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Mining the Jewish Experience For Meaning

One week, three very different cultural events in New York City

Morton Landowne
February 18, 2014
David Krakauer.(GMD 3)
David Krakauer.(GMD 3)

We all have experiential Edens—moments or events that create feelings that become totemic, and which we often find ourselves chasing to manifest again and again. A week in the mid-1970s epitomizes, for me, the range of Jewish cultural opportunities that always characterized New York, the city of my birth. That week, on Tuesday night, I caught Woody Allen’s stand-up act at the Americana Hotel’s Royal Box nightclub; on the following evening attended a four-hour shiur given by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, at Yeshiva University, and while I never again expect to reach the heights of that week, 40 years later, the quest continues.

On January 27, I was at Manhattan’s Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History, to attend a conversation between novelist (and Tablet contributor) Dara Horn and the museum’s director, Dr. Jacob Wisse. The topic was A Guide to the Perplexed, and it concerned Horn’s new novel of the same name which paints a picture contrasting the thousand-year-old life of the community which created the Cairo Geniza with a contemporary plot involving a software developer who invents an application that records every aspect of its user’s life. The discussion was taking place at the museum to publicize one of its current exhibits: Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue, which celebrates the museum’s recent acquisition (in partnership with Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum) of a decorated and inscribed medieval wooden door that graced the ark of the synagogue in which Solomon Schechter discovered the Cairo Geniza in 1896, a story which was so thrillingly related in Adina Hoffman and Peter’s Cole’s 2011 Jewish Encounters series book, Sacred Trash.

To complement the showing of the ancient door, the exhibit, first curated by Dr. Amy Landau of the Walters, and enhanced for this showing by Wisse of YU, brings together 17 document fragments from the Geniza, including two draft manuscripts in the hand of Maimonides, which prompted Horn to observe that the Geniza, with its cornucopia of the quotidian and the sacred, was the “Medieval Facebook.” The exhibit, which runs through February 23, provides a graphic and intelligent introduction to this trove of Jewish—and world—history, while Horn’s novel both fleshes out her wry comment about the Geniza and shows how our world of Google Glass and similar technologies flows from the same impulse.

Two nights later I traveled to the southern tip of Manhattan to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, to attend the world premiere of The Big Picture, a “cinematic concert” featuring clarinet virtuoso David Krakauer and five other jazz musicians reimagining themes from iconic films with Jewish content, each accompanied by a short, original film which functioned, much as ballet choreography, to interpret its accompanying score. Among the films highlighted were Barry Levinson’s Avalon, Bob Fosse’s Lenny, Woody Allen’s Radio Days, and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

Krakauer, who was just featured in our Vox Tablet podcast, has been described by the New York Times’ Jon Pareles as “…a breathtakingly flamboyant clarinetist, racing through every octave of his instrument and turning trills into laughs or cries of anguish.” The Big Picture, which will be presented six additional times at the Museum through February 23, and which Krakauer hopes to present at other venues throughout the country, offered a sort of High Church version of klezmer, which was fine until Krakauer’s sextet launched into a klezmer encore which lived up to Pareles’ encomium and blew the roof off the auditorium with its raw power and emotion and suggested, to me at least, that the cultural heritage Krakauer mines most productively is found in the shtetls of Europe, not in the movie studios of Hollywood.

I found a cinematic experience of a different sort toward the end of the week when I visited the Postmasters Gallery in Tribeca to view the latest work of Israeli video artist Guy Ben Ner (through March 8th). Ben Ner, one of Israel’s best-known contemporary artists, was the subject of a major survey in 2009 at MASS Moca, the sprawling museum of contemporary art located in North Adams, MA. His practice is described by his gallery as “…low-tech ‘home movies’ of ingenious inventiveness in which the fine lines between stealing, appropriating, re-using, refreshing and abusing what already exists are frequently crossed.” His best known work, “Stealing Beauty” (2007), was filmed in a series of Ikea stores in Israel, Europe and America, and featured the artist, his wife, and two children moving into the store’s model rooms and enacting the rituals of daily life—until Ikea’s staff noticed and kicked them out. Strung together, the vignettes created a screwball comedy in which, as described by New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz: “The Ben-Ners behave as if they were displaced nomads, acting out a primal need and a territorial aggression, claiming these Ikeas as a kind of Promised Land.”

The best of the new videos returns to Ben Ner’s iconic Israeli kitchen—immortalized in his 2000 film “Moby Dick,” an edition of which is owned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The piece, Soundtrack (2013) is wedded to an 11-minute section of the soundtrack of Steven Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds (2005). In it, Mr. Ben Ner and his family and friends stage their own drama of exploding appliances, flying toys, and laptop images of Israeli conflicts. According to Mr. Ben Ner’s artist’s statement: “Heroic and pathetic gestures are forever intertwined as we are left with the question which of the movies is more real. In the end you have two movies, like Siamese twins, sharing one and the same organ: The Sound.”

Three events; three reactions. But together, they synthesized into a feeling of gratitude for the exposure to creative minds mining the Jewish experience for meaning, spirituality, and contemporary insight; an elusive mix that continues, after all these years, to fuel my quest.

Morton Landowne is the executive director of Nextbook Inc.