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April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Private Life’

Learning to Value the Lives of Children

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

When I became an uncle at 14 I bought all the kids in my Yeshiva a bar of ice cream to celebrate. The feeling was innate. Something big had happened in my family. My sister was a mom. My parents were grandparents. And my own status had been upgraded as well.

Now, in becoming a grandfather at 46, I’m kind of at a loss as to what to feel. Martin Amis famously said that becoming a grandfather “is like getting a telegram from the mortuary.” Yet it’s not the imminence of my own demise that I’m experiencing. Rather, it’s a joyous a sense of perspective. And this is especially true after witnessing the senseless, horrible, and unspeakable tragedy at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut.

I have not yet seen my granddaughter and I have purposely chosen to write this column prior to that amazing experience. I wanted to capture the raw emotion of the news rather than the exhilaration of the event. The baby was born in Los Angeles and I am on a plane traveling from New York to meet her. In the pictures she looks like the cutest little doll. Seeing my firstborn child as a mother is likewise a revelation. It was just yesterday that she was my baby girl. Now she has a baby girl of her own. Life throws up so many surprises, and it all happens so quickly.

In my life I have had professional successes and professional failures. I have hosted national TV shows and lost national TV shows. I have written best-selling books and I have written books that have made it to the remainder table within a few months. I have felt the exhilaration of running for the United States Congress and the letdown of failing to win. I have been put on the air to host nationally syndicated radio shows and I have walked into rooms where I was to  deliver an advertised lecture where my wife and I wife constituted a significant percentage of the audience. Like the cows in Pharaoh’s dream which we read about in this week’s Torah portion, I have had years of plenty and years that were lean.

Yet the one thing I have always known, amid the hills and valleys of life: whether or not you succeed in your public endeavors, you cannot fail at your private commitments. Whatever your professional ambitions, they dare never supersede an appreciation of your personal blessings. A man must overcome the natural insecurities that tell him that his wife and children are not enough to make him feel like he matters. If you fail at business you have had a setback. But if you fail with your family you have failed at life. Period.

I knew that as a child of divorce I spring from a place of too much pain to allow that pain to be recycled to my own children. That, amid my own internal brokenness, I had to give my children the happy home which is the birthright of every child. That amid my own inner turbulence I had to raise my children with security and stability. That amid some of the shattered fragments of my own heart, my children had a right to be raised with laughter and humor. That amid the crushing burden that I carry of parents who were not together as I grew up I had to make my own children feel that life is comprised of pieces of a puzzle that ultimately cohere and fit.

When your child marries and has a child of their own there is a certain feeling of accomplishment. You have inspired the next generation to create a new generation. Your example as a parent, though imperfect, was at least powerful enough to inspire your children to follow suit. Your example as a parent, however inadequate, was sufficient to motivate your child to choose life.

Once, when I served as Rabbi at Oxford, a student who was a child of divorce told me in my kitchen that he would one day marry but would not have children. “I think the world is a dark place and I see no reason to bring children into the world. There is happiness but also so much suffering.”

Of all the failures I can think of in life, the failure to have your children want to be parents is perhaps the greatest of all.

Here in the United States the mass slaughter of 20 children, while the work of a lone gunman, should have us all asking whether the lives of children are truly valued. There are other considerations that would lead us to believe that we don’t cherish children as much as we ought. There was an article in The New York Times this week about how the American birthrate is plummeting. Young people, living in the big cities, are enjoying a life focused more on themselves and can’t be bothered to have children. This follows a European trend where the continent has now reached “lowest low” fertility, meaning that the birthrate has fallen to such a degree that it will take Europe at least three generations to replenish its number. This explains why Europe has become so utterly dependent on immigrants for any kind of population growth.

A curious anomaly in this trend is the State of Israel where the family average of about three to four children for secular families is among the highest in the industrialized world. For me that is a statement of Jewish values, that amid all our life pursuits the one that means the most is having and cherishing children.

At 46, I can freely admit, I am nowhere near the professional achievements that would make me feel more fulfilled. As a man of inner uncertainty, I have often relied on external achievement in order to feel important both to myself and others.

Yet, a friend, who is an accomplished businessman, wrote to me the moment he heard of the birth of our granddaughter, “You are a great tribute to the Jewish people, bringing another generation to the world. You have made a more powerful contribution to the goodness of the world and to the strength of the Jewish people than the imagination allows.  Just think of the implications just two generations out.”

His words were a powerful reminder to me of the most important things in life. That my wife and I are blessed, thank God, with children. That in His infinite kindness, God has given them health and allowed my eldest daughter to marry a devoted young man who has my respect and my daughter’s devotion. And in an even greater kindness, He has blessed them, on Chanuka, the festival of lights, with the greatest light of all, the miracle of life.

The Un-chosen Artist

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007


Frida Kahlo: Public Image, Private Life.


A Selection of Photographs and Letters


July 6, 2007-October 14, 2007


The National Museum of Women in the Arts


1250 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC


http://www.nmwa.org


 


 


 


         In a 1972 study, Stanley Milgram found that “familiar strangers” who share a repeated experience (like riding the same bus every day) are likelier to communicate when cast into an unfamiliar setting, than are two strangers with no such shared experience. Apparently, Milgram found, strangers recognize some form of “real” relationship in chance encounters, in which they do not communicate or even know each other’s name. Perhaps Jews who seek to claim celebrities like Chagall hope to share a similarly “familiar” religious experience with him. Many artists who are claimed as Jewish do not identify as such, like non-Jewish painters Paul Klee and Max Ernst, whom the Nazis denounced as Jewish “degenerate” artists. Indeed Chagall painted not only shtetl scenes, but also crucifixions, and many historians consider Chagall a Christian artist, as Rowena Loverance of the British Museum argues in “Christian Art” (Harvard UP, 2007).

 

         Klee and Ernst would have preferred that Hitler not identify them as Jews, but Mexican-born painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) happily celebrated her “perceived” Jewish lineage, at least in the narrative of the show “Frida Kahlo: Public Image, Private Life” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. According to the exhibit wall text, Kahlo, who was the third of four daughters born to “a German Hungarian-Jewish father and a mother of Spanish and Mexican Indian descent,” strongly identified with native Mexican traditions, though her public identity and personal reality were complex and multifaceted. “She was equally proud of her father’s German Hungarian-Jewish heritage, spoke perfect English, studied German, and was well acquainted with European intellectual currents,” the text claims. “Frida Kahlo’s identity, public and private, was a unique synthesis of influences, a simultaneous powerhouse of radical politics and traditional aesthetics.”

 

 



Frida Kahlo. Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937. Oil on Masonite 30 × 24 in. National Museum of Women in the Arts.


 

 

         “I believe, without a doubt, that Frida Kahlo was a Jewish artist,” said Jason Stieber, archivist at the NMWA, through e-mail. But Stieber said other aspects of Kahlo’s identity played much greater roles in her life and work. “Frida was many things … and she embraced wholeheartedly everything that she was,” he said, noting that Frida “was proud of this lineage” and greatly delighted in “wheedling anti-Semites in America,” such as her famous inquiry put forth to Henry Ford of whether he was Jewish. Although she was an atheist, “she abhorred the Catholic religiosity of her mother,” and she “did embrace her Jewish ethnicity, if not the tenets of Judaic faith.”

 

         “So yes, Frida was a Jewish artist,” Strieber continued, “however, I think she would have been more likely to refer to herself as a Mexican artist. Mexico held a very special place in heart and in her art.”

 

         But Gaby Franger’s and Rainer Huhle’s new book Frida’s Father: The Photographer Wilhelm Kahlo (Schirmer, 2005) reveals that Wilhelm Kahlo was in fact German Protestant rather than Hungarian-Jewish. In “Frida Kahlo’s father wasn’t Jewish after all,” an article in the Jerusalem Post (4/20/06), Meir Ronnen observed, “Frida herself was probably the source of the claims to her Jewish connection.” Ronnen speculates that Frida’s identification with Judaism was an effort in distancing herself from the Nazis. “My guess is that German connections during the Nazi era were an embarrassment to her,” he wrote.

 

 



Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at home, 1941. By Emmy Lou Packard. Platinum/palladium print. Throckmorton Fine Art.

 

 

         Gannit Ankori, chair of the art history department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and curator of the Jewish Museum’s 2003 show, “Frida Kahlo’s Intimate Family Picture,” also cited the position, that Kahlo sought to distance herself from the Nazis based upon the fact that testimony about Wilhelm Kahlo’s Jewish background surfaced most frequently between 1936 and the 1940s. But she said over email, “I think in light of the new findings, these issues require further investigation. What is of great interest to me is not Wilhelm Kahlo’s ‘real’ religion, but Frida Kahlo’s construction of her self-image” insofar as it “impacted Kahlo’s self-image as manifested in her art.”

 

         In a press release to Ankori’s show, the Jewish Museum promised to reveal important aspects of Kahlo’s “hybrid and multicultural identity, as the daughter of a European Jew and a Mexican Catholic mestiza (a woman of mixed European and Mexican Indian descent).” It also quoted Ankori, “Kahlo was interested in her Jewish roots and viewed them as part of her ‘genealogical identity.’”

 

         Ankori, who has not read the Franger and Huhle book (it is in German), readily admitted Frida was not Jewish. “Frida Kahlo was certainly not Jewish since Judaism is a matrilineal religion and her mother was a Catholic mestiza,” she said. “Moreover, as is well known, Frida was raised as a Catholic, later became a communist and an atheist, finally – towards the end of her days (as her diary indicates) she espoused oriental beliefs.” Ankori added that Kahlo testified “many times” about her Jewish identity, “stressing that her paternal grandparents, Henriette Kaufmann and Jakob Kahlo, were Jews from the city of Arad.” Further, many people who knew Frida and Wilhelm, such as Frida’s biographer, Hayden Herrera, and Frida’s husband Diego Rivera’s biographer, Bertram Wolfe, personally repeated this fact, Ankori said.

 

 


Frida Kahlo with pigeons, ca. 1940s. By Juan Guzmán. Gelatin silver print. Throckmorton Fine Art.

 

 

         To Ankori, the question is whether Henriette Kaufmann was Jewish, since her Jewishness would make Wilhelm Jewish “according to both Jewish Halakha and Nazi laws.” If instead Wilhelm was a German Lutheran (Ankori says Lutheran, while Ronnen wrote Protestant), “why would Frida Kahlo ‘create’ a Hungarian Jewish genealogy for him and for herself?” Ankori wondered.

 

         In her column “Draft Picks” at Nextbook.org  (5/18/06), Robin Cembalest, executive editor at ARTnews magazine, wrote of the claim that denies Wilhelm Kahlo’s Jewishness, “The revelation, if true, throws an awkward shadow on the multiplicity of efforts to tease out the Jewish identity of the multiply hyphenated artist, who famously got a kick out of asking Henry Ford if he was Jewish.” In her article, Cembalest cited the Jewish Museum’s show, which centered upon Kahlo’s 1936 painting, “My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree)” and a book from Kahlo’s library on the Inquisition’s torture of Mexican Jews. Over email, Cembalest said she interviewed Franger and Huhle, and they said no one had contacted them to contradict their book.

 

         “In my world the process of defining Jewish art, or what is Jewish in art, is both parlor game and intellectual exercise,” Cembalest wrote. “Either way, clearly it reveals as much about who is doing the assessing as it does about the figures we are claiming for our team.”

 

         Stieber of the NMWA phrased it a bit differently. “Sharing a common trait with someone of greatness brings us a step closer to that greatness. Jews can say with great pride that, as a people, they have produced some of the world’s greatest artists, scientists, musicians, and so forth. Cultural, racial, and religious pride contributes to cultural, racial, and religious cohesion.

 

         “To that extent, it is important to account for an artist’s religious/ethnic identity when examining his or her work,” he added. “Artists work within a constellation of influences, and it is one of the jobs of the art historian to discover what those influences are or were. More often than not, religious and ethnic identities are the most powerful influences in an artist’s life and work.”

 

        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-un-chosen-artist/2007/09/25/

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