April 4, 2002
Getting the Word Out
An unusual newspaper campaign promotes pride by highlighting Jewish achievements.
Man Ray was Jewish.
Yes, the famous surrealist, who -- with conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, the dada of Dada -- pushed the boundaries of imagery through his experimental photographs and paintings, was born Emmanuel Radnitzky. Of course, painter Marc Chagall was Jewish, but did you know that the revered impressionist Camille Pissarro was, too? Or abstract portraitist Amedeo Modigliani?
The Commission for the Dissemination of Jewish History wants you to know all of this. Through columns placed in advertising space of various Jewish newspapers nationwide, including this one, the commission is on a mission to empower Jews by cultivating cultural pride.
The Jewish list game is as old as the Torah, possibly older. No doubt every Jewish household has partaken in identifying their famous Hebrew-origined brethren. Adam Sandler recorded two versions of "The Hanukah Song," rhyming famous Jewish celebrities. Even Howard Stern occasionally tests the IQ of porn stars and dwarfs with a round of "Who Is the Jew?," where contestants must discern which celebrities are Jewish.
In a culture that has endured millennia of illogical persecution, perhaps it makes Jews feel good to know that -- contrary to anti-Semitic rhetoric and despite our relatively small numbers -- we are contributing greatly to the advancement of pop culture, world culture, science, medicine and history.
Fine artists aren't the only Jews profiled in these columns, which feature enlightening factoids about famous Jewish scientists (Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Sigmund Freud and Jonas Salk), authors (Boris Pasternak, Saul Bellow), playwrights (Arthur Miller, Neil Simon), politicians (Benjamin Disraeli, Leon Blum), classical musicians (Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler), patrons of the arts (Joseph Pulitzer, Solomon Guggenheim), Hollywood moguls (David O. Selznick, Otto Preminger), and actors (Sarah Bernhardt -- not to be confused with actress Sandra Bernhard, who is also Jewish).
Just as important to the Commission are the Jews who aren't exactly household names.
"Little is recorded of the gallantry and sacrifice of Jewish Americans in our military since the nation's founding," opens a column slugged "They Served With Courage." Such figures, synopsized at the commission's Web site, include Sir John Monash, supreme commander of Australia's WWI European forces; Captain Alexandre Marcquefoy, personally presented with a Legion of Honor by Napoleon; and Uriah Levy, who, at the outset of the War of 1812, helmed the warship Argus, which sank or captured 22 British vessels (the very battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen "The Star Spangled Banner"). Levy, the first Jew to attain the rank of commodore, later preserved Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, which he bequeathed to the United States as a national monument.
The commission and the columns were developed by the late Walter Field in the mid-1990s when he himself was in his mid-90s.
"My father had a concept that Judaism would primarily be sustained beyond the religious aspects of it by making young people proud to be Jewish," said Irwin Field, who co-chairs the Commission with his sister, Harriet Siden.
"The purpose of these articles is to extol a sense of pride, not just in adult readers but younger readers who may not have a historical perspective of what Jews did and accomplished," said Saul Stadtmauer, who, based on his co-authoring of the 1995 book "Jewish Contributions to the American Way of Life" with Asher B. Etkas, was hired by Walter Field to write the columns.
Walter Field, who manufactured paint and wrote poetry, was based in Detroit. Although Irwin Field has moved to Los Angeles (he is a board member of The Journal), Siden and their mother, Lea, still reside in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
In a period of 18 months, Stadtmauer scribed 80 installments, based on Walter's research, that originally ran in the Detroit Jewish News. The columns were illustrated by Thomas Carren, an old friend of Stadtmauer's whom the writer jokingly dubbed "an honorary Jew" since Carren is married to a Jewish woman.
Stadtmauer, who lives in New York City, never actually met Walter Field in person while crafting the columns. Nevertheless, he developed a strong sense of who Walter Field was.
"He was very vital, a powerful personality," Stadtmauer said. "He was a driving force in the commission as well as a founding father in the Detroit Jewish News. It says something about Walter that he launched this in his 90s. That's been true for a lifetime. He was always alive, always receptive to ideas."
After Walter Field died in 1999, at the age of 98, Irwin Field became financially involved and began rerunning the columns in the Detroit Jewish News. He also placed them in ad spaces inside the Atlanta Jewish Times, Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, The Forward in New York and The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. The commission's accompanying Web site also has attracted responses
"I used to get e-mail from all over the world, not just Jewish people," Siden said. "It reaches a lot of people. In some ways, it's a little too limited just for Jewish people, but my father was so intent on showing the world on what we've given them."
Eddie Cress of Sylmar reads the columns each week. He particularly enjoyed a recent installment featuring actor Paul Muni.
"They're tremendous," said Cress, 62, of the educational pieces. "I think today's youth needs to take a look at their history and see what made the theater great."
"It was a labor of love," Stadtmauer said. "I'm proud to be associated with the project and the Fields."
According to Stadtmauer, "a point that Walter made very strongly was that he declined any references to the Holocaust and the adversities and prejudices over the centuries. These did not appear in any of our columns. His feeling was that we should be positive and refer to Jewish achievement."
For information on the Commission for the Dissemination of Jewish History, visit www.dorledor.org .