Marionettes: An Interview with René Zendejas

renes_marionettes The third annual Puppet Festival is this Sunday, April 13. From hand to shadow, marionette to pageant-size, all your favorites will be there! The Skirball is especially happy to welcome back puppeteer, storyteller, and puppet maker René Zendejas. René returns to wow families with a special animal puppet revue and performance, showcasing some of his best handmade animal puppets. I sat down with René as he was preparing for his appearance to ask him about his long career in the world of puppetry.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I started when I was in junior high school. My mother took me to see as many puppet shows as possible that were playing in L.A.

Which puppeteer captured your imagination when you were young?
I had already started in show business when I was five years old, so this wasn’t something totally new for me. One of the puppeteering teams that caught my eye was Walton and O’Rourke—the most fantastic puppeteers that I have ever seen. From then on, I was smitten. They’re long gone by now. They had the most beautiful marionettes and their manipulation was unsurpassable—except by me, of course.

How do you make your puppets?
First, the clay is sculpted using water-based or grease clay. Second, a plaster mold is made of the clay sculpture. Then you pour your final material into the mold, either plastic or latex. Then comes the finishing of the figure by sanding. Lastly, you animate it—if there is to be any animation in the eyes and the mouth—and paint it. Meanwhile, the body must be constructed and costumed. Continue reading

Talking Ladino with Guy Mendilow

A sneak preview of Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom, to be performed by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble at the Skirball on March 27:

Guy Mendilow is not only an incredible musician, he is also quite a scholar of Sephardic culture. He and his ensemble’s concerts not only present the music of Sephardic tradition in a contemporary style, they also share the stories and culture of the Jews of both pre- and post-diasporic Spain. Their concerts become not just an opportunity to enjoy, but also to learn. I invite you to share in my conversation with Guy and then join us at the Skirball for what is certain to be a great evening.

So what is Ladino? How is it an “endangered” language?
First off, let’s quickly tackle the question of names. The term “Ladino” is arguable. Although it has become the most common name for the language, the spoken language itself is more correctly called Spaniolit, Yehuditze, Judeo, Judaismo, Hekatia (in Northern Africa), Saphardi, or, as was the case for older generations, simply Spanish. Today, the various dialects are often grouped under “Judeo-Spanish,” an umbrella term used mainly in academic study.

What the language is is a great story. The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 marked the start of large-scale migrations in which the Jews eventually settled in communities spanning the vast Ottoman Empire, from Northern Africa and the Mediterranean to the Balkans, and beyond. In each adopted home, the language, food, customs, stories, songs, and musicality that the Jews brought with them mingled with local variants—and cultural and linguistic offshoots eventually evolved. To some extent, each Jewish community adopted words and expressions from the local languages, including Greek, Slavic languages, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. The language of Ladino is a beautiful illustration of these broader patterns. Another reason that the language is fascinating is that it keeps alive some of the grammar, words, and even pronunciation from the 1500s. It’s like a time capsule.

Judeo-Spanish is still spoken by pockets of Jews, today primarily in Israel. But the culture has succumbed to many of the same forces of modernity and assimilation to which other cultures have also succumbed. Children stopped learning the language, focusing instead on the dominant languages of the new home, like Hebrew or English. When grandparents passed away, the language went with them.

This is the case of Judeo-Spanish today, though thankfully there are a handful of universities—like Tufts, the University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Pennsylvania—that are teaching the language.

 

Why do you think preserving Ladino through song is important?
Songs—and other arts—can tell us much about a culture. They are a glimpse into a constellation of values and perspectives, occasions, life cycles, and celebrations. Songs are also an opportunity to hear the language, especially when there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so, for most of us at any rate. Continue reading

EL AL Poster Competition–We Have a Winner!

Chis Kim A., shown here with his poster alongside Liora Avrahami from EL AL Airlines, designer Arnold Schwartzman, and Skirball curator Doris Berger. Photos by Shoshana Maimon.

We have a winner! When we opened the exhibition To the Point: Posters by Dan Reisinger last month, not only were we excited to have the unique and inspired designs of Dan Reisinger on view in our Ruby Gallery, but thanks to his many years of collaboration with EL AL Israel Airlines and the support of the Consulate General of Israel, we were able to offer the opportunity for anyone to share their designs with us and enter a contest to win airfare to Israel via EL AL! We are happy to announce that Chris Kim A. (click here to read how he got the “A” from Andy Warhol!) has won the contest, and excited to share the winning poster as well as the designs of seven other finalists below.
Continue reading

Tips for a Meaningful Passover Celebration, from Generation to Generation

At Passover this year, my wondrous granddaughter, Sloane, will be two-and-a-half. She is pictured here with me (in blue), her mom (with Sloane in her arms), her aunt, and her great-grandmother at last year’s Seder. I will feel blessed to have four generations seated at our Passover table. Right: Here the family is gathered at Passover many years ago at my mom and dad’s house. I can tell it’s a Seder by the red wine glasses and men wearing kippot.

Left: At Passover this year, my wondrous granddaughter, Sloane, will be two-and-a-half. She is pictured here with me (in blue), her mom (with Sloane in her arms), her aunt, and her great-grandmother at last year’s Seder. I will feel blessed to have four generations seated at our Passover table. Right: Here the family is gathered at Passover many years ago at my mom and dad’s house. I can tell it’s a Seder by the red wine glasses and men wearing kippot.

Following in the tradition of my parents and grandparents, my husband and I have hosted our family Seder for the past twenty-seven years in our home. Some of our guests, numbering anywhere from twelve to twenty-four, do not come from a Jewish background. Our aim is make everyone feel welcome and to have a joyful, memorable experience. Over the years, we have developed some great ways to achieve this through interactive and thoughtful questions, storytelling, song, table setting, and food. Here are some helpful tips and good finds I’ve picked up over the years.

 

1) GOOD PLANNING MAKES FOR A GOOD HOLIDAY.

Shopping, cooking, setting the table, and preparing for the Seder service can be overwhelming and challenging. I keep recipes, grocery lists, and a timeline on file, and I start planning and prepping a few weeks in advance to spread out the workload. It’s never too early to make sure you have everything you need to set your table. The following ceremonial objects, available at Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball, make for an elegant presentation.

 

60_minute_seder_bookcover p32) THE HAGGADAH BRINGS THE HOLIDAY TO LIFE.

Read at the seder table, the Haggadah recounts the tale of the Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Each year, we are challenged to retell the sacred story in a way that keeps it fresh while preserving age-old traditions.

As the buyer for Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball, I am excited to recommend a new Haggadah that we have reviewed, Sixty-Minute Seder. It’s an easy-to-follow yet sophisticated guide to preparing for Passover and executing the service.

 

3) PASSOVER IS A CELEBRATION OF FREEDOM. SPARK CONVERSATIONS THAT CENTER AROUND THAT THEME.

Questions and answers are central to the Seder ritual, which is all about connecting with one another. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Mar/Apr 2014

Building a snowman in Tel Aviv. February 5, 1950. Photo by David Eldan. Courtesy of Government Press Office of Israel.

Building a snowman in Tel Aviv. February 5, 1950. Photo by David Eldan. Courtesy of Government Press Office of Israel.

 

I was eight years old the first time I saw snow. It was in Tel Aviv, where I grew up and where it never snows. But one day, in February 1950, it did. A layer of white blanketed the city. Everyone came outside to witness the extraordinary event. My friends and I built snowmen in the streets. The grown-ups did, too. And all within view of the Mediterranean Sea. The sight of white snow on white sand—it was so rare and marvelous! Since immigrating to the United States, I have witnessed many other snowfalls, but I will never forget the first one.

In the 1960s, Ezra Jack Keats, the son of immigrants to these shores, wrote and illustrated The Snowy Day, a book celebrating the childhood wonder of snow. His setting was New York City. Snow is not a rare event there. But the book was a rare event, because Keats made the groundbreaking choice of an African American as its main character—the first time a black child was the focus of a popular children’s picture book. Keats did not see himself as a pioneer of civil rights. But it was important to him to depict his beloved neighborhood as it was, and to show that the joys of childhood are universal. Continue reading