December 11: The Velvet Underground at Summit High School
The Velvet Underground, a loud and heavy band that was the launching pad for the late great Lou Reed, played their first concert under that name (they were formerly called The Falling Spikes) on this date in 1965 at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey. The concert was arranged by Al Aronowitz, who was hoping to manage the Velvets (a role soon taken by Andy Warhol) and was already managing the concert’s headline band, The Myddle Class, for whom Aronowitz’s friends Gerry Goffin and Carole King had agreed to write some songs. (The Myddle Class’ bassist was King’s future husband, Charles Larkey, and singer Dave Palmer later played with Steely Dan.) The band rocked through just three songs, “There She Goes Again,” “Venus in Furs,” and “Heroin,” and the Summit High audience “didn’t like us too much,” recalled Maureen (Moe) Tucker, playing her first gig as The Velvet Underground’s drummer. You can hear The Myddle Class by looking below, and hear the recorded version of “Heroin,” with lyrics printed, by looking further below.
“Before we could take it all in, everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard. About a minute into the second song, which the singer introduced as ‘Heroin,’ the music began to get even more intense. It swelled and accelerated like a giant tidal wave which was threatening to engulf us all.” —Rob Norris, Kicks magazine
December 10: Sherman’s March
Frederick Knefler, a teen veteran and refugee from the failed Revolution of 1848-49 against Hungary’s Hapsburg Dynasty, arrived at the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia on this date in 1864 with the Union troops he led under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Knefler was among hundreds of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, recently arrived, who fought in the Union army alongside immigrants from Ireland and Germany, among other countries, as well as native-born northerners. By the time of Sherman’s devastating 300-mile march to the sea, Knefler was a colonel in charge of the soldiers of the 79th Indiana Brigade, which he had helped to organize with his lifelong friend, Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur. The 79th Indiana played a major role in several battles during Sherman’s March, which would end with the conquest of Savannah’s port on December 21st. In March of 1865, Knefler would be elevated to the rank of brigadier general, making him the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the Union army. Born in 1833 in Arad, Romania, Knefler died in 1901.
“The fire of the rebels became very severe, and their infantry in front, who were retreating before us, halting occasionally and firing upon us, I perceived that the safety of my command required it to get the protection of the mountain side to be enabled to take shelter among the trees and rocks. I urged a rapid advance, and with the hearty co-operation of the officers of both regiments the whole line was carried forward in the best order possible, on almost inaccessible ground. Here, protected by the steepness of the mountain, the men were enabled to make good their foothold, and reply to the rebel musketry, which was very galling, and almost surrounding us. We advanced steadily step by step.” —Frederick Knefler, describing the Battle of Missionary Ridge, Tennessee
December 9: Gay Marriage in Washington State
In the year since the first legal gay marriages took place in Washington State on this date in 2012, more than 7,000 same-sex couples have wed, accounting for 17 percent of the total of new marriages in the state in 2013. This was enabled by popular vote, which joined Washington to Maryland and Maine as the three of sixteen marriage-equality states that attained that status through referenda. A critical player in Washington’s referendum campaign was Anne Levinson, a former judge and co-owner of the Seattle Storm team of the WNBA, who coordinated the legal team of Legal Voice and ACLU and served as advisor to Washington United for Marriage. The referendum passed by a 54% to 46% margin. Challenges to marriage discrimination in Washington dated back to 1971, when Faygele ben Miriam (born John Singer) and his partner requested a marriage license in Seattle and unsuccessfully brought suit against the state for violating their rights.
“Each of us has a responsibility to help improve the world in which we live and we can each work on change, whether it’s large or small, wherever we are. It will always seem there are not enough hours in the day, but everybody can contribute to positive change.” —Anne Levinson
December 8: William Shawn and The New Yorker
William Shawn, who edited the New Yorker for thirty-five years, 1952-87, and turned it into the best-respected cultural magazine in America, died at 85 on this date in 1992. Shawn began his career at the magazine in 1933 (after his wife gained employment there as a fact-checker), and served as an assistant editor during World War II; shortly after the war, he convinced editor Harold Ross to run John Hershey’s article about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as the entire contents of an issue. After Ross died in December, 1951, Shawn took over the magazine. He was notoriously shy, claustrophobic, and secretive and strong-willed about his work; Shawn “firmly presided over a shift,” wrote Eric Pace in the New York Times obituary, “from its original flippancy to a more serious tone, which, he insisted, merely mirrored ‘a new awareness’ among writers and readers.” In 1987, after S.I. Newhouse’s publishing empire took over the New Yorker, Shawn was forced out — and more than 150 editors, writers and cartoonists signed a letter of protest. “Better than any other editor of our time, he has been able to measure the distance of our national fall from grace,” wrote Brendan Gill.
“Falling short of perfection is a process that just never stops.” —William Shawn
December 7: The Civil Rights Judge
Louis Pollak, dean of the Yale and University of Pennsylvania law schools who simultaneously served as an advisor to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, was born in Manhattan on this date in 1922 to progressive parents, his father an attorney for the defense in the “Scottsboro Boys” case. In 1965, Pollak convinced the Supreme Court to reverse the convictions of Freedom Riders who had been arrested (and brutally beaten) in the South. Earlier, he worked on the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case, although as an employee of the State Department he could not have his name listed on the legal briefs. President Jimmy Carter appointed Pollak to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1978. In criminal trials, the judge would often come down from the bench to shake hands with defendants, and in a drug case he once cleared the courtroom so a defendant could spend time with her child, from whom she’d been separated while imprisoned. “Lou Pollak wrote briefs, made arguments, gave advice hundreds and hundreds of times on issues of the highest level of constitutional sophistication,” said Jack Greenberg, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Judge Pollak died at 89 in 2012.
“The decision in the Brown case, even though it was a decision about schools, became a precedent for, in the next half-dozen years, a series of Supreme Court decisions where they didn’t even have to write opinions, where they knocked out segregation in buses, in parks, in swimming pools and the whole array of public institutions that had been blanketed with Jim Crow for half a century.”—Louis Pollak
December 6: Judd Apatow
Comedy writer, producer, and director Judd Apatow, whose witty and raunchy movies include Superbad, Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Walk Hard, Bridesmaids, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, was born in Flushing, New York on this date in 1967. Apatow was devoted to comedy at a young age and managed while in high school to interview Steve Allen, Howard Stern, John Candy, and Jerry Seinfeld, among others. He was a college drop-out and broke into comedy as a writer for Gary Shandling on The Larry Sanders Show, and earned six Emmy nominations for his work there. His films have often featured pathetic, weird, or immature men and the women who somehow respond to them with love and affection. (Although “critics argued,” writes Rachael Combe in Elle, “about whether Knocked Up was ‘a little sexist,’ as Katherine Heigl [its star] said in Vanity Fair, the case could also be made that it was a breakthrough in that it offered fully developed female characters alongside the standard-issue bong-sucking dudes of comedy.”) His frequent collaborators include Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell, and his wife, Leslie Mann. Apatow was key in the development of the television shows Freaks and Geeks and Girls. To see him giving advice to young people in a homey format, look below (you can skip the ad in five seconds).
“The moment you think of a joke is the best moment.” —Judd Apatow
December 5: The Grand Rabbi of France
Jacob Kaplan, Grand Rabbi of France from 1955 until 1981, died in Paris at 99 on this date in 1994. Born in Paris in 1895 and ordained in 1921, Kaplan was a wounded veteran of World War I and a participant in the anti-Nazi Resistance in Lyon between 1941 and 1944 (a park in that city was named for him in 2009). Kaplan was outspoken about French Jewish support for Israel after the Six-Day War, while the French government was, at best, reserved about Israeli policies. At the same time, he identified strongly as a Frenchman and wrote and published his sermons in French. A lecturer at l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques and a member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in Paris, Kaplan wrote several books, including Judaism and Social Justice (1937), Racism and Judaism (1940), and French Jewry under the Occupation (1945–46), among others.
“French Jews! We are familiar with the history of France, the France to which we have devoted ourselves wholeheartedly and whose joys and sadness . . . we feel deeply, the France of human and civil rights . . . emancipator of the Jews. But we are being brutally confronted with a different reality; we are becoming acquainted with a different history. . . .” —Jacob Kaplan regarding Vichy France
December 4: Praying for Rain
Today is the date, sixty days after the autumnal equinox (as calculated by the talmudic sage Samuel, c. 177–257) , on which Jews in the diaspora traditionally begin to pray for rain by including the words “dew” and “rain” in the ninth blessing of the weekday Amidah (“Standing”). This plea for rain is then dropped from the prayer at Passover. The Amidah, which is some two thousand years old, is traditionally recited at each of three daily prayer services and at numerous other junctures in the liturgical calendar. It consists of nineteen blessings, six of them constant, thirteen variable by season and event. Jews are also encouraged to add individual, personal prayers as part of the recitation of the Amidah, which is mostly recited in silence. (Its recitation thus becomes a respite from embarrassment or alienation for Jews who are ignorant of the Hebrew liturgy or skeptical of the entire enterprise of prayer.) The silence of the Amidah recalls the biblical Hannah’s plea before God for fertility — “Hannah was praying in her heart, silently. Her lips moved, but no sound was heard” (Samuel 1:12-14) — an event that ultimately leads to the birth and service of Samuel, the last of the judges and first of the prophets in Israel.
“Before the year was out, Hannah had conceived and given birth to a son. She named him Samuel, explaining, ‘I asked God for him.’”—Samuel 1:20
December 3: The Photographer of Auschwitz
Wilhelm Brasse, a non-Jewish, anti-Nazi Pole who became a prisoner in Auschwitz assigned by the SS to take photographs of prisoners, labor activities, and medical experiments, was born in Poland on this date in 1917. When the Nazis invaded his country in 1939, Brasse, a portrait photographer, was pressured to join the Nazi party, refused, withstood Gestapo interrogations, and tried to escape to France, but he was captured at the Polish-Hungarian border. Still refusing to sign a pro-Hitler loyalty oath, he was deported to Auschwitz shortly after the concentration camp was built. After six months of imprisonment there, he was assigned to the Erkennungsdienst, the photographic identification unit, and soon after was assigned to Doctor Josef Mengele’s infirmary to photograph subjects of Mengele’s experiments in torture. Brasse took tens of thousands of photographs in Auschwitz, most of which were eventually destroyed by the Nazis. He spent the later war years in a concentration camp in Austria, one of the last to be liberated by Soviet troops. After the war, he could not stomach picking up a camera again and went into the sausage casing business. He lived to be 94 and left two children and five grandchildren.
“The photographs are the work of a man who fought to keep his humanity alive in a place of unimaginable evil.” —Fergal Keane
December 2: General Counsel for Women’s Rights
Harriet Fleischel Pilpel, general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood who appeared in twenty-seven cases before the Supreme Court and was a key legal strategist in the struggle to legalize abortion, was born in the Bronx on this date in 1911. After taking degrees at Vassar and Columbia, she was second in her graduating class at Columbia Law in 1936. Pilpel represented the Kinsey Institute in a 1957 decision against the U.S. Customs Service over its impounding of sex-education materials. Four years later, she argued on behalf of Planned Parenthood in Poe v. Ullman, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a Connecticut law criminalizing birth control. (The Court declined to rule.) She then wrote Planned Parenthood’s 1965 amicus curiae briefs for Griswold v. Connecticut, which linked the right to privacy to the legalization of birth control, and for Roe v. Wade, which in 1973 established the right of women to abort a pregnancy, also based on the right to privacy. Pilpel’s activism preceded the Griswold and Roe decisions by decades; she was one of the only feminists of her hey-day who had worked closely with Margaret Sanger and other pioneering birth control advocates. Later in life, Pilpel in turn mentored many attorneys involved in abortion cases and other issues affecting the freedom of women. A great advocate of free speech, Pilpel represented Edna Ferber, Betty Friedan, Billy Graham, Jerome Kern, Alfred Kinsey, Erich Maria Remarque, Mel Brooks, and Svetlana Alliluyeva (Stalin’s daughter) in First Amendment cases. She was a very public advocate who wrote and lectured widely and frequently took on William F. Buckley on his Firing Line television show. She was also active in the American Jewish Congress during its days as a force for civil liberties and civil rights. Pilpel died at 79 in 1991.
“She was a brilliant legal tactician with a deep knowledge of the nuance of doctrine, but she was also acutely attuned to political opinion, organizational politics, the press, religious feeling, and the broad cultural forces that shape constitutional principle.” —Notable American Women, A Biographical Dictionary