November 1: Kinky Friedman
Songwriter, humorist, and racy raconteur Richard Samet “Kinky” Friedman was born in Chicago on this date in 1944. Raised in Texas, he got his nickname from a fellow Jewish musician because of the texture of his hair, and in 1971 he formed Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys (playing on the name of the well-known “Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys”). Friedman’s satiric band combined social commentary (“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You”), historical ballads (“Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” a tribute to victims of the Holocaust), and aggressive humor (“Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed,” a song that lampoons feminism and landed Friedman the National Organization for Women’s “Male Chauvinist Pig Award” in 1973). Friedman is also a novelist and political columnist who has run for office, including governor (he received 12.6 percent of the vote in 2006), on both Republican and Democratic tickets. Politically, in the universe of Texas politics, he’s on the left: He publicly supports decriminalization of pot, higher pay for teachers, women’s reproductive rights, gay marriage (“they have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us”) and increased investment in renewable fuels. Yet he has always combined his politics with raunchiness, scattershot humor, and aggressive self-promotion to stake out territory, for better or worse, as an iconoclast. To see him singing “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Any More,” look below.
“Jesus and I were both Jewish and that neither of us ever had a job, we never had a home, we never married and we traveled around the countryside irritating people.” —Kinky Friedman
October 31: Tom Paxton (Corrected by Readers: He’s Not Jewish)
But he is terrific.
Folksinger and songwriter Tom Paxton was born in Chicago on this date in 1937. His best-known songs, recorded by Pete Seeger; Johnny Cash; Harry Belafonte; Peter, Paul and Mary; Bob Dylan; Judy Collins; Doc Watson; Marianne Faithful; The Kingston Trio; Dolly Parton; and numerous others, include: “The Last Thing on My Mind,” “Rambling Boy,” “What Did You Learn in School Today,” “Whose Garden Was This?” (an Earth Day anthem made famous by John Denver), and “Bottle of Wine.” Many of Paxton’s songs are politically inflammatory, historically and Jewishly conscious, and filled with humor and parody. “Dylan is usually cited as the founder of the new song movement,” said Dave Van Ronk, the teacher to so many folkies, “… but the person who started the whole thing was Tom Paxton… he tested his songs in the crucible of live performance, he found that his own stuff was getting more attention than when he was singing traditional songs or stuff by other people… he set himself a training regimen of deliberately writing one song every day.” Paxton’s discography of some sixty albums includes several for children, and he has also written numerous musically themed children’s books. In 2009, Paxton received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his incredibly prolific career. To see him kibitzing about age and singing “The Last Thing on My Mind,” look below.
“I learned that policemen are my friend/I learned that justice never ends/I learned that criminals die for the crime/even though we make a mistake sometimes/and that’s what I learned in school today…” —Tom Paxton
October 30: From Nazi Germany to the USSR
Nobel Prize-winning experimental physicist Gustav Hertz died in Berlin at 88 on this date in 1975. Hertz, who lived most of his life as a Lutheran in Germany, probed the energy levels of atoms, which helped to confirm Niels Bohr’s model of the atom and to prove that atoms can absorb internal energy only in definite quanta. His work, with research partner James Franck, earned the Nobel Prize in 1925. But with the Nazi move to power in 1933, Hertz refused to sign a loyalty oath, then resigned his positions and moved to the USSR. There he headed a research laboratory from 1945 to 1954 and conducted work that helped the Soviet Union become a nuclear power and brought him a Stalin Prize. Hertz returned to East Germany in 1954 as director of the Physics Institute at Karl Marx University in Leipzig. Hertz was the nephew of Heinrich Hertz, who discovered radio waves.
“Following Niels Bohr’s theory for the structure of the atom, an experiment to verify it was made by James Franck and Gustav Hertz in 1913. A potential difference was applied to a tube containing a low-pressure gas. When the current through the tube was increased, the potential difference increased until it reached a certain voltage, then it was suddenly reduced. The result gave support for Bohr’s theory in which the electrons have only specific discrete energies. The freely moving electrons could, at a certain energy, make the electrons of the gas atom move to a new orbit.” —Nobelprize.org
October 29: Editor of the New Yorker
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker since 1998, was born in Hackensack, New Jersey on this date in 1958. He began his career in journalism as a staff writer at the Washington Post in 1982, and served for four years as the paper’s Moscow correspondent, which inspired his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. He has written five books since, including studies of Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama. Since Remnick took over as New Yorker editor, the magazine has earned thirty-seven National Magazine Awards, restored itself to business health, launched a major New York cultural festival, and maintained its reputation as the country’s best general-interest publication — by far.
“It is a strange and wonderful piece of business.” —David Remnick
October 28: P.T. Barnum and Admiral Dot
Leopold S. Kahn, a pituitary dwarf (once called a midget) who was exhibited from childhood by P.T. Barnum as “Admiral Dot,” died at 59 during the influenza epidemic on this date in 1918. As he grew up, Kahn became a popular comedian with the Locke & Davis Royal Lilliputian Company. He married a fellow dwarf performer, Charlotte Naomi “Lottie” Swartwood, who converted to Judaism. The couple had two average-sized children, but their daughter also died in the flu epidemic. Like many pituitary dwarfs, both Lottie and Leopold continued to grow, even as adults, with Leopold eventually standing four feet high and Lottie 4’2″. They lived in White Plains, New York, and invested their show business earnings in the Admiral Dot Hotel. Leopold became a volunteer firefighter and battled the blaze that took their hotel in 1911. For an interesting perspective on dwarfism in modern Israel, click here. To view a history of the circus sideshow, look below.
“During the week we spent in seeing San Francisco and its suburbs, I discovered a dwarf more diminutive than General Tom Thumb was when first I found him, and so handsome, well-formed and captivating, that I could not resist the temptation to engage him. I gave him the soubriquet of Admiral Dot, dressed him in complete Admiral’s uniform, and invited the editors of the San Francisco journals to visit him in the parlors of the Cosmopolitan Hotel.”—P.T. Barnum
October 27: A Swiss Rescuer
Paul Grueninger, a Swiss border police commander who falsified documents and facilitated the survival of more than 3,600 Jews fleeing the Anschluss, the Nazi invasion of Austria, was born on this date in 1891. Grueninger decided to disregard his official instructions: He allowed Jewish refugees to enter Switzerland and legalized their status by falsely stamping their passports to show that they had entered before the date of restriction, March, 1938. This enabled them to find legal sanctuary at the Diepoldsau camp, where Jewish organizations sustained them and helped them obtain residency permits or to transit to further destinations. Grueninger also blocked efforts to trace refugees who were known to have entered Switzerland illegally, and helped to buy winter clothes for needy refugees. He was dismissed from the police force in March, 1939 and brought to trial, found guilty of breach of duty, and made to forfeit his retirement benefits and pay a fine of 300 Swiss francs. Grueninger lived the rest of his life in poverty and died in 1972, but not before Israel’s Yad Vashem proclaimed him one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1971. The Swiss government, however, did not reverse his conviction until 1995.
“It was basically a question of saving human lives threatened with death. How could I then seriously consider bureaucratic schemes and calculations?” —Paul Grueninger
October 26: While Messiah Tarried
An historian of the Holocaust and of the Jewish Left, Nora Levin died at 73 on this date in 1989. Her books were The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry, 1933-1945 (1968); While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements, 1871-1917 (1977); and The Jews in the Soviet Union since 1917: Paradox of Survival (two volumes, 1989). Levin taught at Gratz College in Philadelphia for nearly twenty years and was the founder of its Holocaust Oral History Archives, an early repository for nearly 1,000 interviews with survivors, rescuers, liberators, and witnesses. “She especially focused on activists with a core Jewish identity,” writes Clare Kinberg at the Jewish Women’s Archive: “Jewish partisans in Hitler’s Europe; the Jewish labor movement in America; the socialist Jewish Labor Bund in Russia and Poland; socialist Zionists; and refuseniks and other Jews who struggled to maintain Jewish identity and meaning in the Soviet Union.” In her introduction to While Messiah Tarried, Levin expressed the hope that “young Jews groping for ways to reconcile their own social radicalism with Jewishness… will be heartened in their quest by the knowledge that there have been several generations of other young Jews who have made a similar struggle.” Amen.
“[T]he strongest impression she gave was a tremendous sense of concern and interest for every person with whom she came in contact. Kindness, thoughtfulness, unpretentiousness, and gentleness were her most obvious qualities in addition to a brilliant mind.” —Paul Mojzes
October 25: Father Coughlin
Charles Coughlin, a priest whose weekly anti-Semitic broadcasts had a radio listening audience of up to thirty million Americans during the 1930s, was born in Hamilton, Canada on this date in 1891. Based in a Royal Oak, Michigan church, the National Shrine of the Little Flower, Father Coughlin began his broadcasting career as a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, but soon became a harsh critic of Roosevelt and began denouncing the “Jewish bankers” as well as “Jewish Bolsheviks” in terms that eventually landed him in the fascist camp. In 1934, he launched a political organization, the National Union for Social Justice, and a newspaper, Social Justice, in which he mixed populist calls for financial reform, nationalization of major industries, and protection of the rights of labor with anti-communism, anti-Semitism, isolationism, and quirky economic explanations for the Great Depression. This fetched him more than 10,000 letters a week in 1934, and gave him tremendous influence among his millions of suffering working-class listeners. It was this influence that prompted the federal government to require regular radio broadcasters to seek operating permits — which was denied to Coughlin, forcing him to purchase weekly air-time on individual stations to have his speeches read. Finally, once World War II broke out in Europe and Coughlin continued to urge U.S. neutrality and to express some ideological sympathy with Nazi and fascist views, he was driven off the air and had his mailing permits yanked, and Detroit Bishop Edward Mooney ordered him to cease his public activities or face being defrocked. Coughlin remained in his parish until 1966, and died at 88 in 1979. To see a newsreel documentary about Coughlin, look below. To hear Coughlin speaking about Jews and other matters, look below that.
“I have dedicated my life to fight against the heinous rottenness of modern capitalism because it robs the laborer of this world’s goods. But blow for blow I shall strike against Communism, because it robs us of the next world’s happiness.” —Father Charles Coughlin
October 24: Hyman Minsky and Financial Stability
Economist Hyman Minsky, who analyzed the links between financial instability and speculative bubbles and presciently opposed government deregulation of financial markets, died at 77 on this date in 1996. Minsky was born in Chicago and studied at the University of Chicago and at Harvard. From 1957 to 1965 he was an associate professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he developed his major theories, as explained in John Maynard Keynes (1975) and Stabilizing an Unstable Economy (1986). From 1965 until his retirement in 1990, Minsky was professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis, and for the final six years of his life he was a distinguished scholar at the Levy Institute at Bard College. “Many of Minsky’s colleagues regarded his ‘financial-instability hypothesis,’ which he first developed in the 1960s, as radical, if not crackpot,” wrote John Cassidy in the New Yorker in 2008, but “with the subprime crisis seemingly on the verge of metamorphosing into a recession, references to [the hypothesis] have become commonplace on financial Web sites and in the reports of Wall Street analysts.”
“As a boom leads to euphoria, Minsky said, banks and other commercial lenders extend credit to ever more dubious borrowers, often creating new financial instruments to do the job. During the 1980s, junk bonds played that role. More recently, it was the securitization of mortgages.” —John Cassidy
October 23: The Holocaust in Odessa
On this date in 1941, only a week after the German and Romanian armies had seized control of Odessa, some 5,000 Jews in the city were publicly hanged and shot, and more than 19,000 Jews in the city were assembled in nine gunpowder warehouses at the port and shot dead before the warehouses were set on fire. Following that, an additional 20,000 Jews were led out of the city and massacred in ditches and buildings. The 40,000 Jews who remained in Odessa were moved into a compact ghetto in which most buildings were destroyed. Left outdoors for ten days, many died of exposure to wintry conditions. On October 28th, additional massacres took 5,000 more Jewish lives, and by the end of December, 50,000 Jews imported from concentration camps were killed. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum determines that “Romanian and German forces killed almost 100,000 Jews in Odessa during the occupation of the city,” which came about after a two-month siege. Some 15,000 Roma people were also killed.
“When the first Jews reached Dalnik, they were bound to one another’s arms in groups of between forty and fifty, thrown into an anti-tank ditch and shot dead. When this method proved too slow, they were pressed into four large warehouses, which had holes in the walls. Machine gun nozzles were pushed into the holes, and in this manner, mass murder was committed in one warehouse after the other.” —The Nizkor Project