On the Bookshelf
Gambling, speculating, and other numbers games
Joyce Carol Oates could be called the Jacob Neusner of literary fiction: A writer so indefatigably productive that the word “prolific” doesn’t begin to do her justice, Oates has published in the neighborhood of a hundred books, including some 50 novels and 35 short story collections. (If Neusner’s name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s a scholar of rabbinic Judaism with over 900 books under his belt.) Oates’s 2007 bestseller The Gravedigger’s Daughter fictionalized her family history, including a paternal grandmother who hid the traces of her Jewish heritage. Oates’s most-recent effort, In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews (Ecco, June), includes her assessments of Philip Roth, E. L. Doctorow, and the photographer Annie Leibovitz, along with many other figures; she notes that after the death of her husband, Russell Smith, in 2008, “reading and taking notes … has been the solace, for me, that saying the Rosary or reading The Book of Common Prayer might be for another.”
Oates has often been a favorite in the betting on who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature (her odds were 5/1 in 2009, Amos Oz’s were 4/1)—but does anyone really bet on the Nobel? Or does Ladbrokes, the British gambling house that sets the odds for the literary prize, do so simply to garner a little extra publicity among bookish folks for its sports betting operation? Surely anyone hoping to make a living through professional gambling, like Douglas “Dink” Heimowitz and the other charmingly shady characters introduced in Beth Raymer’s Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling (Spiegel & Grau, June), is more likely to concentrate on baseball, hockey, or the ponies. If you’re wondering what sort of guy chooses this line of work, Raymer—a Fulbright scholar and former stripper who assisted a number of bookmakers in Vegas and New York—remarks that “they’re all Jewish kids who went to Stuyvesant.”
Strange, isn’t it, that the higher the stakes are, the more respectable the gambler is? Siegmund Warburg managed to put billions of dollars on the line over the course of his career without ever seeming like an overgrown bookie; indeed, he pronounced that “success from the financial and from the prestige point of view … is not enough; what matters even more is … adherence to high moral and aesthetic standards.” Having fled his native Germany in 1934, he set up shop in London, helped other German Jews get their assets out of the Nazis’ clutches, and, in the ensuing decades, established and presided over an innovative investment bank that is a credit to his family’s history as a financial dynasty. Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson, author of a two-volume history of the Rothschilds, chronicles Warburg’s impressive achievements and argues for his enduring influence in High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg (Penguin, July).
Not every financier maintains the dignity of a Warburg. With the money he inherited from his bootlegging ancestors in the form of the Seagram fortune, no one could confuse Edgar Bronfman, Jr. with the low-rent gonifs who populate Raymer’s memoir, but neither has he managed to avoid looking, at times, like a bumbling shnook, as Fred Goodman makes clear in Fortune’s Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, July). While his father, Edgar Sr., has recently busied himself trying to foment a renaissance in cultural Judaism and Jewish “peoplehood,” and his son Benjamin is engaged to Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A., Edgar Jr. remains known mostly for losing millions in the music industry in attempts to keep it profitable post-Napster.
Jews had been innovating in the music industry long before the advent—disastrous or miraculous, depending on who you ask—of the MP3. Indeed, in late imperial Russia, one composer and St. Petersburg Conservatory director, Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov, was so philosemitic as to remark that “in nine cases out of ten, the mere fact that the entering student was a Jew was sufficient indication of talent.” As a result of his support, and a number of other factors detailed in University of Virginia historian James Loeffler’s The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Yale, June), prodigies including Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, and Anton Rubinstein succeeded wildly in their musical pursuits.
Jews may have been even more prominent participants in the golden years of American jazz than they were in Russia’s violin academies—but their Jewishness was not always seen as an asset here. The great clarinetist born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky put the matter this way, as recorded in a biography written by the child-actor-turned-writer Tom Nolan, Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw (Norton, May): “In those days,” the musician recalled, “you had to be a Gentile in America, to work,” and anyhow he didn’t feel Jewish. “If somebody said, ‘What is a Jew?’ I couldn’t have answered. I didn’t have their religion; I didn’t belong to any Zionist movements; anything that had to do with being Jewish, I had nothing to do with.’ ”
At an early age, the future jazz critic Nat Hentoff already knew enough to differ with Shaw on this point: When, as an 11-year-old, he heard Shaw’s “Nightmare” outside a record store in Boston, he recalls that it reached him, “viscerally, the way no other music had until then except for cantorial music; the improvising hazan in the synagogue.” And, it turned out, he was perspicacious in making the connection: As he found out years later, “ ‘Nightmare’ was based on a niggun: a melody that these cantors sang.” Nolan reports on this incident in Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake—which Hentoff has obligingly blurbed as “the lively, continually imaginative life of the most creative clarinetist in jazz history”—and Hentoff himself remembers this transformative moment in At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (California, July). Along with notes on Shaw and discussions of a panoply of well-known and obscure jazz performers, the book also includes Hentoff’s takes on the Jewish connections of Willie “The Lion” Smith—an African-American stride pianist who was bar mitzvahed and printed up business cards for himself in Yiddish—and Ornette Coleman, like Hentoff a zealous admirer of the world-famous cantor Yossele Rosenblatt.
The author and Creative Nonfiction impresario Lee Gutkind bonds with his son Sam over music, but usually not jazz: When they go truckin’ together, Gutkind writes, the two listen “to those whispering echoing sounds of [Lee’s] past—Mick Jagger, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison”—tunes that “demonstrably connected generations and cultures.” Their collaborative memoir, Truckin’ With Sam: A Father and Son, the Mick and the Dyl, Rockin’ and Rollin,’ on the Road (SUNY, June), reveals how a divorced father who had his son at the age of 47 attempts to bridge the yawning generational chasm by road-tripping throughout North America together and wandering, in time, as far as Tanzania, as well as to locations as fraught with Jewish history as Hebron and Auschwitz. Lee regards these journeys as “religious experiences,” though Sam, the son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, eschews formal religion and “says he is an atheist.”
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