Thursday, February 24, 2011

Void Of Horror

Void Of Horror

In the era of AMC’s “Mad Men” and in 1965, Harold Pinter wrote “The Homecoming” his Tony Award winning masterpiece, which just had a run at Center Stage here in Baltimore.

A Jewish/British playwright, Pinter, who also won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was an actor, poet and left-leaning political activist. His early plays, were able to wrench and capture the ontological void of the vast nowhere land from his predecessor Samuel Beckett and place it within realistic settings.

He infused their spare, unadorned locales of ordinariness (his play “The Room” takes place in a one-room apartment) with characters drawn by jagged razors, so sharply carved they glide before they cut. Even the proscenium at Center Stage was framed like a picture, beckoning the audience to observe the slit like voyeurs.

Enter Ruth, a name with significant lineage in the Jewish canon and no accident either. Like the biblical Ruth who is brought to her husband’s people, this Ruth accompanies her husband, a professor of philosophy, into his childhood home occupied by his father, two brothers and an uncle, while getting to know all of them in the biblical sense.

In the end, Pinter has Ruth, the object of desire, coil around and transform the house that the men built, into one that she rules. The lads revolve around her like orbs to the Sun.

For anyone who watches “Mad Men” knows, the women of that era are constantly treated like servants or worse, tarts. NOW was only founded a year later in ‘66.

Equally then, while women were still second-class citizens, Jews were an invisible minority.

Perhaps out of fear, or pragmatism, like many artists and writers of his day, Pinter doesn’t make much of his Jewishness in any overt way. One can assume, that Max and his kin are Jewish the same way Arthur Miller’s Loman family in “Death of a Salesman” is Jewish.

Fast forward to today, where names like Tony Kushner and David Mamet have their characters make no bones about their identity. Movies and books by Jews, about Jews are for everyone. Likewise, more women are in the American workforce these days than men.

Men, who have created more hot wars, cold wars and conflicts during their reign should be happy, no grateful, that at this point, when one twitch of a finger can annihilate us all, women may have been sent to rescue us.

Flip open your smartphone to the flipside of a time-warped world and from Iran to Egypt, we’re witnessing ‘60s riots in real time where woman are oppressed and Jews mostly despised.

Can this new awakening of freedom, from a world previously cutoff from progress triumph? Or, will the freedom of speech and to assemble, to go to the theatre and see Pinter plays, be snuffed? (Pause).

Pinter’s early plays were apolitical. He even said, “I'm not committed as a writer, in the usual sense of the term, either religiously or politically. I'm not conscious of any social function.” Yet, their menacing pauses can be as terrifying as a scream from Gehenna.

In his later life and in the midst of our divisive culture, much of Pinter’s political activism rained controversy down on him. Yet know, as an officer in PEN and with fellow playwright Miller, he travelled on a mission to investigate and protest against the torture of imprisoned writers.

In fact, up until he died, stricken by cancer in 2008, and in the last decade of his life, he devoted himself to causes he believed in and rarely wrote plays.

Just as women had to be wallflowers and Jews needed to be unseen, his greatest plays left unsaid (perhaps in those frightening pauses) much of what he later saw as wrong with the world, as madness.

Monday, February 7, 2011

“Al Jaffee’s Mad Life: A Biography” - Book Review / Jewish Times

Since the new millennia and the rise of blockbuster movies like “Spiderman”, “Ironman” and “Hulk”, numerous books have been written about the invention of the comic book and how Jews were largely the creative force behind the pop-culture phenomenon. But right alongside, and when the sensation really hit its apex in the 1960s and 70s, MAD Magazine lent an added satirical slant to a cartoon culture and a world seemingly gone mad. It became a must-read for millions.

“Mad Life” is the story of Al Jaffee, the iconic cartoonist and prolific contributor to Mad, who at 89 is still at it (55-years and counting) with the pub. But aside from his zany drawings (he created the famous fold-in) and clever wit, his biography is a fascinating read because it’s so unique.

Born in 1921 in Savannah, GA to Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, his mother longingly up and yanked Al and his three brothers back to Lithuania. Speaking no Yiddish, nor a word of Lithuanian and with no electricity or plumbing, the boys were in culture shock. Then, after a year there, their father rescued them and brought them back to the US, only for them to be taken by mom once again.

But in 1933, with the Nazi threat looming, their father sensed the impending danger and saved them, leaving behind their mother, who no doubt perished in the Holocaust.

But while the lads were away in the old country, their father kept sending young Al and his brothers, cartoon funnies from the Savannah newspaper and the boys would treasure and duplicate them.

This cross-Atlantic linkage had a profound influence on Al’s art and he eventually got accepted to the new High School of Music and Art, where he met up with his future MAD colleagues, Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman (Kurtzman would be the original mastermind behind MAD.)

The award winning and authorized biographer, Mary-Lou Weisman, writes, “given his artistic gift, Al’s mad childhood seems to have led him inevitably to satire and to MAD.”

Running alongside Weisman’s portrayal, the book is filled with colorful drawings by Al that build on the narrative infusing color and joy into his harsh, madcap life.

Promised Lands - Book Review / Jewish Times

For those asking the proverbial question, “Where are the next crop of great Jewish writers?” the answer is within the pages of this book.

Derek Rubin is to be applauded for assembling a group of highly talented, fiction writers, who’ve each contributed their unique voice to the proposed theme of Promised Land and how that idea, in his words, “continues to shape the collective consciousness of contemporary American Jews.”

Archetypically, Promised Land is a notion wide enough to encompass a vast array of interpretations by each of these creative authors, yet it also offers them a starting place from which to invent their imaginary tale.

While some of the writers are more famous than others, all of them express, a variation on a universal theme and provide a “mosaic” on it.

First in the line-up, Dara Horn knocks it out of the village in her piece “Shtetl World”, where she concocts a theme park in Western Massachusetts based on the now vanished setting of an Eastern European shtetl. Masterfully, she’s able to infuse irony within the confines of what is a haunting environment.

In another section of the book, the land of Israel provides a subject to ruminate on and in Joan Legant’s hands, she analyzes the healing nature it offers a woman who defended herself from a brutal attack.

Toward the end, the theme widens to encompass the illusory and physically unobtainable idea of Promised Land. In Jonathan Rosen’s “The True World” a reporter goes off on a quest to interview a deceased Saul Bellow, traveling first to a ghoulish Ellis Island and then onto the netherworld where he encounters the late Henry Roth who serves as his guide.

Importantly, in a category largely dominated by men for the past sixty-years, this collection exemplifies the significant rise women have attained, with thirteen of the twenty-three voices being female writers.

Mr. Rubin, like his previous book, “On Who We Are: On Being and (Not Being) a Jewish American Writer”, provides us a substantial compilation that signifies and reflects the moment and zeitgeist of our generation.