Tag Archives: Library of Congress

Jew of the Week: Hannah Arendt

Greatest Political Philosopher of the 20th Century

Hannah Arendt in 1924

Johanna Cohn Arendt (1906-1975) was born in Germany to a wealthy family of secular Russian-German Jews. The family was anti-Zionist and assimilationist, desperately seeking acceptance into broader German society. Arendt was well-educated, and was already tackling heavy philosophical works as a teenager. At 15, after getting expelled from her school for organizing a boycott of an anti-Semitic teacher, she decided to go straight to the University of Berlin. Arendt then studied language, literature, and theology at the University of Marburg, where one of her teachers was the famed philosopher Heidegger (the two would go on to have a secret romantic relationship for many years). Arendt later became a towering figure in philosophy herself, writing on politics and sociology, Judaism and feminism (which she opposed, once writing, perhaps presciently: “what will we lose if we win?” Ironically, today Arendt is something of a feminist icon!) When Hitler came to power in 1933, Arendt operated an underground railroad for refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Realizing the flaws of her old assimilationist ways, she wrote that “Jewish assimilation must declare its bankruptcy.” Arendt immersed herself in Jewish study, while also vocally denouncing the Nazis, leading to her arrest by the Gestapo. After eight days in prison, the Gestapo let her go because they could not decipher her encoded diary. Arendt fled to Geneva, where she worked for the Jewish Agency to secure visas for Jewish refugees. From there, she settled in Paris and soon became the personal assistant of Germaine de Rothschild, taking care of distributing her generous charitable funds. In 1935, Arendt joined Youth Aliyah, eventually becoming its secretary-general. In 1938, she was put in charge of rescuing Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis occupied France, Arendt and her family managed to escape yet again, eventually finding their way to New York. In 1944, she was hired as executive director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, cataloging and preserving Jewish assets in Europe, and reviving post-war Jewish life there. From 1951 onwards, she devoted herself to teaching and writing. Her most acclaimed books followed, including The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. Arendt taught at a number of American universities, including Yale and Stanford, and was the first female professor at Princeton. In 1961, she spent six weeks in Jerusalem covering the Eichmann trial for the The New Yorker. (During this time, she coined the phrase “banality of evil”, and her conclusions were immensely controversial.) All in all, Arendt wrote hundreds of penetrating essays, articles, and poems, and has been described as the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, as well as one its most enigmatic women. The Library of Congress estimates that at least 50 books have been written about her, along with over 1000 scholarly papers. There is a “Hannah Arendt Day” in Germany, as well as an international peer-reviewed journal called Arendt Studies, along with countless things named after her, including the prestigious Hannah Arendt Prize.

Words of the Week

“If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.”
– Hannah Arendt

Jew of the Week: Neil Diamond

“The Jewish Elvis”

Neil Leslie Diamond (b. 1941) was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish family of Russian and Polish heritage. In high school, he sang in the school choir alongside classmate Barbra Streisand. Diamond was inspired by a Pete Seeger performance at his Jewish summer camp, and as soon as he returned home got a guitar and started writing songs. Meanwhile, he was on his high school fencing team and got a fencing scholarship to attend New York University. (He won an NCAA fencing championship in 1960!) Eventually, Diamond dropped out of his pre-med program and went to work for Sunbeam Music writing songs for $50 a week. He then went off on his own and formed a singing duet with a friend. Finding no success, Diamond decided to go solo and got a recording deal with Columbia in 1962. Unfortunately, despite good reviews his first album was a commercial flop. Diamond was dropped by Columbia and lived in poverty for the next several years of his life, at one point barely surviving on just $3 a day. In 1965, Diamond started writing hit songs for The Monkees, including “I’m a Believer”. Soon, Diamond became a popular songwriter and composed for the likes of Elvis Presley and Deep Purple. He had his own first hit in 1966 with “Solitary Man”, followed by “Sweet Caroline” in 1969 (later selected for historical preservation by the Library of Congress). After that, the hits kept coming and his shows sold out night after night. During one San Francisco show in 1979, Diamond suddenly collapsed on stage and couldn’t get up. It turned out that he had a tumour in his spine, and went through a 12-hour surgery to remove it. His 1980 hit “America” became the most recognizable song in the country, and is sometimes likened to a second national anthem. All in all, Diamond had ten Number 1 singles, and 38 reached the Billboard Top 10. He has sold over 100 million records, making him one of the most successful musicians of all time. Diamond has always been open about his Jewish faith, sang “Kol Nidre” in a famous Yom Kippur scene in the film The Jazz Singer, and has been called “the Jewish Elvis”. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2018, Diamond retired after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, though he still spends much of his time writing songs.

Words of the Week

Noah was told, “Make a tzohar for the ark.”  [Genesis 6:16] The word “ark” in Hebrew is teivah, which also means a “word”. A tzohar, meanwhile, is something that shines. So the verse could be read to teach us: “Make each word you say shine.”
– Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760)

Jew of the Week: Herman Wouk

America’s Tolstoy

Herman Wouk

Herman Chaim Aviezer Zelig Wouk (1915-2019) was born in New York to poor Russian-Jewish immigrants. He studied at Columbia University and was the editor of its humour magazine. He also took courses at Yeshiva University. After graduating, Wouk worked as a radio actor, and when World War II began, wrote radio commercials in support of the war effort. Wouk enlisted in the army himself after Pearl Harbour, and served in the Navy in the Pacific. He fought in eight battles, won a bunch of medals, and rose to the rank of lieutenant. It was during this time that he wrote his first novel. He sent a copy to an old professor, who passed it on to a publisher, who sent Wouk a contract to his base near Okinawa. The book was published in 1947, shortly after Wouk returned from military service. It was an instant hit. Wouk’s second novel didn’t do so well, but his third, 1951’s The Caine Mutiny, sold a whopping three million copies, won a Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted to a Broadway play, followed by a Hollywood film. A few years later and after another bestseller (also made into a Hollywood film), Wouk was on the cover of TIME magazine. Throughout this time, he maintained strict observance of the Torah and was deeply religious. This was inspired by his grandfather, who taught Wouk the Torah and Talmud in his youth. Wouk would later state that his grandfather and the Navy were the two biggest influences in his life. In 1959, he wrote his first book of non-fiction, This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life. The book was credited with opening up Judaism to the American mainstream, enlightening the world about Jews, and helping to counter anti-Semitic myths. It also showed Jews that it was possible to be modern, American, and Orthodox. His third non-fiction book was about the interplay between religion and science. He also wrote a two-volume, 2000-page war drama likened to War and Peace. Altogether, Wouk wrote 21 books and plays, many of which were adapted into films or TV shows. His last was a memoir published when he was 100 years old. Wouk won countless awards and honourary degrees, and was described by the Library of Congress as an “American Tolstoy”. Stephen King wrote an award-winning short story called Herman Wouk is Still Alive. Wouk is considered by many to be the most successful Orthodox Jewish author to date. Sadly, Wouk passed away two weeks ago, just days shy of his 104th birthday, and in the middle of writing his newest book.

Words of the Week

That idea, that life is here purely for personal pleasure, that is a goal in life for a herd of swine.
– Albert Einstein