During World War II, I loved reading 10-cent comic books and trading them with friends. I was especially infatuated with Superman, Batman, and Robin because they were fervent American patriots and fiercely anti-Nazi in their extraordinary exploits.
My fascination with those superheroes grew when I learned that two young Jewish men, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created Superman in 1938 and gave him the Hebrew-sounding birth name “Kal-El.” A year later, another Jewish duo, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, became the literary and artistic creators of Batman.
After the war, my comic book heroes pivoted toward combatting criminals and other villains menacing Superman’s “Metropolis” and Batman’s “Gotham City.” The motives of these two fearless fighters were pure, their morality unquestioned, their emotional lives unexamined. Consequently, their stories became all too predictable.
That squeaky-clean image of the superhero changed in the 1960s, when New Yorker Stanley Lieber (a.k.a. Stan Lee) transformed the comic book genre by co-creating edgy, sensitive, morose, emotionally challenged characters such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics. As their chief writer, editor, director, and producer for decades, he helped to turn Marvel into an economic and cultural powerhouse.
The modern state of Israel came into existence in 1948, but the forces that led to Jewish sovereignty after nearly 2,000 years of exile were set in motion 70 years earlier.
Here are 10 major historical events that culminated in Jewish statehood.
1. Leon Pinkser writes Auto-Emancipation (1879)A number of Eastern European Jews reacted to the Russian tsar’s virulent antisemitism by forming Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), which envisioned the return of Jews to their rightful biblical homeland with Jewish settlement in Palestine as their number one priority.
They were officially constituted as an organization in 1884 at conference led by Leon Pinsker, a Hovevei Zion leader and author of Auto-Emancipation (1879), which historians regard as the founding document of the modern Zionist movement.
A widely believed myth is that Adolf Hitler was a unique personal aberration in history and his Nazi movement with its reign of terror was a one and done occurrence that lacked any real foundational ideology.
Such a belief is not only false, but is dangerous thinking argues Robert Gellately in his new book Hitler’s True Believers: How Ordinary People Became Nazis (Oxford University Press).
Gellately, a Florida State University history professor, describes in 428 carefully researched pages how Hitler cunningly drew upon three “preexisting conditions” within the German body politic to first legally gain political power in 1933 and then quickly move to bend the overwhelming majority of Germans to his will.
The weak and little-loved post-WWI Weimar Republic provided few democratic “guardrails” during Hitler’s rise to power. Gellately argues that three long extant forces in Germany – rabid nationalism, a right-wing form of socialism, and virulent antisemitism – paved the path for Hitler’s rise to power. Each force was deeply embedded within pre-Nazi German life and was systematically weaponized by Hitler.
Nearly a century after his death, the name Harry Houdini still evokes in biographer Adam Begley’s words: a “…spellbinding performer who carved out for himself a niche in show business history by escaping from every conceivable restraint and … mystify millions of people who still cannot solve the mystery of how he did it.”
The “it” was the extraordinary number of times that Houdini, in death defying feats, extricated himself from of a combination of body restraints, including straitjackets, handcuffs, metal chains, body manacles, and diving bells.
In Houdini: The Elusive American, Adam Begley, the former books editor for the New York Observer and a Guggenheim Fellow, tells the remarkable story of how a Hungarian-born rabbi’s son achieved global fame as the world’s greatest magician and the master of “self liberation.”
Book Review: The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood
In her book, The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood, author and book critic Donna Rifkind vividly describes the 1930s and 1940s, when 10,000 German-speaking refugees, most of them Jews, found a safe haven from Nazism in Los Angeles. These exiles included professors, novelists, stage and film directors, symphony orchestra conductors, screenwriters, music composers, film actors and actresses, movie producers, and a host of motion picture technicians. Historians have termed the exodus “…the most complete migration of artists and intellectuals in European history.”
The émigrés from Germany and Austria included Thomas Mann, Billy Wilder, Max Reinhardt, Bruno Walter, Berthold Brecht, S. Z. Sakall, Ernst Lubitsch, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Klemperer, Peter Lorre, Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Franz Werfel.
Part of the latter’s harrowing escape route included a six-week stop in the French city of Lourdes. Rifkind reports that Franz Werfel, though Jewish, “visited the Catholic shrine dedicated to Bernadette Soubiros and prayed for a miracle. He vowed that if he managed to escape from Europe, he would write a book to honor the saint.”
His The Song of Bernadette, published in 1941, was a bestseller, and the film of the same title won many awards. Rifkind sadly notes there were “Not nearly enough miracles” for those who desperately attempted to escape Nazism in the years before America’s entry into World War II.
Book Review: A Bookshop in Berlin: The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman's Harrowing Escape from the Nazis
When the Germans launched their blitzkrieg conquest of France in 1940, they seized only 45 percent of the country. Much of the southern part remained “unoccupied.” To rule that region, the Nazis installed a subservient pro-German puppet regime, led by the aged, authoritarian World War I military hero, Marshall Phillipe Petain. It was headquartered in the spa resort city of Vichy.
Perhaps as a result of Claude Rains’ portrayal of the corrupt, but benign Vichy French police chief in the 1942 film “Casablanca,” a myth emerged that Jews were somehow physically protected under the Vichy regime. Not so. Francoise Frenkel’s tightly written, highly personal A Bookshop in Berlin: The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman's Harrowing Escape from the Nazis debunks this myth.
Born near Lodz, Poland in 1889, Frenkel as a young Jewish woman studied music in Germany and art in Paris. But French literature was her first love, and in 1921, only three years after the end of World War I, Frenkel and her Russian Jewish husband, Simon Reichenstein, opened a Francophile bookshop in the capital of Germany, France’s longtime, bitter adversary.
It was a gamble that paid off when the shop attracted a “curiously mixed” group of customers that included “eccentrics, artists, celebrities and well heeled women.” French literary giants Andre Gide and Andre Maurois lectured in her store during the Weimar Republic years that tragically ended in 1933, when Hitler gained power in Germany.
(RNS) — These are the most important events and trends of the year in Jewish life, from the horror of violent anti-Semitism, to the hope of a burgeoning birth rate in Israel.
1. The political stalemate in Israel. After a pair of inconclusive national elections, both Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu, leaders of the two largest political parties, failed to build a viable governing coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. At year’s end, Netanyahu, despite being formally indicted for criminal activities, tenaciously remained in power as prime minister. An unprecedented third election to resolve the deadlock is scheduled for early March 2020.
2. The resurgence of violent anti-Semitism. Nearly 75 years after the end of the Holocaust and World War II, violent acts of anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews and Judaism) sharply increased during the year, including fatal hate crime shootings at a San Diego-area synagogue and a Jersey City kosher market and an unsuccessful attempt to kill worshipers on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in Halle, Germany. They were but three of the growing number of both physical and verbal attacks on Jews in the U.S. and Europe. In France, 89% of French Jewish students report experiencing anti-Jewish abuse and, since 2003, a dozen people have been murdered in that country for the sole reason that they were Jewish.
(RNS) — Three extraordinary women from vastly different religious backgrounds changed our nation forever. Indeed, one cannot understand social movements in America today without recognizing the trio’s achievements and the role religion played in their tumultuous histories. And like today’s social activists, they fought religious bigotry, police arrests, courtroom trials and constant threats of physical violence.
Susan B. Anthony’s conviction that all people were equal under God was an inheritance from her upbringing in the Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers. A temperance campaigner and abolitionist in her early career, Anthony had by the late 1860s begun to focus on women’s rights. With her friend and fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she founded the National American Woman Suffrage Association that later became the League of Women Voters.
In 1872, the 52-year-old Susan B. Anthony voted in her hometown of Rochester, New York. She was brought to trial for her “crime” and found guilty, but she refused to pay the $100 fine (about $2,000 in today’s dollars), and the prosecution dropped the case.
Anthony’s struggle for the ballot box was never easy in a male-dominated society that had curtailed women’s right to vote since our nation’s beginnings. But she had remarkable courage and an unshakable commitment to transform the role of women in society.
Tom Segev’s voluminous biography, A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion, gives new meaning to the Latin phrase – carpe diem – seize the day. That is just what David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) did when he proclaimed the independence of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948.
The now-or-never philosophy of Israel’s “founding father” is captured in the video below, which shows Ben-Gurion confidently stepping out of a Lincoln sedan and proudly saluting the waiting crowd before striding into the Tel Aviv Museum, where he will announce the fateful declaration.
In the video, we see a short, pudgy man with two protruding tufts of white hair crowning his large, balding head. In his left hand is a briefcase, presumably containing the Hebrew text of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, a document he personally rewrote the night before because he was dissatisfied with the original draft by his Zionist colleague, Moshe Shertok (Sharett).
Ben-Gurion’s salute signaled to a skeptical world his steely resolve in the face of opposition from President Harry Truman’s top two cabinet members: Secretary of State George C. Marshall and Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal, misgivings also voiced by his more cautious Zionist comrades, as well as the threat of an imminent war with better-equipped Arab armies.
Rabbi James Rudin
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