Judaica Online Exhibitions

Modern Jewry and the Arts

A Virtual Exhibit
The Center for Advanced Judaic Studies Library

Art | Music | Theater & Film | Dance | Institutions & Display



Maurycy Gottlieb, Self-Portrait, 1878

(Tel Aviv Museum of Art)Maurycy Gottlieb

In this beautiful painting Maurycy Gottlieb presents himself to us in the formal attire favored by Central European intellectuals of his time. But he also seems to be accentuating his "Jewish features " - his rather thick lips, half-closed, melancholy eyes, and large nose. He therefore presents to the world his twin identity as "European, " even "Pole " ( "Maurycy, " or, as he was known in the German-speaking lands, "Moritz ") and as Jew ( "Moshe, " or "Moyshe "). The co-existence within Gottlieb's soul of these two identities provides a key to the understanding of the life and work of this pioneer "Jewish artist. "

Ezra Mendelsohn


Ken Aptekar, Her Father Dragged Her from Shtetl to Shtetl [with a sewing machine.]
1996, oil on wood, sandblasted glass, and bolts

(John Burger Collection, image courtesy of Ken Aptekar) Her Father Dragged Her from Shtetl to Shtetl

Ken Aptekar's paintings deal with ethnic and gender stereotypes. This image, Her Father Dragged Her from Shtetl to Shtetl [with a sewing machine.] (1996), uses Francois Boucher's Portrait of Mme. Pompadour (1756) as its source, and delivers witty and moving insight on the modern Jewish woman. The text portion, etched in glass that covers the painted surface, is long and detailed; reading it carefully demands that the viewer's attention crawl over every detail of painted ribbon, frill and furbelow. Mme Pompadour, and Rococo style of painting have long been considered the essence of frou-frou femininity in our culture, but it is a femininity of wealth and aristocracy, of leisure play and frill, of gentle curves and erotic theater. And while it seems so remote from shtetl story of Mierle Pomerance (not Pompadour), schlepping her sewing machine from town to town as she "fashioned clothes for Jews, " the sense of fashion, fate and fantasy draws the two women close. "'A couturihre your grandma could've been,' my mother says, " in the syntax of translated Yiddish. The story ends with the artist's greater sense of possibility-- "I escaped when I became an artist " -but leaves the Jewish woman sewing for the far-off Jewish princess, whose cultural standard is set -still- by the Pompadour.

Carol Zemel


Her father dragged her from shtetl to shtetl with a
sewing machine. She fashioned clothes for Jews,
sewed them on the spot. A marriage to an older
man was arranged but Mierle Pomerance escaped.
Uncle Shmulik secretly arranged passage, and
alone she sailed to America.

Stepping off the train in Detroit, she found a job
after two days. Two weeks later Mierle, now Mary,
had a boyfriend; and when the relatives she stayed
with disapproved, she got herself a room.

They wed in her landlords apartment and
feasted on corned beef sandwiches. She managed the
bicycle shop they ran; he shmoozed with customers.
Still she made my mothers clothes: a red and white
gingham outfit, a pink suit with a blue organdy
blouse. "A couturihre your grandma couldve been! "
my mother says.

I escaped when I became an artist.


Ben Shahn, Mural for the Jersey Homesteads, 1936-37

Roosevelt Public School, Roosevelt, New Jersey Ben Shahn

In 1936, Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was selected to create a mural for the Jersey Homesteads, a Jewish workers' utopian community in New Jersey. This was the first mural that Shahn completed under the New Deal, and he painted it in true fresco which he mastered as an apprentice to Diego Rivera. Inspired by Rivera, by Italian Renaissance frescoes, modernist montage and avant-garde film (Shahn was friends with film theorist Jay Leyda), Shahn created a multi-level fresco sub-divided into individual vignettes, and marked by quick thematic and temporal shifts. Divided into three main sections, the untitled fresco represents Jewish immigration to America, the oppressive tenements and sweatshops of New York, and the reforms demanded by labor unions and those provided by the New Deal. Rather than a path specific to Jews, Shahn proposes a direction for the whole working class to follow. Namely, to build cross-union and inter-cultural alliances, to move back to the land, and live by the example of the Jersey Homesteads.

Left Panel
Left Panel, Detail

Center Panel
Center Panel, Detail

Right Panel
Right Panel, Detail

Dianna Linden



Degenerate Music"ENTARTETE MUSIK - Degenerate Music"
Poster from the Exhibition
D|sseldorf, 1938

After Hitler seized power in January 1933 the Nazis immediately installed racial laws and expelled political enemies and generally unwanted people from German society. They made a more or less normal life impossible for those, whom they labelled degenerate, unhealthy or sick. By the end of the 1930s the Nazis had begun to gas helpless inmates of insane asylums, the educationally sub-normal and the physically crippled. 75,000 German citizens died in the so-called Action T4 and another 400, 000 were forcibly sterilized. The gassing of these innocent and harmless people stopped in 1941 because the Nazi regime needed the experienced gassing teams to set up the death camps at Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Maidanek.

Behind the aggressive Darwinian culling of what the Nazi called the hereditarily unfit lay a deep cultural pessimism. Three generations of prophets of doom like Spengler had foretold den Untergang des Abendlandes or the Decline of the West. The preachers of disaster had taught them that Western and in particular German civilisation and culture were in decline and one of the agents of that decline was what the Germans called untranslatably Das Judentum or Jewry. The Jews represented the faceless modern world, the loss of community, and urban development. They became the scapegoats for everything from slums to female emancipation, a deeply threatening aspect of modern life. This cultural anti-Semitism was a new variant of an old paranoia, but it was on a different scale. Judaism was no longer rejected as a religion, with all its awful implications. It was turned into a race. Cultural pessimism and social Darwinism reinforced each other. Jews were parasites, as Hitler was fond of explaining and in nature healthy organisms exterminated parasitic life forms. In the social world, healthy humanity, that is, the Aryan race, had to cull the parasitic Jewish one. The Jews had to be stripped of civil rights, isolated and removed from humanity. Hitler declared that he wanted the Jews eradicated and an entire nation worked towards that goal.

The ideological mechanisms produced one-dimensional explanations. Thus, for the Nazis, artists fell under the category of Jewish as soon as they did not submit to the prescribed cultural policies. Modernity was Jewish, consequently modern composers had to be Jewish. Jazz was Jewish, hence jazz musicians per se were Jewish. For some artists this was an honorary title: the writer Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote the famous All Quiet on the Western Front asked for his novels to be included, when the books were burnt in Berlin in May 1933. He wished to be a member rather of "Jewish society, " not a German one, which had made such murderous distinctions. The exhibitions of "Entartete Kunst " staged in June 1937 and on "Entartete Musik " that followed in May 1938 were public displays of such thinking. The Nazis saw them as powerful ideological instruments and, therefore, intrinsically political, in service to the racial state.

The Nazis took art and music seriously: deadly seriously. They saw them as powerful ideological instruments and, therefore, intrinsically political, in service to the racial state. Because the Nazis politicised the arts, some artists and critics have reacted since 1945 by claiming that the arts must be apolitical. Is that an acceptable response to the barbarous misuse of artistic activity? This is an important question, which every artist has to answer in her or his own way. It is an illusion to imagine that we can escape the realities of a highly political world by ignoring the close relationship of politics and arts. The arts are not now above politics any more than they were in the 1930s.

Marion Kant


Paul RobesonPaul Robeson's "Chassidic Chant of Levi Isaac of Berditschev "

The Chassidic Chant, taken from Paul Robeson's 1958 performance at Carnegie Hall, powerfully expresses Robeson's belief in the unique cultural relationship between blacks and Jews. His rendition here adapts of the version of the Kaddish prayer ascribed to the Hasidic master Levi Isaac of Berditschev (1740-1810), a piece also known as the Din Toyre mit Got. Robeson introduces it through a remarkable narrative chain that links the religious music of eastern Europe, the Orthodox church, eastern churches generally, the Coptic and Abyssinian churches, the African religious festival, the African chant, the African American church, and finally the remembered song of his own preacher father (suggesting a highly personal connection indeed). These specific ethnologic and religious associations, though broad, tenuous and vague, remain secondary, however, to a thematic one: that of common suffering and oppression, stubborn defiance of and determined resistance to a succession of oppressors (including the Germans and the English) expressed through faith, protest, and song.

Robeson's concert repertoire was always eclectic, reflecting not just his linguistic virtuosity but also the Left's ideological commitment to internationalism and "the songs of many lands " (he also performed Chin Chin, the Chinese marching song, an Eskimo ballad, a Gaelic folksong, the Volga Boat Song, and Loch Lomand, as well as numerous operatic pieces in different languages and a large number of spirituals). Nevertheless, as early as the 1920s, Robeson professed the belief that the cultural and musical affinities between blacks and Jews are qualitatively unique and transcendent ones.

Convictions such as Robeson's reflect a complex array of interactions and relationships between American Jews and African Americans in the spheres of politics and business whose rich cultural by-products have yet to be adequately interpreted and explained.

Jonathan Karp


Zahava Ben sings Arabic, Israel, 1995.

Umm Kulthum, 'Zahava Ben sings Arabic'

In early 1995, Zahava Ben released a CD on her own label, entitled Zahava Ben sings Arabic. The silver and gold cover portrays Ben inscribed within the profile of the renowned Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum. Later, in the fall of 1995, in the aftermath of Prime Minister Rabin's assassination, Moroccan Israeli singer, Zahava Ben released a CD of Umm Kulthum repertoire on the Helicon label. As many Israelis and Palestinians embraced a shared experience of grief over Rabin's death and the unsettling peace prospects, Zahava Ben's CDs and appearances in Nablus and Jericho resonated with musical, political, and commercial overtones.

Zahava Ben sings at an anti-drug concert in Jerusalem, 1994. Zahava Ben
click here to hear a sample
of Zehava Ben singing Enta Omri
(MP3 format - 2.34 Mb = 2' 33";
requires Internet Explorer).

Amy Horowitz


Contemporary Jewish Music in America 1960s-1990s

The growth of Jewish music over the past few decades has been staggering. While it is impossible to provide an exact number of recordings, since no distributors or retail outlets service the entire Jewish community, members of the industry estimate that there are currently over 2,000 recordings of Jewish music available and close to 250 records released each year. There are over four hundred artists and groups performing Jewish music today and most listeners and consumers are aware of only a few. The creation of new Jewish music, which ranges greatly in terms of musical styles, is found throughout the Jewish community: religious communities, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Renewal; Yiddishists, Yiddish songs and klezmer music; Israeli; and, art music composers and established popular artists. Jewish music has arrived and is a growing industry.

* * * * * * *

Shlomo Carlebach at the Village Gate Shlomo Carlebach was an important transitory figure in the world of American Jewish Music. He was born in Germany, his father was a rabbi, and trained in a yeshiva. While serving as a rabbi in New Jersey in the 1950s he began to write music. His songs combine aspects of hassidic music and folk music. Like hassidic music Carlebach songs are in two or three parts with each part repeating. Carlebach songs are folk music in that the melodies are accessible and easy to sing. He sang songs in various Jewish and non-Jewish contexts seeking to engage young Jews into their tradition. Music was his vechicle. One of his earliest recordings Shlomo Carlebach at the Village Gate provides an example of his well-known songs based on a verse from psalms, Eso Einai.

* * * * * * *

Avraham Fried - Chazak!

An American born baby boomer generation sought to experience Judaism and adapt their American journey. Avraham Fried is a Lubavitcher Hasid living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. His music is popular in the community. His songs are in Hebrew, Yiddish and English that are Hassidic in origin or original. One popular song is ."Didoh Bei." which is based on a passage from the Talmud Nedarim 41a, ."If you have knowledge.", the song was written by Yossi Green. ."Didoh Bei." is commonly heard at Orthodox weddings. The musical style combines pop music and Middle Eastern rhythms and styles.

* * * * * * *

Debbie Friedman ... And You Shall Be a BlessingDebbie Friedman grew up feeling that liturgy in the synagogue was not accessible. She sought to make liturgy prayerful and participatory. She began writing music for youth services in the 1970s and as a song leader she created participatory services at summer camps. For two and half decades her music has become widely known throughout American Reform and Conservative synagogues. Some of her most popular liturgical melodies are "Oseh Shalom " and "Mi Shebeirach. " Her English songs provide new insights to biblical passages such as "Miriam's Song " and "L'chi Lach. " The song "L'chi Lach" is an interpretation of the biblical passage Lech Lecha, Abraham's call to go out.

* * * * * * *

American born musicians who played traditional music started the Klezmer Revival of the 1970s, they sought to discover the music of their heritage. The 78 rpm recordings of the 1920s and 1930s served as models for repertoire and style, the recordings of legendary clarinetist Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein. At first the klezmer revivalists reproduced the earlier recordings then they sought to innovate and adapt. Three renditions of "Der Heyser Bulgar" [."The Hot Bulgar."] trace this line of development: Brandwein's 1920s recording, the Klezmer Conservatory Band with Itzhak Perlman, and by the fusion klezmer band The Klezmatics, Chava Alberstein with The Klezmaticswho instead of full band instrumentation only use percussion with more ornamentation. The birth of new music among secular Yiddishists is growing, one example is The Well, new Yiddish songs based on poetry with the songs written and sung by Chava Alberstein with the Klezmatics, ."Zayt Gezunt." [."Farewell."]).

Contemporary Jewish Music is growing and illustrates the diversity and vast dimension of American Jewish life.

    Recording Sources (MP3 format - requires Internet Explorer):
  1. "Eso Einai.", Shlomo Carlebach at the Village Gate (Vanguard Records 2133-4, 1963).
  2. "Didoh Bei.", Chazak! (Avraham Fried, CD-AF 5758, 5758 [1998]).
  3. "Lchi Lach.", And You Shall Be a BlessingDebbie Friedman (Sounds Write SWP 601, 1989).
  4. "Der Heyser Bulgar.": 1. Naftule Brandwein King of the Klezmer Clarinet (Rounder Records CD 1127, 1999); 2. Itzhak Perlman In the Fiddlers House (Angel, 1995); 3. "Clarinet Yontev,." Rhythm + Jews, The Klezmatics (Flying Fish Records FF 70591, 1992).
  5. "Zayt Gezunt.", The Well (The Klezmatics, Xenophile XENO 4052, 1998).

Mark Kligman



Lola, "Teater kunst tsu der akeyde"
(From the collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)

The cartoon "Teater kunst tsu der akeyde " (The Attempt to Sacrifice Theater Art) by Lola (pseudonym of the painter Leon Israel, 1887-1955) was published on 2 September 1910 in the Yiddish satirical magazine Der groyser kundes. It is a trenchant critique of the Yiddish theater managers who after having supported literary plays for years had recently produced a series of very popular sentimental melodramas. To critics invested in creating a literary theater this amounted to an unforgivable betrayal of the ideal of "art. "

Teater kunst tsu der akeyde

The image shows ."theater art." about to being executed on the sacrificial altar of the dollar. Like Abraham who was prepared to sacrifice Isaac to follow God's command, Jacob P. Adler is willing to behead theater art for the god Mammon: ."Colleagues, I am ready for the slaughter.." Only a year earlier Adler had, in the minds of many Yiddish critics, ."killed." theater art by selling the lease of his Grand Theater to the moving picture exhibitors Zukor and Loew. The other actors favor less drastic measures. A squeamish Kessler, who for years tried to compete with Adler for the critics' recognition as the preeminent actor of serious drama suggests: ."Oy, oy, oy, I can't watch this, at least give her some chloroform first.." Thomashefsky, whose commitment to literary plays was more tenuous, cries out in a self-aggrandizing tone and the typical Germanized stage language: ."No, don't you dare. I will take her as a boarder into my Temple of Art where she will quickly expire by herself.." Liptzin appears to Adler like God's angel did to Abraham in order to save the life of the condemned. Yet all she offers is to arrange a marriage with an inappropriate spouse, thus sacrificing her as well: ."No, no, don't touch her. I have a good match for her with Itsikl Zolotarevsky." In the minds of the critics, Liptzin was the latest traitor. She had just produced a melodrama by Zolotarevsky, the ."king." of melodrama.

Nina Warnke


Bromley Atlas. Borough of Manhattan
(New York, G.W. Bromley & co., 1921). plate 17

The growth in popularity of the moving pictures began with the nickelodeon around 1905-1906. These small storefront theaters offered a half hour program of moving pictures and illustrated songs for five cents (hence their name). The shows ran continuously from morning to evening. People went day after day, and from one theater to another. "The moving pictures have totally revolutionized the Jewish district. It is heaven and earth and moving pictures, " reported the Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward) in May 1908. The nickelodeon boom provided immigrant Jews and their children with unparalleled access to popular entertainment and profoundly changed their recreational patterns. Their enthusiasm for the cinema is exemplified by the fact that the Lower East Side had the highest density of nickelodeons in New York City.

Manhattan - Lower East Side

This map shows how at the corner of Essex and Rivington streets, in the heart of the Jewish quarter, three movie theaters were located at a stone's throw from each other: 1) The Palace Theater (133-135 Essex Street), 2) the Metropolitan Theater (134 Essex Street), and the 3) WACO Theater (120-122 Rivington Street). We should add a fourth movie house, the 4) Golden Rule Theater , which was the oldest in the neighborhood and situated right opposite the WACO, at no. 125 Rivington Street. Also on the map, 5) Marcus Loew's 1000-seat Delancey Street Theater, the first picture palace on the Lower East Side, built as early as 1912.

Judith Thissen


Le-an nelech hashavu'ah?"Le-an nelech hashavu'ah?" ("Where shall we go to this week?")
list of the week's movies, Teshah ba'erev, August 26th 1937, back cover.

A caricature from a late 1930s periodical reflects the popularity of movie going amongst different sectors in Mandated Tel-Aviv. The couple on the left is dressed as typical elegant bourgeoisies; the next couple can be either Kibbutz members visiting the urban cultural center or a couple of urban workers ("poalim"), expressing their socialist-pioneering ideology through their simple clothing; the policeman represents municipal authority -- although in the early 1930s the autonomous Jewish municipal police force of Tel-Aviv was dispersed and combined into the general British police force; and the tiny boy indicates that in Tel-Aviv, like in many other countries at that time, children were eager movie consumers, worrying parents and educators as to potential corrupting effects.

Anat Helman


Hotel TerminusMarcel Ophuls' Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie

Klaus Barbie, the head of the Gestapo in Lyon from November 1942 to August 1944, escaped from Europe to South America after the war and was not returned to France until 1983; he was tried four years later and condemned to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. The Barbie trial, a watershed in French memories of World War II and the Occupation, raised compelling moral and historical issues not only for France but for Germany and the United States (it came to light, decades after the war, that Barbie had worked for several years for the U.S. Army's Counter Intelligence Corps as an "expert on Communism ").

Johannes Schneider-Merck, Klaus Barbie, unidentified

In his 1988 Academy Award-winning documentary, Hotel Terminus, Marcel Ophuls (famous for his earlier film about France under German occupation, The Sorrow and the Pity) explores brilliantly the moral and historical issues raised by the Barbie trial, and extends at the same time the art of documentary film. The image here, a black and white photograph taken around 1970, is the opening image of the film: it shows Barbie and two friends celebrating at a New Year's party in Peru. Barbie is the man in the middle, wearing a party hat, with a drink in one hand and an upraised cane in the other. On his right, with his arm around Barbie's neck, is Johannes Schneider-Merck, a young man at the time, who was defrauded soon afterward of a huge sum by Barbie and his pals in a currency speculation scheme. Schneider-Merck, noticeably older than he appears in the photo, is the first person whose memories of Barbie we hear in the film. By opening his documentary with a still photograph taken decades after Barbie's crimes in Lyon and more than a decade before his trial and the making of this film, Ophuls emphasizes the passage of time and the huge distance that exists between the historical subject of the film (the Nazi criminal Barbie) and those who remember him or try to follow his tracks forty years later. Ophuls' film presents the life and times of Klaus Barbie not as a linear story, but as a complicated collage of many people's memories of the man and the times.

(For a detailed commentary on this film, see Susan Rubin Suleiman, ."History, Memory, and Moral Judgment in Documentary Film: On Marcel Ophuls." Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie,." forthcoming in the journal Critical Inquiry in 2001 or 2002).

Susan Rubin Suleiman



Joseph Lewitan Joseph Lewitan and the Nazification of Dance in Germany

Joseph Lewitan was there when German modern dance became the one modern art, which the Nazis welcomed. Unlike literature, art or music, German Modern Dance was not declared degenerate but was celebrated as a truly German art form. Lewitan was one of the most important dance critics in Germany of his day, and he provides a way into that fascinating story about dance, nationalism and modernity.

In October 1927 the first issue of Der Tanz.", Monatsschrift f|r Tanzkultur - ."Dance, A monthly Journal for Dance Culture." - Lewitan's magazine - was published, the first serious dance journal in Germany. Lewitan's project began at a time when the dance world was locked in a bitter dispute. The core issue of this fierce confrontation was about 'modernity' and 'anti-modernity', about adequate artistic representation, about 'contemporary-ness' and embodiment of the present time. The battle of the dance types reflected the ideological, political and economical divisions in Germany from the beginning of the 20th century.

Soon after the rise of Nazism Lewitan lost all his positions, which he had held in the dance world. In July 1933 ."Der Tanz." announced that it was undergoing fundamental changes and a general reorganisation - Lewitan was replaced as editor and his magazine finally 'aryanised'.

Lewitan had entered Germany from Soviet-Russia in 1920 as a Russian and he left Germany as a 'stateless' Jew sometime between December 1937 and July 1938. He emigrated to Paris, fled from the German Wehrmacht just before they marched down the Champs-Ilyssie in June 1940 to the South of France and reached Casablanca in May 1942.

In dance history Lewitan has been identified as both: the ."destructive Jew." who undermined German values by being part of modernity and the ."conservative." Jew who could not accept or grasp modernity in an artistic form. He at the same time became a symbol of modernity as a destructive force and its opposite, a representation of anti-modernity as a destructive force. No attempts in history or theory have been made so far to resolve this terrible contradiction, this death sentence.

Marion Kant



OFITSYELER VEGVAYZER NOYYORKER VELT-OYSSHTELUNG (Yiddish guide to the New York World's Fair, 1939/40)
(New York: Exposition Publications, 1939).
(From the collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)

1939 World's Fair

Zionism was by no means the only basis for the Jewish presence at world's fairs. By the 1930s, however, the Zionist movement had succeeded in becoming the "official " national and international Jewish presence at the fair, nowhere more clearly than in the case of the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the New York World's Fair, 1939/40. Described in much greater detail in the Yiddish guide to the Fair than in the English guide, the Jewish Palestine Pavilion exploited the slippage between the world itself and the world of the fair to perform de facto statehood. The design of the Palestine Pavilion and its contents was in accord with Meyer W. Weisgal's desires, which he recalled years later as "something authentically Palestinian " to show that "in 1938 Jewish Palestine was a reality; its towns, villages, schools, hospitals and cultural institutions had risen in a land that until our coming had been derelict and waste ... I wanted a miniature Palestine in Flushing Meadows. " Insisting -- with no trace of irony -- that the pavilion should steer clear of politics, Weisgal applied himself to the "construction of the Jewish State under the shadow of the Trylon and Perisphere, or, as the Jews were fond of calling it, the Lulav and Esrog. " (Meyer W. Weisgal, Meyer Weisgal, ... So Far: An Autobiography, New York: Random House, 1971, pp. 150, 158, 161

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett