Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wissenschaft des Judenthums

The "Science" of Judaism: Wissenschaft des Judenthums
The new academic study of Judaism examined Jewish religion from the scholarly perspectives of theology, literature, and history.
By Rabbi Louis Jacobs

The following article considers the motivations and machinations of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums (Science of Judaism) movement. Wissenschaft was founded by a group of enlightened Jewish scholars who reasoned that the continuance of anti-semitism after emancipation resulted from European society’s ignorance of Judaism’s history and its contribution to European culture. Thus, Wissenschaft scholarship was often as much about emancipating Jews as it was emancipating Jewish history. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

“Jewish Science” [is] the German name for the historical-critical school which arose in the first half of the nineteenth century, and whose main practitioners were Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger and Zachariah Frankel in Germany; Samuel David Luzzatto in Italy; Nahman Krohmal and Solomon Judah Rappaport in Galicia. Wissenschaft des Judenthums was not a consciously organized movement. Rather, a number of traditionally educated Jews who became familiar with the languages of Western European culture resolved independently, though in close communication with one another, to investigate by these new methods the classical sources of Judaism.

The aim of Wissenschaft des Judenthums was to demonstrate how the Jewish religion, literature and philosophy had developed in response to the different civilizations with which Jews had come into contact through the ages. [An early] aim of the movement was to establish correct texts by comparing current texts with those found in libraries open to Jews for the first time. [Going beyond] the piecemeal treatment typical of [this] older approach, texts were [later] studied as a whole and set in their proper period [as part of a critical/historical ("scientific") method of study].The Greek and Latin classics were studied for comparative purposes in order to shed light on the talmudic sources; Arabic and Islamic thought [for] a better understanding of the medieval Jewish works; the ancient Semitic tongues for a keener appreciation of the Bible and its background; and, above all, world history for the purpose of showing how Jewish history formed part of general historical trends.

Indeed, the whole movement can be said to be have called attention to the fact that Judaism, like all human institutions, has had a history and did not simply drop down from heaven to be transmitted without change from generation to generation. New questions were asked. What does the text really mean? Why does it say what it says and why just at that particular time? Does the text represent normative Jewish thinking or is it peripheral or contradicted by other texts and if so, what has caused the difference?

The movement undoubtedly had in part an apologetic aim, at first, in which the Wissenschaft scholars sought to show that Judaism, too, is normal and “respectable” in having a history, a literature, and a philosophy like other cultures, and that the great men of the Jewish past were not mere cyphers or irrational isolationists but creatures of flesh and blood responsive to the world around them. Yet the followers of the movement did try to study their sources as objectively as possible, paving the way for the use of the new methodology in higher institutions of Jewish learning and in learned journals in which articles of impeccable scholarship appeared

George Eliot

Zionism comes from an unexpected source.
By Max Gross

The 19th century British novelist might not seem the likeliest champion of Jews and Zionism. But an exception has to be made for George Eliot.

Eliot was born in 1819 on a farm in rural Warwickshire, England. Her parents named her Mary Anne Evans, but in 1856 she began using the masculine penname "George Eliot" to ensure that her books would be taken seriously. Eliot's father was a deeply religious Anglican, and under his influence Eliot attended church almost every Sunday during her formative years (her mother died when she was 16). But she experienced a crisis of faith in the early 1840s.
According to Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her book The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (2009), it was after moving to the town of Coventry that Eliot met Charles Bray, who had recently published Philosophy of Necessity, which made the positivist case for agnosticism. Through the Bray family, Eliot was introduced to a circle of intellectuals and free-thinkers. A few months later, she stopped going to church.

Eliot's father died in 1849, and after his death she traveled to Geneva with the Brays and began writing for some of the intellectual journals of the time. Sometime thereafter, she became fascinated with Jews. Before she tried her hand at fiction, Eliot translated Spinoza's Ethics into English (the translation was never published.) She also wrote essays about Heinrich Heine (who was involved with the Wissenschaft des Judenthums before converting to Lutheranism), and made Jewish friends.



But probably the thing that most drove her extreme fascination with Jews was her friendship with Emanuel Deutsch, a Silesian-born assistant in the library at the British Museum, whom she met in 1866. According to Himmelfarb, it was Deutsch who began sending Eliot writings about the Talmud, as well as books on all sorts of Jewish topics at her request.
Was Silas A Jew?

Eliot's most famous work is a novel called Silas Marner (1861), which does not have the word "Jew" in it even once. However, it contains one of the most poignant and detailed portraits of an outsider and his plight.

Silas, the hero of the book, is falsely accused of a crime--stealing from his local church--and he is forced to leave his hometown for the village of Raveloe. He immediately feels distrustful of his new town and so he hoards his money, making himself the object of distrust and resentment among his new neighbors. Silas's inability to fit in at Raveloe is so extreme that he even refuses to attend church on Christmas Day. Despite the fact that he's not explicity Jewish, it's hardly a great leap of logic to view Silas as the classic "wandering Jew."

Sympathy for the outsider is one of the major themes in many of Eliot's works, but it was not joined with a specific affection for Judaism until the 1876 publication of Daniel Deronda.


"Let there be another great migration, another choosing of Israel to be a nationality whose members may still stretch to the ends of the earth," declares Mordechai Cohen, the fiery Jewish nationalist in Daniel Deronda, which was published a good 21 years before the First Zionist Congress.
George Eliot's Daniel Deronda
If not for its proto-Zionist elements, Daniel Deronda would not be all that different from a lot of Victorian-era novels. It contains the intermingled stories of Gwendolen Harleth, a spoiled young Christian woman who, in a moment of financial panic, marries a wealthy brute--and that of Daniel Deronda, the kindly, orphaned protagonist who becomes entangled in London's Jewish scene and eventually discovers that he, himself, is a Jew.

Both Gwendolen and Daniel travel in the same privileged circles--their stories intersect throughout the book, from the very first scene in which Daniel sees Gwendolen at a roulette table in Leubronn, Germany--and they feel a similar interest in the other. But they diverge on radically different paths.

The Gwendolen scenes would have been fairly familiar to readers of that era. Unhappy marriages (like that of Emma and Charles Bovary in Madame Bovary) and flawed heroines (like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair) were common in European literature of the time. But it's the plunge into the world of the Jews that was so unsettling to Victorian readers--and overwhelms the rest of the story.

Any student of British literature knows that prior to Daniel Deronda, such a sympathetic Jewish character was inconceivable. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales were steeped in the ugliest of anti-Semitic blood libels. Shakespeare's Shylock might have been a pitiable villain with inner-depths--but, as Harold Bloom put it, "The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work."

However, Daniel Deronda was a newer, more progressive entry into the British canon, and it represented one of the first unambiguously positive takes on Jews. Daniel's character is charitable and modest, thoughtful and smart. He first becomes entangled with Mordechai Cohen and his Jewish milieu after saving a beautiful young Jewish woman from committing suicide. In fact, it is the Christian characters in Daniel Deronda--like Gwendolen, and her unfortunate husband, H.R. Grandcourt--who are flawed.

Many of Daniel Deronda's critics at the time it was published were put off by its representation of Jewishness. "There was an almost schizophrenic tone in many of the reviews: the believable characters (English) versus the unbelievable (Jewish)," writes Himmelfarb.

But for most Jews who read Daniel Deronda, the book was a revelation. Not only were Jews painted sympathetically, but the ideas of Mordechai were genuinely intriguing. For many, it kick started a drive for Jewish nationalism. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Emma Lazarus, and others claim to have discovered their inner-Zionism by reading Daniel Deronda. Sigmund Freud said that no gentile author had better captured the Jewish mind.

At the end of the novel, Daniel leaves his genteel English life in order to settle in Israel. "I am going to the East," Daniel announces to Gwendolen. "The idea that I am possessed with is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again...I am resolved to devote my life to it. At the least, I may awaken a movement in other minds, such as has been awakened in my own."

It would be difficult to find a bolder affirmation of Zionism than that.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

toonz


Yom Kippur: The Day Delis Stand Still

Each fall, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, most every Jewish deli closes up shop. Steam trays, usually piled high with fragrant meats, sit cold and empty. Slicing machines lie dormant, their blades at a standstill. The normal flying circus of roving trays, spattered mustard, and heated kibbitz has been given a day of rest. Now there is only darkness and silence.

By morning, deli owners, their families, and customers are already hungry. The ritualistic fast, which began after dinner the previous night, is full on. Within minutes of consuming the last bite of brisket, pangs of hunger materialize. The collective kvetching of the children of Israel soon begins, working itself into a wailing gripe that torments even the angels in heaven.

A day without food hardly sounds terrible to most, but to Jews it is a soul-wrenching trial. Picture a day without drink to Britons, a day without TV to Americans, or soccer for Brazilians. Denied our most essential pleasure, we turn upwards for help, asking God, "What have I done to deserve this hunger? How can I make it up to you?"

And God replies, "Look, you haven't exactly been saintly this year. You were greedy (three helpings of chopped liver at the Feingold Bar Mitzvah); you were violent (pushing Mrs. Blumstein aside to get a booth at Corky and Lenny's); you were dishonest (you didn't lose your number at Hobby's takeout counter, you never got one); and you took my name in vain. How many times did I have to hear "I didn't ask for this goddamn sandwich on goddamn seedless rye"? You were bad, but now you feel a little hunger and you want me to bring you something to ease it? Well tough it out and start groveling, because you ain't getting so much as the watery discharge from the mustard bottle until I see some serious repentance."

And so the Jews stand and sit, sing and chant, and read aloud from the italicized words in their prayer books. They strike their heavy hearts with closed fists when naming off sins, listen solemnly to the rabbi's sermon, stand, sit, stand, sit, stand, and sit. At one point the service comes to rest on the Unetanah tokef, a poem vividly describing the Day of Judgment for all humankind:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,

Who shall live and who shall die,

Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,

Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Sitting in his seat, the delicatessen owner begins to think and reflect on his pastrami-serving contemporaries. Thanks to cultural assimilation, changing dietary habits, food trends, and economics, the entire Jewish delicatessen business has been in decline for much of the past half century. He contemplates his own struggle to keep his small deli alive, the one his father and grandfather ran, the one he told his kids not to go into, and he prays to himself:

On the butcher paper it is written,

And at the register it is sealed.

How many delis shall close and how many shall open,

Who shall reach the end of his days (retiring to Florida with his kids running the shop) and who shall not (his deli bankrupted before his very eyes),

Who shall perish by debt and who by fire codes,

Who by rent and who by diet fads,

Who by kosher meat prices and who by health violations,

Who by hurricane and who by lawsuits,

Who by the younger generation moving away and who by a dying clientele,

Who shall have abundant Passover catering and whose oven shall break,

Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued by the bank,

Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented by kvetching customers,

Who shall be rated in Zagat's and who shall be called "tired" by critics,

Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree. Or failing that, maybe my son in law will buy me out.

Then the deli owner rises to say kaddish, the prayer of mourning for all those in the congregation with family members who died that year and in all the years previous. A list of names is read aloud, and the deli owner reflects on all those delis he has seen fall in recent times. And he prays for their souls, saying in Hebrew Alav Hashalom...Rest in Peace.

Alav Hashalom Rascal House, Wolf's, Reuben S', the Brown Derby, Phil Gluckstern's, Arnold Reuben's, and Lou G. Siegel's.

Alav Hashalom Maven's, Pastrami n' Things, Bernstein's-on-Essex, Pastrami King, Stacks, and the Noshery.

Alav Hashalom Breakers, Dash's, Coleman's, and Ulitsky Delicatessen, Koppel's, Lyon's, Nate's, Leavitt's, Wolfie's, Posin's, Hofberg's, and Duke Zeibert's.

Alav Hashalom, Zager's, Old Tyme Delicatessen, Rosen's, Segal's, Halpern's, Abe's, Plymouth Avenue Deli, Brochin's, Solomon's, Max C's, Ben's...and on and on and on for the thousands that were and the hundreds that remain.

Alav Hashalom Jewish delicatessens. Rest in salty Peace.

Torah

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jewish in Mexico

Between 40,000-50,000 Jews live in Mexico, representing about .04 percent of the population, but they are responsible for providing 15 percent of the jobs in the country. Three-quarters of Mexican Jews are employers.

Affiliation rates are also unbelievably high. Upwards of 90 percent of Jewish kids attend one of Mexico City's 16 Jewish schools, and no one is turned away because he or she can't pay. More than one third of families receive community assistance.

According to Gorodzinksy and Lulka, the cost of being Jewish in Mexico requires a net income of $4,000 a month -- substantially more than most Mexicans take home and, it's worth noting, more than I do too. Were I living in Mexico I might be considered middle class by national standards, but poor by Jewish ones. Regardless, my kids would automatically get tuition and other help -- not a bad deal.

Unsurprisingly, this commitment represents a massive cost burden that is getting ever harder to bear. Most American Jews started paying attention to the economic downturn only in the past year or two. In Mexico, the economic crisis is 20 years in the making.
Mexican Jews boast an in-marriage rate that would make American Jewish leaders weep with envy. Even the sons of famous publicists marry within the tribe.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

Medical robots that get under your skin

Medical robots that get under your skin
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By Karin Kloosterman
September 10, 2009



The miniature robotic fly created at the Technion in Israel is designed to diagnose diseases and deliver drugs to infected tumors.
Israeli researchers have created a miniature robotic fly that can crawl through your arteries and veins to diagnose and treat what ails you.

A snake-shaped robot sent in through a small incision so you don't have to have open-heart surgery. Robotic marching ants that you can send in to inspect water pipes for leaks. And now the latest research from the Robotics Laboratory at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa: Creepy and crawly fly-like robots that get under your skin for very good medical reasons.

Prof. Moshe Shaham, head of the Robotics Laboratory, and his team have developed a miniature robotic fly, about 0.04 inches in diameter, that can enter the body to diagnose diseases and conditions like blocked arteries and deliver drugs like a bomb to infected tumors.

Based on Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology, the tiny robot crawls through arteries and veins. It is steered by a magnet that's moved over the body from the outside. Its miniscule outstretched arms grip the sides of the vessel walls as it zeroes in on its targeted location.

Currently in the early prototype stages, the researchers plan on scaling down the robot to a 10th of its current diameter - about 100 microns. That will bring it a step closer to much less invasive diagnosis and treatment.

Unprecedented miniaturized medicine

"We see that more and more miniature devices and research in the medical field are going in this direction: Less invasive medicine and targeted drugs," Shaham tells ISRAEL21c.

Partners in the research include Dr. Nir Shvalb from Israel's Ariel College and Dr. Oded Solomon from the Technion. "This accomplishment of miniaturization is without precedent, as is the ability to control the robot's activity for unlimited periods of time, for any medical procedure," Solomon told the press.

"We hope this discovery can be used to improve the quality of care for diseases and many other conditions," he added.

Shaham concurs, adding that mini medical devices are the future of medicine: "We will see more and more [medical practitioners] working in this way. Of course, targeted medicine can release drugs in a specific location. We try to work along these lines. Drugs that can home in on a certain location using a small robot that goes to the right location."

Robots with backbones

Shaham's research in medical robotics has already borne fruit in a device called SpineAssist, which is marketed by Mazor Surgical Technologies. "Robots are already performing surgeries on a daily basis - performing spine surgeries around the world," he says.

Using a controller, the researchers can move the little fly-like robotic creature at speeds of 0.35 mm a second by varying the magnetic field.

And because the control unit is external to the body, it can work for limitless periods of time, never needing a battery recharge during a procedure.

The researchers believe that with the addition of a camera, the latest tiny bot could be perfected for use in brachytherapy (short distance radiation therapy), which is commonly used for treating head, neck and prostate cancer.

Borrowing from sperm propulsion

In parallel, Robotics Lab researchers are also developing a tiny bot that swims, but not with arms, fins or flippers.

The research carried out by Dr. Gabor Kosa and Technion colleagues, uses a propulsion-based system - and mimics an ancient biological structure called a flagella, which has long thread-like appendages that give cells the ability to move and swim. It's flagella that allow sperm to swim earnestly through vaginal fluid toward the waiting eggs.

But at the Technion lab, they're thinking about fluid of another kind. One of the locations being targeted is CFS or cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that the brain floats in. It also surrounds the spinal system.

"We could use such a device for diagnosis or to feel around with electrodes, looking for cancer or other problems," explains Shaham.

The Technion's interest in the Robotics Lab piqued about nine years ago, but Shaham admits that he's been focused on the work for about two decades and has a list of additional robotic research inventions sure to hit the news later this year.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kol Nidre

Johnny Mathis - Kol Nidre
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZ_jOOU0z6w

Neil Diamond

Kol Nidrei - The Moroccan Version

Moishe Oysher

Chazzan Blesofsky

Stjepan Hauser

Jacqueline du Pré

Max Bruch

Pablo Casals

Julian Lloyd Webber

I got my money's worth when I bought an esrog for Succos

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Friday, September 4, 2009

Rescuer of 669 Holocaust Children Honored by Survivors

Sir Nicholas Winton, Now 100, Greets Them Again on Train Platform
By NICK WATT

LONDON Sept. 4, 2009—

This morning a steam engine pulled into London's Liverpool Street Station. On board: 22 Holocaust survivors who had traveled 700 miles across Europe from Prague in the Czech Republic. And there to meet them on the platform: The man who saved their lives 70 years ago.

The last time they made this journey it was the late-summer of 1939. They were children, and the Nazi armies were advancing. In those tense times, 669 mainly Jewish children boarded specially chartered trains at Prague's Wilson Station, bound for England and safety.

"Our father was, when we were leaving, he was in the next room sobbing," Alice Masters told ABC News today on board during the final leg of the journey from the English coast.

Alice and her sister Josephine - sitting side by side as the train rattled towards London - never saw their parents again. "We had letters from them until 1942," Alice told us. "The last letter was March '42. And they were taken away to the concentration camp on June 6, 1942."

Hanna Slome, a sprightly 84-year old who eventually settled in New York, was just 14 when her mother dropped her at the station in Prague. Today Slome remembered the last words they exchanged: "She just said, 'I'm packing you up and you're going. And I'll be there. I promise you I'll be there.'" Her mother died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

This journey, Slome and other survivors said, on the 70th anniversary of their flight from Czechoslovakia is in memory of their parents, in memory of all those murdered by the Nazis, and in honor of the man who saved them from near certain death.

Back then Sir Nicholas Winton was an ordinary, fun-loving London stockbroker. But when he heard stories from friends in Prague of Jews losing their jobs and homes under Nazi occupation, Winton decided to do something.

Fearing that worse was to come, Winton decided to save as many Czech children as he could. He masterminded their incredible escape.

Winton raised money, begged the British government to grant visas, chartered the trains, forged papers, and found families in England to adopt the children.

Sir Nicholas Winton Is Now 100

In 1939 Winton was there on the platform to greet the children. This morning, now 100-years-old, he was waiting on the platform once again, frail, but still standing and leaning on a cane. He shook hands with each survivor as they got off the train.

"The trouble 70 years ago was getting them together with the people who were going to look after them," Winton said today. "I've got no responsibility this time."

Just the grateful thanks of the 669 he saved and their descendants. There are, they say, 7,000 of them scattered all over the world.

Remembering Fanny Brice


Jewish comedians have made significant contributions to American popular culture. Jewish comic geniuses such as Harold Lloyd, Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Sid Ceasar, Lennie Bruce, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Alan King, Gilda Radner, and Jerry Seinfeld, to name but a few, have enriched the nation's culture by allowing Americans to laugh at themselves.

With the exception of Lloyd, Burns, and Seinfeld, the majority of successful American Jewish comedians attained popularity by fulfilling widely accepted ethnic Jewish stereotypes, or by employing a manic, burlesque style of humor. In the first half of the twentieth century, these expectations were almost impossible for Jewish comics to escape. No career illustrates the limits and possibilities of being a Jewish comedian better than that of Fanny Brice.

Born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1891, the third of four children of saloon-owning immigrant parents, Fania Borach chose a performer's career early in life. Historian Barbara Grossman notes that, in an era that typically based entertainment on ethnic stereotypes such as the drunken Irishman, the ignorant Pole or the Yiddish-accented greenhorn, Brice's "Semitic looks" slotted her into Jewish roles. Despite her efforts to succeed as a serious actress and singer, Brice--who spoke no Yiddish--rose to stardom performing comedy with a Yiddish accent. Just as Al Jolson donned blackface to make his mark in show business, Brice affected a Yiddish background she did not possess.

In 1908, dropping out of school after the eighth grade, the gangly, strong-voiced Fanny Borach worked as a chorus girl in a burlesque review. By the end of that year, she changed her last name to Brice. Grossman speculates that Fanny probably changed her name to escape limited Jewish stage roles. Ironically, a year later, she would make her first Broadway mark in a musical comedy, The College Girls, singing Irving Berlin's "Sadie Salome, Go Home" with a put-on Yiddish accent while dancing a parody of the seductive veil dance in Richard Strauss' opera Salome. Her act brought down the house. Despite her desire for universality, Brice found her niche as a "Jewish" entertainer.

When Brice stuck to broad farce and Yiddish-accented parodies of other female stars, the critics loved her. When she tried playing non-ethnic roles in Broadway plays, they panned her. Brice starred in the Ziegfield Follies in the 1920's and 30's and became known for her beautiful voice and limber grace, which she always used in the service of humor. She tried dramatic Broadway roles, but the critics thought her plays unsuccessful.
Fanny Brice
As Brice's fame increased, so did her notoriety. In 1918, she married Jules "Nicky" Arnstein, a handsome, urbane, but somewhat inept con man and thief she had lived with for six years. Despite Arnstein's infidelity and a stretch in Sing Sing Prison for illegal wiretapping, the devoted Brice stayed married to him, had two children and supported him by working on-stage almost constantly, almost to the very end of each pregnancy. Brice's tumultuous relationship with the ne'er-do-well Arnstein gave her material for a rare non-ethnic success: appearing the Ziegfield Follies of 1921 the usually manic comedienne stood nearly motionless on the stage and, singing in a beautiful, unaccented voice, moved audiences to tears with her rendition of "My Man," with its now-classic lyrics, "But whatever my man is, I am his forever."

In 1924, Arnstein was charged in a Wall Street bond theft. Brice insisted on his innocence and funded his legal defense. Arnstein was convicted and sentenced to the Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. Released in 1927, the ungrateful and unfaithful Arnstein disappeared from Brice's life and that of his two children. Reluctantly, Brice divorced him.

Brice had some of her greatest success during her years as Mrs. Arnstein, including her famous song "Second Hand Rose." Yet, in 1923, as biographer Grossman puts it, Brice "tired of being a sight gag" and had her nose surgically straightened. Still, acceptance eluded her when she tried to her hand at "American" drama, while she continued to draw raves for her work in comedic dancing and song.

Finally, after a failed marriage to Broadway impresario Billy Rose and starring roles in Hollywood films, Brice found a medium 'broadcast radio' that made her comfortable. In 1938, she launched her own weekly radio show. A wonderful mimic and impersonator with a great ear for dialect, Brice chose instead to limit herself to one character, Baby Snooks, a precocious, bratty toddler ?who had no accent.? Her enormously successful run on radio lasted until her death in 1951, just as television was beginning to capture the radio audience.

Barbra Streisand paid tribute to Brice in her loosely biographical film production Funny Girl, in which Streisand was both star and producer. Lily Tomlin popularized a Baby Snooks-like character on television, Edith Ann, who sits in a rocking chair and makes ironic observations on the adult world. Both stars possess a freedom to choose roles that eluded Brice once she was slotted as Sadie Salome. Just as significant, the acceptance of Jerry Seinfeld's matter-of-fact Jewishness by a national television audience illustrates the great liberation that American Jewry, male or female, has gained in the world of entertainment. Fanny Brice would have approved.

Adah Isaacs Menken, the first American Jewish "superstar"



Today, celebrities such as Madonna, Wilt Chamberlain, and Warren Beatty are as well known for their defiance of conventional values and the notoriety that surrounds their personal lives as they are for their professional accomplishments. It was more than a century ago that Adah Isaacs Menken, the first American Jewish "superstar," helped pioneer the art of cultivating an outsized, even outrageous, personality as a path to fame and fortune. Even fame, however, could not guarantee her happiness.

In the 1860s, Menken earned world fame in an equestrian melodrama, "Mazeppa." She daringly appeared on stage playing the role of a man, wearing nothing but a flesh-colored body stocking, riding a horse on a ramp that extended into the audience. Menken's costume scandalized "respectable" critics--even as it attracted huge and enthusiastic audiences that included such notables as Walt Whitman and the great Shakespearean actor, Edwin Booth.

Adah Isaacs MenkenAs an actress, Menken became an early master of self-promotion. According to historian Alan Ackerman, she made certain that a photograph of her striking face appeared in shop windows in every city in which she performed. Even in the context of the 1860s, when most Americans looked upon actors as "loose" and disreputable, Menken was notorious for violating norms. She cropped her dark hair close to her head (she may have been the first important American woman to do so) and smoked cigarettes in public.

Even more unladylike, Menken openly defied conventional married life, marrying four men in the space of seven years. Her second marriage, in 1859 to world heavyweight boxing champion John C. Heenan, led to the birth of a son, who died in infancy. Eight years later, a son by her fourth husband suffered the same fate.

Her first marriage, to a Jew named Alexander Isaacs Menken in 1856, lasted only a few years but confirmed her own Jewish identity. Adah Menken's true religious origins are controversial. Born in Louisiana in 1835 to Auguste and Marie Theodore, some historians believe that she was raised a Catholic, an assertion that Menken herself denied. In response to a journalist who called her a convert, Menken replied, "I was born in [Judaism], and have adhered to it through all my erratic career. Through that pure and simple religion I have found greatest comfort and blessing."

In 1857, Adah and Alexander moved from New Orleans to Cincinnati, then the center of Reform Judaism in America. Adah learned to read Hebrew fluently and studied classical Jewish texts. It was at this time that Adah's other artistic and intellectual talents emerged. An aspiring writer, she contributed poems and essays on Judaism to Isaac Mayer Wise's weekly newspaper, The Israelite. Menken saw herself as a latter-day Deborah, advocating for Jewish communities around the world. She urged the Jews of Turkey to rebel against oppression and place their faith in the coming of a messiah who would lead them to restore Jerusalem. She publicly protested the Mortara Affair, the kidnapping by Italian Catholic officials of a young Jewish boy whom the officials claimed the Jewish community had stolen. She also spoke out forcefully when Lionel Nathan was denied his seat in the English Parliament. And long before Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax did so, Menken refused to appear on stage during the High Holy Days even at the very height of her public success.

Although world-renown because of her appearance in Mazeppa, Menken's deepest desire was to be known as a serious poet. She built friendships among international literary elite that included Charles Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alexandre Dumas the Younger, Algernon Swinburne, and George Sand, who served as godmother to Menken's second child. Menken was accused of having affairs with Dumas and Swinburne, neither of which can be confirmed, but the constant hint of scandal wherever she performed did little to discourage box office receipts.

She died in Paris in 1868 at the age of 33, apparently from a combination of peritonitis and tuberculosis. When treatment by the personal doctor of Napoleon III of France provided no relief, a rabbi kept a bedside vigil. Menken was buried in the Jewish section of Montparnasse Cemetery.


Little remembered today, Menken was a path breaking risk taker who lived a scandalous life in the theater, but who was a creative, if unpolished, literary talent. A collection of her poems, Infelicia, appeared a week after her death. Charles Dickens quipped about her, "She is a sensitive poet who, unfortunately, cannot write." Despite cultivating her "bad girl" persona assiduously, Menken retained a sincere devotion to her fellow Jews around the world. Today's Hollywood celebrities have nothing on the glamorous, scandalous, tragic and paradoxical Adah Isaacs Menken.