Thursday, June 23, 2016

Fourteen Potential Classes I (Literal OMG) Might or At Least Could Teach at My Synagogue...


Israeli Politicians:
David Ben-Gurion: The Elder of Zion
Golda Meir: The Only Man
Menachem Begin: The Greenie
Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres: The General and the Yekke
Yitzhak Rabin: The Sabra
Ariel Sharon: The Chayyal
Meir Kahane: The Zealot
Benyamin Netanyahu: The Yeridah

Politicians in the Diaspora:
Benjamin Disraeli: The Court Jew
Louis Brandeis and Henry Morganthau: The Liberals
Herzl and The Dreyfus Affair: Why Israel?
The Leons Trotsky and Blum: The Jewish Socialist
Walter Rathenau and Bruno Kreisky: How to be Jewish among Nazis?
Henry Kissinger: The Last Court Jew
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Jewish Woman's Time Has Come 
Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman: Two Extremely Jewish Visions of Progress

Jewish Fiction:
Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth: Jews under Imperial Rule
Isaac Babel and Vassily Grossman: Back in the USSR 
Shalom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer: Two Views of the Shtetl
Bernard Malamud and Henry Roth: The Greenie Arriving in America
Primo Levi and Ellie Wiesel: Writing the Unwriteable
Saul Bellow and Philip Roth: The Second Generation in America
Oz, Kishon, and Keret: In the Land of Israel
Mordecai Richler and Howard Jacobson: Jewish Life Elsewhere
Jonathan Safron Foer and Nicole Krauss: The Third Generation in America

Jewish Moviemakers:
David O. Selznick and Irving Thalberg: The Original Producers
Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder: European Sophistication
Mel Brooks and Woody Allen: Low Class and High Class Jewish Life
Stanley Kubrick and the Coen Brothers: The Jewish Chameleons
Barry Levinson: Jewish Baltimore
Steven Spielberg: The American Consensus
Zucker Brothers, Harold Ramis, and John Landis: The New Jewish Comedy
Judd Apatow: The Jew-Bro, As Privileged As Anybody Else.

Jewish TV:
Rod Serling and Sid Caesar: Jewish Strangeness
Dick van Dyke vs. Larry Sanders: The Jew in Hollywood
All in the Family and M*A*S*H: Jewish Liberalism
Seinfeld and Sex in the City: Talmudic Disquisition About Profane Subjects
The Daily Show and The Wire : Tikkun Olam Judaism
Mad Men and The West Wing: Derekh Eretz Judaism
Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development: Jewish Privilege

Jewish Classical Music:
Felix Mendelssohn v. Wagner: The Impossibility of Assimilating
Gustav Mahler and Osvaldo Golijov: Jewish Musicians from Everywhere
Arnold Schoenberg and Gyorgy Ligeti: Musical Moseses?
George Gershwin and Kurt Weill: Stranded Between Two Worlds 
Aaron Copland & Leonard Bernstein: Gay Jewish Socialists Create America in Sound.
Steve Reich and Philip Glass: The American Jew-Bu (Jewish Buddhist)
The Jewish Virtuoso: The Great Jewish Performers

Jewish Popular Music:
Tin Pan Alley: Jews create songs for the age of mass distribution.  
Golden Age Broadway: Jews Write the Songs the Whole World Sings
Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen: the Prophet, the Seer, and his Biblical Inspirations
The Rock Gods: Jewish Musicians Worshipped Like Golden Calves
Phil Spector and Rick Rubin: The Jews Who Ran the Show
Billy Joel and Barbara Streisand: The Long Island Experience
Being Jewish in a "Black Profession": Great Jewish Musicians in Jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.

Modern Jewish Poetry:
Medieval Spain: The Second Golden Age of Jewish Poetry
Heinrich Heine: Jewish Enlightenment
Bialik and Tchernikhovsky: Zionist Longing
Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak: Soviet Tragedy
Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs: German Horror
Yehuda Amichai and Naomi Shemer: Israeli Longing
Allen Ginsburg and Sylvia Plath: Countercultural Rage

Jewish Theater:
Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller: Social Justice in the Theater
Neil Simon: Jewish Nostalgia
Pinter and Stoppard: The Two Uses of British Erudition
David Mamet: Jewish Vilgutsch
Tony Kushner: The Gay Jewish Experience 

Jewish Musical Theater:
The Silver Age: Jewish Wish Fulfillment in Annie Get Your Gun, Showboat, and others
Rogers and Hammerstein: Two Rich Jews Portray the Lives of Poor Goyim
Fiddler on the Roof: Echt Yiddisheit or Endaring Schmaltz?
The Golden Age: Jewish Wish Fulfillment in My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and others
Stephen Sondheim: The American Shakespeare

Modern Jewish Philosophers:
Spinoza and Wittgenstein: Modernist Philosophy as Mishnah
Buber and Freud: The Inner Life, Circumcised
Karl Marx: The New New Testament
The Frankfurt School: Marxism Goes Bourgeois 
Rand, Strauss, Bloom, and the New York Intellectuals: Marxism for the Bourgeois
Berlin, Aron, Popper, and Arendt: How Jews Confront the USSR
Levi-Strauss and Derrida: Postmodern Philosophy as Gemarrah
Critical Theory: The Postmodern Philosophy of Ideology

Jewish Comedy:
Low Class Jews in High Society: The Marx Brothers to Larry David
The Dream Team Behind Sid Ceasar: The Golden Age of Jewish Comedy
Insult Comedy: Don Rickles to Sacha Baron Cohen
Consensus Comedy: Danny Kaye to Adam Sandler
Issue Comedy: Tom Lehrer to Jon Stewart
The Ultimate Jewish Women: Joan Rivers to Broad City.
The Jew Bro: Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler, and the Jew as Goy. 

Jewish Art: 
How Goyisher Painters Paint Jewish Subjects I: Michelangelo and the Italians
How Goyisher Painters Paint Jewish Subjects II: Rembrandt and the Northern Europeans
Chagall and Modigliani: The Jewish Artiste
Silenced Voices: Art of the Holocaust
Rothko, Newman and the Abstract Expressionists: The World Beyond (Olam Ha'Baa)
Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach: Jewish Expressionism

Jewish Popular Art:
Roy Lichtenstein and David Ogilvy: Jews in Advertising
Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Isaac Mizrahi: Jews in Fashion
The Jewish Mythology of Superman
The Jewish Mythology of Batman
The Jewish Marvels of Comics:
Maus, American Splendor, Dropsie Avenue, and Waltz With Bashir: Unpopular Themes in A Popular Art


Fourteen Potential Classes I (Literal OMG) Might or At Least Could Teach at My Synagogue...


Israeli Politicians:
David Ben-Gurion: The Elder of Zion
Golda Meir: The Only Man
Menachem Begin: The Greenie
Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres: The General and the Yekke
Yitzhak Rabin: The Sabra
Ariel Sharon: The Chayyal
Benyamin Netanyahu: The Yeridah

Politicians in the Diaspora:
Benjamin Disraeli: The Court Jew
Louis Brandeis and Henry Morganthau: The Liberals
Herzl and The Dreyfus Affair: Why Israel?
The Leons Trotsky and Blum: The Jewish Socialist
Walter Rathenau and Bruno Kreisky: How to be Jewish among Nazis?
Henry Kissinger: The Last Court Jew
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Jewish Woman's Time Has Come 
Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman: Two Extremely Jewish Visions of Progress

Jewish Fiction:
Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth: Jews under Imperial Rule
Isaac Babel and Vassily Grossman: Back in the USSR 
Shalom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer: Two Views of the Shtetl
Bernard Malamud and Henry Roth: The Greenie Arriving in America
Primo Levi and Ellie Wiesel: Writing the Unwriteable
Saul Bellow and Philip Roth: The Second Generation in America
Oz, Kishon, and Keret: In the Land of Israel
Mordecai Richler and Howard Jacobson: Jewish Life Elsewhere
Jonathan Safron Foer and Nicole Krauss: The Third Generation in America

Jewish Moviemakers:
David O. Selznick and Irving Thalberg: The Original Producers
Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder: European Sophistication
Mel Brooks and Woody Allen: Low Class and High Class Jewish Life
Stanley Kubrick and the Coen Brothers: The Jewish Chameleons
Barry Levinson: Jewish Baltimore
Steven Spielberg: The American Consensus
Zucker Brothers, Harold Ramis, and John Landis: The New Jewish Comedy
Judd Apatow: The Jew-Bro, As Privileged As Anybody Else.

Jewish TV:
Rod Serling and Sid Caesar: Jewish Strangeness
Dick van Dyke vs. Larry Sanders: The Jew in Hollywood
All in the Family and M*A*S*H: Jewish Liberalism
Seinfeld and Sex in the City: Talmudic Disquisition About Profane Subjects
The Daily Show and The Wire : Tikkun Olam Judaism
Mad Men and The West Wing: Derekh Eretz Judaism
Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development: Jewish Privilege

Jewish Classical Music:
Felix Mendelssohn v. Wagner: The Impossibility of Assimilating
Gustav Mahler and Osvaldo Golijov: Jewish Musicians from Everywhere
Arnold Schoenberg and Gyorgy Ligeti: Musical Moseses?
George Gershwin and Kurt Weill: Stranded Between Two Worlds 
Aaron Copland & Leonard Bernstein: Gay Jewish Socialists Create America in Sound.
Steve Reich and Philip Glass: The American Jew-Bu (Jewish Buddhist)
The Jewish Virtuoso: The Great Jewish Performers

Jewish Popular Music:
Tin Pan Alley: Jews create songs for the age of mass distribution.  
Golden Age Broadway: Jews Write the Songs the Whole World Sings
Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen: the Prophet, the Seer, and his Biblical Inspirations
The Rock Gods: Jewish Musicians Worshipped Like Golden Calves
Phil Spector and Rick Rubin: The Jews Who Ran the Show
Billy Joel and Barbara Streisand: The Long Island Experience
Being Jewish in a "Black Profession": Great Jewish Musicians in Jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.

Modern Jewish Poetry:
Medieval Spain: The Second Golden Age of Jewish Poetry
Heinrich Heine: Jewish Enlightenment
Bialik and Tchernikhovsky: Zionist Longing
Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak: Soviet Tragedy
Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs: German Horror
Yehuda Amichai and Naomi Shemer: Israeli Longing
Allen Ginsburg and Sylvia Plath: Countercultural Rage

Jewish Theater:
Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller: Social Justice in the Theater
Neil Simon: Jewish Nostalgia
Pinter and Stoppard: The Two Uses of British Erudition
David Mamet: Jewish Vilgutsch
Tony Kushner: The Gay Jewish Experience 

Jewish Musical Theater:
The Silver Age: Jewish Wish Fulfillment in Annie Get Your Gun, Showboat, and others
Rogers and Hammerstein: Two Rich Jews Portray the Lives of Poor Goyim
Fiddler on the Roof: Echt Yiddisheit or Endaring Schmaltz?
The Golden Age: Jewish Wish Fulfillment in My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and others
Stephen Sondheim: The American Shakespeare

Modern Jewish Philosophers:
Spinoza and Wittgenstein: Modernist Philosophy as Mishnah
Buber and Freud: The Inner Life, Circumcised
Karl Marx: The New New Testament
The Frankfurt School: Marxism Goes Bourgeois 
Rand, Strauss, Bloom, and the New York Intellectuals: Marxism for the Bourgeois
Berlin, Aron, Popper, and Arendt: How Jews Confront the USSR
Levi-Strauss and Derrida: Postmodern Philosophy as Gemarrah
Critical Theory: The Postmodern Philosophy of Ideology

Jewish Comedy:
Low Class Jews in High Society: The Marx Brothers to Larry David
The Dream Team Behind Sid Ceasar: The Golden Age of Jewish Comedy
Insult Comedy: Don Rickles to Sacha Baron Cohen
Consensus Comedy: Danny Kaye to Adam Sandler
Issue Comedy: Tom Lehrer to Jon Stewart
The Ultimate Jewish Women: Joan Rivers to Broad City.
The Jew Bro: Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler, and the Jew as Goy. 

Jewish Art: 
How Goyisher Painters Paint Jewish Subjects I: Michelangelo and the Italians
How Goyisher Painters Paint Jewish Subjects II: Rembrandt and the Northern Europeans
Chagall and Modigliani: The Jewish Artiste
Silenced Voices: Art of the Holocaust
Rothko, Newman and the Abstract Expressionists: The World Beyond (Olam Ha'Baa)
Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach: Jewish Expressionism

Jewish Popular Art:
Roy Lichtenstein and David Ogilvy: Jews in Advertising
Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Isaac Mizrahi: Jews in Fashion
The Jewish Mythology of Superman
The Jewish Mythology of Batman
The Jewish Marvels of Comics:
Maus, American Splendor, Dropsie Avenue, and Waltz With Bashir: Unpopular Themes in A Popular Art


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Cultural Explanation 6/15/16: Ran

After the famous first scene of Ran, I realized that in order to truly see this movie, I should move to the front row. We've utterly lost a sense of size in my generation. Everything is made for the size of a TV screen. Nothing human in the movies exists to make us experience awe anymore: movies are either created to be CGI extravaganzas or direct to DVD. To see Ran at the Senator Theater, however, is something different entirely.

What followed was something truly larger than life. Among the great filmmakers, Kurosawa is not much of a dramatist, and substitutes a kind of ecstatic grandeur in place of most human feeling. He is, however, one of the great visual artists of the cinema. I don't know if he's the single greatest, as though such things can be measured, and any medium that includes Murnau, Lang, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Ozu, Lean, Welles, Bergman, Fellini, Ray, Leone, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Coppola, De Palma, Bertolucci, Gilliam, Herzog, Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Almodovar, Lynch, the Coens, the Andersons, has some pretty stiff competition. But when you see so many shots that have the grandeur of Michelangelo and the luminosity of Rembrandt, you realize that you're dealing with a cinematic technician of a caliber so great that at times his technique is great artistry in itself.

But movies don't exist just in space, they exist in time as well, and in time is where Kurosawa doesn't quite get it. The unbroken line of great creators in Japanese cinema is one of the greatest glories of 20th century art, but even if Akira Kurosawa is most famous among them, I don't think he's the greatest. Last week, I saw an early movie by Kenji Mizoguchi, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, and I very nearly broke down in tears. It restored my faith in art itself. So much about that story was human and intimate that I don't know if I could possibly do it justice by writing about it. What was it even about? The tragedy of wasted lives? Searing anger at the plight of women? Unacknowledged sacrifices which people make for each other? The pointless chasing of success? The snobbery and prejudice that ruins lives? The raw emotional ugliness of life itself?... I prize Ozu over nearly every other moviemaker, but I can understand how many people, particularly in my generation, may not warm to his slowness and hyperrealism. But I do wonder, if Kurosawa lovers watched a few movies by Mizoguchi like Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu Mongatori, would they completely forget about Kurosawa for a time?

Ran is, of its type, as great a movie as exists. But it's a great movie like broccoli is a great vegetable. Kurosawa is not interested in the pathos of his characters so much as he is in the utterly indifferent cosmos surrounding them - and just in case we don't get it, the movie has an infinite panoply of shots which show the sun peaking out from underneath the clouds and the landscape that dwarves the humans who dwell within them.

Western art, with its emphasis on messiness of individual consciousness over cosmic balance and continuity of tradition was largely anathema to the Far East until the twentieth century. Kurosawa, moreso than either Ozu or Mizoguchi, operates as though he's just discovered the importance of the human individual, and wants to shout his revelation from the rooftops. In Ran, as elsewhere in his work, there is no character whom he truly gives an inner life but his principle. And because this discovery feels so fresh, it calls to mind another civilization that had just given primacy to the human individual.

Ran may have been based on Shakespeare's King Lear, but it feels much closer to Greek Tragedy. Except for Hidetora, none of these characters have anything resembling the inner life of so many Shakespearean creations, they are deliberately one-dimensional. His characters are not so much characters as cogs in the wheel of a society in which war is unremitting and existence is only a small remittance from the moment when we have to be sacrificed to the great god of death. As in Greek Tragedy, the point is not to illuminate the mysteries of the individual, but to illuminate the mysteries of why fate acts as it does.

The most extraordinary sequence in the movie, and one of the most extraordinary in the history of film, is of course the famed silent battle sequence at the 'Third Castle' when Great Lord Hidetora's vassal betrays him. Nobody who sees it could ever fail to be shocked by its nihilistic majesty. This is the full ugliness and violence of war on total display. The Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan is utterly impossible without its example. Indeed, there is a very strange agon of influences occurring in this sequence. Kurosawa is portraying violence with all the ecstatic bloodletting which was then de rigeur from the then new masters of Hollywood like Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Polanski, De Palma, Friedkin, Ridley Scott, and yes, Steven Spielberg too. All of whom, to a man, were influenced by the rich pageant shown and manly tales told by Kurosawa's earlier samurai epics.

And yet there are still earlier influences present all over. Kurosawa carries out this battle in silence, with only Toru Takemitsu's Mahler-influenced score for sound (seriously, it's basically just Das Lied von der Erde...). What we see in Ran is the violence of Spielberg and Scorsese and the technique of Kubrick, carried over into the much earlier style of the silent movies which Kurosawa no doubt saw thousands of as a boy. But so complete is the artistry of this sequence that if you froze any frame, I'm sure you could see echoes of Michelangelo and Goya and Bosch and Breughel and Bacon and Grunewald and Titian and any of the other great artists who haunt our nightmares. What is on display is not mere horror that goes 'boo' and startles us, this is the nightmare that haunts us in our moments of deepest sleep and reverie, and all the moreso for being so near to real life.

Kurosawa was seventy-five when Ran was released in 1985, five years younger than King Lear and five years older than the Great Lord Hidetora. Unlike Ozu who resolutely stayed in modern times, and Mizoguchi who moved freely between medieval and modern Japan, Kurosawa clearly preferred medieval epics in which modern life can be dealt with allegorically (at least he did later in life...). There is no direct confrontation with the great issues of modern Japan, but it is impossible not to see in Ran a metaphor for the Japan of his generation. Hidetora is a dictator in every sense of the word, and a man with vast, bloody deeds upon his soul. Only at the end of his life, when suffering was inflicted upon him, could he begin to come to terms with the terrible suffering he inflicted. Who can see the Third Castle go up in flames and not think of the firebombing of Tokyo. Who can see Hidetora wander among a wasteland of a burnt out forest charitably called a 'plain', and not think of Hiroshima? What Hidetora once did to his people was what Japan did to Manchuria and Malaysia and the Phillipines and Papua. He has, finally, paid for his crimes by visiting them upon his head and the brief kingdom of peace he claimed to work fifty years to build. Ran is a work of enormous, tragic pessimism, in which horrible people visit horrific crimes upon other horrible people, virtue is inevitably punished, and the only true certainties are hatred, envy, and violent death. It's an extraordinary movie, but I don't think anybody actually enjoys it. It's not interested in human concerns, it rather takes a larger than life view of ugly human animal from the point of view of the cosmos itself.






Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Cultural Explanation 6/13/16: Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony



There are some days when only one piece of music will do.

The persistent rumor about an honor court's ruling that Tchaikovsky should kill himself is so silly, even for the 19th century, that I don't know how anyone ever believed it. Nevertheless, I don't know how anyone could have heard Tchaikovsky's Pathetique as anything but a suicide note. Just listen to it... It even blatantly quotes the Russian Orthodox Requiem for four bars - musical material that disappears without a trace the moment after it makes its cameo.

To this day, Tchaikovsky's homosexuality is officially denied in Russia by Vladimir Putin's culture minister. His 'shameful secret' remains to 2016 a shame to the country which owes him so many millions of hours of joy. If the Russian soul can be defined, then Tchaikovsky is as close to a one-word definition as exists.

It's also still fairly common for musical snobs outside of Russia to brush Tchaikovsky's achievements off. There were certainly years of my life when I did, but I think I know what provoked the change in me. It happened when I started reading those loose baggy monsters by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It made me realize that Tchaikovsky is yet another of those shadowy cultural figures with an artistic personality split directly down the middle: as much Dmitri Karamazov as Natasha Rostova - eagerly awaiting his Prince Andrei, but praying in the meantime that he doesn't get a Grushenka on his hands. Full of Levin's longing to break free of privileges confines but also filled with Sonia's serene acceptance of her tragic lot.

One side of his personality, the Turgenev or Tolstoy side, is the Europhile, the lover of pretty sounds and beautiful melodies, the French-speaking Russian aristocrat comfortable within the establishment, the superbly articulate and elegant master of expression. As in Tolstoy, passions are always implied beneath an immaculately rendered surface, but his elegance is never divorced from expression and the expression is all the more powerful for having been rendered so understatedly.

The other side, the Dostoevsky or Lermontov side, is the wounded animal and master of melodrama, the Russian who finds German music wooden and inexpressive, the tortured soul who must confess his sins, the creature of excess pathologically attracted to danger, the Underground Man seeking out the light of day, longing for the ability to keep unbridled passion controlled, but wiser for his intimate knowledge of suffering's many contours.

There are some days when you hear the music, and realize that the composer had heard the news before you did. When I heard the famous melody of the first movement, I heard not only a melodramatic melody which some still find tawdry, but a pre-echo of a Liberace-like camp - something I mean with all seriousness as a compliment. There is an arch self-awareness to Tchaikovsky's great melodies, as though he's winking to his listeners and saying with paradoxical insouciance: "I'm being completely ironic yet I'm also being completely sincere."

When I heard the second movement, the 'infamous' waltz in 5/4, all I could see in my head is the dying Prior Walter from Angels in America, in an AIDS-induced hallucination of his partner dancing with him. When I heard the famous third movement, the cry of defiance brought images to mind of Bayard Rustin and Harvey Milk and even Dan Savage. The last movement needs no such description except to say that it's almost unbearable to hear. It all too perfectly reflects the emotions every decent human being had to feel on the day of the worst mass shooting in this country's history. An attack on a hundred (my god, a hundred) is an attack on us all.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Seven Projects

I have unfinished outlines for all of them. I'll be lucky if I ever get one of these projects done...

The Atheist Reformation: A very long series of essays, based in part on Egon Friedell's three-volume book: A Cultural History of the Modern Age. The thesis is that humanity's spiritual life has begun to evolve  past God, but his innate need for religion remains almost exactly the same. Large parts of the world may dispel with the idea of God in the next few centuries, but the innate need for religion, its belonging, its articles of faith, its division of the world into the elect and the unbeliever, remains unchecked. This book would, in a relative sense, be a work of 'great man history.' Not in the sense that great men (or at least larger than life figures) control the world, but that these larger than life figures are 'representative men' who signal the spirit of the particular age.

Tales from the Old New Land: Altneuland is the name which Herzl gave to the outline of the Zionist project. But perhaps the true Old New Land is not Israel, perpetually embattled as it seems to be lo these sixty-seven years, but the extremely uneventful American communities where Jews settled in America, just one of many minorities, and free, if they can, to follow their unique bliss. So why then does this provincial Jewish life, even as Jews have perhaps come closer to the American Dream than any other ethnic group, seem so unfulfilled for so many people? It would be a work of mostly realist fiction, but lots of potential to dabble in techniques that are anything but realistic. Always with the possibility of new stories to update it

Plays from the Old New Land: I started this last year. It centers on a single Jewish family, loosely based on my own but hardly the same (I of course cannot emphasize this enough to anyone who might have read it). The idea is to create a representative Jewish family, in a representative Jewish community, with all the boiling tensions that threaten to tear this Postwar idyll apart, an idyll that's already lasted decades longer than anyone had any right to expect. It would be a cycle of plays: at least six, perhaps seven, though perhaps we should rest from the thought of a seventh...: a Jewish family, Jewish millenials, Jewish baby boomers, Jewish gen-X'ers, Jewish elderly (perhaps two separate ones: one about the elderly from Europe, one about the Greatest Generation elderly from America), and another more amorphous and surreal one that moves through time...

150 Psalms: I've started work on this, and have recorded the bulk of the first four (oy). Jewish liturgical music is, for the most part, incredibly banal. Somebody has to do a Jewish music Apollo Program. The idea here is to create much greater music out of Jewish texts, interpreting the Jewish sacred with the freedom that modern life permits.

Liturgical Music for Jewish Services: Cantillation, still the great Jewish contribution to music, is going severely out of style in our time. The solutions to replace it so far have all been incredibly banal (in my not humble enough opinion). All of them place emphasis on participation, and none of them on the music. Jews need music good enough that the music alone is reason enough to feel a greater spiritual uplift. Just as the great Christian worship texts have musical edifice after edifice by the great masters, we need large scale choral music to be made out of our texts that create a kind of sacred theater out of the work. Works that embrace modern life with all the potential instruments which are still banned in most synagogues, and give the full measure of drama to texts that even the best cantors treated with kid gloves.

Ten Commandments Opera: How do you portray the central event of Judaism for an American audience? Well, what is the great Jewish contribution to American life? I'll give you a hint, what's the great conspiracy in which we control everything? Hollywood is, still, the most Jewish thing about America. Even most of the best American movies are not quite Art with a capital A, but nor are they at all divorced from Art and its direct connection to ideas and to the spiritual world. It is, as Jews make it, a way of squaring the circle - creating a commodity that is something resembling an artistic product for mass consumption in an intellectually and emotionally immature nation that still isn't quite ready for Art with a capital A. The movies are not Art, in a way, they're much better. They're Art with the dull parts excised. The best artistic way to portray the spiritual essence Judaism in America is through a source that isn't quite highbrow. What project cries out for a grand opera more than the C. B. DeMille's 1956 movie, The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments, with its rock-ribbed principles of American Liberalism, with its mixture of lofty discourse and spiritual import with soap opera-level triviality and vaguely pornographic spectacle, is a movie that cries out for operatic treatment as perhaps nothing in the canon of American popular culture does. But it is, without a doubt, the most goyish treatment of the most Jewish of subjects imaginable. Everything about it is wooden. This opera would try to put the life back into that gloriously campy story and gloriously tacky images, with music and dialogue that matches the life that is teeming everywhere else.

Translation of Large Swaths of the Bible: Self-explanatory, except to say that it would have a more literal translation, not blunting the edges that make for more comfortable reading in modern religious life, where Yahweh is an immaterial being, and


Who am I kidding, I'll probably just post thirty articles a day to facebook instead...

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Cultural Explanation 6/3/16: A Brief Digression on Art and Compassion

Occasionally you see a work of art that is so unbelievably "____" that you question your own priorities. 'This work is so unbelievably formally perfect or complex or culturally diverse or monochrome or morally complex or simple that I can't help wondering why all works don't strive to be this way.' Hopefully, an inevitable sense of balance eventually takes hold and we all come to realize that our tastes matter to no one but us. The arts exist for us to fall in love with, not in line with.

At this point in my life, there is only one quality which truly tempts me to say that all art ought to be more "______" That quality, perhaps inevitably, is humanity.

Art is made by humans for humans,  so is it really too much to ask that artists treat their subjects with more compassion than they generally do? All things, all people, in life, are often deserving of contempt. In any sort of narrative fiction, the very mechanism of plot is to put characters in situations both the characters and the audience would find unpleasant to be faced with. Without such unpleasantness, there is no art, but without an acknowledgement that we all deserve something more than unpleasantness, there is no mimesis, no learning from art.

Every child knows that implicitly, and our mature selves are supposed to forget this self-evident truth as we age. In this era when every adult strives to be younger than they are, we have more art that preaches contempt than we ever know what to do with. The majority of popular music objectifies women (really, you're gonna argue this point?...), special-effects laden movies inevitably glorify violence and the alpha males who perpetrate while treating everybody else like bloody dots on a canvas (and let's not even get started on video games...). Genre fiction is, almost by definition, a protest against the human realism of what used to be considered literary fiction - virtually the whole point of genre fiction is to elevate points of theme and plot past the once uncontested primacy of of character exploration.

Perhaps older forms of 'higher art' were and remain no better in many of these regards. Perhaps the more things change, the more they stay the same, but mass art could not possibly exist in an age before mass production as it does today. In an age before mass-produced popular music and movies there was folk music and folktales. Folk traditions may have seen honor and glory in killing and destruction which modern attitudes (hopefully) find abhorrent, but before the modern era when our predisposition to violence could end the planet, there was a nobility to violent aims which even the most hawkish proponent of national defense of the First World should find disgusting in a modern context. And yet, in our age, our fascination with images of senseless violence is nothing short of pornographic. Perhaps, like pornography itself, such violent images can prove a useful depository for urges in our evolutionary programming that would otherwise find their way into real life scenarios. On the other hand, there is always the danger that pornographic fascinations, whether with sex or violence, undirected and unbridled as pornography always is, becomes acceptable to enact in reality. It's always possible that the more fantasies we watch of humans being degraded, the stronger the unconscious urge grows within us all to degrade other humans ourselves.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

ET: Almanac

Krymov thought of Jan Kubelik with his silver hair and his black dinner-jacket. But how was it that the famous violinist now seemed overshaddowed by a mere barber? Why should this simple tune played on a cheap fiddle seem to express the depths of the human soul more truly than Bach or Mozart?

For the thousandth time Krymov felt the pain of loneliness. Zhenya had left him . . .

Once again he thought how Zhenya's departure expressed the dynamic of his life. He remained, but there was nothing left of him; and she had gone. There were many harsh truths he had to admit to himself. Yes, he had been closing his eyes for too long . . .

Somehow the music seemed to have helped him to understand time. Time is a transparent medium. People and cities arise out of it, move through it and disappear back into it. It is time that brings them and time that takes them away.

But the understanding that had just come to Krymov was a very different one: the understanding that says, 'This is my time,' or, 'No, this is no longer our time.' Time flows into a man or State, makes its home there and then flows away; the man and the State remain, but their time has passed. Where has their time gone? The man still thinks, breathes and cries, but his time, the time that belonged to him and to him alone, has disappeared.

There is nothing more difficult than to be a stepson of the time; there is no heavier fate than to live in an age that is not your own. Stepsons of the time are easily recognized: in personnel departments, Party district committees, army political sections, editorial offices, on the street . . . Time loves only those it has given birth to itself: its own children, its own heroes, its own labourers. Never can it come to love the children of a past age, any more than a woman can love the heroes of a past age, or a stepmother love the children of another woman.

Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains, everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time. But now another time has come - and you don't even know it.

In yesterday's fighting, time had been torn to shreds; now it emerged again from the plywood fiddle belonging to Rubinchik the barber. This fiddle told some that their time had come and others that their time had passed.

Life and Fate - Vassily Grossman