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In Memoriam: Al Feldstein, Shulamit Aloni

May 6, 2014
by Bennett Muraskin

Al Feldstein

October 24, 1925 - April 29, 2014 MAD MAGAZINE was essential reading for teenagers in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Its manic, irreverent style of humor may have helped launch the cultural revolution of the 1960s. It certainly influenced a generation of comedians and various facets of mass media, including the humor magazine National Lampoon, the TV show Saturday Night Live, and the TV animated show, The Simpsons. MAD’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, and his expression, “What, Me Worry?” have become part of American popular culture. None of this would have been possible without Al Feldstein, its editor from 1956 to 1985. Al-Feldstein-postFeldstein was born in Brooklyn into a Jewish family. He showed artistic talent from an early age, graduating from the High School of Music and Art and taking courses at the Art Student League. During World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Force and was assigned to paint murals and draw comic strips for Army newspapers. After the war, he landed a job with EC Comics, which was run by William Gaines, a pioneer in the comic book industry. Illustrating horror and suspense titles, Feldstein was not involved in the founding of MAD as a comic book in 1952, but he did edit a another Gaines comic book with a similar theme called Panic. Both MAD and Panic were caught up in an anti-comic book hysteria that swept the U.S. in the early 1950s. A German Jewish immigrant, Dr. Frederic Wertham, conducted a lengthy study published in 1954 as Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that the comic books promoted immorality and were turning American youth into juvenile delinquents. Wertham was mainly concerned with the lurid horror and suspense comics, but Panic was also targeted. When the New York City police confiscated some issues, Gaines went to court and convinced a judge to allow its distribution. The outcry against this genre was so intense that the industry was forced to create a Comic Code Authority to eliminate its sexual, violent and anti-authoritarian content. Panic02Panic did not survive, but MAD did. It evaded the strictures of the code by transforming itself into a magazine in 1955. One year later, Feldstein replaced Harvey Kurtzman as its editor. Arie Kaplan, in his book, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, wrote that “Feldstein reshaped MAD in such a way that it could weather changing times and shifting trends, staying relevant and edgy...” Feldstein hired a talented team of writers and illustrators — called on the masthead “the usual gang of idiots” — who included celebrity contributors such as Sid Caeser, Danny Kaye, Tom Lehrer, and Carl Reiner. No subject was out of bounds: Santa Claus, Joseph McCarthy, the Cold War, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Nixon and Agnew, movie stars, TV shows, popular songs, all were mocked, ridiculed, satirized, and parodied. (FBI agents once came to Feldstein’s office to reprimand him for using J. Edgar Hoover’s name in a spoof.) My favorite comic strip from my teen age years was “American Jokes They Tell in Poland,” which turned the tables on the Polish joke craze of the 1970s that depicted Poles as incredibly stupid. The strip, instead, poked fun at America’s social problems. MAD’S CIRCULATION peaked at over 2.5 million in the 1974. It still publishes today, with far fewer readers. Al Jaffee, who studied with Fieldstein at the Art Students League, is now in his 60th year at the magazine. Tears happyGaines, Kurtzman, Feldstein and most of MAD’s writers were Jewish, and its content was sprinkled with Yiddishisms. In 1973, MAD published a parody of the Broadway play Fiddler on the Roof, called “Antenna on the Roof”, with this introduction: “As far as we’re concerned, Fiddler made a goof!... Which is why MAD now takes this famous musical about the problems of people who had nothing, and updates it with a version about the problems of people who have everything — mainly America’s Upper Middle Class.” If there was anything intrinsically Jewish about MAD, it was its secular quality of khutspe. In 1994, Brian Siano in The Humanist commented on the impact of MAD magazine:
For the smarter kids of two generations, Mad was a revelation: it was the first to tell us that the toys we were being sold were garbage, our teachers were phonies, our leaders were fools, our religious counselors were hypocrites, and even our parents were lying to us about damn near everything. An entire generation had William Gaines for a godfather: this same generation later went on to give us the sexual revolution, the environmental movement, the peace movement, greater freedom in artistic expression, and a host of other goodies. Coincidence? You be the judge.
After retiring from MAD magazine, Feldstein moved West. Not to New Jersey, the state across the Hudson River, that New York Jews mistook for the West, but to Wyoming and then to Montana. He returned to his first love and became a painter of wildlife and scenes from nature. In 1999, Feldstein was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts degree by Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. Feldstein’s art has appeared in numerous galleries in the Northwest, including in Yellowstone National Park. Gay vays! (Go figure!)

Shulamit Aloni

November 29, 1928 - January 24, 2014 HOW WILL Shulamit Aloni be best remembered? As a feminist? A secularist? A human rights advocate? An advocate for a just peace with the Palestinians? All of these. Her voice was always heard, loud and clear, earning her a well deserved reputation for khutspe. 609She was born Shulamit Adler to Polish immigrant parents in Tel Aviv. She joined the Socialist Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and fought for Israeli independence as a member of the Palmach. Educated as a teacher and a lawyer, she worked as a radio and print journalist before entering politics in 1965, when she was elected to the Knessset on the Labor Alignment slate. There she began a lifelong campaign to provide Israel with a constitution, including a bill of rights. But she came into conflict with the Labor Party leadership and was dropped from its election list in 1969. In 1973, Aloni left the Labor Party to form Ratz, the Movement for Civil rights and Peace, and once again was elected to the Knesset. In 1992, she brought Ratz into coalition with Mapam and Shinui, leading to the creation of Meretz, the left Zionist party. Along the way, she served as minister without portfolio in Yitzak Rabin’s first cabinet in 1974, as minister of education and minister of communication (1992-93), and as minister of sciences and art (1993-1996), under Rabin and Shimon Peres. She left office in 1996, after a total of twenty-eight years in the government. Aloni was the first woman after Golda Meir to serve as a cabinet minister. She was also the only woman in Yitzhak Rabin’s first government. But unlike Meir, who did nothing to advance women’s rights within government or without, Aloni was a feminist. One of the issues she adopted during her long career in government and as a civil rights activist was religious coercion. She sought to break the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly on laws governing family status that victimized women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce under Jewish law. She also introduced the first laws in the Knesset against domestic violence and to ban discrimination against women and gay people. IN 2000, she was awarded the Israel Prize “for her struggle to right injustices and for raising the standards of equality,” but not everyone was pleased: The National Religious Party petitioned the Supreme Court to deny her the honor, claiming that she “created hatred among different parts of the Jewish nation, trampled on the holiest values of the Jewish people and its culture and insulted communities and individuals without mercy.” Indeed, Aloni often condemned the ultra-Orthodox as bigots and economic parasites and warned of the danger posed by Jewish religious fundamentalism to the future of democracy in Israel. She was well versed in traditional Jewish sources. To the Jewish laws cited by the rabbinate, she counterposed the Prophets and the tradition of challenging unjust authority. “I would cite Abraham arguing with God to protect Sodom and use it against collective punishment. When I quoted Jeremiah or Habakuk, most ultra-Orthodox Jews didn’t know what I was talking about. And here I was, not only a woman, but also learned and a heretic.” But not an extremist: When it came to honoring Shabbat, she favored keeping public transportation and places of entertainment open, but agreed that businesses should close. She was fiercely denounced for seeking to replace the Yizkor prayer at memorial services for fallen Israeli soldiers with a reading invoking “the Jewish people” rather than God, but she favored retaining the traditional El Mole Rahamim prayer. In her retirement, she wrote a secular commentary on the holiday of Shavuot, arguing that just as the ancient people of Israel adopted the Torah as their constitution, modern-day Israel requires a secular constitution to secure its democratic character. If not, as she insisted in her last book, Israel: Democracy or Ethnocracy (2008), Israel will become a theocracy ruled by fundamentalist rabbis. Aloni ceaselessly advocated for a two state solution that granted national dignity to the Palestinians. As far back as the 1980s, she called for direct negotiations with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and participated in the first official meetings with PLO representatives that took place in Paris and New York in 1988-89. After Baruch Goldstein massacred twenty-nine Palestinian Muslims in Hebron in 1994, Aloni called for the complete removal of the pocket of fanatical Jewish settlers. Ending the construction of Jewish settlements in the entire occupied territory was always high on her agenda. Although she considered herself a secular Zionist in the tradition of Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, her vision for Israel was a state where all citizens enjoyed equal rights, with the exception of preferential immigration rights for Jews, rather than a state that belongs to the entire Jewish people regardless of where they live. Shulamit_Aloni_as_a_young_girlIn an interview that appeared in the April 24, 2000 issue of Jerusalem Report, she stated that one of her greatest regrets from her time in public office was giving up on her proposal to issue a postage stamp honoring the Jewish Labor Bund, the anti-Zionist pro-Yiddish socialist organization that achieved prominence in Poland between the two world wars. Aloni wrote five books in addition to Israel: Democracy or Ethnocracy, including Women as Human Beings and Children’s Rights in Israel and The Citizen and His Country, which became the standard civics text for students in Israel. After retiring from politics, she taught law and continued to speak out on the issues of human rights, civil liberties, and peace that animated her public life. Fellow feminist and Meretz leader Naomi Chazan paid tribute to Aloni for dedicating “her life to transforming Israel into an open, just and liberal society based on human dignity, tolerance for diversity and equality.” Yossi Sarid, who defeated loni for the leadership of Meretz in 1996, captured the essence of Aloni’s personality in calling her “a phenomenon” who feared “absolutely nothing.” Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and the 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 Humanistic Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.
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