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Another Opening

Out and about with Leonard Nimoy and Lou Reed

Robin Cembalest
February 02, 2006

My boyfriend wanted to see Protocols of Zion, and I wanted to see Sarah Silverman’s Jesus Is Magic. So he went to the documentary with a friend while I headed to Eyebeam, in Chelsea, where a benefit for MASS MoCA was under way.

By the vodka bar I found Ben Katchor, one of the artist-presenters. Along came Leonard and Susan Nimoy. A shiddach was in order. The Nimoys were politely moving on when I said the magic words: Julius Knipl. Or, rather, that the Forward had run Katchor’s weekly picture story on the “real estate photographer” while I was arts editor there. Soon Ben, purveyor of edgy Yiddishkeit in tragicomic music-theater pieces like The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or, the Friends of Dr. Rushower, and Leonard, who played the Yiddish theater long before he played Spock, were communing on the talents of Yiddish thespian greats.

The two have more in common than admiration of Maurice Schwartz. They are among the many artists who make what might be called Jewish art, and among the few willing to admit it. At that very moment, Ben was showing “The Insomniac’s Mansion” at Brown University, which probably makes him unique among MASS MoCA artists. You could argue that Leonard’s most resounding Jewish artwork was appropriating the Jewish priestly blessing for the wide-fingered Vulcan salutation, making for the greatest crypto-Jewish in-joke in TV history. He has also made photographs evoking the feminine presence of the divine in the Shekhina Project, in which beautiful models, often wearing very little, sometimes wrap tefillin. But his last New York show was the “Full Body Project,” featuring Rubenesque nudes in a variety of scenarios, including descending a staircase.

Speaking of large nudes, W.W. Norton editor Bob Weil says that R. Crumb has been consulting many scholars, among them Berkeley professor Robert Alter, in preparation for his book illustrating the Old Testament, which won’t be out at least for another year. “He loves it,” says Crumb’s New York dealer, Paul Morris. “The sex and violence are already there.” Crumb is a lapsed Catholic; his wife, Aline, is a nice Jewish girl from Long Island whose mother once lived in the same complex as my parents, in Hewlett.

I Got a Kick Out of Lou

Candy may have been from out on the Island, but Lou Reed isn’t. Unlike the cross-dressing protagonist of his rock classic “Sweet Jane,” the famously Jewish, infamously curmudgeonly musician and now also photographer told me that he is not from Freeport, as is commonly thought, but from Brooklyn. Freeport was just a way station.

We had met in Steve Kasher’s Chelsea gallery for an interview for ARTnews about Reed’s exhibition of photographs there and at the Hermès boutique uptown. After accusing me of kicking Lolabelle, the rat terrier he shares with his girlfriend, Laurie Anderson, Reed calmed down and discussed his frequent subject, downtown Manhattan; his favorite inspiration, the beauty of the sky at sunset; and his unquenchable obsession for ever-more sophisticated digital equipment. I brought up my former job at the English-language Forward; he mentioned a family connection with the Yiddish one.

At the Hermès opening, a crowd including fashionistas, photo types, professional party crashers, and Julian Schnabel sipped champagne and martinis amid $450 beach towels and Reed’s unexpectedly picturesque photos of cotton-candy clouds and stunning twilight cityscapes. I approached Lou, wondering if he’d remember who I was. “Yes, the nun,” he said. A pause. “Oops, wrong religion.” I guess he did.

Getting Her Goat

Robert Rauschenberg isn’t a Jewish artist. But he is sometimes mistaken for one, perhaps because of his German-sounding last name and perhaps because he had a groundbreaking retrospective back in 1963 at New York’s Jewish Museum—which, in the “days of Solomon,” as the tenure of then-director Alan Solomon is dubbed, gave several non-Jewish, avant-garde artists their first major shows.

At the opening of the survey of Rauschenberg’s Combines at the Met, the art-world elite mingled with the likes of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the reliably impish Ray Sokolov (whose wife, Johanna Hecht, co-curated the fabulous recent Colonial Andes show), who was cheerfully spreading the unreliable Sting rumor.

Another Jewish intellectual who declined to be identified passed on a possibly apocryphal story about an event that occurred at the museum in the Solomonian era. It seems a rabbi’s wife was looking at “Monogram,” Rauschenberg’s 1959 sculpture of a goat bedecked in a tire. Mystified, she turned to the person next to her and asked if Rauschenberg was Jewish. The person said no. “Thank God,” said the rabbi’s wife.

Amuse Bouche

It is a universally acknowledged truth in the culture world that the farther an institution is from New York City, the fancier the restaurant it chooses for its press lunch. So while I would go to the opening of an envelope, as the saying goes, when it comes to Jewish museums, it was clear why the two-month-old Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland rented a private room at Per Se in the Time Warner Center to tell journalists about the exhibition “Cradle of Christianity: Treasures from the Holy Land,” which opens there in April.

The first dish was “‘Cornet’ of Marinated Atlantic Salmon ‘Tartare’ with Sweet Red Onion ‘Crème Fraîche,’” and it was served on what looked like a tiny ice cream cone. “It’s like lox,” said my tablemate Milton Maltz, the ebullient former child actor, journalist, and spy who made his fortune with the Malrite Communications Group and founded the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Tamar, before launching this current project.

As we sampled Périgord Black Truffles, Elysian Fields Farm Rib-Eye of Lamb, and other delicacies, James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, where the show originated, presented a PowerPoint sampling of treasures from the 4th to the 7th centuries. These include a 28-foot-long Dead Sea Scroll calling for a new interpretation of the Torah, a tablet bearing the name Pontius Pilate, and several ossuaries that date from the first century bearing Hebrew inscriptions such as “Jesus son of Joseph” and “Judas son of Jesus.” While these have nothing to do, he noted, with the so-called James ossuary, neither do they have to do with the historical Jesus— “a common name of the time,” he pointed out.

And a common name still in Latin countries, as I was reminded at San Domenico that evening, where one of my tablemates at a dinner for Marlborough Gallery artist Tomás Sánchez was named Jesús.

I wondered what he’d think of Jesus Is Magic.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor ofARTnews. She blogs at Her Twitter feed is @rcembalest.