Giving Thanks For The Arts


The e-mail from my editor was helpful.

“Your column will run just before Thanksgiving weekend, so why not do something about giving thanks for the arts, since they offer ‘a momentary stay against confusion,’ as Robert Frost said of poetry?” I had thought of the great columnist Jimmy Breslin, who always devoted his Thanksgiving column to cataloguing “people I’m not speaking to this year.”

That wasn’t the tone my editor had in mind. Instead I fell in line with the suggestion that I survey the people in the Jewish cultural scene who are deserving of our thanks for helping us survive another year of turbulence, atmospheric and otherwise, and for adding to the all-too-meager supply of joy in the world. In no particular order:

Alex Bregman and Joc Pederson. About the only thing better than a truly great World Series would have to be a truly great World Series in which two identifiably Jewish ballplayers hit home runs. Bregman, the Houston Astros third baseman and Pederson, the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder, hit two and three homers, respectively, during the Series. Each provided an interesting storyline for the broadcasts and, albeit indirectly, brought favorable attention to the Jewish people. Unless you were, say, a Yankee fan, what more could you ask?

Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris. “Ex Libris,” Wiseman’s expansive fly-on-the-wall look at the New York Public Library, wasn’t one of his best films, although it was a work of great charm and affability. Morris’ “The B-Side,” a loving portrait of fellow photographer Elsa Dorfman, offered a rare glimpse of Morris’ Jewish identity turning up in his film work and is, coincidentally, one of his most rewarding films to date. Regardless, the two filmmakers represent a vivid reminder of the importance of nonfiction filmmaking in our riven democracy and a powerful rebuke to those who cannot distinguish between journalism’s message and its messengers.

The Israel Film Center and JCC Manhattan. The Israel Film Festival seems to have abandoned New York City. For the past several years it has run an event in Los Angeles but not here. Given the undiscriminating nature of its selection process, I don’t feel particularly cheated. Frankly, I’d rather have the Other Israel Film Festival, the ReelAbilities Film Festival (a frequent purveyor of Israeli films) and the Israel Film Center Festival. In the delightfully hectic rise of New Israeli Cinema over the past quarter-century, the JCC Manhattan has been a reliable source of initial exposure for film and television from both the Jewish state and its Palestinian neighbors. If the recently completed 11th version of Other Israel is any indication, we can expect to see an increasing number of its selections achieving the previously distant goal of theatrical distribution.

Cantor Jack Mendelson and Charles Bernhaut. Each of these gentlemen has spent countless hours trying to keep the tradition of hazonot alive in the Jewish liturgical world. As befits their variegated backgrounds and skills, their methods have been different. Mendelson, of course, is a singer, teacher and spiritual leader of great warmth, Bernhaut a collector, preserver, producer and promoter of dedication. And each remains incredibly active. Mendelson is launching a new hazonot-focused minyan “Nachalah” (“where tradition lives”) at the 92nd Street Y, with the first service taking place on Shabbat Chanukah, Friday, Dec. 15. Bernhaut recently marked his 40th year of broadcasting the music, drawing on his vast library of cantorial recordings; both his weekly two-hour show and 400-plus past broadcasts are archived at his website,, and his monthly mailing calendar of cantorial concerts can be accessed there as well.

The Center for Traditional Music and Dance, Yiddish New York and the New York Klezmer Festival. If New York is a vast and nurturing stew of immigrant cultures, CTMD is one of the most generous sources of nourishment, a musical/terpsichorean smorgasbord showcasing everything from Sri Lankan to salsa, Romani to Colombian. For our purposes, the center’s involvement with Yiddish music, literature and dance through its An-sky Institute for Jewish Culture is particularly significant as a bulwark against the disappearance of another endangered species of Jewish culture. The organization co-sponsors the annual Yiddish New York program of events in December and the weekly concerts of the klezmer fest, now based in Brooklyn, all year.

Obviously, this list could be extended to include dozens more individuals and organizations from our circulation area and beyond. Anyone who adds to the richness of the mix of arts, literature, sports and other creative ventures, anyone who increases the amount of beauty in our world while not adding to the sum of suffering, is worthy of our gratitude. Even if I’m not speaking to them right now. 

George Robinson covers film and music for the paper.