Monthly Archives: January 2012

‘It’s all good.’ –Albert Einstein

Why do we quote others?  Specifically, why do we quote famous people? Presumably it’s to give weight to the point we’re trying to make: If you won’t take it from me, take it from Albert Einstein.

Better yet, if you won’t take it from me, you’ll take it from me if you see I’ve taken it from Albert Einstein.

Quoting Einstein is a no-brainer. School and PTA newsletters quote him all the time. The logic  here is interesting:  If what Einstein says is true (and of course it’s true, because he’s a genius), then the point we’re trying to make — about education or school spirit or the bake sale — by quoting him must also be true, and you’d be a fool to dismiss it.

Einstein, of course, wasn’t a genius about everything. And I wonder if people would fall in line behind a quotation from him about marriage or relations between the sexes the way they seem to behind “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

I found that quotation on a calendar which had something wise and pithy from somebody wise and pithy for every month of the year. It’s where I found this quote from Aristotle:  “Wit is educated insolence.”

I’m beginning to doubt that these famous, wise and deep people actually said the things that are attributed to them. Can you imagine Aristotle saying that wit is educated insolence? Could he have actually said that in Classical Greek? And if he had, did it mean the same thing as it does in modern English? Was Aristotle’s concept of wit the same as ours?

Many times quotations are used to demonstrate to the reader what a failure he is:  “A man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of life,” the calendar quotes Charles Darwin, who must never wasted an hour of his life unlike, say, me.

“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do,” wrote Voltaire. And I feel guilty as charged.

What Einstein is to genius, Gandhi is to virtue. And so the calendar quotes him saying, “We must become the change we want to see.” I’d probably agree if I understood what that means.

Another thing these quotations have in common is a complete absence of  humor. This makes them catnip to organizations and institutions that are trying to assert their moral authority without making any waves.

But if these men did say or write these things, perhaps they did it as hack work. Like celebrities today do commercials for the money, perhaps Emerson and Voltaire  and the others earned extra cash by penning these deep-sounding but otherwise banal one-liners.

To rise above the cheapening of the Einstein and Gandhi brands from over-exposure, we might be forced to come up with our own quotations.

Something like:  “The secret of life is no secret if we keep it to ourselves.”

“Wisdom is wise and also dumb.” Or:  “Wisdom without wis is  just dumb. (I admit, these need some work.)

“The true path to meaning is not knowing, but not knowing.”

“I would rather eat my dog than fail to help my fellow man.”

Please add yours.

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Filed under communications, popular culture, reading

The journalist yells ‘fire’

I used to know Andrew Adler. When I worked at the Atlanta Jewish Times, he was the newspaper’s former managing editor. He’d come to our office periodically to have his start-up Jewish newspaper designed by our art department. It was an odd arrangement, and it didn’t last long, as he positioned his Maccabiah Press as a competitor to the Jewish Times.

Like the name of his publication, Andrew’s journalism was a bit tone-deaf, a touch parochial and essentially superficial.

Along with these fairly harmless sins I now suspect he has one that can be crippling for a serious journalist: an inability to see the big picture.

That could be why Adler, as  publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, wrote a column last week in which he suggested that Israel might want to consider assassinating President Obama. The text of his “Publisher’s Letter” is here.

Adler subsequently apologized and explained that he wrote what he wrote “just to see what kind of reaction I would get from readers.”

It turns out the reaction has been “overwhelmingly negative,” Adler told JTA.

If there’s a learning moment in any of this, it might be in the overwhelming revulsion Adler’s column caused. Most people, regardless of their politics in the U.S. or Israeli contexts, still have their heads screwed on the right way.

That’s a cause for hope as American Jews as a group move to the right on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as their position hardens on what Israel must be willing to do for a negotiated peace, and more often people are willing to demonize those they disagree with.

In the American context, as Chemi Shalev wrote in Ha’aretz, Andrew Adler’s column is part of a larger movement which seeks to delegitimize Obama as president.

Adler’s crazy and criminal suggestions are not the ranting of some loony-tune individual. They were not taken out of thin air. Rather, they are the inevitable result of the inordinate volume of repugnant venom that some of Obama’s political rivals, Jews and non-Jews alike, have been spewing for the last three years.

In such an atmosphere murder may seem to someone as the only possible course to take. That’s what happened in 1996, back when Andrew Adler was launching his Maccabiah Press,  when a Jew assassinated Yitzhak Rabin after a Tel Aviv peace rally.

Yes, this may be a learning moment, and we may become better for it. It may also be a reminder why we don’t shout “fire” just to see the reaction.

Jan 24 —

Following Andrew Adler’s resignation, J.J. Goldberg wrote this fine piece in the Forward. What made Adler “wander so far off the reservation?” Goldberg writes. “The answer is, he didn’t.”

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Filed under Judaism, presidents, writing

Vindicated

Jerome Rubin, a co-founder of LexisNexis, has died.

The Washington Post obituary says that “his parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia.”

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Born to Russian immigrant parents

Eve Arnold and Marilyn Monroe

Eve Arnold with Marilyn Monroe during the filming of 'The Misfits', 1960 Photograph: Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

Twice in today’s obituaries the phrase “born to Russian immigrants” appeared. One was for screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas, who was 111 years old (the third-oldest person in California) and who was “born in New York to Russian immigrants.”

The other was photographer Eve Arnold (only 99), who was “born Eve Cohen to Russian immigrant parents in Philadelphia.”

Every time I read that someone was “born to Russian immigrants” the voice of correction in my head shoots back, “Jewish. She was Jewish. Say it with me: Jewish.”

When did Russian become a euphemism for Jewish? It’s like when you read about someone being flamboyant, you know the writer means gay. My guess is that Eve Cohen’s parents didn’t leave Russia because they were Russian, but because they were Jews who were sick of anti-Semitism and were trying to get away from the Russians.

And I say that as the son of a Polish immigrant and grandson of Russian immigrants.

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