Wednesday, July 29, 2015

California Dreaming

People are often surprised that I enjoy visiting California on vacations. Oh sure, there's always some business involved, since I do manage to keep up with colleagues and previous business partners on these trips. But I just like spending time in California. Sure, there's a drought. And when you leave the coast, it can get hot, almost as delightful as Washington in July or August. But in Marin County, where I happen to be now, the views I pass almost everywhere are spectacular. The temperature is just about as temperate as in San Francisco, which shares with New York the distinction of being the only places inevitably referred to as The City.

Last night I saw Anna Deavere Smith perform her one-woman show at the Berkeley Rep, entitled Notes From the Field, etc. In it she portrays a series of about 20 characters, male and female, black, white, and Asian, concerned with how our educational system fails so many of its poorer students, who then end up in prison.  One of the characters she inhabited is a judge I met when assessing drug court at a Yurok tribe reservation in the northernmost part of California; the judge works as a municipal court judge in San Francisco but one weekend a month, drives many hours to the reservation to preside over tribal courts there.

There is a fine show of J.M.W. Turner's paintings and drawings at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. If you managed to see the movie, Mr. Turner, a while back, you should make it your business to see this show. Turner is increasingly seen as a key influence in the development of modern art. His fascination with light, usually on water, presaged the Luminists and then, perhaps most significantly, the Impressionists: Monet, for example, derives much of his technique directly from Turner. Turner, in turn, acknowledged what he learned from distinguished forebears who included Solomon van Ruysdaal, the Dutch landscape master, and Claude Lorrain, the early French engraver and painter of landscapes who more or less invented the field.

When driving to see a colleague in Sacramento, I recalled my first time headed that way when my friend living there suggested I stop at the then-famous Nut Tree--a combination of a store selling things you don't need, mostly to tourists, and a restaurant--in Vacaville. The signs for the Nut Tree are still there but I never could put my finger on the enterprise amid the numerous shopping malls and other indicia of how the area has developed. I did feel that another vestige of the older California had become hidden from view.

Lastly and by no means least, I had the pleasure of savoring sand dabs, a small, delicate, delicious, fish found in these parts. It has adorned the menus of San Francisco seafood places for generations. Twice in one day may have been pushing it, but should you find yourself in Sam's Grill, an establishment dating back to the 49-er days--no, not the NFL team--order them before they run out. It even says (Limited) after their entry on the menu.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Management Information

Ours is now an information-dominated society. We supposedly all make our carefully-formulated decisions drawing on "evidence-based" findings. But is it really different from the way people have always behaved--and responded to requests for accurate reports? The current revival of interest in the greatest children's book author of our time, Dr. Seuss, with the publication of a recently-discovered manuscript reminded me in this regard of his questioning conclusion of The Cat in the Hat:

should we tell her
the things that went on there that day?

should we tell her about it?
now, what SHOULD we do?
what would YOU do
if your mother asked YOU?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Oozing Charm From Every Pore

It was a day of loss--Theo Bikel and E. L. Doctorow dying on the same day.  But it's hard to be sad about Bikel--he was 91 and had had a very amazing life.  He had become known for playing all kinds of relatively modest roles on stage and in the movies, as well as for his folk singing. And he did originate the role of Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music on Broadway--a show I've studiously avoided for decades but figure at least he likely contributed a bit of authenticity to its schmalz.

Many will remember him as the most frequent portrayer of Tevye in Fiddler, which is fine, although as with every role Zero Mostel originated, it's hard for anyone to succeed completely when following in those footsteps. But Bikel donned the dairyman's overalls more than 2,000 times so I figure he earned his recognition and probably would have told you that it was a most reliable payday.  And given how many other accomplishments he earned on stage and in film, this was no James O'Neill stuck playing The Count of Monte Cristo to the exclusion of all else.

Bikel lent a note of charm to anything he played.  Supporting parts are not supposed to steal from the leads, yet you were enraptured when he appeared. His history--growing up in pre-war Austria and disclaiming any interest in "Viennese heritage" in view of how the posturing "first victims" had behaved toward "my people"--featuring a start in performing in, of all places, Palestine between the wars gave him a worldliness few possessed.

Moreover, he was a true union champion. He rose to the occasion during Equity's 1960 strike and after serving on many committees, was the union's president for many years and then headed the actors' international, the Four A's, for a quarter-century. Wouldn't we have been far better off had he, instead of another supporting player who headed a theatrical union, become America's first President who had served as a union prez?

Doctorow's legacy is more complex but equally stupendous. He had a way of planting you in the era of his loosely-related historical novels, most notably Ragtime. But his most enduring one may turn out to be The Book of Daniel, his imagining of what a son of the Rosenbergs might have experienced. As with so many artists, he saw the craziness of the Rosenberg furor for what it was: yes, we know Julius Rosenberg was guilty, and definitely that even the prosecutors knew Ethel wasn't, but what Sam Roberts and others have shown is that far from being "the crime of the century"--J. Edgar Hoover's phoney assertion--the Russians likely already had received all the nuclear secrets they needed from Klaus Fuchs, who was sentenced in Britain to a brief five years and then high-tailed it to Moscow.

Doctorow had the ability to get you beneath the skin of his characters so you felt yourself the torments they were experiencing. I remember getting annoyed with some of his archetypes in Ragtime until realizing that he had caught a particular character perfectly, like Mother's Younger Brother.  He too was willing to speak up for what he believed--and what he believed made sense.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Big Day

It's hard to believe that it was only one week and a half ago that I walked my daughter, Vanessa, down a very long aisle--it was down a grassy hill--for her wedding.  Despite much concern during the preceding week, when the weather had been, at best, changeable, that Sunday turned out to be a glorious day.

As my eminently practical spouse, Eileen, put it, most directly and accurately, everything worked. To me, it was a miracle, and in the words of Thomas Heggen's Mr. Roberts, not a very small miracle at that. Much of the ceremony and reception had been planned by Vanessa and Dave: the band, the string quartet, the photographer, the florist, the chuppah, the rabbi, the "signature" cocktails.  Truly, I had seen none of the above before the day itself.

What had I had anything to do with? I had happened to join the pair for one of three scheduled cake tastings and lo and behold, that was the one they picked, with my enthusiastic concurrence. They had tasted the first candidate's product without my being present, and it turned out that none of us made it to the third. Terrific cake--I know, what's the big deal about the cake, but when did you last taste a wedding cake that was distinguished?

Yes, I did suggest that the men of the wedding party wear white jackets, dark trousers, and cobalt blue bowties to match the bridesmaids' dress color. And yes, I recruited my friend Noah to help the ties get tied, as well as to bring down the house later with his rendition of "It's Delightful, It's Delicious, It's De-lovely." And I agreed to escort the bride to the accompaniment of Motown's My Girl.

Somehow it all clicked. Most important was that everyone seemed to be having a great time. I'm still not quite sure what goes into their drink, the Middletown Mule, but it tasted fine, reminiscent of the gin gimlets the better half and I used to enjoy. In my dotage, I've come to welcome the non-alcoholic special offering, an Arnold Palmer, more often, although my golf game still hasn't improved since I gave it up in my teens. 

Everyone who wanted to was filling the dance floor, and the band played a nice mix of music from across the decades. They even lowered the volume from the opening roar so that we might hear ourselves converse at the tables, well, at least the ones in the back where we were. I only suspect one guest was prompted to depart posthaste by the initial loudness--not too bad for a fairly large party.

Was it worth it? Well, not only did the exuberance of the happy couple go a long way toward assuring me that it was, but it appeared that everyone else was also having a fine time, including me. Perhaps in the end, it was the weather most of all, but the rabbi exceeded my expectations--admittedly low based on my experience of many abysmal officiants at previous nuptials--and the band did too.

Everyone enjoyed the quartet playing outside during drinks, even if they couldn't always be heard above the din. I thought for a moment of the scene in John O'Hara's story, The Flatted Saxophone, where the narrator describes that perfect sound of an instrument at a wedding party that puts you in just the right mood of happiness, comfort, and, yes, appreciation.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lincoln and Hirschfeld

Ever since it seemed to have gotten into financial trouble a few years ago, the New-York Historical Society has become one of the most creative, imaginative museums in terms of coming up with stimulating exhibits. Right now--for another two weeks--it is displaying an excellent show on Lincoln and the Jews. It also has put on a large exhibit of Al Hirschfeld drawings. Both are worth a visit.

The Lincoln show concentrates on how Lincoln maintained his relationships with several Jewish friends from Springfield through the Civil War. They provided him with both support and sometimes even intelligence: one travelled to New Orleans during the war and served as an agent for the President. But the exhibit also demonstrates Lincoln's efforts to secure rights and fair treatment for all minorities, exemplified by his pushing a bill through Congress to establish non-Christian chaplaincy in the Army.

And beyond the interesting ramifications of his relationships with individuals. the exhibit also plumbs his regular use of Old Testament sources in his writing and speeches. Apparently he drew from the O.T. three times more than from the New Testament. I've always found his use of language from Psalm 19 in the Second Inaugural--carved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial--incredibly powerful. It comes right before the famed "With malice toward none..." conclusion: "Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

The exhibit also covers the infamous order of General Grant barring Jews from the military region of Kentucky in which he was then combatting the Confederates. Apparently this related to smuggling by cotton traders--it's interesting that those usually accused of this offense were Jews and Germans. The exhibit indicates that this was merely the most glaring display of anti-Semitism by Union generals, several of whom held strong anti-Semitic views. Lincoln, to his great credit, immediately countermanded Grant's order.

Perhaps most quixotic about this incident is that Grant, when President a few years later, was present and participated in the laying of the cornerstone of the original building of my congregation in Washington, Adas Israel. In fact, he was the only President to visit the congregation until President Obama came to speak there last Friday.

I've seen several Hirschfeld exhibits over the years but this one is by far the best. Not only does it trace his development as the preeminent Broadway caricaturist but it shows how his travels--especially a trip to Bali--influenced his style, exemplified by display of drawings reflecting the influence of shadow puppetry after his return. He also had a political side, and when one such drawing was rejected by the N.Y. Times (which was far more conservative in the earlier part of the 20th century) it was published in New Masses, a Communist outlet. This reminded me of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) who drew some great anti-Nazi propaganda drawings during World War II. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Way We Get By

At this point, it's getting hard to reach conclusions about Neil LaBute as a playwright. Last night I caught his latest, The Way We Get By, at Second Stage in New York, a theatre, by the way, that is classified as Off-Broadway (it's based on audience capacity, not location) but is located at 43rd St. and Eighth Ave. Thomas Sadokis and Amanda Seyfried were the players and the play held my attention for its uninterrupted 80-minute run, but the mixed review in The Times was on the mark.

LaBute springs a surprise halfway through which maintains your attention, but the problem is that you need some device at that point to do that. The last play of his that I really enjoyed was Reasons to Be Pretty,which also was his last to transfer to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony. I began to consider what that play had that this one lacked. What I came up with was how I reacted to the dialogue. In Reasons, as in some other memorable LaBute efforts, the conversations between usually two, but sometimes more, characters rang true and real. He also seemed to capture in Reasons the way ordinary people working in a plant speak.

You don't know what the two in last night's play do for a living. Perhaps that's another reason why I found myself less interested in them. Miss Seyfried is very attractive and did a nice job with Beth but Mr. Sadokis seemed more adrift in a character with some quirks that I felt were distracting. Right from the start, the morning-after conversations between two people who saw each other at a wedding reception and with more than a few drinks under their belts, ended up in bed together that night, appeared stilted and pointless.

There were good parts and points to the play as well. And both the mid-play surprise (at what might have been the pre-intermission point had there been one) and the ending were satisfying. It was what went on in between those high moments that left me wanting something better.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Attending a Speech

One thing about Washington: here, people regard speeches as entertainment. This morning, I put up with all the associated nonsense in terms of lines and security to attend a celebration of something called Jewish American Heritage Week at my synagogue, Adas Israel. Featured speaker and cause of all the show of security: President Obama.

I'm not very high on this sort of stuff--identity politics strikes me as creating more problems than it solves. But don't get me wrong: Obama always delivers when it comes to a speech. The congregation has become more open-minded  on the subject of Israel, so he was cheered for his statements in support thereof, whereas a few years ago, there might have been a sullen silence. He mentioned his early excitement by Israel--Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, kibbutzes--and reiterated that America would always have Israel's back and that he wouldn't agree to a bad deal with Iran.

Probably the fun part was the opening, where he spoke of his initiation into "the tribe" by his Jewish staffers, including two chiefs of staff.  He said he wouldn't mention the Yiddishisms he'd learned from Rahm Emanuel, including synonyms for shalom. For me, he had a reasonable burden to meet, since it took about an hour on line to get in and then an hour and a half waiting for him with some singing by a University of Maryland Jewish a capella group and then our cantor, who has a fine soprano, leading The Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikvah.  

He emphasized that policy disagreements with the government of Israel were to be expected and I suppose what pleased me most was that he never even mentioned Bibi. The appearance was the subject of a lengthy prewrite story in this morning's Washington Post, which stressed that he was out to repair what they regarded as strained relations with Jews. Judging from the strong positive response he received--many rounds of applause--I think that the Jewish community is far from being in agreement with the right wing that AIPAC now stands for.