Solomon Souza works on a mural that pays tribute to Arthur “Fishy” Kranzler at Shalhevet High School. The previous work of Souza (inset) and his partner, Berel Hahn, includes murals at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Photo by Avi Vogel

Something ‘Fishy’ going on at Shalhevet with mural honoring community leader


Solomon Souza stands on the roof of Shalhevet High School, looking at his mural in progress, gesturing at the hills that make up the foreground and background and the fish swimming in circles at the center. He then points to the corner of the mural, the only area left unfilled.

“I’m thinking about doing doves there, because you know, fish and birds, they were made on the same day,” he said. He climbs onto the elevated platform and puts on his mask, getting to work.

Souza and his partner, Berel Hahn, came to Shalhevet to paint a mural commemorating Arthur “Fishy” Kranzler, a local community leader, who died in 2015. The project was unveiled on June 14 as part of Shalhevet’s annual Celebration Under the Stars, this year’s event honoring Jason and Rebecca Feld for their years of work at the school. Jason Feld, dean of students at Shalhevet, announced earlier this year he had accepted a job in Washington state.

The spray-painted mural is a rendering of Jerusalem with bright clouds overhead and a few buildings and trees, with a swirling mandala of Jewish stars and swimming fish on its edges.

Souza and Hahn originally hadn’t planned to come to Los Angeles. They were in Chicago, working on a mural for NCSY, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification. In a video about the project, Souza spoke of going elsewhere in the country to do more work. But they hadn’t decided where.

Shalhevet was looking to fill in an unpainted segment on the roof of the school, and Jason Feld  mentioned his appreciation for Souza’s murals in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market. That led Sarah Emerson, executive director at Shalehvet, to reach out.

“We were looking for the right artist and the right image and we didn’t know what it was until we hit it,” Emerson said. “We looked at [his] work, and it was calling [his] name.” But, they were unsure if they could get Souza to come. “They happened to be in Chicago, and we talked about it, and it ended up working out.”

For a mural honoring his father, Fishy’s son Eric Kranzler brought Souza and Hahn an album to provide ideas. Souza studied it and listened to stories about Kranzler’s time in Israel and Los Angeles, which provided a focus.

“Definitely wanted to do something Jewish, something Israeli, something Zionistically inclined,” Souza said. “The hills of Jerusalem, the hills of L.A., the connection between them. That’s what I wanted to do.”

After sharing a sketch with the school, he went to work.

The mural’s location, on the roof of Shalhevet, has similarities in purpose to Souza’s work at Mahane Yehuda. There, he created murals to adorn the shutters of closed shops, using vibrant colors and Jewish influences to add life to the street on Shabbat. At Shalhevet, the roof similarly is a hub of socialization.

“Any day school is in session, you’ll find students up here,” Emerson said. “There are classrooms up here, the teachers’ lounge is up here, the beit midrash, as well. It’s a hub for everyone.”

At the ceremony, Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, addressed the audience of more than 275 as the mural was unveiled. In his remarks, provided to the Journal, he said, “Simply put, Fishy was larger than life … a life guided by his passion for the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland.”

Segal shared more of Kranzler’s story, of how “he moved to Israel in 1949 to literally build and defend the land.” He added, “I cannot imagine a more fitting tribute to Fishy, reminding our students every day of his vibrancy, his passion for Israel, and his enduring legacy.”

The mural was not the only piece by Souza unveiled that night. He also created a portrait as a special gift to honor the Felds for their years of service. Jason was the dean of students for 10 years and Rebecca is a former teacher. “It’s huge and crazy,” Emerson said. “It’s really a shuk piece.”

What’s next for Souza and Hahn? They want to continue traveling the country and making public art like the murals in Chicago and at Shalhevet. Back in Jerusalem, they are working on starting a gallery for artists like themselves. “We’re looking to support artists,” Hahn said, “aspiring or otherwise.” 

An exhibition of the artwork of Hadar Goldin, who was killed by Hamas in August 2014. Photos by Bart Batholomew/Courtesy of Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Slain Israeli soldier’s art inspires parents’ mission


Leah and Simcha Goldin are grieving parents. Frustrated, vocal and driven, they have traveled from the Knesset to the United Nations to, just last week, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, bringing with them a traveling collection of their son’s artwork known as “Hadar Goldin: The Final Peace” to bring attention to his plight.

“It is our mission to bring Hadar home,” Leah said with a straight-ahead gaze, her voice shrouded in a thick Israeli accent.

Bring Hadar home.

Leah Goldin has uttered those words too many times since August 2014, when her son first went missing.

When Hadar comes home, they will not embrace, as mother and son ought after being separated for so long. There will be a ceremony and, most likely, a press conference. But Hadar’s remains will be in a coffin with an Israeli flag draped over it. A grave will be filled, topped with tilled soil. This is what “Bring Hadar home” means.

Of course, that’s if Hadar comes home. But to Leah, a doctor of computer science, and her husband, Simcha, a professor at Tel Aviv University, there is no “if”: They have dedicated themselves to make sure that day comes.

“Hadar is a victim of a cease-fire, rather than a victim of a war,” his mother said, nearly three years after that breach of cease-fire, which took her son’s life.

On Aug. 1, 2014, after a flare-up of escalations between Israel and Hamas during Operation Protective Edge, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire. Two hours into that ceasefire, Hamas ambushed Israeli soldiers in the southern border town of Rafas, a raid resulting in Hadar’s death and the kidnapping of his body, which was dragged back to Gaza through a network of underground tunnels. He was a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces at the time.

During that summer conflict, the body of staff Sgt. Oron Shaul also was captured. Both bodies are still in Hamas’ custody, and the Goldins want the international community to pressure Hamas for the return of their son’s body.

So it’s through Hadar’s traveling collection of art — with pieces ranging in style from expressionist paintings to daily life sketches to journal entries — that the Goldins hope to make strides on the matter. They first got the idea to put together a collection while sitting shivah for their son, after being approached by art curators from Ein Hod  (an artists village near Haifa). “And they advised us to put up an exhibition; we didn’t realize we could do it,” said Leah.

In September, the collection was on view at the United Nations in New York during the General Assembly. “Since this cease-fire was brokered by John Kerry, secretary of state, and Ban Ki-moon, general-secretary of the U.N., they should be held responsible. They should be accountable for his return,” Leah said. Neither Kerry nor Ban came to the exhibition, she said.

“And they knew about the exhibition,” Leah added. “I cannot tell you why they did not want to go. You should ask them.”

“It’s a question of responsibility,” Simcha added.

“And accountability,” Leah said. “Sometimes if you don’t face it, it’s a way to say, ‘I don’t know about it. It does not exist.’ But it does exist. It exists with the exhibition, with showing Hadar’s portrait, with his uniform,” she said.

art-parents-exhibitThe Goldins have traveled to New York, Miami and Los Angeles, lobbying for the return of their son’s body.

“We are looking for ways to raise it as an American issue. And by that, getting the support of the U.S. administration to motivate Hamas to bring Hadar home,” Leah said.

At the collection’s opening Feb 15 at the Museum of Tolerance, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, delivered a sermon, referring to a passage from Exodus, where Moses made an oath to carry his ancestor’s bone into the Promised Land.

“We have the obligation to retrieve the bones of our lost brother like Moshe Rabbeinu,” his voice, a desperate plea, echoed through the microphone. “We must do everything we can.”

On Feb. 20, the collection moved from the Museum of Tolerance back to Israel, traveling, yet again, to the Knesset before going  to the Opera Tower in Tel Aviv. The Goldins are asking the community for help.

“We’ll appreciate any advice and any help to resolve it and bring some closure to our case,” Leah said.

Plain and simple, they want to give their son a proper Jewish burial.

Who was Hadar Goldin? He was a son, a brother, a fiance, an intellectual, and an artist. He was a voracious reader, a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and an espresso drinker.

“I used to do still photography until Hadar took my camera when he was a teenager,” his mother said, “and then he was the one behind the camera.”

Hadar observed the world. Ever since he was a kid, he liked to draw and write. He was a doodler, illustrating scenes of daily life, jazz on a street, caricatures of people he knew. He’d draw in pocket notebooks, on scraps of paper, whatever he could find. On the back of an equipment list while stationed near Gaza, he drew his wedding invitation, a scene portraying his fiance and himself in a house, ripened pomegranates in the trees. He painted oil-on-canvas scenes of a man fishing; deer in a pasture; the war-torn skyline.

Hadar Goldin was 23 years old when he died, three weeks before his wedding.

There is a piece in the collection that hangs in Simcha’s study at home when it isn’t traveling with the exhibition.

“You need to see it,” Simcha said. “It’s a long debate whether it’s a bird or something else.”

It looks like a dove, hovering over a lake, its wings stretched out in full extension. An orange sun bleeds into the sky as a girl, doused in a powdery white light, watches from a distance.

“The sad thing is it’s only the potential. He was killed, so you can only see his potential on the walls. It’s very sad. It’s very painful,” Simcha said about his son’s artwork.

“But on the other hand, it’s there. It’s unique. It’s nice,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”


Correction: 3/1 – This story originally said Leah Goldin is a computer programmer – she is a doctor of computer science.

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.”

Holocaust survivor finds peace in art


Eva Nathanson doesn’t feel the same guilt her parents did for having been spared an anonymous death at the hands of Nazis, when so many others perished.

Instead, she feels a compulsion to never spend a moment wasting time and to treat every minute of life as the miracle it is.

Sitting in her kitchen, just steps from Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, she was surrounded by evidence of that attitude: art projects she led with her two grandchildren, ceramic sculpture of her own fashioning and a cabinet full of handmade Judaica, for starters.

Art, and especially the metalwork at which she excels, is more than just a way for Nathanson, 75, to keep busy. Instead, she called it “occupational therapy” that helps her deal not only with the everyday stressors of life in Los Angeles, but also the lasting impact of a childhood interrupted.

Her privileged upbringing ended unceremoniously one day toward the end of 1942 when a contingent of Hungary’s fascist enforcers barged into her grandfather’s living room in Budapest, and Nathanson, a toddler, went into hiding with her mother. Although almost everybody in her family was killed, including her father, a family friend helped Nathanson and her mother survive until the end of World War II.  

In the years after the war, instead of processing the time she spent in perpetual fear cramped into small, dirty spaces, Nathanson instead encountered a repressive Stalinist society in Budapest where free expression was discouraged. 

As a result, she feels as if the trauma of her earliest years never truly left her: Nathanson tries not to sit with her back to a door and experiences severe claustrophobia, a remnant of time spent in close quarters during the Holocaust years.

“I actually think that everything I do and have done somehow was affected by the first primitive feelings I must have had,” she said. “Especially since after the Holocaust in Hungary, there was no therapist you could go to.”

Although she had long found therapy to be helpful, she still searched for “something to bring out my other energy.” In the freedom and catharsis of sculpture and painting, ranging in theme and style, she found that something.

“It was getting rid of some of the emotions I wasn’t able to express,” she said. “And I found that it was very therapeutic.”

Where Nathanson moves beyond the realm of an inspired amateur is the jewelry she sits down to make two evenings a week. Fetching a box full of rings she crafted in various adult art classes, she picked through them one by one. The styles were as diverse as the methods she uses, but one of her favorites involves encasing a small object in a mold and then burning away the object and replacing it with silver. The box was full of silver molded into the shapes of figurines, flowers, seashells and even succulents she picked from her garden.

“The teachers, they always joke about the fact that there’s nothing sacred to me,” she said, laughing. “I’ll burn anything.”

Nowadays, Nathanson wields serious tools that could easily visit injury on even a much younger person, and although she feels comfortable with them, she nonetheless prefers the controlled environment of a classroom. “It would be very difficult to get insurance when you have boiling metal in the house,” she explained.

She’s come a long way since the younger of her two children was born 50 years ago. Back then, Nathanson — who has a master’s degree in business administration and spent 40 years as a hospital administrator, but took time off when her children were young — found herself isolated and somewhat bored after moving with her small family to the San Fernando Valley after years of living in West Hollywood.

“All the neighbor women were watching television and drinking coffee and gossiping, and that just wasn’t me,” she said. “So I decided I needed to do something for myself.”

Artistic sensibilities ran in her family: Her mother was able to sell needlework for food while in hiding during World War II, and her stepfather’s masterful carpentry made him enough of an asset to the Hungarian communist authorities that they refrained from deporting him after the war, despite his outspoken dissent. (Some of his chairs and tables still sit in her home today.)

So Nathanson wasn’t breaking ranks when she enrolled herself in classes for painting, then sculpting, then ceramics. Soon, she moved on to silversmithing, not least, she said, because “schlepping big pieces of sculpture” was not an option for a mother raising two children in close quarters.

“About 35 years ago, I walked into a jewelry class and I said, ‘Teach me something,’ ” she said.

Nathanson now sells some of her jewelry — which she refers to as “wearable art” — on the crafts website Etsy (etsy.com). 

“I do sell a little, but I’m not a good salesperson,” she said. “I can’t sell anything. I mean, if people want to buy it, I let them buy it.”

Although she’s sold some art, Nathanson said she was privileged never to have had to rely on her art to support herself. Now retired from her job at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a cancer center in the Valley, she keeps busy as an event coordinator for her Jewish Renewal congregation, B’nai Horin, and volunteering as a lecturer at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and at various theaters and playhouses in Los Angeles. 

In spite of the odds against her even having survived the war, she said she’s grateful to have achieved all she did and doesn’t take anything for granted.

“I feel that I have to make sure that I repay the fact that I’m alive — that I do what I was put on the earth to do.”

L.A. origami exhibit features Israeli artists


Origami, the traditional Japanese art of folding paper, might seem like little more than a childhood pastime. But artists Miri Golan and Paul Jackson have spent years using it to bring together Israeli and Palestinian kids. 

The married couple’s work, which is far more complex than paper cranes or jumping frogs, will be featured in “Above the Fold: New Expressions in Origami,” opening May 29 at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles (Miri Golan’s “Untitled III” (2010). Vellum, silicone paper and wood. Photo courtesy of Japanese American National Museum

In her classes, Israeli and Palestinian kids begin working separately and gradually come together. The only flag hung in class is the Japanese flag. By the end, some students have formed close friendships, to the surprise of the parents as well as the students.

“The most common thing they’d say is, ‘They’re exactly like us.’ And I thought, ‘Why did they think they were different?’ ” Golan said. “They don’t meet each other [in their daily lives], even though they are very close. They just hear about each other on the news. And they’re scared of each other. When they start to know each other, they like each other.”

Currently, Golan trains Israeli math teachers in her own brand of instruction dubbed “Origametria,” which teaches geometry by allowing students to experiment with folding paper. There’s a website and an app in development.

“Above the Fold,” which has been traveling around the country for the past year, brings together about two dozen pieces made by nine artists from six countries. They range from large-scale sculptures to smaller conceptual pieces. They are displayed on pedestals, hung on the walls and suspended from the ceiling.

“It’s going to come at you from many different directions,” Meher McArthur, the exhibition’s curator, said with a laugh. 

McArthur, an Asian art historian, was inspired after seeing a documentary on paper art called “Between the Folds.” She reached out to one of the designers featured in the movie, Robert J. Lang, a physicist who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That led to the 2012 exhibition “Folding Paper,” which was displayed in L.A. and traveled across the country; it showed how origami “transformed from being a craft into this really sophisticated global art form,” she said.

“Above the Fold” is that show’s sequel of sorts, featuring mostly new work from several of the same artists, among them Jackson and Golan. Some of the pieces may not fit the strict definition of origami. For example, the French artist Vincent Floderer crumples paper into shapes resembling sea creatures and other natural forms.

“The origami purists will say something is not origami if it’s not made with a single square piece of paper. Just folded, no cuts, no glue,” McArthur said. But the “true artists,” she said, are trying to push the envelope and “do something new with the medium.”

Golan’s pieces in the show focus on the two books at the heart of Judaism and Islam, the Torah and the Quran, and how those books have been interpreted and have come to symbolize the religious differences between the communities. There’s a Torah scroll made of the same animal skin used in real Torahs, with the parchment between the two rollers twisted to symbolize how the message of the Torah can be manipulated for political means. There’s also an open Quran, with the paper rolling and twisting out of the book. A third piece features both holy books, with one piece of paper connecting the two to connote their shared heritage.

“She’s folding paper into something very conceptual and very political,” McArthur said. “There aren’t many artists who are doing such political work with folded paper, so she’s really exceptional for that reason.”

Jackson’s work tends to be more philosophical, exploring what happens to paper as it’s being folded. In this show, his piece includes four large-scale pixelated photographs of the front and back of his own hands. The pictures are made up of strips of folded paper, resembling a mosaic. The blurred images play with the idea of digital, both in the technological sense and in his own fingers.

Jackson, who was born in Leeds, England, moved to Israel in 2001 soon after meeting Golan. He teaches paper art techniques to fashion and textile students at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, and said students find inspiration in the act of folding paper.

“It’s sort of magic, but it’s not magic like it’s a trick,” Jackson said. “You turn an ordinary square or whatever you’ve got into something really cool and clever. It’s a type of alchemy, in which you make gold out of garbage.”

The art of origami became an international phenomenon after Japanese artist Akira Yoshizawa began sharing diagrams of his work back in the 1950s, inventing a notation system for origami folds that allowed those who don’t speak Japanese to replicate those pieces. In the last couple of decades, artists began sharing YouTube instructional videos, uploading pictures of their work on Flickr and posting the crease patterns online.

That willingness to share origami designs has not been without controversy. In 2012, Lang sued artist Sarah Morris for copyright infringement, arguing that she had created paintings based on his crease patterns and those of other artists without crediting them. The case ended with an out-of-court settlement in 2013.

Some may question the artistic merit of a craft most often associated with elementary school art class. But, McArthur said, the artists featured in her show elevate origami to a new and surprising level. For example, Lang’s complex, intricate folded scorpion, complete with eight legs, two front pincers and a tail — all from one uncut sheet of paper — “is a work of paper sculpture,” she said.

“For me, the origami artists are the ones who aren’t just folding something that’s been folded before in the same way. They’re creating something new,” she said. 

“Above the Fold: New Expressions in Origami” opens May 29 at the Japanese American National Museum. More information at

Austrian museum reaches settlement over Nazi-looted artwork


Vienna's Leopold Museum said on Thursday it had reached a settlement over five Nazi-looted works of art in its collection that will return two of them to the heir of their original Jewish owner, a victim of the Holocaust.

The five pieces, all by Austrian painter Egon Schiele, had been owned by Viennese businessman Karl Maylaender, who died after being deported to a labour camp during World War Two. The museum will return two watercolours, including a self-portrait of Schiele, to Mayhlaender's 95-year-old heiress.

The remaining three pieces will stay in the museum, which owns the world's largest Schiele collection.

“This is a happy day,” Austria's Culture Minister Josef Ostermayer said at a news conference. The long-running discussion had cast a shadow over the museum and now a “Solomonic solution” had been found, he said.

Under Adolf Hitler, the Nazis forced Jewish artists and collectors to sell or give away their works, and many pieces were confiscated outright. A law Austria introduced in 1998 directed that its museums return the looted art, and major works have been given back to descendants of the former owners.

However, the Leopold Museum – privately funded and therefore not obliged to follow the law – would have preferred to keep all five drawings. In 2011, it sold one Schiele painting so it could pay $19 million to the heirs of a Jewish art dealer and – as part of the deal – keep another painting.

The New York-based heiress with whom the museum reached Thursday's agreement, who officials connected with the case said preferred to remain anonymous, had turned down an offer of money and insisted on getting the artwork back.

The Austrian Jewish Community, which backed her, said the now-found agreement was a good solution. “I am happy that the heiress can still enjoy the drawings,” community representative Erika Jakubovits said.

Elisabeth Leopold, widow of museum's late founder, Rudolf Leopold, who bought the pieces in 1960 from a Maylaender friend, said: “I have made a huge sacrifice in memory of Karl Maylaender.”

A millennial in the modern business world


While still in her 20s, L.A. native Elana Joelle Hendler had already fulfilled one of her dreams: She created a successful luxury lifestyle business, EJH Brands, based on her artwork. Hendler produces candles, home décor accessories and wildlife-themed art prints that have drawn accolades from Forbes (“10 Companies Crushing it in Art and Fashion”), Los Angeles Business Journal (“20 in their 20s”), FOX News and other media outlets.

The starting point for Hendler, now 30, was her longstanding passion for making art. The Milken Community Schools alumna creates her images in striking black and white. “My art has never been about color. … [A]rt started for me as a child doodling shapes in my notebook with pencil or pen,” she said. “I think I was subconsciously exploring how shapes relate to each other [on] a two-dimensional surface and finding a sense of movement between those shapes. Art was always a personal exploration for me.”

Although some of the animals depicted on her canvases are not native to Southern California, Hendler said they are nonetheless inspired by her “experience of growing up in Southern California.” From her many visits to the San Diego Zoo to family trips to the beach, Palm Springs and Arrowhead, she was inspired by the variety of landscapes and wildlife she encountered, as well as learning about culture at local institutions such as LACMA and The Getty.

“There’s something eternally fresh and inspiring about learning to appreciate art and nature in Southern California,” Hendler said. “I try to reflect that in my work, which extends to the eco-friendly materials used in my products. … I like to think there is a natural flow of the artwork into the texture of the materials. My collection is an extension of my exploring what it means to be a Californian.”

Chimp Decorative Throw Pillow 

Hendler said her family and Jewish upbringing helped her find her path from among her many interests, which included acting, music and, later, art history, in which she earned her degree. 

“All of my upbringing has influenced my identity as an artist as well as my identity as a woman, a Jew and a Californian,” she said. “My mother’s parents — who are of European descent and immigrated first to Mexico and then to Los Angeles in the 1950s — brought their cultural heritage with them. My [maternal] grandmother, a concert pianist in the 1940s, brought music. My [maternal] grandfather, an engineer, entrepreneur and religious Jew, brought education and a love for learning. These roots, emphasizing bettering yourself through knowledge and asking many questions, [were] bolstered by the nurturing influence of my mother, who studied design at UCLA.”  

Hendler’s family encouraged her natural curiosity; she described her younger self as a creative, expressive person who could do many things. But, she said, it was difficult for her to “pick one specific thing, in fear of isolating or losing track of the other skills.” At 24, like many other millennials, she asked herself, “Now what?”

“I come from a very entrepreneurial family. Following my grandfather’s lead, I asked myself … if I could pull together my interests and talent to create something that is mine. I then realized I still very much love to draw and write, and those interests transitioned into creating my own brand.”

Signature Collection Eucalyptus & Mint Sage Candle.

Hendler knew that building her own business would not be easy. “It was a moment when I had to be brave, and I just went for it,” she said. “This meant allowing myself to be vulnerable, learn, try and make lots of mistakes. One of my biggest challenges was learning how to work with manufacturers. It’s not always easy for a friendly, eager 24-year-old to work with older, more experienced manufacturers, especially men. I am sure I was taken advantage of in areas like pricing, but I was sort of expecting that to happen.”

From Iran to Israel, the art of Elham Rokni


Standing inside Shulamit Nazarian Gallery in Venice, a visitor watched the silhouettes of trees flash by on a screen. It was dark, and the shadows were barely discernible. It took a while for the visitor to realize that the images were filmed from a car driving at night. 

This hypnotizing video piece, “Clavileño,” was part of a recent solo exhibition by the Israeli artist Elham Rokni. The title comes from the wooden horse Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, imagined could fly. Like the famous literary tale in which those characters appear, Rokni’s piece asked the viewer to suspend disbelief and take an imaginary journey through space and time.

Rokni continues her stay in Los Angeles as the 2016 Soraya Sarah Nazarian Middle Eastern Artist in Residence, a two-month residency at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. Her current project involves African refugees in Israel reflecting on their dislocation.

“The project I’m working on is collecting oral folktales from them. So it actually deals with their memory from the place they came from,” she said. “It’s political because being a refugee and an immigrant is a political thing. But I’m interested in the memory regarding this displacement.” 

Rokni was born in Tehran in 1980. She left Iran with her parents at the age of 9, and that refugee experience has shaped much of her creative output.

“It’s not Persian culture or heritage that I deal with,” Rokni said, but rather “immigration and dislocation and our memories about it.”

She also has work from her series “The Wedding” on view at the center through March 12. “The Wedding” is centered around a video of her parents’ wedding in 1978, the year before the Iranian revolution that gave power to a religious fundamentalist regime. Her parents and relatives struggle to remember the exact date of the wedding. She asks her father to look for the ketubah, and even once he finds it, her mother tells her the actual ceremony took place a week or so after the contract was signed. 

Elham Rokni solo show at Shulamit Nazarian Gallery in Venice.  Photo by Michael Underwood 

The uncertainty about the wedding date seems to mirror the confusion of the historic turmoil about to sweep Iran. The film combines amateur video of her parents’ wedding with protest scenes from the 2012 film “Argo,” in which a CIA agent launches a dangerous operation to rescue six Americans during the hostage crisis in Tehran. Rokni narrates over the images, describing the confusion around the wedding date, which remains unresolved.

Also on display at the 18th Street Arts Center is a series of drawings of guests from her parents’ wedding. The figures lack outlines, making them appear to melt into the white space around them. Their outfits are colorful and richly patterned, and they stand in groups facing the camera, or in this case, the viewer of the drawings.

The piece “Four Frames #1” features four images of a couple dancing, with the pictures beginning quite dark and becoming lighter. The drawings are based on a moment in her parents’ wedding video in which the camera flares, and like “Clavileño,” searches for a story within the interplay of light and movement.

Rokni received her BFA and MFA from Bezalel Academy in Israel, where she now teaches video art. Her work has been screened in international film festivals and she has received grants from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport, the Yehushua Rabinovich Tel Aviv Foundation for the Arts, and the Fund for Video Art and Experimental Cinema in Israel. 

Her work is also being shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “Crossing the Dune,” a video showing a man trying to ride his bicycle across sand dunes, is included in the exhibition “Islamic Art Now, Part 2” and will be in the permanent collection at LACMA. It’s part of a body of work created in 2010 that re-creates things she actually saw people doing, which includes “Clavileño.”

“I re-enacted driving in total darkness. Sometimes I used to do it, driving in the desert on some straight road and just turn the lights off,” she said. “It was a period of time that I was noticing situations where human beings just do something against logic or against the laws of nature, just because of their belief that they will succeed doing it.”

Included in that series is a video of a car going down a road with an unsecured mattress on top. Halfway through, the mattress flies off the roof, the car stops, two passengers rush out, put the mattress back on the car, and drive on.

Rokni, based in Tel Aviv, has not returned to Iran since she was 9. She said she would like to visit her childhood home and school, but she is not allowed back in the country because she is an Israeli citizen.

“If I were allowed to go back to Iran, it actually wouldn’t be that interesting to me. Because it’s something that I can’t, I’m so eager to see that. It’s like a forbidden territory for me,” she said. “I think all immigrants who can’t go to their motherland because of political issues have this wish to go back, because we just can’t. It becomes more of a desire and a longing.”

Elham Rokni has work on display in the

Right of return: Prominent east coast artist on coming home


Kenny Scharf’s homecoming welcome to Los Angeles is stretching into its 17th year.

“When I moved back here in ’99, people would be, like, ‘When are you going back to New York?’ And I’d be, like, ‘I live here. And I’m actually from here, born and raised,’ ” the painter and multimedia artist said. He established his reputation alongside his dear friend Keith Haring and a boundary-busting crew back in the 1980s New York art scene, and he hasn’t stopped working since. “Then, I swear, five minutes later in the conversation, they’d say, ‘So, when are you going back?’ ” 

He mocked his own sarcastic irritation in responding to such exchanges. “‘I live here! I’m from here! Sorry, I made my name in New York!’”

Despite the passage of time, the impression of him as a New Yorker hasn’t entirely dissipated, which is partly why the Hammer Museum reached out to the Valley-raised, Oakwood School and Beverly Hills High School alum to paint a temporary installation mural in the museum’s street-level project space as part of its “Hammer Projects” series. 

“Pikaboom.” 

“Another Oil Painting.” 

“Kenny’s an interesting artist because he’s lived in L.A. a long time, and he’s well-known internationally, but he hasn’t really shown in institutions in L.A.,” curator Ali Subotnick said. Yet, she said, “He’s got public projects all over; you see things in Culver City and Pasadena,” including murals in the Pasadena Museum of California Art’s parking garage and another at the West Hollywood library. “Everyone knows him and recognizes him, but it’s just not been in this context.” 

Scharf’s lack of L.A. museum representation makes some sense, given the artist’s populist leanings, pop culture sensibility and multimedia background. Plus all those years he spent in New York in the 1980s and Miami in the 1990s. 

But with the Hammer commission, as well as a forthcoming exhibition at the Nassau County Museum in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y., and more to come, Scharf continues to straddle the outsider-insider art world divide — even as he literally makes work both outside and inside. 

Subotnick said she and her fellow curators at the Hammer all agreed “it’s time” Scharf get more attention from museums here, so they allowed him free rein in painting the walls of the soaring Westwood museum lobby, adjacent to the staircase leading to the upstairs galleries. Continuing through May 22, his kinetic style runs wild within the expansive room. 

His roots are as a street artist, and he has covered every kind of surface — from buildings in New York City to cars and T-shirts — with his now-iconic faces and cartoon-like images inspired by midcentury space-age futurism. “He knows how to deal with this space,” Subotnick said, referring to the Hammer lobby. The often-ephemeral nature of his projects means he understands not to get overly attached to a single work, too. This project came with some limitations, mostly from areas that scaffolding couldn’t access, resulting in more white space than usual with Scharf’s densely packed, fluid figures and space-age imagery.

During a weekday afternoon interview at his West Adams studio, Scharf fielded questions while he worked on a new lithograph he’s collaborating on with L.A. icon Ed Ruscha and master printer Ed Hamilton’s Venice-based Hamilton Press. 

Scharf’s turf occupies a series of low-slung, formerly commercial 1920s spaces, with ideal indoor-outdoor flow at the rear. (He finally gave up a studio he was renting in Brooklyn last year.) Outbuildings are covered in toys and various objects he’s gathered all over the world. Primed and completed canvases are everywhere, along with other pieces such as TV backs he’s been painting since the 1970s. 

“That thing of crap hanging is a Hurricane Andrew piece,” Scharf said, gesturing to a mobile he made soon after moving to Miami in the early ’90s. Parked inside is a golf cart that belonged to his dad. Scharf customized it with a tail and giddily grinning face and has driven the cart in L.A. and Manhattan “art parades.”  

Scharf has even taken his spray paint cans to his trash bins.

Born in 1958, Scharf made a break from his middle- to upper-middle class Valley upbringing and his shmatte business-entrenched family in 1978 to fall in with the post-Warhol community that was taking off in the East Village. Before then, his L.A. Jewish childhood and adolescence meant becoming a bar mitzvah at the Valley JCC, going to Israel on an Ulpan trip at the age of 14 and attending Camp Alonim. (His grandparents made aliyah, but wound up coming back to the States.) He absorbed mass cultural visuals and specifically L.A. vernacular symbols all around him, from Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters to 1950s Detroit-made car design to Googie coffee shop architecture. 

He enrolled at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) after spending two years at UC Santa Barbara. Haring, a fellow SVA student, became his roommate in a sprawling loft downtown. Along with neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat, they made waves and mixed seamlessly with the hip-hop and punk artists of the era, including Fab Five Freddy, Debbie Harry and the B-52s. Interdisciplinary, anti-purist and pluralistic creative currents ruled. 

In the spirit of Warhol’s legacy, these artists’ mix of street art and high art led to extremely popular and successful commercial projects, working with fashion designers and representation from big-name galleries. Then came AIDS. 

“I got a big education in the streets. It was very vital and very important,” Scharf said. “And then everybody died and moved away, and then it was, ‘Well, that’s kind of over,’ ” he shrugged with the residual sadness and resignation that comes with years of distance — and the blessing of a flourishing career and family life. The Honor Fraser gallery in Culver City currently represents Scharf locally. 

He said he’s unfazed by the recent wave of ’70s- and ’80s-New York nostalgia, though he doesn’t avoid talking about the now-influential period in which he was a key player. That said, it must be odd for a young rebel to become an elder statesman of sorts. But his L.A. roots seem to keep him grounded but moving forward. 

“I don’t want to disparage New York in any way, but I really don’t miss it. It’s not really the same city,” he explained. “In my old days, I would walk out in the street, and there would be everyone I knew — on the block.” The East Village, where he lived, was also home to seminal venues, such as Club 57 on St. Mark’s Place. 

The Culver City resident still goes east to visit one of his daughters in Brooklyn, where “I’m like the old guy,” he joked. His other daughter lives near him and has a family of her own. If an official distinction existed for the Coolest Grandfather, he’d be a high-ranking contender. He also regularly visits his mother, who lives near Palm Springs. 

“See how much work I’m getting done while we’re talking?” Scharf said as our conversation was ending. Despite what seemed to the untrained eye to be a decent amount of black paint applied to paper, it wasn’t clear whether he was kidding or not. 

“No, it’s great! I’m really getting a lot done. I’m gonna finish this,” he said.

Scharf’s work ethic, creative drive and ability to work wherever he happens to be are not in question.

“I like it here,” he repeated. “I’m really addicted — to being an artist.”

“Hammer Projects: Kenny Scharf” continues through May 22. For more information, visit hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions.

From junk to art


Malka Nedivi is known for her huge sculptures — roughly hewn, sometimes eerie figures that can reach up to 10 feet high — and collage paintings that are made of galvanized metal, chicken coop wire, pieces of old clothing, and fabrics and papers. 

Her choice of material tells the story of her life growing up in the house of a hoarder. As a youth in Israel, Nedivi lived among cardboard boxes and plastic bags filled with clothes and pieces of junk collected by her mother, who appears as the image of an old woman in many of the artist’s mixed-media art.

Malka Nedivi with “Bubbeleh,” mixed media (chicken wire, fabric, paper, acrylic paint and glue on a wood box). Photo by Ayala Or-El

“It’s interesting that all the things that she collected, and I couldn’t stand, are the things I’m using in my art,” she said. “It happened more after she passed away. Somebody told me that I’m one of those people who take a lemon and turn it to lemonade. It’s like taking those things which caused me pain and suffering and turning them into something beautiful. It was very healing.”

Nedivi, of Woodland Hills, said she always was embarrassed by her mother, Tzipora, who was so different from the other “cool” Israeli moms with their modern clothes and stylish hairdos. 

“My mom was a hoarder, and I was very ashamed of her and my house,” Nedivi said from her home studio. “In between the walls [were] piles and piles of boxes and things my mom had collected throughout the years. Anything that ever entered our house never left it. My mom never threw out anything. The children in the neighborhood used to laugh at her, about the way she looked, the way she dressed and how she used to collect things out in the streets. I was very ashamed to bring friends over. I didn’t want them to see how we lived.”

Born in 1952 in Rehovot, Nedivi is the only child of two Holocaust survivors who shared the same room with her until she turned 18. “We had a small house. In the living room, we didn’t have a couch, only some chairs and a TV. We also had a balcony with table and chairs. I used to study there for my finals so I wouldn’t wake up my parents.”

After her service in the military, Nedivi married filmmaker Udi Nedivi and moved to Los Angeles. It was a career move for her husband, but for Nedivi, who studied theater and literature at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, it was a chance to get away from the memories and the shame. She went on to study film at UCLA and work as an assistant editor before getting involved in art, first through ceramics and then through large-scale sculpture and collage paintings. 

 Seventeen years after arriving in the U.S., Nedivi received a phone call from Israel: Her mother’s health was deteriorating and she refused to move into a nursing home. 

“It was hard for her to part with her things … and also the management was not thrilled about having her move in,” Nedivi said. “They were afraid she was going to collect things. … I tried to bring my mom someone to take care of her at home, but none of them lasted long. They all left, one after the other. … I knew I didn’t have any choice but go and take care of her myself.”

By that time, Nedivi was a mother of three children. Her son, Ben, was about to go to college and her daughters were in elementary school and middle school. With the support of her husband, she packed her suitcases and moved back to Israel with her daughters in tow. 

“I knew that if I didn’t take care of her, nobody else would,” she said. “Before I left, my husband handed me a new camera and told me: ‘You can do it. Document your mother.’ He knew that it was going to help me. So I took the camera and filmed 120 hours, which I edited later into a 93-minute film.”

The resulting documentary, “Tzipora’s Nest,” was filmed during the time Nedivi spent in Israel caring for her mother. It tells the story of her mom and the last years of her life, surrounded by endless piles of junk and plastic bags full of different items she collected. 

“At first, when I moved back to Israel, I thought I should film my [older] daughter — how an American girl who studied all her life in an American-Jewish school arrives in an Israeli school — but in the end, I only documented my mom. And while working on the movie, something good had happened. I started understanding her better. I fell in love with her. I rediscovered my mom.”

Nedivi spoke with a psychologist about why her mom collected things. 

“He explained to me that people who went through such a trauma — as she did during the Holocaust, losing her parents and all her family — are left with holes in their heart. She was trying to fill in the holes with the things she collected. Like filling the void in her life.”

That was something she didn’t understand growing up.

“Back then, in those days, nobody talked about this phenomena, no one discussed this problem of hoarding. I didn’t know why my mother collected all these items and why our house didn’t look like the houses of the rest of my friends,” Nedivi said. 

“I remember going to visit my two best friends and enjoying the cleanliness and order in their house. I wanted to have such a house so badly. I begged my mother to turn the balcony to a bedroom, just like the neighbors did, but it never happened. I think that one of the reasons I was so happy to leave Israel and move here to Los Angeles was because I felt free of the shame that followed me back then. I have friends who live in the States and they would like so much to move back to Israel, but I never wanted to. I was always happy to live here; for me, it was a sense of freedom.” 

After her mom’s death, Nedivi began cleaning the small house. “I threw away everything. Till this day, I love throwing out stuff. I can’t have any small stuff at home. Whatever I didn’t use for a year or two, I throw away,” she said.

The experience proved therapeutic — and influential on her art, in which she layers fabric with glue and other torn materials to form large, looming figures. Most recently, she had an exhibition, “Mother and Daughter,” at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles on Fairfax Avenue, which ended in September.

Although she was eager to please the critics, she said she is also ready to have her art reach the masses.

“There were those who told me in the past that the reason I’m not able to sell my art is because I don’t want to separate from it,” she said. “But now, I felt ready to let go, and suddenly I started selling.”

Radiohead singer Thom Yorke compares YouTube and Google to the Nazis


The singer of the English alternative band Radiohead said that YouTube and its parent company, Google, have “seized control” of art like the Nazis did during World War II.

“People continue to say that this is an era where music is free, cinema is free,” Thom Yorke said in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Saturday. “It’s not true. The creators of services make money – Google, YouTube. A huge amount of money, by trawling, like in the sea – they take everything there is.

“They’ve seized control of it – it’s like what the Nazis did during the Second World War,” he continued, according to the Guardian.

“Actually, it’s like what everyone was doing during the war, even the English – stealing the art of other countries. What difference is there?”

Yorke, 47, is an outspoken critic of music streaming services like Spotify, which he has called the “last desperate fart of a dying corpse” and claims does not fairly compensate new musicians.

“The funny thing is that YouTube has said ‘that’s not fair’ [to use an AdBlocker],” Yorke continued in the interview. “They say it’s not fair – the people who put adverts in front of any piece of content, making a load of money, while artists don’t get paid or are paid laughable amounts – and that seems fine to them. But if [YouTube] don’t get a profit out of it, it’s not fair.”

Radiohead is a Grammy-winning band that formed in England in 1985 and has sold over 30 million albums worldwide.

Brooklyn sculpture says it all in a New York way: ‘Oy’ and ‘yo’


A sculpture installed in a Brooklyn park says it all in an expressly New York way: “oy” and “yo.”

Artist Deborah Kass created the bright yellow sculpture, titled “OY/YO,” that was placed this week in Brooklyn Bridge Park, near the East River separating the two boroughs, according to reports. It is scheduled to remain there until August.

Those viewing from Brooklyn see “oy”; Manhattanites see “yo.”

“The fact that this particular work resonates so beautifully in so many languages to so many communities is why I wanted to make it monumental,” Kass told The New York Times. “This is New York, baby. We’ve got it all. And the sculpture covers it all.”

The work is made of aluminum and paint. Much of Kass’ work makes reference to other modern artists, including Gertrude Stein, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock.

What does the sculpture using the two oft-used expressions by New Yorkers mean? Kass told the Times that it was best left open to interpretation.

“Oy” entered the English lexicon in the 1890s, while “yo” has been used as far back as the 15th century in Middle English, Peter Sokolowski, the editor at large of Merriam-Webster, told the Times.

Persian-Jewish women keep tradition alive on canvas


In reporting on the Jewish community, I’ve learned about politics, schools, aging, race relations, religion and other matters. Few of these topics combine the complexity, creativity and history of a fascinating subset of Los Angeles Jewry, the Persian-Jewish women who paint.

The history, of course, goes back about 2,700 years, when the conquering Babylonians kicked the Jews out of the Holy Land, sending them to Babylonia. The Persians then conquered the Babylonians, putting the Jews in the Persian Empire. They were free to stay or to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple; many remained in Persia, now Iran.

The Persian-Jewish women who paint remind me of those ancient days — the art, customs and stories that go back to Queen Esther, King Ahasuerus and Haman of the Purim story. The women’s lives became part of modern Los Angeles Jewish history with the fall of the shah in the late 1970s. That event brought many thousands of Persian Jews to L.A., imbued with the ancient artistic heritage of their homeland. Many of them wanted to express themselves and to bond with other women, leading some to take up painting — enough so that this pastime became a distinct part of the many-faceted community.

“Painting is a way to remember, experience culture,” said Daniel Raminfard, who runs the Raminfard School of Arts on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles. “A very common subject of the Jewish women in my classroom is the bazaar, a very nostalgic look at the old times.”

I said they must have mixed emotions about the old country. 

“Absolutely,” Raminfard replied. “Everyone knows there is nothing there for them, but they somehow miss it.”

I met Raminfard through my wife, Nancy, who studies with him. We had passed the studio on our morning walks, and Nancy was looking for a new painting teacher. Impressed with the work of the women who painted there, she signed up.

Not all of his students are Persian-Jewish women, but a substantial number are, about 40 percent. As I got to know the school and watched my wife develop friendships with some of the students, I thought her experience could provide a window on a community that tends to stick to itself and is something of an unknown quantity to the Ashkenazim, Jews of European ancestry.

Gina Nahai, novelist and Jewish Journal columnist, wrote of the divide between Persian and non-Persian Jews last year in an article in the Forward, “How Iranian Jews Shaped Modern Los Angeles.” In her article, Nahai said she thought of the Charles Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities” when she considered the divide because, “It reminds me of Jewish L.A. — the way I know it, and the way it must seem to the natives.”

Nahai wrote frankly of the prejudice in what she hears from some in old Jewish Los Angeles when they describe their immigrant Persian coreligionists: “There’s too many of them, they have too many relatives, their kids are spoiled, their wives too entitled, the men are too competitive in business, they’re all looking for a bargain … they’ve taken over Beverly Hills and Brentwood and Encino and Sherman Oaks and all the schools and synagogues.”

I emailed Nahai asking for help with this column. She replied, “My own mother is one of the original art hobbyists of Little Persia! By all means, let’s talk.”

She told me on the phone that her mother “had always wanted to paint, back in Iran.” In Los Angeles, she and other women who had come from Iran found painting helped liberate them from the rigid life of the Persian-Jewish community. It was, she said, “a way for them to do something with “their own talent and ability and get away from the rigid structure created for them.”

Shulamit Nazarian, owner of the Shulamit Nazarian gallery in Venice, said, “I think, from my own experience, art has been a very big part of our culture … the design of homes, architecture … poetry, books, drawing all have a huge influence in Iranian culture.” 

I asked her on the phone about the Jewish art hobbyists, like those who study with Raminfard. “Art is becoming a language for everyday people, a common language, an inspirational language,” Nazarian said. 

Raminfard’s studio, which occupies a storefront along an eclectic stretch of Pico, is a long room, with space for painters on both sides. Each student does her own project, with Raminfard and two other instructors giving individual instruction.

I talked to one student, Elizabeth Bolour, who has been painting for eight years and also gives art lessons to children. Before she started, she said, “I thought I couldn’t draw a line.” 

When Bolour is at her canvas, “It really takes over … it is a beautiful painting high,” she said. One of her paintings is of a man in biblical times blowing a shofar. “I’m Persian, I’m Jewish,” she said. The symbolism of the shofar “was powerful. I felt it. It has affected me tremendously.”

Bolour came to the United States in 1978. In Iran, her father and grandfathers dealt in antique Persian and European carpets. They gave her “a passion for art and expression,” she wrote on her website Lizas Collection. “As time passed canvases became my carpets.”

A couple of long blocks to the west is Little Persia, where we live. On Westwood Boulevard, a center of the Persian-American community, there are bookstores, clothing stores, beauty parlors, a language school, a synagogue, markets, restaurants and a store specializing in Judaica. An intersection south of Wilshire Boulevard has been named Persian Square.

A Westwood Boulevard storefront just north of Santa Monica Boulevard houses the studio-school of one of the Persian community’s most respected artists, Houshang Peyman. Raminfard studied with him, as did Nahai’s mother and Bolour.

Raminfard’s father was imprisoned by the Iranian government after receiving a letter from a cousin in Israel. The late shah, friendly to the Jews, was on his way out, and Raminfard’s father, who had served in the army, was beaten and tortured. The family emigrated on the last plane to leave Tehran while the shah still clung to
his throne. 

“After the treatment of my father, it became painfully evident [Jews] were not welcome there,” Raminfard said, as we sat in his small office in the rear of the studio, the walls covered with his paintings. “This was a universal decision among the Persian-Jewish community that this place could no longer be considered home. Many Muslims were very uncomfortable with the regime change, many thousands left; they thought the regime was oppressive and extreme. Anyone other than a devout Shiite got up and left.”

Raminfard, 37, graduated from Stephen S. Wise High School and CSU Northridge, where he studied marketing and philosophy. Since age 9, he had wanted to be an artist and began studying with Peyman. He worked in banking, but his heart was in painting and he began giving lessons in his parents’ garage, mostly to Persian-American-Jewish women. His clientele grew, and eventually he moved to his present studio. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and two children.

The family story is very similar to that of much of Jewish-Persian Los Angeles — flight from the old homeland, settling into a new one, bringing with them a life and traditions that enrich their new home. Not the least of these is the artistic tradition of the Persian-Jewish women who evoke the past and the present with their painting. Knowing more about their work and their lives will help bridge the divide in Los Angeles’ Jewish community. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Judaica studio Mi Polin casts Polish Jewish history in bronze


When Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar opened their email inbox several weeks ago, they found a message from a customer who had bought one of their bronze mezuzahs as an engagement gift.

“The connection my family now has with the past was so overwhelming that it made my wife cry,” the customer wrote. “It will now be proudly displayed in our home and I will make sure every visitor knows the story. This bronze will truly be eternal.”

Czernek and Prugar are the founders of Mi Polin, a Polish design studio specializing in the production of contemporary Judaica. For their Mezuzah From This House series, the pair traveled across Poland searching for traces of mezuzahs in the door frames of homes where Jews once lived. From the depressions left in the frame, Czernek and Prugar produce a plaster cast they then use to create a bronze mezuzah engraved with the traditional Hebrew letter shin and the address where the original mezuzah once hung.

“We decided to use bronze because it is known from antiquity,” Prugar told JTA. “It is completely resistant to external conditions, does not rust. Without any problems our mezuzah will survive 1,000 years. Our casts are eternal.”

One of the bronze mezuzahs made by Mi Polin from a trace of an old Polish mezuzah. (Mi Polin)A bronze mezuzah made by Mi Polin from a trace of an old Polish mezuzah. Photo courtesy of Mi Polin

Last year, Czernek and Prugar traveled to Sokolow Podlaski, a small town about 60 miles east of Warsaw. They stopped by the building at 4 Wilczynskiego St., which housed a kosher butcher shop before the Holocaust. The old door frame wasn’t there anymore, but amazingly, Czernek and Prugar found a door from the house lying nearby in a dumpster that had a trace of a mezuzah.

Orie Niedzviecki, a Canadian lawyer whose grandparents came from Sokolow Podlaski, bought two mezuzahs made from depressions found there by Czernek and Prugar. One he gave to his parents, the other to a niece who had just moved to Israel.

“The idea that this mezuzah is now in Israel along with some members of my family, and hopefully myself soon, provides some link to the past as the Jewish people move forward to its inevitable future as a free nation in its own homeland,” Niedzviecki said.

Though some 3 million Jews lived in Poland prior to the Holocaust, most Poles do not realize that the marks still remaining on door posts were likely the spots where Jews had hung their mezuzahs. When the doors are replaced, one of the last traces of the Jewish inhabitants of those homes often disappears as well.

Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar making a plaster cast from the impression left by a mezuzah. (Katarzyna Markusz)Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar making a plaster cast from the impression left by a mezuzah. Photo by Katarzyna Markusz/JTA

In the town of Ostroleka, Czernek and Prugar last year found a home with traces of 10 mezuzahs. During a renovation, the owners had stripped them out and burned them, not understanding their significance.

“In contrast to synagogues and cemeteries, mezuzah traces are the least visible part of the material legacy of more than 3 million Jews who once lived in Poland,” said Krzysztof Bielawski, who runs the Virtual Shtetl project at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. “Few people are turning attention to them. Helena’s and Alexander’s design is not only a documentation of the traces, it shows that each mezuzah is linked to the history of specific individuals.”

Mi Polin has also produced a crystal mezuzah for the blind, with one of the Hebrew names for God written in braille. They are also working on a spice box used in the Sabbath-ending service Havdalah that is based on the shape of the Tower of David in Jerusalem.

Czernek and Prugar have produced 25 bronze mezuzahs from casts made in over a dozens cities and towns across Poland. They also take special orders from Jews abroad who wish to have mezuzahs from casts made in towns where their families once lived.

For each cast they make, Czernek and Prugar send information about it to a local museum or municipal office to educate local residents about the Jewish legacy in their particular town and to increase the likelihood that more mezuzah traces can be found. They also organize training workshops to teach tour guides how to locate former Jewish sites around Poland.

“We are working so that each of our products is not only a thing,” Prugar said. “We want to give some content, message, special meaning for each of them. Judaism is full of different meanings. It is tangible through our items.”

Irwin Golden: A lifetime of talent spills onto the canvas


Inside the Belmont Village Senior Living’s Westwood facility, a large, 5-by-4 canvas hangs on the wall in the third-floor hallway. It’s an abstract artwork, a complex tapestry of mostly earth tones and a varied geometric scheme of squares, cut-off triangles and shapes that fall in between. 

An untitled piece, it’s located just outside Room 323, where 90-year-old Irwin Golden grins merely at the mention of it. And for good reason — he painted it.

“I like the big ones,” he said. “But there’s not enough space in here.” 

A recent move into a cozy white-walled studio unit has limited his workspace and storage capabilities. As a result, Golden has been forced to operate on a smaller scale of late, evidenced by a slew of recently completed abstract pieces crowding the floor and countertop of his narrow hallway kitchen. 

“For him, it’s like working on a postage stamp,” said his daughter, Sharyn Klein. 

At 90, Golden has the deep belly laugh of a man much younger. 

“I played offensive tackle in high school,” he said when asked about his younger years. Sitting comfortably in his armchair, a walker in front of him, his impressively built frame still doesn’t escape you. “But I was big and clumsy,” he added, letting out that laugh that invites you to join in. 

Still stuck on his own clumsiness, Golden recalls a fresh-faced Gene Kelly charging $5 for dancing lessons in Golden’s mostly Jewish Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill where he grew up. Golden enrolled, but, as he remembers it, the future Hollywood star wasn’t pleased with what he saw. 

“ ‘Come on, fat boy. Move your ass!’ That’s what he said to me,” Golden said.

Being different turned him on to art, Golden said. A young Walt Disney paying a visit to his elementary school in the early 1930s didn’t hurt either.

“I still collect Disney watches to this day,” Golden said with pride, extending his wrist to show off a vintage Mickey timepiece, one of 12 designs that he owns. The influence also can be seen in a painting Golden made for his grandson, featuring Mickey and trusty dog Pluto bounding through a vibrantly surreal, balloon-filled setting. 

As a teenager, Golden designed the stage sets for his high school’s class plays and painted in his spare time. The latter was met with disdain from Golden’s father. “He told me I was a sissy and that boys don’t paint,” Golden said. 

After three years of service in the South Pacific during World War II with the U.S. Army’s 98th Infantry Division, Golden returned to Pittsburgh and married his high school sweetheart, Shirley. He attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh on the GI Bill and was classically trained, honing his still-life and landscape skills (which he dismisses as “the boring stuff”). As part of his training, he worked with oils and re-created the works of greats such as Picasso, Modigliani and Chagall. 

He took a job in the display department of a department store, and his interests veered toward home furnishing and interior design. At the age of 22, he and Shirley moved to North Hollywood, where he opened a custom drapery business. 

Golden eventually moved his family to Mission Viejo. He wasn’t painting much, but his artistic background helped with other community projects. As a member of Temple Judea in Laguna Woods, Golden designed the stained-glass windows. As president of the local chapter of American Red Magen David for Israel, Golden designed Jewish New Year’s cards and tribute cards for fundraising. He retired at 62. 

Not one to sit idly by, Golden signed up for art courses at Saddleback College, where he discovered a connection to abstract art. “You get out of [abstract] what you see in your mind,” he said. “I was very into it.”

Over time, Golden developed and strengthened his abilities. He said he began to see works in his head, then transposed the visuals onto the canvas. This internal mechanism prevented bouts with macular degeneration and glaucoma from coming between Golden and his passion, enabling him to bypass his physical limitations. 

“It all comes from up here,” Golden said, pointing to his head. “I can see it in my head and my fingers just have to put it on the canvas.”

Golden’s work of late favors earthy browns and greens. Leading lines often direct attention to distinct use of deep reds and blues accompanied by a variety of spheres. There are also works integrating formless cloudlike visions of contrasting warm and cool colors. 

His mind is still razor-sharp, recalling memories and conversing with ease. Although hard of hearing, Golden softens considerably at every mention of his wife, wistfully stealing glances at a picture of her resting on a bedside table. 

“That’s my best piece of art,” he said, nodding in the direction of Shirley’s picture. 

Four years ago, while Shirley battled dementia, Golden stopped painting to be by her side. She died this past February after 69 years of marriage. For her, he completed a still-life painting of flowers, one of his few recent forays into that genre. 

“She liked flowers,” he said. 

Hoping to occupy his time, Golden resumed painting after Shirley died with renewed vigor. The dozen or so pieces that now litter his studio’s walkways have been completed over the last few months, his daughter said. 

A man who found his artistic voice in his 60s, Golden is still evolving.

“It’s fulfilling for me,” he said. 

With 90 years behind him, Golden looks forward. He’s eager to keep working, confdent his best work is still within him. 

“Look at this,” he said, his eyes scanning the room before finally coming to rest on a window overlooking Wilshire Boulevard. “I’ve got to find more space to work in.” 

ADL hosts an evening of contemporary art for social change


The concept of a world without hate remains as powerful — and, alas, as elusive — as ever. As the theme of the Anti-Defamation League’s ArtWorks auction on Oct. 22, that idea brings together dozens of local artists and allows supporters of ADL’s mission to assemble for a cause. 

Like ADL’s first such gathering in 2013, this year’s “ArtWorks ADL: Justice, Advocacy & Art” reception and auction will bring artists and art lovers alike to the home of Jeanne and Tony Pritzker. More than 40 artists have donated works that will be displayed and sold, with all proceeds benefitting ADL. Event organizers are expecting more than 400 attendees.

“In its first iteration, this event was more of a ‘friendraiser,’ a fun way to get together, have a nice evening and buy some art,” said Amanda Susskind, regional director of ADL’s Pacific Southwest Region. 

The 2013 event raised $410,000, out-earning the combined totals of all ADL chapters that organized similar events. Organizers hope to at least match that amount at this year’s event.  

“I’ve heard time and again from artists, from gallery owners and from attendees how much of a win-win event this is,” said Diane Lazar, director of major gifts for ADL’s Pacific Southwest Region. “You can come to this event and be a 23-year-old attorney who is just starting out, and you’re shmoozing with somebody who has been in the art industry for dozens of years. The venue is beautiful, the art is beautiful and we’re promoting dialogue.”

Although that dialogue may not permeate the event itself, it certainly is a major reason the artists and ADL supporters will be gathering. 

The event’s theme, “Imagine a world without hate,” is the same as 2013’s, and the ADL has created a powerful 80-second video to help drive it home. The video shows contemporary men and women accessing news stories, both in newspapers and online, trumpeting the feats that reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Yitzhak Rabin, Matthew Shepard and Harvey Milk might have achieved had they not died prematurely. King champions immigration reform. Anne Frank wins the Nobel Prize following the success of her 12th novel. Rabin is lauded for promoting two decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

“If we all stood up to bigotry,” the video concludes, “we could change history.”

“It [was] the theme of our centennial, and it resonates with the artists,” Susskind said. “The ADL fights bigotry of all kinds and in so many different ways. The theme works, so why change it?”

The 42 artists participating in ArtWorks span a variety of personal and professional backgrounds as well as artistic disciplines. They run the gamut from 23-year-old pop surrealist Otiswoods to USC Fine Arts professor Ruth Weisberg to film director and producer Brett Ratner. Twelve artists who participated in 2013 will be back for ArtWorks 2015. Joining them are artists who have been selected to participate based on their backgrounds and to make the variety as diverse as possible, according to Lazar. 

A photograph that George Legrady took at Israel’s Jaffa Gate in 1970 has been reworked into a lenticular narrative format, meaning that when a viewer walks around the image and views it from different perspectives, he sees multiple images — like a moving postcard that tells a story of past and present with three images.

Legrady shot the original image from a hotel room that cost him $2 per night. When he returned to Israel last month, much had changed visually and politically. 

“Back then, it was just dirt. Now there’s a wall around the city of Jerusalem and a luxury shopping mall attached to that wall,” said Legrady, who chairs the department of media arts and technology and is the director of the Experimental Visualization Lab at UC Santa Barbara. “Photographs are stamped with history like postcards. You can see a postcard from 40 [or] 50 years ago and right away see it has a historical and time imprint to it.”

Although he supports the ADL and the message of the evening, Legrady concedes that the theme is “utopian.”

“A world without hate would involve everyone having their own sense of being treated well and respected,” Legrady said. “That’s getting more and more challenging.” 

Two years ago, when she participated in ArtWorks 2013, Seonna Hong donated a small landscape painting. For this year’s event, she opted for a mixed-media work titled “Brightness and Contrast.” Because the piece contains bright colors and children at play, the artist felt its hopefulness was appropriate for this event.

In contemplating themes of hope and the absence of hate, Hong — an Emmy Award-winning production designer — considered the perspective of her young daughter, Tiger Lily.

“I’m an Asian woman, and I would say the most surprising thing when you’re on the inside looking out is that you don’t know why people are treating you differently,” Hong said. “Now I have a half-Asian daughter and I look at her and I think in some ways she’s got it easier and in some ways it’s harder, and she’s straddling more worlds and more cultures because of what her makeup is.”  

For more information, visit adl.org/artworksla.

From selfies to spirituality


Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer and blogger working at the interface between art, science, technology and culture whose artworks are in the collections of more than 40 museums worldwide. Now the conceptual artist is offering the digital generation a way to find life’s meaning through “spiritual blogs.”

Alexenberg’s most recent project is a book and accompanying online project titled “Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life.” The book explores the convergence between biblical narrative, kabbalah and digital technologies. It demonstrates how to create a blog by photographing the “divine light” of God “as revealed in everyday life while crafting a dialogue between the blogger’s story and the biblical story.”

For example, Alexenberg, who was born in 1937, asked his students at Ariel University, located in the Israeli settlement of Ariel in the West Bank, to photograph everyday examples of the 10 divine kabbalistic attributes. Among the results:

Chesed (kindness/largess/loving all): “… an elderly man responding to feral cats hungry for love and food. He pets each one and portions out food for them.”

Tiferet (beauty/aesthetic balance/inner elegance): “the birth of a calf, an awesome event expressing deeply felt beauty of seeing new life coming into the world.”

Hod (splendor/gracefulness/magnificence): “… the glorious feeling of young lovers kissing. She photographed their shadow as the hed (echo) of the event.”

Born in New York City, Alexenberg received degrees from Queens College, Yeshiva University and New York University. He has held a variety of positions over the years at places such as Columbia University, Pratt Institute and MIT, according to his website. In Israel, he has taught at Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa, Bar-Ilan University, Ariel University, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and more.

Alexenberg’s own spiritual blog (which can be viewed at bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com) was created together with his artist wife, Miriam, to celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary. During each of the 52 weeks of their 52nd year, they posted six photographs that reflected their life together, along with bits of text that related the weekly Torah reading to their shared five-plus decades.

So, with Genesis 1:31 — “God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good. It was evening and morning, the sixth day.” — comes a photo of a cactus, a white dog, a fish and more. 

“On the first day of our honeymoon, we bought a cactus plant. On the 42nd year of our honeymoon, our daughter bought us this cactus.”

Later it says, “Our dog Snowball sits under our kitchen table,” and “The mysteries of Creation are best revealed through dialogue with other species. Snowball teaches us daily about these mysteries.”

There’s also the explanation that there is no seventh picture, because Shabbat is a nonart day.

For Parashat Mishpatim, there are quotes from two sections of Exodus: “Six days shall you accomplish your activities and on the seventh day you shall desist” (Exodus 23:12) and “The seventh day is Sabbath … you shall not do any creative work” (Exodus 20:10). These are accompanied by photos of televisions and other technology and pronouncements about how wonderful a gift Shabbat is for providing a break from our fast-paced world. 

But then Alexenberg concludes: “On the eighth day, we can return with renewed energies to being partners of God in continuing creation. 

“We can enjoy the technological wonders of our era knowing that we are free to tune out, turn off, and unplug on the next Shabbat.”

The Jewish Journal contributed to this report.

Israeli artist’s stained glass creations bring life, light to community


Inside the sanctuary at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA), a transdenominational seminary located in Koreatown, the atmosphere is rather dark and somber. Except, that is, for the brightly colored ner tamid above the ark.

Made of stained glass, the 60-pound umbrella-shaped lamp depicts the tribes of Israel, with vivid hues and familiar symbols (menorah, shofar, Star of David); a menagerie of birds and animals; and women of the Bible, including Esther, Deborah, Judith and Ruth.

The work is the creation of Revital Goldreich, a former accountant who began working with stained glass in 1998. “I have always been interested in the arts,” said the Israeli-born artist and educator, who previously served as director of visual arts at Leo Baeck Temple’s religious school.

She had dabbled in drawing and ceramics as a hobby, but when her friend Sheila Brossman, a glass artist, gave Goldreich her first lesson, she decided to become a full-time artist with this as her medium.

“The serenity and exhilaration I experienced with stained glass surpassed anything I’ve ever felt before,” she said.  

“Using paper, fabric, wood, clay, metal and glass was the starting point to bringing Bible stories and Jewish history to life and learning their lessons. But of all the materials I’ve touched and molded, glass has the most amazing effect on me,” Goldreich said. “Working with stained glass in three dimensions, making sure the artwork is not only pleasing and meaningful, but is also sturdy, durable and carries its own weight can be challenging.”

Goldreich, 55, donated her ner tamid piece to AJRCA, where she is working toward a master’s degree in Jewish studies, which she expects to complete in May 2017.

Revital Goldreich

“I like that it tells an important story. It has brought the room to life,” said Cantor Perryne Anker, associate dean of the cantorial school at AJRCA. “Unlike a lot of stained glass, it has life to it. It’s alive.”

Goldreich has done other public installations, including the Esther Kaleidoscope, a moving carousel-like sculpture depicting 36 scenes from the Book of Esther. It was displayed at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach for Hadassah’s centennial celebration in 2012 and has been part of traveling exhibits since then. She also created an 18-branch, 6 1/2-foot-tall Chai Menorah that was installed at the Israeli-American Council’s Woodland Hills offices in May 2012. 

Her website (

Art, man and God


I wonder what our prayers sound like to God during these Days of Awe. As the earth spins on its axis and Jews across the globe gather together to worship, I imagine that God hears our longings as a symphony – each soul a note, singular, exceptional, and essential to the whole. Our hearts, the instruments; our words, music to God’s ears.
 
When the shofar sounds and our voices float heavenward, we give great reflection to, among other things, the power of something uniquely human: the power of speech. We ask for forgiveness for mistakes that originate as often from our lips as from our deeds. We repent for words that are negative, meaningless, traitorous, foolish, vulgar, and deceitful, for we understand the eternal truth in King Solomon’s observation, “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue” [Proverbs 18:21]
 
The very idea of prayer, however, recognizes the power of speech not just to harm, but to uplift and transform. We uplift and transform ourselves with prayer, each other with kind words, and the world through art.
 
Art, the universal language, touches us all; atheist and Orthodox, Christian, Muslim, and Jew. It is both earthly and divine; the gift of creation from the Creator. 
 
Tragically, today, art is under siege. With the cultural Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) effort against Israel, politically motivated organizations and individuals in free western societies are using censorship as a strategy to advance their agenda. 
 
Proponents of the cultural boycott want to prevent international audiences from experiencing Israeli art and want to cut the flow of world art going into Israel. They want to bar films from festivals, silence instruments, and take canvases off walls.
 
The risk posed to mankind goes far beyond Israel’s borders or the lineage of the Jewish people. Boycott proponentshave orchestrated a social media and on-the-ground campaign of intimidation that, left unchecked, poses an existential threat to the freedom of artistic expression.
 
Art is integral to the human experience. It is a connective tissue between people and places.  It simultaneously reflects the world in which we live and serves as a vehicle for change.
 
Artists challenge us, bring us together, and provide a bedrock for peace.
 
From the poetry of King David, to the writings of postmodern linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein, traditions both spiritual and secular recognize art’s unique ability to help us understand the world around us in profoundly deep ways that extend beyond the capacity of mere conscious thought.
 
A song can elevate a moment; a book can inspire one’s mind to new thinking. With a human’s breath, the ram’s horn shatters hearts of stone and washes away layers of complacency. Its call is capable of bringing us back to places inside ourselves impenetrable by any other means. 
 
The proximate target of the boycott effort is Israel, but freedom of artistic expression, fundamental to our humanity, is its ultimate victim. 

Lana Melman is the CEO of Liberate Art Inc., a leading expert and commentator on the cultural boycott effort against Israel, a Hollywood liaison, and a professional speaker and writer.

Exploring Jewish-Tunisian heritage through food


Artist Orly Olivier’s work revolves around the food and heritage of her Jewish-Tunisian family. She hosts group dinners, cooking workshops and makes visual art under the name Petit Takett. The name is a reference to Takett’s, her paternal grandmother’s restaurant in La Goulette, the port of the Tunisian capital of Tunis. 

According to Olivier, a British soldier approached her father and uncle when they were children in Tunisia in the late 1940s or early ’50s. “The soldier offered them chocolate and said, ‘Take it.’ In the Judeo-Arabic they spoke, they thought it was a nickname, and my grandma named her restaurant after the nickname given to my uncle.”

After several years of cooking meals for large groups, Olivier’s culinary exploration of her roots will take the shape of an exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center. The show, which opens Sept. 1 and runs through Jan. 10, 2016, is called “Petit Takett: Love, Legacy and Recipes From the Maghreb.”

Olivier lays bare her family history in the exhibition. In one photo, her father, Sylvain, is making boulettes (North African meatballs) in their Los Angeles kitchen in 1983, while a tiny Orly looks on. Another photo shows a recipe card for chakchouka, a North African tomato and pepper stew with eggs. It’s written by Sylvain in blue pen, the paper stained with oil. 

I interviewed Olivier sitting at a sunny backyard table at her midcentury modern tract home in a quiet neighborhood at the border of Highland Park and Pasadena. As butterflies flitted through the leaves of a grapefruit tree, we dug our forks into bowls of chakchouka. It was the same recipe she inherited from her father, made with roasted red and green bell peppers and roma tomatoes, serrano chilis from her garden, farm-fresh eggs and homemade harissa.

“This was a Sunday morning tradition at my parents’ house,” Olivier told me. “My dad made chakchouka any Sunday that he was home, in this big, giant enamelware blue-and-white pot. It was the best smell.”

Sylvain died in 2001 of complications from a living-donor liver transplant when Olivier was 20; her mother, Marsha, died in 1999 of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

“I feel like they’re sort of everywhere with me all the time. This project has been about making that a priority in my life, keeping their memory with me,” Olivier said.

A decade after her father’s death, she discovered a box of his recipes in storage, with a couple dozen recipe cards for traditional Tunisian dishes. They include chreime, a spicy fish stew; aubergine farsi, a broiled eggplant dip; hand-rolled couscous; boulettes; banatage, mashed potatoes balls with sauteed meat inside; and numerous small salads served before the meal, such as mazoura, a spicy carrot and caraway salad.

Finding those recipes, Olivier said, “really resonated with me, and it made me realize that all the years that I’d been a photographer, shooting photographs of my family, this was sort of where it was building up to be.”

Olivier’s father emigrated from Tunisia in 1955 to Israel, where he completed his military service, and arrived in the United States in 1962. He ran an antique shop in West L.A., where he met Olivier’s mother. Olivier was born in 1981 and raised in Pacific Palisades, though she spent three years in Israel as a teenager and graduated from high school there. A graduate of Art Center College of Design, she is currently managing director of the Breed Street Shul Project, which is rehabilitating the landmark Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights.

“Breed Street is a bridge to the past, to people’s Jewish histories in Los Angeles, and it offers a unique opportunity for people to re-engage in that and think about how the cultures have evolved and changed over time,” she said. “Petit Takett is also that in a way. I’m taking my family’s history and making it my own in a way that’s meaningful to me.”

Olivier’s mother’s family is based in Los Angeles, and her father’s relatives often visited from abroad. Sylvain came from a large family (he was one of 12 children, of which nine survived into adulthood). The exhibit at the Skirball includes mementoes from Olivier’s childhood, including a hamsa amulet and a vintage commercial sign from her father’s kitchen, as well as the recipe box itself. There also are photos of Olivier and her sister, Remy, wearing handmade costumes and enacting plays for their extended family at home.

“After Shabbat dinner at my parents’ house, my sister and I would gather all the children and we’d put on these elaborate performances with ridiculous outfits, and my parents often participated in this,” she said. 

The show includes her mother’s traditional North African dress, in cobalt blue and gold, that she wore for Shabbat dinners.

“It’s my Halloween costume every year, and I feel like Princess Jasmine in it,” she said. “My father had a matching white one that he would wear all the time for Shabbat dinner. It was a symbol of Shabbat for me, and of a really different culture from the American landscape I grew up in.”

The show also includes letterpress posters Olivier designed, inspired by her father’s recipes. They use different fonts and images to make the ingredients leap off the page, suggesting the emotional resonance that recipes can offer. They provide a map of sorts, to smells and tastes and visuals that can evoke vivid memories.

The exhibition will be installed in the Ruby Gallery, Skirball’s community space, across from Zeidler’s Café. There’s also a participatory aspect of the show. Visitors will be encouraged to reflect on their own family gatherings by submitting favorite recipes on cards provided by the gallery. Those will be displayed like a mosaic, inspired by North African tiles.

“I think the table is like a mosaic, where we all come together, and every piece of the table — the plates, the people, the food that you serve — fills the mosaic, and when it comes together, it’s a new picture,” Olivier said.

“Food has memories that go beyond words. Food can relate to many people. It’s very universal,” Doris Berger, the show’s curator, said. “[Olivier] starts with herself and her own culture. And that’s the closest and dearest and most authentic to her, obviously. But she starts to use it as a platform to venture out into all our cultures, and creates a possibility to remind ourselves we all have a certain heritage and certain memories, and we can bring them back, and food is a platform to do that.”

Last year, Olivier hosted a series of Shabbat dinners at Thank You For Coming, a food collective and art space in Atwater Village. Olivier will continue that practice at the Skirball with a series of related programs that explore various dimensions of food traditions.

As part of the Skirball’s ongoing “Skirball Playdates” for young children and their parents, the “playdate” on Sept. 20 invites families to prepare a delicious Tunisian dish and design table settings. Leading up to Sukkot, Olivier will lead a workshop for adults on Sept. 27, to create napkins using the Japanese shibori indigo tie-dye technique. Olivier will also host a Tunisian dinner on Oct. 18, featuring an array of salads, an entrée of vegetarian couscous and a dessert of basbousa (citrus semolina cake). There  will also be a family sleepover for children and their parents to enjoy food and reflect on family stories on Nov. 14.

For Olivier, Petit Takett is about more than just a restaurant in Tunisia. It’s a concept that travels across time and space, from a kitchen in Tunis to a dinner table in Los Angeles. Food can be a powerful connection to the past, but it’s also a way to carry the past with you, to create a life that honors one’s heritage. In her art and in her food, Olivier continues the legacy of cooking and entertaining that her parents handed down to her.

This article was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Details about the exhibition and related programs, including separate admission fees, will be available at

Getting the hang of it: Helpful hints for displaying artwork


People love having art on their walls, but they’re often not so keen on hanging it. I understand. It can be intimidating just to get started. How do you decide what goes where? How high do you hang it? What if you put a hole in the wall then want to change where the picture goes?  So, instead of displaying their art on the walls, many people leave their precious paintings, prints and photographs in a closet or the garage to collect dust. That’s a shame. Even Velvet Elvis deserves to see the light of day. 

Well, fear not, my art-loving friends. It’s really easier than you might think to hang pictures like a pro. Just knowing the basics will empower you to turn your walls into a gallery.

Hang the art at eye level

The most common mistake people make is hanging art too high. Artworks should be at eye level, meaning that when you’re standing, you should be looking at the center of the picture. Although the size of each work varies, as well as each person’s height, a good rule of thumb is to position the center of the picture (measured vertically) between 57 inches and 60 inches from the floor. Of course, if the work is mural-sized and takes up most of the wall, then this rule doesn’t apply.

Work with the scale of the furniture

Another common mistake is to place artworks that are too small for the space allotted. Pieces that hang above a piece of furniture, like a sofa or a console table, should be at least half the width of the furniture, and preferably even three-fourths of the width, or more. It can even extend past the furniture. It’s better to be too big than too small. And if you don’t have a piece of artwork that’s big enough? Then group two or more pieces together so that, in total, they occupy enough wall space to balance the scale of the furniture.

Map it out first 

One of my tricks in hanging artwork, especially when grouping multiple pieces together, is to trace the shape of the works on a piece of butcher paper or newspaper, cut out the shapes, and tape them to the walls. This enables me to experiment with the placement of the art, moving it around without making any nail holes. 

Mix and match frames

When hanging multiple pictures together, give yourself permission to mix and match frames. I know stores often sell frames in sets with identical styles so you don’t have to think about it. But it’s actually very pleasing to the eye to mix up colors and textures — black, light wood, gold leaf, aluminum, etc. And don’t feel you need to match the wood finish on the frames to the wood finishes in your furniture. You don’t live in a Marriott.

Include mats

Mats set off the work to make it look its best. If you compare a picture with a frame alone to that same picture surrounded by a mat and frame, the one with the mat will almost always look better. I remember a recent visit to an art show in which an artist’s scribbles on index cards were framed for all to see. They were scribbles! Yet, because they were framed with a mat, they were suddenly elevated to art. (Sorry, my populist self could not deduce the deeper subtext, and I was left appreciating only the mat.) Although frame shops charge a hefty price to include a mat with your framing, it’s quite economical to buy pre-cut-to-size mats at stores like Aaron Brothers and install it yourself. 

Go nail-less

Some people who rent their homes are not allowed to put holes in the wall. Thanks to removable double-sided adhesive tabs such as 3M Command Strips, renters can still put up artworks without using nails. I was once decorating a client’s bathroom with several framed pictures. As I got out my hammer, I realized the walls were made not of drywall, but concrete. There was no way I was going to be able to put a nail through that concrete. With the client expected home in just a few hours, I quickly drove to the hardware store to pick up some 3M Command Strips. They did the job perfectly. Just be sure you check the package for the weight limitations; there are strips for lighter objects as well as heavier ones. 

Get high

One question I am often asked is how to hang artwork in a room with high ceilings. Again, work with the scale. Rather than hanging art that is proportional only to the width of, say, a sofa, you should aim to display art that is proportional to the height of the room. Tall, vertical pieces work well. My living room has 14-foot ceilings, so I have hung two 8-foot street banners to adorn the wall. Once I was helping a client move into a loft that had one very tall, skinny wall. She owned several paintings she had accumulated through the years, so I displayed them in a vertical line, reaching all the way to the ceiling. The height of the art accentuated the height of the ceiling and made the room look even larger.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

A Jewish commune and lessons of sharing


One of the hardest lessons to teach a young child is the value of sharing. How do you explain to your son or daughter that they should hand off their cherished teddy bear or toy truck to another child? The word “mine” is one of the first words to come out of a toddler’s mouth, and children see their toys as extensions of themselves.

Artist Joel Tauber, 43, ran into this dilemma while raising his 5-year-old son Zeke and 3-year-old son Ozzie. If Tauber wasn’t willing to let others borrow his expensive video equipment, why should Zeke have to share his prized toy guitar with a friend?

The challenge of teaching the value of sharing led to “The Sharing Project,” a 15-channel video installation at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, up now through July 19. Visitors will see a room full of screens, featuring 15 short films as well as 21 interviews with experts in fields ranging from evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, history, philosophy, and education. Through these experts, Tauber tries to get at the root of why humans choose to compete or cooperate.

“We applaud selfishness in so many ways. Probably the dominant narrative in our culture is, get as much stuff as you can. We’re bombarded by all this advertisement all the time, telling us to get more and more stuff,” Tauber said.

“It troubles me, seeing how we’ve become a really selfish culture. I don’t think that’s good for us as a whole. I try not to be that way. I’m conflicted just like everyone else though. There’s a part of me that wants good things for myself and for my kids and for my wife, and for us to live an easy life. But then I’m also really troubled by all this inequity.”

At the museum, Tauber encourages visitors to bring in toys to share and arrange in the space. When the project concludes, visitors are invited to take a toy with them and give it to whomever they’d like.

While investigating the idea of sharing, Tauber and his son Zeke turned to the forgotten Socialist Jewish commune of Happyville in South Carolina. Established in 1905 and disbanded in 1908, Tauber sought out the remains of the utopian community, hoping some of the mysteries of sharing would be buried in the ruins.

The central video in the installation tells the story of Happyville. The video features long shots of birds chirping, green leaves quivering and ripples spreading across a lake. Its tranquility seems to mask the incredible experiment that took place deep within its wooded folds.

In 1905, Jewish immigrant Charles Weintraub and other Eastern European families purchased a 2,200-acre plantation in Aiken County. They bought livestock, equipment and the buildings that were on the land. They cleared the sandy soil into pasture, and set about constructing a grist mill, saw mill and cotton gin.

But the colonists were beset by troubles. First, the Russian and Polish immigrants had little knowledge and experience in farming. Heavy rains washed out the fields and the dam built to power the ginnery. And most significantly, they incurred a heavy debt and were unable to attract patrons. In 1908, the 50 settlers living in Happyville auctioned off their equipment and livestock and sold the farmland, and left town. All that remains are an ancient tractor, a horse carriage and some crumbling foundations.

When he discovered the story of Happyville, he felt a kinship with the socialist pioneers. In Tauber’s video, he and Zeke (who was then 3 years old) use the boy’s brightly-colored plastic tools to “fix” the rusted tractor and a decaying house, a poetic metaphor for the concept of “tikkun olam” and for the desire to repair whatever caused Happyville to disintegrate.

“You’re doing a really good job,” Tauber tells the boy, with his mop of curly brown hair and his rain boots, as he attacks the spokes of a wagon wheel with his yellow plastic wrench. “We’re fixing a special place,” Tauber tells Zeke, as the boy bangs against a rusted door.

Tauber's son, Zeke, 'fixing' the door with his plastic tools

Tauber left Los Angeles in 2011 to develop a video art program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was startled by the economic inequality he saw in his new home. Census data shows that 23 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty level.

“It turns out that Winston-Salem might have the most childhood poverty in the whole country, and that’s while there’s all these really wealthy people there,” Tauber said.

Tauber brought Zeke to protests in Winston-Salem against unemployment and funding cuts to social programs, and filmed their participation in the protests as yet another lesson in sharing.

Tauber was raised as an Orthodox Jew in Boston and as a boy showed promise as a scholar of Talmud. But at 18, instead of continuing on to a yeshiva, he opted to spend a summer at Tirat Zvi, a religious kibbutz in Israel’s Beit She'an Valley, where he picked carrots and worked in a salami factory. That experience made him think a lot about communal living. He had planned to become a doctor, but decided to study art at Yale University and then at Art Center College of Design.

Another of Tauber’s projects is called “Sick-Amour,” in which he adopted and maintained a sycamore tree growing in the middle of a giant parking lot at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

“It was getting hit by cars, starved for water and oxygen, and eventually asphalt was removed, boulders were placed around it, then that started happening for other trees,” Tauber said. “Taking care of that tree, which is really ongoing, taught me how to love, how to become a husband, how to be a father.”

Tauber and volunteers planted seeds from the sycamore around the region. He estimates there are about 200 “tree babies” now growing from those seeds. He and his wife, Alison, even got married at the tree. “I think of the tree as part of my family,” he said. “It’s part of our family.”

All of his art projects revolve around ethical issues, Tauber said, whether it’s saving a tree or uncovering the roots of altruism. He traces it back to his Jewish education.

“I’m a secular man. We live a secular life. I’m happy that I had an education that encouraged me to think about ethics,” he said. “I’ve made all of my work about ethics. That’s what I’ve devoted my career and my life to. So as a parent, also, I feel that my responsibility is to help my children struggle with the idea of how to be a good person.”

Joel Tauber’s “The Sharing Project” is on display at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach, through July 19, 2015. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, June 20, 6-8 pm, with a performance by Earth Like Planets. More information at

Agnieszka Kurant and the art of what’s missing


On June 5, Agnieszka Kurant will become one of only a handful of artists to have their work adorn the famous curved facade of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum here.

Kurant’s “The End of Signature,” a neon white projection created from the actual signatures of museum visitors with the help of a computer program, is an evolving light sculpture that the Polish-Jewish artist calls an ode to the disappearing art of handwriting. The “collective signature” will be visible on the Manhattan building at night and is similar to a work projected in blue outside a shopping mall in Holland in 2013.

“It’s like the signature of an invisible hand of a collective body,” said Kurant, a self-described post-conceptual artist now based in New York.

Her work will also be on display inside the Guggenheim as part of its summer contemporary art show. “Phantom Library” comprises 112 fictional books, originally mentioned in novels, lined up on a shelf. Kurant has given the books physicality, complete with ISBN numbers and bar codes.

“It relates to my general interest in phantom capital and how [the] contemporary economy is becoming based less and less on physical products and physical labor and more on virtual and immaterial products and immaterial labor,” Kurant told JTA.

Invisibility and the power of what cannot be seen are constants in the work of Kurant, who learned only as a teenager that her mother’s family was Jewish. Kurant’s maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and her mother, who spent most of her life in communist Poland, had been afraid to tell her daughter the truth.

Her family’s choice to keep her cultural and religious background hidden has weighed ever since on Kurant and her work.

“I’m particularly interested in how certain narratives are suppressed in collective memory,” she said.

Kurant was born and raised Catholic in Lodz. At 14, she accompanied her mother’s family to visit family graves in Warsaw. Noticing the Jewish stars etched on the tombstones — sometimes appearing alongside swastikas — she learned that her mother’s family was Jewish.

“When my mother was growing up, Jewish origin was taboo,” said Kurant, who until now has not discussed her Jewish identity in the media. “My maternal grandparents changed their names during the war and kept the fake names. … They had a fake Catholic wedding during the war and baptized my mother when she was born.”

Kurant’s mother’s family had been secular Jews, part of the Warsaw intelligentsia before the Holocaust. During the war they were hidden by a German businessman who allowed them to work in his factory. Her grandfather was a well-known surgeon in Lodz after the war. But in 1968, amid a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland that led to an exodus of 20,000 Jews from the country, he lost his job and was forced to live out his professional life at a small provincial hospital on the outskirts of the city, which is some 85 miles southwest of Warsaw.

Now working out of the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Manhattan, the up-and-coming Kurant has exhibited her work at the Tate Modern in London and at New York’s MoMA PS1, one of the major institutions in the United States dedicated solely to contemporary art. She is preparing for an upcoming exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. In 2010, she represented Poland at the Venice Biennale.

Before moving to the United States permanently 3 1/2 years ago, Kurant lived on Chlodna Street in Warsaw, the site of a bridge that once connected the small and large Jewish ghettos. She was struck by the absence of a Jewish memorial at the site, which has monuments to Polish victims of the 1919-21 Polish-Soviet war and a monument to a Polish priest who lived on the street and was murdered by communists in 1984. The Jewish narrative, Kurant says, was suppressed.

So in 2009, along with the Polish artist Anna Baumgart, Kurant created “(…),” a huge sculpture of movable balloons commissioned by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. The ellipsis between parentheses suggests a gap in narration.

“It was created as an ‘anti-monument,’ a way of showing what was not there,” Kurant said, describing the piece as a “portable monument-for-hire for places where unresolvable conflict exist, or where there are problems impossible to discuss and where certain discourses were suppressed in collective memory.”

Since learning about her own family’s suppression, Kurant says she has embraced her Jewish-Polish cultural identity.

“It’s who I am,” she said.

With a $180 million Picasso, art market enters a new frontier


When Picasso's “Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O)” set a record on Monday as the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, it was by a wide margin of nearly $40 million, fetching just under $180 million.

Christie's' sale of 35 works spanning the 20th and nascent 21st centuries also became the first auction at which two works each topped $140 million, when Giacometti's “Pointing Man” bronze sold for a record $141.3 million.

While Christie's did not identify any buyers of the top 10 lots, even by region, officials said a bevy of new collectors had entered the market in just the last five years or so – and at the very top echelons.

“We have entered a new era of the art market,” said Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie's global president, after Monday's sale.

“Collectors from all parts of the world compete for the very best across categories, generating record prices at levels we have never seen before.”

The Picasso surpassed the $142.4 million paid for Francis Bacon's “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” in November.

Pylkkanen said bidders at the highest levels, including Christie's' top nine lots which each fetched some $25 million or far more, have probably only been in the market for five or six years.

“That is going to continue,” he added.

Asian buyers have been spending heavily at New York's spring sales, with at least some winning bids for Christie's' top works taken via telephone by executives from its Asian operations.

Since a hiccup following the 2008 financial crisis, the art market at its top levels has enjoyed an unprecedented boom, driven by super-rich collectors flush with cash.

European, Middle Eastern, Russian, American and Asian buyers are competing for a limited supply of masterworks.

Christie's had five collectors vying for the Picasso at the $120 million level, which is virtually unprecedented. Such spending compels collectors to sell masterpieces.

New collectors are also crossing categories, unlike others who focus on Impressionism versus contemporary art.

“Collectors from different countries are appreciating masters from Picasso to Rothko,” said Pylkkanen. “Whether it's furniture or porcelain or artists who represent the best in 20th-century painting, they appreciate the best in class.”

Such appreciation means records will continue to tumble. Speculating on the lifeline for the new mark set by the Picasso, Pylkkanen said, “It could be a decade, it could be longer.”

If recent history is any guide, it could be far less.

Passing an art legacy on to the next generation


During the lengthy visits she would have with her great-uncle and great-aunt, David and Rivka Labkovski, at their home in South Africa, Leora Raikin — who was a young girl at the time — recalls these relatives being a bit eccentric.

David owned one pair of shoes, and Rivka — the sister of Raikin’s grandmother Zlata Spektor — had but two dresses. Husband and wife wanted herring with every meal, a carryover from the frugal ways they lived during the years they spent in a Siberian prison camp during the Holocaust. 

“He used to take my face in his hands and say, ‘Do you want to be smart or do you want to be pretty?’ and I would say, ‘Can’t I be both?’ ” Raikin said. “With Rivka, it was all about knowledge, intellectual ability and learning something new every day. She always wanted to know, ‘What have you learned today?’ ”

David Labkovski had been an artist in his native Vilna, Lithuania, and during eight years in a Siberian prison camp, where he served as a sketch and tattoo artist. After the war, he resumed his artistic career in Israel, where he lived in the artist colony of Safed from 1958 until his death in 1991.

Labkovski would sometimes give Raikin a painting or a sketch as a present. She always hoped the gift would be “one of the happy ones,” such as a picture of flowers. 

Not all of Labkovski’s work was so upbeat. 

His imagery covers a spectrum, from images of his homeland, including scenes of everyday life in Vilna and its Nazi occupation during the war and its destruction during the Holocaust. Labkovski returned to Vilna in 1946 and met with survivors, capturing their memories on canvas. He also produced a series of works portraying the characters of Sholem Aleichem.

Works spanning Labkovski’s career are represented in the exhibition “The Art and Life of David Labkovski,” on display at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) through June 14. The LAMOTH exhibition marks the first time a comprehensive collection of Labkovski’s work will be seen in the United States. His family regained possession of the collection nearly three years ago, after a lengthy court dispute in Israel over ownership of the works. 

During his lifetime, Labkovski’s views on the placement of his art were as complex and conflicted as the man himself. He wanted the work seen in the Diaspora, but only when the viewers — particularly the next generation — were ready for it. He refused to sell his work, and, after a 1959 exhibition of his work in Israel, he and Rivka concluded that the time was not right, according to Raikin. 

“The audiences in Israel were not ready to confront the horrors of the Holocaust. It was an Old World thing — they wanted to move forward,” Raikin said. “David and Rivka had this absolute belief that one day a generation will come along that will appreciate this life that was lost, the enormity of it.”

According to Raikin, after the deaths of her great-aunt and great-uncle, the artwork was left to the city of Safed. A small museum was badly maintained and eventually fell into disarray, and the art eventually fell under court conservatorship, Raikin said. By the time the court case was settled and the art came to Raikin’s mother and her siblings, more than 20 years had passed. 

An artist herself, Raikin wanted the work to be seen, and she found people of like minds in Connie Marco and Lisa Lainer-Fagan, both of whom are parents of students at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills. Marco, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, also volunteered at LAMOTH and worked closely with the museum’s executive director, Samara Hutman. 

Hutman studied the Labkovski collection — the haunting self-portraits, the vibrant depictions of market scenes and shtetl life — and immediately knew that she would put the paintings on display. 

“There was something incredibly prescient in the mind of the artist,” Hutman said, “to sort of hold his body of work together to keep the integrity of the collection and of the vision and to save it for when the time is right.

“The work is magnificent, and I think there’s something in really incredible alignment for us to exhibit this work,” she added. “It has a lot of symmetry with the narrative of the museum. It is all about finding these little shards and remnants of a world that was blown apart by the Holocaust, and now we’re all in this work of recovery and excavation and redignification.” 

The more people who saw Labkovski’s work and heard Raikin’s story, the more his great-niece was encouraged to get the art displayed, and the more the circle of support grew. A smaller version of the exhibition had an initial stop at the school, where a group of art students co-curated the exhibition under the guidance of art instructor Benny Ferdman.

Labkovski’s work resonated not only with the art students, but with a spectrum of departments across the NCJHS campus. In addition to the eight co-curators — who argued and debated which works should be included — two film students are assembling a documentary about the Labkovski experience. Students have written poetry that accompanies the work at the school and at LAMOTH, and a student sang a song in Yiddish about Vilna at the openings.

This was the first time such a cross-department art display had come together at the school, said Ferdman, arts director and artist-in-residence at NCJHS.

“When you look at an artist’s work over time and place, that kind of turns the work into an artifact as well,” Ferdman said. “Beyond its aesthetic value, it becomes the witness to a time and place. It was like a little time machine from the past coming to us now.”  

Wherever the journey next takes Labkovski’s art after LAMOTH, Raikin feels that by passing through young hands, the work has found its place again.

“I think we all feel it’s our responsibility to make sure this next generation cares,” Raikin said. “That the [NCJHS] students were so involved and vested, that superseded any dream I possibly could have had. It would have made David and Rivka so, so happy to have seen these students so interested. I can walk away and say I feel safe. I feel that these kids get it. They can pass it on.” 

For more information on “The Art and Life of David Labkovski,” visit lamoth.org.

Are there limits to humor?


Scandals involving rabbis or celebrities, a massively destructive Web hack, Ebola, Middle East unrest, growing anti-Semitism in Europe, even ISIS — when it comes to brainstorming for Purim content, today’s Jews see every strange or terrifying story as comedic potential. In preparing the shpiel — a collection of songs, sketches and fake headlines, presented as parody in the spirit of Purim — even the inexperienced would-be comedian takes generous license in those very unfunny things and proposes them as comedy, discussing by committee and provoking critiques like “questionable taste,” “dirty laundry ” and is this really “good for the Jews?” Regardless of the answers, Purim is traditionally the annual excuse to turn serious things upside down, to use comedy to understand and perhaps attempt to control the things that most disturb and frighten us. 

On culture and sexuality


The news is in. Kim Kardashian has released her most explicit photos ever, and an enthused public is looking for more.   

Why is popular culture obsessed with sexuality?  Why are magazines for the masses checkered with accounts of the dalliances of the rich, the coupling habits of the famous?  Surely, sex is not new.  Undoubtedly, the attraction between male and female hasn’t changed much in thousands of years.    

The obsession with sex seems most fervent in secular culture; much less so in religious society. 

Surely, a society is moved and shaken by its most creative members, those who open windows of possibility and allow the common man to believe in the future.  The work of secular artists – in their finely honed mediums of film, theater, and fiction writing – are bedecked with sexuality.   

To my ear, it seems that the secularist message is that the free-spirit who breaks mores and taboos recognizes the power of sex, but the middle-aged, religious heterosexual couple with kids, whose lives revolve around marriage, faith and family, doesn’t appreciate its liberating power. 

Which, to me (a middle-aged, religious, married, father of six), is rubbish.

No one contests the value of creativity and breaking stereotypes.  The most basic ingredient of a growing economy is the creative improvement of products and services.  The typical small business innovates and customizes, extending options, expanding possibilities.   Traditionalists work these bedrock jobs and are constantly creating and adapting. 

Yet, traditionalists don’t find creative release in breaking sexual mores. Why?    

To address that, we must engage one more concept, the role of leisure in a culture. 

Most people work the week and reset the weekend.  The common man or woman may gain R&R by watching a football game or a romantic movie.  The intellectual may regain his or her vigor by watching CSPAN and discussing politics.  But the truly sophisticated mind will only be rejuvenated when experiencing a pure art form; something uniquely creative and engaging, something that moves him to the world beyond.   Art – good art – is where the artist brings the viewer to the pinnacle of the corporeal and then beyond, allowing him to experience the sublime.   

I would posit that in secular culture, sex is an obsession because sex is where the human touches the beyond.  The drive, dance, passion and unity offer a moment beyond time and space.  Extending the barriers of what is normal within sex, allowing humans to touch the sublime in more ways, is an inherent value to secularists, a moral value. Sex is secular holiness because sex is art.       

The religious world view is different.  At the end of a long workweek the soul needs a reset.  A sophisticated spirit won’t be satiated with drink and revelry.  Only touching the beyond, lifting the veil of the physical to experience the spiritual, gives a reset.  The religious individual reaches that high through prayer to God amongst friends and family, infinitely more powerful than a maestro’s perfect score.

Sex, to religious folk, is much more than leaving time and space.  It is not art but intimacy, achieving oneness with spouse in the presence of God.   Sex, to the religious soul, is achieving unity with the perfect one, in the presence of all that is Perfect.      

The secularist and religious world views offer alternate paths to fulfillment in the most powerful human arenas of sexuality and rejuvenation.  One values art, the other values intimacy.  One touches the sublime, the other touches eternity. 

The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt is a rabbi and businessman in Dallas, Texas

Jack Bender’s lost and found


During his recent art show, “Junk Blessings,” at the Jewish rehab center Beit T’Shuvah, Jack Bender took the microphone and told the eclectic crowd that when he was a kid, “I’d throw paint up … and call it art. I sometimes feel like I’m still doing that.” 

It was a humble statement for a man who, though more well-known for his work directing and producing TV series such as “Lost” and “Under the Dome,” has a long history as an artist. But that’s par for the course with Bender, who seems, more than anything, to feel incredibly lucky for the success he’s found in life and for the spiritual journey he’s been on.

“I didn’t read much as a kid. I kind of learned everything I know from watching Abbott & Costello,” Bender said by phone, a couple of weeks after his Dec. 17 show benefiting Beit T’Shuvah. “The visual side of my brain was much more active, and that’s the way I learned.”

He started taking art lessons with Los Angeles artist Martin Lubner, who had a studio on La Cienega Boulevard in the 1960s. Bender would ride around town on his bike, picking up junk from alleyways and crafting it into artwork. At the same time, he was indulging his other love and sneaking into film studios. 

“I’d b——t my way onto the lot, and I’d hang out and watch movies being made, and television, which I was obsessed with,” Bender said. “I became an actor because it seemed like what I could do and make a living.”

But though he acted and later moved into directing, Bender never strayed far from his love of painting and sculpting. Over the years, he’s had five solo shows at galleries around town, by his account, and has another one upcoming in Detroit this year. 

“Junk Blessings” came out of a very personal place. Bender’s youngest daughter, Hannah Owens-Bender, spent time at Beit T’Shuvah after some well-publicized problems with substance abuse that landed her in trouble with the law during his stint on “Lost.” Bender credits the facility with having helped his daughter get her life back on track, and today she’s a successful costume designer in Los Angeles.

While Owens-Bender was at Beit T’Shuvah, Bender and his wife, Rabbi Laura Owens of B’nai Horin, became close with Beit T’Shuvah founder Harriet Rossetto and her husband and partner at the center, Rabbi Mark Borovitz. Bender even ended up writing a book called “2 Broken People,” about the couple’s incredible life stories.

“Junk Blessings” consisted of more than two dozen paintings and sculptures created by Bender and displayed around Beit T’Shuvah’s sanctuary space. The crowd was mixed, young and old alike, and many of them seemed deeply moved by the art. Among the works were portraits of Borovitz and Rossetto, as well as scenes depicting biblical figures, junkies and people from all walks of life. 

Bender’s paintings are notable for the asymmetrical faces of his subjects, and his use of texture, color and symbolism. Many of the paintings feature hamsas, which Bender said represent the hand of God to him. It’s an interesting turn for a man who was raised without much religion. 

“I grew up as an L.A. Jew with Christmas trees. My parents weren’t interested in being Jewish,” Bender said. “One of my earliest memories is of a black-and-white Abbott & Costello movie on a roof, and a big Christmas tree.” 

The image came from the fact that Bender’s father, who was a furrier to the stars, used to take him to Costello’s home in Toluca Lake around Christmas. Costello would project movies for the neighborhood children in his backyard as a seasonal treat.

When he was a kid, Bender said, his parents asked him if he wanted to go to Hebrew school or have more time to play around after school. He took the choice most kids would and never became a bar mitzvah. It wasn’t until his wife started studying to be a rabbi that Bender became more connected with his Jewish side. 

“She has opened me up to a lot of what’s just in my cellular memory,” said Bender, who now enjoys attending services even if he doesn’t know all the words to the prayers.

Bender was working on “Lost” at the same time Owens was studying at the Academy for Jewish Religion. When the opportunity came up to promote “Lost” in Israel, Bender jumped at the chance. 

“I loved Israel,” said Bender, before launching into a story about his trip to the Western Wall. He’d been promoting the show on TV there all day and finally made it to the wall just before Shabbat. As he was standing by the wall, he heard a voice. 

“The numbers. They’re in the wall.” 

Bender looked around and found an Orthodox rabbi standing near him. 

“The numbers, from your show, they’re in the wall,” said the rabbi, who then proceeded to show him that people had stuffed the mysterious series of numbers from “Lost” into the wall. 

It was one of a few times that Bender would be awed by the power of his TV work to reach people. Another time involved a combination of his two loves, art and directing. Bender was tasked with directing the show’s Season 2 premiere, “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” when two characters finally enter the series’ infamous “hatch.” Bender thought it would be interesting if the character living in the hatch had gone a little crazy and started painting. When he got the OK, Bender himself painted the mural, which became known as the “Swan Mural.”

The Internet lit up with reaction. Fans and journalists dissected the painting’s hidden meanings. There are pages upon pages on the Lost Wiki dedicated solely to interpretations of the mural. In reality, Bender said he just painted mostly what he felt like, incorporated a couple of numbers from the show and thought nothing more of it. To this day, he’s amused by the reactions people had to it. 

“At this point in my directing, I think I learned from painting how to let the spontaneity happen and be thankful when it does,” said Bender, who later went on to paint works for “Under the Dome.” “If a canvas is on the floor of my studio and my dogs walk on it … I always think it makes it better. There’s something about the ragged mistakes of making art, and actually film and television, the stuff you don’t plan on, that I actually think makes it better.”

Ultimately, that’s what “Junk Blessings” was all about — taking the twists life throws at us and making something of them. (Items from the Beit T’Shuvah show soon will be available for purchase on Bender’s website, jackbenderarts.com, he said.)

“All of us have junk in our lives,” Bender said. “The world has junk all around us. How do we transform the junk in ourselves, the junk in our lives, the junk around us, into something that’s either useful or beautiful or positive for the world?”

Exodus at (Cedars-)Sinai


In 2003, when John T. Lange was hired as curator of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s vast contemporary art collection, one of his first tasks was to take inventory of the items in the collection’s storage room.

Rummaging through a stack high up on a shelf, Lange came across something heavy that looked nothing like any of the other artworks owned by Cedars-Sinai. 

“They were just these big stone blocks,” Lange said during a recent interview. “I pulled them down, I said, ‘What is this?’ ”

Those big stone blocks, Lange realized after doing some research and asking around at the hospital, were from the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” the 1956 classic movie starring Charlton Heston as Moses. As it happens, Lange’s find of the tablets in storage is reminiscent of another film classic, the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in which the U.S. government has squirreled away the Ark of the Covenant in a massive warehouse amid thousands of other presumably less impressive items.

The story at Cedars-Sinai, though, is real. The red granite for the tablets was actually mined from the Sinai Peninsula, where much of the movie was filmed in October 1954. Which part of the movie these tablets were used in is not known, but, given that each one weighs 50 pounds, it was definitely not the scene where Moses lifted them above his head as he prepared to smash them. 

DeMille brought a few pairs of tablets back to Los Angeles, and he and his wife, Constance Adams DeMille, decided to donate a set to one of their favorite charities, Mount Sinai Hospital, which opened in 1955 on Beverly Boulevard and merged in 1961 with Cedars of Lebanon to form Cedars-Sinai. A Cedars-Sinai spokesperson was able to identify 1961 as the latest possible year in which the gift was made, as there’s a picture from then of the DeMilles with the tablets at the hospital. Meanwhile, a woman contacted in the Cecil B. DeMille Foundation’s Burbank office also did not know precisely when the family made the donation.

For decades, the tablets were proudly displayed atop Mount Sinai’s main building — after the merger, the building was renovated and then reopened in 1976 as the Schuman Building. In 1994, when the Northridge earthquake caused extensive damage to Cedars-Sinai, including to the Schuman Building, that building was demolished and replaced by the Saperstein Critical Care Tower. 

The tablets weren’t damaged in the quake, but they were removed from display and put into “temporary” storage with other “transitional” art, Lange said — and they still are considered a valuable part of Cedars-Sinai’s collection. Lange said the hospital plans to put them on display again, possibly within the next few years.

Rabbi Jason Weiner, senior rabbi and manager of the hospital’s spiritual care department, stood by as Lange removed a light protective cardboard packaging that covered the tablets. Weiner pointed out that the inscription carved into the stone tablets is not written in the Hebrew alphabet Jews today would recognize — DeMille ensured that the tablets were engraved using ancient Hebrew script, also known as Paleo-Hebrew, which bears little resemblance to modern Hebrew. 

Tracing the words of each commandment with his finger, Weiner pointed out that DeMille actually made a mistake in the engraving: In biblical literature, each of the two sides lists five of the commandments. 

DeMille’s tablets, though, show the first four commandments on the first tablet and the remaining six commandments on the second. Honest mistake? Not enough room? Weiner doesn’t know.

The other unknown is precisely what the pair is worth. “It’s one of those things where you just kind of say it’s priceless,” Lange said when asked. He also wouldn’t disclose the value of Cedars-Sinai’s entire art collection, even though it was appraised within the last few years. He did say, though, that he thinks it rivals some of the major museum collections in Los Angeles County. 

Although DeMille’s gift to Cedars-Sinai may not possess quite as much holiness as the actual Ten Commandments, Weiner certainly appreciates the historical intrigue the tablets add to his workplace. 

“Just like everyone always jokes that the Ten Commandments and the menorah [from the Temple] are in the basement of the Vatican, so this is in the basement of Cedars-Sinai — it’s also a holy place,” Weiner said, pausing for a moment before finishing his thought: “I’m joking.”

My job is to scare you


I always knew that writing and visual arts would be unpredictable career paths. But I’ve discovered that there is one thing that I can always count on: dead bodies.

As the art director for the “Scare Zones” at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights, I oversee the zombies and ghouls that overtake sections of the park every October. I was just 18 when I started working at Universal. In the fall of 1980, I graduated from high school in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and was trying to find a job. My sister heard the theme park was hiring so I went in for an interview. Later that same day, I was being fitted for a costume for a full-time job playing the Phantom of the Opera.

It was a perfect job for me: I grew up on horror movies and made haunted houses in backyards and basements with my childhood friends. Over time, my character resume grew to include the Wolfman, a mummy, and my crowning achievement, Beetlejuice. That was a speaking part, which meant no rubber mask and a pay bump. Life was good.

During this same period, I was trying to write the next Great American Novel. By the time I hit my 30s, I realized I wasn’t Steinbeck or Kerouac. I sold a few bad low-budget horror scripts that I knew would never be made into bad low-budget horror movies.

But I was getting promotions at Universal. I took off the mask and put on a tie to become a talent supervisor, which basically meant I got to babysit the Phantom and his friends. The park was growing and so were the creative opportunities. I started building props for the performers and created a few small street shows. At the time, we had a lot of classic Hollywood look-alike performers. So my job could involve finding a giant rubber fish for “Laurel and Hardy” or enlisting park guests to do a screen test with “Humphrey Bogart.”

A seed for my current work was first planted in 1996 when I saw an Ed Kienholz exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown. Kienholz was an installation and assemblage sculptor who took found objects—car parts, broken dolls, damaged furniture—and reassembled them into works of art. He relied on a screw gun, not a paintbrush. That was a concept I could wrap my hands around. So I started to create my own assemblage work. The mixed-media artists Lee Bontecou and George Herms (with whom I took a class at the late, great art school that the Chouinard Foundation ran for a time in South Pasadena) also inspired me.

I took classes in stained glass, welding, and screen-printing. I added printed text and old photographs into some of the pieces. My goal was to tell stories with visual art as I had with the written word and, especially, to connect with an audience the way that only a good story can. 

By the early 2000s, I was a part of a small department at Universal called Entertainment Production that creates special displays and events in the park. No event is more special than our annual Halloween Horror Nights, where I have the opportunity to scare up to thousands of people a night.

In addition to the usual rides, weekend nights in October feature mazes based on movies or TV shows, such as The Walking Dead, Alien vs. Predator, and An American Werewolf in London.

There are also five Scare Zones that act as “warm ups” to the mazes. These productions go well beyond the bedroom-sheet ghosts, tin-foil robots, and toilet-paper mummies my friends used to set up at our houses to spook our parents. Universal’s Scare Zones are dimly lit, fog-filled streets overrun with actors (or “Scare-actors” as we call them) who have one job and one job only: to scare the crap out of you. And it’s my job to ensure that happens.

That’s where the dead bodies come in.   

In mid-May or so, I meet with the event’s creative director and the head art director to hash out ideas. They oversee the creative content for all the mazes as well as the Walking Dead Scare Zone. As with the mazes, our first options are films or television shows related to the studio, which is one reason why New York Street has been overrun for the last two years by crazed mobs inspired by the Purge films. Occasionally our marketing department plays a role in the process: Halloween fans got to vote on a theme for our French Village Street this year. Sometimes I’ll do Internet searches on the history of London, disasters, notorious criminals, or ghost stories to get ideas. This year, the overwhelming favorite zone was an idea I pitched: “Dark Christmas.” Evil elves, Krampus (the half-goat demon who frightens children into being nice), and a scary Santa Claus all run amok down our version of London’s Baker Street.

Over the years, New York Street has been infested by mutant soldiers, radioactive zombies, and killer clowns. French Street has been consumed by the plague, sideshow freaks, witches, and killer clowns with a French twist (harlequins with hatchets). Baker Street has hosted Jack the Ripper, zombies inspired by the cult film Shaun of the Dead, and demonic toys like a man in a bloody rabbit costume wielding a chainsaw. As they say in the Industry, the bunny was a real crowd-pleaser.  

In the lead-up to Halloween, dozens of craftspeople build sets, design costumes, and create props in a vast warehouse not far from the studio. If we can’t build something ourselves, we buy it from specialty vendors, many of whom we encounter every year at the TransWorld’s Halloween Convention. The four-day trade show has hundreds of exhibitors selling everything from simple plastic masks to animatronic creatures that cost thousands of dollars.

I typically work on a much smaller scale. My budget is tight so I reuse a lot of stuff year after year. For example, I once repurposed some killer clowns into zombie hookers. Some of our dead bodies are brand new, but we also have “veteran” bodies held together with tape and hot glue. There is nothing you can’t accomplish with a screw gun, a roll of gaff tape, and a bag of zip ties.

I often work high-art or folk-art flourishes into the designs. The concept that received the most audience votes for French Street this year was “Mask-A-Raid”: a horde of cannibals masquerading as French aristocrats. I arranged French aristocrats at a massive table laden with fruits, vegetables, and human body parts in the spirit of 17th century Dutch still-life paintings and the grotesque tableaux of contemporary photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. A string quartet of skeletons is playing violins and cellos behind them. 

In 2010, I created a Scare Zone inspired by the Mexican folk legend “La Llorona,” the “Weeping Woman” who is searching for her dead children. I created two large backlit metal silhouettes mounted on wagons based on the Dios de los Muertos illustrations by Jose Posada. A few years later, I converted them into an altar that was featured in a Dios de los Muertos festival at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. 

Being the Scare Zone art director allows me the luxury of making stuff just because it’s cool.

But viewers move on after they see something to the next fright. I try for the opposite with the mixed-media art I create in my spare time so that viewers will linger and wonder about the story I’m telling with vintage photographs, an old desk, and scrap metal.

This year’s Halloween event is winding down. All I do now is periodically walk through to check for damage and readjust the lights. I can relax until November when it all gets packed up for next year. I plan to use the downtime to start a new piece for a possible gallery show next month.

For some reason, all of my ideas involve dead bodies.    


Patrick Quinn is a mixed-media artist living in Los Angeles. More of his art can be seen at http://www.patrickquinnartist.com/ . Universal City’s Halloween Horror Nights continue through Nov. 2. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.