Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
In my household, Sundays are usually given over to two rituals: reading The New York Times and taking in a museum exhibition. I suspect your household is no different.
But, as I explained recently to a group of George Washington alumni who had come together on a rainy Sunday morning to visit the brand new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia as part of an alumni series called “GW Culture Buffs,” the mere thought of doing exactly what we were doing had once generated more than its fair share of controversy.
We take our Sundays-at-the-museum for granted; earlier generations of culture buffs did not. Many museum officials and their elite patrons were initially rather resistant to the idea of opening the doors of, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on a Sunday, fearful lest it attract the wrong kind of people — those with “vandal hands” or broken English. A Sunday at the Met, they warned, was a “perilous experiment.”
If you drown a Jew while trying to baptize him against his will, are you anti-Semitic? That was the discussion brewing in the blogosphere after the penultimate episode of the HBO hit series “Boardwalk Empire” aired on November 28. The show, set in the 1920s in Atlantic City, follows the people who run the city and the Federal Agents trying to enforce Prohibition.
Agent Van Alden, played by Michael Shannon, grew increasingly fanatical as the episodes aired — he flagellates himself and talks to his wife about signs from God. His assistant, Agent Sebso (Erik Weiner), is Jewish — he understands the Yiddish spoken by Simon, a suspect in a bootleg robbery, when Van Alden revives him with cocaine in the third episode. Sebso is also, as Van Alden suspects, working for the other side. But it was in the eleventh episode, “Paris Green” (written by playwright/screenwriter Howard Korder), that Van Alden’s true crazy emerged, as he submerged Sebso in front of an African-American congregation.
At the “Boardwalk Empire” panel at the New York Times Arts and Lesiure Weekend on January 9 I asked showrunner Terence Winter if Van Alden was intended to be anti-Semitic.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Much has been written of late about the ways in which celebrated American musicals such as “Oklahoma” or “South Pacific” carry considerable Jewish freight. While most audiences come away humming rather than thinking, the American musical, many scholars suggest, is actually where American Jewish playwrights, lyricists, choreographers and designers set to rights their relationship to America.
But what of those on the other side of the footlights: the audience? I’ve always wondered what accounted for the longstanding affinity that so many American Jews, as well as their European counterparts, have had for the theater and the arts in general. Was this an accident of history? An artifact of demography? Or a deliberate strategy of modernization?
A recent article in the real estate section of The New York Times provides something of an answer.
Hats off to New York Times music critic Ben Sisario for posting this rousing holiday song by one Sister Albertha Harris Lewis on his blog. Our question is, who is Sister Albertha Harris Lewis, anyway? One thing is for sure though: Anti-Semitism never sounded so good. Please share any info in the comments and listen to the song after the jump.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
The recent announcement of the impending nuptials of David Lauren, son of the celebrated fashion designer Ralph Lauren, and Lauren Bush, George W’s niece — and, I hasten to add, a former Princeton student of mine — has set tongues wagging. Following on the heels of a slew of highly placed mixed marriages, this one appears to seal the deal: Intermarriage has become de rigueur.
At the turn of the last century, mixed marriages, especially those that crossed social as well as religious lines, also fanned the fires of the nation’s gossip sheets. One of the most infamous, even downright scandalous, of the lot took place between Rose Pastor, a recently arrived East European Jewish immigrant, and James Graham Phelps Stokes, a true-blue American, if ever there was one.
From the celebrated to the marginalized, from the heat of a summer antiwar protest to the searing cold of a Windy City winter, Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has been capturing unique, often strikingly ironic images for more than six decades. Thirty two of them, including pictures of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin and Marlon Brando, are currently in display in an exhibit titled “That Was Then” at Chicago’s Thomas Masters Gallery through December 23.
There’s a picture of writer Nelson Algren — who Shay photographed over a 10-year period — waiting for a bus on a rainy Chicago street in 1949. (A Shay photo of Algren graces the jacket of his 1956 novel “A Walk on the Wild Side,” and Shay’s famous shot of Algren’s lover, Simone de Beauvoir, fresh out of a bath, is the subject of a book to be published in Paris next year.)
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
In this season of good will and holiday cheer, Howard Jacobson, the Booker Prize-winning author of “The Finkler Question” and a guest last term of George Washington’s English Department, has made mincemeat of Hanukkah. Taking to The New York Times to make his case, he suggests that this Jewish holiday has outlived its usefulness — if, in fact, it had any in the first place.
Hanukkah, argues the British novelist in a cascading procession of paragraphs, simply fails to engage the contemporary imagination. Nothing about it — the food, the ritual, the music — can hold a candle to Christmas. “The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext,” he writes, sidestepping history in favor of sociology. The best Jacobson can say of the holiday is that its name is “lovely.” Really now.
If you had a lost or hidden other half, who would it be? A rocker? A mad scientist? Someone sluttier or cooler than yourself?
Fantasy comes to life in Leonard Nimoy’s “Secret Selves,” a collection of 26 moving, often provocative photographs on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art through January 2, 2011. Nimoy, who will forever be immortalized as Spock from “Star Trek,” is also an accomplished photographer, and his most recent exhibition explores the landscape of human imagination and yearning — that desire lurking inside all of us to be someone else.
Nimoy’s inspiration came from a passage in Plato’s “Symposium,” which posits that humans were once double-sided creatures, cut in two by angry gods and left to search for their lost halves. “I’m particularly looking for people to surprise me and possibly themselves,” Nimoy wrote to Richard Michelson, his longtime dealer who owns the Northampton, Massachusetts gallery where the 2007 photo shoot took place. “I’d like to ask them, ‘Who do you think you are?’”
From the looks of the Brooklyn Book Festival, you’d guess we were a far better read country than we are. But then, this borough is skewed: The one letter that prevents its name from being Booklyn is either adventitious or bashert. Brooklyn’s bookish populace loves dropping that “r,” and even as rain spat on their fun on Sunday, the literature festival seemed larger and livelier than ever before.
With 200 authors, 175 vendors and 20 venues where panels, readings and general literary deliciousness could be consumed, there were many noteworthy events — too many to even attend. There were zines to browse, thick spectacles to covet, and even Venus Williams was there hawking a book. Borough Hall’s steps grew wet, but the die-hards opened a wall of umbrellas to shield themselves for Sarah Silverman and David Rakoff.
The Central Yiddish Culture Organization (CYCO), a Manhattan based non-for-profit outfit dedicated to the promotion and development of Yiddish literature, is in trouble. CYCO, and its inventory of 55,000 Yiddish books is being kicked out of its current home. Given that the income from book sales could not possibly pay market rent on a new space, it looks like the last bookstore in Manhattan dedicated to Yiddish language and (mostly) secular literature is in need of a miracle. CYCO has already seen one miracle of sorts — a write up of their crisis in the New York Times, here.
So how come I’m not kvelling, shepping nakhes, plotzing or any of the other folksy Yiddishisms journalists like to sprinkle over these kinds of stories? Isn’t a story in the Times, vi me zogt (as they say), good for the Jews?
The author of the piece, Joseph Berger, has covered the Yiddish beat for the Times (in addition to writing for the Forward) for decades and no doubt sincerely wants to help CYCO find a patron and avert its impending homelessness. The problem is that he conflates what he sees as the demise of Yiddish in America with the crisis at CYCO. His focus on the ‘terminal’ state of Yiddish comes at the expense of any detail about what CYCO is and why a hypothetical benefactor would pour money into such a seemingly hapless, ill-run organization with negligible clientele and a “decidedly uncatchy” name. Having spent some time in the non-profit world, I know that for funders, guilt alone is not a compelling mission statement.
For some critics, Tony Judt will always be remembered, and reviled, for the 2003 essay he published in the New York Review of Books titled “Israel: The Alternative,” in which he called for a one-state solution. “The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism,” he wrote.
Judt later seemed to back off from that position, most recently in a New York Times op-ed in which he wrote that “Israel is a state like any other, long-established and internationally recognized…Israel is not going away, nor should it.”
While Judt may have sometimes been off the mark in his prescriptions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the British historian, who passed away in New York on August 6 at the age of 62, was more than just another pundit siphoning a spotlight from the glare of Middle Eastern politics.
Judt was scholar whose area of specialty was virtually all of European history. His 2005 magnum opus “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” is perhaps the most authoritative as well as the most compelling account of its subject. Just as captivating, however, is a series of personal essays Judt wrote for the NYRB in the months preceding his death. In it, he detailed his intellectual journey to and from Zionism, as well as his struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, with which he was diagnosed in 2008.
I was pleased to see a profile in the New York Times on July 20 of the unusual cantorial-music-aficionado-turned-audiophile-sound-engineer Mendel Werdyger. Werdyger is the proprietor of Mostly Music, one of the last bastions of old school Jewish culture in New York City. While you can certainly buy the standard schlock recordings of Hasidic boys choirs there, the shop is also rich with reissues of powerful cantorial records and classics of Yiddish theater and Hasidic music.
My cousin Cantor Zachary Konigsberg and I have long been fans of Mostly Music. Zachary first introduced me to the shop when he was living in Kensington, a stone’s throw from Boro Park’s heavily populated Jewish enclave and specialty shops. We would go there partly because we got a kick out of seeing our grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg’s cassette on the shelves alongside the pantheon of cantorial greats. Here we had the opportunity to buy cassettes by many of the classic names in hazanus: Pierre Pinchik, Leib Glantz, Zavel Kwartin and more. We chatted with Werdyger on a few occasions. I was always struck by his warm and open presence and his obvious scholarship in the field of cantorial music.
Tuli Kupferberg — 86 year old beat poet, musician and activist, and famed leader of the avant-folk band The Fugs — has been on the news lately. An article on him appeared in the New York Times in late January , another piece was published here, in the Forward just last week, and Tablet carried a podcast, as well.
Tuli’s friends are trying to raise awareness of his life and work, in the light of the musician’s recent stroke, which left him almost blind and in need of constant medical care. Bowery Poetry Club held a tribute concert on Saturday March 6, to collect funds to help cover Kupferberg’s medical bills — and celebrate the decades of his wild anarchist art.
Downtown poet and erotica writer Tsaurah Litsky got up on stage and sang Tuli’s pacifist anthem “Go F*** Yourself With Your Atom Bomb.” She proceeded to reminisce about the day she lost her virginity, when she felt Kupferberg’s invisible presence in the room, prodding her “go, bubbaleh, go!” They both grew up in Yiddish-speaking households, she explained, and sang out “Ikh liebe dich, Tuli!”
Revealing the secret behind a magic trick is usually not a good thing, but when it comes to real artistry, uncovering the nitty-gritty details of creation can often deepen our appreciation of an artist’s genius. In the case of Leonard Bernstein, a few recent and forthcoming releases help pull back the curtain on the composer and conductor’s creative methods.
The first of these, and the subject of a recent New York Times article by Allan Kozinn, is the release on DVD of seven appearances by Bernstein on the “Omnibus” TV series that ran from 1952 to 1961. The program “made the details of music and music making accessible, usually without dumbing down, to a broad audience,” Kozinn writes.