Rockaway Mania (& Some Woody Allen)

June 20, 2011

Here’s something to round out everyone’s newly-acquired Rockaway IQ  (and by “everyone” I mean those who have just recently discovered what happens at the Queens end of the A Train, the rest of “everyone” I apologize for adding even more to the flood of Rockaway attention, but I’ve always liked to give Rockaway attention, I guess not everyone was listening carefully enough).

Over drinks after seeing Woody Allen’s latest film on Friday – Midnight in Paris – a friend and I reached that inevitable moment in the evening of having to address how this movie compared with the last few and with his best and what it says about the man. It’s totally inescapable, but always fun, and definitely worth indulging (though I probably wouldn’t want to overhear a conversation like that). I won’t say too much about Midnight in Paris, except to say it is too charming to miss (an antidote to the Rom-Com?).  The casting of the American literati of 1920’s Paris was kind of brilliant. Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein was maybe my favorite, and that’s the only one I’ll give away (try hard not to read too much about it before seeing it; hopefully, as a rule, like me, you don’t read too much about things you are about to see anyway). And Owen Wilson as a 21st Century wide-eyed American writer in Paris looking for inspiration was great – Owen Wilson does earnest SO well (remember Meet The Parents?).

For the  more savvy and literary transplants,  who arrived here after years of cultivating a romance for this city, Woody Allen looms large as the godfather of urbane and idiosyncratically neurotic  Jewish New York. (Spike Lee is another such godfather, of other outsized myths of New York).   Manhattan (1979) and Annie Hall (1977) seem to be the apotheoses of an outside admirer’s visions of New York –  the kind of place where Wallace Shawn’s intellectual animal magnetism causes beautiful and charmingly neurotic  women to fidget and stutter, while Woody Allen stands back, bewildered.  And worried.  But also the kind of place that revels in its romance, in long black and white takes with Rhapsody in Blue playing.

Another of Woody Allen’s odes to New York, and to a long-gone Golden Age, is his Rockaway movie – Radio Days. These days Rockaway is predominantly known and sentimentalized for its Irish-American-ness, once even dubbed the Irish Riviera, now a term reserved for Breezy Point alone, a gated community at the western end of the peninsula, where the Kings County DA, Charles Hynes, has a summer home (not without controversy – there is just something about the district attorney of an ethnically diverse borough, where many people of color are regularly prosecuted, living in an all-white gated community; during the dog days of the Crown Heights riots in 1991, Al Sharpton decided to make a point about this by marching to Hynes’ house in Breezy, with 100 supporters, chanting “Hynes, Hynes, have you heard? This is not Johannesburg!”).

In Rockaway we have our own St. Patrick’s Day parade and a disproportionate amount of cops and firemen. If you want to look at one place where nearly everyone was directly affected by 9/11, almost to a man, Rockaway provides way too many scary numbers and stories; some would even say that my generation was irreparably scarred and there is an unspoken eerie sense of survivor’s guilt, in a community where booze is already a go-to remedy. Amazingly I can’t think of any movies about Irish Rockaway, though I have an uneasy feeling that a Ben Affleck type might want to produce another less than flattering story about Irish America. So maybe it’s best left alone. Rescue Me sort of takes that on – Dennis Leary and a few of the other guys from his house live out there.  Might not be the most nuanced portrayal of Rockaway and Irish Americans either though.

But Radio Days, set during the Golden Age of Radio, in the late 30’s and 40’s, is Woody Allen territory, and so pretty thoroughly Jewish, as much of Rockaway once was. Rockaway used to be about half non-religious Jewish and half Irish, but like most non-religious Jews in the rest of Queens, and certainly Brooklyn, Rockaway Jews left town – to Long Island and Jersey, the richer ones to Westchester.  And loads of Jews (and many others) used to summer down there in the days before AC; I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’m guessing that’s how Allen got to know the place. My parents are still there and so are a few others like them, but the “newer” Jews are quite religious, and quite apart. It’s sad that the Jewish New York of Woody Allen is mostly gone, but you can add it to the long list of things once intrinsic to the New York character that are now sealed in history.

In the main household of the movie, a bursting with life working class Jewish one, the individual characters, confined to a stifling and intrusive home, find their escape and fantasy life through the radio. A young Seth Green plays the Woody Allen alter ego and the cast includes Allen regulars like a shrieking and overbearing Julie Kavner and also Farrow and Keaton.  The movie is a lot less “serious” than Annie Hall and Manhattan, and premised mostly on various small stories within stories, often ones with great punch lines, including ones about radio starlets and hanky-panky in the studios.  In one bit, Larry David plays the Communist next door neighbor, who lures his more observant neighbor – on Yom Kippur, in the middle of his fast – to commit an unspeakable transgression (eating pork, and then promptly being punished by God and getting sick).  Another story, making great use of the radio, takes us on one of Aunt Bea’s dates (Dianne Wiest), where she and her suitor drive out to the sand dunes of Breezy Point, only to get stuck in the sand in the middle of hearing about the impending alien invasion (think Orson Welles). A more recent invasion of Breezy occurred on June 6, 1993, when the Golden Venture, a boat carrying 286 illegal immigrants from China, ran aground just off Breezy after a mutiny; 10 people drowned trying to reach shore; several others who made it showed up on the doorsteps of some very confused Breezy Point residents.

Rockaway makes one wistful in many different ways – it’s a vestige of much that no longer exists in New York (including one of the last NYC neighborhoods to retain a local accent) and beach communities often hold on to their pasts longer than other places, and are an easy place on which to project idealized histories and simpler times.  The beach is fun and easy, and away from the city, which you can always see in the distance across the bay.  Radio Days doesn’t completely capture that, and Rockaway definitely deserves its own movie, relating to its more recent identity. But for NYC & Allen buffs, and the generally nostalgic, Radio Days is a charming tour of imagining what a place  and time once were.


Food, Freud & God

June 2, 2011

By far, my favorite and most used cookbook is Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food – an Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. Since Roden’s book is, essentially, a Jewish diaspora culinary survey, the book serves as a veritable tour of world cuisine, or at least wherever the trade winds took Jewish merchants and frequent expulsions took Jewish refugees.  Eastern Europe is given its respective space of course, but the most dog-eared battered pages in my copy are in North Africa and Asia, especially Morocco, Iran, Iraq and India (the dishes my dinner party guests may have already tired of are Fesenjan/Duck or Chicken with Pomegranate and Walnut Sauce, Kofta Mishmisheya /Lamb Meatballs in Apricot Sauce and Moroccan Mezze). Interspersed throughout the book, between different regions and courses, are short histories  — personal anecdotes and more general histories — of the various local Jewry, such as a quick rundown of the three different Jewish communities of India (the Cochinis, Bene Israel and Baghdadis) and the once vibrant community of the Greek Jewish population of Salonika, that make the book equally interesting as a colorful and engaging ethnographic guide as it is a cookbook.  The Sephardi World half of the book is subtitled “Many Styles of Sephardi Cooking, with Echoes from Ancient Baghdad, Medieval Spain and the Ottoman World.”  It more than lives up to the expectations that title inspires and includes recipes for savory pies from Salonika, soups from Yemen and various salads, rice and meat dishes from Iran, Italy, Morocco and Georgia.  The shopping for the ingredients alone  is worth investing in these dishes (especially if you have Sahadi’s nearby, Sahadi’s itself merits buying this book so you can actually feel like you are finally taking advantage of everything Sahadi’s has to offer).

Once, while flipping through the book with my mother, I came across a story about the author’s great-grandfather who was the chief rabbi of Aleppo in Syria. Already naturally inflated with ancestral pride (I was raised to believe Vilna Jews are inherently very special — hard even for me to tell whether I am being serious or not when I invoke it; it may have started as a way to tease my dad who has no roots in Vilna, where my mother is from, but if I am honest, maybe, sometimes,  in private moments, I think Vilna Jews are a little superior), I asked my mother “Do we have any chief rabbis in our family?” My mother replied: “No, I think we’re about 10th generation atheist.”

Spiritual thirst is a totally alien instinct to me and most of my extended family. It is not something we have ever spent any thought or energy on. It is a non-issue.  We did grow up with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything else though – history, politics, food, sports, art, music. Not that spirituality and engagement with the world are mutually exclusive, but the terrestrial world always seems to provide enough material  for us to get lost in.

Growing up in Israel, especially with roots in a kibbutz, there was a very clear,  loudly articulated and socially acceptable demarcation between the secular and the religious, often with much mutual disdain and incomprehension. And Israel being a Jewish country, “doing” Jewish things did not entail actually believing in their spiritual underpinnings. I carried this over when I moved here, and assumed that those who were modern, educated and sophisticated were surely also atheists who were religious only in their habits and practices of going to Church, observing holidays and following those precepts that helped them and made them good people. I did not – not for a second – think people actually believed. Especially not in the miracles. Living for many years in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood, I quickly learned about all the magical “stuff” but always assumed that like Moses drawing water from a rock and an angel moving Abraham’s hand before he could kill Isaac, these were absorbed as myths with larger messages. Not so. Or at least not for a lot of great, sophisticated people I respected and admired. I learned the hard way that the Immaculate Conception and the Resurrection are very serious, non-metaphorical, business indeed.  It was not merely about following the teachings of Christ.  And of course, after my limited exposure to religious Jews in Israel whom I dogmatically distrusted, I also met religious Jews who had first rate minds and intellects and are leaders in their professional fields (the amazing and accomplished Twerski family comes to mind – Professor Aaron Twerski,  a legal scholar, is maybe the top products liability expert in the country).  

After a few years of absorbing this realization – that a faithful mind could also be a truly modern sophisticated one – I became transfixed by it. Rather than wrestling with agnosticism, I have developed a deep hunger for understanding this and am always eager to hear it discussed by those whom I respect or at least have thought about their faith with the intellectual rigor they have applied to other parts of their lives. Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens recently had a famous public spar about it in Toronto, though that was more about the evils and virtues of organized religion, which is a lot less interesting. But still, an opportunity to hear someone who has excelled at Britian’s top institutions (and you know, was a popular Prime Minister, until he wasn’t) discuss faith.  But still, it left me unsatisfied, the rationality of faith itself wasn’t dissected quite enough.  My own personal attempts at engagement have mostly failed, as when a boy once asked me on a date, after learning I was an atheist, “But aren’t you worried about Judgment Day?”  — yeah that wasn’t heading anywhere especially edifying.

At last, I have finally come across a truly gratifying conversation about the subject in a play called Freud’s Last Session, at the Marjorie S. Dean Little Theatre at the West Side YMCA. In this fun, hypothetical , pseudo-historical jaunt that takes place on one of the most memorably ominous days in modern history – Sept. 3, 1939 –  in Freud’s study in London, where he had taken refuge rather briefly before succumbing to cancer, playwright Mark St. Germain imagines what a meeting between CS Lewis and Freud would have been like*, and their inevitable conversation about their respective “faiths” – Freud’s sardonic declarations explaining why God does not exist, and CS Lewis’ earnest, charming incantations of why he does – you very nearly want to believe him. I could have sat there for a few more hours listening to those two actors and that script.  With the atrocities of Hitler about to be unleashed as the backdrop, the clear existence of evil and total absence of an interventionist God set the tone, and CS Lewis admits to wrestling with that very notion.

 And yet when Lewis talks to Freud about that craving that all humans seem to be born with for seeking some type of God or power higher than themselves, even I, who have never had that craving, had to admit that Lewis was actually using logic  pretty successfully to make his non-logical point, since it appears that most humans do (of course I believe it’s because the as-yet-unexplainable-by-science leads some to this, but still, it is pretty prevalent!).

Psychoanalysis was of course also at play, with the two literally and figuratively taking turns on the couch. Both had fathers whose religious fervor affected them very obviously and directly, with Freud musing that Lewis sought God as the father he never had (or at least one he could love) and with Freud clearly wanting to eschew the faith of a religious father who cowed and submitted to the anti-Semitism around him rather than stand up for himself – in the play Freud muses that he didn’t know whom he hated more, the man who had told his father to get off the sidewalk because he was a dirty Jew, or his father for doing so.

Another reason to see this play is the venue. One of the reasons I am pretty sure I won’t ever leave New York permanently is because there is always more of it. The theatre is in the West Side YMCA, one of the most beautiful buildings I think I’ve come across in this city in many many years, and it had somehow eluded me until last week. Need I say more?

*From the Playbill – “In his book The Question of God, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. writes, ‘Did Freud and Lewis ever meet? The possibility is tantalizing. After Freud immigrated to England…(a) young Oxford professor visited Freud during this time but has not been identified. Might it have been Lewis?’ – His speculation sparked this play.”

The Man From Jamaica

May 24, 2011

Chris Blackwell, Island Records and Remembering Bob Marley

Last week, on the 30th anniversary of Bob Marley’s death, Chris Blackwell, Mr. Island Records, joined the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengraber for a very rare public interview.

On hand for the multi-media event, which included the video for Island’s first hit – Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop”, footage of “The Harder They Come” and some spectacular photos of Grace Jones – were eager life-long reggae fans (some sporting t-shirts with Bob Marley’s photo), various folks from the industry and even some major music-makers themselves, including Mr. Harry Belafonte.

Paul Holdengraber had the enviable but rather serious challenge of providing, in such a limited time, a satisfying conversation with a man who seems to have lived one thousand lives in one.  Starting at the beginning of the beginning, Holdengraber and Blackwell recreated Blackwell’s youth – his life in a tony expat enclave in Jamaica, where Noel Coward and other major English notables, good friends of Blackwell’s mother, played prominent roles. Blackwell, who worked for a while as a water-skiing instructor, first witnessed water-skiing when Errol Flynn, fully-clothed, lit cigarette in mouth, miniature dachshund under his arm, rolled up his trousers and took to the water. Blackwell’s mother, one of Ian Fleming’s great loves, also undoubtedly had much to do with Blackwell’s employment as local guide for one of the first Bond films – “Dr. No”. This early immersion amongst larger than life talents and personalities led Blackwell to develop a natural touch amongst celebrities and would-be stars alike. More importantly though, his days in Jamaica planted the seeds of his lifelong love of Jamaican music, which while not always reflected in the top-selling acts he signed in later years, stayed with him and led to perhaps his greatest legacy – introducing the world to Bob Marley.

But long before the days of Bob Marley, Blackwell began Island Record’s discography by rather unglamorously loading his Mini with his then-slim  catalog –re-mastered records from cassettes sent him from Jamaica—and taking sales trips to the outskirts of London, to places like Brixton, Lewisham, Hackney.

Apart from his total devotion to musicians whose music he believed in, Blackwell’s success also has as much to do with his total devotion to musicians whose music he may not have felt a natural affinity to but whom he believed in as individuals. Cat Stevens and U2 are perhaps the most famous of these.  Blackwell told of finally, politely relenting to a meeting with Cat Stevens, who had reportedly wanted Balckwell to help him produce a musical. After hearing “Father and Son,” Blackwell told Stevens, “I’m really not interested in doing a musical, but I would love to sign you.” When Stevens asked him how should he go about getting out of his contract with Decca – with Dick Rowe no less, the man famous for turning down the Beatles – Blackwell had the perfect plan – Stevens should tell Rowe that the next record absolutely had to include the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Blackwell assured him Rowe would think him a bit mad and give him his release. He was right.

Like Stevens, U2’s music, which Blackwell mused was “rinky dink,” was far from anything seemingly natural for Island Records. Yet Blackwell was deeply impressed by the group and their manager and his only instructions to his staff at Island was to just follow the band’s lead.

When Blackwell began to actively seek out rock music to produce, he realized that Island was known for its reggae and he’d perhaps have to differentiate the label in some way to include rock. He came up with the pink album cover for his rock records, saying that at the time he thought, “people would know, nothing pink would ever come from Jamaica.”

The evening closed with tales of two of the major icons of Island Records, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. Jimmy Cliff’s success in Jamaica reached its height with his role and album for “The Harder They Come,” which Blackwell strongly urged him to do. Yet soon after, Cliff finally succumbed to the siren’s calls of big money and international fame. Totally personally and professionally devastated by seeing Cliff go, Blackwell was perfectly poised to receive Bob Marley and The Wailers, who entered his world soon after. The group had acquired a less than positive reputation amongst the producers in Jamaica and Blackwell’s  early trust of Marley despite this has become legendary. Blackwell fondly recalls , “They were broke but they walked in like kings.” Blackwell  advanced them the 4000 pounds they requested, simply telling them “go make your album”. Before the evening concluded with Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell,” Blackwell noted that “Jimmy Cliff played the character (in “The Harder They Come”), but Bob Marley was the character.”

The Promised Lands, Part II (Uganda, Canada, Birobidzhan)

March 14, 2011

There is an old joke that because of Moses’ stutter, when he told his brother Aaron to announce to the Jewish people that they were headed to the promised land, Aaron heard “Canaan” instead of what Moses actually said, “Canada.” Think of all that space, there could probably be 50 Israels in Alberta alone.  In 1903, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered the Mau Plateau, part of today’s Kenya and Uganda, to Theodor Herzl as a possible solution for the pogroms in Russia and as a general place of refuge for Jews. The Zionists ultimately rejected the so-called “Uganda Scheme”  but it led to the formation of the splinter Jewish Territorialist Organization – led by British Jews who were open to the idea of finding an alternative tract of habitable land for their people, either in the British Empire, the Americas, or even Portuguese Africa ( Alaska was even considered at some point; apparently “habitable” is a very relative term).  The Territorialists mostly faded with the famous & infamous Balfour Declaration  in 1917.

But one other project to establish a Jewish homeland in the wilderness, far away from Palestine, or really any recognizable civilization, did materialize in the eastern reaches of the Soviet empire, near the border with China.  Birobidzhan was to become the first Jewish socialist autonomous (urban) region – for settlement by all Jews, not only Russian ones. This was in the early 20th, when the Russian Soviet experiment still stood as relatively  uncorrupted — a beacon of hope and inspiration for fellow travelers looking for alternatives to the colonialist, capitalist world.  Big Solutions seemed possible.  Architects as much as anyone, began to plan Big.

According to the catalogue of the 1998 exhibit Bauhaus in Birobidzhan (Tel Aviv Bauhaus Center– on the 80th anniversary of the Birobidzhan experiment): “From the stabilization of the new Bolshevik regime in Soviet Russia, Western modern architects – mostly Germans but also Americans and others – looked to the first socialist state in the world. They saw in it endless possibilities for modern architecture. In addition to the revolutionary momentum in all areas of life, private land ownership was revoked. In theory, it was possible to build and plan entire cities without limitation.” In the late 20’s and early 30’s there were many exchanges between the new Bauhaus School of Design  in Dessau and the Soviet Union, as well as Bauhaus architects and designers in Mandatory Palestine.

On March 28, 1928, the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR allocated the banks of the rivers Bira and Bidzhan for Jewish settlement and the first Jews arrived the next month. After he left his role as director of the Bauhaus School,  in the summer of 1933, Swiss architect Hannes Meyer traveled to Birdobidzhan  and developed a master plan for the city. Unfortunately, Meyer was eventually replaced as master planner because he was a foreigner. As Micha Gross and Iosif Brenner write in the catalogue, “Still the city stamp of Meyer legacy and the echoes of the dreams of thousands of Jewish settlers who came here from all over the Soviet Union as well as the US, Argentina, Poland, France, Mandatory Palestine and elsewhere. “

BY 1934 the Central Committee established the area as a “Jewish Autonomous Region”  and in 1936  declared it a “Soviet Jewish culture in which masses of working Jewish people will develop their own state-structure.” However, the brutal, all-encompassing reality of Stalin and his purges finally caught up with the proletariat Jewish dream and by summer of 1938 all plans were scaled back and then ceased altogether.

Some activity picked up again after the war but more “mild” post-Stalinist purges of Jewish leaders in late 40’s officially closed the door on this Jewish homeland in the far far Russian east and the Jews who had made their way to Birobidzhan mostly left and headed to the new Jewish state in the Middle East.  But it remains a Jewish ghost town if nothing else – the names of the streets and squares of this Russian outpost are all Jewish — a Yiddish grid on an Asian map.

Bauhaus in the Promised Lands, Part I (Tel Aviv)

February 21, 2011

As Frederic Chaubin‘s new fun book, Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (CCCP), shows, the last century left the globe strewn with monuments of big solutions to big problems.  Politicians, historians, philosophers, and other Men of Great Vision, cleared messy idiosyncracies from the map and proceeded to re-plan societies to make them work. Architects seemed specially poised to embrace roles as master planners of a well-organized utopian universe.

The Bauhaus school, of course, very much led the way, following William Morris’ ethos that art must meet the needs of society. In the Bauhaus Manifesto, Walter Gropius focused on collapsing the distance between art and technology, which he equated with “culture and civilization,” and placed his faith in the future in big building projects. Importantly, like other prophets of Modernism, he considered history to be “unnecessary ballast.” (Magdalena Droste)

During this time, one of Europe’s constantly gnawing and intractable “problems,” balanced rather heavily by the ballast of history,  was, of course, the Jewish problem – not only anti-Semites obsessed over a solution for the Jews, Jews themselves,  and their allies, sought a way to finally make the world a little less precarious for this small but annoyingly resilient diaspora.  Zionism gained its foothold in these years, with the first Zionist Congress taking place in 1897 and growing in prominence and determination in the next few decades.

Not surprisingly perhaps, two “solutions” to the Jewish problem bear the clean lines and white-washed walls of the Bauhaus.  Tel Aviv, which celebrated 100 years just recently, has the greatest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world, and is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site for it. Similarly, a less well known, failed experiment, for  “re-placement” of the world’s Jews, is also a (mostly) living embodiment of one of the Bauhaus’ grander projects — Birobidzhan – the Russian city-state in the eastern reaches of Asian Russia near the border with China, which the Soviets foresaw as a Jewish homeland.

On Dizengoff Street, one of Tel Aviv’s main arteries, the Bauhaus Center is a small but comprehensive reminder of the role of this important Modernist entryway to the 20th Century.  In Dizengoff Center, just steps away from the Bauhaus Center, one of the world’s clearest manifestations of the International Style looms, with a plaza surrounded by round-cornered, sleek white buildings, many of which have recently been restored to their more original bleached hue.  If you are a Bauhaus fan, a pilgrimage is in order, as Tel Aviv might be the best example of a living breathing organic example of this highly organized approach – it naturally took root here, it actually “worked.”

This is undoubtedly because of the mass migration of German Jews to Tel Aviv before the war (the second one).  As Shmuel Yavin writes in the catalog to an exhibition at the Bauhaus Center – the Revival of the Bauhaus in Tel Aviv, Renovation of the International Style in the White City  — “The great construction wave Tel Aviv experienced in order to enable the absorption of the immigration waves, the fourth (second half of the 1920’s) and the fifth (in the 1930’s), included the building of thousands of buildings,” and “The arrival in Israel/Palestine in the early 1930’s of many architects, most of them from Germany, and the return of Israeli architects who went to study in Europe, brought about a drastic change in the building style in Tel Aviv. A transformation from the eclectic to the modern.” Hence, two very modern 20th Century solutions gave birth to a distinctly Jewish, distinctly Bauhaus new city.

In the same catalog, the architect Nissim Davidov writes, “Tel Aviv is unique in the fact that the town is associated with the International styles in all their aspect – ideology, design and texture, in a manner that was never expressed elsewhere. The fundamental ideological principles ‘creating a brave new world,’ and the uniform equality in building for the masses, went hand in hand with the ideology of the Zionist settlement in the country.

Davidov also emphasizes that, “As opposed to the urban texture in Europe, where the International style’s buildings were usually incorporated as an infill in a row, of which only the façade could be seen, the Garden City plan for Tel Aviv, in which each plan stands on a separate plot, singularly permitted to express one of the essential principles of the style – relating to the building as a volume.”

This has allowed each building, within this unified scheme, to become one distinct part of the whole, leading Tel Aviv to develop as an unplanned city might, it had room to breathe and become overgrown by its own unique character.

That Pesky “Jewish Question”

January 8, 2011

Two annual rites that round out my year in late December are a visit to the American Colony in Jerusalem and my visit with my Great Aunt Vera, also in Jerusalem. Vera is not a real Aunt, but a very close family friend in her 80’s who has known my family since my grandparents knew her in fabled, mythical, larger than life and history, pre-war Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania).  Both experiences are also, always, an exercise in dealing with the current status of that pesky “Jewish Question” – the American Colony, nearly as mythic and larger than life to me as Vilna, is not especially welcoming to Israelis or Jews, and neither is Aunt Vera.  The American Colony and Vera represent two different strains of that Jewish Question – the former very much about the history and politics of Israel, the latter about longing for a rich, glorious Jewish past that will never return.

This December, during my dinner with Vera at the American Colony, my great Aunt – completely fluent in Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Italian, French, German and Hebrew; better-read and traveled than anyone I have ever met; and possessed of “strong” opinions of the sort that would make a dictator stammer – started on a complaint that I unfortunately did not immediately recognize as ultimately ending in a general complaint about Jews.

Always difficult to remember the origin of these arguments with Vera, I cannot recall how she began her critique of the musical adaptation of Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman. With her trademark “great disgust” for the corruption of the original story and the “true history” of that time and place, she noted the hideous discrepancies between the musical and the original; for example, Tevye would never, in a shtetl in Ukraine in the late 19th or early 20th, have ever openly proclaimed his love for his wife – he never would have used the word “love.” A few more critiques along those lines followed. I reminded her that Broadway and Hollywood often take great liberties with reality, or the original fictional story, and that she shouldn’t let this particular instance upset her so, it is the nature of musicals and adaptations.  Alas, I did not see the bigger picture. She explained there is no other culture or people on earth that would take one of its most hallowed brilliant writers and wring such an operetta from one of his best stories. I’m pretty sure I laughed when she said this and I assured her that many, if not all, cultures have done something similar. She asked me to name one. I told her that surely Shakespeare has turned over in his grave many times in the last few centuries after some productions of his work. She dared me to name one production.  Then I realized how doomed this conversation was.  How ridiculous.   I could not shake Vera from her conviction that Jews are the only people in history who would sell out like this, who would permit one of their most sacred stories to be bought and transformed like Tevye and Fiddler on the Roof.

Vera’s Fiddler on the Roof argument preceded a full two days of general and specific bitter complaints about how Jews have totally and completely lost their way in this world – how they are especially ignorant, unread, untraveled, uncouth…(for Hebrew speakers, Jews are simply “lo al ha-rama“) I asked her why she held them to such a high standard – are they not, after all, like everyone else?  But in her Golden Vilna they really were not like everyone else and an elderly woman’s storied lost world becomes the unfortunate point of reference for the modern world. What can compete with that?

Though I always bring Vera books when I visit, I hesitated to bring The Finkler Question this year. I honestly don’t think she cares to read anything by and about Jews anymore, and Harold Jacobson’s book might actually give her pause about her toxic feelings about Jews (she cannot even say the word “Jew” without spitting it out).  The Finkler Question pretty much covers it though, even if English Jews do have a very particular, English-specific, conflict with their identities – being fully English often seems to preclude much else culturally, unlike being American, especially New York-Jewish American where one can hold both concepts in one’s head without creating even a mild paradox —  perhaps unlike England, even today (one need only remember some articles about team allegiance around the time of Israel and England’s campaigns for the last Euro Cup, when they happened to be in the same group) – though interestingly, the UK’s current ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould,  is Jewish, the first time this is the case.  An interesting experiment! But the Finkler Question very convincingly explores the simultaneous fascination and disdain that many non-Jews hold for Judaism, especially in England, and generally in places where there are not many Jews but where Jews have distinguished themselves in some way;  that quixotic sex appeal of Jewish women, and often men, the admiration for intellect and industriousness; and the often simultaneous resentment of perceived Jewish pride and any positive notions of Israel – two sides of the same coin, more often than not.

These mixed feelings of admiration and resentment characterize many Jews themselves, either in their perception of fellow Jews or their own identities – distancing themselves from it at times, reveling in it at others. It seems like too much energy to me, and awfully confusing.  Perhaps I am lucky, as an atheist and Israeli living in New York (with no religious upbringing to reckon with), and maybe I flatter myself but I tend not to spend too much time thinking about the subject – it is what it is.  However, I do feel forced to think about it when others don’t let it alone – when friends make inappropriate comments about Israel or Jews (either praising them too highly as a friend’s father recently did, when he proclaimed that the Germans, in their quest to become the master race, nearly wiped out history’s only real master race; or when various men have a very obvious Jewish fetish and yet at the same time go out of their way to pronounce their views on Israel – usually they proceed with their political views based on nothing I have said, my name and dual citizenship usually suffice as an opening; lucky me! Sometimes they feel that as a “friend of the Jews” they have liberty to critique at will all and sundry.) It does crowd one’s head at times.

Vera, can, in one breath, represent almost every character in The Finkler Question – the distancing and disdain but ultimate identification with Judaism of Sam Finkler; the strong minded earthiness of Hephzibah; the refined Old World European class of Libor. It is interesting that she has chosen Tevye the Milkman as the apotheosis and nadir of Judaism.  As Irving Howe wrote, in 1963, about Sholom Aleichem’s critics: “50 or 60 years ago, the Jewish intelligentsia, its head buzzing with Zionist, Socialist and Yiddishist ideas, tended to look down upon Sholom Aleichem.” He was a bit too “folksy” for them. Howe also noted that , “(Sholom Aleichem) needs to be rescued from his reputation, from the quavering sentimentality which keeps him at a safe distance.” Howe’s essay from ’63 also reminds us that Sholom Aleichem was, from the beginning, claimed by many to represent “all Jews.” That is quite a burden. And sets up anyone who discusses or appropriates him for failure – someone, somewhere, will condemn and outlandishly criticize the appropriator for even deigning to touch such a work, in such a way.

The Jewish Question does seem to provide an inexhaustible mine of literary ore  — though it seemed nearly tapped until Jacobson’s book – maybe this was the final bit left? Maybe we can move on now? Unless of course you happen to write well and have something to say, then of course, it’s quite alright. So please, only good, genuinely imaginative writers are asked to ever take up this question again (or filmmakers — the Coen brothers made their Jewish movie, it seems, because they thought they ought to make one. A Serious Man was far from imaginative or poignantly astute).

And the Veras of the world are asked to no longer narrow their focus on Jews alone in their general bemoaning of the current state of the world.  It’s not just us at fault!

Images of England

October 24, 2010

A recent article in the New Yorker, about Cameron’s Big Society, analyzed the new Tory call for Austerity, and what exactly this Big Society entails apart from curtailing services and expecting the private citizen to step into the breach as the government recedes.

Two kinds of images most often come to mind when thinking of British Austerity. One is of post-war England, which Tony Judt wrote about so poignantly last May in the NYRB , and that Mike Leigh portrayed so starkly  in Vera Drake – that kind of stoic resignation to bare-bones living that makes you feel downright spoiled for having heat, food and a comfortable bed.

The other kind of image is of post-industrial England, especially its North.  The North, and the Midlands, have gotten to see themselves portrayed rather often the last few years,  poster children of England under and after the Iron Lady.  In 2006, This Is England (you can watch a great trailer for it here), captured the jobless, colorless landscape in the Midlands in the 80’s, during the Falklands and the reign of Maggie Thatcher (all with a great soundtrack). Through the angst of a little boy who has lost his father in the war, and who can’t seem to understand on whom to blame it, we watch the need of everyone he encounters to figure out how to live with their own frustrations and lack of choices and control over their lives.  A misfit himself, he befriends a group of local, friendly, fun, and mostly apolitical skinheads and then, ultimately, finds what he thinks is the right answer with nationalist, racist ones who feel like they have

“lost their  country” and know exactly whom to blame it.  

Not long after This Is England, Control, the Ian Curtis biopic, showed us its bleakest views of Manchester and England, emphasized by the film’s palette of black-gray-white.  While Ian Curtis’ state of mind and experience likely guided that choice, it was hard not to imagine that one might become suicidal just by living in that sooty landscape, in the shadow of large factories and row houses that at least in the movie did not seem like the kind of refuge you seek when you step inside your home and close the door.

More recently, in 2009, the epic Red Riding Trilogy (New Yorker review here), used post-industrial Yorkshire as the setting for its hard-boiled crime story. The resulting three films, which screened together at the IFC Center last year, were satisfyingly grim and violent but so visually lyrical and beautiful, with a proper soundtrack to match, that you did not want to fault the filmmakers for once again using northern industrial landscapes to create that effect. It might be easier to set a gritty police procedural in Yorkeshire than elsewhere, but is that so wrong? I wouldn’t mind seeing a whole new series set in Yorkshire in the 80’s or even today (England’s answer to Baltimore in The Wire?) Probably not right to romanticize it , but it is hard not to at the same time.

A current exhibit at the Amador Gallery, on 57th street in the Fuller Building also shows images of the de-industrialized North.  It is Chris Killip’s first commercial exhibit in the United States, which is surprising since he is one of England’s most accomplished photographers. It’s possible that his very direct criticism of Thatcher through his photography was seen as unfashionable as other, more subtle, modes of artistic critique took hold, much as Ken Loach is derided for his heavy-handedness. However, Killip’s work is too monumental and beautiful as an art form to dismiss as Old Labour propaganda. His book In Flagrante, based on his years photographing the northeast of England in the late 70’s and early 80’s, is seen as an iconic documentation of that period in England, and is considered by many the most important book of English photography from the 80’s. Killip won the Henri Cartier-Bresson award for it and it was republished last year by Errata.

While the photos in the Amador exhibit are  unflinching observations of a dour and depressed North, most are also arrestingly beautiful. One, called True Love Wall (taken in Gateshead, Tyneside, in 1975), is of a man with his back to us, looking at a brick wall, with newspapers flying past him like tumbleweed. If only for this picture alone you should go to the exhibit, because no reproduction can do it justice, the light reflecting on the newspapers has not been reproduced in any book or other image of the print I have seen. While there you can also flip through In Flagrante and read the essay in it, beautifully written by John Berger.

As Britain’s new government demands more of its citizens, it will be interesting to see whether the dynamics of England’s supposedly fading rigid class system of days of yore will come into relief again like under Thatcher, or, hopefully, class lines will be further blurred by a shared experience of these measures of Austerity.

Why I Like Djokovic

September 10, 2010

Not to win the whole thing mind you. You need only have paid minimal attention the past couple of years to know that Nadal and Federer are just in a completely different league. But in the non-superhuman league that is the rest of men’s pro tennis, Djokovic is my favorite by far.

Men’s tennis plays a similar game with its audience as does classical ballet: it creates the illusion of effortlessness and lightness and ease (some of the women look graceful on the court but they almost all invariably grunt and look like they are working very very hard). Federer is the master of this, he makes it all look so easy. A couple of nights ago, when one of the commentators spotted Billie Jean King in the audience and asked her who her favorite player was, King replied “Federer.” “Why, what is it about his game that you love?” “Um…everything.” Nadal, with his more  conspicuously athletic body, almost looks meant for a different sport, but he likewise makes it seem like it is all so fun and easy.  And both are equally stoic on-court, soft-spoken off court, mild-mannered and lovely. Like tennis is supposed to be. Of the two “country-club” sports, tennis & golf, tennis is the one that can be called classy (golf is basically preppy and too much associated with schmoozy business outings to ever be classy).

Djokovic is the opposite. He does not make it look easy. But watching him is like getting to look inside the machine, at how the gears move and what they look like when they are not working properly.  His shots are so well-placed, that when one is not, you realize how much concentration and hard work the good ones demand. You see a human being at work, achieving superhuman feats that seem beyond him but with enough grit are not. And part of the enjoyment of watching Djokovic is that he is not stoic, on or off the court.  He does not have the seasoned reserve of so many of the players, but is also not a McEnroe hothead type. Actually Djokovic, known for doing impressions of other players (including Maria Sharapova) did a brilliant imitation of McEnroe last year, after which McEnroe and he played a few points to a very pleased audience.

Djokovic does not seem to have a huge following, partly because he is in the shadow of these two great men, but also for other reasons. (Though I sometimes suspect it might also have to do with where he is from, people don’t seem to jump at the chance to root for Serbia). One complaint is that he is a perennial underachiever and is too emotionally volatile. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Compare him to the fleeting talent of Marat Safin, who seemed to wear those traits on his sleeve, sometimes even proudly, and his underachievement in tennis, considering his ridiculous talent, can almost be described as tragic  (it is , at the end of the day, just a sport, even I would admit that, and in this case, one that is mostly played by the overprivileged, so can’t feel too too sorry for them if they fail, especially if they didn’t seem to want it all that badly. I haven’t heard much about him lately, but I suspect Marat Safin is doing quite alright).

Then there are the perennial just-better-than-mediocre players, like James Blake and Tim Henman (two cheeky English boys sitting behind me at the Djokovic-Monfils match kept shouting, “Come on Tim!”). They can say they’d had a good run and be too close to happy with it. This is not Djokovic, he is a winner, even if he has only won one Grand Slam and may possibly not win another as long as those two guys are around. Though Federer did drop one set to him recently at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, so you never know…

Montreal, Part II (The French, The Jews)

September 3, 2010

While at McGill, my editor at the McGill Daily, Jason Chow, a first-generation Chinese-Canadian from Medicine Hat, Alberta, had a favorite go-to phrase to sum up Canadians and Americans – “Canadians will never get the race issue in the States and Americans will never get the French issue here.” Very possibly true. Though I suspect that most Americans haven’t given nearly the same amount of thought to the “Canadian problem,” as Canadians (and you know, the whole world) have given to America’s legacy of slavery and racism. Most Americans today probably just have a vague notion that somewhere in Canada people speak French and that it’s been an issue, maybe a serious one. (Americans in the 1960’s and 1970’s almost definitely had a clear idea of the issue, especially after the kidnapping and murder of Quebec Labor Minister, Pierre Laporte in 1970, by the FLQ, the Front de Liberation du Quebec, and several other bombings by them, including of the Montreal Stock Exchange).

Those “issues” led to the steep decline of one of the greatest, wealthiest cities in North America. It is hard to think of another city that faded and changed so dramatically because of cultural tensions, rather than say, an industry collapsing or the ravages of war. But it also gave birth to a newer, Frencher,  Montreal, that has more or less risen from the ashes of the worst of it and has recreated itself as the young, creative, and charming town that it is today. Let Toronto and New York carry the self-important burden of being too expensive and overworked.  Montreal sort of has it figured out.

But it has only figured it out pretty recently. In 1996, just after the province of Quebec voted not quite overwhelmingly to stay part of Canada, Montreal was not doing so well; it felt empty and each new A Louer  (For Rent) sign in a newly-vacant storefront relentlessly reminded you of that.  The mass exodus of Anglos – Jewish and Protestant – and their money, left a very palpable absence in the city.  But  the ultimate victory of Francophone Quebec  was not a totally pyrrhic one – Quebec eventually, after a couple of centuries of wishful resistance,  reclaimed its main city — poorer and smaller, but French and seemingly finally comfortable and less anxious as a French island in an English sea.


Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes 

Two Solitudes, a main contender for The Great Canadian Novel, was Hugh MacLennan’s beautiful and poignant parable from 1945, about French and English Canada. It begins with  the First World War, which  to many in the Commonwealth was the British Empire’s Original Sin –Canada, Australia and New Zealand will never forget all the young boys they sacrificed for England in that war. For obvious reasons the war also sowed even deeper resentment towards English Canada among the Quebecois – why should they fight England’s war at all? In this epic story, Athanase Tallard, the scion of a wealthy landed family from St. Marc, a small town a few hours from Montreal, struggles with this and ends up alienating himself from both communities by trying to embrace the modern, practical English way of doing business while also advocating on behalf of the French. He battles with the most powerful force in St. Marc, the Catholic Church, which encouraged its parishioners to hold on to their bitter memories and use them to fuel hatred and resistance towards the English. His own son, a draft dodger opposed to Quebecois conscription, cultivates his personal resentment towards his father into a rabid blind nationalism and preaches his vitriol at whatever pulpit is given him.  The other Solitude in the meanwhile, described as comparatively staid and bloodless, busy counting its money on St. James Street, exploiting French Canadians and hosting debutante balls, also contends with its own less than settled identity in the Canadian colony.

The characters are very much archetypes but are also subtley and beautifully infused with real life, especially the main heroes of the book – an Anglophone girl, raised properly in the Golden Square Mile, but dissatisfied with the older generation’s expectations of her to become a complacent over-educated house wife; and a boy half Irish half French, Athanase Tallard’s other son, similarly uncomfortable in a world that neither accepts him as French or English. Together they forge a path toward the new Canada with its New World  identity, fresh resourcefulness and final, painful uprooting from its European past.

“Two Solitudes,” although not coined by MacLennan, was the byword in Canada for the English/French problem and Canadian Society and his book helped define it. Cultural progress often seems to be measured in relation to it. In her investiture speech as the new Governor General of Canada, in 2005, Michaelle Jean, a Haitian refugee who moved to Quebec in 1968 and who made her mark as an  accomplished journalist and statewoman, stated that, “the time of the Two Solitudes that for too long described the character of this country is past.”

Mordecai Richler & The Jews

Quebec’s irascible prodigal son – Mordecai Richler – may have been a very annoying Jewish thorn in the side of the Quebecois during his lifetime, often accused of Anglo 5th Column sensibilities. But Richler loved Quebec, his birthplace and chosen home after many years of the expat British experience that so many Canadian writers ran to before returning to embrace their (finally) first-rate, world-class, home. Richler’s novels help chronicle the rich Jewish life in Montreal. When Montreal wasn’t busy being rich and WASPy, it spent its time being poor and Catholic or Jewish (and not just French Catholic, Montreal was significantly Irish as well), or at least the stereotype goes.**

In the tradition of Philip Roth (early Philip Roth), Richler is a master at portraying the messy, yiddisher Jewish world of his post-WWII Montreal. His was a sooty, crowded, smelly, working class Jewish shtetl in and around The Main (St. Laurent Boulevard), of which some remnants remain, such as Schwartz’s and Berson & Sons’ 4th generation tombstone business across the street. After New York, Montreal very possibly boasted the most culturally rich Jewish community in North America. One outpost has even made it to Brooklyn, at Mile End on Hoyt St. (though Mile End seems to be a Quebec catchall, as they proudly advertise their poutine).

It’s a bit puzzling why Richler is not more popular here, he is hilarious and so politically and culturally astute and deals with his Jewish identity issues in a non-cynical way (it is superficially cynical but scratch the surface just a bit and there is a lot of love, much like Richler himself)  that I, at least, prefer to so many other Jewish writers of his generation (Or any Jewish writers of any generation that address Jewish identity in their work for that matter).  Others seem to try and “get over” their Jewishness, have some resentment towards it, and so end up becoming utterly obsessed with it. (Richler’s view of his Jewishness seems to be– “It is what it is.”). He has no problem airing some Jewish dirty laundry, and picking apart Montreal’s Jewish middle class, who often looked down on his kind, and he certainly broke free of his elders’ religious superstitious shtetl mentality. But he writes with affection for both, even when in Son of a Smaller Hero, his mother keeps feigning a heart condition to keep him from marrying a shiksa (Actually in Two Solitudes, the main matriarchal character also feigns a heart condition to oppose a marriage – good to see the commonalities between the two cultures, really heartwarming).

Son of a Smaller Hero, since it was only Richler’s second novel, also serves as a great primer to Montreal of that time. Richler did not take for granted that his audience knew him or Montreal as thoroughly as he, and his descriptions of that city and that time are priceless:

“Every night, St. Lawrence Boulevard is lit up like neon cake and used-up men stumble out of hundred different flophouses to mix with rabbinical students and pimps and Trotskyites and poolroom sharks. Hair tonic and water is consumed in back alleys. Swank whores sally at you out of the promised jubilee of all the penny arcades. Crap games flourish under lampposts.”

In another chapter, Richler charts how the various groups mixed in cottage country:

“About fourty-five miles north of Montreal a side-road turns off into Ste. Adele en-haut. It’s about three miles to the lake. Ste. Adele is the retreat of Montreal’s aspiring middle-class, and, as a resort town, is prone to all the faults and virtues of that group. The cottages are clean but prosaic: no Jews are wanted, but, on the other hand, they are dealt with diplomatically. The French Canadians tolerate the Presbyterians from the city because they have brought prosperity to their village, and the Presbyterians find that the French Canadians add spice to their holiday: they accept their haughtiness as philosophically as rain on Sundays. Few on either side are bilingual.”

In Joshua, Then and Now, maybe his best novel, and most autobiographical, he explores all of these different types of Jews, and the non-Jews in their lives. Joshua, raised by a vain, neglectful mother who married down, and a professional boxer father whom he saw between bouts and some other vague work for a Mr. Collucci (and the resulting run from the law) Joshua schemes, outwits and writes his way to a successful career as a TV Sports Journalist. On his way there, he travels to Spain to indulge his obsession with the Civil War, mixes with the crowd in literary London and eventually marries the daughter of a dignified Ottawa Senator, with a cottage in the Laurentions where the evening cocktail hour brings out all the fancy Anglos in their boats and seaplanes.  

If you are feeling too lazy to read through one of his books, you can check out the movies based on them (though I promise you will enjoy the books, he is so much fun, and you will probably learn a lot – I do at least). You can watch The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with Richard Dreyfuss and there is also an adaption of Joshua Then and Now with James Woods. Apparently there is a movie coming out soon based on Barney’s Version, his last novel, also pretty great and very very funny. I hear Paul Giamatti is playing the lead. Look out for it.

**To Richler, this was the myth French Canadians lived with:
(The)  conviction that, even today, the quintessential Westmount man – a banker – is chauffeured each morning to his office on St. James Street, where, in need of a daily hee-haw, he will foreclose on an impecunious habitant and then hurry home to mount the ravishing but innocent Francophone maid, throwing her off the roof if she gets preggers. The women shop at Holt Renfrew and then repair to the neighboring Ritz-Carlton Hotel for drinks and, providing they are not hopelessly frigid, assignations as well. And once a year the Westmount men and women convene at the Ritz in their tribal finery for St. Andrew’s Ball, their champagne-laden tables attended by the white niggers of North America, Quebecois pure laine, whose parents live in an unheated East End flat, owned by a short fat Jewish slumlord, the mother suffering from consumption and the father bound to die without ever once wintering in Hollywood, Florida, a lifelong dream.

(This, from his book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, from the early 90’s, obviously did not endear him to many French Canadians, but he was always very democratic and generous with his insights and insults, no one was safe and everyone was at least mildly annoyed, except for the ones who thought it was really really funny).

Montreal, Part I

August 24, 2010

 “If Canada were not a country…but instead a house, Vancouver would be the solarium-cum-playroom… Toronto, the counting room, where money makes for the most glee; Montreal, the salon…”                                             —  Mordecai Richler

And who wouldn’t want to live in the salon? It’s hard not to romanticize Montreal.  Its more recently risen musical and culinary stars, like Arcade Fire and Au Pied de Cochon, have placed it on several important world maps and more and more New Yorkers are discovering that actually, Montreal is rather close (New England has been on to this for a while now).  Just this past week the New York Times ran a 36 Hours In Montreal special, a good friend took his bachelor party up there from Brooklyn, and another friend decided last minute to take the $62/each way Amtrak Adirondack up the Hudson to spend the week there for that much needed summer respite from NYC.

Some Americans and Europeans, mostly to illustrate their own sophistication, and distance themselves from America, describe Montreal as very “European.” While that sounds almost as silly as saying Montreal has a certain je ne sais quoi, it is also grossly inapt. Montreal is so much more than merely being like any other place.  It is a quintessential New World and Old Empire experiment that just happened to land on the French side of things.  It didn’t start out that way. The US is always seen as the adolescent nation evolving with growing pains that reverberate around the world.  But Quebec’s own not-so-quiet resolution of its identity begins with the whole of the British Empire and ends with a charming mid-sized Francophone city that might compete only with Berlin for the kind of genuinely creative, DIY sensual revelry that so much of Williamsburg aspires to (In Montreal, “vagrants” and misfits are actually tolerated and welcomed, and there is no shame in having a Phd and working as a bartender, or generally not being “on the make”.  Some see it as stiflingly complacent, and  some as liberating, and it is, of course, both).

Old, Waspy, Montreal

It’s hard to imagine, but Montreal was once highly class-conscious and its upper classes highly Anglo, the Scots-Presbyterian elite deemed to control the whole of Canada from St. James Street. But St. James Street became Rue St. Jacques, and for decades the street has not functioned as a major financial engine in Canada. Most of the major money, and English protestant types, decamped after the Parti Quebecois and separatist politics took root in the 1970’s. But in 1928, when the Bank of Canada built its headquarters on St. James Street, it was the tallest building in the British Empire.  

You can see this lost Waspy Montreal world in the pages of the now defunct magazine The Montrealer. (This world has been more or less reconstituted in Toronto, but the flavor is a lot less British, less colonial – in Montreal they lived their lives a spiritual stone’s throw from Whitehall and London. Toronto, as any Torontonian will proudly point out, is technically the world’s most multicultural city, the restrained British sensibility has faded and London is now much farther away than Ottawa).  Modeled after The New Yorker, The Montrealer, a Hugh MacLennan-edited monthly that ran in the 1950’2 and early 60’s*, is a testimonial to Montreal of the early and mid-20th century.

Along with original poetry, fiction, and clever cartoons, The Montrealer also served as a society page, including complete coverage of the annual St. Andrew’s Ball, with black and white photos of the gents in their tartans and military medals, and their ladies with matching tartan sashes, the captions beneath announcing names such as Capt. Earl Spafford, Mr. Watson Ogilvie, Lord and Lady Lovatt and “Miss Isabel Pearce (of the Stuart Clan)”. If you blink while reading through the 1953 January issue, you might miss the only evidence that there actually might be French Canadians in Montreal – on page 35, after the St. Andrew’s Ball and Gunner’s Ball coverage, is a page reserved for La Ligue de la Jeunesse Feminine Bal de la Melodie with equally charming and well-groomed couples and debutantes. 

Another mainstay of the magazine’s society coverage was the “Bermuda Holiday,” a favorite Commonwealth  Carribean spot for well-heeled English Canadians, and includes cheeky reminders how to enjoy one’s holiday while there. In one essay by Ben Cossman, titled “How NOT to Enjoy Yourself in Bermuda,” the author muses that all the brochures and magazines about Bermuda are pointless and should instead concentrate on those out there who are intent on not enjoying their holidays – one picture of an evening beach party has a caption that reads: “If you’re on your honeymoon, don’t attend the night barbecues on the beach. There is too much danger of having fun. Besides, there’s no charge and this alone might please the grouchiest of us.”

Each issue, as might be expected of any important, well-informed and well-informing, Canadian magazine, especially in the 1950’s, spends much time on the neighbor to the South. In the section titled “Unpopular Editorials,” in this first issue of 1953, Hugh MacLennan writes about President Eisenhower and the Red Scare. He observes, “In sober moments, no thinking American can seriously believe that their danger comes from communism within their government. Nor, if they think hard enough, can they believe that the complex of fear which grips the nation is caused solely by the Soviet Union…What, after all, does a man dread most? Seldom his open and manifest enemy; almost invariably some weakness he suspects to exist within himself…If Dwight Eisenhower is to succeed as president, his main task is plain. He must exorcise the irrational terror which bedevils the 1950’s as Roosevelt exorcised the equally irrational fear that haunted the 1930’s.”

Of course, like the New Yorker, the Montrealer sought to strike the right balance between the fun and frivolous and the “very serious.” After reading about the Red Scare and behemoth America, one can turn to page 16 and take the month’s quiz: How Would You Mix These Cocktails: Angel’s Kiss, Gimlet, Clover Club, Merry Widow, Gin Fizz, Sloe Gin Rickey, Pousse Café, Sidecar, Tom and Jerry, Maiden’s Prayer, White Cargo, Old-Fashioned. Answers on page 69.

(Part II will be about the other 2/3 of Montreal — the French and the Jews, and Hugh MacLennan’s and Mordecai Richler’s books about them).