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The documentary Servus Adieu Shalom: Jewish Life In Vienna highlights the many accomplished Jews who spent time in Vienna, including Sigmund Freud, Theodore Herzel, Gustav Mahler, Billy Wilder, and Franz Kafka. While producing their world-renowned work, these men were surrounded by highbrow coffeehouse conversation and the city’s ornate and stunning architecture. The documentary not only offers a history of Jews in Vienna but also tries to explain how Viennese and Jewish cultures have complemented one another to positively influence some of the world’s greatest thinkers and creators to this day.
One of the more recent creators to be influenced by Jewish-Viennese culture is a key figure in British Pop Art, R.B. Kitaj (pronounced kit-EYE), who died last year at the age of 74 in his home in Los Angeles. His obituary in the New York Times details that he was the first American artist to be elected to the Royal Academy since John Singer Sargent, and retrospectives of his work have shown at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
But before he became friends with Allen Ginsberg or worked in a “Van Gogh yellow studio,” Kitaj was just a dissatisfied kid named Ronald Brooks from Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Knowing he was destined for something more than the typical middle-American lifestyle, he dropped Ron and adopted the more sophisticated and exotic name of his Viennese stepfather, Kitaj. Then he headed to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he and his art were greatly influenced by the local culture.
Perhaps significantly, Kafka, who also spent time in Vienna, was a major influence on Kitaj, who the New York Times praised for having been able to draw from a range of thinkers and artists, “from Titian to Cezanne.”
Kitaj himself would have been wary of such critical praise. He distrusted, even despised, art critics. In fact, at one point, he accused them of murder. The Tate Gallery in London held a retrospective for Kitaj that received across-the-board horrendous reviews. Immediately afterwards, Kitaj’s second wife, Sandra Fisher, died of an aneurysm at the age of 47. Heartbroken and livid, Kitaj believed the critics’ harsh words were responsible for the tragedy, and he took revenge by painting “The Critic Kills,” which depicted the art critic as a monstrous, yellow-tongued creature.
This clash was just the peak of a long-raging feud. During the age of abstract expressionism, Kitaj was not producing what critics like Clement Greenberg wanted. At a time when it was cool to be abstract, Kitaj wanted to be literal, painting about specific events, attitudes, and experiences. In his words he wanted a more “social art.”
This idea of a “social art” seems to have come from Kitaj’s understanding of his Jewish identity, which in addition to Viennese culture, was a great source of artistic inspiration. He spoke freely about how being Jewish influenced his art, particularly the sense of exile, of being connected to a people but not rooted in a place. In his book,
In this Diasporist mode, Kitaj found connection as well as displacement. He was not just a Jew, but one of many Jews; and when Time magazine wrote that “he draws better than almost anyone else alive,” Kitaj made his identity clear, responding, “I draw as well as any Jew who ever lived.”
News anchor Chaim Yavin is known as the “Walter Cronkite” of Israel. So beloved and respected is he in Israeli society, he’s probably one of the few media personalities who could have made The Land of the Settlers, his controversial five-part series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yavin was able to convince both Israeli settlers and Palestinians living in the West Bank to welcome him into their homes and talk frankly about their perspectives on the disputed territories, and about each other.
But the series also shattered Yavin’s universal appeal. His perspective is, ultimately, “If we want peace, we have to dismantle the settlements.” Accordingly, The Land of the Settlers turned him from “everyone’s man” into a man for “the Left.” And it threatened his career. Yet he endured and was able to go on as news anchor for Channel 1, even after the series made its controversial splash in 2003, igniting anger and indignation on both sides of the debate.
Until now. Yavin, 74, also known as “Mr. Television,” just retired (note link is to Jewish Press blog which clearly doesn’t have anything nice to say about the liberal Yavin), after anchoring his last news broadcast in a 40-year career. Israelis may miss their most recognized newsman, but TJC subscribers can still see the now-controversial figure in his ground-breaking The Land of the Settlers at the touch of a button.
You can make a lot of money writing for the movies. And as far as I can tell, two entities stand above the rest when it comes to generating film plots:
William Shakespeare and God.
Now, in any given year, all manner of Shakespeare gets picked up. The guy’s long dead, and the rights to his plays are free, so why not? Someone somewhere, working with a powerful case of writers block, will decide to abandon their original concept and simply adapt the Bard. But, setting the action in Elizabethan-era England is expensive (what with all those costumes), and it can limit the appeal to a mass-audience. So, many adapters simply move it to a modern place like, say, New York City, where they can stick Hamlet in a high-rise, and let Montagues and Capulets run amok on the West Side.
Driving the rocky Northern California coast has always required caution. The views of the ocean from the two narrow lanes of Highway One are spectacular, but the blind turns and steep drop to the jagged rocks below make for a treacherous journey.
My grandfather used to drive this road constantly, a perilous journey that mirrored the daily animosities faced by NoCal’s immigrant Jewish population. He was a Jew who moved his family to Sonoma County from New York City in the late 1940’s. At the time, he was the only board-certified cardiologist in that part of the state. Since there were no emergency rooms in the area’s small-town hospitals, he would leave his home in Santa Rosa and drive the old coastal road to make house calls. Sometimes, he’d range up to Fort Bragg and Mendocino. Other times it would be just down the road to Petaluma and the small hamlets along the Russian River.
On these more local trips he treated an exiled people living a lifestyle unchanged from the “Old Country.” When there was no school, my grandmother used to make my mother and her sisters go along, to ensure my grandfather didn’t fall asleep while navigating the narrow country roads. He would pull in to the White Russian communities near the coast, and his patients there would come out to greet him dressed in traditional Slavic robes and hats. The “Whites” were on the losing side of the Russian Revolution, fighting against the “Red” Bolshevik forces that would go on to found the U.S.S.R.
Among the exiles he treated were the Russian Jews of Petaluma. They’d arrived in the wake of the Revolution during the 1920s, coming to America to buy inexpensive land and raise chickens, and their ranks included many socialists who strongly supported a communist Russia. By the time my grandfather started treating patients in Petaluma, the post-war Jewish community there had grown to include both Holocaust survivors and American-born Jews from Southern California and the East Coast. The changing face of Jewish Petaluma during this era, and the poultry industry that fueled its rise, is examined in Bonnie Burt and Judy Montell’s documentary, A Home On The Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma.
One of the themes explored in the film is how certain anti-Semitic and anti-labor sentiments of Depression-era California sometimes combined to produce ugly episodes like the 1935 tarring-and-feathering of two Jewish union organizers in Santa Rosa. Such intolerance lingered on through the western migrations that followed the Second World War.
When my grandfather first moved to the area in 1947, many of his neighbors had never seen an East Coast Jew before. While most of the response to his creed was friendly, he was also approached by a group of men with other intentions. They told him to clear out, or there would be trouble. My grandfather had survived quite a few scrapes, so when his wife asked him what they should do about the threat, he responded simply, “get a gun.”
And that was it. He never heard from the men again – a sign that the power of vigilantism in the area had waned because of the sheer persistence of new arrivals. When my grandfather passed away a few years back, winemaking had long ago become Sonoma’s iconic product. But driving those old coastal roads recalls a time when local Jews ignored threats and made chicken king.
Menachem Wecker, who is based in Washington, DC, blogs on religion and the arts at http://iconia.canonist.com. Though he has reviewed and interviewed many painters with evil inclinations, he finds no artist more evil than Mary Cassatt.
Wecker and I chatted over instant messenger about the larger implications of the film Photographer, what it means for art–and artists–to be evil, and why art shouldn’t be blamed for the Holocaust. The interview has been edited for clarity and entertainment value, if not brevity.
The Docent: So, we’re playing this film right now called Photographer, which is about how the head accountant at the Lodz ghetto, Walter Genewin, who fancied himself an amateur photographer, used the ghetto’s Jewish inmates as his subjects.
Menachem Wecker: Sort of like Dr. Mengele…
The Docent: Like Mengele? You mean experimenting on Jews?
MW: Yeah. Using Jews as models for experiments… I suspect that’s not endemic to Nazis.
The Docent: What do you mean?
MW: We’ve seen the sort of pictures emerging from Abu Ghraib, and I’m not a psychologist, but I tend to think that people in positions of power (as in the Stanford Prison experiment, and the Milgram electric shock one) have a tendency of inflicting hard on their subordinates. Experimenting is just an offshoot of that, I imagine.
I wonder if there isn’t more to it though. And I will be treading on very thin ice here…
The Docent: Go for it.
MW: I absolutely don’t want people to read this and think I’m justifying anything the Nazis did…
Who was responsible for the Holocaust? Of course there were the Nazis, but what role did the average citizen under Hitler’s rule play? Since social pressures can color our behavior in profound ways, Europeans in WWII might have been complicit in war crimes, not realizing that the external forces of governments and religious institutions were manipulating their behavior.
The contrast between four heroic French women who risked their lives for Jewish souls, and the entire country of Holland that sad idly by as the Holocaust slaughtered millions offers a lesson in the influence that social factors had on individuals during the turmoil of WWII.
Sisters in Resistance tells the story of four non-Jewish, French women, who spearheaded a grassroots movement to undermine Hitler’s cause. French women played a marginal role in national government before the war, the documentary explains — they couldn’t vote, and they couldn’t hold a bank account. Their country had disenfranchised them. Ironically, their previously-silenced female voices became the nation’s most vociferous, abandoning self-concern to protest the Nazi invasion and Germany’s annexation of most of France. These women felt they had nothing to lose and sounded a crie de guerre, whereas their male counterparts remained reticent.
Not only did French women speak out against the German occupation, but they also fought for Jewish emancipation. Perhaps they could identify with the Jewish plight, because they understood what it was like to be at the mercy of others — especially since their own country had limited their freedoms. French men, on the other hand, had a more difficult time seeing through Jewish eyes, perhaps because they had always enjoyed personal liberties and didn’t understand the sacrifices taking place around them.
Unlike the brave French women who symbolized France’s voice of dissent, the Dutch were notoriously indifferent toward the Jewish extermination. With more Jews killed in Holland than in any other European country, they were sometimes thought to be in cahoots with the Nazis.
Goodbye Holland Director Willy Lindwer attempts to uncover the reason for Holland’s inaction during the Holocaust. Were the individual Dutch citizens evil or morally corrupt? Lindwer concludes that the individuals’ inaction in the Holocaust is rooted in the influence of larger Dutch social institutions.
Holland was a far more religious nation than France, and Lindwer asserts that this attitude made Holland as a whole predisposed to anti-Semitism. Under the influence of Holland’s Catholic Church, anti-Semitism became institutionalized, his subjects opine, noting that because Catholicism was a cornerstone of Dutch culture, Jews were alienated from the community, and seen as a divisive force. As a result, those interviewed declare, many Dutch people sympathized with the Nazi cause. “The Germans were silently welcomed here by the majority,” asserts a subject of the film.
Holland’s willingness to comply with Nazi authority can also be attributed to the bureaucratic ethos that typified the nation’s government. “Many people, and certainly officials, had the idea that they are just spokes in the wheel, [while] decisions are made by the higher ups,” says the current mayor of Groningen, Jaques Wallage, in the film, asserting that the Dutch were culturally-programmed to follow orders unquestioningly. Holland’s political system depended on blind obedience to authority; compliance was viewed as a virtue, never a vice. Today’s Dutch citizens declare in Goodbye Holland that it must therefore have been easy for the Nazis to gain the masses’ unwavering support.
While not all French women fought the Nazis, and not all Dutch citizens complied with them, it’s worth exploring the societal influences that influenced their behavior during the war, whether or not they were cognizant of the influence at the time. The point isn’t to say that the heroines of Sisters in Resistance weren’t acting consciously, or that the inactive Dutch couldn’t have escaped the model their society set. But both of these films help us answer the basic questions of how the average person acts when confronted with evil.
“No man is an island” is a phrase that’s often bandied about. But the truth behind it has quite a lot of relevance, as these two films demonstrate.
A man famously attributed with threatening to break the bones of Israel’s enemies, Yitzchak Rabin had lived a lifetime of confrontation. Like Richard Nixon, he’d lost a lot of friends, and had alienated many in his own party.
But, like Nixon visiting China, Rabin was the one man with an appropriately-aggressive reputation to pursue peace with the Palestinians.
And when one takes a cursory look, there are many comparisons to be made between these two statesmen. The political careers of Rabin and Nixon share notable similarities in their trajectory, until one final point: whereas Nixon’s self-destructive and paranoid politics characterized the end of his political career, it was specifically Rabin’s hopes for reconciliation – and a distinct lack of wariness – that defined his later political path, and ultimately brought the end of his life.
Rabin’s first tenure as head of state was cut short by a scandal involving his wife, resulting in political purgatory, followed by an eventual return as Prime Minister. Similarly, Nixon spent a long tenure as Vice-President, suffered a bitter election defeat to John F. Kennedy, and wandered the political wilderness before returning to the White House as President.
Despite seeing daily televised images of protests to their policies, both Rabin and Nixon continued to stubbornly believe in a nebulous “silent majority” of the larger population, which was always on their side. In fact, in an interview the night of his assassination included in the film Rabin, the then-prime minister invoked this exact term to define the unnoticed group of citizens amidst the many loud protests against his peace negotiations.
And while only an infamous Communist-baiter like Nixon could “acceptably”establish American political ties with Red China during the Cold War, only someone with the seasoned military stature of Rabin could make anything close to an “acceptable” peace with Israel’s most bitter enemy, Yasser Arafat and the PLO, in the wake of the First Intifada.
But it’s in their final political chapters where light-hearted comparisons among the famously anti-Semitic president and the “warrior for peace” Israeli prime minister really fall apart.
While Nixon’s return to power was marked by legendary paranoia and a hubristic vow to continue the war in Vietnam until he achieved what he termed “peace with honor,”Rabin’s second go-around at the helm found him taking the fateful course of reconciliation with his most heated political rival, Shimon Peres, and pursuing a “battle for peace.” Having previously disparaged Peres in his memoirs, Rabin entered into a doctrinal alliance with Peres that would see them reach the symbolic peak of their partnership with the sharing of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
Rabin recounts the events that led to the subject’s transformation from a reactionary politician — who fought the most against those with whom he should probably have agreed – into a symbol of partnership amidst great turmoil. Peres and Rabin were beacons of Israel’s Left wing for decades, and their very public tussles belied the fact that they had so much in common.
The still-controversial peaceRabin signed with Yasser Arafat was inspired in part by the sight of Israelis fleeing the Iraqi bombingof Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War. As scud missiles fell all about the city, we are told that Rabin angrily looked out from his apartment window at the clogged highway to Haifa and realized his people only wanted peace. As he recounts in Rabin, “I fought so long as there was no chance for peace… the path of peace is better than the path of war.”
Ironically, it was this same trust in the good intentions of his own people that would eventually lead to his assassination in 1995. Rabin famously refused to wear a bullet-proof vest despite receiving many death threats around the time of the Oslo Accords, declaring that his surviving through wars with opposing forces meant he didn’t have much to fear from civilians in his own country.
So, Rabin was no Nixon – and that’s certainly a good thing. One wonders, though, with the collapse of the Oslo Accords after his death, what might have been achieved if Rabin had taken on just a bit of Nixon’s darker side.
The presidential candidate sporting a swastika on his arm, John Taylor Bowles, should be taken more seriously than your average crack-pot. He’s a neo-Nazi running for president in the 2008 elections and his campaign is founded on anti-Semitic and racist ideologies. Facing this new reality, Jews and African-Americans can remember the common bond they forged in the U.S. during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. If they join forces once again, their combined voices will have a stronger impact in combating Bowles’s bigotry.
Before the onslaught of the Holocaust, a select few German Jewish intellectuals — including Albert Einstein — escaped oppression in Europe, seeking refuge in the American melting pot. With little more than the clothes on their backs, these Jews set sail, hoping to find a new freedom beyond Hitler’s grasp. Because so few were permitted this escape, the chance to travel to America was a great privilege that seemed to offer great hope; but life wasn’t as easy as had been expected on the other side of the pond. Although many of these refugee professors had excellent qualifications, they were turned away when applying for positions at prestigious Northeastern universities. To their astonishment, anti-Semitism was alive and well in the U.S. — a nation not nearly as progressive or “free” as it professed to be.
But some scholars found acceptance at all-black colleges in the Old South. From Swastika to Jim Crow chronicles their story, examining the lasting alliances they forged with the African–
American community. Through touching testimony, their African American students, many of whom have gone on to become professors or prominent artists, fondly recall their foreign teachers, testifying to their tremendous contribution to social equality in this country.
During the 1940s and ’50s, segregation, lynching, and institutionalized racism were rampant — and Jews who’d seen so much persecution throughout their history empathized with the African-American struggle. “At a black university, I felt I had so much in common with teachers and students,” one professor recalls in From Swastika. Likewise, the black community identified with the exiled Jews. They, too, understood displacement and suffering: “The notion of man’s inhumanity to man was not foreign to African American citizens,” another professor said.
The empathy among Jews and blacks in these schools and communities led the Jewish professors to do what they could to help their persecuted fellows. In many ways, they set the precedent for the strong Jewish communal involvement in the Civil Rights movement that was to come.
Today, the relationship between Jews and the African-American community has seen a lagging in this partnership. At times, the alliance has been strong (fighting for continued inclusion in American society), while at others it has been weak or wrought with tension (Brownsville and the Crown Heights Riots).
But with America’s leading neo-Nazi organization bent on expansion and hoping to get its foot in the door of mainstream politics in the 2008 election, according to the Anti-Defamation League, now would be a good time to solidify the Black-Jewish partnership. Bowles is being presented as a viable candidate for the Commander in Chief. It’s conceivable that debate regulations will have him spewing his hatred to a national audience with the same prestige of place as major party candidates.
Columbia City Paper’s reporter Corey Hutchins gives us a preview:
Pulling on his red swastika armband the National Socialist Movement’s presidential nominee, John Taylor Bowles, will tap it and say, ‘This … now this is coming back into style.’ And then he’ll smile. And while you looked at him, smiling like that, dressed the way he is and running for president, you might think this is all just a really bad skit made for a Youtube.com presidential joke-fest. But – and I’m sorry but there’s no other way to say this – he and his party are as serious as the Holocaust.
Bowles’s candidacy presents what could be a worst-case scenario for both Jews and African-Americans: hate gone mainstream. And Bowles’s group, the National Socialist Movement, is forming strategic alliances with the Ku Klux Klan, as well as other white supremacist groups . If they can partner up to hate us, surely we can partner up to protect ourselves.
Lest you think this is a fringe issue, when all anti-Semites in America get together, they can be a rather potent force. About 15% of Americans maintain views that are “unquestionably anti-Semitic,” according to the ADL, and at least 5% of Americans wouldn’t vote for a black presidential candidate. Sure, those numbers are only about on-par with Ross Perot’s support, but certainly their message is of far greater concern. It’s one thing to have a guy representing that portion of America ranting about free-trade agreements; it’s quite another to have one calling for the whitening of America.
The Black-Jewish alliance has done a lot for this country. If hatred really is on the rise, the country could use it again, and the subjects of From Swastika to Jim Crow provide us with a good model for re-launching that partnership.
He looks a lot like that eccentric genius detective on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, doesn’t he? But he’s not.
Israeli director Amos Gitai is probably his nation’s most influential filmmaker. Film critics say Gitai is leading the currently-blooming renaissance in Israeli film, with the Village Voice calling him Israel’s “one man new wave.”
Since the start of his career in 1974, Gitai has directed documentaries, shorts, and feature films that have brought him eleven wins on top of an additional twelve nominations from film festivals around the world. Most recently his film Free Zone, which starred Natalie Portman, won an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
But, as often is the case, what the art world applauds is less-easily digested by mainstream Hollywood film-goers. Gitai’s movies are unique, toying both with storytelling and cinematographic techniques. He eschews the same old story structure — exposition, rising action, conflict and then resolution (think of the mountain chart from high school English classes). Instead, Gitai mirrors reality, offering one big chunk of existence, where all of the characters are both good and bad, conflicts go unresolved, and polished happy endings simply don’t exist.
As far as his unique cinematic style is concerned, Gitai possesses a sense of confidence that doesn’t rely on cheap tricks to keep the audience’s attention. Instead of short, cliched shots that jolt the viewer’s focus, Gitai empowers the viewer to decide where to look within the shot through long, hypnotic takes that create a voyeuristic effect.
But before he became a filmmaker, Amos Gitai was trained and worked as an architect. This helps explain his movies, which aren’t stories as much as they are cultural edifices–beautiful things that tell of a particular place and time but resonate far beyond that place and time.
And they should be approached as such.
A good architect has a natural eye for style and knows how to comment on society indirectly. Gitai’s films are visually stunning and loaded with social criticism. Like a pillar, frieze or pediment, his individual shots and scenes serve as points of interest and beauty in his films, instead of merely as place-holders for plot points in a storyline.
If it were not for the Yom Kippur War, Gitai most likely would have followed his original career path. His father had been an architect and Gitai received his PhD in architecture from UC Berkley — architecture made sense. But after helping move wounded soldiers from Israel’s battle fields to hospitals by helicopter (if you’ve seen Kippur, this should sound familiar), Gitai decided, as he revealed in an interview with the BBC, that “architecture is maybe interesting for another country, another life, but it’s a bit too formal an exercise for me.”
From that point on, Gitai decided he wanted to make films that would “touch a nerve” with his countrymen, and by “touch a nerve” he meant flaunting his left-wing ideals. From the beginning, politics have fueled his films, and continue to do so, as he highlights the horrors of war (Kippur), the oppression of women (Kadosh), the human loss involved in the settlement of Israel (Kedma), and the failings of the nation’s social structure (Alila).
Despite his political assuredness, however, Gitai’s subjectivity and his honest portrayal of humanity transcend politics and give his films universal art-house appeal.
The director of Time of Favor, one of our feature films this month, could soon be up for an Oscar nomination! His newest film, Beaufort, has just been named Israel’s official entry to the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category.
Typically, though, the decision was surrounded with controversy.
Beaufort is actually the Israeli Academy of Film and Television’s second choice, after Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, reports the Jerusalem Post. The latter film was not eligible for the Foreign Language Film category since more than half of its dialogue is in English. The Israeli committee made an appeal to the Academy Awards to reconsider, but the decision to disqualify The Band’s Visit was confirmed.
Since Beaufort won the second highest number of votes at the Ophir Awards, Israel’s version of the Oscars, it was the next in line for the honor. However, according to a previous article in the JPost, many Israelis “believe Joseph Cedar’s film has a better chance at winning an official spot as an Oscar nominee – and ultimately the best chance at winning Best Foreign Language Film.”
While Beaufort is about an IDF unit stationed at the Beaufort outpost in Lebanon just before the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, Time of Favor [HaHesder], Cedar’s first feature film — which premiered in 2000 — investigates the sometimes troubling intersection of militarism and religious extremism in the IDF’s Hesder program, whose enlistees spend part of their time in the army and the other part learning in yeshiva.
Time of Favor won several Ophir Awards and launched Cedar as one of Israel’s most important — and most controversial — new directors.