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_ . -4 lllUlniNd llllllU mllllllmimnll m PAGE 18A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, OCTOBER 23, 2009 By Eric Herschthal New York Jewish Week NEW YORK--The play- wright and actor Wallace Shawn, 65. recently putr- lished a collection of essays titled simply, "Essays." One essay, published earlier in The Nation. criticizes Americans for supporting Israel's attack in Gaza last December. "It's patronizing and disgraceful and no favor to the Jews for American politicians...to pander to the irrationality of the most irrational Jews," he wrote. Much of Shawn's work -from the play "Aunt Dan and Lemon" (1985) to the iconic film "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) have been studded with Jewish references, but recently Israel has been a particular focus. In addition to this essay, he read Caryl Churchill's controversial play "Seven Jewish Children" when it ran in New York this spring, and last month he signed the petition against the Toronto Film Festival directors, who highlighted Tel Aviv films for the city's centennial. The Jewish Week caught up with Shawn earlier this month to discuss these is- sues before he spoke at The New Yorker Festival this past weekend. What follows is an edited transcript. Jewish Week: When did Israel begin to be a focus of yours? Shawn: In the 1980s is really when I began to really think about this. I was really [complicit' in American sup- port of Israeli, with my tax dollars supporting it. I real- ized that I'm hurting people just by my very existence...I was not eager to get into it, but in recent years, I realized that I had to get into the is- sue of Israel. It was cowardly not to...Even though I have a special sympathy anda certain knowledge of the history of the Jewish people. I feel it's something I have to condemn because I know where they're coming from. Jewish Week: You're most often critical of Israel. Do you think it's important to offer a way forward, too? Wallace Shawn: I don't feel that unless you have asolution you shouldn't speak. I think the reality at the moment is that the Israelis are stronger than the Palestinians are. Jewish Week: Can you offer a plausible way forward? A one-state solution? Two-state? Wallace Shawn: There's no point of advocating a solu- tion that abstractly makes sense when no one in the region supports [a one-state solution]...I think that in poli- tics it's sometimes necessary to compromise with people you disagree with. People have to figure out how to get along without killing each other. But you know, I'm quite close to being a Gandhian pacifist. I think the Palestin- ians are being oppressed, and if I were a Palestinian I would hope I would say, let's take a Gandhian approach, but it hasn't been tried yet. Jewish Week: You volun- teered to read in the New York Theatre Workshop production of "Seven Jewish Children." which some critics have called anti-Semitic. What are your thoughts on it? Wallace Shawn: I know [Caryl Churchill] has noth- ing against the Jews and that her motives are pure. She speaks out quite sharply and she wants to understand why humans are theway they are...I hate the idea that only Jews are allowed to criticize Jews. I think that's a ludicrous point of view. Jewish Week: How did you get involved in the Toronto Film Festival petition? Wallace Shawn: Some- one alerted me to it. I hate petitions; I prefer to write what I think for myself. But I believe that we all have to be politically active. If you're politically active, you're go- ing to have to occasionally march in the streets and sign petitions...And yes, I do think that the Toronto festival must have been somehow lured into becoming dupes, really, of a campaign on the part of a public relations company that is trying to change the image of Israel. In my view, there are terrific Israeli artists and they should be invited to show their work. But celebrating Tel Aviv is a trap they should have been clever enough to stay out of. Jewish Week: You grew up in New York, and your father, William Shawn, was the New Yorker editor for 35 years. How Jewish was your upbringing? Wallace Shawn: The answer is disappointingly short. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not ashamed of it, either. Both my parents grew up in Chicago, and my mother's mother was pretty religious. But my mother's father died when he was young. My guess is that theyweren'tvery religious but they went to temple and prob- ably weren't very knowledge- able about Jewish traditions... My parents were atheists and had no real interest in their religion, and I grew up with no real interest in it eithermthe cord was cut. Jewish Week: But you do identify as Jewish, even playing a Jewish character. Cyrus Rose, in the current season of "Gossip Girl." The identification must come from somewhere. Wallace Shawn: Well. yes. My father realized that his personal character grew out of his religious background. He would tell me thatwhen he had lunch with Isaac Bashevis Singer he felt like a relative. But people didn't really know my father was Jewish...I know very well that my character- istics come from my Jewish background, but in a certain sense the cord has already been cut. IfI started studying Jewish traditions. I would be starting from scratch, and so I could just as well start studyingAfrican traditions...I don't boast of my ignorance. But if I have a love of justice. I didn't make that up. I feel that comes from my parents and they got that from their parents and that came from the Jewish tradition. Reprinted with permission from the New York Jewish~ Week, www.jewishweek.com. By Eric Herschthal New York Jewish Week Robert Frank's "The Ameri- cans." published in 1959; offered a gritty, giddy, tender, vast and quietly raging photo- graphic portrait of the country at mid-century. Cowboys, politicians, Southern blacks and poor white farmers; street preachers, actresses and fac- toryworkers--Frank captured them all in 83 grainy black- and-white photographs that now, ahalf-century later, have become legend. The story of its making is be- ing retold at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new show, "Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans,'" which gives a rare glimpse into the life of the notoriously reclusive artist. The exhibit highlights Frank's foreignness he was born in Switzerland in 1924 as a critical factor influencing his art. After all, he famously does, along with Alexis de Tocqueville, Wim Wenders and Bernard-Henri L~vy, use the freshness of the recently arrived to create a penetrating portrait of Americans. But the exhibit does not stop there in its investigation of Frank's unique perspective. Frankwas a Jew, the child of a successful businessman in Zurich, who nonetheless lived much of his early life under the threat of Nazi persecution. "Frank and his family lived very much in fear that they would get deported to Ger- many," said Sarah Greenough, the curator of the show and senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, where the exhibit originated. "He was enjoying the fruits ofthatvery safe, secure existence and yet at the same time always felt somewhat different." While it!s inaccurate to say Frank's Jewishness is at the root of the creation of "The Americans," it does play its part. The existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. for instance made a lasting impression on Frank with their insistence that life had no inherent meaning, except for what we give it. But one wonders whether he would have been so receptive to these ideas had he not lived in war-time Europe as a Jew. and had that identity not been reinforced as he took his cam- eraacrossAmerica, during the height of the Red Scare. Frank's father. Hermann, immigrated to Zurich from Frankfurt, Germany, just after World War I. In Switzerland, he ran a successful business importing radios from Swe- den, which enabled the Franks to vacation in the Swiss Alps, France, and Italy. Hermann married Regina Zucker, the daughter of wealthy factory owners in Basel, and had two sons with her, Maflfred and Robert. Despite the trappings of a m.iddle-class life. "the events [of the 1930s, like the war that followed, had a deep psychological impact on the family," Greenough writes in the show's catalogue. HermanNs German birth- place made the Frank family officially stateless for much of the war. And though Hermann applied for Swiss citizenship for his entire family, in 1941, it was not granted until 1945. The Franks would lose many relatives in the Holocaust, and though nominally secure in Switzerland--officially neu- tral, the country was home to 18,000 Jews, out of a population numbering four million--the rise of pro-Nazi groups in Zurich led Hermann to move the family to a town outside of Geneva for fear of being attacked. Years later. Robert Frank would say he decided to leave Switzerland in 1947because of the lack of opportunity there: "The country was too closed, too small for me," he said. Yet Greenough makes clear that it was more than that--his Jewish identity mattered, too. Underlying Frank's mature ar- tistic approach, once he came to America, is the recurrent suspicion of p0wer'(a mindset thatwas widely held by Jews in Europe) coupled with a steady gaze on the harsher realities he saw in the States. Frank gained his footing quickly in America. finding work at high-paying maga- zines like Harper's Bazaar, V~gue and Look. But by 1949 he found himself disgusted by professional photography's materialism--"no spirit...the only thing that mattered was to make money"--and set out on a four-year world tour. From it he would publish three books from the photographs he took of coal miners in Wales, bank- ers in London, benches in Paris and people of Peru. Soon after he came back to the U.S., he applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship. With the help of Walker Evans and Edward Steichen, 'luminaries of American photography whose mentorship he sought over the years, Frank won the award in 1955. The money and freedom it bought sent him on a two-year, 10.000-mile journey across the country, in a used blue Ford. With his 35-ram Leica, Frank caught Americans in places as far- flung as Miami Beach. Butte. Mont.. Savannah, Ga., and Chicago. The finished product became "The Americans." Frank's Jewishness was not something he hid and it probably added to his sense of alienation once on the road. On Nov. 9, 1955--McCarthy-era America--Frankwas arrested. taken to a local prison, and questioned for four hours. The overriding cause was Frank's Swiss background, and even Greenough downplayed the role his religion might have had in his arrest: "If he was Jewish and raised in Mobile, Ala., it wouldn't have been an issue." But as a placard says in the exhibit, and as Greenough herself noted, his faith did add to their suspicions. It was. after all, just two years after Ethel ~nd Julius Rosenberg were executed for being com- munist spies. But it is clear that Frank's interest lay not in the plight of Jews in America, but of blacks. The most arresting images are ones like "Trolley--New Orleans. 1955." which show a segregated carriage: two black men seated behind five whites. It is easy to assume that Frank's intuitive sense of justice stems in part from the anti-Semitism he had experienced firsthand. And yet the argument could be taken further: his very sense of intuition, his belief in cir- cumventing the rational mind in favor of instinct, has a Jewish corollary. The Beat generation, most notably Allen Ginsberg, deeply influenced Frank once he came to America. And though he met Ginsberg in 1958, after he finished editing "The Americans," Ginsberg's pronouncements on the Beat sensibility---"First thought, best thought," for example-- infuse Frank's work. The beat aesthetic manifests itself not only in the premise of Frank's project, which was to be "a spontaneous record of man seeing this country for the first time." as he wrote in the application for the Gug- genheim grant. But it is also in Frank's refusal to order the pictures by banal categories like time or place, and instead choosing subtle pairings that highlight the variety, idiosyn- crasy and indeed injustices that make up America. When asked if the Beat sensibility might be tied to a kabbalisticstrain of thought-- the belief that God's presence could only be felt intuitively, and that God could not be understood rationally--Gre- enough expressed doubt. "Ginsberg is really getting it from Kerouac, and Kerouac was a Catholic," she said. "But," she added. "it's certainly possible that Ginsberg layered over that with his own Jewish ideas." Even if there is little evi- dence of conscious Jewish thought behind Frank's work, there is still the fact of an intense friendship coalesced around a shared identity. Gins- berg's poem "Kaddish," from 1956. made a deep impression on Frank, with the two even trying to film a staged reading of it. They could not come up with financing, so instead col- laborated on the film "Me and My Brother," which debuted at the Venice Film Festival in 1968. and was the artists' second film together. There is only one image of Jews in "The Americans." Titled Yore Kippur East River, NewYork City, 1954," it is dominated by a man standing inastriped gray jacket, his back to the viewer, and covered in a ~large-brim hat, In front of him and to his left are three men in long black coats and hats, the single feature distinguishing them being the white strip of their necks. In the foreground, just to right of the main fig- ure, is a young boy, his head covered in a kipa, looking out over the river. Though there are many photographs capturing the religious experience in Amer- ica--a statue of St. Francis hovering over a gas station; a man carrying a cross down a bank of the Mississippi River-- you could notargue easily that Frank was shunning his own flock. Jews may have been highly visible in the cities he visited, but throughout the vast countryside they were but a paltry few. Demographi- cally, they remain a very small part still. And yet, as Greenough said, the Yore Kippur photograph is significant. "It is both mysteri- ous and sympathetic. It invites you to look at them precisely because they're turned away to you. He didn't want all his photographs to be bold a ld emphatic, but. like he said, he wanted you to read them like lines of poetry." The Yom Kippur image, she went on. "certainly is a photograph that you have to keep looking at and looking at to get a sense of what the whole series is about." "Looking In: Robert Frank's 'The Americans'" runs through Jan. 3. 2010, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1000 Fifth Ave.. New York City; 212-535-7710. Eric Herschthal is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week from which this article was reprinted by permission.