Yes, this is an April Fool’s Day headline. But it’s also true. At a recent JMM staff meeting the conversation turned to classic Jewish comedy sketches. I learned that morning that many of the younger members of the team were unfamiliar with the Plotnick Diamond and the Grammy-nominated comedy album “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish” which is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year.
The album was the product of a golden age of comedy records in the early 1960s. The first Grammy award for best (spoken) comedy album is in 1960 and went to actor/comedian Shelley Berman. In these years, Jewish performers dominated nominations for this category – including the 1960 albums “Sick Humor” by Lenny Bruce, “Look Forward in Anger” by Mort Sahl, the 1961 album “The 2000 Year Old Man” and the 1962 album “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May”. And on the comedy musical side of the ledger were the classic albums by Tom Leher and Allen Sherman.
Jewish Comedic Performers
But even in this glittering array of talent, “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish” stands out for it’s quick memorable punch lines delivered with exceptional skill by great voice talents. I noticed one reviewer on line referred to this album as “the I ching of Jewish humor”, and who am I to dispute that. Performers on the album include Jack Gilford (the Hollywood blacklisted actor who many kids of my generation associate with Cracker Jack), Lou Jacobi, Arlene Golonka and the sonorous voice of Kraft Music Hall announcer Frank Gallop.
The album was the brainchild of the writing team of Bob Booker and George Foster. At the time they made “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish” they had already won a Grammy award for the comedy album The First Family – an amazing, good humored send-up of the Kennedy administration – a milestone in political comedy.
In 2013, Seinfeld star, Jason Alexander turned the album (and its sequel) into a theater production in Los Angeles. Thanks to that production I was able to find an LA Jewish Journal interview with Bob Booker (at age 87).
I learned that while his collaborator was Jewish, Booker himself was not. He reports that growing up in Miami he was influenced by all the Jewish comedians who would come to local clubs and theaters (Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, and Don Rickles among others). His success in crafting the Jewish humor on this album is the real proof that “you don’t have to be Jewish” to appreciate the ironic wit that emerges from Jewish culture.
As for the Plotnick Diamond, I did find a source for a partial script of the routine. Click HERE and scroll down the page. But do yourself a favor and download the audio from iTunes instead. The routine “The Diamond” is much funnier with the actors.
Scrolling down this Jewish magazine website I did see a few jokes that really made me groan. Here is the most painful of the bunch:
It seems a group of leading medical people have published data that indicates that seder participants should NOT partake of both chopped liver and charoses. It is indicated that this combination can lead to Charoses of the Liver.
Happy April Fool’s Day!
A blog post by Museum Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.
Regular readers of my blog posts have already figured out that I am something of a geek – board games, Presidential trivia, 19th century letters and Japanese Studies, but my ultimate geek credential is my passion for science fiction.
Leonard Nimoy at the 2011 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
So it won’t surprise you to learn that I spent some time this last weekend sifting through dozens of final tributes to the actor Leonard Nimoy. I was trying to answer the question – what made me feel such a profound sense of loss at this actors passing.
It occurred to me that two people died last Friday – Nimoy and Mr. Spock, the half-Vulcan/half-human character he inhabited. As it turns out, many of us had already witnessed Spock’s death decades ago – but we also saw his resurrection. With all respect to Zachary Quinto, this time, though, the real Spock is not coming back.
Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk from the television program Star Trek, 1968. Courtesy of NBC Television.
For me, the character of Spock was a figure of profound hope and a projection of Jewish values into a distant future. By Jewish values, I don’t just refer to the Cohain blessing gesture that Nimoy conveyed to Spock. It runs much deeper – many of the obituaries called it the “dignity” that Nimoy brought to the character, making him much more than an actor with pointy ears. Like a distinguished rabbi, Spock speaks with a level of gravitas unavailable to his compatriots. He is consistently the voice for thoughtfulness and respect for other cultures in a universe still populated by humans and other creatures whose “shoot first” approach is the norm.
Most importantly, Spock is the only alien (at least half-alien) on the original Enterprise and this is where I sense that Spock and Nimoy, the child of “aliens” from Iziaslav, Ukraine, actually meet. So much of Spock’s story is about overcoming racial and cultural prejudice to become an accepted member of the crew. It is hard not to see at least a piece of the Jewish experience played out in the development of Spock
Spock was of course, not the only alien under Jewish influence. Even on Star Trek, Jewish motifs are introduced when we meet the Rozhenkos from Minsk, adoptive parents of the Klingon, Worf and of Worf’s son, Alexander Rozhenko. Worf is perhaps more a Maccabi than a melamed, but his familial relationships as both son and parent have at least a touch of Jewish resonance.
Worf and his son Alexander on the Enterprise. Via flickr user bootsartemis.
Armin Shimerman, who plays the Ferengi, Quark in Star Trek Deep Space 9, is another actor whose Jewish roots are evident in his portrayal of a complex character. I am trying to be very careful in what I say here, because there is a lot of strong opinion on the Internet that Ferengi culture trades in negative stereotypes of Jewish merchants (not quite as much anger as over the character Watto in Star Wars, but still a fair amount of invective). I would only note that in the series, Quark is another example of an alien torn between the norms of his own culture and a “hyuman” culture he believes is hypocritical. Shimerman is the cynical alien – forcing his friends on the station (and the Trekkers watching) to question whether the Trek future is living up to its values.
Armin Shimerman at the Star Trek convention in Las Vegas in 2008. Photo by Beth Madison.
I can’t let this brief review of aliens with Jewish origins end without some mention of Mandy Patinkin’s role as Sam Francisco in the movie Alien Nation. For those of you who may have missed this classic, Francisco comes from an alien race of former slaves who take refuge near Los Angeles after they are marooned on their space ship. Patinkin’s character is one of the first Newcomer policemen and he is paired with a hard-boiled human cop, played by James Caan, to solve a murder mystery. Francisco’s dilemma – wanting to assimilate, yet not wanting to lose his cultural roots is really a classic immigrant story grafted into a sci-fi environment. Again, it seems as though Patinkin, beneath his alien make-up, is channeling the experience of our grandparents as they struggled to find a place in this new world.
Poster for Alien Nation.
So yes I will miss both Nimoy, the actor and Spock, the character, but I also know that this is not the end of our exploration of alien worlds.
A blog post by Museum Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.
Today is President’s Day. A day usually celebrated with a sale on linens. But I’ve decided to start a new JMM tradition and devote a blog post each President’s Day to the relationship between the Jewish community and one of our 44 Chief Executives.
Now the story of these relations is often fairly well documented. There are whole books on the relationship of Lincoln, Grant or FDR and their Jewish constituents. I though I might cover some of the less well known connections.
But where to begin? Since Wednesday is the bicentennial of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent and end to the War of 1812 (known by its critics as Mr. Madison’s War), I thought that James Madison, Jr. – our 4th President was a great place to start. I found a couple of great connections between Madison and Mendes Cohen! So the subject was irresistible.
James Madison, Jr.
Madison was a diminutive figure (at 5′ 4″, our shortest president) whose incredible accomplishments (“Father of the Constitution”, “Father of the Bill of Rights”) cast a long shadow on our history. In my quick research for this blog post I was not able to discover Madison’s first encounter with a member of the Jewish community but I do know when he first learned Hebrew. Yes, Madison is the first president of the United States to both speak and read Hebrew. He graduates Princeton in 1771, at age 20, but stays on for a year to study Hebrew language with the president of the university, Rev. John Witherspoon.
We also know that sometime during the revolutionary period Madison receives a loan of $50 from Jacob Cohen, Mendes’ uncle who lived in Richmond. Though his father was a tobacco planter who would eventually become the largest landowner in Orange County, Virginia, Madison himself seems to have had precarious finances prior to the death of his father in 1801. When Madison serves as a young member of Congress in the early 1780s, he appears to have been dependent on his salary. One problem – Congress has no funds to pay salaries. So they ask revolutionary war funder Haym Salomon to advance the salaries of Madison and two other members of Congress. Technically this was a loan. But in his writings, Madison tells us that Salomon refused to accept repayment. I suspect that Salomon’s generosity made a lasting impression on Madison’s assessment of the character of Jewish people.
Madison is a tireless advocate of the cause of religious freedom in America. As early as the Boston Tea Party in 1774, Madison writes to a friend that American has avoided “slavery and subjection” thanks largely to the fact that the Church of England had failed to establish itself as the official religion of the colonies.
In 1785 there is an attempt to help fund Virginia’s coffers with a tax on religious dissenters. Madison writes a “Memorial and Remonstrance” against the tax. He wrote, “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”
The following year, Madison introduces Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom into the state legislature. This historic document, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but championed by Madison, lays out such a clear concept of religious liberty. Madison fought an attempt to amend the statute so that it only applied to followers of “Jesus Christ”. In Jefferson’s words, the statute needed to grant equal rights to “Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
Three years later Madison had the opportunity to take his ideas to a national scale as he introduced the first proposal for amending the Constitution to incorporate freedom of religion. Here is Madison’s language from June 8, 1789:
Fourthly. That in article 1st, section 9, between clauses 3 and 4, be inserted these clauses, to wit: The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.
Compare Madison’s expansive clause with the actual final language of the first amendment. How might our history of struggle for religious liberty have changed if Madison’s broader concept of civil rights had been adopted?
Madison and Mordecai Noah
The other significant connection between Madison and the Jewish community dates to his period as president. As the war with Britain approached, Mordecai Noah, an aspiring lawyer, journalist and politician in Charleston, SC came to the attention of the Madison administration through a series of articles he wrote in support of resistance to British aggression. This was a minority point of view in Charleston and, according to historian Simon Wolf, Noah’s life was threatened on multiple occasions because of his outspoken opinions.
In 1811, Madison offers Noah an appointment to be counsel in Riga, (today Latvia, then Russia). This is the first diplomatic post offered to a member of the Jewish faith – Noah turns it down. But two years later, Noah accepts an invitation to become counsel in Tunis. The most critical part of his job was negotiating with the Barbary Pirates for the release of American sailors. It turns out that Madison’s policy of paying ransom to a group we were today call terrorists may have saved many lives, but was not very popular. Secretary of State Monroe decides that the best solution is to recall Noah on the grounds that his religion offended his hosts. To add insult, Monroe claims to have been ignorant of Noah’s religion before his appointment.
It appears that Noah and the Jewish community vented their outrage on Madison. Some sources go so far as to declare this the only act of overt religious discrimination against Jews in a government appointment. Further reading convinced me that the situation is far more complex and that the role played by Monroe in the recall may be much more important than that of Madison.
In fact, Madison later writes the following to Noah:
As your foreign mission took place whilst I was in the administration it cannot be but agreeable to me to learn, that your accounts have been closed in a manner favorable to you. And I know too well the justice and candor of the present executive [Monroe] to doubt that an official preservation, will be readily allowed to explanations necessary to protect your character against the effect of any impressions whenever ascertained to be erroneous. It was certain, that your religious profession was well-known at the time you received your commission, and that in itself it could not be a motive in your recall.
Cutting through the 19th century pleasantries, I think Madison is basically laying the problem at Monroe’s doorstep.
Mordecai Manuel Noah
Maryland Jew Bill and Cohens v. Virginia
Even after leaving office, Madison remains active in public life. His opinions are sought out on issues of controversy.
In 1818 advocates of the repeal of the oath to the New Testament in Maryland (the “Maryland Jew Bill”) solicited and received endorsements from all three living former presidents (Adams, Jefferson and Madison). Madison’s letter read in part:
Having ever regarded the freedom of religious opinions, and worshippers, equally, belonging to every sect, and the sure enjoyment of it, as the best human provision, for bringing all into the same way of thinking, or into that mutual charity, which is the only proper substitute, I observe with pleasure, the view you give of the spirit in which your sect partake of the common blessings, afforded by our government and laws.
No points for writing style, but the sentiment is in the right place.
In 1821 Madison is asked to comment on case of Cohens vs. Virginia. According to Kevin Gutzman in James Madison and the Making of America, his Democratic compatriots expected him to castigate Chief Justice Marshall for his aggrandizement of power in the Supreme Court. Marshall decides that the court has authority to take a case from criminal defendants – in this case Mendes and Phillip Cohen for the “crime” of selling DC lottery tickets in Virginia – when state and federal law are in conflict. Madison takes a more measured view, arguing that it would be better to pressure Congress to stop writing laws that interfere with state authority than it would be to constrain the Supreme Court in its rulings. Of course, the part that interested me is that Mendes Cohen is everywhere – even in the commentaries of James Madison.
I welcome your suggestions for which of the other 43 men we should explore next President’s Day.
A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.