January 27th, 2020
We are proud to announce that The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist by Julien Gorbach has been selected as a finalist of the 2019 National Jewish Book Award, in the category of Biography. The National Jewish Book Awards, now in its 69th year, is the longest-running program of its kind in North America.
The Notorious Ben Hecht is a biography of a great twentieth-century writer that treats his activism during the 1940s as the central drama of his life. Known widely for his roles in writing films like Scarface (1932), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), Hecht’s activism has often been overlooked. This book gives this part of the subject’s life its due, detailing the story of how Hecht earned admiration as a humanitarian and vilification as an extremist at a pivotal moment in history, and about the origins of his beliefs in his varied experiences in American media.
Julien Gorbach is an assistant professor in the School of Communications at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and an award-winning journalist and media historian.
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November 11th, 2019
In anticipation of the current issue of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, we spoke with poet and novelist Ellen Galford about her writing, as well as topics in Jewish studies more broadly. Galford composed three original poems for issue 37, volume 3, a special issue titled “Narrative Spaces at the Margins of British Jewish Culture(s).”
Q: You’ve written fiction and poetry on Jewish themes and topics in the past, and for this special issue of Shofar you’ve written three poems: “The Museum of Margins,” “Mixed Marriage,” and “Curator.” Do you find that one form (poetry or prose) lends itself especially well to exploring certain aspects of Jewish identity or history?
Ellen Galford: There’s an old saying that God’s real reason for creating humankind was to satisfy His/Her/Their (??) voracious appetite for stories. When an image or a theme starts jabbing me between the shoulder blades, I don’t ask it whether it would like to be a poem or a piece of prose when it grows up. Either way, it’s going to be a story that I hope will keep a reader, divine or human, entertained.
Prose has prevailed throughout most of my writing life—screeds of bespoke nonfiction texts for the day job, fiction for the sake of love and politics and taking my imagination wherever it wanted to go. But it was only after novels about lesbian bad girls in Jacobean London, folklore and feminism in the twentieth-century Outer Hebrides, and a satirical slap at the Thatcher government that I came out of the closet as a Jewish writer with novel number four. And at that point prose—with its leisurely story arcs and ample room for any number of digressions—opened the door into the surreal, heretical Jewish world inside my head.
After I stepped across that particular threshold, I came out of the closet as a writer of poetry, too. For years I’d felt uneasy about showing my poems to anyone (apart from a few very personal pieces with specific readers in mind). But maybe it’s because I’ve travelled far enough along in my own personal timeline to acquire a bit of chutzpah and just go for it. Sometimes writing poetry feels like wrestling with an angel (or a pack of noisy demons) all night long. Call it some kind of cockamamie optimism, but I don’t think there is any theme or topic, Jewish or otherwise, that a poem can’t tackle. Making it good enough is another story.
Q: You were originally born in New Jersey but spent much of your life in Scotland. Do your American origins shape your experience in Scotland? Additionally, does your Jewish identity inform the ways you understand national identity, the ways you might personally locate yourself within national or global communities or as a writer?
Galford: I’ve lived in Scotland for a very long time. When I left the US, Nixon was still president. I am what’s sometimes defined as “Scottish by formation.” Politically I view the world through a leftish, internationalist Scottish lens, appalled by Brexit and hoping that we’ll get our independence while I’m still around to see it. But any time I start up a conversation with a stranger, the first question will be “Where’s that accent from?” As soon as I open my mouth, it becomes clear that my origins lie much closer to the banks of the River Hudson than to those of the River Clyde. And although I tend to look at whatever is happening in America as “foreign news,” I know that culturally I am also very much a product of my New York/New Jersey upbringing. Middle-aged taxi-drivers are particularly impressed when I tell them that the TV mafia saga The Sopranos was based on the suburb where I grew up.
Many years ago I did a reading at a feminist bookshop in Massachusetts to mark the US publication of The Dyke and the Dybbuk. The shop manager confessed that “We can’t decide where to put you. The lesbian shelf? The historical fiction shelf? The fantasy shelf? American feminist fiction or European?” I suggested very tentatively that if she ordered a few extra copies she could put them in all the right places.
Like everybody else I know, I belong to several different tribes, some of them Jewish (you can be 98.6 percent secular and still want to learn Talmud). We’ve all made journeys, some of them generations-long, to reach the places where we feel at home, changing and maybe even reinventing ourselves in the process. This certainly informs my thinking not only about national identity but about the ways people define themselves over time in terms of religion, gender, sexuality, political perspective, and so forth. And I can’t understand how any Jew with even the vaguest sense of history can collude with the builders of walls.
Q: Many scholars in the upcoming special issue discuss the ways historians, sociologists, and artists have in the past often limited their explorations of British Jewishness to England. Do you think Jewishness is experienced differently in Scotland than it is in England? How would you describe the relationship between Scottish identity and Jewishness?
Galford: Scotland is a small country (5 million people) with a tiny population of Jews. The Jewish spectrum runs from traditional Orthodox through progressive Liberal to those who wouldn’t put their foot into any shul at all. Most of us live in Glasgow or Edinburgh but we also turn up in remote Highland glens, out on the islands and in tiny fishing villages along the Fife coast. We don’t all know each other.
Heaven forbid I should speak for everybody, but I think I’d be safe in saying that Jewish Scotland is in no way a smaller, rainier version of Jewish London or Jewish Manchester. In Scotland you’d have to be very determined indeed to live in what one might call a separatist Jewish environment, devoid of friends, partners, colleagues, or neighbors from outside the tribe. And Scotland, as we are forever reminding the rest of the world, isn’t England. Our educational systems, legal systems, historical perspectives, and social attitudes differ in many ways. One current sore point is that the Scottish electorate voted by a substantial majority to remain in the European Union, and there is a widespread feeling that we are being dragged out against our will by our southern neighbours.
I’m trying hard to avoid sloppy generalizations here, but I do think that the reasons for this include a much more positive attitude to immigration. This is partly because it is widely understood that Scotland needs more people—demographically and economically—to flourish. But there is also an underlying internationalism. Scots, like Jews, have experienced all manner of displacements and diasporas, forced and voluntary alike. You’d be hard-pressed to find a native-born Scot without family connections in Canada, Australia, the United States, or elsewhere. Like Jews, Scots of all breeds and creeds have long memories, and know what it feels like to look over your shoulder and see the place you came from disappearing from sight.
Q: In two of the poems you’ve written for this special issue, “The Museum of Margins” and “Curator,” you reference the museum space, a library, “draughty corridors,” and “tattered photos.” These poems revolve around the past, including not simply spaces to preserve history (museum, library) but also memories. How would you describe the relationship between place, memory, and the act of writing in your work?
Galford: The one word answer to this question would be: Inseparable. But to make a short story a wee bit longer, I’d say that I’m an inveterate time-traveller. I’m obsessed with places and the sense of place, random objects and the mysteries behind them. If they had an Olympic event in Urban Flâneuring, I’d be a good bet for a gold medal. Yet even though I try hard to stay in the here and now, I find myself drifting across timelines. Sometimes this involves leaping across space as well as time, wandering through my own memories, personal or inherited. And living in Edinburgh, with a medieval castle and a long-dead volcano at its heart, means that any ordinary morning dog walk can take me through many centuries of local history and into deep geological time.
I think these tendencies are probably hard-wired into every Jewish writer’s DNA. They definitely run in the family. My father was a history teacher and my mother a librarian. Both were inveterate sentimentalists and the curators (not always willingly) of a massive horde of family photographs, battered kitchen utensils with a tale attached to every dent and scratch, a cellar and attic crammed with files and boxes of ephemera bearing the fingerprints of at least four generations.
Q: You mentioned that you’ve recently been studying Yiddish and experimenting with Yiddish poetry. What motivated you to learn Yiddish? Is your experience significantly different when writing in Yiddish rather than English?
Galford: It’s only in the past dozen years or so that I’ve begun studying Yiddish in any formal way, but its words and cadences have provided the background music to my life since the day I was born. My maternal grandmother, who lived with us throughout my childhood, was the first American-born child of a large (and talkative) family that emigrated from Riga to New Jersey in the mid-1880s. She and her nine siblings grew up speaking English as their first language but shifted easily into the mameloshn when any passing child drifted into earshot of a juicy conversation. The next two generations followed the old familiar pattern: My mother used a few Yiddish phrases; I knew only a random collection of Yiddish words.
I joined a Yiddish class to reclaim that inheritance and learn the language properly but it’s the literature that keeps me going. I had no particular intention to write poetry in Yiddish (doing it in English seems challenging enough) but sometimes Yiddish words and phrases slip on to the page. The finished poems are, of necessity, short and simple. I’m not the whizz-bang linguist I was in my youth. Despite the best efforts of our wonderful teacher, my grasp of grammar and retention of vocabulary still have a long way to go. It’s probably an act of sheer hubris/chutzpah to try writing Yiddish poetry at all.
Q: Your novel The Dyke and the Dybbuk was the winner of a Lambda Award for Gay and Lesbian Literature, and you’ve written about and been involved with LGBTQ communities in the past. What would you say are the key intersections between LGBTQ identity and Jewish identity? (For you personally or for the communities more broadly).
Galford: I grew up in the pre-Stonewall era of Compulsory Heterosexuality—a time of toxic stereotypes, parents cutting ties with their “deviant” offspring or sending them to shrinks for a “cure.” It took many of us, me included, a longer time than it might now, and quite a few wrong turnings, before we found our ways into who we are. Today’s Jewish and queer communities would have been beyond our wildest imaginings: out and proud gay and lesbian rabbis (indeed, any female rabbis at all), discreet support groups for those in flight from fundamentalist communities (Jewish or otherwise), the etiquette around preferred pronouns.
For all the positive developments, we’ve not quite reached the Promised Land. We can’t even agree what that Promised Land should be or who should have the right to be there. A long history of vicious persecutions, whether at the hands of anti-Semites or homophobes or fascist dictatorships, doesn’t automatically make us all lovely souls. In the particular communities I inhabit—the LGBTQ and the Jewish worlds as well as that turbulent political sphere called “the Left”—there are still those with more appetite for widening schisms than for finding common ground. Case in point: It can sometimes feel more problematical to come out as Jewish than it once felt to come out as a lesbian. This gives me an uncomfortable and very personal sense of déjà vu. But nobody reading this needs me to tell them that we’re living in dangerous times.Filed under: PUP if(!is_single()) echo "|"; ?>
October 16th, 2019
Purdue University Press is offering 50% off all books in our Studies in Jewish Civilization series, including the most recent addition, Next Year in Jerusalem: Exile and Return in Jewish History edited by Leonard J. Greenspoon.
Next Year in Jerusalem recognizes that Jews have often experienced or imaged periods of exile and return in their long tradition, examining this phenomenon from different approaches, genres, and media.
The volumes in our Studies in Jewish Civilization series, edited by Leonard J. Greenspoon, are based on presentations made at the annual symposium of the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization, sponsored by Creighton University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and University of Nebraska at Omaha. Each collection explores a different topic in Jewish history and culture worldwide that continues to be of interest today. Jargon-free, unbiased, and inherently interdisciplinary, every chapter is accessible, authoritative, and meant for scholars and laypeople alike.
Get 50% the books when you order off of our website and use the discount code SJC50. The sale will continue until the end of the year.
March 27th, 2019
In his new book The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist (Purdue University Press March 2019), Julien Gorbach examines the life of great twentieth-century screenwriter, playwright, and activist Ben Hecht.
Gorbach treats Hecht’s activism during the 1940s as the central drama of his life. His new book details the story of how Hecht earned admiration as a humanitarian and vilification as an extremist at this pivotal moment in history, about the origins of his beliefs in his varied experiences in American media, and about the consequences.
Read on to see our discussion with the author about Hecht’s life, career, and legacy.
Q. Who was Ben Hecht and why is he significant?
Julien Gorbach: Ben Hecht was a legendary screenwriter, who was also known for breaking the silence in the American media about the Holocaust, and for his militant Zionism. He invented the gangster movie and wrote classics like Scarface, Gone with the Wind and Hitchcock’s Notorious. Hecht was a prolific reporter, novelist, and Broadway playwright. During the Holocaust and the struggle to establish the state of Israel, he was a major force as a propagandist. He became notorious, because of his inflammatory rhetoric and his partnership with Mickey Cohen, a Jewish gangster. Together they smuggled weapons to Palestine in the struggle for a Jewish state.
Q. How did Hecht find himself in the newspaper business, and what was the Chicago School of journalism?
Gorbach: He was introduced to the business through his uncle and quickly took to the work. I think it’s too simplistic to just dismiss Hecht as a cynic, though he was certainly influenced by the hardboiled attitude of other newshounds in his early days chasing stories. Reporters would do anything for a story and, given the fierce competition for scoops, would concoct more than a few. But Hecht’s cynical style ultimately reflected a strain of Romanticism. It was a dark view common among those who came of age during the Great War, the so-called Lost Generation. Like many who lived through the carnage of those years, Hecht developed a grim view of human nature and he looked back at the liberal Enlightenment-era optimism about mankind as naïve.
Q. How was he later influenced by the intellectuals, poets, writers he met in New York? Was The Front Page his breakthrough?
Gorbach: He came into himself as a dramatist in New York. In the 1920s one way to prove yourself was to write a blockbuster novel. Another way was to have a hit on Broadway, which is what Hecht and other friends of the Algonquin Roundtable crowd did. But New York was publicity-oriented, and Hecht found the city more superficial than Chicago. He famously said that he and his friends “were fools to have left Chicago,” but he knew most Midwest writers had to go to New York for their careers. The Front Page was a huge hit and made him famous. At about the same time, his 1927 movie Underworld launched the gangster movie craze, and he won Best Original Story for it at the first Academy Awards in 1929.
Q. How did Hecht get to Hollywood?
Gorbach: Hecht’s first hit movie was silent. When the talkies came in, writers were in demand. There’s the famous story about the telegram he received from Herman Mankiewicz, who said there were “millions to be grabbed out here, and the only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” For writers, Hollywood was almost too good to be true.
Q. What happened to Hecht’s artistic ambitions and political ideals in Hollywood?
Gorbach: He once said: “We didn’t write movies. We shouted them into existence.” This wasn’t so far off. The writer’s room was a kind of clubhouse, especially since so many of Hecht’s friends from New York also came to Hollywood. He did feel compromised as a writer in Hollywood, so why did he keep at it? The truth is that Hecht was polyamorous—a skirt-chaser. He liked women and ran around with many. His playboy lifestyle ended up getting a bit out of hand, and reached a point where he had a lot of work to do just to make ends meet, keeping up his lavish life with his wife and his affairs. He wrote some great movies but also doctored scripts, doing many uncredited, piecemeal jobs under the table. His time was not spent on novels, which back then, especially, was considered the only real measure of great writers. And he did reach a breaking point, when his personal crises with his marriage and career and the global situation with Hitler all kind of came together at the same time.
Q. How was Hecht prescient about the Final Solution?
Gorbach: Hecht wrote “The Little Candle,” a short story, after Kristallnacht occurred in 1938. No one took from the event that there would be a genocide. That was beyond the imagination, or as the historian Deborah Lipstadt put it in the title of a book, Beyond Belief. But Hecht’s short story vividly describes the Holocaust. Critics said it was a powerful story but Hecht had an insane idea—that the Germans would actually kill a half million Jews.
Q. How did Pauline Kael establish Hecht as a screenwriting legend?
Gorbach: That emerged because of her debate with Andrew Sarris. The 1960s Sarris/Kael debate made film a serious art form for critical consideration. A major question was who is the true author of a film, the “auteur” or the writer? Kael said it was the screenwriter and pointed to Hecht’s groundbreaking contributions, saying artists like him made the movies great.
Q. How might Hecht be reassessed as a writer with a political legacy?
Gorbach: He remains a politically controversial figure, but his significance is his message, which remains especially important now, in the days of the Trump administration. All of Hecht’s work as a writer and an activist is shot through with his concerns about the “soul of man,” which is so fundamental to all the questions we face today about democracy. If we want to remain liberal and democratic, we have to remember what liberalism and democracy are about. We rely on people to be good, but why does the United States also tilt the playing field, for example, by favoring rural people over urban people with our Electoral College and Senate systems? What are the implications for democracy if people don’t turn out to be as good as we expect them to be, or aren’t as good in the ways we expect them to be? What are the implications of our darker nature, our tribalism for example, for our free press and our social media? What are the implications for our ideas of rights, like the Second Amendment, or for our treatment of immigrants and people of different backgrounds? Are we reckoning with the dark side of human nature realistically in our foreign policy, in the way we talk about questions of war and peace? What does our treatment of the environment, and other species, tell us of our nature? These questions are still wide open, and in Hecht’s day, there was more room for error about them. With nuclear weapons, climate change, and the other issues that we confront now, the stakes have gotten much higher.
Q. Do you feel a revival is due of his works in a play or movie festival? How might The Notorious Ben Hecht introduce new audiences to a writer in some ways ahead of his time?
Gorbach: This is in a way three books rolled into one. It tells the story of his Jewish activism, and the implications of that story for Israel, America and Jews everywhere today. It’s the story of a great writer who has never been properly understood or appreciated. And finally, it’s the story of “a child of the century,” a kind of wild tour through all these worlds of the last 100 years—Capone’s Chicago, New York in the ‘20s, Hollywood, World War II, etc. But altogether this is just one big story of an extraordinary life, with an appropriately dramatic arc and ending. I think when people read the story and learn who he is, they’ll appreciate him. But they’ll also understand and appreciate the message that he has for us today. In this book, you can hear him speaking to us, now.
The Notorious Ben Hecht is now available. Check out a free preview of the book.
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November 27th, 2018
To prepare for the release of the 36.3 issue of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Purdue University Press interviewed contributor Jay Michaelson about religion, writing, and more.
Michaelson is an affiliated assistant professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, where his work focuses on the intersection of queer studies and Jewish theology. His scholarly publications include “Queering Kabbalistic Gender Dimorphism,” “Hating Law for Christian Reasons: The Religious Roots of American Anti-lawyerism,” and “Chaos, Law, and God: The Religious Meanings of Homosexuality.” His books include Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism (Trumpeter, 2009) and God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality (Beacon, 2011). A book based on his doctoral dissertation, Jacob Frank: From Jewish Antinomianism to Esoteric Myth, is presently under review. He holds a PhD in Jewish thought from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a JD from Yale Law School, and nondenominational rabbinic ordination.
Michaelson’s article “Queering Martin Buber: Harry Hay’s Erotic Dialogical?” appears in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, volume 36, issue 3.
“In certain gay subcultures, Harry Hay’s philosophy is well-known and actively practiced, and yet there’s very little awareness there of its close relationship to Buber’s. At first, I was interested in possible influences; as the research went on, this morphed into an interest in phenomenological affinities and differences, and how the two thinkers could complement one another.”
“As an “alt-ac” with a long-term visiting position at Chicago Theological Seminary but a primary career outside the academy, there’s a certain freedom in being able to write scholarly articles on a wide variety of subjects, and I certainly make use of that. In addition, I’m interested in bridging discourses between “high” philosophers such as Buber and outsider thinkers like Hay. I’m not sure Hay is (or deserves to be) taken seriously by proper philosophy scholars, and yet there’s something quite interesting in his eroticizing of the dialogical that I think is worthy of analysis.”
“It depends on the work. In the case of this article, I was interested in trying to assess, based on the textual evidence, how these similar but divergent dialogical philosophies might be experienced in practice, rather than solely on the page. I think that’s informed by my work in the contemplative world. At the same time, I’m extremely wary of imposing any of my own experiences onto the subjects at hand.”
“I feel like I’ve written a book on that subject.… I think for many people, myself included, the Buddha Dharma provides a less theologically freighted set of contemplative practices that can enrich a Jewish communal and ritual life. The questions Buddhism asks about suffering and the end of suffering are complementary to those Judaism asks about justice and relationship to the Divine. I see them as having different conversations.”
“In terms of the work, I think there’s a constant awareness of the justice impacts of any idea under consideration, including those in this article. For example, for all of Hay’s genius, the problem of essentialism, which I discuss in the article, is particularly glaring in the context of nationalism, ethnocentrism, and threats to democracy. As soon as one group of people declares itself intrinsically different from and better than another, we’re in trouble.”
“Certainly this particular article reflects my own identity as queer person on the one hand, and on the other as an American Jew who encountered popularizations of Buber at an early, formative age.”
“I’d be happy simply to introduce mainstream Jewish studies scholars to considering the sex-negative and implicitly queer-negative elements in various forms of philosophical discourse. There have been some excellent encounters recently between queer/LGBTQ studies and Jewish studies, and I’d be thrilled for this to be another of them.”
Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies is a triannual publication that produces original, peer-reviewed scholarly articles, issues on special topics, book forums, review essays, and the occasional forum on Contemporary Critical Jewish Studies. Shofar reaches an international readership with an impressive range of reliably robust offerings primarily in modern history, literature, culture, and the arts. Shofar’s special issues have covered a wide range of timely subjects, including Diaspora and exile in modern Jewish culture, the transcultural generation in Israeli literature, race and Jews in America, and Holocaust and genocide cinema. To learn more about or subscribe to Shofar, visit: www.shofarjournal.org.Filed under: PUP if(!is_single()) echo "|"; ?>