When we peer back through the millennia whom do we see? Two women standing at the very beginning of our history, Sarah and Hagar. Sarah conspired to overcome her barrenness and provide Abraham with an heir through her maidservant Hagar. From the start their tumultuous relationship effectively cast Abraham to the sidelines, so much so that Hagar went on to become a matriarch of her own people, the Ishmaelites.
An unshaven man stumbles on stage, clad in a raincoat covering his pajamas. He is barefoot and shuffles among the dried leaves that litter the stage area, a long rectangle set between the audience on either side. It is a most intimate performance area, uncomfortably so. He tells us he was a Red Cross representative, stationed in the Berlin suburb of Wansee, sent to inspect a civilian internment camp in Nazi Germany.
In German with English subtitles
New Yorker Films
How can the artist presume to make art when every stroke, every effort at creating an intelligible and beautiful object, might be construed as an affront to the wholeness and perfection of God and His handiwork. Every one of the artist’s images could be seen as a potential idol, a potential Golden Calf.
To encounter God is an elemental quest of mankind. And yet for Jews it is paradoxically impossible and immediate. In any physical sense we know that “…no human can see My face and live” (Exodus 33:20) even as we stand before our God three times daily in our prayers. Arnold Schoenberg’s three-act unfinished 1932 opera, Moses and Aron, grapples with the central paradox that the Jewish artist must inevitably confront, namely the ineffable presence of God.
“And God tested Abraham...” It seems that He hasn't stopped testing the Jewish people ever since. Abraham already had nine trials to boast of, Isaac was sorely tested in choosing between his two sons and Jacob stoically withstood the test of losing his favorite, Joseph. The Children of Israel famously endured ten trials, all of which turned out fairly disastrous (Arachin 15a). Nonetheless, God is patient, continuing to forgive us even as He examines us and sends more tests. Ushpizin, a new Israeli movie by Gidi Dar, depicts just such a test. Happily both the movie and the main characters pass with flying colors.
“Everything Is Illuminated,” a new movie directed by Liev Schreiber opening September 16th, is a deeply moving and highly engaging film based on a curiously flawed premise. The notion that if we can but understand our past somehow our present will become “illuminated” is a foible particularly prevalent in our troubled times. Jews especially cherish Holocaust studies and Holocaust heritage tours in Eastern Europe as gateways to ethnic identity. It is exactly this pursuit that the film examines. And yet in spite of its questionable thesis the film is a classic road movie, tracing the transformation of its characters as they tumble towards their goal and, presumably, enlightenment.
As one enters the theater the stage is dominated by three levels of scaffolding filling the entire proscenium behind a gray scrim. Plunged into darkness as the lights go down a single face is illuminated on the stage by a bolt of light. Smoke swirls at her feet as she starts to rhythmically recite; “I lost a sock. I lost my umbrella. I lost a sock. I lost a tooth. I lost my teeth. I lost a leg...I lost my father. I lost my voice...I lost the keys...I lost my wits. I lost my way. I lost my tongue.”
The curtain rises to reveal a towering wall of translucent glass behind which the chorus sings “Te deum laudamus, You are God, we praise you,” to the provocative chords of the church organ. The massive presence of Christianity bears down on Eleazar and his daughter Rachel as they are accused by the hostile crowd of desecrating an Imperial celebration with the profane sound of his silversmith's hammer.
One hundred years after David Pinski's (1872-1959) “Di Familye Tzvi” was written the scathing examination of the Jewish world that the play depicts is neither dated nor out of touch with contemporary Jewish life. Also known as “The Last Jew,” this play was completed in New York just fourteen months after the infamous Kishinev pogrom of April 1903 in Russia. It depicts one family, headed by grandfather Rabbi Mayshe, his sons and grandsons, friends and various community members at the very moment that the terrible pogrom is starting.
“Are you Alfred Nossig?” the waiter asked the middle aged man at the table. “Yes.” Bang! Bang! Bang! He shoots him dead. “Are you Alfred Nossig? Yes, Bang! Bang! Bang!” “Are you Alfred Nossig...” Three times Alfred Nossig, the brilliant Jewish-Polish playwright, sculptor, philosopher and Zionist is assassinated by three different assailants in the bizarre opening moments of Lazarre Simckes' new dark farce.
I was transfixed the first time I saw Moses und Aron, the 1933 opera by Arnold Schoenberg. That was in 1990 at the New York City Opera and the performance at the Metropolitan Opera this December was no less exciting. The difficult, yet stimulating appeal of radical twentieth century music in the service of the biblical narrative only grew as I learned that this rarely heard masterpiece was a direct reaction to German anti-Semitism and might well be one of the first examples of Holocaust art. Schoenberg, a fully secularized apostate Jew, had responded at the height of his career to the rise of Nazism with what was essentially a call to return to Sinai.