06. October 2018 · Comments Off on Throwing America away · Categories: Uncategorized

I grew up in an immigrant home with a profound prejudice. My parents hated Americans. They loved America. But the people born here were a different story. Americans were lazy, stupid, naive, arrogant, thoughtless, soft, spoiled, weak and did I mention lazy? The worst thing my parents could say about my behavior was, “You’re acting like an American.” That’s when I knew I had hit rock bottom. I’ve been around immigrant kids from other cultures and their parents. I don’t think my parents’ attitude about Americans was all that unusual.

I’d not infrequently have discussions with my dad about this prejudice. I’d ask, ”How could such lazy, dumb people produce the America you love so much?” His answer was usually along the lines of, “They got lucky. They’re so stupid that they don’t know how lucky they are and will, one day, throw it all away in a second.” I’d find this answer preposterous. Since 2016, I’ve started to believe his answer has some validity.

It’s not that I think that Americans are stupid and lazy. That was my mother and father’s view, not mine. But they have taken their liberties for granted. They don’t vote in large numbers. They don’t protest in large numbers. They are mostly passive in response to political change and there has been profound political change in America. As Yeats, the Irish poet, once wrote one hundred years ago during the tumult after the end of World War I, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The passionate intensity is coming from the American right. It has been passionate and destructive for over 20 years. The GOP used to be a party of moderates and conservatives who worked across the aisle to compromise and make America better. But in the 1990s, the GOP became radicalized. Its leaders like Newt Gingrich condemned compromise. The other side, the Democrats, became the enemy to be destroyed. The GOP began to game American politics to its advantage. Voters who were poor and non-white were taken off state voting rolls in the name of “protecting America from voting fraud.” Political districts were gerrymandered with the help of computers to make possible GOP minority rule in state governments and in the US House of Representatives. Courts were stacked with GOP operatives. Through this process, decent Americans were complacent. They continued to not vote in large numbers. They didn’t protest.

Then in 2016, the passionate worst won the presidency. A crude, mentally-ill, ignorant man who hated people of color and women began to take America on a crooked and awful path. Immigrants were demonized. Hateful, racist, white nationalistic language was embraced in the White House and in Congress. Courts were packed with even more political operatives. The doors of a country built on immigration were shut to newcomers. I note that my parents would have been denied entry into the US if America had elected such a hateful president in the 1940s. This week, Trump and the GOP have packed the Supreme Court with enough GOP political operatives to turn a once revered and distinguished court known for political independence and decency into just another crooked and corrupt arm of government.

None of this would have happened had Americans widely participated in government in one simple way. If only they had voted, America would be healthy today. If the poor had voted, if people of color had voted, if young adults had voted, we would have decent responsible government. Instead we have radical right-wingers destroying America and our freedoms.

I’ll move from the national scale to the personal to draw an analogy. Once I was at a strange job interview when at the end of the day, the chair of the search committee took me out to dinner. Instead of professional talk, he opened up about his wife leaving him. He told me of his failings to his wife honestly. He’d cheated on her repeatedly. He’d taken her for granted. Now that she was gone, he felt awful. He missed her desperately. “What can I do to get her back?” he asked me.

I told him I wasn’t a marriage counselor and I felt awkward giving advice, especially to someone I barely knew. He said, “But you’ve been married a long time and are happily married, right? Just tell me what you think.”

I said, “Well, from what you’ve told me, you’ve been an awful husband. Truly awful. Sometimes you don’t get a second chance. You can beg her to come back. But from what you’ve told me, maybe she shouldn’t believe you.” I’ve often wondered if I was being cruel that night, but as time has gone on I think I was right to give that man a verbal slap in the face.

Now it’s time for Americans to get a slap in the face. My father was right about one thing. American citizens have taken this country for granted. They’ve been terrible at being responsible citizens. Because of their complacency, their liberties and what makes this country admirable and decent are being stolen. They are, by their lack of action, throwing a democratic America away.

Unlike the chair of the search committee I had dinner with, Americans can get back what they took for granted. There will be an election on November 6th. Vote. Get everyone you know to vote. The passionate worst are going to try to make sure you don’t get a second chance.

24. May 2018 · Comments Off on Philip Roth and the end of the influence of Jewish literature on American culture · Categories: Olio

Children are usually oblivious to the uniqueness of their culture. You can live in the strangest of times or places and to you it’s just plain normal. My father grew up in Volyn, a place in Eastern Europe dominated by Ukrainians, and didn’t think it at all strange that Poland controlled his province. He thought it would be part of Poland for eternity. Stalin and Ukrainians had a different opinion.

I grew up in a far more stable part of the world (at least for now): Wisconsin. There was nothing strange or unusual about it except maybe the fact that everyone seemed to prefer brandy over other hard liquor.

But when it came to art it was an unusual time. The literary novel was a dominant art form. That wasn’t always true in America, I’m told. Historically, Americans weren’t big readers except on the East Coast. Bookstores weren’t common. Macy’s was a major retailer of books. The rise of the novel in American culture was a post-WWII phenomenon. I didn’t know that. I assumed America had been reading and paying major attention to literary novels for at least one hundred years.

What was even more unusual during my youth was that many leading writers of literary fiction were Jewish. The big three – Bellow, Malamud, and Roth – wrote bestsellers that were widely admired and imitated. I didn’t know that this was unusual either. Seemed normal to me.

Their writing was unambiguously connected to nineteenth and early twentieth century Yiddish writers from the Jewish Pale of Settlement. An essential part of being raised in Jewish Pale culture is to learn that you never hide your intellect. Even if you make people feel uncomfortable with your intellectual intensity, you don’t ever let up on the gas. That aspect of Jewish Pale culture is the first thing I think about when I try to describe Philip Roth. He was intellectually intense in public and probably in private as well.

He was not close to being a favorite writer of mine, but Roth was someone I admired. He worked like a demon. He thought hard. He had his finger on the pulse of American culture for decades. His writing became better as he got older.

My “normal” of literary fiction being a dominant art form that was dominated by Jewish writers wasn’t normal at all. It was bound to come to an end and it has. Literary fiction still has a following, but it’s a small one nowadays. Devoted, but small. Other art forms, typically visual, have become dominant. Other genres of novel writing have become dominant as well. My daughter began to read when science fiction and fantasy was on the ascent. Fifty years from now, the new normal will favor another genre, no doubt.

And what of Jewish literary fiction? It’s no longer widely read outside of Jewish circles. I note that my debut novel was fairly widely read, but maybe that was the result of its math and Russian culture focus. With the death of Philip Roth, the era of American Jewish literary fiction having major impact socially and artistically has come to a close. Roth was a unique voice in American literature. Brash. Outlandish. Not at all fussy in style.

Why aren’t Jewish writers read widely today? It’s not because they don’t have interesting things to say. It’s not because they don’t have talent. One reason is that literary fiction, as already noted above, has lost its primacy in American culture. But there is another factor that I think is at work. American readers tend to be hungry to learn about new and exotic cultures. In the sixties anti-Semitism was on the wane and it became not only socially acceptable to read about Jews, but fashionable. Fashion, by definition, has a finite lifespan.

After thirty or forty years of reading about Jews, Americans wanted to move on and find something fresh. They wanted to read about the Asian immigrant experience, about the African immigrant experience. There is nothing wrong and everything right about wanting something new. I tip my hat to writers from other cultures who were ignored for decades and are being read today.

04. May 2018 · Comments Off on Fordlandia at the Fort Worth Opera · Categories: Fordlandia, Music

I’ve been working with composer William Susman on an opera with the working title Fordlandia. It’s about Henry Ford and his family, whose lives were full of the stuff of grand opera: self-destructive ambition, love, betrayal and major illness.

It’s one thing to put the music and words down on paper (sometimes the words are written first; other times it’s the music). It’s quite another to hear it all live. Last night after a week worth of rehearsals, we got to listen to twenty minutes of Fordlandia at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers festival. It was glorious to hear this music live for the first time. I cried a little in a good way. It was also valuable to listen to the other operas selected for this festival. It gave me a view of where we sit musically and dramatically relative to other new works.

When I decided to pursue the arts and wind my science career down in my fifties, I had no idea of where exactly that path would lead. I only knew I needed to do somehing new intellectually. It’s been a wild and wonderful ride.

13. April 2018 · Comments Off on Hungarian film, 1945, gets US national distribution · Categories: Olio

The post-Holocaust Hungarian movie, 1945, is starting to get distributed nationally in the US. It’s quite good. Unique. Saw it at a film festival last year. Had a memorable lunch with the director and an adorable little dog that only understood Hungarian commands. Well worth seeing (the movie; you can’t see the dog, who lives half the year in Palm Springs and half the year in Budapest). Description below. Link to distributor here.

A Hungarian village, Jew free after the war ends, falls into chaos when two Jews arrive via train with two large trunks that they say contain perfume. Filmed like a John Ford Western, 1945 is highly stylized, mythic and intentionally unrealistic. The two Jews in black are kind of like gunslingers whose entrance scares all the town’s citizens. Not much dialogue, but the movie is chock full of action (and by that I don’t mean car chases and shoot ’em up scenes). 3.87 on the Stumeter.

09. April 2018 · Comments Off on The Mathematician’s Shiva eBook is on sale · Categories: Math Shiva News

for the next week or so. $1.99. Cheaper than a slice of pizza. Twice as tasty. On Amazon and probably every online outlet. Sponsored by BookBub and Penguin. Run, do not surf, to your favorite eBook website and buy it. Tell your friends, your in-laws, your enemies. Everybody!

29. March 2018 · Comments Off on My annual Passover greeting card · Categories: Drawings

My favorite holiday. I’m on Passover Island aka Cary, NC again this year. Chag Samayach. May your Passover be crumb free.

21. March 2018 · Comments Off on Madison Square Garden, here I come · Categories: Music

Below you’ll find my quickie submission to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. Low tech. Just me and my iPhone in my wife’s sewing room. I used the iMovie “dreamy” visual setting. It was a dreamy time. I hope that there’s a senior division, can’t compete with those young whippersnappers!

15. March 2018 · Comments Off on Opera to be showcased at Fort Worth Opera · Categories: Fordlandia

Fordlandia, an opera by William Susman and me, will be showcased at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers program this spring. I’m ecstatic.

10. March 2018 · Comments Off on First two minutes of me talking about my family in Yiddish · Categories: Olio

There are 101 minutes more of this stuff! Yiddish gets better as I go on. I’m rusty, have only spoken Yiddish with my cat over the last 20 years. But I love that accent, pure Galitzianer. My dad would have been pleased, but he would have also said I needed a haircut.

Thank you, Yiddish Book Center and Christa Whitney, for coming to my home and making this so easy and fun.

06. March 2018 · Comments Off on New mystery (so far) music event · Categories: Music

There will be a musical performance in early May that involves me and that I’m excited about, but can’t yet say anything about except that I’m excited about it.

That’s all I’m going to say!