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