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October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Menachem Wecker’

In Search Of South African Jewish Art

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

South African Jewish Museum 88 Hatfield Street, Cape Town, South Africa http://www.sajewishmuseum.co.za

 

Cup presented to Benjamin Norden in 1857. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

I went to the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town with high hopes of seeing how South African Jews uniquely approached the fine arts and Jewish ritual objects. Lions—as the symbol of Judah and later Israel in general—can be found in Jewish art throughout the ages and across the globe, of course. But I wondered if the Jews of Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, and Port Elizabeth incorporated other native animals into their art. I had visions of Zebras holding up Chanukah lamps, giraffes on Kiddush cups, and elephants on Havdalah spice boxes. I wondered to what extent South African Jewish artists looked to traditional African art and design for inspiration, and whether they drew upon symbols and styles from their Eastern European, primarily Lithuanian, heritage. At very least, I expected to learn a great deal more about William Kentridge, a Johannesburg-born Jewish painter with an international reputation.

Not only was I surprised not to find bead-encrusted mezuzahs and cheetah-patterned challahcovers, but I saw virtually no art at all. And the few works I saw had little or nothing to do with South Africa. Several glass cases with ritual objects in the first room didn’t even identify where and when they were created, and with the exception of one menorah, they all resembled ritual objects one could see in a Jewish museum anywhere in the world.

Menorah. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

The menorah in question (image one), which had no identifying wall text, features at least three animals. On the pinnacle, supported by some sort of pedestal that could be a hand, jug, or flame, is some kind of deer. Judging from the antlers, the deer is more of the North American rather than African Kudu variety. Lower down on the menorah, two forms jut out, which could be crocodiles or merely geometric embellishments. But the central part of the menorah is the most interesting. Two animal forms stand on their hind legs leaning against an open portal. The blessing recited over lighting the Chanukah candles—“… to light the candle of Chanukah”—is inscribed on the two animals and above the portal they flank.

“Yerushalayim d’Afrike’” (Jerusalem of Africa), the history of the Jews of Oudtshoorn, a town in the Western Cape, written in Yiddish by Leibl Feldman in 1940. Cover design by Rene Shapshak. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

The animals are peculiar in shape and thus difficult to interpret. It’s clear that they have tails and ears, and they don’t appear to be lions, since they are mane-less. Depending upon which angle one inspects them from, they could be elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, or wolves. And the zigzag patterns on the animals, as well as the eye-like forms don’t help either, as the same patterns appear on the “crocodiles” and throughout the rest of the menorah.

If the symbolism on the menorah is ambiguous, the scene represented on a cup that the Jewish community of Cape Town presented to Benjamin Norden in 1857 is quite clear, although it’s a surprising mythological choice. Norden, who founded South Africa’s first Hebrew congregation, Tikvath Yisrael, was given the cup in honor of his return to England. A lion stands atop the large ceremonial cup, while a bearded man carrying a trident is depicted on the side of the cup. The figure—surely Neptune or Poseidon—stands in a chariot drawn by four horses in the water, as two angels blow trumpets (probably not shofrot). Berries and leaves adorn various other parts of the cup.

Whether the cup was originally created for a non-Jewish patron and later adapted as a gift for Benjamin Norden, or whether it was created specifically for the occasion, the choice of a pagan symbol, rather than a Biblical or rabbinic one, to mark the celebration of a Jew’s career in South Africa is noteworthy.

Other interesting aspects of the museum’s collection include references to Jewish involvement in the ostrich feather trade (see image three) and apartheid. “In my experience,” Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography, in a quote that is printed in a prominent wall text, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

Shtetl installation. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

Have Artists Envisioned Nebuchadnezzar As Hero Or Villain?

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

“Despite the fateful part he played in Judah’s history, Nebuchadrezzar [Nebuchadnezzer is sometimes referred to this way] is seen in Jewish tradition in a predominantly favorable light,” wrote Henry W. F. Saggs, the late Assyriologist, toward the end of his Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Nebuchadrezzar II (c. 630—c. 561). “It was claimed that he gave orders for the protection of Jeremiah, who regarded him as God’s appointed instrument whom it was impiety to disobey, and the prophet Ezekiel expressed a similar view at the attack on Tyre.”

William Blake. Detail of “Nebuchadnezzar.” C. 1795. Monotype finished in black chalk, pen and watercolor, coated with gum or size. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

That’s a far cry from the corresponding entry for Nebuchadnezzar by Emil G. Hirsch, Ira Maurice Price, Wilhelm Bacher, and Louis Ginzberg in the Jewish Encyclopedia, which notes that the Babylonian king was called “evil” (rasha) in several Talmudic references—like Megilah 11a, Chagigah 13b, and Pesachim 118a, for example.

In a section devoted exclusively to the king’s cruelty, Hirsch, Price, Bacher, and Ginzberg add that Nebuchadnezzar refused to let the exiled Jews rest from their walking for even a minute for fear that they would pray and that those prayers might be answered. And he tore up Torah scrolls, formed them into sacks, and filled those bags with sand and made the exiled people carry them as they walked. This is all besides the countless Jews murdered under the king’s orders.

So, would the real Nebuchadnezzar please stand up? Could the same figure—particularly such a controversial person—really be evil and cruel on the one hand, and viewed in a “predominantly favorable light” on the other?

Although it’s tough to dismiss Saggs’ expertise, my hunch is that either he may not have been familiar with the references in the Babylonian Talmud, or he was looking at other sorts of sources, like historians or works of biblical criticism. That said, it’s often informative to look at how controversial figures are depicted in art, and those visual conceptions can often shed new light on those characters.

The chances are very good that you are reading this article either on the fast day of the 10th of Tevet itself, or shortly thereafter, so it’s also a good time to consider not only the figure of Nebuchadnezzar—who laid siege to Jerusalem beginning on the 10th of Tevet—but also the ways in which he has been immortalized in art.

Munich Rashi Bsb Cod. Hebr. 5-II Fol. 209v.

Perhaps the most famous is William Blake Nebuchadnezzar, a series of prints that dates to 1795. In his series, Blake depicts the bearded and longhaired Babylonian king crawling on all fours—no doubt depicted in his period of madness described in the book of Daniel. And mad Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar certainly is. The man has been reduced to beast, as Blake surely rendered the king’s legs and muscles ambiguously so they could also be read as fur. And, Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar certainly has claws for toenails.

Further, Blake’s murky background—perhaps a reference to the tree from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which Daniel interpreted as foretelling the seven years of insanity—weighs down on the king-beast’s shoulders, rather than lifting him up. The weight of the world—and perhaps Nebuchadnezzar’s sins as well—threatens to crush the madman. But those who know a bit about Blake, who had complicated ties with Jewish and Christian mysticism and invented his own prophets, won’t be surprised to learn that his Nebuchadnezzar is more complex than just a madman playing a beast.

By focusing on just the king, Blake monumentalizes him. Nebuchadnezzar is unclothed (like an animal would be), unkempt, and poorly manicured. But he is also posing, and he looks out at the viewer with an expression of shock, fear, and pain. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the unbalanced man-beast; it’s also difficult not to see him as a tragic, or fallen, hero. Perhaps Blake had a sense of the different ways in which Jewish and Christian traditions viewed his subject, and he depicted the Babylonian monarch in that context.

Another famous depiction of Nebuchadnezzar’s story—though it doesn’t in fact represent the king—is Rembrandt’s etching of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which he created as part of a commission of Old Testament subjects for the Jewish publisher Menasseh ben Israel’s Piedra Gloriosa. In addition to the statue Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream, Rembrandt depicted Jacob’s ladder, David and Goliath, and Daniel’s vision of the four beasts. Per Daniel 2, the “frightening” icon had a head of gold, silver arms, copper thighs, and iron and clay legs and feet. As Nebuchadnezzar watched, the idol disintegrated and was dispersed by the wind.

Rembrandt often looked to the Bible and Jewish and Christian biblical interpretations for inspiration for his art, and Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is no exception. The idol has a prominent base, and one can just make out the stone that has shattered the sculpture’s legs, per Daniel 2. And, as Michael Zell, a professor at Boston University, explains in his book Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam, Menasseh asked Rembrandt to inscribe each limb of the idol with the name of a kingdom that persecuted the Jews: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Babylonia appears on the sculpture’s head; Persia and Medes on the arms; Greece on the navel; and Rome and Mohammedans on the legs. The stone, then, represents the Messiah, who will destroy the persecutors.

The Physics Of Flame Combustion

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Just because the miracle of Chanukah defied physics doesn’t mean illustrations and illuminations of the Temple and Tabernacle menorahs haven’t grappled with the physics of flame orientation.

An analysis of dozens of ancient and medieval depictions of menorahs reveals that although most artists conceived of flames in scientific terms—the flames “point” upward, as one would expect real world fire to do, absent factors like wind—some artists seem to have been influenced by Midrashic or rabbinic interpretations of the directions of the Tabernacle and Temple flames.

English biblical commentary. C. 1463. Fol. 048v. Lower part of page of Exodus. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

According to Midrashic and Talmudic sources (e.g. Menachot 86b and 98b), the central flame of the menorah (what we now call the Shamash) had special significance, while the Ner Ma’aravi (western lamp), which might have been the flame closest to the Holy of Holies, also carried unique symbolism and prominence.

Various rabbinic interpretations (e.g. Rashi) on Numbers 8:2 observe that the biblical mandate to orient the flames toward “mul p’nai ha-menorah”—loosely the “face” of the lamp—suggests that the six wicks ought to face the central wick, or as Rashi explains it, “toward the middle one, which is not of a branch of the menorah, but its body.”

So, it seems, there is rabbinic and biblical precedent for flames to face toward the central wick (which might face upward, without any reason to face any other flame). All this comes with the caveat that the western lamp (which may have been the second candle from the east, depending which orientation of the menorah one subscribes to: north-south or east-west) might face toward the Holy of Holies rather than to the center.

Synagogue of Hamat; floor mosaic. 4th century. Hamat, near Tiberias.

In light of this context, it is worth observing the configuration of menorah wicks in a mosaic on the floor of the fourth century synagogue in Chamat near Tverya (image one). The mosaic, which also features two lulavim, etrogim, shofarot, and shovels, interprets biblical verses literally when it represents parts of the arms of the menorahs as pomegranate shaped. And the flames emanating from the three arms of the lamps on either side all face the central bodies of the menorahs. The central wicks of each Menorah face opposite directions—but each points to the central architectural form: either a representation of the synagogue, Tabernacle, Temple, or the Holy of Holies of the Temple or Tabernacle.

If one examined the image from a literal perspective, one would likely assign the central architectural element to Solomon’s Temple, which was the only place to have multiple menorahs in residence. But whether it ought to be taken literally or metaphorically, it’s fairly reasonable to assume that the artist intended both of the menorahs’ central wicks to face the synagogue-Holy of Holies.

It’d be one thing to suggest that the wicks facing the central branch were an artistic device of parallel structure and symmetry and had nothing to do with religious symbolism—that’d be a fine argument to make, except that having the wicks face upward would also be symmetrical—but the mirror-image reversal of the central wicks certainly seems intentional.

The same move doesn’t occur in several other menorah interpretations. All the wicks in a Byzantine mosaic (sixth century) at Chulda, which also represents a shofar, lulav, etrog, and incense shovel and features a Greek inscription, “Praise to the people,” seem to point upward.

The menorah wicks also point upward in a drawing engraved into plaster on a lime floor in a first century house in Jerusalem (Israel Museum), as well as in several other manuscripts.

French Bible. Part I: Genesis to Ecclesiastes. 14th century. Fol. 049v. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. MS. Bodl. 251.

A visual device that appears in a 19th century Mizrach (East) decoration—also in the collection of the Israel Museum—represents an interesting interpretation of the flames. The same move surfaces in a 14th century French Bible (image two), which is also in the collection of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The flames in these menorahs resemble hands, with multiple “fingers” reaching out in different directions. The “hands” actually resemble floral elements (or bells, or fleurs-de-lis) on the body of the menorah.

While it’s difficult to sustain the argument that the flames face the center, or even if some of the “fingers” face the center that the artist intended them to carry the kind of symbolism discussed above, it is a noteworthy depiction of the flames, in that they are represented as disjointed, rather than unified. Anyone who has watched flame carefully knows that there is tension in the “paths” that flame takes in space. Even if this artist had no Midrashic or Talmudic texts in mind, it’s worth pondering the possibility of wicks both facing the center and a more naturalistic or scientific trajectory simultaneously.

Jewish Depictions Of Hell

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Although it’s the Hebrew month of MarCheshvan—known as “mar” or bitter, because it’s devoid of holidays, unlike the preceding month which has the High Holidays and Sukkot, and the next month which ushers in Chanukah—that’s not why I’ve been thinking about hell (gehinnom in Hebrew) a lot lately. In fact, I co-wrote an e-book recently with New York-based lawyer and author Joel Cohen called Gehinnom: A Conversation in Hell. (The book, which is available for free download at www.joelcohengehinnom.com, is a work of fiction, or creative non-fiction. The characters come from the Bible: Cain, Korah, Saul, Balaam, Miriam. But the dialogue is imagined.)

The characters in the book cling in death to the same philosophies and self-awareness (or lack thereof) that they embodied in life. One by one, the characters enter a conversation in “a dark, dank, forgotten cave,” where they have to trust each other’s disembodied voices, since they cannot see each other. The characters (with the exception of Miriam and a young man who later surfaces) team up on one another and expose jealousies, hatred, self-righteousness, and a confusing—and thus, distinctly human!—blend of emotions. Of course, the lines the characters deliver have little to do with what the figures might actually have believed and felt, and everything to do with what Cohen and I believe they might have believed. For such is the stuff of art, and the majority of the artistic canon is fictive—even the works that purport to be “realistic.”

Haggadah shel Pesach (with interpretation of Abrabanel). Hayim ben Tsevi Hirsh. Fürth: 1755.

Surely, one can imagine countless works of Christian art that depict demons torturing lost souls, grim reapers with scythes, and flaming depictions of hell. It’d be foolish to suggest that Jewish art has anywhere near such a prominent tradition of depicting gehinnom, and it’s not my intention to do so here. But many readers of this column probably have a pretty good sense that the Christian apocalyptic traditions of representing demons and eternal punishment for sinners have their origins in Jewish texts.

Some of the Jewish sources include the Mishnah in Gemara Sanhedrin (10:1), which addresses the statement that “everyone in Israel” has a portion in the World to Come. If the Mishnah goes out of its way to specify that everyone “in Israel” has a portion in heaven, surely there must be some who have no portion, the rabbis argue, so they compile a list: those who deny the resurrection of the dead, those who say the Torah isn’t divinely delivered, and those who are apikorsim, or heretics. Rabi Akiva adds that those who read “sfarim chitzonim”—“outside” books—also have no heavenly portion, nor do those who whisper (incantations) over a wound. Finally, Abba Shaul adds that those who recite God’s name as written also will not merit eternal reward. The Mishnah also adds a list of particular individuals and groups who have no heavenly portion, including the kings Jeroboam, Ahab, and Menashe (though Rabi Judah says Menashe was forgiven and did merit reward), Balaam, Doeg (who killed 85 priests), Ahithophel (who led Absalom astray, to say the least), and Gehazi, who disobeyed Elisha.

There are also chassidic traditions surrounding gehinnom. The Apta Rebbe (Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, 1748-1825) famously said that as a sinner he’d be sent to gehinnom, but being unable to endure the sinners, God would have to send them out. His idea was to ensure that he’d be the only one there, a strategy that the Ropshitzer Rebbe—Rav Naftali Zvi of Ropshitz, 1760-1827—also embraced. The latter figured that gehinnom empties out during the Shabbat, and that any sinner who had visited the Rebbe’s house on Shabbat while alive, ought to be able to visit his table in heaven. And what a foolish man the Rebbe would be to let the sinner be returned to gehinnom at nightfall, the Ropshitzer Rebbe said.

David Levine, 1924

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

At a parent-teacher conference, one of my high school bible instructors told my mother I was well behaved and sat quietly in the back of the room. “If he is sitting quietly in class,” my mother assured the rabbi, “he is either reading a book or drawing.” She was right. My primary high school achievements were my ravenous readings of philosophy and literature and the few hundred copies I made of David Levine’s brilliant pen-and-ink caricatures, which filled several sketchbooks. I was too young to get most of his political references, but when they were explained to me, I laughed genuinely and hysterically.

 

Even after I moved to New York, it never occurred to me to look Levine up in the phonebook. He was a role model and one of my greatest inspirations, and I assumed that he was inaccessible. I had no way of knowing how kind and humble he was. Then I met artist Mark Podwal, a close friend of Levine’s, at an event at the Yeshiva University Museum in 2004, and he encouraged me to make the call.

 

David Levine. Ben Gurion.

 

 

I still remember the phone call. I was sitting at a computer in the office of the Yeshiva University Commentator. When Levine picked up, I told him I learned how to draw portraits by trying in vain to copy his meticulous cross-hatching. Though I was sure the artist who published thousands of drawings and paintings in the New York Review of Books and in publications like The New Yorker and Time had better things to do with his time, he shocked me by agreeing to an interview right then. After the shock wore off, chutzpah kicked in; I told him I wanted to meet in person. To my surprise, he was giving me his address in Brooklyn and telling me to stop by the next week.

 

Levine gave me more than two hours of his time, and actually looked at and critiqued every single one of the 100 or so of my drawings in the sketch book I brought. He very kindly told me that he preferred my copy of his Ezra Pound (which I drew without lifting my Rapidograph pen) to the original. Needless to say, there was no comparison.

 

There have been many fine articles about Levine over the past few weeks (Michael Kimmelman’s in The New York Times and Steven Heller’s piece “The Da Vinci of Caricaturists” are personal favorites), and readers can find out plenty about him by reading his bio on the Review of Books page, where many of his drawings are available. Amongst those drawings are dozens of images of Jewish and Israeli politicians, actors, artists, intellectuals and other celebrities, many bearing very distinct Jewish symbols.

 

David Levine standing in front of some of his drawings. 2004.

Photo by Menachem Wecker.

 

 

The reason I am writing this column about Levine, though, is not only because I consider him such a great caricaturist (and an even more impressive painter), but also because he was such a great man. Both Levine’s wife Kathy Hayes and his son Matthew Levine told me that Levine, despite the biting humor of his drawings, “truly loved his species.” Levine’s art was always blunt, but he was neither petty nor vicious.

 

Hayes told me that her husband’s lap was always full of art books, even if the television was on, and that he impressed her with the humor of his non-sequiturs – in his conversation, not his drawings. The first time she went to Europe with her husband, Hayes said, they went to Notre Dame. Hayes remembers being blown away by the art, while Levine, looking up at a painting high up on the wall, loudly complained of its water damage and the poor lighting.

 

According to Matthew Levine, his father was not religiously observant, but “I do know that he loved being Jewish.” Levine also “relished Yiddishisms that he liked to say,” said Matthew, and he loved his mother’s geshmirte matzoh. “He was deeply supportive of Israel in some senses, and deeply critical in others.”

 

Although Levine told me that he did not think Hitler could be depicted properly in a caricature, because the medium would invariably distort Hitler and play into his favor, Levine drew Hitler dozens of time. One reference to Hitler might escape many viewers.

 

 

David Levine. Richard Nixon’s and Spiro Agnew’s dance. 1970.

 

 

According to Podwal, Levine’s drawing of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (which appears on page 11 of Levine’s book Pens and Needles), both dressed in military uniforms and doing a dance with their hands on their hips, alludes to Hitler’s bizarre dance on June 21, 1940, after accepting France’s surrender.

 

Although the dance upset many Americans at the time, it was later revealed that the video clip of Hitler dancing had been manipulated for propagandist purposes. As John Lukacs explains in his book, The Last European War: September 1939-December 1941, John Grierson, a Canadian filmmaker and “propaganda official,” took several images of Hitler, including one with a high step, and “looped” them together to make it appear that Hitler had danced a “silly little jig.”

 

Adolf Hitler’s alleged dance. Germany. October 1940. LIFE.

 

 

Lukacs cites an account of the jig being shown in a Berlin movie theater in 1940, which suggests some version of the dance may have been real – “Were the Germans so stupid as to show the American version of the newsreel?” Lukacs wonders – but either way, Podwal says Levine was probably unaware that the jig was a hoax. Irrespective of the historicity of the dance, Levine incorporated it into the drawing, although he knew full well that few people were likely to recognize it. It often seems to me that Levine achieved something in his caricatures not unlike what James Joyce accomplished in his writings.

 

“David was in such a class by himself that over the last decade or so, he was to some degree, taken for granted. The New York Times failed to review his more recent Forum Gallery exhibitions. Museums would not give him exhibitions he more than merited,” says Podwal. “Nevertheless, his work will remain a mirror of our time – just like the drawings of Thomas Nast.”

 

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

David Levine, 1924 – 2009: A Satirist Who Loved His Species

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

At a parent-teacher conference, one of my high school bible instructors told my mother I was well behaved and sat quietly in the back of the room. “If he is sitting quietly in class,” my mother assured the rabbi, “he is either reading a book or drawing.” She was right. My primary high school achievements were my ravenous readings of philosophy and literature and the few hundred copies I made of David Levine’s brilliant pen-and-ink caricatures, which filled several sketchbooks. I was too young to get most of his political references, but when they were explained to me, I laughed genuinely and hysterically.

 

Even after I moved to New York, it never occurred to me to look Levine up in the phonebook. He was a role model and one of my greatest inspirations, and I assumed that he was inaccessible. I had no way of knowing how kind and humble he was. Then I met artist Mark Podwal, a close friend of Levine’s, at an event at the Yeshiva University Museum in 2004, and he encouraged me to make the call.

 


David Levine. Ben Gurion.

 

 

I still remember the phone call. I was sitting at a computer in the office of the Yeshiva University Commentator. When Levine picked up, I told him I learned how to draw portraits by trying in vain to copy his meticulous cross-hatching. Though I was sure the artist who published thousands of drawings and paintings in the New York Review of Books and in publications like The New Yorker and Time had better things to do with his time, he shocked me by agreeing to an interview right then. After the shock wore off, chutzpah kicked in; I told him I wanted to meet in person. To my surprise, he was giving me his address in Brooklyn and telling me to stop by the next week.

 

Levine gave me more than two hours of his time, and actually looked at and critiqued every single one of the 100 or so of my drawings in the sketch book I brought. He very kindly told me that he preferred my copy of his Ezra Pound (which I drew without lifting my Rapidograph pen) to the original. Needless to say, there was no comparison.

 

There have been many fine articles about Levine over the past few weeks (Michael Kimmelman’s in The New York Times and Steven Heller’s piece “The Da Vinci of Caricaturists” are personal favorites), and readers can find out plenty about him by reading his bio on the Review of Books page, where many of his drawings are available. Amongst those drawings are dozens of images of Jewish and Israeli politicians, actors, artists, intellectuals and other celebrities, many bearing very distinct Jewish symbols.

 


David Levine standing in front of some of his drawings. 2004.

Photo by Menachem Wecker.

 

 

The reason I am writing this column about Levine, though, is not only because I consider him such a great caricaturist (and an even more impressive painter), but also because he was such a great man. Both Levine’s wife Kathy Hayes and his son Matthew Levine told me that Levine, despite the biting humor of his drawings, “truly loved his species.” Levine’s art was always blunt, but he was neither petty nor vicious.

 

Hayes told me that her husband’s lap was always full of art books, even if the television was on, and that he impressed her with the humor of his non-sequiturs – in his conversation, not his drawings. The first time she went to Europe with her husband, Hayes said, they went to Notre Dame. Hayes remembers being blown away by the art, while Levine, looking up at a painting high up on the wall, loudly complained of its water damage and the poor lighting.

 

According to Matthew Levine, his father was not religiously observant, but “I do know that he loved being Jewish.” Levine also “relished Yiddishisms that he liked to say,” said Matthew, and he loved his mother’s geshmirte matzoh. “He was deeply supportive of Israel in some senses, and deeply critical in others.”

 

Although Levine told me that he did not think Hitler could be depicted properly in a caricature, because the medium would invariably distort Hitler and play into his favor, Levine drew Hitler dozens of time. One reference to Hitler might escape many viewers.

 

 


David Levine. Richard Nixon’s and Spiro Agnew’s dance. 1970.

 

 

According to Podwal, Levine’s drawing of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (which appears on page 11 of Levine’s book Pens and Needles), both dressed in military uniforms and doing a dance with their hands on their hips, alludes to Hitler’s bizarre dance on June 21, 1940, after accepting France’s surrender.

 


Although the dance upset many Americans at the time, it was later revealed that the video clip of Hitler dancing had been manipulated for propagandist purposes. As John Lukacs explains in his book, The Last European War: September 1939-December 1941, John Grierson, a Canadian filmmaker and “propaganda official,” took several images of Hitler, including one with a high step, and “looped” them together to make it appear that Hitler had danced a “silly little jig.”

 


Adolf Hitler’s alleged dance. Germany. October 1940. LIFE.

 

 

Lukacs cites an account of the jig being shown in a Berlin movie theater in 1940, which suggests some version of the dance may have been real – “Were the Germans so stupid as to show the American version of the newsreel?” Lukacs wonders – but either way, Podwal says Levine was probably unaware that the jig was a hoax. Irrespective of the historicity of the dance, Levine incorporated it into the drawing, although he knew full well that few people were likely to recognize it. It often seems to me that Levine achieved something in his caricatures not unlike what James Joyce accomplished in his writings.

 

“David was in such a class by himself that over the last decade or so, he was to some degree, taken for granted. The New York Times failed to review his more recent Forum Gallery exhibitions. Museums would not give him exhibitions he more than merited,” says Podwal. “Nevertheless, his work will remain a mirror of our time – just like the drawings of Thomas Nast.”


 


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

The Insecure Prophet: Walking A Mile In Nathan’s Shoes

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

David & Bathsheba: Through Nathan’s Eyes


By Joel Cohen


HiddenSpring, 2007, $16.00


www.hiddenspringbooks.com



 

 

         When the prophet Nathan woke up in the morning and saw his to-do list for the day – rebuke the king of Israel for his sin with Bathsheba – did he hit his snooze alarm and try, like the prophet Jonah, to shirk his duty? Did he dress in the normal way and eat his breakfast, or did he deny himself his regular routine to get a head start on mourning his solemn duty and David’s imminent punishment?

 

         As Joel Cohen’s new book, David & Bathsheba: Through Nathan’s Eyes, correctly points out, “We will never know if, when Nathan condemned the King of Israel, the forebear of Messiah, the Prophet coarsely pressed his finger to the warrior’s chest, or spoke to the King in discreet privacy, whether tears rolled down the Prophet’s cheek when he spoke, or whether Nathan was so repulsed by the sinful conduct of David that he simply ‘pronounced sentence’ on the King, and turned his back to walk away.”

 

 


Book jacket. Photo courtesy of Meryl Zegarek Public Relations.

 

 

         The Bible simply does not find it necessary to give its readers these sorts of details. To Cohen, a partner at the New York law firm, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, who has recently published several “creative non-fiction” memoirs from the perspectives of biblical characters, “only the human imagination can be invoked to suppose what actually transpired beyond the sparse words delegated in the text – and no one man’s imagination is better than another’s in furnishing, for him, that which remains unstated.”

 

         Just because the Bible does not describe every detail in every narrative episode, does not mean that it insists (or even encourages) its readers flatten the characters in their minds. Biblical characters were human and, as such, exhibited personalities. And yet some of their deeds are solidified in the Bible, while others are left to the reader’s imagination.

 

         Notably, the thoughts and actions of women in the Bible are likewise reserved for readers’ imaginations. The Bible offers no words on what went through Bathsheba’s mind when David approached her. Surely, she must have known that if she refused the king’s wishes she might be put to death. And yet, adultery is a sin that is considered so terrible that one must choose it over death. Some say that Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, would have surely served her a conditional set of divorce papers called a “get l’mafrayah,” which would effectively declare that if Uriah never returned from war, the divorce would retroactively have begun from the moment he left. (This strategy was designed to avoid allowing the wife to become an agunah or a woman who must remain faithful to her husband whose whereabouts are unknown.) But the situation is far more complicated, for if that were the case, Bathsheba could not yet have known that Uriah would not return from war, even if David was already considering his plot to abandon him to enemy fire on the front lines.

 

         A cursory examination of commentators yields very little discussion of Bathsheba’s role in the story. There seems to be unanimous agreement that she has not sinned and is not punished for any sin, though the death of the baby surely punishes her as much as it does David – if not more so. Cohen’s book tangentially addresses Bathsheba’s thoughts (to date, Cohen’s books have focused exclusively on male biblical characters), focusing instead on another relatively quiet and mysterious biblical character, the prophet Nathan.

 

         Cohen conceived of the idea for his book on the morning of the unveiling of his father’s gravesite. His father was named Nathan, and “he too was a very disciplined man willing to ‘speak truth to power,’” as the prophet Nathan did to David. “On the morning of the unveiling of his gravesite, I looked for the hallmark of the prophet Nathan’s life to find something to say about my father in the context of his namesake. And there it was: precisely how my father would go about getting someone to admit his wrongdoing,” Cohen said over e-mail.

 

 

 


Joel Cohen. Photo courtesy of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.

 

 

         In Cohen’s book, Nathan considers playing hooky – like Jonah. “And who is he who dared condemn David? Just a wrinkled man who arrogantly pointed his finger to the King’s chest and told the King who might so easily have killed him as he did Goliath, Uriah the Hittite, and so many others, that the King is an adulterer and murderer,” says Cohen’s self-conscious Nathan. “Why must these visions be placed in my eyes? And, again, do I sin to quarrel with G-d’s plan for me?”

 

         Not only does Nathan wonder why he has received prophecies, but he also wonders why G-d sends him to rebuke David and condemn his family, rather than delivering the prophecy directly to David – himself a prophet. And yet Nathan tells David what he does not know himself, namely that he has sinned to G-d. Cohen’s Nathan recounts the moments after he levels the accusation, “You are the man!” – connecting David with the parable about the rich man who steals the pauper’s only lamb.

 

         “Decades, it seemed, passed during which the King’s silence deafened me. Perhaps, while I still stood before him, the great psalmist would compose those lofty words for which he was so much heralded. Or perhaps he would continue to say nothing. Perhaps, he would simply dispense with me and ask to be left to his thoughts or other duties of state – all the while maintaining a bold exterior. But, in an instant, the words came quickly without embellishment: ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ There was nothing else to say. Nothing else worth saying! And to reveal, at that moment, my own sadness in having told David his punishment would detract from my duty as G-d’s messenger.”

 

         But more ambitiously, Cohen allows Nathan to reflect upon the very nature of receiving a prophecy. “But as the nighttime approaches, I wonder about my role in all of this, and the role of prophecy,” Nathan thinks, as David lies on his deathbed. “In describing to him some of the bleak future that lay before David, both in his lifetimes and thereafter, I offered no ability to right his wrongs, and possessed none. All I imparted was the ability to reject my parable, or to acknowledge that he was the loathsome ‘rich man’ I had described.” Cohen’s observation captures the reason why biblical kings so often despised the prophets – seeing them always as harbingers of evil and a dark future, as part of the problem without any advice for a solution.

 

         This surely affected prophets when they were charged with a vision. When he is told to deliver water to the Jews in the desert, Moses epitomizes this when he tells G-d he fears them. “In just a little bit, they shall kill me.” He must have known he was untouchable and still indispensable in the divine plan of redemption, but part of the human condition (as opposed to, say, the angelic one), is the doubts and tricks of the mind that surface. This is regardless of the presence of convincing arguments indicating that all is well. In that light, one can now better understand Jonah’s fear in telling an entire city that it was doomed. The Book of Jonah makes very clear that G-d was dissatisfied with Jonah and punished him through the solicitation of a whale. But it is vital to remember that prophets, despite their extraordinary gift of vision, remain men and are not divine. Any other perspective would be idolatrous.

 

        Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/the-insecure-prophet-walking-a-mile-in-nathans-shoes/2007/08/29/

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