Conney Conference poses a question that may have no answer

Is there such a thing as Jewish art?

The 2015 Conney Conference will pose  and hope to answer that question during its three-day swan-dive into Jewish arts at USC, March 24-26. Programs include panel discussions, art exhibitions and performances by an array of artists tackling the topic.

Spoken-word poet Rick Lupert of answered the question with a definitive: “Yes. Period.” Lupert will be performing with composer and song-leader Craig Taubman on the evening of March 25. “Jewish art must exist because people are creating Jewish art,” the poet said matter-of-factly; he will perform one of his poems, titled “Unrequited Potato,” about waking up to the smell of latkes in the morning — an undeniably Jewish poem.

Photographer Bill Aron also thinks the question is a no-brainer. “I do identify as a Jew, and most of my work is about Jewish communities,” he said. On March 26, Aron will discuss his book “New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors,” which chronicles 120 survivors readjusting to their “new” normal life, post-treatments (“Maybe I’m the 121st,” the artist said, also a survivor). What makes his book Jewish? “There’s certainly a moral involved in my work, a sense of tikkun olam,” he said.

Stacie Chaiken, who will perform her play “The Dig,” about an archaeologist coming to terms with her Jewish identity, on the last day of the conference, also mentioned tikkun olam, using art as a means to heal the world. But unlike Aron, Chaiken is undecided about whether Jewish art exists. “I’m really not sure, but it will be neat to hear how people position themselves in terms of Jewish identities as artists,” she said.

Professor Doug Rosenberg, director of the Conney Project on Jewish Arts at the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founded the conference back in 2005 with this question in mind. Five conferences later, he isn’t any closer to coming up with an answer: “I don’t know if it’s possible to come up with a definitive answer. With each passing conference, the question becomes more layered and more nuanced,” he said.

Rosenberg was first inspired to ponder the issue in 1996, after attending the exhibition “Too Jewish?” at the Jewish Museum in New York. The show also was presented at the Hammer Museum at UCLA. 

“That was really the first time that there had been a collection of contemporary work which asked the question if art could be contemporary and Jewish at the same time,” Rosenberg said. So, in 2005, he organized a symposium, what would become the first Conney Conference, hosted by the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at UW-Madison. 

Ten years later, this is the fifth conference since its inception and the first time the conference is taking place outside of Madison. “We decided to take the show on the road,” Rosenberg said.

It also will be the first time UW-Madison alumni and Palm Desert retirees Marv and Babe Conney, whom the conference is named after, will be attending the event. Marv Conney said he’s excited to see the conference expand and evolve. “It’s really learning its potential,” he said, speaking of the conference as he would of a grandchild.

“We’re no spring chickens,” Conney said of himself and his wife, who haven’t been able to attend the previous conferences. Back in 1997, the Conneys approached the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies with a proposition: They wanted to endorse an arts program at UW-Madison. Conney said that since the college started offering the Conney Project on Jewish Arts, the enrollment in the program has been primarily composed of non-Jewish students. “I think it’s important, because it speaks to the universality of the subject,” he said.

Professor Ruth Weisberg, director of USC’s Initiative for Israeli Arts and Humanities, had attended a couple of conferences before ultimately initiating a conversation with Rosenberg about taking the conference to the next level. She knew that the Conneys hadn’t attended previous conferences due to geographical barriers, so that was an impetus for her to suggest a change of venue. Weisberg, representing USC, and Rosenberg, representing UW-Madison, eventually joined forces. “It’s very unusual for two major universities to co-sponsor an event like this,” Weisberg said.

In joining the project, Weisberg only had one request for Rosenberg: “That the theme be more Israeli than it usually is.” So, for the first time, the conference will address intertwined identities among Jewish, American and Israeli artists. “We’ve never really approached that question before,” Rosenberg admitted but said he’s excited to cover new ground and uncharted territory.

Weisberg first became interested in the topic of Israeli identity in art when she visited Israel “and asked artists to tell me about being an Israeli artist.” She was shocked when the artists, refusing to be pigeonholed as strictly “an Israeli artist,” referred to themselves as “international.” “I found it amusing, since their art had to do with boundaries, territories and land,” she continued. This made her think about an artist’s relationship to his/her cultural identity.

Keynote speakers Stanford professor Janice Ross and artist Andi Arnovitz also will join the conversation. Ross will lead a discussion titled “The Chasidic Swan,” investigating the role ballet plays in Israel, and American-Israeli Arnovitz, aside from exhibiting her work in a Jewish feminist exhibition, will speak about her entwined identities.

There may be no absolute answer to the question posed at the conference, but as the Conney Project celebrates its 10-year anniversary, it proves there are endless ways to approach the topic — and no harm in trying.

For more information on the Conney Conference, click here.

Six writers, six ways to reveal truths

On May 23, Valley Beth Shalom hosted an event designed to inspire the creation of new Jewish comedy and drama, and encourage the ongoing tradition of Jewish creativity and invention. Moderated by VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein, the program was a presentation of the synagogue’s Jewish Writers Roundtable, a group of about 10 members. Over the course of the evening, six of these writers—including Sarah Goldfinger (executive producer/writer, “CSI,” “Hawaii Five-O”), Michael Halperin (writer and TV executive), Jamie Pachino (screenwriter and writer, “Fairly Legal”), Stephanie Liss (playwright and writer, “On Holy Ground”) Ronda Spinak (artistic director and co-founder of the Jewish Women’s Theatre), and Lynn Roth (executive producer/writer, “The Paper Chase”)—all shared excerpts from recent works in which they reflected on contemporary Jewish life. Set before symbolic stained glass windows and a well-lit ark, the pieces read throughout the evening addressed Jewish faith and tradition at important moments in Jewish history and daily life. In just an hour and a half, the audience eavesdropped in a women’s bathroom at a wedding (Goldfinger), hid in Warsaw during the Holocaust (Halperin), heard an unconventional mother’s speech at a bar mitzvah (Pachino), escaped Tehran during the violent overthrow of the shah (Liss), explored the experiences of female rabbis (Spinak) and watched as Sigmund Freud came to terms with the changing state of Vienna for a Jew like himself (Roth).

The main motivations behind the evening, Feinstein said, were to “create a place for Jewish artists and art within the community,” and to “use theater as a mode of sharing ideas.” Stories, Feinstein pointed out, can create community through shared anxieties, values and reflections on the Jewish condition. Storytelling, Feinstein said, “is elemental to being a human being,” and the six pieces heard that evening portrayed moments in Judaism in which individuals are tested, but ultimately triumph.

Just as important as the Jewish spirit of creativity that Feinstein hoped the audience would take away from the evening was the notion that the writers should leave with the understanding that “the community appreciates their work.”

In his opening remarks about the evening, Feinstein explained that in Jewish tradition the “revelation of ultimate truth is through a book,” and that in this tradition of literacy as a spiritual element, the “people who assemble words share in the creation of the world.” Feinstein said he hopes to hold similar events in the future in order to open more eyes to new Jewish writing as well as to learn how to incorporate drama into synagogue life.

Notes on L.A.’s Book Fair

The lawns and quadrangles of UCLA this weekend looked like a great renaissance bazaar, with banners flying and rows of white tents lining the walkways. The tents were divided into hundreds of booths crammed full of books; books in display racks, books on shelves, tables piled high with books for sale. Bookstores, publishers, magazines, radio stations, libraries and museums — had all set up shop to hawk their wares at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Some 100,000 celebrants, representing all ages, races and fashion statements wandered the aisles, picnicked on the lawns and participated in the hundreds of panels and presentations that filled the two-day festival.

Fans and admirers, lugging shopping bags stuffed with books, made their way from author to author, often standing on long lines to accrue collections of signatures.

One could get gardening hints, gather suggestions on how to write a first novel, listen to poetry or watch a cooking demonstration. If you happened to be a veteran of the ’60s era, or had long lamented that you were born too late for all that sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, you could spend the entire afternoon at a triptych of panels on the 1960s.

The first panel — “Demanding the Impossible: ’60s Myths and Realities” — was moderated by Russell Jacoby, author most recently of “The End of Utopia,” with panelists Susan Griffin, a veteran of the feminist and environmental movements and author of more than 20 books; Washington journalist Christopher Hitchens; and Paul Krassner, publisher of the Realist. Jacoby began by pleading not guilty to charges of nostalgia and urged the left not to fear utopian dreams — notes that were repeated intermittently through the afternoon. Krassner, a co-founder of the Yippies, picked up the theme reminding the audience that “fun and responsibility are not mutually exclusive,” as he launched into a wild monologue on sex, drugs, the levitation of the Pentagon and general subversion. Hitchens, surely not suffering from nostalgia, used his 1960s sightings of a marijuana brownie munching Bill Clinton at Oxford (“he didn’t inhale because he was allergic to smoke. I have no recollection of him at all except as a kooky guzzling goof-off), to segue into a critique of Clinton today — a transition allowing him to plug his latest book — “No one Left To Lie To: The Triangulation of William Jefferson Clinton.”

While the first panel was not without its moments of tension, the next, “Second Thoughts? Looking Back at the ’60s,” plunged into full-blown antagonism. David Horowitz, one-time leftist, whose most recent book, “Radical Son,” traces his trajectory from old left through new to his current stance as outspoken man of the right, raged both at his fellow panelists and at the audience, for what he considered their sins of the 1960s, while moderator Maurice Zeitlin, a professor of sociology at UCLA and longtime activist, and Sara Davidson, who was then a reporter for the Boston Globe, defended the virtues of the decade. When Horowitz and Zeitlin launched into a debate on the Geneva Accords and the role of the National Liberation Front , we were all zipped back to 1967. The crowd savored these crackles of hostility, and joined right in. “I love the passion in this room,” said Davidson, as the book fair’s blue-shirted volunteers insisted the meeting come to a timely conclusion, “It’s something I miss about the ’60s.” So much for nostalgia.

The final panel, “Years of Hope, Days of Rage: the ’60s,” moderated by Nation editor Victor Navasky, was the most collegial. The three panelists, Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, and Robert Scheer have known each other for decades. In both their punditry and politics, they carry out the legacy of the ’60s and were happy to reminisce for an audience that could applaud the mention of the Port Huron statement, but were ready to move on to discuss the travesties of welfare reform and the bombings in Kosovo.

The panels, for anyone intrepid enough to attend all three, were curiously homogeneous in an event that was generally remarkable for the diversity of both its participants and audience. Due to both omissions and absences, the panels were reminiscent of the early ’60s, before the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, when most commentators and interpreters were white men of a certain age — and disproportionately Jewish.

If these panels didn’t manage to sum up and encapsulate the ’60s in the spring of 1999, that was to be expected. They were engaging and lively, and occasionally inspiring — if not exactly transcendent.

Postscript: Encountered in front of the Nation Booth where he was urged to pull out a relevant Chasidic tale, Rabbi Leonard Beerman, rabbi emeritus of Leo Baeck Temple, offered the following:

A Talmudic scholar’s wife had been closely observing her husband. “Excuse me,” she said, “I’ve noticed that day after day, you’ve been reading the same page of the Talmud. Is something the matter? Why aren’t you moving on?”

The scholar looked up at his wife, looked down at the page, and said simply, “I like it here.” “And that,” said Rabbi Beerman, “is how I feel about this Book Fair. I’ve been coming since it began and I like it here. I’m thrilled with this celebration of books and words and ideas — it shows an appetite for literature is still alive in our culture.”