(JTA) — I was just out of college when I got a freelance assignment from a small entertainment magazine to interview a rising comic named Pee-wee Herman.
Of course that wasn’t his real name, but the man-child persona — one part Howdy Doody, one part third-grade nerd, who spoke as if he just took a hit off a helium balloon — created by a comic and actor named Paul Reubens.
The publicist warned me that Reubens would be only talking to me as Pee-wee, but the voice at the other end of the call spoke in a flat, polite baritone. It was Reubens as Reubens, who had decided to drop the Pee-wee character, at least for our conversation.
I don’t remember what we talked about, but the conversation was disorienting: a peek behind the curtain at the real Wizard of Oz. And Pee-wee was sort of a wizard: In his brilliant Saturday morning “children’s” show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” and in riotous films like “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Big Top Pee-wee,” the adult Reubens fully inhabited a child’s sensibility, simultaneously making his audience relive the innocence of being a kid and undermining it from an edgy adult distance.
Thirty years later I had another disorienting Pee-wee moment. I attended a screening of Nancy Spielberg’s 2014 documentary on American airmen who fought in Israel’s war of independence, “Above and Beyond.” Suddenly, there was Paul Reubens again, seated beside his mother and explaining how his father, Milton Rubenfeld, was an American pilot who volunteered in the fight for Israel. The film recounts how his father flew in a critical mission against the Iraqi army and was shot down over the Mediterranean (he survived).
“He was swaggering and macho, like Indiana Jones,” Reubens says. “He felt like it was his destiny.”
I hadn’t even considered until then that Reubens was Jewish. In “Why Harry Met Sally: Subversive Jewishness, Anglo-Christian Power, and the Rhetoric of Modern Love” (2017), one of the few books about Jewish comedy in which Reubens appears, Joshua Louis Moss groups him with a cohort of Jewish comics whose acts were “nearly completely devoid of references to either their Jewish background or Jewish culture more generally.”
Paul Reubens died Monday at age 70; a publicist said he “privately fought cancer for years.” And even though his career was derailed by scandal — he was arrested for “exposing” himself at a porn theater in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida, in 1991 — it’s not a stretch to remember him as an heir to the masterful comics who mined Jewish comedy’s more anarchic vein. Like the Marx Brothers, Pee-wee — with a crewcut, a too-tight suit, a red bow tie and a hint of lipstick and rouge — was a costumed agent of chaos whenever he bumped against straight (in all senses of the word) characters. Like Jerry Lewis, his character seemed stuck in pre-adolescence, but with an adult libido. He could be as sexually ambiguous as Milton Berle in one of his cross-dressing bits. And you could even connect him to Baby Snooks, the little-girl character created by Fanny Brice of “Funny Girl” fame.
Paul Rubenfeld was born Aug. 27, 1952, in Peekskill, New York, and grew up in Sarasota. Milton and his wife Judy (Rosen) owned a lamp store. Milton Rubenfeld had been a top fighter pilot who served in the Royal Air Force, and then the U.S. Army Air Force, during World War II. He became one of five Jewish pilots who flew in smuggled fighter planes and helped establish the Israeli Air Force.
“When I was a youngster, they seemed like fish stories to me,” Reubens recalled in the Spielberg documentary. “I didn’t have any real perspective on it until Ezer Weizman [an Israeli Air Force general and seventh president of Israel], I believe was the first book that actually mentioned my dad by name. And all of a sudden all these stories I’d heard my whole life growing up were in this book. Once I actually knew he really did all those things, and then they weren’t things everyone else did, I just had a completely different view of [my father].”
After studying at Boston University and the California Institute for the Arts, Paul created the Pee-wee character in the late 1970s as a member of the Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings. HBO produced a successful special starring the character, and Pee-wee became a cult figure, appearing on talk shows and often confusing the hosts with his child-like delivery and pansexual (or perhaps pre-sexual) persona. (David Letterman had him on his show regularly but never seemed completely comfortable in his presence.)
His first feature film, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1985) was directed by Tim Burton (who would go on to direct “Beetlejuice” and one of the best of the “Batman” reboots) and was a financial and critical hit. A sequel, “Big Top Pee-wee” (1988), was less successful but had its moments.
From 1986 through 1990, Reubens starred in 45 episodes of the CBS Saturday-morning children’s program “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” It was both a children’s show and a send-up of a children’s show, featuring a recurring cast of characters that included a sea captain (Phil Hartman), a cowboy (Laurence Fishburne), a “mail lady” (S. Epatha Merkerson) and a talking chair. More than one critic noted Reubens’ debt to Soupy Sales, another Jewish comedian whose 1960s kids show also managed to appeal to children as well as adults who were in on the joke.
The indecent exposure arrest led to a media frenzy that made it impossible for Reubens to continue playing a children’s entertainer. He eventually emerged in a series of cameos and small roles in film and television shows – including a memorable term as a grotesquely inbred Hapsburg prince on “30 Rock,” and as a drunken Pee-wee opposite Andy Samberg in a 2011 “Saturday Night Live” video.
In 2010, he revived the character that made him famous on Broadway in “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” and in 2016, he co-wrote and starred in the Netflix original film “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.”
Reubens kept his health issues private. ““Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” he said in a statement distributed by his publicist after his death. “I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.”
In a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, Reubens acknowledged those who said his act built on the Jewish comedians who came before him, including Eddie Cantor, the former vaudevillian who played a frenetic, wide-eyed innocent in a series of popular movie comedies of the 1930s.
“Jerry Lewis I saw when I was little,” he said. “Soupy Sales I probably saw when I was younger. I never knew who Eddie Cantor was until years later, when a lot of older people used to go [in an old Russian-Jewish furrier’s accent], ‘You’re like a young Eddie Cantor.’ I started to watch Eddie Cantor, and I could definitely see the resemblance. His movies are just incredible, very fantasy oriented and comedy oriented.”
25 years after opening, Yiddish Book Center overhauls its core exhibit for a wider audience
AMHERST, Massachusetts (JTA) — Since its opening in 1997, the Yiddish Book Center has wowed visitors with its architecture. A Jewish village resurrected on a college campus in sylvan Amherst, Massachusetts, the building conveys the Center’s mission: to rescue and revive a language spoken for over 1,000 years by Ashkenazi Jews in German-speaking lands, Eastern Europe and wherever they migrated.
On Oct. 15, the Center is unveiling a new core exhibit, meant to flesh out and deepen the story told by its building and the treasures stored inside. Arriving at a moment when Yiddish is experiencing one of its periodic revivals, “Yiddish: A Global Culture” is a major Yiddish institution’s answer to a question without easy answers: How do you tell the story of a language without a country, and of a culture that lost a majority of its purveyors in a little over a decade of madness?
In response, the new exhibit depicts the “secular” Yiddish culture that arose in the mid-19th century as a distinctly transglobal, modern movement that includes theater, the press, mass market publishing and intellectual ferment in big cities from Warsaw to New York to Shanghai.
The exhibit is “foregrounding a story of creativity, tremendous accomplishment and tremendous diversity of a culture that has migration built into its DNA,” David Mazower, the Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, told me when I visited Amherst last month.
The displays in the exhibit will surround and weave in and out of the Center’s book stacks, another striking architectural feature of the building. The stacks offer duplicates of the Center’s collection of 1.5 million Yiddish books and periodicals, for sale and browsing. I couldn’t be the first visitor to be reminded of the closing scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which reveals a colossal government warehouse filled with, in the words of the screenplay, “crates and crates. All looking alike. All gathering dust.”
What a casual visitor might not see is all that is happening at the Center to blow the dust off those books, including translator workshops, summer fellowships, conferences, an oral history project, a busy publishing program and a riotous summer music festival.
Interest in all of those activities has been helped along by young Jews interested in the language and culture and a pandemic that created a demand for online Yiddish classes. The Yiddish Book Center has been drawing 10,000 visitors a year since its pandemic shutdown. The New York Times made the latest revival official (to non-readers of the Jewish media, anyway) in an essay last month by the Jewish polymath Ilan Stavans, declaring that “Yiddish Is Having a Moment.” Stavans notes a flurry of new translations of obscure and classic Yiddish writers, the all-Yiddish staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Yiddish dialogue in three recent Netflix series: “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and “Rough Diamonds.”
(More controversially, Stavans also reports that Yiddish is appealing to those — presumably young anti-Zionist Jews — for whom Hebrew “symbolizes far-right Israeli militarism.”)
Such a revival also challenges keepers of the flame — not just the Yiddish Book Center, but the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, The Workers Circle, publications like In geveb and the Yiddish Forward, academic departments plus a host of regional Yiddish organizations — to define a language and culture that means many different things to many different people.
Is it a language of a decimated past? A progenitor of the Jewish left? A tongue, still spoken daily by haredi Orthodox Jews, that continues to grow and evolve? Is it an attitude — a Jewish way of being and thinking — that survives in humor and cooking and music even if those who appreciate it can’t speak the language? For European Jews of the Enlightenment, the Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler reminded me a few years ago, “Yiddish represented the resistance and inability of Jews to enter the cultural mainstream. It represented something atavistic, a way of holding Jews back.” For Zionists, meanwhile, it represented a weak Diaspora and everything associated with it (a clash explored in a current YIVO exhibit, “Palestinian Yiddish: A Look at Yiddish in the Land of Israel Before 1948”).
Goldie Morgenthaler, herself the daughter of the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb, has written that she teaches Yiddish literature to mostly non-Jewish university students in Alberta, Canada because “studying what is specific to one culture is often the first step to understanding many cultures.”
At YIVO, an institution founded by scholars in Vilna in 1925 and transplanted to New York in 1940, Yiddish is regarded as an expression of and vehicle for “Jewish pride,” according to its executive director and CEO, Jonathan Brent.
“For Jewish people in the Diaspora to understand that they have in fact a future as Jews,” he said last week, “they have to take pride in their heritage. For all kinds of historical reasons, many Jews felt that [Yiddish] was somehow a shameful or devalued heritage. It was ‘zhargon’ [jargon], and it had been basically eliminated from public discourse in the land of Israel. YIVO from the very beginning wanted to study Yiddish as a language among languages, the same way you studied Russian or Spanish or French. It was a language with a history.
“What Yiddish does,” he continued, “is help anchor us in the language in which our grandparents and great grandparents communicated their deepest thoughts and feelings. And that has real implications for the survival of the Jewish people.”
Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center, said the story he wants to tell goes back to his days as a graduate student in Yiddish at McGill University in the 1970s, when he first started saving the discarded books that would become the core of the Center’s collection.
“People think of [Yiddish] as this nostalgic creation,” he said. “But the truth is, it was a profound, multifaceted and really global literature that emerged in the late 19th century, and then just took off throughout the 20th century…. It wasn’t long before writers were using every form of literary expression — expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, eroticism. It all found expression in this very short period of time, and even the Holocaust didn’t destroy it. “
Lansky admits his own vision is more literary than the core exhibit’s, and thanked Mazower for creating a broader view of Yiddish as a global culture.
That view is represented in a 60-foot mural that serves as an introduction to the exhibit. Cartoons by the German illustrator Martin Haake depict key historical vignettes in Yiddish history, from nearly every continent. Glikl of Hameln, a German-Jewish businesswoman, writes her diaries at the turn of the 18th century. Women call for a strike at “Yanovsky’s Cigarette Factory” in Bialystok, Poland, in 1901. A nursery scene honors the leading Yiddish activists who were born in Displaced Persons camps after World War II. And tubercular Yiddish writers are seen recovering at the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in Denver, Colorado, which operated from 1904 to 1940.
The mural lines the ramp that leads to the bookshelves, where displays (some of which Mazower calls “wedges”) use artifacts and wall-mounted photos to talk about the breadth of Yiddish culture. There’s a display about Yiddish celebrities, including writers, such as Sholom Aleichem and Chaim Zhitlowsky, who would draw tens of thousands of mourners to their funerals. Another display honors those who preserved and studied Yiddish culture, from YIVO (described here as “The Mothership”) to the monumental “Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry” undertaken between 1959 and 1972 by the linguist Uriel Weinreich. A Yiddish linotype machine, rescued by Lansky, anchors an exhibit about the Jewish press.
A centerpiece of the core exhibit is a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of the writer and playwright I.L. Peretz, a leading figure of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. While few actual artifacts belonging to Peretz survive, the room will include contemporaneous objects and photographs to immerse visitors in the literary scene of the day.
“You’ll step through his doorway the way that so many young writers did, clutching their first manuscripts to show them either in Hebrew or in Yiddish,” Mazower explained. “His name, his address was known throughout the Russian Empire at that time. People would come thousands of miles in some cases to Warsaw to try and get entry into this alchemy-like space where extraordinary things happen.”
One of those pilgrims was Mazower’s great-grandfather, the famed playwright Sholem Asch. When Asch showed Peretz a draft of his notorious play “God of Vengeance,” whose lesbian subplot would shock audiences and rile religious leaders, Peretz reportedly told him to burn it.
“My hope is that through the exhibition as a whole you see Jewish history through a Yiddish lens and in a different way from the Holocaust-defined story that so many of us have been educated with and that popular culture feeds us,” said Mazower.
The exhibit treats the Holocaust as one part of the Yiddish story, not its culmination. The original Yiddish edition of Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” published as part of a memorial project in Argentina shortly after the war, rests in a wedge about individuals who rescued Yiddish culture under the Nazis. The same section features a tribute to Rokhl Brokhes, a writer murdered in the Minsk Ghetto in 1945. A still from a recent animated adaptation of one of her stories by Alona Bach, currently a PhD student at MIT focusing on the “intersections of electricity and Yiddish,” affirms one of the Center’s aims: to bring young Yiddishists into conversation with the past.
The story of Yiddish theater will wrap around the auditorium, starting with a large photo of the audience at the opening of the Grand Street Theatre in New York in 1905. A memorial section remembers the probably thousands of actors, playwrights and musicians who were killed in the Holocaust.
“Had Yiddish theater not suffered a rupture, which it did, it would have continued to evolve and borrow and expand,” said Lisa Newman, the Center’s director of publishing and public programs. “What’s so important about this exhibition is that it places Yiddish in this context of language no less than any other country’s, except it’s not a country.”
I asked Mazower what kind of stories he did not want to tell about Yiddish culture.
“It’s not a story about Yiddish humor,” he said. “It’s not a story about the Holocaust. It’s not a story about the state of Israel. It’s not a lachrymose story about Jewish persecution through the ages.”
Other Yiddishists told me much the same thing (Brent said that the story of Yiddish “shouldn’t be told as a collection of jokes, or Yiddish curses, or as a cute language that connects you to Bubbe’s gefilte fish”).
And yet, said Lansky, “We’re not feinschmeckers, we’re not elitist when it comes to Yiddish. Yiddish was a vernacular language, and I am happy to embrace that. I love the humor and social criticism that’s embedded in it. It’s the aggregate that’s so impressive. To see all of this literature and culture in a lively and accessible way can be quite transformative.”
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San Francisco Giants fire Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after disappointing season
(JTA) — The San Francisco Giants have fired Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after four seasons.
Kapler joined the Giants in November 2019 and led the Giants to a 295-248 record during the 2020-2023 seasons, highlighted by a 107-win 2021 campaign that earned Kapler the National League Manager of the Year award. The team rewarded Kapler with a two-year contract extension that was set to run through 2024.
The Giants were eliminated from postseason contention this week, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
In addition to his 2021 accolade, Kapler’s tenure in San Francisco was punctuated by his unorthodox style both on and off the field. The 48-year-old Hollywood, California, native is a fitness geek with an active social media presence and his own blog. ESPN deemed him “the most interesting man in baseball” in May 2022. Kapler also has a Jewish tattoo on each leg: a Jewish star on his left leg and “Never Again” — a reference to the Holocaust — on his right leg.
On the field, Kapler in 2020 became the first MLB manager to kneel during the national anthem amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. In 2022, in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Kapler announced that he would begin skipping the pregame national anthem to protest the “state of this country.” He frequently used his platform in the sport to share his political beliefs.
Kapler played for six teams during his 12-year major league career, largely as a role player and backup outfielder. After retiring in 2010, Kapler played and coached for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He previously managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 2018-2019 and worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
With Kapler’s firing, San Diego Padres manager Bob Melvin becomes the league’s lone Jewish skipper.
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Flash floods put a dangerous damper on the first night of Sukkot in NYC
(New York Jewish Week) — Mark Vogel, who lives in Riverdale and runs a website about Jewish and kosher travel, spoke for many of his neighbors when he posted a video on Instagram of his sukkah being pounded by rain, standing forlornly in the middle of his flooded backyard.
“I built a Sukkah,” he wrote in a caption. “I should have built an ark.”
Vogel, and many of the other millions of Jews in the tristate area, have been coping with the reality that Sukkot, the most outdoor holiday on the Jewish calendar, has coincided with heavy rains that have flooded highways, shut down subway lines and triggered a state of emergency in New York City. More than 8 inches of rain had fallen at John F. Kennedy airport by Friday afternoon, and more is expected into Saturday.
New Yorkers should expect heavy rain and flooding to continue throughout the night tonight,” Gov. Kathy Hochul posted on social media on Friday afternoon. “To our Jewish neighbors celebrating the beginning of Sukkot, please take steps to stay safe during this severe weather event.”
Sukkot begins Friday night, and on the weeklong holiday, Jews traditionally eat their meals and even sleep in the sukkah, an outdoor hut with a roof generally made from tree branches that recalls the Israelites’ biblical sojourn in the desert and emphasizes the need for divine protection.
But rain makes those observances close to impossible — leading most would-be sukkah-dwellers in New York to accept that they’ll be eating indoors on the holiday’s first night, and sparking a wide variety of theological and practical responses from rabbis and rank-and-file Jews alike. For others, it has complicated travel plans hours before the holiday’s start, backing up traffic and making the subway especially hard to navigate.
“I once heard that if it rains on [the] first night of sukkoth, it’s some sort of sign that God is displeased with us,” Linda Gisselle Roth, who splits her time between New York City and Connecticut, wrote on Facebook on Friday. “And it’s been raining for days. And I’ve never felt like this before.”
She added, “I want to spend [the] first night of sukkoth, in my sukkah. So for right now, I’m asking, please let the rain stop.”
While the rainy season in Israel traditionally begins right after Sukkot, rain is a common occurrence on the holiday in the United States and even inspired the title of a children’s book from the 1990s, “Why Does It Always Rain on Sukkot?”
Observant Jews have varying customs when it comes to dealing with rain on the holiday. Many avoid their sukkah entirely, while others will quickly recite blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then eat the rest of the meal indoors. Adherents of Chabad, the Hasidic movement based in Crown Heights, try to eat in the sukkah under nearly all circumstances.
One resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, a heavily Jewish suburb, posted a single-spaced, two-page guide from his local rabbi on what to do if it rains on the holiday. (The rabbi, who is not named in the document, recommends saying blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then continuing the meal inside.)
Rabbis on social media, meanwhile, explored the theological dimensions of the weather. Some cited a passage from the Mishnah, the ancient code of rabbinic law, that compares rain on Sukkot, following the effort of building a sukkah, to a servant bringing his master a jug of wine, only for the master to throw water back in the servant’s face.
“Nasty weather on sukkot is a sign of God’s displeasure with us,” Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who teaches at the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah seminary, wrote on Facebook. Then, referencing the recent High Holidays and addressing God, he wrote, “If all we did the last few weeks is not good enough for You, what’s left for us to say?! We did the best we can. If You want more, You will have to let us know what that more is.”
Rabbi Ethan Tucker, the president of the Hadar Institute, an egalitarian center of Jewish study based in Manhattan, also cited the passage and encouraged people to focus on the experience of the servant in the parable. He added that because the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat, the other central commandment associated with Sukkot, praying with four species of plants, is also deferred a day. (Sunday is expected to be sunny.)
“What does it *feel like* when you have prepared for something and then you cannot execute it as planned?” he wrote on Facebook. “It feels like rejection, as in the parable. The weather may in fact just be the weather, but it doesn’t necessarily make the feeling of loss less palpable. Is there a way to make this Sukkah rainout an opportunity to sit with rejection? To empathize with other such experiences, even if they are not our own?”
Some New Yorkers tried to stay positive. “It might be flooding and we might consume a lot of rain water with our food lol but Sukkot Dinner under the Stars is still on even if we might end up eating indoors under a roof instead!” a Facebook user from Queens posted on Friday, advertising a meal that night.
Nina Jochnowitz, a State Senate candidate in New Jersey, cited the rabbinic idea that Sukkot is considered a time of joy, and referenced a Hasidic saying that “‘joy breaks all boundaries,’ transforming even the most negative occurrences into blessings!”
And others reached for seasonal parallels: “If only sukkot came with rain dates like baseball,” one person posted.
For Vogel, the travel writer and Riverdale resident, the rain was especially unfortunate, as he has built a smaller sukkah in recent years to limit capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first year he had gone back to building a larger one.
“Well, I was looking forward to eating in a large sukkah this year with friends and family,” he told the New York Jewish Week. “But we can’t control the weather, so we will make the best of it.”
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