It’s not every day that one gets to see an opera illustrated in comics and sung by rock musicians, but happily, May 7 was one of those days. That night “Memorial City,” the latest musical theater piece by comics great (and former Forward cartoonist) Ben Katchor and composer Mark Mulcahy, had its Manhattan premiere as the culmination of a daylong conference organized by New York University’s Humanities Initiative and The New York Institute for the Humanities.
The conference, titled “Second Thoughts on the Memory Industry,” explored ways we bear witness to and memorialize tragic events — from photojournalism to truth commissions to artistic endeavors — and how those acts have become “increasingly reified, stylized, fetishized, instrumentalized, hijacked and ossified,” according to the press release.
Greta Garbo, who died 21 years ago on April 15, is a permanent screen legend, as last year’s lavishly illustrated “Greta Garbo: The Mystery of Style” by Stefania Ricci from Skira Publishers, reminds us. Yet director Mauritz Stiller, who discovered Garbo and made her a star, remains an enigmatic figure, as “Nordic Exposures: Scandinavian Identities in Classical Hollywood Cinema,” out in October, 2010 from The University of Washington Press establishes.
Its author, Arne Lunde, teaches Scandinavian literature at UCLA. Lunde explains that Stiller, although he made a career in Sweden before moving to America, was born Moshe Stiller in Helsinki, Finland, to a Jewish family of Russian and Polish origins. Stiller fled his homeland to Sweden to avoid serving in the Russian army during World War I.
Bronzed workers forge a winding road through the hills leading to the Dead Sea; smiling politicians cut ribbons marking the National Water Carrier, chemical factories and a gleaming submarine; proud generals lecture an adoring audience on their latest military victories; Jewish athletes march at the Maccabiah Games — these images, known as “Yomaney Geva” (“Geva Diaries”), were shown during the first three decades of the State of Israel to cinema-goers before every film screening, representing the ethos of an idealistic era and helping the process of cultural and ideological integration in the new country. Now, the celluloid on which they were printed has faded and soon the buildings they were created in will be demolished, replaced by luxury apartments.
When the English novelist Ian McEwan accepted the Jerusalem Prize in January, he did so despite strident demands from pro-Palestinian writers to reject the prize and boycott the Jerusalem Book Fair where it is awarded. But McEwan insisted on his right to engage in dialogue with all Israelis, and argued in the Guardian that literature, “with its impulse to enter other minds, can reach across political divides.”
It’s this spirit which animates a new public book club in London. Having just celebrated its first anniversary, the Arab-Israel Book Club has been inviting people to inhabit the minds of characters living with “the situation.” From Anton Shammas to Sara Shilo, its aim has been to introduce readers to authors — and characters — who might deepen their understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And its time seems to have come: As uprisings spread across the Middle East this winter, its numbers have more than doubled. People suddenly seem hungry to know more.
“The Normal Heart,” just revived on Broadway, is less a play than a sensory experience, likely to leave audiences feeling drained, exhilarated and perhaps a bit guilty.
That the play is powerful is, given its subject matter, to be expected. That it is nuanced as well is a tribute to playwright Larry Kramer, a man hardly noted for delicacy.
Originally produced in 1985 by the Public Theater, “The Normal Heart” is set in the early 1980s, and closely chronicles Kramer’s own experiences as HIV/AIDS began to spread in the gay community. The disease was almost completely ignored, not only by the straight world, but also by those most likely to be affected by it.
In the late 1960s the term jazz fusion became a popular way of referencing music that borrowed heavily from both jazz and funk, or jazz and rock, or really any two genres that musicians troubled to smash together. If you hadn’t already noticed, fusion has been a dominant mode of expression in Jewish music over the last few decades. Reviews of new albums can tend to sound like exercises in proper noun naming; sometimes it’s easier just to list the influences on an album than it is to explain what they’re all doing together. Klezmer and rock. Klezmer and metal. Ladino and jazz.
JDub Records and John Zorn’s Tzadik label have split the difference on these fusion experiments. Tzadik headed in a more avant-garde direction, where jazz is piled on experimental guitar pieces or post-apocalyptic klezmer piano riffs, and JDub participated more in globe-trotting world music excavations or pseudo-jam acts. On Shotnez’s self-titled debut album on JDub, the band bridges the distance between world music and the avant-garde. Unlike comparable acts, however, Shotnez puts that genre mix-and-matching in the limelight. The band’s name refers to the halachic prohibition of mixing wool with linen, and with tracks like “Stolen Goods” or “Chaos” it suggests that there’s a dark blasphemous heart beating in Jewish fusion music.
Molly Birnbaum is the author of “Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way.” Her blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:
The first book I ever wrote was with my grandfather, Morris, a big-boned businessman who lived with my grandmother in upstate New York. He was a talented amateur artist. I was five.
We wrote a whole series of books together, in fact, over a number of years, lying belly-down on the living room rug, surrounded by sheathes of blank paper and boxes of colored pencils, pastels, and crayons. I spun tangled stories — often minute variations on the same one about a nurse, her puppy, and the bright red convertible they drove around town — that my grandfather transcribed in his spidery scrawl. He would then illustrate the blank pages of our makeshift books with intricate line drawings of people, animals, and cars. Under his watchful eye, I filled them with waxy strokes of color.
Exhibition curator Arno Pařík in the restored synagogue in Boskovice, Moravia. Photo by Samuel Gruber.
Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments
The Jewish Museum in Prague has opened the exhibition “Barokní synagogy v českých zemích” (“Baroque synagogues in Czech Lands”) curated by Arno Pařík. The exhibtion is at the Robert Guttmann Gallery, and will be on view until August 28.
According to Dr. Pařík, “the exhibition seeks to chart in more detail than ever before a group of lesser-known monuments that uniquely reflect the history and culture of the traditional Jewish communities in this country.”
The exhibition presents a selection of the Czech Republic’s oldest synagogues, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, with particular focus on their plans, designs and decoration. The exhibition also includes many ritual and decorative objects form the Museum collection, including a Star of David, a weather-vane, a stone alms box, a brass lavabo, and a wooden Decalogue (from Roudnice) and other items.
Filmmaker Ethan Coen is set to publish his second poetry collection, titled “The Day the World Ends,” next near.
Shtetl Magazine reviews “The Joyful Child” by Montreal novelist Norman Ravvin.
NPR profiles mother-daughter klezmer duo Elaine Hoffman Watts and Susan Watts.
Woody Allen spills the beans on life in show business.
Benjamin Ivry remembers conductor George Szell, who may have been a dictator on the podium, but was no Nazi.
Jordana Horn sees “Rabies,” billed as “Israel’s first horror film,” at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Jenna Weissman Joselit keeps track of Jewish Time.
Philologos is singing in the rain.
Underneath its colorful shell of swashbuckling pirate adventures, boyish hi-jinx, and clock-eating crocodiles, Peter Pan’s story is terribly sad. Sure, he gets to play and have fun forever, but by refusing to grow up he loses all of his friends and the girl he loves; he is forced to watch through the window as the people he holds dear grow old without him — a fate arguably worse than the death he so deeply fears.
“Intimate Grammar,” which opened the New York Israel Film Festival on May 5, takes this gloomy heart of the Peter Pan story and sets it in 1960s Israel, in the years leading up to the Six Day War. Based on the critically lauded novel “The Book of Intimate Grammar” by David Grossman, the film chronicles the arrested adolescence of Aharon, played by a wistfully adorable Roee Elsberg. A whip-smart, artistic child, Aharon is stuck in an ill-fitting blue-collar family that, because of the too-recent Holocaust, fears and scorns Aharon’s sensitivity and formidable intellect (“The in’electuals and the artists were the first to die there,” his father cautions).
Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments
In August 2009 I wrote (and posted photos) about plans to transform the former Temple Adath Jeshurun in Syracuse, into a new “boutique” hotel. This week the hotel opened. The building is still an impressive presence on Syracuse’s University Hill, though inside nothing of the old sanctuary remains. The project includes many green elements and it’s a LEED certified building. The “greenest” element of all, however, is the reuse of the structure. The embedded energy and labor in the old materials and construction have not gone to waste, nor to a landfill.
In antiquity the synagogue was a place where visitors to a community could find refuge, a meal and sometime a bed. I’m thinking, of course, of the famous Theodotus inscription found in Jerusalem (translation from Meyers in “Sacred Realm: The Emergence of the Synagogue in the Ancient World” by Steven Fine):
Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in ‘Lenny’ (1974). Courtesy Toronto Jewish Film Festival
Nearly 50 years after his landmark Carnegie Hall performance, and 44 years since his drug-related death, Lenny Bruce still has the power to shock. And as long he’s onscreen, it’s impossible to look away from Elan Gale’s Looking for Lenny, a new documentary whose North American premiere opens this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 7. But with an overdose of celebrity interviews, and a regrettable final third that makes tenuous connections to Don Imus to Michael Richards, the film feels more like a well-meaning term paper than a compelling portrait of a tortured genius — tortured, that is, by the establishment he mocked.
Some of the interviews do shed light on Bruce’s place in the pop pantheon. “If it wasn’t for Lenny Bruce, we wouldn’t have had Richard Pryor or George Carlin,” says comedian Rob Riggle. “And it’s usually the first guy through the breach who takes all the bullets.” Likewise, cultural agitator Paul Krassner reminds us that Bruce was an “activist, transforming horror into humor.” And Kitty Bruce, Lenny’s daughter, provides poignant memories of Bruce’s desperation toward the end of his life — and of her own unbearable grief at learning about his death.
Crosspsted from Haaretz
June 1970 marked a new era for Ashkelon, with the dedication of the French Resort on its southern beach, at the far end of Ben-Gurion Boulevard. The resort took on mythical proportions, symbolizing the luxury, hedonism and glamour of foreign locales at a time when most Israelis still vacationed at retreats operated by the Histadrut labor federation. The mainly French vacationers who went there found themselves in a unique architectural setting that allowed them to be part of an independent community with private accommodations.
Forty years later, few signs remain of the permissive aura that surrounded it. Today the complex is home to elderly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and is showing its age.
To last week’s “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Holocaust” published here in the Forward, another significant contribution can be added: Jerome Rothenberg’s “Triptych,” which assembles three serial poems — “Poland/1931,” “Khurbn” and “The Burning Babe.”
Today on The Arty Semite, we’re featuring an excerpt from the middle section. As Rothenberg poignantly points out in the preface, the word “Holocaust” never quite captured the experience for him, being “too Christian & too beautiful, too much smacking of a ‘sacrifice,’” while Khurbn (Yiddish for “destruction”) projected the meaning more vividly. Indeed, a “sacrifice” is something torn from the self and forever given up on, while the ruins implied by the Yiddish term remain as a phantom limb, the ever-living other-worldly part that continues to exist and communicate.
Courtesy of Ignition Entertainment
There remains significant scholarly debate about the exact process and dating of the canonization of the Tanach, but for most Jews, the Book of Enoch ended up on the cutting room floor. Takeyasu Sawaki, a Japanese game designer and the director of the recently released video game “El Shaddai,” would like people, specifically gamers, to reconsider it in a more contemporary light.
“El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” is an action game from the Japanese company Ignition Entertainment. It features a partially abstract and colorful visual style with both 2D and 3D gameplay (think levels from “Super Mario Bros.” interspersed with battles from “God of War”). More surprising, its story follows the Book of Enoch, one of the oldest non-canonical Jewish texts.
A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here
It is said that a good firefighter arrives at the scene half an hour before the fire breaks out. So what about a good photojournalist?
When the amateur German aviator Mathias Rust infiltrated the Soviet Union in 1987 and landed right in the middle of Red Square, Arkady Yagudaev was already on the scene with his cheap Zenit camera, hanging around Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
Yagudaev, a longtime Forverts photographer who is celebrating his 75th birthday this year, began his photojournalism career somewhat by happenstance. Growing up in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, he sent in a photo of the Bukhara-Urals gas pipeline to Izvestiya, the official government newspaper in Moscow. When the paper published the photo, he decided to leave home and make his way as a photographer in the capital.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Since coming to Washington, D.C., 18 months ago, I’ve had lots of rewarding experiences, but none quite as memorable as my recent excursion to the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command at the D.C. Navy Yard, where I delivered a speech in commemoration of the Holocaust to a varied and engaged audience of military personnel and civilians.
I came to the Navy Yard wearing two hats. One was that of an historian, whose charge was to suggest something of the ways in which history complicates and enriches the world we currently inhabit. Toward that end, my talk, “Past Imperfect,” explored how the past relentlessly and inexorably intrudes on the present, especially when it comes to the continuous stream of new revelations — archival, cinematic and material — about the Shoah.
The latest LABA Journal is out, featuring Elissa Strauss on why she won’t marry King David, Basmat Hazan on why we definitely need to pay attention to what David is wearing, and Stephen Hazan Arnoff on Justin Bieber, the latest and greatest of a long line of Davids.
Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and two dozen classical musicians crossed into Gaza to play Mozart for an invitation-only audience.
Souciant magazine publishes an interview with slain Palestinian-Jewish actor Juliano Mer-Khamis.
Crossposted from Samuel Gruber’s Jewish Art & Monuments
Bar-Ilan University professor Ilia Rodov has written an important and useful article on medieval Torah Arks, especially those tall tower types, well known from representations in many illuminated medieval manuscripts. The article, “Tower-like Torah Arks, the Tower of Strength and the Architecture of the Messianic Temple,” was recently published in the prestigious art historical Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.
Rodov’s article accomplishes three tasks. First, he has inventoried the number of occurrences and described the variety of known Spanish, Italian and Ashkenazic arks that meet a broad definition of “Tower-like Torah Arks.” These include examples shown in Spanish Haggadot, such as British Library Mss 2884, where the Aron HaKodesh is shown as a substantial fortified architectural element; to the tall ornate Gothic-style free-standing cabinet-type arks illustrated in Northern European manuscripts.