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December 4, 2016 / 4 Kislev, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘sort’

We Are Invisible

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Responses To “The Loss of Femininity”


The response to the articles entitled The Loss of Femininity (July 3, July 10, 2009) has been overwhelming.  There were so many women who identified with “Alice” as she felt less and less like a woman, as she was forced to take on traditional male roles in order to care for her husband.  So many well spouses wrote to me expressing how they too no longer have the desire to dress up, wear makeup or even care for their health. Care giving has stolen everything from them, and for some even the desire to live. And, like Alice, most well spouses became invisible to family and friends who long ago stopped offering help, seeing these women not as people or women, but just as caregivers.


Dear Ann,


I wish I could express how much your article impacted me.  In all the books and articles I’ve read over the years about care giving, and even with the many other caregivers I’ve talked to, I’ve never seen that topic addressed.  And I think that not addressing it is sort of like ignoring the elephant standing in the living room.


            Years ago, when we went to sign my husband up for social security disability, I was appointed to be trustee of his disability money.  He said that he felt like that was the beginning of his being a non-person.  I didn’t know it then, but it was also the beginning of my becoming a non-person.  As a caregiver, you’re not supposed to get tired or overwhelmed, or care that your life has been completely altered in so many ways.  You really do become a non-person, a sort of neutered individual whose only role or purpose in life is being a caregiver.  It’s like all of society sees you as “caregiver” now, as opposed to a person in your own right.


 If you try to tell someone how difficult, or tiring, or discouraging, or lonely it is to be a caregiver, you are likely to get a question like, “You mean you mind caring for your husband?  You don’t want to care for him?” No, that’s not what I mean.  It just means that caregivers are human, too, and they could use some help.  But until other people see that we need help, or we finally get their attention by begging for help, we remain invisible. 


Isn’t it strange the things we become accustomed to?  I heard a story about how if you put a frog in very, very hot water, it would struggle and fight to get out of the water, and would try until it succeeded or became too exhausted to continue – but if you put the frog in cool water and just gradually turned the temperature up, it would calmly sit in the water until it boiled.  I think too many caregivers have been sitting in that hot water way too long, and have not noticed that they are now just about cooked all the way through.


Thank you again for an article that I intend to share with as many caregivers as I can.

Jan Hournbuckle


Dear Ann,

After reading your article this morning and writing to you about how much it affected me, I shared your article with someone who was not a caregiver.  Their comment was so shocking, that I wanted to share it with you.  They read your article, and then said, “Didn’t any of the husbands help her?”  Didn’t they help her push the wheelchair through the snow, or clean the snow off her car, or help lift the wheelchair into the car?  If this was a social visit, you would think that perhaps the host might think of helping her…”


 The thing that shocked me the most was that, as a caregiver, I didn’t even see this very obvious question.  It took someone who was not a caregiver to point it out to me.  I am so used to struggling alone with these things that it didn’t even occur to me that a reasonable person outside the situation might think that someone should offer to help.


Some further comments:


On the lack of offers of help:


“With my experiences Ann, people do help him.  Me, on the other hand, well that’s another story.” 


What about being all dressed up in my good clothes and having to take the walker out of the car and helping him into it? (and) driving off after leaving him in the warm building while I parked the car with my jewelry on hoping I don’t get mugged.”


On visitation and respite:


“His family said they’d (visit him) if I make dinner.  Great, I’m really in the mood to cook a dinner and then and only then will (they) come.” 


On self-care:


“I really simply feel like a caregiver and not a spouse.  I haven’t done my nails since who-knows-when.  The worst part is that I simply don’t care.”


            “When you wrote in this article ‘some have actually told me that their neglect of their health is their cowardly way of speeding things up’ (meaning their own death) you could have been writing about me.  I run to the doctor with him.  Myself, on the other hand, forget about it.”


It is my fervent hope that, after reading these reactions, anyone knowing a well spouse will take a second look at them and the lives they lead. Helping them in small ways, seeing them as a person and not just a caregiver can do more than you know. It may even save their lives.


You can contact me at annnovick@hotmail.com

Ann Novick

Im Yirtzeh Hashem By You…

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Dear Young and Not Pressured:

I am responding to your letter from two weeks ago. I take issue with both your general message and with many of its specifics.


The general message you sent is to put your energy and focus into whatever intrigues you, i.e. your career, socialization, etc. And then when your time arrives, your bashert will fall from the Heavens and land at your doorstep. As someone who has successfully found her bashert, is very involved in shidduchim, and considerably older than you, I feel qualified to vehemently object to the aforementioned notion that many young people share. I will explain with a mashal (an example) of sorts.


When my favorite store advertises a big sale starting next Monday at 10 a.m., I am standing outside the store at 9:45 to make sure I’m one of the first shoppers. While many people wear my size, I’m not the only one looking for that size. So I arrive early, find myself a real metziah, and leave the store happy.


Conversely, those waking up at noon and rolling into the store at 3 p.m. are certainly exercising their right to shop at a convenient time for themselves. But they shouldn’t complain when there’s nothing left in their size because, as the saying goes, the early bird indeed catches the worm.


Now to the specifics you mentioned. I also have a career, including graduating summa cum laude from a prestigious masters program. When I completed my schooling, I was already married with two children. While it’s certainly easier to conclude your schooling without major responsibilities and obligations, it can certainly be done. Nobody expects every young, frum girl to follow the exact same timeline, nor is frum society as simpleminded as you portray.


Further, I just don’t believe that “people constantly tell me I am old and should get married soon.” While you may have encountered a few (at most) such blatantly rude people, the use of the word “constantly” seems to be rather extreme. This is particularly true, as the population seems to have more and more older singles – and a 21-year-old would hardly merit that sort of reaction.


I also want to address the notion that when you are ready, your bashert will arrive. You may pass up your bashert repeatedly while you study, travel, socialize, or do whatever else intrigues you. Heed my advice and grab life by the horns. Don’t sit around waiting for others to bring you your bashert – and thus your future.


Your concluding few sentences are indeed correct, however. Do not feel stressed. You should certainly enjoy your life, as you put in reasonable hishtadlus. And certainly have bitachon that your bashert will come at the right time, even if this has yet to happen. Hatzlachah.


Not so Young, and Hoping to Light a Fire

Letters and/or questions/comments are appreciated, and can be sent to IYH@jewishpress.com or c/o The Jewish Press, 338 Third Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11215, Attn: Im Yirtzeh Hashem.

C. S. Yisraeli

[Biblical Scenes]: Two Exhibits At The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

[Biblical Scenes]: Two Exhibits At The Metropolitan Museum
Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure From the Palaces of Europe
J. M. W. Turner  [biblical scenes]
Both exhibits run through September 21, 2008
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, N. Y.C.


When Abraham built the altar on Mount Moriah, it must have been very painful to know each step brought him closer to losing Isaac, whom the Bible goes out of its way to call his “only son, whom he loved.” Each stone probably felt heavier than the previous one, and it would have taken extra-human strength, concentration, and loyalty to G-d to steady his hands enough to align the rocks properly to construct the altar. Where many artists use their work to remember and to memorialize tragedy, Abraham – at least on this occasion – was an architect who was charged with creating horror.

Surely, an artist need not experience the fates of her or his subjects to accurately portray them. If this were the case, there would be a great dearth of specialists with experience depicting David killing Goliath, Judith slaying Holofernes, or any scene involving death. It is pure speculation, but one look at Francisco Goya’s “The Disasters of War” series is enough to convince the viewer that Goya must have at least undergone tremendous torture in his mind to visualize his subject matter. This becomes less of a stretch when one considers the “Black Paintings” that Goya painted on the walls of his house at the end of his life, including the devastating “Saturn Devouring his Son.”

Cosimo Castrucci, an Italian artist working in Prague in the early 17th century, underwent such a taxing procedure to create “Landscape with the Sacrifice of Isaac” (before 1603) that he may have known some fraction of Abraham’s and Isaac’s pain. The mosaic, part of the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and presently hanging in the “Art of the Royal Court” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, is made of agates and jaspers in the pietre dure style – which involved arranging finely cut and carefully-polished small stones to give the appearance of a painting. However excruciating the mosaic was to construct, Castrucci did not have to sacrifice his son, but there is something fresh in the notion of the artist using small stones to construct a work depicting the stone altar that Abraham built.



Cosimo Castrucci. “Landscape with the Sacrifice of Isaac.” Before 1603. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.


Castrucci’s “Landscape with a Chapel and a Bridge,” which is also part of the exhibit at the Met, is “the earliest known pure landscape in the Florentine mosaic technique,” according to the exhibit catalog, and was influenced by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous 1565 work, “Hunters in the Snow.” But where Bruegel and “Landscape with a Chapel and a Bridge” show small people, all but engulfed by nature, the landscape with Abraham and Isaac shows the biblical characters looming quite large in the foreground. An angel, perhaps the very one who will soon halt the sacrifice, emerges from a cloud in the top right corner of the mosaic, while smaller figures go about their business – one rowing a boat and the other walking across a bridge carrying what appears to be a gun. The figures are oblivious to the unfolding story, which might surprise many readers of the Bible, who assume that a story canonized in Genesis, should have grabbed the attention of every person alive in Abraham’s day.

This sort of indifference to, or ignorance of, important scenes is reminiscent of another of Bruegel’s paintings, which Castrucci was sure to have known: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (c. 1555). Bruegel tells the Ovidian tale of the young boy Icarus, who was exiled by King Minos to Crete with his father Daedalus.  Daedalus created wings of feathers and wax for himself and his son and warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or the sea. As is to be expected in Greek mythology, Icarus enjoyed the pleasure of flying so much that he ignored his father’s advice and flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax, released the feathers, and send Icarus plunging into the sea.

Bruegel depicts Icarus almost as an afterthought – his feet rising from the water in the bottom right corner – and viewers who do not know where to look could easily miss the fallen figure entirely. Bruegel fills the rest of the painting with figures who do not bat an eyelash at the tragedy: a shepherd tending his flock, a farmer plowing, and even a fisherman hunched over just yards from Icarus.



Collector’s Cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus. “Door on Left Side.” C. 1625/6-31. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Like Bruegel’s Icarus, Castrucci’s Abraham and Isaac suffer in solitude, which adds to the tragedy. Like Icarus, they will be canonized for future generations to study, but they can hardly know that, at the time.

Castrucci’s work is also unique in its resolution of certain biblical “problems.” The Bible says that Abraham and Isaac carried the “fire and the knife” along the way to the sacrifice, which begs the question, how does one carry fire? Lorenzo Ghiberti ducked the problem on his eastern door of the Baptistry in Florence, as did Filippo Brunelleschi, while Simon Marmion’s 1487-89 “Sacrifice of Isaac” showed a pile of wood beside the altar, an anonymous illustrater of the 15th century German manuscript “Speculum humanae salvationis” featured Isaac carrying wood tied to his back, and Raphael’s “Sacrifice of Abraham” (1513-14) depicted a lit bonfire off to the side.

Where these artists avoided the fire altogether, or showed Abraham and Isaac carrying wood to the site, Castrucci represented a jug with fire in it below Isaac’s feet, so that Isaac could have literally carried fire rather than wood to the altar site. Castrucci also includes the ram (which forms a triangle with Abraham’s head and the fire-vessel), but it is so camouflaged with the surrounding foliage that it might actually be “entrapped in the brush with its horns” as Genesis describes.

“Landscape with the Sacrifice of Isaac” is one of several biblical works in the show, which includes a gorgeous cabinet of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus (1594 – 1632), which is decorated with scenes of Cain and Abel, Solomon’s temple, and Jonah; and part of an altar which was in the collection of Grand Duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici, which includes a depiction of “Melchizedek and the Menorah,” “Elijah and the Angel,” and “Jonah and the Whale.”

Turner and the Plagues

The biblical work of Joseph Mallord William Turner, which appears in a different show at the Met, provides a very stark contrast to the work above, not simply because Turner lived two centuries later than Castrucci, but also because of his sort of interpretation of biblical stories. Turner’s “The 10th Plague of Egypt” (exhibited in 1802), on exhibit, departs from traditional depictions of the death of the Egyptian firstborn, which occur indoors, and generally show a few mothers with dead children to symbolize the larger plague. Turner moves the scene outdoors, and shows the live grieving, rather than the dead children.



Joseph Mallord William Turner. “The Evening of the Deluge.” C. 1843. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


It is easy to dismiss this move as the artist using a biblical scene as an excuse to paint captivating landscape (as indeed the catalog suggests of Castrucci’s landscape), and Turner was the sort of painter who was obsessed with landscapes, and was said to have remarked on his deathbed “the sun is God.” But according to the catalog to the Met’s show, Turner’s piece might be a bit more inventive. According to the catalog, the “darkness of the clouds advancing on the town” which, to Turner’s credit, could somehow, pass for Egyptian, “carries the message of impending doom.” Turner seems to be telling the story from the perspective of the Egyptian mothers, which is a controversial approach. In the biblical tale, the Egyptians are evil and deserve the punishments they receive, and more. Yet, Turner focuses on the plight of the mothers who have lost, are losing, or know they will lose their sons.

Turner also created works on Jacob’s ladder, the destruction of Sodom, and a copy of Nicolas Poussin’s “Exposition of Moses.” Included in the Met’s exhibit is his series on the flood of Noah, which might be the first time an artist approached the flood as an episodic event, capturing the time before, during, after the flood.

Turner’s “Fifth Plague,” which was recently exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., might reveal the most about the quality of Turner’s biblical scholarship. “Fifth Plague” shows three dead horses lying in the foreground of a desolated landscape, as an ominous storm brews in the background. A wall text at the National Gallery show claimed that Turner made a mistake in the title and meant instead the seventh plague: hail, not pestilence. This argument presumably arises from the dramatic sky, which seems to indicate a coming hailstorm.

But I think Turner was correct. First, as discussed above, Turner would often include a dramatic sky even where it did not exist (much like the Hudson River School painters). Further, the horses on the ground are already dead, which seems to refute a hailstorm, as Moses is still outside summoning the storm (which hasn’t arrived, as there is no hail). This suggests that Turner was likely referring to pestilence, and the stormy sky is simply a red herring. 

MENACHEM WECKER welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

Menachem Wecker

Is It Creepy To Remember Someone Else’s Tragedy?

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

 The Memory Thief

U.S., 2008, 95 minutes

Seventh Art Releasing




There is perhaps a paradox afoot in conventional American Jewish views on Holocaust memory. For the most part, our society ridicules people who allow a movie or an article in a newspaper to completely change their lives, yet we expect our programs on the Holocaust to solicit exactly these responses in people who are either willfully or involuntarily ignorant of World War II. Thus, we demand that people let go of themselves and their preconceived notions enough to internalize the horrifying reality of the Holocaust, but we also ask them to display restraint so that they do not go mad. You are a monster if it does not affect you, we effectively say, but if you let it get to you too much, there is something wrong with you.


Such is the tragedy of Lukas (Mark Webber), the anti-heroic protagonist of Gil Kofman’s “The Memory Thief.” Lukas, a non-Jew, is a forlorn tollbooth collector, who has the Holocaust literally dumped in his lap when a neo-Nazi throws Mein Kampf at him from the back of a pickup truck. Lukas seems to know only enough about Hitler to manage yelling an obscenity at the young man as the truck drives away, but he starts reading the well-worn book anyway. Though he has observed that he can go an entire day without touching another person’s hand and that the people who drive through the toll do not even look at him, Lukas has a second chance encounter, thanks to his new reading material.



Mark Webber as Lukas in Gil Kofman’s THE MEMORY THIEF, opening May 9, 2008. All photo credits: Seventh Art Releasing.



Zvi Birnbaum (Allan Rich), a clean-shaven man with a hat and suspenders, notices the book as he waits for his change with his wife (June Claman) and begins yelling at Lukas in Yiddish. He asks Lukas if he is Jewish, and after Lukas avoids the question, he begs that Lukas sell him the book (“$10 is a bargain for the pleasure of burning such garbage!”).

Though he seems otherwise timid and passive, Lukas assures Birnbaum that he does not believe in book burning, since burning Hitler’s book would lead down the road to burning the Koran and the Bible, and would end only with burning people. “Where are the lines when burnings are involved?” he wonders.


“You go to school?” demands Birnbaum. “Part time,” Lukas answers.


Birnbaum rolls up his sleeve and displays the numbers tattooed on his arm. “Auschwitz, eh” − Birnbaum says, disgusted − “full time!”



Mark Webber as Lukas.



The meeting makes enough of an impression on Lukas that when Birnbaum again drives up to his booth − proudly telling Lukas he has chosen him rather than another booth − Lukas remembers the number on his arm. For this, Birnbaum gives him a tape with his testimony on it. That night, Lukas watches the tape in his grungy apartment on his old television set and is mesmerized.


He keeps waiting for Birnbaum to drive up again, but soon sees an obituary for the survivor in the newspaper. He attends Birnbaum’s funeral and there falls in love with the Jewish medical student Mira (Rachel Miner), who tries to throw him out when she learns he is not Jewish. Only when he produces the tape he wants to return does Mira accept that her tragedy can also be his tragedy, and she agrees to meet Lukas again.


The two develop a weird relationship in which Lukas’ attraction for Mira seems to grow as quickly as her concern for his sanity and obsession with all things Holocaust-related. Lukas applies for and obtains a part-time position at the Holocaust Archive. After he is asked in the interview by Mr. Freeman (Peter Jacobson), “Are you Jewish?” Lukas counters, “What do you think?”



Lukas (Mark Webber) surveys the testimonials of Holocaust survivors.



“Good,” says Freeman, falling for the bait. “It’s not required for the job. It’s just we find that it works better that way.”


Lukas soon tires of transcribing interviews and badgers Freeman to let him conduct his own interviews. Freeman, far more interested in the services of a transcriber, tells Lukas he can observe an interview by the pro, Tom (Mitch Whitfield), as long as he sits tight and shuts up. Lukas, of course, cannot do this and quits his job as he is being fired for stealing the equipment to conduct an unauthorized recording of the testimony of Mira’s father Mr. Zweig (Jerry Adler).


With no more Holocaust-related job, Lukas fills his apartment with televisions so he can watch many testimonies together; he plasters his walls with Holocaust pictures, starts buying lottery cards based on the numbers he sees on the survivors’ arms, and even shaves his head, tattoos a number on his arm, and starts wearing a yellow star sewn on the inside of his suit jacket. He has placed a mezuzah on the doorway to his tollbooth, and added a sign “Arbeit Macht Frei.”


Lukas’ own troubles further escalate; it becomes clear that the woman he calls mother and visits in the hospital is not his mother at all (he has no memories of his childhood), and he starts stalking a filmmaker, perhaps a stand-in for Steven Spielberg, who has shot a Holocaust film. But the tragedy of Lukas’ story reveals quite a lot more that is at stake.


Why does Lukas strike us as such a scary person? Surely, he was a person who was predisposed to this sort of memory stealing to begin with, evidenced by his regular visits to a woman who is not his mother. But on the other hand, is Lukas not the ideal person who every Jewish organization aspires to recruit as a member? He has a “Jewish” experience and decides to become completely engaged. He invests time, effort, and money into his newfound relationship with Judaism, becomes an ambassador for Holocaust memory, and even starts keeping kosher and praying. Shouldn’t Jewish Community Centers and synagogues starving for membership salivate at this sort of interest?



Mark Webber as the Holocaust-obsessed Lukas.



The “oversized pink elephant” in the room of course, is the fact that Lukas is not Jewish. Gil Kofman’s film reveals how much of a tribalistic thing Holocaust memory has become. We want non-Jews, especially, to learn about the Holocaust, yet we have trouble letting them be the masters of their own immersion plans, so worried are we, that they might depart from our already in-place institutional models.


The tragedy of Lukas is not just of a man going insane and living out the Holocaust memory in his own life; it is also about a man genuinely trying to care about the Holocaust and to sustain the memories and testimonies of the survivors, but he has no avenue by which to do so, except through insanity. In the absence of real world solutions and true partners, Lukas solves the problem in his head and through imaginary people.


Surely “The Memory Thief” is a work of fiction − or perhaps a so-called creative non-fiction, as the story has real testimonies embedded throughout; but often it takes a work of fiction to point us toward larger truths. Kofman’s movie is just that sort.


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

Menachem Wecker

When Little Things Are Not So Little

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

Trust is something that develops over time. As adults, we give our trust slowly, often only after testing the waters and determining that the person we trust is worthy of it or at least worthy of our chancing it. I suspect we do this because we have experienced betrayal. Confidences revealed, actions that hurt, words not kept, are the fodder that burns the fire of lost trust. And so as we get older, we trust more cautiously, and give our trust to others more slowly and even fearfully.


The more often we have had our trust betrayed the harder it becomes to trust another. Children on the other hand trust immediately. Babies trust their parents to take care of them, children trust that their parents always do the right thing and therefore whatever they do is automatically right. To a child, the expectation that you are worthy of their trust and will not betray it is automatic and so the first time that trust is betrayed in their eyes, the hurt and confusion is huge. If it is the parent who is at fault here and the betrayal seems deliberate to the child, the hurt may linger forever, hampering the parent-child relationship into adulthood.


I met Gayle* (not her real name) in one of the well spouse groups I had the privilege of interviewing. The topic was trust; trust of our spouses, trust of doctors, and trust of the system. Gayle talked about her lack of trust, or more to the point, her difficulty in trusting others. She said that her inability to trust easily began with what was, for her, a traumatic event when she was six. As she retold her story, she said she knew it sounded foolish, trite, and like a minor incident between her and her mother. But, she knew that incident was at the root of her fear of trusting others and felt it had been the seed that helped destroy her relationship with her mother.


When Gayle was six, she had very long hair. Her mother had wanted her to cut it for months, but Gayle refused. She turned down various bribes, ignored threats and took care of her long hair as best a six-year-old could in an attempt to make her hair length a non- issue with her mother. One day when Gayle and her mother were shopping, Gayle fell in love with a plastic case full of beautiful hair barrettes and ornaments.


“It was like a jewelry box full of things for your hair. I can still see what it looked like today, 45 years later,” she said. “My mother enticed me. She said she would buy it for me if I cut my hair. I thought about it for a few minutes. We were very poor and I owned very few things and nothing this beautiful (at least to my six-year-old eyes). And so I agreed.”

Not wanting Gayle to change her mind, her mother immediately detoured to the nearest hair cutting establishment where Gayle watched sadly as her long hair floated slowly to the floor. But she kept thinking about the beautiful box of hair clips that would soon be hers and she made it through the haircut without a tear.


Haircut completed, mother and daughter went back to the store to get the promised treasure. “I stood there speechless, fighting back tears, as my mother picked up two cheap, ugly hair barrettes on a card that was part of a display, paid for them and handed them to me. Without a word, we then left the store. I was only six, but I can still remember the feeling of betrayal, and the sudden realization that my mother had lied to me. She had deliberately lied to me in order to get what she wanted from me. Neither of us said a word to each other all the way home. I remember sitting on the bus trying to sort out all these feelings that were drowning me. We never talked about it, but I never looked at my mother the same after that. I never trusted her to keep her word to me. And, I think, it killed any relationship we might have had even into adulthood.


When you give your word to your child it is vital to keep it. More is at stake here than promises to do something that you become unable to do − or worse, never intended to fulfill. Going back on what you said is more than an outing cancelled or a gift not gotten. It can be the death knoll of a relationship. If for some reason you can’t do what you said you would, you need to talk to your child and explain why you are going back on your word and even apologize for not being able to follow through.


Children understand more than we give them credit for and want to keep us on that moral pedestal we were placed upon on at their birth. Deliberately making promises you have no intention of keeping just to get your child to acquiesce may result in more negative and aggressive behavior towards you than you ever thought possible. But whether the broken promise is deliberate or happenstance, just letting the incident pass without comment could have disastrous effects on your relationship for years. Worse, it can be the beginning of weakening the bond of trust that is so important between a parent and child.


You can contact me at annnovick@hotmail.com

Ann Novick

Is It Kosher To Laugh At Swastikas?

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008


We Have Ways of Making You Laugh:

120 Funny Swastika Cartoons

By Sam Gross

Simon & Schuster, 2008, 128 pages, $20




Swastikas have been popping up lately in the most unusual places. The Wesley Acres Methodist retirement home in Alabama recently remodeled to try masking its swastika-shaped building. A restaurant in India called Hitlers’ Cross, which bore a swastika logo, came under fire in 2006 and was pressured to change its name to Cross Café. The Dubai-based Conqueror Real Estate appeared in the news a few months ago for using the catchphrase, “The world is yours,” beside an image of Hitler.


Yet when Europe tried to ban swastikas in 2005, Hindu groups balked at the proposition, reminding the world that swastikas derive from ancient symbols for peace. Indeed the swastika appears beside the cross, the Star of David, and the crescent moon on the facade of the Baha’i Temple in Chicago.


When considering Sam Gross’s new book of cartoons, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons, it is important to consider this larger narrative surrounding the symbol, which has come to epitomize anti-Semitism. No doubt the notion of a funny swastika will horrify many of this column’s readers. How can one even consider laughing at a Holocaust joke, thereby disrespecting the memories of its many victims? Surely some topics must be off-limits to jokes.


The press release from Simon & Schuster anticipates this sort of criticism. The book, it explains, “shrewdly hijacks comedy in its aim to strip the super-charged swastika of its stature – and its power.” Gross, who has published cartoons in The New Yorker for nearly 40 years (including a particularly iconic one about frog legs), initially conceived of the book in 1997, when he saw a television report of a person who drew swastikas. “When there’s a news item about the swastika, the media seem to approach the symbol with a combination of fear and awe,” Gross writes. “I decided on an opposite approach, with no idea where it would take me.”



[Goose-stepping] Cover shot. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster



It took him on a path to 500 cartoons containing swastikas, including one that depicts a man finishing his third spray-painted swastika on a wall, as an impressed woman clasps her arms to her chest and asks, “Gosh! Where do you get your ideas?” In another, a waiter shows a wine bottle to a patron sitting alone at a table. “It’s an obedient wine,” he declares of the bottle, which has a swastika on the label. A third image shows two unhappy men dressed in suits staring at a hole in the bottom of a wall, with a Nazi banner hanging above it. “We have white mice,” one says.


Several drawings mock the Nazi-adopted “goose-step.” A Nazi on a park bench offers food to a goose, another with sunglasses is led by a Seeing Eye goose, a third is teased by a snail goose-stepping behind him, and a fourth is rebuked by his officer, “You goose-step like a girl!” Another man, dressed with a boater hat, baton and tuxedo evocative of a barbershop quartet, instructs a goose-stepping Nazi, “No! This is how you do the cakewalk.” And another illustration shows a woman wearing a hat and a Nazi armband riding a goose. She holds the reins in both hands and tells a bird flying behind, “Mother Goose is a different person. I’m Mother Goose-step.”


Having to collapse a cartoon to mere text is somewhat akin to explaining a joke, so this synopsis surely does not do justice to Gross’ cartoons. But if one inspects most of the reviews the book is getting, one gets the impression the reviewers do not think the book deserves justice. Steven Heller, writing on the blog Design Observer, argues there is a precedent for Holocaust funnies, like Saul Steinberg’s 1946 cartoon of “Hitler attempting to draw different iterations of the swastika on a wall,” which “spoke volumes about the failure of the Third Reich and its leadership.” Still, Heller argued Gross “has accomplished little more than exploit emotions that for many people are still raw.”


Most viciously, Doree Lewak observes in The Huffington Post that the book arrives coterminously with Israel’s 60th birthday, and its very name is “a nod to the enduring Nazi ethos.” Gross is “misguided,” and “There’s tacky and then there’s poor taste. The category for this book fits several pegs below the latter.”


Lewak declares herself unsurprised that the 74-year-old cartoonist is Jewish and an American, who was “spared the horrors of the Holocaust, and obviously the good sense to know when to draw – or rather in this case, not draw – the line.” In Lewak’s estimation, it is still about 100 years too soon for Holocaust jokes, “Like it’s not spraypainted everywhere it shouldn’t be, now it’s spraypainted in our literature too?” She adds, “To ask the public to accept its return backed by a retooled PR pitch is too much to ask. And it shouldn’t be asked of us. We have a name for that sort of thing: shanda, Mr. Gross. Not the right book, not the right time.”


It is very important for critics to voice this sort of criticism. The works were created to lead to discussion, and Gross can hardly be unpleased with the responses it is receiving. But there may be something to be said for the post-modern notion of “owning” a symbol or a text. During the Holocaust, Nazis owned the symbol and its interpretation; Gross is trying to steal it back. I am not a survivor, and indeed am not nearly old enough to be confused with one, so Lewak might extend her same criticism to me, but I wonder if Gross is not directing his works at my generation more than his own.


If approached from an art perspective, rather than a politics or sociological one (though of course they cannot be split as easily as orange sections), the works in Gross’ book are not unlike Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “MAUS,” which tells the animated version of the Holocaust using a menagerie of mice, cats, dogs and pigs. Spiegelman’s book was controversial at first, but has now been mostly canonized as a serious interrogation of the Holocaust. Whether Gross’ book is headed down that path is debatable, but like “MAUS,” it offers a different perspective on World War II.


Surely, Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” is not the only way to approach Holocaust memory. When we are seeking history and documentary, we can turn to any of the many wonderful projects and organizations devoted to preserving the facts of the Holocaust. But art, and particularly humorous art, which should never be confused with history, offers another avenue that helps some of us, who did not endure the horrors of the war, find a way to talk about and relate to them.


Surely this is not for everyone, but instead of attacking Sam Gross and all but accusing him of being a self-hating Jew, we should give him the benefit of the doubt and recognize the his cartoons’ potential to do good.


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

Menachem Wecker

Jewish Books Of Art At The National Museum Of Women In The Arts

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

The Book As Art: Twenty Years of Artists’ Books from the National Museum of

Women in the Arts

Oct. 27, 2006-Feb. 4, 2007

National Museum of Women in the Arts

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






        To honor its 20th anniversary, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), which is devoted to bringing “recognition to the achievements of women artists of all periods and nationalities,” is presenting an exhibit of art books, which questions, “Is it a book, is it art, or is it both?”


         The museum admits that so-called “artists’ books” – which the museum defines as “art objects in the form of books,” which give “the content and form of a book” together “equal significance” so that “the book becomes more than a simple container of information” – are controversial. Yet the NMWA has been quite devoted to collecting artists’ books, with more than 1,000 volumes by 800 artists in its collection. The current “Book as Art” show draws 108 selected works by 86 artists who hail from 12 countries from the museum trove, and splits them up into nine sections: storytellers; autobiographers; historians; mothers, daughters, and wives; dreamers and magicians; travelers; nature; food and the body; and inspired by the muses.



Tatana Kellner. B-11226: Fifty Years of Silence. 1992. Silkscreen, cast handmade paper.



        “Perhaps,” the museum speculates, “women’s attraction to storytelling, intimacy and collaboration explains the tremendous contribution of women to the art of the book.” The books of the NMWA show include a variety of forms: the traditional codex (the sort of bound book you have on your shelves), “accordion” books, scrolls, “tunnel” books, boxes, pop-ups, fans and flag books.


         Within the exhibit, two works with strong Jewish content and themes immediately stand out. Tatana Kellner’s “B-11226: Fifty Years of Silence” is part of a two-volume set, which includes “71125: Fifty Years of Silence” (not exhibited at the NMWA show). According to Kellner, the aim of the set is to “preserve my parents’ memories of internment in several concentration and extermination camps during World War II.” The texts are handwritten in Czech – the artist’s mother language – and transcribed into English, all printed on top of photographs from concentration camps.


         According to her website, Kellner is a founding member and artistic director of an artists’ workspace in Rosendale, NY, called Women’s Studio Workshop. Her books immediately grab the viewer’s attention, as there is a paper-cast, flesh-colored “hand” inside each book. Each arm represents one of Kellner’s parents (the tattooed numbers are historically accurate), and Kellner has cut the shape of the “hand” out of each page, so that the viewers can see the “hand” regardless of which page they are reading. Viewers literally cannot forget the tattooed number as they read the book.


         “I’ve always known that my parents were Holocaust survivors, though this was never discussed in detail,” Kellner writes in the catalog. The only story she remembers her father telling her (when she was 10-years-old) was of his experience on a 10-day transport from Auschwitz to Brinnlitz, when he had neither food nor water. “He recalled hiding behind frozen corpses while other prisoners discussed who their next meal would be,” Kellner writes, noting “The only other reference my parents made to their suffering was the frequent reminder, ‘Eat everything; you don’t know how lucky you are.'”


         Kellner’s father lost 53 family members in the Holocaust, while her mother was the sole survivor in her family. “As my parents grew older,” she writes, “it seemed important to record their stories.” She traveled to Czechoslovakia to photograph many of the sites of her parents’ childhood for inclusion in the books. The NMWA book, which holds the paper-cast sculpture that represents her father’s arm, aims “to ensure that the person who bore the number will be remembered.”



Joyce Ellen Weinstein. Birds Head Haggadah. 1998.

Parchment, watercolor, ink, leather, brass, beads, velvet. Cover shot.



         A different sort of book, Joyce Ellen Weinstein’s Birds Head Haggadah, references the original Bird’s Head Haggadah, produced in southern Germany, circa 1300. In the catalog, Weinstein notes that the original book “curiously depicts humans with the heads of birds,” citing one theory that “the artist avoided painting human faces in obeisance of a Jewish law banning graven images.”


         Weinstein intends her own work to accomplish a different sort of thing. “Throughout history, Jews have been called the People of the Book,” she writes, and “this work is a reflection of that identity.” Within the context of an exhibit of books by women artists, Weinstein’s reflection upon the fundamental Jewish Exodus story of the Haggadah carries a certain authority − while redefining the general Jewish identity as People of the Book.


         The book employs photographs, photocopies and “found” objects – non-art objects introduced into a piece of art – and Weinstein has covered the book cover (see image two) and pages with a variety of abstract colors and forms to lend the piece an “unstable and mysterious” look, “as if it were an artifact from another time and place.” Like Coleridge’s “ancient mariner,” the book looks like it has experienced a lot and earned its stains and smudges; it is an old-looking book about an even older tale. To Weinstein, the piece meditates on the act of remembering. She views memories as “nothing more than hints about the past, and are neither concrete nor absolute.”



Joyce Ellen Weinstein. Birds Head Haggadah. Open book.



         In image three of the opened book, viewers can notice an Aleph form in the lower left corner, and a bird’s head peeking out from above the text. The bird is drawn in a cartoon-like style, which is true to the original book − in many ways, a very modern enterprise. The text on Weinstein’s page includes tourist guide-like entries for Tourgeman Post Museum, the Tower of David, the Wolfson Museum in Hechal Shlomo, Yad Vashem and others.


         “Within the context of the NMWA show, I find it extremely open on the part of the curator and museum that a piece that is so obviously Jewish was chosen for the exhibit,” Weinstein told The Jewish Press, “because in general I find secular institutions tend to shy away from exhibiting anything so blatantly Jewish.” Weinstein said she was moved by the “curious imagery” of the woman in the original Bird’s Head Haggadah, which she saw in Jerusalem. “And of all the pages from the book that could have been displayed, the page showing the woman was selected for the women’s show,” she said. “This, of course, is all very gratifying.”


         The tour guide aspect of the book, which lays out information about certain sites and their merits and strengths, is a good metaphor, not only for Weinstein’s Haggadah – the Haggadah, after all, is a how-to guide for the Passover Seder – but also for Kellner’s book about Holocaust memory. Books are perhaps one of humanity’s greatest inventions, as they are able to “house” a tremendous amount of information in a portable format, which requires neither electricity nor wireless connection. But despite their knowledge-gathering capacity, books can also be art objects, which not only tell tales but also (by virtue of the visual) convince readers of the messages.


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

Menachem Wecker

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/jewish-books-of-art-at-the-national-museum-of-women-in-the-arts/2006/12/20/

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