By Steve Vertlieb: I recently watched a somber new three part documentary by film maker Ken Burns that is among the most sobering, heartbreaking, and horrifying indictments of humanity that I have ever encountered. It was extremely difficult to watch but, as an American Jew, I remain struck by the similarities between the rise in Fascism in the early nineteen thirties, leading to the beginnings of Nazism in Germany, and the attempted decimation of the Jewish people in Europe and throughout the world, with the repellant echoes of both racial and religious intolerance, and the mounting hatred and suspicion of the Jewish communities and population residing presently in my own country of birth, these United States.
In these troubling times of growing antisemitism, racism, racial, religious, and political intolerance in my own country of birth, I feel that I need and want to proclaim my own, deeply proud Jewish heritage. I am honored to be a Jew. As a student not only of film, music, literature, and the arts, but of social and political history, I have always recognized with pride and dignity that many of my idols and lifelong inspirations have been of Jewish descent. Jews have been among the wisest, artistic, most notable men and women to have influenced the path of nobility, education, creativity, and tolerance in the conflicted history of mankind and humanity.
We have, as a people, always stood at the forefront of leadership as a courageous, outspoken community of souls wishing only to better the worlds and societies that we have occupied. We were a major force for racial and religious tolerance at the forefront and creation of the civil rights movement. We stood proudly for freedom of expression when others were too afraid to openly declare their beliefs and idealism.
In the arts, most of America’s most gifted composers and performers were born of Jewish faith, idealism, and artistic integrity. Composers such as George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Kurt Weill, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkle, Carole King, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Neil Diamond, Miklos Rozsa, Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Victor Young, Hugo Friedhofer, Elmer Bernstein, Leonard Rosenman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Jerry Goldsmith, Andre Previn, Ernest Gold, David Amram, Eugene Zador, and Alex North were all Jews. And then, of course, there was a comparatively obscure Jewish American song writer by the name of Irving Berlin who happened to have penned a nearly forgotten musical tribute to the land of his birth called … “God Bless America.”
Musicians such as Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, and Itzhak Perlman stood above their contemporaries as the finest violinists in history, while cultural icons David Sarnoff, Leopold Stokowski, and Eugene Ormandy changed the face of music and communications in the twentieth century.
Writers such as Franz Kafka, Herman Mankiewicz, Arthur Miller, Ernest Lehman, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and friends such as Robert Bloch, changed the course of modern literature, while historical icons such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Jonas Salk, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Anne Frank, along with performers and actors like Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, The Marx Brothers, The 3 Stooges, Sophie Tucker, George Jessel, George Burns, Oscar Levant, George Arliss, Nehemiah Persoff, Lee J. Cobb, Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas, Paul Muni, Leslie Howard, Hedy Lamarr, Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Buddy Rich, Dustin Hoffman, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Mel Blanc, Danny Kaye, Eydie Gorme, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Milton Berle, and Don Rickles led the paths of artistry and creative individualism that altered the American Landscape forever.
The motion picture industry was virtually invented by such distinguished Jewish luminaries as Samuel Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky, Irving Thalberg, Louis B Mayer, Jack Warner, Carl Laemmle, Harry Cohn, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, William Wyler, Lee Strasberg, Michael Curtiz, George Cukor, Stan Lee, and Steven Spielberg wrote the language and definition of cinema as the definitive art form that it remains today.
In these increasingly intolerant, dangerous times of racial, religious, and ideological intolerance, I am reminded of the disturbing adage that “those who forget the lessons (and atrocities against mankind) of the past are condemned to repeat them. While I have struggled these many years to keep my Facebook observations and postings limited to appreciations of films, music, and the arts, I can no longer, in clean conscience, remain silent as the clear signs of domestic and international Fascism are once again on the rise.
Perhaps these concerns have no place in this setting and personalized forum, but I can no longer keep silent as the horrific remnants of Nazism and racial genocide reach out their despicable tentacles from the graves of millions once more, threatening to consume both America and our planet in the decimation of freedom by the frightened zealots of bigotry, stupidity, and arrogance.
The warning signs are unmistakable as fear and hatred threaten enlightenment, while intolerance escalates alarmingly among those broadcasting their supposed patriotism as an end to democracy in what was once proclaimed as “The Land of the Free, and The Home of the Brave.” Intolerance must not be permitted to cloak itself yet again in the guise of patriotism to the detriment of free thought and speech.
We alone are responsible for the course and degree of our own success or failure. No other people or group can truly symbolize or camouflage our personal dissatisfactions. To hide our grievances and individual frailty beneath the cloak of blame is not only dishonest, but cowardly. For America to thrive and endure, freedom of expression, as well as the embrace and cultivation of our differences, is essential if we are, indeed, to survive the smoldering, unforgiving passage of time.
My parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brother, and cousins were pioneers and pillars of their communities, both admired and deeply respected by all those whose lives they changed for good. In these troubled times when chants by “proud boys” and “oath keepers” that “Jews will not replace us” echo throughout the nation, I must take a stand and proclaim to the world and to anyone who will listen that we are a proud people … a people whose groundbreaking leadership, wisdom, and goodness have dramatically changed the worlds in which we live and inhabit within our changing planet.
I am proud of my heritage. I am proud of my ancestors, and of the bright, distinguished legacy and future of my people … and for that nobility and unique distinction, I remain profoundly grateful. On this day, and forever more, let me proclaim for all the world to hear that … I AM A JEW!
Update 12/01/2022: Revised by author. // 04/07/2023: Revised by the author.
Your remarks rend my heart. Everything you say has been haunting me. I pray you will be heard.
Great article! But Irving Berlin was born in Russia. His parents brought him to the US in 1893.
Great statement Steve!
I can only add that Procrustianism pops up on the left as well as the right. We must all be ever vigilant to note those who want to make everybody the same (meaning ‘just like them’).
And you even added about four names I did not know.
Thanks for taking this stand.
We stand together, Steve.