The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times

The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times
    Book Description:

    The wide-ranging portrayal of modern Jewishness in artistic terms invites scrutiny into the relationship between creativity and the formation of Jewish identity and into the complex issue of what makes a work of art uniquely Jewish. Whether it is the provenance of the artist, as in the case of popular Israeli singer Zehava Ben, the intention of the iconography, as in Ben Shahn's antifascist paintings, or the utopian ideals of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair, clearly no single formula for defining Jewish art in the diaspora will suffice. The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times is the first work to analyze modern Jewry's engagement with the arts as a whole, including music, theater, dance, film, museums, architecture, painting, sculpture, and more. Working with a broad conception of what counts as art, the book asks the following questions: What roles have commerce and politics played in shaping Jewish artistic agendas? Who determines the Jewishness of art and for what purposes? What role has aesthetics played in reshaping religious traditions and rituals? This richly illustrated volume illuminates how the arts have helped Jews confront the various challenges of modernity, including cultural adaptation and self-preservation, economic diversification, and ritual transformation. There truly is an art to being Jewish in the modern world-or, alternatively, an art to being modern in the Jewish world-and this collection fully captures its range, diversity, and historical significance.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0886-3
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
    David B. Ruderman
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)
    Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jonathan Karp

    Much remains to be done if the arts are to figure more fully in Jewish studies and the Jewish experience more fully in the arts disciplines.¹ It was with the aim of bringing these fields together that the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania convened the research seminar “Modern Jewry and the Arts” during the 2000–2001 academic year. The work of that seminar forms the basis for this volume.² The seminar was conceived by two historians, Richard I. Cohen and Ezra Mendelsohn, who have been instrumental in bringing contextual art history to Jewish studies and,...

  6. I. Culture, Commerce, and Class
    • [I. Introduction]
      (pp. 21-22)

      America’s new mass culture industries divided an early twentieth-century New York Jewish community by class and culture. Essays by Nina Warnke, Judith Thissen, and Jonathan Karp illustrate how the struggle between elitist programs for cultural elevation and new and old forms of popular entertainment resulted in a peculiarly American, or American Jewish, hybrid.

      Nina Warnke’s “Theater as Educational Institution: Jewish Immigrant Intellectuals and Yiddish Theater Reform,” explores the efforts by Jewish radical intellectuals to “elevate” the cultural standards of the immigrant masses through the replacement of shund (the term meaning “trash” applied to much popular Yiddish entertainment) by literary dramas...

    • Chapter 1 Theater as Educational Institution: Jewish Immigrant Intellectuals and Yiddish Theater Reform
      (pp. 23-41)
      Nina Warnke

      The Russian Jewish radical intellectuals who arrived in the United States during the 1880s and 1890s were instrumental in creating a leftist mass press, a strong Jewish labor movement, and an immigrant Yiddish literature. They also devoted much time and energy to turning the existing commercial Yiddish theater into an educational institution and a place that would be artistically on a par with contemporary European art theaters. As has been well documented, these intellectuals considered education a key concept in their program to elevate the immigrants, and their press became the primary agent for its dissemination. Their efforts to reform...

    • Chapter 2 Film and Vaudeville on New York’s Lower East Side
      (pp. 42-56)
      Judith Thissen

      In December 1909, Nathan Fleissig, the manager of a nickel-and-dime theater on New York’s Lower East Side, announced triumphantly that the movies had been defeated and that his theater would be devoted again to “first class Yiddish variety.”¹ By presenting the shift in programming practice in terms of a cultural war between Yiddish vaudeville and moving pictures, Fleissig shrewdly linked the reopening of his establishment with the “Grand Theater Affair.” In September 1909, the Grand—a large legitimate playhouse especially built for Yiddish performances—had fallen into the hands of the movie exhibitors Marcus Loew and Adolph Zukor and was...

    • Chapter 3 Of Maestros and Minstrels: American Jewish Composers between Black Vernacular and European Art Music
      (pp. 57-78)
      Jonathan Karp

      This essay describes a contest, informal but nonetheless real, to create the definitively American musical masterpiece. The contest took place during the second and third decades of the twentieth century, a period in which American Jews had begun to play an important role in American musical life. Though the exact nature of the prize would become clear only late in the game, from the start the participants recognized that victory would bring both material success and critical acclaim. The unspoken rules were likewise straightforward: devise the ideal musical synthesis that weds America’s indigenous folk spirit to the formal rigors of...

  7. II. Siting the Jewish Tomorrow
    • [II. Introduction]
      (pp. 79-82)

      Scenes of ideological persuasion reshaped the Jewish future by establishing rhetorical and visual “facts on the ground.” Essays by Anna Shternshis, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Anat Helman, and Amy Horowitz all examine the role of aestheticized ideology in the twentieth-century Jewish experience. How have art, popular and folk music, architecture, and exhibition practices been employed by Jews (or on their behalf) to advance specific political agendas? Modern Jews no less than governments and political parties, it seems, have richly exploited the aesthetic domain to advance their various models of the ideal tomorrow.

      In “May Day, Tractors, and Piglets: Yiddish Songs for Little...

    • Chapter 4 May Day, Tractors, and Piglets: Yiddish Songs for Little Communists
      (pp. 83-97)
      Anna Shternshis

      Grigorii B., an eighty-two-year-old retired businessman, takes his daily stroll to his neighborhood coffee shop in midtown Manhattan. Grigorii was born in the Ukrainian shtetl Orynin in 1918. On one beautiful April afternoon, I join Grigorii to learn details of his remarkable life story. After he lost his parents in 1927, he moved to Leningrad to live in a Jewish orphanage. During World War II, Grigorii was wounded several times, yet remained in service through 1945. In 1973, he and his family moved to the United States and settled in New York. I ask him whether he has any pleasant...

    • Chapter 5 Performing the State: The Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, 1939/40
      (pp. 98-115)
      Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

      World’s fairs became a prime site for transforming the Holy Land into the Jewish homeland. For most of the history of world’s fairs, Jews were defined as a religious group and were included in parliaments, halls, temples, and exhibitions of religion. This was by no means the only context in which Jews might be found at world’s fairs, but it was a particularly hospitable one because it let them perform an ideal of citizenship predicated on religious liberty.¹ Even when the basis for their inclusion was religion, Jews defined themselves in broader cultural and historical terms. With the rise of...

    • Chapter 6 Was There Anything Particularly Jewish about “The First Hebrew City”?
      (pp. 116-127)
      Anat Helman

      A Zionist promotion pamphlet from 1936 describes Tel Aviv as “the youngest and boldest of all Hebrew cities in Palestine, a wonder city that sprang out, almost instantly, from the sand dunes . . . A symbol and demonstration of the people of Israel’s political recovery and of the Jewish creative force, revived in its ancient homeland.”¹ Tel Aviv, founded in 1909 as a Jewish “garden suburb” of the predominantly Arab city of Jaffa, grew rapidly and soon became the demographic and economic center of Jewish Palestine. Zionists proudly nicknamed it “the First Hebrew City.” Note the significant use of...

    • Chapter 7 Re-Routing Roots: Zehava Ben’s Journey between Shuk and Suk
      (pp. 128-144)
      Amy Horowitz

      In 1990, Zehava Ben made her commercial cassette debut in the outdoor marketplace (shuk) at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. In market booths far from the sophisticated Dizengoff Center, the chic northside cafes, and the rejuvenated beach promenades, Zehava Ben’s cassettes occupied retail space next to vegetables, poultry, and household supplies, and her Arabic and Turkish mellismatic vocals competed for air time with the guttural shouts of market vendors and the drone of idling buses. Although confined to the Tel Aviv’s urban underbelly, Zehava Ben’s “ornate and Oriental noise”¹ disturbed European Israelis throughout Israel, her Eastern overtones momentarily challenging Tel...

  8. III. Lost in Place
    • [III. Introduction]
      (pp. 145-146)

      Territorially specific sitings of the Jewish tomorrow, whether in Palestine or the Soviet Union, stand in contrast with diaspora, a condition of displacement and ubiquity whose enduring emblem is the “Wandering Jew.” In this section, essays by Richard I. Cohen and Carol Zemel offer contrasting artistic perspectives on this figure and on Jewish diaspora generally. Cohen focuses on the figure of the Wandering Jew in Christian Europe from the late Middle Ages to the end of the nineteenth century, while Zemel explores the possible meanings and definitions of a “diasporist” aesthetic, informed by postmodern and post-Zionist cultural theory.

      While literary...

    • Chapter 8 The “Wandering Jew” from Medieval Legend to Modern Metaphor
      (pp. 147-175)
      Richard I. Cohen

      Wanderers—real and fictional—have engaged the imagination in different cultures and times. For the settled and the sedentary, they arouse a sense of fear and attraction, offering a glimpse of another world and of other civilizations, appearing in moments of crisis and tension, at junctures of a dramatic nature when new currents of thought or social transformations are emerging. Legendary figures ranging from the Ancient Mariner and Wild Huntsman to Pindola and Al-Sameri, to name but a few, have been condemned to wander, either interminably or for a defined time.¹ References to the Wandering Jew, however, far exceed those...

    • Chapter 9 Diasporic Values in Contemporary Art: Kitaj, Katchor, Frenkel
      (pp. 176-192)
      Carol Zemel

      I begin with a challenge posed in the epigraphs cited above concerning life in Jewish diaspora, and the nature of artistic production in that environment. For the painter R. B. Kitaj, writing in his aphoristic manifesto of 1989 and coining in it the notion of “Diasporism” in modern art, the situation is fundamentally ambivalent. It encompasses both the exhilaration and anxiety of being unfettered, free of convention and proscriptive ties, as well as uneasiness in that “groundless” state. But, Kitaj suggests, this discomfort passes for the diasporist with recognition that this state can also be “home.” Writing a decade later,...

  9. IV. Portraits of the Artist as Jew
    • [IV. Introduction]
      (pp. 193-196)

      When is “Jewish” pertinent to the evaluation of an artist and his or her work? This question remains central to analyses of modern Jewish art in particular, since the ambiguity of Jewish identity, though hardly absent from earlier eras, is a hallmark of the modern age. In this section, essays by Diana L. Linden, Walter Cahn, and Olga Litvak treat the “Jewish art question” from substantively disparate but methodologically complementary perspectives. All three resituate the question by examining it in light of specific institutional and biographical contexts where the Jewish ascription is at bottom not a reflection of essences and...

    • Chapter 10 Modern? American? Jew? Museums and Exhibitions of Ben Shahn’s Late Paintings
      (pp. 197-207)
      Diana L. Linden

      The year 1998 marked the centennial of the birth of artist Ben Shahn (1898–1969). Coupled with the approach of the millennium, which many museums celebrated by surveying the cultural production of the twentieth century, the centennial offered a perfect opportunity to mount a major exhibition of Shahn’s work (the last comprehensive exhibition had taken place at The Jewish Museum in New York in 1976).¹ The moment was also propitious because a renewed interest in narrative and figurative art and in the social history of art encouraged scholarly and popular appreciation of Ben Shahn, whose reputation within the history of...

    • Chapter 11 Max Liebermann and the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter
      (pp. 208-227)
      Walter Cahn

      Between the years 1905 and 1909, Max Liebermann devoted his energies to a series of paintings and a production of numerous etchings that have the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter as their theme. He was then fifty-eight years old, and at the height of his powers: president of the Berliner Sezession, member of the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts, bearer of the title of Honorary Professor. The city as subject, and the life of contemporaneous Jewry within an urban setting, were new themes to him. Born in 1847 into a wealthy, assimilated family that had established itself in Berlin two generations earlier,...

    • Chapter 12 Rome and Jerusalem: The Figure of Jesus in the Creation of Mark Antokol’skii
      (pp. 228-254)
      Olga Litvak

      Throughout his prolific career, the Russian sculptor Mark Matveevich Antokol’skii (1841–1902) subjected his Jewishness to polemical negotiation in the name of Russian art. The persona of Russia’s first modern Jewish artist emerged against the background of nineteenth-century populist discourse that privileged homegrown genius at the expense of Western European cosmopolitanism. A milestone in Antokol’skii’s career and singularly important for understanding the contemporary cultural politics that informed the poetics of his work, Jesus before the Judgment of the People (Ecce homo) bears the visual traces of the construction of Jewishness as a Russian cultural style.

      The title of Antokol’skii’s work...

  10. V. In Search of a Usable Aesthetic
    • [V. Introduction]
      (pp. 255-256)

      One of the central questions asked by this volume is whether the modern Jewish experience has in some sense been a pointedly artistic one. Or, to put it otherwise, what does it mean to define Jewish experience principally in aesthetic terms? The essays by Zachary Braiterman, Mark Kligman, and Hankus Netsky explore different ways in which the aesthetic character of traditional Jewish ritual or custom (such as synagogue worship, liturgy, and wedding celebration) has been adapted and refurbished to fit the sensibilities of distinctly modern circumstances.

      In “A Modern Mitzvah-Space-Aesthetic,” Zachary Braiterman presents the revered religious philosopher Franz Rosenzweig less...

    • Chapter 13 A Modern Mitzvah-Space-Aesthetic: The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig
      (pp. 257-269)
      Zachary Braiterman

      What drew Franz Rosenzweig, a champion of so-called German Jewish renaissance, into Judaism and its ritual? Born in 1886 to a middle-class assimilated family from Cassel, Rosenzweig emerges from early letters and diaries as an indulged and precocious son. In particular, the letters detail his relationship with cousins Hans and Rudolf Ehrenberg and with Eugen Rosenstock, all three converts to Christianity. He was tempted to join them, but intended to do so as a Jew, not as a “pagan.” According to legend, a visit to an East European shtibl in Berlin on Yom Kippur in 1913 overwhelmed young Rosenzweig, who,...

    • Chapter 14 Reestablishing a “Jewish Spirit” in American Synagogue Music: The Music of A. W. Binder
      (pp. 270-287)
      Mark Kligman

      During the first half of the twentieth century, Abraham Wolf Binder (1895–1966) rose to prominence as a prolific composer of synagogue music and champion of Jewish music. According music a central role in religious experience, Binder was concerned that synagogue attendance was waning because congregants had high musical expectations that synagogue music failed to fulfill. Not only could contemporary synagogue music not compete with the concert hall and the radio but, in Binder’s view, it was also not Jewish enough.¹ As early as 1927, Binder despaired that music of the synagogue, lacking a “Jewish spirit,” was not an expression...

    • Chapter 15 The Evolution of Philadelphia’s Russian Sher Medley
      (pp. 288-314)
      Hankus Netsky

      This essay traces the history of the Philadelphia Russian Sher medley, the musicians who created it, and the community that reveled to it in their celebrations, from the late nineteenth century to the present. While many other dance tunes, including bulgars, freylekhs, horas, a mezinke medley celebrating the marriage of the youngest daughter, and a dobranotsh, a goodnight waltz, were also unique to the Philadelphia klezmer repertoire, a specific sher medley became identified with this city, even by musicians from elsewhere.² This transplanted European klezmer dance medley became known as the Philadelphia Sher, the Philadelphia Sherele, or the Philadelphia Russian...

  11. VI. Hotel Terminus
    • [VI. Introduction]
      (pp. 315-318)

      The inherently unstable interdependency of history and memory has dominated recent discussions of the Holocaust, with aesthetics and the arts figuring importantly in this dynamic. Two essays, Charles Dellheim’s “Framing Nazi Art Loot” and Marion Kant’s “Lewitan and the Nazification of Dance,” examine how Nazi determinations of aesthetic validity helped to decide both the fates of individual Jews and—more surprisingly—the status that their artistic endeavors still retain in our collective consciousness. A third essay, Susan Rubin Suleiman’s reading of the Marcel Ophuls’s film Hotel Terminus (lending its name to this concluding section), describes how the documentarian’s self-aware aesthetic...

    • Chapter 16 Framing Nazi Art Loot
      (pp. 319-334)
      Charles Dellheim

      “Does the painting of that Jewish girl have to hang there? Does the boy have to sleep under the painting of that Jewish girl?” asked the boy’s mother.² The disputed object depicted a girl and a lizard “looking at each other and not looking at each other, the girl gazing dreamily toward the lizard, the lizard directing its vacant, glistening eyes toward the girl.” The boy “had no idea what a Jewish girl was,” but that didn’t stop him from missing the painting of the girl when his parents abruptly ended his naps at age nine.³ When he wrote a...

    • Chapter 17 Joseph Lewitan and the Nazification of Dance in Germany
      (pp. 335-352)
      Marion Kant

      This is the story of a forgotten man. Joseph Lewitan, one of the most important modern dance critics in Germany during the interwar years, has been virtually lost to history, a casualty of the fate of dance and those who wrote about it during the Nazi period.¹ German modern dance was the only modern art form celebrated by the Nazis, in contrast with modern literature, visual art, and music, which were considered “degenerate.” However, once the Nazis declared Lewitan “Jewish,” his writing on modern German dance became “Jewish” too. How German modern dance came to enjoy pride of place in...

    • Chapter 18 History, Memory, and Moral Judgment in Documentary Film: On Marcel Ophuls’s Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie
      (pp. 353-380)
      Susan Rubin Suleiman

      In an essay published more than forty years ago, Theodor Adorno asked the question: What does it mean to “work up,” to “process,” or—as the English translation puts it—to “come to terms with” the past? (Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit). The word “Aufarbeitung,” Adorno wrote in 1959, had already become a highly suspect Schlagwort, a “slogan,” for it did not imply a “serious working through of the past, the breaking of its spell through an act of clear consciousness.”³ “Working through,” which is here contrasted with the suspect “working up,” is Freud’s word for overcoming resistance to difficult...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 381-444)
  13. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 445-450)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 451-451)