Feb ’07 Spotlight

On May 21, 2006, Governor Blagojevich signed HB 5243 making December 10 “Jane Addams Day” in Illinois. The legislation became effective on January 1, so December 10, 2007 will be the first “official” day (in fact, it will be the first day officially commemorating a woman in the entire United States). To prepare for this auspicious occasion, I met with Peter Ascoli, the author of Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sear, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South, to learn more about “the Jewish connection.”

As the book jacket (which shows JR with Booker T. Washington) makes clear, Ascoli’s mammoth 2006 biography focuses primarily on his grandfather’s contributions to African-American history, but feminist threads are woven through-out the text. JR and his wife Gussie support many feminist causes, and when they lived in Washington, D.C. (during World War I) Gussie became “heavily involved in the suffrage movement.”

You will be hearing a great deal more about Jane Addams in the next few months, but for now suffice it to say that JR served as a member of the Hull-House board of directors for over twenty years, contributing significant funds to a full spectrum of activities from underwriting new buildings to paying for new band uniforms. When the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom needed allies in their drive to secure a Nobel Peace Prize for Addams, they turned to JR, who wrote letters to numerous business and academic leaders from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to James Angell (the president of Yale) personally asking for their support. In due time, Addams became the first American woman to receive the prize, awarded seventy-five years ago on December 10, 1031.

If you would like to join the planning effort for city wide activities which will culminate on December 10, 2007, a kick-off meeting scheduled for Saturday February 10 at DePaul’s downtown campus on State Street. This meeting, co-sponsored by the Chicago Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), will include a screening of the documentary short Dinner at Jane’s filmed at Hull-House in 1993.

For information visit www.aauw-il.org/chicago or call Chicago Branch AAUW Program VP Carol Morby at (773) 267-1983.

NOW PLAYING

We all recognize Arthur Miller as one of the greatest Jewish-American writers of the 20th Century, but while he never made any attempts to hide his Jewish heritage, very few of the characters who populate his best known plays are specifically identified as Jews. One notable exception is “Gregory Solomon,” the wily old coot who commands center stage in The Price (currently playing at the Victory Gardens Greenhouse in Lincoln Park). When Solomon (wonderfully played by New York stage veteran Maury Cooper) makes his grand entrance midway through act one, Miller’s stage directions describe him as: “In brief, a phenomenon.” As the play progresses and we learn the details of his life, Solomon becomes nothing less than the archetypical Ashkenazi survivor: “You see, all my life I was a terrible fighter – you could never take nothing from me;” he says (speaking with a “Russian-Yiddish accent”), “I pushed, I pulled, I struggled in six different countries, I nearly got killed a couple times…”

Victor Franz has called Solomon in to appraise the contents of an apartment he once shared with his father. When Walter Franz walks on stage at the end of act one, the brothers are meeting for the first time since their father’s death. Although Victor has assured Solomon that this transaction will be an easy one, Solomon knows better: “…even from high-class people you wouldn’t believe the shenanigans – lawyers, college professors, television personalities – five hundred dollars they’ll pay a lawyer to fight over a bookcase it’s worth fifty cents – because you see, everybody want to be number one, so…” In the end, after the brothers have exhausted themselves debating the cost of past decisions as well as the price of future options, Solomon has the last laugh, literally. According to Miller, Solomon “leans back sprawling in the chair, laughing with tears in his eyes, howling helplessly to the air.”

The Price, which premiered at the Morosco Theatre in 1968, was a critical and commercial success, but when Miller died in 2005 very few of his eulogists mentioned it in the list of his greatest works. I dimly remember having seen it on Broadway during my college years, but I was frankly unprepared for how deeply this play would resonate now that I am roughly the same age as the battling Franz brothers.

Shattered Globe Theatre’s excellent production of The Price runs through March 3. For tickets, call the Victory Gardens box office at (773) 871-3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org

TZIVI’S VHS COLLECTION

When writer Tillie Olsen died on January 1st, she was 94 years old. While by no means as famous as Miller, Olsen had a huge following, and her best-known story Tell Me a Riddle is an acknowledged feminist classic. Like Solomon, Olsen’s most famous character, “Eva,” was born in Russia. Her voyage to America began after a year in Siberia (where she was imprisoned in 1905 for revolutionary activities). But unlike Solomon, Eva’s life in America has mostly been a silent one filled with domestic drudgery. The grand speeches she made in her youth play mostly in her head now, to an audience of ghosts.

The film version of Tell Me a Riddle was released in 1980 and VHS copies are available online and in numerous local libraries. (Maybe now, with Olsen’s death, it will be released on DVD.) Directed by Oscar-winning actress Lee Grant (born Lyova Haskell Rosenthal), Riddle has a strong ensemble cast lead by Lila Kedrova (as Eva) and Melvyn Douglas (as her husband David), but as often happens with Hollywood adaptations, much of the story’s overt Jewish content is gone. Grant stresses the Russian elements of Eva’s background; Yiddish makes only one cameo appearance (when a group of seniors sing “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen”).

Nevertheless, what remains is still a powerful evocation of the immigrant experience, summarized here by Eva’s more outgoing husband: “[We] escaped to the grandchildren whose childhoods were childish, who had never hungered, who lived unravaged by disease in warm houses of many rooms, had all the school for which they cared, could walk on any street, stood a head taller than their grandparents, towered above – beautiful skins, straight backs, clear straightforward eyes. ‘Yes, you in Olshana,’ David said to the town of sixty years ago, ‘they would seem nobility to you.’”

*****

Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.

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