Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org.Irwin Cohen
Posts Tagged ‘African American’
Funny thing about Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware and newly minted presidential hopeful: The media herd has this habit of portraying him as sharp, cerebral, one of the U.S. Senate’s Deep Thinkers – and yet every time he opens his mouth you hold your breath, wondering whether he’ll say something he’ll instantly regret.
Biden’s latest gaffe concerned fellow senator and presidential wannabe Barack Obama, who, Biden opined, is “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and is a nice-looking guy.”
Even more instructive than Biden’s putting his foot in his mouth was the firestorm that followed – particularly the insistence by both Obama and Biden that the Rev. Al Sharpton somehow plays a commendable role in American politics. The fact that serious politicians can continually prostrate themselves before a figure like Sharpton and not pay a political price perhaps tells you everything about the present-day Democratic party that you need to know.
“I didn’t take Senator Biden’s comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate,” said Obama in a statement released to the media. “African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate.”
(Sharpton may or may not have given “voice to many important issues” in his 2004 run for president, but voters – including black voters – were clearly underwhelmed. In South Carolina, for example, where nearly half the voters are African- American, Sharpton pulled in just 10 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, finishing well behind John Edwards and John Kerry.)
Appearing on Sharpton’s radio program at the height of the controversy over his Obama remarks, Biden went into full bended-knee mode – as the Associated Press put it, “lavishing praise on Sharpton, saying he and Jackson were the most articulate people in the country.”
Biden also assured Sharpton of his “overwhelming respect” for the reverend’s accomplishments.
Biden and Obama are hardly the first mainstream Democrats to elevate Sharpton from race-baiting rabble-rouser to esteemed statesman. Seven, eight years ago, New York pols like Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton, Eliot Engel and the truly insufferable Mark Green already were making pilgrimages to Harlem to kiss Sharpton’s ring.
None of them, however, has ever quite equaled Edward Kennedy’s tribute to Sharpton a few years back. “Al Sharpton,” the Massachusetts senator bellowed at a Congressional Black Caucus event, “has brought a new energy, a new insight in the issues that are facing this country…. [H]e is educating America about what this country is really about and what it needs to do and what its future should be….We are a better country because Al Sharpton is in the mix and on the list and trying to make an important difference in our nation.”
The Al Sharpton to whom Democrats spend an inordinate time paying obeisance is, of course, the same Al Sharpton who in the late 1980’s, along with his cohorts Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, orchestrated the drawn-out, painful and racially charged Tawana Brawley circus.
The same Al Sharpton who at the time of the 1991 Crown Heights riots called the Jews of that neighborhood “diamond merchants” and ranted, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.”
He’s the very same Al Sharpton who referred to a Jewish merchant being picketed by black protesters in Harlem as “some white interloper” not long before one of the protestors went into the store, shot three whites and a Pakistani and then set fire to the establishment; among the dead were five Hispanics and a black security guard the protestors had taunted as a “cracker lover.”
And he’s the same Al Sharpton who, as Bill Crawford reminds us in his book Democrats Do the Dumbest Things, raised the level of public discourse in 1994 with the following tidbit (read it slowly and savor its penetrating insight, literary elegance and historical profundity):
“White folks was in caves while we was building empires. We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it.”
But the blowhard Ted Kennedy talks about Sharpton “educating America,” and a cartoon figure like Joe Biden assures Sharpton of his “overwhelming respect.” And they question George Bush’s intellect?Jason Maoz
Through Their Eyes: Captured Moments of Childhood
Photography by Godfrey Frankel and Helen Levitt
July 6-August 13, 2006
The Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery at the Washington, D.C. JCC
I graciously acknowledge the articles about the civil rights movement and Helen Levitt and Godfrey Frankel in Encyclopedia Britannica Online (www.britaannica.com) and Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/).Menachem Wecker
How to Paint Jewish Culture In Five Easy Steps: The New Jersey Transcultural Initiative and Siona BenjaminWednesday, August 25th, 2004
Pinpointing modern art’s origin yields a confusing situation; leading art history books claim many “fathers” of Modern Art: Gauguin, van Gogh, Whistler’s “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” and sometimes Monet’s “Impression: Sunrise.” Some invoke Frenchmen, Jarry or Daumier, and the most courageous, El Greco. Certainly, the twentieth century featured fundamental aesthetic changes, and we currently stand in a more-or-less post-aesthetic age that teaches us that everyone makes art anyhow, anytime, anywhere.
Most importantly, perhaps, post-modernity preaches the importance of investigating cultures and the stereotypes surrounding them. “Crosscurrents in the Mainstream” at the Zimmerli Museum of Rutgers University explores the unfolding of the visual arts across the cultural spectrum. According to its website, the Transcultural New Jersey Initiative aims to “document the creative achievements of under-represented non-European artists in order to recognize… how they are shaping culture and communities in New Jersey,” which the site claims has seen a large increase in non-European immigrants.
Under this banner, “Crosscurrents” showcases eleven artists’ works, of which four are Jews: Siona Benjamin, Ludvic Saleh, Benedict J. Fernandez and Raphael Montanez Ortiz. Jeffrey Wechsler, Co-Organizer of Transcultural NJ and Senior Curator at the Zimmerli, told me that “people tend to pigeonhole artists” when they discuss cultural influences, “but artists are, first and foremost, individuals.” He means that artists do not always allow culture to dominate their work; sometimes they meld multiple cultures.
Multiplicity implies complexity, though, and the gallery guide – consisting of 109 pages which is mysteriously marked “Volume I” – contains many essays on “hyphenated” Americans and “Otherness.” It rallies a tremendously complex network of terms that recalls the Guggenheim model of gallery-guides-as-books, without which the exhibit proves utterly unintelligible.
What, then, can it mean to cast artists in a role of bridging cultures and yet to still refer to the “mainstream” in the show’s title? And, what, if anything, does it mean that four of the artists are Jewish? Most likely, the Jewish over-representation will prove negligible, but perhaps some inherency in a transcultural initiative attracts Jewish artists who intensely know exile, both experientially and historically.
Siona Benjamin exemplifies this model; she grew up in Bombay, India and paints in a style that recalls Indian and Persian Miniatures, but instead of Eastern divinities, the paintings showcase diverse models, some with Magen Davids around their necks. “Finding Home #49 (Venus)” shows a Grecian (albeit with a bindhi) figure, wearing a cracking, renaissance halo, as eight severed hands encircle the figure, carrying a variety of objects from balance to sword to ball, and lend the picture a distinctly surreal look. A series of the Cartoon Network’s “Powerpuff Girls” fly around the brown framing rectangle, confounding the Classical feel of the Grecian and Hindu forms.
“Finding Home #47 (Learning About America 1),” a gouache with gold leaf on paper, shows an Indian woman – a self portrait Siona says ? with highlighter blue skin (“a Jew of dark skinned color” in Siona’s visual language) holding a torch, while touching the palm of an African American woman, in African garb, carrying a book by the noted African American author and activist, W.E.B. DuBois. Both stand atop a gold stage that appears flanked by a red curtain of sorts, lending the whole painting a theatrical feel. The other woman, who taught Siona for her second Masters in theater, educated her about America and African American history. The lamp symbolizes the knowledge imparted, and the flame symbolizes G-d.
“I am not religious,” Siona told me, “but I do believe in spirituality.” The lamp also alludes to the Sabbath candles Siona’s mother lit every week, which still suggest hope.
Siona’s art relies on hope. “If I lost hope,” she said, “I would lose the color.” This connection of color and hope helps Siona navigate the very depressing current political situation. “There has to be a glimmer at the end of the tunnel,” she says. Thus even as “Finding Home” shows a golden back of a slave with raised welts along the spine, I told Siona that I saw a dove. She said she likes hearing viewers interpret her works in ways she had not anticipated.
Interpretation proves difficult because Siona sees the Persian and Indian miniature style as a way of hiding. In “Finding Home” she embeds drawings based on photos from a book of lynchings within the border of flowers and decorations. “Under the beauty of miniatures you can hide danger,” she says. “The beauty of miniatures draws you in-veiling and revealing.”
The model of hiding and emerging mirrors a major theme of Siona’s: belonging. “I never thought I would use my Jewishness,” she says, citing it as “more of a private thing.”
Her work – which she says centers on “identity politics” – involves “walking the tightrope about not belonging anywhere and belonging everywhere at the same time.” In this way, Siona approaches Modigliani, especially as the Jewish Museum currently underscores his diasporic side. Where Modigliani announced himself as “Modigliani, the painter, the Jew,” Siona talks of “celebrating” her alienation.”
Fellow miniaturist and friend of Siona’s (coincidently also my teacher) at Massachusetts College of Art, Ambreen Butt, calls Siona’s work, “miniature inspired.” Noting the serene nayika (heroine) that “invites the viewer into the painting, but stays far beyond the viewer’s reach,” Ambreen sees many Miniature elements in Siona’s work – most importantly the “formal structure.” But he also notes that Siona’s works “technique-wise are not miniatures,” as they employ gouache (opaque watercolors), whereas Classical Miniatures use water-based paints that sit atop a gouache ground with no luminosity.
I asked Ambreen how much room remained in the Miniature style for experimenters who brought in Jewish, Grecian and pop culture references. Can one borrow so freely and yet remain within the borders of the Miniatures?
“There has to be a reason for somebody to be doing something,” she said, praising Siona’s paintings “based on her own identity as a Jewish woman.” Ambreen calls Siona’s work “masala” (a blend of spices) in its diversity, borrowing from many different styles of miniatures. For example, the backgrounds are flat, and thus of the Rajasthani style, whereas other elements draw from other styles. “That’s what I’d call her paintings,” she said, “delicious food.”
One certainly senses a palatable tang (spicy, no doubt) in Siona’s work, but Ambreen also stresses how the Transcultural show is “very educational, especially in the U.S.”
In September, Siona will exhibit a series of Women in the Bible. A product of study with Rabbi Michael Monson, this exhibit will examine Biblical texts, but in experimental fashion: “studying the Torah like I read a Shakespeare play” and “imagining what they would do to react to today’s evils. How would Ruth react?” Hopefully, this column will revisit Siona’s work, come September.
Clearly, as Jews, the Transcultural artists are not conceiving of an entirely new form. Jewish artists have used other cultural symbols for centuries. Polish Hagaddahs often reflect local Polish motifs, Yemenite jewelry often proves reminiscent of Muslim silversmiths, Israeli synagogues often employ Grecian mosaic styles and many others use different examples of common iconography.
By rallying transcultural forms, the Zimmerli Museum forges a literary iconography. This iconography is governed by literary rather than truly cultural associations and therefore creates exhibits about artists but not about art. The museum exhibits work that seems intent upon becoming an “emissary for a better world,” in artist Tom Barron’s words, that abandons nationalistic, partisan work for a desire for one unified world. This curatorial decision carries political advantages, but many aesthetic dangers, and proves both beautiful and dangerous, much like Siona’s miniatures.
And now, to return to the 20-ton elephant in the room, is it Jewish? Well, not really. Perhaps in the idea of the cultural misfit, who both belongs and finds herself repelled, lies a Jewish sentiment of exile and displacement. Will enough Magen Davids and Hebrew letters become Jewish art… I am not certain. Albeit by Jewish painters, the work at the Transcultural Initiative is incidentally Jewish and attends much more to culture in general, than Judaism specifically. Exile and out-of-placeness is not limited to Judaism, and in an exhibit that resists pigeonholing, they simply cannot be classified as such. And yet, with that knowledge, one sees many deep, engaging Jewish elements in them that raise very important questions. The forthcoming exhibit on Biblical Women seems to promise more direct attention to Jewish iconography and I anxiously await it.
Transcultural New Jersey: Crosscurrents in the Mainstream. April 4 ? July 31, 2004. Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum ? Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. 71 Hamilton St., New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Tel: 732-932-7237, www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu/. For more information on Transcultural NJ, see www.transculturalnj.org
Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: email@example.com.
I gratefully acknowledge the help of Ambreen Butt throughout this article, and I encourage readers to see Ambreen’s work online at the Bernard Toale Gallery (http://www.bernardtoalegallery.com/), and in person at the McKenzie Gallery show “I Want to Take You Higher” through July 31st. http://www.mckenziefineart.com
Authors: Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Co., New York, N.Y.
Author: Gabriel Schoenfeld
Publisher: Encounter Books, New York, N.Y.
The present two titles, one from a division of St. Martin’s Press, the other from a publishing house affiliated with the American Jewish Committee and Commentary Magazine, both deal with the history of the world’s “obsession.” Each is designed to prevent us from becoming too
comfortable and complacent with our American experience. Our enemies await us – just as hungry lions wait out their prey.
Anti-Semitism may have begun with the image of Jews as “Christ killers” – a myth of a people of criminal elements who, it was implied, were responsible for the death of the symbolic leader of a new religion.
It is a fact of life that humans form groups for all activities. Early societies formed groups for hunting parties as well as for war against other groups. There was always “the other,” and it became the place of the Jews to become greater society’s “Other.” According to Perry and Schweitzer, “Anti-Semitism has very little to do with the actual behavior of Jews or the
strictures of their highly ethical religion … but is rooted in delusionary perceptions that are accepted as authoritative and passed on and embellished from generation to generation.”
Although Christianity venerates Jesus, who was born a Jew and who they claim preached love and compassion, their “New Testament” and other writings of the Church Fathers refer to Jews and Judaism contemptuously, presenting Jews as an accursed people – Children of The Devil – collectively condemned to suffer for rejecting Jesus of Nazareth and responsible for his crucifixion and death. Over two thousand years of invective and hate served to condition Christian European society, in which ordinary lay people were uneducated, illiterate and ignorant, to become receptive to anti-Jewish propaganda and to view Jews as “the Other.” In
European Catholic society, only priests and royalty were educated, able to read an expurgated version of the Bible – both “Old” and “New” Testaments. The only people who knew the truth of the ethical teachings of Judaism were precisely those who profited from the downgraded position of the Jewish nation.
It was not until the 19th-century Enlightenment that some Jews were finally permitted to exit the ghettos. Although others, including Martin Luther, broke with Rome for varying reasons, theological and otherwise, the Catholic Church, which remains the largest Christian denomination, continued to demonize Jews well into the 20th century. It was the ”Nostra
Aetate: A Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” published by the Second Vatican Council held in 1962, that began the process of exonerating the Jews and of laying the blame of crucifixion at the feet of the now departed Roman Empire.
While the Perry/Schweitzer book deals with defining the historical origins of anti-Semitism, including chapters on ritual murder accusations (such as baking Christian blood into matzohs, etc.), diabolization (including demons, conspirators and race defilers), Homo Judaicus Economicus (the Jew as Shylock, parasites and plutocrats), Holocaust denial and neo-Nazi
mythology, and the modern anti-Semitic expression in Islamic countries, Schoenfeld’s The Return of Anti-Semitism begins in recent time and discusses modern expressions of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist hate in the Arab-Moslem countries of the Middle East as well as Europe and America.
Schoenfeld also unabashedly exposes the self-hatred of members of our own tribe, and clearly shows that there is no anti-Semite quite like a Jewish anti-Semite – even if it occasionally parades around like anti-Zionism.
He compliments President George Bush for keeping the United States from being officially represented at the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, where the main agenda was condemnation of Israel for defending itself against the Arab intifada. He blames “liberal human rights groups” such as Amnesty International and
Human Rights Watch for being insensitive to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda. From his vantage point as a contributor to Commentary, the AJC’s monthly magazine of ideas and philosophy, he comments on the naiveté of those such as Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who claims that “talk of a resurgent anti-Semitism is both inapposite and dangerous, a case of fretfulness run amok… The Jewish community in the United States has become sunk in excitability, in the imagination of disaster.”
Return of Anti-Semitism visits the black/Jewish debacle of the late 60’s, during which a carefully constructed edifice of Jewish contribution to African-American causes, including our participation in the Civil Rights movement, funding of legal causes such as Brown vs. Board of Education, founding of the NAACP and other black civil rights organizations – even the
Jewish funding that established the renowned Tuskegee Institute and many other colleges, universities and secondary institutions for African-Americans – came tumbling down over the Ocean Hill-Brownsville/Teacher’s Union and Crown Heights accident fiascos, which were both mismanaged by New York City’s political establishment.
Both books point out that many Arabs – and Christians – victimized the ancestors of today’s substantial African-American community, while canards abound that it was ”the Jews” who enslaved and transported the Africans to Europe and the Americas. The fact that most blacks are also Christians, and regularly imbibe the anti-Semitism of “The New Testament,” has unfortunately helped make us enemies rather than friends.
Antisemitism, Myth and Hate by Perry and Schweitzer does the better job at providing an overview of the greater historical picture over the centuries, while Schoenfeld’s The Return of Anti-Semitism provides a better view of more recent times and issues. But both furnish important insight for the thoughtful reader who wishes to delve further into the issues.
Unfortunately, we all need to learn a bit about what our enemies think about us.
Author: Jerald E. Podair
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
Almost until that moment Jews and ‘blacks’ had forged a partnership that worked toward
gaining civil rights for all Americans. Jews were prominent in many civil rights groups, including
the NAACP, and Jewish ‘Freedom Riders’ were killed in Mississippi for supporting African-
American strivings for equality and civil liberty.
The teacher firings, and the (predominantly Jewish) UFT (United Federation of Teachers)
strike that ensued from them, brought nascent anti-Semitism in the black community to the fore. At best, in their response, black leaders appeared indifferent to anti-Semitism, and at worst, were accomplices to it. Egged on by such activists at Albert Vann and Leslie Campbell (who read anti-Semitic poetry over the airwaves on WBAI-FM), African-Americans came to view (UFT President) Albert Shanker’s teachers as ”white interlopers” coming to rob their children of their African-American heritage.
The white teachers relied on the standard canons of education promulgated by New York’s
central Board of Education, while the local school board wanted their African-American history and culture to be taught by teachers more sensitive to the esteem of their children.
The Jewish UFT teachers were a proxy for ‘all white men’ whom the ghetto-dwelling African-
Americans viewed as culturally keeping them down. The fact that Jews predominated in the
teaching profession was a cultural phenomenon at least partially caused by exclusion from good jobs in Corporate America and other agencies of government. The ‘merit’ system, with job and advancement opportunities offered by the Board of Education was ideal for an upwardly mobile group seeking employment.
The entire system of teacher-to-supervisor-to-department chair-to-principal, etc. was, like in
Confucist China, a system of bureaucracy that encouraged the college-educated Jewish children of immigrants to pursue careers in the government-controlled educational system. Passing examinations and accumulating graduate degrees were more than a path to material success – this was a manifestation of the marketplace competition of self-reliant individuals who are being judged by standards of ‘objective merit’ divorced from considerations of racial group origin. For the Jewish children of immigrants who were persecuted in Europe just for being Jewish.
On the other hand, many blacks, who had suffered many inequalities in educational and
employment (aside from many other social, housing and economic) opportunities, jealously
viewed these upwardly mobile Jews who bypassed them as interlopers in the educational process of their youth.
The crisis in race relations between Jews and black that resulted from Ocean Hill-Brownsville
has still not cleared up and was one of the contributing causes of the race riot that caused the
death of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights many years later. Podair, a winner of the Allan
Nevins Prize of the Society of American Historians, has written a powerful book that tells the entire story of this confrontation from both sides of the picket lines and examines a watershed experience in modern New York City race relations.