Anger: As American as apple pie


Responsible leaders from left to right are blasting Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim demagoguery as “un-American.” Even in the midst of this “Happy Holiday” season, Trump’s fury seems to be unfairly capitalizing on a burgeoning Age of Rage. Yet, while the bigotry exhibited by the Republican candidate for the presidency offends most Americans’ sensibilities, his ferocity has an all-American pedigree. Populist anger has run throughout American political history like a gusher of underground oil, which clever demagogues, like Trump, have tapped into at opportune moments. 

Donald Trump fits the mold of the classic cranky conservative. He evokes Alabama Gov. George Wallace shouting, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and Sen. Joseph McCarthy sneering, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?” “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964 in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the classic, post-McCarthyism historical analysis of American anger. Hofstadter chose the word “paranoid” to evoke “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy.” Five decades later, liberals still scorn conservative anger as bullying, demagogic and irrational. Conservatives consider liberal anger totalitarian, self-righteous and irrational.

The history of American anger is complex — and bipartisan. The rage that festers and the demagogues who emerge are not always conservative and not always destructive. A full-throated history of American anger includes America’s “Give me liberty or give me death” revolutionaries; Andrew Jackson’s democratizing populists; the slaveholding racists and righteous abolitionists before the Civil War; and the agrarian Populists of the 1880s and 1890s, whose anti-big business resentments further democratized America. This brief list demonstrates the different roles anger has played as liberator and oppressor, as resentment-generator and reformer. 

America’s founders understood that anger and demagogues flow naturally from free speech and free elections. A strong president would trump “mobocracy,” while term limits would limit demagoguery. In “Federalist 71,” Alexander Hamilton wrote that popular politics do not require “an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion.” Knowing they can err, citizens deputize their leaders to “withstand the temporary delusion.” The Constitution choreographed this delicate dance: Democracy trusts leaders and citizens to do their best while relying on checks and balances to limit the damage if they don’t.

Assessing the 20th century, the Great Depression of the 1930s produced some of the United States’ most influential demagogues, including Father Charles E. Coughlin, a media personality who tried converting his fame into political capital by demonizing the least popular religion then, Judaism. At his peak, Coughlin incited 30 million radio listeners weekly. But Coughlin flamed out — as Joe McCarthy later would — by becoming increasingly extreme, then crashing into decent American leaders. Franklin D. Roosevelt undermined Coughlin, Huey Long and the other demagogues who veered left by demanding more shared wealth, while also veering right by flirting with fascism. In 1940, Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee, made the repudiation bipartisan, saying “I am not enough interested in being president to compromise with my fundamental beliefs.” Fourteen years later, a Boston lawyer named Joseph N. Welch slammed McCarthy, saying, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The 1960s mixed fun with fury. Partisans raged against racists and civil rights activists, against soldiers in Vietnam and antiwar students opposing the war, against sexists and feminists. 

In the 1970s, the mood was scarier. The despair was defeatist, paralyzing, unlike the good, old-fashioned American anger that often advanced badly needed reforms, from ending slavery to defeating Jim Crow. In a rare moment, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dramatic, cinematic, denunciation of the United Nation’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution in November 1975 made him a pop star. His eloquent expression of a constructive politics of patriotic indignation rejected the era’s despondency. 

The history of American anger is complex — and bipartisan. The rage that festers and the demagogues who emerge are not always conservative and not always destructive.

Ronald Reagan won in 1980 by transcending the cranky conservatism of Barry Goldwater and John Birch. Reagan’s “Aw shucks,” Happy Face rebellion against Big Government suited the era’s have-a-nice-day culture wherein, psychiatrists lamented, Americans increasingly frowned on anger. Some therapists believed the focus on violence by the media, as well as spreading street crime, offered needed outlets for so much repressed emotion. 

By 1995, New York Times columnist Russell Baker noted the opposite trend. Rush Limbaugh was leading the shrill talk-radio rebels against then-President Bill Clinton. In April, the homegrown far-right militia terrorist Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 innocent people in Oklahoma City. Baker grumbled that “America is angry at Washington, angry at the press, angry at immigrants, angry at television, angry at traffic, angry at people who are well off and angry at people who are poor, angry at blacks and angry at whites.” Why did life’s inevitable twists evoke such fury amid peace and prosperity? 

The economic uptick was only beginning. Globalization, deindustrialization, limited pay for McJobs, and excessive bonuses for bosses benefited Wall Street while hurting Main Street. Despite a booming 1990s stock market, over the last 30 years, more and more Americans have suffered constant economic stress.

Still, the era’s shrill attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton; the daily left-right yelling on CNN’s “Crossfire”; an uptick in Congressional gridlock; hysterical headlines; Smashing Pumpkins singing, “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage”; the continuing violence on screens and in the streets all suggested the crisis was existential, more so than economic. “Good news …,” Baker lamented, “does not sell papers or keep millions glued to radios and TV screens.” 

America’s soul hurt. Young people often fell into the perpetual poverty set by traps of excessive drug use, teen pregnancy and dropping out of school. Their parents were often distracted, over-programmed, underfunded, deeply dissatisfied and surprisingly insecure. Assessing the nasty edge to a growing “clueless” culture of “whatever,” “chill out,” “so is your face” and “eat my shorts,” Czech president Václav Havel would urge Harvard University graduates in June, 1995: “We must recollect our original spiritual and moral substance.”

A media-dominated, increasingly Internet-addicted America was becoming a Borderline Nation, exhibiting the collective traits of borderline personality disorder. This “emotional hemophilia” makes people reactive, angry, irresponsible. Engulfed by constant media-fueled controversies, among them the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, the O. J. Simpson murder trial marathon, the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals, Americans repeatedly suffered from collective whiplash. This Borderline culture staggered from fad to fad, from mass impulse to mass impulse, from collective vulgarity to collective vulgarity. With basic identity and values questions up for grabs, surges of emotional distress ensued. 

All this occurred in the happier Age of Clinton. Now, after 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascoes and the 2008 meltdown, contemporary anger makes more sense. Today’s world scares many Americans. On the left, university professors and students alike squelch free speech and free thought, as writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates become superstars by preaching a New American Nihilism, warning African Americans they will always be “the below,” and mocking “The Dream.” On the right, Tea Partiers and Fox News feed demagogues mourning the closing of America’s great frontiers. And in that fetid swamp where right meets left, the Islamofascist murderers of ISIS and al-Qaida recruit young Westerners by exploiting a grab bag of economic, cultural, social and religious frustrations. Meanwhile, America’s president channels “Star Trek’s” Mr. Spock, resisting calling terrorism “terrorist,” not realizing that his own reticence helps make hysterics look like truth-tellers.

Beyond politics, our litigious society, confrontational culture, no-holds-barred popular vulgarities, shrill blogosphere, economic flaccidity and imploding families in this age of disposable relationships further the despair and rage. 

After millennia of oppression, Jews are particularly fearful of such furies, understandably. Demagogic hatred usually spills over into anti-Semitism. In America, Jews remain religious bigots’ favorite target by far, according to the FBI, with 58.2 percent of religious hate crimes in 2014 being anti-Jewish and 16.3 percent “anti-Islamic (Muslim).” On campuses, with hostility to Israel not just an obsession but an identity marker for the politically correct, a Cohen Center of Brandeis University report discovered that “nearly three-quarters” of Jewish students last year experienced some form of Jew hatred. This epidemic of macro-aggressions attracts minimal attention in a university environment obsessed with “micro-aggressions” against other minorities. Rather than a particularistic, self-involved, woe-is-me response, we need an expansive, altruistic, widespread zero-tolerance-for-intolerance.

Yet despite all the anger, life in America is no longer nasty, brutish and short, but cushy, safe and long. We take for granted our medical miracles, our technological wonders, our remarkable political stability. Amid culture wars and political battles, momentary traumas and persistent worries, most Americans lead orderly, good, healthy, moral, ever-improving lives. 

Moreover, while demagogic anger scapegoating groups is toxic, a politics with some well-channeled, tempered patriotic indignation can be tonic. Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed “creative extremism” because mass passion has the ability to liberate us, not just derail us.

The challenge remains one of tone and balance. Just as in “Harry Potter,” “boggarts … take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most,” Donald Trump and other demagogues emphasize whatever they think will frighten most of us most. In J.K. Rowling’s world, laughing them off, with the spell “Riddikulus,” works. In the real world, they’re harder to dismiss. Clever demagogues exploit real fears, masquerading their noxious fury behind this historic framework of a cleansing anger, not just their poofy hair and brash Queens charm.

Ultimately, decency and democracy will trump Trump. But the process will require heroic leaders and idealistic citizens to resist, as Roosevelt, Willkie and Welch did, understanding that democracies such as ours, for all our historic stability, are still fragile flowers relying on what Abraham Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature,” not our dark side.


Gil Troy is the author of “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s,” just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press, as well as nine other books on American history. He is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar this fall at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy or giltroy.com

Gross’ release, and changes in diplomatic ties, signals new day for Cuban Jews


Alan Gross was imprisoned while trying to connect Cuba’s isolated Jewish community to the wider world. The deal that got him released five years later may do just that and much more.

Gross’ flight home to suburban Washington on Wednesday with his wife, Judy, was part of a historic deal that overturns over five decades of U.S. policy isolating the Communist island nation helmed by the Castro brothers.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” President Obama said in announcing Gross’ release and radical changes in U.S. Cuba policy.

U.S. officials in a conference call outlined sweeping changes, including the resumption of full diplomatic relations, the opening of an embassy in Havana, and a loosening of trade and travel restrictions.

Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, said Gross’ release and the opening of ties with Cuba is a twofer for the Jews: In addition to the benefits accrued to all Cubans from open relations, she said, Cuban Jews “will have stronger ties to Jewish organizations, they will be much more in the open.” An estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jews live in Cuba.

Gross, who is now 65, was arrested in 2009 after setting up Internet access for the Cuban Jewish community while working as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Never formally charged with espionage, Gross was convicted in 2009 for “crimes against the state.”

Back in the United States on Wednesday, Gross held a news conference, which he began with the greeting “Chag sameach,” noting that his release coincided with the first day of Hanukkah. He thanked political leaders, the Washington Jewish community, the local Jewish Community Relations Council and other faith groups that pressed for his release.

“But ultimately – ultimately – the decision to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office,”said Gross, reserving special praise for President Obama and his National Security Council.

Vann said improved U.S.-Cuba relations would have a rollover effect, removing obstacles to U.S. ties with other Latin American countries — and this in turn would remove tensions that have affected Jewish communities.

“Cuba and Venezuela have a very interdependent relationship,” she said. “Anti-Semitism and anti-American rhetoric are being used by the regime in Venezuela, and with this that’s being undermined.”

Daniel Mariaschin, who directs B’nai B’rith International, a group with a strong Latin American presence, said a new era of ties “will raise the profile of Latin American communities and interest in those communities.”

In a deal American officials said was technically separate from the Gross release, the United States and Cuba agreed to exchange the three remaining incarcerated members of the “Cuban Five,” a Florida-based spy ring, for an American spy held in Cuba for 20 years and whose identity remains a secret.

Obama insisted that Gross was not part of the spy exchange and that, in fact, his imprisonment held up changes to the U.S. Cuba relationship he had intended on initiating years ago.

“While I’ve been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way,” the president said, referring to Gross’ “wrongful imprisonment.”

Republicans who have opposed easing the Cuba embargo blasted the deal.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants, told Fox News that Obama was “the worst negotiator since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe in the history of this country.”

Many Jewish groups welcomed the deal, however, and noted the political difficulties it must have created for the Obama administration.

“We know the decision to release the Cuban three was not an easy one,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement. “We appreciate the efforts of President Obama and Vice President Biden in bringing this about.”

Gross is in ill health. He has lost more than 100 pounds since his incarceration and suffered from painful arthritis.

A senior administration official who spoke to reporters before Obama’s announcement said the Vatican played a key role in negotiating the deal, in part through Pope Francis’ pleas to Cuba to release Gross as a humanitarian gesture.

In a statement, the pope said he “wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

The administration official also noted the significance of the Jewish holiday season of freedom.

“We believe that Alan was wrongfully imprisoned and overjoyed that Alan will be reunited with his family in this holiday season of Hanukkah,” the official said.

Lessons from the Berlin Wall


Last Saturday night in the posh section of Berlin, I took a hammer and chisel and pounded away at the Berlin Wall.

I was staying at the Westin Grand Hotel for the festivities marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. The hotel offers guests the chance to make their own souvenirs out of a 6-foot-tall block it bought years ago and planted by its entrance.

The manager supplied me with goggles, a hardhat and heavy leather gloves and walked me outside. I looked like a guy whose mother had dressed him for the revolution.

I did feel a little sheepish — after all, I wouldn’t take a shovel to the Gettysburg battlefield. But what begins in horror often ends in kitsch — that’s just the way of the world.

Besides, who doesn’t want a piece of the Wall?

I pressed my chisel against the concrete and struck hard, and a quarter-shaped shard pinged onto the sidewalk. 

Just then, an elderly Berliner passing by confronted the manager in German. “This is wrong!” he shouted. The manager countered, calmly, that the hotel bought this section and could do whatever it wanted with it. As I walked back inside, the old man was still shouting.

But I had to smile at history’s twists: What this man had once yearned to destroy, he was now fighting to protect. After 25 years, a hated symbol of oppression had become a beloved memorial to freedom.

I walked all over the city during the celebratory weekend. Long rows of light-filled helium balloons attached to thin metal rods outlined the 97-mile path of the wall, some 8,000 white orbs in all.  Volunteers were to release each one with the pull of a simple lever during the final ceremony on Sunday, Nov. 9. During the day beforehand, the round balloons served as an almost whimsical reminder of the joy of freedom. At night, their glow reflected in the dark river Spree and lit the huge crowds retracing the once-forbidden path.

I was walking with an archivist who manages the photo collection of the former German Democratic Republic, or GDR, as East Germany was formally known. He pointed out exactly where in the river 19-year-old Günter Litfin was shot in the back of the head by GDR police as he swam for freedom in 1961. Just across from where his lifeless body was pulled from the water, we watched as a little girl grabbed at the pole holding up a balloon and swung it back and forth, laughing. 

All cities are palimpsests of history and civilization, but in Berlin the momentousness is recent. Nov. 9 was also the day in 1918 when Kaiser Wilhelm II was dethroned and the monarchy ended. In 1923, Hitler attempted his Beer Hall Putsch on Nov. 9. And Nov. 9, 1938, was Kristallnacht, when Nazis burned and looted approximately 7,500 Jewish businesses and synagogues and arrested some 30,000 Jewish men and carted them off to concentration camps. Name another city that offers up such a concise and compelling history of the 20th century in so few footsteps.  

During her remarks at a celebratory event for the fall, Chancellor Angela Merkel began by recalling Kristallnacht. For the older generation of Berliners, the memories are all alloyed. But when a young Berlin man later told me Nov. 9 was “the happiest day in German history,” I knew what he meant; I just wondered whether he did.

One afternoon, I came upon a former East German guardhouse-turned-museum and shook hands with the man who ran it. He was in his late 70s, stout, with a shock of white hair — he was Günter Litfin’s brother.

This anniversary was perhaps the last big-numbered chance to celebrate the fall surrounded by the generation that witnessed it. There were many of them at events around the city last weekend, but I think my favorite you-are-there story came from my friend Burkhard Kieker, CEO of the visitBerlin tourism bureau, who invited me to come to the city to take part in the 25th anniversary celebrations.

Kieker was a 28-year-old journalist in West Berlin on Nov. 9, 1989.

He was at home watching television when the anchorman reported that the hardline communist government of the GDR was allowing East Berliners to cross into West Berlin.

“This anchorman had a reputation for drinking,” Kieker said, “so I thought he was drunk.”

But Kieker rode his bike down to the tall concrete wall that East Germany had erected in August 1961 to keep its population from fleeing to the free West, and, sure enough, something was happening.

From the other side, Kieker could hear people chanting, “Let us go! Let us go!”

An East German guard with a machine gun against his fat belly stood between the masses and the other side.  He was waiting for orders.

“The orders could have just as easily been to shoot,” Kieker told me. Months earlier, then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had issued orders not to suppress peaceful protests with violence.  “Who knows?” Kieker said. “They could have changed their minds.”

Instead the guard, frustrated that his superiors would not give any orders, finally said, “Ach, go now. Go!”

Kieker heard the steel door at the checkpoint creak open. The East German guard stepped aside, and for the first time in 28 years, East Germans were free.

The first man Kieker saw cross over was old, carrying two shopping bags. He took the first step, like Nachshon at the Red Sea, a step that for decades could have meant a bullet in the head.

The old man hesitated, looked up at the guard and said, “But I come back, OK?”

Thousands followed. People ran into the arms of strangers. 

 “The city was beside itself with joy,” Kieker said.

Kieker was wearing a black leather jacket. The next morning, he noticed his jacket had indelible stains on each shoulder — people had hugged him all evening, weeping salty tears.

“It was the desire to be free, to travel, and to say and write what you want,” Kieker said. “That desire had a great beginning that night.”

Two great truths rose up when the Wall came down. First was the power of human potential, unleashed. Free, united Berlin is now a crazy, young, exciting city. The skyline is decorated in cranes. Former abandoned East Berlin neighborhoods have all but gentrified. Prinzlauerberg, close to what was once the East German no-man’s-land, now has so many young yuppie families moving in, they call it Pregnant Hill. In just the last year, 49,000 new jobs and about as many new residents have swelled the capital’s once-depleted ranks. A former bombed-out brewery, abandoned after World War II and neglected in the East, has been refitted with glass and steel walls and is becoming the German headquarters for Twitter.

When one builder proposed to tear down the last remaining continuous section of the Wall for yet another multiuse live-work complex, people took to the streets in protests — like the man who’d confronted us at the hotel. The best monument to the power of freedom will be the city Berlin is striving to become.

The second truth is even more elemental: Change is possible. At a banquet the evening before the celebration, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi leader in microfinance, reminded the audience that no one had predicted the Wall would fall when it did. Experts, journalists, politicians, intelligence agencies — no one saw it coming.

“Great change is always unexpected,” Yunus said, “and it comes from the ground up. Politicians didn’t do this. Soldiers didn’t do this. People did it.”

On the evening of the big celebration, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the surrounding streets filled with tens of thousands of people. Peter Gabriel sang a song in English, followed by German entertainers and eyewitnesses. Daniel Barenboim conducted an orchestra and chorus in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which ended with fireworks over the Brandenburg Gate. The event concluded when a young couple walked on stage, he with a violin, she with a cello, and they played a low, mournful song. It took me a while to realize it was Germany’s national anthem.

The crowd was strangely subdued. If it had been an American patriotic celebration, I said to a German friend, the audience would have been tearing up and singing along. Germans have an uneasy relationship with large, patriotic gatherings, for obvious reasons, she said — just another way memory works.  

In the midst of all this, the visitBerlin people asked me to pull the lever on one of the balloons. But first I was to write a message on a tag and tie it to a string attached to the balloon. My message said, “May the spirit of a free Berlin spread over the world.” I wrote in English, French and Hebrew — who knows how far a helium balloon can go? 

After we set free our balloons, we walked to the Adlon Hotel for a goodbye dinner. Our group happened to include a few Israelis. Sure enough, the conversation turned to the last Gaza war and the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Yes, it was weird — and very Berlin — to be an American Jew and three Israelis arguing about Israel in one of the Nazis’ favorite hotels, where East German bureaucrats had encamped during the Cold War.

Our discussion ended as so many conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about Iran, about ISIS, about all the world’s intractable problems and divisions do — with the feeling that things will just get worse, that nothing will ever change.

Then again I remembered: One day not so long ago, people rose up, without violence, and led the way, and their leaders followed. The Wall came down, and all at once the world changed for the better:  The city was beside itself with joy. 

Like I said, who wouldn’t want a piece of the Wall?


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Ghosts of Communism


Two weeks ago, my wife, Ann, and I completed our first trip to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Everywhere we went, our local guides proudly pointed out the progress that has been made since the fall of communism, and we could readily see for ourselves the affluence, elegance and style that are on display in the places that the tourists like to visit.

But we also saw the bullet holes and shell damage that have been left unrepaired to memorialize the ravages of World War II, and we were reminded of the price that the Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians paid when they defied the will of their Soviet masters in the 1950s and ’60s. In Bratislava, for example, we saw one heroic monument that honored the Red Army as the liberator of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and another monument that honored three Slovak victims of Soviet gunfire during the uprising known as the Prague Spring in 1968. Indeed, we always detected a certain kind of emotional scar tissue in the guides themselves, many of whom are survivors of one or both of these world-historical eras.

It is this same layered complexity that Yale historian Marci Shore has succeeded in bringing to life in the pages of “The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe” (Crown, $27), a courageous and imaginative effort to measure how the Nazi and Soviet regimes impacted the private lives of real men and women.

“All historical drama is acted through the lives of individuals,” she announces. “The eclipsing of private space was among totalitarianism’s deepest violations. In this way the totalitarian state was unlikely its merely authoritarian or monarchical predecessors: it distinguished itself — it made itself — by caring what lovers said in bed.”

Here is a surprising and even revolutionary way to write history. To be sure, historians have debated in what ways Nazi and Soviet atrocities were qualitatively different from both earlier and later outrages, but the conversation has usually focused upon the origins, mechanics and goals of mass deportation, mass imprisonment and mass murder. Shore, by contrast, focuses on the intimate emotions and inner emotions of the human beings who are the raw material of history.

Consider, for example, the fate of a young Czech woman named Jarmila. She was the youngest person to sign Charter 77, the manifesto of the liberation movement in Czechoslovakia, but she did so against the will of her parents, who were fearful that it would attract the ungentle attention of the secret police to the rest of the family. “Eventually they denounced her to the secret police,” Shore reports, “and so began a long series of arrests, detentions, interrogations, beatings.” She was forced to go into hiding at her grandmother’s home: “I love her,” the grandmother later told Shore, “she’s my sunshine.” But the whole family understood and accepted that denunciation of a child was a survival strategy under the communist regime.

When Shore sees anti-Semitic graffiti and evidence of criminal violence in Warsaw, she is offered an explanation by a Polish graduate student called Mikolaj: “Envy, insanity, racism and hooliganism,” he muses, “the pillars of Polish reality.” Yet she also allows us to understand the contemporary Poles are put off by Jewish tourists who come only to see the death camps: “They didn’t know about the heroic Polish underground,” Shore explains. “They didn’t know that Poles had also died in Auschwitz. They didn’t want to know.”

Not many Jews remain in Poland, of course, but the precious remnant is marked in strange ways. A woman named Tamara weeps over the fact that she was condemned to grow up under communism because her grandfather refused to make aliyah after the war ended. “She could not escape from this moment of her grandfather’s refusal to cross the border, this moment of decision, the moment when her life might have been a different one,” Shore writes. “She could not forgive her grandfather for having misunderstood History, for having made the wrong choice — and so, having thrown Tamar from the current of History.” 

“A Taste of Ashes” is rich with incident, recollection and conversation, a memoir of the author’s long endeavor to understand in human terms the ideas and events that are the raw material of intellectual history. Every page is alive with face-to-face encounters between Shore and her friends and colleagues. Ultimately, however, a dark fatalism suffuses the whole effort, and the hard truth is captured in a conundrum that she hears from a man who once edited a prominent Yiddish newspaper in Warsaw: “You already know too much,” Chaim Finkelstein told her, “too much and not enough, and nothing.”

I carried a copy of “The Double Eagle” by Stephen Brooks on my recent travels in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, a travel memoir that was written shortly before the fall of communism and has something in common with “The Taste of Ashes.” Next time, however, it will be Shore’s book in my carry-on, a masterpiece that will enrich the experience of being there precisely because the author looks both forward and backward in time, and because she offers a glimpse of history as seen through the eyes of the people who lived it.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Documents showing Lenin had Jewish roots on display


Documents showing that Soviet Communist leader Vladimir Lenin had a Jewish heritage are on display in Moscow.

The documents include a letter written by Lenin’s oldest sister saying that their maternal grandfather was a Ukrainian Jew who converted to Christianity in order to gain access to higher education, The Associated Press reported. The letter, which has been fiercely disputed, was written by Anna Ulyanova in 1932 to Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s successor following his death in 1924.

“He came from a poor Jewish family and was, according to his baptismal certificate, the son of Moses Blank, a native of (the western Ukrainian city of) Zhitomir,” read the letter. “Vladimir Ilych had always thought of Jews highly. I am very sorry that the fact of our origin—which I had suspected before—was not known during his lifetime.”

Ulyanova asked Stalin to make Lenin’s Jewish heritage known in an effort to stanch the rise of anti-Semitism, according to the AP. But Stalin ordered her to “keep absolute silence” about her letter, the exhibition’s curator, Tatyana Koloskova, told the AP.

Q & A With András Simony


András Simonyi, Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, made his first visit to the Museum of Tolerance Feb. 11 to plan a spring memorial marking this year’s 60th anniversary of the Nazi deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944.

A trim man who speaks in the short but thoughtful answers typical of a seasoned diplomat, Simonyi, 51, became the Washington, D.C., ambassador in 2002, after seven years of representing Hungary at the European Union and NATO.

Raised an atheist in communist Hungary, Simonyi’s mother was Catholic and his father was Jewish; his paternal grandparents died in Auschwitz. He talked with The Jewish Journal about anti-Semitism, Israel and how Hungary’s 1956 revolt against the Soviet Union relates to Iraq’s liberation.

Jewish Journal: How will the 60th anniversary of the deportations be observed in Hungary and in the United States?

András Simonyi: We’ll have a couple of major events in Budapest. Two will stand out: One is on the 15th of April, which is basically the day the deportations started in the countryside in Hungary, [and] a Holocaust museum in Budapest will be inaugurated.

I, as the ambassador to the United States, will also commemorate the event at a reception given in Washington, D.C. We will have a major event in New York. I am here partly to discuss with the Jewish community in Los Angeles the way we will commemorate the event in Los Angeles.

JJ: Hungary’s first Holocaust museum opens this year. Has Hungary’s debate over its Holocaust role been missing until now due to the communist years? The French debated France’s Holocaust role in the 1950s and 1960s, but the 1990s debate in post-communist Hungary was about communism. Did that contribute to this delay?

AS: I think so. But the important thing is that when you look back at history, all dictatorships are bad, and you don’t start discussing which dictatorship is worse, because you have to do justice to all, whether they’re victims of the Nazism and the Holocaust, whether they’re victims of communism and the gulags. For us, we have to remember that one life is as precious as another life.

JJ: Hungary has not seen the rise of anti-Semitism that has gripped France in the past few years. What do you attribute that to?

AS: Unfortunately, anti-Semitism exists everywhere, even in Hungary. Some of the anti-Semites in Hungary are very noisy, but the government is very clear on cracking down on anti-Semitism. There is a strong and vibrant Jewish community in Hungary, which is a sign that Jews in Hungary feel confident about the present and their future…. Slowly, but confidently, Hungarians are facing the darkest moment of history, and I really think the 60th anniversary should be marking this facing of the past.

JJ: Far-left parties worldwide have pro-Palestinian stances often so strong that they exclude Israel’s right to exist, and the problems of far-right anti-Semitism are well-documented. What is the state of Hungary’s far-left and far-right political parties?

AS: It is quite obvious that the democratic parties, left and right in Hungary, have a huge responsibility in making sure that they [anti-Semites] are pushed aside. They’re not in the Hungarian Parliament, which means that Hungary, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians, say no to an anti-Semitic party.

JJ: How does Hungary balance its relationship with Israel and with European Union-wide concerns for the situation in the Palestinian areas?

A.S.: Hungary was the first country in the Eastern bloc to re-establish [after the fall of communism] diplomatic relations with Israel. It was just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

On the other hand, it is very important to send a clear signal that we in the international community, with the European Union, with the United States, want to be part of assisting a solution to the conflict in the Middle East. Hungary has held hands with the United States as it went to war against Saddam Hussein.

JJ: Most Hungarians have not used Hungary’s anti-Soviet revolt in 1956 to make comparisons in support of the Palestinians’ intifada.

AS: I think that would be most ridiculous to draw any parallels. Honestly, fortunately, this is not a very popular belief. Hungarians in 1956 stood up against dictatorship, stood up against Soviet Russian occupation.

I would draw the parallel with what we wanted to achieve in 1956 with the war on terrorism and against Iraq. Partly why we thought we had to get rid of Saddam Hussein and do it together is because we remember what it means when democracies fail to act.

Hungary is a hard-core democracy, and we have learned the hard way, through Nazism, through communism, what it means when a country embraces radical ideas that exclude others. In 1944, Hungarians were deported; as far as I’m concerned, they were Hungarians. Hungarians deporting other Hungarians.

Follow the ‘Fellow’


John Herman Shaner’s play, "Fellow Traveler," starring Harold Gould, opens at the Malibu Stage Company on Sept. 13. A work rooted in issues of both politics and Judaism, it examines the agonizing legacy of communism as experienced by a Jewish TV writer in Hollywood, who is trying to come to terms with a crumbled ideology. Shaner is also the author of "After Crystal-Night," seen at the Odyssey last season.

Charles Marowitz: In your play, "Fellow Traveler," you depict a man who is trying to recover from the massive disillusionment that befell communists from Perestroika right up to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Do you believe there are people who, despite all the horrific revelations of Stalin and Mao, still cling to the communist ideal?

John Herman Shaner: There may be even millions. A little while ago, at a reading of this play here in L.A., I ran into a woman who wrote for Le Figaro, the popular French daily. She told me that half the psychiatric hospital beds in France are filled with ex-communists or ex-socialists, people unable to assimilate the collapse of the Soviet Union and desperately trying to preserve their ideological belief in communism.

They’re trying to find, as it were, a backdoor out of their dilemmas, arguing that communism was never really tried — in just the same way that certain Christians contend that true Christianity has never really been tried.

The story of this play is based on myself and my dearest friend, who proselytized me every single day of our relationship. We were locked in a constant argument, though we remained dear, devoted friends for some 35 or 40 years. In a sense, the play is a revenge against him, his inability to come to terms with the communist realities and his trying impose those irrationalities on me.

CM: There has always been this perception that Jewishness and communism often went hand in hand. Do you believe there was, or is, some kind of affinity between Marxism and Judaism?

JHS: Jews were drawn to Marxism early on, because they felt it was a progressive movement that somehow, through some kind of alchemy, would reduce, diminish or possibly even eradicate anti-Semitism. It propagated universalism, that all men were brothers and that many of the problems that beset Jews came about through economic inequities, and therefore many Jews , particularly the secular ones, felt that where Moses had failed them, Marx was going to redeem them. That anti-Semitism was going to be destroyed and all men truly become equal.

CM: Isn’t it ironic that it actually worked the other way?

JHS: It’s one of history’s very greatest ironies because, if anything, communism mobilized the hatred of the population in countries like Russia and Germany and other supposedly civilized countries against the Jews. The general perception was that the Jews, or some great portion of them, were communists and communists were equated with the anti-Christ.

CM: If the Catholic Church can be rocked by the recent scandals among its priests and bishops and still retain its credibility, can the legacy of Marxism-Leninism ever be entirely banished?

JHS: No, it can’t. Because there’s this quality in some human beings that they will constantly make that leap of faith. They will say, "Yes there are people who are imperfect, immoral, sexually corrupt, but the underlying idea remains correct." The idea of salvation at the root of Catholicism — that sense of euphoria that many people get from religion — that’s the same thing that communism gave to millions of people.

CM: In your play, the central character, an unreformable, dyed-in-the-wool communist, recites the "Ashamnu" prayer in order to repent his long-standing political sins. Do you believe that he is representative of former communists that have been forced to acknowledge the crimes of the past?

JHS: My character, Arnold Priest, is forced into this. This is his expiation. He’s in a corner; he can’t escape. They’ve got the evidence on him and he realizes it. He is forced into the Ashamnu. He cannot eat, he cannot sleep, his sexual impulse has gone and he is desperately looking for some kind of psychological out. Ironically, that "out" comes through a religious ritual, which he had previously rejected, along with all of Judaism. The Ashamnu means we are telling God and ourselves that we have sinned — not so much against God, but against each other.

CM: What is it you most want people to take away from seeing your play?

JHS: That to take what is most precious in yourself — your idealism and your individualism — and give them up to an ideology that turns out to be corrupt can be fatal to the personality.

This is a play about one’s obligation to question — that you must maintain your own common sense, your own seat-of-the-pants understanding when something contradicts your personal sense of what is right. That you mustn’t slavishly pursue a belief simply because it is popular or fashionable or morally uplifting. Every faith, no matter how devout, has to be questioned, because if not, it becomes merely genuflection.

The ‘Last Man’ Standing


Harry Ralston admits the scruffy Jewish intellectual in his neurotic comedy, "The Last Man," opening today in Los Angeles, is "the ultimate worst version of myself."

After an apocalypse, Alan Gould (David Arnott) thinks he’s the last guy on earth, so he’s making a video "bible" for future humans. Except he breaks his own moral code when his twosome with a babe ("Star Trek: Voyager"’s Jeri Ryan) is crashed by a charming stranger. "The minute he’s tested, he fails," says Ralston, who is himself a Jewish intellectual.

The 38-year-old director, who was bar mitzvahed at a New York Reform synagogue, made Alan Jewish, to emphasize his outcast-status. "It’s also amusing, because even when you get rid of almost everyone on earth, the Jew is still in the minority."

Ralston began "The Last Man" after communism fell, in 1992 — the year he quit a cushy ad job in Chicago to write screenplays in Mexico. He’d noted that the communists had sanctimoniously promoted Marxism, but human nature had corrupted the system. A less profound impetus: "I’ve found that people, including myself, have a profound need to be right," he says. "Everyone who drives slower than you is a moron. Everyone who drives faster is a maniac."

Ralston and his friend, filmmaker Tamara Hernandez, hardly thought they were right when they decided to make their respective directorial debuts — two films — for the price of one.

While the gambit had its advantages — including giving potential investors two chances to get their money back — it also required a breakneck-production schedule.

The two directors were rewarded when their movies earned kudos on the festival circuit; now Ralston hopes his post-apocalyptic love triangle offers a caveat post-Sept. 11. "I hope that [viewers] will take from the film that they don’t have all the answers," he says.

A Jewish Revival


For European leaders, the recent inauguration of three Jewish schools in Central Europe symbolizes far more than a Jewish revival.

They also reflect hopes for a return to normalcy in the heart of Europe more than 50 years after the Holocaust — and 10 years after the fall of Communism.

In this context, the schools — and their message of Jewish renewal in Germany, Austria and Poland, the countries where the Holocaust raged most fiercely — are feathers in the caps of local governments. They exemplify the ideals of a pluralistic, democratic order, not to mention a brighter future. At the same time, though , anti-Semitic political stirrings continue to attract followers. For example, shortly before the dedication of the Lauder teacher training center in eastern Berlin, the city’s biggest Jewish cemetery was seriously desecrated.

Meanwhile in Poland, while senior state and Roman Catholic church officials took part in the dedication of a monument to commemorate the Kristallnacht pogrom in Wroclaw, anti-Semitic militant Catholics defied church and government orders to remove a forest of crosses they had erected at Auschwitz.

In effect examples of political goodwill are taking place, but they coexist schizophrenically with widespread lingering prejudice.

Nevertheless, the presidents of Austria and Poland recently presented Ronald Lauder, whose foundation funds the schools and many other activities aimed at promoting Jewish life in the region, with high state awards honoring his work in strengthening Jewish life and in fostering local relations with Jews.

The homage paid to the new Lauder schools is just the latest in a long series of pro-Jewish actions, gestures and policy on the part of state and local authorities in many countries, part of the volatile mixture of politics, memory and history that are at play in this region.

In the wake of the Holocaust, and over the past decade in the wake of communism, official attitudes toward Jews and Jewish issues have frequently been used (by Jews) as a way of gauging the status of democracy, tolerance and civil rights in the region.

Starting in the early 1950s, official West German policy consciously attempted to make amends to the Jewish people, an ongoing process known as “coming to terms with the past.”

In Austria, such self-examination and confrontation with the past began much later.

In former Eastern Bloc countries, “filling in the blanks” that communism had created in historical memory has been a central motif over the past decade. These include gaping “blanks” about Jewish history and the Holocaust.

Under Communism, Jewish life was stifled, anti-Semitism was often state policy and study or discussion of Jewish topics was taboo. Most Communist states broke relations with Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967.

The new post-Communist governments quickly moved to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel, encourage Jewish study and open discussion of the Holocaust, including an examination of local involvement.

In all these countries, much of this activity has represented a sincere attempt to make amends and come to terms with the past. But there have also — inevitably — been many examples of lip service, cynicism and exploitative image-polishing.

Even before the fall of communism, some Eastern Bloc regimes in the 1980s openly co-opted or demonstrated support for Jewish causes in order to win support from the West — or from what they believed was a powerful Jewish lobby in the West.

But, the lofty ideals of officialdom have not fully trickled down to the mass public, where xenophobia is on the rise in some countries.

At the Lauder-Chabad school dedication in Vienna, for example, electoral gains by the far-right, anti-foreigner Freedom Party triggered international concern and threatened to sour relations between Austria and Israel.

It is worth quoting, however, Poland’s recent ambassador to the U.S., Drzysztof Sliwenski: “Our authorities are very much conscious that if Poland wants really to become a full member of the family of democracies, it must not just transform its political system and economy, but also the less-well-developed sphere of minority rights, human rights, et cetera.”