Frank McCourt on Irish Jews

In a 1971 Village Voice article

McCourt at a reading in Dubai in February.(Haider Shah/AFP/Getty Images)

Frank McCourt, who died Sunday at 78, wrote of the Jews he knew as a child in Brooklyn in his 1996 debut, Angela’s Ashes and its follow-up, ’Tis. But long before that, when McCourt was still in the midst of his James Joyce phase, he took a Bloomesque wander through Limerick, Ireland, where he was raised, searching for the grave of a Jewish princess he’d heard about from an old man in a pub. He wrote about it in the Village Voice. “On the Trail of a Jewish Princess,” published in the September 2, 1971, issue of the paper, opens with a quote from Ulysses, the line about Ireland never having persecuted Jews because she’d never let them in. McCourt goes on to give a complete history of anti-Semitism on “Erin’s Isle,” boiled down to a few self-conscious columns.

Limerick was the only town to have seen full-blown rioting against the Jews, in 1904—a fact McCourt writes he first learned at the New York Public Library. When his mother was a girl, he writes, the children used to press their noses against the window of the Jewish-owned sweet shop until “the oul’ woman would come out and scream at us ‘Vot ye vont?’ and we’d yell back ‘We vont noddings’ and run off laughin’ over the woman’s Yiddish accent.

By the time McCourt returns to Limerick, the same year the city’s mayor said the Jews deserved what they got in the riots, there was only one Jewish family left. The man in the pub tells him the princess was Polish, and that the Jews are clean, “a very clean class of people altogether, forever washing themselves dead or alive.” At the cemetery McCourt imagines the princess’ body being gently swabbed for burial. He trips and scrapes himself, “blood of a goy on a Jewish grave,” he writes, and takes it as a sign he should go. But first the thought strikes that “the cows here eat grass sprung from Jewish graves, Jewish flesh, and the people of Limerick consume the body and blood of the Chosen.”

Back in town, his English boots covered in Irish cow dung from a Jewish graveyard, he hears the princess may have been Russian, or Rumanian, or German. He wonders in any event why in the name of God the Jews chose Limerick after wandering for thousands of years and millions of miles. “Perhaps they felt at ease with a people whose sufferings were as intense though not as prolonged as their own, or was it the knowledge beyond words, an instinct, that told them the Irish are indeed one of the Lost Tribes of Israel?” McCourt writes. “But the fact shatters the myth sometimes, and I preferred the myth.”

Read the full Village Voice article here [PDF]

How to Say ‘Peace’ In Esperanto

Polish town remembers “international language” founder


The town of Bialystock, Poland, might be most famous for giving its name to Mel Brooks’s blustering theater producer. But this week, it’s getting attention for the accomplishments of Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof (né Eliezer Samenhof), the Jewish Bialystocker who invented the “international language” of Esperanto. In honor of Zamenhof’s 150th birthday, Bialystock is opening a center devoted to Esperanto today, in advance of this weekend’s 94th World Esperanto Conference, also in the city.

With words derived mainly from Romantic, Germanic, and Slavic tongues, its ingenious system of prefixes and suffixes—heavily indebted to Hebrew’s linguistic structure—enables speakers to coin new words on the fly, obviating the need for an extensive pre-established vocabulary. The BBC estimates that one million people around the world speak Esperanto today. (While Zamenhof believed that an uneducated person could learn to speak Esperanto in a week, the BBC observes, Britishly, that “this assessment was probably optimistic.”)

Esperanto represents the other side of the same coin of Zionism’s project to rejuvenate Hebrew, Ilan Stavans points out in Nextbook Press’s Resurrecting Hebrew. Where Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, propounded a sort of linguistic Jewish nationalism, Zamenhof—a one-time Zionist, who was born one year after Ben-Yehuda—sought the Jews’ salvation in a utopian linguistic universalism: a self-consciously international language that could further the cause of peace. For a time, Zamenhof’s vision bore fruit: organized groups for Jews and Arabs to converse in Esperanto were a common feature of Mandatory Palestine. After Israel’s founding, however, such contacts largely disintegrated. Perhaps the two sides should take a trip to Bialystock.

Esperanto celebrates power of hope [BBC]
Esperanto centre opens in Bialystock [Polskie Radio]
Resurrecting Hebrew

Today on Tablet

Golf course graves and Wiesel’s latest


We noted yesterday that Jewish gravestones had been found on the golf course at Long Island’s Woodmere Club. Today, photographer Ahron D. Weiner presents his photographs of some of the stones. Our book critic Adam Kirsch reflects on Elie Wiesel’s Rashi, and the ways in which the influence of the 11th-century sage is still felt today. In a essay occasioned  by the play The Soap Myth, now playing off-Broadway, Marissa Brostoff assesses the tensions that arise between survivors and scholars of the Holocaust. All this, and The Scroll all day long.

Red Rosa Found?

Maybe, if Jerusalem woman’s spit says so

Flowers are laid at a memorial plaque in Berlin for Luxemburg.(Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

Ever since the Polish-born Jewish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was murdered nine decades ago, the fate of her corpse has been a favorite historical mystery for her admirers. (Luxemburg led a brief, failed Communist uprising in Germany in 1919.) Now, thanks to a spit sample from an elderly resident of Jerusalem, the mystery may be solved. A few weeks ago, rummaging through Berlin’s museum of medical history, a pathologist named Michael Tsokos discovered a decapitated, limbless female corpse. He immediately thought of Luxemburg, whose name adorns one of the city’s bustling streets and whose body was never found. Searching online for living relatives of the felled firebrand, Tsokos came across Irene Borde, a great niece of Luxemburg’s who grew up in the Soviet Union and moved to Israel in 1973, settling in Jerusalem. Contacted by Tsokos, Borde agreed to send a spit sample to Berlin, where her DNA will be analyzed and compared with that of the newfound corpse. But the scientist cautioned Luxemburg fans not to get their hopes up: even the most advanced tests cannot indicate a relationship with more than 70 percent certainty.

Jerusalem Woman Could Help Solve Rosa Luxemburg Mystery [Haaretz]

Daybreak: IDF to Evacuate Illegal Settlements?

A military plan, Maccabiah, and more in the news


• The IDF has drawn up plans to evacuate 23 illegal West Bank settlements in a single day, Haaretz says, though IDF spokespeople say the military has received no orders to conduct such an operation. [Haaretz]
• And Sallai Meridor, Israel’s most recent ex-ambassador to the United States, claimed that the Israeli government was “completely committed” to evacuating West Bank settlements, although he also said the U.S. government had “retreated” from certain “understandings” about the settlements. [Haaretz]
• The fourth annual Christians United for Israel summit—and the first meeting of the evangelical Zionist group to take place outside George W. Bush’s presidency—is this week. [JPost]
• Yiddish apparently remains “the second language of New York politics,” with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and State Senator Hiram Monserrate recently accusing the other’s school plan of being “meshugeneh”. [NYT]
• And congrats to India’s Maccabiah cricket team, which ended its 16-year losing streak against Israel, triumphing 134-127. India faces South Africa in the finals today. [Haaretz]

Sundown: Anne Frank Site Burns

Britney Spears’ imagined conversion diary, and more


• A “suspicious” fire destroyed the barracks in which Anne Frank slept in a Dutch work camp before her transfer to Auschwitz. The barracks, most recently used to store farm equipment, was ready for transport back to the site of the work camp, which now contains a Holocaust memorial. [JTA]
• With the news that Britney Spears is considering converting to Judaism for her new boyfriend, Jason Trawick, The New Yorker imagines her “conversion diary”. “Got verklempt last night with Jason when I told him how close I was to joining his tribe and all. Felt kinda guilty that my spiritual journey has been so easy, what with my already being mostly Jewish, but then Jason explained that feeling guilty just makes you Jewisher, so it’s all good.” [NYer]
• The golf course at Long Island’s Woodmere Club contains hundreds of old Jewish gravestones along its shore with Reynolds Channel. [NY Post]
• Adam Yauch, one-third of the (three-thirds Jewish) Beastie Boys, announced via candid YouTube the “pretty heavy news” that he has cancer in a lymph node. “This is something that’s very treatable and in most cases it’s, um, they’re able to completely get rid of it,” he says. [ArtsBeat]
• Mongolian neo-Nazis have co-opted Nazi imagery, rhetoric, and racial philosophy in the service of Mongolian nationalism and anti-Chinese sentiment. [Time]
• And as we commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing, it’s fascinating to remember that the Lubavitcher Rebbe believed that space exploration and scientific discovery generally served to buttress the Torah’s teachings by throwing previously-held scientific consensus into increased doubt. []

Romanian Springtime for Hitler

Mayor dresses up for fashion show


Many of us walked away from the movie Valkyrie, about Nazi officers’ failed plot to kill Hitler in 1944, pondering the moral quandaries facing patriotic Germans during World War II, or wondering why Tom Cruise’s character alone among the Germans did not speak with a British accent, or mourning the 121 minutes of our lives we will never get back. But Radu Mazare, the mayor of Constanta, Romania, left the movie inspired to “dress like a Wehrmacht general because I’ve always liked this uniform, and admired the rigorous organization of the German army,” a Romanian newspaper quoted him saying. And so he he lived out his dream over the weekend, when he and his son dressed in Nazi uniforms and goose-stepped in a fashion show.

Now—can you believe it?—some people are upset! The Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism has asked Romania’s general prosecutor to investigate Mazare for breaking a Romanian law that, yes, bans the wearing of Nazi uniforms, as well as for instigating a child to break same law. (For most of World War II, Romania’s right-wing and anti-Semitic government was allied with the Nazis; government forces killed as many as 380,000 Jews in territories that came under Romania’s control, a fact the government formally acknowledged in 2004.) The Reuters story reports that the mayor’s action “outraged Jewish and pro-democracy groups.” While that’s no doubt true, we prefer not think of such events in such narrow terms, or to assert proprietary claims over them. The Nazis may have been bad for the Jews—particularly bad, even—but they were bad for everyone else, too, and we are confident that this event outraged groups of all sorts. Including, we hope, residents of Constanta, Romania.

Outrage As Mayor Goose-Steps In WWII Uniform [Sky News]

Miley Cyrus Finds a Nice Jewish Boy

He’s playing soccer at the Maccabiah Games


You might call them Marilyn-and-Arthur for the tween set. Today, a gossip rag called The Jerusalem Post brings news that teen heartthrob Gregg Sulkin, 17, who stars in the Disney Channel series As The Bell Rings:

• Is a British Jew;
• Can currently be found in Israel playing for the British soccer squad in the 2009 Maccabiah Games; and
• Is dating teen mega-star Miley Cyrus!

Most of the article concerns Sulkin’s experience on the team and with Israel. (It’s his second trip; his bar mitzvah was held at the Western Wall) But let’s face it, you don’t want to hear about that stuff. You want to hear him say, “”If she wasn’t that busy, I’d love to persuade her to come to Israel.” We’d love that too, Gregg! And it gets better. We did some digging, and it turns out that, according to PopCrunch, Cyrus, 16, began her relationship with Sulkin while still dating 20-year-old underwear model Justin Gatson (who we suppose is the Joe DiMaggio of this little tale). Moreover, we learn from Sulkin’s IMDB page that Cyrus’s father, musician Billy Ray Cyrus, had at one point urged his daughter to stick with Underwear Boy—apparently to no avail. To his credit, he now seems onboard the program: according to the Post, Billy Ray “has offered to help Sulkin further his acting career.”

In fact, the Post reports that Sulkin is heading directly to Los Angeles for callbacks after the Games. We definitely recommend that Sulkin take Billy Ray up on his offer. Sulkin may feel at home among his own people in Israel. But the aid of a country-music singer from Tennessee will definitely come in handy as Sulkin tries to make it as a Jew in Hollywood.

Miley Cyrus’s Boyfriend: Maccabiah, Then Hollywood [JPost]

Omri Casspi Is Ready For Primetime

But NBA’s first Israeli misses good hummus

Casspi speaking in Tel Aviv last month, after he was drafted by the Kings.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

The Sacramento Kings were the NBA’s worst team last year, posting a dismal 17-65 record. Yet when the new season starts in the fall, we’d bet they’ll have picked up a lot of new fans. Why? Their top draft pick, Omri Casspi, is from the Tel Aviv suburb of Yavne, and he played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, which in Israel has something like the stature of the Lakers and Celtics combined. Most importantly, Casspi will be the first Israeli to play in the NBA. So Israelis, who love only soccer more than they love basketball, have been predictably ecstatic.

Casspi is well aware of the extra weight his trailblazer status places on the shoulders of his 6-foot-9-inch frame. “I think all the eyes and ears in Israel, in basketball in Israel, are focused on me now,” he told The New York Times over the weekend. “There is big expectations, and all the Jewish community in the States is really excited about it. So I think there’s a big responsibility with it.”

The Times discloses several fun facts about Israel’s most famous 21-year-old. Casspi grew up worshipping Michael Jordan. His cell phone bill from his first two weeks stateside came to $4,500—“expensive even by NBA standards,” the paper notes. The player he models himself after is Hedo Turkoglu, who has the size of a forward but the quickness of a guard (also, similarly to Casspi, Turkoglu is a hero back home, which in his case is Turkey). Finally, we learn that, so far, American hummus has left Casspi unsatisfied. “Man, I tried it; that’s all I can say,” he says. “I will bring some from Israel, maybe. I’ll let you taste it and you tell me.”

When Tablet last covered Casspi, draft day was imminent, and we weren’t sure whether he would even get any playing time, were he picked. But a month later, he seems on pace to play a real role in the Kings’ upcoming season. In fact, last Friday, in an exhibition game in Las Vegas, Casspi contributed 11 points toward the Kings’ win over the New York Knicks (admittedly not much competition). If he keeps that level of performance up, he’ll be as popular in his new home as he is in his old one.

From Israel to the NBA, Missing the Hummus [NYT]
Previously Draft Notice

Canadian Writer Makes $3 Million

And some bold claims about Holocaust fiction

Martel winning his Man Booker in 2002.(John Li/Getty Images)

Saturday’s New York Times brought word that a Random House imprint has paid Canadian novelist Yann Martel around $3 million for his latest novel, a Holocaust allegory that features dialogue between a donkey and a monkey. In an interview with the paper, Martel, whose 2001 Life of Pi won the Man Booker Prize, decried what he sees as the restraint with which the Holocaust is depicted in books and onscreen. “It’s always represented in the same way, which is historical or social realism,” he said. “I was thinking that it was interesting that you don’t have many imaginative takes on it like George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and its take on Stalinism.” Artists, Martel added, are generally “fearful of letting the imagination loose on the Holocaust.”

It’s a provocative, if debatable, position. It’s also a curious one coming from an author who, in a decidedly unimaginative move, lifted the premise of his prize-winning book from another novelist.

‘Life of Pi’ Author Is Said to Get $3 Million Deal [NYT]

Today on Tablet

One short drive, Waxman’s new book, and forbidden Tuscan love


It’s the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 astronauts’ arrival on the moon, and on Tablet today Samuel G. Freedman’s recalls of that famous landing, and how it’s linked to a car trip he and his mother took to rescue his sister, Carol, from unhappiness at summer camp. A study finds that more spiritual children are happier children but that religious observance has no similar impact—prompting Tablet parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall to wonder whether Jewish spirituality can truly be divorced from Jewish religious practice. In his weekly look at new books, contributing editor Josh Lambert discusses Rep. Henry Waxman’s memoir, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dennis Ross’s new Middle East tome, and Israel is Real, by Tough Jews author Rich Cohen. The weekly Vox Tablet podcast features Adam Schell, whose debut novel, Tomato Rhapsody, portrays a forbidden Jewish-Catholic romance in Renaissance Tuscany. And of course, check The Scroll all day for new posts.

Send Her Your Tired and Poor Votes

Vote for Lazarus in silly Jewish Hall of Fame contest

(Photo illustration by Len Small)

Many years ago, when your blogger was about 13 years and 1 month old, your blogger’s grandmother, to mark the recent occasion of his bar mitzvah, took him to Israel. On that trip, he remembers, they visited the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, in Tel Aviv, and—a cultural critic even then—your blogger was unimpressed. The museum, it seemed to him, was a well-presented, carefully displayed, sometimes-interactive version of sitting around with a bunch of kibbitzing alter kockers in Boca: Benjamin Disraeli was Jewish, you know! And Albert Einstein! And Sandy Koufax, too! And so on. It was, it seemed to your young nascent blogger, simply a collection of narcissistic boosterism, and, as such, more than a little bit distasteful. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that they’re building a National Museum of American Jewish History on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, and they’re letting people vote on which 18 Jewish Americans should be included its “Only In America Hall of Fame” gallery, a sort of Cooperstown of American Jewry. (That Sandy Koufax—such a ballplayer!) So go vote. We’re rooting for Emma Lazarus.

Only in American Hall of Fame []

Daybreak: Gates Goes to Israel

A visit from the Defense secretary, and more in the news


• U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit Israel on July 27 to address the Iranian nuclear issue as well as, potentially, West Bank settlements. [JTA]
• In a statement, meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected American calls to cease building settlements in East Jerusalem, asserting sovereignty over “united Jerusalem”. [NYT]
• In a skirmish, Gazans shot a rocket-propelled grenade at Israel soldiers over the border; the soldiers shot one unarmed Palestinian man, wounding him severely. [JTA]
• Last week, in the first-ever high-level meeting between the two governments, a senior Palestinian negotiator met with Iran’s foreign minister. [Arutz Sheva]
• And Jason Lezak set a new Maccabiah swimming record in the 100-meter freestyle: 47.78 seconds. [Haaretz]

Sundown: Hate the Composer, Not the Music

Oppenheimer, Winehouse, and Seinfeld


• Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich wants the L.A. Opera to rethink its planned production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 2010, citing the composer’s anti-Semitism. Director Plácido Domingo, however, is proud to encourage “intensive analysis and discussion.” [Jewish Journal]
• Plus more on Jewish composers: A Thai conductor muses on his love of Mahler, who “once said that he was three times an alien: a Bohemian in Austria, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew in the whole world.” [Nation]
• “Nobody,” says New Voices, “debates the rock-star status of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chain-smoking, Bhagavad Gita-quoting Jew at the helm of the Manhattan Project.” In honor of yesterday’s 64th anniversary of the first nuclear bomb test, some reminiscences about the man. [New Voices]
• Shockingly, Amy Winehouse—famous for autobiographical lyrics like “I told you I was trouble, you know that I’m no good”—and her husband are getting divorced. [Guardian]
• Having trouble in your marriage? Jerry Seinfeld’s seemingly horrific reality show, The Marriage Ref, is holding open casting calls. [NBC]

Shabbat on the Radio

May no longer be a New York tradition

The sanctuary at Emanu-El.(Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

At 5:30 tonight, the New York classical-music station WQXR will broadcast the regular Shabbat service from Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, just as it has for decades. But the broadcast’s future is unclear. The cash-strapped New York Times Company, which has owned the station since 1944, agreed earlier this week to sell it earlier this week to the public radio station WNYC Radio and Univision. So far, the new owners have committed to continuing long-running programs from the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic, but the rest of the station’s schedule, including the Shabbat service and other religious programming from local churches, is up for discussion. “Everything will be getting a second look,” said WNYC spokeswoman Jennifer Houlihan.

Times Co. Agrees to Sell WQXR Radio [NYT]

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