Review: Jabra Elite Sport Headphones

This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to write. There’s so much I love about the Jabra Elite Sport wireless headphones. I’ve been using them at the gym, and they’ve transformed the way I exercise, helped me track and radically improve my fitness, and have become an invaluable tool in transforming my body, but but I’ve encountered so many problems in testing them over an extended period that I can’t in good conscience recommend them.

Let’s start with the positive. The Jabra headphones are small, and with them in, looking at me face on, you would barely be able to tell I was wearing earbuds at all. They are also very comfortable, for my ears at least. The two black buds fit in your ears with a twist, and once they’re in, they stay in. I’ve had some pretty aggressive workouts and I was never concerned they’d fall out, unlike with Apple’s airpods. Also unlike the airpods, I didn’t look like I had 2 e-cigarettes dangling out of my ears.

The Jabras come with a few different sized ear plugs and rubber fit sleeves to allow them fit most ears, though if you have small ears, you might find them bulky. For me they fit perfectly and aside from the constant stream of music, I completely forgot they were there.

The sound quality wasn’t comparable to other bluetooth devices in this price range, but I set my expectations much lower because I saw them as primarily workout headphones and the sound was more than acceptable for running on a treadmill. The battery lasts about 3 hours, though the charging case it comes with should allow you to charge it two more times before needing to plug in, for a total of 9 hours (Note: while writing this review, Jabra released an updated model with 4.5 hour battery life, though it’s unclear if there are any other differences between the new model and the old). Three hours is more than enough time for most workouts though if you’re a marathon runner, or your workouts regularly run longer, you might want to look at a different set of buds. The way I used them, I’d work out for about 45 minutes, then put them back in their case, until the next day, when they’d be fully charged again (in theory at least, more on that later). I’d charge the case over the weekend, providing me with more than enough juice for a week’s worth of workouts.

The big selling point of these headphones are their fitness tracking features. The Elite Sport have a heart rate monitor in the right earbud that keeps tabs on you as you work out, and using the app, allows you to track your heart rate in real time. They also use your phone’s GPS to track running speed, which can allow the app to calculate your pace, your exertion, your calorie burn, and Vo2 Max (a metric that approximates how well your body is using oxygen). It seemed to work pretty well, and while I don’t know how accurate the Vo2 max number was, I was able to track it over a number of months and track my progress in a very real way. When I started working out, my Vo2 was about 46, and as I continued to build up my fitness, I saw it climb to 55, which the little voice coach in my ear told me was very good. It really motivated me to run more often, and to run longer, so that I could see my chart continue to climb. I haven’t found a better tool to motivate me in reaching my fitness goals.

While I found the GPS speedometer pretty accurate, when running on the treadmill, I found it’s estimations much less precise, and the app was usually off by about 2-3 miles per hour (if my treadmill was set to 8.5 miles an hour, my readout constantly said I was running at about 6mph. The Jabra app has a feature that should allow you to calibrate the headphones (where you run on a treadmill for a measured .25 miles, and it calculates your average speed from that) but in my experience, the calibration only made the app’s guestimate less accurate. Suddenly, it told me I was running 5 miles an hour when I was actually running 9. Eventually I gave up trying to calibrate, and just tracked average progress, and that worked well enough. It was frustrating, but something I learned to live with. And as long as I saw relative improvement in my runs, I felt good about my progress.

Charging the headphones in the case was inconsistent. Usually, after leaving the phones in overnight, I’d find them fully charged in the morning. Sometimes, I’d find they were only partially charged, other times they wouldn’t have charged at all. And if the case itself ran out of charge, the the headphones would stay paired to my phone, even when I closed the case. If the case died while I wasn’t wearing the headphones, they’d pair with my phone while still in the case, leading to some frustrating attempts to make phone calls, and not understanding why I couldn’t hear anything.

The headphones also have a feature that allows you to hear the world around you when they are in, but I found the microphones distorted or heavily clipped anything anyone said to me, so I’d end up taking them out of my ears to talk to people, even with the feature enabled. When I took them out of my ears, sensors automatically stopped my music which was a useful feature.

The headphones can also act a bluetooth headset for phone calls, though sound quality wasn’t great. People told me my voice sounded distorted and distant at times, like I was on speaker phone. I heard other people just fine.

After a few weeks of playing around, my left earbud died completely. I spoke to customer service, and went through a couple trouble shooting steps before they concluded that my unit was faulty. I sent the left earbud back, and received a new bud a few days later. My problems with charging, distortion , and fitness tracking accuracy were the same with the replaced bud (though many of these features might be in the right earbud, and it’s definitely possible that my unit was faulty).

So, to summarize some pros and cons:

Pros: They’re a great tool to get in shape. They’re comfortable. They sound pretty good for what they are.

Cons: Sensors can be inaccurate, battery charging is spotty at times, microphones distort sounds on the sound passthrough feature. Quality control issues.

Based on my experience, I can’t recommend the $250 Jabra Elite Sport for most people, though if you’re looking for workout headphones with heart rate and VO2 max testing, and are willing to deal with some quality and functionality issues, you might want to test these out. I’m optimistic about the technology packed in these buds, and honestly believe that the workout headphones of my dreams might be just around the corner.

The future looks bright. The present … meh. Not so much.

The Wonderboom is waterproof and even floats, making it perfect for a day out on the water.

Review: UE Boom 2 and Wonderboom

There’s something wonderful about music that can enrich almost any experience. BBQ’s, lazy days by the pool, going for walks or sitting down to do some work, the right music can add flavor and enjoyment to just about anything. And now that we can have all the world’s music in our pocket, there’s even more opportunity to have music in our lives.

I recently had the opportunity to play around with the UE Boom 2 and Wonderboom portable bluetooth speakers to see how they might fit into my musical life.

TLDR: I like them a lot as portable speakers, with a few minor caveats.

Both devices feel premium, a lot more solid than I expected them to feel. Both are covered in a colorful mesh, with rubber buttons on the side and top. The UE Boom 2 is taller and thinner, while the Wonderboom is shorter and fatter. The Wonderboom also has a little elasticky rope loop on it, so you can easily hang it from a hook (showerboom, anyone?) or attach a carabiner to clip it to a backpack, or bike, or just about anywhere. The Boom 2 doesn’t have the loop. They both come in a variety of colors to suit just about any taste.

They both paired easily with my phone, and after initial setup, I was able to hit the power button and start playing music almost immediately, but that’s to be expected with any modern bluetooth device.

UE Boom 2


Both the Boom 2 and the Wonderboom are billed as take anywhere speakers and I found that they really were. I had no problem throwing them in my bag and lugging around all day. I did find that the Boom 2 faired better because it was longer and narrower, making it slip more comfortably in a packed bag. The shorter stubbier Wonderboom felt like it needed more space.

I brought these speakers with me to the beach, to the park, to swimming pools, really anywhere where I might enjoy music, and I was never worried about damaging them. They’re both waterproof, and the Wonderboom even floats, making it perfect for a day out on the water.

Both the Boom 2 and Wonderboom sound pretty great for small portable Bluetooth speakers. The Wonderboom is loud and the music is fun, and I wouldn’t have thought anything about the sound quality if I didn’t have the Boom 2 to compare it to. The Boom 2 sounds better in just about every way. The bass is deeper, the sound is louder, the music sounds more rich and true to life. Going back to the Wonderboom, it suddenly sounded anemic in comparison. Not that the Wonderboom was bad, but I found myself reaching for the Boom 2 more often for on the go music, and saving the Wonderboom for podcasts.



One great thing about these speakers is you can carry them anywhere. I found myself constantly moving them around the house to have some music with me as I went about my day, but these are clearly meant to be mobile speakers. My ideal speakers would be able to go anywhere (like the Boom 2 and Wonderboom) but can also operate as wired home speakers for when I’m not on the go. The Boom 2 and Wonderboom aren’t great for that. On the Boom 2, the USB charging plug as well as the Aux cable jack are both on the bottom of the device, which seems like an odd design choice. The only way to listen while plugged in, or while listening to an outside source, like Chromecast audio, is to lay the cylindrical device on the side, where it’s not very stable and can roll around. Not sure why they’d put the Aux jack on the bottom of the device since you can’t stand the speaker up when using it, and to be honest, I can’t think of any scenarios where it would be useful on the bottom at all. If the power and Aux jack were on the back of the Boom, they’d both be much more useful. The Wonderboom doesn’t have an aux jack. In short, if you’re looking for speakers to leave around the house, to leave plugged in, or to use with an auxiliary source like Chromecast, these are not the speakers for you.

UE claims that you can pair multiple Wonderbooms together, or multiple Boom 2’s together for a more room filling sound, but I couldn’t find a way to pair a Boom 2 with a Wonderboom. This might be fixable with a software update, but seems like another odd choice for these otherwise great speakers.

The Boom 2 and Wonderboom are both pretty great speakers for what they are. If you’re looking for a great sounding portable bluetooth speaker you can toss in a bag and take anywhere, with a 15 hour battery life, for a full day of wireless tunes, I’d definitely give these a look. If you’re looking for a device that can also be used mostly wired, or with non-bluetooth sources, these might not be your first choice.

The Wonderboom is 100 dollars, and the Boom 2 will run you $200.

Review: JLab Audio Epic2 bluetooth earbuds

As the tech world moves away from wires, there has never been a better time to make the leap to wireless headphones.

Bluetooth wireless technology has been around for some time now and has come a long way since its early commercial implementations – there is very little fidelity loss and the convenience is hard to argue.

Enter the JLab Audio’s Epic2 earbuds – the vastly improved follow-up to the company’s original Epic earbuds.

When buying wireless headphones there are three main things I consider: audio quality, connectivity and battery life.

Audio quality

The Epic2s offer balanced sound with very good clarity. I was impressed with how much of a song’s detail can be heard.

The bass is decent, though it felt a little thin at times, especially at higher volumes. If you are looking for headphones that really carry a punch there are some better options out there.

Phone calls sounded great, too. Voices sounded crisp and clear and I didn’t have to elevate my voice to be heard by the person on the other end.

The Epic2s can get loud – like, really loud. While this may be great for pumping you up in a gym, be cautious when rocking out on a run as the volume and sound isolation make it very difficult to hear what’s going on around you. Be careful out there.


Wireless headphones are at their best when the user can simply connect them to a device once and never think about it again. JLab has nailed this process with the Epic2s.

The pairing process was a breeze. My iPhone discovered them immediately and in two steps they were ready to rock. The instructions were very straightforward and the audio queues heard through the headphones were a helpful touch.

I haven’t experienced any signal drop while listening to music and was pleasantly surprised by how far I could move away from my device without interruption – a genuinely liberating feeling.


The JLab Epic2’s dual battery system

Battery life

The battery life packed into the relatively small form-factor of these headphones might be their most impressive feat. The company claims the earbuds offer 12 hours of playtime and – while I am often skeptical of company estimates on battery life – they lasted a weeklong trip of moderate use without a recharge.

They pull this off by placing two batteries within the earbuds themselves rather than, say, within the controller which some companies do. While this dual battery setup increases the size of the earbuds I will trade a little added weight for improved battery life every time.

The voice that lets you know your earbuds are connected will let you know the batteries’ status and will warn you when they need to be recharged.

Other important factors

Comfort: The Epic2s are comfortable – though the extra size causes a little irritation during long listening sessions – and haven’t fallen out of my ears even during more intense workouts.


The over-ear hook helps with security but could be a little stronger

They come with 8 tip sizes which will allow most users to find a secure fit. I have had trouble with some in-ear headphones in the past, but had no trouble finding a sweet spot with the Epic2s. The flexible over-ear hooks add another layer of mobility confidence, though I wish they held their form a little better.

Controls: The controls are intuitive and take very little time to master. Their simplicity is important because the buttons are located behind your right ear and out of sight while in use. 

The three-button setup allows you to perform most of the basic functions one should expect: adjust volume, skip tracks, answer phone calls and even start your phone’s smart assistant.

Water resistance: The Epic2s have an IPX5 rating – while you can’t jump in the pool with them, they are sweat-proof, splash-proof and can be rinsed off after a workout.

What comes in the box: Epic2 earbuds, 2 mini cable management clips, USB to micro USB cord, travel case and eight sets of tips.


If you have a new iPhone or are just looking to jump into the wireless headphone space, the JLab Audio Epic2 earbuds are a great choice. You get a lot of bang for your buck: balanced sound, secure fit and industry best battery life.

For those of you ready to revisit that New Year’s Resolution, these headphones will help get you off and running.

MOONLIGHT *Movie Review*

MOONLIGHT is a coming of age story that follows Chiron during three stages of life as he learns who about himself while he struggles with sexual identity.  During each stage, he is called by a different name, either Little, Chiron or Black.  MOONLIGHT was written and directed by Barry Jenkins.  It stars Mahershala Ali (HIDDEN FIGURES), Janelle Monae (HIDDEN FIGURES), Naomie Harris (SKYFALL), Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.  Brad Pitt produced.

This is a really beautiful movie that’s more quiet and methodical than anything else.  Each scene feels unhurried, as though the audience is really experiencing a piece of life.  By leaping ahead and showing Chiron over three different stages of life, there’s a strong sense that life goes on and we as an audience are only privy to certain parts of it.  

While I was willing to accept the narrative gaps, at the same time I wanted more, particularly from Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monae).  Chiron’s story and life were interesting, but so were they. 

For more about MOONLIGHT, including how the color blue is used as a theme throughout, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.


At Sundance, ‘The Settlers’ trains lens on movement’s extremist fringe

What is a settler?

That’s the question that opens the new documentary film “The Settlers,” which premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival here.

Written and directed by Shimon Dotan, the film offers an answer almost immediately: a religious fundamentalist driven by messianic ideology who believes Jews have the exclusive right to the West Bank and may use all manner of subterfuge, violence and lawbreaking to fulfill the divine imperative of settling the Holy Land.

There is truth in this answer, but it is not the whole truth.

Most settlers, as Dotan himself acknowledged in an interview with JTA, do not fit this description. They are “economic settlers” – Israelis who live in the West Bank because it’s cheaper than living in Israel proper. They are overwhelmingly law abiding, reside mostly within commuting distance of major Israeli cities and include secular Jews among their ranks.

Dotan said that 320,000 of the West Bank’s 400,000 settlers fall into this category. Only the remaining 80,000 are “ideological settlers,” who live there for reasons of religious or political principle. Of those, a fraction are extremists.

That context is largely missing from his film, which focuses almost exclusively on the far-right religious extreme – the hilltop youth who illegally occupy remote outposts, the young Jews who perpetrate and celebrate violence against Palestinians, residents of the most fanatically anti-Arab communities in the West Bank.

Dotan told JTA he focused on the fringe because the extremists determine the course of the entire movement.

“If you want to understand a phenomenon, you have to go the fringes, to the leaders,” Dotan said.

By failing to provide much context about mainstream settlers, the film conveys the message that the Jews of the West Bank are exclusively racist, murderous zealots and the sole impediment to Israeli-Palestinian harmony. Or, as veteran Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar describes them in the film, “a monster of half a million people standing in the way of peace.”

That’s not to say settler extremists aren’t an important subject for consideration. Though relatively small in number, they wield outsize influence on the settlement enterprise, on Israeli-Palestinian relations and on Israeli policy. Increasingly, they are a focus of worldwide attention. On Jan. 18, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, made headlines when he warned of unchecked “Israeli vigilantism in the West Bank.”

Dotan’s film forces us to reckon with the ugliness in the settler movement, even as he showcases the West Bank’s beauty with some stunning aerial photography. His subjects are the settler from Tekoa who proudly declares himself a racist, the father who talks jovially to his young sons about beating up Arabs when they grow up, the settlers who want their enterprise eventually to swallow the Kingdom of Jordan — and maybe even all the land from the Nile River in Egypt to the Euphrates in Iraq.

“Today, almost 50 years after the first settler made his home in the West Bank, the settlement drive is a clear-cut success,” the film’s narrator says. “The settlers see themselves as pioneers, the leaders of Israeli society. The question is: Where are they leading it — to divine redemption, as they claim, or to apartheid?”

Dotan, 66, who has lived in the United States for the past 20 years and teaches political cinema at New York University, approaches his subject chronologically. He starts with the leaders of Gush Emunim, the ideological movement that, influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, believed that the 1967 war heralded divine redemption and that settling the newly conquered territory would help usher in the messianic age.

Shimon Dotan is the writer and director of “The Settlers,” which premiered Jan. 22 at the Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Shimon Dotan)Shimon Dotan is the writer and director of “The Settlers,” which premiered Jan. 22 at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Shimon Dotan

The film intersperses interviews with the movement’s aging leaders with archival footage of those leaders as young men, leading demonstrations, establishing new West Bank outposts, celebrating with followers. Where there’s no footage, Dotan relies on illustrations and voice-overs to tell crucial parts of the story. The beautiful illustrations are the work of artist David Polonsky, who did the animation for “Waltz with Bashir,” the Oscar-nominated 2009 Israeli film about the Lebanon War.

The result is a fascinating look at how the settlements came into being, and the men and women on the movement’s fringe who continue to push its boundaries – both ideologically and physically. “The Settlers” also documents how the Israeli government — sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly and often unwittingly and without foresight – helped build and reinforce the settlement enterprise.

In one scene, Sarah Nachshon, who played a seminal role in establishing the Jewish settlement in Hebron, recalls how she forced the reopening of the old Jewish cemetery at a time when it wasn’t clear Israel would allow Jews to remain in the city. In was the mid-1970s, and her infant son had just died in his crib. She insisted on burying him in Hebron, though no Jew had been buried there since before Israel’s establishment.

When Israeli officials refused, Nachshon simply ignored their orders, marching past Israeli soldiers with her dead baby in her arms. Once the baby was interred, the cemetery became another site Israeli soldiers were compelled to patrol – another active Jewish outpost in the West Bank.

The film features interviews with unrepentant members of the Jewish Underground, who in the 1980s carried out bombing attacks against the Palestinian mayors of Nablus, Ramallah and El Bireh (two were maimed, one escaped unharmed), plotted to blow up the mosque at the Temple Mount and planted bombs on Arab buses. Israeli officials caught them and defused the bombs before they exploded.

We see undated scenes of Jews beating Arabs in their fields with crowbars, Jews beating Arabs in the streets of Hebron, a Jew explaining how in the Jewish tradition, “Revenge is an important thing.”

Palestinian violence against Israelis goes almost unmentioned, except for a few oblique references. In Dotan’s film, the only Palestinians we see are victims. Palestinian violence is “irrelevant” to this story, Dotan said.

Dotan says his primary target for this film is Israelis, among whom he hopes the movie will spark conversation. Dotan is still looking for an American distributor for the film.

“I think Israelis know very little about what’s happening in the West Bank and little about the ideological origins of the settlements,” Dotan said. “This film gives settlers’ voices a platform. I hope people will listen.”

‘The Fame Lunches’: Daphne Merkin is still wishing for mother’s love

If you were the wild child among more submissive siblings, who refused to be silenced and cried continually, and fought with all the others about their glaring hypocrisies; chances are you were not your parents’ favorite child.  If you sometimes made disturbing comments about wishing to harm yourself while broadcasting to anyone who would listen your opinion about your parents’ deficiencies, you were probably the cause of much familial stress.  If the confusion that swirled around in your head escalated to the point where your parents sent you to a psychiatric facility when you were only 8 years old, you probably only grew more despondent.  By the time adolescence beckoned, the die was cast: You were known only as the anxious and nervous one, a little troubled girl who simply needed too much.

But what if you’re not.  Maybe you were just an exquisitely sensitive and creative little girl who was able to disarmingly articulate your family’s massive dysfunction.  Maybe not getting enough love from your mother and father was simply too much for you to bear.  Maybe you’re Daphne Merkin. 

Merkin, author of  “The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is an extremely engaging and empathetic writer.  She doesn’t allow herself to form fixed notions about others, but instead wrestles with how most of us choose to present ourselves to the outside world, along with the forces that have shaped our individual self-presentations.  She is acutely aware of the difficulties involved in all human relationships but also sees tenderness and beauty where others don’t even think to look.  Brought up in a Modern Orthodox, wealthy Jewish home in Manhattan, Merkin struggled with a father who had little patience for her and a mother who seemed overly concerned with the aesthetics of their home while ignoring the emotional turbulence lurking beneath it.  There was little talk about God or spiritual matters of any sort.  Their Judaism was expressed mostly by rituals and celebrations and life at the synagogue, which Merkin disliked since it seemed to her the men had all the good parts.  What she did enjoy was studying the Talmud, which stimulated her active mind with its never ending labyrinth of puzzling arguments.  But she studied privately and eventually gave it up.  As for God, he always either ignored or eluded her.

Mostly, she tried to get her mother’s attention, an exercise that resulted in repeated frustration and disappointment.  But Merkin never stopped trying.  She writes about her mother with an almost uncomfortable intensity, one that seems to elude her in other relationships.  Her mother passed away years ago, but is still dominant in her thoughts and misgivings.  She misses her. Perhaps misses what she never had.  They shared a turbulent relationship, but one that Merkin counted on, even though her mother continually disappointed her. The only possible gift bestowed upon Merkin from this ferocious attachment is that it seems to have imbued Merkin with the ability to look at others through a psychological lens that is filtered by kindness and compassion.

In “The Fame Lunches,” her new outstanding collection of essays, Merkin offers us her take on everything from the allure of lip gloss and its relationship to the demise of civilized society to vividly personal and perceptive essays that resulted from her lengthy interviews with everyone from Madonna to Kate Blanchett.  She tries to dissect the enduring legacy of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana and Courtney Love while offering up thought-provoking pieces about the Bronte sisters, Bruno Bettelheim, and Henry Roth.  She allows space for her own meditations on mental illness, psychoanalysis and the hardships of mothering after divorce.  She is equally adept at highbrow and lowbrow subjects, because she is fascinated by both, and brings an observational sharpness to whatever she is writing about.  Some of the best pieces here have to do with the hunt for a perfect handbag, reality television, and the obsession women have with holding on to their beauty.

What amazes the reader about Merkin is how open her heart has remained, even with age and after several extreme episodes of emotional distress.  Her heart has not hardened, and that is truly a writer’s greatest asset.  She has written at great length in the New York Times about her over 40-year participation in psychoanalysis and its disappointments for her, but the miracle of Merkin is really her resilience in spite of her duress. She perseveres. She writes. She travels. She teaches. She mothers her beloved daughter. She confides in friends.  And, for the most part, she remains afloat.

In one of the most revealing pieces, she tells us about sending a letter to Woody Allen telling him about her adoration for him.  She included a poem for him that ended with these two short sad lines: “You are my funny man.  You know you can be sad with me.”  Woody wrote her back and encouraged her to keep writing.  This led to a friendship of sorts, where they would occasionally meet for lunch.  At one meal, she told him that she was feeling more depressed than usual.  Woody asked her all the appropriate follow-up questions in a clinical fashion and suggested she consider electroshock therapy.  She was furious with him.  She thought, “I don’t know what I had been hoping for — some version of come with me and I will cuddle you until your sadness goes away, not to get hooked up to electrodes, baby — but I was slightly stunned.  More than slightly, I understood he was trying to be helpful in his way but it fell so far short. …Shock therapy?  It wasn’t as thought I hadn’t heard of it or didn’t know people who benefited from it.  Still, how on earth did he conceive of me?  As a chronic mental patient, someone who was meant to sit on a thin hospital mattress and stare greyly into space.  Didn’t he know I was a writer with a future, a person given to creative descriptions of her own moods?  Shock therapy, indeed; I’d sooner try a spa.  It suddenly occurred to me, as I walked up Madison Avenue, that it might pay to be resilient, if this was all being vulnerable and skinless got you… .Indeed, maybe it was time to rethink this whole salvation business.  Or maybe I was less desperate, less teetering on the edge than I cared to admit.  Now that was a refreshing personality.”

There is a steeliness about her that allows her to see things clearly even in the throes of despair.  Merkin’s capacity to analyze her response to Allen’s well-intended advice demonstrates an inner resilience that has undoubtedly saved her many times over.  She knows firsthand the dark forces that can invade your psyche, but she also understands healing and reinvention and transformation.  There is no malice or bitchiness or vengeance present in her work; even towards those whom she knows have caused her the greatest harm.  Even when she senses people are being deceptive or manipulative, she does not castigate them. Instead, she seeks answers as to why she believes they feel they need to be inauthentic at a certain point in time.  She wants to understand, not attack.

For example, when writing about Mike Tyson and his new wife, she senses that Tyson is playing her.  She believes this is simply another incarnation of his continual act, which she describes as a “construction every bit as deliberate as he claims his Invincible Iron Mike persona was.”  Merkin does not challenge him directly about her perception but instead writes about how impressed she is that he is attempting to create a persona that is less violent and self-destructive than he has been in the past.  She wants him to succeed, although she recognizes the fragility of his battle.  Merkin reaches similar conclusions about Marilyn Monroe.  She wonders at first if Monroe was really the victim she is often portrayed to be, or a manipulator of the finest order.  She reviews her background, which includes severe maternal and paternal deprivation, mental illness, and bouts of terrible instability and depression.  She offers up compassion, as she does for Princess Diana, whom she describes as a “knot of contradictions: impossibly glamorous, yet disarmingly self effacing, bold, yet riddled with self-doubt, worldly yet naïve.”  

There are times when Merkin seems to get swept up in a dreamy romantic longing for a world that is less cruel and more forgiving.  On Charles and Diana’s failed union, she writes, “I find myself wondering how Diana’s life might have turned out if she and Charles had bonded over their shared lack of childhood, their virtual abandonment as children. …What would have happened if they had the patience (on his side) and endurance (on hers) to address their mutual longings for love and nurturance in each other?”

And I find myself wondering what Merkin’s life might have been like if she had received more of the nourishment she craved?  Would she have been a writer?  Would she have had an emotional radar as sharp and perceptive as hers is now?  Would she have been happier?  Does her exquisite artistry only come from having experienced such acute pain?  It’s hard to know.  What is clear is that she is one of our best narrative nonfiction writers.  Merkin’s voice is secular and modern and yet filled with some sort of ancient wisdom, and coupled with intellectual and emotional honesty, while maintaining a pureness of heart.  That is no easy feat.

She once wrote this about her mother in her semi-autobiographical novel “Enchantment”: “I want ­­– have always wanted — her to listen to me forever.”  I don’t think her mother could, or did, for reasons that remain mysterious, but we listen and will continue to do so.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Archaeology, truth, Jerusalem

Archaeology is more than a science when it comes to Jerusalem, a place where the turn of the spade may reveal an artifact that has political and theological overtones. Katharina Galor and Hanswulf Bloedhorn, authors of “The Archeology of Jerusalem: From the Origins to the Ottomans” (Yale University Press, $50), are mindful of these pitfalls.

“[S]omething beyond the material and written remains has contributed to the long-lasting effects of Jerusalem’s cultural and religious development,” they acknowledge. “Whether guided by the desire to prove or disprove a certain spiritual presence and its physical manifestations, and regardless of whether one is a religiously inspired or scientifically trained scholar, the goal is always to reconstruct ‘the truth.’ ”

Their goal here is to provide a comprehensive survey of the work that has been carried by several generations of scholars. Galor is a professor of Judaic studies at Brown University, and Bloedhorn is an expert in Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine architecture. Both of them have lived, worked and taught in Jerusalem, and their scholarship is informed by their first-hand experience of what is surely the most consequential archaeological site in the world. 

For all of its importance, however, or perhaps because of it, some of the first excavations were “methodologically deficient and unsatisfactorily documented.” The problem begins, of course, with the distorting role that religion plays in what used to be called “biblical archaeology,” which invoked the fanciful notion of archaeologists who carried a shovel in one hand and a Bible in the other hand. Even today, it is impossible to excavate on the very site where tradition holds that the Temple once stood.

The physical evidence of the history of Jerusalem is considerable. The city is mentioned in Egyptian “execration” texts on ceramic bowls and figurines dating back to the 19th century B.C.E.: “It was believed,” they explain, “that the power of the enemy whose name was inscribed on the bowls and figurines could be destroyed by smashing them.” The remains of two buildings survive from the Early Bronze Age. But the narratives that are preserved in the Bible are of only “limited chronological value,” as the authors delicately put it, and they suggest the Temple of Solomon, if it existed at all, was something different from what is described in the Tanakh.

“Archaeological evidence suggests that numerous contemporary sanctuaries existed and that monotheism did not develop until after 622 B.C.E.,” they point out. “All attempts to locate the First Temple, whether by trying to locate the Temple itself (or specific parts of it, such as the Holy of Holies or the sacrificial altar) or, alternatively, by locating the substructure that possibly supported the Temple, remain conjectural.”

By contrast, animal and human figurines fashioned of clay are among the most common archaeological finds from the Late Iron Age. While the authors do not use the term, we might wonder if these figurines are better described as idols. “These figurines can be understood as an expression of popular beliefs whose traditions were rooted in the political and cultural development of Judah,” they write, “a reality that stands in contrast to the biblical injunction against the making of graven images.” 

Of necessity, much of the book is devoted to the period that began with the end of the Babylonian Exile starting in the sixth century B.C.E. Here, too, the evidence for the biblical account is sparse or non-existent. “Despite the fundamental role of the postexilic Second Temple,” the writers point out, “archaeological remains of this edifice are lacking.” Only the Temple as reconstructed by Herod — and only the retaining walls for this structure — testify to the existence of the ancient Temple. But much more attests to the urban landscape of ancient Jerusalem, including architecture, mosaics, sculpture, inscriptions, vessels, coins, jewelry and even board games incised on stone pavers, all of which are illustrated in fascinating detail. 

Most abundant of all, of course, are the constructions undertaken in Jerusalem by its various Islamic, Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman conquerors. It is only the last of these, for example, who constructed the walls that circumscribe the Old City. The accumulation of archaeological remnants over a period of 5,000 years, as the author points out, represents only a fragment of its rich history. “No one discipline — history, archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, art history, and more — presumes to capture the full scope of Jerusalem’s heritage.”

But it is also true that no other city of the ancient world is quite so compelling, and not only to archaeologists. The followers of three religions regard Jerusalem as the starting point (and, for some, the endpoint) of the divine enterprise. But theology does not enter into “The Archaeology of Jerusalem.” To their credit, Galor and Bloedhorn have encapsulated the work of many generations of their fellow scholars by showing us, quite literally, the facts on the ground.

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.”

Michael Berenbaum review: Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’

Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2013) pp. 449).

The anguish of the believer is not the same as that of the renegade, and Ari Shavit writes as a believer in the Zionist enterprise. Not Zionism in the mystical sense that sweeps away all reality and overlooks all issues and problems, but as a man loves his wife of many years, fully aware of her virtues, fully mindful of her flaws and fully embracing the love that is at the core of their relationship. He writes of Israel as “we,” not “they.” He hears in the many discordant Israeli voices that often rage at one another voices that make the society thrive.

Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is a tour de force. Written in lyrical prose by a distinguished journalist who listens attentively when he interviews, Shavit engages his subjects and also the land of Israel. He is the great-grandson of Herbert Bentwich, a religious English Jew who came to survey Palestine in 1897 to evaluate its potential as a national home for the Jewish people and then returned to create a familial home, a national home. Shavit does not write of others, but of his own nation, his promised land.

The book’s thesis is simple; Zionism has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, it has produced a vibrant, vital, innovative, creative imaginative, prosperous, diverse society that is throbbing with life, and yet its successes have come at a tragic cost and Zionism’s future, even after 65 years of Israeli independence, is uncertain — the neighborhood is dangerous in new and perplexing ways. How Israel has managed to resolve its myriad problems in the past is no guarantor of future success.

Zionism has achieved so much, and yet not its stated mission, which is to end Jewish vulnerability, to solve the problem of anti-Semitism, to normalize the Jewish condition. It might not have even achieved independence, as Israel lives  in a globalizing world that is increasingly interdependent.

A word on Shavit’s methodology: He has neither written a history of Israel nor a chronicle of its wars and woes, although those can be found in the book. Instead, he has chosen 16 epochs in Israeli life, beginning with the arrival of his great grandfather in 1897, to portray the struggles of each generation. Four deal with the first 50 years of the Zionist enterprise, the birth of the Zionists’ movement and Zionism’s vision “for a people without a land, a land without a people.” He understands what his great grandfather saw and what he did not see — could not see. He takes his readers into the swamps as they were being drained, into the kibbutz as it was being formed, into the settlement of the land and its cultivation in the orange groves of Rehovot. He explores the creation of the Masada myth and the oath: “Masada shall not fall again.”

Shavit does not give his readers a history of the War of Independence, but chronicles in one chapter the struggle for Lydda 1948, which was first published in the New Yorker. From there, he grapples with the absorption of immigrants and the great project of Dimona, which sought to give Israel the security, the normalcy for which it so longed. He is careful not to arouse the censors’ ire, and tells his readers only the details that have been published in the West. He avoids dealing directly with the epic wars of 1967 and 1973, and with the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but rather with its aftermath of settlement, occupation and peace, and then focuses on contemporary challenges.

In each chapter, Shavit interviews key historical figures. An unidentified engineer describes his role and the role of his colleagues in creating Israel’s nuclear umbrella; Aryeh Deri tells his story of the rise of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin and Amos Oz are interviewed about the peace process. Shavit listens attentively, asks the most poignant of questions, researches comprehensively and reflects deeply. He comes to listen and to probe; he leaves to consider and to absorb, to reflect and to write. He goes to Israel’s bars and discothèques to explore their hedonistic, individualistic culture; he meets with Israeli entrepreneurs and bankers and with those fighting for social justice against the unrestrained free market forces that have magnified class distinctions and shattered the social justice contract of Israel.  He meets with farmers and industrialists, generals and intelligence chieftains.

And he meets with Israeli Arabs to hear their story, to learn of their tragedy.

He sees the paradoxes of contemporary Israel and is willing to confront them: In Shavit’s writing, the commonplace divide between hawk and dove seems shallow. Right and Left are seen as mirror images of one another. Simple formulas: “If only we annexed [or withdrew] from the territories, there would be peace.” Mutual recriminations: “Our dead have died because of their illusions of greater Israel [or that peace was possible].” Jewish extremism and Muslim fanaticism have fed one another, nourished one another and played into the hands of the other. They may even be allied with one another, seeking a confrontation that will result in the other’s demise. Grappling with the 1967 war — a war that is still being waged — will not protect the achievements of 1948, because that war, too, is also ongoing.

Shavit avoids simple characterization: He sees the occupation in all its horror, the expulsion of 1948 in all its indignity, yet he is under no illusions that peace is readily achievable, even with withdrawal even as he understands its urgency all too well. He believes that Iran is an existential threat to Israel and to the Jewish people. And while he cannot accept Benjamin Netanyahu’s sense of himself as the Winston Churchill of 2013, he believes that the Prime Minister understands the threat, even as he may be contributing to it by not acting more robustly on the Palestinian front and further isolating Israel. Shavit understands that the threats of disintegrating states and non-state actors are very different from the armies that attacked, or threatened to attack Israel, in the past. We cannot fight the past wars to win the next.

Shavit is hard on Israel’s political leadership, a leadership unequal to its task, unworthy of the nation’s past. The more I read Shavit, the more I recalled a remark someone made 30 years ago that sadly still rings true: “Only a confirmed anti-Semite would believe that Israel has the political leadership it deserves.”

One can quarrel with Shavit. Was the tragedy of Israel from the inception of the Zionist movement, from Herbert Bentwich, or from his successors?

One can quibble with some of the details of this work. There is no evidence that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to bomb Auschwitz, no matter how many times and to how many prestigious forums the Prime Minister of Israel reiterates the charge; there is direct, documentary evidence that David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency Cabinet he chaired refused to request that Auschwitz be bombed on June 11, 1944, during the height of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, because they did not know enough of what was happening on the ground in Auschwitz. They still thought it was a labor camp. Israel must grapple with its own history before it charges betrayal by the West.

Yet “My Promised Land” is a work without peer. No single work depicts the complexity, vitality and achievements of Israel society as well. And no other work also depicts Israel’s failings and its challenges so poignantly, so lovingly and so soberly.

Like many Israelis, Shavit has staked his own life and the life on his children on this uncertain outcome. Such is the believer’s faith. His last words are “come what may.” They sound eerily akin to the Biblical Israelites’ response at Sinai,“na’aseh v’nishma,” “we will do and hear.”

Book Review: Three different ‘Family’ ways

Word of mouth is the real maker of best sellers in the publishing world, and I can think of few books with quite as much buzz as David Laskin’s remarkable family chronicle, “The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” (Viking, $32).

Laskin tells a story — or, rather, three stories — that are emblematic of the Jewish experience in the previous century. His book follows three branches of the Cohen family, all born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in tsarist Russia, as they struggle to survive amid the historic upheavals of the last century. One strand of the family finds its way to America and makes a fortune in the shmatte business; another makes aliyah to Palestine and pioneers the Jewish homeland; the third remains in Russia and suffers the horrors of the Shoah. Many of Laskin’s readers will have the same or similar stories to tell, but it is rare to find a family historian who is able to gather the family lore, sort out fact from fiction, and deliver a story with such color, sweep and impact.

“History made and broke my family in the twentieth century,” Laskin explains. “Their daring, their drive, their inventiveness, and ambition, and confidence and secret melancholy strike me now like something out of Dos Passos or Isaac Bashevis Singer. They gave me so much, these fierce, passionate immigrants — my life, my freedom and privileges, my education, my identity, my country. The least I can do is give their stories back to them.”

The story begins with Shimon Dov HaKohen, a member of a little dynasty of scribes at work in the shtetl of Volozhin, in what is now Belarus, but “The Family” is quickly caught up in the currents of history. Shimon’s daughter, Itel, started out as a member of the Jewish socialist movement known as the Bund, but ended up in America as one of the owners of the Maidenform bra and girdle company: “The daughter and granddaughter of scribes had stumbled upon one of the pure products of America,” Laskin writes, “seemingly frivolous but in fact eminently practical and instantly indispensable.”

Itel’s brother, Chaim, by contrast, was an ardent follower of the martyred Zionist leader Joseph Trumpeldor, and he aspired to join the other young men and women who were pioneering the Jewish homeland in Palestine. “In his dreams, Chaim would take the hero’s place,” Laskin writes. “But first he must learn how to work. Not the degrading Diaspora work of keeping shop, peddling merchandise, brokering, smuggling. Chaim must master the noble labor of the halutz.” He finally reached Palestine in 1924, and he served in the Haganah during the fateful year of 1929, when the simmering tensions between Arabs and Jews boiled over.

“Chaim had been little more than a boy when he arrived in the Kinneret in 1924, a teenager buoyed by boundless hope and idealism,” the author explains. “Idealism alters when it has to bear a sidearm. The tragedy of the twentieth-century Palestine was that farmers like Chaim had to learn to beat their plowshares into swords.”

A precious remnant of the family remained in the Old Country. When Sonya, a cousin to Itel and Chaim, who had made aliyah, returned to visit the family in Raskov in 1938, she saw that they were “frightened and desperate,” but lacked the wherewithal to get out. A relative in America offered to assist them, and “we hope that something will come of out,” as Doba, Sonya’s sister, wrote. “But nothing did come of it,” Laskin writes. “Some link in the chain broke.” Doba and the rest of the family were trapped at ground zero of the Holocaust: “We met some wise people,” Doba wrote, “who are aware that we are sitting on the mouth of a volcano.” 

Inevitably, the saga ends with a measure of joy but also a measure of pain and loss. Laskin mourns those who stayed behind, and he celebrates the fact that 101 of his relatives survive in America and another 32 in Israel. Above all, he urges us to see the workings of history not merely as a list of dates, places and events, great men and great ideas, but as a tapestry whose threads include the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings.

“The pulse of history beats in every family,” he concludes. “All of our lives are engraved with epics of love and death.” But it is also true that few families produce a scribe as gifted as Laskin himself, a storyteller who has given his own family chronicle all of the depth and detail of a great novel while, at the same time, honoring the truth of their lives.

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.” 

Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ a small-town triumph

Imagine what a movie showcasing an ordinary, lukewarm existence might look like. One without mobs or crooked cops and the only color in the characters’ lives is the blue on their collar. Worse still, life is totally ordinary and you live in Billings, Montana. Your great romantic tragedy is a Billings, Montana girlfriend calling it quits because you’re unsure about a Billings, Montana marriage. She’s pushing 250 lbs. You’re content selling Bose speakers in Billings, Montana to “Ja-neece, not Janice” and your physically and socially mangled father convinced you to drive 850 miles because of a promotional scam. Then you drive back to Billings, Montana.

But Nebraska is welcome proof that not every movie demands glorified escapism found in storied timepieces, fluorescent boxing rings and Ryan Gosling. Grounding films that don’t titillate our grandiose visions of a sexy, high-flying fantasy where we’re permanently 32 and going to dinner parties with 40 of our closest friends, or defending Father’s honor by slaying a Smaug with hellfire swords. What about the simple, the archaic, the white bread? What about the stripped down story of people being people? There is a home for the acoustic version, and as the great sushi maestro Jiro says, “There is purity in simplicity.”

Illuminating the subtle details of human framework is a tough skill to hone and a tougher one to sell. Even with his stellar resume, Alexander Payne had some trouble getting the measly $13 million to fund Nebraska, an unassuming movie with immense gratification. Pitching a screenplay about a washed-up alcoholic Korean War vet driving from Montana to Nebraska wouldn’t exactly scream goldmine, and adding his black and white plans for the film certainly didn’t help. But Payne had long wanted to make a black and white movie; in fact he says most of the movies he watches are in black and white. “Chroma” as he calls it, allowed Nebraska’s colors of human honesty to shine through without the distraction of a color scheme pulling from the more subtle senses. Employing non-actors as well as actors for added authenticity, they shot the route – from Billings to Lincoln – in less than six weeks.

Nebraska is a film that appreciates the subdued spots in life, the no-glitz all-salt moments. It’s a place in our hearts everyone knows, whether it’s visiting a great uncle with hearing problems and a 1960 RCA TV or remembering how your grammy pronounced “fooleeshness.” There are only more of those moments to come as the years go by, and a reminder to celebrate the tender silences of egg salad and Miracle Whip sandwiches is appreciated. Nebraska brings us home. It’s also relentlessly funny.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an 80-something malcontent with a passion for trucks, sauce and brevity, is hell-bent on getting to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a notice for a $1 million sweepstakes prize he received in the mail. “We are now authorized to pay one million dollars to Woodrow T. Grant, Billings, Montana,” he reads with stubborn pride to his youngest son David (Will Forte). He keeps the winning letter in his front shirt pocket at all times, bearing his dentures to anyone who tries talking him down from his pre-hatched million dollar throne. But his wife (June Squibb) and eldest son (Bob Odenkirk) aren’t interested in entertaining Woody’s naïve delusions (“They can’t print it if it isn’t true!”), so nourishing his father’s wide-eyed hopes of a new truck and new air compressor with cash to spare falls on David’s hesitant shoulders. An impromptu visit to Hawthorne along the way, his parents’ hometown, paves the way for father and son to reconnect … kind of.

A known Payne mantra is that 90 percent of directing is casting, and that percentage really held up its end of the deal. What Forte and Dern lack in on-screen chemistry is made up in the fluidity of and devotion to their performance. It’s not easy for actors to downplay their acting, but you won’t find grand demonstrations of dramatic emotions or outrageous situational gimmicks in Nebraska because they aren’t called for. We’re undersold, which is what closes the deal. Forte drops a couple gleefully sarcastic one-liners to curb tension, but for the most part MacGruber keeps the funny business to a minimum. The revered Stacy Keach as Woody’s boyhood frenemy doles out his usual powerhouse prominence, and Dern won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role. Squibb as Woody’s harping wife Kate, the self-described “only sane one in this family,” delivers a hoot of a performance, combining endearment and raunch with minimal effort.

One scene, however, garnering a fair amount of attention has her visiting family headstones at a cemetery with Woody and David, gossiping about the late loved ones’ more regrettable qualities. All light and harmless until, while standing over the headstone of a man she claims (as she often does), wanted to get in her knickers, she pulls up her skirt and hollers about what might have been.

All right, I get it. How fun, how silly coming from a cute old woman. And had intuitive subtlety not reigned supreme in Nebraska, the gratuitousness of the scene might not have bothered me. But looking at that scene, then looking at the sensitive acting and directing footwork of David with his dad at the car lot, for example, I felt the chumminess didn’t quite belong. It’s morsels like the disarming “C’mon, have a beer with your old man. Be somebody!” and the damaged “I was there” after Woody is asked about a family loss that epitomize the integrity of Nebraska. It shows a trust in the audience that far too few movies do. The spectacularly candid scene in Hawthorne with the extended family men watching football, humming lazily about the ’79 Buick a brother used to own is another one of many that celebrates the honesty in mundanity.

“Those cars never stop running … what happened to it?”

“Stopped runnin’.”

“Yeah … They’ll do that.”

I’ll just say it, this is one of my favorite movies in a long time. There’s an almost therapeutic quality to it – watching the pair drive down long stretches of black and white road, not saying much; listening to gray-haired Hawthornians talk foot afflictions and court-ordered community service; reveling in Woody’s laughably indignant nature brought on by decades of drinking. (Fortunately he’s not drinking anymore, though. Beer ain’t drinkin’.)

Its patience is calming, and its heart is pure. Amid the Secret Ron Burgundy of Wall Street Hustle, don’t let this one get away.

2 authors, 2 takes on Jewish humor and theology

Jewish humor and Jewish theology share something in common. I can think of any number of jokes whose punch lines say something profound about God (“Work with me here — buy a ticket!”). And we need only consult the Torah to discover how the matriarch Sarah responded when God revealed that she would bear a child in advanced old age: “Sarah laughed …” (Genesis 18:12).

The point is made by Ruth R. Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, in “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” (Princeton University Press, $24.95), a rare work of cultural scholarship that is also laugh-out-loud-funny. “Jewish humor rolls cheerfully off the tongue,” she quips, “like French cuisine and Turkish baths.” She quotes no less an authority on the workings of the human mind than Sigmund Freud on the Jewish genius for jokes: “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

“No Joke,” in other words, is full of jokes. Wisse declares her intention “to offer a descriptive map of some of the centers where Jewish humor thrived and where it still prospers,” and she insists that pondering (and laughing at) these jokes reveals something vital and important about Jewish identity: “I cheerfully confess that theories about humor interest me less than the evidence they offer of folk creativity,” she writes; “jokes offer the only surviving form of ‘folklore’ that is not protectable by copyright.”

She traces the distinctive folk culture of Eastern Europe, which she calls “an incubator of modern Jewish humor,” to such traditions as the Purim skit and the antics of the masters of ceremonies at weddings. She traces these influences into the work of Sholem Aleichem, although she points out that once the Jews of the Diaspora abandoned Yiddish, “they could no more understand the intricacies of his humor than could any Gentile.” But she also considers less familiar sources, including both the modernizers who embraced the Haskalah and the traditionalists of Hasidism: “We may not customarily associate Hasidic ecstasy with laughter, but we should consider how, like ecstasy, laughter too overcomes indignities through an altered state of mind.”

As deep as these roots go, the art of Jewish comedy still flourishes, as anyone who turns on a television knows well. “Jewish humor remains, as it has always been, merely one of many possible responses to the anomalous experience of the Jews,” Wisse concludes. “But as long as it does remain one of those responses, suppliers will arise to meet the demand.” And she shows how more recent exemplars, ranging from the Marx Brothers to Larry David to the Broadway hit “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” fit into the rich tapestry of Jewish humor.

Ruth R. Wisse will discuss and sign copies of “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit the Stephen S. Wise Web site at ” target=”_blank”>

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Liveright).

Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund

Everyone is familiar with Adolf Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Few remember that in the mid- to late-1930s the United States experienced a Nazi crusade of its own, one led by Fritz Julius Kuhn (1896-1951), a radical anti-Semite who dreamed of a fascist America led by a Nazi president. Kuhn never realized his dream, but he did develop a national Nazi movement–complete with propaganda wing, youth group, and its own version of the Schutzstaffel (SS)–that inspired a concerted effort (among politicians, law enforcement and media alike) to destroy him and his organization.

But on February 20, 1939–the day Kuhn's German-American Bund (Der Amerikadeutsche Volksbund) held a Nuremberg-style rally at New York's Madison Square Garden–Kuhn and his rabid followers seemed a very real threat to order. Tens of thousands of protestors surrounded the Garden while Bundesf hrer Kuhn addressed 17,000 enthusiastic supporters–men and women who demonstrated their support by extending their right arms straight out, palms down, in that instantly-recognizable salute, all the while shouting 'Free America! Free America! Free America!' Yet that night would mark the peak of the Bund's reach and influence, as the New York-based group was effectively marginalized later that year when Kuhn was convicted of larceny and forgery and sent to prison at Sing Sing, the state's infamous maximum-security prison.

In the new book 'Swastika Nation' (St. Martin's Press), author Arnie Bernstein deftly chronicles the rise and fall of the German-American Bund, which emerged from the remnants of a group known as the Friends of New Germany. 'Kuhn did a remarkable job of marshaling the movement,' says Bernstein. If Kuhn was running a corporation instead of a Nazi movement he would have been [considered] an astute businessman.'

The Bund maintained a diversified income stream derived from annual dues and various ancillary fees, as well as the mandatory purchase of uniforms, armbands, pins and badges. Uniforms for both the rank-and-file and the group's Ordnungsdienst ('well-dressed bodyguards who undertook their duties with brutal seriousness,' according to Bernstein) had to be purchased from Bund-approved tailors. In fact, the Bund strongly encouraged its membership to spend their hard-earned dollars at Aryan-owned businesses that were a part of the Deutscher Konsum Verband (D.K.V.), or German Business League.

Meanwhile, the organization's publishing arm (the AV Publishing Company, the name derived from the initials of the Bund's German name, Amerikadeutscher Volksbund), pushed out books and propaganda materials, and also published a weekly newspaper, The German Wakeup Call and Observer (Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter). Members were obligated to subscribe to the newspaper, and to buy a copy of Hitler's autobiography/manifesto 'Mein Kampf,' among other propaganda materials.

But what really drew the ire of the American public were the Bund's camps and retreats–Camp Siegfried in Yaphank, New York, andCamp Nordland in Andover Township, New Jersey, for example–where thousands of Bund members gathered en masse to picnic and swim. Think summer camp, with a Nazi twist.

The retreats were a key component of the Bund's youth initiative, which was loosely modeled after Germany's Hitler Youth and female counterpart, the League of German Girls. As in Germany, youth group retreats were sexually charged gatherings. 'They encouraged the boys and girls to sleep with each other to produce good Aryan children for the day that they would take over,' notes Bernstein.

Predictably, neighbors didn't take kindly to the idea of Bund members goose-stepping the streets of Yaphank or Andover Township in Nazi-styled uniforms, and the pushback against the camps attracted media coverage coast-to-coast. Syndicated newspaper columnistWalter Winchell painted Kuhn and his followers in a particularly unflattering light, the former taking delight in referring to the Bund leader as Phffftz Kuhn, Fritz Kuhnfucious, or simply Fat Fritz Kuhn. In fact, Winchell became Kuhn's chief antagonist, so much so that The German Wakeup Call and Observer declared Winchell 'Kuhn's worst enemy.' Worse yet, Kuhn promised to 'blacken Walter Winchell's eyes' (promise kept, courtesy of two thugs) and to piss on his grave (promise not kept).

Hitler and the rest of Germany's Nazi leadership didn't think much of Kuhn, either. In the summer of 1936, the Bundesf hrer and his lieutenants visited Germany and, via a mutual connection, managed to gain an audience with the F hrer. 'It was basically one of those grip-and-grin photo ops. Hitler shook Kuhn's hand and said, 'Go over there and continue the fight,'' recalls Bernstein, a statement that Kuhn viewed as an official endorsement. 'Of course, Hitler meant nothing by it,' continues the author. In fact, Hitler was embarrassed by Kuhn, and Nazi officials wanted nothing to do with the German-American Bund, viewing the 'stupid and noisy' group as damaging to the Third Reich's image in America.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., powerful forces began amassing against the Bund. In August 1937 United States Attorney General Homer Cummings launched an FBI probe of Bund camps, and five months later issued his findings in a fourteen-volume report, Nazi Camps in the United States.

But the campaign to bring down Kuhn went into high gear shortly after the Madison Square Garden rally, when New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and prosecutor Thomas Dewey seized the Bund's financial records, hoping to put Kuhn away on tax evasion charges. The plan worked: Kuhn was charged with grand larceny and forgery for embezzling from the Bund's bank accounts. After being found guilty he was sent to prison, first to Sing Sing, then to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, where he was incarcerated until being paroled on June 18, 1943. He spent the remainder of the war in the federal internment camp system for wartime enemy aliens, and was subsequently deported to Germany, where he spent the next several years in and out of prison.

Though the Bund attempted to soldier on under the leadership of Bund F hrer Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, 'the movement flopped around like a fish on a deck for a couple more years,' quips Bernstein. 'Then Pearl Harbor happened and that was that.'

As for Kuhn, his death attracted little notice; the news didn't reach the United States until two years later. 'Hitler's U.S. Bund Chief Fritz Kuhn Died Friendless in Germany,' announced Winchell in his February 6, 1953, column for the Daily Mirror. Kuhn had fallen so far, so fast that the columnist had little to say about the disgraced Bundesf hrer. Winchell's final words about Kuhn and his dream of a Nazi America were: '(End of shrug).'

Jason Zasky is the founder and editorial director of

The art of feeling Sholem Aleichem’s unforgettable legacy

Never underestimate the enormous emotional power of a piercing narrative voice, one that can decimate and exhilarate the reader, often simultaneously.  Listen to the eloquence of Israeli author David Grossman recounting his early experiences reading Sholem Aleichem, one of the founding giants of modern Yiddish literature:

“From the moment I stepped into that land I could not leave.  I was eight, and within a few months had devoured all of Sholem Aleichem’s writings that existed in Hebrew at the time — the children’s stories, the writing for adults, and the plays.  When I reread the works before writing this piece, I was amazed to discover how little I could have understood as a child, and how powerfully the things beyond the visible text must have worked on me.  Because what could an eight- or nine-year-old have understood about Rachel’s tormented love for Stempenyu?  Or the political views that Sholem Aleichem gave to a detached and wayward Jewish character like Menachem Mender.  Or his complete opposite, Tevye the Milkman?  What did I know about the life of yeshiva students who ate at the table of a different landowner each day of the week?  About the hostility between the “landlord” class and the workers, or the conflict between the Zionists and the Bundists?”

Grossman continues luring us back in time with him:

“I did not know, I did not understand, but something inside me would not allow me to let go of the inscrutable stories, written in a Hebrew I had never encountered before.  I read like someone entering a foreign world that was, at the same time, a promised land.  In some sense, I felt that I was coming home.  And it all worked its magic on me in a muddled way — the words with the biblical ring, the characters, the customs, the way of life, and the fact that the page numbers were marked with letters rather than numbers.”

If you had never heard of Sholem Aleichem, and did not know that he was born Sholem Rabinovich in the Ukraine in 1859, where he endured a traumatic childhood and married into fabulous wealth, only to lose it all and then become a phenomenal success as a Yiddish writer after abandoning Russian and Hebrew, you would still be seduced by Grossman’s prose to want to know more.  Grossman’s writing is an intoxicating brew of personal entanglement and fierce intellect feeding upon each other on the written page.  His early exposure to Aleichem’s and the wonderfully complex and flawed characters who littered all of his pages once really existed and were now dead forever; as was the intimacy of the shtetl and their way of life.  Grossman was able to finally realize that the Jews in these stories were actually connected to him, and now they were gone, perhaps explaining his mother’s perennial sadness and now his own.  He writes poignantly of the brutal starkness of this realization:

“It struck me all at once.  Suddenly.  The six million, the murdered, the victims, the ‘Holocaust martyrs,’ all those terms were in fact my people.  They were Mottel and Tevye and Shimele Soroker and Chaveleh and Lily and Shimek.  On the burning asphalt of the Beit Hakarem school, the shtetl was suddenly taken from me…It was the first time I truly understood the meaning of the Holocaust.  And it is no exaggeration to say that this comprehension shook my entire world. I remember my distress during the following days, a distress characteristic of the children of real survivors, because I imagined that I now bore some responsibility to all those people; it was a responsibility I did not want.”

Cynthia Ozick is equally compelling on Sholem Aleichem.  She believes he found a way to reveal the Jewish soul with all of its harrowing complexities and contradictions.  She believes Aleichem was able to capture the essence of Jews forced to confront the tumultuous forces of cultural, political, and religious modernity that spread through the Russian Empire in the final decades of the 19th century.  She points to Aleichem’s most famous creation, Tevye, as the embodiment of a Jewish man who was intelligent, loving, generous and open, without needing to be overly sentimental or heroic.  Tevye dealt with pogroms, crushing poverty, incessant fear and family troubles by talking intimately to an accessible God, but one whom too often seemed overly distracted.  Tevye, says Ozick, is never optimistic; he is too much at home with the worst that can happen.  But she reminds us that he is not overcome by despair: “He is too much at home with Scripture and with the knowledge of frailty, mutability, mortality.”  Ozick reminds us that this great Yiddish writer spoke Russian to his own children but found the Yiddish language exceptional in its ability to allow him to be simultaneously satirical and cynical and soft-hearted and sad and ironic and irreverent while addressing God in long monologues that eventually were watered down sufficiently for the American stage in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

There isn’t one passage in “The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye” (Schocken Books, $28.95), Jeremy Dauber’s new biography on Sholem Aleichem, that approaches the personal pathos of Grossman or Ozick.  Dauber’s strengths lay elsewhere. 

Dauber has written a comprehensive account of Aleichem that holds your attention and is meticulously researched, but comes up short.  Dauber, who was educated at Harvard University, and then Oxford, is still a young man; at least a generation younger than Ozick or Grossman, and this perhaps explains the distanced lens with which he seems to view his subject; one feels as if he is watching him from afar instead of standing beside him.  Dauber is a professor of Yiddish Studies at Columbia University and has written elsewhere about his idyllic childhood, his wonderful parents, and his delightful wife and son.  Oddly, his seemingly charmed life does not serve him well here.  When he discusses Jewish history and anti-Semitism and the struggles of Jewish men who were repeatedly victimized and restricted from almost all avenues of advancement, he does so without tapping into the trauma and burden and shame and remorse such struggles wrought.  This is surely a supreme victory for Jews of his generation in America at this time, but it does seem to blur his vision when trying to find Aleichem’s pulse.  Aleichem’s life was not charmed; it was fraught with illness, the loss of a child in his twenties, poverty, virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence, the loss of his mother while still a child, and constant worry about his family’s future as Jews contemplated and disagreed about the various issues of their time.  Was there a place for them in the larger Gentile world?  What would happen to their traditions and religious faith if they traveled too far? 

Aleichem’s father, the merchant Nochem Rabinowvich, was a traditionally observant man but entranced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.  He allowed his son to attend a secular school in Tsarist Russia, where the young boy fell hopelessly in love with Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol.  Sholem Aleichem remembered being teased at school because he was Jewish, and although his academic record was stellar, he remembered bitterly years later a certain professor who would often remind him that the “Jews were physiologically incapable of truly internalizing Russian culture.”

Aleichem set out to reinvent Yiddish literature into serious literary art.  He was turned off by the work of Shomer (pen name for Nokhem Meyer Shaykevich), who wrote highly melodramatic tales he felt were low brow, and he felt he could create stories that were more sophisticated and still accessible to the 11 million Yiddish readers in Europe two decades before the Nazi decimation.  Many Jews and Gentiles alike viewed Yiddish as mere gibberish and less than a cultivated language worthy of respect, and he set out to change that perception.  Readers responded with great enthusiasm, and when he traveled to various cities in Europe he met throngs of fans who waited at the railroad stations for him to get a chance to see him and hopefully to hear him read aloud. 

Dauber patiently takes us through the evolution of almost all of Sholem Aleichem’s characters and shows how they were often created in response to what was happening in Aleichem’s life at a particular time.  He introduces us to Motl, the cantor’s son who loves to make mischief and emigrates to America where he is a “happy orphan.”  We meet Menakhem-Mendl, the ever-striving, never succeeding businessman who writes his wife letters of his pursuits and waits for her replies, which are usually admonishments for his foolish ventures.  Like this one: “To my dear, learned, and illustrious husband Menakhem-Mendl, may your light shine!  First, we’re all well, thank God.  Forgive me for saying so, but I hope to hear no more of your Odessa than I understand about your blasted shorts and hedgerows!  You’re throwing away rubles like last week’s noodles, money-schmoney, eh?  I suppose it grows on trees over there…”  We hear echoes in these stories of the struggles Sholem Aleichem faced brought to life in these characters.  Like Motl, Aleichem went to America a “happy orphan’ and struggled in a land where he never really felt at ease.  Like Menakhem-Mendl, he felt the wrath of his wife and mother-in-law when he lost much of their inheritance in the Odessa stock market, forcing them to struggle financially for years.

Dauber expertly traces for us the evolution of the Tevye stories, which began in 1894 and continued over a 20-year period.  He created Tevye the Dairyman based on a man he actually met.  Tevye was a rural Jew hauling logs from the forest and hoping to save up enough money to buy a cow.  In the initial Tevye story, he is described as “a healthy Jew, with broad shoulders and thick, dark hair, his age is hard to guess; he wears heavy boots…”   Tevye is a talker and speaks using a unique blend of parable, a bit of Torah, and a mixture of high and low art.  He speaks frequently in long monologues.  Dauber offers an insightful analysis as to why the monologues worked so well for Tevye, claiming “The monologues’ an aggressive genre, in other words: the speaker satisfying his or her own needs at the expense of the listener, who lies helpless beneath the constant, punishing pressure, physical and psychological, of their breathless, unceasing delivery.  Think of the classic stand-up comedy, the monologic art par excellence: I killed ‘em.  Unsurprising, then, that monologue and comedy — with Sholem Aleichem as Exhibit A — have often been claimed as the Jewish counterattack to history’s depredations; This is how Jews fight back, with, you know, a really vicious one-liner.  More vociferous forms of opposition may be impossible, but you can talk at the problem, around it, suffocate it or minimize it or redefine it in a torrent of words.”

But first, Jeremy Dauber, you have to feel it.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Review: ‘Kill Your Darlings,’ but phone it in

Those who walked into the theater hoping to walk out with an enlightened appreciation of the significance surrounding these legendary writers and the Beat Movement they inspired were surprised, at best, to find a chick flick noir instead. Set in 1943, “Kill Your Darlings” follows prepubescent Allen Ginsberg (Harry Potter) to Columbia University, where he will realize his full potential as a writer like his father (David Cross) before him.  Shortly after his arrival to the university, he is eagerly carried down a road many wayward sons gravitate toward – drugs, booze and crippling lust. Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) is appointed his soul’s sole inspiration, a devilish blue-eyed minx with an insatiable thirst for exploring all things uncharted and “complicated.” A lofty premise for the film’s most alluring character given the pedestrian nature of the content, evoking a sensation not dissimilar to one a high school freshman feels when first dazzled by the concept of Carpe Diem. Flashy and edgy at first, but ultimately a one-dimensional cul-de-sac of empty promises.

The shining performance by DeHaan, who starred in 2012 sci-fi thriller “Chronicle” and more recently in “The Place Beyond the Pines”, brought to the screen a paralyzing sexual force I didn’t know existed. He’s criminally intoxicating as Lucien, the free-spirited Columbia hipster Ginsberg is slave to from the moment he lays eyes on him in the library. He captures all in his wake with his uninhibited sensuousness and riveting songs of unrestrained freedom in creativity. That this exceptional and daring portrayal will likely be grouped in the memory of a movie worth forgetting is tragic.

Allen first sparks Lucien’s interest when he debuts his Walt Whitman chops in one of their early classes together. Later that day, Allen pays him a visit to his dorm room and one verbal performance piece later, Lucien pounces.  Why this beautiful, crazed renaissance boy finds taking homely humdrum Allen under his wing at all constructive is left to imagination, but hey. Carpe the Freshman. Ignoring the plea from his clinically mental mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh)to come home that night, an innocent Allen is whiskey’d away to a fateful night that would shape his future as one of America’s most famous poets and leading figures of the Beat Generation. The year that follows ensnares him in drug use, manifestos and the hypnosis of “The New Vision,” which preaches a break-to-build, die-to-live mentality. A scene with Lucien and Allen standing on chairs laughing with rope around their necks is meant to show the heights of their commitment to true art or something, I guess. The effort comes off somewhat, well, choked.

Worth mentioning though is another scene illustrating their pledge to the craft, if you will – a scene several cuts above the rest. The great library heist, which has the troop swapping the sacred display of Columbia history books for a collection from the restricted section, is a delightful dance to the tune of TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” and implores a stylistic knowhow sorely missed from the rest of the film. It was by far “Darlings” most original and most enjoyable nugget, and the payoff of such directional opportunity sadly quarantined to only those few minutes.

The visionary romance closes a chapter and the appropriately titled movie comes full circle with a fatal fight between Lucien and David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whose tumultuous infatuation with Lucien proves to be both their undoing. David chases Lucien down after learning of his plan to sail off to Paris with the dapper Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), thus setting the stage for a 1944 crime of passion not known to many. The actual relationship between the two is still debated, though it’s clear Kammerer played a large role in Carr’s emotional (in)stability.

From its opening minutes, “Kill Your Darlings,” John Krokidas’ first feature-length, cloaks itself in a weightiness that never comes to fruition. Personal intrigues are introduced haphazardly and stay unexplained, supposed obsessions underdeveloped, and the genius status these writers hold today goes undeserved in this depiction. Noticeably void of substance, their relentless self-importance is as unfounded as the film’s. That said, the abundance of guilty pleasure gimmicks – SPOILER ALERT! He DOES wind up on that wall! – isn’t offensive enough to write off the whole running time as wasted. What it lacks in meat and potatoes is made up in soap; I think “Darlings” would be right at home as a Lifetime Movie Halloween special. Forget any hopes of mental massaging but save it for a rainy day with Netflix in a couple of months.