Two very different guys from Philadelphia, granted. But the serendipity of casual juxtaposition is one of the joys of my vagaries-ridden reading life.
Shortly after Wayne State University Press supplied me with a copy of Samuel Noah Kramer’s In the World of Sumer: An Autobiography ($37.50!), The Free Library cooperated by displaying David Brenner’s Nobody Ever Sees You Eat Tuna Fish (Arbor House, $16.95) on is new book rack.
Comparing and contrasting their lives is a classical exercise in the cultural history of our own times. What the 41-year-old entertainer and the 89-year-old scholar have in common is being born New Wave Jews (Lithuania and Russia-proper in origins) and poor in Philly. Each has secularized his Jewish heritage, but in remarkably different ways.
Take the easier and less impressive case. It is eerie to learn that Brenner grew up in what became MOVE country—60th and Osage. His major shtick as a comedian, in fact, is to turn the dross of urban poverty into the gold of bucks, an alchemy that works less and less effectively on my risibilities. The shtick which tickled in Soft Pretzels with Mustard (1983) has gone decidedly mushy in the intervening years.
Urbanologists will find his guide to Philly’s street “Toys and Games” interesting, if checked out by other sources. His “gutter raft” gambit (“Grab your raft and run as fast as you can to Osage and place your raft in the gutter with all the others. Run alongside it as the horse’s piss rushes the rafts to the sewer at the corner. You are yellow-water rafting”) has the earmarks of being hoked up during some longeur at his Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse.
I was surprised to learn that Brenner, a Temple journalism graduate, spent five years doing TV documentaries for independent stations and PBS. He describes several of the prison documentaries he made, and when he stops horsing around, he can be downright analytical, as in his animadversion over female incarceration:
“Women prisoners are so different from the stereotypes Hollywood produced on the silver screen. The women in he real prisons, unlike in those feature films, are not very attractive, very well built, misunderstood good hearts who only got into trouble because of their undying love for a bad man…”
“Most of the women I met in prison were, by and large, physically unattractive, extremely common, and tough as a piece of leather straight out of hell. Quasimodo’s sister would have won a beauty contest in the prison in which I filmed.”
It’s no secret why he left thoughtful TV. He wanted to make big bucks, and, as he told the Inquirer, he felt ineffectual. “The social problems I was dealing with existed before I entered documentaries and, unfortunately, still exist today. I wanted to make money, and you don’t get rich in documentaries.” Brenner claims he still feels “the same way I aways did about poverty, about bigotry, but instead of focusing people’s attention on those issues, I’m now overpaid to take their mind off of them. Which is still kind of altruistic, and much more satisfying to me.” Mebbe so.
But the most striking difference between Brenner’s “interim memoirs” and Kramer’s autobiography is the former’s constant exploitation of his personal life and the almost total absence of such tasty trivia in the latter’s. We learn how David broke his cocaine and Quaalude problems, and though we’re told he’s fessing up to teach his readers a lesson, one’s hunch is that his motivation is as venal as the local TV station’s crusades against crack: ratings hype.
Needless to say, damn few of Brenner’s viewers have even heard of Samuel Noah Kramer, Penn’s super Sumerologist. His book is full of interesting lore about growing up poor in Philly two generations before Brenner. And after wallowing around in Brenner’s megabuck swamp, it is amazingly refreshing to see Kramer’s gratitude at getting a grant for a few thousand dollars from the Guggenheim so he can keep us his “useless” work of deciphering man’s first written language.
There’s a definite demotic streak in Kramer, as well as in Brenner. Kramer’s concept of “firsts” in human history, drawing on his Sumerian findings, is a successful ploy at turning dry-as-dust materials into the green of salable and readable books.
Kramer didn’t start out hungering to become the world’s most famous Sumerologist. His muse quickened by the American literary renaissance of the 1920s, Kramer aspired to be an imaginative writer. He was a flop at that.
Only by a series of academic accidents in a career (made more difficult by the anti-Semitism that blemished the Ivy League until after World War II!) that is distinguished by persistence as much as by brilliance, did Kramer reach his preeminence in a very narrow international world of specialists.
Kramer has trained his basilisk eye on practically every extant Sumerian tablet, whether in Baghdad, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Jena, Leningrad, Moscow, Oxford, London, Paris or Rome. He’s a world traveler for world history. By far the most interesting episodes in his life, to me, were his thawing the Cold War just a whit as a visiting professor in East Germany and, later, in the Soviet Union.
What did this energetic man achieve, the cynic may ask? In a world besotted by high tech (and humungously profitable) space and warfare research, he pushed back the perimeters of our human past by a thousand years or more, modified our religious heritage by showing how our myths and theologies had analogues in Near Eastern antiquity.
And all without ever making a killing salarywise (to use a phrase I’m certain he’d despise), without dragging his dirty private linen in public for yucks or bucks. Both Brenner and Kramer are obsessed men: Brenner to ride a wave of popular acclaim, Kramer to leave a lasting mark on civilization as we used to know it.
Brenner, characteristically, brandishes his Chaim pendant bellicosely, so the goyim won’t forget all the Jewish children they killed. Kramer, on the other hand, wants to be buried in Ur, “The Sumerian city where—so at least the Bible tells us—Father Abraham was born, as a symbolic reminder of Arab-Jewish fellowship and fraternity. This, I fear, is now quite impossible; the political struggle between the two related peoples has become so embittered that even a well-meaning, innocent Sumerian lama (his good angel) cannot bridge the gap sufficiently to make this metaphoric wish come true.
“But as one Sumerian sage put it, ‘Friendship lasts a day, kinship last forever,’ and I will not give up the hope that sooner or later ancient Sumer and Ur, resurrected out of dust and ashes by the spade of the modern archaeologist, will help to revive the spiritual and familial bond between Arab and Jew.”
Those are Kramer’s closing sentiments. Here are Brenner’s: “From now to the end of this wondrous gift we call life, I want to live a few books, not write them. I thank each of you for making my life so wondrous. I hope that you, too, have a rich and rewarding life and that you, too, are a breathing, living book. Now, let’s all get out there and kick ass!” Yuck. Q.E.D.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 6, 1987