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PAGE 14A By Eric Herschthal New York Jewish Week NEW YORK Ask your- self. "What was life like for Russia's Jews before Stalin? "and one word probably hits you first: pogroms. Think a little longer, and you'll prob- ably come up with another: socialists, yes, many Jews became socialists. Don'tworry, both are true. Formore than a century be- fore the socialists took over, Jews were subject to random murders, riots, and arrests in the annexed hinterlands to which they were already confined, the Pale of Settle- ment. As these pogroms increased in number and intensity, many Jews turned to socialism. In effect, it of- fered them away out of czar- ist oppression, and helped them join the growing ranks of disgruntled Russians. Jewish or not. who wanted to overthrow the imperial regime. And eventually they did. in 1917. with Lenin and Trotsky (aka Lev Bronstein), among them. If that's your basic under- standing of Russian Jewry, it wouldn't be wrong, just ncomplete. The current show at The JewishMuseum, "Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater." and several new books, are quietly challenging this narrative and bringing into focus the wider range of Jewish life in Russia. While Chagall is already famous-- notably, for those nostalgic shtetl scenesmit's his 10st mural paintings for the Jew- ish avant-gardetheater that cast him. and Russian Jew- ish history, in a whole new light. Chagall, like the art- ists. actors and writers with whom he collaborated, saw himself as a secular modern Russian. who was also a Jew. Contrary to history's broad strokes, they were neither shtetl bumpkins nor red-eyed rev61utionaries. but hyphenated Jewish- Russians who sought a place in the empire's great capitols, be they Slavic- or socialist-ruled. There were some, like the great ballet critic Akim Volynsky (1861-1926), who virtually created the canon for modern ballet, who at HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 13, 2009 More than pogrom victims and socialists first rejected their Jewish- ness only to later question their assimilationist air. Volynsky's writings have just been translated by Stanley J. Rabinowitz and collected in "Ballet's Magic Kingdom" (Yale University Press), which has been re- ceiving rave reviews. There are other varieties of Jewish "worldniks" too, a term the historian Jeffrey Veidlinger coins in his forth- coming book "Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire" (Indiana University Press), out next month. In it. he brings to light several secular modern Jews who tried to bring their Jewish brethren up to speed with modern Russian culture. And in a book due out later this year, scholar Brian IHorowitz will take on a similar task. high- lighting Russian Jewish intellectuals who fought for Jewish causes: lawyers, for instance, who created orga- nizations to sue on behalf of pogrom victims. These Jews "'put their hopes in a Russia that would be transformed and become a rule-of-law state, "" Horowitz writes in "Empire Jews: Jewish Na- tionalism and Acculturation in 19th and Early 20th Cen- tury Russia." to be published by Slavica Publishers. "De- siring neither full assimila- tion. as occurred in Western Europe, nor isolation, as some religious authorities advocated, Jewish liberals sought a third way." This new look at Russian Jewish history is what lurks behind the Chagall exhibit, and what makes it such a fascinating one. For years, Chagall has been situated among the great Western European modernist paint- ers--Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse and Derain and not wrongly so. He left his native Vitebsk, part of the Pale, for Paris, in the early 1900s. And that's where he learned the Cubist geom- etries of Picasso, the bold coloration ofDerain and Cezanne, the flat forms of Matisse. But until the early 1920s he still kept Russia as his main residence, where his artistic rival was another great, but less known artist, Kasimir Malevich. It wasn't courtesy of the Jewish Week The writings of Akim Volynsky (1860-1926), one of Rus- sia "s greatest critics, have recently been translated. Volynksky was born in a shtetl, but was proudly Russian, too. Below, a picture of the new book, "Ballet's Magic Kingdom, "trans- lated by Stanley J. Rabinowitz. until 2003 that Malevich had his first major U. S. retrospective, at the Gug- genheim, and his influence on Chagall, while familiar to art scholars, is still largely unexplored in the broader culture. If you know a little about Piet Mondrian. you -can probably picture works by Malevich. Just imagine Mondrian's primary col- ors and strict geometric patterns re-shaped into black spheres darting red triangles, or skinny yellow- looking matchsticks. Now tweak those shapes and colors a little more, don't make them so abstract and construct them into a triangle-shaped rabbi's beard, a round seder plate or the purple oval cap of a shtetl peasant, and you've got Chagall's Russian work. Of course the parallels between Chagall and Ma- levich, and Chagall and Picasso, could be easily swapped. Both the Russian Malevich and the Spanish Picasso were inspired by the same driving idea behind 20th-century "modern" art: that painting, like society, could be broken down. re- ordered, and reconstructed into a newer, better reality. By placing Chagall back in a Russian context, though, the show irlvites viewers to reconsider the artist's past. And. 1o, there were many, many more Russian Jews like him: Natan Altman. Robert Falk, Ignaty Nivin- sky, all artists who tried to push Jews into the vanguard of modern Russian culture. The Moscow State Yiddish Theater, or GOSET, is what these artists painted for. And it's the biographies of the company's main mem- bers that reinforce the rich and complicated lives of so many of these overlooked Russian Jews. GOSET's founder, Aleksei Granovsky, for instance, was born in Moscow in 1890. But after his family and the 30,000 other Jews living in Moscow were expelled from the city in 1891. he moved to Riga, near the German border. It turned out to be a boon, since he met the pioneering German director Max Rein- hardt there and eventually brought back to Russia the knowledge he had accrued. Granovosky founded GOSET in 1919 to help bring modernity to Russian Jews through the common language of Yiddish the- ater. He wanted Jews to be thoroughly modern, and his plays, many of them highlighted at The Jewish Museum. held back nothing in their critiques of Jewish social mores. One early play, "Uriel Acosta. '! took its hero in the eponymous historical figure, a rational- ist philosopher critical of religion, much like his con- temporary, Baruch Spinoza. "At Night In the Old Marketplace" (1926) paro - died Jewish belief even further"Dead your God... He is bankrupt!" two wed- ding jesters taunt at the play's end. Indeed. not even the most cosmopolitan of Jews, the German Jewish critic Walter Benjamin, who saw theplay on a visit to Moscow. cou|d stand such abrasiveness. In his diary, he called the play "fairly anti-Semitic. "" But it's not so simple. That fairly crude assessment has been challenged at least since 2002. when Benjamin Nathans' much discussed "Beyond the Pale: The Jew- ish Encounter vith Late Imperial Russia" (University of California Pressl won the Koret BookAward for Jewish History, among other hon- orifics. Nathans highlighted the cosmopolitan Jews liv- ing outside the Pale and within Russian cities. He called them "exceptions." to be sure, since Jews were by and large restricted to Pale territories until the Bolshevik revolution. But Jews were permitted to at- tend universities and law schools, even if harsh quotas restricted them. More recent histories have also evolved the story of Jew- ish-Russian acculturation. Olga Litvak, for instance, argued in "Conscription and the Search for Modern Jewry" (Indiana University Press. 2006) that military service helped evaporate .the divide between Rus- sians and Jews. ChaeRan Y. Freeze. in "Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia" (University Press of New England. 2001), added a feminist twist, saying that civil marriages enabled Jew- ish women to circumvent male-dominated rabbinic courts, thus warming them to Russian authority. There have been several other recent academic books tackling the subject, much of which can be attributed to access to former Soviet archives. But with the new Jewish Museum exhibit, the Volynsky book. and others forthcoming, the general public can see for itself. The history of hybridized Jewish Russians shouldn't obscure the bigger picture of Russian Jewish history. Nor should the ending to the acculturated Jewish story be left untold: GOSET. for instance, may have had Lenin's official endorsement. but eventually Stalin ended it. He demanded all ethnic identities pay sole allegiance to the Soviet Union. and by 1949. he had its founder as- sassinated and the comlmny liquidated. Still. there were hopeful alternatives before that. How full the Jewish-Russian embrace of eith*er part of that identity really was is still an open question. After all. what do we make of Volynsky's own dissonant views? He once wrote of Jewish girls from his shtetl back home that their "unswerving gait with its sprightly step in the Jewish style haven't the slightest hint of gracious- ness." But he also praised a Russian choreographer for his combination of "epic Semitic features with he refined erudition of Aryan decadence." There you have it, the supreme expression of ballet beauty composed of all the world's varieties. A multiethnic Leviathan if you will; or, if you like, Golem. Reprinted with permis- sion from the New York Jewish Week, www.jewish- week.com. 'Sixty Six' finds charm in Jewish humor and values By Michael Nassberg The Reporter (Binghamton, N.Y.) Listening to his father deliver a wedding toast, a laundry list of remem- brances of family members who could not be there due to bowel cancer and salmo- nella and so on. young Ber- nie Rubens (Gregg .Sulkin) suffers his first asthma attack. His bar mitzvah is fast approaching, an event that promises to be a turn- ing point in his life. He is unpopular, coping with an older brother who will not let him step on the carpet in theihared room and a father who refuses to drive faster than 25 kilometers per hour (15 mph). Rabbi Linov (Richard Katz), the blind but warm and wise bar mitzvah in- structor, tells Bernie. "A bar mitzvah is the most important time in a per- son's life. It is the day you commit your life to God. It is the day God Himself listens to you and pays you regard. It is the day when a boy becomes a man. It is an epic, two-day festival at which you are the absolute center of attention." Bernie sees his bar mitzvah as his chance to finally show the world who he is and why they should pay attention. In "Sixty Six," directed by Paul Weiland and co-writ- ten by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan. Ber- nie dreams of booking a high-class venue with A-list entertainment: 'Mine was going to be the 'Gone With the Wind' of bar mitzvahs. It was going to be the Cas- sius Clay of bar mitzvahs, the Jesus Christ of bar mitzvahs. In nine months .time. I was going to be a legend." Perhaps the rabbi should have shared with him the proverb, "Mann traoch, Gott lauch" (Man plans. God laughs). Bernie has to contend with a host of setbacks, such as the party budget and guest list con- stricting after his family's business is.threatened. The true challenge, however, comes from England's foot- ball (soccer) team which, though widely-considered to be an unlikely underdog, nevertheless threaten to make the 1966 World Cup final, which is scheduled for the same day as Bernie's party. Although "Sixty Six" is narrated by and centers around Bernie, the parallel plot of his father, Manny (played by the versatile Eddie Marsan, seen most recently in "Happy-Go- Lucky" and "Hancock"), drives the picture as well. Overshadowed throughout life by his brother, Jimmy (Peter Serafinowicz), and beset by fears ofd0gs, cloth- ing stains and leaving the car door unlocked, Manny has never found a way to be comfortable in life. He is balanced out by the pragmatism, honesty and loyalty of his wife, Esther playedby the veteran Hel- ena Bonham Carter. whose credits include "Sweeney Todd." "Fight Club" and "Big Fish"--who never seems to lose her spirit in spite of her husband's and son's shared proclivity for pessimism and gloom. Despite all this drama. "Sixty Six" stays humorous throughout, blending dry English wit with a touch of Jewish comedy. Many of the best exchanges involve Rabbi Linov, whose many endearing qualities excse the stereotypes used in constructing his character. Bernie, conflicted about rooting against his na- tion's team, asks the rabbi. "What's God's attitude to someone [who] doesn't want their own country to win the World Cup? Can that person still go to Heaven?" Without missing a beat, Linov responds. "This I'll have to look into. As far as I know, it's not specifi- cally dealt with in the Old Testament." When Bernie complains that his brother. Alvie (Ben Newton), had a lavish bar mitzvah party, Linov's levity takes sidecar to his wisdom, asking, "And do you remember what it did to your parents? The stress, the tears, the hair-loss. ...You want your mother worrying? You want her to go bald, is that what you want?" In the end, "Sixty Six" is a film about family, the drama between parents and children, husbands and wives, and brothers. It has darkmoments--Manny an Bernie both reach a point of despair--but family proves to be the panacea for their problems. The picture handles Bernie's coming- of-age without resorting to schmaltz, finding high nOteS to play that won- derfully capitalize on the historical setting. Nobody expected England to win the World Cup on home turf in 1966: maybe the whole movie is slyly pointing out that Bernie's bar mitzvah was probably just one of many new commitments made to God that day.