You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

In Memoriam: Jack Greenberg, Gene Wilder

Bennett Muraskin
October 29, 2016

by Bennett Muraskin

JACK GREENBERG (December 22, 1924—October 12, 2016; shown above with Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall) was hired at 24 in 1949 by Thurgood Marshall, director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as part of its legal team. He was the only white person on Marshall’s staff. In one of his first cases, Greenberg convinced the Delaware courts to order the desegregation of the University of Delaware. The case became an important precedent for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, argued by Marshall, in which the Supreme Court found unconstitutional the system of “separate-but-equal” segregated public education that prevailed in much of the U.S. This victory opened the legal floodgates to the civil rights revolution.

For Greenberg, who assisted Marshall in preparing his oral arguments and legal briefs, this was but the beginning of a remarkable career in civil rights litigation. In 1961, when Marshall was appointed as a federal judge — en route to his appointment as the first black Justice on the Supreme Court, in 1967 -- he named Greenberg to be his successor as director of the NAACP fund. To those who believed a black attorney should have received the post, Marshall said, “As those who are fighting discrimination, we cannot afford to practice it.”

Greenberg practiced what he preached. While in Atlanta with two black colleagues in 1951, he slept in segregated black-only hotels and ate in segregated black-only restaurants in solidarity with his black co-workers and clients. When a cabdriver refused to accept the three men as passengers, because they were not all of the same race, Greenberg insisted that he was black, too. Marshall called Greenberg “about as Negro as a white man can get.”

IN 1965, Greenberg represented Martin Luther King in a Montgomery Alabama courtroom to secure the right to march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voter registration. This was one of many cases where King called on Greenberg to help guarantee his First Amendment right to protest in public.

Greenberg directed the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for twenty-three years. Under his leadership, the organization expanded its reach to support the rights of poor people, women, gays, Hispanic and Asian Americans, and became a legal powerhouse to be reckoned with in the courts. Greenberg himself appeared before the Supreme Court over forty times, winning cases that sped up the integration of schools, expanded voting rights, set standards for equal employment opportunity and suspended the death penalty.

His tenure was not without controversy. Some black leaders, including Roy Wilkins, president of the NAACP, complained that the Legal Defense Fund, including Greenberg, tried to take all the credit for litigating the Brown case. (In 1957, the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund became two separate entities despite the use of “NAACP” in both names.) When the NAACP demanded that the Fund stop using its initials in its name, Greenberg refused.

In 1982, as visiting professor at Harvard Law School, Greenberg was asked to teach a course in civil rights law jointly with a black attorney and scholar. The course had previously been taught by attorney and scholar Derrick Bell. The Harvard Black Law Students Association called for a boycott of the course, and were supported by Bell. Many prominent black leaders, including Bayard Rustin, came to Greenberg’s defense, and the course was taught as planned.

Greenberg also faced criticism from Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, which objected to his support for affirmative action programs in the workplace on the grounds that they discriminated against whites and could lead to racial quotas. Greenberg held firm.

UPON RESIGNING from the Fund in 1984, Greenberg became a full-time professor of law at Columbia University, where he remained until his retirement in 2015. While at Columbia, he created the Human Rights Internship Program and took up the cause of the Roma minority in Europe, who face myriad forms of discrimination. He also taught law as a visiting distinguished professor in Israel, Germany and Japan.

His book, Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution, appeared in 1994. In a 2005 memoir of his involvement in the Brown case, he commented, “Brown continues to stand for Americans’ determination to live up to the ideals of their Constitution and for the proposition that our Supreme Court can be a catalyst for fundamental change.”

A lifelong liberal, Greenberg was a crusader against capital punishment and a founder of Human Rights Watch. He also co-edited (with two other scholars) a book of Franz Kafka’s legal writing as an attorney with the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague in the early decades of the 20th century, and co-authored a cookbook, cleverly named Dean Cuisine: The Liberated Man’s Guide to Fine Cooking (1990) because he and his co-author were both academic deans at the time.

Jack Greenberg was born James Jacob Greenberg in Brooklyn to immigrant parents who were secular Jews. His father was an accountant. Greenberg served four years in the Navy during World War Two as a combat soldier. It was there that he first became conscious of racial discrimination. The military was segregated and blacks were routinely assigned to menial positions. Greenberg was threatened with a court martial for shouting at a superior officer for mistreating a black crewman.

He earned his undergraduate degree from Columbia College in 1945 and graduated from Columbia Law School with a law degree in 1948. It was one of his professors that recommended him to Thurgood Marshall.

His second wife, Deborah Cole, was the founding director of the Columbia Law School’s AIDs Law Clinic.

gene-wilderGENE WILDER (June 11, 1933—August 29, 2016) was best known for his role in three Mel Brooks movies -- The Producers (1968), Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974) -- and as the lead character in the family movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). He also starred in two popular buddy movies with Richard Pryor, Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1982). Only in The Producers did he play a Jewish character, the nervous, insecure accountant Leo Bloom who fixes the books for the Max Bialystok, the scheming producer played by Zero Mostel.

But for sheer Jewish mishegas, nothing can beat The Frisco Kid (1979), which Wilder helped write. It begins in the Old Country where a committee of Jews led by a rabbi debate in Yiddish who among them should be dispatched to San Francisco to lead a new congregation where a beautiful bride awaits. They chose Avram Belinsky, a young nebbish, played to perfection by Wilder. After arriving in Philadelphia, he is robbed of his money and forced to make his way across the continent on foot. His hysterical appeal for help in Yiddish from German-speaking Amish farmers in Pennsylvania, who he mistakes for Jews, is priceless. Eventually, a sympathetic outlaw, played by Harrison Ford, comes to his rescue. During his trek, he learns to ride a horse, explains Judaism to Indians, causes monks to break their vow of silence with his antics, and gains self-confidence while holding fast through thick and thin to the Torah scroll entrusted to his care.

Wilder was more than an actor. He was also a screenwriter, a movie director and a novelist. Young Frankenstein was his baby, which he pitched to Brooks, who became its director. The two received Oscar nominations for their screenplay.

HE WAS BORN Jerome Silverman in Milwaukee. His father, an immigrant from Russia who became a businessman, sent Wilder to a military academy for one year, where he was the victim of antisemitic abuse. In junior high school, he was called “Jew boy.” He heard Yiddish while growing up but did not speak it.

Wilder began acting in community theater while in high school and studied theater at the University of Iowa and Shakespeare at a theater school in London. He was tutored by Lee Strasberg of the famed Actor’s Studio.

He served for two years in the Army in a hospital in Pennsylvania, where he worked with psychiatric patients, an assignment he requested to aid in his development as an actor. He briefly acted on the Broadway stage, where he had the good fortune to meet Anne Bancroft, who introduced him to her manic boyfriend, Mel Brooks. Brooks cast Wilder in Blazing Saddles and introduced him to one its writers, the comic genius Richard Pryor.

Wilder’s third wife was Gilda Radner, of Saturday Night Live fame. “She was pretty young, but she talked like an old Jew,” he commented. They married in 1985, but Radner tragically died of ovarian cancer five years later. Thereafter Wilder became a leader in the fight against that dreaded disease.

In 1997, he returned to the stage in a London production of a Neil Simon play, wrote and starred in two TV movies in 1999 and ended his acting career with a guest appearance on the popular comedy Will & Grace in 2003, which won him an Emmy award. As he explained “I like show, but not the business.”

Wilder then turned to writing, producing three novels and a collection of short stories. In 2005, he published a memoir Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.

Wilder considered himself a Jewish atheist. “I am going to tell you what my religion is. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Period. . . . I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish. But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion. . . . The world is not based in fairness. Human beings can rise to fairness; can administer something that makes it fair or just. But that’s not God.”

“A Yiddish Poem” which is really an entertaining English poem featuring diverse Yiddish words and expressions that have enriched English, has been attributed to Wilder.

Wilder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995, but his cause of death was reported as complications arising from Alzheimer’s Disease.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.