Celebrating Israel’s 60th, Skirball Style

There are many ways to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary, and the Skirball Cultural Center is leading with its strength by offering a series of wide-ranging programs of art shows, music, film and lectures.

Two current shows pay tribute to the nation’s distaff side: “Ziva Sivan: Painting Is Her Home” and “Israeli Women: A Portrait in Photographs.”

The Sivan exhibition marks the first public showing of her paintings, drawings and sculptures in the United States, but she is relatively unknown even in her native country, though she was born in Jerusalem, rarely left the city and died there.

By her own choice, Sivan remained a nonpublic figure whose house was her studio. She rarely allowed a showing of her works and discouraged potential buyers.

Judging by the 33 works selected for the current exhibition by curator Barbara C. Gilbert, who also edited the handsome catalogue, Sivan’s expressive, colorful and large-sized paintings on canvas and cardboard varied in style during a 30-year career from naturalism to abstract and back to realistic.

Throughout, Sivan’s predominant subject was the female nude, to the point that her often Rubenesque models became part of her extended family.

Her smaller-sized bronze sculptures are again mostly female, with the exception of a particularly expressive figure of a seated old man.

Sivan lived from 1936 to 2004, during the last decade finding some relief from the pain of a malignant cancer through her art, which complemented, but did not overshadow, her domestic life.

As art historian Dalia Manor quotes Sivan, “I see myself, first and foremost, as a family woman. The home and the family are the most important things to me. The art — which is my more public persona — that’s very important for me spiritually, but still, my first priority is my family.”

In light of these sentiments, it was fitting that at last week’s opening of the exhibit, which closes June 30, Skirball president Uri Herscher introduced, as honored guests, Sivan’s husband, Uzi; son, Ehud, and daughter, Noa.

The companion photo exhibit of Israeli women represents an instant time warp, with tanned kibbutzniks plucking oranges in 1948 and their uniformed sisters somewhat unheroically bringing tea to male officers.

But, as the decades pass, there is also a suitably gowned Miss Israel 2000 and hip young Tel Avivians frolicking at the beach.

In between the two eras are some exceptional portraits by Moshe Milner of immigrant women from Yemen and Algeria, as well as contributions by Hollywood’s own Roman Freulich and from documentary filmmaker Zion Ozeri.

A total of 63 images by 18 photographers make up the display, which runs through Aug. 10.

Other upcoming Israel at 60 events include the multicultural Esta musical ensemble, which will perform May 15, and theater artist Sara Felder, starring in the play “Out of Sight” on May 21 and 23.

For additional information, call (310) 440-4500.

Ziva Sivan, Musicians, 1988.Acrylic on canvas.Photo by Oded Antman

Believe It or Not

"It’s All True" (Simon & Schuster, 2004) by David Freeman offers us a portrait of an outsized Hollywood, so unbelievable that it must be dead on. It is, more precisely, a novel, lovingly unfolded about the movie business: How it works and how its players — adults spoiled by too much money and power — act out their lives. "Oh me-oh, my-oh," as Henry Wearie would say.

Wearie is the novel’s hero. He is actually a fictitious character, a screenwriter trying to hustle a script idea into a movie deal, but in a voice that sounds eerily like that of Freeman, who himself is a screenwriter. In its way, this book serves as a more knowing successor to Freeman’s earlier work, "A Hollywood Education," published 18 years ago, after the author had moved to Los Angeles from New York.

Wearie’s stance in the face of outrageous behavior is one of wry amusement as he contemplates these men and women who seem to be willingly trapped in the movie business. It is a form of entrapment with more than its share of perks: an obscene amount of money, a highly structured pecking order and a set of rituals and forms of behavior that would not be out of place in the French Court of Louis XIV.

Freeman admits us, occasionally with a touch of shame, into the routines that defines a screenwriter’s life: the daily 9 a.m. coffee gatherings with his friends at Farmer’s Market, made up mostly of other writers and film people who have been banished from Hollywood’s Court; the upscale power luncheons with producers, studio heads and movie stars at the de rigeur restaurant off Sunset Plaza; the round of endless parties where it is important to be seen with the "right people"; and the on-location film shoot in Mexico where Wearie has been summoned by the director to function as both a script doctor and a psychological handler of the film’s out-of-control star.

When he can force himself to attend to it, Wearie’s focus serves as a mantra for "the business": How to acquire heat — i.e., be in demand — and how to use this newly acquired heat to move a script idea from an improvised one-sentence pitch to a motion picture deal. Along the way, Wearie, always amused and always disenchanted, sees himself as a character in a comedy of manners that, at times, is so bizarre and absurd, that it can only be true.

For example, on location in Mexico, the movie star’s wife, Lilah, picked up the phone, which was patched through to the hotel and asked the operator to get her the Michael Singer Agency in Beverly Hills. "Mike Singer, please," Lilah said, and waited until someone came on the line. "It’s Lilah for Mike. Hi. Things are looking good…." Then Lilah asked her husband’s agent in Beverly Hills to call room service at their hotel in Mexico and have somebody bring them over six bottles of beers and some chips.

All of Freeman’s characters are captured (for us) by Wearie’s disengaged voice, as they exhibit different forms of Hollywood largesse often disguised as vanity. There is the pecking order in restaurants; the one-up behavior of the celebrities — one famous actor comes to lunch at a fashionable restaurant with his own chef and makes his entrance into the dining room through the kitchen, pausing for a fraction of a second to bestow favor on the assembled diners — and the lessons offered by a top producer to Wearie on the proper way to generate heat, to recycle a script, to pitch and pitch again, until the initial treatment finally finds its proper resting place, all the while generating work, lunches, maneuvers and the circulation of hope, money and opportunity.

Wearie’s voice is appealing — he is both an observer and part of the scene, detached and involved at the same time. He is unexpectedly moved by a director-friend who dies of complications from AIDS, and surprised to discover that he is capable of so much feeling. When he and his wife embark on a search to adopt a baby — only to discover that the birth mother and her boyfriend are hustlers looking for some quick money and that the young teenage mother is having second thoughts — he comes out into the open air long enough to realize that the self-defining rules and antics of Hollywood, where anything outrageous, even monstrous, is how life is played out as realism, has suddenly become unacceptable. For a brief instance, a shade of morality, of human dignity, matters to him — even though, all things being equal, the only thing he actually cares about, even more than his feeling for his wife, is his old, classic beat-up automobile, a Jaguar which "was about two dings away from being a used car that once was fashionable."

What distinguishes Freeman’s Hollywood comedy of manners from that of some of his predecessors is that surprisingly he views the cast of characters with affection. The novels of other writers lured to Hollywood — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Daniel Fuchs, Nathanael West — tended to be filled with shame, despair and disgust. Partly, they saw themselves as outsiders. Not so Freeman. He is aware that he is part of the scene as well; unabashedly so. And never more so than in his fond, thinly disguised portraits of friends: There is director Tony Richardson (called Rolf Shilling in the novel), a wise, gifted Machiavellian who turns out to be both likeable and a more talented game player than nearly everyone else; and Freeman’s Farmer’s Market friend, director Paul Mazursky, warmly sketched in as a director who once made "comedies and dramas about adult life." Now he was out of fashion. "The audience had turned into teenagers who wanted to see other teenagers having sex, outwitting their parents, and running from explosions."

But throughout it all, Mazursky never loses his manic sense of fun, quickly turning riffs into comic sketches that edge towards lunacy.

Ex-girlfriends and agents and writers — some friends of Wearie, some not — are perhaps less clearly identifiable. They are present in the novel, more as assemblage portraits; but there is little doubt they are the real thing and that whatever they say and do, unbelievable as it may seem, they all ring true.

Ode to a Great ‘Uncle’

Pearl Gluck sought her Chasidic forbears in “Divan”; Nathaniel Kahn pursued his estranged father in “My Architect,” and now Lindsay Crystal unearths family stories in “My Uncle Berns,” a quirky portrait of her wildly eccentric great-uncle.

For the 26-year-old director — and daughter of Billy Crystal — the subject isn’t surprising.

“Family is everything to us,” she said recently at her father’s Beverly Hills office.

Seated next to the computer where she finished editing “Berns,” she said she practically grew up on dad’s sets and played his daughter in both “City Slickers” films. She noted the passion with which he reunited with Russian relatives for his TV special, “Midnight Train to Moscow,” and commissioned 2003’s Museum of Tolerance exhibit, “Finding Our Family, Finding Ourselves.”

His hunger for family comes, in part, because when he was 15, his father, Jack, died of a heart attack.

“It was a subject we didn’t really talk about, because it was so painful,” his daughter said.

Then, in 2001, his mother died and Uncle Berns had to be evacuated from a nursing home two blocks from Ground Zero.

“I suddenly realized that Berns was almost the only relative left from that generation, and if I didn’t capture his stories, they would be gone,” Lindsay Crystal said.

So the NYU film school graduate focused her digital camera on Berns, an impish artist and jokester who wore outlandish masks to Thanksgiving celebrations, among other stunts.

“My initial intent was just to create a family document,” she said. But then she learned of the death of his sister, in his arms, when he was 14; his horrific experiences aboard a torpedoed World War II transport ship; the encounter with Gen. Eisenhower that turned him into an artist, and how he used laughter to heal the family after Jack Crystal’s death.

“He was the uncle you could play with,” as Billy Crystal says in the film. “He was hats, coats, costumes, masks, wigs. I always felt he was incredibly responsible for me becoming a performer.”

Lindsay Crystal credits her father, executive producer of “Berns,” for helping to mentor her directorial debut, which he calls “a great love story between a young woman and her 88-year-old uncle.”

It’s also Lindsay’s valentine to her father: “It’s a way for me to honor our family,” she said.

The film airs Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m. on HBO. Additional airtimes include: Aug.8 at 11 a.m.; Aug. 13 at 11:30 a.m.; Aug. 17at 2:30 p.m.; and Aug 21 at 8a.m.

Potent Portraits

Jill Poyourow’s preoccupation with portraits began amid the savory smell of soup in her grandmother’s kitchen. There hung an intriguing photograph of her grandma’s grandfather, who had cared for her from infancy after her own mother abandoned her to come to America. The 1910 picture revealed a devout-looking man with a long, flowing white beard, seated with his right hand resting on an open book. In the shadows, Poyourow could barely make out his worn shoes.

“Despite [his] shabby clothing, his kind eyes infused this picture with a kind of magic,” recalls the 40-year-old Los Angeles painter. “Over the years, he became godlike to me.”

So when Poyourow grew up and became an artist, it was no wonder she turned to photographs from her own family albums for inspiration. Her work includes nostalgic, embroidered copies of mother-and-baby snapshots; there is also a painted-on photograph, “The Bundt/Sisters Piece” (1991), in which the artist has playfully embellished a photo of her five aunts, wearing sensible 1930s dresses, with images of each matron’s bundt pan.

“Painting from images of deceased relatives, some of whom I never met, [has become] a form of ancestor worship,” she confides. “It is, in essence, a continual self-portrait using the biological ties of family.”

Poyourow (see sidebar below) is one of more than 20 artists whose work appears in the new Skirball show, “Revealing & Concealing: Portraits & Identity,” an exhibit that is essentially a portrait of the portrait. The pieces range from traditional commissioned likenesses to late 20th-century work; the show begins with a 1670 image of an assimilated Frankfurt “Court Jew,” artist unknown, wearing the elaborate wig and lavish lace of period gentiles. There is a moody self-portrait by the impoverished artist Lesser Ury, painted three years before his suicide in 1931, in which short, harsh brush strokes capture the artist’s psychic turmoil. There is a bourgeois image of German-Jewish life, from around the same period, by the prominent painter Max Liebermann; a portrait of Jewish baseball star Sandy Koufax by R.B. Kitaj; and “The Marx Brothers” from “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” by pop artist Andy Warhol.

“Revealing & Concealing” began, two years ago, when the museum’s fine arts curator, Barbara Gilbert, perused the Skirball’s collection and discovered a number of portraits of Jews painted during the past three centuries. A number of questions emerged: What insights can portraits offer beyond personal features? Can portraits reveal personality? Can they reveal facts about society, family or inbred cultural stereotypes?Since the Skirball’s focus is multicultural, Gilbert promptly put together an advisory committee, including representatives from L.A.’s African-American and Japanese-American museums; the resulting exhibition features artists as diverse as L.A. Jewish painter Ruth Weisberg to African-American Faith Ringgold to Tijuana-born painter Salomon Huerta, who grew up in the Ramona Gardens housing project in East L.A.

The identity issues explored are often complex. Chinese-born Hung Liu’s self-portrait is an enlarged “green card,” in which she has substituted “Fortune, Cookie,” for her own name – the sexual slang term for Chinese women and the stereotypical dessert served in Chinese-American restaurants. The piece is a metaphor for the artist’s sense of hovering between cultures, of feeling neither Chinese nor American.

Chicana artist Laura Alvarez, too, explores what she calls “living in the border”; while growing up in the U.S., she says, she spent summers with family in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and cleaned houses with her mother and grandmother back home in the States. Her double life, in turn, led to a watercolor series, “Double Agent Sirvienta,” which follows the adventures of a soap opera actress who always plays a maid but who is actually a spy on both sides of the border. It is, she says, “a way for me to see my position in the world as a heroine or protagonist.”

A different kind of double identity is proffered in Dennis Kardon’s “Traditional Instruction,” in which the artist appears as a bar mitzvah boy wearing a tallit and kippah, and clutching a paintbrush and palette. Standing in for his father is the French impressionist Manet, whose swirling cigar smoke hovers over a platter of lox.

Albert J. Winn’s self-portraits are far bleaker, exploring his feelings of isolation as a gay Jewish man living with AIDS. In the black-and-white photograph “Not in the Family Picture,” the widely exhibited L.A. artist is, literally, not in the family picture; his face stares next to a photo of smiling relatives, excluding himself. In the second panel of Winn’s “Family Triptych,” the artist again stares at the camera, as does his mother, who is seated behind him and wears a defeated, wan expression.

For Gilbert, the goal of “Revealing & Concealing” is simple. “We hope visitors will walk away with a better understanding to the role of portraiture within Jewish art and various minority communities,” she says. “We hope they will gain a better understanding that identity itself is multifaceted and far transcends ethnicity or cultural background.”

For information, call (310)440-4500.

Politics, Israeli Style

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu

Photo by Peter Halmagyi

Some of you may have caught last week’s New Yorker (May 25) with journalist David Remnick’s profile of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. If not, I urge you to call the magazine’s offices in New York and order a back copy, or simply visit your local library.

Remnick offers us a portrait of Bibi as The Outsider.

“The riddle of Netanyahu is that so many Israelis find him personally insufferable, and yet if there were an election tomorrow, he would almost certainly defeat the Labor standard-bearer…. The Orthodox know all about Bibi’s secular indiscretions — the pandering, the philandering. The far-right nationalists cannot yet decide whether he wants to kill the Oslo peace process [as they would like] or not. Both the Russian émigrés and the Sephardim know that he is not one of them. Nevertheless, these outsider constituencies believe that Bibi is better for their interests than the Ashkenazic elites of the Labor Party.”

That, of course, is Remnick’s view, a summary analysis of his interviews in Israel. But his sources are all there for us to read, boldly on the record: no reticence, no polite euphemisms, no political side-stepping by Netanyahu’s colleagues, either in Likud or in his government.

David Bar-Illan, for example, is one of the prime minister’s key aides, and a good friend as well. When Remnick asks about Bibi’s attempts to win over the Orthodox voters, given both his record of adultery and his reputation for being ultra-secular, Bar-Illan rolls his eyes.

Then, speaking directly, he tells the American journalist about his boss: “Finessing his being secular was nothing compared to other things, like adultery,” Bar-Illan tells Remnick. “One thing is to have an affair with a shiksa — but a married woman. With a shiksa, even the rebbes do it. But a married woman! Now Bibi’ll go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, maybe he’s gone to the Western Wall, or he’ll say the phrase ‘With God’s help.’ But he’s not fooling anyone.” All of this from the prime minister’s press secretary. (As The Journal went to press, word reached us that Bar-Illan denied all of the passages attributed to him. However, Remnick stands by his quotes.)

Party support and collegiality apparently also play a bit differently in Israel than, say, in the United States. Remnick calls Yitzhak Shamir, the former Likud prime minister, shortly after arriving in Jerusalem. “Bibi?” Shamir said in his exhausted Old World accent. “He is not a very trustworthy man.”

Shamir pauses for a moment. Perhaps he suddenly realizes that he is speaking on the record to a journalist. But, no. “He’s too egotistical,” he continues. “He had many advantages. But people don’t like him. I wouldn’t say he is admired. I don’t believe he believes in anything. He has a huge ego. People don’t like such people. I don’t like him.”

It’s difficult thinking of any Republican — Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole come to mind — saying such things on the record about George Bush, or even about the late Richard Nixon.

We, of course, do not experience a shy press in the United States. The running saga of Monica Lewinsky is evidence of that. But we are not particularly blessed with forthright public officials, from the president on down. Evasion, prevarication, just plain stalling when nothing else will help are the order of the day, whether it come from staff, public relations advisers or party stalwarts. Perhaps that is one reason the turnout for the primary election this Tuesday is expected to be so low.

Is there a lesson here for us? Do we want such forthrightness from our political leaders and their associates? Those of us who answer affirmatively presumably believe that candor and truthfulness can only be healthy for the body politic. That an end to political lying, along with those bland messages that ring out with sincere piety and patriotism, can only benefit political consumers like us.

But, of course, it is not quite that simple. Israeli politicians attempt to manipulate the voting public no less than do their American counterparts. There is no absence of “politicalspeak” in Hebrew, and, certainly, there is a comparable amount of chicanery and influence peddling within government.

The differences appear to present themselves among the political professionals — those inside the Jerusalem beltway, so to speak. From Remnick’s account, at least — and from other stories that have appeared in the press over the last decade — Israeli politicians feel little need to disguise their feelings when talking about one another. No velvet glove here.

Perhaps we can attribute this to the comparative smallness of numbers, perhaps to the familiar stereotype about Israeli brusqueness. In any event, to this American reader, it comes across as human and, just for the minute, a bracing dash of reality at a time when language looks to have lost its meaning. —Gene Lichtenstein