December 21: Paul Kurtz and American Humanism
Paul Kurtz, the dean of American secular humanism and its organizer-in-chief for decades, was born in Newark, New Jersey on this date in 1925. Kurtz taught philosophy at SUNY Buffalo (and before that at Vassar and several other colleges) and was editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry, published by the Council for Secular Humanism. He also founded Prometheus Books, the key publisher of the secular humanistic world, in 1969; the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), publisher of The Skeptical Inquirer; the Council for Secular Humanism; and the Center for Inquiry, which now has some forty centers worldwide. Kurtz was a prolific writer of more than 800 articles and some 45 books, and was a key author of the “Humanist Manifesto II,” 1973, and the “Humanist Manifesto 2000,” both published in The Humanist, which he also edited for eleven years. His key work was The Transcendental Temptation, first published in 1986, in which Kurtz pondered, and offered alternatives to, religious mythology and the human attraction to it. Kurtz’s work rode more than one wave of religious fundamentalist resurgence in the U.S. as well as the upsurge of New Age spirituality in the 1970s and beyond. He died in October, 2012. The asteroid 6629 Kurtz is named in his honor. To see him speaking about “affirmative atheism” versus “angry atheism,” look below.
“I have wondered at times if it is I who lacks a religious sense, and is this due to a defect of character? The tone-deaf are unable to fully appreciate the intensity of music, and the color-blind live in a world denuded of brightness and hue. Is mysticism . . . a special kind of experience that enables a person to break out of a limited perceptual and conceptual world? Perhaps. One leaves the possibility open.” —Paul Kurtz
Special Note: Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, the terrorist incident in which all 243 passengers and sixteen crew members aboard Pam Am 103 in a flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to JFK in Queens, NY were killed when the plane crashed into Lockerbie, Scotland. One of the passengers was Tony Hawkins, husband to Helen Engelhardt, a frequent contributor to Jewish Currents and a member of our Board of Directors. Earlier this year, Blue Thread published her very moving memoir, The Longest Night, which poignantly interweaves scenes from the twelve months after the bombing with vignettes from the first seven months and the final four months of her seventeen-year marriage to Hawkins. Blog-Shmog reported on a reading Helen gave at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in May. The Longest Night is available for sale at the Pushcart for $19.95.
December 20: Sidney Hook
An important American philosopher and Marxist who became a fervent critic of leftwing politics and totalitarianism of both the left and right, Sidney Hook was born in Brooklyn to Austrian Jewish immigrants on this date in 1902. For six decades he was a leading proponent of John Dewey’s pragmatism, and he headed New York University’s department of philosophy for thirty-five years, but Hook was best known for being one of the first major leftwing intellectuals to break with the Soviet Union and develop anti-Communist views, to which he was fiercely attached as a Cold War liberal, defending the war in Vietnam and U.S. military hegemony. “[T]he spirit of absolutism,” Hook wrote, “is the greatest enemy of a liberal civilization. It can be curbed only by the pragmatic temper that tests all principles by their consequences for the quality of human experience.” Hook made common cause with conservatives and social democrats alike to found the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. In 1973, he was a signer of the “Humanist Manifesto II.” Hook’s many awards included the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985. To see him discussing his belief in socialism, look below.
“I was guilty of judging capitalism by its operations and socialism by its hopes and aspirations; capitalism by its works and socialism by its literature.” —Sidney Hook
December 19: The Third Aliyah
The third wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine began on this date in 1921 with the arrival in the port of Jaffa of the SS Ruslam with 671 people aboard. This Third Aliyah, which lasted for four years and brought more than 35,000 Jews to Palestine, mostly from Russia and Poland, was prompted by the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed it, which cost many Jews their lives, and by the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine and the issuance of the Balfour Declaration. Most of the emigrés were young, idealistic Zionists who established the first kibbutzim and moshavim in the land, built roads, drained marshes, and launched agriculture. The Histadrut was also established during this period, as well as the clandestine Haganah militia. The young Jews who came in the Third Aliyah were, in essence, the people who later founded the State of Israel, including David Ben-Gurion. Most were socialists and secularists intent on building a collectivist state and a vigorous new sense of Jewish identity — and most of them stayed, despite the hardships of their lives.
“Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.” —David Ben-Gurion
JEWDAYO ROCKS! Zal Yanovsky, lead guitarist and co-founder of the Lovin’ Spoonful, was born in Toronto on this date in 1944. To see some silent footage of New York City from a Harold Lloyd film, set to the Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” look below.
December 18: The First Jew in Space
Boris Volynov, the first Jew in space, was born in Irkutsk, Siberia, on this date in 1934. He was chosen in 1960 to be one of the Soviet Union’s first cosmonauts, but the uncovering of his Jewish background (his mother, also a physician, was Jewish) kept him grounded as a “backup” crewman for eight years, until the launch of the Soyuz 5 mission on January 15, 1969. The flight included the transfer of his two crewmen to Soyuz 4 in an orbital rendezvous. Volynov then almost burned up during his capsule’s terrifying reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. His parachutes also deployed only partially, and a failure of the soft-landing retrorockets caused a hard landing which broke some of his teeth. Volynov was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union and Order of Lenin medals, but he did not fly again for nearly seven years, and the story of his troubled flight was kept under wraps until long after the break-up of the USSR. His second mission, aboard Soyuz 21, also endured reentry and landing complications, but everyone on board survived the ordeal. Volynov is an expert in the sense-of-balance mechanism of the inner ear and on the effects of radiation, confinement and weightlessness on space-flight crews.
To see a short video about the Soyuz 5 mission, look below.
“There was no fear but a deep-cutting and very clear desire to live on when there was no chance left.” —Boris Volynov
December 17: The World Acknowledges the Slaughter
British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden told the House of Commons on this date in 1942 that Nazi Germany was carrying out “Hitler’s oft repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.” He described how hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were being transported from all German-occupied territory “in conditions of appalling horror and brutality” to Eastern Europe, while Jewish ghettos in Poland being “systematically emptied . . . None of those taken away are ever heard of again.” Eden read a joint declaration by Great Britain, the U.S., the USSR, and eight European governments in exile that condemned “in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination” and resolved “to ensure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution.” After his speech, the members of the House stood and held a minute of silence. Some 2.7 million Jews were killed in 1942 by hunger, mass executions, disease, or gassing.
“It is your duty to do something that should really shake the world, the English government, and force it to undertake real measures to save the Jews, something that the Warsaw Jews would do if the situation were reversed [i.e., persecution of Jews in the UK]. Fifty thousand London Jews should make a demonstration, they should block Downing Street; they should shout to Heaven in such a way that it will shake the world and the tranquillity of the politicians, who potentially can do something. It is the last minute. The Jewish people is being slaughtered.” —Shmuel Zygelboim to the British Jewish Board of Deputies, December 17, 1942