Arts & Culture

We welcome you to send us any news you might have regarding the vibrant arts and culture scene here in Philadelphia. If you have books to review, theatre productions, music, or museum exhibits please feel free to contact Art & Culture Editor Lisa Grunberger at [email protected]

Calculated, Caricature, and Cliché: A review of Paula Vogel’s Indecent

By Robert Margolis

Paula Vogel’s play Indecent, currently in performance at The Arden Theatre Company, is a play about a play, Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance) written originally in Yiddish, in Warsaw in 1906, and about its author Sholem Asch and some of the actors and actresses who performed this play, whether in its original language or in various translations, throughout Europe, in Russia, and in the United States. “Got fun nekome was the first Yiddish play to be translated and staged throughout Europe,” writes David Mazower (editorial director of the Yiddish Book Center) in his article “10 Things You Need to Know about God of Vengeance,” and thus has its own variegated cultural and performance history (including incidents of censorship and, in the United States, in 1923, an arrest of the Broadway cast for obscenity, which, for some reason, overly fascinates Vogel, as does everything else that is obvious about Asch’s original play).

Mazower also writes that, because of its subject, characters, and language, “[o]ver the last twenty years or so, Got fun nekome has been updated, revised, adapted, and reworked almost as many times as it’s been staged in the original.” And he is generous in his regard for Vogel’s play when he summarizes it as using “fragments of Asch’s original in a much broader exploration of authorship, the power of theatre in general, and the lost world of Yiddish theatre in particular.”

This is what Vogel’s play maybe had the potential to do and to be about. But this description of Indecent, it turns out, and though there are many eager to share it, is an unfulfilled ideal; rather, the actual play makes of it merely a recitation of received ideas. Vogel’s play does no more than exploit, but does not explore, the sentimentality and assumptions of its own received ideas.

For everything Indecent purports to be about is even more what it is not about. Why? Because what primarily is missing is what seems to be most present: Asch’s play, its author and its performers. Instead, there are caricatures and not characters, the sensationalized aspects of the play––or of the character’s personalities, but not the play.

Sex, prostitution, lesbianism, a kiss between two woman lovers, and the desecration of a Torah scroll. So, nu? These are already in the Hebrew Bible. And so? All that’s needed is for us to find out all the women characters are really played by “Mrs. Maisel,” wearing ‘the Jewish star,’ and who steals each scene with a musical tableau. Of all the stories Vogel could have found to tell in her play about a play, she chooses the obvious and easily commercialized; and she does so with a vengeance, so insistent is her script on homogenizing the then and now, the past and present––just as mass media does it by leveling everything into the ‘contemporary,’ and requiring just as little of our imaginations. The characters, one feels, are written to vehicle and support this sentimentality and sensationalism, and thus are reduced more to caricatures of that which the author intends and want us to imagine them to be.

Yiddish, as others have observed, is the language through which the Jewish people entered modernity, and entered especially through Yiddish literary art and culture. As Mazower writes: “The former yeshiva student [Asch] had absorbed the latest trends in Polish, German, and Russian modernism and was now a cosmopolitan European writer.” Here is the story we should find within Got fun nekome, of its author Sholem Asch and its actors–the rupture and ‘leap,’ the transformation and metamorphosis in and through literature and literary culture, that Indecent completely ignores (if its author is even aware of it). Here, precisely, is the vital, essential story left unimagined, unwritten, undramatized.

Here too is the matrix from which emerge the struggles, the polemics over what Yiddish literature should include, what should be its purpose(s), and about what effect it had, or was imagined to have, on the views and attitudes about Jews held by the dominant host societies into which many Jews hoped to integrate if not assimilate and thus be more or less fully accepted as equal citizens. Presenting the latter, as the play does, through a few perfunctory declamations and shouts about “anti-Semitism,” whether that of the audiences or, as some accused, in the play itself, just doesn’t cut it.

There is little if any sense, in Vogel’s attempted characters, that these are Yiddish artists––multilingual and multicultural (as its now called) writers, dramaturgs, actors/actresses, natives of a complex and sophisticated Yiddish literary culture developing at a highly-accelerated, unprecedented pace. Of which Sholem Asch and his play is representative and openly exploring. Vogel’s script assumes we audiences know the culture, the thinking, the traversals through Jewish tradition to modernity, the artistic sensibilities from which, in which, Asch could write his play, and why it was then, and still is now, so compelling and accomplished, while also allowing, even inviting, transposition and interpretation.

But we, most of us anyway, do not know. And therein, as well, lies an untold story about which, through Indecent, Sholem Asch, his original play, Yiddish theatre and literature could have spoken, but do not.

With its ‘made-for-TV Jews’ (including most odiously, at the play’s end, its ‘Holocaust Ghetto Jews’), Indecent’s characters feel and its script reads like a Wikipedia entry that has been dramatized. Vogel does not have a command of the complexity and subtlety her subject and characters need here. Which is to be regretted. Because Rebecca Wright, the director of this production (the play’s regional premiere), along with its very able and honed cast members, clearly love and are dedicated to both Vogel’s play and to the language(s), meaning(s), and histories of Asch’s original. Regrettably again, Wright’s direction and the cast’s performances–however good, nuanced, and sensitive they can be, cannot provide or substitute for what Vogel the writer could not give her story and its characters.

Indecent is thus (something of) an idea for a play that waits to be written, with characters, not paint-by-number Jewish caricatures, with much more awareness and nuanced understanding and imagination of its subject(s). Indecent ends up–and surely this is not its author’s intention, doing to Sholem Asch’s play and to Asch himself what Fiddler on the Roof did to Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman). Which is: simplistically caricature the complexities and ambiguities of the story and its characters, and more broadly of Yiddishkeit and Yiddish literary culture.

The fine production and performances of the Arden Theatre Company’s staging of Indecent, precisely because of their excellent quality, unfortunately, serve to reveal how full of self-congratulation are the comments (in the playbill) about the play’s alleged ‘insights’ and the overestimation of the script’s content and craft.

Franz Kafka (for whose writings Yiddish theatre infused vital possibilities), in one of his journals, refers to “a kind of congenital indifference to received ideas” that is his own. It is this indifference precisely that one needs when presented with the play Indecent, which attempts to use Yiddish artists, and Yiddish literature and literary culture, for sentimental effect, social statement and ideological purpose. An indifference to received ideas which is all the more necessary to a critical assessment of this play, whose merit is in inverse proportion to the extolment and acclaim it has largely received.

Indecent by Paula Vogel, directed by Rebecca Wright, and starring Doug Hara, Michaela Shuchman, Jaime Masada, Leah Walton, Ross Benchley, MB Scallen, and David Ingram, is currently running through June 23, 2019 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets and information, call: (215) 922-1122.

Book Review: Now You Can Limit the Power of Hidden Traumas

I strongly commend to your attention Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma (Monkfish Press) by psychotherapist and rabbi, Tirzah Firestone. The many personal and collected narratives she shares compel the reader to reflect in new and helpful ways upon one’s own life, family trauma histories known, and those perhaps dimly perceived–even long after the volume is read. Her writing style is beautiful. She demonstrates the importance of applying a core concept articulated by Yael Danieli, editor of International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma:

“Awareness of transmitted intergenerational [trauma] processes will inhibit transmission of pathology to succeeding generations.”

Is or was there a bump under the rug of your family story? Something you felt was unspoken and hugely significant? A personal trauma? Or, from the collective traumas of your people? Traumas that must be there, yet weren’t discussed? Rabbi Firestone cites Israeli traumatologist, Dan Bar-on whose research finds:

“Untold stories’ often pass more powerfully from generation to generation than stories that can be recounted.”

Rabbi Firestone’s father, like so many of her parents’ generation, as a returning soldier, did not discuss World War II experiences. Through her effort to heal and understand family traumas, when after his death the family found “photographs hidden away in his files: shocking images that he had taken inside the death camp…” She began to feel shifted, discovering:

“…the capacity to put our pain into context is key, allowing us to acknowledge its power, yet give it boundaries.”

And she continues: “Traumatic memory torments us and will own us if we do not contain it. But when we face and acknowledge it, it may be possible to convert it to something positive.”

Rabbi Firestone learned that children’s psychic borders are highly permeable. And she discovered the work of Dr. Vamik Volkan who “calls the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, image deposits. He maintains that traumatized adults can unconsciously deposit their internalized images into the developing self of the child, who then becomes a reservoir for the adult’ trauma images, which can shape the child’s life.”

She came to understand that her father’s “entire world had subtly organized itself” around the images from the war” and became able to write: “When I imagine the feelings of utter vulnerability that Dad must have experienced in the war, which he later overrode with bluster, rage, and incontrovertible opinions, I could more easily forgive his heavy-handed parenting.” Rabbi Dr. Firestone cites the work of Dr. Rachel Yehuda at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, that overwhelming trauma “resets and recalibrates multiple biologic systems in an enduring way.”

Seven Principles

Seven principles are derived from the interviews that Rabbi Dr. Firestone conducted. For example, in Principle Five “Disidentifying from Victimhood” one of the interviewees, an Israeli graduate student from Russia describes a trauma sense perhaps readers have too, especially in this age of resurgent anti-Semitism: “If we are not actively fighting, we will be erased from the face of the earth.” Another says: “It’s as if I’ve been running all my life.” America, Israel, Europe, South Africa and other contexts are addressed. She also looks closely at how to engage in this work without retraumatizing ourselves. She draws upon an IDF officer who shares that he learned from his grandfather that there are two kinds of Jews:

“One kind of Jew says: The Holocaust happened to us as Jews and we have to do whatever we can, with whatever means, to make sure it did not happen to us as Jews ever again…”

“…The second kind of Jew—and this is the kind of Jew that I want to be—is the Jew that says: ‘We were part of one of the hugest catastrophes that happened in humanity. We were one of the groups that were harmed from this, but not the only group and we now have the responsibility that this will never happen to anyone again.’”

Throughout the volume we meet those who show us ways of hope for the human future.

Incorporating Jewish Wisdom

In Wounds into Wisdom, Rabbi Dr. Firestone also applies Jewish wisdom as found in our sacred literature, for example:

“Had I not fallen, I could not have arisen. Had I not sat in the darkness, I could not have beheld the light.”–Midrash Socher Tov 22:7

And, from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning Rabbi Dr. Firestone emphases how Dr. Frankl turns to Nietzche’s words: “The survivor who knows the ‘why’ for his existence, will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’” She guides us then to ask: “Who am I now? What social and political conditions shaped my tragedy? What can I do to prevent this kind of suffering for others? What meaning can I make of this?”

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone’s Wounds into Wisdom is an important contribution not only for those affected and the field of psychology, it is also the newest entry in categories such as Jewish Healing, Jewish Cultural Healing, and Jewish Spiritual Healing. This volume will appear beside early works such as those by Rabbi Morris and Mrs. Tehillah Lichtenstein, founders of Jewish Science, Avraham Greenbaum’s The Wings of the Sun, and Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Contemporary works in the field of Jewish Healing include:

There are also specialized works such as Nina Beth Cardin’s Tears of Sorrow: Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss, Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook from Traditional and Contemporary Sources by Dayle A. Friedman and Barbara Eve Breitman, The Grief Journey and the Afterlife: Jewish Pastoral Care for Bereavement, by Simcha Raphaell Paul, Anatomy of a Tear: A Chaplain’s Stories of Life, Love, and Loss by Leon Olenick, and many more.

In Conclusion

Hopefully there will be a future volume for mental health professionals, Jewish spiritual directors, chaplains and other clergy that teach us more specifically Dr. Firestone’s methods of working with clients through this remarkable lens. The way she puts her balanced, carefully nuanced approach together gives us reason to embrace the trauma stories we can unearth. This gives us the material we need in order to get the context and understanding we need to work with ourselves and professionals like her to interrupt family patterns, possibly even those of epigenetic destiny, and reshape the trajectory of our lives, our families, of our people, and our relationship to all peoples. Wounds into Wisdom is a keeper.

Unflinching Eye on the Tough Issues of Israel

The twenty-third annual Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia may be the most thought provoking. It covers explosive topics that run the gamut from stolen identity, religious beliefs, cheating spouses, police corruption, the meaning of home, and living with developmental impairment. The festival opens March 16, 2019, at the Lightbox Film Center with The Unorthodox and runs through April 7, 2019, closing at the Perelman Theatre, Kimmel Center with The Other Story. “Every year we try to entertain, educate and evoke discussion on the issues facing our and every community across the country,” said Mindy Chriqui, festival Co-Executive Producer.

Echoing that sentiment and in time for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, is the film, In Her Footsteps. The movie, screening Saturday, March 30, at Jack Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, shines a spotlight on the first time a Muslim is asked to be buried in a Jewish town and the controversy surrounding what makes up a community. The film has received multiple awards and the Director Rana Abu Fraiha will be the guest speaker. Marcia Bronstein, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, (AJC) an organization committed to building inter-group and inter-religious relations explained, “Films like this make a powerful statement. They open dialogue and can help diametrically opposed groups find common ground. It is a way to combat hate.”

To highlight Autism Awareness Month in April is Shoelaces, playing Sunday, March 31 at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. It is the touching story about the rights of a developmentally challenged son to donate a kidney to his estranged parent. Director Yankul Goldwasser, himself the father of a child with special needs, will attend the festival and answer questions after the film. Shoelaces is an engaging tale of optimism, warmth and the power of love, in an ever-shifting landscape.

The Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia is known for featuring the best in films from the Middle East. The industry has recently come into prominence with the popularity of such Netflix favorites as Fauda, Mossad and The Heroes Fly. A curated list of 2019 movies will be screened at various locations in both the city at the Ritz East, International House and the Kimmel Center and in the suburbs at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, Gratz College and Jack Barrack Hebrew Academy.

Book Review: “Not Our Kind”

"Not Our Kind" book cover showing a woman with her back to us.

“Not Our Kind”

As a Jewish student at Vassar College, Kitty Zeldis was considered “not our kind” by the WASP elite. She joked to a friend that she should have been named “Katherine Anne Worthington” to fit in with the gentile environment, rather than the Jewish name her parents had given her. This experience was the inspiration for her recent novel, “Not Our Kind.” [Read more…]

Celebrating America’s Pioneer Jewish Congregations

In his latest book, author and documentarian Julian H. Preisler leads readers on a virtual Jewish-themed journey across the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Along the way, he gives us a historical introduction to each of the oldest Jewish congregations still in existence in America today, and wows us with 195 vintage and present-day images of their synagogues. Published late last year, Preisler’s book is aptly titled America’s Pioneer Jewish Congregations: Architecture, Community and History,

The book depicts historic congregations from the earliest days of Colonial America up to the present day. Reflecting the wide diversity found in the American Jewish community, the congregations featured are in large cities, suburban locales and small towns. And they represent many of the largest Jewish communities, as well as some of the smallest. The synagogues portrayed in the book range from small, functional ones to large, architecturally significant ones, with many different styles of architecture represented, from Classical-Revival and Moorish-Revival to Mid-Century Modern and Contemporary.

An excellent choice for summer reading, Preisler’s book combines travel log, photographic essay and historical background to take readers on a comprehensive tour of American Jewish congregations and their synagogues over the past 363 years.

Musical Program Tells the Story of Two Jewish Pianists in Nazi Germany

Two Pianos: Playing for Life uses music, live readings and narration to depict the story of two female pianists, who played for all-Jewish audiences after the Nazis had banned Jewish musicians from German public performances. The program premieres on June 9 in Philadelphia at the Mary Louise Curtis Branch of the Settlement Music School.

Romanian-born Anna Burstein and Polish-born Halina Neuman met in Germany in 1926 at the Leipzig Conservatory. Seven years later, by the spring of 1933, Hitler’s new regime was moving to exclude Jews from German life. Doors to orchestras with Jewish conductors were padlocked. Jewish performers and professors were attacked in the press and interrupted by uniformed thugs shouting, “Schweine Jude!” Their concerts and lectures were cancelled “to ensure public safety.” Then, new laws began excluding Jews from government employment, including over 50 city orchestras. Within two years, Jews were legally barred from nearly all aspects of German economic, political and social life.

Anna Burstein’s 1936 Leipzig Jüdischer Kulturbund card. Levin Family Collection. Reprinted with permission.

The Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture Association) was formed by dismissed Jewish artists, enabling them to continue performing before segregated all-Jewish audiences. It was approved by the Nazis in July 1933, and branches quickly spread from Berlin to over 60 German cities, including Leipzig. Anna Burstein and Halina Neuman played two-piano concerts with the Leipzig Jüdischer Kulturbund under the Third Reich.

Concert photo of Anna Burstein, c. 1942. Levin/Hoffman Collection. Reprinted with permission.

Years later, in 1938, Burstein came to Philadelphia. She was among the exiles who fled the Third Reich to ultimately enrich their new American home with their talent. For 15 years, she performed at local venues, receiving strong reviews. In 1945, she joined Settlement’s piano faculty, where she taught for nearly four decades.

Halina Neuman. The Hoffman Family Collection. Reprinted with permission.

Neuman did not arrive in this country until 1951, after surviving the Warsaw Ghetto, the Polish Home Army uprising, labor and DP camps and post-war refugee stops. Finally, she followed her daughter to the United States, and three months later, gave her first American concert. She retired as a piano professor at Rutgers University.

The live readings in “Two Pianos” are based on first-person interviews with Burstein and Neuman, conducted 40 years ago by Burstein’s daughter and son-in-law, Nora Jean and Michael Levin. The couple spent decades researching, organizing and recapturing the family’s story in full context. Co-producers of “Two Pianos,” the Levins also narrate part of the performance with Neuman’s grandson, Dr. Kenneth Hoffman. Neuman’s grandsons contributed material to the program, as well as to the exhibit set up next to the recital hall, which includes some of the women’s original documents and memorabilia.

The music for the one-hour program will be performed by the acclaimed Russian-born, Wisconsin-based Four Hands piano duo Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro. Having met at Israel’s Jerusalem Conservatory, Varshavski and Shapiro went on to win numerous competitions and have now been playing together for two decades. Showcased on two grand pianos, they will perform excerpts from works played by Burstein and Neuman under and after the Nazis, including selections from Arensky, Brahms, Toch and Chopin. With their artist-in-exile stories echoing those of the characters they portray, Varshavski and Shapiro will also perform live readings based on the first-person interviews of Burstein and Neuman.

“Two Pianos” is being presented by The Jüdische Kulturbund Project, which seeks to keep the legacy of the Kulturbund alive through educational programs and performances like this one. The Project connects examples of Jewish artists living under Nazi rule with artists facing oppression around the world today.

“We are so excited to bring this story to life,” said Gail Prensky, creator, executive producer and project director of The Jüdische Kulturbund Project. “Music sustained these women and fueled their will, not just to survive during the darkest hours of Nazi Germany, but to thrive.”

“Two Pianos: Playing for Life” will premiere at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 9, in Presser Hall at the Settlement Music School’s Mary Louise Curtis Branch, 416 Queen Street, Philadelphia. A discussion, as well as a reception to meet the performers, will follow the program. Admission is free, but reservations are required because seating is limited. For more information, contact co-producer Michael Levin at [email protected] or at 202-828-3212.

Jonathan Sarna Lectures on Leonard Bernstein at 100

Leonard Bernstein Exhibit at the AMJH. Head and hands, conducting. By permission of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Leonard Bernstein Exhibit

Historian Dr. Jonathan Sarna visited Philadelphia to introduce the new exhibit on the life of composer Leonard Bernstein at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH).

The exhibit traces Bernstein from birth in 1918 in Massachusetts, through his student days, his studies in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, (where he attended the Curtis Institute) and his debut as a conductor replacing the ailing Bruno Walter. Uniquely among Jewish composers, Bernstein took an active interest in Jewish affairs and Israel, according to Sarna. Memorabilia in the exhibit confirm this, including excerpts from Bernstein’s correspondence, speeches, and orchestral and movie film clips. In his own terms and through his papers, Bernstein emerges as constantly striving to achieve more compositions, more performances and at the same time, to maintain close contacts with family, friends and Jewish life. [Read more…]

Chef Alon Shaya: Philly’s Homegrown Pride

One teacher who cares can change the trajectory of a student’s life. Alon Shaya, an Israeli-American James Beard award-winning chef, credits his success to such a teacher. In his new cookbook, Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel, he thanks Donna Barnett for guiding him to his track to success.

Alon Shaya came to Philadelphia from Israel when he was a young boy. He grew up in a challenging family situation. Although he was surrounded by love, he did not experience the stability he longed for. Barnett saw the talent and potential within him. She helped Shaya blossom in her Home Economics class at Harriton High School. When it was time to graduate, she found a scholarship and encouraged him to attend culinary school.

Now, Shaya is a famous chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author. He retraces his steps from Israel, to the United States, Italy, and back to Israel in his book. His recipes reflect his love for his maternal grandparents. There are delicious foods from their native Bulgaria such as burekas, kebabs, and a variety of eggplant dishes. These are the staples he learned to cook as a boy while standing on a chair in the kitchen next to his grandmother and mother. Alon Shaya then shares some of the classic dishes he discovered while training in Italy, such as hand-made gnocchi, pizza, and semifreddo. Next, Shaya takes us to New Orleans, where he opened his first restaurant. Some of these recipes are treif (non-kosher), such as those with crab, Andouille pork sausage, shrimp, and bacon. Those of us who keep kosher may adapt by substituting kosher ingredients, or omitting some of the non-kosher elements. He ends the book by circling back to Israel. His newest recipes are infused with Israeli ingredients and flavors such as za’atar (oregano), preserved lemons, pomegranates, and muhammara (red peppers and walnuts).

In the end, despite his fragmented upbringing, Alon Shaya was able to find his way home. In this moving book, which is much more than a cookbook, he shares his journey with us.

Leonard Bernstein Exhibit Inspires at NMAJH

At the press preview for the “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music” exhibit at NMAJH. From left to right: Ivy Weingram, Alexander Bernstein, Nina Bernstein, and CEO and Gwen Goodman Director of NMAJH Ivy Barsky. Photo credit: Bonnie Squires

Maybe you thought you knew a lot about Leonard Bernstein — or maybe just the Broadway show or film “West Side Story.”

But you will learn a lot more about the legendary Jewish-American composer’s history and accomplishments after a visit to “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” the  latest exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH).

Ivy Weingram, is the curator — or more appropriately, conductor — of the impressive exhibit, which is in tribute to Bernstein’s hundredth anniversary. Worldwide, countless events have taken place, and will continue to occur throughout 2018, to celebrate the deceased music icon. Philadelphia has already had its fair share of events honoring Bernstein, including “Lenny’s Revolution,” a concert conducted by Bernstein’s protégée, David Charles Abell, and the Philly POPS orchestra.

[Read more…]