Laura Bialis has put together quite a documentary on the movement for Jewish emigration during the last several decades of the Soviet Union.  She tells a very complex story, and brings together original footage of various types, interviews with refuseniks then and now, interviews with those western Jews who were so involved in their support, and interviews with contemporary scholars such as Martin Gilbert and leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev.

For those of you who don’t remember, the story line goes like this.  First, Jews in the Soviet Union, particularly Jews who wanted to be Jewish, were treated very badly during the time period between the end of the Second World War and the death of Joseph Stalin (but for that very short period of time when Stalin thought that Israel might become a member of the Soviet influenced bloc of nations).  Even after Stalin’s death, there were still quotas, and obstacles to Jewish teaching and religious practice.

After the Israeli victory in the 1967 Arab War, a new sense of pride amongst some Soviet Jews led to a determination to leave the USSR and move to Israel.  American groups, mainly at first student groups, became quite supportive and vocal.  Jewish tourists to the USSR brought in surreptitiously prayer books and religious items, and brought out messages and photographs.  Names of individuals within the Soviet Union became known, and a group of Soviets decided that they would petition for visas to leave the USSR and move to Israel.

This brought down upon them the power of the Soviet apparatus, with applicants immediately losing their jobs, their apartments and their social standing.  When it became clear that these people were determined to leave, and to work with those outside of Russia to assist their efforts, and when two of the dissidents decided to try to hi-jack a plane and fly to Israel, the arrests, the convictions, the prison terms, the Siberian exiles, and the hunger strikes started.  And the outside support and publicity continued.

Eventually, the Jackson-Vanik amendment to a 1974 trade act conditioned certain trade arrangements between the USSR and the USA on the permission of Jews and other minorities to have the right of free immigration.  A small number of Jews were allowed to leave at first, but not the refuseniks.  Then, the numbers increased, the Helsinki Accords were signed in 1975, providing further impetus to permitted immigration.

Eventually, President Reagan got into the act with his meetings with President Gorbachev, and in 1986 Natan Sharansky and others were permitted to leave.  Only a few years later, the Berlin Wall came down, the USSR broke up, and immigration to Israel became a matter only of deciding to go.

The movie takes this complex story and makes it understandable, both in political and human terms.  Congratulations to all involved.

Fringe (one cent)

On the Fringe:

We learned about Isadora Duncan, that there were dance companies that dancers who concentrate on reconstructing her work, that her work was quite fin-de-siecle, art nouveau like, with flowing solid color silk outfits that flittered and fluttered as you danced, with everything very child like, it seems, and her ambitious to let children learn to use their natural movements and lose the bindings of 19th century convention.  At the Duncan centered production at the Fringe, I thought that the costumes were the best thing about the performance, and that the goal of the dancers was really to make the costumes appeal, much as a puppeteer bringing a puppet to life, and melding personally far into the background.  But, I am no dance expert, and ill equipped to be a critic.  But I really liked the final “butterfly”, with the golden wings fluttering in the non-existent breeze.

Then, Hannah’s friend Patrick, did a silent-movie mime (almost) one man performance.  The sad sack unable to cope with the world, with everything (and that means everything) falling apart around him.

And then the Catholic University drama students who tried to stage the story of Gilgamesh and looked like they might succeed until the actor playing Gilgamesh opened his mouth and it turned out that he was a Casper Milquetoast (what ever that is).  The narrator was, on the other hand, quite good.  She could have sat on a rock and told the story, and that would have been OK.  Who needs the actors?

And who needs a hat?  What kind of a question is that?   Well, there was an attractive, young, well dressed woman sitting right in front of us wearing a large broad brimmed straw hat, designed to block a partial view of the stage.  Her friend (maybe after hearing our muttering) tapped her on the shoulder and suggested that she might take it off, which she did, only to replace it with a baseball cap.  Who needs a hat?  She does.

And then on Sunday, our last Fringe event…..the Sixth Extreme Exchange political show.  Very well done, and very entertaining.

Leon Fleischer at Strathmore: Happy Birthday

Leon Fleischer turned 80 on Wednesday (according to Wikipedia) and part of his celebration was conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore last night, and playing a Mozart piano concerto (No. 12, Kirchel 325).  A very enjoyable concert, and it was good to see Fleischer, whose piano career was set back by a 30+ year paralysis in his right hand, playing so comfortably.

Our synagogue’s long time cantor developed a throat problem and could not sing any more, but he did not let it destroy him: he went back to school and is now a rabbi.  Fleischer is another example of someone who, when he no longer could play, became a conductor and remained a teacher.

A good lesson here.

It was also our first venture to Strathmore, understanding that we are probably the last people not to have gone there for something.  I thought that concert hall was quite nice, although I was surprised that a place with such good acoustics had so few soft surfaces.  My wife did point out one problem.  If you sit in the first row of a balcony (and there are many, as there are three upper tiers, two of which crawl the sides) and are female, you need to be concerned about how you sit, as the protective half-walls are slatted, rather than solid.

Our seats were really odd:  we were in the first row of the first balcony (called the promenade, I believe), but we were all the way to the side, and so far forward that the orchestra and the audience, were both to our left.  This gave us a unique view of the conductor (like he was conducting us), terrific piano acoustics (as there was nothing but air separating the piano, which had had its lid totally removed, and us), a great view of the tympanist, but a little lack of balance when the entire orchestra was playing, and particularly when the trumpets, which were right under us, were playing (which luckily was not very often).  We were sitting over the brass section for the most part, and if we had binoculars could have read their music.

A Tale of Two Tilapias: Come to the Cabaret (1 cent)

As it turned out, we had supper at two Mexican restaurants, one last night, one the night before.  At each I ordered tilapia.  Ho, hum, you say.  Who cares?

Well, it just goes to show you how different tilapia can be (ho, hum).  The first restaurant, Senor Pepper’s is a new restaurant (more precisely, new ownership and new name) in Chevy Chase.  It was just awful.  The tilapia had gone through a deflavoring and detexturizing process, and they put diced raw tomatoes with a little cilantro on top, served it with a scoop of white rice, decent but liquidy black beans, and carrots and broccoli identifiable as such only by visual observation.  Stay away, mi amigos.

But last night, it was Mix-tec in Adams Morgan (we had been there twice before), where the tilapia tasted like the Creator wanted tilapia to taste with a delicious warming sauce with an unpronouncable name (Cuitlahuac), served with a nice, fresh salad, very tasty beans and rice with a hint of tomato.  The price of the two dinners was comparable.

So, Senor Pepper?  no.  Mix-tec?  Si.

But then!!! We went to Chief Ike’s Mambo Room for our next Capitol Fringe event, this one a cabaret performance by eight singers (one of whom doubled as an energetic and competent keyboardist).  They called it Psycho-cabaret (not the most apt name), and they provided the most entertaining hour of music that we had heard in a long time.

John Edwards, Gary Hart and Strom Thurmond ($2.01)

For years, Gary Hart has been ridiculed by leading the press to his ladyfriend with his challenge to watch him and see how clean he is, and how devoted to wife and family.  Unbelievable, it was said, shows really stupidity.

Then, there was Strom Thurmond, who was able to keep his bi-racial daughter hidden from the limelight for his entire very long life.  (To be fair, I don’t think that Thurmond was married at the time of this liaison, but there were other issues involved.)

And now there is poor John Edwards, who denied the paternity of his daughter (seems clear now, doesn’t it?), allowed a friend to take the fall for him, but now, Hart-like, appears at a Beverly Hills hotel for a post-dusk rendezvous, only to be caught by the National Enquirer.

Ah, John, you may have a lot of Hart, but you are no Strom Thurmond.

Terrorists (one cent)

A disabled veteran in a wheel chair, with a cane and a neck brace, flies from Florida through Atlanta to Wichita for the July 4 holiday.  Two weeks later, he makes the return trip.  When his plane lands in Atlanta, he is wheeled to the connecting gate.  While waiting for his next flight, he watches the passengers disembarking at the next gate from another flight.  One particular man catches his eye.  He looks shifty, and he looks around as if trying to see if there are any law enforcement officers nearby.

The disabled veteran is wearing a flag hat–red, white and blue.  His cane is red, white and blue.  His wheel chair has an American flag attached.

The glances of the man with the shifty eyes and the veteran meet.  The disembarking passenger immediately shifts his eyes away, turns, and vanishes into the terminal.

The disabled veteran realizes that the man is a terrorist:  he has shifty eyes, he was looking around suspiciously, and he immediately moved away thinking that the disabled veteran (because of his flag, his cane and his hat) must have been a lawman.  There were no police around, and now this terrorist is wandering the streets of the country.  What should the veteran have done?

This question was asked this morning by the disabled veteran on C-Span to the head of the U.S. terrorist watchlist program.  What do you think was the answer he was given?  You would have been surprised.

Errant Nonsense/Arrant Nonsense/Nonsense (3 cents)

Let’s figure it out.

Nonsense:  Nonsense is not necessarily bad, it just has no sense.  So, the Forum Theatre’s rendition of Peter Weiss’ Marat Sade, a play within a play composed by the Marquis de Sade and acted out by the inmates of an insane asylum, set in Napoleanic France and reflecting the murder of Marat during the height of the French Revolution, naturally qualifies as nonsense.  The subject matter, of course, is serious.  Both de Sade and the events depicted are historical.  But the fact that the actors are all inmates of an asylum gives rein to the cast and directors to engage in a lot of nonsense.  And they do it well.

Arrant Nonsense.  Prototype 373-G qualifies as arrant nonsense.  Belly (a young woman), aspires to be a sucessful stand up comic.  Her old neighbor/friend (wacky enough to be in the cast of Marat Sade) returns (from who knows where) and finds her engaged to a stiff workaholic, who it turns out is sexually involved with her agent (of course).  But her friend gives her a baby turtle which grows (like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors) until it is of overwhelming size.  And, oh yes, it was sent to earth by an alien force whose representative is going to come to earth, insert himself in the grown turtle, impregnate Belly, and bring this superior civilization to the planet.  He does not succeed.  This is one nonsensical play, saved only because the ideas are cute, the script is very clever and the acting (especially Belly and the alien) first rate.  But it is arrant nonsense.

Errant Nonsense.  7(x1) Samurai, dealing with the Japanese equivalent of knights in shining armor (in this case, a mime in masks), qualifies as errant nonsense.  A one man show by David Gaines, who looks like he is too old to put as much energy into it as he does, does a masked (partially), mute (almost) one man, fast speed version of The Seven Samurai.  He is quite talented.  The show extremely well reviewed.  Left me cold. Errant nonsense.

All at the Fringe Festival.

Notes to My Friends in Theater

From Ivan Schwebel’s book, Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv!:  “Never read newspaper critics.  If the temptation is too great, change your country and don’t learn the language.”

From David Ewen’s article on the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rites of Spring”, published in Coronet Magazine, March 1937:

“On May 29, 1913, a volcanic eruption rocked musical Paris.  The eruption was caused by the first performance of “The Rites of Spring”, at the Theatre des Champs Elysees, an offering of the Diaghilev Ballet Russe, headed by Nijinsky…….The performance of “The Rites of Spring”, under the baton of Pierre onteaux, had progressed only a few minutes when the growling of a volcano began to assert itself in the audience.  Before long, the air of the theatre became charged with electric excitation, and the hot lava of dissention spat among the audience……While the music was in progress, a lady stretched into the next box and slapped the face of a man who was hissing; her escort arose , cards were exchanged, and a duel took place the following morning.  SaintSaens viciously denounced the composer; Andre Capu, the critic, bellowed that it was all a colossal bluff, while – at the same time – Maurice Ravel was crying ‘genius’ to his inattentive neighbors.  The Austrian ambassador laughed loudly in derision, Florent Schmitt, the great composer, attacked hiim for his laughter.  The Princess des Pourtales left her box, exclaiming, “I am sixty years old, but this is the first time that anyone has dared make a fool of me.”  Another proud society lady rose majestically in her seat, contracted her capacious bosom and spat in the face of one of the demonstrators….And throughout it all, Claude Debussy, pale and trembling, was pleading to his audience to remain quiet and listen patiently to the music.

“When the tempestous performance came to a close, Stravinsky (who had left a sick bed to be present), Diaghilev and Nijinsky fled from the theatre, engaged a fiacre and spent the entire night circling the lake in the Bois de Boulogne.  Their nerves were tangled, they temples throbbed, they were alternately smothered by rage and disappointment….when they returned to their homes the following dawn, and faith had replaced the despair of the previous night, they knew that they had created an important and epochal work, they were convinced that the music had greatness as well as originality, that it was music of the future, and that it would live”