by Richard Cameron
Imagine A Day Without Anti-Semites – It Isn’t Hard To Do
I happened to be reading an article on my news feed that reminded me of a topic I have brought up at lunch table discussions on numerous occasions. It is the theme of “a day without ____________________” and you fill in the blank of the particular racial, ethnic or social segment.
The concept is that if the specified social group were to vanish without a trace, how would it impact your perceptions, and more importantly, the functioning of society, especially, if all that they have contributed, disappeared as well.
It’s most decidedly not a mental exercise about “boy if we could only get rid of the (particular race or ethnicity), things would be so much better and here’s how.” That’s not the utility of it, ordinarily anyway. Having said that, it would be tempting to flip it and discuss, for example, “a day without White Nationalists and anti-Semites.” And by implication, that is what we’ll be doing here.
So, sometimes we would conjecture about certain scenarios like, “A day without Hispanics” – or if you prefer, Latinos writ large. We would talk not only about the loss of Mexican food, Cuban cuisine and similar culinary staples (Tacos, Enchiladas, Tamales, Roasted Chicken Cubano, Palomilla Steak, Carne Con Papas, Cuban Sandwiches) – but also of all the things that function only because multi-generational Americans of various ethnicities are there everyday taking care of business. Most of all, the absence of so many wonderful people, would leave an unfillable void.
Since what I mostly write consists of thought grenades, I thought I would let you put your imagination and experiences to work to flesh out how this exercise relates to not only Hispanics, but Asian-Americans (Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Japanese and so many more), along with previous generations of immigrants like Italians, the Irish, Poles and African-Americans.
I didn’t want to run the risk of appearing to reinforce stereotypes by focusing on things that would seem so obvious as to possess a flavor of bigoted tropes. But you get the drill as far as what the hypothetical construct of the exercise is designed to elicit, which is simply – what would be missing if some of the alloys that go into the forge of what makes America what it is, were missing. Make sense?
You may have noticed by their absence so far, one group that I have not mentioned yet, but have been very topical of late in terms of some very ugly rhetoric and behavior that has been directed toward them and resurfaced noticeably in recent days, particularly with regard to the controversy surrounding the disturbed, chaotic celebrity, still in the orbit of the Kardashians – Kanye West.
I refer to Jewish-Americans, who have been the object of deranged verbal attacks, in the wake of West’s manic anti-Semitic public statements. An article written for the Yahoo News feed, was uncredited, but it was a promotion of products that many may not be familiar as businesses owned by individuals and families of Jewish heritage.
Some that were mentioned were Estée Lauder, Michael Kors, Ben & Jerry’s, Sierra Nevada Ale – and one I recalled from this week, Sketchers footwear and apparel, that I remembered because of the episode of Kanye West’s very not excellent adventure of showing up unannounced at the Manhattan Beach, California headquarters and being escorted promptly out of the building by Sketchers security personnel. Sketchers CEO and President are Robert Greenberg and Michael Greenberg. West flunked that homework assignment.
The author of the Best Products piece also recited a short list of inventions pioneered by Jews.
Traffic lights, instant coffee, cell phones, microphones, lasers, stainless steel, kidney dialysis, color television, Prozac, the polio vaccine, Google, chemotherapy, cheesecake, and, of course, bagels — were all invented by Jews, and that’s nowhere near an exhaustive list. We are an industrious lot — after all, we have a whole day where we just rest and think, and clearly, it can lead to awesome things.
That really was a short list I’m pretty sure, but it got my mind off to the races. I’m going to give the inventor of instant coffee a Mulligan on that, but my late, beloved mother was a real fan. Me? Ughhhh. I assume the author fact checked the items and I have no interest in doing it myself. Bagels and Prozac seem pretty obvious on their face, although the right Bagel might be a satisfactory substitute for Prozac in some settings.
I’m also inclined to relate my gratitude to Albert Einstein and his achievements in theoretical mathematics, that form the foundation for so much scientific knowledge and technological developments that we take for granted here in 2022.
But just the Polio vaccine alone, which was mentioned in the list. According to the World Health Organization, by the mid-20th century, the poliovirus could be found all over the world and killed or paralyzed over half a million people every year. With no cure, and epidemics on the rise, there was an urgent need for a vaccine.
Many who survived the disease faced lifelong consequences. Deformed limbs meant they needed leg braces, crutches or wheelchairs, and some needed to use breathing devices like the iron lung, an artificial respirator invented for treatment of polio patients.
Jonas Salk began research on a vaccine in 1953 and the first person it was tested on, was himself! And in 1955, the Polio vaccine was mass distributed, putting an end to the virus wherever people were inoculated against it. For the people spreading the virus of hate and spiteful ignorance in their targeting of Jews – that’s something we have yet to develop a vaccine for. But I would suspect that among the ingredients would be humanity and education.
I know one that I am a huge admirer of and which needs no fact checking and that is Yiddish. As a currency of linguistics that is colloquial within the English language, it is every bit on par as Shakespeare. I would love to have been tutored by Leonard Nimoy, of Star Trek’s “Mr. Spock” fame.
If the local community college had an authentic Jewish instructor with an authentic New York Jewish dialect teaching an elective course on Yiddish, I would so be there, 15 minutes before class every day to sit in front. I kid you not. You think I am kidding you? What a schlemiel!
Some hateful people would probably burn all of their Levi’s clothing, if they were to realize that the brand was originated in 1873 by two Jewish men – a tailor, Jacob Davis and of course, Levi Strauss, a fabric wholesaler. Oy Vey!
There is so much more, that the landscape of our culture and daily existence would look very desolate without the creativity and innovations of peeps of Jewish extraction. I will, with the best of intentions, point out just the field of law and medicine of which volumes could and have been written.
But my mind also gravitates in the direction of art – in the form of films and music. No Larry David? (Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm), no Norman Lear? (All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Sanford and Son).
No Steven Spielberg? (Jaws, Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, E.T., Saving Private Ryan – and one of my favorite cult classics, Duel), no Warner Bros?, no Louis Meyer, no Samuel Goldwyn? It seems inconceivable.
Without early television writer and producer Sheldon Leonard, you would not have had the Dick Van Dyke show in the form that we all know and love it. There would have been no Andy Griffith, no Opie (Ron Howard), no Barney Fife, no Gomer Pyle, no Goober and certainly no Aunt Bee!
Why has the expression, “Hollywood Jews” become one of derision? No good reason exists. If you pull Mel Brooks out of my mental library, something is going to hit the fan and it won’t be pleasant. Carl Reiner, check. the incomparable Jerry Lewis, check.
In the world of comedy (aside from the aforementioned Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis), what about Danny Kaye? huh, how about it? Danny Kaye of the original and great, “Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” and “The Inspector”. Groucho and the Marx Brothers! – why it’s because of them that I converted to Marxism. That schmuck, Karl? No way.
Moe and Shemp Howard, of Three Stooges fame? Jews. Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman? Yup.
The one and only George Burns! There was a reason we picked him to play God and he lived so long, we began to wonder. Jews also can claim Lenny Bruce, who, although was controversial in the mid-60s, is credited as the father of modern standup comedy, driving a stake through the heart of the Borscht Belt schtick (more Yiddish), which up until Bruce, was the dominant form. Mort Sahl was another.
Iain Ellis, writing in PopMatters, notes that:
“Within stand-up, Sahl and Bruce made an almost complete departure from the genre’s established past—from its content, style, form, attitude, look, language, and audience. This severing was both aesthetic and generational in nature, what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. calls ‘a sign of the yearning for youth, irreverence, trenchancy, satire, a clean break with the past’”.
You could make the argument that Bruce was the main influence on both George Carlin and arguably, Richard Pryor as well. In fact, Carlin acknowledged it very specifically:
Lenny and I had this language in common, and he was the first one to make language an issue, and he suffered for it. I was the first one to make language an issue and to succeed from it…Obviously, I was very influenced by his approach to comedy, as I was with Mort Sahl’s, because I was in my formative stage and I was a rebel at heart and an anti-authoritarian at a time when they were succeeding by taking those positions.”
The establishment that Bruce took aim at, eventually succeeded at blowing out his candle, but they couldn’t destroy his legacy or his far reaching influence.
Within the field of humor, there is also the sub-genre of musical satire.
The name that comes to mind most readily, is Weird Al Yankovic, of course. Weird Al, himself, is not Jewish, but the gentleman who gave birth to the modern era of musical satire, parody and novelty songs and was Yankovic’s chief influence, is – Allan Sherman (yes, Allan with an ‘a’).
Weird Al’s first LP even had a copy of Allan Sherman’s LP at the foot of Weird Al’s bed. Allan Sherman who?, you say? Well, let me tell you. Or better yet, let Allan tell you himself:
Similarly, I could not in good conscience fail to introduce you to another trailblazer in this delightful genre – Tom Lehrer and Lehrer, born in 1928 – is still with us. Lehrer was a Korean War vet, a Harvard alum, a Professor at M.I.T., researcher at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and a Mathematician of note and he was also a, that’s right – a Jew.
None of this sounds a great deal like inspiration for some of the funniest social commentary ever produced, but the proof is in the product – and there was a lot of brilliance.
In the early 50s, contemporary to the rise of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce and the beat poetry generation of Allen (yes, with an ‘e’) Ginsburg (Jewish), Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs – Lehrer began performing his witty, sardonic and hilarious compositions in Boston nightclubs and in 1953, concluded that there might be some commercial appeal in recording them.
Wikipedia describes the initial venture, which is such a departure from what we imagine is involved in producing a recording, I thought you might find the circumstance as amusing as what resulted from it:
Lehrer was encouraged by the success of his performances, so he paid $15 (equivalent to $152 in 2021) for some studio time in 1953 to record Songs by Tom Lehrer. The initial pressing was 400 copies. Radio stations would not air his songs because of his controversial subjects, so he sold the album on campus at Harvard for $3, equivalent to $30 in 2021, while several stores near the Harvard campus sold it for $3.50, taking only a minimal markup as a kind of community service. Newsstands on campus sold it for the same price.
After one summer, he started to receive mail orders from all parts of the country, as far away as San Francisco, after the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article on the record. Interest in his recordings spread by word of mouth. People played their records for friends, who then also wanted a copy. Lehrer recalled, “Lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola.”
Lehrer artfully skewered a host of subjects that were off limits in that era, until he dealt with them – racial segregation, nuclear proliferation, sexual activity that the cultural establishment maintained was non-existent, religion, civil rights and environmental pollution. I remember when I first picked up a couple of his records, that upon listening, I was shocked that anyone was dealing with the topic matter that he was in the early 1950s.
You can access his discography here and here on Youtube, you can sample just about everything he created. Brace yourself for a bout of severe laughter. Some highlights are “The Masochism Tango”, “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park” and “Pollution.”
Much of what constitutes lampoon and satire in today’s era, can be seen as having taken root in mainstream culture, accountable to the influence of William M. Gaines, Executive Editor of MAD magazine and his successor, Al Feldstein.
It’s impossible to conceive of the likes of The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, without the foundational subversion of MAD. MAD was also unique in the world of illustrated periodicals and magazines generally, in that it never included any advertising, other than the intentional satirical references to brands as a vehicle to mock consumer culture.
Maybe you are a fan of the DC and Marvel universes of Superheroes – the original comic books, the characters themselves, even the first appearance of comic book stores. You can tip your hat or your Yarmulke to Jews. Superman, Batman, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and the X-Men were brought to life by the fertile imaginations of Jewish authors and artists.
According to the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Jewish folk produced the first comic book, the first graphic novel and the first comic bookstore. The DC pantheon of Superheroes can credit their origins to the foundational work of Max Gaines, father of EC Comics and MAD publisher William M. Gaines. Speaking of EC Comics, if you ever took a fancy to titles like Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories and Weird Science – those were EC Comics titles.
Arie Kaplan, himself a comics creator, points out that, “In 1938, the Jewish creators of Superman, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, had been rejected from the higher-paying advertising field and were still living at their parents’ homes. So, it was comic books for them.” And that is a prime example of making your own opportunity when doors slam in your face;
How about Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber), the storied comic writer / developer behind Spiderman, The Hulk and Iron Man, as well as the aforementioned, Fantastic Four, the Avengers the X-Men and so many others? Yup – Jewish.
Let’s now turn to the subject of music, popular music. This is another area of artistic endeavor where we find an incredible array of game changing creative talent. If you are susceptible to the charms of musicals, particularly Broadway musicals, you cannot escape the presence of Jewish composers and lyricists.
Do you like any of these classics – “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I” or the “The Sound of Music”? They’re all composed by Rogers & Hammerstein. “Fiddler On The Roof”? – Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick.
And then there’s George Gershwin (Jacob Gershvin) and his brother Ira. “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch over Me,” “Strike Up the Band,” “’S Wonderful,” “I Got Rhythm”, “Embraceable You,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They All Laughed,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “A Foggy Day,” “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” and “Love Is Here to Stay” are just a small sample of the standards that these two brought to the classic American songbook. But Gershwin also established some compositional landmarks; “Concerto In F”, “An American In Paris” and the quintessential – “Rhapsody In Blue.”
Moving on to pop music in the modern era. Imagine the Grand Canyon sized void in rock music, had Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, not arrived on the scene in the early ’60s. Multiple genres and sub-genres would arguably not exist in their present form, including Folk Rock and Country Rock.
The same could be said for Paul Simon, who engraved “The Sounds Of Silence”, “59th Street Bridge Song”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “American Tune”, “Fifty Ways (To Leave Your Lover)”, “The Boxer”, “El Condor Pasa”, “I Am A Rock”, “Homeward Bound” and “Kodachrome” onto our collective consciousness.
We’d also have to recognize Neil Diamond, with so many gems; “Solitary Man”, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, “Sweet Caroline”, “Shilo”, “I’m A Believer”, “Cherry, Cherry”, “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon”. You probably have your own list, but the depth and breadth is stunning.
The songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. These two combined for such an amazing and voluminous soundtrack of American life of the past 70 plus years.
“Do You Know The Way To San Jose?”, “Alfie”, “Walk On By”, “What Do You Get When You Fall In Love?”, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”, “The Look Of Love”, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”, “Close To You”, “Theme From Arthur”, “One Less Bell To Answer”, “What’s New Pussycat?”, “My Little Red Book” and “Knowing When To Leave”, scarcely scratch the surface of their hit making partnership. Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield all had smash records from the Bacharach / David catalog.
This one by Dusty, gives me goosebumps every time:
And for good measure, I have to mix the great Billy Joel into the equation and you, no doubt can conjure up your own list of his incredible roster of landmark pop hits.
Beyond that, I’ve long past the point of belaboring the point about what the contributions of people of Jewish heritage have added to the culture. All we’ve looked at and much more that they have influenced, up to the present day – would be nowhere to be found, under the terms of our hypothetical “day without a Jew” – actually, based on all I have cited, “century without a Jew.”
But that brings me to another important point, I would be remiss not to elaborate upon. While I felt it was significant to lay out this exercise as a push back to all the ignorance and ugliness of the current wave of anti-Semitism, it’s also of value to reflect on the fact that within all races and ethnicities, there is a mix of the good and the bad. It seems silly to have to even say that.
It feels pedantic to note, for example, that if a Black person loots a retail store, this doesn’t establish that all Blacks are criminals or that if a group of Whites accost a jogger and shoot him to death, all Whites are not racial extremists and vigilantes. And if you stand up to affirm a race or ethnicity, it doesn’t mean you put your stamp of approval on every single individual in that group. But for a certain segment of society, this is the logical and moral disconnect.
The problem we have is that racism feeds on the perspective that the worst people in a social group, define all of a social group.
Anti-Semites will point to the Harvey Weinsteins, the Bernie Madoffs, Lou Pearlmans and others as if they are reflective of some universal attributes of Jews. It’s absurd to a clear thinking person, but that is not what we’re dealing with. Sadly, the mentality incapable of making such important distinctions is persistent and there is no simple answer on how to eradicate it.
Share your thoughts with us in the comments section and thanks for reading.