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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
of you out there in cyberspace my warm wishes for a very pleasant holiday
season, but, above all, for a good and healthy 2015.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . . .
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
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’sIn 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
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—howbig, 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
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
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
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.
“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
wellbe suggesting what has
already been widely proposed and even carried out; it which case, regard these
few paragraphs as support.)
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.
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.
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.  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.  That the damage or the needed remedial action not be trivial or
even capable of being ignored. And  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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
oftoday’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
The second Jewish head of the Fed
was Arthur Burns (1970-78) born in Galicia (with the name Burnseig) who,
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
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 theprofessions 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.”
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.
I’m nowhere near done with it—my Kindle says I’m at 22%--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
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.”
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
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
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
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
 Jeffrey Veidlinger, In
the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
 Still, I’m further along than that suggests, since 100%
often takes you far beyond a book’s text, through notes, appendices, and a
 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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
Ihere give only a brief overview.
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
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 yearand 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.
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
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
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.
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!
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: http://www.artnews.com/2007/02/01/where-the-great-women-artists-are-now/.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.