Culture club

The Foundation for Jewish Culture held its annual Jewish Cultural Achievement Awards gala Thursday night at the Center for Jewish History in New York.

The FJC, which was started in 1968 by the precursor to the UJC, the Council of Jewish Federations, has given out the awards since 1985, and recipients have included the likes of Arthur Miller, Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, Tony Kushner and Art Spiegelman.

But this year’s awards ceremony was focused on looking forward to new Jewish artistic talent. The FJC honored NYU professor of performance studies Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett for “They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland,” her collaborative effort with her father; Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, and Macy B. Hart, the president and founder of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life and the outgoing chair of the Council of American Museums.

In the end, the gala seemed more about the artists that performed before between and after the the three different award presentations.

The FJC brought its entertainment from in-house, as all of its performers were recipients of Six Points Fellowships, a collaboration of the UJA-Federation of New York, the FJC, JDub Records and Avoda Arts. The fellows – 12 of whom were selected in February – will be given $45,000 over two years, professional consulting services and high-profile mentors to help cultivate their talent.

Over the past year, the fellows have indeed begun to emerge, with several taking their art public to critical acclaim.

The gala included performances by the LeeSaar Dance Company, whose artistic director Saar Harari was recently also granted a Guggenheim Fellowship. LeeSaar performed a shortened adaptation of its piece Geisha, a study in femininity that was lauded by the New York Times, The New Yorker and the Village Voice. (In the original performance, one dancer performs topless … so be aware that this link features partial nudity.)

The adaptation included two companion pieces in solo dance. One, shown in the video at the top of this post, features an Asian woman, on stage, alone, in silence aside from the sound of her own violent, forced and uncomfortable contortions that at times make her look more marionette than dancer. The other, in the video below, involves a white woman, dressed in a satin kimono, lip-synching to an Israeli song as she dances around as if in her bedroom.

The evening also included a shortened adaptation of Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz, the story – told in puppetry – of a Polish Jew who fled to Norway and sounded out the Nazis. The piece, created by Six Points Fellow Gabrielle Boehner’s Wakka Wakka Productions, was also lauded by the Times when it ran in New York this February.

The event ended with a musical performance by Galeet Dardashti and her group Middle Eastern influenced ensemble Divahn.

The performances certainly made a case that the $1 million that the UJA has spent on this project is well spent. But the FJC’s chairwoman, Carol Brenngass Spinner, also made her own memorable plea to support the Jewish arts: “Support someone who sings a song, tells a joke, paints a painting or dances a dance, for that is what makes Jewish culture both for our generation and for future generations.”

(On a side note, the culinary arts were well represented as well. In lieu of a sit-down dinner, the FJC pulled out all the stops on a cocktail hour featuring everything from southern fare such as ribs and collared greens, to Polish sausages and cabbage, to sushi. Other organizations beware; it set a high standard as the first gala the Fundermentalist has blogged about…)

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