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Expressing Jewish identity through words, painting, and puppets

Explore a collection of Jewish art forms this March.

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A groundbreaking Yiddish puppet theater began in New York in 1925. Photo credit: YIVO.

March 2021 marks the second consecutive year in which Passover seder tables will be notably underpopulated as a consequence of the COVID pandemic. And it's a good bet that even the arrival of that much anticipated guest-the prophet Elijah-might be met with a certain degree of anxiety, even if he has been vaccinated and is fully masked.

Yet despite a sadly reduced guest count, the story of the Israelites' liberation from slavery in Egypt will continue to be recounted with a reading of the Haggadah (my favorite edition, first published in 1974, is filled with vivid, richly theatrical watercolor illustrations by Leonard Baskin). The four cups of wine will still be poured, the matzoh and bitter herbs will still be eaten, and the traditional songs will still be sung.

In addition, when not engaged in all those familiar rituals of the seder, there also will be time to celebrate the work of Jewish writers, visual artists, and performers. Here is a sampler for March:

Jewish writers of the 20th century

By any measure, the 20th century was a time of monumental catastrophe and remarkable achievement for the world's Jews-from the pogroms in the Russian Empire that drove waves of immigrants to flee to the U.S. in the early decades, to the unparalleled obliteration of millions in the Holocaust, to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, to the formidable cultural and scientific contributions of several post-war generations in the U.S.

In his aptly titled new book, The Blessing and the Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century (W.W. Norton & Company), the literary critic and poet Adam Kirsch traces those dramatic historical and social events by examining the work of a cross-section of the most influential novelists, poets, playwrights, diarists, and other "thinkers" who, in one way or another, carried on the tradition of "the people of the book."

Kirsch has divided his book into four major sections, each of which explores the changes that occurred over time, and the shifting "homes" of the world's Jewish population. He begins with "Europe: The Future Disappears," which opens with a look at the work of the highly controversial Austro-Hungarian writer Arthur Schnitzler, who dealt with both sexuality and antisemitism. He then moves on to Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, and the diaries of both Victor Klemperer (a convert to Protestantism who chronicled his perilous existence in Germany throughout the Nazi regime), and Anne Frank.

Next comes "America: At Home in Exile," which focuses on such familiar writers (none of whom experienced the Holocaust horrors directly) as Delmore Schwartz, Alfred Kazin, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, and Tony Kushner. It is followed by "Israel: Life in a Dream," which looks at the work of writers in Hebrew-from Nobel Prize-winner S.Y. Agnon, to the diary of the heroic young Hannah Sanesh, and on to the conflicted souls of S. Yizhar, Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A.B. Yehoshua.

The book's final section, "Making Judaism Modern," is a collection of Kirsch's thought-provoking essays about the work of seven writers (includng scholars, philosophers, and rabbis), who, in their many different ways, all deal with the notion of Jewish identity and the dramatic challenges it has faced, and continues to face. And Kirsch poses these crucial questions: "After all the enormous, universal transformations wrought by modern secularism and nationalism, how could Jews in the 20th century continue to believe the same thing in the same way that their ancestors did? But if they didn't, what did it mean to call themselves Jews?"

A new Chicago gallery showcases contemporary artists

Given the ever-shifting protocols for public spaces this past year, any plan to open a vast new art gallery-envisioned as a showcase of mid-career and emerging artists in many mediums-might have seemed a bit cursed. But the indomitable all-female team behind the Springboard Arts Chicago, a 4,500-square-foot, state-of-the art gallery at 1910 W. North Ave. in the Wicker Park neighborhood, made all the necessary pivots, including visits by appointment and a virtual tour of the space itself. And they have just opened their second exhibition of the season, "Momentum" (running March 1 - May 24), in which a number of the featured artists, including Beth Shadur, Ellen Holtzblatt, Lisa Levin, and Linda Emmerman, are Jewish.

At first glance, Shadur's work looks like collage, but look more closely and you realize they are vivid watercolors that use collage-like images. The paintings now at Springboard, created thanks to an Illinois Arts Council grant, are the result of what she calls her National Park Project and suggest maps of the parks she visited and "the pristine environments considered sacred by First Nation people, and man's impact on these spaces."

The Jewish aspect of her work? " Tikkun olom , Hebrew for 'repair of the world'," she said. "My parents were always activists (my father was a federal judge), and I want my art to follow in that tradition."

Holtzblatt's work comes in the form of a series of richly atmospheric seascape and landscape paintings-oils on paper and linen. "They were inspired by many different places I've visited, including a beautiful two-week residency in Iceland," she said. "I tend not to work directly from Jewish themes (although I've done a series of woodcuts about Noah and the flood), but I see these paintings symbolically as the story of creation."

For details about in-person and virtual gallery visits, go to .

A tale of Yiddish puppet theater
My brother recently sent me a link to a fascinating story, "The Life and Death of a Yiddish Puppet Theater," he found on the Internet. Written by Eddy Portnoy (and published in the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage's digital magazine, which often collaborates with YIVO), it chronicles the history of a groundbreaking puppet theater that began in New York in 1925 and toured the U.S. into the 1930s. Here is the link: .

Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the  Chicago Sun-Times  from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for  WTTW-TV's  website and contributes to the  Chicago Tonight  program.

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