Monday, May 29, 2006

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture

Is it God or Is it Culture?There seems to be a disconnect betweenpeople thinking about Judaism as a religion and Judaism as a culture. Judaism has both and the two sometimes live well together and sometimes not. Jewish art does not have to be religious, sacred, or ritualized. It can be religious or deal with religious questions, but Jewish art can also be about the history of Jews, it can incorporate Jewish lives and socializations, it can reflect on Jews as outsiders or Jews as perceived by non-Jews, it can utilize major Jewish themes such as tzedekah (social justice) or tikkun olam (repairing the world), the covenant with one God, or Jewish learning in an intertextual methodology -- and it can meld all of this together into a really delicious blend that is its own aesthetic.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture

Posted on

Christian art served the church. There are Jewish artists, like my husband and myself. But why does there have to be Jewish art? What criteria would be necessary to call any art Jewish? Shouldn't art serve us all?

Posted by Jeanne wolf on 05.18.06

Judaism and art, from my experiences of the two, are in conflict with one another. Judaism is about being responsible, rational, and true to God's Commandments. Whereas art is about invention, being irrational, and turning to one's imagination. Therefore, the term, "Jewish art," is an oxymoron. However, "Art Judaica," I believe, is acceptable, insofar as the object or piece "serves" a Jewish ritual purpose or custom.

Posted by Michael C. Duke on 05.18.06

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture

In Response to NEXTBOOK's Robin Cembalist "Painting The Town"
The discussion about Jewish art and culture always mystifies me. Do we have the same discussion about the African-American influence on jazz? Do we wonder if Western art and culture were influenced by Christianity?

There is a distinctive nature to art created by Jews and of course the closer they are to their Jewishness the more distinctive it is. Denying whether Chagall created Jewish art is like saying Da Vinci's The Last Supper isn't about Christianity. (I guess that is what the Da Vinci Codes are about)

As for Jewish art that isn't so apparently Jewish (which mught be found by "cool Jews") there is an aesthetic that enters into their work that mingles themes of loss, wandering, the outsider and righteousness with techniques of trans-chronicity, inter-textual narratives, multiple artistic forms, the intermingling of high art with popular culture, a highly developed self-consciousness. This can be seen in the works of Chaim Soutine to Modigliani, to David Mamet, to Wendy Wasserstein, Woody Allen, to Leonard Bernstein, and on and on.

Please see and join the conversation on

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture

The Dylan ApproachIn the May 1 New Yorker Bob Dylan is quoted from his memoirs "Chronicles" about the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera:

"They were erratic, unrhythmical, herky-jerky---wierd visions....Every song seemed to come from some obscure tradition, seemed to have a pistol in its hip pocket, a club or a brickbat and they came at you in crutches, braces and wheelchairs. They were like folk songs in nature, but unlike folk songs, too, because they were sophisticated...

(referring to "Pirate Jenny") I took the song apart and unzipped it. It was the form, the free verse association, the structure, and disregard for the known certainty of melodic patterns to make it seriously matter, to give it its cutting edge."

Here we have a description of the Jewish artist referring back to the Weillian song, that is already intertextual, Dylan then deconstructs it and reinvents it in an intertextual way.

How Talmudic!

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture

Dancing the Dance When authenticity comes up I'm always left in mind of Yehudah Gellman's article "Teshuvah and Authenticity": "Consider the first human being ever to have danced a dance. It was surely a complete expression of the person's reason for dancing. But consider now the second person ever to have danced a dance. For him it was harder to dance his own dance. Why? Because he had once seen someone else dance, and now there was a danger of dancing not his own dance, but someone else's. There was a danger of allowing the form of the dance to replace its essence. And the more manking has danced, the harder it has become to dance one's very own dance." (Tradition, 20(3) Fall 1982)

5/09/06 10:39 PM

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture

Reflections on The Recent Death of Luba KadisonThis homage to Luba Kadison indicates the importance of Yiddish Theatre and the acting aesthetic that has so influenced American theatre and performance to this day. From Stella Adler and her acting school, to Lee Strasburg and Actors Studio, to even the current revival of "Awake and Sing" we can see a continual wellspring of Jewish performance that energizes American theatre and performance. Chloe Veltman's story about Jerry Stiller is interesting because it demonstrates a Jewish performance professional and social lineage that continues to this day. The article I am writing about can be found on

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture

The ChosenSo I saw The Chosen last night at Writers Theatre, outside Chicago. It was a decent production, very true to the book as I remember it. Nevertheless it bothered me. It was very good at showing observant Jews beyond their stereotypes.

But it didn't seem to have a point of view. It was so busy being respectful it didn't have an edge. It had a narrator, Chaim Potok I suppose-the older Reuven Malter, and he was very pleasant and the rabbi we all wish we had. He was warm, thoughtful, animated, seemingly easy to get along with. And the set seemed to be in the rabbi's study, so it had a comfortable panelled wood feeling about it. But gone was the time period it was set in, WWII (though it came up enough), economic difficulties, and the desire to assimilate (the character from the book, in the hospital, who loses an eye and who is a wise-cracking secular Jew, doesn't make an appearance) were faint at best. The play lacked the bite and anguish of the times because it was mostly about Jews getting along with each other.

Recently Maurice Sendak was interviewed on the radio show "Fresh Air" and he talked about how that time period was so depressing for his family and other Jewish families he knew. The War made everything feel like Jews had to disappear and their homelife was filled with guilt, pain, and suffering.

Nevertheless the play was a well directed and acted production and the things it got right, it got right very well -- giving a good sense of the importance of study for Jewish knowledge, observance, and tradition; the problems of fathers expecting too much from their children; the friendship of the two boys and how they supported each other like a Jonathan and David -- all done at a high level.

Of course it exhibited a strong Jewish sensibility, not only in its content, but through the staging of the narrator, time and space conflation, and scenes that were both about Talmudic interpretation and written as though they were intertextual midrash. For instance the use of the narrator and how he stepped in and out of the story, the story of the baseball game, the scene with numerology that leads to deeper spiritual meanings in the texts, the mystical use of silence, and the singing of Chasidic niggunim, all lent itself to a very strong Jewish aesthetic.

When Chaim Potok wrote the book, The Chosen, it was the first novel that depicted religious Jews positively and showed their drive to succeed in America and their desire to explore pathways to faith. It was revolutionary and perhaps still revolutionary today because it shows that faith and learning, whether religious learning or secular learning, can live together even if they sometimes make each other uncomfortable. Today in the age of political false messiahs and fundamentalist creationism, The Chosen may still have something to teach us.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture

What Is Authentic? Today I was in a discussion about Jewish arts and culture. The crux of the discussion was that what usually passes as Jewish culture is not authentic.

What does that mean? Does it mean that Jewish culture has to justify itself? Does it mean that culture from outside of the Jewish religion isn't authentic? It gets to what I wrote before, is there such a thing as pure Jewish culture? When Leonard Bernstein wrote Kaddish and was influenced by Western music, was it not Jewish?

I happen to like the word authentic. It implies a search for something. So, a search for Jewish arts -- what shape would that take?

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture The other night I heard a speaker, Dr Patricia Erens, talk about Hollywood films with Jewish characters, themes, and images. Her major point was that there are specific ways "Hollywood" has depicted Jews and that they pretty much have been the same since the seventies. In a sense, that representations of the Jew in "Hollywood" haven't changed to this day. I questionned her about films such as those made by the Coen brothers and David Mamet and even a comedy like "Meet the Fokkers" (that we both agreed was terrible -- though Ben Stiller is interesting) and she said that pretty much things are the same.

I wonder about this. For instance (and maybe this is coming from an "indie" approach rather than a "Hollywood" approach) but what about in The Big Lebowski or in Barton Fink -- I think both of these films are very interesting in their portrayals of Jews. And even in the newer Woody Allen films like Deconstructing Harry, Allen creates new Jewish characters.