Friday, September 15, 2017

Lithuania: Exhibition of Mad Magazine Cartoonist Al Jaffee's Art Travels the Country

Portrait of cartoonist Al Jaffee at the beginning of an exhibition of his work, which is now at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania.
Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, Sept. 2017

Al_Jaffes_Mad_Life_Zarasai_Lithuania_p28 (1).jpg
Al Jaffee and his family arrive in the main square of Zarasai. From Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2010)
Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, Sept. 2017
Lithuania: Exhibition of Mad Magazine Cartoonist Al Jaffee's Art Travels the Country
by Samuel D. Gruber

One doesn't expect to find an exhibition of work by Mad Magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee in the Regional Museum of Ukmerge, Lithuania, but there it was.  This exhibit of cartoons made by Jaffee for his 2010 biography Al Jaffee's Mad Life: ABiography (HarperCollins, 2010), by Mary-Lou Weisman, for which Jaffee provided the illustrations, has been traveling the country since it opened in Zarasai, Lithuania last year.
Jaffee was born Abraham Jaffee, in Savannah, Georgia, in 1921, but he spent six years of his boyhood (1927-1933) in Zarasai, Lithuania (then known as Ežerėnai) after his unhappy immigrant mother took her four small children back to her home town in Lithuania. Jaffe's early life straddled the Atlantic. For six years he lived the life of an Zarasai Jewish kid, but his father in America still sent packages filled with the American newspaper comics that Al craved. Eventually Al and his three brothers returned to America for good, but his mother stayed behind and is believed to have been murdered with the other Jews of Zarasai and nearby villages in the Krakyne Forest northeast of Degučiai in 1941. Al never returned to Lithuania. Still, his memories remained strong.

In 2013 Phil and Aldona Shapiro of the organization Remembering Litvaks, Inc, donated copies of the biography to the historical museums in Zarasai and Rokiskis and the library of the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania. From this small act developed the exhibition in 2016, when the director of the Zarasai Regional Museum asked if posters of the images in the biography pertaining to Al’s childhood years in Zarasai could be made. Remembering Litvaks, Inc., obtained the necessary copyright approvals and sponsored the project, which grew into a larger traveling exhibition. You can read more about the exhibit here:

I read the Jaffee biography last year, thinking to add his work to my Syracuse University course "Jewish Art: From Sinai to Superman."  Jaffee, best known as a political and satiric cartoonist for MAD Magazine since the 1950s straddles several narratives important to 20th-Century American Jewish culture and art. As an immigrant artist, he is one of a large cohort of young American Jews who found their independent voices through both commercial and  fine art. Jaffee developed his art in the world pulp magazines and comics, ultimately landing steady (but always part-time) work in satire with Mad Magazine, where among other contributions he invented and sustained the back cover "fold-in." In sixty years only one issue did not contain work by Jaffee. All this history of Jaffee's work is probably lost on Lithuanian viewers, who've probably never heard of Mad Magazine.  Unfortunately, but for some obvious reasons, the exhibit does not cover the greater part of Jaffee's career, but only life looking back. Jaffee, now age 96, is still working.

A Jaffes Mad Life_Hawks_and-Doves_190.jpg
 Al Jaffee, Hawks and Doves from Mad Magazine. Reproduced in
Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2010)

Political satire and cartooning were old professions by definition done by outsiders, even more than much of the journalism to which political cartooning was linked. Jews, as quintessential outsiders, could work in this world. But immigrant Jews also flourished in the newer industries of mass-circulation pulp magazines, movies, comic books, radio and television. These were all new professions with no rules, and importantly, without gatekeepers. No degrees from Ivy League schools were needed, nor a profession of mainstream Christianity. 

Some Jewish cartoonists and writers like Will Eisner, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Stan Lee, Joe Kubert, Bob Kane and others gravitated to the world mass entertainment, and this gave us (super)heroes and villains. Others moved to political satire and caricature. William Gropper and other lefter artists were already adept at political cartooning before World War II, and this ultimately led in the 1950s to the work of William Gaines, Harvey Kurtzman and the Mad Magazine crew, but also Jules Feiffer, Al Hirschfeld, and Saul Steinberg.

Al Jaffee. Al and his siblings lost at the Hamburg train station after arriving in Europe from American with their mother. From Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2010)
Al Jaffee never returned to Lithuania, so all of his memories, and the images of his life which he created of his life inter-war Lithuania are unaffected by the destruction of the Holocaust or the imposition of Soviet rule. In this, his images retain a childlike innocence familiar in the work of many "memory artists," who in old age reach back to childhood to re-create through pictures or words a time long gone. In this Jaffee's illustrations to his "as-told-to" biography, recall the vivid and detailed paintings of inter war Polish Opatów by Mayer Kirshenblatt, whose 2007 book They Call Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust,  written with daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (and accompanying traveling exhibition) has received a great deal of attention in the past decade. Kirshenblatt was a self-taught artist with a remarkable memory (see short video here), who began to paint at age 73. Jaffee's work is more accomplished, but is also more self-conscious, and not surprising given his professional career, his scenes have more explicit humor. The two retrospective books go well together.

Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Sept. 2017
When the exhibition first opened in Zarasai on September 2, 2016, the day of European Jewish Culture, Jaffee’s biographer, Mary-Lou Weisman, posted an open letter to the people of Zarasai which stated, “To me, the existence of this exhibition is a double-triumph – the re-creation by Al Jaffee through art and memory, of the rural Lithuanian town that has since been forever changed by war; and the determination of the museum director and the people of modern Zarasai and their leaders to embrace their history. In Zarasai, the book, at last, has found its true home.”  The exhibit has also been shown in Molėtai by the Molėtai Regional Museum.

Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Sept. 2017
Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Sept. 2017
Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Sept. 2017
Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Sept. 2017
In 2015 the Ukmerge regional Museum presented an  exhibition of photographs on Pope Francis’s trip to Israel. There is also an exhibition about the Jewish history of Ukmerge at the museum, and several commemorative plaques commemorating notable Jews have been installed in the town.  There is a growing recognition of the vibrant Jewish history of the pre-Holocaust town, but still general amnesia or at least a reluctance to address the specific circumstances of the murder of Ukmerge's Jews in 1941.

Ukmerge, Lithuania. Part of the Jewish history exhibit at  the Ukmerge Regional Museum. Photo: Samuel Gruber Sept. 2017
Ukmerge, Lithuania. Commemorative plaques affixed to the outside wall of the former Great Synagogue, now a sports center. Photo: Samuel Gruber Sept. 2017
The museum exhibit devotes only one line to the deaths of the over 6,000 Jewish residents, and makes no mention of the German occupation and the Lithuanian participation in the mass murder.  It is stated only that "after nearly half a millennium of peaceful coexistence"  there were "6334 Jewish people killed." The history of this and other killings are well known and described by many sources, but specificity about brutal and often enthusiastic Lithuanian participation is still often a taboo subject.  In some places this is changing, but Lithuania still has to have its period of deep self-reflection as began in Germany in the 1970s and to some extent in Poland, too, in the 1990s. 

The Ukmerge Museum is in the process of moving to a different building. Presumably  exhibitions will be changed. Given a general receptivity among many in Ukmerge to include the Jewish past as a real element in the town's past, this may be an occasion - the occasion - for a more honest discussion. Who knows, maybe the childlike innocence of some of Al Jaffee's illustrations of life in pre-War Zarasai will stimulate more discussion of Jewish life in Ukmerge, and exactly what happened to all those Jewish residents, who made up almost 40% of the town?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Happy Birthday Larry Rivers (1923-2002)!

Larry Rivers. The Burial, 1951, oil on canvas, 1951. Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

Larry Rivers. Larry Rivers as Felix Nussbum, 1997 pastel & pencil, 25x27in. Photo: Jewish Artists and  the Bible, p135.

Happy Birthday Larry Rivers (1923-2002)!

Larry Rivers was born as Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg on August 17, 1923, to Samuel and Sonya Grossberg, Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine who lived in the Bronx. He changed his name when he began performing as musician in 1940. He was successful jazz saxophonist, playing regularly in New York from 1940-1945.

In 1945 Rivers started painting and subsequently studied with Han Hoffman, and then at NYU.  His early works - like The Burial (1951), are more expressive, and though he was an early practitioner of what came to be called Pop Art, unlike contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, his work was painterly, and maintained a kind of nervous energy. Throughout his career he embraced realism - often based on photos - to represent things, places and people. In later decades he created large collage-like canvases using multiple images to tell sweeping stories, such as The History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews,' which, along with 40 preparatory drawings was exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1984. He said at the time: ''I tried to take what talent I had and bend it to displaying some aspect of Jewish culture and history. I'm trying to use the canvas as a matrix for a story.''

Larry Rivers. Bar Mitzvah Photograph Painting, 1961, Oil on canvas, 72x60in
Photo: Jewish Artists and the Bible, p115.

With the exception of some relatively early paintings that seem to derive from his own American Jewish life cycle,  most of Rivers' work does not address specifically Jewish themes. But there are more of these beginning in the 1980s, including several works addressing the Holocaust, and specifically well-known victims.

Rivers directly associated himself with the painter Felix Nussbaum in his work Larry Rivers as Felix Nussbaum (1997), where he places himself in the position and with the attributes of Nussbaum's unforgettable self-portrait of a hunted Jewish artist in hiding. In the late 1980s he painted a series of portraits of the Auschwitz survivor and writer Primo Levi, who died in 1987.  The 1980s and early 1990s was a time of great attention to the Holocaust, culminating with the opening in 1993 of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and many Jewish painters were drawn to Holocaust themes, and some were specifically commissioned for these works.

Larry Rivers. Primo Levi Witness, Oil on  canvas, 1988

Larry Rivers. History of Matzah, 1984

Rivers was a multi-talented artist. Besides music and painting, he made sculpture and films.

For more on Larry Rivers as a Jewish artist see Samantha Baskind, Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America (Penn State Universality Press, 2014).

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Lithuania Conference: How to Commemorate the Great Synagogue of Vilna Site?

Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania. Great Synagogue (destroyed) showing four column support bimah. Photo: J. Bulhak.
Vilnius, Lithuania. School on part of site of Great Synagogue. Photo: Samuel Gruber.
Vilnius, Lithuania. Site of Great Synagogue, Archaeological excavation, 2011. Photo: courtesy Lithuanian Ministry of Culture.
Lithuania Conference: How to Commemorate the Great Synagogue of Vilna Site?
by Samuel Gruber

The organization Litvak World and the Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania are hosting an international conference in Vilnius, Lithuania September 4-5, 2017 on the topic "How to Commemorate the Great Synagogue of Vilna Site?"  The question has been debated since even before the fall of the Communist government in 1990. The standing ruins of the synagogue were demolished between 1955 and 1957, and a school was subsequently built on part of the site.

According to the organizers:
The Great Vilna synagogue, built in 1633, was widely known in Europe for centuries as the center of spiritual, cultural and social life of the Jewish community. It was damaged during the Nazi occupation and totally demolished by the Soviets after the World War II. Archeological research proves that authentic remnants of the Great Vilna synagogue still remain buried 2 meters below the ground level.  The aim of the conference is to discuss the commemoration aspects of the Great Vilna synagogue site, meeting its significance and modern heritage protection standards.
The working languages of the workshop will be English and Lithuanian. Participation is free of charge but registration is required.
You can see the full program here.

I'll be giving a presentation: The Stone Shall be a Witness: Strategies for the Preservation  and Presentation of Destroyed Structures, which will explores alternative strategies for the recovery, exploration, and presentation of destroyed historic buildings in different countries. These include the creation of protected archaeological zones, the symbolic re-creation of building elements, the creation of monuments, and the full scale recreation of lost structures. The presentation weighs how the causes of destruction (war, urban renewal, or natural disaster) and the length of time between destruction and re-consideration affect the goals and methods of preservation.

The illustrated paper will include examples from Germany, Holland, Italy, Ukraine, the United States, and elsewhere. I've written about many of these examples on this blog, and some of these and more examples will be explored in greater detail by many speakers at the conference.

Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania. Great Synagogue and library (destroyed. Photo: J Bulhak.
Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania. Great Synagogue after World War II but before during total destruction.
In the past several decades all sorts of proposals for the Great Synagogue site have been put forward - an archeological park, monuments, museums, reconstructions, and more, but little has been done to commemorate the site or to educate the public about its history and lost architecture other than the erection of a monument to the Vilna Gaon and the creation of single standing information sign. In recent years archaeological excavation at the site have revealed significance remains of the synagogue, which stood as partial ruin until it was demolished in the mid-1950s.

I've described both of these in previous blogposts:

Because the floor level of the sanctuary was significantly below ground level when it was built, it is almost certain that parts of the original floor and the foundations for the massive bimah, columns and other architectural features would be revealed through more comprehensive excavations. This would require the demolition of the modern style school - which most proponents of almost any type of commemorative treatment the site seem to  support (we'll see about this a the conference). In the past and as recently as 2013 government officials in Lithuania (and some in Israel, too) have promoted the idea of restoring or rebuilding the massive synagogue. Many, including myself, have commented in the past that this would be expensive (in the face of so many other Jewish heritage cultural needs), impractical (the building can never be brought back to anything close to what it was or how it was used), ahistoric (at best the this would be a replica), and ultimately inappropriate for a variety of other reasons. I look forward to hearing what others say at the conference - and I will keep an open mind.

Naturally, since 1990, as the Jewish and Holocaust history of Vilnius has been researched, debated, neglected, exhibited and sometimes denied, and as other sites have been commemorated (or not) in Lithuania, the needs for the Great Synagogue site have shifted or perhaps come into clearer focus. Vilnius has become a very new and different city than it was before 1939, and even in the 1980s. Incorporating the past - and especially the Jewish past - is in some ways easier than under Communism, but in many ways harder, too. The placing of responsibility for death and destruction in the Nazi and Communist periods remain highly contested. 

I'm expect that participants at the conference will grapple with these challenges. In the end the future of this site in intertwined with the ways in which Jewish history, art, and architecture are presented throughout the city and the country, and how the events of the Holocaust of presented and understood.

Vilnius, Lithuania. This sign is what commemorates the Great Synagogue today. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2015.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Preserving Synagogue Ruins I: Seattle's Temple De Hirsch Sinai

Seattle, WA. Temple De Hirsch, 1908 (demolished).
Seattle, WA. Remains of Temple De Hirsch, 1908. Photos: Samuel Gruber 2016.
Seattle, WA. Remains of Temple De Hirsch, 1908. Photos: Samuel Gruber 2016.

Preserving Synagogue Ruins I: Seattle's Temple De Hirsch Sinai
by Samuel D. Gruber

A few weeks ago I wrote about the uncertain fate of the ruins of the Beth HaMidrash Hagadol Synagogue in New York and promised to take a look at how other places have preserved ruins or fragments of destroyed synagogues. Sometimes these fragments are the results of archaeological excavation, as is the case in South America, the Caribbean, and sometimes in Europe, and of course, Israel. Sometimes they are the result of violent destruction, as in Europe where many synagogues were only partially destroyed in the Holocaust but their ruins were left intact in the subsequent years. Other times natural calamities have claimed buildings. An earthquake in Vidin, Bulgaria; a landslide in Pitigliano, Italy; and fires in New York and elsewhere. 

I do not plan on addressing this topic systematically, chronologically, or in any other obvious order. Rather, over the next few weeks I will post a series of vignettes which demonstrate a variety of approaches; some successful, some not. The need to protect, preserve and present ruins is hardly unique to Jewish heritage sites. Many of the lessons and methods considered by stewards of ruined synagogues derive directly from the field of ancient and medieval archaeology. 

Remains of Temple De Hirsch in Seattle

In 1993, the congregation of Seattle, Washington's  De Hirsh Sinai Temple, which was formed 1971 in a merger between Temple De Hirsch (Seattle, founded 1899) and Temple Sinai (Bellevue, founded 1961) decided after long deliberation to demolish the historic sanctuary of Temple De Hirsch at Union Street and 15th Avenue. This building already was little used. For several decades it had functioned as an often empty annex to the larger modern style sanctuary building built in 1960 and a smaller modern chapel added in 1974.

Seattle, WA. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

The unsuccessful efforts to reuse the old synagogue as a concert hall are well documented. The old sanctuary, listed as a Seattle Landmark in 1980, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, was known for its fine acoustics. The congregation held off demolition for several years while strong effort was made to transform the space into the "Landmark Concert Hall," a recital hall with about 550 seats but unfortunately, the organizers of the new project could not raise the necessary funds in the time given. Carrying the empty and now-derelict building risked dramatically raising the congregation's insurance rates for all their buildings, and the demolition was carried out. A small park or plaza was created on the site.

Seattle, WA. Site of former Temple De Hirsch. Photo: Jonah Gruber 2016.
I was last at De Hirsch Sinai on a cold wet day last winter, so no one was using the outdoor space, and of course it looked dreary. In good weather,  however, the paved space is a flexible one and can serve many purposes. Since it is still owned by the congregation and part of the greater synagogue facility, its identity and programming are fully "Jewish." But the space is open to the public, and can be used as a little park or play area by anyone in the neighborhood who wants. While the new building faces a busier commercial street, this site of the original sanctuary is now on the rear of the lot an still part of a residential neighborhood.

Seattle, WA. Site of former Temple De Hirsch. Photo: Jonah Gruber 2016.
The compromise solution was to preserve the space of the old building as a small paved park with a few elements of the building preserved. Notably, the entrance stairs, the four Doric columns of the entrance portico, and part of the entrance wall with the main doorway were kept and these now give access to the small plaza. A stylized representation of the original facade - which had already lost the tops of its towers in the 1950s - is affixed to the wall of another building, and visible from the little park.

Seattle, WA. Site of former Temple De Hirsch. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
The demolished sanctuary was designed by architect Julian F. Everett in the Neo-Classical style and was dedicated May 29, 1908. An adjacent Temple Center opened in 1924, housing a religion school and other organizations; a wing was added in 1951. The current sanctuary at 16th Avenue and Pike Street—the opposite corner of the same block as the old temple—was completed in 1960. The old sanctuary was virtually unused from 1974 when a new chapel was built, and many of its interior elements were moved to the new space. 

Sometimes historic buildings are destroyed because the land they sit on is valuable and will be developed. Or sometimes after the demolition the building is replaced with a new version - so that the mission of the church or synagogue is continued in a more up-to-date form. In Seattle, neither of these scenarios was the. The congregation had already built their new iteration of a sanctuary on an adjacent property, and despite demand for real estate in Seattle, the lot of the old sanctuary was not rebuilt. 

The building was demolished because the congregation had no pressing need for it - and because the cost of maintaining it was getting higher and higher without commensurate benefits. After attempts to redevelop the sanctuary into a performance and concert hall failed, the congregation could not continue to carry the building.  Instead it was demolished and many of its parts were saved the ark, and chandeliers and large stained glass window were removed to the modern chapel. And a few distinctive parts of the structure were saved to frame a pocket park. Thus, some memory of the old sanctuary can be accessed through the recognition and reuse of the some of its parts.

Seattle, WA. Temple de Hirsch Sinai. Chapel, 1974. Photo: gpsmycity

Seattle, WA. Temple de Hirsch Sinai. Chapel, ark from old sanctuary. 1974. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
Seattle, WA. Temple de Hirsch Sinai. Chapel, Moses window from old sanctuary. 1908/1974. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.

Seattle, WA. Temple de Hirsch Sinai. Chapel, chandelier from old sanctuary, 1908/1974. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
This blogpost is not intended to debate the Seattle demolition decision. There have been some close looks at this process as a case study in historic preservation, where there was mostly good will, but many competing factors. Rather, I want to highlight the decision that was made about how to treat the site after the demolition - since it is of continuing relevance today. I'll pick up this discussion soon in "Preserving Synagogue Ruins Part II."