Category Archives: Arts & Culture

The Other Jewish Comics

by Kelley Kidd

With the new influx of superheroes and comic book characters into film, what was formerly a somewhat niche genre has become mainstream. On opening weekend, The Avengers made $207,438,708 in the US alone. (That’s a lot—the massively popular The Hunger Games came in at $152,535,747 its opening weekend.) There may not, at first glance, seem to be anything Jewish about the characters that populate superhero movies. But, not only do “comic book superheroes…disguise themselves to save the world,” according to former Marvel group editor Danny Fingeroth, “they also disguise their Jewish heritage and values.” The superhero trope owes much to Judaism and the Jewish authors who have created many of the comic book world’s enduring figures: Captain America, for example, is intended to be a super-soldier to fight the Nazis, and X-Men’s Magneto discovers his powers as his parents are torn from him in a concentration camp.

This month, Washington, DC’s Theater J will produce The History of Invulnerability, a play that explores the development of the Superman story by looking at the struggles Jewish author Jerry Siegel faced while producing the work. Playwright David Bar Kats “doesn’t pull any punches with the brutality of the era,” using the play to reflect the emotional struggle faced by Siegel during his life and creative process, and by humanity during the period prior to America’s entrance into World War II. In the words of one reviewer, “the fantastic stories of Superman swirl with moments of Siegel’s own life and tales of Jews at Auschwitz during World War II” to illustrate that American Jews created superheroes like Superman to conquer their own sense of vulnerability.

Siegel was not alone in this effort—there are books and books written on the role of Judaism in the comic book industry, not only in the cases of Superman, Captain America, and X-Men, but also Batman, Spider-Man, the Justice League, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. So why have Jews turned to these characters? Superman helped Jews feel more empowered in the face of absolute vulnerability, and others reflect the importance of Jewish ideals like social justice. Captain America, created by two Jewish authors, was a scrawny outcast, the outsider looked down upon until he is scientifically enhanced to be a Super-soldier, building American morale and combating Nazi Germany. On the cover of one of the original Captain America comics, he is even depicted literally punching Hitler in the face. Following World War II, his popularity dwindled until he re-emerged in the 1960s—his story picked back up with the discovery of his body, frozen since World War II. Having been estranged from life as he knew it, he becomes a character lost in a new era and “haunted by past memories, and struggling to fit into 1960s society, which was much like the sentiments of many Holocaust survivors.” He was both a source of hope for those who felt like outsiders, as well as someone to whom Jews could relate in the years after the Holocaust.

Similarly, the Fantastic Four, written by Jewish author Stan Lee and published by Martin Goodman, exhibited sentiments familiar to Jewish Americans. A crime-fighting team of superheroes, the Fantastic Four included a character named Benjamin Grimm whose exposure to radiation transformed him into “a grotesque, scaly-hided strongman dubbed the Thing.” His struggles with his appearance, and the resulting ostracism and insecurity, led him to separate from the Four and go in search of reconciliation and his own sense of identity. His struggles represented the challenges of living as a minority in the 1960s, and the need for “others” to develop “thick skin” in order to make it in an often intolerant world.

Like all popular culture, the comic book serves both as a mirror to reflect and a tool to shape society and self, an avenue explored by Jewish authors to express their frustrations with intolerance and anti-Semitism, to show the world both the experience of the “other,” and to establish a rallying point and a sense of self.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (The Great Gatsby Edition)

Been on the Internet today? My guess is yes. In that case, you’ve probably seen the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Oh, you want to see it again? Okay!

Spot the cameo from Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s seedy Jewish associate? You can’t see his human-molar cufflinks in the clip, but you can read more about the fictional hoodlum and his culinary tastes–and how they, and those of other Jewish characters from fiction, highlighted their otherness.

Remembering Sholom Aleichem

by Kara A. Kaufman

It’s not every day that you see your own photograph in a newspaper, much less a Russian publication printed halfway around the globe. But one afternoon when I was a young girl (age “six and two-thirds,” as I told the reporter), I found myself gazing into the grayscale eyes of my own face. The newspaper article centered around the Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem, perhaps best known for his “Tevye the Dairyman” stories which are the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. The reporter had snapped my photograph because Sholom Aleichem is my great-great-grandfather. My family has hosted an annual yahrzeit in honor of his memory for 95 years; this Sunday will mark our 96th.

My family holds these yahrzeits out of our collective desire to remember my great-great-grandfather, and also to follow the wishes he laid out in his last will and testament. In it, Sholom Aleichem (born Solomon Rabinowitz) asks his descendants to remember him either by saying kaddish or by selecting one of his stories and reading it aloud. He directs us to “select one of my stories, one of the really merry ones, and read it aloud in whatever language they [his descendants] understand best.” Since 1916, when Sholom Aleichem passed away, my family has read some of these “really merry” stories aloud with family and friends in both Yiddish and English every year on the anniversary of his death. Perennial favorites include, among others, “Grandfather’s Story,” “On America,” and “On Account of a Hat.” Collectively, they remind us of the realities of small-town life in Eastern Europe as well as a wave of Jewish immigration to the United States early in the 20th century. They also invite us to laugh at our own foibles and the hurdles life can throw in our way.

Sholom Aleichem’s will also reveals his desire to write for the common person. He writes, “Wherever I die, let me be buried not among the rich and famous, but among plain Jewish people, the workers, the common folk.” His funeral attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators in New York City, and his will was printed in the New York Times so that thousands more could read his words. Hundreds of invited guests continue to attend our annual yahrzeits each year.

Throughout my life, I have had the pleasure of hearing about people’s unadulterated love for Sholom Aleichem. When I mention that I am a great-great-granddaughter, people’s mouths often fall open in surprise. “Really?” they ask. They tell me about their grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, mother or father, who read Sholom Aleichem’s stories to them as young children. They don’t often dwell on particular characters or tales, but their eyes light up as they remember my great-great-grandfather’s humor and the feeling of connection to their Jewish heritage that he inspired. Once, I met a woman at synagogue on the day that she adopted a new Hebrew name. When she heard I was related to Sholom Aleichem, she nearly cried. Apparently, the relative whose Hebrew name she had just chosen for herself had also read Sholom Aleichem’s stories to her throughout her childhood.

In some ways, Sholom Aleichem’s legacy is a hard one to live up to. People I meet often ask if I enjoy writing (I do), if I have read all of his stories (I am in the process), and whether I speak Yiddish (I do not; interestingly, Sholom Aleichem spoke Russian, not Yiddish, in his own home). But, more than anything else, I feel pride. When I look at yellowed photographs of him with my great-aunt on his knee, I feel connected to a person who made a difference in the world not through grandiose gestures, but through writing about what he knew. Sometimes, when I write about my own experiences or struggles, I feel particularly close to him.

To me, my great-great-grandfather’s continued popularity rests on the fact that his characters and narrative voice touch our lives today. When we read his stories aloud, we feel a palpable familiarity. We listen with bemusement to the story of the man so mixed up that he arrives at three different towns in the wrong order—missing all of his appointed lectures in the process—because we have all been desperately lost at some point in our lives. We relate to Tevye’s desire to find suitable matches for his daughters because we are still concerned with relationships, family and status. Threading these narratives together is Sholom Aleichem’s own voice, at once sympathetic toward his characters and removed from them, enabling us, the readers, to laugh at life’s absurdity. These tales paint a picture of shtetl life to show us where we came from, while, in the process, making us increasingly aware of who we are.

A large number of yahrzeit attendees do not own computers. Many of them understand the stories in their original Yiddish. When, in several years, my brother and I inherit the honor of conducting these yahrzeits from our parents, we will likely send out invitations with a click of a button, rather than the lick of a stamp. One thing will remain the same: our collective joy at hearing these tales.

My great-great-grandfather, ever the pragmatist, asked us to take care of his widow, pay his debts if any arise, and remember him with joy. He also asked, “Let my name rather be remembered … with laughter than not at all.” As we remember my great-great-grandfather for a ninety-sixth year, one thing I can say for certain is this: laughter will fill the room.

A Scanner Messianically

R. Justin Stewart may not be the first artist you’d expect to be behind a work called “Distorting (a messiah project, 13c).” The self-described atheist became interested in the idea of the Messiah after his Jewish wife suggested that he might investigate Judaism for topics to explore in his art. “Distorting,” on display at Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center through May 5, is an installation made of fleece, rope and plastic, and is dotted with QR codes that visitors can scan for more information. We spoke with Stewart about the installation, the Messiah and its surprising connection to the modern courtship dance. (The following is an edited transcript.)

Can you explain the concept behind the piece?

It’s a 3D bubble diagram of one segment of the history of the idea of the Messiah within Judaism. I’ve done a survey map of the history of the idea of the Messiah as I was able to figure it out over 18 months of research. I took the 13th-century segment and used that data to blow it up to fill the space, so each pod represents a person, a category that person wrote about, or an individual bit of information they said or wrote or was said about them. You can access those bits of information by scanning the QR code that’s on each pod.

What inspired the project?

I really like to read, so this project was an excuse to make reading my work. As an artist you can do that kind of thing. Before I started the project, my father-in-law recommended that I read What Do Jews Believe [by David Ariel]. When I was looking for a topic, my wife suggested Judaism because it has this long history of evolving dialogue, and ideas changing over time, and people riffing off of the writing that came before. That was part of the essence of the topic I was looking for. So I was flipping through the book and one of the chapters is the Messiah. When I flipped through that chapter, I’m like, “Jews don’t believe in the Messiah.” At least that was the Judaism I’d learned up to that point. So I started reading and that was kind of the beginning of my Jewish Messiah education.

So is this religious art?

I’d find it difficult to not put it in the religious category. As an artist I come about it more as an interesting idea that happens to be on a religious topic. I would consider this a piece that has very religious content and could be considered religious art, but I wouldn’t consider myself a religious art maker.

What are you hoping for people to get out of the project?

What really fascinates me is the idea that each one of these pods is just an individual bit of information and the pods themselves are suspended and created by relationships between architecture and each other, in the same way that ideas were created by the relationship between the person writing them and the culture they’re in, the place and time they’re in, and other ideas they’re connected to. No idea manifests in isolation. I’m fascinated by the interconnectivity of them. I think the viewer might be able to get to the idea that each one of these pods needs each other to exist, in the same way that if you removed any bit of information from the messiah topic, the Messiah would change. If you cut any of those ropes it would change the art in its totality.

What do you think the idea of the Messiah means today? Do you believe in the Messiah?

I would consider myself more of an atheist, but I see the Messiah in its broadest definition as just a beacon of hope, the idea of a rupture with reality or a change in reality to something better. That’s an idea I can get behind. I think everybody hopes for something better. So many of the ideas that came up were ideas that seemed to resonate beyond a time frame. Issues that people are dealing with in the 2nd century, they’re still dealing with today, and I think the Messiah can represent a resolution to some of those things. Some of the things the Messianic age would bring for people I find fascinating. One of my favorites was a writing that said when the Messiah came, women would pursue men in the courtship dance. When I read that I was like, “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read,” only because that whole anxiety that goes with men pursuing women or vice versa has existed forever. It’s those kinds of things that I just found amazing in the research.

Sticky Fingers’ Sweets and New York Cheesecake Cupcakes

By Monika Wysocki

A self-described “Jew-talian from New York,” Doron Petersan grew up in the land of Jewish delis, bagels, cannoli and knishes. But after assisting with a surgery in a veterinarian’s office and realizing that the flesh of the dog looked just like chicken she had just eaten, Petersan began to look for new ways to cook her favorite foods without using animal products. Her kitchen experiments, combined with courses in food science at the University of Maryland, eventually led to the birth of Washington, DC bakery Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats, and cupcake recipes like the George Caramelin (chocolate cinnamon cupcake, filled with bourbon caramel) that have beat out non-vegan competitors twice on Food Network’s baking competition, “Cupcake Wars.”

In her new cookbook, Sticky Fingers’ Sweets, Petersan shares the secrets behind 100 of the bakery’s hugely popular recipes—everything from tiramisu to red velvet cake to key lime pie—and not an egg or an ounce of butter in sight. Moment Magazine sat down with Petersan at the Columbia Heights bakery to find out about her favorite Jewish foods, the cupcakes that made her a celeb chef and the recipes that elude her to this day.

MM: In Sticky Fingers’ Sweets, you call yourself a “Jew-talian from New York.” What was it like growing up there and how important was food to your family?

DP: I grew up in a household that celebrated every type of food. Every single Italian deli or Jewish deli in New York that you walk into, there’s this sort of Italian-Jewish hybrid food where it’s like, pizza, bagels, calzones… It’s just a constant meshing of the two cultures—the Jewish and the Italian food groups. Even though I went to junior high and high school in upstate New York, my family is from Queens, so I would always head over there for every holiday and every family gathering. So, I did grow up eating a lot of Jewish foods, but it was all one to me really. It was just New York food. These days, I would say that I identify with a more Mediterranean style of eating.

MM: If you had to pick just one, what would be your favorite Jewish food?

DP: I would say my all-time favorite is latkes. We made them here at Sticky Fingers this year during Hanukkah, and then during Purim we made apricot hamantaschen, which was really fun. We’re definitely learning how to introduce foods that are not as common in DC and really be able to enjoy making them…and eating them!

MM: What led you to open up a vegan bakery in Washington, DC?

DP: When I first decided to go vegetarian, I went home and ate every single one of my favorite foods in my grandmother’s house—chicken cutlets, meatballs. I just emptied out the fridge and the freezer, because I thought I’d never get to eat them again. But soon I realized that I could still make the flavors I was missing and I really loved. I was taking some food science classes at the University of Maryland and suddenly realized that a lot of the ingredients that came from animal products could easily be tweaked using some food science techniques to come up with the vegan counterparts. I didn’t want to have to suffer or risk not being vegetarian, so that led to the creation of the bakery. Although we started off as a bakery, we quickly realized that people are going to pass out from sugar overdoses, so when we expanded into Columbia Heights, we included a café, so now we have everything from sandwiches to soups, salads, and wraps. But we’re still really known for our vegan baked goods. You can go anywhere and find a veggie burger but you rarely find an egg-free, dairy-free cupcake.

MM: As a two-time winner of Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” you’re definitely known for your cupcakes. What do you think is behind the cupcake craze in Washington, DC, New York and across the country?

DP: They’re the perfect little hand-held dessert. They’re the perfect size, just enough to satiate a sugar craving, and they’re inexpensive. We sell more cupcakes than anything else in the store and the chocolate cupcake is our most popular cupcake. But if you had to pick one individual item that we sell the most, it’s a toss-up between our cinnamon sticky bun and our Calvin cookie, which is an oatmeal sandwich cookie filled with frosting.

MM: Do you have a vegan cannoli recipe in the works?

DP: Yeah, I talk about cannoli a lot. My mother’s side of the family is Sicilian and we’re very particular about the flavor of the filling. So I’ve had a lot of cannoli in my life and tried a lot of vegan cannoli, and I have not found the right combination yet, but it’s something I’m actively working on. I promise we’ll get it!

New York Cheesecake Cupcakes

(adapted from Sticky Fingers’ Sweets)

Crust

  • 1.5 cups almond flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 tablespoons non-hydrogenated vegan margarine (recommended: Earth Balance)

Filling

  • 2 cups non-hydrogenated vegan cream cheese softened (recommended: Tofutti)
  • 2 cups vegan sour cream (recommended: Tofutti)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons egg replacer (recommended: Ener-G)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4  teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1/4  teaspoon orange zest
  • 1/4  cup all-purpose flour

Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line two 12-cup muffin tins.

For the crust:  In a medium bowl, mix together the almond flour, the sugar, and the almond extract. In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the margarine. Add the melted margarine to the sugar mixture and stir to combine. Fill the muffin cups with the two tablespoons of the crust mixture each and press the mixture into the bottom of the muffin cups. Set aside while you make the filling.

Make the filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer whip the cream cheese with a paddle attachment until soft, 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and add the sour cream and sugar. Cream together the ingredients until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg replacer and water to dissolve the egg replacer. Add the egg replacer to the sugar mixture and mix until incorporated. Add the vanilla, lemon zest, and mix until incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure that all the ingredients are mixed together. Add the flour and mix.

Fill the twelve prepared almond-crust cups with the cream cheese filling until the filling reaches the top of the muffin liners. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the tops begin to brown. Cool completely on a cooling rack. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours to firm the cupcakes before serving.

Hungry? Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats is in Columbia Heights, on Park Road between 13th and 14th streets—and everything in the café is baked on the premises. Sticky Fingers’ baked goods are also available for purchase in the Mid-Atlantic region at natural foods stores and Whole Foods. Have a knack for baking? Petersan’s recipe book, Sticky Fingers’ Sweets, is on sale at the bakery, as well as on her website.

Aviva Kempner and “The Rosenwald Schools”

By Monika Wysocki

In celebration of Black History Month, the National Archives in Washington, DC hosted a preview of Aviva Kempner’s newest film, The Rosenwald Schools, which chronicles the story of Chicago businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Inspired by the social justice-oriented teachings of his rabbi, Emil Hirsch, and Booker T. Washington’s book, Up From Slavery, Rosenwald helped finance more than 5,000 schools for black children and awarded scholarships to up-and-coming luminaries such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison.

Speaking to a packed room last week, Kempner shared the stage with Stephanie Deutsch, author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South. Moment caught up with Kempner after the event to find out more about this fascinating bit of history.

MM: What is the message of The Rosenwald Schools, and how is it different from your previous works?

AK: I make films about under-known Jewish heroes. In my previous films, all the characters are battling a particular kind of “ism”—in Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg it was sexism, in Partisans of Vilna it was fascism, and in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg it was anti-Semitism. In this again, we have an under-known Jewish hero, Julius Rosenwald, and an “ism”—racism. And he takes his mission very seriously in terms of providing funding for education and housing for black Americans. He was so inspired by Booker T. Washington’s book and realized that in the south there was such an incredible need for education.

 
MM: What initially drew you to this story?

AK: It’s an essential part of American history, a part of Jewish-American history. Julius Rosenwald was a man who gave away 62 million dollars in his lifetime, which today if you do the math would probably be more like a billion dollars. And he believed that his money should serve the public good; he started small in the Jewish community and then eventually really changed the world. He made a difference for 600,000 black children in the South, and he made a difference in Chicago. And it wasn’t for his greater glory—it was to make a difference in our society, which is very admirable, and it was decades and decades before the civil rights movement.

MM: What kind of response to the preview have you gotten from the Jewish and African American communities?

AK: On the one hand, the subject of the film is very esoteric and not well known outside of people who know Chicago history or are big philanthropists. But even though it’s not as well known, it’s something that’s very compelling to all different types of viewers. Today’s response, with people becoming very enthusiastic about sharing their own stories, is very typical. I always have people saying “My relative received a Rosenwald fellowship but I didn’t know much about it before this…” or “This is fascinating, I want to know more.” But, I had more tears at the preview at the Jewish Film Festival.

 
MM: What are some of the common misconceptions or little-known facts about the relationship between Jews and African Americans in the United States?

AK: The most important unknown fact is that there was this incredible working relationship between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington that resulted in over 5,000 schools for black children, decades before the civil rights movement. Today, they’re actually rebuilding these schools to make community centers and other things. The irony with Julius Rosenwald was that he never went to college himself but was a huge advocate of education. But there’s a commonality there in terms of valuing education.

 
MM: What kind of impact do you hope The Rosenwald Schools will have?

AK: Julius Rosenwald is one of these unsung heroes that can be a role model for us all. I hope audiences will walk away with a desire to learn more, and be inspired to get involved in philanthropy in their own lives. This is an incredible story of one man, one fund, one community working together that shows that matching grants really make a difference. The better educated you are, the more compassion you have, the more you tend to embrace your fellow human beings.

MM: When can audiences expect the see the finished film?

AK: Depending on the funding, it will either be done near the end of this year or early next year. If anyone is interested in donating to the project, they can do so by visiting the Ciesla foundation website or the film website.

For more on this topic, check out our previously published exclusive photo essay on Jews and African Americans. http://momentmag.com/Exclusive/2009/02/Jews-Blacks-1.html

Are You There God? It’s Me, Moment

Know a kid who loves to read and write? Tell her about Moment’s annual Publish-A-Kid contest, in which we invite young readers to write reviews of some of our favorite childhood books. The contest is accepting submissions through February 15.. Winning reviews may be published in an upcoming issue. Read last year’s winning submissions here, and find out more about the contest on our website.