Politics and Hirschfeld
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Politics and Hirschfeld

JCC University in Tenafly offers grown-up looks at issues, arts

This 1964 drawing shows Zero Mostel in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Note the 2 after the artist’s signature and find the two Ninas hidden in the drawing.
This 1964 drawing shows Zero Mostel in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Note the 2 after the artist’s signature and find the two Ninas hidden in the drawing.

Youth being wasted on the young is the purest cliché; like most clichés, it’s a pearl-like accretion of sentiment grown around a kernel of absolute truth.

How lovely it would be to be able to go to college classes without having to worry about grades, or relationships, or the need to grow up! How wonderful to be able to go to college classes as a grown-up, using adult analytic skills and a lifetime of experience as tools as you explore history, literature, and science.

The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly can’t quite offer an entire college experience, but it can — and does — run what it calls JCC University, daytime classes taught by experts in their fields, mainly academics, with the assumption that its students are adults, they’re smart, they’re well-educated, and they are there to indulge long-held curiosity and to learn.

The university is four daytime sessions, running on Thursdays from October 1 to October 29. The first day will feature talks by Dr. Ronald Brown, who will examine the “president-making industry,” as he calls it, from his unique position as an expert in political science, religion, and their entanglement, and from David Leopold, whose many credentials include the curatorship of the exhibit on the artist Al Hirschfeld now at the New-York Historical Society, and whose discussion will focus on Hirschfeld’s astoundingly long and multifaceted career.

Dr. Brown, who now teaches at Touro College in Manhattan, will open the program with his 10:45 talk. He plans “to show how political campaigns are really a window into American society,” and how that window is opened to us every four years.

“A bit of historical background,” he said. “Andrew Jackson, the father of the Democratic party — the party of the masses, rather than the elites of Boston and Virginia, the ultra-rich — was the first baby kisser. He was the first president who represented regular people, and he realized that Irish immigrants, German immigrants, farmers in the Midwest could affect who took the White House. He was the first one to recognize that we were entering a new age.”

Dr. Ronald Brown will look at the role of technology in presidential campaigns.
Dr. Ronald Brown will look at the role of technology in presidential campaigns.

He focuses on the role of technology — “You can imagine the importance of Abraham Lincoln becoming president a the same time as the first use of photography,” he said. That meant that visual images took on a new importance. So “when a little girl said ‘You would look so much more handsome if you grew a beard,’ he grew a beard.

“And then there was railroads, and telegraphs, then radio, and television,” he continued. “JFK’s use of television — a handsome man with a gloriously beautiful wife and adorable children, whom he used to their fullest. He mastered television in a way that no other president had done before.

“And then Johnson, who was not photogenic,” Dr. Brown said; of course, the images of body bags aired on network television news broadcasts didn’t help LBJ either.

“And now you have the Internet, and websites, and Twitter,” Dr. Brown added. Each new technology changed the art of campaigning.

The 2016 presidential campaign already has presented us with new situations. Hillary Clinton is running for a second time to become the first woman president — “How does she present herself? Does she sound confident?” — and now a not-so-new-by-now technology has brought up a brand-new set of problems. “This is the first time that emails have become a major campaign issue,” Dr. Brown said. “It can sink her candidacy if she does not handle it right.

“And you are dealing with a very delicate thing, public awareness. People watch debates closely, but not so much for content.” Instead, they soak up images and impressions. “You see it now with Donald Trump. He doesn’t really address issues, but he is captivating because he has such a quick response to everything. You can ask him a question and he will have a response that will demolish the competition.

“Even his hairstyle! This is the first time that a candidate has made his hairdo an issue.”

Dr. Brown, who now lives in Queens, grew up Roman Catholic in Coudersport, a small farm town in northern Pennsylvania; he was one of eight children, and grew up picking potatoes and “hunting and shooting deer as a source of meat.”

He is now a “cultural Catholic,” he said, a bit ruefully; “whether the pope would consider me a good Catholic I don’t know. “My family is so big that we have everything in it, from Catholic to Pentecostals to Muslims to Jews to Hindus. We have become the perfect American family.”

In 1970, George Segal and Barbra Streisand starred in “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
In 1970, George Segal and Barbra Streisand starred in “The Owl and the Pussycat.”

But that’s jumping ahead. Dr. Brown left the farm to get a bachelor’s degree in history at Gannon University in Erie, Penn., and then went to Israel and earned a master’s degree in modern history from the Hebrew University. (Why? “I had a friend from Erie who went there to study archeology, I went over to visit her, and I just fell in love with the country. I stayed there for five years,” he said. He also became fluent in Hebrew.)

Next, Dr. Brown went to Switzerland; he lived there for seven years and earned a doctorate in international politics at the University of Geneva. During that time, “I got a scholarship to do another master’s, this one at Harvard Divinity School in world religions, so I was commuting between Geneva and Cambridge.”

Those two areas — international politics and world religions — do not seem connected, but they are, Dr. Brown said. “I am convinced that the intersection of religion and politics is what really marks modern politics. When you look at Jews and Muslims in Israel, at Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, at Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, at the revolution in Iran, at Isis — are they political or are they religious?”

He saw the connection early in his career. “I was living in Geneva back in the 70s, when the Islamic revolution happened in Iran, and I was in Israel when Begin was elected prime minister with the support of the ultra-religious Jewish right,” he said. “I saw religion and politics coming together in an explosive conversation, and I knew that this was something that must be studied. I firmly believe it is going to dominate the next 100 years.”

The intersection of religion and politics already is making itself felt in modern American life, he added. “You see it in gay marriage, in abortion, in women’s rights. The whole issue of women is the very thing that brings religion and politics together for so many religious groups.

“We really are questioning the fundamental America concept of the separation of church and state. Can church and state, religion and politics, really be separated? Or will they merge, in very explosive ways?”

This 1945 drawing of “Are Ya With It” includes the first Nina.
This 1945 drawing of “Are Ya With It” includes the first Nina.

David Leopold, who not only curated the exhibit on Al Hirschfeld but also wrote a book, “The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age,” about him, actually knew Mr. Hirschfeld. His talk is set for 1 o’clock.

Mr. Leopold called his work “The Hirschfeld Century” because the artist, who lived from 1903 to 2003, his 99 years almost exactly in synch with the twentieth century, “not only recorded but helped define the popular culture of our time,” he said.

Mr. Hirschfeld worked in a wide range of areas. “You might have known about him from the theater, or from film,” or from classic rock albums, or from dance, or from TV Guide; unless your interests were as wide-ranging as his were, you were unlikely to know that he’d worked in all of them.

To unpack — every other week for 75 years, Mr. Hirschfeld drew the caricatures of Broadway performances that made the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure section identifiable from across a room. “That was less than half of his work,” Mr. Leopold said. The figures he drew were always accurate but never mean-spirited; “they were more a slap on the back than a spit in the eye,” he added. “When he made fun of someone, it was the fun you make of a friend, not of a stranger. He was always aware of everyone’s foibles, including his own; he had empathy for his fellow man.

“He loved drawing the theater, he said, because he would take the character created by the playwright and portrayed by the actor and he would reinvent it for the reader.”

He was so valued that there is a Broadway theater named for Mr. Hirschfeld — “Kinky Boots” is playing there now.

His theater work also was valued for the game he’d include, like a prize inside a Cracker Jack box, for every reader who cared to play it. He would hide the name of his daughter, Nina, inside every drawing, and he’d put a tiny number next to his signature so readers would know how many Ninas to hunt for. Some would be fairly obvious, others demonically hidden inside curves and curls and shadings.

Mr. Hirschfeld also created movie posters. “He did five out of the six original posters for the Wizard of Oz,” Mr. Leopold said, and he also did some iconic work for the Marx Brothers.

“A gateway drawing for a lot of people was the cover to Aerosmith’s 1977 album, ‘Draw the Line,’” Mr. Leopold said. “And if you go up to Jacob’s Pillow,” the dance center in western Massachusetts, “you’ll see a Hirschfeld of Ted Shawn,” the pioneering dancer who founded it.

This self-portrait is from 1985. (Hirschfeld drawings courtesy of Al Hirschfeld Foundation)
This self-portrait is from 1985. (Hirschfeld drawings courtesy of Al Hirschfeld Foundation)

“And TV Guide — Hirschfeld did more covers for it than any other artists.”

“Mr. Hirschfeld was an unusually nice man,” Mr. Leopold continued. He’d written to the older man in 1990, “and he sent me the nicest note I had ever gotten from a stranger. He invited me to ‘quaff some tea, should I ever come to Fun City.’”

Mr. Leopold took Mr. Hirschfeld up on his offer, “and I was so pleased that we really hit it off. And then I came to realize that everyone hit it off with Al Hirschfeld. He was a great guy.”

Mr. Hirschfeld’s long life span and deep connections led to interesting and surprising stories. “Hirschfeld and his wife were in the office with Lyndon Johnson in 1965 when he got a phone call,” Mr. Leopold said. The Oval Office visit was to give Mr. Johnson a drawing Mr. Hirschfeld had done of his inauguration. “It was from Martin Luther King about what had happened at the bridge at Selma.

“The call was on speaker, so they heard the whole thing. After Johnson got off the phone, he talked to the Hirschfelds about the weight of Viet Nam. He knew whatever decisions he made would be criticized — it would be damned if you do, damned if you don’t. He cared about what it meant for the country.

“And it was so Hirschfeld, so unexpected, that it happened. And Hirschfeld was captivated. He said that he didn’t even want to take his pencil out to draw — and Hirschfeld always drew.”

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