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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, August 15, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

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How I Came to Write Jewish Artists and the Bible in 20th-Century America

Friday, August 15, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Samantha Baskind wrote about the artist Jack Levine and about some of the artists she interviewed for Encyclopedia of Jewish American Artists. Her newest book, Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America, is now available. She has been blogging here for the Visiting Scribe series all week.

Some of the most important twentieth-century American artists also happen to be Jewish. To this point they have been celebrated for their contributions to major art movements, like Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, and Photorealism. As I was doing research on a number of these artists, mining their mainstream work for any Jewish content (implicit or explicit), I found that many addressed biblical themes. I made these discoveries by examining old exhibition catalogs, spotting an occasional reference in critics’ reviews of shows, a brief notation here or there in a book, or digging through an artist’s archived papers. I wondered: Why hasn't anyone explored this distinctive theme in art by Jewish Americans? Why hasn’t anyone questioned why the subject has so far been ignored? Here’s a fascinating statistic that I knew deserved further inquiry: Religious imagery by twentieth-century Jewish American artists is so pervasive that of the initial American works purchased by the Vatican in 1973 for the new Gallery of Modern Religious Art, nearly half were by Jewish artists even though at that time Jews comprised just less than three percent of America's population.

And so my research took me into museum archives, recesses of libraries leafing through dusty, decades old magazines, the homes of art collectors, and even to a few of the living artists’ homes. When sifting through old art, long since packed away – even from their teen years – the artists’ themselves discovered that biblical subjects occasionally interested them at a young age!

Some artists consistently depicted biblical subjects alongside their more common matter. Others only touched on the Bible. Sometimes the biblical reference was small and sometimes shockingly blatant, and this is in media across the board: paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and book illustrations. Here's one of the first instances I uncovered that made me think that a full-length study was in order: From 1935-40, Maurice Sterne – now a mostly forgotten artist who in his day was famous enough to command the first one-person exhibition by an American at the Museum of Modern Art (1933) – painted an immense twenty-panel mural, Man’s Struggle for Justice. Done under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, for the law library at the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C., at times Sterne used allegory to make his points. The series comprises oil on board panels demarcating concepts of justice over the ages (e.g., Brute Force and Mercy), as well as the impact of modern life on justice (e.g., Red Tape and Scientific Evidence). Surprisingly, Sterne employed the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel for the panel Ambition, which merges the biblical past with present-day concerns. Sterne pictures the angel as seraphic, while Jacob appears mortal as do six additional muscular figures, three climbing a rock lining each side of the composition, “representing earthly ambition.” This interpretation, which I most likely would not have fleshed out on my own, was provided by the artist. Indeed, Sterne’s own interpretation appears on the back of a photograph taken soon after the panel installation, which I happened upon and luckily turned over while conducting research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

This kind of stumbling on to material marked the origins of my book, which I originally thought might comprise an article. It was only when I realized that I would have hundreds of biblical works of art to deal with, by dozens of Jewish American artists, that I knew a full-length project was in order. I also realized that I had to get to the bottom of why these biblical works have been excised from the canon.

Thus was born Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America.

Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. She is the author of several books on Jewish American art and culture, which address subjects ranging from fine art to film to comics and graphic novels. She served as editor for U.S. art for the 22-volume revised edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man

Thursday, August 14, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Kodesh Press held a special Tu b'Av sale of some of their newest titles, including The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man, a memoir by Finis Leavell Beauchamp of his decision to leave his family's Evangelical dynasty.

 

If the intensity of the book's watercolor cover isn't stirring enough, read its contents: The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man opens with Beauchamp's childhood memories of being possessed by and exorcised of demons and ends with his transition from post-Evangelical agnosticism to committed Jewish faith.

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  • Double Vision by Tehila Lieberman
  • What We Believe by Darin Strauss
  • An Unusual Relationship: Evangelical Christians and Jews by Yaakov Ariel
  • Interview: Roz Chast

    Wednesday, August 13, 2014 | Permalink

    by Tahneer Oksman

    Tahneer Oksman spoke to Roz Chast about her recently published book Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant.

    Tahneer Oksman: What compelled you to write this book about your parents, and why now?

    Roz Chast: I thought it was an interesting and emotionally complex sto­ry—sad and enraging, but sometimes funny. Also, I felt that the topic of how we as a society care for the extremely old is rarely discussed, and maybe that’s not so good, to pretend this doesn’t exist. After all, unless something “happens,” that’s the direction in which we’re all heading.

    Why now? One reason is that dealing with my parents at “the end” was so draining that I needed to think about other things for a while. The other was that even when I decided I wanted to do a book on this subject, I had no idea how it would actually come together. It took me a while to figure out how to structure it.

    TO: What was the process of writing this book like, and how did it differ from creating the cartoons you draw for The New Yorker?

    RC: It was a very organic process. I used what­ever form fit the content best.

    I had a strong sense that it was a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Although a few of the cartoons in the book, like the ones I did after the attack on the World Trade Centers and the one about my mother’s sexual attraction/heel-height theory, were ones I had previously submitted in my weekly “batch” to The New Yorker, the process of doing a book was quite different from doing cartoons. Mainly, the cartoons are individual pieces, and when I was working on the book, I knew that they all had to work together.

    TO: In addition to your comics and handwritten prose, you pepper your book with photographs and some of your mother’s poems. What other kinds of research did you have to do to help you remember the past?

    RC: I had lots of emails that I had written to people about stuff that was going on while I was taking care of my parents. I was able to search for terms like “my mother,” “neurologist,” “The Place,” etc. So I was able to find pretty detailed accounts of events and conversations.

    Also, some of the cartoons in the book were done years ago, like the “dirty checkers” one, the one about the shoes/sex talk with my mother, the oven mitt one, and the World Trade Centers ones. At the time I did those, I had no idea I’d eventually put them in a book about my parents.

    TO: Early in the book, you relate your parents’ sensibilities—and especially their desire not to talk about death—to their Jewish immigrant pasts. How do you relate to your Jewish identity?

    RC: On some deep level, I identify as a Jew. I don’t know exactly what that means. Maybe feeling a little bit like an outsider. And that no matter how much I assimilate, there will always be something about me that will not fit in.

    TO: Were there other works—of art or literature or comics or film—that inspired you or informed your book?

    RC: Not consciously. When I’m working on a project, I tend to be pretty absorbed in doing it my own way.

    TO: Do you think you might like to compose an­other long-form book or memoir in the future?

    RC: I think so, but who knows?

    Tahneer Oksman is assistant professor and director of academic writing at Marymount Manhattan College. Her book on Jewish identity in contemporary women’s graphic memoirs is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

    Finding Jack Levine

    Wednesday, August 13, 2014 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Samantha Baskind wrote about some of the artists she interviewed for Encyclopedia of Jewish American Artists. In the first chapter of her newest book, Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America, she features the artist Jack Levine. Below, she discusses her experience interviewing Levine for the book. She will be blogging here for the Visiting Scribe series all week.

    The first time I spoke with Jack Levine was on October 26, 2004. This was before the Internet made finding people easy, and so I consulted a New York City phone book at a local library in Cleveland. I compiled a list of all the J. Levine’s living in Manhattan (and there were a lot of them) and called each with the preface, rolling off my tongue quickly before I could be hung up on: “Hello, I’m looking for the artist Jack Levine.” After five wrong numbers a gruff voice answered in the affirmative: “That’s me.” I was effusive, explained my purpose (a book I was writing), and we immediately began to talk. I found Jack self-deprecating on that call, and always, and when I asked him why he replied, “It’s all right. It makes you more meaningful.”


    Jack Levine, Planning Solomon's Temple, 1940.
    Oil on masonite, 10 x 8 in. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

    A few months after that first telephone call, I visited Jack at his Greenwich Village home. What I thought would be an hour or two stay turned into an entire day’s conversation. We sat in his living room, cluttered with volumes of art history books piled up on shelves and the floor. Art he made and that he treasured hung on the walls around me. Candid and charming, Jack shared memories and ideas about his life and art. He spoke of his childhood as the youngest of his Jewish, Lithuanian immigrant parents’ eight children. Jack told me that his parents planned to name him Jacob, after his paternal grandfather, but his Americanized older brother insisted that the newborn be given the more American sounding name: “My oldest brother confused the whole thing, because I guess he felt patriotic." Retrospectively, Levine noted: "It's ridiculous. I ought to be alright with the name Jacob."

    While I certainly knew Jack was a consummate draftsman and painter, I soon learned about his vast knowledge and love of art history. We walked up steep stairs to his third-floor studio, a bright open space illuminated by skylights. Jars of colorful paint were stacked on shelves and on available counter space, paintbrushes scattered the floor and were stuffed in miscellaneous containers, and more books overflowed on shelves and tables. He was working on three canvases: a densely painted image of a lion that he had been playing with for years, a portrait of Moses holding the Tablets of the Law, and a scene populated with figures that was taking the form of one of his vintage discourses on human folly. As the sun began to set and I prepared to leave, with several audiotapes full of material and a handful of photographs of Jack, I told him how much I enjoyed our day together. To which he replied with a twinkle in his blue eyes: “You would have enjoyed it more if I wasn't ninety years old.”


    Jack Levine, Moses on Sinai II, 1991.
    Oil on canvas, 72 x 63 in. Private collection.

    On July 24, 2010, after learning that he was quite ill, I visited Jack again to say goodbye and to pepper him with yet more questions (he died a little over three months later). He still possessed his deadpan wit; after finishing a cup of water he stood up and said, “I need to use the bathroom. I’ll stagger over there now.” Although he was weak, we walked to his favorite restaurant for lunch, an Italian place around the corner from his brownstone where Jack ate nearly everyday, always greeted by the waiters with enthusiasm. Even though it was a sweltering New York summer afternoon, he wore his fedora and sport coat; as usual, he would not leave his home without them on. We talked about printmaking, some of the artists he admired, and why he painted Jewish subjects.Jack believed that the over the ages the Second Commandment prohibited Jewish art and he wanted to do something for his people by filling that gap. Channeling William Wordsworth, he told me that this would be the last time we would be together: “I’ve been lonely as a cloud and it’s time it stopped.” He recalled old friends that day, including Raphael Soyer, a close friend of Jack’s and the artist on whom I wrote my first book.

    Raphael Soyer was a topic we addressed on more than one occasion. Jack because he was so fond of Soyer, and I because I welcomed the personal insights after all the years spent researching and writing about him. During my first visit to interview Jack I sat in his living room under a Soyer drawing and he shared a story about a visit he paid the older artist shortly before his death. Jack remembered that in 1987, while keeping Soyer company at his bedside, he took his friend’s hand and kissed it: “Raphael’s hand was the only artist’s hand I ever kissed. In fact, the only other person’s hand I kissed was my father’s.” As I prepared to say my final goodbye to Jack this story came to my mind, and I felt compelled to bestow on him that same gift of admiration and respect. And so I kissed Jack’s hand, one that had painted rich, powerful, and luminous canvases for nearly a century. His hand lingered in mine and the warmth in Jack’s tired eyes betrayed his affection even as he gruffly said “Oy vey.” Jack was still Jack and for that my heart swelled.

    As I left, Jack watched me through the window. I finally tore my eyes away and walked through the West Village, unabashedly crying. An extraordinary man with a remarkable history and the last great living figurative artist of mid-twentieth-century American art would soon be gone.

    Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. She is the author of several books on Jewish American art and culture, which address subjects ranging from fine art to film to comics and graphic novels. She served as editor for U.S. art for the 22-volume revised edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

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    Interviewing the Artists I Write About

    Monday, August 11, 2014 | Permalink

    Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. Her most recent book is Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America. She is blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

    For the most part I write about twentieth-century Jewish American artists. For a period of time I favored artists that came of age during the Great Depression and so I did not have the opportunity to interview most of them. In 2005, while researching an encyclopedia I was writing, I sent the same questionnaire to all of the living artists that I planned to include in the volume. Among the questions I asked were: “What, if anything, do you consider Jewish about your art?” “How, if at all, has your Jewish identity influenced your art?” “How do you define Jewish art?” “Does one artwork, if any, exemplify your Jewishness? If so, why?”

    Here are five particularly intriguing responses:

    1. Audrey Flack, known especially for her intensely illusionist photorealist paintings, defined Jewish art from her always-unique perspective: “I guess Jewish art is specifically religious art like Christian art and like Muslim art. It’s a catchy thing because Jews aren’t supposed to make images. Jewish art is probably humanist. . . . With Jews there’s a celebration of life. I think minimalism is the opposite of Jewish art. One green pea on a piece of roast beef.”


    Audrey Flack, World War II (Vanitas), 1976-77

    2. When asked about what, if anything, figure painter Philip Pearlstein considers “Jewish” about his realist art, he replied, “almost nothing, but I think that [my art] is very American – specifically New York and perhaps that includes something Jewish.”

    3. Conceptual and performance artist Eleanor Antin described her perspective on the Jewishness of her art as such: “I don't think being Jewish has been particularly relevant in my work, though maybe my independence has had something to do with it. I've been more or less fortunate in my career – though artists are never satisfied – but I've always been something of an outsider. I never fit in that neatly with anybody else. My state of permanent exile. My personal Diaspora. Given this lousy world, it’s not such a bad place to be. And perhaps my comedy. My work has a dark streak but it’s also funny. Maybe that’s a Jewish trait. Laughing all the way to the cemetery.”

    4. Photographer Arnold Newman reflected on a series of works made in Israel that he considered influenced by his Jewish heritage: “I made a lot of photographs of Israel. I sometimes went there to attend annual meetings of the board of the Israel Museum. My Jewish knowledge and my heart influenced the way I photographed Israel. The prime ministers, who I photographed, are history more than anything else. I put together a show of 57 photographs of Jews from all around the world that influenced Jewish history and culture. Can you call that Jewish art? I don’t know. One of my best non-portrait photographs is of the Western Wall. There was a rabbi at the Wall and he asked me not to photograph him, so I photographed his shadow.”

    5. Pioneering feminist artist Miriam Schapiro chose to address her Jewish identity, explaining that she is “not religious. It is the cultural aspect of Judaism that interests me. In other words – where I came from and how these people lived before me and now. When I am interested to discuss my identity – being Jewish comes to mind and I make a work that reminds me of what it is to be Jewish.”

    These artists’ responses are diverse, to say the least, as are the many other comments and reflections that I received. Invariably, when I give book talks or public lectures I am asked: “What is Jewish art?” The audience, of course, expects me to share a definitive answer – I am the so-called expert. What I offer are the words and thoughts of the very artists that I have studied, while we look at some of the art in question, which I show during my presentation. I open up the conversation to the group with whom I am speaking and we try to find an answer together.

    The answers are rarely the same.

    Samantha Baskind is the author of several books on Jewish American art and culture, which address subjects ranging from fine art to film to comics and graphic novels. She served as editor for U.S. art for the 22-volume revised edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

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    Inside the Pigeonhole

    Sunday, August 10, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    Thursday evening Stephanie Feldman, Liana Finck, and Boris Fishman sat down with a microphone and a moderator at Greenlight Bookstore for a panel discussion on Jewish Life and Literature. Author and journalist Carmela Ciuraru facilitated the event, prompting the authors with questions of identity, community, and the writing process.

    Stephanie, Liana, and Boris are all participating authors in the 2014-2015 JBC Network, a Jewish Book Council program that connects current writers and Jewish community organizations as a means of furthering Jewish book fairs and literary events throughout North America. Having embraced this particular market in promoting their respective works—A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, Liana’s graphic novel rendering of Abraham Cahan’s famous column in Forverts; The Angel of Losses, a novel by Stephanie exploring the legend of the White Rebbe; A Replacement Life, Boris’s debut novel about a young man embroiled in the Holocaust retribution cases of his grandparents’ generation—the three authors in conversation named a number of enduring questions and quandaries about themselves as writers, as artists, and as Jews.

    Asked how she feels about being a “Jewish writer,” Liana described the changing landscape of the literary and artistic world, and her personal transition within it: “I’m in a place where I love niche—I feel like it’s become this whole postmodern thing,” she observed. “There’s a lot you can do as a niche writer that you can’t do as a 5’10” white man.” The audience, Liana feels, for labeled writing has also changed rapidly between generations. “The people reading pigeonholed books are a lot smarter, and it’s going to become an honor to be a pigeonhole author,” she predicts.

    “Readers respond to what you give them,” Boris followed up. He added emphatically that “craft goes beyond classification,” that readers will remember a book in its own right—independent of marketing labels—if the writing is good and the story is well-told.

    The story must be also be well-researched. Liana described her struggles with depicting historically accurate fashions and facial expressions in the artwork for A Bintel Brief, noting that the most informative and most enjoyable piece of the process was reading Abraham Cahan’s biography, “one of the greatest American stories ever written—second only, maybe, to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.” Stephanie shared her initial inspiration for The Angel of Losses, how she had intended to follow the Gothic tradition of the Wandering Jew—only to discover that the lore is a strictly Christian narrative, with no Jewish basis or context. (For a full account of how Stephanie expanded her search of sojourning sages in Jewish history and mythology, read her 8 Favorite Wandering Jews blog post on The ProsenPeople Visiting Scribe series.)

    Boris’s research process hit much closer to home, involving frequent and difficult interviews with his grandparents. On top of the generational divide and reticence to talk about the past, Boris articulated his struggle to spend the necessary time in his immigrant grandparents’ company: “In ex-Soviet families—Jewish ex-Soviet families, especially—there’s this idea that your children are supposed to be your friends, which is impossible, because you’ve brought them to a country that’s made them completely different people from you.” The expectation of tacit intergenerational connection placed a heavy strain on Boris’s visits, but perhaps nothing was as challenging as the discomfort faced as soon as the research reached its end, with no objective remaining to drive Boris to his grandparents’ home.

    The relationship between the authors and their upbringing held particular interest to their audience at Greenlight Bookstore—and to the authors themselves. The first question from the audience raised the role of rebellion in the three novels and their composition. Liana acknowledged the “literary tradition that a character rebels against the religion they were raised in,” but experienced her own religious trajectory as more of a placid progression from the Judaism instilled in her childhood; Stephanie “started the novel on the idea that rebellion is impossible—how frightening it is when you can’t rebel.” Boris, however, pointed out that writing is itself an act of rebellion, especially in his case: “If you are going to write about the Holocaust, you need to find new forms; those forms have to be by definition rebellious because reverence alone for the Holocaust doesn’t work anymore.”

    Just before the panel discussion came to an end, the authors turned the conversation back to their audience. “Can you be a narrowly cultural Jew—can there be a strictly cultural Judaism—without a religious context?” Boris pondered. The crowd chimed in, sharing a diverse array of opinions, experiences, and anecdotes on Jewish identity, religious practice, and community participation. Stephanie reflected on the response to her colleague’s question, concluding the event with an observation on the vast and differing customs and traditions between Jews across the world: “The thing that is universal about Judaism is this idea that Jewish identity and religious practice can be separate. How we structure identity is so vital in Judaism, and as a novelist I think that Judaism will consequently continue to inspire and influence me—even if the story isn’t Jewish, the character isn’t ‘Jewish.’”

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  • Internal Dialogue blog series
  • Essays by Boris Fishman
  • Essays by Liana Finck
  • Essays by Stephanie Feldman
  • New Jewish Book Council Reviews

    Friday, August 08, 2014 | Permalink

    This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

    Find more of the latest reviews here.

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    Naomi, Ruth, and the South

    Friday, August 08, 2014 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Lenore Weiss wrote about Rabbi Levi Selwyn and Torah "Koshering" and asked Rabbi Selwyn a few question about the process. Her most recent collection,Two Places, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

    When I moved to Sterlington, Louisiana, the first question any person meeting me asked was, why did I move from California? After a certain time had passed, I began to ask that same question. The immediate answer was obvious: I had packed up my books and bags because I had fallen deeply in love and believed my mate and I could make a life together. I continue to believe that, but I’m not sure you can remove a city girl from everything she knows. Maybe I had to give up too much. It wasn’t a slam-dunk decision either. It had taken me two years to decide to move south. My friends and family watched me agonize: to move or not to move? It’s true. I’ve always had difficulty making transitions. During my elementary school years, just starting a new grade fanned me into nausea and cold sweats. So why should I expect this move to be any different?

    I reflect upon Ruth and Naomi. While there isn’t a real parallel here, there are enough—both my mate and I met after we had already been seasoned by difficult marriages, enough to recognize our heart’s desire. But at issue is the question of devoted loyalty. After Naomi entreats Ruth to return to her own family in Bethlehem, Ruth tells her, “entreat me not to leave thee [or] to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge…”

    I’ve often wondered what allowed Ruth to make that unequivocal declaration. Was it devotion to her deceased husband, Mahlon that allowed her to stand by her mother-in-law? Did she not wish to return to an unsupportive family where she knew she would languish and die? Or was she just young, wanting to see more of the world and knew she could do that at Naomi’s side? Whatever the reason, she did. Maybe she didn’t even have to think about it.

    Which leads me to my own question. Can I love without nurturing who I am, and leave behind the multitude of flowers that the butterfly of my soul needs to drink? There’s always a chance I will discover something I never could imagine on the threshing floor of life by remaining at the side of a person who brings me joy.

    Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way—maybe there’s a chance of creating a new amalgam. Because when it comes down to it, I’m not sure if G-d placed me south so I could confront myself and my writing without the distractions of city life—something I could put off doing as long as there was somewhere else to go. Or maybe this was not meant to be a long-term assignment.

    Or just maybe I need a new Bible story.

    I drove to the mall today, not one of my favorite pastimes. I wanted to be around people and didn’t know what else to do with myself.

    I hear my girlfriends talking in my head.

    Read more of Lenore Weiss's work here.

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    Book Cover of the Week: What We Brought Back

    Thursday, August 07, 2014 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    As summer programs and, God willing, this summer's war between Israel and Hamas draw to a close, one has to wonder at the experiences of the Jewish teenagers, college students, and young professionals who traveled to and within Israel through Taglit Birthright, study abroad, or other opportunities over the past few weeks. Facebook flooded with updates and op-eds; Instagram housed a gallery of "bomb shelter selfies" with new friends; emails home detailed each day's travel log and security considerations. How will these young people reflect on their (first, for many) time in Israel?

    The image of the Old City inside a shaken souvenir snow globe seems rife with symbolism, especially now.

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