Category Archives: The Library Channel

Between Cultures


“Despite the current attempts to whitewash U.S. history, ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity is the predominant feature of the U.S. experience.” – Charles Musser

Almost from their inception, motion pictures have dealt with the question of cultural assimilation. This was certainly true in America where many of the country’s film industry founders were themselves either immigrants or the children of immigrants, in particular Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews.

In “Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties” Yale University’s renowned film historian and documentarian Charles Musser examines this issue by comparing and contrasting two related films: “The Ancient Law” (1923, Germany) and “The Jazz Singer” (1927, USA). While “The Ancient Law” is largely forgotten by today’s audiences, “The Jazz Singer” achieved lasting fame for being the first (partially) talking picture and lasting notoriety for star Al Jolson’s performance in blackface, deemed racist by modern sensibilities.

In E. A. Dupont’s “The Ancient Law,” the Orthodox Jew Baruch Mayer leaves a shtetl in Galicia for Vienna. Mayer pursues a career as a stage actor, much to the consternation of his conservative parents. Released four years later, Alan Crosland’s “The Jazz Singer” was based in part on a hit play but was also a loose adaptation of the earlier film. Baruch Mayer becomes Al Jolson’s Jakie Rabinowitz, who runs away from his strict cantor father to pursue a career as a cabaret singer after changing his name to Jack Robin. “The Jazz Singer” was an immediate hit and made Jolson a star overnight. Musser’s research refutes the commonly-held notion that Jolson was himself a racist, citing his and the film’s popularity with African American audiences at the time. Jolson was considered a friend by the African American community who advocated hiring black actors for stage roles, and his blackface performances were seen as positive portrayals by the very people we assume were offended.

Further, Musser argues that the depictions of the assimilation process in both films were essentially optimistic. In each case the protagonist is able to maintain or reclaim their cultural identity in spite of prevailing attitudes, and to cross the line between two uneasily co-existing cultures without the necessity of fully assimilating into either. Both films are also idealistic in the sense that they downplay the toxicity of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia. Nevertheless, they (sadly) retain their relevance in the modern world.

Watch — Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties: From The Ancient Law to The Jazz Singer with Charles Musser – Holocaust Living History Workshop

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The Dr. Seuss You Never Knew

The 2019 edition of UC San Diego Geisel Library’s “Dinner in the Library” series celebrates new acquisitions from the estate of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, most of which have never before been exhibited publicly. The Library’s Special Collections already houses over 20,000 items related to Geisel, including sketches, paintings, cartoons, letters, and manuscripts, and these new arrivals will further enhance its status as the world’s premiere repository of Seuss miscellany.

University Librarian Erik Mitchell welcomes a distinguished panel to discuss their reactions to the unveiling of Geisel’s “private art.” Seth Lerer, moderator and Distinguished Professor of Literature at UC San Diego, traces the development of Geisel’s stylistic vocabulary though doodles and rough sketches not intended for publication, and invites fellow panelists and the audience to consider the proper placement of these works within Geisel’s larger oeuvre. Rob Sidner, Executive Director of the Mingei International Museum, notes that many of the new acquisitions were exhibited in Geisel’s home and speculates on their personal significance to the artist. Mary Beebe, Director of the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego, discusses Geisel’s acrylic paintings on display, noting they are uncharacteristic of Geisel and yet valuable for that reason. Beebe also cites Geisel’s delight in wordplay as a consistent feature of his work.

Other topics featured in this wide-ranging discussion include the challenges of exposure to a hitherto-unknown facet of an artist’s work, influences on Geisel’s development such as theatre and Surrealism (most notably Salvador Dali), the underlying social commentary in many of Geisel’s cartoons and books, his frequent portrayals of “sympathetic monsters,” and the importance of acknowledging that, in Seth Lerer’s words, “not everything in this collection is happy or funny; some of it is in fact quite dark.”

Theodor Geisel famously maintained that he wrote his books for adults, and that their adoption as beloved icons of children’s literature was a fortunate happenstance. The new additions to the Geisel Library’s Special Collections contribute to a fuller portrait of this complex and prolific artist, one possessed of considerable skills whose range of styles and thematic concerns is greater than previously appreciated.

Watch — The Private Art of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel – Dinner in the Library 2019

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Double Jeopardy

Jewish History scholar Marion Kaplan was a co-editor of the landmark essay collection, “When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany.” Published in 1984, this book established gender studies – heretofore neglected – as a vital component of Holocaust research, exploring the “double jeopardy” experienced in pre-war and wartime Nazi Germany by women who were also Jews.

A central thesis which emerged was the recognition that women experienced fascism differently than their male counterparts and companions, as evidenced by their reactions to pogroms and other anti-Jewish activities undertaken by the Nazi state. Frequently it was women who first and most persistently raised the alarm in their communities about Hitler’s plans for the Jews; the men, especially those in the professional class, were reluctant to forsake their hard-earned status and possessions, trusting instead that the German populace wouldn’t allow extreme ill-treatment of Jews who, in many cases, had lived among them for generations. By contrast women were not established in those professions, and therefore were less motivated by material considerations than by their family’s safety.

In her lecture Professor Kaplan conducts an historical survey of the research leading to, and resulting from, the book’s publication, describing the early workshops that were inspired by the feminist movement and drew together survivors and scholars. These workshops raised critical questions about the lives of German Jewish women in the periods both preceding and following the Nazis’ rise to power, and suggested further avenues of inquiry. In the decades since then, the range of gender perspectives in Holocaust studies have broadened and deepened; for example, they now include the stories of women who “passed” in Nazi Berlin (i.e., hid their Jewishness in order to survive), such as Marie Jalowicz, and of same-sex couples such as Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, whose story is told in “Aimee and Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin, 1943.” In particular the experiences of Jalowicz and others who, like her, “hid in plain sight” raise complex questions about morality in the face of the harsh sexual politics of survival in wartime Berlin, especially as they pertained to women. Faced with such conditions, what is the ‘moral’ choice?

Kaplan concludes her talk with a discussion of new and promising areas of research, and the synergy between modern women’s studies and Holocaust studies as each seeks to expand its understanding of gender politics in the context of historical trends and imperatives.

Watch — When Biology Became Destiny: How Historians Interpret Gender in the Holocaust – Holocaust Living History Workshop

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A Personal Encounter with a Global Crisis

Epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee and her husband, psychologist Tom Patterson, were vacationing in Egypt when Tom came down with what appeared to be a routine (if severe) case of food poisoning. Tom’s condition quickly deteriorated, and upon transfer to a hospital in Germany blood work revealed that he had contracted one of the most dangerous superbugs in the world, a condition that rendered modern standards of treatment useless. Following an emergency medevac to the medical center at UC San Diego, where both Steffanie and Tom worked, Tom suffered several episodes of septic shock and spent months in a coma.

An increasingly frantic Steffanie used her scientific training to research alternative solutions and stumbled upon “the perfect predator” in an all-but-forgotten treatment: bacteriophage therapy. Bacteriophage, or phage, treatment had fallen out of favor almost 100 years ago, largely due to the invention of antibiotics. Phages are naturally-occurring viruses capable of destroying even the most lethal bacteria, but in order to be effective they must be precisely matched to their prey. With the clock running down on Tom, Steffanie appealed to phage researchers worldwide. Working with allies that included the FDA, top university researchers, and a clandestine Navy biomedical center, a match was found; Tom was treated and made a remarkable recovery. Since then others have also been saved by this resurrected treatment.

The hard-won knowledge gained during Steffanie and Tom’s trial, and the alliances formed, helped to establish the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH) at UC San Diego, the first phage therapy center in North America.

Steffanie and Tom’s memoir of their ordeal, The Perfect Predator, is a love story as well as a propulsive medical thriller. Though often near despair as Tom’s condition progressively worsened, Steffanie refused to concede defeat. The book also serves as a warning and a call to action, as Steffanie points to the rise of multidrug-resistant bacteria as a direct result of our overuse of antibiotics, particularly in livestock. The superbug crisis has assumed global proportions, and Steffanie argues that while phage therapy has tremendous promise, we must also focus our collective attention on the source of the crisis in order to prevent more cases like her husband’s.

Watch The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug with Steffanie Strathdee and Thomas Patterson

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Immersive Languages

It’s a misuse of terms to say that we have a natural language; languages are arbitrary and conventions of peoples by institution. – François Rabelais

Constructed languages, or conlangs, are popular features of many science fiction and fantasy tales. Examples include Barsoomian (Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series), Elvish and Khuzdul (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), Klingon (Star Trek), Na’vi (James Cameron’s Avatar), and Dothraki and Valyrian (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire). Thanks to the efforts of dedicated – some might say obsessive – fans, these invented languages occasionally slip the bonds of their native genres, as witnessed by Klingon translations of Shakespeare and the Bible.

Not all conlangs have roots in fantastic literature. The most widely-spoken “auxiliary language,” Esperanto, was created in the late 19th century by a Polish ophthalmologist, and was intended to be an easy and flexible second tongue that would foster peace and international understanding. UC San Diego Linguistics Professor Grant Goodall was fascinated by languages at an early age, and quickly found himself drawn to Esperanto; through his study of Esperanto he developed an interest in other conlangs.

In addition to Goodall’s remarks about his linguistic adventures in Inventing Languages, two of the most popular contemporary conlangs, Na’vi and Dothraki, are discussed by their creators. Paul Frommer was tasked by Avatar director James Cameron to create a language for his science fiction epic set on an alien world. Frommer describes a process which entailed setting certain rules for the new language, dubbed Na’vi, which were drawn from various Earthbound tongues, including English, the Romance languages, and several Eastern European languages. The primary challenge was to create a language that seems sufficiently alien to our experience, yet could be learned quickly by decidedly human actors portraying the language’s native speakers while also lending itself to a vocabulary that could be expanded on short notice.

David Peterson, co-creator of the Dothraki language used in Game of Thrones, faced a somewhat different set of challenges since the basics of Dothraki were established in the novels upon which the series is based (complete with translations). Peterson’s first task was to reconcile inconsistencies in spellings across various books, followed by establishment of certain rules of grammar and pronunciation based on common usages in various modern languages – key elements in Peterson’s ability to form new Dothraki vocabulary upon demand. Like Frommer’s Na’vi, Peterson’s Dothraki needed to sound exotic while retaining just enough familiarity for actors to learn and speak the language convincingly.

In recent years conventions, workshops, seminars, websites, and user groups have sprung up around fictional languages, including Na’vi and Dothraki, as fans seek an immersive experience based on their favorite novel, film, or TV series. Thus far none have yet achieved the international prominence of Esperanto, but devotees are convinced that it’s only a matter of time.

Watch Inventing Languages: A Conversation in Language Construction

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