How to Do Thanksgiving during a civil war

Even the hardest hearts have a soft spot for Thanksgiving.  It’s love for the cornucopia, the  harvest that spills in fullness from a stony season.  It’s the fact that somehow our motley immigrant crew has extended out in bursts and starts from the Pilgrims, creating continuity of the myth in our discontinuous arrivals and nationalizations.  Except for Native Americans and turkeys, minorities – Jews, Italians, Irish, black – have seized the chance to be equals at the table, and even though it is symbolic, the symbol glows like the torch we know and love(d).

The myth has been hardy and functional.  Yet no one in this stony year would ever say we’re going to leave the table united as a family.  That didn’t happen during the Civil War or the Vietnam War; it’s not going to happen now.

As our secular religious holiday, our American Shabbat, Thanksgiving could give us an opportunity to pause and step back from another of our favorite American myths: that human ingenuity can solve it all.  Current radical activism and resistance is anthropocentric; it’s all about us.  Us v them or us v us, in a sense; the all-self, all the time show is ultimately destructive.

My father, who loved good food, used to take lunch to his office — a paper bag with two apples.   His Pittsburgh office was a sloping set of rooms above a pharmacy on Walnut Street, near Squirrel Hill.  When he got strung out with work, he’d take a stroll on the street, see other people with their own problems; and then, there was that crisp juicy apple.

Give thanks to the apple.

To the hard soil that we tend so it gives yams.   To the dried leaves that look like yam skins.  The wild river and still pools of icy run-off.   The space between the stones and how much better we are when we lay fallow.  A big American amen.

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Hills, Shadowed Valleys, Squirrel Hill

Reuben and Anne Pearlman, by Eve O’Shea

Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods, of hills and shadowed valleys. The valleys or “hollers” – Pittsburgh is on the edge of Appalachia – have had plenty of darkness over different eras. Parts of the city seem backwoods, almost abandoned – the light barely flickers there.

The steel industry collapsed, things got worse, things got better, and the city of neighborhoods – that’s what Pittsburgh is – picked up to become a comeback city. Houses in the hollers were picked up by young homesteaders who lived alternatively, starting B &Bs, planting organic gardens, remaking neighborhoods. The newness of the Warhol museum, City of Asylum, Mattress Factory on the working class Northside made it not my father’s Pittsburgh.

We were four generations in Pittsburgh; my grandfather grew up in the Hill District, then moved to Squirrel Hill. He was an old-style family doctor who made house calls with stethoscope in his leather kit.  He sometimes took his payment in garden vegetables, or a chicken. When the Hill became mainly black neighborhood, he stayed working there and some patients, the story goes, named their kids after him (Reuben).

They davened in Synagogue Beth Shalom; were long members there until my parents moved to Rodef Shalom. I can’t imagine the decades were easy. I heard stories of some families during the Depression having to put their kids in Jewish adoption homes, and were lucky if the kids were there when money came back in.

My father worked outside the city in the mining counties. It took not recklessness but confidence to be that “Jewish buccaneer.” It was possible. Sometimes he had to shine a powerful flashlight down those hollers.

How far have we not come? We’re subjects of history’s hills and shadowed valleys. My grand-parents and parents, who have all passed, would have been surpised if they’d been told to take literally the psalm: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—

Many people are reminding us alongside the darkness there is abundant light.  So be it.

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Anthropocene’s Shock of Beauty

Dear Photographers of the Anthropocene Art show,

You’ve probably noticed the problem?  It’s about reactions to climate change and the geologic epoch named for our human interference.  In your cautionary Toronto art show, with its corollary film, Anthropocene, you want to bring home the horrors of massive overreach and tread on our environment.  Images abound of our mindless extractions of riches which have rejiggered the look and function of our earth. They are troubling. But what troubled me is that your images are so beautiful.  

Why is art so damn slippery?  Artists want to get across a point – but good art rebels.  It says things you never intended.  It confuses the viewer with interpretations that multiply, then undercut each other like fencers in a duel.  They endear us to the artist who seems a mess of competing contradictions.  I get that. 

Photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, have no doubt noticed their attraction to order.  There is pattern galore in those vast swaths of landscape seen from satellites and drones.  There is barely a visible human.  We see soil separated from its marble, sand separated from its oil.  The waters have been separated from dry land, day separated from night.  Like some divine repetition, chaos has been vanquished by the beauty of Order.  Order with its geometric designs, its repeating patterns; its colors garishly bright, iridescent and stimulating, or ochred and “earthy.”   

And it was good?  The unfamiliar, in the hands of the artist, has become beautiful.  And the modern viewer is transfixed by a beauty that might be destructive or violent or apocalyptic – spidery mining cavities, the cliffs of plastics.  

Death-in-lilfe?  Life-in-death?  Though our modern beautiful is beyond the meditative pastel, a new calm reality might be suggested, visualized on the other side of the dead-ended.  The art might function autonomously, to suggest that in the meditative mazes of roughed-up landscapes, there might be renewal.  A new way.  A place of a certain magic where things out of sense rest with different sense. 

What might we be shocked into discovering?  Could the artists help us to overlay the fear of the evolving future with images of shine, seduction, recognition?

Art Gallery of Toronto

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Candy-Colored Neon Bodega Speakeasy Baby

There must be some trick.  Urban life can’t quite be this happy.   There are three candy-colored glow-zones.  Pink walls light the space.  A demarcated zone glows in yellow from a bar fridge; from the side, a lavender color cloud.   

A bar is supposed to be at this very address.  From the street, through the window we see two smart women at the counter framed by light.  Are they fronts for candy, mass-market Chinese snacks?  

Their mood makeup, so neat and surface-perfect, gives them away.  They give it up – behind a red door is a “secret cocktail bar,” Mahjong Bar in Toronto.  Everyone has a front.  It may be artificial, but at least it glows.

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Wolfgang Tillmans: To Believe in Things

Wolfgang Tillmans creates his gallery shows like books of poetry.  The influential German photographer treats his viewer to work that varies wildly in size, scope, subject, united by meditation and attention.  He puts things in front of your face you want to turn from – a bloody decapitated lamb’s head.  Of course you’d rather look look at the immense and heroic boy’s torso – although at first you might look away thinking it is pornographic.  What is it?  A flesh rendering of Michelangelo’s David? It is a surface of skin and muscle arbored by a field of soft bending hairs, hundreds of them, winsome and alert.  It’s a topography of the body which makes you wonder if the landscape you saw before is the body of the land or the land of a body.

Tillmans’ attention demands that we pay attention to the undressed backs of IPhones, to the delicacy of flies’ wings and egg shells.  There are photos of socks and scrotum sacks and grace-brushed eggs, all of equal weight.

And the ultimate – a forgotten orphan of paper.  Two pieces of translucent acetate stuck on the ever-whitened gallery wall hang out with these professional photographs.  They’re part of the gang.  As you wonder why they’re there, and move back to again to look at them, they flutter.  They’re breathing, skin so sheer and cheek in bloom.

Our friend Isabelle Rose, who helped hang Tillmans’ show at David Zwirner Gallery in New York, said, “If someone showed that kind of sensitivity to me and to everything around me, I’d love them forever.”


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L’Shanah Tovah, Balkan Style

The synagogue in Dubrovnik, Croatia – a piece of culture that was lurking but hadn’t come to the fore until it was in front of me, a doorway on one of the many stone alleyways.  I went up the stairs to the third floor and entered a single but luxurious room, all dark varnished wood and hanging oil lamps.  Andrea Ferreira, standing in a corner, put down her phone. “Any questions?”  She was a descendant of one of the original Sephardic families that fled Spain after the Expulsion in 1492 and found a free zone in the Ragaza kingdom, then sympathetic to Jews.

In Belgrade, Serbia, I came across a synagogue, Sukkat Shalom, a large neoclassical structure dedicated after World War I with ill-founded optimism. Irina recounted that the community, some 200,000 Jews who had filtered mostly through the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, would be destroyed in the next war.  Perversely, the temple stands now only because the Nazis used the cool elegant space as a brothel.  The Sephardic community’s Moorish-design synagogue was leveled.  Sukkat Shalom is the lovely shell of a hope of tolerance, serving the remaining 2,000 Jews in Belgrade.

Back in Dubrovnik, Andrea Ferreira was cosmopolitan, soft around the edges with compassion and wisdom.  She recounted her history with a similar world-weary optimism.  Yes, her fellow Croatians were horrible, establishing home-grown concentration camps, treating Serbs maybe worse than the Jews they rounded up.  Yes, in 1991-2, when Croatia fought for independence, Serbs bombed Dubrovnik for eight months, heavily damaging the historic synagogue.  Yes, she smiled and shrugged, again, Croats are nationalistic,  again.  Were Jews better in Serbia?  She shrugged: Six of one, half dozen the other. These countries all have their issues.

Both synagogues will be celebrating the High Holidays starting tonight. They are stringing pearls across empires and centuries, across the energy of destruction.  The diaporic Jewish world is not only American or Israeli.  Coming back to America, I got quickly undone by reentering the stream.  It seems the madmen have taken over, and to even debate it is madness.

Although the Jewish holidays are early this year, it’s none too early for a reset, a prayer.  I am remembering Andrea’s implicit message.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for goodness to land in your lap.  Keep your head down and do what you do.  Be good, live well, love life.  Have a happy New Year, 5779.  L’Shanah Tovah.

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Aretha’s Song of Songs

A lot of intelligence and heart has been poured into tributes to Aretha Franklin, as if her artistry and soul pushed writers to go higher, further, trying to catch a bit of her immortality in her mortality. Her more-ness, her excess captivated listeners and writers/artists to mimic, to reach in the way she reached.

That aspect reflects one of the great parts of her story – her belief.  Aretha “never left the church,” as she said – she carried with her the power of gospel she got from her charismatic preacher-father. The ground that it gave her – rock-steady, you could say- is what she pushed from, pushed beyond, beyond reason, beyond words, into a zone where she could go.

The spontaneous sermon recorded in 1971’s live “Dr. Feelgood” recorded at the Fillmore West is something we could all use, right about now. “Some people worry if we’re gonna get on this bridge or that one – And haven’t even gotten to the bridge to see if we can walk across, oh yeah.” Her point: “Don’t put worry before worry gets to you.” (  It has the intimacy of all her work.

Beyond that – beyond is the word of the moment – is something much said.  It should be said over and over. Franklin’s sexuality and religiosity, her physicality and spirituality were not opposed but of the same piece. Her passion was passion. She made being a fully embodied woman godly, falling down and getting back up. She ramped up from blues to baudy to pleas to prayer in the same song, holding all those voices and letting them go and spill and be fed by an excess; she couldn’t contain them, they went where they wanted. And everyone who heard her felt and knew she had a truth. Amen.

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“Lèche-vitrine,” in French, literally means to lick windows, and seeing the smart and composed surfaces in Paris, who wouldn’t want to do just that? The phrase refers to window shopping, and it cleverly underlines the magnetism of the object and more than ever, the image. I like the “in-your-face” poster – a reminder that these signs come with a positive or negative charge.

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Ring Them Dubrovnik Bells

In the ’70s my parents had Liza Minnelli on heavy rotation, and that’s Dubrovnik first lodged in my head.  Across all that time, Dubrovnik – exotic and homely, worldly and worldweary, embedded with lessons of travel – has stayed with me.  Through all the hoops of irony and wit, I got a culture lesson which wasn’t wasted when I visited.

Here’s the set-up of “Ring them Bells”: Liza Minnelli sings of Shirley Devore who goes capital hopping looking for a husband.  Not a looker, she strikes out all over Europe – London, Madrid, Mallorca, Berlin.  Someone says, “Try Dubrovnik, dear, before you go home!”  First day  she met a guy on the beach who took her reason away.  They introduce themselves: she’s Shirl Devore, he’s Norm Saperstein.  Not only are they Jewish New Yorkers, it turns out they live next door to each other on Riverside Drive!  She had to go to borrow a thou’ and go to Yugoslavia to meet a lover next door.  It was all delivered with broadest accent and humor.

On a mission, Shirley heads straight for the guys in Dubrovnik, never talking about the beauty of the fortified city, polished stones, swimming off rocky cliffs into azure blue waters.  What does she care about sea powers like Venice that challenged it; Napoleon’s betrayal; certainly not Croatia’s Nazi collaboration!  (Shirley visited in the ‘70s; Yugoslavia was intact, so no need to think about the “War of Independence.”)  

In that way, she was somewhat like the tourists of today with their selfie sticks.  The medieval town, church, monasteries are but backdrop for their faces; at least Shirley was looking for love, they’re into self-love! 

As much as Dubrovnik was a prop for this theatrical song, I gathered from it something of the old world Jewish consciousness, at once cosmopolitan and provincial, realist and wise.  Do what you’ve gotta do, wherever you are.  Time is short.  Don’t expect too much of life – you’ll be disappointed.  Age-old Dubrovnik, worn-at-the-edges, brocade and Ottoman, seemed to share this.  Small countries, like minorities, have to keep their heads down, move cautiously while still doing what they do. 

Don’t forget – the travel changed Shirley entirely.  She had to leave home to discover what she wanted.  The wry moral of the song is: Girls, don’t stay in your apartments, step into the hall!


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Serbian Tempers

I thought it was gauche, unseemly at first to vacation on a land of recent wars. Yugoslavia fell apart, was tragic, bloody and rife with hatreds in the 90s. But if we avoided every piece of land soaked in blood, how could we move, no less travel? At the same time, every piece of land is part of some celebration, and certainly drenched in the everyday. So I was off to Belgrade.

This capital, a crossroads of many empires, is a rough mix if there ever was one. Kitschy Orientalism meets crumbling Soviet gray meets modern Balkan. With its cheap rent, good education and aesthetics, it’s also a bristlingly hip city with an all-night club scene muscular in its defiance.

Defy, defy! That’s the defining trait, and of course, everyone defies something different. Serbia is a mosaic of crazy passions. I had to invoke Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica to find a way: It’s best to neither avoid nor analyze, but give into bearers of various madnesses. Mad royalists praise their ancestors’ heroism and sue to regain their palaces. People mourn Tito’s experiments in giving health education and housing to grand and small; Orthodox Christians hate Tito for denying celebrations on their saint day.

Conspiracy theories abound: Tito died after his WWII Partisan heroism and was played by an actor for decades after!  The current press is a deep State (American) project. Serbs rule!  Boasting about food, culture, religion is a national sport. Like Jews, if you put two Serbs in a room, you have three arguments. Nationalism is dangerous, unless it’s your own.

In the rural countryside, women milk their goats, families braid their daughter’s hair by a crumbling barn. All are united by a tart dislike of the Turks until they have to go to Istanbul for sophisticated operations.

Anti-Western rhetoric is par for the course – after the 1999 NATO bombing of the city, there’s enough bitterness to go around for decades. As under Tito, Serbia tries to find a “third way,” but stays unfixed. That’s just scratching the surface of the mosaic.

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