Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Further Thoughts on the New Feminine

As if we don’t have enough portentous questions to solve, let me add another. Who will replace the vanishing Playboy Magazine “Playgirl” as the next popular ideal of American Beauty? With obesity in both sexes already beyond fifty-percent and growing, can the longings of the American male accommodate themselves to the reality of the New Feminine, or – or what?

There is a self-parodying joke about the Jewish man who, when told that the elephant population in a region of India was declining at an alarming rate, asked if that was good or bad for the Jews? We must ask, is the eclipse of the long-legged, slim and admirably proportioned, high-cheeked, sexy woman good or bad for men?

Every age has had its definition of femininity. In recent memory there were the Gibson girl (ample), the flapper (bold, unconventional), Rosie the Riveter, (World War II worker), the Bobby-Soxer, and of course, the Playgirl. Obesity was not in style. The early American woman tended toward sliminess, for among other factors, the hard physical life of a pioneering and the dominance of the farm life kept the weight down.

Concepts of physical attractiveness are, as anthropological studies have shown, malleable. Over the centuries, concepts of female physical beauty have ranged widely each having their day. Venus was the ideal in ancient times; in medieval Europe diminutiveness and daintiness in feet, hands, breasts and long necks were prized; women of some weight are considered desirable in parts of the world (the (Middle East); gaudily painted faces in some cultures (African) are the custom; the short and squat women of the Arctic have no difficulty in finding mates. In contemporary times the suburban, gym-muscled, self-assured woman, a more attainable model than Playgirl, command deep respect. Question: How flexible will the American man now be in his concept of female beauty? Judging from worldwide cultures – and from what I have observed daily in my strolls around my home town (Salem MA), he will meet the test of gallantry.

Did I say male sexual selection – and I could add female sexual identity – is malleable? In fact it seems that men and women will buy whatever happens to be in stock at the time. Maybe sexual selection should be noted and reviewed in the fashion magazines, the way high skirts-low skirts and tight jackets-loose jackets are critiqued.

More Later, Joe

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Eloquence of the Common Man

The many scholarly books on the subject describe the newcomers to America as “waves of immigrants and “hordes of New Americans;” refer to their habitats on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as “tenements” and “railroad chain cold water flats”. The streets were described as teeming with “rickety pushcarts’ and their goods for sale; and filled with children at play, dodging pedestrians and street vehicles, shrieking with joy while putting pedestrians at risk. amidst the squalor, this iconic site is also home to one of the great stories of/in the growth of America. The years were the last quarter of the 1800’s –1915. Except for the novels and short stories about the lives of immigrants, the sociological treatises fail to convey an understanding of these flesh-and-blood people. Let me tell you about a small community of Jewish men in Wilkes-Barre, PA, many from Russia, Poland, and Romania, as I knew them during the years 1927-1935.

First, the common part. These men were tradesmen – bakers, butchers, grocers, peddlers in the commodity-starved rural countryside, small shopkeepers, salesmen. The men made a living for their families, some quite successfully, and blended smoothly into the general life of the city. They were mostly Socialists, victims of cruel, anti-Semitic programs, and without exception were virulently anti-Communist. They voted routinely but futilely in presidential elections for Norman Thomas; and most important for this piece I am writing, they were all members of the Workmen’s Circle, an organization, as the name clearly denotes, for the working man. The Workmen’s Circle had a substantial building of its own on “The Hill” in Wilkes-Barre, called “The Lyceum,” that served as a forum on social and political issues, and as a cultural center for the continuity of Jewish life.

A group of perhaps twenty-five men met every Sunday morning for lox and bagels, and for discussions. My father and his younger brother, Israel, were as close and affectionately attached as any brothers I have known. We visited Israel and his family several times a year and each Sunday my father, with me in tow, attended the morning meetings at the Lyceum. Some members dressed in suits, others in sweaters. Of the many intriguing experiences I had at these gatherings, the one I remember most is the weekly “redde” session, the Yiddish word for speakers and speech-makers, -- everyone spoke Yiddish -- and the subsequent discussions.

Now for the eloquence. These ‘tradesmen” spoke fluidly, colorfully, to the point, with an aggressive intelligence and thorough understanding of the issues on tap that day, political and cultural, from current legislation to literature. Each man seemed to live for these Sunday mornings. They knew it, and put a zest into the proceedings that was infectious. I was amazed. Each man had some schooling in their homeland, some less some more, but they were avid readers of the newspapers and journals -- Yiddish and English. The bond among them and the respect they had for each other was moving. In common, they had survived successfully, first in their flight to America, and then in becoming Americanized and acquiring citizenship. Israel spoke one Sunday about his escape from Lithuania, a real thriller (discussed at length in my book). Every man had a story. At the time I knew these men they were in the prime years of life. I often wonder, with gratitude for what they taught me, how the remainder of their lives turned out.

More later, Joe