Last week, I had the unique experience of driving to Demopolis, Alabama, (the recent subject of a Forward article about disappearing Jewish communities—read my response as well) to speak about the history of one prominent Jew who was born there: Arthur Mayer. An important film industry innovator, Arthur didn’t spend very long in Demopolis. His father died just three months after his birth in 1886, and his mother moved with her infant to New York City. Yet the Southern Literary Trail, based in Alabama, claims Mayer as a native son, and they asked me to come speak about his career in the movie business and his roots in Demopolis.
Arthur’s uncle Morris Mayer came to the small Alabama town just after the Civil War in 1866. Like so many other Jewish immigrants who came South during that era, Mayer opened a dry goods store. Morris’s brothers Simon and Ludwig joined him in Demopolis in the 1870s. By one historian’s account, the Mayer brothers owned the most successful retail business in West Alabama. In 1897, they constructed a magnificent three-story brick building to house their thriving business. Tragically, Simon never saw this grand edifice, dying in 1886. Soon after Simon’s death, his wife and children left Alabama, leaving their relatives to run the business. Arthur Mayer grew up with his grandparents in New York City, and later said, “the smartest thing I ever did in my life was I left Demopolis at the age of three months.”
Mayer ended up working in the burgeoning film industry during the early 20th century. While he worked for such moguls as Samuel Goldwyn and Adolph Zukor, Mayer came from a very different background. The men who created the modern film industry were almost to a man immigrant Jews. Men like Goldwyn, Zukor, Louis B. Mayer (no relation to Arthur), and the Warner Brothers craved respectability, and wanted to leave their immigrant past behind. According to Neil Gabler, in his book An Empire of Their Own, “they wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews. They wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men.” They left any vestiges of the old world behind. The best example of this was Louis B. Mayer, who was born in Russia, though he claimed he had forgotten where and when. Later, he would embrace the 4th of July as his birthday.
Arthur Mayer was different. He was American born (albeit to immigrant parents). He didn’t enter the film industry after working in the glove or fur business. Mayer went to Harvard, where he majored in history and English literature at a time when Jewish students were subject to a restrictive quota. After graduating, he used his connections to get a meeting with a leading banker in New York, who sent a letter of introduction to Sam Goldwyn, who hired Mayer right away. It’s somewhat ironic that Mayer used his elite, Harvard network to get a job in the upstart Jewish film industry.
The most famous book about southern Jews is entitled The Provincials, written by Eli Evans. The idea of the southern Jew as provincial is a powerful one, and has helped mark southern Jews as distinct from Jews who lived in a place like New York. But the term “provincial” did not apply to Arthur Mayer, though perhaps it did to men like Zukor and Goldwyn, who came from Europe and often spoke in accented English. In his memoir, Merely Colossal, Mayer relates several wonderful stories about these men, playing up their malapropism, or as Mayer wittily calls it, their “trenchant misstatements.” Goldwyn was known for saying things like “include me out,” or “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” Mayer tells the story of how Goldwyn was trying to produce a film based on the play “The Captive,” but was warned it would be controversial because one its main characters was a lesbian. Goldwyn retorted, “we’ll get around that, we’ll just make her an American.”
Mayer later went to work as head of publicity, advertising, and promotion for Adolph Zukor at Paramount. Mayer was a great salesman, though he sometimes got into trouble with his boss for his advertising campaigns. Once, Mayer tried to advertise the first film starring Mae West by using the word “lusty” on the poster. His efforts to convince Zukor that he meant the word in terms of “lust for life” not its sexual connotations were unsuccessful, even though English was not Zukor’s native language. Perhaps the alluring picture of Mae West on the poster undercut Mayer’s argument.
Later, Mayer became the operator of the Rialto Theater in Times Square in New York City, where he specialized in showing what he called the “three M’s”: mystery, mayhem, and murder. They were called “B Movies,” because they didn’t have A-level stars or directors. When Mayer got the film reels at the Rialto, he couldn’t change the cast or the movie itself, but, using his salesman instincts, he could change the name of the movie on the outside marquee to attract more customers. To the bland title “A Son Comes Home,” Mayer added the phrase “From Gangland.” “Fit for a King,” became “Murder Fit For a King.”
Mayer is an interesting figure. He was not just the king of B movies, but he also became one of the first and most important importers of fine European films. Most notable was the Italian film The Bicycle Thief, which was recently ranked as the 6th greatest film of all time by the film magazine Sight and Sound. Although he often lost money on these foreign films, Mayer believed in them as art and continued to bring them over, helping to create the American market for foreign films.
Arthur Mayer was a hybrid of lowbrow and highbrow culture. He was also native southerner who epitomized northeastern, Ivy League educated sophistication. And yet, Mayer was a Jew working in an overwhelmingly Jewish industry. While his story differs from those of the more famous men he worked for, people like Goldwyn and Zukor, Arthur Mayer is an important figure in his own right, who deserves to be remembered.
Full disclosure: Kveller.com is a partner site of our host, MyJewishLearning.
In a recent blog post on the Jewish parenting site Kveller, Joyce Anderson wrote about the process of teaching her oldest son to pray. For Anderson, teaching her child to speak to God, preceded (or facilitated, perhaps) her attempts to talk with him about God. Interestingly, Anderson is not Jewish; she is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her article is one of several non-Jewish perspectives in Kveller’s God Month, an ongoing series on the challenges of talking to children about God.
While Anderson shows no ambivalence about encouraging her child to develop a personal relationship with the divine, the other responses in the series present more complicated experiences of parenting and faith. Among all the essays, Jewish or not, hers is the only one that takes for granted that children should believe in God. Taken together, the articles point towards a basic truth: we aren’t that good at talking about God.
At first, I found this troubling. The ambivalence about God in the Jewish responses certainly reflects editorial choices or selection bias, but it still squares with my own experience of non-Orthodox Jewish life in America. Reading through the pieces, I found myself wondering, “Do any of us simply believe?”
Anderson’s prayer-based solution makes a lot of sense, especially given the deeply personal relationship between individuals and God in Christ-centered theologies. Prayer takes a central role in a few of the Jewish responses, as well, but in a different way. For the Jewish parents that write about prayer, showing a child how to pray also helps him or her relate to God personally, but the contributors’ own sense of God remains less defined. For them, the advantage of prayer is that it acknowledges and celebrates a creative force in the universe without limiting how we conceive of that force.Tellingly, of the two Jewish parents who write about sharing their personal religious practices with their children, both include prayers from Eastern traditions, like Buddhism.
Several God Month contributors—including self-identified Jews—reject the idea of God altogether, or at least bracket off questions about God’s nature and existence as unknowable and inessential to an ethical life. These writers express ambivalence about the prospect of raising a religious child, though they note the importance of teaching their kids to respect other people’s religious traditions. Some of the skeptics are attached in one way or another to Jewish culture and identity, and even want their children to have the option of choosing a more spiritual life.
Now, I’m neither traditionally observant nor deeply spiritual. I do not intend to criticize anyone’s personal practice or to bemoan some lost golden age of Jewish observance. I am struck, however, by absence of modern Jewish voices that speak confidently about God, both in the Kveller series and in my own experiences.
Perhaps, though, the issue is not that we are bad at talking about God, but that God is and should be difficult to talk about. Sometimes, especially when children come into play, we may feel need for a simpler or more concrete sense of the divine. But complete certainty (fundamentalism) is a dangerous thing, and what kind of God could be understood through mere human speech, anyway?
The tensions and contradictions expressed in the Kveller series might not reflect deficiencies in our communities, but a healthy struggle between traditional beliefs and universal values. I still hope that the series will include a Jewish writer who approaches the topic of God with more certainty and less ambiguity, but I can also accept and appreciate the articles that are there so far. They represent a real effort to do right by our children when it comes to God talk. I’m not a parent yet, but I hope (God willing) that the questions raised by God Month are ones I will one day have to answer both for myself and my children.
“Crisis Line. May I help you?”
This is how I answer the phone at a local crisis center here in Mississippi, during every four hour shift I spend volunteering there. Each time I pick up the line, I take a deep breath and hope that the person on the other side of the phone is okay. However, having been trained as a crisis line volunteer, I know that I am ready to respond if the person who was brave enough to call is not okay. I am ready to talk to them if they want to talk to me about feeling suicidal.
“Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade.”
That is the opening line of this May 2013 New York Times article. When I read those words, I immediately thought about people I know who have been affected by suicide. Too many. As the ISJL’s Director of the Department of Community Engagement, I wondered if and how congregations, as community based organizations, might respond to this rather serious piece of information.
Consider some more noteworthy news points about people taking their own life:
From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent.
In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, and 38,364 suicides; while car safety has improved, it’s still shocking that suicides outnumbered vehicular death.
The increase coincides with a decrease in financial standing and the widespread availability of opioid drugs, which can be particularly deadly in large doses
Most suicides are committed using firearms (not most suicide attempts, but most suicides)
People who are left behind face social stigma.
While I am not suggesting that we panic, I am suggesting that we pay attention to what this means for our congregations and communities. Suicide has become more prevalent. In the same way that we are trained to prevent drunk drivers from operating a vehicle, we can be trained to intervene when someone is at risk of committing suicide.
September 10th of each year is World Suicide Prevention Day. In honor of that day, congregations can host speakers who can talk about issues related to mental health or say a prayer for the healing of all who are feeling hopeless and depressed. Here are some other ways to take action:
- Invite people from service agencies to speak at services about the resources that are available through their non-profit
- Learn about what Judaism has to say about suicide and mental illness; have a study session or education program dedicated to the topic
- Get involved in local crisis hotlines. Congregations can host trainings for crisis hotline volunteers or give an annual financial gift to the local hotline
- Host support groups for people who are dealing with depression
- Host support groups for people who have been affected by suicide (family and friends of someone who committed suicide)
- Foster community and relationship building: with the understanding that suicide is now more prevalent among men between the ages of 35-64, there may be some benefit to having a Brotherhood Committee that mirrors the Sisterhood Committee’s level of activity
- Educate congregants about firearm safety and the dangers of opioid drugs
- Offer programs and initiatives that can help ease the financial strain on families
For information about suicide prevention, contact one of the many wonderful advocacy organizations out there, such as SAVE.
Do you have other ideas of how congregations can play a role in curbing the rise of suicide rates? Please share them in the comments below!