Category Archives: Art

Israeli Artists Say No to Performing in Ariel – and Support is Growing!

Very big and inspiring news:

Last week, fifty Israeli actors, directors and producers publicly released a letter saying they would not perform in a new multi-million dollar theater center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel and that they would continue to do so until there was an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Their stand drew immediate outrage from the Israeli government. PM Netanyahu, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz responded by threatening to deny government funding to any  cultural institutions that refuse to hold performances in the Occupied Territories. Netayahu released a statement accusing the Israeli artists of joining an “international delegitimization campaign” adding that “the last thing the state needs to do is fund bodies that are promoting boycotts from within.”

These events had a powerful and galvanizing effect within Israeli society. Almost as immediately, over 150 leading Israeli academics and writers (including authors Amos Oz and David Grossman) came to the defense of the artists. The boycott quickly became a central issue of discussion in the Israeli press – for its part, Ha’aretz’s staff editorial stated:

Theater actors are not marionettes, and cultural coercion of artists who fear for their livelihood does not befit a freedom-loving country. Cultural and academic institutions that receive budgetary support from the state do not owe it obedience in return. On the contrary, the government should be thankful for the existence of institutions that constitute such a vital interest for Israeli society.

Now it appears the struggle has moved to the United States. I’m so incredibly proud to see that Jewish Voice for Peace has now organized a support statement by over 150 American and European theater and film professionals – including Mandy Patinkin, Theodore Bikel, Eve Ensler, Tony Kushner, Cynthia Nixon, Ed Asner, among others.

Here’s the text of the statement:

On August 27th, dozens of Israeli actors, directors, and playwrights made the brave decision not to perform in Ariel, one of the largest of the West Bank settlements, which by all standards of international law are clearly illegal.  As American actors, directors, critics and playwrights, we salute our Israeli counterparts for their courageous decision.

Most of us are involved in daily compromises with wrongful acts. When a group of people suddenly have the clarity of mind to see that the next compromise looming up before them is an unbearable one  — and when they somehow find the strength to refuse to cross that line  —  we can’t help but be overjoyed and inspired and grateful.

It’s thrilling to think that these Israeli theatre artists have refused to allow their work to be used to normalize a cruel occupation which they know to be wrong, which violates international law and which is impeding the hope for a just and lasting peace for Israelis an Palestinians alike.  They’ve made a wonderful decision, and they deserve the respect of people everywhere who dream of justice. We stand with them.

This is big. Indeed, as the government’s apoplectic response clearly demonstrates, it represents much more than a mere symbolic stand. To stand up against performing in Ariel, which Netanyahu has described as the “Capital of Samaria,” means to stand up against the very heart of Israel’s settlement enterprise.

It is also the most significant internal cultural boycott to ever take place in Israel – and the support of the artistic community around the world shows that there is a growing constituency of prominent figures who are willing to publicly speak out against Israel’s impunity.

In other words, the artistic community is stepping up and going to the places to which our politicians seem unwilling to go. Bravo!

Gala 20th for the Festiwal Kultury Zydowskiej W Krakowie

One of these years I’m going to have to make it to the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. If there is a larger or more significant Jewish cultural event in the world, I’m not certainly aware of it.

This year the festival will be celebrating its twentieth anniversary and the line-up of international Jewish music, film, workshops and exhibitions is just breathtaking. Even more so when you consider that the overwhelming majority of attendees to the festival are not even Jewish. That’s right: the Krakow festival is one of the most powerful examples of the reinvention of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe – a trend that is being driven largely by non-Jews.

From a 2007 NY Times article:

Sometime in the 1970s, as a generation born under Communism came of age, people began to look back with longing to the days when Poland was less gray, less monocultural. They found inspiration in the period between the world wars, which was the Poland of the Jews.

”You cannot have genocide and then have people live as if everything is normal,” said Konstanty Gebert, founder of a Polish-Jewish monthly, Midrasz. ”It’s like when you lose a limb. Poland is suffering from Jewish phantom pain.”

Interest in Jewish culture became an identifying factor for people unhappy with the status quo and looking for ways to rebel, whether against the government or their parents. ”The word ‘Jew’ still cuts conversation at the dinner table,” Mr. Gebert said. ”People freeze.”

The revival of Jewish culture is, in its way, a progressive counterpoint to a conservative nationalist strain in Polish politics that still espouses anti-Semitic views. Some people see it as a generation’s effort to rise above the country’s dark past in order to convincingly condemn it.

”We’re trying to give muscle to our moral right to judge history,” said Mr. (Janusz) Makuch, the festival organizer.

Roger Bennett, writing in Tablet in two years ago, offered this observation:

The only shame is that the festival is such a well-kept secret in the United States. Young Jews in particular would flock to this creative cacophony if only they knew it existed and there are no doubt thousands obliviously Eurorailing in the vicinity. In their absence, the festival is left to an audience of predominantly young Catholic Poles who lap it up voraciously. The majority were born four decades after the atrocities of the Second World War, coming of age in a post-communist Poland. Faced with myriad identity issues, they appear to be using the festival to work out their questions one song at a time.

When so many in the Jewish world look to Europe and see only incipient anti-Semitism, I’d suggest that this cultural resurgence is just as worthy of our attention. The reasons for the embrace of Jewish culture by non-Jews in Europe are powerful and complex. Ruth Ellen Gruber, in her book “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe” suggests several possibilities: atonement for the Holocaust, an expression of a multicultural ethic or, as she puts it, a redefinition of “personal identity and national histories.”

Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that the Festiwal Kultury Zydowskiej W Krakowie is currently one of the largest Jewish cultural events anywhere in the world. All it needs now is to attract as many Jews as non-Jews and this incredible Jewish cultural rebirth will truly be complete.

Click up top to watch Balkan Beat Box (their new album is just out!) performing in Krakow last year.

Rohina Malik Unveils Our Common Humanity

Last night JRC was honored to host a performance of the one-woman show “Unveiled,” by Rohina Malik. Breathtaking.

Rohina is a playwright, actress and solo artist of South Asian heritage who was born in London and emigrated to Chicago when she was 15.  She is an impressive and important contemporary artist – and her identity as an American Muslim woman clearly plays an important role in her art.

“Unveiled” is constructed around five monologues by five Muslim women. During the course of the play, each of them greets the audience in turn, “welcoming” us with tea.  Each woman tells the story of their lives, explains their Muslim culture and shares the experience of living as a Muslim woman in the post 9/11 world.

For her appearance at JRC last night, Rohina performed three monologues: “Maryam,” a Pakistani-American who has a dress making shop on Chicago’s Devon Avenue; “Shabana,” a young rapper of South Asian descent who was born and raised in London; and “Layla,” a Chicago restaurant owner from the Middle East who lost a brother to the fall of the twin towers.

It’s difficult to convey the cumulative effect these women had upon the audience. Rohina’s performances cut to the heart of painful and complicated political issues – but even more profound was the immediately empathy Rohina was able to conjure for us through these remarkable women. In a relatively short amount of time, she was able to bring us through an entire gamut of emotions – and in the end, the common humanity we shared with these women was palpable to everyone in the room.

Following the play we had an equally powerful post-performance discussion facilitated by the play’s director, Ann Filmer. Nearly 250 people were in attendance – including many members of the Chicagoland Muslim community – and it was truly a tribute to Rohina’s art that so many members of this large and diverse group were inspired to share deeply personal comments about their own lives and struggles.

If you live in the Chicago area, you should know that “Unveiled” will be starting a run at the Victory Gardens Theater on March 24. Highly, highly recommended.

An Epitaph for Abraham Sutzkever, z”l

Courageous Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, may his memory now be for a blessing:

from “Epitaphs”

Written on a slat of a railway car:

If some time someone should find pearls
threaded on a blood-red string of silk
which, near the throat, runs all the thinner
like life’s own path until it’s gone
somewhere in a fog and can’t be seen—

If someone should find these pearls
let him know how—cool, aloof—they lit up
the eighteen-year-old, impatient heart
of the Paris dancing girl, Marie.

Now, dragged through unknown Poland—
I’m throwing my pearls through the grate.

If they’re found by a young man—
let these pearls adorn his girlfriend.
If they’re found by a girl—
let her wear them; they belong to her.
And if they’re found by an old man—
let him, for these pearls, recite a prayer.

Translated by Jacqueline Osherow

Some Things You Need To Do This Weekend

If you live in or around Chicago, here are two programs this weekend I think you should check out:

This Saturday night, 1/9, at the Chopin Theatre, 8:00 pm, the good folks at Kfar Jewish Arts Center are collaborating with Zeek to present “Dvarim”, a program described as “an exploration of written, spoken and performed words by artists examining the contemporary Jewish experience.”

Dvarim will feature readings and performances by the hip-hop poet extraordinaire, Kevin Coval, beatboxer Yuri Lane, rabbi-poet Menachem Cohen, poet/writer Dina Elenbogen and conceptual identity artist Maya Escobar. This is a truly incredible collection of Chicago Jewish artistic talent and it promises to be an unforgettable evening. (As the rabbi of JRC, I’m proud to say that both Maya and Menachem grew up in our congregation…)

Then on Sunday 1/10 at 2:30 pm, I’ll be participating on the panel, “Jewish Bloggers: Conscience Over Complicity.” I’m honored to to sit alongside two of my very favorite bloggers in the world: Cecilie Surasky from MuzzleWatch and Adam Horowitz from Mondoweiss. The program is being organized by the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine and will take place at the Oak Park Library.

Have a great weekend – hope I’ll be seeing you!

Rubbed Raw

Saw the movie “An Education” last week (really great). As my wife Hallie and I were talking about it afterward, she referred to one of the characters, a sort of handsome ne’er do well who sweeps the heroine off her feet, and asked, “why do you think they had to make him Jewish?”

I admitted that the thought had fleetingly occurred to me during the film, but it didn’t really bother me in the end. It didn’t seem to me that the filmmakers made him Jewish to make a negative statement about Jews in general, but rather to illustrate the rebellious, non-conformist spirit of young woman who falls in love with him. (Lest anyone miss this point, at one point the girl’s headmistress says to her at one point, “you know, don’t you, that the Jews killed our Lord?”)

After watching the movie, I read a Forward interview with the film’s screenwriter, Nick Hornby, which contained a really interesting conversation about his portrayal of the Jewish character. Hornby (who is not Jewish) made the very trenchant point that he hoped “we’re beyond the point where you can only show ethnic and religious groups in a positive light.”

There’s a different dynamic at play when these kind of portrayals come from Jews themselves. I’m thinking particularly of the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” another recent movie that engendered similar conversations in the Jewish community. Though I personally loved it, I was struck by how many of my Jewish friends were put off by the portrayal of Jews and Judaism in the film: the neurotic main protagonist, his son’s hilariously horrid Hebrew school experiences, the three nutty rabbis, etc.

It seems to me this kind of raw self-reflection is a time-honored Jewish phenomenon. I’d say “A Serious Man” is part of a grand tradition that dates back to the books of Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, and the stories of Sholom Aleichem – and if we’re going to be truly honest, to the Bible itself, which itself contains innumerable flawed protagonists who often behave in troubling ways. (I can only imagine what the ADL would have to say about the King David story if it was published today…)

I’m sure that Jews have been wincing about popular portrayals of their folk from time immemorial – and I imagine that members of other ethnic groups have done just the same. But at the end of the day, isn’t it true that the narratives that speak to us most deeply tend to be the ones in which that include imperfect characters struggling to survive in an imperfect world? (I can’t think of one great work of literature that contains a perfectly well-adjusted protagonist living a happy life with no problems to speak of).

I also think we need to put these portrayals in context. I’m reminded of a comment made by one of my undergraduate Jewish lit professors years ago regarding “Annie Hall:” if some of the Jewish characters were often neurotic, the non-Jewish characters were often downright psychotic (exhibit A: Christophen Walken’s hilarious turn as Annie’s little brother, above). Of course they are stereotypes in both instances, but I don’t we’d wouldn’t laughing if we didn’t recognize a deeper truth underneath.

I’d like to think we Jews are secure enough in our skin in this day and age to bear warts-and-all-portrayals in the popular culture. It’s all too easy to cry self-hatred or anti-Semitism every time we come across something that makes us wince. I’d say it’s much more fruitful to expend less energy worrying what the non-Jews might think and accept that the best and most worthwhile stories are the ones that rub us a little raw.

Jewish Ritual Reinvented

If you’re in New York or are planning to be, you need to get to the Jewish Museum and check out their latest exhibit, “Reinventing Ritual, survey of “the explosion of new Jewish rituals, art, and objects that has occurred since the mid-1990s.”

The exhibit celebrates the post-modern age as a time in which Jewish ritual can be radical as well as a return to its elemental basics:

This attitude of innovation is shared by a wide range of artists inclusive of generation, nationality, and religion. Contemporary artists and designers focus on Judaism as a lived experience by transforming the physical acts of ritual into new forms.

Outstanding works of industrial design, metalwork, ceramics, video, drawing, comics, sculpture, installation, and textiles from Europe, Israel, and North America reveal the diversity within Judaism. The exhibition will present works in thematic groups and environments that suggest the spaces and situations in which ritual is performed.

Here at JRC, we’re particularly honored that our new synagogue building is included in the exhibit. The Museum was interested in our LEED Platinum rated facility because “its principle of active conservation is at the heart of the exhibition.”

If you can’t make it to NYC, you can still see and read about many amazing pieces from the exhibit at the Museum website (like artist Michael Berkowitz’s combination wedding dress/amulet, above).