Tag Archives: Anti-Semitism

Jew of the Week: Giacomo Meyerbeer

Biggest Superstar of the 19th Century

Jacob Liebmann Beer (1791-1864) was born near Berlin, then in the Kingdom of Prussia, to a wealthy, observant Jewish family. His father was the president of Berlin’s Jewish community and ran a large synagogue in his home. His mother received the prestigious Order of Louise from the Prussian queen, and because she was an observant Jew, got a small statue instead of the traditional cross. The Beer children received the best secular education, as well as private tutors in Jewish studies. All three sons became famous: Wilhelm Beer as an astronomer, Michael Beer as writer, and Jacob Beer as a composer. When his beloved grandfather Meyer passed away, Jacob added the name to his own, changing it to Meyerbeer. He also vowed never to abandon the faith of his fathers, while many of his friends “converted” to Christianity to be accepted in society and to take on jobs otherwise barred to them. Meyerbeer was taught music from a young age by some of the best instructors of the time. He performed his first public concert at just age nine. Meyerbeer’s early work involved writing religious music for his father’s synagogue, and his first big production was a ballet-opera called The Fisherman and the Milkman, followed by the musical God and Nature, and the opera Jephtha’s Vow. He wrote beautiful pieces for the piano, clarinet, and full orchestras, and vacillated between composing and playing music himself (which he preferred). Having faced many difficulties in his youth, Meyerbeer founded the Musical Union to support up-and-coming composers. In 1813, he was appointed Court Composer for the Grand Duke of Hesse. Several years later, he felt he had lots more to learn and moved to Italy. There he wrote some of his most renowned operas. By 1824, he had become world-famous, and his 1831 grand opera, Robert le diable, made him the equivalent of a modern-day superstar. The following year, he received the Legion of Honour, the highest award in France. In 1841, he was described as the “German Messiah” who would save the Paris Opera from its death, and shortly after also became director of music for the Prussian royal court. Not surprisingly, his success and wealth drew the ire of his colleagues, and Meyerbeer faced terrible criticism and anti-Semitism (especially from Richard Wagner, once his pupil). Meyerbeer remained graceful nonetheless, and never responded to the attacks on him. He continued to compose popular works until his last day, and has been credited with being “the most frequently performed opera composer” of the 19th century. He inspired the works of later greats like Dvořák, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky. He was also a generous philanthropist, a devoted husband and father to five children, and never broke his vow to die an observant Jew. Meyerbeer remains one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Words of the Week

One who looks for a friend without faults, will have none.
– Hasidic proverb

Jew of the Week: Émile Durkheim

The Father of Sociology

Émile Durkheim

David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was born in the French region of Lorraine to Orthodox Jewish parents. His father and grandfather were both rabbis, and Durkheim spent his early years in yeshiva intent on becoming a rabbi as well. Eventually, he decided to switch his career path and break out on his own. He went off to study psychology and philosophy. At 21, on his third application attempt, he was accepted to ENS, the most prestigious graduate school in Paris. Durkheim wanted to apply what he learned to explain society and social behaviour. At the time, however, there were no sociology studies anywhere in France. In 1885 he moved to Germany to work alongside some of the first sociologists. Two years later, Durkheim’s papers had become famous across Europe, and he was invited back to France to teach sociology at the University of Bourdeaux. Durkheim taught the first social science course in French history, and was also asked to reform France’s school curriculum. Over the next few years, Durkheim published a series of manifestos outlining exactly what social science is, and why it is important. He showed how the scientific method could be rigorously applied to this new field, and how it was distinct from related subjects. In 1895, he established the first university social science department, and in 1898 founded the first sociology academic journal. For these reasons, Durkheim is often called the “father of sociology”. His work is also credited with pioneering the field of criminology, and influencing psychology and philosophy as well. In 1902, Durkheim was appointed Chair of Education at the world-famous Sorbonne, and later became the only professor whose courses were mandatory for all students. Meanwhile, he served as advisor to France’s Minister of Education. Unfortunately, World War I had a devastating effect on Durkheim. Right-wing nationalists attacked him for not being “patriotic” enough, for being too liberal, and for being Jewish. Worse, many of his students were conscripted and died in the trenches. The final tragedy was the death of his own son. Durkheim fell terribly ill, and ultimately died from a stroke. Despite abandoning formal religion in his youth, he argued that religion is the most important social institution, and the key to a well-functioning “organic” society. He worried greatly about the rising trend of science and the “cult of the individual” taking the place of religion. Durkheim coined the popular term “collective consciousness” (among many others), and was the founder of the school of structural functionalism. Durkheim’s work has influenced countless thinkers, and still serves as the foundation of sociology today.

Words of the Week

Religion gave birth to all that is essential in the society.
– Émile Durkheim

Jew of the Week: Helen Suzman

The Woman That Ended Apartheid

Helen Suzman

Helen Gavronsky (1917-2009) was born near Johannesburg, South Africa to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. She studied at Witwatersrand University, first commerce and then economics and economic history after marring Dr. Moses Suzman. During World War II, she worked as a statistician for the War Supply board, and assisted the Governor General’s War Fund. When the war ended she returned to university as a lecturer. She soon joined the South African Institute of Race Relations, and went on to study the conditions of black communities. It was then that she realized how much they suffered, and became an anti-apartheid activist. In 1953, Suzman was elected to the South African Parliament. Unhappy with how little her own party was doing for the cause, she co-founded the Progressive Party in 1959 with a platform to end segregation, and bring equal rights for all. By 1961, all other members of her party lost their seats, leaving Suzman as the only anti-apartheid MP for the next thirteen years. Throughout this time, she ate alone in the parliamentary lunchroom. Nelson Mandela would later say that she was “undoubtedly the only real anti-apartheid voice in parliament.” Suzman experienced tremendous anti-Semitism from her colleagues, as well as harassment from police, and threats on her life. She remained unyielding. In 1974, she finally got some support as six other anti-apartheid MPs joined the government. A year later, her party merged with the Reform Party, run by another Jewish anti-apartheid activist, Harry Schwarz. Together, the Progressive Reform Party became the official opposition by 1977. Suzman worked tirelessly to bring equal rights for all, including women and minorities. She regularly visited Nelson Mandela and other prisoners, and worked hard to improve their conditions. All in all, she served as an MP for 36 years, and continued to work in Mandela’s government afterwards. She served on the Human Rights Commission, and was twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She was awarded 27 honourary degrees, was knighted by the Queen in 1989, and given the golden Order of Merit by Mandela in 1997. Suzman was voted among the greatest South Africans in history. Later in life, she did admit that South Africa did not go in the direction she thought it would, and strongly criticized the African National Congress, who did little to improve the country. The party that Suzman founded, now known as the Democratic Party, is currently the official opposition in South Africa.

What Separates Judaism from Other Religions?

Words of the Week

He who restrains his anger will not see his enemies rule over him.
– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov