“Is it the memory of times long gone, or a presentiment of times to come? Does this old animal perhaps know more than the three generations that foregather in the synagogue each time?”
With so many brief but sublime sentences packed into the short passage comprising Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel “In Our Synagogue,” it is indeed difficult to choose just one excerpt to quote. The reader learns about the stealthy rodent living for years in the narrator’s house of worship, whose coat of fur has acquired the blue-green color of the building’s ancient walls. Well-known to the congregants, especially its women, the animal is not concealed by its faulty camouflage.
Completed in 2016, “In the Synagogue,” named Best Short Film at this year’s Odessa Film Festival, is inspired by the existing content of Kafka’s story. Director Ivan Orlenko shot portions of his 30-minute black and white movie with Yiddish dialogue in Kiev and inside the mid-19th century Khust synagogue—in use throughout World War II—in southwestern Ukraine. Conveying an elegiac sense of loss, as well as tragedy, the visual impact of these places amplifies the original tale, now experienced through the hindsight of the Holocaust. As the director notes of this region: “…now only a few preserved synagogues and neglected cemeteries are left…This picture of devastation, the forgotten world, made me film in Yiddish. It is this sense of a long-lost time that predetermined that maximum attention would be drawn to the signs of that time, language and everyday life. Time running indifferently and inexorably, only sometimes allowing the story to finish, is probably what my film is about…”
The impact of Jewish life on European culture was felt centuries before the dawn of the modern era. The Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park is presenting “The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy,” an exhibition which shines a light on some of the rare and important medieval Judaica on loan from Paris’ Cluny Museum, almost all of which has never been seen in the United States.
Discovered in 1863 in the wall of a confectionary located in the Alsatian town of Colmar, The Colmar Treasure dates from the mid-14th century and includes an inscribed dome-shaped Jewish wedding ring, rings and other jewelry embellished with gems and semi-precious stones, and buttons and coins rendered in silver and gold, as well as accessories like belt fragments and headpieces. Among the household items is a tiny, meticulously designed silver key, presumably kept by the lady of the house.
It is assumed that these valuable items were owned by at least one family and were hidden for safekeeping during the time before the town’s Jewish community, who were believed to have poisoned the wells to spread plague, was immolated en masse. Thereafter, Jews did not return to Colmar for a quarter century. The installation of The Colmar Treasure is supplemented by the Cloisters’ illuminated books, manuscripts and decorative arts, and includes objects borrowed from the Jewish Theological Seminary and private collections. The show is on view through January 12th, 2020.
The legacy of Europe’s Jewish culture has become key to combatting the rise in anti-Semitism that has occurred worldwide. Noting this on its website, the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage (www.jewishheritage.org) sponsored by B’nai B’rith Europe and other Jewish organizations in cooperation with the National Library of Israel has announced that its European Days of Jewish Culture (EDJC) will be designated as a celebration honoring its 20th anniversary. Held each September, wide-ranging programs organized under a unifying theme are produced by local communities in more than 400 cities in 28 countries.
Yale University Press will release another entry in its excellent “Jewish Lives” series of books intended for the general reader on November 19th. A biography which underscores the continued relevance and vivacity of his songs and musicals, “Irving Berlin: New York Genius” by James Kaplan examines the life of the composer (1888-1989) and his musical output through the history of the frenetic, ever-changing kaleidoscope of the city where he spent most of his life.
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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