Slated to receive a stipend of $625,000 over the next five years, Josh Kun is a cultural historian who was selected as one of 23 new MacArthur Fellows announced in September. Kun is a brilliant academic, journalist and NPR broadcaster who has mounted exhibits at museums, including the Getty Foundation and the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art. The 46-year-old scholar is based at the University of Southern California, where he teaches at the Annenberg School of Communications and serves as director of the Popular Music Project at the school’s Norman Lear Center.
Kun envisions his hometown of Los Angeles—and America as a whole—as a tapestry whose rich and varied coloristic shadings in the visual, performing and culinary arts result from the fusion of his city’s multicultural heritage. Describing his publications including the 2006 “Audiotopia,” a study of Jewish, Latino and African-American multi-cultural music and “You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl” (2008), exploring the iconography of the covers of over 400 Jewish music recordings, the MacArthur Foundation states that Kun, “brings to life forgotten historical narratives through finely grained analyses of material and sonic manifestations of popular culture.”
Much of this “sonic manifestation” has been realized through Kun’s efforts as one of the founders of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, named for the composer of “Hava Nagila” and sponsored by “Reboot,” an organization dedicated to contemporary Jewish living. With a mission dedicated to the rediscovery and reassessment of niche music including the Latin-Jewish music craze of the 1950s, unknown to generations. Restoring classic recordings including “Mazel Tov,” “Mis Amigos” on DVD, the Society also assembles and produces new DVDs, including “Black Sabbath,” a selection of Yiddish songs, prayers and chants performed by African American artists from Cab Calloway to Aretha Franklin. Another release includes music by Black composers inspired by and incorporating Jewish melodies and liturgical elements.
The Society also partners with other institutions in presenting concerts, producing documentaries, and even opening a pop-up Jewish record store in San Francisco. Visitors to the Idelsohn web page are able to read about the men and women associated with the genre’s evolution. They can also access digitized versions of songs like “It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba,” a title which certainly distills the essence of Kun’s passions, not to mention providing a little kitschy and light-hearted whimsy.
Fittingly appropriating the jargon associated with sound engineering, Kun said: “I strive to be a scholar who crossfades (to make an image or sound gradually emerge on top of another which is, conversely, fading into silence) disciplines, who slides between and creates conversations between multiple publics, who diligently works with archives in order to animate them in new ways, and who follows historical and critical clues to excavate and learn from points of intersection.”
Reinventing the cultural landscape of history through an innovative approach and thinking outside of the box is not relegated to the domain of younger scholars. Hailed as a “splendid” book “seething with ideas” by The New York Times, and ranking high on its list of recommended nonfiction is “The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through its Portraits.” Simon Schama, a noted English art historian, is best remembered by American audiences as the writer and narrator of the 2014 PBS documentary series “The Story of the Jews.” His new book was written as a compendium for a 2015 English television show that he hosted at the National Portrait Gallery. The book is organized thematically, focusing on paintings, sculptures, drawings, graphics and photos of men and women from all walks of life—from Queen Victoria and Sir Winston Churchill to Hogarth’s memorable panoplies of 18th century urban dandies and criminals—whose depictions became synonymous with their deeds, and determined the way they would be treated by posterity. Assessing the often primal and voyeuristic immediacy of modern portraits and self-portraits of icons like John Lennon or Lucien Freud, Schama provides an analysis of the contemporary viewer in a nutshell: “we come into the world wide-eyed, ready to stare.”
Art critic Benjamin Binstock writes that Simon Schama is today known for his books on history and culture which display his trademark “sparkling prose and… brilliant capacity to synthesize information.” Born in London to immigrant parents, Schama studied the Talmud as a teenager, and went on to receive his degrees at the University of Cambridge. His award-winning publications include “Citizens,” a history of the French Revolution, “Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel” and “Landscape and Memory.” Introducing new audiences to the visual arts and history through his radio and television broadcasts in Europe and the United States, Schama received the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) from Queen Elizabeth II in 2001.
Most of my professional life has been spent creating and running programs for B’nai B’rith International, having spent the last 39 years as a member of the professional program staff. I cannot look at a newspaper, magazine article or television show without thinking about how the subject can be utilized as a program. As social media brings this content to us at a rapid fire pace, I get this information even faster. The challenge is putting this content into perspective and seeing that there are some issues that will always be relevant for a program that will interest a B’nai B’rith audience.
As the years go by, the specifics may have changed, but I see each program taking form as a six point star (especially since it makes a very nice visual on a power point presentation!).
You do not have to be a trend spotter or a programmer to see these subjects as important to people. It is most likely a topic that is important to you. In B’nai B’rith, these topics are reviewed by the program centers and committees that provide content for the events that are brought to B’nai B’rith and the community audiences.
We have also offered an interest census to help us understand what is important in programming. The topics come from the themes mentioned above, the news headlines, or as we see them defined during an election year, the topics that are on political party platforms. It may have been a recent lecture topic at other organizations or the result of the consensus of coalitions we are part of, to provide a thematic approach to a subject for the Jewish community to educate itself and act with a unified communal response.
Days ago, Queen Elizabeth II awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to theatre and the arts to Sonia Friedman, the most acclaimed producer of her generation. The daughter of two eminent British musicians, Friedman founded Sonia Friedman Productions in 2002, and has gone on to establish a reputation as the guiding force behind literally hundreds of hits in London, New York and around the world. Winning more Oliviers—the British equivalent of the Tony Awards—than any other producer, she possesses the vision and acumen for bringing together gifted teams—directors, writers, designers and ensembles of actors—that assure success to a wide range of repertory, encompassing the mounting of classic plays like “Othello” or “Death of a Salesman,” as well as staged adaptations of films including “Boeing- Boeing,” “Legally Blonde” and “La Cage Aux Folles,” to groundbreaking new works (“1984,” “King Charles III”) “must sees” which have quickly taken the theatre world by storm.
Friedman’s current productions in the West End are “Bend It Like Beckham,” a musical treatment of the feel-good movie about a girls’ soccer team, and J.K. Rowlings’, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which is a sequel to the “Harry Potter” series and the first official staging of a work by the author, is slated for an official opening at the Palace Theatre later this summer. Replete with amazing special effects, but now using puppets instead of the live owl, whose anarchistic behavior created havoc on opening night, the drama naturally attracts legions of devotees who are eager to experience the tribulations of the adult Harry and his son as they conjoin their magic powers to defeat the forces of evil.
Playing at the Savoy Theatre is the first revival of the musical “Funny Girl” since it made its British debut in 1966. Remembered for catapulting the young Barbara Streisand to fame, it now features a new book by American actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein, but happily retains Jule Styne’s dynamic score, including the music for show stoppers such as “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade”
The story of “Funny Girl” was inspired by the life and career of Fanny Brice (1891-1951), a singer and comedian born to Lower East Side immigrants, who rose to fame as a Jazz Age star and frequent headliner of the Ziegfeld Follies. Numbers which she popularized during her heyday included “My Man,” an American version of a French torch song whose lyrics proclaimed a street waif’s devotion to her boyfriend, a faithless and violent pimp, as well as the wistful lament “Second Hand Rose,” and the whimsical and sunny “I’m Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love.” Characteristically resorting to the stylized Yiddish inflection that was at the time was considered funny by both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, she lampooned the contortions of a snooty Russian ballerina in “It’s Gorgeous to Be Graceful” and fused Native American ethnicity with that of her own Lower East Side persona in “Look at Me, I’m an Indian.” On radio and then on television, she starred as Baby Snooks, a snarky little girl whose sarcastic comments delighted fans nationwide. Using tricks which often bordered on blackmail, Snooks always got the better of her long suffering and harried dad.
Images of breathtaking architectural treasures photographed at sites across Europe draw the visitor into the website of the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage (AEPJ). AEPJ is an organization that was established in 2004, and now sponsored by a consortium of six Jewish organizations, including B’nai B’rith Europe, which sponsors two major activities, the European Days of Jewish Culture and the European Routes of Jewish Heritage. Both projects were originally initiated in 1987 by the Council of Europe, which continues to provide generous support to these and other AEPJ endeavors. Throughout its history, AEPJ has continually expanded its mission to introduce and educate people of all backgrounds to the development and innovations fostered by Jewish architecture, fine and decorative arts, literature and their role within the context of European history and culture. One of AEPJ’s missions is to keep alive the memory of the Shoah for generations to come.
The European Days of Jewish Culture is an annual celebration which takes place in dozens of cities and towns across the continent every fall, with each year focusing on a multifaceted theme like music, festivals, nature, art and even Jewish humor. Communities, arts organizations, churches and synagogues partner with AEPJ to produce concerts, tours, lectures, film screenings, art exhibits, theatrical productions and interfaith ceremonies that entertain and expand the perceptions of the topic for its audiences. In 2016, “European Days” will explore the myriad aspects of Jewish languages. Those interested in reading more about the past history of these observances can access eleven years of handsomely produced reports and documentary photos archived on a special webpage.
In March, the AEPJ coordinated a week of events that honored the 500th anniversary of the Jewish ghetto in Venice, Italy, culminating in a series of moving ceremonial tributes taking place in the ghetto itself.
Sienna Girgenti is the Assistant Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy at B'nai B'rith International. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
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