As a longtime admirer of Tim Gierschick's art, I was flattered and excited when he invited me to write an essay in conjunction with his exhibition Patch and Plot (see tigerstrikesasteroid.com). Tim happens to be a practicing Mennonite of Pennsylvania-German descent. I have a strong personal and academic interest in the encounter between Pennsylvania Germans and Yiddish- and German-speaking Ashkenazi Jews in from the late-eighteenth through early-twentieth centuries. Tim's work Golem (2009; courtesy and copyright of the artist), illustrated here and discussed in this essay, is a most unexpected and unusual latter-day manifestation of this encounter.

 

    Thumbnail image for Gierschick Golem ver 1 11-12-09.JPGA picture may be worth a thousand words, but a symbol--the product of rigorous forethought and an ever-streamlining design process--conveys just a handful of essential words. A car with squiggly lines below it warns of slippery road ahead. A heart-shape says "I love you." Although like written language, a well-conceived symbol is more immediate, eye-catching, and universally understood. Each of Timothy Gierschick's creations contains at least one motif boldly presented in solid, carefully delineated, and vibrantly colored lines and shapes. Emphatically frontal and flat, they remind us that we are, as Gierschick says, "encountering a symbol." But Gierschick's motifs and tropes, unlike symbols, are not so definitively read. They take each of us, in Gierschick's words, "into a different place by different means, depending on our personal inclinations and needs."

 

Gierschick's paintings, drawings, and sculpture are purely abstract (although Gierschick, like Ellsworth Kelly, often finds inspiration for abstraction in the observed world). Yet they encourage symbolic reading, tickling our consciousness, cognition, and memory with the sense of something familiar but just past the reach of our ability to remember or understand. They, as Gierschick says, "impart a sense of reality beyond our immediacy."

 

These symbol-like motifs are distant kin, but not necessarily akin, to the hex-signs and quilting patterns of Gierschick's Pennsylvania-German heritage; to highway signs with their thick, arrow-headed lines indicating curving or merging roads; or the seemingly endless proliferation of smiling, winking, and frowning emoticons of digital culture. Gierschick's retinal delights capture our attention and engage our minds. They beckon our will to interpret, to discern meaning. They are luminous in palette and lucid in composition. They hold for us the promise of revelation--or, in Gierschick's words, "a quiet revolution." 

 

The heart-shape, with its pair of symmetrical soaring swells atop a downward-pointing triangle, is a recurring motif in Gierschick's work, albeit one he typically alters through intent or intuition. What is at the heart of Gierschick's sensibility, what is the manifesto of his quiet revolution? Tim would likely protest that a quiet revolution requires no manifesto. I respect this (anticipated) protest, but offer these thoughts. In form, he is aiming for--and reaching--a sense of purity, timelessness, and universality that is the essence of his conception and experience of the spiritual. As for content, I venture that the core of every Gierschick creation is an exhortation to collective and individual human decency, to awareness of self, others, and the world we share--to lead a life well examined and well lived.

 

Gierschick's art is positive, optimistic, and ambitious--it patches and plots, it aims to revitalize, to repair, to heal. To wit: Gierschick often paints on found wooden objects, bringing new life to demolished homes and discarded furniture--the settings and furnishings of our lives. And there's wit: Gierschick creates drawings on unfolded take-out containers for Chinese food. In doing so, he transforms--with a wink and sly smile, but always with purpose--a humble, mass-produced piece of packaging, meant to be used once and then discarded, into a unique and persisting work of art.

 

Earlier this fall, Tim Gierschick led a class titled "Investigating Art and the Spiritual" at the Barnes Foundation. Most of the words quoted in the paragraphs above were written by Gierschick about other artists--but they are true equally of the author and his own art. Following on these matters of spirit, Gierschick has introduced a Golem into the confines of Tiger Strikes Asteroid. In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated being created from inanimate matter. According to tradition, golems are brought into and out of action--in and out of existence--by words, the expressions of thought. The symbol-like central figure in Gierschick's Golem is built from his characteristically manipulated heart-shapes. It is painted atop pages from a Hebrew School primer. Not intelligible to most viewers, the Hebrew letters are abstractions that tease us, for we know they are meant to communicate something. And so they will--and so will all of Gierschick's Patch and Plot, in each case "depending on our personal inclinations and needs." Perhaps all successful art is like the golem: material brought to life by thought. In that spirit, we begin our experience of Patch and Plot with Gierschick's words and thoughts about his own art, statements that are as incantatory as they are illuminating.

 

Shape is important, but edges

even more so.

Colors are important, but their relationships

even more so.

Ideas are important, but their execution

even more so.

Answers are important, but the questions

even more so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Driving_Miss_Daisy_.jpg

Closely based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Alfred Uhry, Driving Miss Daisy (for which Mr. Uhry wrote the screenplay) was released in January 1990. Set in mid-twentieth-century Atlanta, Driving Miss Daisy stars Jessica Tandy as Daisy Werthan, an elderly Jewish-American widow who has lost her ability to drive, and Morgan Freeman as Hoke Coleburn, an aging (although younger than Daisy), illiterate, and unemployed African-American man hired as Daisy's chauffeur. Driving Miss Daisy takes place between 1948 and 1972, the golden age of African-American and Jewish-American individuals and groups working in close partnership in support of civil rights. Over the course of nearly twenty-five years, an improbable, slow-building, yet deep and affectionate friendship grows between the obliging and patient Hoke (a role that veers uncomfortably close to the "good negro" or "Uncle Tom") and the feisty and suspicious Daisy. Early in the film, both Daisy and Hoke betray some bigotry or prejudice toward the group represented by the other. Ultimately, however, Driving Miss Daisy reminds us that, while they represent different races, religions, classes, and genders--and, in perhaps the greatest obstacle to true friendship, are employer and employee--Hoke and Daisy share, to varying degrees, the status of "other" or "outsider" in the context of mainstream American society.

 

The Hollywood film community doubted the popular appeal of a film whose protagonists were an old African-American man and Jewish-American woman and the focus of which was a highly personal, character-based exploration of the somewhat obscure (albeit historically rich) subject of Black-Jewish relations in the American South of the not-too-distant past. Indeed, lack of available financing required producers The Zanuck Company to pare the film's budget from $12.5 to $7.5 million. Despite absence of support in the film's formative stages, Driving Miss Daisy was a popular and critical triumph. It earned more than $70 million in its initial distribution (Turner 1991, 344-5) and was nominated for nine Academy Awards. It received Oscars for "Best Actress in a Leading Role" (Jessica Tandy); "Best Picture" (Richard D. Zanuck); and "Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium" (Alfred Uhry; Driving Miss Daisy also received an Oscar for "Best Makeup"). Morgan Freeman was nominated for "Best Actor in a Leading Role." Dan Aykroyd, who played Daisy's devoted and gently decisive son Boolie (whose good-nature, humor, and generosity distract from the specter of white-male privilege represented by his character), was nominated for "Best Actor in a Supporting Role."

 

Uhry Alfred.jpg 

Alfred Uhry (born 1936; pictured above) and the The Zanuck Company were extraordinarily successful in writing and producing, respectively, a most unusual Jewish-American film--one set wholly in the American South, far from New York City and its hegemonic associations with American Jewishness. As noted by Eliza R. L. McGraw in Two Covenants: Representations of Southern Jewishness, Driving Miss Daisy "...made American moviegoers aware of the ongoing presence of southern Jewishness" and "Miss Daisy...remains the prototypical cinematic representation of a southern Jew" (McGraw 2005, 113). Moreover, Uhry and The Zanuck Company created a film of universal appeal. In a review of Driving Miss Daisy that ran in Time Magazine on December 18, 1989, Richard Schickel wrote, "Alfred Uhry's adaptation of his Pulitzer-prizewinning play aspires more to complex observation of human behavior than to simple moralism about it. Precisely because it has its priorities straight, it succeeds superbly on both levels." I respect Mr. Schickel's assessment and the decisions made by Mr. Uhry in shaping a coherent--and broadly resonant--narrative. As Eliza McGraw states, however, Driving Miss Daisy is based firmly in history, yet--unless made aware of this fact through other means--one may view the film and remain unaware of its concrete historical context.

 

Alfred Uhry and the character he created, Daisy Werthan, are members of a German-Jewish community in Atlanta dating to the 1840s. The story may be apocryphal, but it is widely believed that the first Caucasian baby born in Atlanta was Jewish (Greene 1996, 64). Although this community was extremely assimilated by the mid-twentieth century, circumstances prevalent across American society and others specific to Georgia and Atlanta kept them largely separate from the city's Anglo-Saxon elite. The first, and most widespread, among these was the wave of anti-Semitism that greeted the massive influx of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America between 1880 and 1920 and continued through World War II. A psychic scar more specific to Atlanta's Jewish community was the lynching of factory-manager Leo Frank (1884-1915), who was accused, tried for, and convicted of murdering a young girl who worked in the factory he managed. As evidence mounted pointing to Frank's innocence, a mob stormed the prison in which he was held and lynched him; Frank holds the distinction of being the only white man lynched in the United States. Within the era explored in Driving Miss Daisy, the Rosenberg espionage trial in 1953 cast a pall over all of American Jewry.

 

Pivotal in Driving Miss Daisy--the scene that most firmly underscores the shared, although unequal and quite differently experienced, "otherness" of African-Americans and Jewish-Americans--takes place while Hoke is attempting to drive Daisy to synagogue, or temple. Stuck in traffic, Hoke learns that the jam has been caused by the bombing of Daisy's (and Uhry's) venerable and socially prominent synagogue--which is a real entity colloquially known in Atlanta as The Temple. Daisy asks Hoke if he knows who is responsible, to which Hoke replies, "You know good as me, Miss Daisy, it always be the same ones," referring to the racists and anti-Semites responsible for a wave of terroristic bombings that swept the South in the mid to late 1950s.  Melissa Fay Greene writes in The Temple Bombing (1996),

 

From May 17, 1954--the day the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that states could not lawfully separate children by race--until the end of the 1950s, hundreds of homes, schools, and houses of worship across the South exploded. Homemade bombs, bunches of dynamite, and suitcases filled with gunpowder killed and injured scores of people and demolished millions of dollars of property (Greene 1996, 4).

 

Even in this context of generalized threat and intimidation, the bombing of The Temple was not random. Jacob Rothschild (1911-1973), who served The Temple as its rabbi from 1946 until the time of his death, preached and acted tirelessly--some might say obsessively--in support of African-American civil rights. A history of The Temple posted on its website (www.the-temple.org) reads "Because of the late Rabbi Jacob Rothschild's insistence on racial integration, The Temple was bombed on October 12, 1958 at 3:37 a.m. Fifty sticks of dynamite blew open the northern side of the building." The wording of this sentence makes clear that the fight for African-American civil rights was primarily Rabbi Rothschild's cause rather than that of the majority of The Temple's congregants, who perceived active, public support for African-American civil rights amid a larger society opposed to such rights as a threat to their own economic and social well-being. Yet those congregants implicitly endorsed Rothschild's efforts by maintaining him in The Temple's pulpit. 

 

Driving Miss Daisy begins in the years following World War II and the Holocaust, in which Jews were made German society's ultimate Other and subjected to genocide. It may surprise some to learn that, throughout much of the nineteenth century in the United States, those of Irish, Italian, Southern and Eastern European, and Jewish heritage were considered non-white or somewhat less-than-white by many in the Anglo-Saxon mainstream (Brodkin 1998, 27). These groups gradually achieved "whiteness" as they assimilated. Ultimately, or so it may and has been argued, these groups "became white" because America had its own ultimate Others--African Americans, who were first subject to slavery and later to rampant, brutal, and legally sanctioned discrimination. Watching Driving Miss Daisy, we sense that Hoke enters the narrative with this knowledge, while Daisy--secure in her position of relative privilege and comfortable in her Jewish identity--learns it along the way.

 

Rabbi Jacob Rothschild is not a character in the film. One hesitates to lionize a champion of the oppressed when the oppressed themselves are better able to testify to their own suffering and struggles and are to be lauded for surviving and even achieving in the face of the most obstinate and venal challenges. It may be for this very reason that Uhry does not mention Rothschild in the film. Yet, when we remember and consider Rabbi Rothschild, his passionate commitment to the cause of equal rights for African-Americans, and his centrality to the Atlanta community of which Daisy, in particular, is part, we sense him as both witness to and catalyst for Driving Miss Daisy's story of interracial understanding, reconciliation, and friendship.

 

References

Brodkin, Karen 1998. How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press

 

Greene, Melissa Faye 1996. The Temple Bombing. New York: Random House

 

McGraw, Eliza R. L. 2005. Two Covenants: Representations of Southern Jewishness. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press

 

Turner, Patricia A. 1991. "From Homer to Hoke: A Small Step for African American Mankind," in The Journal of Negro Education. Washington, D.C.: Howard University

 

Related reading

Benshoff, Harry M. and Griffin, Sean 2009 (second edition). American on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell

 

Mason, Angela J. and Viator, Timothy J. 1994. "Driving Miss Daisy: A Sociosemiotic Analysis," in The Southern Quarterly. Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University

The German-Jewish Wimpel: Wrapped Wishes, Nearly Forgotten

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wimpel center.JPG

 

A wimpel is a long, narrow sash--typically seven inches high and at least seven feet long--most often made in linen and used to bind the scrolls of the Torah. Traditionally, wimpels were made from the cloth used to swaddle a baby boy during the Jewish covenantal ceremony of circumcision (called brit milah in Hebrew and commonly referred to as a bris). After the ceremony, the cloth was cleaned and cut into strips that were sewn together to make the sash, which then was then decorated with elaborate needlework or paint. This decoration included a Hebrew inscription based on the following formula: "May God bless this young boy [child's name], son of [father's name], born under the good star on the day of [day of the month] in [month] in [year]. May God raise him to a life of Torah, chuppah [wedding canopy], and good deeds. Amen." Traditional decorative motifs for wimpels included birds and other animals, images of bride and groom, and the Torah scroll.

 


Torah scroll.JPG                                       Torah scroll and yad (pointer)
                            The Leon J. and Julia S. Obermayer Collection
                               Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia
                                            Photo: Carol Perloff
 

 

Wimpels originated as a German-Jewish ritual object, although Italian Jews developed a closely related form called a mappa. In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries (the period to which most surviving wimpels date), completed wimpels were stored at the local synagogue, thereby serving as a census of the congregation. An individual boy's wimpel was used to bind the Torah scroll during his bar mitzvah ceremony (which marks the coming of age in Jewish religious life) at age 13. The wimpel was also incorporated into the chuppah used during Jewish marriage ceremonies. In this way, the wimpel followed the individual for whom it was made through three life-cycle events: birth, coming of age, and marriage (with the implication that this marriage will produce children, and the cycle will begin anew). Wimpels were material representations of a family's hopes and dreams for their child, the new life they have brought into the world, a life bound to the study of Torah, ethical behavior, and the continuation of the Jewish community.

 

Jewish ceremonial objects have been remarkable in their continuity and persistence. Menorahs; mezuzahs; Sabbath lamps and candlesticks; finials, crowns, and breastplates for the decoration of the Torah scroll; the pointer, or yad, used while reading the Torah--among numerous other ritual forms--have been constant and consistent elements of Jewish religious life for centuries, even millennia. The wimpel, however, fell out of common use beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. It remains a rather obscure form today, although the most recent decades have seen a tentative, slow-building revival of interest in the wimpel.  

 

Why did the wimpel nearly disappear? Germany (or, more accurately, German-speaking states and principalities--Germany was unified into a single nation in 1871) was the leading center for Jewish enlightenment and commitment to modernization and assimilation into the broader society from the late-eighteenth-century until the decimation of German Jewry in the Holocaust. German-Jewish efforts toward modernization produced and were embodied in Reform Judaism, which emphasized ethical behavior over ritual and whose rabbis applied contemporary modes of critical scholarship to the study of Torah. Some 250,000 German Jews immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century, bringing with them the ideal and ideas of Reform. Among numerous innovations large and small, Reform Judaism rejected kashrut (ritual laws pertaining to food); promoted "vernacular" language (German or English) over Hebrew as the language of prayer; and understood and disseminated the idea of Judaism as a religion (for example, it became common for German Jews to describe themselves as "Germans of the Mosaic persuasion") rather than the beliefs and practices of one specific people, a people previously discussed in racial and national terms.

 

For these reasons, Reform Judaism was a perfect and preferred fit for the United States' German-dominated Jewish community in the nineteenth century. A small but vocal faction of Reform rabbis and lay leaders questioned the necessity and appropriateness of circumcision; individual bar mitzvah ceremonies for 13-year-old boys were replaced with group confirmations for boys and girls at the age of 15 or 16; and the chuppah no longer graced wedding ceremonies in many or most American Reform temples. These changes in the understanding and practice of ritual rendered the wimpel obsolete.

 

Philadelphia's Reform Congregation Rodeph Shalom, of which I am a member, holds the distinction of being the oldest Ashkenazi congregation in the Western hemisphere. Ashkenaz is the Hebrew name for Germany, and Ashkenazim are the Yiddish and German speaking Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Rodeph Shalom dates its founding to the establishment of a minyan (prayer group, or more specifically, the quorum of ten men required by Orthodox Judaism for public prayer and chanting Torah) in 1795. The congregation was incorporated officially in 1802 as the "German Hebrew Society Rodeph Shalom." In highlighting its German-ness, the new congregation distinguished itself from the city's existing congregation, Mikveh Israel, which was founded in the 1740s by--and operated according to the distinctive rites of--Sephardi Jews (Sepharad is the Hebrew name for Spain). The descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, Sephardim were the first to establish Jewish communities in what was to become the United States.

 

Despite its long history and overt German-ness, there's no extant evidence indicating that the early members of Rodeph Shalom made wimpels. What Rodeph Shalom does have, however, is several fine examples of nineteenth-century European wimpels--including the one illustrating this post--in The Leon J. and Julia S. Obermayer Collection of Jewish Ceremonial Art, which was presented to the congregation in 1985. An extensive selection of highlights from the Obermayer collection is permanently installed in the synagogue's richly decorated entry foyer.

 

With the successful assimilation of American Jews and the increased appreciation of pluralism and multiculturalism that's marked American society from the 1960s to the present, American Jews--including Reform Jews--have grown more comfortable with Jewish rituals and ritual objects. The Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit, a seminal publication first issued in 1973, promoted--in keeping with the era's youthful, countercultural sensibilities--a hands-on and informal approach to Judaism and a crafty, make-it-yourself approach to Judaica. Although most American Jews remain unaware of the wimpel, amateur and professional craftspeople are exploring the form. As part of an initiative called Synagogue 3000--a cross-denominational effort to reinvigorate and renew Jewish congregational life for the 21st century--the Conservative and Reform Jewish movements have launched The Wimpel Project (see http://www.synagogue3000.org/bindings-tie) with the goal of reviving this little-known but symbolically rich form. Typically, contemporary wimpels such as those created through The Wimpel Project are egalitarian--they are created for boys and girls, and include the names of both parents. Their inscriptions are not limited to the formulaic Hebrew prayer; their decoration ventures far beyond the bounds of traditional motifs; and they are created in celebration of a broad range of life-cycle events, from brit milah and baby-naming to bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays--any and all of life's milestone events.

 

At my synagogue, Rodeph Shalom, a group of women--inspired by the wimpels displayed in the Obermayer collection--created a wimpel in the late 1980s honoring a prominent member of the congregation by memorializing his late father and son. This coming winter, the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art (PMJA)--which is part of and housed at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, and of which I am a curator--will present Wimpel! Wrapped Wishes, an invitational exhibition featuring wimpels and wimpel-inspired art created by twelve artists of varied backgrounds (just six of the twelve artists are of Jewish heritage and only two were familiar with wimpels previously). The artists contributing to Wimpel! Wrapped Wishes were given the following creative and conceptual charge:    

 

The purpose of this exhibition is to provide a forum for artists of diverse approaches and cultural backgrounds to explore the wimpel, interpret it, create metaphors, comment, celebrate, critique, cross cultures, imagine, translate--to make it yours. Among the subjects suggested by the wimple are identity; core sensibilities, values, and worldviews, and how they are expressed and lived; parenting; gender; marriage (recognizing, in light of the society-wide debate over same-sex marriage, that this is a particularly timely topic); and more. Most essentially, we hope this will be an exhibition about the future: what do we wish for today's children? How do we express our hopes and dreams for the next generation?

 

Wimpel! Wrapped Wishes is scheduled to open at the PMJA on December 17, 2009. The artist's submissions have not yet arrived at the museum. The full import and impact of this particular chapter in the wimpel's unsteady history remains unknown. Our hopes remain in the future.

 

Illustration at top of entry

Torah Binder (detail). Germany, 1833. Undyed linen, painted. Congregation Rodeph Shalom: The Leon J. and Julia S. Obermayer Collection. Photograph: Carol Perloff

 

Translation of primary inscription: "Eliezer Lipman Rafael, son of the venerable Rabbi Yizchak Sekel, born in good luck, after the holy Sabbath, Sunday at daybreak, 17 days in the month of Kislev, 5593. May the Almighty raise him to Torah, chupah, and to good deeds. Amen."

 

References
Anndee Hochman, Rodeph Shalom: Two Centuries of Seeking Peace (Philadelphia: Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 1995)

 

Stephen S. Kayser, Jewish Ceremonial Art (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955)

 

Norman L. Kleeblatt (with contributions by Elizabeth Cats, Rabbi Alan Fuchs, Susan A. Popkin, and Joan F. Thalheimer), The Leon J. and Julia S. Obermayer Collection at Congregation Rodeph Shalom (Philadelphia: Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 1988)

 

Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, Sharon Strassfeld, The First Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973)

 

The Making of Gertrude Stein

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"It has always seemed to me a rare privilege, this, of being an American, a real American, one whose traditions it has taken scarcely sixty years to create. We need only realise our parents, remember our grandparents and know ourselves and our history is complete."
Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (p. 3)

Gertrude Stein wrote. She is best known, however, for who she was. She was a female, Jewish, gay, expatriate bohemian; an early connoisseur and collector of modern art; and a friend, confidante, muse, and intellectual sparring partner for several generations of writers, painters, and hangers-on, most famously the "Lost Generation" of Americans living in Europe after World War I. Stein is less understood, less considered, and less (in)famous for what she did.  

With a prose style distinguished by repetition, accretions, and shifting perspectives, it is not surprising that Stein composed three iterations of her first novel, The Making of Americans, between 1903 and 1911. The original version is 35 typeset pages; the final is 925. The Making of Americans was not published until 1925, a delay caused in equal measure by the war and the novel's unconventionality--what Stein scholar Leon Katz, professor emeritus at Yale University, described as a "peculiar combination of nervous vitality and stupefying inertia." Upon reading the novel in 1923, the American writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) congratulated Stein on having done "a very big thing, probably as big as, perhaps bigger than James Joyce, Marcel Proust, or Dorothy Richardson...To me, now, it is a little like the Book of Genesis. There is something Biblical about you, Gertrude." Stein, never lacking self-assurance, considered The Making of Americans a masterpiece. 

Stein studied psychology at Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins and the subject remained her overarching obsession throughout her life. Her intent in making The Making of Americans was to create a record--albeit synthesized into fiction--of her own nuclear and extended families while comprehensively dissecting and categorizing the personalities of the family's members, that of those who came into contact with the family, and--ultimately, by extension--all human types. Stein cautions the reader that The Making of Americans "is not just an ordinary kind of novel with a plot and conversations to amuse you, but a record of a decent family progress respectably lived by us and our fathers and our mothers, and our grandfathers, and grandmothers, and this is by me carefully a little each day to be written down here; and so my reader arm yourself in every kind of way to be patient" (p. 33-34).

Gertrude Stein was born in 1874 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (since incorporated into Pittsburgh). Her family was of German-Jewish descent; English was the second language of both of her parents. Indeed, English was Gertrude's third language. Before ultimately settling in Oakland, California, Stein's family lived in Vienna and Paris between 1875 and 1880--Gertrude's earliest formative years. But it was English in which her "emotions began to feel themselves." Stein remained committed to the English language and her American citizenship and identity despite living as an expatriate, primarily in Paris, from 1904 until her death in 1946. She only returned to the U.S. for a lecture tour that followed on the heels of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Stein's first popular success. Gertrude lived in Paris with her brother Leo (another brother, Michael, and his wife, Sarah, lived nearby)--and later Alice B. Toklas and Nina Auzias, the siblings' respective spouses--at 27, rue de Fleurus. The Steins held Saturday salons that drew the likes of Picasso, Duchamp, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. It was in Paris that Stein produced her own literary creations while serving as the solid and stolid (as rendered in Picasso's iconic 1906 Portrait of Gertrude Stein) center of the era's creative universe.

Gertrude Stein Alice B Toklas.JPG                           Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1934
                                            Carl Van Vechten
                  Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of John Mark Lutz, 1965 

In life, love, and labor, Stein existed literally and figuratively beyond the accepted bounds of American life. Yet her first book, written while an expatriate, took as its subject and title The Making of Americans. There is irony here, and revelation. Throughout her life and afterward, Stein was lampooned and caricatured as the quintessential non-conformist, as a dilettante and decadent, alien to mainstream American mores, values, and experience. Yet, in many ways, The Making of Americans is a paean to workaday, family centered, middle-class life. She declares in the novel, "a material middle class who know they are it, with their straightforward bond of family to control it, is the one thing always human, vital, and worthy...and from which has always sprung, and all who really look can see it, the very best the world can ever know" (p. 34).

Dismissing, at least in part, their supposed dichotomy and opposition, Stein reconciles the bourgeois and the bohemian. Speaking of the search for "singularity" among the native-born children of the prosperous and indulgent Dehning and Hersland families--the Eastern seaboard and West Coast branches, respectively, of the family complex at the center of The Making of Americans--Stein explains, "To a bourgeois mind that has within it a little of the fervor for diversity, there can be nothing more attractive than a strain of singularity that keeps well within the limits of conventional respectability a singularity that is, so to speak, well dressed and well set up" (p. 21). Stein wrote this nearly a century before David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, which was published in 2000 and introduced the term "bobo" as shorthand for "bourgeois bohemian."

Stein accumulated and pondered modern art, particularly that of the Post-Impressionists, Cubists, and Fauves. Her writing is often discussed as the literary equivalent of early Cubism's fracturing and layering of multiple perspectives of a single subject. Invested and engaged with the art of the period, and analytical as she was, Picasso and Braque's innovations must have influenced Stein's method and style. One must remember, nonetheless, that The Making of Americans was first written in 1903, while Cubism didn't emerge as such until 1907. Leon Katz argues that Stein "'settled' into her style; its originality was the inadvertent consequence of trying to describe relations and events synoptically without losing traditional narrative's feel for the thick flow of time." Thus, Stein's The Making of Americans predates and presages Cubism, modern art's first definitive break with representation. Similarly--again using 1903 as the watershed date--the sense of playful but purposeful absurdity and seeming nonsensicality of Stein's writing prefigures the similar strategies of Dadaism by 13 years. In the literary realm, The Making of Americans was written 12 years prior to that other monumental and challenging modernist opus, Ulysses by James Joyce (Joyce began Ulysses in 1915), which shares with The Making of Americans the sense of non-linear, free associative, and stream-of-consciousness writing processes.

Gertrude Stein welcomed the opportunity to have her portrait painted or photographed. Artists found endless inspiration in her visage--Picasso's portrait of her was the product of some 90 sittings. Among her contemporaries and near contemporaries, she was photographed by Alvin Langdon Coburn, George Platt Lynes, Cecil Beaton, and Man Ray, and painted by Francis Picabia along with Picasso and numerous others. Paintings by later artists including Andy Warhol, Deborah Kass, and Faith Ringgold--again, among numerous others--extend this legacy.

In the catalogue for the 2001 exhibition Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem, curator Thelma Golden defined post-black art as the work of artists who are "adamant about not being labeled 'black' artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness." Gertrude Stein was a woman, a lesbian, a Jew. Shades of theses identities can be seen in The Making of Americans. There is an abundance of strong female figures; an enigmatic reference to an "adventuress" who introduced one of the Dehning daughters to "queer vices" in finishing school; the heart-wrenching story of the paterfamilias of the Hersland family's reluctant departure from Europe--his strong-willed wife initiated the move. In a passage that resonates with the period's most devout European Jews decrying America as a treyfa medina, "an un-kosher land," Stein writes, "The father was not a man ever to do any such leading. He was a butcher by trade. He was a very gentle creature in his nature. He loved to sit and think and he loved to be important in religion" (p. 37). These literary references are subtle, but they signify. In her life, Stein and Toklas lived what would now be termed an "out" existence, at least among their inner circle. At Radcliffe, Stein wrote an extraordinary paper titled "The Modern Jew Who Has Given up the Faith of His Fathers Can Reasonably and Consistently Believe in Isolation" (with "isolation" meaning "endogamy"; it's interesting to note that Toklas shared Stein's German-Jewish heritage). But Stein was--in Golden's sense--post-Jewish, post-female, post-gay in her work. Her identities were present in but did not dominate her art, nor did she allow them to pigeonhole her. She and her art were unprecedented, original, sui generis. That is the role and goal of the artist, the contemporary artist in particular. Perhaps that is why she figures so highly in the personal pantheons of generations of artists and art-lovers.

As for The Making of Americans--it started as the inspired-by-life tale of one American family of German-Jewish origin and evolved into an all encompassing reflection on humanity. The Making of Americans represents the American synthesis. The Dehnings and Herslands'--i.e., Stein's--ethnicity is neither denied nor emphasized. Their story is their own. But its telling encourages the telling of the stories of each and any family in a country where families hail from every point on the globe. Once here, their experiences forge--consciously and unconsciously--identities as new, shifting, mutable, and moving as Stein's words. 

 

Primary Source
Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans, with foreword by William H. Gass and introduction by Steven Meyer (London: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995).

Other Sources
Gertrude Stein, Fernhurst, Q.E.D., and Other Early Writings, with a note on the texts by Donald Gallup, introduction by Leon Katz, and "The Making of The Making of Americans" (1950) by Donald Gallup as appendix (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1971).

Gertrude Stein and Amy Feinstein, "The Modern Jew Who Has Given up the Faith of His Fathers Can Reasonably and Consistently Believe in Isolation" (New York: Modern Language Association, 2001).

Renate Stendhal, Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1994).

 

A note on the text: Gertrude Stein was famously and determinedly idiosyncratic in her spelling, grammar, punctuation, and syntax. When quoting her, I have not edited the passage in question to standard, accepted usage.

 

 

Leibowitz Gertrude Stein Button.JPG

Cary Leibowitz. J'adore Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein 2006. Metal button, 6" x 6". Unlimited edition. Private collection. 

Northward the Course of (Center City Philadelphia's) Empire

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Center City Philadelphia--the city's commercial, governmental, and cultural heart, and its most affluent residential area--is expanding. The rapid rise of real-estate values that began in the late 1990s and continued until the current economic crisis compelled many who value the cultural, culinary, entertainment, and employment offerings of Center City to move beyond its ever advancing borders. To the south, stable, mostly middle-class Italian-American and African-American neighborhoods once considered distinct from Center City have seen an influx of those that don't fit the neighborhoods' traditional demographics--the new residents are individuals who, previously, were more likely to live in Center City. Center City is bound by the Delaware River to the east and the Schuylkill River to the west. Despite these clear geographic demarcations, the areas beyond those rivers--Camden, New Jersey, to the east and University City to the west--also are becoming residential destinations for would-be Center City dwellers.

 

Center City's northward march has been especially rapid and surprising. In addition to its eastern and western river boundaries, Center City has traditionally been defined as the area north of South Street and south of Spring Garden Street. Old City Philadelphia falls within the boundaries of Center City (it occupies Center City's northeast corner), but, not long ago, was nearly devoid of residents; it was a vast, eerie expanse of abandoned commercial buildings and empty streets.

 

In 1988, a group of artists, most of whom were recent graduates of Philadelphia's extensive roster of art schools and university-based art programs, established Vox Populi cooperative, which quickly became a leading center for experimental visual and performing arts. Other artistic cooperatives, galleries, and theater spaces followed in Vox Populi's wake. Developers began to convert derelict commercial buildings into residential lofts. New residents arrived--attracted by Old City's youthful, artistic ambiance as well as its still relatively inexpensive real estate--as did a range of independent restaurants, retailers, bars, and nightclubs. Today, Old City is considered a desirable place to live, Philadelphia's preeminent nightlife and entertainment district, and a gallery district. But many artists, collectives, and galleries--both newly minted and established--are priced out of bustling and popular Old City. Northward they move.

 

Immediately above Old City are Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and South Kensington. Unlike Old City, these three neighborhoods were never abandoned, but were long-established and, at least by reputation, insular communities of blue-collar individuals and families, primarily of German and Irish stock. Although not at a great geographic remove from Center City, the social remove was profound. Nevertheless, beginning in the late 1990s, Old City's template of development was repeated in these already developed neighborhoods. Artists and their studios, cooperatives, and galleries were followed by restaurants, retailers, and residential development--much of the latter determinedly modern, metal-and-glass architecture set amidst blocks of quintessentially Philadelphian red-brick row-houses. For their longtime residents, blue-collar Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and South Kensington are the same as they ever were; in equal measure, however, the three neighborhoods are a mix of the bohemian and bourgeois. They have been gentrified--a term loaded with class and often ethnic and racial assumptions too great to discuss here. Yet despite Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and South Kensington's sudden demographic diversity, tensions among the coexisting populations appear to be low.

 

Philadelphia now has a thriving, grassroots arts district that spans four contiguous neighborhoods--Old City, Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and South Kensington. Once deemed beyond the frontier of Center City, the bulk of these areas are now considered, per Philadelphia's Center City District and the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation (http://www.centercityphila.org/), part of Center City. This dramatic change in status has occurred over the course of just two decades.

 

On August 14, 2008, The New York Times ran a feature headlined "Philadelphia Story: The Next Borough." It noted, "Attracted by a thriving arts and music scene here and a cost of living that is 37 percent lower than New York's...a significant number of youngish artists, musicians, restaurateurs and designers are leaving New York City and heading down the [New Jersey] turnpike for the same reasons the once moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan." In an August 28, 2009 article headlined "Art to Make You Laugh and Cry," the Times quoted an artist observing, "there are gobs of space [in Philadelphia]--it's like you can just walk down the street and grab it." For some New Yorkers, Philadelphia is the new frontier. Although these New York-to-Philadelphia trailblazers are living more than 115 years after Frederick Jackson Turner wrote "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893), and they are moving from one major urban area on the eastern seaboard to another, Turner's hypothesis resonates with their experience: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American Settlement westward, explain American development."

 

In the same August 28, 2009 article, the Times discussed the artists' collective FLUXspace, located well beyond Center City Philadelphia's expanded border, very near an area Philadelphians call "the Badlands." The article notes of FLUXspace: "The building has no air-conditioning, and on the harshest winter days its heating systems borders on notional. It's also a bear to find..." But these challenges do not seem to faze the artists of FLUXspace nor deter their making of a "particularly Philadelphia brand of hardy, low-budget, do-it-yourself, do-it-for-love creativeness..." As Turner argued for his time and prophesied for our own, land--space--represents opportunity. Urban pioneers such as the artists of FLUXspace have seized this opportunity. If the future follows history's precedent, others will follow. Perhaps the Badlands will bloom through re-use and renewal?

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