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