President’s Greeting: Sep/Oct 2014

Torah Orah. It is a memorable phrase, even if you don’t know Hebrew. Torah means the Five Books of Moses, and in a larger sense, all Jewish learning. Orah means light. The words rhyme, and their meanings rhyme, too. Jewish tradition equates the Torah with light. Both give life; both shed light; both enlighten. Like the rays of the sun, the Torah warms and sustains us; like the glow of a candle, it guides our way even in darkness. So the ancient rabbis have taught, and so generations of Jews have believed. Torah Orah, the Torah is light.

Here at the Skirball Cultural Center, enlightenment is our motivating force. Our doors are open wide to learning, knowledge, and culture. We celebrate the ideas and the ideals that civilize society. Civilization begins with education, and education begins with conversation. Every day at the Skirball is just that: a conversation between teacher and student, parent and child, volunteer and visitor, old friend and new friend. Our halls and galleries and gardens overflow with conversation, encounter, engagement. That is our purpose and our passion.

When illustrator and author Maira Kalman spoke at the Skirball to a sold-out crowd, the program concluded like most Skirball lectures do: with a Q&A. This young fan was thrilled to engage directly with the artist. Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

When illustrator and author Maira Kalman spoke at the Skirball to a sold-out crowd, the program concluded like most Skirball lectures do: with a Q&A. This young fan was thrilled to engage directly with the artist.
Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

Continue reading

Fiddle Me This: 7 YouTube Videos That Re-imagine “Fiddler on the Roof”


Barbara Isenberg reads from and discusses her new book, Tradition!, on Wednesday, Sep. 10.

Shalom Aleichem’s most famous character, Tevye the milkman, is probably more associated with the word “fiddler” than anyone who actually plays the instrument. The Broadway musical about the Everyman in conversation with God and his changing times predicted the turmoil of the 1960s, but it also outlived the tumultuous decade it anticipated—to this day scarcely a bar mitzvah or Jewish (or non-Jewish) wedding has occurred without the inclusion of the strains of “Tradition!” or the father of the bride dancing with his daughter to “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Truly, starting from Zero Mostel, who played Tevye in the original Broadway production fifty years ago—and whose very personality became the template for all Tevyes who followed—the musical has had an unbroken reach. You can literally spend hours on YouTube watching amateur productions, professional ones in other languages (I highly recommend looking for some of the Japanese ones), and much more general weirdness that is vaguely related to Fiddler on the Roof.

Below are some of my favorite clips, because they show the breadth of the phenomenon that is Fiddler. From a performance by Zero himself to marching bands, from foreign whistlers to contemporary casts giving us the “Anatevka Shake,” Fiddler is only halfway through its first century and is poised to remain a part of the cultural conversation for many years to come. And if you’re not convinced of Fiddler’s cultural entrenchment by a series of increasingly bizarre YouTube videos, check out Barbara Isenberg’s excellent new book about the musical’s historic rise, Tradition!, which comes out today. [The Los Angeles Times published this excerpt.] Then be sure to attend a lively talk by Isenberg at the Skirball, Wednesday, September 10. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy some choice Fiddler clips. Continue reading

Spreading the Truth about Cream Cheese

cream_cheese_skirball_lgWhat is a bagel without the schmear? How and when did this creamy, delectable spread make its way onto our plates? In anticipation of his talk at the Skirball on June 24, we asked Rabbi Jeff Marx, a historian of cream cheese and rabbi to The Santa Monica Synagogue, to answer a few of these questions and to share his recommendation for the best cream cheese vehicle (I took the liberty of trying out his suggestion!).


At the Skirball, you’ll be sharing a lot about the little-known history of cream cheese. What’s one remarkable fact about schmear that surprises most people?  That there was no cream cheese in Eastern Europe. Even more surprising is when bagel, cream cheese, and lox first became a combination. And no, I’m not going to tell you that now. You’ll have to wait for the lecture!

How did you get interested in this topic in the first place?
I was writing a history of two Lithuanian brothers who came to America and started Breakstone Bros. Dairy in New York. Some Breakstone family members suggested that the brothers introduced cream cheese to America. When I investigated further, it turned out that in fact cream cheese had been here in the U.S. before they stepped off the boat. I decided to put a footnote in my history indicating this and stating when cream cheese manufacturing actually began. Six years later, I finished the footnote! Continue reading

Seduced By Shteyngart

I first heard Gary Shteyngart speak at the Skirball in 2010, on the book tour for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. That evening, at the end of his reading, I dutifully made my way to the signing table to get my copy autographed.

I first heard Gary Shteyngart speak at the Skirball in 2010, on the book tour for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. That evening, at the end of his reading, I dutifully made my way to the signing table to get my copy autographed.

I first heard Gary Shteyngart speak at the Skirball in 2010, on the book tour for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. That evening, at the end of his reading, I dutifully made my way to the signing table to get my copy autographed.

“Ah, to Jennifer,” Shteyngart said, smiling and raising one eyebrow as he signed my book—the raised brow he employs occasionally when photographed. (Years later, I would learn the significance of my name to Gary, the cause of that raised eyebrow, but I am getting ahead of myself …). That elevated brow boomeranged back at me a few years later, in the headshot sent to promote Shteyngart’s January 16 reading of his new memoir, Little Failure—again at the Skirball. There was that same damn eyebrow arching over the rim of Gary’s eyeglasses, a straight gaze into the camera, a smirky half-grin, chin cupped in hand.

Shteyngart headshot © Brigitte LacombeEver since I saw him at that first Skirball talk, Shteyngart has always just seemed THERE. Every few months I’d come across one of his really funny short stories in the New Yorker, Travel + Leisure, or the New York Times.

And the guy sure has a way with the literary blurb! It feels like for nearly every book I’ve even considered reading in the past year or so, Shteyngart has already been there, read it, and come up with a hilarious, tweet-worthy blurb. There’s even a Tumblr feed dedicated to his masterful blurbs.

This went on for YEARS. So in December, in preparation for his upcoming Skirball reading, I cracked open the preview proof of Little Failure with anticipation. After all, Andy Borowitz, an eminent judge of funniness, declared the book to be “hilarious and moving” in the New York Times. I expected some witty, excellent writing and a good social misfit story. I also expected a lot of weirdness. Continue reading

Kal-El, Man of Steel

coverartFor the twelve-year-old boy in me who wrote a fifteen-page paper on the effect of comic books on children during World War II, Superman at 75: A Jewish Hero for All Time is a dream program. Joining together an expert like Larry Tye with Jack Larson (THE ORIGINAL JIMMY OLSEN!!!!), Richard Donner (director of the Christopher Reeves Superman), and Geoff Johns (chief creative officer at DC Comics), means bringing our audience a rare concentration of expertise and celebrity. Honestly, I wouldn’t dare go see the new Superman movie without hearing what the four of them have to say!

I couldn’t even wait ’til the program to grill Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, about his favorite Superman and how he first learned about our favorite superhero’s Jewish roots.

What first drew you to Superman?
Two things: I was intrigued by why we as Americans embrace the heroes we do, and decided one way to explore that would be to look at our longest-lasting hero of the last century, Superman. The other reason was I wanted to be ten years old again, and revisiting my childhood pal let me feel like I was.

What is your favorite Superman plot?
I loved the 1990s series where he fought his most dastardly enemy ever (Doomsday), died in the arms of his beloved (Lois), and, after the requisite funeral and mourning, came back to life. Those stories reminded me that what comic book creators take away, they can give back, and they reminded the world why it loved (and needed) Superman.

How did you become aware of Superman’s Jewish roots?
Partly by reading all the good works on the Man of Steel’s ethnicity that came before, partly by reading Superman creator Jerry Siegel’s unpublished memoir, which no one other than his family and lawyers had seen before. Continue reading

Thanks for the Memories, Allan Sherman!

It was with a young girl’s excitement that I learned the Skirball would be presenting The Hits, the Life, and the Lost Lyrics of Allan Sherman, a conversation between author Mark Cohen and journalist/film producer Tom Teicholz about the legacy of song parodist and comedian Allan Sherman. Mark Cohen has written the first biography of Allan Sherman and I am excited to learn more about this voice that had such an impact on my childhood. I still remember listening to Allan Sherman’s songs when they were released. We had a record player in the room I shared with my sister, and that’s where we listened to his records. I don’t remember how many albums we had, but we played the songs over and over and laughed ourselves silly—including my parents. Of course, the song I remember most is from the homesick kid at sleepaway camp: “Hello Muddah, hello Faddah, here I am at Camp Granada …”

Listen to Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” here:

We really appreciated this humor for at least two reasons: First, I went away to a girl scout camp and was so homesick and unhappy, Continue reading

Drawn to Drawing

Hand-drying in America, please excuse my messy desk..

Reading Hand-Drying in America, please excuse my messy desk.

I first experienced the work of Ben Katchor more than a decade ago when I read his graphic novel The Jew of New York, a wild tale about a scheme to carbonate Lake Erie and pump seltzer water directly into the tenements of New York City. I loved both the creative wit and the spare drawing style that brought this tale to life. I am very excited to finally meet the man behind the many tales when he appears here next week in a rare Los Angeles appearance.

I had a chance to chat on the phone with Ben recently and I asked him how he started doing graphic novels. Here’s what he told me:

I was exposed to comic strips as a child, growing up in New York. They were always something that existed outside of the certified educational system, a kind of forbidden literature for children. By the time I got to high school I outgrew them in terms of stories, but I still liked the drawing. I realized that the drawing was the thing that really interested me. Continue reading

Report from Secret Headquarters: Craig Thompson Loves Gloria Estefan

Graphic novel and comic book retailer Secret Headquarters (SHQ) are not only big fans of Craig Thompson but seem to know a lot about him. In a blog post expressing excitement that Craig will be at the Skirball late next week, our SHQ friends shared this funny “little primer” on our illustrious speaker.

Born: 1975 in Traverse City, Michigan Continue reading

Shalom, We’ve Been Waiting for You… and We Have a Few Questions

Hope: A Tragedy book coverFor the past few years, several colleagues have repeatedly asked me to schedule Shalom Auslander to speak at the Skirball, suggesting him for this program or that, and sending around his hilarious, irreverent Tablet Magazine articles and essays. So when his publicist called a few months ago to tell me about Auslander’s book tour in support of his debut novel, Hope: A Tragedy, I didn’t have to think twice. Yes, of course we would like to have him speak! Auslander is a prolific writer, known for his story collection, Beware of God; his memoir, Foreskin’s Lament; and his regular contributions to Tablet, This American Life, GQ, The Guardian, and The New York Times. But he had yet to publish a novel. The world has been waiting! So much so that I really couldn’t disagree with his publisher’s proclamation that the publication of Hope: A Tragedy is a “highly-anticipated literary event.” It is! For those who are familiar with Auslander’s work, the novel features his trademark edginess, dark humor, and outlandish characters and situations. There’s also a deep underlying insight. Janet Maslin does a great job of discussing the book’s themes in her New York Times review.

Continue reading

Kim Abeles Talks Art, Community, and Change

A Pearl of Wisdom on the gallery wall

I pass through the exhibition Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence every day. I am always moved by the “pearls of wisdom” that the participants have shared as part of the project. The one above strikes me as particularly heartfelt and true.
Photo by Peter Turman.

Interconnections and interdependency lie at the heart of acclaimed Los Angeles–based artist Kim Abeles’ work, both in her community-based projects like Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence, now on display at the Skirball, and in her fascinating environmental work. I had the chance to chat with Kim recently and find out a little about how she approaches her art.

For Kim, process is the most important part of any work she does, whether alone, in the community, or with collaborators. She told me, “The result is always a surprise. The unexpected connections that you discover along the way have the most impact on both the artist and the viewer. For Pearls of Wisdom, it was most important to look for ways to engage in conversation about the topic of domestic violence, because most people don’t want to address it. Some people get emotional about the show as a result of it touching their own history. Taken in its entirety, you can feel and see that Pearls of Wisdom is a chorus of people, all of them standing up and standing their ground.” Continue reading