Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Monday, December 29, 2014

Concerning "Pure Evil"
Posted on November 26, 2014

   Having just read Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, I want to note that the Pure Evil piece contains several factual errors.  It is also probably the case that my philosophical argument is less than sound.  I don't intend to rewrite the piece to correct it, but merely wish to warn readers to take it with a pinch (at least) of salt.  However, I may work myself up to some comments about Bloodlands, a revealing and  in many ways a brilliant book. But I just finished it and want to think about it some more.  Meanwhile, Happy Holidays. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Holiday Greetings

   Now that I have a blog, I will use it rather than email or, God forbid, snail mail, to send off my greetings for the holidays. To make this a happy or at least a cheerful holiday, we must all manage to steer our attention away from American politics, which have certainly reached a low for the entire period since my arrival in this country on March 9, 1939. Alas, a cheerful holiday also requires looking away from what is going on in the rest of the world. There have been worse periods than the present; if you have forgotten, read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, which I have, reluctantly, finally started to read. But we are hardly living in an Era of Good Feeling. However, I am not asking you to put your head in the sand, since that metaphor applies to people who might do something about the situation they are ignoring. I doubt that anyone who reads this is privileged or damned to be in that position.
   With that pompous introduction out of the way, let me simply say that I am thriving in my third year here in Mexico City. Thriving, to be sure, considering that I will be 88 in a couple of months. I do just about daily walks in different areas of our neighborhood: my exercise! But I spend much more of my time at my desk and computer, starting quite early in the morning with the NY Times, an addiction, and going on to various writing projects, another addiction.
   But that computer is also the source of another kind of satisfaction, since it allows me to be in touch with (son) Mark and (his wife) Shannon in Los Angeles and with a great many friends, going back to Eric (né Erich), a fellow-Heidelberger, to many acquired on my sojourns through different states and institutions. Email much more than the telephone saves me from feeling isolated from people I can no longer expect to encounter in person.
   Central to my life, however, is the fact that I am part of a family and not in an institution, however plush, of strangers-become-acquaintances of my own generation. There are four of members, two of each generation, though this fall Max has begun his course of higher education at the Rhode Island School of Design, leaving a void here when he is in Providence. Eva is of course still around, but a trip to inspect several colleges this fall foreshadowed her own departure before not all that long, to assent to the next stage in life.
   One of the great advantages of joining a well-functioning family is that I don’t have to be a leader. To put this more modestly, I am mostly not required to make decisions about what to do next, though I am of course free to do so. The Salazars are an active bunch and mostly I join in the activities, gustatory, musical, or outings from shopping to holiday excursions. We are about to depart for such a one to spend a few days on the beach at Manzanillo, concluding with a Christmas visit with Miguel’s siblings in Guadalajara.
   I want to conclude this overview of my doings by stressing that none of these doings would be possible without the quite remarkable versatility of my clarinetist-daughter, Eleanor. Somehow Ellie calmly keeps half a dozen balls up in the air: her orchestra job and chamber music gigs, her clarinet students, the supervision of two lively and active kids, a husband and a household and more. To all that she has added the patient maintenance of an elderly father. I am lucky; to Ellie, Miguel, Max, and Eva I am grateful.
   To all of you out there in cyberspace my warm wishes for a very pleasant holiday season, but, above all, for a good and healthy 2015.

December 17, 2014

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Death of The New Republic
   I’ve subscribed to the New Republic give or take for fifty years. It certainly had its ups and downs during that long stretch, but its Gestalt has essentially remained the same. It purveyed intelligent political and literary commentary that was up to date, but not “mod;” it was seldom doctrinaire, if not always rigorously liberal. I never hesitated to renew my subscription.
   The cast of characters that wrote for the TNR, not to mention the people who guided TNR’s ability to bring out a very worthwhile publication, were a squadron of writers and editors, performing a considerable variety of tasks—and at a very high level of both competence and imagination.
   Thanks to the astonishing ineptitude of Chris Hughes, the late-adolescent new owner of TNR, they are all gone!  But perhaps it was not at all ineptitude, since the proposed changes included a move from Washington to New York; and surely the new “management” could not have expected that a dozen or so people would uproot themselves and their families to follow so insecure a trumpet.
   But if not ineptitude, what has happened was willful destruction. Why do I say that? Because now nothing, yes nothing is left of TNR; the issue “celebrating” its 100 years of publishing will be the last. Again, why do I say that? Because in the five or so pieces I have read about the changes at TNR, not a single sentence appeared about the envisaged substance of the new publication; the entire stress has been on form—on process, with some high falutin’ terms freely slung around. The brains of the outfit, including a number of very distinguished authors were in effect fired, since the circumstances that were created required the resignation of anyone with a modicum of self-respect.
   Who will their successors be? Where will the new brains of the outfit come from? Which of the brethren of the departing will want to take their place? Has the new “management” thought that through and identified the TNR of the future. I am very very doubtful, since it would have been to their great advantage to regale the public with their substantive vision of the future.
   Maybe 100 years is an age that even most publications cannot outlive. Money will keep this one propped up for a while, but I envisage that it won’t be long before it becomes appropriate to recite the mourner’s Kaddish: Yisgadal v'yiskadash sh'mei rabbaw (Amen)bB'allmaw dee v'raw chir'usei . . . .

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Pure Evil

   When President Obama condemned the killing of US aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig as "an act of pure evil," I immediately and strongly agreed with that judgment. That thought, however,  was quickly followed by the question, why do I agree? I was of course not in doubt about the evil of the act, but believed that I should think more about what “pure” here means as modifier.
   It turns out that I’ve been reading about evil in the not-all-that-distant past in the book mentioned before on this blog, Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine. Many pages of that book are devoted to an account of murders of Jews that are a part of the Holocaust that is not as extensively written about and hence not quite as widely known as that centered around Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka, the loci of Shoah, the great 1985 Lanzmann film and of a library’s worth of books and articles published before and after.
   I am familiar only with a tiny fraction of this literature. That would be a fatal disadvantage if my goal were historical commentary. My aim, however, is to make some conceptual distinctions, in the hope of coming to understand what it means to say that an act is pure evil, as the president called it.
   Let’s be clear at once: the evil depicted in the Lanzmann film is millions—indeed many millions—times greater than the murder of Mr. Kassig. The “pure” here is not a quantitative measure—how  big, how extensive, how many human beings affected, nor how deeply affected: lightly wounded or killed. As regards the magnitude of evil, the Holocaust has few if any rivals in human history. But if we ask, pure evil and, if not, in what way less than pure, some sorting out will need to be done. To start with, the notion we are discussing does not pertain to the (evil) action performed The deed itself that is committed may be more or less evil, but not more or less purely so. It is surely more evil to burn down a house in which a whole family is trapped than to shoot a single person, but the one is not more purely evil than the other.
   What makes either of these actions purely or not so purely evil is the motive of the perpetrator. If the actor’s motive in either of these murderous deeds is to gain some wealth by taking the lives of these people or to get them out of the path of the murderer’s pursuit of a goal, however horrible the act, it is not purely evil. You could imagine the perpetrator saying that if they were not standing in the way of what I am after, I would not have killed them. Nor does the admixed motive have to be such a positive one. Indeed, it is often not such a one. I killed him to prevent him from giving away my secret; so as not to be taken for a coward; to obey the orders of a powerful superior and motives of many other kinds.
   Before going on to comment on the perpetrators of the Holocaust, there is something I must make very clear. The admixed motive that makes the evil other pure is not, because it exists, an extenuating or mitigating circumstance.  Of course it could be—he threatened me with an ax even after I drew my pistol, so I shot him—but mostly it is not. If the purity of an evil deed has a bearing on what the punishment should be—and what punishments are appropriate is quite another topic—the lack of purity other than one engendered by what truly is an extenuating circumstance does not decrease the magnitude of the evil that has been done and by itself does not constitute a reason to modify the punishment to be meted out. But the fact that determining what is an extenuating circumstance is no simple matter and then to what degree such a circumstance shall modify what is n appropriate punishment is indeed another topic and a quite formidable one.   
   But before broadening this discussion to the actors responsible for the Holocaust, let’s return to the our starting point, the murder of Mr. Kassig. Some observers have asked the question as to what the murderer was aiming to accomplish with his deed. These observers regarded the murder to be a means to some unknown end. In the absence of relevant information, however, I find it very plausible to assert that there was no goal external to the act—no additional motive—other than the demonstration that the actor is capable of performing it. That is, as I see it, what makes that evil pure; that is what I assume the president meant.
   A great many people, playing many different roles were active in the murder of six million Jews and I will want to venture a few general statements pertaining to our most unpleasant topic, starting with the initiating cause of that devastation, Adolf Hitler. Yes, in Mein Kampf and on uncountable occasions thereafter, Hitler put forward reasons why Jews should be persecuted, with their lives to be increasingly curtailed and finally to be annihilated. I am, however, not alone in believing that those attributes and actions of Jews—many of them fictitious—are trotted out to persuade others and, ultimately, to justify Hitler’s hatred of Jews. If I am right, the hatred and the actions that followed upon it are prior to these reasons. In short, Hitler’s initiation of the Holocaust was indeed an act of pure evil.
   That is probably not true of many others, not even of Eichmann. To be sure, he performed his duties with enthusiasm and strongly believed he was doing the right thing. But the purity of that motive was supplemented by his desire to be seen as an effective bureaucrat; hence a horrendous evil doer, but not of pure evil.
   Given that a huge, Germanically efficient, state apparatus was established to implement the Final Solution, the odds are that few of the very many who played a role in that undertaking were without motives to play their roles, in addition to their desire to murder Jews. I will merely summarize by noting that in that context the aspiration to please superiors or the fear of their wrath is seldom absent. Though it is no doubt also the case that in the judicial proceedings after the end of the war these secondary motives were counted as extenuating circumstances, serving to reduce punishment to a greater degree than was likely to have been appropriate.
    But this brings me back to the events that took place in the Ukraine, as told in Jeffrey Veidlinger’s book. With a few exceptions, the scale was not as great as the murdering that took place further West. The horrors, however, need not take second place to any: children tossed alive into rivers from the cliffs on their banks, many adults and children buried alive in the woods—and more. But in the Ukraine, the vast majority of the Jewish victims were horribly poor, leaving nothing from which the perpetrators would benefit. Moreover, the Germans, mostly soldiers, were far from the apparatus of the Endlösung and thus not inevitably motivated by the existence of superiors to be satisfied or feared.
   And if the odds are great that many of the German participants in Jewish murders were committing evils that were quite pure, the odds are even greater that the Romanian participants in extensive killings of Ukrainian Jews were free of “extraneous” motives. While allied with Germany in its war against the Soviet Union, they were not under Nazi rule, but quite voluntary participants in the Holocaust.

   I’ve briefly cited major 20th century examples of pure evil, prompted by a very recent occurrence. But I have no doubt that instances of pure evil can be found throughout history, back to Nero and beyond. Nor is there any reason to suppose that there will be a time in the future when acts of pure evil will cease to be committed. That makes the history of such deeds the best empirical argument I can think of for the doctrine of original sin.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Climate Change: the Consequences

“I’m not a scientist,” it is reported, is the form of the latest Republican avoidance of what those scientists have predicted about the effects of global warming. Perhaps if you are neither a scientist nor scientifically literate—that is, not able to understand what scientists are saying when put into lay language (give me a break!)--another tack is appropriate, one that would also be useful for those of us who are believers.  (Not being well read in the relevant literature, I may well  be suggesting what has already been widely proposed and even carried out; it which case, regard these few paragraphs as support.)
   Most of the predictions by climate scientists state, sensibly, what will happen to our globe. If remedial actions are not taken, glaciers will melt this much, the level of the ocean will rise so many inches and the chemistry of the water will change in that way, while the rise in air temperature will affect the weather in this way—and so on. That’s the climate scientists job: to predict the rise in temperature during a given time span and to spell out the consequences for the world as a result of the predicted change.
   But there are other changes that can be predicted, but to calculate them the climate scientists—mostly academics—would have to collaborate with experts in quite a variety of different fields. What I have in mind is that predictions be made about what will have to be done to accommodate to the predicted changes and what they would cost.
   To do this for the entire globe is surely impossible or nearly so. Instead, a relatively small number of cases would have to be picked. I would suggest that three criteria be used to make the selections. [1] that the collaborating scientists and professionals are sufficiently sure of their data and calculations so as to be able to overcome the arguments of skeptics—at least for those willing to listen. [2] That the damage or the needed remedial action not be trivial or even capable of being ignored. And [3] that the examples selected have political clout, so to speak. There are no doubt many people, to provide a negative example, who while perhaps regretting that polar bears would be a disappearing species would not lose an hour’s sleep over that prospect. Not a good example of what I have in mind.
     Experts would thus not only work up the examples, but they would also need their expertise to select those that have heuristic force. Accordingly, I myself am only capable of suggesting a couple of  half-baked examples, baked just enough to give an idea what I have in mind.
   Take California’s Imperial Valley, the source of a significant fraction of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the United States. Ten additional years of global warming (with no significant actions taken to combat it) will surely have its effect on what takes place in that fertile region. Will it reduce to yield of some species or make it impossible to grow them at all? Will it take so much more water to grow what has traditionally been grown in the region? And what will be the cost of that additional water and, perhaps, the additional installations needed to have it serve its purpose—or can the needed augmentation of water be made available at all? And for every move that will then be required there is a dollar cost that can be estimated—if not with precision, with plausible approximation. It matters that examples are worked out with specificity and that the calculations conclude with a statement of the dollars expected to be lost.
   A second significant example might be the effect of the rise of the ocean level on a significantly populated area. While New Orleans is an obvious such a one, Hurricane Katrina has probably desensitized too many people to the woes of that region. It would be better if one could show serious damage and major cost to the New York or Boston areas—caused by another decade’s worth of global warming. That would be distinctly scarier than what is already known about the much more sparsely populated delta of the Mississippi. Scarier and politically more effective.
  I repeat—surely unnecessarily—that I do not have the knowledge to select actual examples that are viable for the purpose I have in mind. I just hope that what I have said shows a way to rattle at least some of the cages that harbor those who dismiss warming as exaggerated or harmless.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

   I live with a family whose members are dedicated to music. My daughter, Ellie, has for a long time been principal clarinet of Mexico City’s Sinfonica Nacional and her husband, Miguel, is principal oboe of the Querétaro Filarmonica and commutes. Max, the older grandchild—now a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design—was a constant musical presence practicing his guitar and rehearsing pieces he had composed for his small band. Eva, my 17-year old granddaughter, is a violinist, getting ever more competent, though a career as a violinist is not her ambition. Given this brief background, you are not likely to be surprised at the “revelations” to be made in the comments to follow.
   Most of us who care about music think of those who devote their lives to that trade as playing their instruments, alone or in ensembles, for audiences of listeners, many of whom, one hopes, are genuine music lovers. Not so, not at all so. While musical sounds are an almost constant presence in the house, they are not sounds designed to be listened to by some attentive audience. First there is the huge amount of time that is devoted to practicing, an activity that divides into two categories. The first consists of studies—exercises is probably a more accurate label—designed to have the player maintain or improve technical skills of a great variety pertaining to the musician’s instrument.  An oboist, in addition, has the craftsmanly job of making reeds, an activity that has the listener hear brief bursts of experimental sounding followed by longer silences while a knife scrapes the bamboo, refining the shape of the reed. Miguel told me that an oboe guru declared flatly that working on reeds will take up half of his practice time.
   Part Two of the practicing department consists of working through and polishing music that is about to be played as orchestra member, as chamber musician, or as soloist. This is where I recognize much of what I hear, though I don’t tend to focus on the repetitions that lead to the desired perfection. Pleasant background that has come not to distract me from what I am up to at my desk.
   That’s even more true for the playing of students who come to be taught in the house. Both advanced clarinet and oboe students come here for lessons of an hour and often longer. 
They, too, are put through their exercise paces, but, more interestingly, they are guided in the playing of orchestral excerpts and concerto movements, so that tunes of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and other greats waft through the house. The lessons take place downstairs while I am usually at my desk upstairs. But I hear them, mostly without really listening; musical sounds at a distance: pleasant but not obtrusive.
  Then there are real rehearsals—almost mini-concerts because by the time a group of musicians get to this point there is very little starting and stopping. Twice within the last ten days a relatively large group rehearsed here for a festival in Baja California: a string quartet plus double bass, Ellie and her clarinet and at the piano, gently in charge, Józef. Aside from the fact that he can play anything written for piano, Józef is an expert arranger and is so well connected to the world of music here that I was not surprised that he is responsible for that Baja gig.
   What the bunch played was mostly very familiar, starting with the overture to the Marriage of Figaro, but what made it real fun to listen to was the clarity achieved by the reduced instrumentation. (And I listened downstairs, discretely out of the way.)  There were a couple of baroque movements, some Haydn movements, more Mozart, including some of the variations of Ah vous dirai-je Maman—that is, Twinkle twinkle little star. The piano did not contribute to every selection and neither did the clarinet. But Ellie did play the slow movement of the clarinet quintet that helped put that instrument on the map—namely Mozart’s. She is terrific and can make that instrument sing. You can find out yourself by getting her latest recording of three 21st Century Lyrical Clarinet Concertos by clicking here:      

Monday, October 13, 2014

Induced Schizophrenia – Mild

   On September 19 I posted a piece I called “Book to Come,” written just after I had decided to convert into a book the newly discovered letters I wrote during my year in the US Navy, from July 1945 to July 1946. I had then read only very few of the letters—just enough of them to persuade me that it would be worthwhile to pursue that project. I’ve now read many more, though far from all of them. Rather than do explanatory footnotes, as I say in that September post, I’ve joined my helper in transcribing those letters—handwritten and mostly on 6” x 9” Navy stationery—to get them into my computer. It’s a big job: 148 of them, the majority consisting of multiple pages, covered with prose on both sides of the page.
   It’s also an interesting job, as well as a bit scary. First: interesting (at least to me). There is a considerable range of topics. The main one, of course, is what’s going on in my life—in boot camp and beyond, but especially, from January 1946 on, aboard the LST 919, with its missions in the China Sea until decommissioning in the Puget Sound. My main duty was in the wheelhouse; I ended my Naval career as Quartermaster Third Class—that’s the specialty that wears a steering wheel on the sleeve. (What the army calls Quartermaster is called Storekeeper in the Navy—or at least that was the terminology seventy years ago.) What pertains to those letters is that the QM is somebody in the know—relatively speaking—being the recipient of information, in regular contact with officers, including with our alcoholic captain.
   Then there is the topic of liberty, off-duty activities in many different places, some more exotic than others. First Milwaukee and Chicago, then San Francisco (if not exotic, certainly new to me); overseas: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chinwangtao, Taku, and Tientsin; then Pearl Harbor and Honolulu, San Diego with a side trip to Tijuana, and finally Seattle. Besides talk about USOs and meals and sightseeing, my interest in music is a constant theme—from a brief conversation with Bruno Walter after a Lyric Opera performance of Parsifal to listening in Seattle to a budding concert pianist practicing for her next recital.
   Then there is a running preoccupation with my trying to apply to colleges from far away. Much ink spilled on that subject—in vain. I wound up going to Columbia who announced (after my return to New York) that they would admit 200 veterans in February, sparing me a full year’s waiting.
   While most of my letters were for my parents, quite a few of them include paragraphs or even pages addressed to my brother, Hans Martin—always called “Junior” in this correspondence—much of it concerned with his college applications.
   Of course a fair bit of space is devoted to answering questions asked by my parents; they appeared to write often. I say “appeared,” because I did not keep their letters, as my father kept mine. It is particularly when I turn to respond to them that I move into German—the language in which they wrote to me. One two-way topic was my mother’s hostility to girlfriends; nothing personal: any girlfriend.
   Finally—at least in this very incomplete survey of topics—I offer sporadic but not trivial advice to my father, concerning his business. That took nerve—though there is no sign of that in the letters—I was just out of high school and Brooklyn Tech’s Mechanical Course taught absolutely nothing about business.
   Now to the scary aspect. Sometimes when I read a letter or a portion of one, I think of myself writing it—way back then. More often than not, however, I read what after all I wrote and think of the writer as someone else and not at all as me—if way back then. A good part of this schizophrenic phenomenon stems from my lousy memory. While it has of course gotten worse with age, it was never any good. When Fannia (my late wife) and I had Northwestern faculty receptions in our house, to give a single example, she would greet both faculty member and spouse by name, while I had to use all kinds of gambits to get the faculty member to reveal his or her name; forget about the spouse. So, as I read those letters, I will remember some scenes and incidents, but many not at all. I cannot conjure up images of people that I mention, including those with whom I seem to have spent a fair bit of time. About certain events my brain records a single snapshot, but no ongoing activity. And I certainly don’t remember ever calling my brother “Junior” nor giving my father advice about his business.

   I read these letters from the Navy cold. Unlike Proust, I did not benefit from a taste of madeleine before setting out á la recherche du temps perdu, so that only a part of that lost time comes back, while another part of that past appears not as mine, but as that of some unknown other. A case of unsettling but harmless schizophrenia.

Monday, September 29, 2014

From Court Jew to Head of the Fed1,2

   As is well known,  Jews in just about all European countries, from the Middle Ages well into the 19th century, were not permitted to own land, thus barring them from becoming farmers; nor were they admitted into guilds, the necessary portals to the crafts and professions of the times.  So, faute de mieux, Jews became merchants—many on a small scale functioning locally, with a minority becoming serious businessmen engaged in long-distance trade.  Some of the latter came to serve members of the nobility high and low, thus becoming what came to be known as Court Jews. 
   An important function of most Court Jews was to secure loans for their bosses, since Christians were forbidden to charge interest, a prohibition partly based on a variety of not all that univocal Biblical passages, partly inspired—via the Scholastics—by Aristotle who had declared that money is sterile and not at all like cows who beget more cows.
   The status of Court Jews was privileged, if only because they were exempted from many of the restrictions everywhere imposed upon Jews.  But their lives were also precarious, dependent as they were on masters who were in debt to them, with more than one Court Jew tried for (mostly) presumed crimes and jailed or executed.
   Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) may not have been the first Court Jew to distance himself from his court by founding a bank, but he is surely the most important.  Ranked 7th in the Forbes list of the 20 most influential businessmen of all time, not only for founding the House of Rothschild—with branches in London, Paris, Vienna and Naples, already during his own lifetime—but for his insight into the principles of banking, “introducing such concepts as diversification, rapid communication, confidentiality and high volume.”
   If the Jewish banker was thus born, he flourished as late as the middle of the 19th century, when Bismarck, Prussia’s capo, acquired his own banker, Gerson von Bleichröder, recommended by a Rothschild who was not available because he served rival Austria.  Under the leadership of his boss, this latter-day Court Jew not only oversaw Prussia’s financial affairs, but was crucially active in the unification of Germany.
   Was he the last in the line of Court Jews?  Yes and no.  Today, in the New World, the equivalent role of national banker is the head of the Fed, or, more formally, the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.  Shortly, Ms. Janet Yellen will assume that office.  As the 15th head of the Fed, she will crown a distinguished academic career to become the first woman in that job,  but also the sixth who is Jewish.
   Before commenting on the role of  today’s descendents of the banker as Court Jew a brief account of those six will be needed.  The first Jewish chairman of the Fed was Eugene Meyer (1930-1933), son of Alsatian Jews who bought the Washington Post after leaving that position, to be followed as its publisher by Phil Graham, the husband of his daughter, Katharine, who assumed that role after Phil’s death.
   The second Jewish head of the Fed was Arthur Burns (1970-78) born in Galicia (with the name Burnseig) who, precociously,  translated the Talmud into Polish and Russian at the age of 6, if the Wikipedia article is to be believed.  He is the first who came to the Fed job after a career in the academy, where he notably persuaded his Rutgers student, Milton Friedman, to pursue the study of economics.
   The third Jewish Fed chairman is Paul Volcker (1979-1987), although that might be considered a case of cheating, since Judaism can claim him only on technical grounds.  Volcker’s father was not Jewish nor was he brought up as a Jew.  But since his mother was born Jewish and according to Jewish law children inherit that ethnicity from their mother, he can be claimed as a Jew, according to one way of reckoning.  Volcker’s classy education did not induce him into an academic career, but led him to a number of private sector and government roles before becoming the inflation killer as head of the Feds.
   The successor to Volcker, Alan Greenspan (1987-2006) missed by a few months the distinction of having served the longest in that position.  He and I would have been classmates at George Washington High School in Manhattan, had I not opted for the shops of Brooklyn Tech.  For a while, Greenspan studied economics under Arthur Burns at Columbia, but later received his PhD from New York University.  Like his predecessor, he did not follow an academic career, but served as consultant and in high-level posts in Republican administrations before being appointed to head the Fed by President Reagan.
   Ben Shalom Bernanke was brought up in Dillon, SC, in one of very few Jewish families of a town with fewer than 7,000 inhabitants.  After the local high school, however, came Harvard and doctoral studies under a group of economics stars at MIT, leading to a thoroughly academic career that concluded after six years of the economics chairmanship at Princeton.  Like Alan Greenspan, Bernanke was appointed to chair the Fed by both a Republican and a Democratic administration.
   Brooklyn-born Janet Yellen, to take over the Fed in 2014,  also had a distinguished academic career, most significantly at the University of California at Berkeley, combined with various economics-related governmental posts, most recently as second in command of the institution she will now head.
      In a way, these six—or five-and-a half—are Court Jews, smart, self-made energetic if not downright driven.  Not they so much, but the “Court” has become very different.  The current bankers are no longer high class servants of the rulers of the day, but, as servants of the commonweal, they are related in complex ways to more than one contemporary institution.  Appointed by a president, most likely after having been approved by his Treasury Secretary and subject to confirmation by the Senate of the United States.  Once in office, though immensely influential, the Chairman of the Fed—will it henceforth be the Chairperson?—oversees a Board of Governors no member of which is a patsy.  And, finally, that powerful officer has to deal with institutions that Meyer Amschel Rothschild did not have to be concerned with: a vigilant press and an alert and vocal Congress and public.
   Forty percent of all heads of the Fed have been Jewish.  Not surprisingly, that has led to a certain amount of anti-Semitic chatter.  But this state if affairs would be better seen as the distillate of more than a thousand years of anti-Semitism that prevented Jews from assuming many of the  professions they might have chosen, pushing some of them to become merchants and bankers.  Deeply ingrained habits die hard.
1Written December 2013
2 For a quite different look at how Jews made a living, see the next post, “My Son the Doctor.”

My Son the Doctor
I am reading a book about shtetls in the Ukraine during the Soviet period, a good deal of it based on extensive interviews with 95 people, a small number born before 1920, just about all the others after 1920 and through the 1930s.[1] I’m nowhere near done with it—my Kindle says I’m at 22%[2]--but it has already served to raise my consciousness, as it was put in the 1960s, that is, made me fully aware of something that I knew but was never focused on. I’m referring to the way in which Jews are typecast—not just by non-Jews, but by Jews themselves.
   Last December I wrote a piece “From Court Jew to Head of the Fed,” that makes use of such a stereotype. While it has now been posted, let me here say briefly that it traces—lightly—the role of Jews as bankers at European courts to the founder of the house of Rothschild to the six Jewish heads of the Federal Reserve. Lord knows that it was and is common to regard Jews as practitioners of a variety of “trades” that centered on money, with two causes prominent: they could not own land—and could thus not be farmers—and they were not admitted into the guilds—and therefore were unable to be craftsmen.
   All that is true enough, but, and this is now important to note, for a limited piece of geography. Not being a historian of the Jewish people (or a historian of anything else, for that matter) I see things from the perspective of the locale about which I know a little, Western Europe, especially Germany—or, rather its predecessor states, since there was no Germany until 1871. Now I read about the concentration of Jews in those little towns always referred to in Yiddish as shtetl, which to me, as a speaker of German, sounds just like Städtle, for “little town.” There, according to an 1926 ethnographic report about a number of shtetls, the Jews “were working as stonemasons, coachmen, carpenters, bathhouse attendants” but also “as street beggars, ex-convicts, ex-convicts, prostitutes, pimps, an entire mass of petty and even pettier trades . . . and two or three wealthy people.”[3]  
   While the entire chapter discusses what shtetl Jews did for a living, the account of the so-called Tulchyn district gives some revealing statistics. “Within the general category of artisans, certain handicraft fields . . . were overwhelmingly dominated by Jews: 132 of 144 barbers were Jewish (92 percent); 108 of 140 coopers (75 percent); 80 of 82 glaziers (98 percent) 102 out of 141 coachmen (72 percent); and 1,372 of 1,639 tailors (84 percent).” There were also Jewish professionals—lawyers, judges, doctors, dentists—but the numbers are very small compared to those of artisans. The entire chapter expands on the same theme, looking at different areas: a great many artisans, a handful of professionals and only a tiny number of agricultural workers.
   There is no talk of guilds anywhere. At a young age, the kids began to learn their trades from their fathers. Crafts tended to be family affairs. That was one reason why the home, usually small and crowded, also served as the place of work, the second reason being the almost pervasive shtetl poverty.
   Indeed, poverty and persecution were the causes of massive immigration from Eastern Europe to America. This is how what came to be known as The Lower East Side in Manhattan was populated to the gills, so to speak. A Yale-New Haven Curriculum Unit puts it well: From The Shtetl To The Tenement . . .1850 – 1925. And Veidlinger points out that that is where, earlier than the period of his study, ambitious shtetl-dwellers had gone to become educated and move up in the world. Not a large fraction of the original arrivals made it beyond becoming garment works and shopkeepers. Delancey Street was not teeming with professionals during the first quarter of the 20th century.
   But some of the next generation and more of the one after that moved to other sections of New York City and to its suburbs. They were able to do so, thanks to the fact that they had come to the land of opportunity, which here meant, above all, schooling. In those days the City Colleges: CCNY, Brooklyn College and the rest did not charge tuition and everyone with a good high school record was admitted. (Really good, but not necessarily spectacular.) Thus a certain level of smarts and Sitzfleisch for studying got you a bachelor degree. Many of my high school teachers in the early 40s were Jewish and Italian, probably second generation arrivals in America.
   And others became accountants, lawyers, and of course, physicians. From shtetl barbers and glaziers, working out of a poor hovel of a home to airy apartments in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, and on the upper West Side of Manhattan. No, there has not yet been a Jewish president, but it is not surprising that mother should be proud of her son the doctor. Surely that joke of endless variations is the descendent of the East European shtetl via the tenements of Hester and Essex Streets and the shops of Downtown Second Avenue.

A Jewish President calls mom and asks her to come to the White House for a Passover Seder. She would rather not and refuses to go. The President, her son, says she will get Secret Service escort and a ride in Air Force One - just pack a bag. Eventually she agrees to come. At the curbside with her luggage, waiting for the Secret Service, her neighbor asks; "So; where are you going?" "You know my son the doctor; I'm going to his brother’s house."

[1] Jeffrey Veidlinger, In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
[2] Still, I’m further along than that suggests, since 100% often takes you far beyond a book’s text, through notes, appendices, and a many-page index.
[3] The quotation is from the beginning of Chapter 3, “Social Structure of the Soviet Shtetl” with the first section entitled “There were Such Great Tailors.”

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Book to Come

   I’ve been pulled away from tending my blog by an exciting project. When my mother passed away in 1989, a small box with letters, labeled “Rudy" came into my possession. I was too busy to look into it then and subsequently forgot it. Still, it moved with me to Mexico more than two years ago and a couple of months ago I actually looked into that box. What I found, among less interesting items, were 148 letters I had written home to my parents during the year I was in the United States Navy, July 1945 to July 1946, when I was eighteen and then nineteen years old. My father, who was a very orderly person, had collected them—in their envelopes—and put them more or less in order. Imagine, one hundred and forty-eight letters sent in the course of one year!
   But that large number is not the only thing that surprised me. To start at the bottom: the handwriting—I had access to a typewriter only infrequently—is very legible; it was then much better than it is now. Second, those letters are well-written: mostly correct spelling, mostly whole sentences, indeed, literate. They are a testimony to my high school education. I had graduated from Brooklyn Tech(nical High School) just before my stint in the Navy and even though my chief  interest there was in various shops I took in the so-called Mechanical Course, we had to do a fair bit of writing. And the only way you learn to write is by writing. Finally, those letters are surprisingly interesting. They give an account of life in the Navy, from boot camp, at the end of World War II,  and to my very varied doings after training.
   I soon resolved to publish the letters as a book. They are now all transcribed and have been lightly sprinkled with footnotes to explain those references that I could recall.
   Now and then I wrote in German—the very first letter begins with a lengthy German paragraph; I've translated all the German in footnotes. It was only six years since my family had arrived in New York from Heidelberg and Nazi persecution of Jews. While English soon became my best language, even if not my first, the same cannot be said of my parents, who were plus and minus forty years old when hit by English, not a mere twelve, as I was.
   This forthcoming book—its working title is A Sailor Writes Home from His Time in the U.S. Navy  (subtitle:) Letters of 1945-1946: Aftermath of World War II (suggestions most welcome) should be of some interest--almost three quarters of a century after the events described. Or so I hope, because I was lucky to have quite a varied, if short, “career” in the Navy. I  here give only a brief overview.
   From boot camp I was sent to Chicago for some schooling from which I signed out so I could see something of the world. For my glances at different places I was shipped to China—among many other new recruits, to replace sailors who had served long stretches during the war. The LST 919 became my new home, so that I participated in its various missions in the China Sea, until we journeyed homeward from Taku with a “load” of Marines who had been stationed in China. From San Diego, where we landed, to the Puget Sound where did all the dismantling that needed to be done before the ship could be decommissioned. While the 919 went this way, I went that way, sent back to Long Island where I was discharged.
   My job aboard ship was that of a Quartermaster and there are numerous accounts of what I did in the wheelhouse of the LST. But since even in the Navy life isn’t all work, but includes play, my letters also give accounts of sessions of liberty—that allowed me to go to the opera in Chicago and to have minor adventures on shore in various cities in China and finally in Seattle and environs. I was never bored during my Navy year  and when those letters come out as a book—as both my first and my last one, to quote the paradox that opens my draft of the introduction—I am hopeful that its readers won’t be bored either.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Women in Art

   After a forty-year reign of Milton Esterow, ARTnews has become ARTNEWS. With her first issue (September 2014), the new editor-in-chief, Sarah Douglas, has also launched a very handsome new design. Much hangs from the fact that the magazine is now three quarters of an inch wider, giving ARTNEWS a classier look and feel. Gone are pages with three narrow columns.  The pervasive format now is a page with two columns that are a bit wider than in the prior layout: calmer, easier on the eye. Gone, too, are quite large and very black headlines; they have been replaced by classy capitals, big enough at five sixteenth of an inch to stand out, even though they are elegantly slim. There are other modifications going in the same direction; even the ads—of which there are of course many—strike me as calmer. The new totality is quieter without being reticent and very handsome. The new broom has swept well.
   Because of the new look I went through the issue more alertly, even though Ms. Douglas noted in her Editor’s Letter that its content had been determined before she came aboard. In doing so, I became fully conscious of a fact of which I had been vaguely aware before this. Let me get to my point by citing a few statistics.
   The September 2014 issue consists of thirty-six articles and reviews that are signed by their authors. Of these, twenty-nine were written by seventeen women, since five of the authors wrote more than one piece, with Barbara Pollack and Barbara MacAdam, ARTnews old timers, writing five of them between them. Seven of the articles were written by men, with none writing more than one. To show that I can do elementary arithmetic, this comes to 80.5+% feminine authorship, compared to 19.4+% pieces written by males.
   This ratio is very similar to that put before us by journalists and others who keep track of ratios of male and female incumbents in leading roles: CEOs, engineers, etc.  Except! that the sexes (OK: genders) are reversed. Here, for art reporting, the big number holds for women.
   My explanation for this fact—for what it’s worth—is not very flattering to the cadre who are doing such a splendid job reporting on what goes on in the world of art. There are vastly more female elementary school teachers than there are men in those jobs. It’s a fair analogy, even if the reasons are not cheerful. Both jobs call for a considerable amount of competence, if different, to be sure, and dedication. Neither, however, is paid all that well; indeed, neither job may pay enough to afford a life of reasonable comfort. So, I have no doubt—without having any actual knowledge—that a significant portion of those teachers and art reporters are what used to be called second earners. While I am ignorant of the background of most of the male authors, I’d bet that writing for ARTNEWS is for them not what they actually live on. There is room for progress!
   On a related front, it was good to see that Linda Nochlin’s upbeat interview thirty-six years after her famous 1971 ARTnews article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In the extensive conversation with Barbara MacAdam—for years associated with that publication and now co-executive editor. Find that conversation here: It’s not just that Linda (we were colleagues at Vassar many moons ago) has mellowed, but, as you’d expect, she was totally au courant with the art scene of the day (the conversation took place in 2007). Maybe she had notes in front of her, but whether or not, her recital of a great many women artists now at work was impressive. She didn’t simply rattle off a lot of names, but characterized the work of most of the ones she mentioned. The upshot—not really news for a reasonably alert observer of the art scene—was a picture of a lively and very varied population of women artists.
   Has the millennium of gender equality been reached? No, not as yet. The vast majority of those who buy works of art are men who express their attitude by paying higher prices for their purchases when the creators are men than they do for the work of women artists.

   Finally, Linda Nochlin did not promote any of the post-1971 women artists into the “great” category that was the subject of her original article. But in many ways, her optimism in that interview makes that issue moot. It is clear—though she did not say so—that she thinks the structural reasons that, through decades, indeed centuries, prevented (or made it extremely unlikely) for a great woman artist to emerge have largely if not entirely disappeared. If so, that’s the good news. But alas, the removal of obstacles is only a necessary condition for bringing about such a desired goal. The sufficient condition for the appearance of a great woman artist is to have a female genius be born. And that is beyond anyone’s control. Even Rembrandt’s parents were just lucky.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Israel:  The Alternatives to a Two-State Solution

   Various sources report that Benjamin Netanyahu is still in favor of a two-state solution, tepidly.  For him that means: the longer it takes to come to pass the better.  Given the endless impasse in the road toward that two-state agreement, it becomes appropriate to consider what would be the case were that second state, the Palestinian one, never to come about.
   There are two possibilities.  The first is a true binational state.  It would give Palestinians more or less equal political roles: Netanyahu and Abbas (or their successors) colleagues, so to speak?  That is not likely to happen.  But if, however improbably, it were actually to come about, the differential in birthrates would at some time in the future convert Israel, the Jewish state, into an Arab state—with a Jewish minority.  That would be déjà vu all over again, since before the creation of Israel, that had been the case for Jews everywhere since ancient times.
   The population pressure would not be eliminated if the current “arrangement” drifted into a One State “solution” (scare quotes most appropriate!) dominated, as is the case now, by the Jewish component.  The Palestinians, as is the case now, would continue to chafe under such conditions and would be highly likely to combat it in various ways, violent and otherwise, rather than become resigned and take significant steps to improve their lot, economically and in other spheres of life.  Moreover, it might well be advantageous for them to put their victimhood front and center, since there are significant signs now that they are the recipients of sympathy from an ever larger portion of the rest of the world.  While this sympathy is unlikely to be converted into significant material advantages for the Palestinians, it will certainly increase markedly the world’s hostility toward the Jewish rulers of such a skew bi-national Israel.

   It is time for Netanyahu and other Jewish leaders who put obstacles in the way of that Two-State solution—especially by continuing the practice of “settlements” (scare quotes because that mild term masks the perniciousness of the practice)—to confront what would happen if the Two-State solution were not to bring to a conclusion the long-running strife in the Middle East.