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.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fun Home and Art

My prescience was rewarded recently, after a fashion. We managed to squeeze a matinee into a whirlwind New York trip, seeing Fun Home at the Circle in the Square. This musical is of the new style, with no hummable tunes but very pleasant songs. The still-edgy story--for Broadway, anyway--was well constructed, having been drawn from lesbian cartoonist (her self-description) Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir which had been dramatized first at the Public Theater downtown.

The double story of Alison's self-discovery of her sexuality is paired with her relationship with her father, who has repressed his own identity for much of his life, although his occasional forays have gotten int almost enough trouble to shake up his small-town life.  The settings in the family home, which is filled with earlier-period antique furniture and objets, as well as the family business site he inherited--a funeral home--add to the rich background for the play.

This show did well--selling out so tickets were unobtainable--at the Public and a week or so after we saw it, it opened to some excellent reviews, especially from the all-important Times. It achieved what for me is the highest accolade--a moving theatrical experience by a fine ensemble.

We also visited what is possibly New York's most imaginative museum, the Morgan, down at 36th and Madison. They had a Lincoln show, which you might expect that I would want to catch. It's called Lincoln Speaks and is mainly documents and photographs. The Morgan excels in both the quality and the significance of both.  This was fun--its title also reminded me of my grandfather's collection of Lincoln stories, Lincoln Talks.

The Morgan also had a nice exhibit of recent acquisitions of prints and drawings, selecting from a wide range of artists, including Picasso and many,many others. As is becoming the fashion, there are paragraph-long descriptions next to each picture. I was thinking that a better aid in the case of Georg Grosz drawing with text would have been to provide a German translation.

In Boston for another quick trip, we stopped for a short stay at  the Museum of Fine Arts to catch an exhibit of a single Klimt from the Belvedere, Adam and Eve. It's a notable Klimt, worth the effort--and Fine Arts placed it in a wonderfully-loaded gallery with both contemporaries--Kokoschka, Schiele, and Kirchner, among others, as well as Matisse, Picasso, Munch, and more. The finest sculpture was a wonderful Kathe Kollwitz.

We had previously seen Woman in Gold, the movie about how a Holocaust survivor retrieved after a huge battle her family's marvelous Klimt from the Austrians. Helen Mirren, almost needless to say, excels even if the movie is fairly predictable; it was still nicely done. I later saw a French picture on a very similar theme, The Art Dealer, shown at our Avalon once only. Iwish this picture gains even art-house distribution because it does an even better job at showing a determined woman who finds that her own relatives, aided by the art establishment and French bureaucrats, have cheated her out of her parents' art treasures after they had been stolen by the Nazis.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Catching Up

I've been very inattentive to keeping up this little communication. Some of the blame goes to my having gone off to the Philippines in late January for almost a month. I was working on an assessment of judicial reform there for the Asian Development Bank. This was a project on which I was pleased to work because I spent a total of about four months there about a decade ago involved in developing a plan to improve judicial operations.

I hadn't been in the Philippines for about eight years or so. Biggest change is that the economy is booming. They have finally caught up with the rest of Asia. Growth last year was seven percent. Still lots of political scandal in the press, at least in the half dozen or so English-language daily papers in Manila. There's a presidential election next year and of course, the current president, Benigno (P-Noy) Aquino III, cannot run again because the limit is one six-year term. There were rumors that they might try to change the constitution but by the time I left his image was not so great after a radical Muslim group in Mindinao managed to ensnare and shoot 44 Philippine National Police officers.

All the buildings in Ortigas--the part of Manila where I was working--that had been left unfinished ten years ago have been completed and other gleaming skyscrapers have gone up.  The truly prime business district--Makati--is also booming. Downtown Manila--Ermita and Malate--looks less prosperous, but it can be hard to discern how well exactly it is doing because of the crowds. Traffic is awful as it was then but not necessarily any worse. If you haven't been in traffic in Asian cities like Manila or Jakarta or Bangkok, you don't know traffic.

The day before I left was Liberation Day. This was the 70th anniversary of the day in 1945 when MacArthur led the U.S. forces to take back Manila from the Japanese. At least there they remember how bad the Japanese were: luckily, MacArthur for once got ahead of schedule and arrived in Manila before he was expected. Japanese soldiers were shooting everyone they could see and burning everything they could. This was the kind of war crime that General Yamashita was put on trial for in a ballroom I was shown on this trip in the American Embassy, which still is located at a prime spot on Manila Bay. 

Judicial reform is happening in the Philippines but it has been a slow process and much resistance remains. The Supreme Court still runs the whole system from Manila--it approves all personnel actions and all procurements for the entire country. And there is corruption at all levels. Yet progress has been made in Quezon City where cases are actually being processed efficiently. A really exciting Judicial Sector Coordination Committee made up of the top-level of the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Local Government and Interior is making change happen, too.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner does not disappoint you by trivializing its subject but it does not try to penetrate beneath the surface of the last third of his life very deeply. Frederick Spall turns in a nice performance as the often grunting, mumbling painter who to my mind was the most direct precursor of impressionism. The strongest feature of the film is its rendition of fabulous scenery that looks as it had emerged directly from a Turner painting.

The mid-19th century setting--in London and the seaside at Margate--realizes the still-primitive life even reasonably well-off people like Turner lived then. Turner was apparently regarded as acceptably skilled and thus admitted to the Royal Academy, where he was treated as eccentric by even great realistic painters such as Constable. The young John Ruskin, seen in the picture as a critical prodigy, seems to realize Turner's excellence.

Turner's marine paintings often highlight the flash of sunlight against water. As he grew older, the paintings became more and more akin to the impressionist works that would soon follow from the likes of Monet as the light and sea almost merge in gauzy colors. The film makes it clear that he knew what he was about although he never expounds on his art or his intentions.

This is not a film for action-picture fans but I thought it presented a rewarding view into the life of one of the most important painters. By framing it scenes in Turner seascapes, it extends its impact by drawing you even more totally into his world.