Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture
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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News November 2006

November 6, 2006

JEWISH HUMANITIES IN THE MEMORIAL FOUNDATION

I should like to focus in this report on one facet of the Foundation's work, little known but exceedingly vital to contemporary Jewish culture. It deals in what I would classify as the Jewish Humanities, here narrowly defined as Literature, Poetry, Music, the Visual Arts, Photography and Film.

The core of the Foundation's mandate at its inception in 1965 was to raise up a new generation of the cultural elite for the Jewish people to replace the one that was decimated in the Shoah. The conventional perception is that the Foundation has focused since that time solely on scholars and scholarship, mostly, but not entirely, connected with what I call hard core Judaica - Jewish History, the Hebrew and Yiddish Languages, Jewish Philosophy and Thought, the Bible and Talmud and Rabbinic Literature. This certainly has been one of the major undertakings of the Foundation.

The more than 13,000 grants that the Foundation has awarded to individuals and the 4,000 to institutions since 1965 have indeed helped successfully re-people and re-invigorate the above academic and other scholarly disciplines as they relate to Jewish culture. Given the limited resources available to the Foundation, this focus is emminently justified, as it enabled the Foundation to achieve its aim of developing a critical mass of scholars requisite for the cultural reconstruction of the Jewish people after the Shoah.

Our success in this area is partially reflected in the more than thirty scholars who received the Israel Prize, the most distinguished honor in Jewish life today, who were identified and supported by the Foundation early in their careers.

All throughout the Foundation's history, however, we have also supported, albeit to a lesser degree, individuals (and institutions) engaged in the Jewish Humanities, as defined above. Our work and success in this area has been less visible. Yet a growing proportion of the scholarship and fellowship grants we award are fostering creativity in the Jewish Humanities, an area which is becoming increasingly more significant in contemporary Jewish life.

In this report, I will deal with several extraordinary examples of the work we have supported in the past in the field of Literature, Poetry and Music, with very impressive results. Future reports will hopefully deal with the visual arts, photography and film.

 

LITERATURE & POETRY

Aharon Appelfeld is probably one of the best, and most well known Jewish writers in the world today. In his marvelous memoir, "The Story of a Life" published in 2004, Appelfeld describes in a very moving way the first steps in the evolution of his literary career and the difficulties he encountered as a child Holocaust survivor trying to establish his identity in Israel.

Notably absent at the beginning of his career were moral and material support. His first literary works were poems published in newspapers in 1954 and 1955 and his first story appeared in 1959 in the journal Gazit. In the early stages of his career, Appelfeld received two Fellowship grants, in 1972 and 1973, to enable him to pursue his literary aspirations.

Today as the author of more than 20 acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction, he is considered not only one of the foremost authors writing in the Hebrew language, but one of the world's greatest Jewish writers. He was awarded the Israel Prize in Literature in 1983. But he has received international acclaim as well, receiving the prestigious Medici Prize in France in 2004 and the title of "Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres" from the French government in 2005. That year he also won the Nelly Sachs Prize in Germany. It is well known that he has been for several years on the list of potential Nobel Prize winners for Literature.

We had the pleasure of hosting Mr. Appelfeld at the 10th Nahum Goldmann Fellowship in Glamsta, Sweden in 2001. At that seminar he bonded deeply with the close to forty young Jewish leaders from all over the world, sharing with them in a deeply emotional way his quest as a child survivor to find the words and language to share the meaning of his experience and the use of literature as a vehicle to probe the depths of the Shoah.

Abba Kovner, who organized Jewish resistance in the forests of Vilna during World War II where he commanded the United Partisan Organization, which engaged in sabotage and guerilla attacks against the Nazis, immigrated to Israel in 1945. Kovner's experiences during World War II largely influenced his writing throughout his career. He wrote his first collection of poetry in 1947 while imprisoned by the British.

The Memorial Foundation initiated his magnum opus, Megillat Ha-Edut (The Scroll of Testimony) in 1981. Kovner intended this work to serve as an almost liturgical account of the Holocaust. Written in the Jewish tradition of megillot, or scrolls, the pages follow the format of the Talmud, with the central text surrounded by notes and excerpts in poetry and prose. As such, the scrolls appear as a sacred text, with Kovner providing his own commentaries. In this gemara-like format, Kovner inserts siddur-like structures, characteristics of the Pesach haggadah, the chanting of the weekly Torah portion and the mournful recitation of the Scroll of Lamentations, all at once.

Kovner worked on The Scroll of Testimony until his death. It is today regarded as one of the great masterpieces of Holocaust literature and a modern Jewish classic.

Chaim Grade, a Holocaust survivor who lost both his mother and wife in the Holocaust before escaping Vilna, relocated to the United States in 1948 after living again briefly in Vilna and subsequently in Russia and France. Pre-invasion Vilna, with its incredibly vital and vivid Jewish life, was the focus of many of Grade's writings. He received two fellowships in 1966 and 1972 for his writings and the dissemination of his work dealing with the philosophical and ethical dilemmas of Jewish life in pre-war Lithuania, with special attention to the Novaardik Mussar Movement to which he was exposed as a yeshiva student.

Chaim Grade was one of the leading writers of Yiddish prose and poetry during the 20th century and unquestionably one of the most respected figures. Indeed, when Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1978, there was considerable protest that Grade should have been the more appropriate recipient.

T. Carmi, who immigrated to Israel from New York in 1947, was one of the foremost poets of the first generation of Israeli writers. His verse, influenced by contemporary American poetry, used a variety of Hebrew idioms, from Biblical and Classic Hebrew texts to modern Israel slang. He received grants in the 70's and 80's for his own work, and an anthology of Hebrew poetry, the now classic Penguin Book of Hebrew verse, a bi-lingual anthology of Hebrew verse from the Bible to the present. Carmi was awarded the Bialik Prize, among other distinguished literary awards.

Aharon Megged, a prototype of the generation of writers associated with the 1948 War of Independence in Israel, reflected in his work the changing face of Israel. The fellowship grant that he received from the Foundation in 1984, however, was for his volume, "Children of Selvino," which dealt with the Holocaust.

Megged, who served as President of the Israeli Center of P.E.N. from 1980 to 1987, was the recipient of the Israeli Prize in 2003 and other prestigious literary awards, including the Bialik, Brenner, and Agnon Prizes.

Shin Shalom, who immigrated to Israel in 1922 from Poland and served for many years as President of the Hebrew Writers Association, received grants from the Foundation in 1976 and 1986 to publish volumes of his poetry. He, like Appelfeld, was awarded the Israel Prize in Literature and before his death was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

MUSIC

Steve Reich, the American composer, is one of the most important musicologists of our time. Reich's recent 70th birthday was widely celebrated in the American musical world. He was described by the Guardian of London as one of the few composers who has "altered the direction of musical history". The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has observed "that Reich has given contemporary music back its elemental joy".

Reich started drumming at the age of 14. During the '70's, he became interested in West African and South East Asian drumming. His composition "Drumming" in 1971, growing out of his visit to Ghana, and his "Music for 18 Musicians" based on Balinese music, marked an important stage in Reich's career and helped him achieve international acclaim.

In the 1980's, having studied and absorbed the music of West Africa and Southeast Asia, Reich recognized that there was another ancient ethnic musical tradition of greater personal importance to him. He began to explore his roots through the intensive study of Hebrew and the teachings and music of Judaism. As a Levite, Reich felt it was especially fitting for him to fulfill their historical role of singing the Holy text. With the help of a fellowship from the Foundation in 1981, he composed "Tehillim" (Psalms), a musical composition of portions of four psalms.

According to Peter Gutmann, the noted music critic, "Tehillim" was a personal watershed for Reich - "an inspired creation that is at once uplifting, affirmative and conveys the sheer joy of musical expression, and "invites all its listeners into the world of reverence that has lain at the very heart of religious expression since the dawn of mankind."

Reich followed this composition with "Different Trains", a work that compares similar types of transportation - the transcontinental trains that shuttled him between his divorced parents in New York and California throughout his sheltered childhood, and those that crossed Europe at the same time to carry Holocaust victims to their doom. The materials are spare - voices, train whistles, sirens and a string quartet, but it packs a devastating emotional impact.

Guttman contends that "Different Trains" is nearly unique among Holocaust-inspired art - there are no heroes or villains, no soaring tribute to the triumph of the human spirit, but only a stony invitation to reflect.

The Foundation is proud to have played a modest role in the evolution of Reich's work to embrace his Jewish background, which has now become part of the musical culture of Western civilization.

* * * * * * * * *

We believe that this very select list of past recipients of grants in the Jewish Humanities is a hopeful harbinger for the young men and women we are now awarding grants in these fields.

May the number of writers, composers, artists and others in the Jewish Humanities that we support continue to grow in the years ahead, hopefully raising up the next generation of Appelfelds and Reichs.

Warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President