When is a Jew not a Jew
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When is a Jew not a Jew

by Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Well, it seems to me, too often not when he or she is famous for something positive.

In just the last couple of days, the world lost three giants in their fields ““ musical group Beastie Boys founder Adam Youk, children’s author Maurice Sendak and women’s hair stylist pioneer Vidal Sassoon ““ all Jews, though one must make a dedicated search to find this out.

It is not an automatic part of most articles on them.

This is true for many others, and has been, essentially, forever.

Albert Einstein, for instance, is often referred to as a German immigrant and a lot less often as a Jew. If his Jewishness is mentioned, it is usually in passing and must be watched for or is easily missed. It is similar with famous magician Harry Houdini (Erik Weisz) and polio vaccine inventor Jonas Salk.

It seems to me that, unless it’s unavoidable, Jewish people who have done extraordinary things (and Jewish-invented things, as well) are identified in any way the writers can find that doesn’t include their Jewishness.

An extremely partial list of life-changing items invented or discovered by Jews runs the gamut from lipstick to the atomic bomb, according to several online sources, and includes things like jeans, the ballpoint pen, instant coffee and the TV remote control. It also includes traffic lights, Scotchguard, and the Flexistraw along with genetic engineering, virtual reality, sound movies, color TV and holography. And that’s not to mention monotheism, psychoanalysis, the Theory of Relativity, as well as Capitalism, Communism, discount stores, pawn shops, the shopping cart, the ready-to-wear clothing industry, and all sorts of medicines like Prozac,Valium, radiation, chemotherapy, the artificial kidney dialysis machine, the defibrillator, the cardiac pacemaker and laser technology. Also included are Google, the FAX, the microphone, the gramophone, the micro processing chip, optical fiber cable, drip irrigation, scale model electric trains, the pager, the walkie-talkie, refrigerated railroad cars, the incandescent lamp, Kodachrome film, stainless steel and a whole host of other things most of us take for granted.

It’s too bad this omission can’t really be avoided. Maybe people would be slower to acquiesce to calls for anti-Jewish/Israel physical and/or economic violence if they realized how dependent their lives are on things that sprung from Jewish minds.

But back to the inventors/discoverers themselves.

Sometimes, if it can’t be avoided, a genius’ Jewishness is shunted aside by a phrase like “he was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants,” suggesting that while the parents may have been Jews, the famous person wasn’t.

The most famous case in point may be Jesus.

I have actually had arguments with people insisting that somehow this man, born into a Jewish family in Roman-occupied Judea, was not a Jew, despite the fact that the Bible itself makes no bones about it. In fact, I have encountered people who found the very thought insulting.

I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t know and readily accept that Judas was a Jew, but they have more trouble accepting that all the rest of the disciples were, too.

This tendency for humankind to avoid if they can attributing anything positive to Jews continued this week with the reporting of the passing of the three famous individuals, including author, Sendak, “widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century,” according to reports, who died this week at 83.

Despite a slew of reports on the man all over the news and the Internet, it took a trip to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s website story on his death to learn that “the characters in his most well-known children’s story are based on his old Jewish relatives,” and that “in some of his stories, Yiddish words are interspersed with his poetic English.”

It is here, and essentially nowhere else, that we find that Sendak’s most famous work, “Where the Wild Things Are,” is “based on the Yiddish vilde chaya (wild beast), which Jewish parents for generations have used to describe rambunctious children.”

We also learn here that “some of Sendak’s stories, including ‘In the Night Kitchen,’ speak to his own fears of the Holocaust. His immigrant parents lost most of their family members in the Holocaust and reminded him that he would have had many more cousins were it not for the Nazis.”

As for Sassoon, I would guess many people know he was born in England, and, in fact, most stories on his death refer to him as an English or British-born hairstylist. But I doubt anywhere near as many know he was a Jew, despite the fact that he was a veteran of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and a “militant Zionist,” who spent his life “committed to eradicating anti-Semitism.”

By searching, though, we find that “both experiences gave him a lifelong passion for human rights,” which lead him in 1982, to “establish the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.”

I wonder how many people know that.

As for Yauch, a rapper, instrumentalist, entrepreneur and director who died of cancer at age 47, if one isn’t equipped to discern from the name and the names of his fellow group members, Adam Horowitz, and Michael Diamond, that they might be Jews, it’s not that easy to find out.

A search, however, reveals that Yauch was born in Brooklyn in 1964, the only child of Frances, a Jewish social worker, and painter and architect Noel Yauch who was raised Catholic, though whether he was born Catholic is not noted. At least in this case, though, as noted in some stories on his passing, “his and his bandmates’ Jewish heritage was often referenced in the media.”

How many people know that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is Jewish, (a forgivable oversight since she herself didn’t find out until she was in government service,) or that Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Taylor, who converted to Judaism like Sammy Davis, Jr., and Julio Iglesias (by virtue of his Jewish mother, María del Rosario de la Cueva y Perignat) are Jews?

Few know actors Harrison Ford and Gwyneth Paltrow, scientist Carl Sagan, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr and Milton Hershey of Hershey’s Chocolate fame, are/were all at least partly Jewish. Or that Michael Dell of Dell Computer, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Levi Strauss and too many actors, composers, directors and others to mention, are/were Jews? How many know that football great Lyle Alzado, baseball’s José Bautista and Shawn Green, boxing great Max Baer, figure skaters Oksana Baiul and Sarah Hughes and many other sports figures too numerous to mention, are/were all Jews?

How many people do you supposed don’t know that Bernie Madoff is Jewish?

Interesting, isn’t it?

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