52nd Street and All That Jazz

Billie Holiday’s unmistakably seductive voice singing “Fine and Mellow” lures the listener into Bowdoin College of Art’s second floor Shaw Ruddock Gallery. Stepping into the installation “On 52nd Street: The Jazz Photography of William P. Gottlieb” is like entering a time capsule into the 1940’s, when 52nd Street’s “Swing Alley” in New York City was the epicenter of jazz, and William P. Gottlieb (1917-2006) was its passionate chronicler.

The exhibit is a compact, deeply satisfying gem. The 40 vintage gelatin silver prints of jazz musicians in performance are accompanied by a continuous loop of nine classic songs from such masters as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins and Lionel Hampton. Gottlieb’s photographs capture the artists’ personalities with all the intimacy that close-up pictures provide. The narratives beside each photograph include Gottlieb’s descriptions of what he felt, shooting in the dark, densely packed confines of those smoky, heady jazz clubs. They also describe some of the innovative techniques he had to invent so he could shoot without a flash. His ability to remain unobtrusive is evident in the unguarded portraits he produced.

Known as “Mr. Jazz,” Gottlieb was born in Brooklyn and began writing a jazz column for The Washington Post during his senior year at Lehigh University. When the Post decided it could not afford to pay a photographer to shoot photos for his column, Gottlieb bought his own press camera and began taking his own photographs. Over the course of his career, he took hundreds of pictures of jazz musicians, four of which were the basis for U.S. postage stamps and 250 of which found their way onto record album covers.

A skilled craftsman, Gottlieb’s photos embody a natural empathy for and attraction to his subjects. He captures the personalities of the jazz musicians in a subtle, anecdotal way. “In my photographs, I try to say something visually that augments the written review,” Gottlieb said. In his iconic 1947 photograph of Billie Holiday, he wanted to capture “the beauty of her face and the pain in her voice.” It remained one of his favorite pictures.

“The Street,” according to Gottlieb, “was heaven on earth for jazz fans and musicians.” Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s exhibit is a little piece of that heaven on earth, at least until September 14, 2014.

Pictured at top: Billie Holiday, 1946 Photos by William P. Gottlieb and courtesy of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Unjust Rule of Law: Jewish Lawyers Under the Reich

Throughout their long diaspora, Jews have flourished when treated fairly and allowed to compete. Such was the case in Germany with the creation of the German Empire in 1871. Suddenly, Jews enjoyed full citizenship rights. At the same time, they gained access to a previously unavailable livelihood when the practice of law was delinked from the civil service. A private, independent legal profession swiftly emerged, and with their tradition of Talmudic discussions and analysis, Jews quickly found a new niche.

Up until the 1920s, the number of Jewish lawyers increased continuously and included women in their ranks. Subsequent generations took over the private practices of their fathers or started their own. In the big cities, the share of Jewish lawyers was higher than in smaller towns with a court. In Berlin, for example, on January 1, 1933 more than half of the 3,400 lawyers were of Jewish origin.

However, they did not identify as Jewish lawyers: they were German, lawyers and Jews, in that order. Many of them had been soldiers during the First World War; others had renounced their Jewish faith and some had even been baptized. In the area of jurisprudence, they contributed to the development of renowned legal journals and to the establishment of professional organizations.

All that came to an abrupt halt with the rise of Hitler and the dissolution of the democratic state. Overnight, Jews were excluded from all areas of social life. In March 1933, a decree was issued which refused all Jewish judges, public prosecutors and lawyers entry to the courts starting the very next day.

The public is advised “Don’t go to Jewish lawyers” in 1933 Munich.

From 1933 until 1938, the National Socialists chipped away at Jewish access to the law. Finally, in 1938 all except a very few were banned altogether from practicing their profession. Those few could only act as “legal consultants” for Jewish clients. Essentially, there were no more Jewish lawyers in Germany. The Nazis had achieved their goal of making the legal profession “entjudet” (free of Jews).

“Lawyers Without Rights: Jewish Lawyers in Germany Under the Third Reich” is a sparse, densely informative exhibit jointly sponsored by the German Federal Bar and the American Bar Association. Since the fall of 2012, it has toured all over the world. With the support of the Vilna Shul, it is on display in the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse lobby through September 30.

Most of the show’s panels are devoted to the stories of individuals who lost their livelihoods, and in many cases their lives, during those darkest of times. These intimate portraits, and the fragile accompanying photographs and documents, are the heart and soul of the exhibit.

Margarete Berent’s story is one of perseverence. The 1914 dissertation on family law that she wrote to complete her law studies actually served as the 1958 model for the legal reform of inheritance and property laws in the Federal Republic of Germany. Berent was unable to practice law until 1919, when women were first allowed to take the bar exam. By 1925, as the first Prussian female lawyer, she had a thriving practice in Berlin. By 1939, she had fled to Chile, and by 1940 she was living in New York as a housemaid and postal worker. Undaunted, she went to New York University Law School at night and began working as a lawyer again in 1950, at age 63.

If the exhibit sounds dry and factual, that’s because it is. There is little excitement generated by posters on easels and trifold office wall mounts. Excitement, however, is not the point; contemplation and solemnity are. We mourn anew the senseless loss of our fellow Jews and reflect about a time when a nation completely abandoned individual rights and the rule of law. To do so in the lobby of a United States courthouse is all the more moving.

It may be a coincidence that Berent’s easel stands beside an inlaid panel of Daniel Webster’s famous quote, “Justice is the great interest of man on Earth. It is the ligament which holds civilized nations together.” Then again, it may not.

Go to lawyerswithoutrights.com for more information.

Pictured at top: Jewish lawyer Dr. Michael Siegel was forced to march through Munich barefoot after complaining to the police. 

In Their Own Words

Every summer, hundreds of American teenagers travel to Israel under the auspices of programs such as the Lappin Foundation’s Youth to Israel. Y2I, a “rite de passage” for many North Shore Jewish teens, is intended as a life-changing Israel experience. 2014’s trip was uniquely so.

As their plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport, news broke that the fate of three kidnapped boys was clear: their murdered bodies had been found. Within days, Hamas rockets sequestered the Y2I group in northern Israel, precluding visits to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Masada. It was simply unsafe to proceed with the trip “as usual.”

The teens wrote post-trip essays about their experience and, with the permission of the Lappin Foundation, we share passages from many of them, joined together into a single voice.

“This trip taught me the true definition of being Jewish. It was not until I was actually in Israel, with the rockets and fighting, that I understood how strong we are. Israel is an amazing and resilient country and we were lucky enough to witness it firsthand.

The Israeli kids told me how important it was to just go through your day with a smile, and make the best of a dim situation. I will take that piece of advice with me and use it for the rest of my life. I never thought one trip could teach me such a big lesson.

What I admire most about Israel is her strength and heart. Israel and the Jewish people have always faced adversity. But even when times get tough, even when other people and other countries knock us down and try to belittle us or hurt us or say we are not good enough, we always get up.

I feel it is part of my responsibility to let people know about the real struggles in Israel, not the fake rumors. This is extremely important to me, and Y21 gave me the ability to understand it better.”

During this wrenching time for Israel and Jews everywhere, it is easy to get caught in the web of relentless media coverage, political polemics and sharp-tongued rhetoric. How fortunate we are that we can also tune into the voices of those with the most at stake: our children, who will live in a future we will not see.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on July 31, 2014.

Wish I Weren’t There

Almost exactly 10 years ago, Zach Braff debuted his wildly acclaimed “Garden State” at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Braff played Andrew, a depressed, heavily medicated twenty-something year old aspiring actor who returned from Los Angeles to his native Newark for his mother’s funeral.

“Wish I Was Here,” to be released in Boston July 25, (again) stars Braff, this time as Aidan, a struggling thirty-something actor who (still) lives in Los Angeles in states of perpetual malaise and financial distress. If viewed as the same character, Aidan/Andrew’s only observable accomplishment over the last 10 years was his acquisition of a wife and two children. Otherwise, his last decade has been spent on a treadmill.

Unfortunately, almost two hours into the movie, the audience can relate to Aidan’s melancholy after what feels like a decade spent artistically running in place.

To be fair, the story had potential and the star-studded cast had the chops.

Aidan Bloom calls himself an actor, but had only one “starring” role many years ago as the “before” guy in a dandruff commercial. He spends a good deal of his time daydreaming that he is a spaceman and cursing in front of the kids. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) supports the family, trudging off to her data-cruncher job at the water department, where she contends with the spiritual wasteland of her cubicle and the infuriating sexual harassment by her cellmate. Their two kids, pre-teen Grace and younger brother Tucker, attend a pricey yeshiva school, paid for by Aidan’s father, (Mandy Patinkin). Aidan exists in a bubble of self-indulgent fantasy until Gabe develops cancer that requires expensive out-of-pocket treatments and, faced with limited financial resources, decides to pull the plug on the kids’ tuition rather than on himself.

Josh Gad in his favorite spaceman costume.

Josh Gad in his favorite spaceman costume.

As if the cosmos itself had snapped its fingers, Aidan awakens from his trance. Suddenly, he has to contend with the realities of a dying parent, an impatient wife, and kids who need schooling. As Gabe must confront death, his son must confront adulthood and its attending responsibilities.

Rather than subject his kids to the taunting and thumping of his still painful public school years, Aidan homeschools them, with predictably mixed results. The world is his blackboard, and he starts in his own backyard. (“Nice little slice of Mumbai you have here,” Gabe quipped). The lessons alternate between the practical (resurrecting a neglected pool) and the universal (appreciating the magic of desert camping), with a bit of street-smart manipulation thrown in (scamming an Aston Martin test drive).

Their value, however, is not pedagogic (as California Standard Tests would no doubt eventually reveal). These are lessons for the teacher, not his students. Slowly (as in excruciatingly slowly), Aidan awakens to his ability to discipline and be disciplined, to be open to family intimacy, and to appreciate parenthood.

In short, Aidan starts to grow up, and in the process transitions from perpetual child to budding head of his own nuclear family.

The best part of the film, especially for those of us suffering from “Homeland” withdrawal, is Patinkin as Gabe Bloom (a dead ringer for his Saul Berenson). The patriarch Bloom is the film’s only nuanced character, a man whose religion is both sword and shield. His biggest disappointment is his relationship with his sons, but rather than admit it, he hides behind caustic barbs and Talmudic aphorisms. He is not Aidan’s ideal role model.

Josh Gad, as Aidan’s reclusive and grizzly brother Noah, does his best with a bizarre role and Hudson is light and gracious as Aidan’s inexplicably supportive wife.

The movie’s insurmountable problem is that it seems stuck in the glib mediocrity of television sitcoms. The gags and artsy California montages feel tired and trite. The countless vanity close ups of Braff go from embarrassing to annoying. When Hassids show up on Segways, all that is missing is a canned laughter track.

“Wish I Was Here” has some solid soulful messages about family, Judaism and life’s challenges in the modern age of insta-everything, but they are buried beneath layers of extraneous and superficial footage. As the late great Roger Ebert succinctly stated, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” ‘Nuff said.
Pictured at top: Zach Braff and Kate Hudson are co-parents to Pierce Gagnon (left) and Joey King (right).

On Film, Faith and Family

Zach Braff should be as exhausted as he looks. On his day off from his eightshow- a-week lead role in “Bullets Over Broadway,” Woody Allen’s musical comedy that opened in April, he is not relaxing and renewing. Instead, he was in Boston on a publicity blitz of interviews and appearances in support of his favorite thing in life: his filmmaking.

“Wish I Was Here,” which opens in Boston on July 18, is his second time both behind and in front of the camera. It has been 10 years since his indie film, “Garden State,” which he also directed, wrote and starred in, blazed its way from the Sundance Film Festival to cult favorite, picking up a Grammy for best soundtrack along the way. Braff is passionate about this project, his newest film, which he funded through a Kickstarter campaign. He deflected the criticism he attracted from those who felt that celebrities should bankroll their own projects. “You can’t make a movie these days about Jews,” he stated. “We’re 2% of the population and shrinking, and none of the studios want to make a movie for or about us. Part of the crowd-funding was to be able to tell an honest story about a Jewish family.”

In this new film, which he co-wrote with his older brother Adam, Braff stars as Aidan Bloom, a 30-something secular Jew whose kids attend Yeshiva (paid for by their observant

grandfather, Gabe (played by the always captivating Mandy Patinkin), and whose wife works a job she hates to support his “career” of auditioning for acting jobs he never gets. When Gabe is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Adam is forced to transition from child to parent, from cared for to caregiver. Along the way, he taps into his own spirituality and reconciles with his father and his faith.

The plot, however, is secondary to Braff’s real purpose in making the film.

“This film is about people who are searching for their spirituality and haven’t found it yet,” Braff stated. “I identify with the cultural aspects of Judaism. I grew up with stories of the Holocaust. I relate to the stories of Jews being persecuted and forever being killed and chased from wherever they lived. You can’t help thinking, ‘Wow, I am descended from these people that nobody wanted to be on this earth.’ I want to protect that.”

The three Braff brothers (older brother Joshua is also a writer) were raised in New Jersey in a strictly Orthodox home. Although Zach and Adam scripted the film, Joshua collaborated on developing Aidan’s character.

“My brother and I wanted to write about our faith and we wanted to write about growing up Jewish. Because we’re 10 years apart, our father raised us differently. Adam went to an Orthodox, very strict yeshiva and it pushed him away from Judaism. It had the opposite effect my father had hoped for,” Braff explained.

“By the time I was going to school, we were conservative and kosher, but I was going to secular school and Hebrew school three times a week instead of yeshiva,” he continued. “We knew we could approach the subject of a secular man’s search for spirituality because we were raised from two different stances.”

“We were a great yin and yang for each other,” he shared.

Braff’s father, who welcomes Shabbat every Friday with prayers and dinner, was concerned that his sons might be taking digs at organized religion in general, and Judaism in particular. “I made it clear to him that this movie isn’t about condemning Orthodoxy at all,” Braff said.

Rather, it is about the yearnings of a young man to tap into something which he knows is there but which he has yet to experience.

Two characters in the film, an old man and a young rabbi, illustrate Braff’s point. “The old rabbi isn’t surviving well in a modern world, let alone trying to enroll a secular man in faith. Then there is the opposite with the young rabbi, who goes out of his way to tap into the spirituality that Aidan has. He untangles him from needing the exact right words of Judaism and instead focuses in on exactly where he is.”

He smiles broadly. “This was the dream rabbi my brother and I always hoped for, but never met, and so we created him. My father cries his eyes out every time he sees it.”

For his soundtrack, Braff again enlisted bands he loved to create original content for the film (“Garden State” launched The Shins from the indie to mainstream realms). The playlist includes songs by Bon Iver, Cat Power, Coldplay and The Shins.

A Trivial Pursuit tidbit about Braff is that he is related to Mitt Romney, whom he met when flying to Utah last fall. When asked if his mother is really Romney’s ninth cousin, he laughed. “It’s a very bizarre fact, but it’s true. The research was done by a genealogist who clearly has too much time on his hands.”

He paused and then leaned forward, blue eyes thoughtful and somber. “I fought hard to keep this a Jewish movie with a Jewish star and I hope the Jews of Boston and Massachusetts will go see it. I’d like to make more films about my Jewish experience.”

Time to Restore Peace and Security

Israel has reluctantly launched a military offensive against Hamas in response to repeated attacks against its citizenry. Fortunately most of the world agrees that Israel has an unconditional right to protect its people; some believe it should have happened sooner, while others fear that this operation could turn into a broader and more extensive war.

The fact is that war has broken out in Israel once again, and we in the diaspora must stand as one in support of Israel’s efforts to eliminate the danger terrorists pose. What options are there when people want to kill you simply because you exist, not because of anything you do or don’t do? How do you make peace with people whose mandate is your destruction?

As CJP President Barry Shrage said at a recent memorial for the three slain Israeli teens, “We don’t believe that tragedy is inevitable, we don’t believe that we’re trapped in endless cycles of violence. We just can’t afford to mourn any longer. Now is the time for action.”

We must look at the reality of what is on the ground today — not what could have been, not what should have been, but what is. As we go to press, Israel has expressed willingness to consider cease-fire terms proposed by the Egyptians. Hamas has refused. One million Israelis have spent time in a bomb shelter this past week. No country in the world would or should tolerate terror attacks on their civilian population.

We support and echo the statement of Combined Jewish Philanthropies/ Jewish Community Relations Council by urging decent people everywhere to be especially firm, vocal and unequivocal in expressing not only their support for Israel, but also an absolute intolerance for Hamas’s assaults.

On this we must stand united.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on July 17, 2014.