Early Holy Land photos surprise viewers in 1800s

With the introduction of photography in 1839, pioneer practitioners of the nascent medium flocked to the Holy Land, expecting the glorious biblical scenes imagined by Renaissance painters, but finding instead mainly dusty villages and a largely ramshackle Jerusalem.

One disappointed visitor in 1867 was the American Samuel Clemens, who, under the pen name of Mark Twain, wrote in “The Innocents Abroad” that “Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince.”

Yet, the 21st century visitor to the exhibition “In Search of Biblical Lands: From Jerusalem to Jordan in 19th Century Photography,” through Sept. 12 at the Getty Villa in Malibu, will be amply rewarded.

The daguerreotypes, salted-paper and albumen silver prints, and stereoscopic views may lack the subtlety and color of modern photography, but they offer a fascinating glimpse of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian inhabitants of that era.

Jerusalem, with a population of 9,000, is hardly the shining city on the hill, but its skyline is dominated by the magnificent Dome of the Rock, and the pious Jews praying at the Western Wall testify to the unbroken connection of the Jewish people to the city.

Most of the early photographers were French and British, with the Maison Bonfils studio, founded by France’s Félix Bonfils, particularly active in scouring the hinterlands. Bonfils, his countryman Louis Vignes, and such British pioneers as James Robertson, Francis Frith and Sgt. James M. McDonald, took their bulky equipment to Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jaffa, Gaza, the Dead Sea and the Jordanian rock city of Petra.

The first photographers, like those who came later, were not above “enhancing” their works to meet the expectations of their Bible-loving customers and boost sales.

Félix Bonfils may well have been the founding father of Photoshopping. Finding a view of the Jordan River uninspiring, he combined multiple negatives to add a picturesque Arab with a camel and a tented encampment of pith-helmeted British tourists.

Such photos soon became all the rage in Europe and North America, spurring Jewish immigration and a boom in Christian tourism.

Among the latter were many Americans, whom Twain viewed with a jaundiced eye. Describing the “solemnity and silence” of one particular desert site, he added, “Behold, intruding upon a scene like this comes this fantastic mob of green-spectacled Yanks, with their flapping elbows and bobbing umbrellas.”

Also drawn to the Holy Land were Christian missionaries, who sought to convert the local Jews “but met with little success,” the exhibition brochure notes.

A side attraction are the early 19th century maps of Jerusalem and Palestine, with a vast area east of the Jordan River, stretching from the Sea of Galilee to the Gulf of Akaba, designated as an uninhabited “Great Syrian Desert.”

The exhibit continues at the Getty Villa through Sept. 12, along with the exhibit, “Apollo from Pompeii: Investigating an Ancient Bronze.” Admission is free, but parking is $15 and advance reservations are required. For more information on the exhibition and related events, visit Getty.edu/art/exhibitions/biblical_lands.

A Hope-filled Look at Poland’s Jewish Renaissance

An annual Jewish film festival; a week of performances by world-class klezmer acts; the construction of a $26 million Jewish museum in the country’s capital; “Tot Shabbat”: This is the stuff of Jewish communal life in many American cities.

But when all this is happening in contemporary Poland, it is cause for … what exactly?

“An Evening of Hope: Jewish Revival in Poland” was the cautiously optimistic event that attempted to answer this difficult question. An audience of 500 packed the sanctuary at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino on May 26 to hear from rabbis, cantors, high-profile Polish officials and others about Jewish life in present-day Poland. Part public diplomacy effort, part travelogue, part sermon and part commemoration, the evening was more complicated than most Jewish events.

The inspiration came last November when Andrzej Folwarczny, a former member of Poland’s Parliament, approached Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis looking for a way to advance Polish-Jewish dialogue.

Folwarczny is the founder and president of the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a Warsaw-based nonprofit that works to improve Polish-Jewish relations. Since its founding in 1998, the Forum has brought American Jewish leaders to visit Poland and has taken groups of non-Jewish Poles to visit Jewish communities around the United States. The Forum arranges meetings between Polish high school students and Jewish youth groups visiting Poland from the United States, Canada and Israel, and has also launched programs aimed at teaching Polish students about their country’s rich Jewish past.

Folwarczny found a willing partner in Schulweis. In his superb, carefully worded speech, Schulweis said, “I have a right to hope in the possibility of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland.”

About rapprochement, however, Schulweis is more hesitant, especially with what he called “the disappointing data of residual anti-Semitism” in Poland today. Which is why, when Folwarczny approached him, Schulweis found himself torn. “My father’s voice came to me,” Schulweis said in a conversation following the event. “And he said, ‘What are you doing? These are Polackn.
They’re all anti-Semitic.’ “

Although hope was the evening’s theme, some in the audience remained skeptical. “Jews do not have a desire to go to Poland,” said Moshe Melnick, a retired Jewish educator who was born in Poland and immigrated to the United States before World War II. Melnick had been curious enough to attend the event, but was not convinced of Poland’s transformation. “It’s the worst place in the world. It’s hell,” he said.

Folwarczny is familiar with voices like Melnick’s. On a Polish parliamentary visit to Israel in the late 1990s, Folwarczny was told that he would meet an Israeli group interested in Polish-Jewish dialogue. “I was still naïve enough to believe that many such groups existed,” Folwarczny recalled in an interview.

The group consisted of Israeli Holocaust survivors from Poland, and they did not hold back. “It was the first time I had heard such stories,” Folwarczny said. “Stories about Poles killing Jews, about Jews coming back to their towns and finding Poles living in their houses.” After an hour, Folwarczny felt “there was no chance for reconciliation.” But the meeting continued. “After four hours, there were tears in their eyes. On the one hand,” Folwarczny said of the survivors, “they hate Poland. On the other hand, they miss it and even love it.”

And, standing on the bima opposite the American, Israeli and Polish flags, the succession of speakers talked of all that there is for Jews to love about Poland today — from the thousands of non-Jews who come to Krakow every summer to listen to klezmer music, to the Purim parties in “hip Warsaw clubs,” to the growth of Jewish congregations across the country.

“Every day that I serve in Beit Warszawa, I say Shehechiyanu,” said Rabbi Burt Schuman, who heads up the synagogue that has been home to the Progressive Jewish community of Poland for more than a decade.

Most of the speakers took Schulweis’ hopeful tone but maintained an awareness of the troubling aspects of contemporary Jewish life in Poland. “Yes, there is anti-Semitism in Poland,” said Gosia Szymanska, an assistant director at the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles. Szymanska grew up in Lodz and only learned of her Jewish roots at age 12. “But nothing like what many people think. It is marginal, and whenever it rears its ugly head, the government responds to it quickly and forcefully.”

“You have anti-Semites in Poland,”  Folwarczny echoed from the pulpit. “You have people who do not get it. You have people who do not care.”

Perhaps the best expression of the evening’s theme came from someone who wasn’t even in the room. “ ‘Twenty years later,’ ” said Polish Consul General Joanna Kozinska-Frybes, quoting from a recent op-ed by Polish-Jewish journalist Konstanty Gebert, “ ‘this is what we have become: a normal Jewish community, with people attending one kind of services, and certainly not the other kind, or davka, never going to pray. Not because there is no shul. Not because they are afraid. Not because they would not know what to do once they are there. Just because it is their Jewish pleasure to do it their way.’ ”

Holy Moses — The Getty’s latest collection puts a Christian perspective on the leader, lawgiver and

A few years ago I was leading a group of American Jews on a tour of sites in Eastern Europe. Convinced that the narrative and psychological history of Poland cannot be understood without a visit to Jasna Gora, the great pilgrimage church in Czestochowa, and a view of its devotional painting, the so-called Black Madonna (believed to have been painted by St. Luke), I brought the tour group there en route to Auschwitz. To my disappointment, many in the group were puzzled, some even amused, at the crowds of people intensely venerating the small painting.

“Jews don’t do that sort of thing,” they said. When I asked how many of them had placed a small slip of paper in the crevices of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they assured me “That’s different!” and rejected my argument that we have our own kinds of object veneration, best exemplified in the ceremonial kissing of the Torah as it is carried around the synagogue.

The Getty Center’s upcoming exhibition “Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai” (Nov. 14-March 4) provides a great opportunity to ponder these religious confluences, while also coming almost face-to-face with some of the earliest, and most beautiful, images in Christian art. Mount Sinai resonates for Jews as the place where Moses received the Law from God. The wilderness of Sinai is the place where the Israelites wandered after their escape from Egypt. The images come to the Getty from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of the rugged mountain, which is said to where Moses communicated with the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-5). But viewers might be surprised to see that the Moses images in some of these extraordinary works aren’t the ones we’re accustomed to seeing.

The exhibition includes images from both the “New” and “Old Testament,” but it is the link between the former and the site from which they emanate that may be most interesting to the Jewish community. It’s a major accomplishment for the J. Paul Getty Museum to have persuaded the religious powers in charge to lend treasures from this venerable, yet almost inaccessible, site; but it’s also a coup for Angelenos, since the exhibition will not be seen elsewhere, and few of us are likely to have the opportunity to visit the monastery itself.

But this is more than an opportunity to ogle rare treasures. Indeed, they come to us with a visual tradition of their own, and need to be understood within that tradition. Byzantine art, with its vast time span, from the fifth century almost to the modern era, is generally characterized by stylized frontal figures and a rich use of color, especially gold. It doesn’t look like the more naturalistic art we have come to know since the Renaissance, although visitors will recognize in these icons the underpinnings of much early Italian panel painting. Initially, the somber narrative images may look static, but they merit careful attention to uncover the magic of delicately doleful faces, almost every one with a unique personality, sharing in a piety to which we can only aspire.

As devotional objects, the icons are eloquent, and it’s probably worthwhile imagining the pious monk communicating with these images on a daily basis. They must surely have become personal devotional friends, assistants on the route toward salvation. Seen as mantras for meditation exercises, these icons have a universal quality that goes far beyond the specificity of a given saint or religious narrative.

While the Getty exhibition centers on approximately 43 rare icons, from the sixth to the 17th centuries, the exhibition will also attempt to explicate their context in the isolated monastery whose construction was ordered by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century (he’s the one who built the famous, and beautifully ornate, Byzantine church, Hagia Sofia in what is now Istanbul).

Yale professor Robert S. Nelson led a team of curators who obviously became as transfixed by the place as by the works they were borrowing, attempting to present in the exhibition design a sense of the environment in which Saint Catherine’s sits. For those who want to contemplate the difficulties of land and climate endured by the wandering Israelites, that aspect of this exhibition should be an added incentive to visit the Getty.

Yet the concept of a 1,400-year-old monastery as a Christian pilgrimage site that is so intimately tied to Jewish history would likely be a seductive subject, even without the inspirational art. The show will explicate the role of icons in Christian liturgy, which ought to intrigue both Christians and non-Christians. As professor Thomas Matthews writes in the splendid catalog, the icons “bring us face to face with the deep debt of Christian religion to its pagan antecedents … [and] challenge our understanding of the underlying religious phenomena.”

That will surely be evident to Jewish viewers, as well, for the affinity of so many of our own rituals.

Given the Sinai origins of this exhibition, you won’t be surprised to find a number of images of Moses: Removing his sandals in front of the Burning Bush, receiving the Law and even standing beside the Virgin and Child. You won’t encounter the Moses we’ve seen in later Western art, who’s also the venerable law-giver we know from Jewish ceremonial objects — all of which have their origins in Christian art. Here Moses is a young man, generally beardless, almost diffident, in awe of his God, rather than awesome to his People. This might be a reflection of the monks’ considering Moses as a role model in their lives of meditation and prayer — a Moses striving for, rather than automatically imbued with, sanctity; he is the law-receiver, rather than the law-giver. Among the small number of non-icon artifacts in the exhibition is a sixth century cross incised with scenes from the life of Moses.

Remarkably, these icons were first published only in the 1950s, so this rare public display promises to expand our understanding of an important chapter of art history, especially in regard to European panel painting for which these paintings are important antecedents. The earliest ones have also provided new insights into the cult of icons and the religious sensibilities underlying this major aspect of Christian worship, as well as its debt to earlier pagan sources.

Class Acts

“I definitely stand out,” says Bina Hager, 17, of Hancock Park.

And it’s not just because the YULA senior is a strapping 5-foot-10 tall. Consider, for example, the cubist self-portrait that hangs upon her bedroom wall. Or the wildly colored abstract paintings, all Hager originals. Or the 6-foot-high punching bag and the gloves in one corner.

Kick boxing is, well, unusual fare for an Orthodox young woman, but Hager doesn’t mind the raised eyebrows.

“The mockery of my friends reverberates in my mind as I face the punching bag,” she cheerfully writes in an essay. “[But then]…the air crackles as I unleash my hand with unbridled fury…I savor the electricity of that moment…when I channel all physical chaos into artistic order.”

If Hager is an iconoclast, she’s also a Renaissance woman.

Two years ago, she began volunteering at Yachad, a program for children with disabilities; she went on to assist the physical therapists at a summer camp in the Catskills, where a number of experiences were engraved in memory. There was the autistic child, with whom she worked for seven weeks and who finally said her name. And there was the frail 9-year-old boy who was just learning to walk. The process was painful for the child, and Hager “held him, my palms supporting his elbows, as he embarked on a most courageous journey, a journey of five steps.”

Now, she has no doubt about her life’s path: Hager will attend Barnard College and study psychology and special education after attending a yeshiva in Israel next year.

“What working with people with disabilities has taught me is that the little you can give of yourself means so much,” she says.

Alexa Fields, Harvard-Westlake School

Don’t tell Alexa Fields that Latin is dead.

She’ll give you a look and say, “Rident stolidi Latina verba” — “Only fools laugh at the Latin language.” And Latin, specifically her poetry, helped get her into Harvard University’s early admission program, after all.

Fields first took Latin in fifth grade — rather reluctantly — but promptly fell in love with the language.

“I discovered that these ancient people were not deadbeats,” says Fields, who has also taken intensive summer theater workshops at the Santa Monica Playhouse, has studied French in Avignon and varsity lettered in cross country. “They were alive, clever, scandalous, mischievous, and they had great stories to tell.”

Fields read many of them over the years, in the writings of Ovid, Cicero, Horace, Catullus and Virgil’s “Aeneid” — “a real blast, which reads like a soap opera.” Some of Catullus’ poetry is so risqué, she adds, wickedly, that a substitute teacher once assumed the students were fabricating the translation and stormed from the room.

After completing Harvard-Westlake’s entire Latin curriculum last year, Fields decided to follow her own muse; with dictionary in hand, she composed five poems, “Carmina Vitae” (“Songs of Life”), in painstakingly strict hendecasyllabic meter.

One defends the Latin language, another extolls silliness, and the National Latin Honor Society member, for her part, will become the subject of a favorite joke when she travels to the former Roman empire this summer.

“A Latin student wandering in Italy asks where the restroom is,” says the 17-year-old senior, who is considering classes in science, psychology and music at Harvard. “The Italian stares at her for a long time and finally says, ‘You haven’t been here in awhile, have you?”

Zhanna Livshits, Fairfax High School

You’ll find Zhanna Livshits bustling about the multicultural kitchen at Project Angel Food, preparing meals for people with AIDS. Or she might be in the dialysis unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, holding the hand of a gravely ill patient.

“I believe that people need each other, need to know they are not alone in their struggle,” says Livshits, 18. For her, volunteerism has become a way of life because “I understand what it is to feel powerless, abandoned, with no one there to help.”

Livshits is speaking of her experience as a Jew in Belarus, where anti-Semites sprayed gunfire into the family apartment. She is also speaking of her early years in the United States, when, as the first in her family to learn English, she took on responsibilities beyond the realm of a typical 11-year-old. She dealt with the gas company and the welfare office. And when her parents couldn’t find work, she secured jobs as a tutor and as a receptionist. The tasks were doubly daunting for Livshits because she has battled stuttering all her life.

“But I am so grateful and admire my parents so much for bringing me here,” says the senior, who vows to become a physician “to make a difference and so that my family never again has to live in poverty.”

The Fairfax High salutatorian is well on her way, with some $9,000 per year in scholarships to attend UCLA.

Nevertheless, she believes that her most important work is with patients such as Lynn (not her real name), a 29-year-old woman whose kidney transplant had failed for the third time.

“She was pale and crying, but, at the end of our time together, she smiled,” says Livshits, who may go into the Peace Corps before medical school. “I don’t have the words to describe how that made me feel.”

Laurie Rubin, Oakwood School

In March, Laurie Rubin’s rich, intensely expressive mezzo-soprano dazzled the audience at the Kennedy Center in Washington with a feisty aria from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Just two weeks later, she sang at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and snagged first place in the classical voice category of the prestigious Music Center Spotlight Awards.

The thoughtful, vivacious Rubin has entered five competitions in her 18 years and has won first place in four of them.

But what sets her apart from her competitive peers is that she is blind.

Her love of music began when she was a baby, when her parents stimulated her other senses with scents and classical music. By age 16, she was already a seasoned performer, singing in six languages at Jewish and other functions honoring individuals such as George Burns, Ronald Reagan and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Recently, she sang at an event for the Foundation for the Junior Blind, an organization that has helped her build self-confidence.

Rubin was the first blind person to win the Spotlight Award; the first to attend Oakwood; and the first to become bat mitzvah at Valley Beth Shalom, where 600 congregants turned out to hear her chant the Torah portion from her Braille book atop the scroll. She has perfect pitch, learns music by ear, and hopes to become an opera singer, recitalist and cantor.

Nevertheless, a prominent conductor once warned her that no opera company would hire a blind person; some competition judges have been cynical; and Rubin, further, had to fight to be admitted to the gifted program at one school.

At the Tanglewood Institute, she was overcome with emotion while learning the role of Iolanthe, Tchaikovsky’s blind princess who longs to do more than the world will let her.

So Rubin has become an activist; she has been the subject of two educational films about blind people, and has screened and discussed them at Los Angeles-area schools.

“I’m sure at times I won’t get roles, because I am blind,” says the singer, who’s won a $8,000-per-year scholarship to Oberlin College and Conservatory. “But I’ll keep trying because music is music; it expresses what is in the heart, no matter what the politics.”

Adam Rosenthal, Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple

Adam Rosenthal is writing a guide for teen-agers like himself, his older brother, Jeremy, and many of his friends, who have become more observant than their parents. Its working title: “Mom, I Can’t Go Out With the Family. It’s Shabbat.”

In January, Rosenthal was elected as the international president of United Synagogue Youth (USY), representing more than 20,000 Conservative Jewish North American teens, and he just completed a year term as regional president of USY’s FarWest Region, which includes Southern California and five states.

Rosenthal’s Jewish involvement has been lifelong, starting with Camp Ramah — where his mother worked — at age 3, and continuing there every summer since. This year will be his second as camp counselor.

But Ramah, which he calls “a Jewish utopia,” existed only during the summer, so Rosenthal became involved in USY at his temple, Adat Ari El Synagogue in North Hollywood. He quickly became a youth leader and also team-teaches a fifth-grade class with his mom.

“I love planning activities that really change people’s lives,” he says.

One such program is Hevrah, which brings together USY-ers and Jewish teens with disabilities for social and religious experiences.

Rosenthal, who attended Los Angeles Unified public schools in Woodland Hills until this year, plans to spend his freshman college year on the USY NATIV leadership program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He will then