The Year in Jewish Culture
Fri, 01/14/2011
Staff Writer

PETER BEINART FIGHTS FOR LIBERAL ZIONISM

As the former editor of The New Republic, a liberal magazine, but one with a strong pro-Israel bent, Peter Beinart shocked Jews of all stripes when he published a scathing critique of the organized Jewish community in May in The New York Review of Books. Beinart, 39, argued that groups from AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, to the Anti-Defamation League have failed to make Zionism an attractive ideal for young American Jews, who are mostly liberal.

Because mainstream organizations refuse to criticize some of Israel’s illiberal policies, like settlement growth or the proposed Loyalty Oath that would require all Arab citizens to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state, Zionism in America is at risk of becoming obsolete, Beinart argued. His essay created a firestorm that raged throughout the summer, with critics questioning everything from his statistics to his minimal criticism of Israel’s Arab neighbors. While the intensity of the debate was stunning, perhaps more shocking was the fact that Beinart was neither ignored nor shunned; instead, he was taken seriously, and seriously engaged. Plus, he got a book contract, which, after he expands the essay, will be published the by The New York Times’ book imprint, Times Book, in early 2012.

A NEW NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN JEWISH HISTORY OPENS IN PHILADELPHIA

The National Museum of American Jewish History had humble beginnings: it opened in a modest 15,000-square-foot building in Philadelphia in 1976. But its ambitions have always been large, and when museum leaders learned that the KYW Newsradio building on Independence Mall, right between the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall, was up for sale a few years ago, they jumped at the chance. A $150 million dollar fundraising campaign ensued, and after knocking down the non-descript station headquarters, they built a stunning glass-and-terra-cotta tower with 100,000 square feet.

Peter Beinart

It opened in November, and its permanent exhibit makes its message clear: the success of Jews in America would not have been possible without the freedom enshrined in nation’s Constitution. The story is not entirely celebratory — noting, for instance, that some Jews have historically been uncomfortable with the idea of freedom, since it often has led to assimilation. But by and large the story is one of success: since first arriving 350 years ago, Jews have become a small but integral part of the America community. And there’s a gleaming new building right next to the Constitution’s birthplace to prove it.

ROTH, OZICK, BELLOW AND THE RETURN OF THE OLD JEWISH GUARD

In recent years, a new crop of young Jewish writers has captivated the reading public: Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, to name some, have all become revered literary stars.

Cynthia Ozick

But their audiences could use a reminder that the generation of revered Jewish writers that precedes them still has something to say. This year, titans like Philip Roth, 77, Cynthia Ozick, 82, and even the recently deceased Nobel laureate, Saul Bellow, have came out with widely acclaimed books. Roth’s “Nemesis,” set in the 1944 Newark of the author’s youth, tells the story of a polio outbreak that inspires an even more vicious epidemic of community-wide paranoia. Ozick’s “Foreign Bodies” reworks Henry James’ 1903 classic “The Ambassadors,” focusing on the ordeals of a middle class Jewish family in 1952 instead of an upper-crust Christian one at the turn of the 20th century. And in “Saul Bellow: Letters,” editor Benjamin Taylor puts together hundreds of Bellow’s letters up through the days before his death, at age 89 in 2005, which reveal a writer as gifted in private as he was in public..

CHAIM GRADE, FORGOTTEN  YIDDISH WRITER, EMBROILED IN FEUD OVER HIS PAPERS

Before he died in 1982, the reputation of Yiddish writer Chaim Grade was second only to Isaac Bashevis Singer. Grade was born in Vilna, lived in Europe through the war, and came to America in 1948. Within a decade, his stories, mostly about the tension between religious and secular life, captured the imagination of multitudes. But since his death, at age 72, Grade has essentially been forgotten.

Chaim Grade and Inna Hecker

Why? Many say it is because his wife, Inna Hecker, was so zealous in her protection of his literary estate that it was nearly impossible to get his writing reissued in print. So when Hecker died earlier this spring, his small coterie of fans saw an opportunity — but there was a catch. Hecker, who died in her Bronx apartment, left no viable will. And city officials are now hamstrung over who should get the papers, which may even include unpublished work. Prominent institutions like YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and Harvard have all expressed a desire to archive or safeguard the papers, but since news broke of Hecker’s death, some former relatives and even the Hebrew University in Jerusalem are also claiming they want them. More than six months after Hecker’s death, there is still no decision as to where the papers will go.

HOWARD JACOBSON, A JEWISH BRITISH AUTHOR, WINS MAN BOOKER PRIZE FOR A VERY JEWISH BOOK

When the Jewish British author Howard Jacobson won the country’s most prestigious literary award, The Man Booker Prize, this fall, many Americans were caught off guard. It was not just casual readers who were surprised — who’s he? they wondered — but the American literary world too. No leading American papers even reviewed his award-wining book, “The Finkler Question,” when it was released in the States. And its American publisher undersold it too, quickly releasing it in paperback rather than in a spiffier hardcover. The book itself is something of a surprise topic-wise, for the Man Booker Prize as well: “The Finkler Question” is a mordantly comic and at times tragic look at British anti-Semitism. It follows three aging friends, two of them recently widowed Jewish men, as debates about Zionism devolve gradually into barely guised Jew-bashing. The way that Jacobson, who at 68 has often been called the British Philip Roth, has balanced his novel’s dark themes with gut-busting humor, is a perhaps an even greater accomplishment than the prize itself.

ISRAEL AND THE OSCARS

For the third consecutive year, an Israeli film was nominated last February for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The 2010 nominee — “Ajami,” about a neighborhood in Jaffa whose Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations are intimately entwined and, often, both in love and in conflict — lost to an Argentine film. But the nomination gave yet another boost to the remarkably sturdy Israeli film industry, which has not only brought attention to the country’s artistic achievements but also its often ugly political realities. Tellingly, all three past nominees, including the 2008 “Beaufort” and 2009’s “Waltz with Bashir,” have given harrowing portraits of Israeli-Arab conflicts. If you’re hoping the 2011 Oscars will finally bring a victory for an Israeli film, though, don’t hold your breath. Hardly any films have made a blip in the pre-Oscar buzz mill.

‘SHOAH,’ CLAUDE LANZMANN’S EPIC HOLOCAUST FILM TURNS 25

When the French auteur Claude Lanzmann released “Shoah,” his 9½-hour Holocaust documentary, in 1985, it was a watershed event. It was not that the Holocaust had not yet seeped into European public discourse — which it had since the ‘60s or before. It was just that there had been virtually no great film to penetrate its depths. “Shoah” did, and aired on European television screens for many years, even to this day. But in America, “Shoah” is much more a critical darling than a popular one. But that may soon change: on the occasion of the film’s 25th anniversary, the IFC Center began redistributing it in New York in December, and will bring it to movie screens across the country in early 2011. The film’s taxing length, of course, does not bode well for theater ticket sales, but distribution may give it the attention it needs to get on television screens. The film focuses mainly on Auschwitz survivors and town residents whom Lanzmann, now 85, tracked down decades after the Holocaust. And the image it leaves in viewers’ minds is one they’ll never forget.

DAVID ADJMI, AMERICA’S NEXT GREAT JEWISH PLAYWRIGHT

David Adjmi, 37, was raised in the tight-knit Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn. But over the past few years, he’s broken out on the national stage, perhaps becoming America’s most promising and distinctly Jewish playwright.

David Adjmi

In October, Adjmi was awarded the prestigious Whiting Writer’s Award, which goes to the country’s most promising young writers — of plays or prose — and whose past recipients include authors like Jonathan Franzen and Colson Whitehead, and playwrights like Suzan-Lori Parks and Sarah Ruhl.

Though he’s been staging plays for over 15 years now, his most prominent moment came last year, when Lincoln Center helped produce his play “Stunning.” The work was first staged at the Yale Rep, an incubator of young talent, and focused mainly on the racial and religious tensions within Brooklyn’s Syrian orthodox community. In recent decades Jewish playwrights, from Tony Kushner to David Mamet, have not been shy about including Jewish themes, but few have focused on Jewish issues so intently. Somehow Adjmi’s has managed to attract a much wider audience in the process, too.

REBOOT, JEWISH CULTURE NONPROFIT, GROWS UP

In 2003, a little nonprofit called Reboot made its mission clear: it would fund projects that made being Jewish meaningful and fun again. Its first real splash came in 2006, when it re-issued forgotten Latin-Jewish music made in the Catskills in the ’60s and ’70s, in an album called “Bagels and Bongos.”

Recently its spin-off music group, the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, has continued to put out kitschy albums by Israeli and secular American Jews whom time forgot — basically, the Barbra Streisands who never made it. It was not all attitude and irony, however, and this year was perhaps the Reboot’s best year yet. In Manhattan, the group organized the wildly popular “Sukkah City 2010,” for which hundreds of architects from all over the world submitted designs that were both entirely kosher and also aesthetically marvelous.

A selection committee that included major architects like Thom Mayne picked 10 winning designs that were built in Manhattan’s Union Square. In the fall, the Idelsohn Society also released a challenging album, “Black Sabbath,” which featured black musicians covering Jewish songs, and documented the often difficult relationship between the two communities in a glitzy exhibit in San Francisco and through concerts around the country.

JEWISH JOURNALISM GOES DIGITAL

No publication, Jewish or otherwise, has figured out how to turn a long-term profit on the web. But this past year, several Jewish publications have established prominent sites online, suggesting that Jewish journalism is far from dead. Publications like the hip, Brooklyn-based magazine Heeb, which shuttered its entire print operation this summer, and have focused instead on new websites. Heeb now reaches far more readers than it ever did in print.

Tablet, a nonprofit online-only Jewish paper, was founded by former Forward editors in 2009 and has attracted Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike. The Jewish Week, New York’s Jewish paper, also created a monthly publication of arts and ideas — Text/Context — in conjunction with Nextbook this year. And in an attempt to bring serious thinkers into the mainstream, the Jewish Review of Books came out in early 2010, and is being published on a quarterly basis. Through the JRB’s affiliated website, Jewish Ideas Daily, it posts links to articles by Jewish publications all over the world. The new online presence may not have saved Jewish journalism financially, but at least it seems to have found a new generation of readers on the web.