The Installation of a Rabbi

It was somewhat of a surprise when my nephew decided to concentrate in Jewish Studies at Tufts and less of a surprise when, a year after graduation, he entered rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in New York.  We attended his ordination from HUC at Temple Emanu-El in New York five years ago.  We were happy to be there although the ceremony itself (lasting, as I recall, about three full days without a bathroom break) was excruciating.  (I am not exaggerating; it included the calling up of each rabbinic, cantorial and other graduate one-by-one for an off-mike discussion with the school leadership.  The audience just sat there for ever and ever.)

Eric found his first job as an assistant rabbi in Syosset, New York, where he remained for five years.  We never went to see him in action at the North Shore Synagogue.  I’m not sure why we didn’t, but Long Island (that is where I am told that Syosset is located) has always seemed to me somewhere on another planet, reachable only by air to JFK or LaGuardia.

But earlier this year, after a typically long and I am sure emotional search process, Eric was given the job a senior (and only) rabbi at Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield, CT.  I had never been to Ridgefield, but have always been impressed by the historic and contemporary beauty of western Connecticut, and we vowed that one day we would visit Eric at his new home.

When he and Marcella were in Washington last May and had dinner at our house, we learned of the November 14 formal installation (Eric was actually starting to work in July), and we decided to come.

Ridgefield is a beautiful town.  To the outsider, it seems to ooze wealth and serenity.  The Main Street stores are upper end, and the residential areas you see driving up from New York City on Route 35 are colonial palatial.  To be sure, there are areas of the town that appear to be only upper middle class, but they are limited.

Eric and Marcella have bought a nice condominium in one of those upper middle class enclaves, but the temple itself is housed in an expanded 19th century residence in a very nice, bucolic part of Ridgefield.  As to the event itself, we knew that there was to be a 6 p.m. dinner at the temple, followed by a Friday night service which would include the installation itself.  Other than this, we did not know what to expect.

It is not a large congregation; it has a few hundred families, but is clearly an active congregation with a very attractive and well maintained facility.  Close to 200 people showed up for the installation dinner.  This included not only congregants (including tens of 6th and 7th graders, who did everything from act as greeters, to serve the food, clear the tables, hand out programs and much more, all with good cheer, style and friendliness). but also representatives of several Christian churches in Ridgefield, at least two of the town’s Selectmen (one being a female Selectman), and his former senior rabbi and about a dozen others who drove to Ridgefield from Syosset.  And, his predecessor clergyman at TSI, who had served the Congregation for over twenty years was also there, with his wife, in seeming good cheer.

It was a buffet dinner (a very nice green salad, salmon, chicken, a pasta salad and green beans) and a variety of non-alcoholic drinks.  The president of the Congregation delivered some very nice remarks at the dinner, and introduced some of the non-members in attendance.  At 8 p.m., services began.  Unusual for a Friday night, and because of the special nature of this service, they were not over until after 10 p.m., when an informal Oneg Shabbat offered coffee (real and fake), tea, and deserts to the night owls of the congregation.

The service was organized to maximize participation by clergy (from all denominations) and congregants.  There were readings given by four or five ministers, by the selectmen, by the temple leadership, and even we were asked to lead a reading, which we gladly did.  The Saturday bat mitzvah girl and her family participated.  The 7th graders led part of the service.  The temple choir was joined by the choir of one of the local churches and sounded strong and vibrant.  The cantor was joined by the cantor from Syosset and certain others for part of the service.  The Syosset rabbi gave a very nice talk about Eric, and generally about the relationship between congregations and their leaders.  The now emeritus rabbi of Shearith Israel spoke very generously.  Eric gave nice remarks.  And it must be said that a good time was had by all.  And, even more importantly, every single speaker, without exception, spoke warm words of welcome.  Very warm words.

Clearly coming into the leadership of a congregation is a difficult and anxiety provoking task.  You don’t know your congregants; they don’t know you.  Everyone has different expectations.  You want to change things, but not too much.  You have the former clergy, with whom you want to maintain strong relationships as you change the temple they have led for so many years.  You want to build (and retain) membership.  You want to increase activities.  You want to get along with everyone.  You want to be respected.  You want to teach.  And you want to learn.  And, at this time of general financial crisis, you want to keep your temple’s coffers at least partially full.

We think that Eric and Marcella will love being in Ridgefield, although we know that every day will not be equally smooth.  We think that Eric and the congregation will grow together, and that he could not have found a better place to hang his kippah.  It appears that he will be surrounded by well meaning, friendly folks, in a very welcoming community.  We wish him the best.

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OK, Now Beyond the Friends

1.  Book.  I did read one book this week, an old Penguin mystery called Puzzle for Fiends, written in 1946 by Patrick Quentin (who according to the cover was actually two people).  I read this only because I wanted a book I could actually put in my pocket, and there it was (why I don’t know).  There is no real reason to read it, considering there are several millions of books to choose from: amnesiac victim is released from hospital into the care of his wife and mother (but of course they aren’t really his wife and mother, but they need to have their son back to get the money from their recently deceased husband/father’s will), and he is trying to figure out who they are and who he is and he sense something is wrong and he is sure it has something to do with his new and seductive ‘wife’, never dreaming that she is in fact innocent and that it is his wholesome ‘sister’ who killed both her father and her brother, and not learning this until he realizes that his broken arm and leg, both in casts, are not really broken and he can run and shoot and do every thing else a man should be able to do.  And, yes, he does find out his real identity on the second to last page of the book.

2.  Theater.  It is time for the Capitol Fringe Festival and our first venue was to see “Dorks on the Loose”, not a title that would normally attract us, except that the dorks are two of Hannah’s college roommates, and Hannah produced the show for Fringe.  It was a lot of fun and quite silly, and they are getting full houses (that means about 80 people: not bad) at the small Warehouse Theater space.  So, I said, ‘ok, I’ll go to see more Fringe’ and yesterday morning (noon), I went back to the Warehouse to see “Three Girls and a Man”, about a man whose wife has multiple personalities (three), and one of them wants to divorce him, and he doesn’t want her treated because he likes the variety (the accomplished feminist, the subservient fundamentalist wife, and the nymphomanic).  The premise had promise, I thought, but unfortunately it was a bad play, badly performed.   So be it.

3.  The poet.  Gary Snyder, now 78, is a very famous West Coast poet (friend of Ginsburg and Kerouac and others), who is also a student/expert of Buddhism and eastern art and culture, and has spent the last 40 years writing Endless Mountains and Rivers, an epic poem.  I had never heard of him.  We saw him at the Freer (he spoke in conjunction with the Yellow Mountain exhibit I wrote about several weeks ago), and he was interesting in speaking about his life (somewhat) and soporific when reading his poetry.  But then I find most poetry soporific.

4.  We had a very nice event for American Associates of Ben Gurion University this week with Mick Alkan, professor of community medicine, and Sirak Sabahat, of “Live and Become” fame, and a nice dinner with them both at Clyde’s before the session.  We also had a nice dinner at Oyamel with Hannah after ‘Dorks’.

So, we have not just been sitting around, I guess.

How Do You Decide What to Wear? (1 cent)

I feel a great sense of accomplishment, as yesterday I wore the same clothes to (a) go to synagogue, (b) visit with friends at the home of their mother, (c) have lunch at an Italian restaurant, (d) read a book, and (e) go to a Mardi Gras (I know the date is off) party at the Eastport Democratic Club in Annapolis, where Little Red and the Renegades were playing.  It can be done.

More details?  This is a scholar in residence weekend at Adas Israel, and we went to hear Professor Rachel Elior of Hebrew University speak (Edie went back to hear her this morning, but I needed my morning coffee).  She was very interesting, speaking about the Levites (the tribe of Jacob dedicated to taking care of the Temple and ritual objects), stressing that Aaron the High Priest (brother of Moses) was not the first in his line, but that his lineage could be traced back to his great grandfather, and then forward to the destruction of the Temple.  She talked about how the then current high priest would determine which of his sons would inherit the position, with the remainder of the sons joining the remaining Levites in their job of taking care of ritual objects and ensuring that ritual was followed.  They were not permitted to work, they had no land in a society which was agricultural, and they were expected to study and teach (everyone, at least all the males, was literate) and to be supported by the community.

Our friends Harriet and Vance are in from Michigan to help their mother, our friend Charlotte, who has been battling severe pain from her arthritic condition, begin to prepare her townhouse in Burke for sale.  Difficult all around.  But we spent the afternoon with them, including a mediocre at best lunch at an Italian restaurant in Burke where we have been several times before with Charlotte and at least once with Harriet.  Is it called Bella Vista?  Perhaps.  It has a view of the local Walmart.

Then, after a return to the District and a brief rest, we regenerated, picked up our friend Ellen, and drove to Annapolis where the Eastport Democratic Club (of the Maritime Republic of Eastport) was having their annual Mardi Gras festival with Little Red and the Renegades (“They call me Little Red, but my real name is Tom”) were playing, this time with support from members of another local band, The Grandads.  Everyone was, as they say, in fine fiddle.

The only problem:  We got home well after midnight (and at 2 o’clock a.m., we were under instructions to spring forward an hour, which we did).

Quick Takes: Other Doings

1. The movie: “Mephisto”, directed by Istvan Szabo, at the National Gallery Saturday afternoon. Was it as good as “Taking Sides”, which we saw two weeks ago? Maybe it was; it was very, very good. Won the 1982 Oscar for best foreign film. Starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as Hendrik Hoefgen, Hamburg actor in the 1920s, whose goal is to make it big in Berlin. A member of a left wing political theater in Hamburg, he becomes, when the Nazis take over Germany, the favorite of the Nazis and the head of the Prussian State Theater. A movie about what it means to be an actor and to have theater as your life, and the important relationship between theater and politics, how your politics can director your theatrical enterprises, and how your theatrical enterprises can themselves be redirected by the politics of others. Brandauer did a fantastic job playing a role that was composed of many roles. You saw him on stage, and you saw him playing Hoefgen, a meek individual who, in his private life as well, was always playing one role or another. Based on a novel written by Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s son (who committed suicide in the south of France), based on the true story of his brother in law.

2. The book. I finished The Orientalist by Tom Reiss, and recommend it extremely highly. The story of Lev Nussimbaum, also known as Essad Bey, also as Kuban Said. Jew, Moslem, author. A man of mystery, writer of best sellers in Europe during the 1920s, when many Jews were looking east to their oriental roots, and others looking to escape their Judaism through adventure, rebranding, and sometimes new faiths. Nussimbaum died of Reynaud’s Syndrome while still in his thirties in exile in Positano, where he was penniless (he was for most of his life wallowing in money, either his parents or his wife’s) and known only as “the Moslem”. Beautifully written and researched. Learn about early life in oil-rich Baku, the escape across the Caucasus when the Bolsheviks took over, Constantinople, Paris and Berlin, when they were home to Russian emigrant communities. Meet the Nabokovs, and Freud and Einstein, and George Viereck, and Werfel and Zweig, and even Joseph Stalin who, as a young man, was a friend of the Nussimbaums in Baku.

3. The game. Toronto beat the Caps 3-2 in a just awful game.

4. The restaurant. Another great meal at Jaleo (no need to repeat was has been said before; this place is very consistent)

5. The exposition. The antique flea market at the Dulles Exposition Center. Just too much stuff. So many exhibitors, packing and unpacking and setting up and packing and unpacking. Big stuff. Furniture, for example. Fragile stuff. Hundreds (no, thousands) of glass and pottery pieces. Want post cards? Probably a million there. Vintage clothes? Old kitchen supplies or hardware? So much. There was one political ephemera dealer who most have had 40,000,000,000 buttons (more or less). Where do they get it all? How much of it do they really think they can sell?

An Afternoon at the American Craft Show in Baltimore

Parking $20. Admission $14 per person. 700 craft booths. Would it be worth it?

As it turned out, the answer is ‘yes’, although we didn’t buy anything. And apparently, although we did see some purchasing, sales were less than they had been in the recent past, with exhibitors wondering about the effect of the nation’s present economic problems on the willingness or ability of attendees to acquire expensive, luxury items.

Yes, and the items were, for the most part, expensive. For example, I saw a very nice basket made by Mary Jackson of Johns Island, South Carolina. Very nice. It was marked at $900.

I saw many booths with lovely women’s woven tops. Most were about $800.

And so it goes.

If you Google “American Craft Show Baltimore”, you get the website, which interestingly features a photograph of one work by all, or at least the vast majority of, exhibitors. Here are some of my picks from the various categories.

Basketry – yes, Mary Jackson

Ceramics – Lesley Thomson

Wearable Fashion – Shu Lu (for her name)

Decorative Fiber – Shirley Edidin (carpets)

Furniture – Nathan Hunter

Glass – Wendy Besett

Jewelry – Baharal-Gnida

Metal – Jim Cohen

Mixed Media – Guy Michaels (alabaster)

Wood – Michael Mode

New Exhibitor – Haewon Shin (I don’t remember seeing her/his exhibit, but I like the picture)

We also saw the creator of the two old, happy women who live in our living room. He is Michael Buonaiuoto, who lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but who used to live in New Mexico (where we made our purchase years ago). It was good to see his collection of items, and to know he can be reached at http://www.alittlecompany.net.

And we spoke to a young jewelry maker, of Japanese background, whose sign says that she lived in Hannibal, MO. I asked her how that happened and she said that her boyfriend bought a 4500 square foot house there, so she moved from Boston and that a lot of artists are buying houses there very cheaply with studio space. Still she says, its the pits, and she can’t even get good cheese.

I don’t think that either Hannibal or Fayetteville is featured on the craft show home page, so I guess there are quite a few less than 700 pictured there. Maybe you have to pay to be featured.

Also not featured was Yarrow (I think that is the name), who make sheepskin coats (of various lengths and colors) in Santa Fe and sell them on the road (they used to have a store, but not now). I figured they had about 80 coats displayed (and some hats), ranging from about $800 to about $2000. Very beautiful.

Finally, and I don’t know the maker’s name, there was an artist who made timepieces out of a beautiful reddish brown wood. The nicest one was about 12 feet tall, worked through a pendulum mechanism, with all of the gears (each made from wood themselves and probably 6 to 10 inches in diameter) in full view. He was outdone only by artist who made a working 2/3 size spinning wheel out of pure glass.

Afterwards, we had dinner (with friends) at Indigma, an Indian restaurant on Charles Street previously reviewed in this column. Their food is not quite traditional and very mild. On a Saturday night by about 7 or 7:30, it was full. Edie had a vegetable korma (like a stew), I ordered herbal chicken (boneless chicken breasts in a green sauce; hard to find the taste), and our friends ordered mahi mahi (which might have been the best of the bunch) and a lamb shank dish (which I ate part of in exchange for half of my chicken) and I thought was only so-so. I think I had the tilapia last time, and if we go back, that is what I will get.

We did see our old waiter, Kevin from Kenya. His family is doing ok, he said, and his classes at Morgan State are going very well.

All in a Day

1. The Book. I finished Paolo Maurensig’s short novel, The Luneburg Variation, and found it a worthwhile read. It takes place in Vienna, probably in the 1970s. Businessman Dieter Frisch is found dead, shot at close range in the temple. It appears to be a suicide, but Dieter Frisch gave no hint of being on the verge.

Flash back: Dieter Frisch, the young German master chess player, and Tabori, the young Austrian/Jewish master chess player. The early 1930s. The Nazis. 1938, Germany invades Austria. Kristallnacht. The rivals, Aryan and Jew, play to a draw in an important match.

Flash forward: German concentration/work camp. Frisch, the German officer. Tabori, the Jewish prisoner. The prisoner is saved because the officer wants to play chess. But it is a bargain with the devil.

The war ends. Time passes. Tabori returns to Vienna, an emotional wreck, hanging around chess halls, not playing. Frisch doesn’t play either, but becomes a successful banker. Both remain obsessed with the game.

Tabori has a young disciple. On his deathbed, he tells the disciple to find Frisch, and tell him what has happened since the war. He does. Frisch dies.

It’s a short book, compelling. Probably even more so if you understand the many specific references to specific chess games and plays.

2. The Play. “No Child”, a one-woman, one-act play that closes today at the Woolly Mammoth. Extraordinary performance the actor/writer Nilaja Sun, based on her experience as a part time drama instructor at an impoverished high school in the Bronx. She plays herself, the principal, the teacher, the janitor and the entire class. She is spectacular.

The play itself is a tragedy disguised as a comedy. How could the state of American education and culture fallen so low?

3. The Exhibit. Today was also the last day of the Marcel Breuer exhibit at the National Building Museum. Breuer was Hungarian Jewish Bauhaus architect and furniture designer. He started as a furniture designer, setting the mark for German modern furniture (of wood, leather, steel and aluminum) in the 1920s. In the 1930s he turned to architecture. His American projects include high rise buildings in Boston and Baltimore, the HUD and HHS buildings in DC, churches, synagogues, private houses and more. His specialty was the use of concrete as a building material, and designs which incorporated various geometric forms placed together often in unexpected ways. He has always been a favorite.

4. The Lunch. Camille’s, across from the MCI Center on F Street. A casual place for lunch. You order at the counter, they call your number, you pick up the food and carry it to your table. It is not expensive. It is slow. It is not very good.

5. The Dinner. Nela, a Mediterranean (read Lebanese) restaurant on N Street in Georgetown. It is pricey. I found it quite comfortable. It is fairly large. They have a fish special daily. Usually whatever white fish they can find, cooked whole, filleted for you, and served in a garlic broth with fresh vegetables. Today’s fish was bronzini. It was spectacular, and compares to the sea bream at Beni Dagim in Jerusalem.

Professor Emeritus Haim-Vidal Sephiha of the Sorbonne (4 cents)

While this posting is a bit longer than usual, I think you will find it of much interest.

 This afternoon, I went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to hear a lecture by Haim-Vidal Sephiha, professor emeritus at the Sarbonne, and former chair of its Judeo-Espagnol Department.  His topic was advertised as “The Effect of the Holocaust on the Judeo-Espagnol Language” (I paraphrase).

Sephiha is 84 years old, a survivor of several German work camps and Auschwitz, a son of Turkish Jews born and raised in Brussels, a chemist, a linguist, and perhaps the world’s foremost scholar on the language spoken by Sephardic Jews.

He is also the compiler of what was described as one of the largest privately held resources on the Judeo-Espagnol language, comprised of 5000+ books, articles, hundreds of unpublished doctorate and masters dissertations, and many, many other items, which he has just donated to the museum.  The museum is now putting together the team to examine and catalog the collection.

He spoke both about his scholarly work, and his personal history.  Both for general reasons, and in light of the upcoming trip, I thought these notes would be interesting to you.

His story: raised in Brussels, his parents were Turkish citizens, but he was a Belgian citizen (from age 15) by virtue of Belgian law.  His parents had come to Belgium in 1910 (separately; they met in Brussels) and had a carpet repair shop. He was one of 8 children.  He spoke Judeo-Espagnol at home, Flemish in school, and French.  He said that his father spoke perfect French, better than the Belgians did.  When the Germans came in, and anti-Jewish laws took effect, he was expelled from the university.  Shortly thereafter, he and his parents (perhaps his siblings as well; this was not discussed) were arrested.

As Turkish citizens, his parents were in a different position than other Jews in Belgium.  Turkey had a non-aggression treaty with Germany, and the fate of the Turkish Jews was controlled by the Turkish embassy.  Turkish Jews, for example, did not have to wear the yellow star.   The embassy did not enable his parents to avoid arrest, but the Turkish Jews were treated differently, particularly the women and children.  The women and children were sent to Ravensbruk, were allowed to remain together as a family, and many apparently survived the war.  At least his mother did. 

Her release makes for an interesting story.  Late in the war, when it was clear who would win and who would lose, Turkey ceased being a neutral and announced that it favored the allies.  He said that, at this time, there were many Germans in Turkey, and they were arrested, and then used as bait in a prisoner exchange.  Turkish prisoners in German camps were exchanged for Germans being held in Turkey.  His mother was freed in this manner and sent to Turkey, not back to Belgium.

His father was never sent to a death camp, but did die during the internment; he does not know much about his fate.

The authorities had to decide if Haim was a Belgian Jew or a Turkish Jew.  Again, they went to the Turkish embassy, who refused to recognize him as a Turkish Jew.  He was sent to a collection facility at Mechelen, along with the other Belgian Jews.  Here, he described the period of registration, how everything in your possession had to be turned over, how there were full body searches (men and women) to see if anything was hidden, etc.  He said that the administration of the camp was in the hands of a Jewish elite, working under close supervision of the Germans.  But it was mainly the Jews that you came in contact with.  He said that there was a lot of degradation.  His example was a woman who had been an opera singer, now forced to use her voice to administer the mail call.  He said that there were inspections, and could be beatings, but nothing like what he experienced later. 

He was put into a convoy to Auschwitz. Of course, they did not know where they were going.  They were told it was to a work camp, and that families could remain together.  They knew nothing of gassings, deaths, etc.  The cattle car trip was as they are always described, as was the entry into Auschwitz.

He was only there about ten days, and he was then transferred to a work camp in Silesia (northern Poland), where the inmates became coal miners.  He stayed at this camp, I believe, for over a year.

At that point, the Russians were moving in from the east.  I think that they had already taken Auschwitz.  The Silesian camps were evacuated, and the inmates placed in open box cars and taken on a lengthy journey to nowhere.  The Germans did not know where to put them, they stopped at all the work camps and picked up more, some died and their bodies were thrown off the train, etc.  At one point, the train went through Prague.  There, Sephiha said, the population lined the tracks and threw bread and food. Prisoners on other trains had this same experience in Prague, he said.  Nowhere else.

He was eventually freed from Bergen Belsen.

At this point, he went to Paris.  He had started to study chemical engineering in Belgium, and decided to continue, concentrating on aspects of the textile industry.  But when his mother died in 1950, he said that he felt very alone (he was now 27), and concluded that he had been cheated out of his heritage by the Nazis, and he wanted to learn more.

He then went back to the university, not knowing that he was starting a career at the Sarbonne that would last over 50 years.  He was always a secular Jew, and of course fluent in this language that no one spoke any more.  He studied history, especially medieval, Byzantine and Turkish history, he studied religion, he studied several languages, including Romanian and Armenian.  (He had learned Yiddish in the camps.)  He said he that he felt he had the need to catch up on everything, every subject possible.  His doctoral dissertation was on the status of the various Jewish language in the world.

Eventually, in 1967 he was given the first chair in Judeo-Espagnol studies, and there he remained.

He pictured the Ottoman Empire as a very safe place for Jews and other minorities.  They had full rights he said religiously and culturally.  They had their own press.  They were not restricted in any lines of business.  But, he said, well before the Second World War, things began to change with the formation of the Turkish Republic and the presidency of Kemal Mustapha Ataturk.  He said at that time a process of Turkization took over.  Other languages were no longer tolerated as well.  Turks were given preference in government positions; Jews were forced out of these positions.  He said that there was a sea change in the relationships of Jews to Turkey at this time. (Of course, his parents had left Turkey even before this in 1910; the Turkish republic was created in the early 1920s.)

Once Ataturk took over, he said, many Jews left Turkey, going to Palestine and elsewhere.  The writing was already on the wall.  He said economically things got worse for the Jews in the 1930s and during the war, even though at that time Turkey was nominally a neutral country.  Jews, he said, although not physically attacked, were assessed particularly high taxes, which were catastrophic for the many wealthy Jewish families, some of whom had to liquidate everything that they had to pay the taxes.   He did not have much to say that was kindly towards the Turks.

He spoke about the language, which he continued to call Judeo-Espagnol, and not Ladino.  (A quick visit to the Ladino entry on Wikipedia, which by the way looks very interesting, tells me that some scholars, including Sephiha who is cited by name, only use Judeo-Espagnol to talk about the spoken language, and use Ladino to talk about the use of language in a religious context, such as in the translations of various books presumably both before and after the expulsion. This surprised me, and I don’t think this is common usage. In Turkey, he said, the language was simply called (in Turkish) Jewish, just as the Jewish dialogue in Germany was called Yiddish (the German pronunciation of the German word for Jewish) 

He said that basically, J-E is the Spanish of 1492, that in Spain, the Jews did not have separate language or dialect, that they spoke Castillian or Catalan or whatever, but that the language basically froze upon expulsion, except that over years it picked up a lot of Arabic in Morocco, and Turkish in Constantinople, etc.  He also said that Spanish Jews did not know Hebrew by and large, and that all of the religious texts had been translated into Spanish and brought into exile with the fleeing Jews; presumably, these are the texts that he would say are written in Ladino.

He said that there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish-Espagnol speakers, but today he does not believe that there are any speakers who are mono-lingual, and doubts that there ever will be again.  It is a language only of literature, of history, of nostalgia.  Finally, he said that after World War II, a silence fell on Judeo-Espagnol, but now there are many scholars in the field and there is at least an academic renaissance under way.  He also said that, because virtually no one speaks the language perfectly any more, and there have always been localized variants, the internet is playing a major role in the reconstruction of the various forms of this language, with J-E speakers showing up in places like Japan and Alaska.

At any rate, an interesting 90 minutes, and a few more thoughts to put in our knowledge base.

No Rest for the Weary

Saturday was a busy day:

1.  Katzen Center at American University.  The Katzen Center is an amazing place, a spacious three level exhibition space, which can take the largest installations.  And, apparently having no permanent collection itself, it adds an important venue to the D.C. art scene.  Three separate shows are on exhibit now.  They range in quality, but are all worth while.

The weakest is the third floor Fernando Botero exhibition of his Abu Ghraib series, over seventy paintings and drawings showing various prisoners (presumably Iraqi) either being tortured or required to pose obscenely by others (presumably American).  Of course, Botero was not there, so this is all from his imagination (and based on the newspaper accounts).  For someone whose art work generally delights me, in part because of its whimsicality, this heavy stuff simply left a bad taste in my mouth.  Maybe one or two of these would have been interesting, but 70?  I pitied the poor AU co-eds who are museum guards who have to sit and watch the reactions of the public.

The second floor is devoted to a large series of large paintings by a California-based artist named Irving Norman.  Born in Lithuania, education in New York, a former Communist and Abraham Lincoln Brigade member, Norman’s large and extremely detailed (and often appropriately repetitious) panels devoted to war, city life, crowds, industrialization, militarization, and the gaps between rich and poor comprise an important corpus of work.

The first floor is devoted to feminist art from the 1970s and 1980s.  Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, Judith Bernstein, Hannah Wilke, Yolanda Lopez, May Steves, Jane Kaufman, Cynthia Mailman and Carolee Schneeman among others.  Some I heard of, some were new to me.  Some of the work I liked more than others.  Some of the work is very tasteful (such as the trytich showing Yolanda Lopez, her mother and her grandmother), and some purposely in terrible taste (as Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll), as some feminist art is wont to be.

2.  The Textile Museum.  We stopped by the Textile Museum to see the exhibit of fabrics from Klimt’s Vienna.  It was a bit disappointing only because it contained only small fragments of materials to show various designs; the designs themselves were very appealing, but it was like looking in a salesman’s case.  The musuem also has a show made up of fabric art taken from local collections, which contains some very interesting material, particularly the fabric paintings of Archie Brennan (including a very nice “American Gotham”, based on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”); it also has a faux fabric piece, a talis made out of wood that looks like fabric by artist Fraser Smith.  Finally, I walked through the exhibit of older carpets (as far back as the 17th century) and Peruvian tunics (dating back over 2000 years) from the collection of museum founder George Hewitt Meyers.

3.  The Concert at the Takoma Park Adventist Church.  It was advertised as a piano concert, but turned out to be a Christmas concert featuring the church choir, as well as the pianist.  It was too much Christmas for us.  Having wasted $1 at the parking meter, we pulled away and headed to town.

4.  The National Portrait Gallery.  We had an hour to spare and went to see the current exhibit of contemporary American portraiture at the Portrait Gallery.  Again, Faith Ringgold, as well as Tina Mion, Brett Cook, Kery Jame Marshall, and Alfredo Arreguin.  Portraits of well known literary, entertainment and political figures.  A nice exhibit.

5.  Supper at McCormick and Schmick’s on 9th and G, after a short stop at the MLK Library to see the books on sale.  Edie had red fish, and I had wahoo, and we both were pleased.

6.  After dinner, the Jewish Film Festival and “Charging the Rhino”.  See the earlier blog for a discussion of this movie.

Washington Jewish Film Festival, R.I.P. (Part 5)

We saw our final movie this afternoon, “Someone to Run With”, based on a David Grossman novel.  This film has won some awards; I would have been just as happy not seeing it.  It is a very dark movie, sort of an Israeli Oliver Twist and Three Penny Opera.  It explores the fictional (?) underside of Jerusalem, where Pesach runs a home for wayward teens who would otherwise be on the street.  Of course, they would be better off on the street, because Pesach in effect keeps them prisoners and uses them as ploys for his drug running business. Tamar’s brother, a talented guitarist, has fallen prey to Pesach, so sixteen year old Tamar decides to become homeless herself, descend into this underworld hell, and help her brother both shake his drug habit and escape.  In the meantime, her constant companion, dog Dinka, is separated for her, and a young Jerusalem teenager is given the task of finding Dinka’s master.  This leads him into the same hellish existence and, after a lot of bruising and blood, all is well, and our three heroes, as well as Dinka, live happily ever after.

I just thought the movie unnecessarily depraved.

Washington Jewish Film Festival (Part 4)

Last night, we went to see “Charging the Rhino”, the story of Simcha Jacobovici’s father and the Romanian holocaust.

Having seen an extraordinarily good holocaust documentary, “The Last Jews of Libya”, produced by film amateur Vivienne Roumani, we had high hopes for Jacobovici’s “Charging the Rhino”.  After all, Jacobovici is a film maker, best known for his film discussing the (maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t) ossuary of Jesus, found recently in Tolpiot, in Israel.

What a disappointment.  The film appeared by far the more amateurish of the two.  And, while Roumani had the sense to make herself only one of a number of interviewees in her picture, the entire “Rhino” centered on the film maker, and his visits to Romania (with his sister) after the death of his father.

The senior Jacobovici (like is son) is a physically dominating individual, strong and intense looking.  He was shot during a 1941 pogrom in Iasi, and left for dead.  He was nurtured back to health, escaped to Russia, fought the Nazis, immigrated to Palestine and then to Canada, where he presumably had a successful business career (although not the career of a vintner as he had intended back home).  He never went back to Romania, nor did his two children until after his death.

Simcha was appalled to find no monument to the Iasi pogrom (like Yevtushenko at Babi Yar), and set about to put a plaque on the wall, which he did in what appeared to be a series of press conferences.  He belittled the Romania of today, as well as the Romania of Nazi times, and of Fascists times, making it appear that no Romanians had any intelligence whatsoever, and it was up to Jacobovici to dip into their country and frame their history.  He was sure not to film himself next to any Romanian who was not at least six inches shorter than he.

Did he have a story to tell?  Absolutely.  Did he tell it?  Yes.  But he could have told it much better than in a film that looked like a first draft from an amateur film maker.  (Of course, it is possible, that he succeeded in doing exactly what he wanted to do, to show Romania as such an unfortunate place that you couldn’t even make a good documentary there, but if so, I think his strategy failed.)