The year 2011 seems safely behind us, but cultural events never quite adhere to strict calendar years. For that reason, many of the things we’d like to remember as triumphs in Jewish culture from last year — the return of a near-universally praised Woody Allen film, say, or a major new history of Jerusalem — will garner plenty of attention in 2012. Allen’s 2011 film “Midnight in Paris” will be a hot topic at the Oscar’s in late-February, having been nominated for four awards, including best director and best film. And British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s wildly acclaimed history “Jerusalem: The Biography” will receive the National Jewish Book Award for best book of the year at an awards ceremony in March, even though the book came out last year.
Given how difficult it is to leave last year’s cultural gems behind (and we shouldn’t, if they’re good enough), we’ve had a hard time predicting what the big cultural events of 2012 might be. After all, surprises are by definition impossible to predict. And much of what we’re excited about in the year ahead is new work by proven entities — filmmakers, architects, authors, artists, choreographers. Still, with what we’ve gotten wind of so far, 2012 is shaping up to be a year brimming with major milestones in virtually every field of culture. Below, just a handful of the many events we’re most looking forward to are listed, in no particular order.
“Footnote,” Joseph Cedar, and the Rise of a Great Israeli Director. Joseph Cedar is just 43, but his work has been acknowleged twice at the Oscar’s, with nominations for Best Foreign Film. In 2008 he was there to represent “Beaufort,” a critically acclaimed (and critical) look at Israel’s first Lebanon War. This year he’s taking his critically acclaimed “Footnote,” a film about an academic feud between a father and son, both of them Talmud scholars at Hebrew University, to the award ceremony in Hollywood. Cedar hasn’t won the prize yet, but “Footnote” won best screenplay at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. In any event, more important than an award is the work itself — Sony Classics bought the rights for North American distribution, and “Footnote” will finally be released in select United States theaters beginning Feb. 24.
Nathan Englander, In Print and On Stage.
Five years is a long time for a young writer to take to come out with a new book. But Nathan Englander, whose debut novel “The Ministry of Special Cases,” about a Jewish man caught in Argentina’s “dirty war,” came out in 2007, has not been slacking off. He’s been busy writing short stories for The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and the like. Several of them — and some new ones — will be published in a new collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” in mid-February. But that’s not all he’s been up to. In March, his English translation of the Haggadah, “New American Haggadah,” will come out; it’s edited by another major Jewish writer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and features commentary by writers like Jeffrey Goldberg and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The following month, his translation of the prominent Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s short fiction gets released. Then, to top the year off, his stage adaptation of one of his older short stories, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” about a Jewish writer rounded-up in a Stalinist purge, will have its premiere at New York’s Public Theater.
The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC-Berkeley Opens. The Great Recession took a toll on every art institution in the country, and the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, the third largest museum of Judaica in the country, was no exception. In 2010, its holdings were folded into UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, but rather than disappear entirely, the Magnes re-emerged this year. A brand new wing for the Magnes was built right next to Berkeley’s campus and opened in January. Its new home is a small but spacious glass rectilinear structure that displays just a fraction of its tremendous Judaica holdings — ketubahs from Kochi and wedding dresses from 19th-century Greece, to name two. There’s also ample room for exhibits of the work of young visual artists.
Hofesh Shechter Dances Up a Storm in London.
Since moving to London in 2002, the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter has become a leading modern dance figure in Europe. He racks up major awards annually, and recently secured for his company a regular performance schedule in England’s most prestigious dance venue, Sadler’s Wells. Early this year, Shechter debuted his latest and perhaps most ambitious work, “Survivor,” at London’s Barbican Theater; in the piece, 170 performers, many of them on-stage musicians, incorporate Shechter’s own score with visual imagery by sculptor Antony Gormley. The jagged intensity of Shechter’s work tends to send a visceral shock down the viewer’s spine, and our only hope is that “Survivor” — or any work by Shechter — gets staged soon in America. Last year he showed up in California and, in the past, has worked at Jacob’s Pillow. So far nothing has been announced for a stateside tour this year; but in the dance world, things can move quickly. Here’s hoping American producers get him here soon.
Amos Gitai’s Museum of Architecture Opens in Haifa.
The Israeli artist Amos Gitai is so synonymous with avant-garde film that many don’t realize that his formal training is in architecture. He got his Ph.D. in architecture from Berkeley, and his father, Munio Gitai Weinraub, was one of Israel’s most revered Bauhaus architects. In fact, the entire Museum of Architecture project that Amos Gitai has spearheaded is an homage to his father; it is built around Weinraub’s original Haifa studio, in the Bauhaus-style he did so much to promote. The official opening is in mid-March, and the focus of many of the exhibits will be on social justice. Which makes sense: Gitai’s films have often explored the plight of Arabs and Palestinians, and he sees architecture as having, in recent years, spurned the poor and general public, in favor of the wealthy or prestigious. With his new museum of architecture, Israel’s first, Gitai hopes to change that.
The Ungovernable Dana Yahalomi and the Public Movement.
Speaking of social justice, it has been a central part of the work of the Israeli artist collective Public Movement. Since its founding by Dana Yahalomi and Omer Krieger in 2006, Public Movement has staged scores of flash-mob type art performances across Israel, all of them meant to highlight some social wrong. Yahalomi is now the sole leader of the group, which has been selected for the New Museum’s second Triennial, “The Ungovernables,” which opens in March. Taking a cue from the Arab Spring, the New York museum has chosen about 30 artists from the Arab world and elsewhere — Nigeria, China, Brazil, Colombia — whose work has a strong social edge. Public Movement, which participated in the protests against income-disparity that swept through Israel last summer, brings a new work to the Triennial.
Michael Chabon’s Return to Realism. For the past decade, the Jewish novelist Michael Chabon has turned to genre-fiction as his primary M.O. Whether it was “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” of 2007, which created alternate history — a Jewish state built in Alaska — or the serialized novel of the same year, “Gentlemen of the Road,” set in 950 C.E. Khazaria and following a tribe of swashbuckling warrior-Jews, reality hasn’t been his focus. But when his new novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” comes out in September, it’ll be squarely in the mode of earlier works like “Wonder Boys” (1995) and even “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning opus from 2000. Though “Adventures” dealt with two comic book creators — a fantastical realm — it was essentially historical fiction: a retelling of the Jewish creators behind early comic books. With “Telegraph Avenue,” Chabon creates a fictional portrait of present-day Oakland, Calif., where he lives. It follows an African-American family and a Jewish-American one, both living in the same city, and the intersection of their lives. ◆