Sacred texts, prayer books, centuries old archival documents and even a defunct electric bill have provided the inspiration for theater, film and museum exhibits in 2019, a veritable collective celebration of the written and printed word. While many examples might be added to this compendium, here are just a few highlights of innovative artworks, all of which take a fresh approach to the way Jewish culture and social life has impacted history and civilization.
Long-deceased members of a prominent Jewish family come to life onstage in Angela J. Davis’ award-winning new play, “The Spanish Prayer Book,” which premiered in September in California by North Hollywood’s Road Theatre. The time-traveling contemporary drama focuses on a cache of long-hidden religious manuscripts and deals with topics including the changing narrative of Jewish-Muslim relations through the centuries, the commodification of the spiritual—in this case, a collection of valuable prayer books—and our obligation to preserve and protect that which is most precious.
Lilach Dekel-Avneri, a participant in the Washington, D.C.-based Israel Institute Visiting Artist Program, gave an improvisatory, free-form take to her direction of Maya Arad Yasur’s “Amsterdam,” whose script encompasses both the Holocaust and today’s immigration issues, all catalyzed by an unpaid electric bill, mailed to its recipient in 1944 and discovered by the work’s protagonist, a violinist based in the Dutch city of the title. It premiered on Oct. 10 with a three-person cast of students from the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles, where Dekel-Avneri was based this fall. The director, who characterizes the work as a theater piece, rather than a work with a linear narrative, has noted that “It has no hesitation in combining storytelling, using personal facts about the artist, with the aid of imaginary images, and soundscape, in order to enable us to rise anarchistic and funny performative energies from the pseudo-documentary text.”
The Cairo Geniza—inscribed whole and fragmented pages and artifacts whose content, meaning and function include everything from account ledgers and religious tracts to love letters and music scores, never discarded, but preserved for hundreds of years in the storeroom (geniza) of an Egyptian synagogue and now dispersed among 70 institutions worldwide—takes center stage in “From Cairo to the Cloud,” Michelle Paymar’s award-winning documentary which has been screened at numerous Jewish film festivals this year. Translated into multiple languages and reconstituted as one linear entity through the “miracle” of the internet, the collection opens new insights into a myriad of topics, including the ways that Jews, Muslims and Christians interacted in the region. Those who see the film will be impressed by its superb cinematography, underscoring the stunning visual beauty of the documents. It’s now being shown at film festivals in Europe.
And finally, Washington’s Museum of the Bible, an institution which has hosted some terrific displays of rare Jewish books from Holland and elsewhere, unveiled on Nov. 7 the Washington Pentateuch, a torah dating to the 10th century and described as one of the oldest, intact Hebrew bible manuscripts in the United States. In addition to the torah itself, the exhibition features an introduction by Harvard professor David Stern and images of seven other Hebrew Bible manuscripts, with explanations of how they impact modern editions and translations.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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