Thanksgivukkah

November 27, 2013

This year, the American holiday of Thanksgiving – established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November since FDR mandated that in 1939 – and the Jewish holiday of Chanukah fall on the same day.  According to Chabad.Org’s “brief history” of the two holidays, this has happened three times in history: 1888, 1899 and 1918. (There are two “Texas only” exceptions that I will ignore; not many Jews in Texas). The confluence is projected to happen again in 2070, assuming that the Thanksgiving celebratory day remains the same.

And it now has a formal name:  “Thanksgivukkah”, which is a variation of the “Chrismukkah” that was popularised by the American television program The O.C. during its first season in 2003.

This is more than a footnote in history.  Wikipedia has an extensive, carefully written and well-research web page on “Thanksgivukkah” (complete with 61 references and five additional external links).  A Google search on the name comes up with more than 4.5 million hits. For those who do not know, Thanksgiving has always been a favourite holiday for American Jews:  seen as a secular Sukkot-like celebration, American Jews have warmly embraced Thanksgiving, giving them a “holiday season” opportunity to participate as “Americans” so close to the overwhelming (and off-putting, for many) Christmas.

There are also lots of cute images that illustrate this “new” holiday.  Here is one of my favourites, from The Los Angeles Jewish Journal
Jewish Journal Thanksgivukkah
Reform Judaism magazine encapsulates it thus:
Reform Judaism Thanksgivukkah dreidel


Why is American assimilation different from European?

November 26, 2013

Ever wonder why assimilation of migrants in the USA is so different?  Well, it is.  Certainly not like here in Australia.  And especially not like in Europe.

In a fascinating article in the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “Assimilation Nation”, Jason DeParle provides good insights:

Compared with Europe, the U.S. attracts more immigrants who share the dominant faith. (Imagine if Mexicans built mosques.) An economy that, until recently, had lots of entry-level jobs has made it easier for immigrants to find work. American schools generally provide students second chances, while Europeans are more likely to leave stragglers on vocational tracks. The U.S. also had Martin Luther King Jr.—the civil-rights movement, cresting just before the current mass migration started, bequeathed a robust apparatus for promoting opportunity. And American culture sells, in all its tawdriness and splendor. In Europe, the children of immigrants sometimes cling to the Old Country more than their parents do: sons import brides. In the U.S., the bigger danger is assimilating too fast: children get fat eating french fries and watching TV.

These are the reasons that so many of the worst fears of protectionists in the USA have not come to pass.  The migrants are, by and large, Christian.  And their young people, by and large, are given lots more chances to “join” the country.  And there’s a history:  ironically, the African-Americans helped to pave the way.


Inequality of wealth in New York City

November 18, 2013

I am running way behind in my New Yorker reading.  But some facts don’t change, even if you read them almost three months later.

In the midst of an excellent article by Ken Auletta (link to Auletta’s website here) about outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (The New Yorker, August 26, 2013) are some sobering statistics about poverty and the inequality of wealth in America’s greatest city.  I quote them directly:

“By the end of 2011 more than a fifth of New Yorkers were living below the poverty line and another quarter just above it.”  You read that one right:  20% plus 25% = 45% of New Yorkers living either below the poverty line or just above it – almost half of the city’s residents.

“A million seven hundred thousand city residents are poor, nearly a third of them children; the number of people on food stamps has risen by two-thirds since 2007. Fifty thousand residents, including twenty thousand children, are homeless.”  That’s quoting the Fiscal Policy Institute.

“The wealthiest one per cent of city residents—those who make half a million dollars or more a year—earn thirty-nine per cent of all city income, up from just twelve per cent in 1980. Nationwide, the top one per cent earn twenty per cent of all income, up from ten per cent in 1980.”  In other words, New York City is by some measures twice as unequal in wealth distribution than the whole of the USA, which is already turning to a frighteningly unequal place with wealth so badly distributed that it is at the level of the 1920s.

But lest we think that the rich are not “doing their thing”: “The top one per cent of city taxpayers consists of just thirty-five thousand residents, and they already contribute forty-three per cent of the city’s income-tax revenues.”  There are two ways to look at this:  either they really are doing their “fair share”, or “they certainly must have oodles of money, especially when you realise that the city’s income tax rate is 3.9%.

Reminds me of an old saying:  The rich are different from you and me – they have more money.


The odd Prius ad

November 15, 2013

The following advertisement for Toyota Prius appeared in the 12/19 August 2013 issue of The New Yorker.  Take a close look – some odd bits are included.  Are those really two tents – a blue one and a green one in the Arizona/Utah-style desert?  And take a look at the third one down? Those three-story townhouses look a whole lot like slums to me – either public housing or that sort of poor suburban medium density housing so popular in the early 1960s.  And why is there a bike in the photo?  Meaning?  Finally, the Prius is at home, safely “plugged in”.  No other houses around (in fact no people at all, in any of them).  Mystified by these photos, especially #2 and #3?  I am.

Prius ad in New Yorker 12-19Aug2013


Film review of The Butler

November 13, 2013

Directed by Lee Daniels; written by Danny Strong; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Elijah Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Live Schrieber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda

Despite its many charms, the film “The Butler” struggles to capture American political, social and cultural history from the 1950s to the present day.  It’s a well-meaning and frequently enjoyable film with an all star cast, loving period detail (down the uniforms worn by 1960s US postal workers) and a genuine affection for both its topic and characters.

At 132 minutes, “The Butler” is both too long and too short, defeated by the task it has set itself – a virtual history of the American Civil Rights movement through the eyes of one man.  That man is Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, whose dignified performance is surely ripe for an Academy Award nomination – and the film is worth seeing for Whitaker’s acting alone.  He’s a black man who becomes a butler in the White House in the 1950s, and witnesses Presidential history first-hand through numerous administrations over more than thirty years.  The film is based on a true story of Eugene Allen, the subject of a feature article in the Washington Post on the eve of Barack Obama’s election in November 2008.

Growing up in the rural south prior to World War II, Cecil (spoiler alert!) witnesses both the rape of his mother and murder of his father by a white southern landowner.  Taken in by a kindly old southern matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), he learns how to be a “house nigger” (the movie’s term, not mine), carefully and quietly serving the white plantation owners.

To survive as a black man in 1950s and 1960s America, Gaines needs to keep his emotions in check.  He finds his way into bar tending, then a fancy Washington DC hotel.  From there he is recruited to serve as a butler in the Eisenhower White House.

All of Gaines’ fellow butlers are black men.  He works there for the next thirty-plus years from Eisenhower (played by an unusually low-key and badly cast Robin Williams) to Kennedy (James Marsden, who sounds the part does not look it) to Johnson (Liev Schrieber, who tries hard, but never reaches the “larger than life” sense of his character) to Nixon (an incongruously cast John Cusack, who appears to have lengthened his nose for the part, and does a valiant but unsuccessful job at capturing this most complex of presidents) to Reagan.  Ford is barely mentioned and I do not recall Carter appearing.  You see what I mean?  The enormity of this topic conspires to defeat the film-makers’ best intentions.

The Butler  2013(photo: Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman)

Ronald Reagan is played by British actor Alan Rickman, the most successful presidential portrayal.  How is it that Americans can play Brits and Brits play Americans so well – think Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln?  Worth pondering.  Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan, in one of the “The Butler’s” best in-jokes.  Fonda was once one of the most radical actors, including a notable visit to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  So when Fonda plays a iconic conservative First Lady, the result is, well, slyly funny.  She’s also devilishly good in the cameo role.

Along the way, Cecil marries Gloria, who is played by Oprah Winfrey.  Younger viewers may not recall that Winfrey has had an illustrious acting career, gaining an Oscar nomination for her role in Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple”, as well as starring in “Beloved”.

Cecil and Gloria have two kids:  Charlie, the younger (Elijah Kelly), goes to Vietnam.   Louis, the older one (David Oyelowo), lives through a breath-taking sequence of historical events (Forest Gump-like):  He is a “freedom rider” for civil rights in the south in places like Birmingham, Alabama, is arrested sixteen times, joins up with the Reverend Martin Luther King, and even sits with King prior to King’s assassination in Tennessee.  He later becomes a radical black activist, helps to found the Black Panther Party and has a girlfriend who looks exactly like Angela Davis.

Martin Luther King (played by Nelsan Ellis) supplies a useful dramatic addition to the story.  When Louis embarrassingly says to King that his father is just a butler, King gives an articulate defense of African-American butlers and maids.  As the Salon review summarises:

Black domestic workers, King tells Louis, have played an important role in the struggle for civil rights….  Maids, butlers, nannies and other domestics have defied racist stereotypes by being trustworthy, hardworking and loyal….  In maintaining other people’s households and raising other people’s children, they have gradually broken down hardened and hateful attitudes. Their apparent subservience is also quietly subversive.

Did King ever say this?  I have not been able to find it, at least not yet.  But the point of the film is that King COULD have said it, even if he did not.  It’s at this point that “The Butler” starts to gain some of its power that it has given away through too much narrative and incident.  If, like me, you lived in the United States during the development of the Civil Rights movement, “The Butler” may have special meaning.  It dramatises many of the events, including some we can only guess at (how various Presidents dealt with the race issue), and ultimately is both moving and memorable.

Gaines lives long enough in the film (as did his inspiration Eugene Allen) to see Obama elected to the Presidency in 2008.  Thankfully, we are spared an Obama appearance – although Orlando Eric Street was originally cast to play the current President, but does not appear.  (Apparently Barack Obama turned down the invitation to play himself.)  Plenty of time left for that.

The Butler poster

*****

Footnote:  Will Whitaker win an Oscar for his role?  His character – ageing about sixty years throughout the course of the film – is just the sort of role that the “Academy” loves.  But here’s a prediction: he is nominated but does not win, losing out to someone in a “flashier” film such as Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips”, Robert Redford in “All is Lost” or – most likely – Chiwetel Ejiofer in “12 Years a Slave”.

Trivia corner:  A few years ago, Whitaker turned down the chance to play Obama in the film “My Name is Khan”.


Who’s reading Don Perlgut’s Blog?

November 11, 2013

I started this blog in March 2009 and have posted more than 300 articles since then, with many tens of thousands of hits.

I have now begun to analyse my readers by location.

Below is a table – data supplied by WordPress and analysed by me – of the location of my readers by country for the period late February 2012 through the end of October 2013: just over twenty months.  As my readers know, I was born in the USA (a la Bruce Springsteen), but have lived in Australia – primarily in Sydney – for a very long time.  Thus my interests are “mid-Pacific”, spanning both countries.

And, ironically, as a migrant to Australia, in some ways I will always be an “inside outsider” – someone who understands what is going on, but sees it with objective eyes.  And for the USA, I have now probably achieved the status of an “outside insider” – I live outside the country but take a keen daily, personal and political interest in what is going on there.  I understand it like an insider but I sit outside, bringing – I hope – the same objectivity.

With luck, these perceptions accurately inform my writing.

So who are you, my readers?  See below.

All percentages are of “unique visitors”, although the “total hits” closely follows the “uniques”.  Not surprisingly, the USA comes in at number one with 29%, edging out Australia at 27%.  The second ranks belong to the United Kingdom (5%), and France, Germany and Canada – all at 4%.  The third ranks are India, Israel, the Netherlands, Italy and the Philippines – all at about 1%, with well others below that.  A total of 128 countries.

And my most recent popular posts by topic? Film reviews leads, followed by books, Jewish film, films (general), education, California, personalities, public relations and San Francisco.

Country

% of total

United States

29

Australia

27

United Kingdom

5

France

4

Germany

4

Canada

4

India

2

Israel

1

Netherlands

1

Italy

1

Philippines

1

Republic of Korea

<1

Spain

<1

Switzerland

<1

New Zealand

<1

Turkey

<1

Hong Kong

<1

Sweden

<1

Japan

<1

Russian Federation

<1

Belgium

<1

Poland

<1

Singapore

<1

Indonesia

<1

Brazil

<.5

Greece

<.5

Pakistan

<.5

Malaysia

<.5

Chile

<.5

Ukraine

<.5

Thailand

<.5

Mexico

<.5

Portugal

<.5

Austria

<.5

Saudi Arabia

<.5

Ireland

<.5

Bangladesh

<.5

Romania

<.5

Taiwan

<.5

Norway

<.5

Czech Republic

<.5

Egypt

<.5

Serbia

<.5

South Africa

<.5

Denmark

<.5

Argentina

<.5

Hungary

<.5

Finland

<.5

Uruguay

<.5

Viet Nam

<.5

Bulgaria

<.5

Lithuania

<.5

Slovakia

<.5

Lebanon

<.5

United Arab Emirates

<.5

Nigeria

<.5

Croatia

<.5

Albania

<.1

Libya

<.1

Peru

<.1

Colombia

<.1

Georgia

<.1

Bosnia and Herzegovina

<.1

Algeria

<.1

Armenia

<.1

Morocco

<.1

Puerto Rico

<.1

Venezuela

<.1

Ecuador

<.1

Nepal

<.1

Latvia

<.1

Trinidad and Tobago

<.1

Montenegro

<.1

Kenya

<.1

Macedonia, the Former Yugoslav Republic

<.1

Jordan

<.1

Qatar

<.1

Guatemala

<.1

Tunisia

<.1

Estonia

<.1

Costa Rica

<.1

Iraq

<.1

Palestinian Territory

<.1

Luxembourg

<.1

Bolivia

<.1

Panama

<.1

China

<.1

Kuwait

<.1

Ethiopia

<.1

Paraguay

<.1

Cyprus

<.1

Dominican Republic

<.1

Ghana

<.1

Moldova

<.1

Slovenia

<.1

Honduras

<.1

Oman

<.1

Bhutan

<.1

Belarus

<.1

Sri Lanka

<.1

Brunei Darussalam

<.1

Monaco

<.1

Azerbaijan

<.1

Afghanistan

<.1

Cambodia

<.1

Antigua and Barbuda

<.1

Malawi

<.1

Guam

<.1

Yemen

<.1

Mauritius

<.1

El Salvador

<.1

Maldives

<.1

Senegal

<.1

Uzbekistan

<.1

Réunion

<.1

Jamaica

<.1

Iceland

<.1

Myanmar

<.1

Fiji

<.1

Djibouti

<.1

Rwanda

<.1

Angola

<.1

Tajikistan

<.1

Mongolia

<.1

Botswana

<.1

Guadeloupe

<.1

New Caledonia

<.1

Bermuda

<.1


San Francisco then and now – in California the future comes crashing towards us

November 10, 2013

San Francisco in the late 1970s was not a happy place.

I know.  I lived there then, although I did not realise it at the time.

Events that took place during this time included the Patricia Hearst kidnapping (February 1974) and bank robbery (April 1974); the Jonestown massacre (November 1978); assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by fellow supervisor Dan White (also November 1978, a devastating spiritual and psychic “two punch”), events captured in both the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and the feature Milk; and the trial result of White, with riots in the streets (May 1979). There was a whole lot more.

I had only lived in one big city before then (Boston), so I think I assumed that this was normal for cities.  But it wasn’t.  It was weird and bizarre.

I don’t think that anyone has truly figured out the connections between these terrible events – and the pall of doom that they cast over that beautiful city’s spirit.  I have looked for explanations, and uncovered few.

Kevin Starr, possibly the best contemporary chronicler of California history and the California State Librarian Emeritus, has written a multi-volume series of historical books about the state, under the title “Americans and the California Dream”.  His books cover the periods 1850-1915, the 1920s, the Depression in the 1930s, the 1940s, 1950-1963 and 1990-2002.  Not the 1970s or 1980s.  Starr has not – at least not yet – grappled with this troubled time.

I was delighted to find two very different books that have.  In his 2012 book, The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love (not the 2011 American fantasy film starring Nicolas Cage), David Talbot (founder of Salon), deals directly with this period – the best attempt of analysis I have read.  Season of the Witch book coverAnd Ellen Ullman, in her novel By Blood (also 2012), also deals with the time (set in 1974) through a fictional gothic style story of a therapist.  Ironically, Ullman reviewed Talbot’s book in The New York Times, thereby stimulating a response from Talbot, in which he pointed out that his “San Francisco was not hers”.

That’s part of the point.  Everybody’s San Francisco is different.  It’s what makes a great city great; each of us has a different experience that somehow adds up to a whole.

In so many ways, California represents the future – and it has done so for a very long time.  As Starr writes in his book California: A History, by the year 2000, 32.4 percent of the state’s population was Latino and almost 11 percent of Asian origin.  San Francisco was “on the verge of becoming the first prominent American city with an Asian American majority.”

And then it happened:  as of 1 July 2013, officially California no longer had a “white” majority, joining Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas and the District of Columbia as “majority minority” states.  This foreshadows the future of America, predicted to be a “non-white” majority country by 2043, the “first major post-industrial society in the world where minorities will be the majority,” says immigration expert Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The geography of California, of course, is also exciting – as anyone who has ever visited knows.  As Starr writes:

“Just sixty miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the state, is Death Valley, the lowest point on the continent at 282 feet below sea level. Here temperatures can reach as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit, as they did on July 10, 1913. In midsummer the Central Valley can be as hot as the Equator.

Did the demography or the geography of California contribute to what was, in effect, that unhappy moment in San Francisco’s history in the mid to late 1970s?  I doubt it.  California has always represented some sense of freedom to Americans.  The early Hollywood Jewish moguls left the east coast for Los Angeles seeking fewer strictures on their work (and better weather).  Later generations – me included – moved there for economic opportunities, the weather and the lifestyle.  Perhaps it was that sense of freedom that encouraged such bizarre and out of the norm behaviour.

Northern California has now moved to a different moment – one that is equally bizarre in its own way.  An early November 2013 widely reported speech by Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur Balaji S. Srinivasan has canvassed the possibility that Silicon Valley should become its own country, because the USA appears now to be “the Microsoft of nations” (apparently a bad thing).  The speech has caused a great deal of exclamations over arrogance and “naïve libertarianism” (Nicholas Carr).  Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times called the speech, “an unusually honest articulation of ideas that are common among members of a digital overclass whose decisions shape ever more of our lives” (italics are mine).

The tech industry apparently now threatens Boston as the centre for higher education (MOOCs – massive open online courses), New York for finance and media (Twitter and blogs) and Los Angeles for entertainment (Netflix and iTunes), reported The Australian newspaper.  All true.

So this is the future of America, one that is increasingly likely NOT to look like its past.

(Post script:  Looking for one of the best recent movies to portray the San Francisco area?Fruitvale Station film poster  Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, opened in the USA a couple of months ago and opens here in Australia later this month.  It replays the accidental shooting of a 22 year old black man at the BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – Fruitvale station.  Highly recommended.)