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]

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…]

Seven Decades of Israeli Film

Scene of two men sitting at a table eating from the movie "Maktub" (Fate)

The movie “Maktub” (Fate)

It has been 70 years since Israel declared its independence.  So this year, the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia (IFF) will showcase films that highlight different aspects of the region’s history. The movies will be shown at various locations in Philadelphia and the nearby suburbs from March 3 to March 25.

Several of the documentaries and feature films epitomize the struggles that the infant Israeli nation underwent as it transitioned from survival mode to inclusion. Others deal with the acceptance of minorities, modern day dilemmas, and affairs of the heart. [Read more…]

“Lenny’s Revolution” Celebrates Leonard Bernstein – and the Eagles Too

 

Philly POPS and an Eagles mascot forming a conga line. Photo: The Philly POPS Facebook page.

“Fly, Eagles, fly on the road to victory.”

As one would expect, the 2018 Super Bowl Champions’ anthem has been sung across Philly, from sports bars to the victory parade on February 9. But one might not expect The Philly POPS to also get into the green.

But that’s exactly what the orchestra did at the Kimmel Center during “Lenny’s Revolution,” a tribute concert to the legendary composer Leonard Bernstein. [Read more…]

Lenny’s Revolution: A Centennial Bernstein Celebration With David Charles Abell

By now you must have seen all the ads announcing Lenny’s Revolution: A Centennial Bernstein Celebration, with David Charles Abell and The Philly POPS. Maestro Abell, the principal guest conductor of the 65-piece Philly POPS orchestra, is flying back from London for the Leonard Bernstein celebration concerts, which will be held on February 2 – 4 at the Kimmel Center.

I was able to interview Mr. Abell (pronounced “uh-BELL”) by phone while he was in London. During our conversation, he shared his Philadelphia roots with me, and mentioned that he still has relatives who live in Chestnut Hill. [Read more…]

Ode to Arthur

Arthur Koestler.

By Marie Miguel

There are certainly more than enough horrific tales of how the persecuted lived under fascism in the middle of the 20th century, and indeed dozens of books with “Koestler” on their covers.

“Scum of the Earth” is a unique kind of autobiographical adventure, a guide to suffering atrocious treatment with as much good humor as possible. The book also describes  how a totalitarian regime can subvert the morals of both states and individuals.

For someone who wasn’t actually a criminal, Arthur Koestler certainly saw the inside of a large number of cells. Reprising this aspect of his personal history is possibly the best way to explain what the reader can expect from “Scum of the Earth.”

[Read more…]