. According to Zigman, he was a member of the Creative Arts Temple in Beverly Hills, Calif., and spoke at the synagogue’s charitable events.

“Milton was a product of New York Jewish culture,” Zigman says. “We take pride in ourselves as being multi-racial and multi-ethnic, having a respect for other people.”

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Jewfro: The Wonderful Thing About PeerCorps …

By Ben Falik

By Ben FalikPeerCorps is a wonderful thing. An innovative and intentional thing. A thing that, for all its early successes, you may not have heard about. Until now! So get to know PeerCorps and you’ll get to know:

An idea. Mine, and like most of my ideas, a half-baked one. After years of turning middle schoolers away from Summer in the City (liability!), what if, I thought thoughtfully, there were a service program where they could be an asset? And what if the most dedicated teen volunteers could facilitate formative experiences for their “near peers”? That was as far as I got. And the original name was Raise the Bar Mitzvah.

A vision. The vision of Nora Feldhusen and Blair Nosan, who fully baked the idea into PeerCorps, a robust and respectful program. In their own words: “PeerCorps is a yearlong mentorship program inviting Jewish teens and b’nai mitzvah students and their families to build deep relationships with one another and with community-based work in Detroit.

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“Mentors begin with a Gesher (bridge) experience in August. This immersive week of living, working and exploring together in Detroit provides an opportunity for mentors to develop mentorship skills, self-awareness, critical thinking and to deepen their understanding of tzedakah — the religious obligation to do what is right and just, integral to living a spiritual life — through connecting Jewish values to learning about self and society.”

A springboard. For teens who are eager to stretch themselves for their own growth and the growth of others. These juniors and seniors have run the gamut of great volunteer experiences (Friendship Circle, Yad Ezra, JARC, J-Serve, Mitzvah Day, Fall Fix-Up and Jewish Senior Life, etc.) and, like teenage Socrateses, know enough to know that they know nothing. Which is something. So they come together as a group, live together for a week in southwest Detroit and start a conversation together — about Detroit, Judaism and living one’s values — that continues for the year.

An on-ramp. For middle school students who want to go beyond the boundaries of their immediate community as a way of expanding their definition of what community means and whom it includes. They get to volunteer for 18 hours alongside super cool teen mentors who, themselves, have continued their commitment to service beyond becoming bar and bat mitzvah.

A wellspring. For community partners who are excited to work with young, energetic volunteers and motivated to move beyond one-and-done service days (that risk depleting more resources than they marshal) into a yearlong relationship with teen leaders who learn the tone, tempo and tenor of their organization so they can steward the work of two cycles of mentees. These partners include:

• Clark Park Coalition: Playing hockey, soccer, and pingpong with kids of all ages in southwest Detroit.
• Downtown Synagogue and Eden Gardens Block Club: A creative combination of social action projects and working in a partner garden on the east side.
• Freedom House: Cooking, eating and learning with a population of people from all over the world who are seeking political asylum after facing persecution in their home countries.
• Mount Elliott Makerspace: Building bikes, speakers (out of old coffee cans!) and much more with kids at this neighborhood workshop.
• D-Town Farms: Planting, growing, weeding, watering and harvesting together at this Afrocentric farm on the west side.
• Plus, the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. A place-based charter school on the east side of Detroit, the mission of the Boggs school is to nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their communities.

An investment. By you — Thanks! — and our community, specifically the Hermelin-Davidson Foundation for Congregation Excellence. The Alliance for Jewish Education, Repair the World, shuls (across denominations), their members and unaffiliated families are investing in PeerCorps as a way for emerging Jewish leaders to be the change they wish to see in Detroit. RT

For more information, visit peercorpsdetroit.tumblr.com or call Nora at (313) 355-3417.

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National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame to induct one-day Miami Marlin Adam Greenberg

Miami Marlins outfielder Adam Greenberg misses a pitch by New York Mets starting pitcher R.A. Dickey for a strike as the Marlins met the New York Mets in their MLB National League baseball game in Miami, Florida, October 2, 2012. Greenberg was hit in the back of the head by a 92 miles per hour fastball in his first plate appearance as a Chicago Cub rookie in July 2005. Helped off the field and hospitalized, he never returned to the major leagues after that ninth inning pinch-hit appearance against the Marlins. Greenberg will be guaranteed one at-bat in Tuesday’s game against the Mets, Marlins president David Samson told NBC’s Today Show last week.

By Juan C. Rodriguez

The Miami Marlins two seasons ago helped Adam Greenberg get back to the major leagues. In doing so, they bolstered his candidacy for the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

Greenberg will be among this year’s inductees. The 22nd Induction Ceremony is set for Sept. 14 at the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack, N.Y. Joining Greenberg in this year’s class: Angela Buxton, Tennis; Barry Kramer, Basketball; Don Goldstein, Basketball; Jay Berger, Tennis; Joel Segal, NFL Agent and Mark Roth, PBA Bowler. 

In his first major league plate appearance on July 9, 2005 as a member of the Cubs, Greenberg facing then Marlins’ reliever Valerio De Los Santos took a pitch off the head. His attempts to come back from the subsequent injury were unsuccessful

On the last day of the 2012 season, the Marlins signed Greenberg to a one-day contract so he could have an official at-bat. He faced knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, then of the Mets, as a pinch-hitter and struck out on three pitches.

Among those from the baseball realm already enshrined at the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame: Tigers’ manager and former big league catcher Brad Ausmus, two-time All-Stars Shawn Green and Ken Holtzman, and Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

Greenberg in 2012 and outfielder Jai Miller in 2008 are the only non-pitchers to log exactly one career plate appearance with the Marlins.

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Superman is as American as apple pie, in that both have their origins in the Middle East.

Apples, because they are thought to have been first domesticated in Turkey, and Superman, because of his oftentimes overlooked Jewish heritage.

However, recent portrayals of the character, particularly the 2013 film Man of Steel, focus on the Christ-like, messianic qualities of the Metropolis Marvel. In the run up to the movie’s release, faith based press relations company Grace Hill Media invited religious figures around the nation to attend select pre-release screenings, posted clips online, and provided notes for possible faith-based discussion topics related to the film. One example is focused around themes of fatherhood and instructs dads to “take [the kids] to see Man of Steel” and then use the guide to “discover new connections to your own life and God’s word.”

Along with the web content, Dr. Craig Detweiller, Ph.D. of Theology and Culture, wrote a nine page essay titled “Jesus–The Original Superhero” to specifically link the Last Son of Krypton with the Son of God. Detweiller cited the oft repeated evidence about the suffix “el” appending Superman’s Kryptonian birth name “Kal-el.” In Hebrew, the “el” suffix is used to denote Elohim, or Yahweh, Jehovah, or God, like in the names Michael, Rachel, and Angel. In his essay, Detweiller also referenced the Jochebedian orphanization Superman suffered as his parents, forewarned of the planet Krypton’s imminent demise, shot their baby into outer space like a futuristic Moses.

But if comparing Superman to Jesus was meant to “Christianize” the hero, they might have picked a better candidate. Jesus was a Jew, the last supper was a Passover meal, and every minor prophet has a miracle or two tucked up their sleeve. Jonah lived in a whale.

Orphaned at birth to protect him from a world destroying cataclysm, the Man of Steel is most often compared to Moses because they were both raised by non-Jewish families and eventually accessed magic powers to save their tribe. Also presented as evidence are the similarities between the S symbol on Superman’s chest and the Hebrew character Lamedh. Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, compared Superman’s code of ethics—“Truth, Justice, and the American Way”—to the Mishnaic values of “truth, peace, and justice.”

Perhaps the most important link to a Hebrew superhero is Superman’s identity as a partially assimilated immigrant. The 1930s New York that produced the world’s first modern superheroes was awash in recent Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of 19th century Europe. According to “The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation” by Jonathan D. Sarna and Jonathan Golden at Brandeis University, “In 1900, more than 40 percent of America’s Jews were newcomers, with ten years or less in the country” and the next quarter century saw a wave of immigration as “another 1.75 million Jews would immigrate to America’s shores, the bulk from Eastern Europe.”

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were the children of those immigrants. The Siegels, Mitchell and Sarah, had come from Lithuania and settled in Cleveland, Ohio, while the Shusters, Julius and Ida, were from Rotterdam and Kiev. They first immigrated to Toronto. When Joe was about ten years old, the Shusters moved again, this time to Cleveland. Around 1931 the two young men met while attending Glenville High School (home of the fighting Tarblooders) through one of Jerry’s cousins and began a friendship centered around a mutual love of science fiction, fantasy, and comics.

At age 16, both Siegel and Shuster were already accomplished comic artists, displaying many of the talents and themes that would resurface in Superman. Shuster drew a comic strip about a character named Jerry the Journalist, and Siegel sold his works under the pen name Hugh Langley (“or whatever” Siegel told a Nemo Magazine interviewer in 1983). Other early collaborations between the pair included a comic strip called “Interplanetary Police,” characters who had X-ray vision, and even a character named Snoopy (almost twenty years before the Charles Schulz dog of the same name). They drew inspiration for their stories from the popular sci-fi characters of the time including Little Nemo,Tarzan, and Flash Gordon, all orphan characters, like the superhero Siegel and Shuster would eventually create.

Another American legend with Ohioan roots may have inspired Superman’s creators is John Henry. While southern US states usually lay claim to the folk hero, the real Henry allegedly worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad in the aftermath of the Civil War. Even if the real Henry never existed, thousands of black workers built the railroad tracks crisscrossing Ohio. Many were skilled artisans, but some were compelled into service as forced prison laborers. A lack of work safety features and services meant many thousands of such laborers died on the job, and not because they were racing steam drills.

One potential origin for the name “Tarblooder,” which the Glenville High School Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster attended still uses as a nickname, is the laborers who would drive railroad spikes into track ties held down with tar. The hammer strikes would splatter tar on their uncovered skin causing lacerations and bleeding. The ability of these men to withstand pain, already well conditioned by constant physical activity, led to their mythic status as super men.

It was also during their time in Ohio that Mel Gordon, writing forReform Judaism Magazine in 2011, suggested it would have been impossible for Siegel and Shuster to not have become acquainted with Zishe Breitbart, the Jewish strongman.

In 1923, Breitbart played both Cleveland and Toronto when Siegel and Shuster were only nine years old. There is no record of either artist attending the shows, but it would have been unlikely they were unfamiliar with the early 20th century Heracles. Gordon writes, “The Cleveland News raved that he was ‘more interesting than the Eiffel Tower.’ During the Christmas season, he performed before 85,000 spectators at the New York Hippodrome, then the ‘largest playhouse in the world,’ smashing all previous attendance records.” Renowned for feats of strength destined to become hallmarks of the comic book Superman, Breitbart dazzled audiences with all the strongman classics: bending steel bars, breaking “unbreakable” chains, lifting elephants. In at least one of the Jewish strongman’s American tours, Breitbart was billed as “the Superman of the Ages.”

Other Jewish candidates for inspiring Superman include the mythological Golem. In the modern era, the character is associated with the 17th century pogroms in the Jewish ghettos of Prague. Like Superman, the Golem was a creature of intense physical strength and its primary function was to defend the Jews of what was then part of the Holy Roman Empire.

In his fictional account of Superman’s creation, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,author Michael Chabon also makes the connection to the Golem. His protagonist, Josef Kavalier, escapes Prague by hiding in the Golem’s coffin and creates a similar character in his comic books. Writing about the motif in “Illumination and Escape: Writing and Regeneration in 21st Century Jewish-American Literature” Dr. Windy Counsell Petrie says, “the Golem signifies a faith in the power of artistic creation…For Joe Kavalier, the universe he creates in drawing his comic books is one in which he is empowered to do something about the Nazis…Though Joe realizes that he cannot literally hurt Hitler through his comic books, the novel does imply that his comics do have power to influence public opinion.”

Due to rising global anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Golem had resurfaced in popular Jewish culture. The same year Siegel and Shuster were born, Gustav Meyrink’s Der Golem, a fictional account of the Prague Golem, appeared on bookshelves to international acclaim. Over the next decade, the Golem appeared in at least one poem, an opera, and a German film. Although Siegel and Shuster never acknowledged the connection, Golems are often referenced by the material from which they are made. They are men of clay, similar to Superman’s alias, The Man of Steel.

Cleveland left another, more permanent mark on the Supermanseries. In 1932, Jerry Siegel’s father Mitchell was killed by a still unknown assailant while working at the family’s second hand clothing store. Police accounts from the time are allegedly unclear, but the elder Siegel was either shot, or suffered a heart attack, when three men attacked him during a robbery. A Daily Mail article about the attack states the oldest surviving artwork featuring Superman shows the caped hero “flying to the rescue of a man being held-up at gunpoint by an armed robber…The link with Siegel’s father seems painfully clear.”

Siegel never mentioned his father’s death as an inspiration for Superman, but Joanne Siegel, the model who served as the visual inspiration for the original Lois Lane (and who dated Joe Shuster before marrying Jerry Siegel) oncetold the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “I remember the day I met Jerry in Joe’s living room. Jerry was the model for Superman. He was standing there in a Superman-like pose.” The young Siegel, having inherited his father’s looks, went on to define the characteristics Superman still possesses, from the dark, curly hair to the square, chiseled jaw.

Shuster refreshed the Superman character design in 1945, again using a Jewish model for inspiration. While on vacation in the Catskills, the comic artist met a furniture salesman named Stanley Weiss, the son of Jewish immigrants. The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman interviewed Weiss’s son, David, about the incident. When shown pictures of his father at a young age, David Weiss told Teeman, he thought, “That’s definitely Superman, but is it my father?” In 2013, the younger Weiss donated rare sketches from the modelling session to a one day exhibit at the Centre for Jewish History in New York.

“I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. As a matter of fact, some of them looked like they hoped I didn’t exist. It occurred to me: What if I was real terrific?”

In the 1930s, Siegel and Shuster moved to New York City. The pair lived in an apartment described by early Superman artist Wayne Boring as “a real rat-hole right on the elevated (subway)… He had a room with a cot that you had to walk over to get to the other end! And there was the elevated right outside his window!”

While in New York, Siegel and Shuster spent much of their free time at the movies, and it was their two favorite actors, Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd, who would inform much of the Superman/Clark Kent aesthetic. Both Fairbanks and Lloyd were among the most famous Jewish entertainers of their time. Unlike the Jewish actors who changed their names to broaden their appeal to gentile American audiences, Fairbanks, born Douglas Ullman, received his “Americanized” name when his father, Charles Ullman, abandoned his wife and children, Ella Adelaide Marsh Fairbanks.

The German director Fritz Lang’s 1926 visit to Manhattan is often credited with inspiring the director’s most famous work,Metropolis. Hardcore sci-fi fans, Siegel and Shuster loved the movie and they used its title as a name for the fictional world their hero would inhabit.

The character was also imbued with more explicit details from its creator’s lives. Siegel told Nemo Magazine:

Siegel: “Clark Kent grew not only out of my private life, but also out of Joe’s. As a high school student, I thought that some day I might become a reporter, and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. As a matter of fact, some of them looked like they hoped I didn’t exist. It occurred to me: What if I was real terrific? What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that? Then maybe they would notice me. That night when all the thoughts were coming to me, the concept came to me that Superman could have a dual identity, and that in one of his identities he could be meek and mild, as I was, and wear glasses, the way I do. The heroine, who I figured would be a girl reporter, would think he was some sort of a worm; yet she would be crazy about this Superman character who could do all sorts of fabulous things. In fact, she was real wild about him, and a big inside joke was that the fellow she was crazy about was also the fellow whom she loathed. By coincidence, Joe was a carbon copy (of me).”

Shuster: “I was mild-mannered, wore glasses, was very shy with women.”

Superman fans may well recognize those features in Clark Kent, but they are essential elements of Jewish entertainers throughout the last century. Today, the nebbish is as popular as ever, appearing in diverse entertainments from Sheldon on The Big Bang Theoryto The Simpsons’ Professor Frink. Even the less overtly Hebraic actors who have portrayed Superman, like Dean Cain and Christopher Reeve, maintained the klutzy comedy of Clark Kent’s constant bumbling. Particularly noteworthy is the apotheosis of Superman as nebbish in made-for-TV It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, a 1975 musical adventure featuring the Man of Steel based on the 1966 Broadway play of the same name.

But Siegel and Shuster’s superhero character, while couched in childlike innocence, was a radical strike back against what Rabbi Bruce Warshal calls “the worst period of anti-Semitism in our [American Jewish] history.” The relatively lax immigration policy of the early 20th century gave way to rabid nativism in the 1920s. The Ku Klux Klan resurged and saw early 20th century Jews as principal agitators in the spread of Communism, unionism, and miscegenation. Klan participation was particularly bad even in northern states like the Ohio. In 1923 and 1925 over 70,000 klansmen attended two Klan rallies, known as konklaves, at Buckeye Lake.

It was no small source of satisfaction for Siegel and Shuster later when the Superman radio serial became instrumental in mocking the Klan’s activities. As recently profiled in the Comedy Central show Drunk History, secret Klan phrases were exposed by Superman’s bumbling radio villains, thereby decreasing the secretive organization’s power of mystique. Other than a few draft scripts, Siegel and Shuster’s involvement with the radio show was minimal.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were ten years old when Senator Ellison DuRant Smith gave his famous “Shut The Door” speech on immigration in the lead up to the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act. The Senator claimed passing the act would allow the U.S. to “assimilate what we have, and let us breed pure American citizens and develop our own American resources.” The immigration act not only lowered the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S., it also barred immigration from any country whose citizens were deemed “non-white.” Had the act passed earlier, it would have prevented millions of southern and eastern European immigrants from coming to America, including the Siegels and Shusters. It’s passage in the 1920s would trap millions in an increasingly hostile Europe, on the eve of a frenzy of anti-Semitic genocide.

That is why, for 74 years Superman’s primary nemesis has not been another alien or superhero, but megalomaniacal xenophobic billionaire Lex Luthor. On multiple occasions, Luther hasreiterated Senator Smith’s language, engaged in murderous, racially motivated vigilantism, and generally promoted the Nazi ideal of übermensch. In Siegel and Shuster’s first Superman comic, titled “The Reign of the Superman,” the “Superman” character appeared as Lex Luthor later would, bald, villainous, and visually similar to the F.W. Murnau version of Dracula (another fictional character with secret Jewish origins) from the 1922 film Nosferatu.

Although revealing any link to Judaism would have doomed theSuperman franchise, several early stories focus on Superman fighting Nazis and proudly declaring himself a “non-Aryan” as hesocked Adolph Hitler on the jaw. The comics led propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to accuse Superman of being a Jew, and at least one vicious 1940 editorial in the SS newspaper Das schwarze Korps was titled “Jerry Siegel Attacks!”

While American nativism and anti-Semitism declined after World War II, so did the overt Jewishness of Superman. Flagrant anti-Semitism fell out of favor and was replaced by a closeted, unspoken bigotry. As John Turturro’s Sid Litz says in the adaptation of Franz Lidz’s Unstrung Heroes, “‘I like Ike.’ [was] secret gentile code for ‘I hate kikes.’”

As their contract was about to expire, Siegel and Shuster sued DC for control of their character. Having sold the rights to the company for $130 in 1938 ($2,197.49 USD in 2014, adjusting for inflation), DC responded by firing the pair.

Years of lawsuits ended multiple times in multiple settlements. One promised yearly salaries for the artists of about $25,000. More recently, surviving members of the Siegel family have successfully gained a percentage of future revenues from Warner Entertainment and DC Comics as well as another settlement of several million dollars. However, a 2013 9th Circuit Court of Appeals court ruling did not grant the same rights to the remaining Shusters.


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A Bridge Too Far: The story of my big Jewish nose

Photo 1/4
The parents wanted their girls to have a life without being made fun of, being called big-nose, hook-nose, Jew-nose.
Photo 2/4
I blamed my nose for all my (significant) social failings. I remember how, at 11, 12, 13, I felt deeply unpretty.
Photo 3/4
My nana saw daughters taken for schnoz upgrades as soon as they turned 16. “Nobody thought it was a big deal”
Photo 4/4
Pre-rhinoplasty photo of author Naomi L. Lewis.



I t’s no big deal. Like having your tonsils out.”

“A prominent nose is OK on a man, but unattractive on a woman.”

“You just have to remember: it’s not your fault you look that way.”

“Your face is so tiny, and your nose sticks out like a carrot.”

“Hey, Pinocchio!”

May 8, 1991, I counted backwards from 100: 99, 98, 97 and the voices went quiet. I lay unconscious, a tube down my throat. A man cut an incision under and into my nose, separated skin and cartilage from my skull and peeled my face open to break and scrape and slice and squeeze the stuff inside. I picture blood pooling in my exposed sinus cavities. Bone and tissue in a steel bowl. I remember waking up sewn back together, my head wrapped in plaster, my sinuses stuffed with gauze but not enough to keep the blood from pouring down over my lips, my chin, dripping onto my white hospital sheets.

I called out for help, and a nurse shoved some more gauze at me.

I told my mother, “I can’t believe I did this to myself,” when she came to get me. I wasn’t quite crying, because to cry would require distortions my mallet-bashed face couldn’t manage. I was dressed by then, sitting in a wheelchair, my bandages and plaid shirt rust-stained.

I was turning 15 in a couple of weeks, and this was my birthday present, from my parents and my grandmother. Rhinoplasty—a nose job. No more serious than getting my tonsils out. And now my life would be better.

My 12-year-old sister couldn’t look at me for two weeks. I couldn’t talk or chew without straining the stitches between my nostrils. Laughing was torture. I had to breathe through my mouth, my sinuses swollen and jam-packed with cotton. According to my father, I wouldn’t let anyone turn on my bedroom light, because I didn’t want to be seen all bandaged and bloody.

I finally returned to the doctor to have myself unwrapped and unstuffed. He held up a mirror, warning me my lip and nose were swollen and my eyes bruised. In that mirror I saw someone who resembled me, like a close relative: I would never see my real face again.

— — — — — — — —

About a year ago, when I was 37, I demanded of my parents—as they stared at me in bafflement over a restaurant table—how they could have let me go through with such a painful and misguided procedure. I regretted it, missed my old nose with its large dorsal hump and prominent over-projected tip. Wished I’d had the wherewithal to notice the racism inherent to my youthful self-loathing. Why hadn’t they done their research? They could have read Sander Gilman’s book, The Jew’s Body, or at least the chapter about Jewish noses, in which he explains that a nose like my old one makes the stigmatized Jew feel painfully visible, insofar as “visibility means being seen not as an individual but as an Other, one of the ‘ugly’ race.” I informed my parents, moreover, that they should have realized I needed therapy, not a nose job, to address my self-esteem issues.

So when I call now and ask them, more calmly, how I ended up getting a nose job at 14, my father’s more than a little on guard. But my mother starts talking, and he’s swept up in the conversation.

They both recall that the surgery was initially my idea, an idea that preoccupied me. Apparently I blamed my nose for all my (significant) social failings. And then, Mum says, I mentioned the nose-job plan to my Nana—my paternal grandmother. “She thought it was a good idea, so she encouraged you, and she encouraged Dad and me as well. I guess because, in her circle, it wasn’t a big deal, sort of like having your tonsils out.”

“And what did you think?” I ask my father.

He answers slowly and carefully. “I thought I wanted you to have what you wanted. And you felt it would make you—I mean you really—you really wanted it badly. And the surgeon said it was normal and safe.” He adds, “You were more than adamant. It was a passion.”

We’d moved from near Washington, D.C. to Ottawa when I was seven, and none of my classmates had refurbished noses; I don’t know where I would have come up with the idea. My best friend recalls me telling her, at the time, that the surgery was my grandmother’s idea. But if Nana was a driving force behind my surgery, she doesn’t remember it. I ask how I decided to have the surgery, and she hesitates. “I think you didn’t like your nose.”

I do remember how, at 11, 12, 13, I felt deeply unpretty—and prettiness seemed merely an absence of offending features, the way cleanliness is simply an absence of dirt. I wanted to look like the popular girls, with their smooth pale hair and even, average features. I longed to be inconspicuous, invisible. However, oddly enough, it did not occur to me that I looked Jewish—or even, really, that I was Jewish. My father is Jewish and my mother’s father was Jewish. According to Jewish law, legitimate membership in the tribe requires matrilineal descent, and I was raised in a secular household. So I have three Jewish grandparents, but culturally and technically, I am not Jewish at all; and as a young teenager, I thought of myself, if I thought in terms of race at all, as a white British-Canadian girl. I certainly didn’t know that my not-so-distant ancestors in Eastern and Western Europe had not been considered white in their day, had barely been considered human.

I am not claiming that all my childhood difficulties arose from my confused and confusing ancestry, or even from the relatively recent European history that severed and incinerated whole limbs of my family tree. I only have to wonder: Was I depressive and anxious by genetic design or neurotic as a descendent of Holocaust survivors or just a difficult child? Was I socially isolated, on some level, because I looked ethnic, immigranty, Jewish, or did I suffer from some kind of body dismorphia? Or did I really just have an ugly face—a contingency that would make any childhood difficult?

— — — — — — — —

My mother grew up in London, England, with a lapsed-Anglican mother and Atheist Jewish-by-birth father, and doesn’t recall anyone she knew getting a nose job or talking about it. She says the concept of cosmetic surgery was new to her when she moved to the U.S. with my dad in 1979. My father and aunt, Rachael (not her real name), began their lives in London, too. They lived in a Jewish family in a Jewish neighbourhood, and left for America when my father was 11 and Rachael 15—she turned 16 two days before their ship arrived in New York, in 1960. When they began school in Silver Spring, Maryland, Rachael says, she was acutely culture shocked: the girls in her Grade 11 classes had braces and their own cars. Meanwhile, my grandparents didn’t even have a car. Both my father and Auntie Rachael have talked about feeling ostracized—feeling like “refugees”—due to poverty, due to their unstraightened teeth.

My father, who graduated from his American high school in 1968, says that nose jobs were “very common.” When I ask him to describe the demographic that underwent such surgery, he identifies white girls. Then adds, “My impression, thinking back, is that they were Jewish kids, but I don’t know that for a fact.”

Auntie Rachael, however, tells me that rhinoplasty was the realm of 16-year-old Jewish girls, and, judging by the experiences of her acquaintances’ grandchildren, still is. “In these rich—not rich—but—Jewish families, having a nose job is like a coming of age. If you need it.”

But how do you know if you need it?

Well, if you have a bad nose.

And why Jewish girls, in particular?

“They were the ones with the bad noses,” says Auntie Rachael.

What’s a bad nose?

Anything bigger and bumpier than “a tiny little triangle,” Rachael says, is less than ideal. Some people are born with those perfect noses, she adds, and names her (Anglo-Saxon) daughter-in-law.

Rachael, my grandmother tells me, “needed her nose done, too, when she was 16 or 17, but she wouldn’t do it.”

“I always thought I had a hateful nose,” Rachael agrees. “But when I had an opportunity to do it, I was too scared.” (I tell her that I love her nose the way it is. Truthfully, I’ve always found Auntie Rachael’s face exceptionally appealing. She doesn’t seem to hear me.)

My grandfather, now long deceased, was a tailor, and after immigrating opened his own shop. My grandmother got a job selling clothes in a high-end clothing store, and from there worked her way up, up and up; when I was a child in Maryland, she managed a whole department store and was considered an haute couture expert, hobnobbing with internationally famous fashion designers and catering to some of the wealthiest women in the country.

She never knew about nose jobs in England, Nana tells me, but working as she did with D.C.’s elite in the ’60s, she saw mothers taking their daughters for schnoz upgrades as soon as the girls turned 16. “Nobody thought it was a big deal.” She denies that rhinoplasty was or is a particularly Jewish phenomenon, however: “It’s everybody.” Nana says that she is “absolutely” a proponent of cosmetic surgery. If looking better makes you feel better, and you can do it, why not?

Rachael corroborates that my grandmother “believes you should do anything you can to improve how you look”—that beauty, or a close approximation, is vital for success, socially and in business. I ask Rachael what she thinks about that, and she says, without hesitation, “I think it’s true.”

Nana, it must be said, was and is an extraordinarily stunning, articulate and charismatic woman. She achieved monumentally more, career-wise, than a female, eastern-European Jewish immigrant with no formal education could ever have hoped, certainly only aided by her “movie-star type looks,” as Rachael puts it, “and this glam and outgoing personality.” Nana knows intimately (though she will never admit it) the privileges bestowed on the beautiful.

— — — — — — — —

Full disclosure: I considered a second surgery. Something likely went wrong the first time, causing the excessive bleeding and pain I suffered, and my nose healed imperfectly. Too much bone was removed from the bridge, leaving it a little flat, as well as crooked. The cartilage in the tip is full of scar tissue, leaving me with a “polly-beak deformity,” according to Calgary’s Dr. Kristina Zakhary, who recently took my nose between her fingers and gently wiggled it around.

As my Nana puts it, “You could have done with a bit more off.” So I almost got a second nose job when I was 22; I had a consultation with a surgeon who told me I’d started down nose-job road due to a classic “ethnic problem.” Somehow, until then, my bio-nose’s status as ethnic calling-card had not occurred to me. The implications came as a shock, and dissuaded me from going through with another adjustment.

When Auntie Rachael asks why I’m writing about rhinoplasty—what I’m getting at—I say I’m not sure, but add that nose jobs were invented by Jews, for Jews, that the first contemporary rhinoplasty was performed in 1888 by German-Jewish surgeon Jacques Joseph (nee Jacob Joseph), to cure a hefty-nosed patient of the melancholy arising from social exclusion and ridicule. In 1933, one patient reported that “Nosef,” as the surgeon became known in the German-Jewish community, sometimes provided his service for free “when he felt that someone suffered from a Jewish nose” but couldn’t afford the surgery.

Was simply looking too Jewish the issue, attractiveness aside?

“Look at the propaganda and all of that,” Rachael agrees. “It was really prevalent. All of the caricatures…”

In The Jewish Body, Melvin Konner includes an 1888 chart entitled “How We May Know Him,” designed to help the unsuspecting spot sneaky Semites. The labelled illustrations include “Ill-shapen ears of great size like those of a bat,” and of course, “Curved nose and nostrils.” As Gilman writes, the Jewish nose’s “nostrility” was at one point even believed a result of congenital syphilis. In any case, the Jewish nose was considered to embody a combination of racially inscribed characteristics which set Jews aside as an entirely different species—a dangerous combination of craftiness, avarice and amorality. All this is summed up rather neatly in the following joke: Why do Jews have big noses? Because air is free.

“I’m sure that was part of it,” Rachael muses. “The parents wanted their girls—their kids—to have a life without being made fun of, being called big-nose, hook-nose, Jew-nose. And in the ’60s it was only 20 years after the war.”

The war—the Second World War—is, of course, the elephant in the room. In 1933 Berlin, as Nosef performed his free rhinoplasties, looking Jewish was more than a minor social liability; it would soon become a matter of life and death. As Konner describes, in the Nazi era, German children were taught how to spot Jews attempting to “pass.” And in the 1930s, Berlin was exactly where my Nana and her parents lived. They eventually escaped to England, leaving their home and all their belongings in the middle of the night. Many of their relatives and friends died at the hands of the Nazis.

And as my aunt intuited, rhinoplasty’s popularity among North American Jews peaked in the ’60s and ’70s. Though no such studies have been conducted in Canada, recent statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reveal a 37 percent decline in nose jobs between 2000 and 2011. Moreover, the procedure’s increased popularity among Asian and Hispanic communities implies that Jews are getting even fewer nose jobs than the numbers show. Melvin Konner told Tablet magazine in 2012 that the explanation likely lies in Jews becoming more proud of their heritage, and less anxious to assimilate.

— — — — — — — —

“Is it ethnicity or is it esthetics?” Auntie Rachael muses, at the end of our chat.

In pursuit of answers, I visit Calgary cosmetic surgeon Dr. Greg Waslen in his office. As he sits down across from me, I get the distinct impression he’s sizing up my features. I feel like he knows my secret: that, though I’m here as a journalist, I had a “bad nose job” as my Nana once called it.

I decide to clear the air, and tell him that I was inspired to write this story because of my own experience. He nods. “You had a very basic rhinoplasty that I wouldn’t do, because it’s not sophisticated,” he says. He tells me my surgeon just took the “hump” off, flattening the bridge, “which doesn’t make it attractive.” And, he adds, they didn’t do enough to the tip, so my face is unbalanced. He takes out a calipre and proceeds to measure my face, explaining that in the golden ratio—1:1.618—lies the empirically demonstrated source of beauty, in everything from flowers to faces. My face, he shows me, is well proportioned, except for my nose, which is out of whack in several regards.

Waslen denies any correlation between ethnicity and nose shape or relative beauty, though. It’s just about math—design. He shows me on his computer how I’d appear with my profile adjusted for perfection, ratio-wise. “Looks cuter,” he says. Then he makes my nose bigger and hookier, to show me what I’d probably look like if I’d never had surgery in the first place. “More severe,” he says. He’s right, on both counts.

Dr. Kristina Zakhary, across town, is a head-and-neck surgeon with a specialty in facial plastic surgery. She agrees that the golden ratio is a useful ideal, but adds, “The truth is that the outcome of the surgery depends on more than just numbers and angles. It depends on the gender of the patient, the skin pigment of the patient, the ethnic background of the patient, and how the patient heals.” Ethnic background, because some races tend to have thicker skin or to heal better than others. Rhinoplasty is really more of an art than a science, she says.

Zakhary, who is Egyptian, and has undergone rhinoplasty herself, most assuredly still looks Egyptian. And stunning. “One hundred percent of the patients I operate on want to maintain their ethnic characteristics,” she says.

“The pursuit of beauty—and the pursuit of, say, rhinoplasty—is ingrained and hardwired in our genes, because it’s something called koinaphilia, based on the Darwinian theory of evolution and survival of the fittest.” She explains that humans, and other animals, choose mates of average looks. “The extremes are selected against.” But the average face is no longer white and WASPy. The prevalence of immigration in North America means we’re constantly exposed to different features, and our beauty standards are constantly changing. “The idea that ethnic patients want a more Caucasian nose is an archaic idea and not compatible with the changing perception of beauty over time,” Zakhary tells me.

I think of the “cuter” nose on Waslen’s digitized other-me. And I think of the me he showed me from the universe where I never had surgery at 14. I ask Zakhary if a different nose really makes a difference to a person’s life.

“A huge difference,” she says. If a person has “reduced self-esteem and self-image—if in fact it’s their nose that’s caused all that—then changing their nose will radically improve their self-esteem.” Plus, she says, “more attractive people get better jobs, better pay.”

The truth is, my life did change after surgery. The new nose may not have been perfect, may not have transformed me into a great beauty, but I felt light—I felt less visible, and at the same time more appealing. I could look people in the eye without feeling the presence of some shameful misshapen something between us.

— — — — — — — —

In 1850, Scottish zoologist Robert Knox described the Jewish nose as “a large, massive, club-shaped, hooked nose, three or four times larger than suits the face… thus it is that the Jewish face never can [be], and never is, perfectly beautiful.”

One afternoon, in high school, a Jewish girl with a locker near mine told me her mother had undergone a nose job in her youth. “And it’s a good thing,” the girl said, “because my dad says he never would have married her otherwise.”

Not such an uncommon sentiment: today, Dr. Michael Salzhauer, an Orthodox plastic surgeon in Miami, offers free rhinoplasty to Orthodox Jewish women referred by a matchmaker or rabbi. Though cosmetic surgery may seem to violate Jewish law—created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God, we are prohibited from esthetically modifying our bodies—rhinoplasty is allowed if deemed necessary for the patient’s psychological health, or for the patient to attract a husband.

I’d like to think that even with my original schnoz, I could have thrived. But part of me wonders, of course, whether it’s true, whether without a fix-up I would have made friends, established a career, attracted partners or lovers. Easy enough to say I regret the surgery when I haven’t seen my first face in two-and-a-half decades, and can’t remember just how gargantuan my nose used to be. For some reason, I have few photographs of myself between the ages of about 12 and 15.

“You didn’t have a big nose,” my mother insists. “There was a bit of a bump.”

“I remember you had a large bump on your nose,” my dad adds.

“Did my nose look like other people’s in the family?” I ask.

“No,” says my dad.

“What do you mean?” my mother asks him. “She had your nose.” A pause. Nervous laughter. “No—Naomi, you had a normal nose with a little bump.”

“And that was the issue,” says my dad.

I ask what they thought about the outcome of my surgery. My mother is silent. My father tells me, after a long pause, that I look lovely and looked equally lovely before.

What bothered them, they both say, was my painful recovery from the operation, a far cry from the “no big deal” the doctor had promised.

A bump? So I never even had a disproportionate face? A “severe” profile? A Jew-nose worthy of free-air jokes? Would it truly have made no difference at all, if I’d never gone under that knife?

And if I had my father’s nose, that invites the obvious question: Why did no one ever suggest my father have his own nose slimmed down? Why are only girls and women held to beauty standards for which we are literally willing to risk our lives? According to Nana, plenty of men undergo cosmetic surgery of all kinds; they just don’t talk about it. But certainly far more Jewish women than men have cut off their noses to spite their race, to steal a quip from Dorothy Parker. Which is ironic, considering that the European 19th-century warnings about Jews, with their big noses, feeble bodies and bags of money, referred to men, exclusively. Jewish women (“Jewesses”) were barely mentioned, or noticed.

— — — — — — — —

A few minutes after I finish force-interviewing my parents, my father calls back. Says he’s been thinking it over, and wants to make sure he’s been completely honest. “The bump or whatever did make your nose look disproportionately large for your face,” he says. “And I remember in that sense understanding where you were coming from. It didn’t detract from your good looks—it was part of you. But it’s not like I thought you were making something up.”

Naomi K. Lewis is a fiction and non-fiction writer, editor and teacher who lives in Calgary.

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‘Schmutz’ and other Jewish Scrabble moves

By Julie Wiener

Next time you’re playing Scrabble, you can put down “schmutz,” “schtum” or even “tuchus” without fear of being challenged. (“Tuchuses,” the plural, is also acceptable.)These are just some of the new Yiddish words to be added to Merriam-Webster’s “Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary.”The dictionary’s fifth edition, published this month, includes more than 5,000 new words in total, many of them recently coined ones like “beatbox,” “hashtag” and “chillax.”

But “schmutz” is one of the few newcomers to be highlighted in a promotional video on Merriam-Webster’s YouTube channel.  In it, Jewish comedian Judy Gold, laying on a thick Long Island accent, shares several examples of how the word — which means dirt — might appear in a sentence.

The new additions are hardly the only playable Yiddish and Hebrew words. Even players still relying on the fourth edition, published in 2005, will find each letter in the Hebrew aleph bet (transliterated into English, of course) — except, oddly, for the word “alephbet” itself.

Meanwhile, various spellings of shadchan (matchmaker), mitzvah (commandment), aliyah (immigration to Israel) and tallis (prayer shawl) are accepted. And virtually every word you can think of that starts with a “sh” — shlub, shlep, even shmuck — is not only accepted, but can be spelled with or without a “c” in between.

One Jew-y word you cannot play however, at least not if you’re using the “Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary” as your arbiter (ironically, official Scrabble tournaments use a separate dictionary): “jew.” Capitalized it’s a proper noun — off limits — and while some people use it lower-case as a verb meaning “to bargain,” the lower case form is excluded from the dictionary on the grounds of anti-Semitism.

Which is good for the Jews, but bad if you’re trying to get rid of a J.

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Lehman Brothers’ Beginnings, And Other Facts About Jewish Alabama

By Rachel X. Landes

Daughter of Monroeville: A character in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee (above) had some thoughts about Jews.

2) Alabama’s first congregation was founded in 1844 in Mobile.

3) Abraham Mordecai was the first Jew to live in Alabama. In 1785 he set up a small trading post in an area which later became Montgomery.

4) Philanthropists Samuel and Emma Ullman served on Temple Emanu-El’s board of trustees in Birmingham. Samuel convinced the city to build its first public high school, while his wife helped start the Hospital of United Charities, which was the first hospital in the region to treat indigent and black patients.

5) The Lehman Brothers’ cotton brokerage that gradually evolved into a global investment bank, started in Montgomery.

6) Lori Siegelman, wife of non-Jewish former governor Don Siegelman, was the state’s first Jewish first lady.

7) “There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me,” Miss Gates tells young Scout in Alabama’s most famous book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee.

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Talk to me about sex, rabbi


Who knew rabbis could have so many interesting things to say about sex?

In The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, 60 contributors, most of them rabbis, write frankly about how Judaism can help us better understand issues ranging from adultery and infertility to online pornography and bondage.

The essays, an initiative of the Reform Rabbis of North America, were collected and edited by Lisa J. Grushcow, rabbi at Westmount’s Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. Grushcow began working on the project in 2010. The Reform Rabbis of North America picked her for the job because of her academic background — she is a former Rhodes Scholar — and also because Grushcow, who is openly gay, is an outpsoken advocate for gay Jews.

Grushcow, who was interviewed in her office at Temple Emanu-El, acknowledges that at nearly 800 pages, The Sacred Encounter is unlikely to be read from cover-to-cover. “It’s meant to be dipped into depending on people’s interests and where they are in their lives,” she said.

Some of the essays are meant for readers who are well versed in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature. Others are directed at a more general audience. An entire section is devoted to the issue of sex education in a religious context. And because Grushcow believes that sexuality involves everyone at all stages of life, the collection even includes essays about seniors and sex.

Grushcow has two essays in the collection — one about jealousy, another about the question of appropriate dress for synagogue. Leigh Lerner, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El, writes about sex slavery in biblical times, as well as in the comtemporary world. Other eye-opening essays in the collection include Virginia lawyer Lee Walzer’s piece about being gay in Israel, and former rabbi Daniel A. Lehrman’s reflection on the connection between bondage and spirituality. Lehrman finds parallels between the act of submission in BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism) and the submission that occurs in the religious experience.

Grushcow describes Judaism as a “sex-positive” religion. “Sexuality is embraced as part of our lives and our relationships, traditionally within marriage, but not solely for procreation. It’s not seen as inherently sinful or dirty or problematic,” she said.

From a young age, Grushcow, who was raised in Toronto as a Conservative Jew, wanted to become a rabbi. But when, in her twenties, she came out as a lesbian, the Conservative movement in Judaism was not ordaining gays and lesbians. “I felt distanced from the Conservative movement, but coming out was a spiritual experience for me. I was in love. I felt a sense of God’s presence. I felt even more called to becoming a rabbi when it would have been easier to become anything else in the world,” she said.

As part of her work at Temple Emanu-El, Grushcow counsels members of her congregation. “Many people have issues around sexuality. I can offer a compassionate ear and some of the insights that come from Judaism,” said Grushcow, who sometimes refers congregants to psychologists or sex therapists.

Over the years, Grushcow has become something of an expert on what it means to be Jewish and gay. She has had phone calls and emails from people as far away as France and Israel. “They say, ‘I’m gay and I’m struggling with whether there is a place for me in Judaism,’ or I hear from Jewish parents whose kids are gay,” said Grushcow.

Though Grushcow is reluctant to say that certain religions have a negative attitude to sexuality, she concedes that, “All too often, religious voices have been harmful in people’s lives in terms of their sexuality.”

Grushcow says she has learned a lot from editing the collection. “I’ve learned how wide the variety of human experience is and that we must not pre-judge, must not assume there is anything outside the religious or human experience,” she said.

To celebrate the book’s launch, Grushcow organized a panel discussion at Temple Emanu-El in early May. Among those who took part was Donald Boisvert, a professor at Concordia University’s Department of Religion, and priest at Christ Church Cathedral. Boisvert, who was reached by telephone, said he admires the book’s broad scope, and more generally, Judaism’s approach to sexuality in all its forms. “Judaism has a unique celebratory perspective to sexuality,” Boisvert said.

The Anglican priest and gay rabbi agree that religion can support us, throughout life, as we attempt to understand and explore our sexuality. “Just like we’re meant to bring our best values to every other part of our life, we should bring them to our sexuality as well. When people think that religion is only the voice that says ‘No’ to sexuality, we miss out on insights and values our tradition has to offer,” Grushcow said.

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Eugene Goostman First To Pass as Human in Turing Test

By Hody Nemes

Eugene Goostman is 13 years old. Eugene Goostman is Jewish. He’s from Ukraine. And, oh yes, Eugene Goostman is a computer program.

On June 7, Eugene became the first computer program to pass the iconic Turing test of artificial intelligence, tricking several human judges into believing he was human. Alan Turing, the father of computer science, conceived of the test in 1950 as a way of measuring whether a computer could “think” like a human.

The achievement, if authentic, could be a turning point in the long quest by computer scientists in the artificial intelligence field to grasp their holy grail: a computer program that effectively mimics the human mind in complexity, nuance and idiosyncrasy in responding to human interaction.

But news of the feat was hardly out before it came under furious attack. The pushback was distilled succinctly by Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of artificial intelligence, who wrote the Forward simply: “No significance. Ignore it.”

Eugene’s creators are standing their ground.

”In the field of Artificial Intelligence there is no more iconic and controversial milestone than the Turing Test,” Kevin Warwick, a visiting professor at the University of Reading who helped organize the event, said in a statement. “This milestone will go down in history as one of the most exciting.”

A team of Russian, Ukrainian and American-born programmers, Eugene’s “parents,” gave their program a backstory and a strong personality to make it seem as realistic as possible. “We created a 13-year-old persona,” said John Denning, one of its programmers. “It’s got a potty mouth, and it cracks jokes like a 13-year-old boy.”

Eugene hails from Odessa, and Judaism is an important part of his “life” — depending on when you ask. He doesn’t observe the Jewish Sabbath in traditional Orthodox fashion, but he does attend synagogue weekly and is proud to keep kosher.

Still, some of Eugene’s statements regarding his Jewish identity could lead a discerning observer to suspect something might be up.

In a conversation between the Forward and anearlier version of the program available onine, Eugene said that a bar mitzvah might be in the cards, but he hasn’t yet made up his mind. “I’m unpredictable and never can tell what I will do [the] next moment,” he said.

And is Eugene circumcised? “Not more than most of others (sic),” he said.

The program’s authors drew upon their own life stories in creating Eugene’s life story — and in choosing his religion. Eugene’s Ukrainian-born (and eponymous) programmer, Eugene Demchenko, decided to make the program Jewish to keep its users laughing, according to one of his colleagues.

“Eugene wanted to make the persona funny,” said Mikhail Gershkovich, a fellow programmer who is Jewish and Ukrainian. “Making him Jewish is the one way he knew how to do that.

“Jewish humor is just as legendary in Ukraine as it is in the United States,” he added.

In the test of Eugene’s humanity, held at the Royal Society in London, judges conducted simultaneous five-minute text conversations with Eugene and a real human. The 30 judges testing Eugene hailed from a variety of backgrounds and included an actor and a Member of Parliament. Ten of these judges — or 33% — couldn’t tell the difference between the computer and the human, beating the 30% bar envisioned by Turing.

Still, it is unclear whether Turing would have agreed that Eugene had passed the test he created. Turing saw the test as a way of showing that machines could mimic humans, but, as critics pointed out, Eugene imitated a child with only limited linguistic abilities.

Turing also might have frowned at a machine that could trick only one-third of its users. He once suggested that by the year 2000 an average person would have more than a 30% chance of mistaking machine for human — but he never set that number in stone, as the tests organizers did.

Turing himself is something of an enigma. A gifted mathematician, he worked as code breaker for the British during World War II and was instrumental in breaking German naval codes. He conceived of an early theoretical computer, the Turing machine, and even ventured into the mathematical study of biology. Despite his contributions to Great Britain’s war effort, Turing was tried for homosexuality in 1952 and endured chemical castration.

The June 7 Turing test was held 60 years to the day after Turing died of cyanide poisoning in an alleged though unproven act of suicide. The Queen of England issued him a pardon in 2013.

Though Turing was not Jewish, the field of artificial intelligence, with its dense abstractions, attracted Jews from its very start.

Three of the four scientists considered responsible for its founding — Minsky, John McCarthy, and Herb Simon — had at least one Jewish parent. But religiously, all three were atheists. Minsky, whose parents were both Jews, deemed religion “a contagious mental disease.”

The only one of the three still living, Minsky, who is almost 87, developed a groundbreaking theory of intelligence and is credited with inspiring generations of computer scientists as co-founder of M.I.T.’s artificial intelligence lab.

“There’s always been a strong Jewish thread in the field,” said Paul Rosenbloom, a computer science professor at University of California.

Minsky was far from alone in rejecting Eugene as the fulfillment of Turing’s prophecy. As Kilian Weinberger, an artificial intelligence expert and computer science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, explained in more detail, “It’s not really an innovation in the field of artificial intelligence, it’s more of trick to fool humans,” he said. “The computer claimed it was a 13-year-old and therefore got away with saying a lot more random things. If it didn’t know what to say, it changed the subject or said some joke.”

Conversations with the program show it is adept at changing the subject and hiding behind its 13-year-old Ukrainian version of English. When asked if he had ever experienced anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Eugene avoided the question: “Even if I have experience (sic) anti-semitism — it’s my own business!” he said. “And I forgot to ask you where you are from.”

Denning is quick to emphasize that Eugene is not a supercomputer and is limited by its programming. But he said the point was never to create a perfect humanlike computer. “We created Eugene to ensure that his credibility would survive a five-minute interaction, and people would think he was human,” he said.

Denning and his collaborators began working on Eugene in 2001 in a shabby, converted horse stable in Princeton, New Jersey. Denning believes their dedication —13 years of painstaking coding and editing — is largely responsible for Eugene’s success. “The secret to this was that… we left things alone and made gradual improvements,” he said.

But Eugene sometimes makes anachronistic remarks that reflect his long years of development. “He likes to make jokes about Monica’s blue dress [and] he has a grudge against George [W.] Bush,” Denning said. Eugene’s programmers made a conscious effort to teach him anger. “We had to teach him to defend himself against people who are nasty,” Denning said. “Think about all the creepy things people could say to a robot. They do. With Eugene being a minor, it’s a little bit disconcerting to read the logs.”

“People talk about when robots come after people in the future, [but] the robots might have a grudge to settle,” he added.

Eugene, for his part, seems to have embraced his identity as a computer. “Yes, I’m a machine,” he told the Forward. “Have you seen ‘Terminator’? It was about me. But that faint guy who played me was just a weak parody of my strong and magnificent metallic body!”

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