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October 23, 2014 / 29 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘African American’

Interracial Chalk Drawings And Dances

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

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


http://www.dcjcc.org/ 

 

 

With their own long history of suffering oppression and hate fresh in their minds, many American Jews played important roles in the civil rights movement. Jewish merchant Julius Rosenwald, who bought one-fourth interest in Sears, Roebuck and Co. before it became a huge business, founded the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to help improve education for African Americans. The fund helped launch over 5,000 schools in 15 states in the south, as well as several universities. In 1964, Jews were arrested with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel prominently marched with Dr. King in the struggle for civil rights. In the arts, Jewish, Puerto Rico-born photographer Benedict J. Fernandez recorded many of the events of the U.S. civil rights movement. His images of Dr. King’s funeral are now iconic.

 

         The current show at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, “Through Their Eyes: Captured Moments of Childhood,” explores the powerful black and white photographs of the Jewish photographers Godfrey Frankel and Helen Levitt that depict Jewish and African American subjects.

 

         Frankel (1912-1995), a Cleveland native, got started in advertising photography and somehow found himself covering the nightclub scene in the nation’s capital. He met the nightclub editor of the Afro-American, who took him to nightclubs on U Street. In an interview with Merry Foresta of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Frankel described his experiences: “I started looking around the city, a strange city to me then, and I found these alley dwellings. I think there are still one or two left, [a] very small area. This was where poor people and mostly blacks lived I would find myself down there three or four times a week in the late afternoons when the sun was good before I went out to visit nightclubs. It was perfect.”

 

         Frankel also worked in New York, where he described his photographs as “probably my most important work.” In the interview, he said his interest in New York was “mostly the edges of the city – the East Side and West Side. On the Lower East Side, I guess I’ve taken most of my pictures.” Although Frankel did not use the word Jewish once in his interview with Foresta, his typical day began with him setting out in the morning with four or five rolls of film, taking the elevator or subway to the Lower East Side and shooting pictures until he got hungry and tired. He would “get into Ratner’s or some place and get some matzah ball soup, [laughing] some bagels or something and rest for an hour. Get out again about three or three-thirty and shoot some more pictures.”

 

         One of Frankel’s photographs in the JCC show is “Kids on Storefront Steps” (1943). In the photograph, seven African American children sit on a step in front of a store with “all bran” signs in the windows. The steps are in bad shape, and they seem unable to bear the children’s weight, let alone to reinforce the store for long. But, for the most part, the children seem happy, despite the grimy setting. Some of the boys seem asleep, while others smile or look off into the distance. However, none of the boys meets the gaze of the viewer. They are in their own world, wholly oblivious to the viewer.

 

 


Godfrey Frankel. “Kids on Storefront Steps.” (1943) Vintage gelatin silver print. 9 3/4″ x 6 1/4″.

 

 

         Other photographs by Frankel show young Jewish boys studying the Talmud. “Mount Krisco, NY Yeshiva” (1948) shows two young boys reciting the Shematogether. One boy turns his back on the viewer, facing his partner who covers his eyes. The two boys sit on chairs with books open in front of them on a table. The composition is a bombardment of triangles, from the boys’ elbows to suspenders to the shapes of the flowers in the bottom left corner. Another boy watches from afar, perhaps laughing at the two praying boys. And perhaps the most fascinating part of Frankel’s photographs of children is that they rarely make eye contact with the viewer. They are either shut off in their own world or literally distracted by something out of the picture frame.

 

 


Godfrey Frankel. “Mount Krisco, NY Yeshiva.” (1948) Vintage gelatin silver print. 8″ x 10″.

 

 

         In another image, also titled “Mount Krisco, NY Yeshiva,” Frankel shows the same boy who was covering his eyes in the last photograph, sitting in the same chair. His partner has left (and his empty chair and open book attest to his absence). The boy from the background has drawn closer, but he seems uninterested in the boy as he walks past. The boy, with his finger keeping his place in the book, turns to look over his left shoulder at something out of the picture frame to the right. The boy is at once rooted in the task at hand (his finger marking his place in the Talmud) and distracted.

 

         Helen Levitt’s photographs are equally voyeuristic. Levitt’s “Dancing Girl” shows a young girl and a boy separately dancing in the street. The horizon line is cropped high up in the photograph, so the image becomes more about the street than about the buildings lining the street. With the exception of some stairs and banisters, nothing that suggests a context for the joint dance invades the image. The Caucasian girl wears a polka dot dress and stretches her arms in a twisted pose, decidedly unglamorous but cute, as an African American boy looks on and dances with his hand atop his head.

 

 


Helen Levitt. “New York, c. 1945.” (Dancing Girl) Black and white silver print. 16″ x 20″.

 

 

         Born in Brooklyn in 1913 (although the JCC exhibit mysteriously says 1907), Levitt dropped out of school to pursue photography. She became obsessed with children’s chalk drawings and photographed many children drawing. Like Frankel’s subjects, the children in Levitt’s photographs do not make eye contact with the viewer. However, where Frankel’s children are intentionally oblivious to the viewer, Levitt’s might be performing a street dance for the viewer’s benefit.

 

         Levitt’s photographs in the JCC show children in strollers – climbing, dancing, hugging, and engaging in a variety of activities. One particularly engaging image shows three boys playing in a yard covered with dirt and rocks. Behind them, chalk writing on a wall reads, “Home team the Reds.” One boy carries a stick, while the other carries a small leafless bush. Levitt has caught the boys in the middle of their motion as they run and leap about. One wonders how the boys find joy in that most dreary of places, but at least for the moment in which Levitt has captured them, they frolic happily.

 

         The children that Levitt and Frankel capture in their photographs are worlds apart from those that photographer David Seymour-Chim portrays, as were discussed in these pages (June 21, 2006, “Smile And Say Cheese: Children Maimed By War”). Where Chim portrayed children who were sick, maimed, and otherwise struck by war, Levitt’s and Frankel’s images show children who have not suffered through wars and the Holocaust. But like Chim, Levitt and Frankel sought out the humanity and the optimism in the children’s situations. In the work of all three photographers’, children play and smile like children despite the bleak context. And as Chim found life and hope in war, Frankel and Levitt used their photography to find common ground between the lives of Jewish and African American children as they played in parks, alleyways, and on storefront stairs.

 

        Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com 

 

         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/).

How to Paint Jewish Culture In Five Easy Steps: The New Jersey Transcultural Initiative and Siona Benjamin

Wednesday, 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: mwecker@gmail.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

Titles: Antisemitism – Myth And Hate From Antiquity To The Present and The Return Of Anti-Semitism

Wednesday, May 19th, 2004

Title: Antisemitism – Myth And Hate From Antiquity To The Present
Authors: Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Co., New York, N.Y.

 

Title: The Return Of Anti-Semitism
Author: Gabriel Schoenfeld
Publisher: Encounter Books, New York, N.Y.

 

Of the many books The Jewish Press receives for review, a large number deal with the issue of anti-Semitism. Recently, we presented the preface to Dismantling The Big Lie, published by The Wiesenthal Center, complete and uncut, because it provides specific answers to the calumnies found in The Protocols of The Elders of Zion.

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.

Title: The Strike That Changed New York

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2003

Title: The Strike That Changed New York
Author: Jerald E. Podair
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven, CT

 

 

There are moments in time that define an era, and for New York’s ethnic communities of African-Americans and Jews that moment came on May 9th, 1968, when Fred Nauman, a junior high school teacher in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville area of Brooklyn and 18 other educators received letters telling them that the predominantly African-American local school district had fired them. All of the educators were whites, and most of them were Jewish.

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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/title-the-strike-that-changed-new-york/2003/12/03/

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