March 6: Marches of the Unemployed
Half a million unemployed workers and their supporters marched in twenty-five cities across the U.S. on this date in 1930, in demonstrations that were led by the Unemployed Councils, which the Communist Party had organized the previous year. In Madison, Wisconsin, a demonstration at the capitol plaza by the Trade Union Unity League (a Communist rival to the AFL) was attacked by student athletes, who threw Council leader Lottie Blumenthal to the ground and tore down banners. “We are getting so damned many radical Jews here that something must be done,” said one of five students arrested. In New York, some 100,000 unemployed workers took to the streets and were attacked by police. “Women struck in the face with blackjacks,” wrote the New York World, “boys beaten by gangs of seven and eight policemen, and an old man backed into a doorway and knocked down time after time . . .” According to the International Socialist Review, the Unemployed Councils moved more than 77,000 evicted New York families back into their homes by 1932. Their success would lead to the formation of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee — with the backing of the American Federation of Labor.
“The communists brought misery out of hiding in the workers’ neighborhoods. They paraded it with angry demands through the main streets. . . . and on to City Hall. . . . Sometimes, I’d hear a communist speaker say something so bitter and extreme, I’d feel embarrassed. Then I’d look around at the unemployed audience—shabby clothes, expressions worried and sour. Faces would start to glow, heads to nod, hands to clap . . .” —Len De Caux
March 5: Laurent Schwartz and the Fields Medal
French mathematician Laurent Moise Schwartz, who was awarded the Fields Medal for mathematical achievement in 1950 (the first French person to win it), was born into a prominent Alsatian family of scientists on this date in 1915. A Trotskyist and a Jew, he had to assume false identities and hide several times to avoid being deported by the Vichy regime. Schwartz’s politics also made it difficult for him to obtain a visa to come to the U.S. to receive the Fields Medal. As a public intellectual in post-war France, he campaigned actively against the Algerian war and signed Manifeste des 121, which encouraged young men to refuse to serve in the French army. This protest resulted in his suspension from his academic post for two years. Schwartz also publicly protested the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and campaigned actively against rightwing forces in France. He was “one of the 20th century’s greatest exponents of mathematical analysis,” wrote the Guardian in its obituary, “the part of pure mathematics dealing with limiting operations such as the calculus and its ramifications. His most important contribution was his theory of ‘distributions’ or ‘generalised functions’ . . . a classic case of the interplay between applications and theory, and between physics and mathematics.” Schwartz was also a butterfly expert, with a collection of more than 200,000 insects. He died at 87 in 2002.
“What are mathematics helpful for? Mathematics are helpful for physics. Physics helps us make fridges. Fridges are made to contain spiny lobsters, and spiny lobsters help mathematicians who eat them and have hence better abilities to do mathematics, which are helpful for physics, which helps us make fridges . . .” —Laurent Schwartz
March 4: Master of Bridge
World champion bridge player Charles Goren, who popularized the game worldwide with books and a television show, was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia on this date in 1901. Goren, who got into the game when a college girlfriend laughed at his ineptness at bridge, became world champion at the Bermuda Bowl in 1950. His books, Winning Bridge Made Easy and Contract Bridge Complete, sold millions of copies, his daily bridge column appeared in nearly 300 newspapers, and he wrote a weekly column for Sports Illustrated and a monthly column for McCall’s. Between 1959 and 1964, he hosted a television program, Championship Bridge with Charles Goren. His point-count system became the basis for most bidding system. Goren died at age 90 in 1991.
“[T]hat lovely, intelligent, desirable girl was laughing at me. . . . she had made me so ashamed that I went home that summer and practically memorized a book on bridge, thus inadvertently taking the first step toward a life of all play and no work.” —Charles Goren
March 3: This American Life
Ira Glass, the host and creator of National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” was born in Baltimore on this date in 1959. (His mother, Shirley, is a psychologist whom the New York Times has identified as the “godmother of infidelity research.”) A graduate of Brown University, Glass began at NPR as a 19-year-old intern and served as a reporter and in many other roles before launching “This American Life” in 1995. The show, which features quirky, thematically linked real-life, revelatory narratives told at some length, today reaches over 1.7 million listeners per week on some 500 stations. Glass is an irreligious Jew — “I’ve tried to believe in God but I simply don’t,” he has said on the show — but “It’s not like I don’t feel like I’m a Jew. I feel like I don’t have a choice about being a Jew. Your cultural heritage isn’t like a suitcase you can lose at the airport.” His childhood rabbi, Seymour Esrog, was an important influence: “really funny, a great storyteller. He was so good that even the kids would stay and watch him. He’d tell a funny anecdote, something really moving, and go for a big finish. That’s what the show is.” The show has also been widely parodied, including in a YouTube mockup, “This American Laugh,” in which “Ira” makes a sex tape with Terry Gross of “Fresh Air.” The piece was viewed 100,000 times in one week, and you can view it below.
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. . . . And your taste is why your work disappoints you.” —Ira Glass
March 2: Kurt Weill
A politically conscious and prolific composer who collaborated with Bertolt Brecht to create The Threepenny Opera in 1928, Kurt Weill was born within a religious Jewish family in Dessau, Germany on this date in 1900. His father was a cantor, and Weill showed musical talent at an early age. He wrote his first string quartet at 18, and in 1922 he joined the Novembergruppe, a society of progressive artists in Berlin, through which he met his future actress wife, the great Lotte Lenya. Throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, Weill became a prominent theater composer and songwriter, and wrote several pieces with Jewish themes, but he had to flee from Nazi Germany in 1933 after being targeted by the fascists for his populist and socialist views. After creative sojourns in Paris and London, he came to the U.S. in 1935 and began to incorporate American themes into his music in such works as “Speak Low” (words by Ogden Nash), which you can hear Weill singing below, Down in the Valley, a short opera (1945-48) that incorporated several American folk songs, and Street Scene, a musical with lyrics by Langston Hughes that won the first Tony Award for Best Original Score in 1947. Weill died at age 50 of a heart attack. Lotte Lenya worked mightily to keep his works in the public eye.
“I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music.” —Kurt Weill
March 1: “The Rule of Justice, Not the Rule of Law”
Canada Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, her country’s first woman judge and first Jewish woman Supreme Court justice, spoke at Harvard on this date in 2010 about how her parents’ experience as Auschwitz survivors had shaped her own commitment to social justice and human rights. In 1976, at 29, Abella became the youngest person to serve a judge in Canada (she was pregnant at her swearing-in). As “author of the 1984 federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment,” writes Irving Abella, her husband, at the Jewish Women’s Archive, she “created the term and concept of ‘employment equity,’ a new and unique strategy for reducing barriers in employment faced by women, aboriginal people, non-whites and persons with disabilities,” which was endorsed by the Supreme Court. (“Treating everyone alike,” says Abella, “means that the person in a wheelchair has the same right to work, but you’re not required to do anything to get him or her into the building. If you don’t acknowledge differences you can’t create equality.”) At Harvard, Abella called for “the rule of justice, not the rule of law,” and noted that “the most sophisticated array of laws, treaties, and conventions the international community has ever known” were devised in the aftermath of the Holocaust, “all stating that rights abuses will not be tolerated.” Yet the world has since failed to embrace the three key lessons of human rights, she said, as paraphrased by the Harvard Gazette: “that indifference is the incubator of injustice; that it’s not what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for; and that people must never forget how the world looks to the vulnerable.” Currently, three of nine Supreme Court justices in Canada, including the chief justice, are women.
“Equality is not a concept that produces the same results for everyone. It is a concept that seeks to identify and remove, barrier by barrier, discriminatory disadvantage.”—Rosalie Silberman Abella
February 28 (29th): Dinah Shore
A top-charting female vocalist of the 1940s, Dinah Shore (Frances Rose Shore), was born to Jewish immigrant shopkeepers in Winchester, Tennessee on February 29th, 1916, a leap year date. Despite childhood polio, she was a singer and performer from a young age and made her way onto radio in the late 1930s (a disc jockey named Martin Block called her “Dinah” after hearing her sing a song of that name). In 1940, Shore was signed by Eddie Cantor as a regular on his radio show, and in 1943 she landed her own show, “Call to Music,” and appeared in a movie alongside Cantor. A favorite among American soldiers during her World War II USO visits, Shore became a television hostess in 1951 and had a series of immensely popular shows and specials all the way into the 1980s, for which she won ten Emmys. Part of her shtik was to have celebrities doing something down-to-earth or unexpected, e.g., Frank Sinatra making spaghetti sauce or Spiro Agnew playing jazz piano. She was also famous for her trademark end-of-show blowing a kiss with the accompanying “mwah!” Shore’s final album, in 1979, was based on her appearance on Sesame Street. Notwithstanding her all-American, clean-cut image, Shore was a tabloid favorite, romantically linked to numerous male celebrities ranging from Sinatra to Burt Reynolds. To see her singing “Down by the Riverside” with Mahalia Jackson, look below.
“I never wanted to set the world on fire. So I never had to burn any bridges behind me.” —Dinah Shore
February 27: The Soviet Oppenheimer
Yuli Borosovich Khariton, the chief designer of the Soviet atomic bomb, which was first detonated in 1949, was born in St. Petersburg on this date in 1904. His father was a journalist, director of the Soviet House of Writers, who died in the gulag, his mother an actress who went to Palestine. Khariton studied in Ernest Rutherford’s physics laboratory in Cambridge, England in the late 1920s before returning to the USSR to direct nuclear research at the secretive Arzamas-16 center through the 1930s and 1940s. He lived at Arzamas-16, a former monastery, for much of his life, and was its scientific director for 45 years. Khariton was a three-time winner of the title of Hero of Socialist Labor, the USSR’s highest civilian award, and was also awarded the Lenin Prize. In 1993, he said that the Soviet bomb was based upon the intelligence material supplied by British physicist and Communist spy Klaus Fuchs and was similar to the plutonium bomb dropped by the United States on Nagasaki on August 1945.
“In a retrospective interview published in the May 1993 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, Khariton acknowledged the fact that Arzamas-16 was built by Gulag slave laborers, but indicated that it did not trouble him. Virtually none of the prisoners who were drafted to work at the nuclear weapons complex lived to see the outside of the Gulag again.” —Nuclear Weapon Archive
February 26: Mourning the Sinking of the Struma
Jews of Palestine stayed indoors for twelve hours between noon and midnight on this date in 1942 to mourn and protest the killing two days earlier of nearly 800 Jews, including some 100 children, aboard the Struma, a ship carrying refugees from fascist Romania to Palestine. The Struma had been built in 1867 as a luxury yacht, but had long since been a cattle transport ship with an engine that worked only sporadically and enough tiny wooden bunks to transport almost 800 people — “like sardines,” said David Stoliar, the lone survivor of the disaster. “We couldn’t even turn over. But we had no way of going back.” (For an interview with Stoliar, click here.) When the Struma‘s engine died near the Bosphorus, the British refused the passengers admittance to Mandate Palestine, and the Turkish government refused to allow them to disembark after towing the ship to Istanbul. After ten weeks of diplomatic impasse, the Turks then towed it back to the Black Sea, without food or water, and cut it adrift. A Soviet submarine fired a torpedo and the Struma sank in freezing waters. Some historians believe the submarine mistook the Struma for a Romanian vessel; others believe that Stalin had ordered the Soviet navy to fire on neutral ships in the region. The disaster helped to mobilize the Irgun and Lehi paramilitaries to fight the British.
“In pre-state Israel there was shock and grief. Demonstrations were mounted. For one day all work and commerce were halted and the population imposed a voluntary protest curfew on itself. Posters appeared on exterior walls everywhere bearing British High Commissioner Harold Mac Michael’s photo and announcing that he was ‘Wanted for Murder.’” –Sarah Honig
February 25: Knocking Out Jack Johnson
One of the best boxers never to win a championship, “Chrysanthemum” Joe Choynski (1868-1943) knocked out a young Jack Johnson in their third round on this date in 1901 and then became Johnson’s trainer and prepared him for his own reign as America’s first black heavyweight champ. Choynski’s father was a Polish immigrant journalist and bookseller in San Francisco who battled anti-Semitism and political corruption. As a boxer, Choynski’s heyday came at the turn of the 20th century: In non-title fights, he fared well against future champions, losing to James Corbett in the 27th round, and fighting a much bigger James Jeffries to a 20-round draw. (Choynski was under six feet tall and weighed only 176, but fought as a heavyweight.) His fight with Jack Johnson took place in Galveston, Texas, and both men were arrested by the Texas Rangers for their unlicensed match (which violated the Jim Crow laws). They spent twenty-three days in jail together, during which time Choynski sparred daily with Johnson and told him, “A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch.” Choynski was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1991 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998. He ended his career with 55 wins, 39 by knockout, 15 losses, 11 by knockout, and five draws. After retiring, he toured in a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and consulted on the production of the Jim Corbett biopic, “Gentleman Jim.”
“Choynski had a paralyzing punch. His left hand was a corker. He was the hardest puncher in the last fifty years . . . I think his left hook was even more effective than either Dempseys.” —Jack Johnson
Our thanks to Bennett Muraskin for his help with this Jewdayo entry.