The Jewish Studies Center at Baruch College hosted an ambitious and absorbing program, “Jewish Arts and Identity in the Contemporary World” on May 7th. Three panels – on theater, music and the visual arts – were the core of the conference complemented by a performance by Audrey Flack and the Art History Band.
The panels brought together an unusual combination of practitioners and academics. The theater panel included two actors in current productions in New York, Lenny Wolpe of “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” Ari Brand who plays Asher Lev in “My Name is Asher Lev” and Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director of Long Wharf and director of “My Name is Asher Lev.” One of the academics, Jerome Chanes, offered a succinct definition to the central question of the day, what makes “Jewish” theater/music/painting? For Chanes, it’s “the expression through creative arts of the Jewish experience.” Speaking as part of the music panel, composer Bruce Adolphe found that he had inadvertently written an undeniably Jewish piece while grappling with the illness of a family member.
Great works are grounded in specifics. As Gordon Edelstein said, “There is nothing southern about ‘The Glass Menagerie’ except everything.” In the same way, “Asher Lev,” grounded in the Lubavitch community of the late 1940s, transcends its Jewishness and is drawing audiences of young New Yorkers of color. A young man’s struggle to come to terms with his “otherness” and his community resonates far beyond the core Jewish audience.
On the music panel, Gilad Harel of Baruch presented “Shirat Hasticker” (the Bumper Song) by Hadag Nahash, an iconoclastic Israeli band that emerged in the 1990s. Following Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Israeli novelist David Grossman noticed a driver attempting to remove an anti-Rabin sticker from his car. Grossman collaborated with Hadag Nahash on the song which draws its lyrics almost exclusively from Israeli bumper stickers. The video is angry and poignant with many characters singing a slogan that contradicts his/her political position.
In contemporary American culture, Jews are omnipresent. The parodies, caricatures and self-effacement of the past have been eclipsed. The actor Ari Brand noted that “Seinfeld,” while barely mentioning the word “Jew,” created a “before and an after.” What will the next generation do with this freedom and openness? Will we retain the specifics that are the hallmarks of great stories and the key to great art?
Sharon Anstey is a business consultant and writer in New York.