Meir Panim’s Tiberias Free Restaurant not only provides warm meals, but the opportunity to socialize as well.
The problem with G-d is His holiness. After thousands of years of countless trials and many too many unmentionable “sufferings of love” (Berachos 5a) the Jewish people continue to love Him even as many flee His embrace. From the Binding of Isaac to the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva and the last Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, G-d’s seeming distance, his hester pannim, confounds the masses and sorely tests the pious. When He is the most distant, and therefore the most Holy, the slaughter of innocent Jews that ensues becomes tragically a chilul Hashem, defaming His holy Name.
“Yossel Rakover Speaks to G-d” by Zvi Kolitz and “Death Triumphant” a painting by Felix Nussbaum both struggle with this most perplexing issue of the Jewish people. The first, a short story purporting to be a last testament of the son of a Ger Hasid fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto, refuses to relinquish belief in God. His experiences as a hunted Jew, a survivor from a German air assault that killed his wife, infant child and two children to the terrible depravations of the ghetto that claimed his last three children has left him spiritually exhausted, proclaiming that; “Life is a tragedy, death a savior; man a calamity, the beast an ideal; day a horror, night – a relief.” As a man of faith, the cruelty he has suffered has turned all certainties upside down. He lashes out at the world that seems determined to annihilate him.
Yossel’s accusations encompass Western civilization, bitterly observing that Hitler is “a typical child of modern man. Humanity as a whole has spawned him and reared him, and he is the frankest expression of its innermost, most deeply buried wishes.”
At 43, he humbly states that he “served G-d enthusiastically” only asking to worship Him, “bikhol livovekho, bikhol nafshekho ubikhol miodekho.” After all his deprivations and sufferings his belief has remained unshaken even though his relationship with G-d is deeply compromised. He feels that G-d “owes me something, owes me much.” Claiming that to cite our sins as a reason for this suffering, “G-d is maligned when we malign ourselves.” After all, we are His people and when G-d’s people suffer, G-d’s Name is besmirched.
In his last moments Yossel reflects upon the nature of vengeance, both human and Divine, the very nature of being a Jew and finally the excruciating nature of chosen-ness. He is the last fighter alive in one room in one house in Warsaw in 1943. His desperation elicits a proud affirmation; “I believe in Israel’s G-d even if He has done everything to stop me from believing in Him,” adding that “I bow my head before His greatness, but will not kiss the rod with which He strikes me.” The courageous determination to demand to know when “Youagain [will] revealYour countenance” is unequaled in Holocaust literature.
Mark Altman’s English and Yiddish production of Yossel Rakover Speaks to G-d (staged reading at the Diaspora Drama Group) on June 7th will explore exactly these excruciating themes. The poignant voice of Yossel will ring out that evening, a seminal testimony and clarion call from the grave of 65 years ago. Except for the fact that Yossel is a fictional character created by Zvi Kolitz. This character, invented by Mr. Kolitz for a Yiddish newspaper in Argentina in 1946, took on a life of its own. The story was subsequently published in English and Hebrew without any attribution to Mr. Kolitz and became known as an anonymous testimony from the ashes of the Warsaw Ghetto. Fiction had taken on a life as its own, as Emmanuel Levinas commented; “a text both beautiful and true, as only fiction can be.”
Felix Nussbaum traveled a remarkably similar path to a distinctly different conclusion. Nussbaum was born in 1904 in the German town of Osnabruck. He was characterized from an early age as a depressive personality and pursuing his artistic studies his early work was occasionally characterized by a haunting presence of impending death. The Nazi ascent to power spelled the end of Felix’s aspirations to German artistic achievement. His work from this decade vacillates between a kind of primitive and acerbic social commentary and a more than competent 1930′s realism. His increasing use of symbolism reflected the devastating advance of fascist control across Europe even as he attempted to escape its jaws by emigrating to Switzerland and finally Belgium in 1937. More and more Nussbaum utilized masks and self-portraits to reflect and deflect the impending doom.
Nussbaum, along with his wife Felka Platek, were exiles, refugees from their native land and, more importantly, refugees from the sanity of their past. His art became the art of the refugee; haunted, despairing and wrenching. In 1940 he was arrested and interred at the camp of Saint-Cyprien for four months as a German national. During a selection between Aryan Germans and Jews, he escaped and fled through France to his wife in Brussels, Belgium. The camp, its inmates and horrors, became an unavoidable subject for Nussbaum.
Aside from depicting the all too familiar deprivations of internment camps, Nussbaum did a remarkable painting of Camp Synagogue in 1941. It is a deeply brooding meditation on the repercussions of Jewish faith by an artist whose closeness to Judaism seemed to be mainly enforced by the racism of Nazi rulers. Five men, all clad in talisim, trudge towards a tin roofed building under a dark and foreboding sky. One man is isolated even from his fellow Jews, hunched in solitary devotion, perhaps the symbol of the artist himself.
As a stateless person and a Jew, his status in Belgium deteriorated in 1942, a rope hanging appearing as a symbol of approaching doom at the hands of the occupying Gestapo. In 1942 Nussbaum is given refuge by a Belgian sculptor until he flees underground. Finally in 1943 he and his wife go into hiding. The Organ Grinder (1943) begins the paintings in which the figure of Death has assumed prominence. The Damned, painted in January 1944, depicts a hodgepodge of hidden Jews, now terribly exposed for deportation in the claustrophobic streets of their country of refuge. It has become increasingly obvious that there will be no escape.
His last painting dated Tuesday, April 18, 1944, Death Triumphant, is extensively prepared for with numerous sketches of various skeletal figures, each beautifully draped, playing or holding musical instruments. These drawings are arguably some of the most moving and devastating images of futility ever produced. The dead mock the living with mankind’s pathetic culture, music played with no one left to listen. The quest for life is snuffed out in the whirlwind of anti-Semitic hate.
Felix Nussbaum confronted G-d’s terrible hidden-ness just as Yossel did. Felix could not find a faith to express in his vision, only Death triumphs over all culture, all hope, all life. And yet Yossel knows Felix well. Addressing G-d, Yossel pleads “Do not put the rope under too much strain, because, G-d forbid, it might snap. The test to which You have put us is so severe, so unbearably severe, that You should – You must – forgive those of Your people who, in their misery and rage, have turned away from You.”
The problem with G-d is that in His awesome holiness He has given us a terrible choice. Do we act rationally and turn our backs on Him when He seems to abandon us? Or must we scream through the howling abyss and insist on His answer even as the silence engulfs us?
* * *
Zvi Kolitz, author of Yossel Rakover Speaks to G-d, passed away September 29, 2002 after an illustrious career as a film producer (Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer, 1954, Israeli film) and theatrical producer (Rolf Hochhuth’s ground breaking play, The Deputy, 1963) in addition to works of fiction and philosophy and 32 years as a columnist for the Algemeiner Journal. Felix Nussbaum was murdered with his wife in Auschwitz in August, 1944.
Yosl Rakover Talks to G-d by Zvi Kolitz, Vintage, 2000 (with commentaries by Paul Badde, Leon Wieseltier and Emmanuel Levinas).
Yosl Rakover Talks to G-d; A Reading produced by Mark Altman, Tuesday June 7, 2005.
The Diaspora Drama Group at Common Basis Theater; 750 Eighth Avenue (46th Street); 212 868 4444; www.diasporadrama.org; English version directed and performed by Tony Award Winner Vivian Matalon; Yiddish version with David Mandelbaum directed by Amy Coleman.
Felix Nussbaum: Art Defamed, Art in Exile, Art in Resistance: A Biography edited by Karl Georg Kaster, Rasch Verlag, Bramsche, 1994.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Brooklyn resident David Siller, currently studying in Israel at Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah in Beit Shemesh, was awarded a trophy for finishing 3rd in his age group (14-18) in a 5-kilometer race for the benefit of the Benjamin Children’s Library of Beit Shemesh.
Today is day six without a phone.
Besides for feeling slightly isolated, it’s not too bad.
I’ve been doing things that I know I would not be doing if my phone was sitting next to me, shiny screen beckoning.
Is anyone else alarmed by the way extended warranties are sold on just about anything and everything? It means one of two things – either someone has found a great way of getting consumers to part with more of their hard earned dollars or manufacturers have no faith in their own products. Neither of those options is particularly heartwarming.
As I described Gaon in a review in June 2001 (“In Search of Ancestors, Sculpture by Simon Gaon” at Yeshiva University Museum), his Bukharian Jewish roots are deeply embedded on both sides of his family, echoed in his early yeshiva education.
Let me begin by congratulating my dear machatunim, Soraya and Jay Nimaroff, on being the recipients of the Community Service Award at the Sderot Hesder Institutions 18th annual anniversary dinner.
Think of your issues this way: due to those different backgrounds, you have a “shovel” to deal with difficulties while he has a “spoon”.
Do you remember the good old days when kids were kids and there was never anything to worry about? Those days never really existed, but today there are issues kids worry about that weren’t issues for some adults. They include fear of bullying, natural disasters, divorce, and violence.
In Part I talked about celebrating 30 years of Regesh Family and Child Services providing services to children, teens and families. I shared the agency’s origin and the many lessons I have learned through this journey. As I mentioned, it is my hope that my experiences will add to your toolbox of life skills.
Unfortunately, a map of the Middle East with no mention of Israel is nothing new… It is surprising however, that the world’s largest publisher of children’s literature, Scholastic Books, has joined in this trend.
About six months ago my parents and I started discussing ideas for a mitzvah project in honor of my bat mitzvah. I wanted to do something unique that would be meaningful to me and also do something that my friends could participate in. Immediately I thought of an organization called Sharsheret.
“I’m disappointed that the agreement reached with Iran leaves our unfulfilled our ultimate objective: a complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program and related activities.
Southern NCSY will be holding a leadership training Shabbaton at the Young Israel of Bal Harbour December 6 and December 7. Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, will be the special guest speaker.
Is there a beginning and an end to the universe? What role can medical breakthroughs play in conception or genetic engineering? Can science help us pinpoint the end of human life? Does the soul emanate from the brain or vice-versa?
The fact that the Jewish Museum’s curator Susan Tumarkin Goodman presents these issues as the inescapable core of her exhibition demonstrates the courage to challenge her audience with deeply discomforting images and concepts.
Lynda Caspe’s current exhibition at the Derfner Museum is an extraordinary event. In this show of 12 bronze relief sculptures and 14 cityscape paintings we have the opportunity to see the full scope of her last six years of work that, as least with the sculptures, marked a radical change in subject matter and technique.
The philosopher Theodor Adorno famously wrote in 1949, “cultural criticism finds itself with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This statement posited that the Holocaust exposed the unredeemable rotten underbelly of Western culture and therefore the very notion of creating beauty and sensitivity was at an insurmountable impasse. Alas, as cultural history has shown, he was wrong. Strikingly, it might be said that one of the few ways still provocatively available to speak about the Holocaust is in fact through poetry.
“Hyman Bloom: Paintings and Drawings (1940 – 2005),” currently at White Box (the cutting edge international art space on Broome Street), is a rare opportunity to observe the creative process of one of the most important practitioners of 20th century Jewish Art in America.
The “book” is a mighty big place these days and the current exhibition at MOBIA, “As Subject and Object: Contemporary Book Artists Explore Sacred Hebrew Texts,” is no exception. Highly mobile ebooks compete with online publications and traditionally bound volumes, scrolls, accordion-style tomes and folios that present equally exciting options for contemporary artists to interact with image and text in one unifying medium.
At the Chassidic Art Institute one artist, Harry McCormick, has rather amazingly fathomed the authentic heartbeat of the individual Jewish life. This exhibition, running until July 25, shows a mere 16 paintings, but six of them reveal a deeply perceptive and sensitive chronicle of Yiddishkeit.
Judaica Auctions and the exhibition that precede them at Kestenbaum & Company are always a cornucopia of aesthetic delights. The sheer variety and overall quality of the ceremonial objects and works of art make the exhibition and catalogue a museum-like experience. The current exhibition is no exception.
Whether it is the disastrous report of the 12 spies or the furious condemnation that doomed an entire generation to die in the wilderness, the Torah narrative in Bamidbar turns terribly grim after the glorious inauguration of the Mishkan in the second year after leaving Egypt. With this in mind, just imagine my surprise at an encounter with two artists who address these (and other Biblical) themes right around the corner.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/divine-silence/2005/05/11/
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