A Tribute to Isidor Saslav (1938-2013)
by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - February 11, 2013) I never met him. I never even e-mailed or talked with him. But I thought I knew who he was -- who he had to be. With the first name Isidor, I was sure that he was much older than me and perhaps even belonged to my parents' generation. No one my own age was named Isidor. There certainly was no one who answered to the name Isidor Saslav at my public school or in my high school and later at college. The name Isidor Saslav smacked of the old world -- of the shtetl -- the small town in Russia or Poland that was inhabited by Jews. Only a Jew could have had the name Isidor Saslav -- or someone strange enough to want to pass for a Jew.
Then, Isidor Saslav died in January 2013 and I began to learn about the very funny and very smart man behind the name. Isidor Saslav was far more unusual than I might have imagined. I was sorry that I had never had the opportunity to sit down with him at his home or my mine, to drink tea together in the manner of the old country and to talk at leisure and by the clocks of the old county.
I am sure that I would have liked Isidor Saslav. I know that we would have had a great deal to talk about. In fact, he was born only four years before I was born (in 1942) and grew up, as I did, in post-World War II, atomic age America, which means that he grew up in the era of virulent anti-communism, the bomb, and McCarthyism. That was the bad news. There was good news, too. It was also an era of Penguin paperbacks -- hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands and thousands of them which we both read voraciously -- and also an era of the theater, which meant that the great plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, Brecht, and, of course, the Irish-born genius, George Bernard Shaw, were performed on stage in New York. That's where I saw them.
The times were terrible. Things were horrible, but one could almost always go to the theater and see Shaw's stunning plays produced.
I am sure that had Isidor and I met we would have stayed up late and talked about George Bernard Shaw -- otherwise known as GBS. We would have discussed Shaw's wit, Shaw's plays -- Caesar and Cleopatra, Major Barbara, Man and Superman, Pygmalion, and his masterful antiwar drama Heartbreak House. We would have shared our appreciations of the plays. I would have told Isidor that I loved Shaw from the moment I first saw Androcles and the Lion -- and loved lions, too, from that moment on.
I would have told Isidor that when I was a boy and went to the theater in New York, I often found that the most entertaining -- and dramatic -- part of the evening took place before the curtain rose and before the play began. Later, I read that Shaw himself had much the same experience when he sat in the audience as a small boy. He, too, enjoyed watching society ladies and gentlemen in their costumes, speaking their lines as much if not more than watching Shakespeare unfold.
If Isidor and I had met I would have told him my favorite Shaw story -- which goes like this: The modern dancer, Isadora Duncan, told GBS that they ought to have a baby together. "Think of it!" she apparently said, "With my body and your brains, what a wonder it would be." Shaw replied, "Yes, but what if he had my body and your brains." Oh to be as witty as GBS! For years that was my goal.
No, Isidor and I never met, though Swans linked us, brought us together, and so in a sense we belong to a community and to a culture that we helped to create, along with the larger Swans family. Looking at and reviewing the body of work that Isidor produced for Swans makes me appreciate the power of persistence -- of doing something every day, or every other day. After a while, a whole body of work accumulates. Reviewing Isidor's work I can appreciate the overall contributions he made to a community that transcends time and space.
Brother, comrade, friend -- man I never met and yet feel as though I've known my whole life. You were no Caesar, no Superman, no saint, no millionaire, and no general, all of whom Shaw wrote about, but you had Shaw's wit and Shaw's spunk. You kept Shaw alive, and brought him to Texas and wherever you traveled and worked.
In his will, Shaw wrote that he was "a believer in creative revolution." I'd like to think that if Isidor Saslav had a will he would have called himself a believer in creative revolution, too.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)