Tony Kushner's Tumult and Triumph

CUNY Honor, $100,000 Prize and Working With Spielberg, Highlights of a Busy Year

Exhausting Year: First he won an honorary degree from the City University of New York. Then it was rescinded, then he got it after all. Tony Kushner capped the year by winning a $100,000 prize. And he’s working on a Lincoln biopic with Steven Spielberg.
jonathan kesselman
Exhausting Year: First he won an honorary degree from the City University of New York. Then it was rescinded, then he got it after all. Tony Kushner capped the year by winning a $100,000 prize. And he’s working on a Lincoln biopic with Steven Spielberg.

By Dan Friedman

Published December 05, 2011, issue of December 09, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Kushner’s grandfather was a glazier who was locked out for attempting to organize, which meant that his mother grew up in “terrible poverty in the Bronx” and Kushner himself grew up with an understanding of how labor, society and the production of goods and wealth should relate. Over the past two decades, though, he notes ruefully, those assumptions have been dismantled as the conversation about the right to organized labor has disappeared and the “right to work” state has become the unquestioned norm. “It seems there’s no such thing,” he remarked, “as the category of economic justice.”

When I asked him whether the allusion to socialism in the play’s title is intended to bring Marxism back into the national discussion, he engaged with gusto:

“I’m not a Marxist. I don’t know what Marxism is. You always have to be very specific, are you talking about Gramsci, Luxemburg, Lenin? Are you talking about Stalin? They’re not all the same thing. And I feel that recent attempts to suggest that they are absolutely identical and that Marxism is just Stalinism in embryo is nonsense. There’s nothing of Stalin in Gramsci and indeed not a great deal of it in Lenin.”

From Kushner’s point of view, we have overlooked the money, repetition and vast energies spent in constructing a social discourse that helps plutocrats be callous about the suffering of their fellow creatures and “even more disturbingly, makes the people who suffer the most indifferent to their own suffering.”

There is much to concern him, the erosion of the tenets of the social contract is going hand in hand with capitalist commodity fetishism, where goods simply appear and human labor is just a financial cost of business. Wiesenfeld’s actions at CUNY are symptomatic of how financial power has given board members across a spectrum of organizations a sense of entitlement to make “disgusting” attempts to “use money as a means of leveraging power over a nonprofit institution.” And these are endangering the breadth of free speech that has been a hallmark of American and Jewish tradition. Especially given the nonconfrontational tendencies of less vociferous board members, this can cast a chill over the activities of important arts and culture programs.

Furthermore, from his vantage point, it seems as if Israel’s support in America has been built over the past decade or so by Benjamin Netanyahu and others around a coalition that includes “anti-Semites… who believe that Jews killed Christ and that the Jews are a damned people.” No matter how “jolly they are,” the idea that these “theocrat fundamentalists of the religious right… are great friends of Israel is to me repellent in the extreme.”

Still, he remains upbeat. Not least of all because he sees President Obama taking a leaf from Lincoln’s playbook — and not simply in a superficial, rhetorical way. Lincoln, Kushner claims after five years of near immersive research, was, “a genius on the level of Shakespeare and Mozart, producing things — in Lincoln’s case both governance and prose — that are miraculous in their beauty.”

Lincoln was faced with a massive and essentially unavoidable disaster and yet refused to “betray the precepts of secular democracy.” And the same goes for Obama. “I see him making that effort,” Kushner said. “Given what we just survived, I don’t see why he doesn’t get credit.”

After nearly six years spent “in the company of one of the greatest human beings that has ever lived,” he sees “the presidency through the lens of Lincoln.” Far less critical of Obama than his “nearest and dearest,” Kushner thinks Obama is “remarkable, an astonishing figure.” Next year promises to be the acid test for both Kushner’s cinematic and Obama’s presidential Lincolns.

Dan Friedman is the arts and culture editor of the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.