Springer kicks off Book Festival

BY VICTORIA SIEGEL, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

If you think you know Jerry Springer by the character he plays on his long-running television show (The Jerry Springer Show), then you don’t know Jerry Springer the man. Those attending Sunday night’s opening of the 30th annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival experienced the warmth, intelligence, humor and yiddisher kop of this dynamic man.

Springer opened the festival by giving the keynote address. He began his remarks by saying “May you never be on my show.”

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After the laughter subsided, he continued: “Thank you for inviting me to help celebrate something so positive like the idea that we have Americans who are reading. That’s not done on my show.”

With this humorous beginning, for the next 35 minutes he talked about his family, politics, education, and being a Jew in America.

He expressed amazement at the possibilities that America offered as he told the story of his family’s journey to this country. His family was almost wiped out in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany but his parents managed to escape to England, where he and his sister were born. Even though his father didn’t speak English, he worked hard and saved enough money to buy four tickets for the Queen Mary to come to America. “They had lived through two world wars and believed that if there was one place on earth for some degree of freedom and safety and hope, it was America,” Springer told the audience.

He said even though he was only five years old at the time, he has preserved two vivid memories from that passage. Upon sailing into the New York harbor and passing the Statue of Liberty, his mom woke him up from a nap he had been taking and brought him to the top deck. “Everyone had come up to the top deck to see the Statue of Liberty. The first thing I remember from that moment was how cold it was, since it was January. The second thing, was how silent it was on that top deck. I asked my mother what that meant, and she said in German ‘One day, it will mean everything.’ And she was right.”

Springer showed visible emotion when retelling the story, but he went on to say, “I am living proof that the American dream really does exist. My family, in one generation, went from near extinction to this ridiculously privileged life because of my silly show.”

Springer said that his parents believed all things were possible and that he and his sister were going to get a college education and that they would be doctors or lawyers. “I had a weak stomach and didn’t like organic chemistry, so I became a lawyer.”

He received his law degree from Northwestern University after obtaining his undergraduate degree in political science from Tulane.

While working for a law firm in Cincinnati Springer became active in politics, including serving as mayor of the city, and eventually was hired to do the news for the NBC affiliate in Cincinnati.

He won multiple Emmy Awards for his nightly commentaries and then was approached to do a talk show.

Springer recalled how he was reluctant to do a talk show because he knew nothing about the genre. Then, once Universal Studios bought the show, he was told they wanted him “to ‘do crazy.'”

“I’m not allowed to know what the show’s about or who’s even on it. As I go on stage they hand me a card with names on it. So that’s why I start each show asking ‘What’s going on?’ So that’s what it’s about…it’s mindless.”

The politician in him came out when he explained to the audience how he came to defend the show in the 1990s when it was being attacked.

“It’s not a financial decision because I could make a whole helluva lot more money with sponsors doing a show like Oprah. We get the type of sponsors like ‘Have you been in an accident?’ My politics took over. It has nothing to do with the topics we have on our show…it’s about an elitist attitude.”

Springer said he remembered watching a one-on-one interview the late Princess Diana did where she talked about cheating on her marriage, contemplating suicide, and other subjects that are on his show every day.

“No one on the planet said ‘What a pig she is.’ Why not? It’s because she’s pretty, she’s rich, she speaks the Queen’s English. Celebrities go on Leno and Letterman every night and talk about who they’ve slept with. We read magazines about these celebrities. But on our show, oy vey, we call them ‘trash.’ Imagine calling another human being ‘trash.'” He said that nothing has ever been on his show that adults did not know already existed in our neighborhoods, communities — or our families.

“When our show first came on it was the first time these people had been on TV. If you are black, unless you are playing a doctor living in the suburbs like Cosby, then you have to be on a side network. In a free society when you have a free media, shouldn’t it reflect the whole society?” He said his show served as a sort of barometer of how our society has changed over the years.

“The first year of my show we did a program about interracial dating. We had protests and threats from advertisers that they’d drop us. We are about, if Barack Obama wins, to have a president who is the son of an interracial marriage.”

And while Springer is proud of the progress our society has made in terms of certain social issues, he warned that the American Dream is not available to everyone.

“We are the first generation in history that can not say to our children ‘You’ll have it better than we did.’ Our nation was founded on an idea that only works if you have a viable and strong middle class.” He said that there has never been a bigger disparity between rich and poor than there is today.

“The middle class is in jeopardy and we’re losing it. It’s harder and harder for the middle class to send their kids to college. We can say goodbye to the middle class because we can’t afford to educate them.”

Springer said that other countries, such as India and China, invest in educating their children so that’s where the jobs are going. He said that for the Jewish people, education has always been a priority and it needs to be for our country. He said that our brains are our “national offense.”

As for our “national defense,” he said it’s our health care system.

“A very, very small percentage of us will leave this earth because a plane flew into a building. However, 99.9 percent of us will leave this earth because of illness. Forty million people in this country can’t defend their families because they don’t have health care. Why is it morally justified that rich people have a longer life expectancy than poor people? On what religious basis is that okay?”

Many in the audience applauded Springer’s comments and political views throughout his presentation. And while there were some people who didn’t agree with him politically, they seemed to appreciate his humor and warmth. In fact, when someone asked him during the question and answer portion of the evening when he was going to run for Congress, he replied in the typical Springer, self-effacing style: “Clap all you want, you’d have a field day with me. I live in Sarasota where our congressional district is Katherine Harris.”

He said he probably has more influence raising money and giving political speeches instead.

Springer concluded his remarks by advising the attendees to teach their children values so they are prepared for what they’ll encounter in the world.

“This is part of what our religion teaches. You teach your kids the process of making decisions and that there’s so much out there like drugs, dirty jokes, and violence and other things we can’t control,” he said. “But we need to teach them how to process these things through these values so they can make good decisions.”