The Pennsylvania Ponzi Polka
“The Polka King,” a Netflix original (mostly) comedy film, begins streaming on Friday, Jan. 12. It is based on the true story of Jan Lewen, a Pole who settled in Pennsylvania. He did well leading polka bands. Things got complicated when he invited anyone to invest with him, promising big returns. His ponzi scheme collapsed in 2001 and he went to prison for five years. JACK BLACK, 48, stars as Lewen. The rest of the main cast is “very Jewish”: JENNY SLATE, 35, as Lewen’s wife, Marla; JASON SCHWARTZMAN, 37, as Mickey, Lewen’s best friend; and VANESSA BAYER, 36 as “Binki Bear” (a woman who plays the band’s mascot, a bear, at polka dances).
“Polka King” was directed by Maya Forbes and co-written by Forbes and her husband, WALLACE “Wally” WOLODARSKY, 47. His credits including writing ten “Simpsons” episodes and co-writing several films with Forbes.
By the way, the famous tune, “The Pennsylvania Polka,” which was heavily featured in the film “Groundhog Day,” was written by ZEKE MANNERS (1911-2000). Born Leo Ezekiel Mannes, he enjoyed considerable success as a country musician and radio personality and billed himself as “the Jewish Hillbilly.”
2017 was the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes for excellence in journalism, literature, and music. The Prizes were established in the will of JOSEPH PULITZER (1847-1911). His will also provided for scholarships and an endowment to create the Columbia University School of Journalism (one of the oldest journalism schools in the world and the only one at an Ivy League School).
Pulitzer became famous as the publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World newspapers. His historical reputation is uneven: he was a strong friend of the struggling working man and an enemy of government corruption. On the other hand, he sometimes engaged in what was called “yellow journalism” (slanting facts or even inventing stories). He did this to stay ahead in battles for newspaper circulation.
Pulitzer was a household name in his day, but he would be largely forgotten today if not for the prizes that bear his name. Years ago, I read that Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant, was the son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother. Six months ago, a friend wrote me and asked me if this was accurate---and I took another look. Long story short: I discovered that a Hungarian history professor, Andras Csillag, had poured through the records in Hungary and indisputably established that both of Pulitzer’s parents were Jewish. However, the Joseph Pulitzer biography on the Pulitzer Prize site repeated the now-discredited story that Pulitzer’s mother wasn’t Jewish. I worked with a Pulitzer Prize Board employee and that biography has been corrected—and, tooting my own horn, the on-site biography of Pulitzer thanks me (see end notes of on-site bio).
This biographical mistake wasn’t an accident. During his lifetime, Pulitzer either put out this false story about his mother or went along with it. His children were raised in their mother’s Christian faith and apparently even they didn’t know their father was “fully Jewish.” Lying about his parentage probably opened a few doors for Pulitzer and for his children that anti-Semites might have kept closed.
I’ve thought a few times that if Pulitzer had been proudly Jewish he might have found lasting fame in the American Jewish community and would not only be remembered for his prizes. He’d be on those lists of famous Jews we saw in our Hebrew school texts. So, there’s some irony in that.
The Sunday Morning List/More
Every year, CBS Sunday Morning devotes a segment to the prominent in many fields that died in the past year. Here are the Jewish persons on that list, omitting those who “everybody” knows were Jewish (like JERRY LEWIS)—JUNE FORAY, 99, the voice of “Rocky, the Flying Squirrel” and “Natasha”; STAN WESTON, 84. He brought the idea of G.I. Joe to the (Jewish) owner of Hasbro Company; EDITH SCHLAIN WINDSOR, 84, the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage; Judge JOSEPH WAPNER, 97, the first judge on “The People’s Court”; CHUCK BARRIS, 87, the creator of the “Dating Game,” Newlywed Game,” and “The Gong Show”; MONTY HALL, 96, co-creator and host of “Let’s Make a Deal”; and EUGENE LANG, 98, inventor most famous for his philanthropy. He gave $150M, mostly to education.
By the way, Netflix is now streaming a four-part series on the history of famous toys (“The Toys that Made Us”). The “heavily Jewish” history of “G.I. Joe” and “Barbie” is the focus of two of the episodes.
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