Unknown Jewish Artist’s Work Celebrated in Endicott Retrospective

If City University of New York art history professor Gail Levin had not stumbled upon the then unknown artist Theresa Bernstein in the course of her research on Edward Hopper in the 1980’s, she might be unknown still. Instead, Levin positioned her front and center in the noteworthy retrospective, “Theresa Bernstein: A Century in Art,” which opened last December in New York City. Luckily, one of the show’s four traveling stops is at Endicott College’s Walter Manninen Center for the Arts, where it will remain until July 11.


“Self Portrait” (1931)

Notwithstanding Levin’s curated exhibit and in-depth catalogue, Bernstein remains unknown, despite the fact that she exhibited in every decade of the twentieth century. Born in Cracow in 1890, she was raised in Philadelphia by educated and cultured Jewish immigrant parents. Her travels to Europe in 1905 and 1911 awakened a passion for modern art, and her paintings reflect her admiration of Manet, Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne. When her family relocated to New York City in 1912, she established a studio near Bryant Park and began painting in earnest, exhibiting alongside Edward Hopper in 1919.                   


“The Immigrants” (1923)

Although Bernstein pretended she was American-born, many of her paintings reflect her compassion for the trials her fellow immigrants faced. In “The Immigrants” (1923), for example, Bernstein emphasizes maternal tenderness in the foreground of the large oil painting. Set in the 1920’s, the immigrants she portrays are arriving in New York City aboard the Cunard R.M.S. “Aquitania.” At a time when the U.S. government was passing laws restricting immigration, Bernstein was concerned for the future of her fellow Jews who had been escaping Russian Empire persecution in large numbers since the 1890’s.


“The Milliners” (1919)

Many of her paintings reflect Jewish subjects. “The Milliners” (1919) incorporates portraits of Bernstein’s mother, mother in- law, sisters-in-law and her housekeeper. With the exception of the housekeeper, all were Jewish immigrants, many of whom worked as hat makers in New York’s garment trades. “The Menorah” (1948) celebrates Israel’s birth in 1948 with its symbol of statehood. “The Cone Sisters” (1930) is an intimate portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone, daughters of German-Jewish immigrants. The wealthy Baltimore sisters, trailblazing patrons of modern artists, supported Picasso and Matisse.

“The Cone Sisters” (1930)

Cone-SIstersBernstein married fellow painter William Meyerowitz, sharing 63 years of marriage and an Upper West Side studio. She outlived him by 23 years, dying just shy of her 112th birthday in 2002. Starting in 1916, the couple summered in Gloucester every year, members of a well-known colony of artists. Bernstein painted beach and other local scenes, and William often played chess with their neighbors. “The Country Fair” (1917) is a loving, intimate snapshot of Bernstein’s connections to the seaport town that offered her a “cradle-like serenity” and the inspiration of authentic American crowds.

Bernstein’s most exciting paintings, however, are post-1929, the year she discovered jazz. Her style is freer, less chained to conventions of color, brush stroke and composition. The three paintings “Charlie Parker” (1953), “Cab Calloway-Minnie the Moocher” (1935)  (below left) and “Lil Hardin & Louis Armstrong” (1927)  (below right) are an almost surrealist triptych so full of life that that if you close your eyes, you can hear the music that inspired them.


In her “Credo,” Theresa Bernstein stated, “I believe that my work will be more appreciated and understood as it is more seen and studied, just as sound or a language becomes more coherent.” Her appearance at Endicott College in Beverly couldn’t be more fitting. The park-like setting of the Manninen Center for the Arts makes for a perfect summer outing, and the discovery of a new artist’s work is like a breath of sunny air. How often, after all, do we have the opportunity to view an artist and her work with truly fresh eyes, unclouded by preconceptions and judgments? Be sure to take this opportunity to do just that.

Pictured at top: “The Menorah” (1948)

endicott building

The park-like setting of Endicott College’s Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts

All photos by Shelley A. Sackett

The exhibit is showing in the Manninen Center for the Arts at Endicott College, Beverly. Through July 11. For directions and hours, visit endicott.edu/Center-For-The-Arts.

For an in-depth interview with curator Gail Levin, read Regina Weinreich’s article at forward.com.

Read more: http://blogs.boston.forward.com/insights/184368/unknown-no-more-theresa-bernstein-retrospective-a/?#ixzz3ddXru9da

Pikuach Nefesh — Saving a Life

Pikuach Nefesh, the obligation to save a life in jeopardy, is as old as the Torah from which it comes. Valuing human life over all else is a basic tenet of Judaism. Its purpose, according to Maimonides, is to encourage compassion, loving-kindness and peace in the world.

Israel showed the world that this moral obligation is constant, as applicable in times of war as in times of peace, when it traded POW Gilad Shalit for 1,027 imprisoned terrorists in 2011. Israelis supported their government’s action by a 6 to 1 margin, according to a Jerusalem Post poll published the next day.

Contrast that to recent events at home. When the Taliban exchanged U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five prisoners held in the U.S. Guantanamo prison, a Pew Research Center and USA Today poll indicated that only 34% of those questioned thought it was the right thing to do. The cover of Time magazine ran a picture of Bergdahl with the oversized caption, “Was He Worth It?”

Israel and the United States both have their share of political infighting and finger pointing. Polarization of right and left, ultra-this and ultra-that, are equally prevalent. Yet the way each country responded to its government’s deal to bring home its citizen prisoners of war couldn’t be more different. Or more revealing.

Both soldiers faced criticism of their conduct after they were freed. Both governments came under fire for negotiating with terrorists. In the U.S., the conversation about whether the swap was “worth it” focuses on public examination and criticism of Bergdahl’s character. Allegations and political jockeying have been swift, eclipsing all else.

In Israel, although there was an undercurrent questioning whether Shalit could have avoided captivity, his homecoming was celebrated. Despite the lopsided nature of the exchange, the public did not attack Shalit or his family personally. In Israel, a Jewish life is unconditionally sacred. Gilad Shalit needed to be brought home. Period.

Politics aside, the plurality of U.S. citizens could learn a valuable lesson from Israel and reconsider their reaction to Bowe Bergdahl’s release. Jews everywhere should look in our collective Jewish mirror, remember that which binds us as a unique people, and celebrate what we see.

This editorial originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on June 19, 2014.

Pope Francis Visits Israel With a Message for All

Pope Francis Visits Israel With a Message for All

lthough Pope Francis came to the Middle East as an emissary of the Vatican and representative of the world’s Catholics, his message stressing inclusion and cooperation was more global than partisan. By the end of his three-day tour, he left an impression of himself as a world leader of humanity because he acted like one.

Pope Francis’ point was that only through interfaith respect, dialogue and friendship can we hope to build a better world, and that each individual can make a difference. His message was clear, consistent and powerful, and he reinforced it repeatedly in word and deed. Rather than just making heartfelt but abstract speeches, he went one step further. He invited Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud, two friends with whom he regularly collaborated when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, to join his papal delegation. These three friends showed the world what it could look like when Muslim, Jew and Christian lead by example.

He met with Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders. With all three, he stressed common ground and shared monotheistic theological heritage. He spoke of the significance of Christianity’s Jewish roots and the role of Abraham in Christianity and Islam. He spoke of the importance of free access to Jerusalem’s holy sites and condemned religious intolerance, persecution and violence. To an audience that included the grand mufti of Jerusalem, he declared, “May no one abuse the name of God through violence!” Again and again, he stressed universal themes common to all.

We are not so nave to think a papal visit would make everyone in Israel happy, nor could it replace top-down policy negotiations. Nonetheless, a bottom-up approach that emphasizes redefining personal relations on the basis of empathy and communication may just have a better chance at creating the basic infrastructure for a culture of peace. As John F. Kennedy said, “Let us not rest all our hopes on parchment and on paper, let us strive to build peace, a willingness to work for peace in the hearts and minds of all of our people.”

Pope Francis’ words and actions were a step in this constructive direction.

This editorial was originally published in the Jewish Journal on June 5, 2014.

Polish Film Explores an ‘Ida’ State of Mind

If Edward Steichen or Ansel Adams made a movie, it might look like Pawel Pawlikowski’s small gem “Ida,” shot in luminous monochrome as a string of stark meditative stills. Although set in the early 1960’s in the desolate, austere Polish countryside, we could be anywhere, anytime, because the state where “Ida” takes place is actually a state of mind.

When we first meet Anna, she is a novice in the rural convent where she has lived since unknown persons left her on its doorstep as an infant in 1945. She is about to make the irrevocable decision to take her final vows. But before she can take that step, she is ordered to make contact with a surviving relative who has recently surfaced: her aunt, Wanda Gruz, a vodka-slugging, Communist zealot who has been demoted from state prosecutor to petty magistrate. Anna and Wanda are as black and white as is the cinematography.

Anna travels to Gdansk to meet this aunt, who answers the door bleary-eyed, cigarette dangling between lipstick-smeared lips, as a one-night stand hastily dresses just within Anna’s field of vision. Wanda, who earned the nickname “Red Wanda” for the many people she convicted during the Communist purges, gruffly informs Anna that she is Jewish, that her real name is Ida, and that the two of them must set out to discover what happened to Anna/Ida’s parents during the war. For Wanda, the decision to make this trip will be as life altering as Anna’s to take her final vows, the consequences as irrevocable and stark.

Thus begins a road-trip with the unlikeliest of traveling companions. “I’m the slut and you’re the little saint,” Wanda proclaims. Thelma and Louise this ain’t.

As the two travel to Anna/ Ida’s birthplace, we see the bleak lunar state that is postwar, post-Communist Poland, a country painfully suspended in time, overwhelmed by the weight of such cruel and tyrannical personal and political histories. Here and there are glimpses of mirth (usually activated by large quantities of vodka) and regeneration (accompanied by the relief of a John Coltrane soundtrack), but those who lived through the horrors of war still outnumber the luckier new generation coming of age in a time of peace.

With her gritty prosecutor’s relentless tenacity, Wanda gets to the bottom of what happened to Anna/Ida’s parents. Along the way, we encounter the countless contradictions that existed in Poland during the war and that live on through its survivors. Catholics either turned on or saved their Jewish neighbors (or, in some cases, both). Then came the Stalinist purges, again pitting Pole against Pole. While “Ida” is at its heart a film about Anna/Ida and Wanda’s relationship, Pawlikowski candidly addresses the issues that colored his country’s history, and affect it still.

Ida director

Director Pawel Pawlikowski

At 80 minutes, “Ida” is as complete and satisfying a film as a cinemaphile could wish for. Agata Kulesza is riveting as Wanda, and Agata Trzebuchowska radiates a luminescent innocence as Anna/ Ida. A soundtrack dominated by the mellifluous Coltrane, and a cinematographer who successfully exploits the richness of a gray palette, are icing on the cake.

Ultimately, “Ida” is an examination of the powers of memory, ignorance and free will. For Wanda and Anna/Ida, the choices and contexts are different, but the stakes are the same. Was Anna/Ida victim or blessed as Anna, a girl as ignorant of Ida as she was of the existence of free will? Who will she choose to be, now that she knows what she would be giving up? And how can Wanda integrate the answers she receives to the painful questions that have tortured her for so long? Who is she now that she can no longer fend off her memories?

“Ida” is one of those rare, not-to-be-missed, movies. Especially during this season of mind-numbing, revenue-driven summer blockbusters, it is a reminder that film is at its core a medium of art.

Pictured above: Anna/Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) and Wanda (Agata Kulesza) star in “Ida.” Courtesy of Music Box Films