Sunday, March 25, 2012

Recommended Reading VI: More Favorite Fiction

Lately I've read some excellent fiction on a variety of Jewish themes that I wanted to share in these pages.  While the themes may be Jewish, these books would appeal to a broad audience and all offer excellent writing and unique perspectives.

It occurs to me that my approach to reading reflects somewhat my approach to my artwork.  I take a subject that interests me and approach it from multiple perspectives. My current show on Holocaust related work  has three bodies of work, one that addresses the responses of Eastern Europe to the Holocaust history, one that looks at pre-war Poland and a third that looks at individual survivor stories.  Similarly these three books circle a topic of interest to me, addressing the way in which Poland deals with its Jewish history, the response of both Americans and the British to refugees in their midst and the memory of lost  loved ones that haunt survivors as they rebuild their lives.

My latest favorite book is a first novel titled A Day of Small Beginnings by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum.  The story is told through three generations with the connecting thread being Freidl,  the spirit of a woman who once lived in a small shtetl in Poland.  Each generation brings a greater understanding of their heritage and the reader shares their journey.  The first segment begins with a young boy in the early 1900s who is forced to flee his shtetl and comes to America.  In the second segment we find his son, a college professor, in Poland for a lecture.  While there he decides to visit the town from which his father came.  His father had shared little of his past and had rejected religion in his life.  The third segment of the book focuses on the granddaughter, a dance choreographer who goes to Poland to create a performance with a Polish dance company. There she falls in love with a Polish Catholic musician and struggles with the latent anti-Semitism she encounters in Polish culture even as the former Jewish culture is romanticized in other parts of Polish society.

Her journey actually takes her in transit through my ancestral town of Radom and she writes of Krakow and Kazimierz Dolny, both places I got to know well in my travels.  As a result, I could easily picture the locations and it gave an added resonance to her story.  I also could appreciate her struggle to bridge the two cultures and find the common humanity despite historical differences in perspective.  I especially liked the mystical flavor and wisdom as expressed through Freidl juxtaposed with modern day Poland.

In its own way it is a very spiritual book and I found myself touched by its wisdom. It gave me pause, often connecting with my understanding of the world and eloquently giving it voice.

A second book that I found quite captivating was also written in three voices. The author succeeded in making each voice feel very genuine.  Too Jewish by Patty Friedmann is in part based on her parents’ lives.  The first speaker is Bernie, who escaped to the United States at the cusp of WWIl, but was unable to get his mother out as well, a failure that consumed him. He joined the service and found himself in New Orleans where he married a woman who while Jewish came from a long-established family who saw Bernie as a different class.  His accent and religious background made him “too Jewish” in a world where their focus was on fitting into a very hierarchical society.  The second section of the book was in his wife’s voice.  While she and her husband have a genuinely loving relationship, she is in her own battle to prove her life choices to her judgmental parents.  The third section is told in the voice of their daughter who the author clearly identified with.  The book provides interesting insight into Southern Jewish communities and the class distinctions that I had thought fell by the wayside much earlier.  It also addresses the survivor guilt that many refugees carried with them throughout their life.

The third book that I would recommend is called The List by Martin Fletcher. This book also explores the experience of those who escaped, yet still must deal with the loss of family.  It is set in England and is based on the author’s parents’ story.  It addresses the anti-Semitism that arose in England after the war when the refugees were viewed as overstaying their welcome yet had nowhere to which they could return.  The national conscience ultimately objected to segments that espoused those views.  The title of the book refers to the list they keep of family members as they seek to learn their fate even as they rebuild their shattered lives.  Interwoven with the story is the story of Israel as Jews challenge British forces who bar entrance to many refugees.  The Palestinian Jews are divided in their approach with a segment arguing for violence against the British and a subplot in the book which highlights this resistance movement.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Freedom Journal

While at the museum conference I became aware of a project sponsored by the Janice Charach Gallery in Michigan.  The project is called the 100 Journal project and is designed to bring together a loose network of artists around creating artist books on a variety of common themes.  The books may include writing, painting or whatever is permitted within the rules created by the first artist.  The first artist determines the theme and any rules and then does the cover and one page.  Subsequent artists do one or two pages each.  Ultimately the journals are exhibited and sold with proceeds going to charity.

I began to brainstorm some possible topics for a journal with a friend and we concluded that the theme of freedom would be a broad and topical subject.  With freedom as my theme it didn’t seem appropriate to establish rules.  A desire for freedom as well as its opposing forces is especially present in our world today.  It is embodied in the Arab Spring, in women seeking control of their bodies and in gays seeking the freedom to marry.  In these very political times, we see a rising resistance to freedom. It is perhaps a last gasp as the next generation has incorporated a much more open world view than that which is being fought for so strenuously through constitutional amendments and restrictive laws.

Each project is an opportunity to experiment with new approaches.  In this effort I used medium generously to build up the ocean and desert as I sought to capture the idea of freedom embodied in the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea and the desert.  It is a passageway, a process, and yet crossing the passage is only the beginning.  The resignation of leadership in Arab countries only set the stage for a multitude of possibilities.  Whether they ultimately resemble freedom will remain to be seen.  The reality is that freedom is forged through challenge.  In the case of the Israelites they had a forty year sojourn in the desert where they faced challenges and stresses that tested and defined the scope of that freedom.  Sometimes an earlier generation is ill equipped to embrace freedom and it is left to subsequent generations to approach it without the encumbrances of old beliefs.  This too occurred with the Israelites as those who were afraid of change dissented and clung to old ways.  They ultimately were forced to stay behind while the next generation moved forward.

Tomorrow I send the book off to the next artist in St. Louis.  If you are interested in participating in this book, please contact me.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Tenth Man

In an earlier post I referenced the significant Jewish population in urban areas, although more often in the surrounding suburbs.  I did want to speak of some of the Jewish institutions that I had an opportunity to visit during CAJM that serve the significant population of the Detroit metro area.  These included the JCC of Metropolitan Detroit, the Holocaust Memorial Center and Temple Israel, the largest Reform temple in the United States with 3400 families, roughly 10,000 people.  While these super-sized institutions were impressive, I was also intrigued by the vestiges of the former Jewish presence in Detroit and a small resurgence at the Isaac Agree synagogue, the last synagogue left in Detroit. 

The draw for me in attending the conference this year was that a portion of it would be held at the Holocaust Memorial Center.  I knew of the center as the originator of an exhibition on the Ritchie Boys.  You may recall that in my interviews for the Jewish Identity and Legacy project, I had the opportunity to interview Walter Schwarz, a Ritchie BoyThe Ritchie Boys were mostly Jewish refugees who became soldiers trained at Camp Ritchie to use their wits to interrogate German prisoners.  Fluent in German, they were trained to know as much as possible about the German experience so as to make use of that knowledge in extracting information from the POWs. 
Guy Stern, a charming 90 year old gentleman whose energy belied his years, took us around the exhibit.  Guy originated the exhibition and was a key person in the film on the Ritchie Boys.  He told us stories of their interrogations in which one of their techniques was to impersonate the Russians of whom the Germans were quite fearful.  A strong camaraderie developed between these soldiers, many who had left families behind in Europe who perished in the Holocaust.  Within the exhibition they had information on my friend Walter both prior to the war and after. 

The other experience I wanted to make mention of was our visit one evening to the Isaac Agree Synagogue and Larry Mongo’s speakeasy next door.  An interesting combination, these two locations have a somewhat symbiotic relationship.  The Isaac Agree synagogue is a vestige of the former downtown Jewish community.  It is reported to be the last synagogue in downtown Detroit, a small counterpoint to the large Jewish communities now in the suburbs.

Club de Mongos next-door is run by Larry Mongo.  When Larry wanted to start his club, he was told that there was no way he would be able to get a liquor license next to a synagogue.  He met with the rabbi and they struck a deal.  If the synagogue ever needed a minyan to pray, he would come over and be the tenth man.  In exchange the rabbi would support his application for a license. He got the license and opened the club and sure enough that call for the minyan came when the place was packed.  Mongo told us that he felt he owed something to the Jews for the efforts they made for blacks in the past, giving free legal assistance and supporting them in housing and business.  Mongo has also built a relationship with many of the young Jews who are now running the synagogue and trying to preserve it as a Jewish presence in downtown Detroit.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Supporting Human Dignity

I have chosen not to write about political issues in this blog previously, but unfortunately fundamental issues of dignity and human rights have become politicized.  One of my themes has been Jewish identity and that is inextricably interwoven with a belief in human dignity.  Yesterday I spent the afternoon with 700 people from the Jewish community organizing to defeat the Marriage Amendment in Minnesota.  The marriage amendment would change the constitution to only recognize marriage as a union between a man and a woman.   Fifteen synagogues and institutions and thirty-five rabbis came together in opposition to the amendment. 
I especially liked the fact that they arrived at this agreement based on two sections of Jewish text.  One is known as the Kavod HaBriyot and speaks to the belief that human beings are created in the image of God and must be treated with dignity and respect. The second was a passage from Leviticus 19:16 that states “do not stand idly by as your neighbor bleeds.”   While I have always shared those values, I lacked the vocabulary to explain why in religious terms. 

We were asked to think about our own story and how that led us to be there that day and at first I had a difficult time articulating it beyond it being the right thing to do.  I began to play the child’s game of “Why” with myself.  You know, the one where you keep asking “why”.   Why do I bristle at intrusions on human rights?  Because it feels like a personal violation.  Why does it feel like a personal violation?  Because what affects another also affects me.  And why is that?  And here I have my ah-ha moment.  Growing up Jewish reinforced a sense of otherness.  It is often that very otherness that reinforces the importance of protecting human rights and respecting differences.   I am well aware from history that it is a slippery slope and a failure to protect someone else’s rights will quickly lead to an incursion on my own.  Every Jew is conscious of this.  We are all in this together.

I was heartened to look at this room filled with people who shared a belief in human dignity and to claim them as my own.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Demographics Tell a Story

Much of our time at the Council of American Jewish Museums’ conference (CAJM) was based in the many local Jewish institutions.  They were impressive institutions based on both size and breadth, a necessity with a metropolitan Jewish population of about 67,000 to serve.  By contrast the Twin Cities Jewish community, where I now live, has about 39,000.  That seemed enormous to me based on my original reference point, my hometown of Peoria, Illinois which has 800. *

I have noted these statistics from the Berman Institute because a talk at the conference really highlighted the fact that while Jews represent a small percent of the total population they tend to concentrate in larger metropolitan areas and compose a significant population base.  This means that while they may represent a minority, their experience is often not that of a minority.  Except for those of us who grew up in smaller cities, the Jewish experience in America often revolves around an urban core and is surrounded by a large Jewish community. 

I am often quite fascinated by demographic information as it informs the experience of our society and foretells the changes that are yet to come.  A very interesting speaker on this topic was Deborah Dash Moore, a Professor of History at the University of Michigan.  Moore is an author and serves as the Director of the Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies.  She provided a map of where Jews lived in 2000 and pointed out that while Jews roughly exceed 2% of the general population, they represent a much more significant proportion of many populations centers. 

She traced the history of Judaism in the early United States and shared a response from George Washington to the Jews of Newport at the Touro Synagogue.  Here he echos their language reinforcing that this new government provided“to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance… All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship”.  This welcoming message laid a framework that drew many Jews to America in subsequent years.

Moore traced the growth of the five largest cities in terms of Jewish population through time contrasting it with Europe.  In 1877 NYC with 73,000 was comparable to Vienna (72,000) and Budapest (70,000) while still dwarfed by Warsaw with 127,000.  The top five cities (New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore) represented half of the Jewish population in the US. During the early 1900s demographics began to change with one third of Eastern European Jews coming to America.

By 1905 NYC represented 772,000 Jews versus Warsaw with a mere 306,000.    The top five cities of Jewish population (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis) represented one million of the two million American Jews.  Immigration laws tightened in response to this flood of immigrants, but by 1927 New York City held 1.8 million Jews while Warsaw remained constant as the largest Eastern European Jewish population at 310,000.  In the US, Cleveland edged St. Louis out among the top five. The growth of the NY population began to stabilize around two million in 1940 and 1955 as more population began to move to suburbs.  The more recent metro data that I noted above indicates a 2002 Jewish population just shy of one million in the city and about 1.4 million in the metropolitan area.  Still they represent the largest single ethnic group in the city creating a rich cultural ferment that is reflected in the influence of Jewish culture on the larger society.

* Berman Institute- North American Jewish Data Bank University of Connecticut

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Preserving Collective Memory

I just returned from the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) and am busy digesting much of what was discussed.  While the conference is designed for museum professionals, as an artist working with Jewish themes there is much that applies to what I do.  One of the fun aspects of this conference is that it is a bit like a progressive dinner only with museums as fodder.  We often went to as many as three museums in a day with meetings in each as well as an opportunity to tour the exhibitions. 

This year the conference was in the Detroit area which has a large Jewish population although primarily in the surrounding suburbs. We spent much of our time visiting the uniquely Jewish institutions in the area, but also focused on other ethnic populations that are equally well represented in Detroit.

We began the event with a visit to the Motown Museum where our guide spoke about the Motown sound.  The “Motown sound” is reverberation, an echo effect best created in a bathroom where they once in fact recorded, but abandoned due to competing demands for its use.  They later recreated that sound in the garage where the many Motown recordings that we know were made and which still exists for visitors.

When we later visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, our guide, a beautiful woman in dreadlocks and African dress, met us under a high domed ceiling.  There she dramatically pointed out the meaning of an inlaid pattern on the floor as her voice reverberated to the ceiling.  We looked at each other and mouthed, “the Motown sound”.  I suspect someone “echoed” that in the design as they captured it too well for it to be purely accidental. 

The Wright Museum is the world’s largest institution focused on the African American experience.  Also in Detroit is the Arab American National Museum, the first museum of its kind, that focuses on the story of Arabs who came to the US and contributed to the American story.  With a local Arab population of 30,000, they serve both to reflect their experience and make it accessible to the larger population. Each of these museums focuses on a specific ethnicity and tells the story from their perspective, a reminder that while we may have shared experiences, history is viewed through many eyes that may experience and witness different parts of the story. 

At one of the sessions they spoke of museums as creating generational collective memory.  I was intrigued by that concept as much of what I am working on in the Jewish Identity and Legacy project relates to memory and legacy.  To take that concept further is the question of what is “collective memory”?  Is it the memory of the dominant culture or is it also represented uniquely through museums focusing on a specific ethnicity, be it black, Arab or Jewish?  And where do those “collective memories” meet?  Is there a nexus for all of them from which we each mine the fertile soil of an ethnic culture within a broader culture?  These are questions that are somewhat unique to the US with its mix of cultures.  If museums are in fact dealing with “generational” memory then curators play a role in both preserving past generational memory and capturing shifts in generational memory over time.