Monday, June 24, 2013

Bippity, Bobbity, Bubbeleh

I love going to Broadway shows and being transported into new worlds, but this past weekend, at a performance of Cinderella, I felt like I was back in a very old story.

The revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein had an updated book, which was witty, charming, and even a little inspiring — maybe for good reason. In thinking about it, I finally figured out why.

The performance featured a prince who staged a ball in order to meet the woman of his dreams. In waltzed a young lady who, known for her kindness and wisdom as well as her beauty, captured his attention.  At the urging of her friend, despite the risk of the court finding out her true background, she gathered her courage. Instead of whispering compliments in his ears, she took advantage of her position to warn the prince that her people were being oppressed. The prince had no idea what his evil advisor was doing. Dismayed, the prince put an end to the tyranny and helped restore justice in his kingdom, making Cinderella’s friend a candidate for prime minister. 

Is it me, or could this just as easily be a dramatic retelling of the Book of Esther? 

I think Oscar Hammerstein would have kvelled.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Interfaith Living Museum Brings Us All Together

Today's blog is from Amanda Lanceter, Manager of Curriculum and Teacher Programs, who took some time to write about one of our very favorite educational programs. Thanks, Amanda!
For the past five months, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a remarkable group of 5th graders through our Interfaith Living Museum program, which brings Jewish and Muslim students together to create their own museum exhibition, using artifacts from their families to celebrate their heritage. The program works with students from four schools: Al Ihsan Academy, located in Queens; the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan; and Kinneret Day School and the Islamic Leadership School, both located in the Bronx.
When we began the program on January 10, we asked the students what they hoped the other students would learn about them. Many shared that they wanted the other students to get to know their personalities and their interests to find common ground. They hoped that other students would learn more about them and their beliefs and realize that they are not so different from each other.  Of course, as educators we had the same hopes.

It’s easy to get 5th graders to talk to someone they know; talking to strangers is another matter entirely. Through “icebreakers” the students began to see each other as kids who shared a lot in common. These introductory conversations helped make it easier for the conversations about heritage and culture to happen. To learn more about Jewish culture, the students visited the first floor of the Museum, learning about Jewish life cycle events, holidays, rituals, and culture through studying artifacts. As we went through, we asked the Jewish students to share what they knew already and asked the Muslim students if they could make connections to their own culture.. In our visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s Islamic art galleries, we used the same model, with the Muslim students sharing their knowledge of their culture, teaching from the artifacts there. We also visited a synagogue and a mosque.

In February we met at Al Ihsan Academy to begin work on the Living Museum they were creating. Students brought in their own artifacts from home. They shared them in pairs, teaching their partners about their objects, why they were significant to them, and how the artifacts reflected their heritage. Partners then presented each other’s artifacts to the group. The next month, the students worked together to organize the artifacts into galleries and compose accompanying text. This exercise challenged students to explain why their artifacts belonged together, encouraging more dialogue about their cultures.

Families, friends, Museum staff, and invited guests viewed these galleries at the final exhibition May 30. Student representatives from each school helped introduce the evening’s program, demonstrating that their classmates’ hopes were realized. Each spoke of how meaningful it was for them to meet kids their age from another culture and discover that they had so many things in common, from the similarities in religious practices and beliefs, to their shared interests in the same TV shows and sports. It was moving for all of us who worked with these students to see how strangers became friends in just a few months. By working and learning together, they created an incredible final product, a Living Museum that reflected what makes their cultures unique, as well as the commonalities that link them together.

Photo of Martha Lieberman of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan with her great grandfather's tefillin bag and Hanan Kassem of the Al Ihsan Academy with a plaque from Yemen that her grandfather gave her father in honor of the first time he fasted for Ramadan. Photo by Melanie Einzig.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Q&A with Streisand Biographer William J. Mann

In advance of our free Barbra Streisand film festival, we caught up with biographer William J. Mann, author of Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand to chat about the Funny Girl herself. Mann will introduce the series on June 26.

MJH: This book is really flushed out and full of life in a way that a lot of biographies are not, which is interesting since as you mention, Streisand has a well known dislike of biographies. What are the challenges of writing a book without the subject’s input?

WM: There are advantages and disadvantages. When I wrote the authorized biography of director John Schlesinger, I had access to his archives, actors, and crew. I didn’t have to go chasing down leads. But there is a certain amount of objectivity that you have to push yourself to maintain.

Knowing how Streisand has a history of wanting to take charge of her projects, I feel the only way to write this book was to do it as an unauthorized biography.

MJH: Why did you choose Streisand’s early career as your focus?

WM: I will be honest and say that it was not my idea to write about Streisand. It was my editor’s idea. I have always liked her and admired her, but he was the one who thought it should be my next subject. That said, I looked for an angle that caught my interest.

I thought the early years were the most interesting. She came from nothing and made a huge star of herself through the force of her own personality and her own talent and determination. I wanted to know how she did that in just five years. That’s what interested me.

MJH: Your book mentions that some of the myths surrounding Streisand were just that, myths.

WM: I think there is always a degree of calculation. Few things in the entertainment world are spontaneous. So much of our popular culture is based on myth. Like Lana Turner being discovered at a drug store. The press talked about how Streisand walked off the street and was the most talented singer they had heard, and that she came out of nowhere. It didn’t really happen that way.

A lot of hard work goes into promoting, a lot of behind-the-scenes work from managers, agents, and other people in her corner.

MJH: Tell us how Funny Girl started as a bio of Fanny Brice and was transformed into a star vehicle for Streisand.

WM: The book of Funny Girl is just not good. I think the creative team realized that they had to do something to offset the weakness of it. They needed a larger than life leading lady. They needed Barbra Streisand. Then Fanny Brice became the excuse to make Streisand a star. The musical revolved around Streisand’s talents and her personality. I think that is why it hasn’t held up since. The music is beautiful, but it needs someone  with a big talent and personality to come in and change it and make it their own, like a Lady Gaga or Madonna type.

MJH: You write about how it was the right time for Streisand to come on the scene and change the cultural landscape. What do you mean by that?

WM: It was the right time for Streisand, but also the times were right for her. The landscape and consciousness was changing. The 1950s white bread ideals of Hollywood were evolving and expanding. Suddenly Streisand came along and there was a democratization of talent. The doors opened and Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Diahann Carroll were on the scene. Streisand was part of that. The culture was ripe for it and she pushed the envelope.

She didn’t just want to be the best friend. She wanted to be the leading lady exactly as she was without changing her name or her nose. She claimed it for herself and it was revolutionary.

MJH: In the book, you say that there were other Jewish female stars that came before Streisand, like Lauren Bacall and Judy Holliday, but that Barbra Streisand was the first to really show her Jewishness. How do you think it affected her career?

WM: If she tried to enter the scene 10 years earlier it would have been a different story. She did struggle somewhat. If you look at early reviews, they are glowing about her singing, but talk about her looks in an almost anti-Semitic way. On the other hand, the struggles helped her become who she was, and she stood apart from the crowd.

MJH: What do you think we can learn about Streisand the performer by reading about her personal relationships?

WM: I think a lot of her earlier years were about her drive to prove herself to her mother, who wasn’t supportive, to her friends in Brooklyn, who thought she couldn’t do it, and to her father, who she never knew. He died when she was a baby.  He was a very cultured and educated man and she wanted to be like him and to think that he would have been proud of her. She wanted to matter.

MJH: Why do you think we are still so enamored with her? 

WM: Her talent is remarkable. It has been said that her voice is one of the natural wonders of the ages. She makes wonderful movies, and she is now part of our national consciousness.

I also think that Streisand represents something more. She symbolizes the ability to survive and to persevere. It is an empowering story. She didn’t listen when they said she wasn’t leading lady material.  She was an underdog, and others who don’t fit into the perfect leading lady or leading man role find it inspiring.

She has led a continuously exemplary life full of successes and triumphs despite the fact that she came from nothing. I think we are all still rooting for her.

Image: © Sony Pictures

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

This Sunday, Bear Witness

It is always a special opportunity to hear from Holocaust survivors, and this Sunday the public is invited to hear these stories first-hand. Drop by the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and chat with members of the Museum family who also happen to be authors of memoirs, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Learn about their rich history as it relates to the Museum’s exhibitions. They will be in the Spitzer lobby Sunday afternoon from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. This event is free.
Here are the folks we are expecting:

Bernard Gotfryd, a photographer and journalist and a member of the Polish resistance during the war, is the author of Anton the Dove Fancier.
Ruth Gruener, a hidden child, and Jack Gruener, a prisoner of 10 concentration camps, are married. She is the author of Destined to Live: A True Story of a Child in the Holocaust and together with Alan Gratz they wrote Prisoner B-3087.

Lucie Liebman, a young girl who witnessed unimaginable horror during the Nazi period, has written Unconquered: A Tale of a Girl's Survival During the Holocaust. 

Elly Gross, a survivor of Auschwitz, is the author of Elly: My True Story of the Holocaust; The Poems of Elly Gross: Memories of a Holocaust Survivor; and Elka’s Growing Up.

Greta Elbogen, hidden in a Red Cross shelter on the outskirts of Budapest, is a poet whose poems appear in the volume Remember Me.
In addition, Marion Reiss, a Gallery Educator, teacher, and adjunct college professor, will be on hand to discuss her soon-to-be-published book Not to Forget: The Story of Harry Reiss and the Creation of the Rockland Center for Holocaust Studies.

Join us this Sunday afternoon.