Jewish Journal

Thrilling days of yesteryear

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Jun. 11, 2014 at 11:26 am

Nothing links the three books described below except that each, in its own way, is so charming that I couldn’t resist opening it up and, having done so, couldn’t put it down.

One of the treasures of American-Yiddish journalism was “A Bintel Brief” (“A Bundle of Letters”), an advice column that ran in the Jewish Daily Forward that serves as a window into the lives of the immigrant generation of American Jews around the turn of the 20th century. Now Liana Finck, a gifted young writer and artist, has reframed some of the most affecting of those letters in a comic-book format in “A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York” (Ecco).

Although Finck is unabashedly sentimental about her discovery of her grandfather’s yellowed clippings from the Forward, she decided to illustrate and dramatize some of the most troubling letters in the archive in a conscious effort to show us the complexity and consequence of the life experiences the letter-writers shared with their newspaper. So we are privileged to witness family drama and dysfunction, hard lives and broken hearts, operatic accounts of betrayal and loss — all of it illustrated in Finck’s endearing and often whimsical artistic style. 

The letters themselves show us the galvanizing process by which “greenhorns” turned themselves into Americans, as do the bracing answers, which were composed by the storied editor of the Forward, Abraham Cahan. A barber confesses that he has dreamed of cutting off the head of a troublesome customer and, when he stands at his chair in the barber shop, “I get a sudden impulse to do what I did in my dream.” The advice from Cahan is highly practical: “The writer of this letter must simply laugh off the dream and drive the whole matter out of his head,” unless “his nervous system is for some reason weakened,” in which case “he must consult a doctor.” Finck is always faithful to the voices in the original letters and the answers, but she also writes and draws herself, her cherished family and Cahan into the stories. Indeed, by the end of this enchanting book, the reader feels that he or she, too, has spent time in the company of patient, lovable but also inscrutable ghosts.

Sometimes the title of a book is simply irresistible, and that’s true of “A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses” by S. Brent Plate (Beacon Press). Starting with the ancient Greek notion that the human form was split in half by the gods, and we are “always looking for our other half,” Plate “tells the story of the human half body, such as we are, and some of the objects we connect with in our quest for religiously meaningful, fulfilling lives.” Plate, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, singles out five objects “that humans have engaged and put to use in highly symbolic, sacred ways: stones, incense, drums, crosses, and bread.” Each object becomes a lens through which we see the workings of the human religious imagination in all of its fabulous variety. Thus, for example, the chapter on the cross, which points out that crosses were used in religious iconography long before Christianity, has as much to say to the Jewish reader as to the Christian: “Take away the oval at the top of the ankh and you are left with the T symbol: a tau cross, so called after the Greek letter it resembles, which was itself taken from the ancient Hebrew character tav, which used to be drawn in the form of a cross,” Plate writes. “In the apocalyptic Hebrew scriptures of the prophet Ezekiel, a sign is given to those who will be spared the mass slaughter at the end of the world, a ‘mark [tau] on the forehead’ that exempts them from judgment.”

Among the many ways in which global popular culture has been revolutionized is the marginalization of AM radio. Yet, for those of us in the baby-boom generation, the scratchy sound of an AM broadcast over the tinny little speaker of a portable radio provided the soundtrack of our adolescence. That’s exactly what Harvey Kubernik celebrates in the gorgeously illustrated pages of “Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972” (Santa Monica Press), a serious work of cultural history that is agreeably disguised as a scrapbook of famous names, memorable moments and thrilling sounds from the golden age of AM radio. “The revolution wasn’t televised,” Kubernik cracks, “it was transistorized.”  No detail is left out; indeed, I was a big fan of B. Mitchel Reed, but who knew his real name was Burton Mitchell Goldberg? Kubernik knows his stuff, and he has a sure eye for the eye-catching image — a 1962 poster for a Beach Boys gig at the Inglewood Women’s Club (“Let’s STOMP All Nite”), a 1963 photo of Sonny Bono when he was still a studio musician playing percussion for a hot young producer named Phil Spector, and a menu from a nightclub at Sunset and Vine named after DJ Dave Hull, which features “A ‘Byrd’ Dog,” “Beatle Burger” and “Scuzzy Fuzzy Fries.” With page after page of snapshots, sheet music, playlists, posters, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, celebrity reminiscences and much else, “Turn Up the Radio!” is a tantalizing candy box for fans like me. 

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