DAVID BITTNER AND THE THÉÂTRE DES VARIÉTÉS: NOSTALGIC JOURNALIST’S QUEST FOR ARCANE FACTS LEADS TO UNLOCKING OF IOWA SYNAGOGUE’S OLD SECRET

Percival Goodman, architect

One of our readers, David Bittner, who sometimes posts, in Comments, long, reflective pieces of self-induced musings not necessarily connected to the Scarriet article or poem above, has placed us in a dilemma; he has placed with us, unsolicited, both by mail and electronically, an article he has written entitled “Nostalgic Journalist’s Quest for Arcane Facts Leads to Unlocking of Iowa Synagogue’s Old Secret.”

We are utterly charmed by David Bittner; he represents something which we consider important, though we can’t quite identify it—a spirit from a bygone era: a rambling, observant innocence—which, I think most of our readers will discern, is a spirit that differs from our cranky and beloved Scarriet.

We at Scarriet—our strangely named Blog—aspire to expound a high-sounding, credible, youthful yet scholarly, Zeitgeist of Poetry and Culture in a manner serious, Germanic, Romantic, racy, tragic, traditional, classical, critical.

Bittner offers a blast of nostalgia, humility, playfulness.

We pound. He dances. We dart. He skips. We flog. He chuckles. We romanticize. He defers.

We wish to publish him, but how can we do so, without betraying ourselves editorially? Our readers will see Bittner’s writing on Scarriet and think, ‘What the hell is going on?’

But we do pride ourselves on being inclusive. If we sometimes court controversy, we never intend to hurt; we seek to enlighten, to join hands.

We cannot turn Bittner away.

We found a solution.

We will marry his essay to remarks made by America’s greatest genius, in the fictional narration of his famous “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The solemn will be paired with the playful.

Bittner’s stated theme is “quest for arcane facts leads to unlocking…old secret…”

In Bittner’s essay, the way to the “secret” is filled with detours, and Poe perhaps can tell us why:

The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting is such exercises as call his muscles into play, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play.

And so Poe introduces his tale, and before he gets to the actual mystery and its horror, he recounts how the narrator of the tale and his seclusive, humble companion, the amateur detective Dupin (a model for the later Sherlock Holmes) are walking along the streets of Paris together, for about fifteen minutes, without speaking:

We were strolling one night down a long dirty street, in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. Being both, apparently, occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:

“He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Théatre des Variétés.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” I replied unwittingly, and not at first observing (so much had I been absorbed in reflection) the extraordinary manner in which the speaker had chimed in with my meditations. In an instant afterward I recollected myself, and my astonishment was profound.

“Dupin,” I said gravely, “this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed, and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know what I was thinking of—?” Here I paused, to ascertain beyond a doubt whether he really knew of whom I thought.

“—of Chantilly,” said he, “why do you pause? You were remarking to yourself that his diminutive figure unfitted him for tragedy.”

This was precisely what had formed the subject of my reflections. Chantilly was a quondam cobbler of the Rue St. Denis, who, becoming stage-mad, had attempted the rôle of Xerxes, in Crébillon’s tragedy so called, and been notoriously Pasquinaded for his pains.

“Tell me, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, “the method—if method there is—by which you have been enabled to fathom my soul in this matter.” In fact I was even more startled than I would have been willing to express.

“It was the fruiterer,” replied my friend, ” who brought you to the conclusion that the mender of soles was not of sufficient height for Xerxes et id genus omne.

“The fruiterer!—you astonish me—I know no fruiterer whosoever.”

“The man who ran up against you as we entered the street—it may have been fifteen minutes ago.”

And with that, we present David Bittner:

***

AS I enter my dotage, I have found myself eager to get answers to some questions that have had me wondering since I was young.  For instance, I would like to do DNA-testing that might tell me more about my ethnicity. Raised in an observant Jewish home, am I in a straight line of descent from the ancient Israelites, or am I also partly Slavic, as I suspect? The Slavic may not show very much in my phenotype, but I think it must be there in my genotype! And what is my exact height in feet and inches? As one nurse put it to me recently, “It looks like you are 5′ 5” smack dab !”

Three years ago I took a short trip to Rockford, Illinois, which I consider my second home town. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, I spent most of my formative junior high and high school years in Rockford. Imagine the jolt I got when I went to have lunch at the Sweden House, a very nice, new restaurant in the mid-60s (and the place where my high school graduation party was held), and found a sign on the door that said, “This property is condemned.”

The next day I took a bus into Chicago to see the famous Brookfield Zoo. My mother had told me this was no doubt the origin of my dreams since childhood about a fabulous park with rectangular pools and flower beds, lots of fountains, and an old blue-uniformed ticket-taker with a white walrus mustache. Now, as I made my first visit to the Brookfield Zoo since 1957, I saw no mustachioed, old ticket-taker, but there unmistakably were the rectangular pools and flower beds and fountains that I remembered. I think that St. Helena could not have felt any surer about the holy places she identified in fourth-century Palestine, than I felt about these familiar, old features of Brookfield Zoo.

Another story that goes back to early childhood concerns the two summer vacation trips we took to Lake Okoboji, a popular resort in Iowa. On one of these two trips I accidentally dropped parts of a children’s tea-set, made by the well-known Ohio Art Company, right into Lake Okoboji. Of all the miniature metal utensils that I had just lost, I particularly liked the blue teapot and the way its blue lid fit so exactly into the top. So in the late 1980s, when I saw the very same tea set, in mint condition, on sale for $50 at a West Palm Beach, Florida flea market, I had to have it. If affects me in the same way today as it did originally. It is cunning!

And I wanted to find my all-time favorite “Peanuts” comic strip again. It was about Peppermint Patty getting drowned out by her classmates’ laughter when she got up to present her science project on “toast, before and after.” Patty began, “Now, on this board is a slice of untoasted bread, and…” The whole next panel was filled with Patty’s classmates chortling, “HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA.” It reminded me of my own ridiculous seventh grade science project. I turned my saucer sled upside down, painted it red with two big green spots for eyes, and attached two pipe-cleaners to the top for antennae. I called my creation a “Martian.” I wrote a few pages supposedly describing its locomotive, alimentary and sensory systems. I never found out exactly what grade Mr. Hill, our popular P.E. Dept. head, who also taught science, gave my project, but I can definitely tell you that it was not among those selected for display in that year’s school science fair. But it’s much more important to me now to have this cartoon drawn by Charles Schulz in 1970. I found it in The Complete Peanuts, volume 10. These volumes were produced surely, but slowly.

Now, related to all these Proustian tea-cakes stories and the “George Webber” story of quest for identity, told by Thomas Wolfe in his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, is another story from my youth that lurked as a question mark in my mind until recently. Really intent this time on getting an answer, I found it by surfing the internet and digging through library books and journal articles.

I will explain. And now I come to the main subject of this whole article. When I was a teenager, in temple youth group in Rockford, several of us participated in a “conclavette” held at Temple Emanuel in Davenport, Iowa. We were struck to see how the second half of the Shema prayer had been carved in English on the stone façade of Temple Emanuel. Of course we all knew what it was supposed to say, which was, “The Lord Our God is One.” But the two final letters of the phrase—N and E—made the whole six-word phrase, carved in the streamlined, sans serif, International style of Bauhaus, beg to be read as, “THE LORD OUR GOD IS OK.” We all noticed it and laughed. But was it real or just our imagination?

Now, I have often thought that somebody could write a good thesis on the decline of the typewriter as an instrument for creating ambiguous messages, with the rise of the computer. There used to be many traveling salesmen who took typewriters with them on the road. These typewriters were used primarily to write business reports. But once in a while you would hear the story of some distraught, lonely salesman typing a letter to his wife from the road. He would manipulate the typewriter keys to create words and messages with double meanings. For instance, he might type, sloppily, “May is beautiful. I wish you were her.”  The same possibility does not exist in computer-land. (And if the computer had not largely replaced the typewriter, imagine what a field day “birthers” and other detractors of President Barack Obama could have had with the names “Omaha” and “Obama.” Participating in the Nebraska Democratic presidential caucus in 2008, I had to do a double-take when I saw certain posters and placards that were being hoisted.)

Or there is the following story that my cousin Harry’s sister Ruth used to relish. (Both Harry and Ruth are deceased now.) In the 1930s, Ruth served as administrative assistant to Dr. Philip Sher, president of the Jewish Federation of Omaha. While Ruth was still new to her job, she signed some of Dr. Sher’s routine correspondence with a simple abbreviation of his name: “Dr. P. Sher.” Of course Ruth had no idea that she had created an embarrassing double entendre. But it so happens that a prominent Yiddish term of endearment for a little boy is a “pisher.” My great-aunt Dora Arbitman, for instance, used to call me, “a little pisher” when I was that age. At any rate, Dr. Sher noticed the great similarity of his initial and last name to the slang Yiddish word, “pisher,” and he was not amused.

And then there was my typewritten gaffe, written accidentally on purpose, just to shake up the gals in the composition room of The Fond du Lac (WI) Commonwealth Reporter, where I was a summer intern in 1969 and 1970. In one of my accident reports, about a Mr. Puckaway’s auto mishap, I typed F instead of P. (And there really was this Mr. Puckaway, who was involved in a car-crash. I did not make him up.) Sure enough, soon three young women came running upstairs to the newsroom, ostensibly to wag their fingers at me, but it was obvious to me, from their friendly laughter, that I had actually made their morning.

Once again, opportunities and excuses for ambiguity, such as seen in most of the preceding scenarios, do not exist in Computerland. But that still leaves stonemasonry and other traditional media to offer possibilities for mischief-making and honest accidents. Touring Morocco in 1994, I was shown the tomb of a Sultan where, it was speculated, some little stars of David in the paved floor may have been the work of an unknown Jewish architect’s assistant who was just using the Star of David to scrawl the equivalent of, “Kilroy Was Here.”

Or how about the famous epitaph, “O Rare Ben Jonson,” on the grave of the great English dramatist Ben Jonson (1573—1637)? The “O” and the word-fragment, “rare,” were intended to spell the Latin word, “Orare,” which means, “Pray for.” But the “wrong” phrase has actually been considered so much more suitable than the “right” one, that no one has disturbed it for almost 400 years. And let’s not forget Richard Nixon’s solemn criticism of black leftist youth’s “Du Bois” Clubs in California for supposedly using phonics to create unfair competition for the Boys Clubs of America. (As a private citizen in the mid-60s, Nixon served for several years as president of the Boys Clubs of America.)

Then let us consider the little blue-and-white six-pointed stars and other Jewish symbols that Berta Hummel (Sister Maria Innocentia) used freely in her artwork, upon which the later Hummel figurines were based. Some of the angles of Berta’s stars may look a bit askew compared to those of other “Mogen Dovids,” old and new, but they were still recognizable enough as “Jewish stars” to make Hitler angry at the young nun. He forbade the sale of any Hummel work in Germany. Hitler also didn’t like Sister Berta’s depictions of the Stations of the Cross. Maybe Berta’s pictures just made it plain that most of the ones doing good things were Jews, and most of the ones doing bad things were Romans! (The author’s aunt by marriage, the late Shirley Bittner, was Sister Berta’s niece or great-niece. The family is not sure which. I think it is simply not that important to them. But, a convert to Judaism herself, my aunt certainly exhibited no anti-Semitic leanings, and she now rests in Omaha’s Mount Zion Cemetery, a very well-kept little Jewish cemetery of her own choosing.)

And now, as my favorite example of ambiguity in arts and crafts, I turn to my friendship of 40+ years with Gerard and Sonia Teller, formerly of Strasbourg, France, now of Jerusalem, Israel. I have many fond memories of them and their four children. One Friday night in the summer of 1973, we had just sat down to the ritual Sabbath Eve meal. I picked up the silver Kiddush cup (the goblet used for blessing the wine) by my place-setting and casually examined it. What should I discover, but that stamped onto the bottom of the cup, all by itself, was the figure, 800. I think it was probably a foundry mark. But I showed the cup to Gerard and Sonia and said, “Regardez! Cela date de Charlemagne!” It gave us all a good laugh. (As any educated person ought to know, in the year 800, Charlemagne became the first Holy Roman Emperor.)

As we have seen in this example from France, ambiguity may be imposed on certain letter groups. Some people do this to make trouble, others for more humane reasons, like humor. Or, an artist like Sister Berta Hummel may use graphics to make a political statement—gambling on this statement’s whole possibility of meanings to keep her out of prison. The reasons for these bloopers just vary widely. They may include everything from damage control, to theatricality, to playfulness, to carelessness, to opportunism, to simple mistakenness, and to malice.

I think that Percival Goodman, widely acknowledged as the king of American synagogue architecture, and the man who designed Temple Emanuel of Davenport, would come under the “playful” category. Wikipedia tells us that Goodman believed in using “dramatic” and “attention-getting” “accents” to make motorists notice the new synagogues of outlying suburbia. Goodman designed more than 50 synagogues, himself, coast to coast. These “dramatic accents” and Goodman’s coy description of himself as “an agnostic converted by Hitler” make it very believable that this was a man who would think nothing of writing, “THE LORD OUR GOD IS OK” on the wall of a synagogue. Goodman said, “I don’t have any notion of what God is all about; I’m very suspicious of the whole notion of God. Therefore I can only deal with men. Well, that’s not as high an aspiration as God, and therefore the work I do will always be secular.”

And so I have satisfied myself, after 40 years of uncertainty (including the frustration of unanswered phone calls, letters, and e-mails to Temple Emanuel), that the quality of being “OK” must have been an addition that Percival Goodman made to the 13 traditional attributes of God. He was a real intellectual and a well-meaning man. So was his brother, Paul Goodman, with whom Percival co-authored numerous books on philosophy and religion. And so was Somerset Maugham, the famous English author, who was hard to pin down on what he believed. At times he flaunted atheism—mostly to shock people. But during his final illness at the age of 91, he felt the return of faith and said he would accept people’s prayers. So maybe we could say something like that about Percival Goodman—that if he used sans serif to stir things up, maybe it didn’t mean that he was altogether sans seraph.

The author wishes to thank the Omaha Public Library’s reference staff for their great help in the preparation of this article. He will be happy, when possible, to furnish book and page references, for factual material cited herein.

***

So there is David Bittner’s article, carved in all its glory on Scarriet, to remain forever, side by side with Scarriet’s glorious poems. Amen. Paul Goodman, mentioned above in the article, is the illustrious author of Growing Up Absurd, and he and his brother advocated for an intimate, car-less Manhattan. Percival Goodman was not a God-man, but it seems he was an OK-man. Thank you, David Bittner, for a warm, funny, informative and delightful essay!

 

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18 Comments

  1. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 14, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    I feel like the selfishly pouncing commenter somehow but I guess I have more time on my hands than some Scarriet commenters or something and I love reading Scarriet and thinking and saying things about it so I hope I may be forgiven for saying maybe too much too often. I felt at the time when I read David Bitner’s lament about not being published yet in Scarriet that he was under the wonderful illusion that Scarriet is a literary magazine and that’s why he wondered where his article went if it went anywhere at all or was lost in cybersomething land. I am personally very glad to see this essay published here with or without a preface but with the preface it is a double delight. It is so refreshing and with interesting curios packed full to unravel and twists and turns here and there and that alone makes it worth presenting here, that’s how I feel. Stylistically it is just too wonderful to be believed and this is something I am saying only just have skimmed both essay and preface barely as I will need much more time to understand the references and experiences being ignorant of many things I cheerfully admit and always.

    But the main thing I want to say is yay! Scariett for finding such an unusual way to present the author of the essay. And yay! David Bittner for his brave persistance. And I wish I wish there were literary magazines that held a candle to Scarriett. The only one I know of that does is Dark Horse magazine (out of Scotland, Gerry Cambridge I think).

  2. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 15, 2015 at 1:49 am

    Having read the essay now in full I cannot help but express full admiration for someone who can talk about Peppermint Patty with the same affection that he lavishes on rather intricate, symbolic, linguistic and typographic possibilities suggested in childhood. I do wish the white mistachioed gentleman had been at the zoo, though. I find it comforting to learn that it is possible to make embarassing mistakes in other languages as well. And all this linked to the very serious use of double and triple meanings of words not only in family conversation at the dinner table but in facing tyrants. A wonderful mind and a true one. I too had an embarassing science project. Really embarassing. D-.

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      December 15, 2015 at 1:51 am

      But the Lord God said the D- was OK. (I think He said that)

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        December 15, 2015 at 1:52 am

        mistachioed. suddenly new spelling of mustachioed in order that you can use it (whoever wants to) in a poem about pistachio ice cream.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 15, 2015 at 8:51 pm

      Hi Mary,

      That was one of my favorite parts. The Peppermint Patty HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA

      Who doesn’t love lots of HA HA HAs?

  3. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 15, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    o sorrow sorrow I heard soft angels keen
    that one hand washes the other
    in world wide poetry.

    so harshly singers vie
    the crumbs of singing left
    we gather up for God,

    for God, leaving you here,
    weeping, for the second and third
    meanings of words.

    for God
    is singing meant.

    but here, lament;
    and off chance lead you to it, then,
    record my lay:

    the heart of song is sorely bent.
    what else is there to say.

    mary angela douglas 14 december 2015

  4. noochinator said,

    December 15, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    I’ve always been struck by suburban synagogue architecture, which is almost invariably of good taste. Now I know why — for even if a particular synagogue wasn’t designed by Percival Goodman, it was influenced by his style.

    • December 16, 2015 at 2:49 am

      Nooch,

      I had a feeling sometimes that Tom was putting me on with his praise, such as never having heard such “delicate music” as in “Estelle,” and being touched by the “pathos” of lines like, “The dog looks round and is not fed, for his mistress now lies woef’lly dead.” I said on that occasion that all I hoped to achieve was the comic effect of Emmeline Grangerford in her “Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots.” So I hope you’ll retain my work on Scarriet, as you say you plan to, for the sake of the laughs they may still give some readers. Yours, David Bittner P.S. You haven’t seen anything yet until you’ve read my ponderous review of the novel “Bambi, A Life in the Woods,” by Felix Salten, on the 60th anniversary of its publication. I remind myself of Debra Winger, defending some obviously guilty thieves at a trial in “Legal Eagles,” and laughably not even convincing herself of her case.

      • noochinator said,

        December 16, 2015 at 11:59 am

        Here is the link to Ms. Grangerford’s ode:

        http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174686

      • December 17, 2015 at 4:31 am

        On second thought, Nooch, I’ll consider submitting my review of “Bambi,” if it meets with Tom’s approval. I think there may be some pretty good unconcious humor coming out of seriously trying to find parallels between “life in the woods” and political trends of the day. After all, I did say I think some of my writing is funny. What can one more unconciously funny piece hurt? But that would probably be the end of my involvement with Scarriet. I know Tom wants it chiefly as his mouthpiece. D.B.

        • noochinator said,

          December 17, 2015 at 11:28 am

          Even if the Bambi piece is only placed in the comments, it will be up on the internet and you’ll be able to create a link to it by clicking on the time (e.g., 4:31 am) that the comment was posted.

        • January 18, 2016 at 1:36 am

          Nooch: Thanks for your encouragement. I plan to stay on the Scarriet blog. Still, I understand Tom’s concern, and I will give careful thought from now on as to what I write for Scarriet. I’ll be more particular. You know, sometimes I tell people that my style of writing and conversation are like Yogi Bera’s style of batting. He swung at anything. D.B.

          • thomasbrady said,

            January 18, 2016 at 2:30 am

            And Yogi Berra was a great hitter!

  5. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 5, 2016 at 2:54 pm

    I realize in the last few days I have been burying my poems all over Scarriet like a half crazed poet-squirrel. I blame it on the extreme drop in temperatures here. I firmly believe I am part squirrel. I promise this is the last one for a long while; the last hastily planted acorn before the short, but it looks like, extremely intense winter possibly, sets in. At least this poem can be said to be in Peppermint Patty territory as it’s dedicated to Charles Scultz, so there’s a slight linkage to the original fascinating post by David Bittner.

    EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS, TOTO NOT LEFT BEHIND

    [to Charles Schulz]

    close your eyes and pray to land in Oz
    I say to myself on gusty days
    when the wind picks up the

    plastic patio furniture in the
    apartment breezeways and
    slams it against the railings

    or pray to be somewhere still-
    without windows
    or in a hobbit hole

    root cellar of the long ago
    stocked with plenty of jams.
    and your best friends.

    your freaked out dog
    with its floppy ears standing straight up
    in a wind tunnel.

    mary angela douglas 5 january 2016

  6. powersjq said,

    January 5, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    Winningly winsome. A touch this light is rare indeed.

  7. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 5, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    My childhood dog with the floppy ears and total chicken heartedness toward approaching storms was also winningly winsome (love that phrase). Even conspirational.

  8. January 18, 2016 at 1:19 am

    Dear Mary, I just realized what you meant directly above—I think— that you got a D- on your science project, and that this was an embarrassment to you. In high school biology class I procrastinated on my big year’s project, which was to graft pieces of planaria onto other planaria. I called my project “The Abominable Planarian.” I left myself only about three weeks to work on the hated activity. I just wasn’t interested. And I thought the C+ I received on my “project” and the C I got as my final grade for the second semester of biology were fair—if not downright generous— grades. I felt bad that I disappointed my teacher, Mr. Smith. I knew that this was a devoted science teacher who just could not understand anybody’s lack of enthusiasm for natural science. So in college, when I took zoology as part of my natural science requirement, I resolved to give it my best shot. It was a five-credit course. We got three credits for the three exams, and two credits for the weekly lab portion. I got a B in the exam part and a B+ for t he two-credit lab. Mr. Smith was never going to find out, if he even remembered me at all, but as I remembered the stony look on his face while I gave the class my song and dance on “The Abominable Planarian,” at least II felt somewhat better. P.S. Thanks for your positive remarks about my recent essay.

  9. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 18, 2016 at 3:13 am

    Your essay is so wonderful. I thought that people had forgotten how to write essays like that in the English language where the essay is like a curio cabinet with many drawers and it is such a happy thing to open each drawer and see what is in it. I find Thomas Graves essays beautiful in a similar way of having turns and twists in them like a complicated road and you do not know where the road is going and then when you think you do it changes again. I hope you write for the rest of your life exactly the way you write on every single subject you can think of.

    I’m glad you gave the song and dance in the science class: The Abominable Planrian sounds delightful. And that you went on to master science. My project was really an assignment we had all received to collect as many different kinds of insects we could and then make a display of them. I had such a lovely experience collecting the bugs with my Grandfather and had many beautiful specimans. I think my Grandfather kind of magically attracted them, even a rare moth, blue green beetles, all of the ones I had shone like jewels. My display was open on styrafoam with a cardboard box holding it up but no lid.

    We were told to stack our boxes on a chair near the teacher’s desi before leaving class. I put my box on top of the others. Then a mean spirited little kid put his box on top of mine and ground it in so that the wings and bodies of all my glowing insects were crushed to bits. Then he smiled. I told the teacher who was right there. And she said it was your fault you didn’t have a lid on the box and promptly gave me a D-. She had seen what he did and didn’t scold him at all. But I remember the joy in my grandfather’s face and his kindness more than that evil day.


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