Monday, August 22, 2011

Sharks Have No Bones!, or The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement

When I was a kid I loved books of trivia. Hundreds of pages of random facts (sharks have no bones! ) that sparked my curiosity and gave me a random sampling of information (often horribly wrong) to base my forays into the library or encyclopedia and lunchtime discussions with friends. To a budding info-junkie, those raw facts were pretty addicting.

As a kid, I might have loved Stephen L. Pease' book "The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement". With a studious tone and a "Ripley's Believe it or Not" enthusiasm Pease spends 500 pages chronicling amazing accomplishments by Jews. Did you know that
  • Jews invented both holography (Gabor) and the ball point pen (Biro)!
  • Between 2002 and 2008 fourteen Jews played major league baseball!
  • After 1853 all De Beers' diamonds were sold to a London syndicate of 10 Jewish buyers!
You do now. You can thank me and Pease later.

This book's strength, and it's weakness is Pease voracious appetite and unrelenting boosterism. Like a true trivia book, there is no sense in the book of how any of the facts relate to each other and to Jewish history and no sense what facts were left out (it is only 500 pages, after all). It's all just a large pile of evidence for how cool Jews are. And, based on Pease's evidence, we are pretty cool.

This is a music blog, so of course I immediately turned to the music section. In this section I found a page and half jammed full of references to Jewish contributions classical music (there are LOTS) and three quarters of a page acknowledging that we've pretty much played no role in country music. As counted by awards, and paragraphs, we were pretty influential in rock and roll, musical theater, and jazz. And we have Babs. Pease awarded Jewish musicians one multi-page biography and that bio honor went Barbara Streisand. And, of course, no recognition at all of Jewish music. No klezmer, cantorial, or Yiddish musical theater. Debbie Friedman or Shlomo Carlebach never existed.

As a kid I might have loved the quirky randomness of the book. But as an adult I find it a joyless slush. There may be folks out there for whom the book, as Rabbi Harold Kushner says in his hyperbolic puff, "strengthens [their] pride in being Jewish."

It might.

But it also diminishes my sense of what being Jewish is. What ever being Jewish is, it is not to be found in this book. Knowing that sharks have no bones (and that they have several sets of replaceable teeth) really doesn't tell you anything about sharks. Knowing that, in 2008, 8 of the top 16 major department stores were either owned or started by Jews tells us even less about ourselves.

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