"Vaudeville Houdini," March 27th, 2015, Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn. running time: 00:53:25.
Matt Freedman: Thanks for coming everybody. As always, the management requests that you drink as much beer as you can and you finish every beer that you start, so he doesn’t have to pour it down the drain.
My friend Stuart, who's here, told me something very interesting. A few weeks ago after one of his visits here, he told his father, who's now 94, 96? I thought it was 96, but I didn't want to overestimate—that he was coming out to Bushwick to see a gallery show of his friend Matt, and his father said, “Oh, that's where I grew up!” Now, you knew that? You didn't know that? You didn't know that at all. So, Stuart’s father is 96, so this means about 90 years ago, that would be about 1925, he lived on Varick street. Is that right? Varick Street. It was a Jewish neighborhood and it was filled with pushcarts, so many that apparently in the Hebrew sections of the neighborhood, it was considered a problem.
Your father--your grandfather--was a pushcart peddler and he sold to Italian clientele, so he actually spoke better Italian than English as a second language after Hebrew. Yiddish! I'm working without a net here. There's a wonderful picture of LaGuardia opening up an indoor shopping area to try and get the vendors off of the streets. I think it's still there, but it made me think about this neighborhood, filled with a bunch of immigrants from--probably the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus. First generation Jews who needed a synagogue. I live in a synagogue up the hill. It's about a mile away. It was also started by merchants in the area. It's probably too far away for the people who live down here to comfortably walk on the Sabbath, but it's possible. We walk it all the time, but we're not under pressure. I'll go into more detail about the history of that synagogue next week, I think.
What was interesting about the experience of buying the synagogue was that it was occupied at the time by almost no one except a Rabbi from the Lubavitcher sect. He did not want this synagogue sold to a bunch of artists and he brought a lawsuit against the congregation that went to trial. I was a witness in this trial. One of the most memorable moments in the trial was when the Rabbi and his lawyer came into the courtroom in Queens and their briefcases had the picture of Rabbi Schneerson, their messiah Rabbi, duct taped to the fronts. We realized that we were in for an experience with obsessive religion that I, in my secular past, wasn't so familiar with.
Although I did have a strange precedent. When I was a boy living in Chicago and Hyde Park--some of you will know this--I went through a period, which I have spoken about before, of a sort of obsessive religiosity of my own, but a self -invented religion. Late at night I would begin to pray to an all-powerful God not to kill me in the night. And it occurred to me, every night when I made this prayer, that an all-powerful, perhaps a merciless God, would not appreciate being taken for granted. So, every night the prayer had to be more elaborate and more obsequious than the night before to prove that I wasn't taking anything for granted and that I would not be running the risk of being smitten or smited overnight. And this went on for some time until, there was a psychiatric intervention on the part of my father saying--well, I'll go into that detail later on.
But this did give me some insight into, I think, what I thought was going on in the heads of these people. I want to get back to the idea of the walk from this neighborhood to the hill where our synagogue is, because it occurs to me as I was trying to put these ideas together, that there was another walk in my life in Hyde Park that was extremely important. One day my mother read about a ceramics class for children opening at the Hyde Park Art Center, which was across town--across the neighborhood--and she didn't have time to take me or my brother. We were about seven or eight years old, so she got Peter Hoshino our neighbor to walk us there. This is not something you would do anymore. This is not a neighborhood that little boys were supposed to walk through necessarily, but we got there, and I met this wonderful woman named Dorothy Horton who was a professional ceramicist. I worked with her for years and years, learning how to make clay pots and little figurines that I became increasingly obsessed with.
She was probably the first artisan I met. The first artist I met was at Ebony Magazine. There was a girl in our school named Mimi Poinsett, whose father worked at Ebony Magazine--a lot of the kids in our school had parents who worked at Ebony and Jet Magazines--and we would take school trips there to see how newspapers and magazines were made. I remember we went into one office and saw, I guess he was the staff illustrator. He sat behind this enormous drafting table, an easel. I didn't realize that you could draw on a slant until I saw how this thing worked. He had piles and piles of pencils and excellent light and he described to the students how you made art.
These two figures, this ceramicist and the illustrator for Ebony Magazine were my first models for how to make art. It took me a long time to put all of these ideas together, the drawing and the object making. I went through a period of trying to draw cartoon strips that were in fact. kinds of constructions. And one that seems to pull all those threads, including the obsessive religion, together, were some cartoons I made not long after called the Adventures of Your Finger. They were a series of drawings that you could actually assemble.
In this one Your Finger is either the Center of the Universe or Your Finger is being Worshiped by Tiny Natives. It is a picture of people…this will be a hard thing. You stick your finger through the drawing and then you are the object of Idol worship by a bunch of tiny people, depending on the angle. Very satisfying, but I was having a lot of trouble when I was drawing this cartoon strip trying to reconcile it to all the other work I was doing in studios. And then one day, as often happens, something very simple occurs and you realize that there is a confluence of circumstances that will allow you to move forward. There was a show at the Rotunda Gallery--I think I was just talking to somebody about that today--for sculptors who perform. I wasn’t a performer, but my friend Daniel said, “Do you know anything about Lightning Sketches?” Lightening Sketches were vaudeville routines where somebody would talk and draw at the same time. Sometimes they were very prosaic, like they'd be talking about the Gold Standard or Prohibition or Suffrage. People would listen and watch. It was like a magic act a little bit; things coming out of nowhere and turning into something. But mostly they were sort of minstrel shows and there were lots of trick drawings. Take a mountain and turn it into a house. Take the house and turn it into a bicycle and then the bicycle would have a rider, and then something else would happen.
Winsor McCay, who did the beautiful cartoon strip about sleep, I can't even remember….Little Nemo. Yeah. But he also did Gertie the Dinosaur. It's one of the first animations. A beautifully animated dinosaur. A dinosaur walks around eating things. He could draw like a bat out of hell. Every line he made was always perfect. And there is a wonderful little video where he makes--I mean not a video, it's a film-- like 10,000 drawings of Gertie the Dinosaur walking around. I was so interested in this history and I was so happy that it might be a way of performing where you didn't actually have to do anything original that I went down to Washington DC to see--turns out Harry Houdini of all people had collected the world's most complete list of How-To books for Lightning Sketches. He was sort of a connoisseur of all things vaudevillian and in the Library of Congress there are a bunch of his little books. They are on paper that is falling apart.They were made on very cheap paper. You put on white gloves and they have this beautiful red velvet kind of holder and you put on these gloves and then they bring in this teeny little piece of newsprint and as I turn the pages are cracking, but the books are very specific about how to do conversions like, “Draw a potted plant and then turn it upside down and it's George Bernard Shaw.”
But what's most interesting about these books is how unabashedly objectionable most of the jokes in them are.
One would be, say, “The other day I was walking down the street and I saw my friend Cohen,” and very quickly this drawing of his name turns into this fairly racist depiction of a Jewish man.
Or “I was having a wonderful meal of ham when Mr. Cohen's wife Elsie came down the street and she was wearing an elaborate hat.” See how the ham turns into Mrs. Cohen's head.
There were a number of other drawings like that that were very clever, but I never quite owned up to till now. There was a particular story that I kept telling about my beautiful Aunt Lulu, who wore big hats with lots of ribbons and she had beautiful hair, enormous eyes, and a little bee sting mouth, a long thin neck. And everybody thought that she should be a model or an actress until she ran away and joined the circus.
She became a clown!
It's very funny, but this is not in fact what the story was. The real story, which was much funnier to them back then, was that she turned into a black faced minstrel.
It was such a mythic form, the idea of ethnic caricature. It was not just Jews and black people who were caricatured, also Scottish people, and the Irish and the Dutch. It was like a complete free for all of prejudice and humiliation. But it seemed to be a kind of acceptable dialogue of the time. I ended up trying to figure out how you could possibly translate that material into a present discourse, and I couldn't do it. I basically started making up other stories. I’d still like to figure out how to do these, but none of this stuff is redeemable, you know. It can’t be performed and probably should never be, but it's part of another tradition--- a mix of drawings that function as a mechanism for a certain kind of surprise.
One in particular that I was very struck by I first heard about from my friend Sina, who showed me pictures from the Arab Photographic Library. They were very fond of pictures, photographs, where people would pose in exotic backdrops, like a whole family sitting behind a picture of an airplane flying over the sea. And you know it's a studio trick. Nobody's buying it, but it was so exotic and everybody looks so happy to be sitting in this giant airplane that I was quite struck by it and looked into this. It turns out these are normally called Comic Forefronts. Sometime around 1860, I think--I think it’s going to have to be a little bit later, maybe 1870 or so--there was a patent taken out on Comic Forefronts. I actually remember at least for the day that it was patent number 149,224. Did I get that right? This is how it works. It was A Patent for a Photographic Process. Basically, it was a piece of cardboard and on the carboard would be a drawing, say of a man with a fishing rod and he'd be sitting on a porch and here's the fish, see the fish? Here's the man's head. You don't see the head because I'm now the man fishing. And this actually got a patent number, 149,224. And you could do any kind of thing you wanted. You could be a little--I could be a mermaid.
They were very popular. I don't know how the hell they got a patent to work on this, but the man who invented it was named Cassius Marcellus Coolidge and he was a very resourceful character, a self-taught artist. He is most famous for a series of paintings he did around 1900 for a cigar, I think it was a cigar company, of dogs playing poker. The famous Dogs Playing Poker pictures were all invented by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge.
He ended up living in Brooklyn. I think he died in the ‘30s. I was struck by the name Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, which is not an ordinary name, but you might, it might have an echo of something familiar about it. It turns out he was the son of Quakers and they had named him after a famous mid-century American named Cassius Marcellus Clay. Cassius Marcellus Clay was from the famous and powerful Clay family of Kentucky. He was a cousin of Henry Clay, the Great Compromise senator. His father Green Clay started the family fortune, I think. What was interesting about Cassius Marcellus Clay, even though he came from this wealthy family that was dedicated to the preservation of the old south, was that he was a fervent abolitionist, a violent abolitionist in fact. He had gone to Yale and he heard Garrison give a speech there and he said it was like “Water to a thirsty man.” Abolition became the cause of his life, although he had many causes. From about 1840 on he became very involved in publishing and advocating for the abolition of slavery. He was a tough guy. His favorite method of persuasion was a Bowie knife. He would often get into fights in crowds of angry southerners and have to defend himself with his knife. He killed a few people and got stabbed a few times.
He actually had on his house a cannon to protect himself and his family. He had a big family and he lived, I think in Charleston, North Carolina, I’m sorry, Kentucky. He had a big house called White Chapel, I think. He became friendly with Lincoln and he pushed Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln made him the envoy first to Spain and then to Russia during the Civil War. He wanted to be fighting, but Lincoln wanted him in Russia, He was there in 1861 when the edict emancipating the serfs in Russia was signed. There seems to be some indication that when he came back to the States, he helped to push Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. He lived a long life and became increasingly eccentric and crazy at the end of his life.
After about 45 years of marriage he divorced his wife who been running the family for all these years and he took up with a 15 year-old girl about 70 years younger than he was. He tried to charge his wife rent for raising the family in the house after the divorce. It was such an awful situation that several of his daughters became powerful, ardent suffragettes. In fact, his daughter Laura Clay in 1920 became the first woman ever nominated for the presidency by a major party. She was nominated for president at the Democratic convention of 1920. By at the end of his life, Clay was--There's a newspaper article about how, at 91, he was shooting his guns off at people on his property and I think they were hoping to be rid of him. He was a local embarrassment.
As interesting a character as he was, Coolidge wasn't the only significant person named after Clay. As some of you might have already surmised, he was the man Cassius Marcellus Clay Senior was named after. Cassius Marcellus Clay Senior was a house painter in Louisville, Kentucky and he named his son Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr and he became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali moved to Hyde Park in about 1970 near where I lived. He moved there to follow a man named Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Mohammad was the second leader, after Fard Muhammad, of the Black Muslim movement in the United States. Elijah Mohammad was part of the first diaspora of southern blacks to leave --he came from Georgia. He went to Detroit trying to find a better job. As a young man He'd seen several lynchings in Georgia and he said he'd had enough white racism to last 26,000 lifetimes or something. He goes to Detroit and falls in with Fard Mohammed’s black nationalist movement. He ends up taking over when Fard disappears mysteriously. He moves to Chicago. He moves to Hyde Park. He was one of a number of entrepreneurs who moved to that area. Black entrepreneurs who were part of that diaspora included John Johnson, who started Ebony Magazine and Jet Magazine.
So Muhammad Ali was now our neighbor. He was a much better neighbor than Elijah Muhammad, who posted his bodyguards, the Fruit of Islam, around the neighborhood and they terrorized all the kids who walked by the houses. If you threw a snowball in the area, you get chased down the block. But Muhammad Ali was just wonderful, a charismatic character. I remember him driving slowly through Hyde Park in a golden Rolls Royce with a beautiful woman, I think his wife, in the seat next to him. He was driving by our synagogue on Greenwood of all places. He passes a garbage truck and the man jumps out of the cab and he races down the street. Ali is driving his car about five miles an hour. The man said, “Muhammad, you can't run by me!” Muhammad stops.
He puts his hand up and shakes his hand and the guy runs back to the garbage truck. It was the most graceful demonstration of nobility I've ever seen.
I had one encounter with Ali myself. I was walking down the street with my sister past his house, a big house set back from the road, and he came out with two or three handlers to get into a car and he walks right in front of us. And so, I say, “Hiya champ!” And he stops and he says, “You call me a chump? You call me a chump?” And he starts to step forward and his handlers grab him by the arms and say, “No, no! No champ! He called you champ!” Ali goes, “You're called me chump, didn't you?” And I say, “No, no! I called your champ!” Ali gets in the car and they drive away and I realized that was probably at least as graceful a gesture as he had done with the garbage man. He went into his Joe Frazier routine with a kid on the street. He knew exactly what I said, but he knew I’d have a much better story if he said, “You called me chump?”
My own family’s diaspora story is not nearly as distinguished as Johnson’s or Elijah Mohammed's. In fact, we didn't really know where our families came from. My mother's side was Polish and German. My father's side had been Russian, I guess, and they had come much later, around 1900, I think. It was the kind of family where we if we asked, “What was it like?” They'd say, “Don't ask. It's better here.” The only comment my grandfather ever made about it was one Christmas day down in Miami Beach. Somebody said to Grandpa Sam, “Merry Christmas.” Nothing got grandpa upset very much, but he heard that, and he jumped up and he said, “Merry Christmas? How can you say Merry Christmas? Thousands of Jews were murdered on Christmas!” And then everybody said, “Sam, Sam calm down.” I think what he was referring to is that there were in fact pogroms regularly scheduled on Christian holidays that got people mad about what the Jews were doing to them.
But a generation or two later, as not infrequently happens, there was a lot more curiosity about what the old country was like. My Uncle Meyer went looking around and found some relatives and then my cousin Michael went back and he found the town that my family was from. It was sort of a good news, bad news story. We found the town. That's good news. The bad news is the town is called Dog Shits.
Which is true. It’s spelled differently; it looks like Dokshitz, but you have to pronounce it Dog Shit Zee, but that really didn't fool anybody. The idea I come from a town called Dog Shits is so appealingly awful that it became my favorite diaspora story of all time. “You think you have it bad? You didn't come from Dog Shits.” Dokshitsy is somewhere between, well, it was called the Pale. It used to be Poland and then it was Germany, then was Russia. Now it's officially Belarus. The cousin who found it looked though the town archives. I'd never thought Freedman was a particularly Russian sounding name, but apparently it is common over there and the pages were filled with Freedmans and all these other families until, as you might expect, sometime around 1942, there were 2,800 people in the town and everybody who stayed was murdered by the Nazis. They took them to the edge of town-- I think it was on Passover---they shot as many as they could. I think there were a couple dozen survivors.
This all made me hungry for the idea of some kind of distinguished ancestor. I couldn't really invent one in Dokshitsy, but I kind of found one, actually, in this room. I think I was at an opening a couple of years ago when somebody said that they were going to an art opening in the Bronx at the Andrew Freedman House, a place I didn't know. I said, “What's the Andrew Freedman House?--and it's Freedman with two “e's”, which is the proper way to spell it, but the unusual way to spell it- --and he said “You don't know about the Andrew Freedman House?” And he went into such a story.
Andrew Freedman was a kind of a 19th century New York Jewish robber baron of uncertain ancestry. I think he was German, but nobody knows quite where he came from, or how he made his money. Sometime in the 1880s as a fairly young man he became a financier for Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine, and he was very involved in a lot of interesting things. He's considered one of the four people responsible for the subway system. He invested in it in 1900. In his obituary they mentioned that as one of his achievements. He was on the board of the Wright Brothers Corporation, helping them build planes. He also, for a couple of years, owned The New York Giants baseball team, which sort of made him the George Steinbrenner of his day, but he was a terrible owner. He was the most hated man in baseball. He was kind of an autocrat and he feuded with all his players, most notably Amos Rusie, known as the Hoosier Thunderbolt.
Rusie wrote a book called, I think it's called “Amos Rusie, the Hoosier Thunderbolt, and How He Obtains Such Fantastic Speed on his Thrown Ball,” which is not what you would call a book now, but he was a big guy and he could throw the ball very fast. He made about $2,500 a year and he held out for a better contract. He was the best pitcher in baseball. Freedman fined him $200, and they were both so stubborn that Rusie sat out the entire year over this $200 fine that he refused to pay. In fact, I think the other owners finally got Freedman to leave baseball and go into other things.
That's where the Andrew Freedman Home comes into play. In about 1914 there was a financial panic and Freedman almost lost all his money. He survived, but he saw some of his friends lose all their money, and he had an amazing insight, which is that his life would really suck if he didn't have all the money that he was used to. In fact, the genteel and pleasant, highly cultured life that he had grown accustomed to would be a lot more difficult to leave behind than if he'd never known the pleasures of the high life. This gave him a notion that maybe that was the greatest tragedy of all. Poverty amongst poor people was one thing, but poverty amongst rich people was something far worse. He decided he would leave his money to wealthy and cultured people who'd lost their fortunes so that they could continue to live in the manner to which they had grown accustomed and in which they deserved to live. It was an extraordinary idea.
He died before he could realize this vision, but his sister and his mother persevered, and they invested most of his $5 million fortune in building this home. It's on the Grand Concourse up in the Bronx, an Italianate pavilion. I think it was finally finished in the 1920s or so. It was in fact designed to be for people who could prove that they both had been wealthy, but also that they were sophisticated. The articles of the time were very funny. One said, “If you were rich as Croesus and are now is poor as Job’s Turkey, this is the home for you.” And it goes into all the criteria that they tried to establish to make it possible to discriminate between those who deserved to be in this home and those who didn’t.
Interestingly, they had no criteria about creed or race or marital status. It turns out that old age homes, or homes for the indigent, would routinely separate couples back then. They were always for men or for women, but The Andrew Freedman Home would allow couples to stay there. And there were butlers. There were tickets to the opera. You couldn't put your feet on the sofa, I think; there were some rules of behavior. They had a little bit of trouble finding people until the Great Crash of 1929, which supplied them with a lot of previously cultured, but newly impoverished people for a couple of decades. But it was not well run, and it ran out of money sometime in the sixties or seventies and it became a kind of a routine place. They began charging rent. There's a beautiful article about, how, after the war, a lot of refugees from the Holocaust came over and lived there.
So it became a place for doctors and lawyers to live, a sort of a Jewish retirement home. And then it fell apart.And now it's an art center. As you know, maybe that is the ultimate retirement home. It's been turned into some kind of a space where you can go “do art.” I saw some ambitious installations there that were very interesting, but didn't really capture the strange history of the place.
Back to Amos Rusie for a second, the baseball player that Andrew Freedman kept out of baseball. In about 1890, he was a greatest picture in the world, but he hurt his arm apparently, and only played a few more years. Otherwise he might be as well-known now as a man named Cy Young. Cy Young was also nicknamed after a weather situation. He was known as Cyclone. His real name was Denton True Young, but he was called Cy Young because he also threw the ball very fast, as fast as a cyclone. He pitched for many teams for years and years and years. He ended up winning 511 games, which nobody will ever match because nobody pitches that much anymore. He grew too fat to continue to play baseball, but his rubber arm never failed him, according to legend. I think he ended up as a handyman on a farm some place. But there was a period when every baseball player, every pitcher who was worth his salt, who could throw the ball- the speedball—fast, was nicknamed Cy. Including a pitcher who played for the Chicago White Sox-- the team that I rooted for as a kid--in around 1920. He played for one year and then he retired to be a coach, and his name was Cy Twombly.
This is the only crowd where that gets a big laugh.
Cy Twombly had a son named Cy Twombly and that is the Cy Twombly that we know and love. Cy Twombly the painter actually had another son named Cy Twombly too, but he cheated and called him Cyrus or something. Cyrus Alessandro. Cy Twombly the painter was not the son you would expect to have from this jock dad. I don't know how they got along, but Cy went to the Black Mountain School and he went off and became an interesting painter. But his career changed irrevocably in the early fifties when he was drafted into the army and he became part of the cryptography service. He came out making those distinctive marks that we know him for now. You could argue he reduced his painting language to this sort of looping “e,” which is a reduction of a sentence to a word to a letter to which there can be no further reduction except these marks. He's a very controversial for some people who ask the traditional question of whether or not my kid do that when they see something like this.
There's a really interesting essay by Roland Barthes describing how difficult it is to actually draw like a kid. It’s very difficult to try to copy the way a child’s drawings try to imitate reality. These Trombley drawings are so far from any kid’s work, the gestures are pure form, but also a reduction of content into gesture that creates these enigmatic poetic marks that apparently only other artists can love.
Interestingly, Twombly was not the only baseball player or anyone related to baseball who was interested in codes. There was another baseball player named Moe Berg, who also played for the Chicago White Sox. He was from New York, but he ended up going to Princeton and he was a shortstop, but he became a catcher. Among other things, he could speak nine languages, but as one of his fellow baseball players said, “He could speak nine languages, but he couldn't hit in any of them.” He was a pretty terrible baseball player, but he somehow stayed in the big leagues for about 15 years. He was a good defensive player. And he was included on many of the overseas tours that they used to go on in the off season. They didn't make as much money back then. There were several tours that went to Japan in the 1930s, and here's this guy who could barely hit his weight going to Japan with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. They would play the game and then he would go sightseeing.
One year he went to the Tokyo hospital to see the daughter of the ambassador, the American ambassador was in the hospital--but he really didn't see her.
He went to the roof of the hospital, which was the tallest building in Tokyo at the time, and he took pictures of the city. Then he toured through Asia. It turned out that Mo Berg wasn't just a bad baseball player, he was a spy and he was working for the OSS. After the war began, he showed these images to the American command and they were used to direct Jimmy Doolittle in his first raid---after Pearl Harbor, there was a lot of pressure to have a kind of a revenge attack directly on Japan, and just a few months later, a flight of B-25 Mitchell bombers flew over Tokyo using, apparently, Mo Berg's directions to bomb the city.
Berg had other adventures during the war. He went to Europe to evaluate for the OSS the local resistance movements. He met Tito in Yugoslavia and decided he was the strongest person to back. He was sent to Zurich to attend a lecture by Heisenberg and he was given a gun. Heisenberg was supposed to talk about the progress of the atomic bomb and if Mo thought that Heisenberg was indicating that they were close to creating a functioning atom bomb in Germany he was to pull out the gun and shoot him. He decided that he wasn't-- they weren't close to making the bombs, so he didn't shoot him.
That would've been a more interesting end to Mo Berg’s life. After the war, he became increasingly eccentric and he refused to take any jobs. He wanted the CIA to send him to Israel, but they wouldn't send him to Israel. I think he ended up living with his sister and collecting bus tokens or something like that. He refused to write his life story. So we don't really know exactly what he did. I think he exaggerated things as much as he could for effect.
On the south side of Chicago where I was living we were within a couple of blocks, well, I’d say more than a couple of bucks, but close enough to the stadium where Moe Berg played baseball, Comiskey Park, named after another horrible owner, probably worse than Andrew Freedman, Charles Comiskey, who cheated his players out of money. That's why the Black Sox scandal again—but our house was close enough to the stadium that whenever--which never happened, or very rarely--the White Sox hit a home run, fireworks would go off in this exploding scoreboard that Bill Veeck their eccentric later owner had created. Bill Veeck was an interesting character. He had actually integrated baseball in the American league. A few months after Jackie Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger, Larry Doby began playing for the Cleveland Indians who were owned at the time by Veeck.
The White Sox as it turned out, had a chance to have Jackie Robinson play for them. In 1942, five years before he made the major leagues, he tried out for the Chicago White Sox and they agreed that he was good enough to be a major leaguer, but they lacked the courage to sign him. Their manager wouldn't even pose with him. So, he went back to UCLA and then to the army and then he later became a baseball player in the National League. It's probably just as well for him he didn't end up in Chicago. At that time it was just about as segregated and racist a city as you can imagine. Hyde Park where we lived with was relatively integrated. That's where all the black baseball players lived, even if they played for the Cubs. Ernie Banks, the Great Chicago Mr. Cub, couldn't live near his stadium on the North Side because it was completely segregated up there. But Hyde Park is, I was saying, with Elijah Muhammad and all the black entrepreneurs, had to kind of inverted social system of white academics and black entrepreneurs.
The synagogue that I was describing earlier, that I attended, KAM Isaiah Israel, was actually three synagogues that had converged. They all began in different parts of the city. KAM, which is short for the Hebrew Kehilath Anshe Maarav, or Men of the West, was the first synagogue west of Cincinnati. Founded in 1847 in a small town. It was later built into this enormous edifice designed by Louis Sullivan, the great architect, to look sort of like a pyramid on top of this monolith. He didn't believe in spires. This existed in midtown for a long time until demographic forces shifted the same way we ended up in our synagogue in Ridgewood, and the Jews moved out and it became the Pilgrim Baptist Church, which was actually the birthplace of Gospel music. Mahalia Jackson sang there. Jack Johnson, the great boxer and the precursor to Muhammad Ali as the first black heavyweight champion, his funeral was there. It burned down a few years ago because I think they couldn't afford to build this pyramid the way Sullivan liked it on the top. It was made of wood and eventually it caught fire. The whole thing burned down. The other two synagogues were Isaiah and Israel; Isaiah Synagogue and Israel Synagogue.
When my family first moved from California to Chicago in. the early sixties, halfway between Comiskey Park and our home was this Greek revival building that was the home of Temple Israel. I think I only went there a few times before it closed down. They combined with KAM to make KAM Isaiah Israel in a Moorish building with a minaret and a dome on Greenwood Avenue and they abandoned their Greek revival home. It was actually bought by Mahalia Jackson and given to Jesse Jackson and became the home of Operation PUSH, People United to Save Humanity.
Many years later, after I had avoided getting a Bar Mitzvah because my grandfather Sam had a stroke and nobody thought it was worth having a Bar Mitzvah if Grandpa had had a stroke and didn't know what was going on, I had to go to KAM Isaiah Israel and have what is it that they call it now? A Confirmation. It's was a very low-grade religious conversion experience, but it was supposed to be sort of an intellectual, as opposed to a ritual, envelopment into Jewish culture. Unfortunately, having to attend all of those services in this temple reminded me so much of my obsessive prayers as a young person that I couldn't--I lost whatever degree of faith I had. All the prayers that the rabbis were offering up to God sounded suspiciously like the same obsequious pleas that I had invented as a five-year-old.
There was an interesting event that happened one Saturday morning after services. We were told that Jesse Jackson, our neighbor in the Operation PUSH building, was going to come and visit the community and give a talk. Sure enough, at the end of services, which are now populated, not just by little annoyed Jewish kids and some older Jewish parents, but his congregation, Jackson comes in and he's going to address us. The Rabbi, who I didn't like very much, introduces Jackson. Before he introduces Jackson, he says, “We're very honored to have Reverend Jackson here. I'd like to just to say I am proud of the tradition this congregation has with the Civil Rights Movement. I marched with Martin in Selma. I was at the ‘I have Dream Speech’ in Washington DC. It gives me great pleasure to introduce Jesse Jackson.” And the Jackson gets up and he says, “Martin Luther King is dead and I'm alive.” And poor Rabbi Maslin goes back, and he sits in his chair, steaming and Jackson proceeds to give his talk. I can't remember what the talk was about, but at the end, and he said, “Now, I'd be happy to answer questions from the audience, if you have any.” And one by one people got up and asked questions and Jackson answered them. And then a black man gets up and he says, “I have a question.” And Jackson says, “Well brother, you know, we have a lot of time to talk. This is a time for us to have a conversation with our Jewish cousins. I'm sure you understand.”
And the Rabbi leaps off with a huge grin on his face and he says, “He is a member of our congregation!” Which was true. He was. Jackson, it was the only time in my life I've ever seen him speechless. He stares at this man for about five seconds. And then he starts laughing and he says, “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!” And he falls over on the podium. All he can say is, “Jesus Christ.”
The Rabbi had the last laugh. It turns out the guy had some questions about parking.
I should end there, but it's too much not to say that across the street from KAM Isaiah Israel, a young man, a young lawyer from the University of Chicago, bought a house a few years later, and that's Barack Obama's house. So.
Please note: the original footage shown above indicates that the performance took place March 29th, 2015 though in fact the performance was recorded to have taken place March 27th, 2015.