A month of Jewish art colors Rockland

A month of Jewish art colors Rockland

From comedy to film, JCC Arts Fest has it covered

As a child, Avi Liberman was always good at making his friends laugh, and he loved that. And because he wasn’t interested in becoming a doctor or lawyer, “the only other option was comedy,” he said.

Liberman, who has performed around the United States, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel, will perform, along with other comics, for “An evening of laughter with friends” on Saturday, Oct. 27, as part of the second annual JCC Rockland’s Jewish Cultural Arts Festival.

Egon Schiele’s painting of his mistress, Walburga “Wally” Neuzil and the ensuing post-World War II legal wrangling over it, is the subject of one of the festival’s film offerings.

The festival began last year as an expansion of the JCC’s book festival, which ran for seven years. The ideas is to bring a variety of artists, authors, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, performers and comedians, all with a Jewish twist, to Rockland from Friday, Oct. 5 to Sunday, Oct. 28. Prices range from $8 to $18 per person for the festival’s 12 events.

The change from books to a more general considering of “the arts” was a step in broadening the scope in hopes of reaching a wider audience, according to Micki Leader, who along with her husband, Jim, and Leader & Bearkon, LLP, are the festival sponsors.

Lori Mellon, JCC’s director of special projects, said that last year’s festival was a huge success.

A night of comedy: Comic Avi Liberman, left, will perform stand-up along with several other comics, including Alex Barnett, pictured with his wife and child, the source of much stand-up comedy material.

“Several of the shows sold out and people seemed really pleased with the variety of programs and their prices. It’s something that appeals to all ages,” said Mellon.

The festival opens at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 5 with Ben G. Frank presenting his latest book, “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond.”

As a journalist and author, Frank observed Jews in 88 countries celebrate the holidays and Shabbat. Bring a lunch and listen to his story. A book signing follows, along with coffee and dessert.

Violinists capture the spotlight during the festival, with David Podles performing and the film, “God’s Fiddler” about Jascha Heifitz, receiving a screening.

An opening ceremony will be at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 11 at Rockland Community College, followed by a showing of the film “Portrait of Wally,” an official selection of the Tribeca Film Festival 2012.

For 13 years, the painting “Portrait of Wally,” Egon Schiele’s depiction of his mistress, Walburga “Wally” Neuzil, was locked up in New York and entangled in legal battles between the Austrian museum and the Jewish family it was taken from by the Nazis in 1939. The film, which tracks the history of the painting from start to present day, will be followed by a talk from Sharon Cohen Levin, the prosecuting attorney in the case.

The only other film presented in this festival is “Jascha Heifetz, God’s Fiddler,” a well-reviewed documentary about the legendary violinist. Director Peter Rosen will speak after the film.

Heifetz is held by musicians and fans alike in awestruck esteem. Itzhak Perlman, no amateur when it comes to the violin, said after speaking with Heifetz, “I can’t believe I’m talking with God.”

The film shows performances and interviews with the great violinists of his generation and his students.

The other musical experiences during the festival include performances by violinist David Podles on Sunday, Oct. 14 at 1:30 p.m. and composer Daniel Cainer on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 3 p.m.

Podles, who began playing at age 7 in Latvia, is an international concert violinist who focuses on the classical composers of the past. On the other hand, Cainer, a songwriter, storyteller and performer, tells a unique collection of stories through piano and guitar. His modern songs tell stories of cocaine-addicted rabbis, Israel and Palestine conflicts, and entertaining tales of his own parents.

On a more somber note, Israeli photojournalist Gil Cohen-Magen returns to Rockland for a presentation of “Shooting Under Fire,” where he will share the challenges he faced while working as a photographer at the news agency Reuters, which is often perceived of as being pro-Palestinian.

Cohen-Magen was the first Israeli to work for Reuters. After 10 years working there, he now hopes to connect the community in Rockland with “what is going on in Israel and clarify the role of the Israeli and foreign media in shaping Israel’s image to the world,” he said. Cohen-Magen came to JCC Rockland earlier this year for a very successful presentation of his “Hassidic Courts,” a book that provided a rare photographic glimpse into the insular lives of Israel’s chasidim.

Using examples of his photography during his discussion on Monday, Oct. 15 at 7:30 p.m, Cohen-Magen will discuss what goes into the decision-making process for the photographer and the news organization. He will address questions surrounding reporting, ethics what makes pictures sell and how these factors into his own work, he said.

Prior to Cohen-Magen, Reuters’ reporters in Israel were Palestinian and European. By joining the agency he brought coverage of the Israeli side of the story to the agency.

Also addressing the Israel-Palestinian conflict is Ibrahim Miari with his semi-autobiographical one man show “In Between” on Saturday, Oct. 13. [see related story on page 19.]

Miari deals with the conflicts that come from having a Palestinian Muslim father and Jewish Israeli mother. Meanwhile, American artist and eco-feminist Helene Aylon discusses her own paradox on Thursday, Oct. 25 – what it was like growing up in Orthodox Boro Park but leaving to pursue her passions in art upon discovering feminism.

Aylon’s memoir “Whatever is Contained Must Be Released” shares her journey from childhood in 1930s Brooklyn to a career as an artist pursuing big concepts such as feminism, the body, the earth, God, the Old Testament, the foremothers, and civilization

Aylon grew up in Boro Park. There, her entire life was contained in five blocks – 12th Avenue and 51st Street to 16th Avenue and 46th Street – and everyone was Orthodox. She details her journey toward feminism, and through each of her art projects where she has focused a decade on each subject.

She has spent her career as a multimedia artist. “I deal with everything according to what it lends itself to,” she said. “Some things lend themselves to photography, to sculptures, to paintings…”

During the 1970s, she focused on process art, where the focus is not the end product, and on the body. Her best-known work during that time includes “Paintings That Change in Time” and “The Breakings.” In the 80s, her art was about anti-nuclear art and her project “The Earth Ambulance,” where she gathered soil from Strategic Air Command nuclear bases across the country into pillowcases. In the 1990s and 2000s, her focus was on “The G-d Project: Nine Houses Without Women,” where she took the Old Testament and Jewish teachings and confronted gender inequality and forgotten foremothers.

For Aylon, once she found feminism, “you can never go back. Once it clicks, you can never unclick it.”At the same time that she “was running away from the Orthodoxy, but nostalgic at the same time… as it is in my DNA,” she said in a recent phone interview.

“It’s not black and white,” said Aylon. “I see the beauty and memories and singing. But at the same time I know I can’t go back [to Orthodoxy] because I’m searching for universality.”

In her book, she said, she tries to make sense of all these contradictions. “I’m on a treadmill and I’m running away and toward it at the same time.”

Contradictions like the ones Aylon describes are sometimes the best material for Jewish comics like Liberman, who will perform with Adam Oilensis, a longtime Rockland resident and the emcee for the evening, as well as with Alex Barnett and Marion Grodin.

Although Liberman lives in Los Angeles, he mostly enjoys making fun of L.A.’s quirky culture. And at heart, he is a Zionist Jew. He grew up in Houston, but was born in Israel and throughout his youth attended camp Young Judaea.

His parents sent him to an Orthodox Jewish day school, where he learned to do dead-on impressions of all his rabbis, but their home practice was mostly in line with Conservative observance, he said. It was in college at SUNY Binghamton where he became more observant and to this day keeps Shabbat. “I enjoy having that one day out of the week to recuperate and not deal with work,” Liberman said.

Liberman arranges a biannual widely acclaimed stand-up comedy tour in Israel called “Comedy for Koby,” where all proceeds benefit the Koby Mandell Foundation.

The benefits, aside from the monetary ones, are two-fold. It brings top comedians and much needed laughter to Israel. And the comics “get a chance to see Israel for what it is, instead of the way it’s portrayed in the media and frequently come back with new material,” he said.

Liberman prides himself on being one of the comics who doesn’t have to rely on dirty humor to get a laugh and, as a result, is frequently asked to perform at Jewish events. He draws mostly on life experiences for his jokes, “…jobs, travels, especially being Jewish.”

Barnett, another comic appearing that night, uses his family life for much of his material. He describes himself as a typical, short, scrawny Jewish guy living in New York. Naturally, he picks on himself for many of his laughs. Add his African-American wife (who converted to Judaism) and biracial baby boy into the mix, and he’s got his jokes set.

A lawyer turned comic, Barnett is part of the breakout comedy group Comedians at Law.

In addition to law jokes he enjoys discussing some of the Jewish traditions and the “outs” he creates.

Barnett jokes about how hard it is to keep Shabbat, the day of rest, while raising a one-year-old baby, since it is “really hard work.” But, Barnett said, “they say if you love what you do, it’s not work.” In addition, he has invented kosher shrimp. Shellfish isn’t kosher, “but shrimp isn’t in a shell, it’s more of a wrapper,” so it’s okay, right?

For a complete schedule of programs see the calendar on page 20 or visit www.jccrockland.org to purchase tickets. Call (845) 362-4400 for more information.