Auschwitz really happened — and this artsy architecture exhibit proves it

It’s been more than 50 years since the Nuremberg trials, yet proving the Holocaust actually happened remains an ongoing project.

Why? For one, the Nazis covered their tracks, deliberately leaving gaps in the historical record. (In the death-camp blueprints that survive, for example, gas chambers were often labeled as morgues or “undressing rooms.”) As the years pass, survivors and eyewitnesses are dying or suffering dementia. Add in social media — including the rise of the “alt-right” — and it creates an ideal environment for neo-Nazis to swiftly disseminate claims that the Shoah is a fiction.

Filling the breach in our understanding of the Holocaust is a relatively new discipline called forensic architecture, which analyzes renderings, documents, videos and photographs of buildings and infrastructure and uses them to re-create atrocities, ranging from drone strikes on apartment buildings in wartime to the gassing of millions of Jews at Auschwitz.

An example of how forensic architecture can be used to set the record straight is on display at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. Titled “The Evidence Room,” it runs though Nov. 27.

An exhibit about Auschwitz might seem out of place in an international gathering that typically showcases state-of-the-art architecture and cutting-edge building materials. (The massive show features the work of 88 architects in the main exhibition, plus works by architects representing their counties in 63 national pavilions.) However, this year’s Biennale is titled “Reporting from the Front” and the show’s curator, Alejandro Aravena, indicated that his agenda is to highlight how architecture can be utilized to further humanitarian aims.

Case in point: Robert Jan van Pelt, the curator of “The Evidence Room” and a professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo, tells JTA he considers Auschwitz’s crematoria “the most important building of the 20th century.”

But his assessment isn’t based on aesthetic merits. It’s “for the simple reason that it had changed the course of history,” he explains.

“The Evidence Room,” in which van Pelt aims to address the ethical responsibilities of architects, re-creates some of the definitive evidence used in a landmark British court trial 16 years ago that pitted the American Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt against the Holocaust-denying British historian David Irving. The trial — soon to be dramatized in a major motion picture — is viewed as a watershed in the ongoing campaign against Holocaust deniers because it relied on actual physical evidence as opposed to anecdotal accounts.

“The Evidence Room” (Fred Hunsberger)

Some of this evidence is on display in van Pelt’s exhibit, which is located in a 500-square-foot space at the Biennale’s Central Pavilion. The walls are white plaster and adorned with bas reliefs that depict blueprints for the gas chambers, photographs and illustrations based upon eyewitness accounts, including an image of a kneeling naked Jewish woman being shot in the back of the head by a German officer.

What makes the exhibition stand out from familiar Holocaust museum exhibits, however, are three full-scale models of gas chamber apparatus designed by the Nazis. There’s a mechanical gas canister delivery system encased by sturdy metal grillwork; a rough-hewn door with a grill-covered peephole, and a wood ladder propped against a wall with a small, locked hatch. These items, designed and fabricated by University of Waterloo students and faculty based on photos and eyewitness testimony, are also painted white.

The intention is to use this aestheticized architecture exhibit to enable visitors to better visualize subject matter that has been relegated to history books and courtrooms.

“The forensic study of architecture was able to show that Irving had deliberately misrepresented historical evidence,” Aravena writes in his essay on “The Evidence Room” in the Biennale’s catalog.

Van Pelt, who curated “The Evidence Room” with fellow professors Donald McKay and Anne Bordeleau, along with arts producer Sascha Hastings, has spent decades studying the architecture of Auschwitz and gathering physical evidence to show the workings of the Nazis’ systems. Thanks to his research, many myths have been definitively debunked — including that deadly gas emanated from shower heads. (It actually came from gas canister delivery systems like the ones represented in the exhibit.)

Van Pelt, 60, who is Jewish and is named after an uncle who was murdered at Auschwitz, says his initial inspiration to study Auschwitz came in the 1970s, when a line in the film 1955 French documentary “Night and Fog” resonated deeply with him: “The architects calmly plan the gates through which no one will enter more than once.”

A decade later, as a graduate student, he decided that the study of Auschwitz was just as important to the history of architecture as the study of the Chartres Cathedral.

Van Pelt discovered many of the documents and plans for Nazi death camps in archives in Eastern Europe that were opened after the fall of communism in 1989. Later, in 2000, he used some of the materials during testimony he gave as an expert witness in the Irving-Lipstadt trial. Van Pelt’s research subsequently became the basis of his 590-page book titled “The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial,” which Aravena read several years ago and led him to invite van Pelt to the Biennale.

Robert Jan van Pelt, a professor at the University of Waterloo and the curator of “The Evidence Room.” Photo by Siobhan Allman

As it happens, near “The Evidence Room” is another exhibit featuring forensic architecture — this one by Eyal Weizman, an Israel-born professor at Goldsmiths, University of London. Unlike van Pelt’s work, which confirms accounts of events that Jews have long known to be unassailable, Weizman uses tools of the discipline to raise much more controversial questions about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

At the Biennale, Weizman’s exhibit is in part about the impact of Israeli drone strikes on buildings in Gaza and their occupants. His work has been used in investigations by organizations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International into state-sponsored violence.

Weizman, who coined the term forensic architecture and credits van Pelt as an inspiration, got his start documenting what he calls illegal occupations in Israel. The discipline comes from his efforts to implicate Israeli architects for violations of international law and and human rights.

“Many neighborhoods in the occupied parts of Jerusalem as well as in the West Bank are designed to control Palestinian communities and to generate material harm,” he says.

During a tour of his exhibition at the Biennale’s opening, Weizman explains that forensic architecture has become more critical to documenting contemporary war crimes because modern warfare increasingly involves the targeting of buildings in dense urban environments. As a result, in places like Gaza, “the home has become the most dangerous place for people to be,” he says.

As for van Pelt, his pioneering forensic research on Auschwitz has made him into a world authority on methods of mass murder. Recently he aided Mexican prosecutors investigating the incineration of the bodies of dozens of murdered students. Having studied how corpses were burned in open-air pits at Birkenau — as well as having researched a Nazi unit that was tasked with opening and burning mass graves, with the goal of erasing physical evidence of the Holocaust — van Pelt helped challenge the Mexican authorities’ version of the students’ abduction and murder.

These days, however, aside from assisting in occasional forensic investigations, van Pelt says he’s mostly focused on academic research and educating his students.

He says the history of Auschwitz serves as a warning for architects to be socially conscientious about the impact of the buildings they design. One example: the refugee housing being built in parts of Europe that van Pelt says “is starting to approach concentration camp conditions.”

“Architects should get the equivalent of the oath of Hippocrates,” van Pelt says. “When I teach my class, I tell them the story of Auschwitz — and I say whatever you do with your career, don’t do this.”

Children’s art exhibit gives expression to illness

Artwork created by children with serious illnesses will be auctioned off, along with works by professional artists and celebrities, at Chai Lifeline’s “Through the Eyes of our Children” on May 21.

Chai Lifeline West Coast provides support to 325 seriously ill children and their families, and most of the 40 works being exhibited were created in art therapy programs. In addition to the children’s work, celebrities such as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jamie Lee Curtis and David Beckham have created works specifically for this event, and more than 20 internationally and nationally acclaimed artists, including Kim Abeles, Lita Albuquerque, Doni Silver Simons and Ruth Weisberg, have donated works to benefit Chai Lifeline West Coast.

Entry to the exhibit is free. To RSVP, contact, call (310) 274-6331, or go to

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through Feb. 2009


Robert Dowd — Pop Art Money — See Jan.17 listing


Fri., Dec. 12
“Laemmle Through the Decades: 1938-2008, 70 Years in 7 Days.” It must have been an extraordinarily difficult task to select only seven films to represent the rich and diverse history of the Laemmle Theatres chain. But someone did it. For the next week, Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles will screen the seven most iconic foreign-language films to have graced the company’s silver screens, each one representing a different decade of its existence. The lineup includes “Children of Paradise” (1945, France), “La Strada” (1954, Italy), “Jules & Jim” (1962, France), “The Conformist” (1970, Italy, France and West Germany), “Fanny & Alexander” (1982, Sweden), “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988, Spain) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001, Mexico). Films will screen several times a day. Through Dec. 18. $7-$10. Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-5581. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Dec. 13
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” With a long list of Top 40 favorites, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway,” this musical mishmash of Leiber and Stoller hits is ideally jubilant for the holiday season. Since its 1995 premiere on Broadway, the 39-song revue has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, won a Grammy Award for the legendary duo’s songs and featured special appearances by megastars such as Gladys Knight, Gloria Gaynor and Rick Springfield. Starring in this NoHo production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” are DeLee Lively, Robert Torti and a host of other talented stage veterans. Special performances include tonight’s opening night gala and two New Year’s Eve shows, one with a champagne reception, the other followed by an all-out party with the cast. 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Through Jan. 4. $25-$150. El Portal Theatre, Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-4200. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Dec. 13
“Moonlight Rollerway Holiday Jubilee.” Charles Phoenix is addicted to thrift store shopping. Luckily for us, Phoenix has put together a collection of the goodies he has found. Now, Moonlight Rollerway, which calls itself Southern California’s last classic roller rink, is presenting Phoenix and his quirky, retro holiday slide show. The viewing event will be followed by a roller-skating revue spectacular, featuring 75 championship skaters and celebrating the entire year’s holidays, including Cinco de Mayo and Valentine’s Day. Snacks and an after-show skating party are included. 8 p.m. Also, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. $35. Moonlight Rollerway, 5110 San Fernando Road, Glendale. (818) 241-3630. ” target=”_blank”>

Sun., Dec. 14
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Annual Winter Concert. There is an Academy Award-nominated documentary about this choir. It has toured Brazil, China, Italy and Poland, among other nations. And since its inception in 1986, the chorus has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Approximately 250 talented and dedicated children between the ages of 8 and 12 make up the LACC. The angelic voices of these preteen choristers will bring to life works by composers such as Aaron Copland, Pablo Casals, Randall Thompson and J.S. Bach in a winter concert inspired by literary luminaries Robert Frost, William Shakespeare and others. The program follows the 2008-2009 season theme, “The Poet Sings,” and features a varied selection of classical, folk and contemporary pieces. 7 p.m. $24-$42. Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 793-4231. ” target=”_blank”>

Mon., Dec. 15
Reel Talk: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Stephen Farber, film critic for Hollywood Life magazine and The Hollywood Reporter, has been treating audiences to sneak previews of the industry’s hottest films for more than 25 years. The veteran film buff concludes this year’s preview series with a fascinating film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who is born in his 80s and ages backward. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, the odd tale is already making waves and is set to hit theaters during prime-time movie-watching season, Christmas. The screening will be followed by a discussion with members of the filmmaking team, including Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West. 7 p.m. $20. Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500. ” target=”_blank”>

Tue., Dec. 16
Carrie Fisher presents and signs “Wishful Drinking.” It’s not easy being an action figure before you can legally drink a beer, but that didn’t stop Princess Leia from having one, or two, or many more. Fisher’s first memoir, adapted from her one-woman stage show, is a revealing look at her childhood as a product of “Hollywood in-breeding” and her adulthood in the shadow of “Star Wars.” After electroshock therapy, marrying, divorcing then dating Paul Simon, a drug addition and a bipolar disorder, Fisher still manages to take an ironic and humorous survey of her bizarre life. Meet Fisher and get a copy of her book signed at this WeHo book haven. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>

Fri., Dec. 19
“Peter Pan.” Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, pirates, Indians — we know the cast of characters well. But how many of us have actually seen a full production of J.M. Barrie’s classic fantasy play, “Peter Pan” — especially one that features the complete musical score by Leonard Bernstein? Composer Alexander Frey — who helped reconstruct portions of Bernstein’s score that had been previously lost for a special CD — is flying in from Berlin to conduct the live orchestra. 7 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Dec. 28. $30-$70; $10 (seniors and students). Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. (805) 963-0761. ” target=”_blank”>

Wed., Dec. 24
“49th Annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration.” Los Angeles’ biggest holiday show, featuring 45 groups and 1,200 performers, is a proud tradition — and it’s absolutely free! Running approximately six hours, the holiday extravaganza features the county’s cultural diversity. This year’s highlights include hip-hop group Antics Performances, South Bay Ballet and Grammy-nominated Lisa Haley and the Zydekats. Audiences will have the opportunity to listen to sounds and see sights from the world over, including Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. For those of you who can’t make it to see the event in person, KCET-TV will also be airing the event live. Sponsored by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and produced by the County Arts Commission. 3-9 p.m. Free. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3099.

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through November 2008


Fri., Sept. 12
“A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People.” Angelenos can explore the legacy of one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved popes in a new Skirball Cultural Center exhibition. Through artifacts, photographs and audiovisual recordings that first appeared at Cincinnati’s Xavier University only weeks after the pope’s death in 2005, visitors can explore the life of Pope John Paul II and the historical and personal circumstances that led him to aggressively reach out to Jews worldwide. Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to enter a synagogue, recognize the State of Israel and formally apologize for the Catholic Church’s past treatment of the Jewish people. The Skirball will also offer several public programs related to the exhibition: an adult-education course on “Jesus and Judaism” and film adaptations of biblical epics, among others. Through Jan. 4. $10 (general admission), free to all on Thursdays. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 13
“Speech & Debate.” The town is Salem, Ore., and, as in countless other American cities, teenagers are on the prowl for like-minded adolescents via the Internet. However, the three teenagers who find one another in “Speech & Debate” don’t just bond over music, books and movies, but are linked through a sex scandal that has rocked their community. The three adolescent misfits do what anyone else would to get to the bottom of the scandal: form their school’s first speech and debate team. Check out the West Coast premiere of the play, which critics are calling “flat-out funny.” 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Through Oct. 26. $22-$28. The Blank Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 661-9827. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 13
Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival. Camarillo is offering visitors a one-day extravaganza filled with music, artists and gourmet food, all culminating in an evening concert under the stars. The 2008 Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival will include gospel and bluegrass music, a farmers’ market and more than 50 artists showcasing their work. By evening, retro-band Royal Crown Revue will warm the stage for a secret, Grammy-nominated headliner. 8 a.m. (farmers’ market), 10 a.m. (music and art walk). $20-$60. 2400 Ventura Blvd., Old Town Camarillo. (805) 484-4383. ” target=”_blank”>

Fri., Sept. 19
“Back Back Back” at The Old Globe. There’s nothing poignant about professional athletes using steroids. Or is there? Old Globe playwright-in-residence Itamar Moses delves into the controversial topic and takes the audience beyond the newspaper headlines and congressional hearings to the sanctuary of sports — the locker room. With humor and insight, Moses unfolds the stories of three major league baseball players who struggle to compete in the unforgiving world of professional sports, as well as balance their personal lives and professional images. The up-and-coming playwright has “clearly demonstrated tremendous talent along with a willingness to tackle complex ideas in his plays,” said The Globe’s Executive Producer Lou Spisto. Moses’ other works include “The Four of Us,” which won the San Diego Critics’ Circle Best New Play Award last year and “Bach at Leipzig.” 8 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Oct. 26. $42-$59. Old Globe Arena Theatre, James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, San Diego. (619) 234-5623. ” target=”_blank”>

Sun., Sept. 21
KCRW’S World Festival. A remarkable, eclectic lineup marks the last week of KCRW’s World Music Festival. Ozomatli toured the world, engaging audiences with its blend of Latin-, rock- and hip-hop-infused music, as well as its anti-war and human rights advocacy. The multiethnic group headlines this special night at the Hollywood Bowl, along with Michael Franti, a former member of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and his latest band Spearhead. Mexican singer Lila Downs as well as Tijuana’s premiere electronic band, Nortec Collective and its members Bostich and Fussible, will make it impossible for anyone not to get something out of the mix. If you haven’t had the chance to catch this spectacular summer concert series, don’t miss this last opportunity. 7 p.m. $10-$96. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 850-2000. ” target=”_blank”>

Wed., Sept. 24
Brad Meltzer signs “Book of Lies.” The New York Times best-selling mystery writer is back with a riveting new thriller that links the Cain and Abel story with the creation of Superman. Young Jerry Siegel dreamed up a bulletproof super man in 1932 when his father was shot to death. It may sound like a strange plotline, but trust Meltzer, who has written six other acclaimed page-turners as well as comic books and television shows, to produce a great read. The novel is already receiving major buzz and you can get in on the action in a variety of ways: By watching the trailer on Brad Meltzer’s Web site (yes, the book has a movie trailer), listening to the book’s soundtrack (yes, the book has a soundtrack) and by coming to a reading and book signing by the author. 7:30-9 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 380-1636. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 27
“Skinny Bitch: A Bun in the Oven.” If there is one thing that doesn’t ever get old, it’s mocking our own culture. Authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin do just that in their newly released “Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven,” a sequel of sorts to their best-selling cookbook “Skinny Bitch.” The book is a guaranteed laugh riot and today’s in-store reading and signing could offer a sassy twist as the two authors show up in the flesh to dish about expecting mothers. And don’t be fooled, just because the subjects of this book are in a more fragile state of mind, Freedman and Barnouin refuse to make any exceptions to their insightful and illuminating critiques. 2 p.m. $14.95 (book price). Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 27
“Jack’s Third Show.” Long hair, dramatic eye shadow and electric guitars return for an ’80s afternoon. Billed as a benefit for autism education, radio station JACK-FM stages an edgy blend of retro and new wave rockers. Billy Idol joins Blondie, The Psychedelic Furs and Devo for a musical bash that will have you dancing all day long. 2 p.m. $29-$89. Verizon Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. (213) 480-3232. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 27
Museum Day. Art and cultural institutions are hoping to attract folks from all walks of life by making them an offer that’s hard to refuse: free admission to museums across Southern California. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, this event gives art lovers and art novices alike the opportunity to visit venues from the Getty Center to the Craft and Folk Art Museum, free of charge. Natural history and science museums, like the California Science Center are also participating in the event. Regular parking fees do apply and advance reservations are recommended for some exhibitions. For a complete list of participating museums, visit ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 27
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 40th Season Opening Gala. L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s first musical director, Sir Neville Marriner, will conduct its current director, Jeffrey Kahane, in a piano solo to celebrate its 40th year. A symbolic bridge between the orchestra’s past and its future, expect to hear classical masters Beethoven, Schumann and Stravinsky, followed by dinner, dancing and a live auction for patrons. 6 p.m. $35-$125 (concert only), $750 (full package). The Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. Saint John Ave., Pasadena. (213) 622-7001, ext. 215.

Artists Dream in a Golden Age

Sam Erenberg spends most of the day, nearly every day, alone in a 1,000-square-foot box.

“It’s like a temple,” the painter says of his artist’s studio.

A lonely temple, that is.

“I’m the rabbi and congregation all in one,” he says with a laugh.

Working as an artist can be isolating, especially in the sprawling city of Los Angeles. And what good is inspiration without community?

The Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California exists for artists like Erenberg. The group, consisting of about 30 members, constitutes one of the nation’s first organized networks of Jewish artists. Its aims are twofold: to create a support system for local artists and to transform the way the Jewish community relates to art.

On a recent evening, Erenberg sat among other artists in a garage-turned-studio in Larchmont Village. He, for one, was happy for the company.

“This is my ad-hoc family,” he said to the painters, photographers and sculptors who had gathered there for the group’s monthly meeting.

The Artists Initiative emerged three years ago, when Amelia Xann of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles approached USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Xann wanted to create a program to promote visual art by Jewish artists.

The organizations decided to found a group that would put on exhibitions, host a lecture series and provide a space for artists to explore the relationship between their Jewish identities and their art.

So, the Artists Initiative launched, with $40,000 in foundation grants for a speaker series and Web site.

The group staged its first exhibition in 2004 at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Too Jewish — Not Jewish Enough” showcased paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, ceramics and digital work that incorporated Jewish themes or adhered to “a Jewish sensibility.” (Art with a “Jewish sensibility,” Erenberg explained, exhibits “a kind of longing, a feeling that you’re connected to a long history.”)

The second exhibition, “Makor/Source,” concentrated on the sources of the artists’ inspiration. The exhibit opened this year at the Hillel: Centers for Jewish Life, at USC and UCLA.

Members are planning a third exhibition, which will likely have a California theme, to open in the next year or so at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Art historian Matthew Baigell will curate the show.

Ruth Weisberg, a nationally recognized artist and the de facto leader of the group, said the initiative has ambitious goals.

“We really want to be another porthole, another entrance into Judaism,” said Weisberg, who is dean of USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts. “Younger people, especially, are often more at ease entering the Jewish community through cultural events than any other way.”

Weisberg, who illustrated the Reform movement’s new haggadah, said she hoped the group would also encourage Jewish artists to treat Jewish themes in their work.

“Many Jews who are involved in the art world keep their Judaism in one part of their life, and their cultural [expression] in another,” she said. Jews may fear being categorized — or even dismissed — as Jewish, rather than mainstream, artists. But keeping art and religious identity separate “is, I think, unnecessary and not that productive.”

Not all of the group’s members agree.

“I’m here protesting,” Channa Horwitz announced at the last meeting.

“I’m Jewish, and I’m an artist, but I’m not a Jewish artist,” said Horwitz, who uses complex patterns and bright colors in her work. “I don’t think art has anything to do with religion.”

Horwitz’s response reflects the diversity of the group, which includes Jews across the religious spectrum, from around the world, including the United States, Israel and Russia.

Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, members find value in the group.

“It’s really great to sit in a room with people who get it,” said Laurel Paley, whose use of Hebrew text in her art has been criticized as “obfuscation.”

Members hope their network will become a model for communities across the country. To increase membership and public awareness, the group is updating its Web site. It has also applied for another foundation grant.

Should funding arrive in the fall, the artists hope to launch new projects. One idea they bandied about involves creating a Jewish community center for the arts, where the public can come not only to view art but also to create it.

As the artists speculated about the future, a sense of what could be — if only they had the world as their canvas — invigorated the group.

Exciting things happen when artists get together, said Bruria Finkel, a sculptor with works on display at the New Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

The Dadaists and Cubists of the 20th century began by meeting in groups, Finkel said. Now, with Jewish artists flourishing in the United States, especially on the West Coast, who knows what this group can accomplish?

“It’s a golden age,” she said.


Time to Watch and Learn at the Zimmer

Clocks and watches can do far more than simply tell time. A new exhibit at the Zimmer Children’s Museum shows that when sliced, diced and deconstructed by artists and humanitarians, timepieces can edify, entertain and even inveigh against social injustice.

“Show & Tell: The Art of Time” features 74 works ranging from whimsical clocks decorated with painted pink bunnies to clocks that comment on race, class and even the wretched state of California’s youth prisons. Several high-profile artists, including Charles Arnoldi and designer Paul Frank, submitted works, and all the timepieces are on sale for $500 to $15,000. Nearly half the works already had sold during the exhibit’s April 30 to May 6 preview. Proceeds will go to youTHINK, a Zimmer program for public-school students that uses art to teach fourth- to 12th-graders to think critically about issues of social justice.

“The art is over the top, and the community response has been incredible,” said Esther Netter, the Zimmer’s chief executive. “This is a grand slam for the museum.”

“The Art of Time” is a successor to “Show & Tell: The Art of Connection,” a 2004 exhibit that showcased 179 phones decorated by artists, humanitarians and entertainers. That exhibit raised more than $125,000 for youTHINK. However, the challenges of gathering and displaying so many works led Netter and her staff to curate fewer works this time around and not seek submissions from athletes, actors and most others in the entertainment industry.

Given “The Art of Time’s” early success, said Netter, Zimmer has plans afoot to unveil another ambitious collection in May 2007. “Show & Tell: The Art of Harmony,” will feature musical instruments as works of art.

Los Angeles artist Kingsley said nonprofit groups regularly ask him to contribute works for worthy causes, but that he turns down many requests. He agreed to donate a clock for the current exhibit and a refashioned musical instrument for next year’s show, because he supports the Zimmer’s mission of touching young people’s lives through art.

“This is an opportunity for us artists to give back to the community,” said Kingsley, whose “Gramps,” a grandfather clock wrapped in pieces of canvass painted in red, blue and green, fetched $10,000 before “The Art of Time” officially opened.

Other works on display also make a strong impression. Kenan Malkic’s stark “I Can Still Work” depicts a shattered, albeit still operational, clock held together with tape. Like his clock, Malkic’s a survivor: He lost both his arms and a leg after stepping on a land mine in Bosnia at age 12.

“My clock proves that it is what’s on the inside that counts, ” he says in a note running adjacent to his work.

In a more fanciful vein, designer Frank created a black-and-red animal-like figurine with its face fashioned out of an alarm clock. The piece, called, “Tor Tor,” resembles Pokey, the claymation pony from the “Gumby” cartoons of the 1960s.

In a plea for racial unity, lawyer/artist Stephen Frank Gary’s “Isn’t It About Time” features a large clock surrounded by branches, trees and wires. Gary has replaced the clock’s numbers with painted white, red, brown and black human hands

“Isn’t it about time,” he asks in the program notes, “that we join together as one?”

“Show & Tell: The Art of Time” exhibit will run from May 7 to June 9 at the Zimmer at 6505 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles. Admission is free. For more information, call 323-761-8992, or visit


Spectator – Scene of the Shot

In New York City of the 1930s and ’40s, Arthur “Weegee” Fellig often worked all night, shooting the latest murder, fire or urban melee with his Speed Graphic camera. An unshaven, fedora-wearing, tough-talking, cigar-smoking loner, Weegee renamed himself after the popular Ouija board game and shamelessly cultivated a reputation for his “psychic” ability to sniff out breaking news.

Although he became famous for graphic, sensationalist and emotionally raw photographs that simultaneously exaggerate and illuminate human folly, Weegee never forgot his Lower East Side roots as an immigrant Jew.

Currently on display at the Getty Center, “Scene of the Crime: Photo by Weegee” focuses on the photographer as tabloid journalist and New York City-style Toulouse-Lautrec — for his documenting of urban nightlife, particularly the clubs of Greenwich Village. But according to Judith Keller, the exhibit’s curator, Weegee also had an interest in “shooting synagogues, life-cycle celebrations and other scenes of Jewish life.” And like other secular, socialist-leaning Jews of his time, Weegee “was adamant about racial and social prejudice,” she said.

Born at the turn of the century in Austria, Weegee immigrated to New York with his family in 1910 and grew up in various cold-water tenements on the Lower East Side. His father eked out a living as a pushcart peddler and later, became a rabbi. A high school drop out, Weegee became interested in photography around age 15. An entrepreneur, he shot passport photos and children on rented ponies. He eventually found work in the darkroom labs of Acme Newspapers.

The Getty exhibit features some 60 photographs from 1937 to 1959. In the 1950 print “Tenement Sleeping,” a large man slumbers without covers on a fire escape, clearly seeking refuge from his sweltering digs. Weegee himself had spent many nights on fire escapes in cheap tenements. Mundane and almost peaceful, this photograph intriguingly stands out in a body of work that often emphasizes the dramatic and lurid.

“Scene of the Crime: Photo by Weegee,” is on display through Jan. 22 at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles (310) 440-7300 or visit


Wiesenthal’s Work Beyond Words

Simon Wiesenthal devoted his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals, and his life and that effort unfold in a new exhibit at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance.

Wiesenthal died last week at 96 at his home in Vienna, and this exhibit was quickly but lovingly put together at the museum, which is part of the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. The center, though named for Wiesenthal, was not founded nor run by him. Yet there’s an indelible connection between the center’s work and Wiesenthal’s own mission — and he donated many personal effects to the museum.

The exhibit’s powerful collection of photographs, awards and artifacts is a virtual walk through history with Wiesenthal, seemingly, as your personal guide. There are his personal pencil sketches of the camp as well as photos and handwritten notes.

One photo is of an American flag, fashioned by the prisoners from scraps of clothing, before American soldiers liberated the camps. The flag contains 56 stars because the prisoners were unsure how many states were in the United States.

“They handed the flag to the American soldiers when they walked into the camps as a gift for setting them free,” exhibit curator Eric Saul said.

Wiesenthal and his wife, Cyla, were among the camp survivors, though they lost dozens of family members. By the end of the war, the couple had been forcibly separated, and each believed the other was dead. The exhibit’s treasures include notes written by Wiesenthal and his wife after the war, but before they were reunited. There’s also archival material from each of their childhoods. Cyla died in 2003.

Wiesenthal, who was barely alive when liberated, began his Nazi-hunting quest as soon as his health permitted. He first began the process of gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the U.S. Army. He worked for the Army’s Office of Strategic Services and Counter-Intelligence Corps and headed the Jewish Central Committee of the U.S. Zone of Austria, a relief and welfare organization.

As the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, both sides lost interest in prosecuting Germans, and Wiesenthal’s volunteers, succumbing to frustration, drifted away to more ordinary pursuits. In 1954, the office in Linz was closed and its files were given to the Yad Vashem Archives in Israel, except for the dossier on Adolf Eichmann, who, as chief of the Gestapo’s Jewish Department, had supervised the implementation of the “Final Solution.”

Wiesenthal never gave up on tracking down Eichmann or others, determined that the world wouldn’t forget those who died. He worked out of a small office in his home using telephone books to track down war criminals, many of whom hadn’t even bothered to change their names after the war.

According to Museum of Tolerance Director Liebe Geft, when Wiesenthal found a Nazi criminal — and no one would pursue the suspect — he would hold a press conference to shame the world into it.

His efforts paid off in the apprehension of some 1,100 war criminals. Through Wiesenthal’s work, Israeli agents eventually captured Eichmann and brought him to Israel to stand trial. He was ultimately convicted and executed. The exhibit includes a rogue’s gallery of the war criminals he helped to expose and bring to justice.

Wiesenthal wanted everything to proceed according to law. He opposed the hit squads formed by some survivors who sought to kill Nazis after the war.

“He didn’t believe that was right,” exhibit curator Saul said. “He believed becoming murderers wasn’t the answer, but bringing them to trial would better serve the memories of the dead.”

Saul recalled Wiesenthal’s explanation that he was out for justice rather than revenge, and an assurance the world would never forget: “Wiesenthal would often say, ‘Every day is remembrance day for me.'”

A refusal to bequeath collective guilt on the entire German nation made Wiesenthal a popular speaker among German youth.

The exhibit, Geft said, is a poignant reminder of a time the world would have chosen to forget, if not for Wiesenthal and a few others.

According to Saul, although Wiesenthal only achieved a 10 percent success rate on convictions, he was not daunted. It was all about the process of justice for him.

“When people view this exhibit, they should realize that not all, but a little justice was done,” Saul said.

Wiesenthal refused a salary for his work and lived instead off royalties from his books.

The 12 books he authored are displayed, along with honorary diplomas and certificates from various universities. Numerous magazine articles chronicling his work are prominent throughout the exhibit.

He was as little concerned with honors as with money. Saul recalled visiting Wiesenthal’s home and finding that he kept his medals and awards under his bed, collecting dust.

“He was however, proud of his distinguished award from the Polish government, the highest they could bestow on a citizen. It meant something to him because Poland was his homeland,” Saul said.

Some of these medals also are shown in the exhibit.

Not everyone was a fan. On display, among the letters from dignitaries and admirers, is hate mail. At least twice, bombs were placed at his doorstep.

The exhibit also portrays a private side of Wiesenthal, including his stamp collection. But this hobby found its way into his work.

“It was the stamp collecting that led him to Eichmann when he realized he could track war criminals through postmarks,” Saul said.

Geft said she hopes to create a permanent Wiesenthal exhibit as part of the Museum of Tolerance.

“Maybe some child will visit this exhibit and step forward to become another Simon Wiesenthal,” Geft said. “We encourage everyone to come and sign the book and write a message to keep his work and the memory alive.”

Saul said Wiesenthal once told him, “When I go to heaven and they ask what I did on earth, some will say ‘baker, laborer, doctor.’ I will say, ‘I never forgot you’ to the 6 million I will meet there.”

But the photos and archives also underscore Wiesenthal’s service to future generations. He once said, “The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow, that they will never rest.”

Simon Wiesenthal Exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Free with museum admission. For more information, call (310) 553-9036 or visit

Israeli Artist Paints a Path to Healing

There is something raw about the rough brush strokes in the work of native Israeli artist Rhea Carmi, and about her textured materials, such as sand and stone. But then, there also was a rawness to the tragedy that originally informed and inspired her work.

Carmi lost her brother in the Yom Kippur War and needed a way to cope. When she turned to painting, friends and family told her that she had talent.

The result of this new life path will be on display this summer at the Lawrence Asher Gallery in the museum district of Wilshire Boulevard. Most of the exhibited works will be from Carmi’s “Humanity’s Struggle” series, but there also will be selected works from her “Humanity’s Resilience and Everlasting Spirit” series. The exhibition explores themes the 53-year-old artist has wrestled with throughout her life; the paintings themselves represent her work over the past 12 years.

Carmi’s artistic evolution quickly became about more than confronting the grief of her brother’s death: She’s also had to process warring sides of her personality — the scientist vs. the artist. Carmi studied physiology at Tel Aviv Open University before switching her major to art at Ramat-Gan Institute for the Arts, where she studied under artist Moti Mizrahi, an artist recognized for his conceptual art and use of space, and mixed-media artist Arie Aroch.

“In my work you can see a war between certain characteristics of mine,” Carmi said. “One side of me that wants everything to be in order [with a] vertical flow … like in science. The other is my wild side.”

The paintings in her “Humanity’s Resilience” series utilize Carmi’s chemistry background, tapping into her inner scientist. Jerusalem stone and other raw materials such as sand and rocks recreate the look of antiquity in this series. Through carving into the paint, painting on stone and using ancient Hebrew letters, Carmi creates a cave-painting look that symbolizes the resilience of the Jewish people throughout history. This series is as much about touch as sight; the textures Carmi uses let the viewer feel the layers of history.

Some of the paintings in “Humanity’s Struggle” deal with the universal emotions people experience after trauma or tragedy. Her mixed-media pieces with cookie-cutter figures illustrate the loss of identity that can occur after a tragedy.

One example is “Survivor’s Dance,” a red painting in which various uniform figures dance in a circle, like they are jumping on a trampoline. Carmi described it as a dance of life. The various figures illustrate diverse and individual reactions to tragedy.

An example of her wild side taking over is “Suspended: Humanity Struggles VIII,” with its vibrant primary colors and strong masculine lines, depicting the senseless violence and loss of life in the Middle East. The painting shows several figures being hung. The shock of the subject matter and the rough nature of her brush strokes had museum visitors mesmerized at her last exhibit.

In “Humanity Struggles XXIV,” there are Hebrew letters and a red tzitzit that Carmi said is supposed to look as though it has been soaked in blood. It juxtaposes the struggles occurring in Israel with the calmer constant of Judaism.

“Even though the struggles are very hard, most of the time we fix it. You become stronger and better if there is another disaster because of those struggles,” Carmi said.

Her works, with their vast range of styles, materials and symbols reflect her conflicting sensibilities: “Sometimes one side takes over the other. It depends on the mood…. I could separate my work into the one that comes from my guts and the one that comes from my head. I convey my feeling via the material and the colors and the texture.”

She expects and welcomes a broad swath of reactions to her work.

“People can relate their personal experience to my paintings,” she said, “even though I experience something different than them.”

Rhea Carmi discusses “Humanity Struggles” at the Lawrence Asher Gallery, June 23, at 7:30 p.m. The Humanity Struggles Series (1991-2003), will be on display through July 9 at the Lawrence Asher Gallery, 5820 Wilshire Blvd. Parking available behind 5858 Wilshire Blvd. For more information, call (323) 935-9100.

A Great Beginning

When Ed Block’s father died three years ago, he and his siblings were left to look for keepsakes while disposing of the contents of his Florida home. When opening a large, flat box stored in a closet, they were flooded by memories of their father, ever eager to show off a possession prized for 30 years: an unframed lithograph series by Abraham Rattner, a contemporary Jewish American painter.

"He loved to show them," said Block, of Laguna Hills. "But he never figured out what to do with it," he said of the collection. "He didn’t want to split them all up" between his three children.

In vivid primary colors with figures drawn in bold, black strokes, the 12 large pictures in the series titled, "In the Beginning," depict seminal moments of Jewish biblical history, along with an appropriate citation and quote. Several suggest the dreamy fantasies of Chagall; others are painted with a dark, foreboding cubism in a style reminiscent of Picasso. Just 200 were printed in the early ’70s.

Among the biblical characters portrayed are Moses at the burning bush, Adam and Eve and Sampson and Delilah. The abstract lithographs mounted in contemporary frameless Lucite will be permanently displayed on the second floor of the synagogue under a vast skylight.

The collection can be viewed through Aug. 27 in the current exhibit at the Kershaw Museum in Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El. The modernist series aptly fits Beth El’s contemporary architecture, reborn after an extensive remodeling from its original industrial use. The congregation relocated from trailers in 2001.

Block’s father owned the lithograph collection, because he was a childhood friend of Rattner’s publisher, New York art dealer Bill Haber.

After his father’s death in February 2001, neither Block nor his two siblings, Cheryl Gelber and Marilyn Harvey, were ready to hang the collection in their homes. Eventually, they decided to celebrate their father by making the collection a gift to Beth El. Jo Anne Simon, whose family helped establish the synagogue, served as an intermediary.

"I wanted it close to home so I could go and visit it," said Block, a physician. He and Lori, his wife, are 15-year synagogue members. His own artistic preference favors the realism of Israeli artist Tarkay, who sentimentally portrays women in vibrant scenes.

Recent appraisals valued the collection, one of Rattner’s lesser known works, at about $15,000, Block said. "It’s not that valuable. Its value is that it’s intact."

Individual prints from the series can be found for sale but not the entire collection, he said. Alan Wofsy Fine Art in San Francisco acquired Rattner’s portfolio a decade ago and currently lists signed and numbered lithographs made by the artist in the last decade of his life for $400 each.

In the decade that preceded Rattner’s biblical series, the artist’s work began reflecting religious themes and his Jewish heritage. One of his best known from that era is "Victory — Jerusalem the Golden," honoring Israel’s 20th anniversary of independence.

Rattner was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His parents were immigrants who came to the United States to flee anti-Semitism and czarist Russia. Work by the artist, who died in 1978, was widely exhibited in his lifetime and is included in several museum collections.

His personal papers and those of his second wife, Esther Gentle, are archived in the Smithsonian’s collections, in part because of Rattner’s friendships with some of the century’s most creative luminaries. After serving in World War I, where duty included painting camouflage, Rattner spent 20 formative years in Paris, a cultural center for disillusioned expatriates. He experimented with cubism, futurism and expressionism, which would inform his later work that pushed the boundaries of artistic tradition.

During that period in Paris, he was part of a group that included Picasso, Dali and Miro and writers such as Henry Miller, a friend for 40 years who would join the artist on a road trip in the United States.

The introduction to "In the Beginning" is by the artist’s dealer. Haber wrote, "The 12 scenes symbolize man’s aspirations, his triumphs and defeats, his wisdom, his folly, his hopes and his prayers. There is no end to ‘In the Beginning.’"

Miller, too, added an introductory comment: "I’m so happy to see that with the advance of time, my dear old friend, Abe Rattner, continues to reveal that exaltation of spirit. He has the uncommon faculty of combining wrath, biblical wrath, with ecstasy. His work speaks of a living God, a God of infinite compassion and understanding. It belongs not in the museum, but in the cathedral of a new and promising world."

At least by one measure, Miller’s comments proved prophetic. For sure, Beth El’s remodeling transformed a secular environment into a public space with cathedral-like qualities.

Shoah Book Brings Museum Experience

"A Promise to Remember: The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of Its Survivors," by Michael Berenbaum. (Bulfinch Press. $29.95.)

You don’t find an index or bibliography in a museum. You go there for images, for impressions, to be moved, as well as educated — so, too, with "A Promise to Remember."

Michael Berenbaum, a first-rate scholar and writer, who was founding director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has produced, in effect, a traveling museum, or in barely more than two score pages, a traveling museum exhibit.

More than a catalogue of a museum exhibition, Berenbaum, now director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute, presents a total museum experience. Instead of walking down aisles and reading information panels, you hold the artifacts in your hands.

Through words (his own and interviews with a small number of Holocaust survivors), photos (mostly sepia, with some in color), reproduced documents (copies of a wartime rabbi’s sermon from Berlin and a politician’s letter from Bulgaria, etc.) and an accompanying CD (audio to complement the visual), Berenbaum emphasizes, subjectively but accurately, some of the most important elements of the Shoah experience.

These Shoah elements include: the background of the Final Solution, ghetto life, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the participants and bystanders, rescue by sympathetic non-Jews and, finally, liberation.

This book is clearly for the novice, for someone uninitiated in the terror that gripped the world in the mid-20th century — for the individual who isn’t likely to enter an actual Holocaust museum. The book is a tactile, sensual experience. Only the sense of smell is missing.

In the introduction, Berenbaum writes, "Nothing this brief could possibly do justice to an event as vast as the Holocaust, which evolved over 12 years and enveloped the entire continent of Europe; which consumed some 6 million dead; and whose implications are seen in headlines and images that have entered the conscious and unconscious of all humanity."

He offers nothing new in these pages, no new facts or novel interpretations, but the totality of the familiar, presented in an unfamiliar way, is striking and unsettling. The product, part coffee table book, part reference guide, is a beautifully designed masterpiece. You read the chapter on "The Decision to Kill the Jews," and you look on the same page into the austere eyes of Richard Heydrich and his fellow henchmen in genocide and you feel a chill.

He offers no footnotes or bibliography — no scholarly sources beyond the identifications that describe the interviewees. They aren’t needed; anyone affected by the book, whose interest is whetted, can contact the institutions cited in the acknowledgments.

The book isn’t meant to be read in one reading. Each chapter, to be absorbed and understood adequately, should be read separately. It will take the careful reader a few hours to go through "A Promise to Remember."

Just the length of time it takes to walk through a museum.

Painting Through the Pain

When the Nazis forced artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis into
Terezin, she smuggled in art supplies and taught the concentration camp’s
children to express themselves through art.

“Everyone put us in boxes — the Nazis — and she took us out
of them,” her student, Edna Amit, later said of Dicker-Brandeis, who died in
Auschwitz at age 47.

The Museum of Tolerance is remembering Dicker-Brandies, one
of the founders of art therapy, with a display of her art and that of her
students, as well as a modern-day art therapy project inspired by her

A downstairs gallery displays art by children of Terezin,
which depict harsh camp conditions and life before the war. 

Upstairs, 10 life-size puppets — each created by one of 10
students from inner-city Orville Wright Middle School — sit at a mosaiced
table, with decorated cigar boxes archiving the lives of each child. The
school’s 13- to 15-year-olds face modern-day challenges such as pressure to use
drugs and join gangs.

This is the first time that Virginia Marroquin, a
13-year-old Latina, learned about the Holocaust, and it made her see her own
challenging life in a different way: “[The Holocaust] opened my eyes a lot … it
helped me look at life in a better way. It made me realize how much I have,”
she told The Journal.

Art therapist Dr. Debra Linesch created the project with
Regina Miller, the museum’s project director. This past summer they led a
five-day workshop, using Dicker-Brandeis to inspire the inner-city children.

“No matter how bad things are, give voice to it and you are
re-humanizing a dehumanizing experience,” said Linesch, director of the
graduate department of marital and family therapy at Loyola Marymount
University. “That’s what I learned from Friedl.”

The dual exhibit runs through Jan. 15, at the Museum
of  Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Plaza, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For
information, call (310) 553-8403 or visit

Building the Perfect Painting

For local artist Rebecca Levy, building a body of work literally begins with the building. "Each one is different and has a charm of its own," Levy said of her fascination with edifices from all over the world. "Rebecca Levy: A Visual Wanderer’s Retrospective," a one-woman show opening Sept. 16 at The Workmen’s Circle’s A Shenere Velt Gallery, invites the public to take in the angles and archways, doorways and dormers that populate her paintings.

Levy, who moved to Los Angeles from New York many decades ago, has produced numerous paintings based on edifices that caught her eye during her travels with her late husband, Herbert. Subjects include buildings in Mexico City, Rome and Amsterdam. One intriguing painting is a based on a photograph inside a El Salvadorian church, where a mother and child sit in one corner, while a lone man sits across the aisle. Another painting depicts a storybook house that used to stand before the Beverly Center was erected in the early 1980s.

"As we were traveling, I was really attracted to the architecture," Levy said. "It really struck me that the people who build them don’t live in them."

Levy admits that she is not particularly religious, and yet the nonarchitectural, abstract and figurative paintings that fill her home convey a Chagallesque spiritual whimsy.

While there are gems among the exhibit, many of her best works will not be in the show. But the good news is that the Workmen’s Circle is the first of a slew of art connoisseurs with interest in displaying her work.

Levy has plenty of architectural paintings ahead of her, and despite her incredible view of the Grove from her living room window, "I never approached the Farmer’s Market," she said with a twinkling smile.

"Rebecca Levy: A Visual Wanderer’s Retrospective," Sept. 16- Oct. 10, The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring’s A Shenere Velt Gallery, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. Levy will appear at a Sept. 20 reception, 4-7 p.m. For more information, call (310) 552-2007.

A Short Escape to Prewar Italy

Even when it’s 40 F out and a freezing wind sweeps through the narrow streets of Florence, it is good to be in Italy.

No, it’s great to be in Italy.

My wife, Naomi, and I spent 10 days in Rome and Florence in the dead of winter, bundled like Aleuts in the Mediterranean cold. I’ve read that of all the world’s art treasures, 70 percent reside in Italy — the sacking of Baghdad has probably upped that number to 75 percent — and a chance to see beauty we had only read about was one reason for our long-planned vacation.

What better place to visit as civilization teetered at the brink than the repository of much of civilization’s bounty?

There was a subtext to the voyage as well, inevitable when a rabbi and a Jewish journalist disembark anywhere. The war in Iraq was a few weeks away, and the conflict in Israel blared over CNN International and in the Italian headlines. We would inevitably seek out Jews, Jewish sites and opinions on the international situation, finding plenty of all three along our way. But this was primarily a vacation, and we had no qualms about a brief encounter with Italy’s seemingly unlimited array of pleasures.

Rome was first. Although it was cool in the capital city, we found ourselves walking everywhere from the new and charming Hotel Ottocento, near Piazza Barberini. Nicola, the concierge, just about threw his arms around us when he discovered we were Jewish and from Los Angeles. He was convinced we knew the lyrics to every Barbra Streisand song ever sung. “Peace, war, Bush yes, Bush no” he waved off all talk of the impending conflict. “Do you know, ‘Stony End?'”

Laden with maps Nicola marked up for us, we set off.

If all roads lead to Rome, all Roman streets lead to surprises. Turn a corner and there before you is the Spanish Steps. Tourists dawdle, lovers snuggle and poets linger in the shadow of the building where Byron and Shelley once wrote (and where Shelley, at age 24, died). More walking that first evening led to the sites we had read about but never visited — the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona. Even in February, even before a war, tourists crowded into Rome, but the atmosphere was festive and the people relaxed. If the world was coming to an end tomorrow, why not enjoy tonight?

If the looming war was hurting tourism among Americans, it didn’t seem to faze thousands of others. The next day, when we set off by subway for the Vatican, we emerged to find a line for the Vatican Museums that was at least a mile long. Instead, we headed for the synagogue.

Rome’s grand synagogue sits on the banks of the Tiber River at the edge of the ghetto, or Jewish quarter. Security is tight, and has been ever since a PLO attack in 1982 that left a child dead. Italian soldiers stand guard with machine guns, and visitors pass an armored door to get inside. The interior is stunning, and an exhibit of congregational artifacts, including Nazi-era deportation orders, provides yet more evidence that Jewish life is both adaptable and immutable.

Many Israelis joined us in one of the many daily tours of the synagogue, and over the next 10 days we’d meet several more Israelis taking a break from their country’s tensions by making the four-hour hop from Lod airport to Rome or Milan. Several carriers, including El Al, offer the flights, which run about $500 round trip, making Italy a perfect stop to or from Israel. Perhaps not what Moses Hess had in mind when he penned the Zionist manifesto “Rome and Jerusalem,” but the makings of a great trip nevertheless.

The ghetto is home to several busy kosher butchers, bakeries and a handful of restaurants specializing in Roman Jewish cuisine. To eat this food is to understand, in a bite, much about Italian and Jewish history. As early as the second century B.C.E., Jews traded and settled in Rome. Thousands more were marched off as slaves to the city after the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. forming, by some estimates, a quarter of the ancient city’s population.

“Perhaps the greatest single force in maintaining culinary tradition over the city’s 2,800-year history,” writes David Downie in the indispensable “Cooking the Roman Way” (HarperCollins, 2002) “has been the Roman Jewish community.”

The 16,000 Jews of Rome (about half of Italy’s Jewish population) are scattered about the city now, but the ghetto still provides Rome’s best glimpse into the Italian Jewish past.

At La Taverna del Ghetto, just behind the synagogue, you can sample excellent renditions of these contributions to Italian cuisine, including deep-fried carciofi alla giudia (literally, “Jewish artichokes”) and sweet-and-sour salt cod.

Working backward in history, we visited the ruins of ancient Rome next, stopping to see the frieze on the Arch of Titus depicting the destruction of the Temple. The image looms large in books on Jewish history. In reality, it is tucked away inside the arch. One people’s tragedy is another’s interior decoration.

At the Coliseum, we joined up with a local tour group. The guide, Paulo, tells us it is Jewish slaves who built much of the structure, which was adorned with gold and silver from the sacked Temple. History books are less certain on this point, but in itself it seems a mere footnote to the tens of thousands of people murdered there in the name of sport. The worst reality TV is the pinnacle of civilization compared to what the emperors watched, and our own bloody times seem reassuringly tame in comparison.

When we finally joined the line at the Vatican, it was down to a half-mile, and it went surprisingly fast. The Vatican Museums are built partly on the conquest of bodies — plundered treasures from around the world — and partly from the winning of souls — wondrous artworks from devoted, or at least well-paid, masters. In any case, the assembly is mind-boggling. By the time we reached the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s revived frescoes, we doubted any art could further impress us.

We were wrong. The chapel, a vast room with the soul of a warehouse, is home to a creation that somehow magnifies the power of all creation. We lingered, refusing to be shooed away, as the guards emptied the vast crowd for closing time. Our stiff-necked refusal paid off as we stood almost entirely alone beneath God and Adam.

Somehow it was fitting, not jarring, to be surrounded by so much beauty even as the world was poised on the brink of a war which, if you remember, threatened to doom the Middle East, Europe and America. Flags calling for PACE were hung from hundreds of windows, groups gathered in St. Peters Square singing hymns of peace, the headlines inveighed against President Bush and the Italian prime minister, who had joined the coalition of the willing. In my college Italian, I followed café arguments about how America, with Israel behind her, was pushing the world into a war no one wanted. But whatever doubts Italians had about our country’s policies, they were warm and effusive toward us.

In Florence, the people were just as warm, the air colder.

The lush Tuscan countryside was taking the winter off, but the city itself was full of life and tourists. And art.

Neither of us had ever been to Florence, and we walked the narrow streets unashamedly clutching maps, camera and guidebooks. You get giddy from the quantity and quality of the masterpieces — the light and shadow of Il Duomo; the work of the young Leonardo in just one of the endless galleries of the Uffizi; Ghiberti’s bronze doors at the Baptistery; and, of course, Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia di Belle Arte.

For nearly five days, we explored Florence and Sienna. Sienna’s main square, or campo, proved a perfect place to soak up the sun’s rays on an otherwise cold day, and the small city is a marvel of well-preserved tradition.

The synagogue in Sienna — one of Europe’s best-preserved — was shuttered (we had neglected to call ahead), but the Florence synagogue became a trip highlight.

A friend of mine from Israel, Shulamit, met and married the man who would eventually become the chief rabbi of Florence, Yossi Levi. Shulamit showed us the beautiful interior, painted in Tuscany’s muted reds and greens, and the preschool, where the din of children matched that at any busy L.A. synagogue. Florentines, in general, are private and tolerant of other people’s privacy, and despite the fears of Jews in France and other parts of Europe, Shulamit said the community in Florence felt generally secure.

But Shulamit did say the congregation in Florence could benefit from the participation and energy of long-term non-Italian residents, Jews on study or work visits to Florence, and she was eager to get that word out.

On our last day in Florence, with about 500 museums left unseen and only 2 percent of Italy’s masterpieces under our belts, we made one last stop to see David. Nothing in picture books had prepared us for the power of that sculpture, and we knew, back in Los Angeles, back in our lives, we would miss it. So back we went, and the line was magically nonexistent. You stare and stare at David, and end up feeling that we humans, with our petty arguments and massive wars, are capable of a much grander world. Maybe a world more like … Italy. N

Italian Travel Tips

Kosher establishments are so noted.



Albergo Ottocento

Via dei Cappuccini 19



La Taverna del Ghetto (Kosher)

Via del Portico d’Ottavia


Kosher Bistrot (Kosher)

Via S. Maria del Pianto, 68-69



Piazza Augusto Imperatore, 9


La Tamerici

Vicolo Scavolini, 79

(Fontana di Trevi)


La Toretta

Piazza della Torretta, 38


At this family-run restaurant specializing in fish, the owners forbid smoking — a fact which makes it a rarity in Italy. It’s also quite good and reasonably priced.

Caffe Sant’ Eustachio

Piazza Sant’ Eustachio, 82

(Near the Pantheon)


The be-all and end-all of coffee. Roasted over oak wood and prepared by dedicated barristas following a secret method. Stand in line, order a gran’ caffe, and you’ll weep the next time you set foot in a Starbucks.

Gelateria San Crispino

Via Della Panetteria 4


Long ago discovered by The New York Times, still superior to all other gelatos we tried in Italy — 45 F weather be damned.



Murano Glass Judaica

Via del Lavatore, 33

(Fontana di Trevi)




Hotel Galileo

Via nazionale 22/a


A very reasonably priced three-star hotel in a city known for high-priced accommodations. Clean rooms, friendly and helpful staff, and a convenient location near the train and bus stations.



Via dei Leoni, 8r



Via di Terzollina, 3



Via Del Moro, 48r


Now famous and deservedly so.

Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Food (Kosher)

Via Farini, 27a


Next to the synagogue, Ruth’s focuses on Middle Eastern specialties.

Osteria Ganino

Piazza dei Cimitori, 4


Know Before You Go: is a wondeful site by an expert on Italian food and restaurants. has all the names and addresses of the country’s Jewish sites. is an L.A.-based firm through which you can make museum reservations before you leave. It costs a bit more, but unless your idea of a vacation is standing in line for a half day, do it.

Flapper Era

I t was a unique collaboration forged at the turn of the 20th century. Benjamin Strauss would photograph celebrities; Homer Peyton would manipulate backgrounds of the prints by hand. The resulting images were atmospheric, sometimes borderline surreal.

Now, collector Stephen White has lent 32 Strauss-Peyton portraits from the early 1920s to The Jewish Federation’s Bell Family Gallery for "Art & Artifice."

Strauss, a reserved Jewish man, built a clientele largely through Kansas City’s Jewish community. When the gentile, flamboyant Peyton became Strauss’s partner, he experimented on top of Strauss’s black-and-white photos. The Strauss-Peyton technique of juxtaposing organic gestures over straight photography became their stylish hallmark — so much so that the era’s celebrities paid $100-$1,000 and trekked to Strauss-Peyton’s studio, based at the Muehlebach Hotel, as they passed through Kansas City, then a vital thruway for the silent screen and theatrical circuit.

"People don’t know who they are now," White told The Journal of some of the photo subjects, "but they were so famous in their day."

Some of the celebrities in White’s collection, such as Mary Pickford, are still famous –or, as in the case of Fatty Arbuckle, infamous. Arbuckle is captured in a 1920 opaque on tissue-enhanced portrait that predates the sex scandal that ruined his career.

Many of the bigger stars were Jewish. A 1925 gelatin silver print of Al Jolson features an undulating wave creeping over his head from behind. A 1920 portrait shows us why Theda Bara — who started out as Theodosia Goodman, a tailor’s daughter from Chilliclothe, Ohio — became Hollywood’s first sex symbol.

Almost as fascinating as the images themselves are the autographs and hand-written asides by the subjects in the margins of these original prints.

Strauss and Peyton broke up their partnership in 1927, just before Mickey Mouse and Jolson became the first stars of sound motion pictures. But the products of their union have long outlived their creators. The Strauss-Peyton portraiture has taken on a life of its own.

“Art & Artifice: The Photographs of Strauss-Peyton” will show through Dec. 20 at Bell Family Gallery, The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. By reservation only, (323) 761-8352.

7 Days In Arts


Werner Herzog’s answer to the severe lack of good Holocaust movie roles for muscle men in Hollywood is “Invincible.” The film is based on the true story of Zishe Breitbart, a Jewish strongman who becomes a famous cabaret act in 1930s Berlin. Mousy Tim Roth plays the cabaret owner to Jouko Ahola’s Zishe, a mighty real-life Samson. The film opens this week.

$8.50 (general), $6.50 (students), $5.50 (seniors and children under 12), $5.50 (matinee). Laemmle Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 655-4010. Laemmle Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, call (818) 981-9811.


Today’s autumnal equinox should inspire a little goddess worship in you. Our suggestion: A road trip to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for their exhibit titled, “Ruth Harriet Louise and the Hollywood Glamour Photography.” Now showing are 80 vintage silver prints of 1920s MGM “stable” actresses, including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Marion Davies. All of the photos were taken by Ruth Harriet Louise, a 22-year-old rabbi’s daughter who was also the only woman working in the field at the time.

Runs through Oct. 6. Noon-5 p.m. (Sundays), 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Saturday), 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (Fridays). Free (members, children 5 and under, and on Thursdays and the first Sunday of the month), $6 (adults), $4 (seniors), $3 (students and children ages 6-17). 1130 State St., Santa Barbara. For more information, call (805) 963-4364.


Just a ways down from the lowrider jeans and retro stilettos of Melrose Avenue, elbow-patched corduroy jackets and cardigan sweaters mingle as bibliophiles and antiquarians ogle the fancy books they likely can’t afford. What is this place they’ve come to? A gallery called Roth, Horowitz, Ferrini and Biondi. Located on Melrose Place, the gallery presents “The Tony Bill Collection of Twentieth Century American Literature” this month. The collection includes almost 1,000 volumes of some of the best of the last century’s American fiction and poetry in their original dust jackets. It includes works by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger and Edith Wharton.

Runs through Oct. 22. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Monday-Saturday). 8446 Melrose Place, Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 782-4950.


Jerry Offsay and Sheila Nevins have substantially impacted the world of film by portraying positive images of Jews. They’ve also executive produced projects like the sexy thriller “Diabolique” and the HBO original program “Taxicab Confessions.” The National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Entertainment Industry Council will honor them at the Jewish Image Awards. Show up and thank them yourself for their more racy contributions.

6:30 p.m. (cocktail buffet), 7:30 p.m. (ceremony). $200. Four Seasons Hotel, 300 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 559-9334 ext. 162


Esquire magazine dubs one of the images from the book “Shekhina: Photographs by Leonard Nimoy,” the “Best Jewish Themed Erotic Photograph by a Former ‘Star Trek’ Cast Member.” Substantial praise indeed. Sit in on a conversation with activist and author Nimoy as he discusses this latest book, or just come check out some of the images now on display at the Skirball.

7:30 p.m. $10 (general), $5 (students), free (members). 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.


Personally, we’re tired of sexist stereotypes à la “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” And we’re hoping that “I’m Here Because of My Wife,” the newly-translated-from-Hebrew play, has more to offer than its title would indicate. We’re guessing it might, based on the Israeli acclaim it has already received. But if we’re wrong, blame it on our spouses.

Runs through Oct. 27. 8 p.m. (Thursday-Saturday), 2 p.m. (Sundays). $20. Tamarind Theater, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.


Three one-acts take the stage tonight to benefit Theatre Of Hope, a nonprofit that produces plays and educational arts programs. See “Shiva Warriors,” “The Fifty Year Game of Gin Rummy” and “Kaddish” tonight. You can do your good deed for the week sitting down. And besides, isn’t “Shiva Warriors” just a great title?

8 p.m. $15. Bitter Truth Playhouse, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. For reservations, call (818) 766-9702.

Jew at the ‘Bu

In June 1956, Kathy Kohner, a Jewish girl from Brentwood, began tagging along with some of the neighborhood boys driving out to Malibu. The new sport of surfing intrigued her, and she convinced the boys to teach her. Because she was young, slight and a girl, the surfers took to calling her “Gidget,” short for girl midget.

The story is true. Gidget is real, and she’s Jewish.

The Laguna Art Museum’s current exhibit, “Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing,” examines the impact of the culture that developed on those beaches with the works of artists who surf and surfers who make art. As with their 1993 hot rod exhibit, “Kustom Kulture,” the Laguna Art Museum takes a serious look at the art and the impact of Southern California surf culture; a wave that swelled and broke over America in the ’60s when Gidget hit the screen.

Whether they admit it — or like it — surfers and artists have been influenced by Kathy Kohner (now Kathy Kohner Zuckerman). Gidget not only learned to surf, but she also talked all about the goings-on at “the ‘Bu” to her screenwriter father, Frederick Kohner, a Czech-born Nazi refugee who came to Los Angeles in 1933. Frederick Kohner, who co-wrote the 1938 Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Mad About Music,” wrote the novel “Gidget” in 1957 based on his daughter’s experiences and the new surfer lingo she brought home from the beach. That book inspired the first of many Gidget movies in 1959, starring decidedly non-Jewish sweetheart Sandra Dee. Those movies spawned three separate TV series, the first introducing Sally Field as everybody’s favorite little surfer girl.

In 1964, when Kathy Kohner married Yiddish scholar Marvin Zuckerman (who recently retired as Los Angeles Valley College dean of academic affairs), her fictional namesake had already gone to Hawaii and Rome. Now a 61-year-old grandmother, Gidget is an honorary member of the Malibu Surfing Association and still occasionally gets out in the waves.

On Sept. 29, the museum presents “All About Gidget,” a discussion with Kathy Kohner Zuckerman (that’s Gidget to you) and journalist Deanne Stillman.

Stillman, a sometime surfer herself (“I can often be spotted hanging 20,” she jokes), had not realized Gidget was a real person until she took a job writing for the 1986 revival TV series “The New Gidget.” The Laguna Art Museum exhibit is accompanied by a 240-page, full-color book that includes Stillman’s essay “The Real Gidget.”

As surf culture became more heavily commercialized in the 1980s, Stillman discovered that the original “Gidget” book had gone out of print. The journalist and author (“Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave”) campaigned for its re-release; it was published in June 2001 with Stillman’s introduction and has already sold through its initial printing. “I realized what a lost treasure the book is,” Stillman says. “The real Gidget is a cultural treasure, and the book is like a message in a bottle.”

In Laguna, they are taking that message out of the bottle and hanging it on the walls.

“Surf Culture: The Art and History of Surfing” runs
through Oct. 6 at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. On Sept. 29,
5 p.m., Kathy Kohner Zuckerman and Deanne Stillman talk “All About Gidget” at
the museum. For more information, call (949) 494-6531 or visit .

Expressions of Evil

I have seen each of the works planned for the "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" exhibit slated to run March 17-June 30 at the Jewish Museum in New York. I have seen the video and have most recently, after the exhibition became controversial, been party to the discussion. While not every piece is to my liking, every work in the show has a point. (The show focuses on 13 contemporary, internationally recognized artists who use imagery from the Nazi era to explore the nature of evil.)

Each tells us something important, either about our world and ourselves or about the killers and their world. Some pieces offend — deliberately and provocatively. (Exhibits include "Giftgas Giftset," by Tom Sachs, which features colorful poison gas canisters with Tiffany, Chanel and Prada logos; Zbigniew Libera’s "LEGO Concentration Camp Set," and Alan Schechner’s "It’s the Real Thing: Self-Portrait at Buchenwald," a self-portrait of the artist holding a Diet Coke superimposed over a photo of Buchenwald inmates.)

Religious Christians who have never faced the dark side of Christian anti-Semitism will be offended to see that with proper lighting, the cross can be transformed into a swastika, but the offense reveals a painful truth that it is better we — Christians and non-Christians alike — confront than avoid.

Menachem Rosensaft, the distinguished child of survivors and brother of one of the 6 million Jews who were killed, was offended by the Lego set that resembled a concentration camp, replete with barracks and perhaps even crematoria. Perhaps they are right. But, perhaps Robert Jan Van Pelt is more insightful when he recovered the plans that allowed architects and ovenmakers, builders and planners to create a place where 35,000 prisoners were herded into barracks with only 70 latrines, without adequate water and with only one exit. Van-Pelt has demonstrated that the excremental assault, which Bruno Bettelheim once blamed on the victims for succumbing to their infantalization, was a deliberate part of the architectural planning, the most predictable result of their planning efforts.

Boys can assemble toys — ugly toys. Men can build big toys –death camps where systematic murder is commonplace. If a Lego set can make that point, it has much to say, even if it offends. If it is seen in this light, it will not offend.

I am not fond of the picture in which a child of concentration camp survivors puts himself inside the Buchenwald barracks with a Diet Coke can. As one who has wrestled with the exhibition of Holocaust artifacts and photographs, I do not like retouching or transforming original images. It falsifies, even if it reveals.

Yet, by their masterful writings, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi have put those of us who were not there back into the concentration camp. What child of survivors has not put himself/herself in the camp? What student of the Shoah has not attempted to penetrate the inner kingdom of night?

The Passover hagaddah bids the Jews: "In every generation one must see oneself as if he emerged from Egypt." Future generations may hear the same admonition regarding the Holocaust. The picture may teach us humility. We cannot enter that kingdom of night. We can only approach as if we were there.

Those of us who study the experience of life and death within the camps have learned to respect the experience of the survivors. Wiesel has said, time and again, that "only those who were there will ever know and those who were there can never tell." That cannot be the end of our journey, because we have to listen to those who have spoken — however inadequate may be some of their words. But in the end, our attempts to get there are futile, as this artwork so clearly demonstrates.

I don’t like confronting the eroticism of the Nazi world, but unless we do, we will neither understand its power nor our ongoing fascination with its perpetrator. At its best, art raises provocative questions. And this exhibit, together with its catalogue and its public programs will certainly provoke. Such is its virtue. But it is not provocation for its own sake. This art provokes because the Shoah provokes.

Abraham Foxman, a survivor of the Holocaust and the longtime director of Anti-Defamation League, has said that the exhibition is premature. "Not in the life of the survivors," he said, but he too may be wrong. The exhibition deals with not how we understand victimization, but how we approach the perpetrators. The offense is not a trivialization of the dead or the means by which they were killed but a confrontation with their killers.

Let the question be asked: Can we confront the perpetrators without in some way doing violence to the victims? Permit me to speak from experience. I worked as a consultant to HBO’s Emmy Award-winning film, "Conspiracy," which was a reenactment of the Wannsee Conference, the Jan. 20, 1942, meeting convened by Reinhard Heydrich and attended by 15 high-ranking German and Nazi party officials, at which the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" was coordinated. The victims were not present at that table; they were inconsequential.

The killers spoke a language that did violence to their victims and to portray that history, we had to use that language. Not every portrayal of the Holocaust can be a memorial to its victims. Even some great works of history, such as Raul Hilberg’s magisterial work, "The Destruction of the European Jews," which considered the Holocaust from the record of German documentation, offended the victims.

But there is a corrective. Let survivors speak with these artists. Let the artists speak in the presence of the survivors. Let the conversation be genuine. The chambers of the Jewish Museum are safe enough, open enough and respectful enough for it to be the forum where generations talk to one another deferentially, openly, seriously.

The Jewish Museum has responded to the complaints by doing what museums do best: preserving the exhibition and respecting the freedom of the visitor to see the exhibition without imposing the most controversial works on those visitors who want to see the rest of the exhibition but not the controversial pieces. By its signage, it will warn visitors of what they are about to see. By the exhibition path, no one will have to come across one the three pieces that some found offensive.

To realize what this means, we should understand the difference between a film and a museum exhibition. A film has a captive audience and moving imagery. A museum has captive imagery and a moving audience. The Jewish Museum will respect the freedom of movement of the visitors so they can see what they want to see and — equally importantly — not to see what they do not want to see. By signage, by placing a piece or two behind a screen and by providing a mouse for the visitor who chooses to see a computer screen, the visitor’s freedom is preserved — all visitors — those who appreciate these works, those who are offended by them and even those who appreciate the work even as it offends.

Let the exhibition open, let the works be seen in context and then let the criticism begin. Perhaps Rosensaft and Foxman are right and their views will prevail, or perhaps we have reached a moment where the intergenerational transition is well underway. Better such a discussion should occur in the presence of those who were there — with their overwhelming moral stature — then when it is too late to receive their searing criticism and respond.

Silver Lining

Like his better-known silversmith counterpart, Paul Revere of Boston, Myer Myers (1723-1795) became one of the most accomplished artisans of Colonial America — a practitioner of Rococo-style objects. Unlike Revere, Myers, a New York Jew, also created religious articles, such as Torah finials, or rimonim. In fact, “Myer Myers: Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York,” represents the largest collection ever amassed of Jewish silversmith work. The exhibit runs at the Skirball Cultural Center through May 26.

For the Skirball’s Grace Cohen Grossman, senior curator for Judaica and Americana, the exhibit captures the promise of freedom, democracy, and human rights already prevalent in pre-Revolutionary War America.

“The Skirball is the perfect venue for this show because he was an American Jewish craftsman,” she said. “He was a patriot, and he took advantage of the free society in New York. He would not have been able to do that in England. In a very culturally diverse New York, his Jewishness was not an issue, as it would have been elsewhere.”

Bringing the show to the Skirball is David Barquist, Yale University Art Gallery’s associate curator of American decorative art. “In the case of Myers’ synagogue silver and the church silver, they were preserved because they were used,” Barquist, 44, told The Journal.

Credit Myers’ shul, Shearith Israel Synagogue of New York, for the collection’s survival. Shearith Israel is also the source of many documents on Myers. The Myers exhibit represents 104 objects — a quarter of his surviving output — fashioned between 1746 and 1795. An additional 50 items of the epoch are also included, to place Myers’ work in context of the turbulent era.

Even though Revere is the more celebrated of the two men, Barquist says that, aesthetically, “Myers was probably a better silversmith than Paul Revere. Myers seems to have set himself up as the man you went to to get special luxury goods, unusual custom made productions with lavish ornament.”

It was unlikely that Revere produced any Judaica, despite the fact that Myers’ brother-in-law, Moses Michael Hayes, the first Jew to move to Boston, patronized Revere’s silversmith services.

“Revere didn’t make ritual silver,” Barquist says. “If he did, it hasn’t survived. But I don’t think he did, because there wasn’t a congregation in Boston in his lifetime.”

Myers’ life has been nothing short of an odyssey for Barquist, who started his research as a dissertation six years ago. In the process of exploring Myers’ art, the Skirball exhibit also explores the silversmith’s trade in 18th century New York, as well as the Jewish communities of New York, Philadelphia and Newport, R.I. In fact, the Myers show is as much an examination of Jewish life in the Colonies and post-Revolutionary War America as it is of Myers the man and artist.

“One thing that surprised me is that I really didn’t encounter much in the way of prejudice or any difficulties that Jews experienced in New York during Myers’ lifetime…. We quoted some derogatory caricatures from England, but in the practice of daily life, the Jews of New York City seemed to experience very little anti-Semitism.”

Myers was born to Solomon and Judith Myers in New York City in 1723. Myers’ parents came to New York from Holland, but were most likely from Eastern Europe originally.

After the traditional seven-year apprenticeship with a master silversmith, Myers registered as a goldsmith in 1746. He became the first native Jew within the British Empire to establish himself as a working retail silversmith since the incorporation of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in 1327. By 1753, Myers had established himself as an independent producer of artifacts, at a time when the leading merchants in New York made their fortunes supplying the soldiers during England’s wars with France and Spain in the 1740s and, later, the Seven Years’ War.

Myers left New York during the Revolutionary War period (1776-1783), relocating his family to two different locations in Connecticut.

“Jews were supporters of the Patriot cause,” Barquist says. “The few Jews who stayed behind because they were loyalists — I’m not sure how they fared. They would be supporting a system that didn’t consider them a full citizen.”

Myers was definitely a Patriot. He once informed the magistrates of a Tory Jew he overheard in a New Haven tavern making drunken, inflammatory pro-Royalist statements.

Another discovery Barquist has made revolves around the status of Myers’ personal life, although, according to Barquist, “personal” might be too strong a word.

“Marriage in the 18th century, whether rich or poor, had not a lot to do with romantic love,” Barquist says. “They’re on the other side of the Victorian period. The 19th century had greater sentimentality, a whole different outlook. Life in the 18th century was very hard. Unmarried people were very unknown — you married for survival. It was as much a business arrangement.”

In terms of New York’s Jewish community, the arrangement nature of these unions was even more dramatic.

“In a city with 200 Jews, the options were extremely limited,” Barquist explains. “For [Myers’ second wife] Elkaleh Myers Cohen, her father had already died when she married. She came into money. Any up-and-coming man would look for that kind of capital.”

The Cohen family was definitely instrumental in backing Myers’ business. The husbands of Cohen’s sisters were involved in Myers’ shop.

As for the nature of their union, Barquist says, “There are no letters that survived, from each other, so it’s impossible to know.” However, Barquist has learned from legal documents that Myers’ children from a first wife did not like their stepmother.

Barquist believes that people interested in both art and American history will be well- rewarded by a viewing of the Myers collection, which travels to the Winterthur Museum, near Wilmington, Del., this summer.

“I hope they’ll appreciate how the American culture has been rich and diverse,” Barquist says. “Colonial times have traditionally been presented as this monolithic era. There was much more diversity and color to Colonial history that went beyond the Puritan people. Myers was an example of that. He makes a real contribution to American art and great contributions to Jewish American culture. America has benefited from its diversity from Day One, and as much as historians have tried to simplify it, it’s a much more complex situation.”

“Myers,” Barquist concludes, “is a very important figure in the history of American silver. Probably the most important figure in Colonial history who hasn’t had an exploration done.”

Until now, of course.

“Myer Myers: Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York” runs at Skirball Cultural Center through May 26.

Michael Prokopow, assistant professor of history at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, will lecture on “At Empire’s Edge: Myer Myers, Refinement and the Construction of Material Taste in Georgian America, 1720-1770,” March 15, 2-4 p.m.

Tickets for each lecture are: $8 (general), $6 (students) and free (members). For tickets, call (323)655-8587.

For more information, call (310) 440-4500 or visit .

Painting California

Artist Stephanie Sanchez (née Sternberger) discovered what her Jewish background meant when her classmates in her first-grade class in Baltimore told her that she had killed Christ.

Until then, she only knew what her father had told her. That "Jewish" was what she was, despite the fact that the family observed only the major holidays and her mother was an avowed atheist. There were no rituals practiced in her home to indicate that she and her family were in any way less Christian than their neighbors.

Now, she regrets that her father and mother ignored the importance of that part of their lives and thus left her without any real foundation in Jewish life.

The painter, whose work depicting ordinary California life is on display this month in Santa Monica, started to paint at the age of 6.

Sanchez, 54, says she discovered her Jewish roots at the University of San Francisco. There, she found she was attracted to an intellectual environment that was principally populated by Jews. As she began to learn more about her background, she began to identify herself as a social and cultural Jew.

Her religious identity doesn’t really impact her work directly: a row of ordinary tract houses in Fresno, the bridges over the Los Angeles river, industrial areas in downtown, rundown shops in Venice. Her work transforms the mundane into scenes that are both poetic and familiar, like the sudden and surprising beauty of an ordinary street in East Los Angeles or a paper plate discarded on a table.

Sanchez is not specifically a "plein air" painter (a painter who works outside) because she reworks most of her canvases extensively in her studio, but some of her works resemble that genre. Her still-life paintings are muted, well-crafted studies of the ordinary detritus of life with a bit of a Morandi influence.

The exhibit of work by Stephanie Sanchez, 1997-2001 will be on display now thru Mar. 2 at the Terrence Rogers Fine Art Gallery, 1231 Fifth Street, Santa Monica. Thurs.-Sat., 12-5 p.m., and by appointment. For more information call (310) 394-4999.

Art of Imprisonment

Alexander Deutsch secretly painted watercolors in an Argentinian political prison after he was kidnapped, tortured and incarcerated by the paramilitary regime in the late 1970s.

His disturbing, meticulously detailed work, now on display at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, was rendered on flattened cigarette packages or paper stolen from the jail’s infirmary. In some of the paintings, half-naked prisoners slump in a dark corridor or use the pail that serves as a common latrine. In others, they are beaten or searched. One sketch depicts inmates unraveling socks to make a rope to smuggle contraband from a neighboring jail cell.

"That is how my watercolor set was sneaked into the jail," says the 80-year-old Jewish artist, who now lives in a sunny duplex in Los Angeles.

During seven months in custody, Deutsch completed more than 80 watercolors, half of them portraits of fellow prisoners. During the day, he painted when the guards weren’t looking; at night, he hid his art supplies in a crumbling brick wall. Had they been discovered, the penalty would have been torture, or worse.

"But I felt compelled to keep working," says Deutsch, who believes his experience in prison made him a stronger person. "The jailers wanted to break my spirit, but my painting cheered me. My body was imprisoned, but my work allowed me a freedom of mind."

Not long after the 1976 military coup, the Hungarian-born Deutsch learned that Jews were disappearing from his upper-middle-class neighborhood in the mountain resort of Cordoba, Argentina. The anti-Semitic regime was targeting Jews, among others, for covert arrests on trumped up charges of "subversive" activities. At Around 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 27, 1977, they came for Deutsch, his wife and three daughters.

Policemen broke into their home, blindfolded and handcuffed the family, then drove them to a camp where they lay on a cold concrete floor — still cuffed and blindfolded — for days. "I heard crying and screaming coming from the torture room," the artist says. "One night we heard them dragging someone across the floor in a canvas bag."

When it was his turn, Deutsch was interrogated about his alleged political activities and subjected to torture by electrical shock. "They told me to take off my pants," he says of his inquisitors, who attached electrodes to his legs. "The electricity burned like a fire."

After his transfer to a penitentiary in Cordoba, Deutsch was forced to share a tiny, lice-infested cell with eight fellow prisoners. For two months, the pajamas he had been wearing when he was arrested were his only clothing.

Meanwhile, relatives in the United States were waging a fierce campaign to free the artist and his family, rallying the support of congressmen and Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. Eventually, President Jimmy Carter asked the Argentinian president to release the Deutsches in the name of human rights.

The request apparently worked. By late 1978, all the Deutsches were free and en route to a new life in the United States. But memories of the horror lingered. During the long airplane flight to Los Angeles, the artist’s then 19-year-old daughter, Liliana, described how she had been subjected to "the submarine treatment" — a form of water torture. "The guards kept pushing her head into a bucket of water until she passed out," Deutsch says in a hushed voice. While she was telling him the story, he couldn’t help but cry.

After moving to Los Angeles, the artist says he painted grotesque, stylized memories of jail to "help liberate myself from the nightmare."

"The Prisoner of Rivera" recounts the time he peered out of a window and saw an anguished woman behind barbed wire in a lush, green field. In the painting, the prisoner appears as gaunt and tormented as a medieval saint.

"The Submarine" shows Liliana in the torture room, nude, blindfolded and gasping for air. A large, disembodied hand grasps her blond curls, ready to submerge her again into the water barrel.

Painting his daughter enduring torture was one the most difficult endeavors of Deutsch’s career. "But I felt compelled to document the cruelty," he says. "This kind of thing is still happening around the world. My work bears witness to man’s inhumanity against his fellow man," Deutsch says.

Deutsch’s "Prisoners Without Cause" and "Synagogues of the World" exhibits are running through Aug. 3. For more information call (818) 464-3257.

Life and Loves of Lee Krasner

In the summer of 1956, painter Lee Krasner hastily packed her bags and left her husband, the famed abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock.

For months, the tension in their marriage had escalated; their violent arguments often ended as Pollock stormed off to a tavern or the arms of another woman. When he sustained a torrid affair with Ruth Kligman, a 25-year-old art student, Krasner had had enough.

In July, she sailed for Europe. But shocking news brought her home from Paris just a few weeks later. After a day of drinking, she learned, the 44-year-old Pollock had crashed his car into a tree and died. Kligman survived the accident. But she did not bother to remove her clothing from Krasner’s closet before the painter returned home.

The story reads like a tabloid saga, admits art historian Robert Hobbs, guest curator of the Lee Krasner Retrospective now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But, he says, it does not diminish Krasner’s status as the only woman among the first generation of New York abstract expressionists. Though for many years she was primarily known as the wife and follower of Jackson Pollock, Krasner (1908-1984) brought her own important, feminist persective to abstract expressionism, among other contributions, the exhibit reveals.

It also reveals why Krasner did not settle into inactivity after her husband’s death in 1956. Instead, she moved into the large barn Pollock had used as his studio and began one of the most productive periods of her career.